Essay on Climate Change
This blog is a little different. It is more on the spirit of an essay or analysis, maybe, op-ed. It is strongly influenced by writing this blog and reading the comments.
The predictions of climate change provide us knowledge of the future. These predictions are not like those from a crystal ball; they are not magic. Neither are the predictions speculation nor are they opinion. The predictions are based on scientific investigation of the physics of the Earth's atmosphere, ocean, land, and ice. The predictions include the role of chemistry and biology. There are uncertainties in the predictions, but the core of the predictions, that the Earth will warm, that sea level will rise, and that the weather will change is of little doubt.
The predictions are grounded, ultimately, in observations. The quest to explain the behavior of the observations and their relation to each other leads to the development of scientific hypotheses that are formed into theory. These hypotheses and theories are testable; they change with time; they are not speculation nor are they opinion. The theory can be expressed as mathematical expressions, and the mathematical expressions are solved to provide predictions. The collection of mathematical expressions which represent the theory are called models.
As representations of theory, models are both founded in observations and testable. The tests sometimes reveal that the models are fundamentally correct; sometimes they reveal that the models are incorrect. When a part of the model is incorrect, then attention is focused on observations, the further development of theory, the improvement of models, and the generation of new predictions. If the observations, predictions, and validation of the predictions form a coherent and convergent body of evidence, then the confidence is increased that the predictions are of sufficient accuracy to be actionable.
The models used to describe and predict the Earth's climate have been evaluated and validated in many ways by many people. Of specific relevance, the models have been used to reproduce the variability of the observations of the past. The models are repeatedly tested with the modern set of observations that have evolved with the availability of satellites. Predictive experiments are carried out, and the predictions are evaluated with new observations. There have been useful predictions of the Earth's climate for at least three decades. As we see the core of these predictions come true, the Earth is warming and sea level is rising, we substantiate the quality of the predictions.
The models can assist in the attribution of cause and effect. That is, if we observe a change in, for example atmospheric temperature, can we determine what caused that change? In many instances the convincing answer to that question is yes. In some cases it is difficult to attribute cause and effect. The observations, the theory, and the models lead to the conclusion that the Earth is warming and that a major cause of that warming is the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere. This increase is directly related to the activities of humans, and in particular, the combustion of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas.
If the warming does not directly follow from our combustion of fossil fuels, then we are left with a vast gap in our knowledge. If the warming is not a consequence of our changing the atmosphere, then we require the identification of missing mechanisms that are of a nature that defy our ability to observe. The existence of an unobserved or alternative explanation of the warming of the Earth is unlikely.
The existence of an explanation other than, primarily, human-made changes to the composition of the atmosphere is unlikely because the underlying physical principles are simple. At the foundation of the quantitative description of the climate is the conservation of energy. Specifically, the energy that exits the Earth to space balances the energy received by the Earth from the Sun. Otherwise, the climate of the Earth would not be stable. Humans do not change the principle of energy conservation; humans change how long the energy is held near the surface of the Earth. The physical principles that govern the climate of the Earth are simple. How energy flows through the atmosphere, the ocean, the biological creatures, and the chemical reactions is complex. This complexity challenges our ability to observe and the precision of our predictions, but it does not challenge the fundamental, simple physical principles that describe the Earth's climate.
Scientific-based prediction of the climate produces knowledge of two types. There is a prediction of environmental parameters such as temperature and wind and moisture. There is also an estimate of the uncertainty of that prediction. To the scientist the estimate of the uncertainty is a measure of how probable it is that the prediction is accurate. Scientists often pursue the quest to reduce uncertainty, to make the predictions more accurate, and hence, more useful.
The science of climate change and the use of science-based predictions has, however, extended far from realm of science. If the predictions of climate change are fundamentally correct, then the change in the climate will impact every continent, every region, every nation, every person on Earth. If the attribution of climate change to the combustion of fossil fuels is correct, our use of energy and our economic success contribute directly to a changing climate. Therefore every component of human endeavor has a vested interest in the climate change problem. Therefore, every component of human endeavor has a vested interest in the predictions of environmental parameters and the uncertainties of those predictions.
Uncertainty will always exist in scientific investigation. It is part of the process. Investigation of complex systems will often lead to new sources of uncertainty. Challenging and re-challenging models and theory with observations will not uniformly lead to reduction or simplification of uncertainty. When the uncertainty is used in the development of arguments or policy that lie outside of the realm of science, the uncertainty can always be used to keep the argument or policy from converging. Always.
We have knowledge of how the climate will change. We know that this change will offer opportunity. We must evaluate that opportunity in context with our self interest and with regard to the risk. We know that this change will prove to be one of risk for many people. We have the responsibility, therefore, to act to reduce this risk.
Figure 1. This is a picture of a cypress knee on the shore of the Neuse River in eastern North Carolina. This picture was taken shortly after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Hurricane Floyd stalled, and there was so much rain in North Carolina, that the mouths of the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers and Pamlico Sound were completely fresh water. I put the picture here because I recently came across it in my album and I thought it was pretty.
Updated: 04:15 GMT le 06 février 2011
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Coal: Moving Beyond Burning Stuff
The coal conundrum: should we or should we not build more coal power plants?
This is the second of two guest blogs by Johannes Feddema. Here is a link to the first one.
Part II: Coal and future energy sources
‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Max Planck, a German physicist (1949)
When discussing the future of coal and coal fired power plants it is appropriate to take a step back and reflect on how we use fossil fuel energy. We take a highly valuable resource, energy from the sun, captured by ancient vegetation that has been stored and provided to us by astonishing geologic processes, and we literally burn it. In this process it converts into smoke, low energy materials, heat, and some usable energy. For what purpose do we do this? In the US it is often times to over air condition our houses and offices in summer, to overheat our houses in winter and sometimes just to sit and idle our cars for air conditioning while we wait for our kids to get out of school. At the same time it provides energy to refrigerate and secure our food supply, to let us visit distant realms, to perform life saving surgeries and to provide a raw material to create such useful products as plastics.
We have made little effort to distinguish or price energy based on its usefulness; i.e. the cost of wasting energy is the same as the cost of putting it to good use. Today little of our energy use in the U.S. is efficient. Our impact in this regard is ever more visible, even from space (thanks to NASA).
Figure 1. Taken from NASA. The Earth at Night – a satellite picture of city lights composited from NASA and DMSP (Defense Meteorology Satellites Program) satellites.
Thinking about the number of lights it takes to create such a dramatic display is astonishing. To give you some idea of the energy cost of this display, think that for every 100W light bulb it takes about 714 pounds (325 kg) of coal to keep it burning for a year. That’s a pile of coal like this (see National Geographic article and How Stuff Works for energy calculations). Do we really need all those lights?
Perhaps we should start seeing fossil fuels for the valuable resource they really are, including their ability to provide the thousands of things from drugs to fertilizer to plastics that are invaluable to our society. If we took such a view, we might see that burning these resources is not the wisest use even in present conditions.
Instead we should emulate nature and see if there are better ways to capture alternative forms of energy. How quickly could we develop alternative resources, if we put our imagination and perhaps one percent of our annual GDP to good use? The ancient plants that became our coal and oil of today used solar power. Surely we can make a focused effort to replicate this process with that most abundant of free energy provided daily by our sun.
Think about how much heat absorbing roof area exists in the world! Can we put this to good use to effectively capture solar energy? Such companies as Sun Edison are doing it today, providing some measure of energy independence and sustainability while making profits. If we can even change the energy mix a little, think of the potential unimagined benefits future generations will extract from the fossil fuel resources we conserve today.
We need a fresh outlook and new ideas in developing energy generation schemes. Our current debates on new power plant development reflect an old, outdated, entrenched mindset. The controlling voice of special interests in this debate should concern us all. It is time to look to younger voices, those who will inherit the world we create today. Science and technology needs to be brought to the table to open eyes to new and exciting opportunities
For the future it seems prudent to think about our coal plant debates in a much larger light. Perhaps it is wise to put off construction of these 50+ year commitments a few years and give ourselves some time to reflect on the best ways to proceed. This reflection needs to include experimentation and development of processes that consider multiple methods for generating energy.
Most of the answers are already out there, solar and wind are well known examples, but there are also other schemes using such intriguing resources as salinity differentials in coastal waters and many more innovative ideas (many older and ignored). We just need a bit of creativity to harness them more efficiently. How do we buy time to do such an evaluation? Most simply, by being more thoughtful about our energy use.
Through conservation and wiser energy policy we can extend our existing infrastructure for decades should we choose to. Let’s turn off a few light bulbs at night, it would surely make astronomers happy, and me too, when I get to see the Milky Way once more! This would be a first step to ensure we minimize our impacts on climate, and would have immediate benefits to our own health and that of natural and managed ecosystems that support us.
In the end energy decisions will be made by our society as a whole and will include a mix of solutions, including coal. Whatever our choices, they will most certainly make a difference to the climate, quality of life and options available to our grand children and all living systems on the planet.
After watching the Holcomb power plant debate I initially thought Max Planck’s quote above was what it would take to get there. However, in the last few months I have become more optimistic. I believe we can do better, especially if we listen to the ideas, and act on the hopes, enthusiasm and aspirations of our younger generation. It is time to see and seize the opportunity before us rather than clinging to outdated energy technologies. We can create jobs and economic prosperity by conserving, getting more energy efficient, and deploying renewable energy like wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal. I hope my generation will consider our children and theirs, and seize today’s opportunities to improve all of our lives.
The Locomotive Will Rust in the Shed
Back in April I was driving across the country and mentioned the controversy over a coal power plant in Kansas. ( Climate in America). As fate would have it, this summer I have met Johannes Feddema who is a professor at the University of Kansas, and yes, a member of KEEP. KEEP? -- Kansas Energy and Environmental Policy Advisory Group. Johan wrote this blog - and the next one. So thanks from me, and be good to him. Here's a previous entry of mine on Texas Coal
The coal conundrum: should we or should we not build more coal power plants?
Part I: Coal and climate
"Coal is everything to us. Without coal, our factories will become idle, our foundries and workshops be still as the grave; the locomotive will rust in the shed, and the rail be buried in the weeds. Our streets will be dark, our houses uninhabitable. Our rivers will forget the paddlewheel, and we shall again be separated by days from France, by months from the United States." ~ London Times English, editorial (1866).
As a Kansan who has closely followed the discussion of energy development and the saga of the Holcomb power plant over the last few years, I wish we would try a little harder to remove our blinders when it comes to solving our energy and climate conundrum. Some days I feel that we have not really progressed much in our thinking about energy and energy resources, well represented in the quote above, which holds the view that a particular energy resource is the one and only answer to our problem..
In a number of states, proposals for new coal fired power plants are being discussed, argued about, tabled and rejected or built. The proposed Holcomb coal fired powered plant in Kansas is perhaps the most contentious of all, and its development could have political implications for future power development strategies across the entire nation and the world. -- For more details on the Holcomb plant see The Kansas Coal Controversy, and at the Dole Institute - click on the picture of Rod Bremby 2/3 of the way down the page to see a video of the factors (.wmv) that went into the KDHE decision to deny a permit for the proposed plants.
Coal power plants have undeniable impacts on our well being, both good and bad. Electricity and all the other benefits from petroleum products have greatly benefited our societal development and well being, but they come at a great cost. Most of us now know that coal power plants produce a large amount of Carbon dioxide and other air pollutants that affect both climate and air quality in significant ways. Coal power plants in particular will produce some of the most significant environmental costs of energy production as we move forward (Analysis from greenmarkets.com).
Most often when we discuss these plants we only consider one side or the other. painting a stark black and white picture of the economic benefits or environmental costs . In addition, we, more often than not, do not evaluate the integrated impacts of these plants in a holistic way because we don’t really know how to.
In following the debate about these plants I have been struck by how little consideration has been given to factoring the environmental cost of these plants. Partly this is because of difficulties in measuring such costs. For example, how do you go about assessing the health impacts of an individual coal power plant? How far reaching are these impacts? How can we factor in the costs of potential climate change? As I watch all the signs of a changing climate, such as the possibility of an ice free pole for the first time in recorded human history. Is this event linked to other observed weather events (e.g. the present tornado season being not far from my mind in Lawrence KS) that seem to signal that perhaps we are entering uncharted climate territories? While I am not advocating that one tornado season indicates climate change (see Jeff Masters on 2008 tornadoes), the possible link between a reduced equator-pole energy gradient and more organized and stronger local weather systems keeps nagging at me (as is projected in GCM simulations).
So why are the coal power plant decisions so critical now? Think about the resources and commitment we make when we decide to build a new power plant today. When we build a new plant we are typically making a 50 year or longer commitment to maintain, fuel and operate such a plant. In today’s economy it can be argued that the instability of coal prices alone make such a plant a risky business, since the fuel costs could make a plant obsolete long before its project life cycle. These concerns and the uncertainty associated with CO2 emissions policy all contributed to a number of coal power plant projects being withdrawn for financial and environmental reasons (see LA Times). Yet, developers know that in the end society will pick up the tab should things go wrong; just as we have with the expense of nuclear fuel disposal.
Long term planning processes are even more critical for nuclear plants where there has been little consideration of whether there will even be sufficient fuel to operate all the operating and proposed nuclear plants around the world in 50 years’ time. Uranium is a limited global resource and projected to last “several decades” for “existing plants” (see from Euronuclear). It seems that societies are used to thinking about our energy resources in this large scale infrastructure way and have a difficult time conceiving alternative options or even the benefits of more distributed systems. The status quo and special interests suggest that we continue what we are doing, while the rest of us have a hard time conceiving of alternate paths.
I have to question what is causing this disconnect between our legislative discussions and our scientific knowledge. Is it that we as scientists are not adequately presenting our information to the public and legislature? Is it that our esoteric language just does not come across to the public and legislature (e.g. the meaning of theory in science vs. public discussion)? Or could it be that our political system is so entrenched with special interests and political infighting that it cannot see any but the path it is on and is unwilling listen to the warning signs and to consider alternative paths? How can we get beyond these problems to ensure a healthy fruitful discussion about our energy future?
Figure 1. Taken from The Holcomb Station Expansion Project. A photo simulation of the proposed Holcomb coal power plant.
Updated: 22:24 GMT le 21 novembre 2009
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Until the Maples come to Churchill
Forests on the Move
“Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.” MacBeth, William Shakespeare, Act IV, Scene 1
High school English, MacBeth – I loved MacBeth. MacBeth was safe because the forest would not “unfix his earthbound root” and march against him.
This week I read an interesting article on climate change and forests. It is also another opportunity for you to contribute to a research project. The article, The Potential Impacts of Climate Change on the Distribution of North American Trees, by Daniel McKenney and co-authors appeared in the journal Bioscience and it is available here. The study looks at 130 species of trees and how they might respond to climate change in the next 100 years.
As the readers of this blog know (and point out frequently) there is substantial natural variability of climate. One aspect of the global warming that will follow from the emission of carbon dioxide by burning of fossil fuels is that it will occur on times scales that are far faster than those normally associated with natural variability. We are excepting to see a temperature change in the next hundred years that would normally be spread out over thousands, if not tens of thousands of years. Therefore, one of the concerns that is raised is the ability of ecosystems to adapt to a warming planet --- and, of course, changing water and soil water.
Using the IPCC scenarios, one of the findings of the McKenney et al. paper is that trees will need to move on the order of 10 kilometers a year in order to keep up with the warming climate. Forestry research suggests that the natural ability of trees to move is 10 – 100 meters a year, far slower than that which will be required to keep up with warming at middle and high northern latitudes.
There are a couple of methods of this forest-impact research that are worth mentioning. The climate range in which a particular type of tree can live is determined mostly by temperature and precipitation. A species of tree has a certain range of temperature and precipitation variability that it is currently observed to occur in, and this defines an envelope of climate conditions suitable for the tree. Of course, the relationship to climate is much more complex than a simple relationship to temperature and precipitation. Soil types, nutrients, and the ability of the soil to hold and deliver moisture are important variables. There is also the potential that the seasonal availability of moisture is important, especially when thinking about the relationship to sunlight and the requirements for seed germination. This model is simple, but it is, at least, intuitively useful.
Also required in the research is some sort of model of how the trees will migrate. The authors made two assumptions, which bracket the range of possibility. In the first they assumed that the trees can keep up with the march of temperature and moisture. In the second they assumed, essentially, that the trees could not keep up. In this second case, therefore, the trees can only continue to grow where the geographic extent of climatic conditions in the future overlap the current climate conditions.
With this hierarchy of models and assumptions, the authors find that trees in North America and Canada will march northward between about 330 and 700 kilometers. Perhaps it is better to say that they will need to march northward. Perhaps Churchill, Manitoba, will become the maple syrup capital of the world.
Also with the hierarchy of models and assumptions one sees the need for more research and better models and more precise treatment of information. These researchers are working on a far more robust development of hardiness zones as well as calling for information about tree distributions in the U.S. and Canada. Here is a link for their project to collect information from the public. Here is an article about the research by first-author McKenney at scitizen.com. This figure is an example of the type of climatic range maps that you can help to generate.
Figure 1. Taken from The Canadian Forest Services Plant Hardiness Zone Research Effort. Distribution of Red Oaks. This is a sample, and on the web site they are requesting information about many types of trees in both the U.S. and Canada.
Relevant Previous Blogs
Warm Snow (Talks about Younger Dryas and warming after the last ice age.)
Getting Ready for Spring a Few Days Early (Talks about conventional hardiness zones.)
Heat Flood and Fire (Mentions the pinyon pine die off in the U.S. Southwest and studies that attribute the die off to climate change.)
Updated: 22:08 GMT le 07 juillet 2008
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