Thursday, October 28, 2010

Investing in technology vs. pricing carbon

This quote from a story about a recent report on the challenge of integrating "green" cars into the marketplace contains an important policy lesson:

“While considerable interest exists among governments, media and environmentalists in promoting HEVs and BEVs, consumers will ultimately decide whether these vehicles are commercially successful or not,” said John Humphrey, senior vice president of automotive operations at J.D. Power. “Based on our research of consumer attitudes toward these technologies - and barring significant changes to public policy, including tax incentives and higher fuel economy standards - we don’t anticipate a mass migration to green vehicles in the coming decade.”

In the wake of the failed U.S. Climate Bill, the proponents of increasing government investment in research and development like the Breakthrough Institute have been out in force. One example is the report "Post Partisan Power" released by the Breakthrough Institute and Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute.

Of course, investing in R&D is a fine idea. Unlike others, I'd hesitate to call the proposed R&D policies, particularly those in the Post-Partisan report, a climate policy (try searching the document with the phrases "climate change" or "global warming"). The Breakthrough crowd's central thesis of R&D investment rather than emissions controls has always struck me as a bit of dodge. Spending on R&D is presented as an alternative to carbon pricing, as if the two policies could not or should not or would not act in concert, when in fact, most pricing schemes assume some of the proceed with go to R&D. By presenting R&D investment as an either/or question, the Breakthrough folks make it seems as though proponents of carbon pricing are opponents of R&D. In reality, we find that the R&D may not have the desired effect without some policy instruments to aide the technology transition.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Climate change and the Caribbean coral bleaching, again

There's an upswing of skepticism about climate change of late, thanks in part to the crazy season in the US (and I'm not talking about the baseball playoffs, although they have been pretty surprising too). While the pundits argue, the climate keeps on moving.

When I give talks about climate change and coral reefs, I almost always use the two slides on the right. The first slide is a map of "degree heating weeks" (DHW), a measure of accumulated heat stress experienced by corals, in the Caribbean in mid-October in 2005. Severe bleaching and coral morality is typically observed when the values of DHW exceed 8 deg C-week. Basically, the same long period of warm water temperatures that helps spawn the destructive 2005 Atlantic hurricane season caused unprecedented coral bleaching event in the eastern Caribbean.

In 2007, my colleagues and I published a study examining of the likelihood of the 2005 "hot spot" occurring with and without human influence on the climate system. The study contrasted model simulations of the Caribbean with historical data and then computed the statistics of extreme ocean temperature events. The second slide summarizes some of the key results of from study. In a nutshell, our best analysis concluded the 2005 Caribbean "heat wave" would likely be on the order of a once in a thousand year event, had there been no human-generated greenhouse gas or aerosol emissions since the Industrial Revolution ("natural forcing"). By the 1990s, the human forcings increased the odds to once in 10-50 years. And continued warming under "business as usual" would make such heat waves happen in three out of every four years.

Five years later, a Caribbean "heat wave" has happened again. I've been writing for months that there was a strong likelihood of extensive coral bleaching in the Caribbean this fall according to NOAA's advance forecast of sea surface temperatures (in fact, we had a good inkling of this last summer). Now we're getting reports of bleaching from observers in the Caribbean. Add this to the observations (following predictions, once again!) from Southeast Asia and the Equatorial Pacific, and we have what may be the most, or second most, extensive "global" coral bleaching event in recorded history.

For all those writing about this event, keep in mind the predictions. This is what the scientific community predicted was likely to happen. An event which we calculated would be a once in a millennium occurrence without human impact on the climate, happened again five years later.

There are caveats, for sure. There is uncertainty in the model simulations of interannual variability which can affect the specific calculations of odds (see the 2007 paper for some details). And once-in-a-thousand year events can in reality happen five years apart; we'd need to collect data for thousands and thousands of years to properly calculate the statistics. Obviously, that's not feasible, which is the very reason we have computers help us do the math on these problems.

The real climate doesn't care about the political climate.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Coral Reefs at SciFest 2010 in St. Louis

I'll be giving a talk about coral reefs and climate change on Saturday as a part of the annual SciFest in St. Louis. If you're in the neighbourhood, drop by and learn "about how climate change threatens coral reefs across the planet, and what we can all do to help them survive."


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Collaborating with industry on publications and climate solutions

The article Geoengineering: The Inescapable Truth of Getting to 350 from online hybrid magazine / academic publication The Solutions Journal appeared in my inbox today.

We can argue back and forth about the societal and ecological implications of geoengineering. That's not the point of this post. What struck me as unique in this particular article is the focus on "bioenergy" solutions, namely 'The Case for Algae', out of all the many possible geoengineering proposals. It turns out the article is written by two academics along with the chief technology and science officer of Cellana. From the Cellana website:

Cellana was established in 2007 as a joint venture between Shell and HR BioPetroleum to develop technology for the sustainable and commercial production of biofuels and animal feed from algae

Let's be clear. Developing and implementing solutions to climate change will require working with industry. We live in a capitalist system; it is willful blindness to ignore the efforts of profit-seeking outfits. So there's not necessarily anything unethical about working with industry - there certainly are cases where it will be unethical, but it is not absolute guaranteed ethical violation. Having worked on the ecological impacts of biofuels, I've certainly encountered academic scientists who consult with algae companies, because the scientists concluded algae is a far better feedstock than corn.

Does the same apply to publishing peer-reviewed articles? Is this a good example of academics working with companies to find solutions, or of a journal bridging the gap between the ivory tower and the real world? Or is this article example of "the literature" being sullied by industry influence?


Friday, October 01, 2010

Senate candidate in Wisconsin questioning climate change

Of all the elected and hoping-to-be-elected politicians openly questioning the evidence for climate change, I have personally found it most depressing to learn about the Republican Senate candidate in Wisconsin.

The state's flagship university in the capitol of Madison has a terrific Department of Atmosphere and Ocean Sciences, a place I was fortunate enough to do my PhD. There are many experts about the climate system walking to halls and the many stairs of the AOS Building.

There are reasonable arguments to make against federal climate policy.  I may disagree with those arguments. That is a personal judgment - I'd like to think an informed from years of thinking and working on the issue - but a personal judgment nonetheless. It is another to use flip analogies to argue against overwhelming scientific evidence. Especially when there are qualified people just around the corner that can help. That's 1225 West Dayton St.; at 15 stories with a big orb on the roof, quite easy to spot. I'd guess about a nice 20 minute stroll from the Capitol Square, not counting a stop at the Buraka food cart on Library Mall.