Saturday, June 27, 2009

A thought on the Waxman-Markey climate bill

Yesterday, the US Congress narrowly passed a bill to control greenhouse gas emissions. The Waxman-Markey bill will install a cap and trade system, set a renewable portfolio standard and pay for a number of other related, and unrelated, programs and pork. If it can make it through the Senate, the bill we become law.

Like every piece of legislation passing though the congressional treatment plant, Waxman-Markey was heavily diluted over the past few months. The pundits, NGOs and lobby groups have argued over the merits of passing a weakened cap-and-trade system which will set a low carbon price and give away the majority of the permits.

The pro argument: It's far better than what we have, which is nothing.

The con argument: It's not even close to what we need.

They're both right. We -- I write "we" deliberately because US greenhouse gas emissions affect the entire planet, US decisions and policy sets a precedent for the world, and, as a Canadian, my own government will remain paralysed without US action. We need this bill and we need to be having this argument. We need political "realists" that see this bill as an accomplishment. And we need "purists", scientists, activists, etc., shouting that the bill won't avoid the dangerous impacts of climate change. If the commentators were all "realist", the bill would be even weaker. If they were all "purists", a climate change bill would not pass until water was flooding the Capitol Building.


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Turning down the volume

While I was doing field work in Kiribati a few weeks ago, I started reading Voltaire’s Bastards, the 1992 polemic by Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul about the failure of reason in western society. You know, some light reading for the beach.

Saul steps back from the sniping between right and left to ask whether our deference to reason and structure has created an unthinking, technocratic society. It’s amazing this book was written before the internet transformed communications and before politics became a marketing exercise. This quote, speaking about how things of changed since the time of John Locke, could be talking about the inanity of the online debates between climate skeptics:

Facts at that time were such rare nuggets that no one realized how they would multiply. Everyone believed them to be solid and inanimate – to be true fact. No one yet understood that life would become an uncomfortable, endless walk down a seashore laid thick with facts of all sizes and shapes. Boulders, pebbles, shards, perfect ovals. No one had begun to imagine that these facts were without any order, impose or natural – that facts were as meaningful as raw vocabulary without grammar or sentences. A man could pick up any fact he wished and fling it into the sea and make it skip. A practiced, talented arm could make it skip three, perhaps four times, while a lesser limb might make a single plunk with the same concrete proof of some truth or other. Another man might build with these facts some sort of fortress on the shore.

As for Locke, he certainly did not think that facts would rapidly become the weapons, not only of good men but of evil mean, not only of truth but of lies.

Gavin Schmidt over at Real Climate has a terrific post about the repetitive spiral of blogging. In his case, the subject is debunking the climate skeptics. The basic conceit could apply to blogging as a whole. The popular politic blogs suffer from a more severe case of this affliction, rehashing the same issues over and over again, creating an urgency that often does not exist in reality.

Personally, I've found it difficult to re-enter the blogosphere after spending a couple months conducting field work in Fiji and Kiribati. This happens every time I step away, whether to do field work, to finish other work, or just for a break. I've found it more challenging this time because of the very "groundhog day" nature of the online climate discussions of which Gavin writes.

Thanks to technology, anyone armed with either a few good sound-bites or an important sounding title can become an expert these days (link to IPCC “expert reviewer”). We end up with these shouting matches, on air and online, with both sides throwing out numbers and figures without any real context. The good lines, sound-bite or video clip enter the echo-chamber and get repeated, cited or linked over and over again. And voila, the steadily increasing ratio of commentary to original research and reporting.

This craziness is why we should appreciate institutions like the IPCC. With this all war of context-free facts, figures and soundbites being fought 24 hours a day, 365.25 days a year, sound summaries of the actual original research are more necessary than ever.


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Coping with Commitment: New study on the challenge facing coral reefs

Maribo's back from a long hiatus, during which the host was overseas collecting data, samples and unfortunately some sort of parasite.

Good timing, for the return home, not the parasite, since a new study of mine on climate change and coral reefs appeared in PLOS-One today (link - no subscription required).

As many of the regular readers have heard before, one of the biggest challenges posed by climate change is the timing.

First, you have the time lag between greenhouse gas emissions and the climate effect of those emissions. Basically, it takes time for the big complicated mix of atmosphere, ocean, land and ice to come to equilibrium. That’s why you sometimes here the climate compared to a big ship. You can hit the brakes but it will take a while for ship to actually come to a stop. Similarly, even if we froze emissions today, the climate would continue to warm a bit, because that warming is physically built into the system. This is often referred to as "committed warming".

Society may impart a second warming commitment. There is a lag between the decision to take action and the action itself. Using the ship analogy, it takes time for the officers on deck who first see the iceberg to relay the message to the captain. In other words, even if we decided to drastically emissions tomorrow, those reductions would not occur for some time. Hence all the hysteria about the construction of new coal-burning power plants. Since coals plants may last for decades they come with a considerable emissions “commitment”.

The new study looks at the implications of “committed warming” for conserving the world's coral reefs.

The dangerous impacts of climate change on coral reef are expected to occur sooner than most other prominently discussed climate change impacts (e.g. ice sheet melt, rainfall shifts in the topics). Why? Water temperatures, only 1-2 degrees Celsius over the usual summer maximum temperatures can cause bleaching of corals and some other reef organisms. Bleaching, described here many times, is the paling of the corals caused by a breakdown of the symbiosis between the reef-building animals themselves and the colourful algae that live in the coral tissue. A bleached coral is still alive, but is deprived of its primary energy source. If the conditions persist, the bleached coral can die.

Now, corals can grow back after a bleaching event, just as trees grow back after a fire, but it takes time. If bleaching events happen too often – say, because of ocean warming - most corals and the ecosystem as a whole will be unable to recover. Now, combine that with the rise in CO2 levels reducing the ability of corals to actually build the reef, and you’ve got one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet.

This new study evaluates the “committed" frequency of bleaching events, and what it all means for coral reef conservation and for climate policy. The results show that the physical commitment alone is enough to make bleaching events harmfully frequent at over half of the world’s reefs by the end of the century. A possible additional commitment, caused by the time required to shift from a “business-as-usual” future to a GHG “mitigation” future, may cause over 80% of the world’s coral reefs to experience harmfully frequent events by 2030.

There is a possible silver lining. Thermal adaptation of 1.5 degrees C, whether via biological mechanisms, coral community changes or extreme management interventions, could postpone the forecast for 50-80 years in the “business-as-usual" case. That could provide time to change the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions and then prevent the majority of the world's reefs from experiencing harmfully frequent bleaching events this century.

Let's be clear. This is no panacea - the ecological costs of proposed adaptive mechanisms and the implications for climate policy are outlined in the discussions. Here's the final paragraph:

In summary, the results of this study indicate that a combination of greenhouse gas mitigation and improved coral reef management will be required to avoid the degradation of the world’s coral reef ecosystems from frequent mass coral bleaching events. Actions that enhance reef resistance and reef resilience - including protection of bleaching-resistant reefs, reduction of other stressors, and possibly even more radical suggestions like “seeding” reefs with more temperature-tolerant species of Symbiodinium – may be necessary to help coral reef ecosystems endure through the committed warming over the next several decades. These management actions, while important, will alone prove to be insufficient to protect coral reefs through the latter half of the century. The difference between the future scenarios presented in this study demonstrates that protecting the world’s coral reefs from increasing thermal stress will require a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next several decades.