Saturday, January 31, 2009

More on the stimulus plans

The conversation on the lack of "green" funding in the US and Canadian stimulus plans (stimuli?) continues at the Energy Collective, where Maribo is cross-posted.

Geoff Styles:

We want our stimulus dollars to boost the flagging economy as effectively as possible, without making other problems worse in the future--beyond the unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of larger deficits. Targeted tax credits for efficient cars and appliances make more sense in this context than stuffing $500 into the pockets of every American, who might prudently save it or use it to pay down debt. Those are worthy outcomes in the long run, but not what an urgent fiscal stimulus is intended to accomplish.

Rod Adams:

Why do all the jobs that people talk about have to come with a shovel? From my point of view, we could provide some terrific near term employment by filling some of those currently underused science and engineering buildings with experienced engineers and scientists who have created space vehicles, terrific concept cars, or automated factory equipment, but whose jobs were outsourced or cut in short sighted budgetary decisions. In those same classrooms we could pay small stipends to very bright, numerically competent students who got seduced by the bright lights of Wall Street to create phantom financial instruments so that they can be retrained into valuable human capital for the green transformation that we recognize needs to occur.


Friday, January 30, 2009

Monaco Declaration on Ocean Acidification

A group of the world's experts on ocean chemistry and marine ecosystems are calling for immediate action on CO2 emissions to avoid further damage to the oceans (link to pdf). The
"Monaco Declaration" is the outcome of the second "The Ocean in a High-CO2 World" international symposium.

Here's their take-home message:

Ocean acidification can be controlled only by limiting future atmospheric CO2 levels. So-called geo-engineering strategies that would not aim to restrict future atmospheric CO2 concentrations would not reduce ocean acidification. Mitigation strategies that aim to transfer CO2 to the ocean, for example by direct deepsea disposal of CO2 or by fertilising the ocean to stimulate biological productivity, would enhance ocean acidification in some areas while reducing it in others.

Climate-change negotiations focused on stabilizing greenhouse gases must consider not only the total radiation balance; they must also consider atmospheric CO2 as a pollutant, an acid gas whose release to the atmosphere must be curtailed in order to limit ocean acidification. Hence, limits (stabilization targets) for atmospheric CO2 defined based on ocean acidification may differ from those based on surface temperature increases and climate change. Despite a seemingly bleak outlook, there remains hope.

We have a choice, and there is still time to act if serious and sustained actions are initiated without further delay. First and foremost, policymakers need to realize that ocean acidification is not a peripheral issue. It is the other CO2 problem that must be grappled with alongside climate change. Reining in this double threat, caused by our dependence on fossil fuels, is the challenge of the century.

Solving this problem will require a monumental worldwide effort. All countries must contribute, and developed countries must lead by example and by engineering new technologies to help solve the problem. Promoting these technologies will be rewarded economically, and prevention of severe environmental degradation will be far less costly for all nations than would be trying to live with the consequences of the present approach where CO2 emissions and atmospheric CO2 concentrations continue to increase, year after year.

Fortunately, partial remedies already on the table, if implemented together, could solve most of the problem. We must start to act now because it will take years to change the energy infrastructure and to overcome the atmosphere’s accumulation of excess CO2, which takes time to invade the ocean.


Placing blame for heat waves

This headline appears in today's Globe and Mail:

Australian blames climate change for heat wave

Ugh. Southeastern Australia is in the midst of a punishing heat wave. Temperatures in Sydney and Melbourne peaking over 40 degrees Celsius for six straight days. Naturally, scientists, politicians and the media are drawing a link to climate change.

The "Australian" in question is their government's climate change minister. Before people trash her as an alarmist, who blames everything on climate change, read what she actually said. This is the quote from the original Reuters. piece:

Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said the heat wave, which started on Wednesday, was the sort of weather scientists had been warning about.

“Eleven of the hottest years in history have been in the last 12, and we also note, particularly in the southern part of Australia, we're seeing less rainfall,” Ms. Wong told reporters.

“All of this is consistent with climate change, and all of this is consistent with what scientists told us would happen.”

It is a reasonable statement. You cannot blame any one heatwave, one tropical storm, one coral bleaching episode, one weather event of any kind, or for that matter, the weather in any one year, on a long-term trend. Just as you cannot use one weather event or one year to disprove the existence of a long-term trend -- although statistically-challenged skeptics of climate change continue to try. But you can say that Australia is expected to experience more frequent and more severe heat waves like this one.

The flaw in climate reporting is often the headlines, not the actual reporting.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The problem with the US stimulus plan

In the NY Times online, my colleague Michael Oppenheimer argues that the US Stimulus Plan is "cementing in the wrong infrastructure". I made a similar argument about yesterday's Canadian budget. Full text of Oppenheimer's comments after the jump.

On energy and environment, the stimulus plan needs to fulfill long-term goals, as well as provide a short-term rescue. If the rescue package cements in the existing world, the necessary transition to a “green” economy will be far more difficult to achieve later.

The trade-off between building new highways and expanding or even just maintaining mass transit capacity is an obvious example. Both are “shovel-ready” but one supports the emergence of a green economy while the other just ossifies the existing patterns, which are a big part of our economic and international problems in the first place.

Similarly, only a complete overhaul of our electricity grid will make renewable energy a reality. Here we have a classic chicken-and-egg problem: without the new sources of energy, there’s less need for the modernized grid but without the new grid to distribute it, many entrepreneurs will think twice about investing in solar or wind power. It’s the government’s job to jump start the process.

A related issue is the scientific research that underpins both environmental understanding and economic progress. Our capacity to observe Earth with satellites in space is shriveling, even as the Earth is warming and ice sheets are melting. Interest among American students in physical science and engineering is practically on life-support. Yet the stimulus focuses mostly on the worthy goals of protecting jobs for teachers and renovating existing buildings. There should be equal concern for building the physical infrastructure needed to introduce new teaching approaches so that science education is not an afterthought.


Lost opportunities

"Never let a good crisis go to waste" is the feel-good mantra of the times. There is some sense to that argument. The economic crisis does provide an opportunity to invest in renewable energy, public transit, retrofitting homes, construction of more efficient buildings, manufacture of more efficient cars, a smart electricity grid, the list goes on. There are countless ways to make a few glasses of lemonade out of this economic lemon.

Far too few of those measures are found in the new budget announced today by Canada's Conservative government (you can read the entire document here).

The biggest item is the "Green Infrastructure Fund":

Targeted investments in green infrastructure can improve the quality of the environment and will lead to a more sustainable economy over the longer term. Green infrastructure includes infrastructure that supports a focus on the creation of sustainable energy. Sustainable energy infrastructure, such as modern energy transmission lines, will contribute to improved air quality and lower carbon emissions. Budget 2009 provides $1 billion over five years for a Green Infrastructure Fund. Funding will be allocated based on merit to support green infrastructure projects on a cost-shared basis

Nice idea. The problem: the fund amounts to less than 4% of the proposed infrastructure spending. If the other 96%, or just a fraction of it, goes to carbon-intensive building and road construction, we're quite likely to counteract all the benefits of the "green" investments.

Now it's possible that "green" projects may pop up in the other infrastructure spending. There's $407 million to upgrade VIArail service in the Quebec City - Windsor corridor, which depending on the upgrades, could be a net energy and emissions saver. There are also three projects - Summerside Wind Energy in PEI, Union Station upgrades in Toronto, and the Evergreen transit line here in Vancouver - listed among the "priority projects" that may recieve infrastructure funding. Then again, it is not clear whether the money would come from the general infrastructure fund or not.

The "green" budget item that has received the most media attention is the funding for a home retrofitting program:

Providing an additional $300 million over two years to the ecoENERGY Retrofit program to support an estimated 200,000 additional home retrofits.

Again, a nice idea. And again, don't be swayed by the numbers. It is 5% of the funds to "stimulate housing".

It is clear from the text of the budget suggests the government are not terribly interested in, or do not see, the opportunity to seriously invest in a case of green lemonade. Case in point, the three items under the heading "A more sustainable environment":

  • A new Clean Energy Fund that supports clean energy research development and demonstration projects, including carbon capture and storage.
  • Improving the Government's annual reporting on key environmental indicators such as clean air, clean water and greenhouse gas emissions with $10 million in 2009–10.
  • Strengthening Canada's nuclear advantage with $351 million to Atomic Energy of Canada Limited for its operations, including the development of the Advanced CANDU Reactor, and to maintain safe and reliable operations at the Chalk River Laboratories.

I've been unable to find details on the first item. One can surmise from the short summary that the majority of the money will go towards carbon sequestration research in the tar sands. The second is a tiny investment - remember, this budget is in the tens of billions of dollars. And the third, well, regardless of your feeling about nuclear power as a solution to climate change, it is a sad comment on our country when the nuclear investment is the dominant component of "a more sustainable environment".

Nowhere here do you see real money for wind power development, solar power, a better electric grid, large expansion of public transit, helping the automakers build more efficient cars, all investments that would create jobs, that would stimulate research and innovation, and that would prepare Canadians for the future.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Reality comes to Washington

"Year after year, decade after decade, we've chosen delay over decisive action. Rigid ideology has overruled sound science. Special interests have overshadowed common sense. Rhetoric has not led to the hard work needed to achieve results and our leaders raise their voices each time there's a spike on gas prices, only to grow quiet when the price falls at the pump."

- US President Obama, in a speech announcing new fuel efficiency standards


Obama pushes the automakers

After years of debate, change comes with the stroke of a pen:

WASHINGTON — President Obama will direct federal regulators on Monday to move swiftly on an application by California and 13 other states to set strict automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards, two administration officials said Sunday

The directive makes good on an Obama campaign pledge and signifies a sharp reversal of Bush administration policy. Granting California and the other states the right to regulate tailpipe emissions would be one of the most emphatic actions Mr. Obama could take to quickly put his stamp on environmental policy.


Friday, January 23, 2009

The new battle over the tar sands

[My apologies - a bug left a bunch of jargon at the bottom of the original post] It is reasonable to argue that the continued fumbling of climate policy in Canada can all be traced back to oil. It may finally come to a head this year.

Canada is a unique country. And no, not because it is that rare place where people apologize if you carelessly bump into them, although it is fair to say that Canadians do utter the phrase "I'm sorry" more often than any other people. Canada's unique because it is the only developed country that is both a large energy consumer and a large energy producer. The Canadian economy is largely based on resource extraction -- gas, mining, forestry, and the big kahuna, oil.

The history is well known: The oil-producing province of Alberta opposed signing Kyoto. For years, the leaders of Alberta and the news media regularly attacked climate science and climate policy. The Alberta-based opposition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, represented federally by the Reform-cum-Alliance-cum-Conservative Party, was one of the major factors hindering the ability of the former Liberal governments to implement of any policy to meet the Kyoto targets. When the Conservatives took over the government, they effectively suspended any serious federal effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Today, oil extraction from the Alberta tar sands has become such a large part of the Canadian economy that even those public figures who by all rights oppose the developments for environmental and climatic reasons are unwilling to go on the offensive for fear of losing public support out west. Case in point new Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's pragmatic stance on the issue.

Canada has gone from being the toast of the world for ratifying Kyoto despite US opposition to the scrooge, actively lobbying the new US government to weaken its climate policy. Nervous that the Obama Admistration will regulate carbon-intensity of fuels -- effectively outlawing oil from the tar sands -- the Canadian government is doubling down. The new idea is that the US and Canada should harmonize their climate policies, and that those policies should make an exception for oil from the tar sands. Why? The pitch is that Canada is the secret to solving US energy woes: a large, friendly source of oil.

Will Canada be able to use oil as leverage? Rob Silver of the Globe and Mail is not so sure:

... when people talk about "Canada" or the "Canadian Prime Minister" using our oil resources as negotiating leverage with the U.S. administration, I'm not sure what legal basis the Prime Minister could possibly have to trade off additional or reduced oil development for, say, arctic sovereignty concessions. It's not the Prime Minister's oil to negotiate with. The Prime Minister is little more than lobbyist in chief - and that presumes that the PM and the oil companies' interests are aligned. This makes Canada different from almost every OPEC oil country, where the head of state and the oil production company are one and the same, and thus negotiating oil for other concessions is fully within the leader's power.

Regardless, Silver rightly concludes that even if Canada has leverage, Canadians might not want to use it:

The question our leaders need to ask, however, is whether we want to use whatever leverage we may have with the U.S. to fight against Obama's climate change plans. That seems to be where these suggestions are heading, and I both question the efficacy those efforts are likely to have and whether that puts us on the right side of history.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Analysis of increase in "skeptical" climate stories

There has been an uptick in media attention paid to the rantings of climate change "skeptics" and the faux notion of "global cooling".

And not only in the usual places like the Calgary Herald and Fox News. There have the been segments on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, nicely deconstructed by Real Climate and Open Mind; the supposedly ironic sensibilities of Rex Murphy in the Globe and Mail and on CBC-Radio; a wildly errant story on the Huffington Post; a statistically-challenged meditation on sea ice in Daily Tech; and, last but by no means least, the drive-by mocking of Margaret Wente's year-end Globe and Mail column, which included by far the most erroneous claim that I've seen in some time: "Australia's magnificent coral reefs, once thought to have been devastated by the impact of global warming, have bounced back remarkably".

Is this recent spate of stories the sign of a long-term trend towards increased media coverage of climate change skepticism? Let's look at the data. Below I've plotted the fraction of media stories about climate change that can be classified as "skeptical" (i.e. questioning the role of human activities).

As you can see, there has been a trend since the 1970s towards increased positive coverage of the scientific evidence for a human contribution to climate change. Superimposed on this trend is year-to-year variability in the news coverage, caused by the chaotic and multi-factorial nature of the media. So if comparing a single year to the previous year, rather than considering the long-term trend, can result in an erroneous conclusion.

For example, if you draw a line from 1998, a low for skeptical reporting, to 2008, it may appear that skeptical reporting has been increasing and the world is trending towards an all Glenn Beck, all-the-time news media. In reality, this decade has featured less skeptical reporting in recorded history (records go back to the 1870s, but are less reliable before the 1930s due to limited coverage in some regions). The long-term trend suggest 2008 was an aberration, likely due to the La Nina conditions in the Pacific.

So everyone, keep fighting those mistakes in the media. But rest easy. The silliness won't last.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Protection in the tropics, conquest in the Arctic?

Apparently we were quibbling about sea ice trends, the fading Bush Administration was preparing for a fight over the spoils left by our disappearing cryosphere. According to the CBC News, the new "Arctic policy" is "forthright about U.S. intentions to protect its security and remain a major player in the Arctic without regard to Canadian or other international sensitivities."

That breeze you felt was the passing good will from the creation of the three new marine national monuments.

You can read the full policy on the White House website. There are some nice bits on encouraging conservation of the marine environment, working with indigenous peoples, scientific cooperation and working with existing international policies on the Arctic. Then again, there are these choice selections:

4. The United States exercises authority in accordance with lawful claims of United States sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction in the Arctic region, including sovereignty within the territorial sea, sovereign rights and jurisdiction within the United States exclusive economic zone and on the continental shelf, and appropriate control in the United States contiguous zone.

Seems reasonable. Grant each country has rights to its territorial seas.

5. Freedom of the seas is a top national priority. The Northwest Passage is a strait used for international navigation, and the Northern Sea Route includes straits used for international navigation; the regime of transit passage applies to passage through those straits. Preserving the rights and duties relating to navigation and overflight in the Arctic region supports our ability to exercise these rights throughout the world, including through strategic straits.

Umm. Isn't most of the Northwest Passage within Canadian territorial seas? [feel free to correct me here]

The Senate should act favorably on U.S. accession to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea promptly, to protect and advance U.S. interests, including with respect to the Arctic.

Fair, logical. It's about time it signed the Law of the Sea.

Joining will serve the national security interests of the United States, including the maritime mobility of our Armed Forces worldwide. It will secure U.S. sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain. Accession will promote U.S. interests in the environmental health of the oceans. And it will give the United States a seat at the table when the rights that are vital to our interests are debated and interpreted.

Ah, right.

In carrying out this policy as it relates to international governance, the Secretary of State, in coordination with heads of other relevant executive departments and agencies, shall:
  1. Continue to cooperate with other countries on Arctic issues through the United Nations (U.N.) and its specialized agencies, as well as through treaties such as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change,

I'm not sure other countries can take much more US cooperation on the UNFCCC. But this document isn't really about governance and climate change, is it?

Energy development in the Arctic region will play an important role in meeting growing global energy demand as the area is thought to contain a substantial portion of the world's undiscovered energy resources. The United States seeks to ensure that energy development throughout the Arctic occurs in an environmentally sound manner, taking into account the interests of indigenous and local communities, as well as open and transparent market principles. The United States seeks to balance access to, and development of, energy and other natural resources with the protection of the Arctic environment by ensuring that continental shelf resources are managed in a responsible manner and by continuing to work closely with other Arctic nations.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

327 days until Copenhagen

The UN Climate Conference for negotiating a post-Kyoto agreement opens in Copenhagen on December 7th.

What is your Prime Minister doing?


Bush protects remote Pacific Islands

Maribo began last year with an "elevator figure" describing the threat that climate change poses to the world's coral reefs. This year, we'll begin with some good news.

In a decision that has drawn widespread applause from scientists and conservationists, and had a lot of reporters scrambling for an atlas, the outgoing US President used a century-old antiquities law to create three huge marine protected areas or "national monuments" out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Two of the monuments protect the Marianas Trench, offshore of the Northern Marianas Islands, and Rose Atoll, an isolated atoll north of American Samoa. The third, grouped together as the "Pacific Remote Islands", includes the water around seven "islands": Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll, Wake Island, Johnston Atoll, Howland, Baker, and Jarvis Island

These places are probably only be known to WWII buffs, marine scientists or members of the military -- they are almost all either off limits to non-military personnel (e.g. Johnston), uninhabited (Rose), or uninhabitable (landless Kingman). But these islands, especially the Pacific Remote Islands, are exciting to scientists.

Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll were the subjects of an extensive biological survey co-ordinated by colleagues at Scripps and National Geographic a couple years ago. Kingman is generally considered "pristine"; the survey found an "inverted" food web, dominated by large predators like sharks, thanks to the lack of human pressure and also to favourable currents.

While Kingman and Palmyra have more of the fanfare, I'd bet that Howland, Baker and Jarvis could prove to be just as important. They lie closer to the equator, in an area more directly affected by the El Nino / Southern Oscillation. Thanks to tempermental El Nino, the surface waters in the area can be highly variable, at least by equatorial standards. The reefs may - that is may, not will - help us better understand if and how corals can acclimate or adapt to heat stress (not that this is mentioned in the lengthy White House press release).