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CLIMATE CHANGE – Why some scientists are panicking.


By Peter Galvin, 11/10/13 -- Prominent climate change scientists are now in panic mode.   These experts do not believe the world will succeed in reducing fossil fuel emissions enough to avoid a civilization threatening increase in temperature.  Some are saying we must accept nuclear power to keep the wolf from our doors.  Others are saying we need to double down on adaptation strategies because the wolf is already at the door.  Are they right?    

(A brief note to readers: while I hope this discussion stands on its own, you may find my earlier blog, “the hole we’ve dug; opportunities to climb out” , to be helpful background.)

First, there is growing information on the adverse consequences of a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius (over the pre-industrial revolution base), which the IPCC has projected we will reach in 30 years at expected emissions levels.  A complete compilation of these consequences should be released by the IPCC in March, but a leaked copy of a draft, plus other research completed too late for inclusion in the IPCC report, makes it pretty clear we have a lot to fear.  Oceans are already more acidic than they have been for at least 300 million years, threatening ocean life, on which billions of people depend.   Temperature increases are now expected to reduce food production in the world by as much as 2% a decade for the rest of the century, in part due to expected population increases.  Moreover, with soil moisture significantly reduced, the microbes in the soil giving it nutrient power will decline, leading to further increases in carbon dioxide.   It also now appears that global warming can adversely impact the levels of toxic chemicals in the environment, and impact the ability of people to tolerate these chemicals.    

Second, we have some new information on the scale and speed of the actions that must be taken by the world to avoid such a temperature increase.  As I explained in my last blog, the science community earlier this Fall identified the “carbon budget” of greenhouse gases to which we are limited if the planet is to stay in the (relatively) safe zone (about half a trillion tons beyond what we have already emitted), but has not yet provided clear alternative plans for keeping the world within this carbon budget.  An IPCC report on this topic is due in April, but we now have a couple of reports from others that emphasize how difficult it is going to be to keep within that budget. 

The United Nations Environment Program’s latest “Emissions Gap Report” proposed that the carbon budget could be reached if annual emissions are limited to 44 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2020 (with further cuts every few years down to 22 gigatons by 2050), which is apparently 8-12 gigatons less than what nations have committed to so far (provided they meet those commitments).   Hence, the goals for 2020 must be tightened at a minimum.   And while some countries like the US are citing progress in reducing their emissions, the overall world picture is actually getting worse rather than better.  CO2 emissions last year were the highest on record, with the total atmospheric concentration expected to reach a world average of 400ppm in the next two years.  Moreover, as I pointed out in my last blog:

“As research continues, we may have to significantly tighten the IPCC carbon budget to steer clear of such disaster.  For one thing, the potential release of methane from melting permafrost wasn’t included in the budget, and is being closely watched.  Also, many scientists think the really bad effects will start showing up once temperatures increase only 1.5 degrees Celsius, in which case we will need to chop about 25% off the half trillion ton carbon budget recommended by the IPCC.  Worse, the carbon budget and 30 year timeframe for the world as a whole fails to take into account that major populations close to the equator are going to feel serious effects from warming almost a decade earlier than elsewhere.” 

The big test of whether we can keep within our carbon budget is an international climate conference scheduled for 2015.  This week, a formal round of discussions is being held in Poland, which has taken a very hard line stance in favor of coal despite consistent pressure from its European partners.   (As an indicator of how difficult it will be for the host country and others to reduce fossil fuels, the Polish government is simultaneously sponsoring an international conference of coal producers.) 

One early focus of the negotiations appears to be the elimination of $500 billion in subsidies that go the fossil fuel industry across the globe every year, and which are causing price and market distortions.  An international carbon tax, or worldwide subsidies for renewables, would certainly help wind and solar compete, but agreement on this looks unlikely; indeed, the new Australian government has snubbed the talks while preparing to repeal its own carbon tax. 

However, seasoned observers are already expressing pessimism about the likely outcome of the latest international talks – which, after all, merely continue negotiations that have been going on for years without success.   (Note: As I write this, the Philippines have just suffered from a monster typhoon, but whether it is the straw that will break this camel’s back is doubtful in my opinion.) The US, having reduced its own emissions, and with an Administration more focused on the problem than in the past, is in a better position to ask others to do more, and some in the Administration apparently think that we should enhance that position by offering to share natural gas and our experience in fracking.   However, other countries also know the US is unlikely to make its own binding commitments because approval of a treaty requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate).   In that regard, the US could significantly improve its posture if the Congress reaches a budget agreement next month to avoid further sequestration in part by eliminating the US fossil fuel subsidies, hence demonstrating it can act on a key point.  But in the end, most other countries face the same lack of demand for action as in the US; and while related issues (like air pollution) are certainly creating a demand for some action in China, any action on climate change that appears to threaten current growth rates and backlogs of domestic economic needs is going to be a hard sell at home.        

In the absence of any agreement, let alone the spotty record of compliance with past commitments, it is no wonder that those who are most familiar with the criticality of the situation are urging we consider nuclear power as a supplement, and begin pouring more effort into adaptation.   Others are looking at a geoengineering solution to the global climate problem, which for some reason is known as “hacking the planet”.   But are the advocates for these strategies right, or do these approaches simply represent a primal scream from the scientific community?

Geoengineering seems the least likely to be added to the arsenal of tools for meeting the carbon budget.  However, this approach really doesn’t help us meet our carbon budget; rather, it is designed to prevent some of the adverse consequences by finding another way to keep temperatures in check.  Moreover, a team of international researchers has recently determined that adding particles to the atmosphere to reflect sunlight would, in reducing the sunlight, adversely impact the monsoon rains, adding to the problems of exceeding our carbon budget rather than reducing them.   

Nuclear power plants would reduce the load that has to be satisfied through fossil fuels or renewables.   The proponents of considering nuclear argue they are needed because “in the real world” renewables “cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires”.   I have to question this proposition.  Even if a new generation of nuclear power plants proves to be very safe (a matter on which the public will have to be convinced), why do the proponents think that there would be adequate political will to spend the money to build them if there is no “real world”  will to scale up renewables to the extent necessary?  Moreover, nuclear plants have other drawbacks.  There remains no tested method of dealing with the nuclear byproducts  such plants may produce (Bill Gates is among those working on a way to use those byproducts as an endless source of fuel, but we have plenty of leftover materials to power such a facility for 800 years should the concept ever prove out).  Then too, do we want to deal with the consequences of encouraging some countries to adopt power sources that would disseminate nuclear materials to countries that may be tempted to use them as the basis for weapons?  Accordingly, while I share their concern about the snail’s pace at which we are moving forward, those scientists who propose nuclear as a partial solution to our problem have a steep burden to explain why this solution is more doable than others. 

Adaptation efforts are clearly going to be needed, but a look at what has been done so far suggests that we should do so because it will enhance (and not detract) from efforts at mitigation.  In Rhode Island, extensive efforts are already underway in communities like Wickford and Newport to deal with projected storm surges and sea level rise, thanks to the attention on the problem created by major hurricanes (and, in no small part, the impact on property values and sales due to increases in flood insurance premiums demanded by the Congress in the wake of those disasters).  Moreover, the President recently issued an Executive Order to encourage coordination among Federal agencies in promoting these efforts.  But the costs of adaptation are just starting to emerge.  Leaving aside new diseases and the health risks of an environment not seen since humans became civilized, millions of people all around the world may be displaced due to flooding and storm surges alone, let alone those who have to move to grow crops on which to live.  In the US, realtors (who are supposed to ensure adequate risk disclosures), banks (who provide long-term loans, and insurance companies (who base rates on current risks) have yet to adopt a clear approach, nor the government yet to establish special rules on disclosure of future risks.   While some states have offered government buy-out programs for shore properties, how far can this go, and who should be left holding the financial bag?  The physical displacement of businesses and workers, including farms, is yet another matter, whether or not there are green industries and jobs to replace the ones being lost through the transition to renewables and new opportunities to grow some crops.       

Based on what I have seen recently in RI, my opinion is that as citizens, businesses and professionals come to grips with the myriad problems, public support for local, state, national and international efforts to reduce fossil fuels will increase.  Because I am of that opinion, I support the call for more emphasis on adaptation – not because we should give up on mitigation, but rather because it will promote public education of what happens if we wait.   

In my next blog, I hope to review the various methods being used in Rhode Island and elsewhere to reduce the use of fossil fuels.   Corrections, questions, suggestions for further blogs on these findings, and other comments would be most welcome.  Please send them to pd.galvin48@gmail.com and let me know if you’d like them posted on the RI Sierra web site.   



Robert Malin's picture
Submitted by Robert Malin on

Excellent piece. But you are so liberal and optomistic. Fukishima is reminding us why nuclear is not an option.And then there are the political considerationsWhat if Obama is successful fast tracking the TPP and it’s’s European counterpart and he signs the KXL doubling down on fossil fuels and corporot-ocracy?And then what if something unlikely like the original Iran Hostage Crisis that catapulted then 40% popularity candidate Ronnie Reagan into the White House happens, getting someone like Ted Cruz elected? What happens then? Or consider the fact that at the tipping point we could get extreme swings.What if the weather takes a extreme warming swing and melts the permafrost in 3 years, which may be gone in 5 years anyway, releasing tons of methane- 4X mre powerful a green house gas than CO2? The PAnicing scientists are the sane ones and it would be wise to heed their warnings. It actually could get worse. 

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