Sunday, August 19, 2018

Climate Change Mid-2018: The Relatively Good Bad News

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.

As I have argued before, human metrics on how well we are coping with climate change can be highly misleading, usually on the side of false optimism.  Two metrics that are clearly not thus biased are:

1.       Measurements of atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, which have been recorded since 1959;

2.       Estimates of Arctic sea ice volume (with extent serving as a loose approximation), especially at minimum in September, which have been carried out since the 1980s.

Over the past few years, I have covered the drumbeat of bad news from those two metrics, indicating that we are in a “business as usual” scenario that is accelerating climate change.  In the first half of 2018, what has happened in both cases is that the metrics are not following a “worst possible case” path – hence the “relatively good” part of the title.  At the same time, there is no clearly apparent indication that we are deviating from our “business as usual” scenario – mitigation is not clearly having any effect.  It is possible, however, that we are seeing the beginnings of an effect; it’s just not possible to detect it in the statistical “noise.”  And given that scientists are now talking about a “tipping point” in the near future in which not only a frightening 2 degrees C temperature by 2100 is locked in, but also follow-on feedbacks (like permafrost melt) that take temperature rise eventually to a far more disastrous 3-4 degrees C – well, that’s the underlying, ongoing bad news.
Of course, this summer’s everlasting heat waves in the US, Europe, and the Middle East – heat waves clearly caused primarily by human-generated CO2 emissions and the resulting climate change – make the “new abnormal” obvious to those of us who are not wilfully blind.  But for anyone following the subject with an open mind, the heat waves are not a surprise.  
So let’s take a look at each metric.

The El Nino Effect Recedes

From late 2016 to around June of 2017, the El Nino effect crested, and, as it has done in the past (e.g., 1998) drove both temperatures and the rate of CO2 rise skyward.  Where 2013-2015 saw an unprecedented streak of 3 years of greater than 2 ppm atmospheric CO2 growth, 2016 and 2017 both saw record-breaking growth of around 3 ppm (hiding a brief spurt to almost 4 ppm).  1998 (2.86 ppm) was followed by a year or two of growth around 1 ppm – in fact, slower than 1996-7.  But the percentage rate of rise has also been rising over the years (it reached almost 1% in early 2017, 4 ppm over 404 ppm).  Therefore, it seemed a real possibility that 2018 would see 2.5 ppm growth.  Indeed, we saw 2.5 ppm growth as late as the first month or two of 2018.
Now, however, weekly and monthly growth has settled back to a 1.5-2 ppm rate, consistently since early 1998.  Even a 2 ppm rate gives hope that El Nino did not mean a permanent uptick in the rate of rise.  A 1.5 ppm rate would seem to indicate that 2018 is following the 1999 script – a dip in the rate of rise, possibly because of the follow-on La Nina.  It might even indicate a slight – very slight – decrease in the underlying rate of rise (i.e., the rate of rise with no El Nino or La Nina going on).  And that, as I noted above, is the first indication I have seen that things might possibly be diverging from “business as usual”.  
Of course, there’s always the background of bad news.  In this case, it lies in the fact that whereas ever since I started following CO Mauna Loa 6 or 7 years ago CO2 levels in year 201x were about 10 ppm greater than in year 200x (10 years before), right now CO2 levels are about 13.5 ppm greater than in year 2008.  So, even if the El Nino effect has ended, the underlying amount of rise may still be increasing.  
The best indicator that our efforts are making a difference would be two years of 1 ppm rise or less (CO2 Mauna Loa measures the yearly amount of rise by averaging the Nov.-Feb. monthly rises).  Alas, no such trend has shown up in the data yet.

Arctic Sea Ice:  Not In Stasis, Not in Free Fall

Over the last 2 years, the “new normal” in Arctic sea ice advance and retreat has become apparent.  It involves both unprecedented heat in winter, leading to new low extent maxima, and a cloudy and stormy July and August (key melt months), apparently negating the effects of the winter melt.  However, volume continues to follow a downward overall trend (if far more linear and closer to flat-line than the apparently exponential “free fall” until 2012, which had some predicting “ice-free in 2018”).
As Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice blog ( continues to show, however, “ice-free in September” still appears only a matter of time (at a best guess, according to some statisticians, in the early 2030s).  Subsea temperatures (SSTs) in key parts of the Arctic like above Norway and in the Bering Sea continue to rise and impact sea ice formation in those areas.  As the ice inherited from winter thins, we are beginning to see storms that actually break up the weaker ice into pieces, encouraging increased export of ice to the south via the Fram Strait.  The ice is so thin that a few days ago an icebreaker carrying scientists had to go effectively all the way to the North Pole to find ice thick enough to support their instruments for any length of time.
So the relatively good news is that it appears highly unlikely that this year will see a new low extent, much less an ice-free moment.  The underlying, ongoing bad news is that eventually the rise in SSTs will inevitably overcome the counteracting cloudiness in July and August (and that assumes that the cloudiness will persist).  Since 1980, extent at maximum has shrunk perhaps 12%, while extent at minimum has shrunk perhaps 45% (volume shows sharper decreases).  And in this, unlike CO2 Mauna Loa, there is no trace of a hint that the process is slowing down or reversing due to CO2 emissions reductions.  Nor would we expect there to be such an indication, given that we have only gotten globally serious about emissions reduction in the last 3 years (yes, I recognize that Europe is an exception). 

The Challenge

The question the above analysis raises is:  What will it take to really make a significant impact on our carbon emissions – much less the dramatic reductions scientists have been calling for?  I see no precise answer at the moment.  What I do know is that what we are doing needs to be done even faster, far more extensively – because the last few years have also seen a great increase in understanding on the details of change, as I have tried to show in some of my Reading New Thoughts posts.  The ways are increasingly there; the will is not.  And that, I think, along with countering the disgustingly murderous role of President Trump in particular in climate change (I am thinking of Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico as an obvious example), should be the main task of the rest of 2018. 

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Reading New Thoughts: Two Books On the Nasty Details of Cutting Carbon Emissions

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
I have finally gotten around to talking about two books I recently read, tomes that have greatly expanded my knowledge of the details and difficulties of reducing carbon emissions drastically.  These books are Peter Kalmus; “Being the Change” and David Owen’s “Where the Water Goes”, and I’d like to discuss the new thoughts I believe they give rise to, very briefly.

Kalmus and the Difficulties of Individual Efforts to Cut Carbon Emissions

“Being the Change” is a bit of an odd duck; it’s the personal musings of a physicist dealing with climate change at the level of cross-planet climates, on his personal efforts to reduce his own greenhouse-gas emissions.  Imho, its major value is that it gives perhaps the best explanation I have read on the science of climate change.  However, as promised, it also discusses Kalmus’ careful dissection of his own and his family’s lifestyle in terms of carbon emissions, and his efforts to reduce these emissions as much as possible.
At the start we find out that Kalmus has been successful in reducing his emissions by 90% over the course of a few years, so that they are only 10% of what they were at the start of the effort.  This is significant because many scientists’ recommendations for what is needed to avoid “worst cases” talk about reductions of 80-90% in a time frame of less than 25 years.  In other words, it seems at first glance that a world of individual efforts, if not hindered as they are now by business interests or outdated government regulations, might take us all the way to a carbon-reduced world.
When we look at the details of Kalmus’ techniques, however, it becomes apparent that a major portion of his techniques are not easily reproducible.  In particular, a significant chunk of savings comes from not flying any more; but he was flying more than most, as a scientist attending conferences, so his techniques extended worldwide are more likely to achieve 50-70% emissions reductions, not 80-90%.  Then we add his growing his own food while using “human manure” as manure; and that is something that is far more difficult to reproduce worldwide, given that perhaps 50% of humanity is now in cities and that scavenging human manure is a very time-consuming activity (not to mention borderline illegal is some jurisdictions).  So we lose another 10-20%, for a net reduction of 30-60%, according to my SWAG (look it up).  
The net of it is, to me, that using many of Kalmus’ techniques universally, if it can be done, is very much worth doing; but also changing business practices and adopting government policies and global efforts is necessary, whether we do our individual efforts or not, to achieve the needed drastic reductions in carbon emissions, over a short or a long time period.  There are two pieces of good news here.  First, Kalmus notes that he could have achieved further significant personal reductions if he’d been able to afford a solar-powered home; and that’s something that governments (and businesses) can indeed take a shot at implementing worldwide.  Second, I heard recently that my old junior high’s grade school was now teaching kids about individual carbon footprints ("pawprints") and what to do about them.  Yes, the recommendations were weak tea; but it’s a good start at spreading individual carbon-emissions reductions efforts across society. 

Owen and the Resistance of Infrastructure, Politics, and Law to Emissions Reductions and Sustainability

Nominally, “Where the Water Goes” is about the Colorado River watershed, how its water is allocated, and changes due to the evolution of the economies of neighboring state plus the pressures due to increasing climate-change water scarcity, increased usage from population growth, and the need for sustainability and carbon-emissions reductions.  What stands out about his account, however, is the weird and unexpected permutations of watershed management involved.  Here are a few:

·         The Colorado originally did not provide enough water for mining, except if it was reserved in large chunks for individuals.  As a result, a Law of the River set of water-use rights has grown up in place of the usual “best fair use”, where the older your claim to a certain amount of the water is, the more others whose use of scarce water you pre-empt. 

·         An elaborate system of aqueducts and reservoirs that feed water to cities from Los Angeles to Denver.

·         Rural economies entirely dependent on tourism from carbon-guzzling RVs and jetskis used on man-made lakes.

·         Agriculture that is better in the desert than in fertile areas – because the weather is more predictably good.

·         A food-production system in which supermarket chains and the like now drive agriculture to the point of demanding that individual farmers deliver produce of very specific types, weight ranges, and quality – or else;

·         A mandated cut in water use can lead to real-world water use increase – because now users must use draw more water in low-water-use periods to avoid the risk of running out of their “claimed amount” in a high-use period.

Owen’s take is that it is possible, if people on all sides of the water-scarcity issue (e.g., environmentalists and business) sit down and work things out, to “muddle through” and preserve this strange world by incremental adaptation in a world of increased water scarcity due to climate change, and that crude efforts at quick fixes risk the catastrophic breakdown of the entire system.  My reaction to this is quite different:  to change a carbon-based energy system like the Colorado River is going to take fundamental rethinking, because not only the “sunk cost” infrastructure of aqueducts, reservoirs, and irrigation-fed agriculture, plus rural-industry and state-city politics reinforces the status quo, but the legal system itself – the legal precedents flowing into real-world practices – metastasizes and elaborates the carbon excesses of the system. 
For this particular system, and probably in a lot of cases, I conjecture that the key actors in bringing about carbon reductions are the farmers and the “tourism” industries.  The farmers are key because they in fact use far more water than the cities for their irrigation, and therefore carbon-reduction/sustainability policies that impact them (such as reductions in pesticides, less meat production, or less nitrogen in fertilizers) on top of water restrictions make their job that much harder.  It is hard to see how anything but money (correctly targeted supports and incentives) plus water-use strategies focused on this can overcome both the supermarket control over farmers and these constraints to achieve major carbon-use reductions.  
Meanwhile, the “tourism industries” are key because, like flying as discussed above, they represent an easier target for major reductions in energy and carbon efficiency than cities.  On the other hand, these rural economies are much more fragile, being dependent on low-cost transport/homes in the RV case, and feeding the carbon-related whims of the rich and semi-rich few, in the jetski case.  In the RV case, as in the farmer case, money for less fossil-fuel-consuming RVs and recreation methods will probably avoid major economic catastrophe.
However, I repeat, what is likely to happen if this sort of rethinking does not permeate throughout infrastructure, politics, and the law, is the very major catastrophe that was supposed to be avoided by incrementalism, only in the medium term rather than in the short term, and therefore with greater negative effects.  The tourism industries will be inevitable victims of faster-than-expected, greater-than-expected water shortages and weather destruction.  The farmers will be victims of greater-than-expected, faster-than-expected water evaporation from heat and weather destruction.  The cities will be the victims of resulting higher food prices and shortages.  
What Owen’s book does is highlight just how tough some of the resistance “built into the system” to carbon-emissions reductions is.  What it does not do is show that therefore incrementalism is preferable.  On the contrary.