Thursday, October 22, 2015

Searching for Unicorns in India

Throughout history, the ancient legend that unicorn horns could counteract poison and purify water led to a frenzy of counterfeit potions. At its height, “unicorn horn” was literally worth 10 times its weight in gold. In 1560, German merchants sold a unicorn horn for an astronomical 90,000 scudi—then about £18,000—to the pope. Pharmacies in London sold powdered unicorn horn as late as 1741.

Unicorns are not found in Greek mythology, but rather in the accounts of natural history, for Greek writers of natural history were convinced of the reality of unicorns, which they located in India, a distant and fabulous realm for them. The earliest description is from Ctesias (5th Century BC) who, in his book Indika ("On India"), described them as wild asses, fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half (700 mm, 28 inches) in length, and colored white, red and black.

This rare legend existed for two thousand years; the magical properties for which we now have technologies to filter and purify the elements are no longer sought out in powders and salves derived of unfortunate animals such as narwhals and rhinos.

The collapse in oil prices this year has upended the fossil fuel business, which has inverted the calculus on the investment in this sector. Countries like China and India have previously insisted on being able to pollute their economies into development and growth. How can these processes be purified and cleaned of carbon? What magic can be wrought that rapidly brings down the lethal emissions that threaten our global future? The elixir may be that of of the diminishing value of carbon fuels, and how that is turned on its head.

From India has actually removed subsidies on fuel and transitioned into taxing them since 2014. Citing research from the World Bank, Mr. Subramanian says that India is essentially taxing carbon somewhere on the order of $60 per ton of CO2 for petrol and $42 per ton for diesel, “substantially above what is now considered a reasonable initial tax on CO2 emissions” of $25 to $35 per ton.

That provides India with a lot to brag about heading into the international climate negotiations later this year in Paris. Or as Mr. Subramanian puts it, “India – especially with a new PM – can credibly repudiate its past perceived image as a recalcitrant negotiator, focused on asking others to contribute without offering contributions of its own.”

This shifting global economic picture will have a significant impact on the discussions in Paris at the COP 21 negotiations later this year. In addition to the possibility of removing subsidies from all fossil fuel industries, this also allows the true pricing of carbon to take place alongside that of the clean technologies and renewable energy sources. Once the tipping point is reached in the pricing structure, the downward slope of carbon use can become very steep very rapidly as a matter of economics as well as of necessity for our survival. This then becomes a natural process of moving from old industries to new industries, just as the horse and buggy almost completely faded from urban life in the space of about 50 years from the invention of the automobile. An even more rapid transition is entirely possible and profitable with the current state of clean technologies.

This diagram from Aubrey Meyer shows the nature of this necessary reduction, and the immediate shift that requires either the magical properties of a unicorn or the simple very rapid transition in the economic calculus to reflect the actual values of these purified energy sources. The unicorn does appear to be in India.

Update 10/23/15:   Getting to Zero Emissions - Paul Allen on where dreams meet reality. Speaking at the UN climate talks in Bonn, Paul Allen of the Center for Alternative Technology talks about developments in modelling and innovation that show we can make a speedy transition to clean energy world by 2050.

Update 10/24/15: How The Petrodollar Quietly Died, And Nobody Noticed

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Measure of Drought

Our one-degree warmed planet is deteriorating rapidly. That's a .85C temperature increase since 1880, following the impact of the industrial revolution. We're on the path to 4C right now. Oceans are rising, and the sea is becoming too acidic to support abundant sea life.

Along with the rapid ice melt in the Arctic and Antarctic including the scientific studies of the ice shelf collapses, there is much documentation now of the rapid impact of drought conditions in the recent past and now-imminent future. A summary of data is updated at the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. There's no question that the man-made climate change from fossil fuel use has triggered the collapse of the global ecosphere and set off the runaway climate change that is fueled by natural processes of carbon and methane emissions. NASA is comprehensively compiling the data that will allow us to watch our planet extinguish its life processes.

Drought Global Information System
Water tables dropping worldwide per a NASA study
Scientists warn of unprecedented damage to forests across the world
Mother Jones on the fate of global forests
World Resources Institute examines the impact of local water supplies

Looking down into some of the regional biospheres and how they're enduring under the global heating of the planet from carbon emissions turns up many articles examining local conditions in 2015:

Sao Paulo drought
South America drought
California drought
Arizona drought
Nevada drought
Oregon drought
Washington drought
Mexico City drought
India drought
China drought
North Korea drought
South Africa drought
Ethiopia drought 
Zimbabwwe drought
Indochina drought
European drought 
Spain drought
Peru drought
Australia drought
Australia climate
Papua New Guinea drought
Middle East drought
Yemen drought
Cuba drought

All of this so that these destructive fossil fuel companies can continue to make their profits, enabled by the worldwide governmental subsidies of fossil fuels at their disposal. The drastic impact on a universal by-right resource is simply expendable to these entities. As Bill McKibben posits in his summary of Laudato Si:

Take water, which the pope addresses at length. We probably should not need his words to know that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival.” We all know it should not be wasted, and yet we continue to waste it because doing so is beneficial to the rich and powerful: for instance, insurance companies have planted enormous almond groves across California in recent years even as water supplies have started to shrink, and agribusiness planters have drawn down the aquifers of the Midwest.

The global water crisis has triggered a conference on this issue. World leaders, water experts and development professionals have gathered in Stockholm to discuss and jointly find solutions to the world's several escalating water crises.The 2015 World Water Week, themed Water for Development, welcomes over 3,000 participants from more than 120 countries to the Swedish capital, representing governments, academia, international organizations, civil society, the corporate sector, and many others.

Update 9/17/15: Bloomberg article: Tracking the Curse of Global Drought 

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Different COP in 2015

Almost 20 years ago in 1997, US Vice President Al Gore made a dramatic appearance during the second week of the COP3 conference. He asked the delegations to do their best to come up with a workable agreement involving realistic and binding targets and announced that he had instructed the US negotiators to "show their increased flexibility". At the very end of the conference, many hours after it was supposed to adjourn, more than 150 nations adopted the Kyoto Protocol. This unprecedented agreement committed the industrialized nations (including the US) to make legally binding reductions is their emissions of GHG's, generally with cuts of about 5 percent below 1990 levels. This fell far short of the originally proposed 10 percent reductions. In exchange for US support via Gore, the EU caved in to halving their proposed emissions limits.

The file linked here is the summary of the debate about emissions trading that happened in the early hours of December 11th 1997 at COP3. The emissions trading issue was about how the global energy supply would be shifted to non-carbon sources through a trading scheme rather than setting carbon emission limits with annual reductions, thus deleting a critical part of stopping climate change.

But the US had insisted that emissions trading be made part of the Kyoto Protocol. The Developing Countries – led by the Africa Group, India and China – insisted that the quid-pro-quo had to be equal per capita-based “Contraction and Convergence”. Except that the version offered as an equity protocol was the GDR version produced and lobbied by Tom Athanasiou that imported a GDP metric on top of the carbon allowances which forced a "negative emissions" formula that translated into cash flows from the developed countries to the developing world.

The US therefore did not sign the Kyoto Protocol after promising to do so. GCI has provided a rather full documentation of the COP 3 interactions.

A summary of the process since then is recounted in a white paper, Expectations for a New Climate Agreement:

In 1997, the nations followed through, producing the Kyoto Protocol which—among other provisions—included a set of legally binding national emissions targets to be achieved in a 2008-2012 accounting period. By 2005, a sufficient number of countries had ratified the Protocol to put it into force (even without the United States, which never submitted the Protocol for ratification). There has followed years of struggle within the COP to try to bring all nations under some form of emissions obligation (including the United States and other developing countries with significant emissions), and to decide if and how to extend Kyoto Protocol commitments beyond 2012. During this time, Canada withdrew from the Protocol, and Japan, Russia and New Zealand have stated they would not participate in a second commitment period.

We now know that even the RCP 2.6 scenario is far in excess of what is survivable by the planet This white paper example uses 530-580 ppm when we know that anything in excess of 350 is disastrous, and we're now over 400 ppm and the planet is overheating to failure.

What's happening now: The US is preparing for COP 21 by setting up separate TRADE deals with China and India on local pacts with the western US states and Canada that will force an emissions trading arrangement in Paris in December, just as in 1997. For example, California has made non-binding agreements with other states and countries. This is a corporate strategy that allows continued pollution via these trade pacts (TPP is part of this). This means that the planet will not recover from climate change because we never get back to 350 PPMV at 2100. The emissions don't really get stopped, per the GCI CBAT calculations. The metric needs to be based upon carbon alone, not corporate profit protection strategies.

The version of the sequence of events from the New Yorker paints a slightly different picture of Kyoto and its ramifications:

In the lead-up to Paris, each country has been asked to submit a plan outlining how and by how much it will reduce its carbon output—or, to use the Saudis’ preferred term, its emissions. The plans are known as “intended nationally determined contributions”—in U.N.-speak, I.N.D.C.s. The whole approach has been labelled “bottom up,” which, by implication, makes previous efforts to cut carbon—in particular, the Kyoto Protocol—“top down.” Even those who, like Figueres, argue that the goal is still achievable acknowledge that the I.N.D.C.s aren’t nearly enough to achieve it.

In another take on the global process,  “No Precedent in Human History”, Ruth Greenspan Bell writes on why climate change demands more than the UNFCCC agreement can achieve. This is essentially John Bryson's Wilson Center perspective, which assisted the Obama administration in crafting trade positions around emissions via agreements with China and India. James Hansen assisted in providing highly distorted carbon metrics. So they plan to dispense with the goals entirely and doom our planet using multiple trade agreements rather than a final carbon budget, and bypass UNFCCC altogether. GDP remains as a metric, even though it's an inadequate metric that will devalue rapidly in the future. Eventually the world will no longer trade in the petrodollars established by the World Bank. Hence these agreements will rapidly fail as an economic scheme based upon an antiquated measure, particularly since GDP doesn't account for damages involved with carbon emissions.

So we shall see this "bottom up" approach crafted by corporate control of the US Congress and the Administration lead our world to its final stages of the destruction of human existence, along with everything else.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Canticle of the Sun

Laudato Si (“Praise be to You, O my Lord!”)
St. Francis of Assisi - Anglican version

Yes, be praised in all your creatures
brother sun and sister moon
in the stars and in the wind,
air and fire and flowing water.

For our sister mother earth,
She who feeds us and sustains us;
For her fruits, her grass, her flowersfor the mountains and the oceans

Praise for those who spread forgiveness,
Those who share your peace with others,
Bearing trials and sickness bravely!
Even sister death won’t harm them.

For our life is but a song,
And the reason for our singing
Is to praise you for the music;
Join the dance of Your creation.

Praise to You, Father Most Holy,
Praise and thanks to You, Lord Jesus,
Praise to You, Most Holy Spirit

The encyclical released by the Vatican today (hosted on GCI's site) appears on the heels of a leaked draft of this position by the Church a few days ago. It's led to speculation that Francis’ remarks on it will not only say climate change is real and caused by humans, but will explain how that happens according to the vast majority of scientists. Which of course is a stunning change of direction for this institution, but it highlights the critical nature of the planetary crisis that we're heading into. The Church also embraces the idea that people of faith and people of science can complement one another.

Upon its release today, the New York Times has signaled it as a call for swift action on climate change from an increasingly popular world religious leader. The encyclical is seen as an unsubtle nudge for action, even as it provides support for leaders faced with tough choices in countries with large numbers of Catholics. It goes on to outline an analysis of key portions of its statements in an interactive online format.

The Vatican has done significant outreach with climate researchers and other governments in order to forge a strongly collaborative position and frame it within the broad parameters of Catholic theology. A very large tent, in other words, which creates a space within which the moral parameters of addressing climate change can be done by people all over the world.

Update 6/19/15: This encyclical will trigger a long over-due “global conversation of, how do we even define prosperity? Is it just accumulating more dollars or do we have to factor in being accountable for our impact on the planet and all people that live on it?”

Update 6/20/15:  Pope Francis attempted to start a global conversation yesterday with his new encyclical on the environment. Unlike most encyclicals, it was addressed not to Catholics, but to "every person living on this planet", and embraces science as part of its policy.

Update 6/30/15: Responses to the encyclical
Aubrey Meyer: Degrowth to avoid extreme damages
David Suzuki: Shift away from growth model
Herman Daly: New Theology of Creation is degrowth 

Update 7/13/15:  In one sense, Laudato si is a critique of 21st century capitalism and as a consequence also of the philosophical underpinnings of the industrial revolution.
After the encyclical, lessons for climate activism?

In thinking we were ensuring our survival, we created the conditions for our own destruction, as is now obvious in the actuality of climate change and of unsustainable production and consumption.

The ethical conundrum, from Don Brown (Oct. 3, 2015):
Ethics and Climate

And so, for 30 years, the opponents of climate change policies have succeeded in framing the climate debate in a way that ignores obvious ethical and moral problems,  Surprisingly both environmental organizations and the US press have failed to bring attention to the obvious moral problems with the arguments made by opponents of US climate change policies

Friday, June 12, 2015

Back to the Future

So what is drought? As discussed earlier, it's a condition where the population's requirements for water outrun the resources of a region or country. The MAHB covers this as well, noting that Taiwan is dealing with a severe water shortage, and we see this in devastating impacts in Kathmandu and Sao Paulo as well. It's a worldwide issue that we've seen coming for decades.

In California, the drought conditions are exacerbated by overuse of water from a formerly abundant system of water supply pipes and rivers from the Bay Delta and the Colorado River. It's a massive system of hydraulic engineering developed since well over 100 years ago to bring water into the drier areas of the state. This is a complex picture with no easy solutions and a lot of exhausted old ideas about how water is supplied and the way to keep the water supply system functioning without the environmental devastation that comes from the needs of nearly 40 million people, as well as the farming industry's demand of a significant portion of it. Devin Galloway, a scientist with the geological survey, sees devastation of a historic proportion returning to California. He says that even if farmers stopped pumping groundwater immediately, the damage already done to aquifers now drained to record-low levels will trigger sinking that will last for years, even decades.

A big part of the problem is the water contracts within this system, and as the chart above shows, the demand for water has now begun to outstrip the actual supply. Unfortunately the contracts held by the water suppliers in this system significantly exceed the actual supply of water, and are thus oversubscribed. But since these contracts are not adjusted, this "paper water" will continue to be sold to new water meters as development continues in the state. This slide is part of a presentation given by Bill Patzert, a climatologist with Caltech’s NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He presented it at the beginning of this month, which is covered in an interview at LA Magazine. To quote him: "The biggest change is not a global warming-related increase in temperature. The biggest change stems from the extreme makeover we’ve done in California. In L.A., the average temperature has changed more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 150 years."

The public response to this drought has been a multiple-broadcast presentation by Governor Jerry Brown via television and internet media this last week, in a conversation at USC. He held forth about the need to deal with water resources intelligently. “The metaphor is spaceship Earth,” Brown said. “In a spaceship you reuse everything. Well, we’re in space and we have to find a way to reuse, and with enough science and enough funding we’ll get it done.”

So, our Governor Moonbeam is back, and in the driver's seat. Given his rhetoric, he's evidently aiming for COP 21 and a leadership position with the agreements he's forged with the western states, Canada, China and India. This should prove to be a very interesting year.

Update 7/14/15: Historical background of California’s water crisis; the “paper water” principle is similar to financial derivatives, as paper water can be traded without the need for any tangible collateral. Real estate speculators saw this as a true chimera, enabling them to build virtually anywhere, regardless of the presence of water.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Another World Environment Day

Today, World Environment Day (WED) is celebrated every year on 5 June to raise global awareness to take positive environmental action to protect nature and the planet Earth. It is run by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).It was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972 on the day that United Nations Conference on the Human Environment began.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon makes very clear that “Humanity continues to consume far more natural resources than the planet can sustainably provide,” and invites the world's citizens to become agents of change to our capitalist system that's destroying the environment.

This is a strong counterpoint to the emerging thought in the Ecomodernist Manifesto sponsored by the Breakthrough Institute. It takes a position that rejects the idea “that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse,” and instead argues that what is needed is a reliance on technologies, from nuclear power to carbon capture and storage, that allow for a “decoupling [of] human development from environmental impacts.” A group of over fifteen researchers from the degrowth scholarship community has written a detailed refutation of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which assumes that growth is a given, decouples growth from impacts, and it ignores the lessons of ecology and thermodynamics, which teach us that species (and societies) have natural limits to growth. Ecomodernism is condescending toward pre-industrial, agrarian, non-industrialized societies, and the Global South. It's basically a justification for greenwashing.

Another variant on this perspective is "Greening of Capitalism" by John A. Mathews of Macquarie University's Graduate School of Management in Sydney. The final chapter of this book brings together all the elements of the green that is emerging in the 21st century, where the firm itself can grow but the system as a whole remains within its ecological limits. But the assumption that the circular economy proposes here doesn't address the impact of growth on planetary resources, and, frankly, the continuing emissions created by all human activities driven by energy growth: even wind, solar, tide, geothermal and hydroelectric. A system re-designed to operate in this fashion doesn't reverse the damage that we've done fast enough to keep the planet from undergoing ecological disintegration.

The UN is quite evidently trying to steer a path for human civilization that avoids the worst of what's upon us and allows the human community to engineer a sustainable path to a smaller and regenerative civilization. This December's COP 21 agreement should prove to be a critical point on that path.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Its Keeling Over

Climate change has already passed the tipping point, as has been documented by NASA and many other scientific sources. We're headed for some drastic and possibly unsurvivable climate impacts by 2050, let alone the projection framework of 2100 on the table at COP 21 in Paris this year. The video above explains the famous graph that we've been seeing for many years now. It's very, very simple and very stark. We've passed the safe limit of 350 PPMV of carbon in the atmosphere, and are now above 400, rising rapidly.

Is there a way to avert dangerous climate change at this point? That's a position taken by Aubrey Meyer and his calculations in the CBAT online tool, which uses the Contraction and Convergence structure to compute the necessary equitable reductions per capita.  The diagram below shows one scenario that tries to get the planet back onto a survivable temperature curve by means of a drastic carbon reduction strategy (click to enlarge). Check out this tool and see what it involves to keep us from going into an irreversible and runaway climate change.