Climate Catastrophe: Can It Be Stopped?

From Eduardo Porter’s on-going series in the NY Times business section, on climate change.

Here’s what your future will look like if we are to have a shot at preventing devastating climate change.

Within about 15 years every new car sold in the United States will be electric. In fact, by midcentury more than half of the American economy will run on electricity. Up to 60 percent of power might come from nuclear sources. And coal’s footprint will shrink drastically, perhaps even disappear from the power supply.

This course, created by a team of energy experts, was unveiled on Tuesday in a report for the United Nations that explores the technological paths available for the world’s 15 main economies to both maintain reasonable rates of growth and cut their carbon emissions enough by 2050 to prevent climatic havoc.

“This will require a heroic cooperative effort,” said Jeffrey D. Sachs, the Columbia University economist who directs the Sustainable Development Solutions Network at the United Nations, which convened the multinational teams.

…  The decarbonization paths rely on aggressive assumptions about our ability to deploy new technologies on a commercial scale economically. For instance, carbon capture and storage is supposed to be available starting in about 10 years. Second-generation biofuels are assumed to come into play by 2020. Hydrogen fuel cells and power storage technology are deployed starting around 2030.

… Big challenges remain. Any 40-year forecast must be taken with some skepticism. Technologies that seem feasible and economic today might turn out not to be. And it bears repeating that though the teams contend they can get to 1.6 tons per person, they have not yet.

But these technologies all exist today and seem reasonably scalable. The teams did not rely on more speculative technologies, like cold fusion, to make their numbers.

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The Report: Pathways to Deep Decarbonization (pdf)

Our moment of truth has arrived. Twenty-two years ago at the Rio Earth Summit, the world’s
governments recognized that humanity was changing the climate system profoundly, posing risks for
human wellbeing and sustainable development prospects. They adopted the United Nations Framework  Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) two years later, and resolved to protect the planet and promote sustainable development by stabilizing “GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

Yet, more than two decades later, GHG emissions are still far from stabilizing.

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The economic, social, and environmental risks of unabated climate change are immense. They
threaten to roll back the fruits of decades of growth and development, undermine prosperity, and
jeopardize countries’ ability to achieve even the most basic socio-economic development goals in the
future, including the eradication of poverty and continued economic growth. These risks affect all
developed and developing countries alike.

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Despite the 2°C commitment reiterated at every COP since Cancun, global GHG emissions have
continued to rise sharply. The climate science is clear and unequivocal: without a dramatic reversal of
the GHG emissions trajectory—one that leads to a significant decline in GHG emissions by mid-century
and to net zero emissions during the second half of the century—the world will not only overshoot the
2°C limit, but will do so dramatically

AND, by the way, Germany is well on its way:

Thanks to favorable weather and record production from solar and wind power, renewable energy accounted for approximately 31 percent of Germany’s electricity generation in the first half of 2014.


Lake Mead, Lowest Level Ever

Lake Mead, well known to Colorado River rafters as the terminus of their great three week adventure, and not so well known to millions as the source of their water, is reaching a record this week, and probably not stopping there.

The last time Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, reached maximum capacity was 1983. This week the lake, located along the Colorado River near Las Vegas, Nevada, is expected to reach a new milestone — its lowest point ever.

Formed by the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead has been suffering for years as an expansive drought across the West, coupled with rising temperatures and populations, has overstressed the massive man-made body of water. According to forecasts from the federal Bureau of Reclamation, water levels will fall this week to their lowest since it was first filled in 1937. The lake, which provides water for 20 million people across the Southwest has been losing water for over a decade and is currently at about 40 percent capacity.

Climate Progress

Bathtub Ring of Once High Water at Lake Mead

Bathtub Ring of Once High Water at Lake Mead

Among those who will be affected as the lake shrinks more and more will be plenty of climate change deniers, who in their wisdom, will blame the federal government for conspiratorially siphoning off millions of gallons of water for nefarious purposes and depriving Mr. and Mrs. Ostrich of their right to get what they want!

Can’t we start a class-action suit for damages caused by obstinate idiocy?

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And the American southwest of course is only a small part of the problem.  A 2013 comprehensive study by the National Academy of Sciences says what’s ugly now is only going to get uglier.

…even modest climate change might drastically affect the living conditions of billions of people, whether through water scarcity, crop shortages or extremes of weather.

The group warns that water is the biggest worry. If the world warms by just 2 °C above the present level, which now seems all but unavoidable by 2100, up to one-fifth of the global population could suffer severe shortages.

“Water and all that relies on it, from food to sanitation and public health, is an emblematic aspect of climate change whose urgency people tend to instantly understand,” says Schellnhuber.

Regions most at risk from water scarcity include parts of the southern United States, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. By contrast, India, tropical Africa and high latitudes in the Northern Hemi­sphere can expect to receive more water in a warming world.

drought conditions are likely to become more frequent and severe in some parts of South America, western and central Europe, central Africa and Australia, another project team reports3.

Uncertainty, adds Schellnhuber, is no excuse for inaction. “Those who might say, ‘Come back when you’ve narrowed down the risk’ should be reminded that climate change is a treacherous gamble,” he says. “We don’t quite know the odds, but the chance of losing heavily might be a lot bigger than many tend to think.”

Nature dot com


Super Typhoon Approaches Japan

Updates:  Neoguri was downgraded to a tropical storm thought with winds gusting up to 120 mph

TOKYO: Typhoon Neoguri slammed into the Japanese mainland on Thursday bringing widespread flooding, ripping trees from their roots and leaving houses half-buried under mud, as tens of thousands were urged to seek shelter.

The storm, which has left several people dead and a string of damage in its wake, caused havoc in many small communities as residents struggled to keep waves of dirty water from destroying their homes.

More than 500 houses in several prefectures were flooded due to the typhoon and heavy rain, according to the disaster management agency, with about 490,000 households urged to seek shelter.

Typhoon Neoguri Advancing on Japan

Typhoon Neoguri Advancing on Japan

Typhoon Neoguri reached sustained winds of over 150 miles per hour Sunday, making it a ‘super typhoon,’ as it continued to gain force and approach Japan’s southern and western islands. It is likely to cause heavy rains and strong winds across much of Japan, and threaten at least two nuclear power plants in its path.

Heavy rains from another storm have already been setting records in Kyushu, Japan’s southern and southwestern-most major island, where Neoguri is likely to make first landfall. Kyushu is home to two nuclear plants, which have been shut down for safety in advance of the storm’s arrival. A nuclear plant on nearby Shikoku island has been shut down for safety, as well. After making landfall, the storm is expected to move north through virtually all of Japan, losing strength as it travels up the island.

Climate Progress


BBC to Re Calibrate Climate News

To Improve Accuracy, BBC Tells Its Reporters To Stop Giving [So much] Air Time To Climate Deniers

In order to be neutral when covering science … the BBC noted it needs to avoid “false balance,” a fallacy that occurs when two sides of an argument are assumed to have equal value.

“Science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given,” the report said.

The type of “false balance” news segment that the BBC is now actively trying to avoid is one that is fairly common in American network news’ climate change coverage. It involves putting one person who is well-versed on climate science next to a person who denies climate science, and having them debate.

Editorially, this type of debate makes the network look like it’s being balanced, giving equal opportunity to opposite viewpoints. However, because 95 to 97 percent of climate scientists agree that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are causing the planet to warm, that balance is false, giving disproportionate time to a viewpoint that is widely rejected in the scientific community.


Napa Fire: September in July

The big brush fire in northern Napa country, CA has been burning for over 24 hours and despite 1,000 firefighters is not under control as of Wednesday afternoon.

Fire Napa July

“With rainfall at near-historic lows over the past 12 months – on the heels of two previous years with little precipitation – the forests and grassland of Northern California are exceptionally parched.

“No one can really remember it being drier than this,” said Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist at UC Berkeley. “We’re like two months drier than usual. This is like September, when everything is nearly bone-dry.”

“…Already this year, more wildfires have hit the state than usual. State firefighters, who battle the bulk of California’s blazes, have counted 2,700 incidents between January and July – a 50 percent jump from the 1,800 wildland fires they respond to on average during the same period, according to state fire data.

Last month, an unusually early 2,600-acre blaze raged west of Kern County’s Lake Isabella in the southern Sierra. In May, a series of conflagrations in San Diego County tore through some 14,000 acres, forcing more than 20,000 people to evacuate.”

SF Gate


China and Change

Eduardo Porter in the NY Times, recently focusing on climate change in his Economic Scene column, [here and here, here and here] takes a look at China, which even though it has announced steps larger than those of the US has a larger problem, and solving it will not be easy:

A coal heating plant in Beijing

A coal heating plant in Beijing

In Beijing, He Jiankun, an academic and deputy director of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change, told a conference that China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter, would for the first time put “an absolute cap” on its emissions.

However, he soon clarified

 He was not announcing policy in Beijing. “I’m not a government official, and I don’t represent the government,” he said.

Though Porter’s article is about China, he comments on the US as well, perhaps too easily thinking it has turned some sort of corner and will, by example, bring others along.  His point, however, is that even if the US were to start sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere tomorrow, China (and India) are enormous parts of the necessary solution.

It is well known that preventing a climate catastrophe requires China’s participation: The country accounts for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Over the next 20 years, China’s CO2 emissions will grow by an amount roughly equal to the United States’ total emissions today, according to the latest baseline forecast by the Energy Information Administration, released last year.

But the scale of China’s challenge is less well grasped. It might be best understood by slicing the growth of CO2 emissions into four driving forces: the expansion of the population, the growth in people’s incomes, the amount of energy needed to produce a dollar of income, and the amount of CO2spewed for each unit of energy used.

Even assuming that China’s population does not grow at all over the next 30 years, that the energy efficiency of its economy increases at a faster pace than most developed and developing countries and that it manages todecarbonize its energy sources faster than pretty much anybody else, China would still be emitting a lot more carbon in 2040 than it does today, according to E.I.A. calculations.

NY Times; Eduardo Porter


Deluge North and South

In Toronto, Canada

A dramatic night of storms in Toronto on Wednesday flooded subway stations, turned a major freeway into a river and knocked out power to thousands of people.

On Wednesday, Environment Canada issued a special weather warning for heavy rain in Toronto Wednesday evening. Some parts of the city received nearly three inches of rain in just three hours.

Dozens of people had to be rescued from their cars as water lapped at windows

In Recife, Brasil

“Just hours before the highly anticipated World Cup match-up between the U.S. and Germany is scheduled to begin, the host city of Recife, Brazil has been slammed by torrential rains.

Climate Flooding Brazil

CNN reported that around 2.9 inches of rain has already fallen. It has been raining for the last 24 hours and it is expected to continue raining throughout the day. FIFA officials examined the pitch this morning and determined the game can go ahead as planned. The pitch is reportedly soft, but playable.

…While deadly flooding happens in Brazil almost every year, the timing of these deluges is bizarre. Flooding mostly occurs in Brazil during the summer rainy season. Brazil’s winter months, May to August, are usually mostly dry.

Did I miss something?  Was this reported during the lead up to, or during, the game?


Climate Change: The Report

The release of Risky Business, a 50 page report from high profile business leaders in the U.S. has gotten front page attention.  It is not so much a climate change report as a call to apply risk management thinking to what is obviously already occurring.  Using the Reagan era action on Ozone depletion, as recalled by his Secretary of State, George Schultz, it is a business oriented call to ‘take out an insurance policy.”

Our goal with the Risky Business Project is not to  confront the doubters. Rather, it is to bring American
business and government—doubters and believers alike—together to look squarely at the potential risks
posed by climate change, and to consider whether it’s time to take out an insurance policy of our own

This morning Eduardo Porter, one of the NY Times regular business columnists, had a strong response to the report. Though he is aware of the dangers of fatalism faced with a problem so large, he is not immune to it, himself.

Climate change is not an event in your children’s future. It is bearing down upon you now. And there is nothing you — or anyone else — can do to prevent the hit.

Over the next quarter-century, heat-related death rates will probably double in the southeastern states. Crop losses that used to happen only once every 20 years because of cataclysmic weather will occur five times as often.

…. it seems clear by now that the world’s temperature will almost certainly rise more than two degrees Celsius — or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — above the average of the late 19th century, a ceiling that the world’s leaders have repeatedly promised never to breach and a point at which climate-related risks rise even more sharply.

[and] despite the rising awareness of the risks caused by our unrestrained consumption of fossil fuels, there is no evidence that we plan to break the habit and leave a substantial portion of the Earth’s oil, gas and coal in the ground.

“We are swinging to fossil fuels in ways that couldn’t have been imagined a few years ago,” said Michael Greenstone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We’ve made substantial progress in renewables, but there’s been even more innovation in fossil fuels. Incentives to invest in low-carbon energy are going down.”

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Climate Minnesota Floods 2014

It’s flooding in Minnesota, in case the word hasn’t reached you.

“This is severe flooding, and in many different locations in the state, which I haven’t seen before,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I’ve seen severe weather — tornadoes, flash floods and ice storms — but usually they impact one area of the state. This one is the whole state.”

In St. Paul, the capital, the Mississippi River rose to a nearly 20-foot crest,


Just Another Warning, Among Thousands

May 2014 was Earth’s warmest May since records began in 1880, beating the record set in 2010, 

Climate Temperatures

‘According to wunderground’s weather historian, Christopher C. Burt, in his May 2014 Global Weather Extremes Summary, an amazing heat wave occurred in China, Japan, and the Koreas the last week of May. Beijing saw its warmest May temperature on record with a 41.1°C (106.0°F) reading on May 30th, and all-time national heat records for the month of May were set for South Korea and China. A remarkable heat wave along the Baltic Sea broke the all time May heat record for Estonia (33.1°C/91.6°F at Kunda on May 19th) and at St. Petersburg, Russia with 33.0°C (91.4°F), also on May 19th. Gambia tied its all-time national heat record (for any month) on May 4th when the temperature rose to 45.5°C (113.9°F) at Kaur. 

And if that’s too far from home for you,

All-time June 24-hour Precipitation Record Broken in Savannah, Georgia

Record Rainfall in Sioux Falls, South Dakota


“Climate Change is Real” One Republican Says

Michael Bloomberg is one of the few known-to-be-a-Republican big names who has squarely talked about climate change and the dangers we are facing.  On Sunday, another Republican, well known, added his voice.  Henry Paulson, Secretary of Treasury when the economy went to hell, and now chair of the Paulson Institute at the University of Chicago, is unambiguous:

THERE is a time for weighing evidence and a time for acting. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my work in finance, government and conservation, it is to act before problems become too big to manage.

For too many years, we failed to rein in the excesses building up in the nation’s financial markets. When the credit bubble burst in 2008, the damage was devastating. Millions suffered. Many still do.

We’re making the same mistake today withclimate change. We’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy. The warning signs are clear and growing more urgent as the risks go unchecked.

This is a crisis we can’t afford to ignore. I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain. We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course.   Paulson : The Coming Climate Crash

I’m not sure who he means by WE but I’d offer that ‘my friends are sitting on their hands” would be closer to accurate.  There are plenty of US who have been consumed with the problem of too much CO2 and too little action for years, some for decades.  Paulson describes having the dry-heaves from tension during the worst weeks of the financial crisis.  It’s a familiar feeling, Hank — everytime another weather anomaly breaks out, everytime we hear an elected Republican say that climate change is a bogus, lied-up plot by tens of thousands of scientists anxious to curry favor with their funders.  [Who else could dream up such an accusation but those who are fully aware of how such liaisons work?]

And Pauslon has a solution, at least a point of view.

The solution can be a fundamentally conservative one that will empower the marketplace to find the most efficient response. We can do this by putting a price on emissions of carbon dioxide — a carbon tax.

Bravo!

And how is that going to come about?  Is Hank Paulson with Michael Bloomberg going to grow think-tanks and funding sources to counter the baleful influence of their fellow Republican deniers, the Koch billionaires foremost among them?  Has he heard any recent Heritage Foundation nonsense?

Their action to quantify the cost of inaction – the Risky Business project — is good, but great?  Enough?  Not by a long shot.

Paul Krugman’s response to Paulson’s Opinion piece was cogent, as usual.

[his] … was a brave stand to take.

But not nearly brave enough. Emissions taxes are the Economics 101 solution to pollution problems; every economist I know would start cheering wildly if Congress voted in a clean, across-the-board carbon tax. But that isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future. A carbon tax may be the best thing we could do, but we won’t actually do it.

Yet there are a number of second-best things (in the technical sense, as I’ll explain shortly) that we’re either doing already or might do soon. And the question for Mr. Paulson and other conservatives who consider themselves environmentalists is whether they’re willing to accept second-best answers, and in particular whether they’re willing to accept second-best answers implemented by the other party. If they aren’t, their supposed environmentalism is an empty gesture.

So, thank you Mr Paulson but some of us have the dry-heaves about this.  Could we get this show on the road and put the pedal to the metal?  Otherwise the coastal populations around the world are going to be following in the footsteps  our end-of-ice-age ancestors, beating a retreat (in our millions) for higher ground as the rains keep falling and the  oceans keep rising. And there’ll be deaths aplenty as our grandchildren battle for food, shelter and dry ground.

And, by the way:

Air quality has improved significantly in the past 20 years because of federal and state laws and regulations, and researchers in North Carolina have found an associated decline in rates of death from respiratory disease.

Let’s call what we now have  carbon pollution and get on with cleaning it up…