2011 Climate Events: A time of troubles
2011 Climate Events: A time of troubles
I was asked last week what I thought the greatest science breakthrough of the year was. I’m not so good at those questions, and I know that the potential Higgs Boson glimpse will be at the top of most lists. Fundamental, perhaps, but it is definitely not at the top of the list in my little world. If I were to speculate on most important, I would look at fields that are more biological than physical – or maybe in routine energy production rather than high energy particle physics. But, I am old, slow and uninteresting, and I really don’t understand the significance of the Higgs Boson – so I will talk about a few of the breakthroughs or realizations that have influenced how I think about the climate problem.
At the top of my list is a synthesis which was published in 2011, though the results of that synthesis came at the end of 2010. This is the report Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia. This report is a collection and evaluation of knowledge that has been around for a while. The message from this report is that once released from its geological reservoirs, i.e. fossil fuels, carbon dioxide hangs around in the atmosphere for millennia.
I think it is safe to say that many people in the field of climate science and climate policy have anchored their thinking around the idea that carbon dioxide has a lifetime in the atmosphere that is on the order of a century or so. Therefore, our policy options, including the idea of stabilizing the amount of carbon dioxide at some value, relied upon this potential self-healing that relied on carbon dioxide going back into the oceans and soil. I remember reading in a magazine in 1968 about carbon dioxide and global warming, and many scientists at that time felt that the ocean would safely absorb both heat and carbon dioxide. As we have taken more data and increased our understanding of the processes that govern the exchange of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and ocean, we can now state with high confidence that the carbon dioxide we release today will be around for a very long time.
The consequence of this synthesis is that we have a certain amount of carbon dioxide we can release if we want to stabilize the atmosphere at a value that we might imagine limiting the global-average surface warming to approximate 2 degrees Celsius. The amount posed in the report was 1 trillion tons, and we are pretty much there. (Rood blog on a trillion tons, collection of Rood blogs on stabilization) Broader conclusions that I draw from this report are that we have to prepare for more than 2 degrees Celsius warming, and that if we want to stabilize carbon dioxide at levels that limit warming to, say, something less than 4 degrees, then we are going to have to figure out how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
As I wrote in my last entry we are currently accelerating our emissions. In the last couple of weeks we have seen Canada withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Canada is probably more typical than atypical, adherence to the Kyoto Protocol would require Canada to reduce their emissions 6% below 1990 emissions and they are currently 30% above that level. Canada has large tar sands resources, and looks to developing these resources as fuel. The current Keystone Pipeline controversy is about a pipeline to get crude oil products from Canada to refineries in the U.S. If this form of oil energy is opened for broad commercial exploitation, then it will be opening up a form of energy that, carbon dioxide emission wise, is more polluting than coal. But the pressure for energy, for jobs, for a growing economy, for wealth is high. The Keystone Pipeline has been tied into recent U.S. federal budget and tax bills. The climate advocacy group 350.org is organizing protests against the pipeline. (Here’s how to join the protest.)
This brings me to the final piece of news that rises to most important for 2011; namely, the effective politicization of climate change in the U.S. The Keystone Pipeline entanglement with unemployment and extension of the payroll tax reduction is forcing a decision that strongly impacts climate policy with short-term political and economical issues. There remains an attack in congress on the development of climate services. Like the Keystone Pipeline short-term budget bills are entangled with a prohibition on climate services, which prohibits the emergence of climate services and imperils current capabilities. In Texas we see censorship and suits to prohibit the mention of climate change in a report that discusses sea level rise in Galveston Bay. This placing of climate change in tension with short-term economic priorities motivates a series of decisions that assure continued rising emissions. This attack on climate science and other bodies of scientific knowledge that are in conflict with what people want to believe or need to believe in order to support some other behavior is a fundamental threat to U.S. leadership in science and technology.
Troubles: Some years ago my youngest sister and I went to a small village in France where some relatives had come from in the early 1800s. We were able to find civil records and departure of people from this village to the U.S. There were letters of reference written by the mayor assuring anonymous people in the U.S. that the person referenced in the letter was of good character and a good worker. People left during times of “the troubles.” The current times are very troubling for those concerned about carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. I will again teach my class on climate change problem solving in winter 2012. And I will focus on the world four degrees warmer – and what that will mean.
A couple of personal vanity links.
SETI Tribute to Bob Rood
Rood 2005 piece Christmas at the 7-11