Friday, September 28, 2007

The "technology-based" approach

Politics today seems a lot like marketing without the free samples. The Bush Administration has elevated the political "branding" to an entirely new level - I'll let the reader decide whether it be considered a low or a high - whether it be the rather Orwell-ian naming of the major pieces of legislation, like the Healthy Forests Initiative, which supported logging on national lands, and the Clear Skies Initiative, which rolled back amendments from the Clean Air Act, to name just two, or the less formal labeling of policies like the "surge".

Everyone involved at some level in public policy has one example they love to mock. Remember the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism? That was the New Coke of the War on Terror, a moniker test-marketed in a variety of public addresses in the summer of 2005. It didn’t take. Government officials quickly reverted to the original formula.

At the various climate meeting and photo-ops this week, there was increasing mention of the Bush Administration's "technology-based" approach to climate change, something that began in earnest at the APEC summit. It is a careful exercise in branding. The Bush Administration is attempting to link technological solutions to climate change with its adherence to voluntary, non-binding, or "aspirational" emissions targets.

This is setting up a dangerous, false dichotomy: pitting the "technology-based" Bush approach vs. the economy-crushing emissions targets, falsely implying the proponents of hard emissions targets are suggested we get there without the use of technology, when in fact the entire purpose of the emissions targets is to force the development of cleaner energy technologies.

Let's not be fooled by this.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Intensity targets for the world, says PM Harper

The Globe and Mail reports that Canadian PM Stephen Harper is pushing for a new international climate change plan using intensity-based emissions targets rather actual emissions targets, like Kyoto.

Harper is correct in asserting that many countries, including China, are currently unwilling to accept hard targets. In that case, an intensity-based targets may be an acceptable middle ground (though not indefinitely!) for countries in the midst of economic growth and development. Not for the whole world, and especially not for the worst per-capita polluters like the US and Canada.

The claim that this "Canadian" idea is the best way to engage the US is laughable.

First of all, the emissions intensity tack taken by the Can. Conservative party and now at least temporarily enshrined in government policy came directly from Bush Administration policy set over five years ago. I wrote a warning about this 16 months ago in the Toronto Star (at the time, I admit, I never considered the plan would be lifted almost digit for digit from US policy!).

Second, time is running out on the Bush Administration and its refusal to accept real emissions targets. There are multiple bills with medium and long-term emissions targets before Senate and the Congress, summarized by this dizzying World Resources Institute chart. States representing almost half the US population have set long-term emissions targets. I even drew a map. And all the major contenders for the Democratic Presidential nomination are putting forward climate change plans with real emissions targets.

Third, the Conservative government is a minority, and all three opposition parties support real emissions targets. The only reason their approach to climate change may survive is that no party in Parliament wants to force an election over this, or possibly, any other issue. The result is that the Canadian government is now advancing a policy that is dishonest, regressive (with respect to other developed nations), and does not have the support of the Canadian people.

For other opinions, try the Toronto Star's latest editorial, the Globe's editorial, and the various angry online reactions (here here here).


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Greenhouse gases and meat production

There’s a lot of chatter today about the role of meat consumption in climate change. The UN entered the fray last year with a report estimating that livestock are responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, more than the total for all forms of transportation. It is, at first glance, hard to accept. But the UN estimate is, if anything, rather conservative.

Read more at Celsias


Saturday, September 22, 2007

A big week for the climate

A NY Times editorial sums it up:

The coming week could set a record for the number of high-profile hours spent discussing global warming and what to do about it. It begins with a special one-day session at the United Nations, at which Al Gore will press the case for strong collective action to stop the rise of greenhouse gases. It ends with a two-day White House “summit” involving all of the major emitters, including India and China. Both of those nations have been conspicuously absent from climate negotiations, but their help in arresting global emissions is essential.

The problem needs all the attention it can get. But if talk is good, it is also cheap. And it will change nothing unless it leads to a real treaty with real, and enforceable, limits on the production of greenhouse gases. That means a broader and more inclusive version of the Kyoto Protocol, a noble but flawed treaty that expires in 2012.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The complexity of ice melt

Over the past few months, the science media and those of us in the echo-chamber known as the blogosphere has been following the Arctic sea ice melt season with a fervour normally reserved for only for the hurricane season, and that arguably should also be applied to the summer fire season.

The chattering about this year’s record low may be giving the false impression that the Arctic sea ice dynamics are simple. A recent short paper in Geophysical Research Letters reminds us that the Arctic climate is complicated and the sea ice decline will not be smooth or orderly. The authors Jennifer Francis and Elias Hunter from Rutgers find that the factors influencing sea ice cover in the Bering Sea (that’s the Pacific side) and the Barents Sea (the Atlantic/Norwegian side) are quite different:

Between 1979 and 2005 in the Bering Sea, the ice edge is influenced mainly by anomalies in easterly winds associated with the Aleutian Low, which was particularly strong during the 1980s. The Barents Sea ice edge, in contrast, is driven primarily by two factors: anomalies in sea-surface temperature, particularly close in time to the maximum extent, and by southerly wind (from the south) anomalies integrated back to mid- and early winter. The hemispheric-mean decline in winter ice extent is due in large part to increasing sea-surface temperatures in the Barents Sea and adjoining waters, which are consistent with increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.

If you want a simple climate-ice connection, try a small temperate lake. There, mechanical (wind) action and ice dynamics have a relatively small effect on the areal ice coverage. The net accumulation of below-freezing temperatures in the fall is a very good indicator of the date of “ice on” – basically the inverse of how we predict coral bleaching. So when the late fall and early winter is warm, as happened last year in eastern North America, the lakes either freeze later or not at all. That’s little Muldrew Lake in the photo, with just an inch of slushy ice and snow on Dec. 28th of last year, to the consternation of those of us clutching hockey sticks. And the net accumulation of temperatures above freezing is a decent indicator of the date of “ice off”, though winter snowfall levels, winds and the non-linearity of albedo changes complicate matters a little bit.

Yes, limnologists do say “ice on” and “ice off” as if they are in a Canadian adaptation of the The Karate Kid. These days, it is probably safer for Ralph Macchio to clean the ice by hand. If this winter is as warm, I wouldn’t recommend driving a Zambonie out on the lake.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Delays on clean coal

This article about Saskatchewan Power withdrawing plans for a "clean coal" plant, because of rising costs and safety concerns, is an important reminder that implementing carbon capture and storage (CCS) at coal plants will not be easy. Many political, financial and logistical hurdles remain.


Monday, September 17, 2007

Franklin rises from the grave

"Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage,
to find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea."

Oh, if only John Franklin or Stan Rogers were still alive. The European Space Agency reported this weekend that ice-free passage from Europe to Asia is possible, causing all manner of excitement among climate change junkies, shipping companies, oil companies and sea kayakers.

I wouldn't blow your money on an Arctic sun cruise just yet. The Northwest Passage will probably freeze up or become blocked again in a matter of days or weeks. The real question is what happens next year, and in the years after that.

If you've got a hunch, lay down a bet with William Connolley.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Ice melt in Greenland

There's been plenty of discussion here and elsewhere about the current record lows for sea ice in the Arctic. A few days ago, the Guardian reported about evidence for rapid melting in Greenland as well this summer. The article reminded me of this picture I took in July of this meltwater pool on the slope of a east-flowing glacier in SE Greenland.

The IPCC's method for estimating of sea level rise do not account some of the processes that are now being observed and described in the article, particularly how meltwaters appear to be flowing to the bottom of the ice, effectively lubricating the path to the sea. There's a big push afoot to incorporate these more complex ice melt processes into global climate models. In a few years, the model predictions for sea level rise over the next century could be quite different.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Resolution at the APEC summit. Well, sort of.

The APEC nations have agreed on the expected deal (CNN/AP) on climate change and energy use.

Hmm. Note the many adjectives involve. Tentative (no one signed anything yet). Non-binding. Aspirational. Voluntary. Consensus-based.

Those words describes the deal best. The last one may jump out. The use of the term "consensus-based" implies that the alternative to this agreement, like a post-Kyoto plan involving all the nations party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, would not be consensus-based. It is setting up the straw man, much like saying [as Pres. Bush and PM Howard have] you desire a technology-based approach implies that others do not.

The Globe and Mail reports that Canada and Japan pushed for (a voluntary) 50% emissions reduction by 2050 goal though erroneously reports that the APEC leaders agreed on a 25% reduction by 2030. The agreement, as discussed here before, is for a 25% decrease in energy intensity.

I don't particularly enjoy repeating myself on this issue of intensity-based targets. But people keeps getting it wrong. Here's the key: An intensity-based target is not inherently evil. The problem is this target much those used in US policy and past Canadian government policy is, at best, a forecast of business-as-usual for the next 23 years. As such, it appears to be designed for show, and not much else.

So, presuming the APEC nations all sign the final agreement, the question remains: which is better, a weak deal or no deal at all? Is it better to have these reluctant nations put their names on something? Or will it undermine other efforts?


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Final word on the APEC summit

Forging an international climate change agreement that includes both China and the US was never going to be easy. And even an agreement with long-term emissions reduction targets might be ignored by future governments; just look at Canada's experience with Kyoto.

As I've been saying for in the past couple posts, there will be those that call the APEC Summit a success simply because it happened. Baby steps, right? There is some logic to that argument. Unless, that is, we are at a tipping point. Not for climate change, but for international climate policy. Then, the final word from Sydney and from the meeting in Washington later this month could push the political world down the wrong path and handcuff the efforts under the UNFCCC to set binding targets.

The text of Sydney Declaration on Climate Change and Energy is not much different from the draft leaked a few weeks ago. The APEC leaders did, however, manage to lift the already comical statement about aspirational goals to the height of absurdity.

We agree to work to achieve a common understanding on a long-term aspirational global emissions reduction goal to pave the way for an effective post-2012 international arrangement.

On the mountain of international climate policy, I'd say peak is a binding emissions target. Below the snowy, windy summit, amongst the alpine grasses and rising treeline might be a goal, which by most definitions, is a non-binding target. Further down, in the cloud forest, where el sapo dorado (the golden toad of Monteverde) teeters on the edge of extinction, you mind find an aspirational goal. At the bottom, in drying rainforest, might be a common understanding, which is somewhere short of an agreement, on an aspirational goal.

Unfortunately, this APEC statement does not even reach the level of our low-lying rainforest. If our policy mountain were a oceanic volcano, an agreement to work to achieve a common understanding on an aspirational goal would lie beneath the surface of the sea, where if nothing changes, it will be joined in several decades by the once-coastal villages.


Friday, September 07, 2007

Change in the climate of the APEC summit?

You might say the best case scenario for the climate is that the Asia-Pacific leaders fail to agree on a "Sydney Declaration" today. The likely agreement, a version of which leaked a couple weeks ago, would feature some nebulous technology and trade incentives and some very weak intensity-based or "aspirational" GHG emissions goals.

Such mitigation-light is a real danger. If the APEC summit succeeds in folding China, the US, Australia, Canada and others into a weak, non-binding greenhouse gas emissions plan, the UN efforts to assemble an aggressive post-Kyoto emissions reduction policy with actual science-based goals could be scuttled. One sign of hope is the Chinese preference for a UN-based climate change framework.

Even without an agreement, the danger is that the APEC summit and the upcoming US-planned summit in Washington will further the, for lack of a better, re-branding of international emissions policy. I'm struck by the language. Take for example, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's increasingly carefully worded statements: "strategies that are comprehensive, practical and realistic". They sound sensible, unless the objective is a long-term plan that avoids dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Another example was yesterday's Washington Post, reporting the false dichotomy that the US President Bush and Australian PM John Howard support a "technology approach" over a Kyoto-style approach, as if Kyoto requires going back to horse-drawn carriages.

If anything of value comes out of the APEC summit, it is that we have reached the point where the major world leaders all feel compelled, whether by science or by politics, to at least claim a serious desire to combat climate change [one reason why he won't have a chance to join the club, Law and Order reruns or not]. And this hilarious evidence of just how much the world trusts Canadians.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

To offset or not to offset

There is lots of furor over the ethics and the efficacy of carbon offsets. Personally, I doubt the validity of many of the offsets; it is a mystery how there can be be so many opportunities to purchase carbon offsets today, yet at the same time, few major programs that are substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions. When asked, I sometimes suggest people look at purchasing offsets (from certain organizations not these lunatics) like donating money to a worthwhile cause.

Bad advice? Gar Lipow at Gristmill picked up on this story in the Times of London that makes it seem as though offset business is on a slippery slope to slavery :

When David Cameron flew to India to open a JCB factory for a party donor, green-thinking supporters could rest assured that his visit would be carbon neutral. “We are offsetting all our emissions through Climate Care,” the Tory leader wrote on his blog. “As well as planting trees, they also invest in renewable energy projects in the developing world.”

Somewhere in the Indian countryside, a farmer is about to repay Mr Cameron’s debt to the planet. Climate Care’s latest enterprise is to provide “treadle pumps” to poor rural families so they can get water on to their land without using diesel power. The pumps are worked by stepping on pedals. If a peasant treads for two hours a day, it will take at least three years to offset the CO2 from Mr Cameron’s return flight to India.

If nothing else, that paragraph captures the vast income inequality. Let the angst and arguing begin.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Arctic sea ice continues to set records

Traveling from the tropics back to the poles:

The extent of sea ice in the Arctic continues set records. This map from the National Snow and Ice Data Center from Sept 3rd shows the sea ice at 4.42 million square kilometers, already far below the lowest recorded value of 5.32 million square kilometers from Sept 20-21, 2005. The pink line on the map is the median extent.

Just incredible. If you're looking for just one sign of dramatic climate change, one that follows from our basic understanding of the climate system and the exchange of heat between the planet's surface and the atmosphere, and one that may be out-pacing all of our predictions, skip all the complicated questions about hurricane frequency and intensity, and look at the precipitous drop in the extent of Arctic sea ice. May the flag planting continue...


Monday, September 03, 2007

The odd couple: hurricanes and coral bleaching

The Atlantic hurricane season is like the baseball season. Officially, it officially begins in the spring. Every year, the fans get all riled up for opening day. They then spend the subsequent months disappointed by the lack of drama and begin calling for the team to fire its manager (or hurricane forecaster). When the summer starts to wind down, the fans are reminded, once again, that all the big (ok, regular season) games tend to happen in late August and September.

With a trail of wreckage from Dean and Felix bearing down on Honduras and Belize (right), once again we're being reminded that hurricane activity often peaks right around now. Not in June, the time of the first peak in hurricane media coverage. Not in July, when everyone starts whining about the hurricane forecast. It happens in late August and September, when ocean temperatures in the tropical north Atlantic and the Caribbean tend to peak.

Coral bleaching events also happen during the annual peak in sea surface temperatures (SSTs). There are key differences, of course. Bleaching is driven largely by anomalously warm SSTs; UV light levels play a crucial role as well, although since the two variables tend to be correlated, temperature is a decent proxy. Hurricanes, on the other hand, are driven by a variety of factors, of which, the SSTs are only one.

You could say the ongoing furor over human-induced climate change in hurricane activity - the subject of Chris Mooney's recent book - is centered on this problem. The climate change --> warmer SSTs link is more or less straight-forward to test. The warmer SSTs --> more intense or more frequent storms is not. So, for example, the role of climate change in the 2005 Caribbean bleaching event, as we did in the paper published earlier this year, can be evaluated with more certainty than evaluating the role of climate change in the 2005 hurricane season.

While the SST link to hurricanes is more complicated than that to coral bleaching, it is not a complete surprise that strong hurricanes and coral bleaching events often occur in the same places each year. This year, there's been bleaching off Oman, near the region hit by Cyclone Gonu; in northern Madagascar, an area hit by a sequence of cyclones; in Okinawa, near the areas where typhoons have passed. So, the NOAA Coral Reef Watch data products like the Hotspot or DHW animations give a picture of the development of bleaching events and also a very rough idea of places that have experienced major hurricanes (try comparing the animations to this Google map of strong 2007 hurricanes). You can see that although thermal stress on corals is too low in much of the central and southern Caribbean where Dean and Felix have passed to cause coral bleaching, but temperatures are still above normal.

Like other odd couples, the combination of a coral bleaching event and a hurricane can be an utter disaster for the inhabitants of the area (e.g., corals weakened or killed by bleaching are then broken apart by the wave activity). A paper published earlier this year found an example of an opposite effect; cold water upwelling caused by the passage of hurricanes in 2005 reduced the thermal pressure on corals in the US Virgin Islands. Of course, the 2005 hurricanes and the bleaching were both driven by the warm water, so perhaps we would not have had one event without the other.