Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Path to 350 ppm CO2

Scientists who have changed the atmospheric carbon dioxide level target from stabilizing CO2 at a level of 450 parts per million to a much lower level of 350 ppm have been tinkering around with the problem of how to accomplish this much more ambitious goal. One of these scientists is Pushker Kharecha from NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies. Dr. Kharecha told BBC News that his group’s research showed that the only possible way was to promptly enact a moratorium on new coal use that does not capture CO2 and to phase out existing coal emissions by 2030. Also, he noted that reforestation and better agricultural practices could remove some CO2 from the atmosphere which would help. Dr. Kharecha also stressed the importance of energy efficiency and conservation in the short term as longer-term efforts are taken to provide alternative energy sources to fossil fuels.

Right now the world seems to be going in the direct opposite direction. Rather than a moratorium on coal plants that do not capture C02 the plans are in the works in a number of countries for hundreds of more typical coal plants. China itself is building one or two new plants each week. The promise of capturing and storing CO2 emissions from coal, which has been dubbed “clean coal” by the coal industry, so far has remained no more than a promise and seems likely never to be fulfilled.

The gap between what it will take to lower the CO2 level to a climate-stabilizing 350 ppm from the ice-melting present level of about 386 ppm and the reality on the ground appears unbridgeable. All the momentum is toward ever upward CO2 levels. Since the United States is responsible for more of the CO2 up there than any other country it seems logical that we should take the first step, that is, declare a moratorium on new coal plants that can’t capture CO2 emissions. Time to leave square one.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Al Gore Supports 350 ppm Target for CO2 Levels

Addressing delegates yesterday in Poznan, Poland at a UN meeting on climate change, Al Gore told them that the present target of stabilizing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide at 450 part per million (PPM) should be abandoned for a new target of 350 ppm. Present levels are about 386 ppm. Since many experts believe that even achieving the 450 target is beyond feasibility, achieving the 350 target might be thought of as just wishful thinking. However, if we don’t get back to 350 ice in the polar regions could just keep melting and melting with catastrophic consequences. According to The Independent, Gore said that to combat climate change the world needs to focus more on global warming and less on celebrities, naming three in particular, O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton, and the late Anna Nicole Smith. That’s going to be difficult. Clearly advertisers are willing to pony up a lot more money to back shows featurings non-news about the three celebs Gore mentioned and many others than gloom and doom real news about global warming. It appears that the free press is a two-edged sword. You get to find out what governments are really up to, at least sometimes, but you also get endless drivel. It would seem that the climate change crisis is unfolding too slowly to have much chance of driving Brittany Spears out of the news. The Dr. J. TV ad for Dr. Pepper says that “slower is better.” Well maybe for sipping soft drinks, but not for getting the media to pay attention to serious problems. Based on where the world focuses its attention we will be lucky to hold the line at 600 ppm. And maybe even that is a stretch.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Environmentalists versus Environmentalists over Carbon Trading

Carbon cap and trade as a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has wide support ranging from many beltway politicians to the large mainstream environmental organizations, but a coalition of environmental groups called Rising Tide North America doesn’t buy this strategy, at least the carbon trading part. To bring attention to their viewpoint they invaded the Washington, DC offices of Environmental Defense (formerly the Environmental Defense Fund) to protest Environmental Defense’s support for carbon trading. The Boston Globe’s Green Blog reports that the protest included holding signs saying “carbon trading is an environmental offense,” and “keep the cap, ditch the trade.”

One of the protesters, Rachel Smolker, whose father was a founding member of the Environmental Defense Fund, has issued a statement which is posted on the Global Justice Ecology Project website. Her statement includes the following sentiments about carbon trading:

“We cannot pretend that handing out permits to pollute and then trading them around like baseball cards is even remotely related to seriously reducing emissions. It is a great get-rich-quick scheme for the brokers, marketers and financiers who enjoy playing games with my childrens, future, and it is a huge gift to the polluting criminals."

Smolker also blasted carbon offsets, another controversial strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Offsetting emissions is a similar deceit, nothing but another fine arrangement of smoke and mirrors that allow some people to "feel good" while continuing to carry on business as usual. They provide a convenient way to sidestep and avoid real and necessary change. It is, without question, a lovely idea to provide funding to really good "quality" projects that hold promise of reducing emissions, but there are more straightforward ways to get there that do not require unfounded and unreliable measures of carbon flow, additionality, verifiability or permanence, and do not confuse fossil and biological carbon. We clearly need to halt, not offset emissions, even where it is a hard thing, a very hard thing to do.”

Whether carbon trading as well as carbon offsets will be effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions or are simply some sort of ploy as Smolker contends or just poor ideas remains to be seen. Both mechanisms are now being used in the Kyoto Protocol and the results so far do not seem encouraging. But there does not seem to be any clear strategy for “Confronting the Root Causes of Climate Change” as Rising Tide North America puts in their logo. A broad consensus on what to do seems always beyond reach.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Increasing Salp Populations Seen as Possible Natural Negative Feedback Mechanism

There has been a lot of talk about sequestering and storing the carbon dioxide emitted from coal plants, sometimes referred to by the term “clean coal” (an oxymoron?), but so far there has been little action. Nature, on the other hand, may really be stepping it up when it comes to carbon dioxide sequestering. Evidence comes from a report that salps, which are small jelly-like creatures that live in the ocean and survive by consuming algae, have increased markedly in abundance near Sydney, Australia since a salp survey was performed 70 years ago. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the results of a recent marine survey found that the salps have increased in number by a factor of 10. Previously there have been reports of increasing salp populations off Antarctica. After the salps consume algae, which take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the carbon dioxide eventually winds up on the ocean floor either in the feces from the salps or in the salps themselves after they die. Salps can consume tremendous amounts of algae because they reproduce very rapidly, in fact, more rapidly than any other multicellular organism. Their reproduction is so rapid that salps can double their population within a few hours.

It’s obviously too soon to know if salps are playing a role in stabilizing the climate. With global emissions of carbon dioxide still increasing about 3-4% per year despite knowledge on the implications of what this means for the planet it seems hard to believe that salps will matter. However, if because of political reasons we can’t stop global warming maybe the salp, with perhaps the most rudimentary of all nervous systems, can.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Maldives Preparing to Flee Rising Seas

While countries such as the US and China are pouring out the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide like there is no tomorrow, the leader of the island nation of the Maldives has come to realize that maybe there actually is no tomorrow, at least for his country. With scientific predictions that sea level might rise by several feet by the end of this century which is about the elevation of the islands, with the highest point of the nearly 1,200 islands being only about 8 feet, the recently elected Mohamed Nasheed told The Guardian that “We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades.” The plan is to buy land. Where? The most likely places according to Nasheed are Sri Lanka and India. Australia is another possibility. The money for land purchases would come from funds generated by tourism. If nothing else, this plan should get the issue of climate change more attention. Perhaps it will finally get the world leaders to take action on a scale that is meaningful. Like the melting Arctic icecap and the disappearing glaciers of Greenland this plan sends an alarm.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Stop New Coal Plants with Civil Disobedience Says Al Gore

Speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City former vice president Al Gore, according to Reuters, had these words of advice for young people:
"If you're a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration."

It appears that Gore has given up on the political process producing a moratorium on all new coal plants that do not capture and sequester carbon, an unproven technology. Leading climate scientist James Hansen has said such a moratorium is necessary. If there is a problem with Gore’s call for action it is that the young people who would be carrying out the acts of civil disobedience by and large are probably also excessive consumers of electricity and thereby partly responsible for creating a market for the coal plants. Unless one’s carbon footprint with regard to electricity use is miniscule how do you put your body in front of a bulldozer to stop a coal plant without being hypocritical. Given all the devices in use that require electricity from the grid either directly or through rechargeable batteries such as computers, TVs, iPods, cell phones, radios, dishwashers, refrigerators, air conditioners, and so forth it is going to be hard finding enough young people who have really taken large steps toward energy efficiency and conservation. Unless politicians in office stop worrying about how to meet an increasing demand for electricity and start worrying about how to reduce the demand for electricity it is going to be tough going stopping coal plants from being built, whether by civil disobedience or any other strategy.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Arctic Methane Bubbles May Be Sign of Future Troubles

The sleeping giant of global warming, vast sub-sea deposits of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, may be waking up. Preliminary findings of a study along the northern coast of Russia, which were relayed to The Independent, suggest that methane bubbles formed from methane below the seabed are reaching the surface. Past scientific expeditions in this remote area have found increased levels of dissolved methane but not until this most recent expedition have the scientists seen methane bubbling to the surface, an indication that the amount of methane being released is now so great that it can not be all dissolved by the sea before surfacing. It is thought that the methane has been trapped under the permafrost for tens of thousands of years but with the recent increase of temperature in the Arctic due to a build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere openings in the permafrost are allowing the methane to escape.

Are the methane bubbles an indication that a great positive feedback mechanism has kicked in making it essentially impossible to halt global warming before a global catastrophe occurs? This certainly would seem to be a possibility given the predictions by scientists that such a chain of events could happen. We will have to wait for further evaluation of this finding and what its implications are but clearly there is more to worry about these days than an unraveling economic system.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Amount of Greenhouse Gases in Permafrost Double Previous Estimates

One of the most feared positive feedback mechanisms that could propel global warming is the melting of permafrost containing large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. It now appears that the vast amounts of greenhouse gases that are stored in permafrost are even greater than previous estimates, in fact, about twice as much. According to an article in scientists have published a report in the journal Bioscience in which they describe arriving at this new calculation by reanalyzing data from Russia and digging far deeper into the permafrost areas than has been done before. The results suggest that the potential for permafrost to melt, release greenhouses gases which further increase the global temperature and thereby melt more permafrost and so forth is even worse than has been thought. This recent finding seems to make it even more urgent to quickly get greenhouse gas emissions under control. Permafrost has been called a ticking time bomb. That about sums it up.

Friday, September 05, 2008

McCain’s Big Speech Omits Climate Change

First John McCain picks a vice presidential running mate that doesn’t believe that humans are causing global warming and then at his big speech at the Republican National Convention he doesn’t even mention global warming or climate change. I guess mentioning either of these two terms to his base supporters of religious fundamentalists and ideologues opposed to government regulation of corporations would have reminded them that only a few days ago they were not too crazy about John McCain. Having recently reversed course on offshore oil drilling will he now reverse himself on mandatory caps for carbon emissions? With regard to the environment it seems unclear what he stands for, if anything. With reductions in carbon emissions being needed to begin almost immediately to avoid a climate catastrophe down the road the US voters only have one more chance to get it right. McCain’s recent behavior is making the choice pretty much a no brainer.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

McCain VP Pick a Global Warming Denier

Since John McCain is one of the few Republican leaders who has defied President Bush by supporting a mandatory cap on carbon emissions to fight global warming his pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for a running make is surprising, not only because she is a woman and has no experience in foreign policy but based on a statement to Newsmax Magazine she denies that global warming is being caused by human sources. When asked “What is your take on global warming and how is it affecting our country?” she replied, “A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I'm not one though who would attribute it to being man-made.” Okay, then what would you attribute it to? To bad there was no follow-up question. And, so much for science. Even Bush is no longer that far out. Apparently McCain, who is 72 years old, not only hopes to survive his term in office if he wins but is sure that he will. Given his views on global warming he must know that if Palin ever became president it would be a disaster. How could she work with the Europeans who are frantic over the looming catastrophe that climate change poses? Who would be left to convince the Chinese, who now lead the world in greenhouse gas emissions, to reduce their emissions? As the Arctic ice cap melts away to water and Greenland begins to live up to its name it is clear that George Bush’s victory (if you can call it that) in the 2000 election has spelled disaster in the effort to fight climate change. Perhaps it is already too late to reverse course, but if we really have one last chance that reprieve seems certain to go down the tube if Sarah Palin were to become president.

Friday, August 22, 2008

McCain’s Seven-Home Carbon Footprint

Can someone who owns seven homes lead the world in taking on the global warming crisis? Thanks to an inquisitive reporter we now know that John McCain owns six more homes than the average American. Of course the big story was that when asked by a reporter how many homes he owns McCain amazingly didn’t know and referred the reporter to his staff. Certainly the carbon emissions associated with his seven homes are no doubt only a small fraction of McCain’s carbon footprint. All the flying around the country he has done while running for president probably has a larger carbon footprint than a small African nation. But overall, when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions flying only accounts for a small percentage of carbon emissions whereas operating buildings accounts for about half, at least in the US. Owning seven homes may not be fatal to the task of leading the world against global warming but it certainly doesn’t help.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

British Urged to Prepare for 4C Warming

The UKs chief scientific adviser, Professor Bob Watson, recently told The Guardian that it would be wise for the UK to begin active preparation for an increase in global temperature of 4C. It’s pretty much agreed that such an increase from preindustrial levels of temperature would be catastrophic. The goal of the UK is to hold the increase to 2C but Watson says that we can’t be certain how to do that so we should prepare for at least a 2C overshoot of the mark. Professor Neil Adger, from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, is quoted as saying that “I think that is a dangerous mindset to be in…There is no science on how we are going to adapt to a 4 degree warming.”

This all seems a little reminiscent of the 1950s in the United States when citizens were given instructions on how to survive a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The government put out films showing how families could build underground shelters in their backyards to hide until it was safe to come out and school children were given duck-and-cover drills in which they hid under their desks protecting their ears and eyes from the nuclear explosion. Looking back it seems obvious that the only thing accomplished was mass self-delusion that the public could survive a nuclear war. This era of self-delusion was followed by the realistic strategy of mutual assured destruction which reduced the likelihood of a first strike since it was evident that neither country would survive.

It seems unlikely that a 4C increase in temperature would be as destructive as a nuclear war although scientists seem to think that a large percentage of all species would face extinction. Former UK chief adviser Sir David King is quoted in the article as saying that “My own feeling is that if we get to a 4 degree rise it is quite possible that we would begin to see a runaway increase.” That suggests the survival of civilization is at stake if not the survival of Homo sapiens.

With all these uncertainties is hard to know what to do. It seems the best course is to go all out to reduce carbon emissions and deforestation and hope for some good luck.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ice Shelf Loses Much More Ice in Northern Canada

Another sign that a great melting period is underway in the Arctic region was detected as a satellite photo revealed that an 8-square-mile chunk of ice had broken away from the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf on the northern coast of Canada. An article from BBC News reports that research scientists think the end is quite near for the entire Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, which is 170 square miles and 130 feet thick, as evidence grows that its stability has been lost. One member of the research team, Derek Mueller, from Trent University, Ontario, noted that for awhile ice appeared to be reforming but in more recent years this new ice broke up. Dr. Mueller believes the ice shelves in this region can no longer regenerate. This may be good news for corporations seeking to exploit any resources in this region but loss of ice, which reflects solar radiation, suggests that global warming could be accelerated in the near future as the dark ice-free water absorbs solar radiation. This is the positive feedback circuit of warming melting more ice and more melting ice resulting in increased warming and so on. Nations rushing to drill for oil or gas in the Arctic now that everything is melting seem oblivious to all this scientific stuff about positive feedback mechanisms since if their efforts are successful it will all simply result in burning more fossil fuel and therefore releasing more greenhouse gases which will further increase the warming. How dumb can you get?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Gore Says We Need Electricity without Fossil Fuels within 10 Years

In one short speech Al Gore compressed the time frame for generating all electricity without the use of fossil fuels from perhaps 40 years to only 10 years. He believes that 10 years is the maximum for the country to set a goal and that a massive effort should be undertaken to increase the use of renewable energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal. Considering that only a tiny fraction of our electricity now comes from solar, wind, and geothermal his challenge appears to be a tall order to say the least. According to The New York Times Gore said that the “goal is achievable, affordable and transformative.” Everyone would probably agree that it is transformative. Far fewer would agree that it is achievable and affordable. As do many people, Gore seems to emphasize the wonders of technological innovation as a key element in solving the global warming problem as well as the energy dependence problem. However, it appears that existing technology can take us pretty far.

Realistically, it seems that the only way fossil fuels can be phased out as a source of electricity in the near future is for the demand for electricity to sharply decrease. Initiatives such as The 30% Solution and The 2030 Challenge are aimed at doing just that as well a reducing the use of fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) for heating buildings. These initiatives are based on the use of stricter building energy codes. More efficient building can be built without the need to develop new technologies. Extremely energy efficient buildings are already being built. What we need is all new buildings to be built in this manner. Many buildings are also being renovated to make them far more energy efficient. Again, what we need is all new significant renovations to be done in this way.

Gore’s call for a phase out of fossil fuels for electricity within 10 years will probably just cause more apathy because it seems impossible and probably is. The trick is to call for changes that really are achievable but are still drastic enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to solve the climate crisis. It appears that Gore has yet to find the right formula.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

G8 Countries Fight Climate Change with Vagueness

As the effects of global warming become more and more evident with fires from extreme dryness raging on the US West Coast, 500-year storms hitting the Midwest two straight decades, prediction from scientists that the North Pole may be free of ice this summer, and so forth, the Group of 8 wealthy nations meeting in Japan agreed on a global warming statement that was short on adequate commitment and long on ambiguity. They did agree to reduce carbon emissions 50% by 2050, however, this was far short of the 80% to 90% reductions called for by leading climate scientists and the usual baseline year of 1990 was not mentioned. They also did not set any short term goals, such as a specific target to reach by 2020. As reported in The New York Times, emerging economic powers such as China and India supported the 50% reduction target, which is the first time these countries have committed to any reduction target, but they refused to take action until wealthy countries took aggressive action. Given the urgency of the global warming problem and what would be required to take effective steps, the G8 did little more than put their toe in the water.

One way to comprehend the feebleness of the G8 global warming statement is to compare it with The 2030 Challenge from the nonprofit organization Architecture 2030. This challenge calls for the global architecture and building community to immediately reduce the fossil fuel greenhouse emissions of all new buildings, developments, and major renovations by 50% and then by increments of 10% every five years beginning with 2010 so that by all 2030 all new buildings and major renovations are carbon neutral. This would permit an immediate moratorium on new coal-fired power plants and a phase out of such plants by 2030. It wouldn’t completely solve the problem but it would be a very significant step. The action could begin at once and no new technology is needed. Of course the coal industry would take a big hit and that is not something the G8 leaders are eager to confront. Maybe we need new G8 leaders. Perhaps the only hope is that we will be getting a new leader of the United States very soon.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Biofuels Blamed for 75% of Food Price Increase

More trouble for biofuels as an energy solution appears to be on the horizon. The Guardian is reporting that leaked information from a report by the World Bank which is not yet published says that 75% of the increase in global food prices is attributable to biofuels. According to the Guardian the US government has said that biofuels from plant sources are to blame for less than 3% of the rise in food prices. Quite a difference in opinion. The Guardian also says that the World Bank estimates that so far 100 million people have fallen below the poverty line because of rising food prices.

Only last year biofuels seemed to be a savior for both fighting global warming and achieving energy independence. There has been so much enthusiasm over biofuels that about one third of the US corn crop now goes to producing ethanol. And the US Congress was so enthralled with this replacement for gasoline that last year it mandated that billions of gallons of biofuel be produced in the coming years. But this year has been a different story entirely. Not only have there been concerns about the link to increasing food prices but scientists have argued that clearing land to grow crops for biofuels actually would result in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions compared with using gasoline. The emerging problems associated with biofuels were outlined a few months ago by Michael Grunwald in an article in Time magazine titled The Clean Energy Scam.

The big question that this negative information raises in the US is whether Congress will roll back their mandate for biofuel production. Based on the science and concerns about humanity it is hard to see how the mandate can remain intact. Yet, because of political considerations predicting what Congress will do isn’t a given. It has to be hoped that the mad rush to biofuels will be replaced by a cautious approach based on an assessment of the facts. We don’t want to plant ourselves into oblivion.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Arctic Sea Ice Melting Even Faster than in 2007

Earlier this year a Norwegian scientist predicted that the Arctic sea ice might completely disappear as early as this summer. With the Arctic covering a larger area this winter compared with the previous winter this prediction didn’t look too good but a recent report that the Arctic ice is melting faster this year than last year suggests that prediction may yet have a chance of being on the money. The BBC reports that scientists from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado have found that even though there was a greater area of ice this year the area is now down to where it was last year when records for sea ice loss were broken indicating that it is melting faster. A scientist from the NSIDC predicted that all the ice would be gone within a decade. Whether all the ice disappears this year, by 2012, or by even by 2018 this seems to spell big trouble. The article quotes Ian Willis from the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England.

This is a positive feedback process. Sea ice has a higher albedo (reflectivity) than ocean water; so as the ice melts, the water absorbs more of the Sun's energy and warms up more, and that in turn warms the atmosphere more - including the atmosphere over the Greenland ice sheet.

Not only would the Greenland ice sheet affected, which if completely melted would raise sea levels over 20 feet, but as was described in my previous post, the vast permafrost in the Arctic region would be affected which could release enormous quantities of the greenhouse gas methane and thereby set off another positive feedback process. It doesn’t seem to take too much imagination to realize how this whole global warming thing can get completely out of hand.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Melting Arctic Ice a Threat to Melt Permafrost

The vast stretches of permafrost in the northern hemisphere could start to melt at three times the anticipated rate because of increased warming due to the shrinking amount of ice in the Arctic which results in a reduction in reflected light from the sun and increased absorption of heat. This possibility was discovered from computer models run by scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. A member of the research team, David Lawrence, told The Independent that about 30% of all carbon stored in soils is stored in soils in the Arctic region. Melting of the permafrost could release huge amounts of the powerful greenhouse gas methane from the soils which could have a drastic effect on climate.

Since many scientists believe that all of the Arctic ice will melt in the summer within the next few decades if not sooner no matter what actions are taken to stop global warming this looks like a situation where we just have to cross our fingers and hope for the best. However, it is not comforting that computer models seem to often underestimate the effects of warming rather than overestimate the effects. In fact, the speed at which the Arctic ice is melting had been a great surprise. As has been the speed that glaciers are melting. All in all this has so far been a bad century for global warming optimists and the worst might still be ahead.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Carbon Dioxide Scrubbers Proposed as the Answer to Global Warming

With efforts to reduce the burning of fossil fuels floundering the recent announcement of a technology breakthrough for proposed devices that would pull carbon dioxide out the atmosphere provides some hope that catastrophic climate change can be avoided. The breakthrough involves a way to drastically reduce the amount of energy needed to remove the gas from the material, or sorbent, used to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to an article in the Guardian the US patent application shows that the reduction in energy needed to remove carbon dioxide from the sorbent involves changes in humidity.

Before anyone thinks the global warming problem is solved and stops trying to prevent the building of coal-fired power plants it should be noted that some serious problems would remain even if a prototype device, which should be functioning within 2 years, meets all expectations. One of the problems is what to do with the captured carbon dioxide. The storage problem remains to be solved. The article says that the research team, led by Columbia University physicist Klaus Lackner, is working on a solution. Another problem might be cost. Although each device is expected to initially cost only a couple hundred thousand dollars there will be a need for millions of the devices to be operating. A total cost of over a trillion dollars seems possible.

This proposal may turn out to be a dead end in the effort to limit global warming but then again perhaps not. At this point it seems a better bet than the world leaders agreeing on how greenhouse gas emissions can be meaningfully reduced. That effort appears to be going nowhere.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Europe Joins Coal Binge

Climate activists have been hammering the US and China for their propensity to make plans for more coal plants while the need to halt building such plants in order to combat global warming has become clear. In contrast, Europe has been seen as almost a model for preventing climate change as the Europeans have turned to wind, solar, and geothermal energy. So it is very surprising to read in an article in the Los Angeles Times that the Europeans are planning 40 new coal plants over the next 5 years and Germany alone is planning 27 new coal plants by 2020. Clearly the Americans and Chinese are not alone when it comes to ensuring a future climate catastrophe.

It is particularly surprising that Germany is planning so many new coal plants when that country has such a successful solar power program. The success of this program was evident in a documentary film shown on the PBS show NOVA. That film makes it feel that burning coal for fuel in Germany is on the way to becoming a thing of the past. Apparently not so.

The momentum to consume more and more energy in developed countries and in developing countries appears unstoppable. If renewables are to replace fossil fuels for generating electricity in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions somehow the demand for energy has to be drastically reduced. To accomplish that energy efficiency measures need to be quickly implemented on a vast scale. The last thing this planet needs is more coal-burning power plants.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Methane Levels on the Rise Again

After being fairly stable for almost 10 years methane levels in the atmosphere went up in 2007. This gloomy news was reported yesterday by the US Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). How gloomy this news really is depends on why methane levels are increasing again. The gloomiest reason would be that thawing permafrost in Arctic areas are releasing methane, a positive feedback from rising global temperature. Such a release of methane has been reported by researchers but according to scientist Ed Dlugokencky from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory the most probable reasons for the recent increase in methane are rapidly growing industrialization in Asia and rising wetland emissions in the Arctic and tropics. Dlugokencky also said that ”We’re on the lookout for the first sign of a methane release from thawing Arctic permafrost. It’s too soon to tell whether last year’s spike in emissions includes the start of such a trend.” As almost a side note, the NOAA scientists found that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to surge upward, with the annual rate of increase again exceeding 2 parts per million (the increase was 2.4 ppm) which has been a disturbing trend that began after the year 2000. The level of carbon dioxide is now 385 ppm. That’s 35 ppm above the level that climate scientist James Hansen now says we should be aiming for. Needless to say, things don’t look good.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Methane Being Released from Arctic Sea Floor in Siberia

Here is some potentially catastrophic climate news. According to an article at Spiegel Online, Russian scientists are reporting that methane stored as frozen methane hydrates under the Arctic Ocean is being released into the atmosphere because of thawing that is taking place in Siberia. This is one of the positive feedbacks that climate scientists dread the most because of the enormous volume of methane that is stored as frozen hydrates. Although methane doesn’t last in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide does each molecule of methane traps much more heat. The scientists found that the permafrost had become porous on a shelf below the sea off the Siberian coast. They also found that the seawater in the area was oversaturated with methane and higher methane levels were detected in the air as high as about one mile above the site.

During the last several years it has been reported that methane levels in the atmosphere have leveled off. No one seems to know quite sure why. There have been reports of methane being released from below the thawing permafrost on land in Siberia but if this is occurring it hasn’t yet affected methane levels in the atmosphere. The next bit of very bad news regarding methane could be that atmospheric levels are beginning to sharply rise. Such news could leave us with few options other than to get ready for the oncoming catastrophe.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Obama and Clinton Still Calling for More Biofuels

So far it appears that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton have adjusted their policies on biofuels to the new scientific realization that large scale production of both ethanol and biodiesel are contributing to global warming rather than being a partial solution. The other major presidential candidate, John McCain, doesn’t seem to have any policy on biofuels or for that matter on how to reduce greenhouse gases from transportation as his website simply says that he offers to limit carbon emissions “by harnessing market forces that will bring advanced technologies, such as nuclear energy, to the market faster, reduce our dependence on foreign supplies of energy, and see to it that America leads in a way that ensures all nations do their rightful share.” At least Obama and Clinton do get down to some specifics.

Barack Obama’s website says that he “will require 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be included in the fuel supply by 2022 and will increase that to at least 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels like cellulosic ethanol by 2030.”

Hillary Clinton’s website says that she will have “60 billion gallons of home-grown biofuels available for cars and trucks by 2030.”

That’s a lot of biofuels to be promising considering that so far the use of biofuels has led to increasing food prices around the world and increased emissions of greenhouse gases in instances where land was cleared for planting. Cellulosic ethanol at this point remains unproven as a source of fuel and hardly something to count on.

What we should be hearing from all three candidates is that they want to put a halt to large scale production of ethanol and biodiesel and carefully review whether the using these fuels in place of petroleum-based fuels at this time makes any sense. Unfortunately that is not what they want to hear in Iowa or neighboring farm states so there is little if any chance anyone will be hearing it from the candidates very soon.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Biofuels Are Losing Their Clean Energy Label

Heralded as an answer to both attaining energy independence and limiting global warming biofuels have enjoyed great popularity during the last few years even though concerns about using crops for fuel instead of food has raised concerns in many places. Biofuels have become so popular in fact that last year Congress passed legislation mandating that the US produce 36 billion gallons of the stuff annually by 2022. However, here we are only a few months after this legislation was passed and signed and it appears that the wheels are starting to come off the biofuels bandwagon. Biofuels have lost their “green” appeal almost overnight because scientists have found that rather than reducing greenhouse gas emissions compared with burning gasoline biofuels for the most part increase greenhouse gas emissions.

It turns out that the main problem with biofuels is that when land clearing to plant the crops is included in the equation the amount of carbon released from the cleared plants is so great that it dwarfs the carbon saved by using biofuels versus gasoline. Biofuels were thought to produce less carbon emissions because the next crop of plants sequester as much carbon as is released by burning ethanol or biodiesel. The crop clearing “inconvenient truth” is described in a Time magazine article by Michael Grunwald called The Clean Energy Scam. Grunwald concludes his article by saying that:

Advocates are always careful to point out that biofuels are only part of the solution to global warming, that the world also needs more energy-efficient light bulbs and homes and factories and lifestyles. And the world does need all those things. But the world is still going to be fighting an uphill battle until it realizes that right now, biofuels aren't part of the solution at all. They're part of the problem.

The challenge facing the environmentalists is convince the public and politicians that biofuels should not be used after there has been so much written and said about the benefits of using biofuels. This could be a tough sell.

Friday, March 14, 2008

China’s Carbon Dioxide Emissions Are Greatly Exceeding Predictions

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that from 2004 through CO2 emissions would increase annually by 2.5 to 5% in the region of Asia that includes China, but according to a report in Reuters economics researchers from the US publishing in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management say that the annual rate of increase for China over this time period will be at least 11%. According to the researchers the increase in CO2 emissions from China will greatly exceed all the reductions pledged by the countries participating in the Kyoto Protocol for the years 2008 to 2012. One of the researchers said that "What we're finding…is that the emissions growth rate is surpassing our worst expectations, and that means the goal of stabilizing atmospheric CO2 is going to be much, much harder to achieve."

Much, much harder to achieve may even be an understatement. Perhaps impossible to achieve is more accurate. With all the positive reports about increasing numbers of wind turbines and solar installations being in the news it seems that there is some reason for optimism that atmospheric CO2 levels can kept to a level that does not precipitate catastrophic climate change, but this report on China is quite a reality check.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Climate Scientist Says Arctic Ice Cap May Be Gone this Summer

Predicted dates when the Arctic polar ice cap will disappear during a summer have been getting earlier and earlier. The date can’t get any earlier than the one predicted by Dr. Olav Orheim, head of the Norwegian International Polar Year Secretariat, in an interview with the Chinese news service Xinhua. Orheim says that the ice cap may disappear this very summer. All it would it would take according to Orheim is that the average temperature for Norway this year equal that of last year. He said that in 2000 the ice cap was 7.5 million square kilometers whereas during the warmest weeks of the summer last year it reached a low of 3 million square kilometers.

If Orheim’s prediction comes true perhaps this will be a good thing in that it could be a wake up call just before decisions have to made about what to after the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012. As we have seen it is nearly impossible to put a dent in the business-as-usual attitude which pervades the world. Some tangible evidence of a startling change in the climate such as the temporary loss of the Arctic polar ice cap might help trigger a reaction in politicians and the public to finally take climate change seriously.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Massive Antarctic Glacier Picking up Speed

A team of British scientists reports a huge Antarctic glacier has speeded up by 7% since last year dumping large amounts of ice into the ocean. Previous studies during the last decade found this glacier to be speeding up by only 1% a year so this is a disturbing finding. The scientists, who described the situation to the BBC, found that this glacier, called the Pine Island Glacier, is the largest of three massive West Antarctic glaciers that have increased speed over the last decade. If most of the Pine Island Glacier winds up in the ocean the global sea level might rise by 25 cm. The scientists can only speculate on why the glacier is moving so fast. One hypothesis is that warmer water in a deep ocean current is flowing near the mouth of the glacier and under the ice. Another hypothesis is that geothermal heat is being released in the area. In any event, if the glacier keeps moving at a rapid pace, predictions of global sea level rise for this century will have to be adjusted upward.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Bill McKibben Calls for 350ppm Carbon Dioxide Target

Environmental author and activist Bill McKibben, who launched the Step It Up campaign last year, has revealed the next phase of his plan to fight global warming with local activism. The Brattleboro Reformer reports that McKibben told a group of local activists that this next phase will call for a target of 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide. As things stand now we are at about 385ppm and heading upward at about 2ppm per year. He is calling his plan 350. McKibben said that “What we need is people in their own communities to take that number and spread it, with music, with art, and take pictures and get it back into that centralized area.” Unlike his Step It Up campaign which was limited to the United States, this new 350 campaign he envisions as international. McKibben clearly understands the precarious situation that excessive emissions of greenhouse gases from human sources has caused saying that “We are in a big, freaking hole and there’s absolutely no guarantee that we are going to get out of it.” So, it is on to 350.

Monday, February 11, 2008

James Hansen Says CO2 Must Be Reduced to 350ppm

The aim of most people fighting global warming is to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from increasing above 450ppm, which is approximately 65ppm above today’s levels. This target has been advocated by climate scientist James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and has been also been advocated by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But Hansen is now saying that the target is too high. In an article in the British newspaper The Sunday Times he says:

“If humanity wants to preserve a climate resembling that in which civilisation developed, then the palaeoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest CO2 must be reduced from its current level to between 300-350ppm. A 350ppm target is only achievable by phasing out coal use….We need a moratorium on the construction of coal-fired power plants and we must phase out the existing ones within two decades.”

If Hansen is right, it appears we will just have to accept a planet that does not resemble the one we are familiar with. Limiting CO2 to 450ppm appears to be an almost impossible task, particularly with China and India counting on coal to lift hundreds of millions of people out of a meager existence. Reducing CO2 to 350ppm or even lower doesn’t seem to be a feasible goal. It is hard to imagine the world only 20 years from now without any operating coal-fired plants. According to the article, Hansen will support his view of setting a lower target in a research paper. Until that paper is published and other scientists have a chance to review it is unlikely that the target of 450ppm will revised. However, perhaps we should be prepared for an even gloomier view of the possibility of extracting ourselves out of our global warming predicament than we now have.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Two More Studies Zap Biofuels as an Answer to Global Warming

The case against using biofuels to fight global warming has grown stronger with the publication of two studies in the journal Science which show that the destruction of natural ecosystems to produce the plants for fuels actually increases greenhouse gas emissions when compared with using regular fuels. In an International Herald Tribune article the lead author of one of the reports notes that the one exception may be sugar cane grown in Brazil, because relatively little energy is needed to turn this crop into fuel. These findings once again illustrate the wide gap between scientific knowledge and actions by the U.S. government as exemplified by the recently passed energy bill which requires a substantial portion of vehicle fuel in the future to be biofuel. In all likelihood most of this biofuel will come from growing corn. The politicians like to point out that using corn to make biofuel will increase America’s energy independence, which appears to be true, but they neglect to mention that with regard to the much bigger issue, global warming, their policies will probably only make the problem worse. It seems the habitability of the planet is being sacrificed for votes in the corn belt. In other words, the most important thing of all is that the politicians hang on to their jobs. The fate of the Earth appears to be a secondary consideration.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

FutureGen “Clean Coal” Project Bites the Dust

Citing rising costs, the US Energy Department cancelled a project called FutureGen which was supposed to demonstrate how carbon dioxide released by burning coal could be captured and stored. With the price of the project, which was supposed to be built in Mattoon, Illinois, reaching $1.8 billion and seemingly still going up the Energy Department called it quits. According to a report in The New York Times the Deputy Secretary of Energy, Clay Sell, said that the project would be revamped. The chief executive of the FutureGen Alliance said that canceling the project would probably result in a 4-year delay.

So, where does this leave us. With a leading climate scientist James Hansen calling for a moratorium on new coal-burning power plants which can not capture and store carbon dioxide to keep carbon dioxide from increasing to atmospheric levels that will cause catastrophic climate change this decision clearly leaves us in a bad spot. Efforts to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy simply do not seem to going fast enough to provide enough electricity if new coal plants are entirely out of the picture. However, if more new coal plants are built without the capture and storage capability carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will almost surely overshoot the target of 450 ppm which is supposed to limit warming to 2C above preindustrial levels.

The cancellation of the FutureGen project should be a wake-up call. Maybe capturing and storing carbon dioxide from coal plants is just pie in the sky, either technologically impossible or so expensive that coal could not economically compete as a fuel. Maybe instead of holding on to the coal option, we should start gradually dismantling coal plants and go all out to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. Do we really have any other good choice?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Asian Growth Blamed for Record Carbon Dioxide Levels

Reports from a Norwegian station in the Arctic show that carbon dioxide measurements have reached a new record of about 394 parts per million (these measurements are higher than the most quoted measurements obtained in Hawaii). An article in the Internet Edition of China Post says that Kim Holman, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, attributes the increase in carbon dioxide emissions to growing Asian economies. Holman says this growth is connected to a recent reduction in industrial efficiency as more carbon is being emitted per dollar of economic output, a trend which is opposite to that which took place over many preceding years. Holman is quoted in the article as saying that “the affluent world wants to buy cheap stuff and we buy it…from the inefficient old-fashioned technology that we have got rid of.” As long as people think of themselves as consumers rather than citizens they will prefer the “cheap stuff” to what makes sense in terms of protecting the environment, furthering human rights, etc. American political scientist Benjamin Barber addresses this problem in his 2007 book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. He puts the blame not those buying products but on the manufacturers who are selling products.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Texas Listed as One of the World’s Top Ten Greenhouse Gas Polluters

The state of Texas is known for doing things in a big way and polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases is no exception. The Telegraph reports that the US Energy Information Administration says that in 2003 Texas emitted 670 million metric tons of carbon dioxide which would make it the seventh largest polluter in the world. The Telegraph article notes that in contrast to states that are attempting to reduce travel by automobile, in Texas, the governor, Rick Perry, is pushing to get a swath of highway built across his state that in some places would be as wide as one quarter of a mile. The article also notes that in a poll last spring fewer than 4% of Texans said that the environment as one of the country’s most pressing issues.

Although at the Republican-dominated state level anti-environmentalism appears to hold sway, at the local level things look more green. At least 19 mayors of Texas cities, including the mayors of Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio, have signed the US Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement. This document includes a nonbinding pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in communities to 7% below 1990 levels by 2012. Whether political pressure from below will be enough to get state leaders to come to their senses remains to be seen. Clearly the US can’t reduce its greenhouse gas emissions enough to fight global warming if Texas doesn’t join in.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Big Name Reporters Ask Presidential Candidates Little About Global Warming

It is no secret that the so-called “corporate media” has been criticized for years about lack of coverage on global warming. Although there has been some recent improvement on this score, probably largely thanks to having dramatic pictures of melting ice to hold the attention of viewers, this new attention to global warming apparently hasn’t gravitated to the coverage of the presidential election. Evidence that the top reporters are ignoring global warming when they interview candidates has been circulated by the Sierra Club with a petition.
According to the Sierra Club, Tim Russert asked 755 questions on Meet the Press and never mentioned global warming, Wolf Blitzer asked 329 questions on the Situation Room and mentioned global warming once, George Stephanopoulus asked 726 questions on This Week and never mentioned global warming, Chris Wallace asked 436 questions on Fox News and mentioned global warming twice, and Bob Schieffer asked 238 questions on Face the Nation and never mentioned global warming. There seems to be a pattern here.
It seems unlikely global warming will get much more attention as the campaigns move forward because the media has never really conveyed the urgency of the situation. If a candidate without a real global warming policy such as Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney wins the presidency we will know that the corporate media should receive much of the blame. Unfortunately of course it will be too late for the Earth.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Nano Dilemma in the Fight Against Global Warming

In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Anne Applebaum points out a disturbing issue raised by the marketing of the Tata Nano, the $2,500 car that has just been introduced in India. She states that:

There must be a way to reconcile mass car ownership with global warming, but, at the moment, we haven't found it. There is no profound reason that good environmental policies have to come into conflict with economic growth, but they often do. In many countries, the desire not to be poor is stronger than the desire to breathe clean air.

It is hard to ignore that the fight against global warming seems to be on a collision course with efforts to provide masses of poor people in developing countries with better lives. Or as Applebaum states it:

What happens when the laudable, currently fashionable movement to improve the environment comes directly into conflict with the equally laudable, equally fashionable movement to improve the lives of the poor?

Right now there do not seem to be any good answers. China is said to building the equivalent of one coal-burning power plant a week. That certainly will improve the lives of tens of millions who lack electricity but pretty much negates efforts around the world to reduce carbon emissions. India seems to following the same course but at a slower rate. The situation appears even more hopeless when you consider the situation in the United States where everyone has electricity but about 150 coal-burning power plants are in the planning stage to meet projected increased electricity demand presumably because of such reasons that people are no longer satisfied with watching a 30-inch cathode ray tube television but want an energy gobbling 60-inch plasma screen instead. In the US more energy is needed to lift tens of millions of people out of a materially great life to an even more fantastic life. The world leaders who will be working the next two years to create an agreement to limit global warming may need something close to a miracle to succeed.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Fears Mount that $2,500 Car Will Drive Up Global Temperatures

What if someone could create a car that was so cheap that hundreds of millions of people in developing countries could afford to drive a car instead of a bicyle, motor scooter, or motorcycle. Meet Ratan Tata, the head of the Tata Group in India. As reported in The Washington Post, Tata just introduced his new supercheap car called the Nano at the Delhi Auto Expo. Although the car is no gas guzzler, averaging about 50 miles per gallon, traveling in one of these things will put out a lot more carbon dioxide than a scooter or motorcycle. According to Tata for there is only 1 car for every 1,000 Indians whereas there are 750 cars for every 1,000 Americans. Clearly we Americans are in a difficult position trying to put a negative spin on the Tata Nano. With our three-car garages remaining stuffed with SUVs and performance sedans while climate scientists are screaming that we have to reduce carbon emissions or face catastophe we are in no position to expect the Indians or Chinese to listen to us proclaim the advantages of the bicycle over the automobile.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Dems Debate Cap-and-Trade Versus Carbon Tax

Watching the Republicans and Democrats who are running for president debate last night it looked like once again the critical issue of global warming would be all but ignored, but near the end of the debate by the Democrats the issue of cap-and-trade versus carbon tax actually was debated. As reported by Reuters both New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Illinois Senator Barack Obama said they favored the cap-and-trade system over the carbon tax. Richardson claimed that only the carbon tax would cost American citizens money but Obama then correctly pointed out that costs of the cap-and-trade system would be passed along to consumers.

In the Republican debate Arizona Senator John McCain raised the issue of global warming but not surprisingly none of the other candidates really addressed the issue at all. The Republicans, except for McCain, seem to be operating in a post 9-11 world but a pre-An Inconvenient Truth World as if they are hoping people wouldn’t notice that the Al Gore film on global warming had ever been shown or that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had ever issued their fourth report stating that if greenhouse gas emissions do not peak globally by 2015 catastrophic climate change probably can not be avoided. Hopefully enough people have noticed and will make this know at the ballot box in November.