Monday, March 31, 2014

Day of Reckoning

This last December, a definitive paper was published by James Hansen and his colleagues that effectively shows why carbon emissions must stop immediately in order to prevent catastrophic climate change, and that most likely even one degree of change in the global temperature is not safe, let alone the two degree change currently on the table for discussion by the UNFCCC for a climate agreement.

A review in a recent article of the urgency of the situation emerging from scientific study is sobering. The diagram developed in this article is based upon information published in Science magazine showing an assembled curve known as "the wheelchair", which is a temperature chart that tracks the historic carbon levels precisely. It's documented with lots of other science measurements in a Climate Change summary and update page being maintained by Guy McPherson.

In order to show the essence of the situation that we're in, and anticipating the decision that the world will need to come to in December of 2015 in Paris, I've appended the diagram to lay out the kind of future that we'll be effectively deciding on, just to clarify the issue. As you can see, human civilization emerged and flourished over 10,000 years during a time of very benign conditions consisting of a balanced ecosystem with abundant plant and animal life. This ecosystem was fairly self-regulating in that the carbon was balanced by living systems. That mechanism is nearly gone now, having been decimated by human habitation. We are now creating a new mass extinction, wiping out countless species. On top of that, the carbon spike we've created is pulling a massive trigger, and the system now has a minimal capacity to balance and is beginning to wobble. The Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine is now tracking these climate anomalies on a daily basis.

This spike in carbon that shows on the chart is unprecedented - its rate of increase is faster than anything in the total record of geological history. Before humanity existed, the carbon and temperature had periods where these conditions existed, but these changes ocurred over thousands of years, not in the extreme spike of the 200 years of our industrial age. The atmospheric carbon was absorbed and trapped by the ecosystem which ultimately balanced out after the last ice age.

The astronomically rapid release of heat and carbon by human activities, which this planet has never seen before except during extinction events (there have been five) is triggering catastrophic climate anomalies that are destabilizing a very weakened ecosystem that no longer has any reserve capacity to absorb the shock.

The IPCC's AR5 fifth assesssment report, Part 2, has just been released, and their consensus is that we're experiencing an already dangerous impact on the global climate. A summary of the high points is here. A video from this report - Working Group II - Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, goes into further depth on their perspective.

The responsibility for a solution lies ahead of us in Paris next year, and it simply consists of an equitable global agreement on emissions by all countries that rapidly cuts back on all fossil fuel use. As a strategy, all countries need to enact policies and laws that will enable them to arrive simultaneously at the agreed-on goal of zero emissions. Large and rich energy consumers will need to curb their energy use faster than the poorer countries. The poorer countries will not be asked initially to make large sacrifices but must agree that they will strive to reach zero carbon emissions at the same time as everyone else. Rich nations  will assist them so they do not have to sacrifice their social or environmental goals but poor countries need to understand that they will be held accountable and not exempt from the unified global effort. Without this concerted global effort the strategy will fail, and there won't be much left to do about it.

Even then, we're probably out of time. From Climate Code Red:  After 30 years of climate policy and action failure, we are in deep trouble and now have to throw everything we can muster at the climate challenge. This will be demanding and disruptive, because there are no longer any non-radical, incremental paths available.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Winds of Change

It feels like I'm no longer screaming into the wind. Last night 28 Senate Democrats held an all-night session presenting the myriad points about the need for climate action, livestreaming on C-span. These are the members of the Senate Climate Action Task Force, headed up by Bernie Sanders, and taking the policy cue from the President's Climate Change Action Plan, upon which he has based some executive actions.

The discussion basically went through the IPCC AR5 report point-by-point, establishing that there is a global emergency that must be addressed quickly and forcefully. These Senators have been working for months to craft a position that will allow legislation to be passed by the entire legislature in future sessions. It needs to be a bipartisan effort, and they spoke at length about that issue. They decried the partisanship that has arisen around climate change, which is a legacy of the collapse of the Democratic legislative efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

A significant plank in this legislation would be phasing out the fossil fuel subsidies, a point raised in the discussion. The International Energy Agency estimates that the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies – which amount to more than $500 billion every year globally – would lead to a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below business as usual by 2050. These subsidies, which incentivize emissions, sadly dwarf the paltry incentives to reduce them. Free marketeers, small government advocates, and others who dislike distorting government subsidies should be appalled at the tax money poured into fossil fuels.

The stakes for the entire world have never been higher. Rebecca Solnit describes the magnitude of global climate change, and how it now literally threatens our existence. Yet we continue to fiddle away...

Documentation of this session from the US Congressional Record is here.