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Climate & environment - Oct 22

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China's 'carbon intensity' commitment means nothing

Molly Scott Cato, The Ecologist blogs
There's been plenty of excitement over China and India's pledges to reduce the 'carbon intensity' of their economies. But without absolute limits, this is just business as usual

As we get closer to the climate-change negotiations in Copenhagen in December you can expect to hear a great deal more about carbon intensity. At the pre-meeting in New York in September, President Hu Jintao of China committed his nation to 'continue its unremitting endeavours in boosting energy efficiency and by 2020, we should try to achieve a significant cut of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product'.

The flurry of excitement that greeted this announcement was not shared by ecologists or green economists. All Hu was really promising was that China’s massive industrial production would be achieved with relatively less production of CO2, thus increasing ‘carbon intensity’ rather than reducing carbon emissions. This carbon intensity will be calculated as a ratio of emissions to GDP output (a notoriously unhelpful measure of economic activity), and is only relative to the inefficient nature of China’s current production. So all that has really been promised is an attempt to move towards more ‘renewable’ energy sources, which include nuclear power.

How likely are we to achieve the sorts of improvements in carbon intensity that will allow us to maintain current consumption standards while making the CO2 cuts the planet needs? Adam Barnes has calculated that, taking population growth into account, merely to keep emissions stable the carbon intensity of our productive systems must fall by 66 per cent...
(15 Oct 2009)

Let's Try Cap-and-Trade on Babies

Emily Badger, Miller-McCune
Population growth is the real driver for higher greenhouse gas emission, so why don't more mainstream solutions start there?

Andrew Revkin, an environmental reporter for The New York Times and author of the paper's Dot Earth blog, warns that the math is pretty depressing.

There are about 6.8 billion people on the planet today, a number projected to get to 9 billion by 2050. Americans, the world's greatest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, produce about 20 tons of the stuff per person, per year. If we were to cut that in half, as emissions rose with the quality of life in much of the Third World, and everyone on the planet met around 10 tons per person, per year, simple multiplication says we'd collectively emit 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually come 2050.

...A couple of mental roadblocks emerge, central among them the sentiment that, well, there are just too many people on the planet, so what are we supposed to do about it? Any answer trips up against the politically touchy topic of family planning (a distinctly different concept, reproductive-health advocates stress, from "population control").

...Each $7 spent on basic family planning between now and 2050 would reduce emissions by more than a ton, the research says. To get the same reduction through alternative energy would cost at least $32 (or, as much as $83 to implement carbon capture and storage in coal plants, $92 to develop plug-in hybrids, or $131 for electric vehicles).

Providing such family planning over the next four decades would be the equivalent of reducing global CO2 by six times America's annual emissions...
(15 Oct 2009)

Illusions on the edge of a precipice

David Spratt, theage
The climate crisis is not a negotiable issue and politicians must start paying attention to science.

CAN we expect decent climate policy when most of the decision-making elite are ignorant of the real scientific imperatives, or believe they can negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry? The answer is bleak, judging by the lead-up talks to the climate summit in Copenhagen in December. The conference is slated to sign a new global deal on greenhouse gas reductions, but key players expect failure. British climate economist Lord Nicholas Stern and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan are among luminaries now saying that no deal is better than a bad deal, while European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso warns: ''If we don't sort this out, it risks becoming the longest and most global suicide note in history.''

Climate politics has become a game of chicken, a planet-crippling procrastination driven by short-term concerns and a striving for partisan advantage. Last year, Ross Garnaut wondered if ''this issue is too hard for rational policy making … the issues are too complex, the vested interests surrounding it too numerous and intense, the relevant time-frames too long''. Copenhagen is likely to confirm his dark assessment.

For scientists this is frustrating and depressing, and so more feel compelled to openly enter the political fray. America's best-known climate researcher, NASA's James Hansen, now joins protesters at coal plants and stumps the country in support of the campaign. This will peak with more than 2000 activities in 150 countries around the globe on October 24...
(19 Oct 2009)

How to stop doubting and love the climate models

Juliane Fry, oregonlive: the stump
Does human activity affect Earth's climate?

A simple question, no? It's been settled with a ringing "yes" among the scientific community. Yet, the so-called "climate debate" still pops up on editorial pages, political blogs and television talk shows. Apparently, we scientists have failed to explain to the entire public how we have come to understand the climate system. For this we owe another attempt to engage readers who still feel there is some doubt about the role of human activity in Earth's climate.

What follows is a no-frills, nonpartisan explanation of how a group of scientists working on a particular problem establish knowledge, what we know, and what we need to learn.

Understanding the underlying science is important, and not just because our elected leaders in Congress are debating policy options to combat global warming, including a cap-and-trade program aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It's also important that we move the discussion to what we should be arguing about -- how to mitigate the effects of global warming -- once we get beyond the distraction of false debates over whether climate change is real and caused by humans.

A good place to begin: On Saturday, the International Day of Climate Action will feature rallies and activities around the globe in an attempt to build momentum toward the U.N. Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen in December. See for a list of activities around Oregon.

And, Nov. 18, Al Gore, winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will speak at Keller Auditorium as part of the Portland Arts and Lectures Series.

...How do scientists establish consensus, and what is the role of consensus documents like the IPCC reports?

...How do scientists establish consensus, and what is the role of consensus documents like the IPCC reports?

...What aspects of climate science are firmly established?

...What are some remaining uncertainties?...
(17 Oct 2009)
Juliane Fry has a Ph.D. in atmospheric chemistry from California Institute of Technology. She teaches chemistry at Reed College.

Baffin Island reveals dramatic scale of Arctic climate change

Steve Connor, The Independent
A frozen lake on a remote island off Canada's northern coast has yielded remarkable insights into how the Arctic climate has changed dramatically over 50 years.

Muddy sediment from the bottom of the lake, some of it 200,000 years old, shows that Baffin Island, one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, has undergone an unprecedented warming over the past half-century. Scientists believe the temperature rise is probably due to human-induced warming. It has more than offset a natural cooling trend which began 8,000 years ago.

Instead of cooling at a rate of minus 0.2C every 1,000 years – a trend that was expected to continue for another 4,000 years because of well-known changes to the Earth's solar orbit – Baffin Island, like the rest of the Arctic, has begun to get warmer, especially since 1950. The Arctic is now about 1.2C warmer than it was in 1900, confirming that the region is warming faster than most other parts of the world.

...It is the CF8 lake that has provided scientists with the sediment core showing the unprecedented warming of Baffin Island over the past few decades, compared with a time span going back 200,000 years, a period which included two ice ages and three interglacial periods – and roughly the time that Homo sapiens has been on earth.

"The past few decades have been unique in the past 200,000 years in terms of the changes we see in the biology and chemistry recorded in the cores," said Yarrow Axford of the University of Colorado at Boulder. "We see clear evidence for warming in one of the most remote places on earth at a time when the Arctic should be cooling because of natural processes." The scientists found that certain cold-adapted organisms in the layers of sediment have decreased in frequency since about 1950. Larvae from species of Arctic midge, which only live in cold conditions, have abruptly declined and two species in particular have disappeared altogether...
(20 Oct 2009)
sent in by EB reader John Anderson

The Economic Case for Slashing Carbon Emissions

frank ackerman, yale environment 360
The climate change news from Washington is cautiously encouraging. No one in power is listening to the climate skeptics any more; the economic stimulus package included real money for clean energy; a bill capping U.S. carbon emissions emerged, battered but still standing, from the House of Representatives, and might even survive the Senate. This, along with stricter emission standards in Europe and a big push for clean energy and efficiency standards in China, provides grounds for hope for genuine progress on emissions reduction.

But while climate policy is finally moving forward, climate science is moving faster. One discovery after another suggests the world is warming faster, and climate damages are appearing sooner, than anyone had expected. Much of the policy discussion so far has been aimed at keeping the atmospheric concentration of CO2 below 450 parts per million (ppm) — which was until recently thought to be low enough to prevent dangerous levels of warming. But last year, James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, argued that paleoclimatic evidence shows 450 ppm is the threshold for transition to an ice-free earth. This would imply a catastrophic rise in sea levels, eventually flooding all coastal cities and regions.

To avoid reaching such a crisis stage, Hansen and a growing number of others now call for stabilizing CO2 concentrations at 350 ppm. The world is now around 390 ppm and rising; since CO2 persists in the atmosphere for a long time, it is difficult to reduce concentrations quickly. In Hansen’s scenario, a phaseout of coal use, massive reforestation, and widespread use of carbon capture and storage could allow the world to achieve negative net carbon emissions by mid-century and reach 350 ppm by 2100.

Can we afford to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 350 ppm by the end of this century? To address this question, Economists for Equity and Environment ( — a group dedicated to applying and developing economic principles to protect human health and the environment — conducted a study of “The Economics of 350.”...
(20 Oct 2009)

The Cold we Caused

Steven Stoll, Harper's
(November 2009)
...Globally, an estimated 125 million people died of pandemic disease between 1200 and 1750, representing 25 percent of the total population in 1500.

According to Ruddiman's hypothesis, the deaths of so many in such a short time, over terrain extending from the Po Valley to the Incan Empire, left hundreds of millions of hectares abandoned to reforestation. The rebounding woodland devoured 13.8 billon tons of carbon, accounting for more than half the missing 10 ppm. The oceans ate the rest, probably as part of a feedback loop set off by the die-off. (Cold water stores more CO2 than warm water, so falling temperatures would have created an ever more efficient carbon sink, leading to falling temperatures, before something broke the loop.)

How the Little Ice Age ended is perhaps even more revealing than how it began. As population lurched toward recovery, settler cultures felt the tension between lands and hands, sending ax-wielding farmers into the forests of Massachusetts, the Volga River Valley, and Manchuria. Between 1700 and 1920 the world's forests lost 537 million hectares, as agrarian societies increased their land use more than threefold. The carbon in all of those trees--together with soil itself, the greatest source on the surface of Earth--wafted up to thicken the eight-mile-high envelope that distinguishes this planet from Mercury. The world counted few coal-burning factories in 1850, but their numbers followed an accelerating curve as petroleum joined coal to provide the hydrocarbons that would generate two more centuries of economic growth. Under the new energy regime, atmospheric carbon levels rose by 100 ppm between 1750 and the present...

...Growing up as a species . . . means accepting that we are neither blessed by Heaven nor shatterers of the natural order. No such order exists: no true or natural climate, no normal rate of extinction, no ideal ecology. The only thing normal about climate is its propensity to slam back and forth between maxima and minima, between infernal winters and refrigerated summers. In the oscillating dance of the glaciers, species die. Whether they die from meteorites or from billions of human decisions makes no difference. Either way, they leave behind abandoned niches--the ecological spaces organisms inhabit--resulting in evolutionary cascades of new species. Everything alive is matter in one momentary form, soon to take some other momentary form.

...In 2000, the chemist Paul Crutzen named our current era the Anthropocene, a period in which humans figure on a geological scale. But whereas many date the Anthropocene to the advent of coal-burning machines, Ruddiman's work lengthens the period to begin when the first stick plow cut the first furrow. It was the invention of agriculture that marked the beginning of the Anthropocene, because that was when terrestrial environments and atmospheric chemistry became artifacts of human culture; when our imprint on the climate became like fossilized footprints in volcanic ash. The Anthropocene has been an era of extinction to rival that of the Cretaceous, and will be defined by the present moment, when our demonstrable power to foster or erode the diversity of life can no longer be handed over to God or Nature.

This article is behind a paywall.

Sent in by William Tamblyn, who comments:

I am not impressed with Stoll's conclusions -- his apparent ignorance of Overshoot and Peak Energy makes most of what he concludes irrelevant IMO -- but I really like the hypothesis of William Ruddiman that is discussed in the article. I think Ruddiman gives people who *are* aware of Overshoot and Peak Energy a lot to think about.

See also: and,_Plagues_and_Petroleum

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