Monday, August 31, 2009

More on climate change adaptation

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed a few days back, Bjorn Lomborg offered a list of ways that technology can fight global warming. Lomborg, the fingernail scratching across the climate scientist's blackboard, has rightfully upset a number of experts by once again playing loose with the facts and language. Bill Chamedies from Duke does a fine job pointing out Lomborg's most egregious errors and deceptive sleights of hand.

There's one seemingly innocuous passage in the op-ed that touches on the very concern I expressed in the previous post on adaptation:

A group of climate economists at the University of Venice led by Carlo Carraro looked closely at how people will adapt to climate change. Their research for the Copenhagen Consensus Center showed that farmers in areas with less water for agriculture could use more drip irrigation, for example, while those with more water will grow more crops.

We could also build levees in New Orleans strong enough and high enough to withstand a category five storm. That doesn't mean it will happen. The challenge of climate change adaptation is not identifying what is technically possible. It is overcoming the cultural, organizational, political and economic hurdles to implement that which is technically possible.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Climate change adaptation and the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.

The fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in the Gulf Coast passed this weekend with news about the state of the New Orleans economy, the ongoing recovery effort, and a presidental radio address. The common thread in all of the analysis is the magnitude of the challenge in coordinating and implementing better "hurricane preparedness" plan for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

The potentially catastrophic impact of a category three or stronger hurricane on New Orleans was no secret before Katrina hit. The knowledge that the levees and storm protection systems were inadequate to withstand a large storm surge did not spur investment to improve the infrastructure, restore the coastal wetlands and/or a prepare a better emergency management plan. Four years hence, despite the very real evidence of Katrina, the US government is still struggling to ensure New Orleans is protected from another category three or stronger hurricane.

This is the challenge of adapting to climate change. This is why I argue that "adapting to climate change is far more difficult and far more expensive than most people and most supposed experts assume."

There are really two separate questions to ask. First, are we capable of adapting to climate change? Second, will we actually implement the adaptation activities?

Forget for a moment the scientific uncertainty about how climate change will affect hurricane frequency and strength. Instead, think simply about today. Think about adapting our society and our infrastructure to deal with hurricanes, or another climate event, that happen under the background natural variability in the climate system.

Are we as a society investing the time and the money to construct the social and physical infrastructure required to minimize the impact of hurricanes (or other extreme events)? Moreover, are we investing even more time and money to construct the social and physical infrastructure in developing nations that are currently far more vulnerable to extreme events?
Finally, are these efforts successful?

Look at how difficult it is for the wealthiest country in the world to develop the necessary protection in one of its own cities. Even if the will is there, and the money is there, it may not happen. President Obama's address dealt with the challenge of coordinating such a large effort:

To complete a complex recovery that addresses nearly every sector of society, we have prioritized coordination among different federal agencies, and with state and local governments. No more turf wars – all of us need to move forward together, because there is much more work to be done. I have also made it clear that we will not tolerate red tape that stands in the way of progress, or the waste that can drive up the bill. Government must be a partner – not an opponent – in getting things done.

This is, again, in a wealthy nation four years after a storm that any meteorologist or atmospheric science student could have told you would happen one day. Now imagine doing this not just at home, but also for other less-developed countries through complex international aid, with imperfect knowledge of the future climate. Adapting to climate change will not be simple. Even with the ability and the resources, it might not happen.

That is the message of point #3 in the three themes of Maribo post.


The path of Tropical Storm Danny

I'll have more on what we should be saying about climate change shortly (there are couple interesting responses at the Energy Collective cross-post) .

The model projections at right show that fourth named tropical storm of the Atlantic season is expected to take a path quite similar to that of Bill, interesting given how El Nino events are thought to effect hurricane tracks in the Atlantic. On the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina striking the Gulf Coast, tropical storm Danny will likely be reaching New England and the Maritime provinces of Canada.


Monday, August 24, 2009

What we should be saying about climate change

Some end of summer thoughts. Consider these the three new themes of Maribo:

1. Climate change is not an "environmental" problem. The non-linear, multi-factorial and time-varying dynamics of the climate system make the problem of climate change radically different from most classic "environmental" problems. As such, we can learn more about how to address climate change from studying other grand societal challenges, like poverty or racism, than other environmental problems.

2. In general, we have a very poor understanding the effect of climate variability, climate events or "shocks", and climate change on our lives. In the western world, this comes in part from being largely isolated from the everyday reality of weather and climate. It is also comes from wrongly placing different types of climate change impacts (precipitation, sea level rise) and climate change impacts of different regions (droughts in the prairies, droughts in sub-saharan Africa) into separate mental boxes. In an interconnected, globalized world, the rain doesn't have to stop falling in your neighbourhood for you to be affected.

3. Adapting to climate change is far more difficult and far more expensive than most people and most supposed experts assume. This comes from spending too much time and effort estimating the costs of mitigation here in the developed world, and too little looking the efficacy of local development and especially international development projects. More on this later.

I plan to return to these three themes, especially #3, again and again.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Bill moves up the east coast to Canada

Hurricane Bill is expected to weaken as it passes north over cooler water but will probably still have hurricane strength as it reaches Nova Scotia tomorrow. Heavy waves appear to be the biggest danger from the storm.

The predicted path has it reaching the tiny French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon (yes, there are two islands belonging to France just off the east coast of Canada) before making landfall in Newfoundland. It is not often than a hurricane strikes the Rock; interesting that it is happening during this El Nino-influence hurricane season.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Are new trains, like Vancouver's Canada Line, the solution?

I arrived back in Vancouver at the beginning of the week, just in time to be among the first passengers on the new train connecting the airport and the city of Richmond with downtown.

The $2 billion “Canada Line” train link was built more or less as part of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic bid. Hence the patriotic name that offers no indication what part of Vancouver the train line actually services.

At first glance, the Canada Line is the type of transportation initiative that environmental activists and climate campaigners should celebrate. A new train should equal fewer vehicle trips which should equal fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Right?

Unfortunately, in many cases, seemingly positive and well-intended developments like new transit infrastructure or new government programs to encourage the purchase of fuel efficient vehicles are often rather economically inefficient means to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Some of this has to with design. For example, if a new subway or elevated train line replaces existing bus routes, the reduced bus traffic may lead to an increase in the number of cars on the road.

The biggest challenge, however, might be that new transit lines and hybrid car rebates preach to the converted. Local transportation expert Stephen Rees explains that the train lines in Vancouver may be well-intended, but are mostly expensive projects that have not significantly increased the fraction of the population using public transit. Similarly, a recent UBC study concluded that the majority of people buying hybrid cars were not motivated by the government rebates. In other words, the rebates mostly went to people who were already intending to purchase a fuel efficient or hybrid car. [I won't even get into the arguments about the US 'cash for clunkers' program].

I certainly enjoyed being able to ride the train part of the way home from the airport. Had the train line not been finished, I simply would have taken the bus the entire way, just like I have in the past. In my case, and many others, the existence of the train didn’t eliminate a vehicle trip. It just saved me one switch and about 15 minutes. The Canada Line may be a worthy long-term investment... but not if people like myself are the primary users.

In addition to building the transit infrastructure, the government needs to implement programs that increase acceptance of public transit with young people. A master's student at Simon Fraser master’s student, Elizabeth Cooper, found that the local program to provide cheap transit passes to local university students may have helped create a culture of transit use. From the Georgia Straight:

Based on the results of a survey Cooper conducted of former SFU students, the paper notes that 53 percent of former U-Pass holders are frequent transit users, averaging between one and two round trips on public transportation per week. An additional 23 percent of former U-Pass holders reported that they continue to use transit, although on an infrequent basis. This gives a total of 76 percent of former U-Pass holders remaining transit users. Survey results for SFU alumni who were not U-Pass holders provide a different picture: only 42 percent reported being frequent transit users, while 17 percent said they use transit infrequently, for a total of 59 percent. “This indicates that the pass has had success in influencing transit use postgraduation,” the paper points out.

The U-Pass program certainly does not convert everyone; many graduates complain about the high cost of public transit without a U-Pass, and revert to driving. The effect of the program does point towards the type of initiatives that may be necessary to support a robust public transit system. Any suggestions?


Hurricane Bill, the Atlantic hurricane season and Pacific warming

The first Atlantic hurricane of the season, Hurricane Bill, is on its way north towards the east coast of Canada (and creating huge waves in Bermuda and the northeastern US). Forecasters expect Bill to pass the coast of Nova Scotia on Sunday and run towards Newfoundland and Labrador.

The offshore path of the first and only hurricane of the Atlantic season brings to mind an interesting paper published earlier this summer, that warrants more attention than (I think) it received. In this post a few weeks back, before I disappeared for the Ontario leg of the Canadian Summer of ’09 heat wave tour (ah, Rex Murphy, what happened to global cooling?), I briefly mentioned the paper by Kim et al. that looked at the response of Atlantic hurricane activity to different types of El Nino events.

The conventional thinking is that Atlantic hurricane activity is low during El Nino events. Basically, the increase in eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean temperatures that happens during El Ninos shifts upper-level atmospheric circulation, which in turn, creates wind shear in Atlantic that disrupts hurricane activity.

Kim et al. went an important a step further. They found that the relationship depends on the nature of the Pacific warming.

The above figure tells the story. When the warming occurs throughout the eastern equatorial Pacific (EPW), the more classic El Nino, there are significantly fewer hurricanes in the in the Caribbean and up the eastern seaboard of North America. When warming is centered in central equatorial Pacific (CPW), as happened in 2002 and 2004, there actually is a significant increase in hurricanes reaching North America. Central Pacific warming events basically cause less vertical wind shear.

The ongoing development of El Nino conditions in the Pacific is the major reason for predictions of a less active than normal hurricane season in the Atlantic (and an active eastern Pacific season). That Pacific surface temperature anomaly is currently centered in the eastern Pacific, which suggests that all other factors being equal, which of course they never are, there is a higher likelihood of hurricane track density depicted in Part A of the figure above.

Now one hurricane does not a season make: you could argue that Bill's track is loosely bucking that prediction. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to follow hurricane development this year, and during the next episode of central Pacific warming, to see whether Kim et al. are correct in asserting that location of all those flapping butterflies in the Pacific predictably determines the development of storms in the Atlantic.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fun with language and geoengineering

In the business section this morning's Globe and Mail, columnist Neil Reynolds describes with some excitement a new "paper" from the Copenhagen Consensus Center detailing how we can cheaply re-engineer the climate using sulphate aerosols.

To learn about the flaws in the science and the economic results reported in Reynolds' column, I recommend reading Alan Robock's fine piece on Real Climate. I won't offer more on the science here, other than to say that even if injecting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere can affordably and safely counter CO2-induced climate warming, it would do nothing to combat CO2-induced changes in ocean chemistry and its effect on marine life.

The column is a window into the increasingly deceptive labeling and branding of reports on climate change. A lot of groups are co-opting academic ("paper"), IPCC / UN ("consensus") and Obama-era ("non-partisan") language in order to gain scientific legitimacy. The language leaks out into the press, and next thing you know, a un-reviewed piece of work prepared by non-scientists from a partisan think-tank is reported as a piece of new science. This particular example is rather tame, but still worth thinking about.

The "paper" of which Reynolds' writes is not a paper in the academic sense - research is done, submitted to a journal, reviewed by peers, edited in response to the reviewers' concerns, etc. - but a solicited report not subject to peer review. The report could have some value, but it is not the same as an academic paper.

The cleverly-named "Copenhagen Consensus Center" has nothing to do with the UN meetings in Copenhagen this fall, nor does work from the Center represent a consensus of the larger scientific or economic community. The reports from this Center, like the geoengineering report in question, are writings by people invited to the Center for meetings, not exhaustive reviews of the existing literature. Again, the reports may have some value - but they do not represent a "consensus" in the IPCC sense.

Finally, the "non-partisan" American Enterprise Institute, professional home of one of the report's authors, is committed to "expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise", a mission that naturally leads to rather partisan support to right-leaning politicians, and is in fact populated almost entirely by Republicans. Once more, a report from the AEI may may some value, but labeling AEI work "non-partisan" is playing with words.