Efforts by scientists of Montana to inform Montana’s reticent politicians of the relentless advance of climate change in Montana is described in a recent article by Elliot Negin of The Huffington Post (see it at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elliott-negin/montana-big-sky-country-b_b_5676971.html). Negin’s article bears the same title as used above and points to a letter written to Montana politicians and newspapers by a set of Montana scientists, including me, who have had considerable research experience in the field of climate change. That letter can be seen at http://missoulian.com/news/opinion/columnists/climate-change-is-a-scientific-reality/article_be9457f6-17fc-11e4-8692-001a4bcf887a.html.
Recently (see it at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/09/opinion/krugman-interests-ideology-and-climate.html%5B/embed%5D) economist Paul Krugman provided an article entitled “Interests, ideology, and climate” that helps one understand the primary force behind climate denial and our efforts to arrest the advance of man-caused global warming. That main force is NOT that we cannot afford to make necessary changes in our means of energy production. It is instead the ideological or philosophical view that the unrestrained pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem. A name commonly attached to that ideology is libertarianism. While I can appreciate some potentially good outcomes of that philosophy, I have also personally witnessed how it can be used inappropriately when applied to the topic of climate change.
The rest of this post concerns one of those personal experiences. About one year and a half ago, I was listening to a conservative radio talk show out of Billings, Montana, where an old friend of mine was being interviewed. They were discussing issues related to climate change with my friend who had been a professor of economics at Montana State University, Bozeman, and Stanford University, Californa, and is now the President of one of those so-called “think tanks” going by the name of Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC) located in Bozeman, Montana (one of my friend’s recent articles from PERC can be seen at
During his radio interview, my friend’s answer to one question in particular drew my attention. He was asked to provide his opinion concerning the advisability of a Carbon Tax. He replied by saying that he does not waste time studying a carbon tax because he thought it had no chance of ever being implemented.
That comment both surprised and disappointed me because, as I have pointed out before on this blog and the entire last chapter of my book (see ericgrimsrud.com), I and most scientists believe that a carbon tax is the best, if not only way that CO2 emissions can be significantly reduced. After all, if we use our atmosphere as a waste dump for the excess CO2 we are putting into the environment, shouldn’t we assign to that process a waste disposal fee just as we do for the disposal of the nuclear wastes associated with nuclear power plants? If one believes in the prevailing science associated with CO2’s role in the greenhouse effect, wouldn’t one then believe that a fee or carbon tax should be applied to its emissions? Yet, my friend said that he was not wasting any time thinking about this form of taxation.
Obviously, I wondered where my friend was coming from and asked him to explain himself in subsequent email communications. In those communications, I first asked him if he accepted the prevailing view of man-caused warming that has emerged out of the main-stream scientific literature. His response was that he did not think the science related in those sources was as useful or relevant to the problem as that promoted by another scientist named Matt Ridley of Great Britain – who happened to be good friend of my friend and also was a fellow libertarian on economic issues. I have discussed Ridley and his view before on this blog (see my post in Feb 2013 entitled “The unwarranted hubris of mankind and Matt Ridely”). By his own admission in his book, “Rational Optimist“, he is not really a climate scientist. He is a biologist and well known writer in that field. His overall views concerning our climate were not determined by way of real science but instead come from his personal philosophies concerning the historic economic concerns of mankind. In essence, he believes that mankind will rise to meet whatever challenges face him in the future and in the meantime should arm himself with as much wealth as he can so as to be in a stronger position when the crunch eventually does comes. In short, both my friend and Ridley appear to be ignoring the best science available today – which recommends that changes be made now in order to prevent disasters later. The fact that my friend pointed to Matt Ridley as his favored scientific spokesperson of the subject of climate change was both disturbing and telling.
Therefore, I tried to extend my discussions with my friend to include specific irrefutable and obvious aspects of the science. He was not interested in going there, however, and was clearly annoyed by the “help” I was trying to provide. I suspected that any subsequent emails I might have sent him would have gone straight into his trash bin. Because I am sure my friend is very intelligent and because he is in a position to influence the opinions of his customers who come to PERC for advice on environmental issues, I was most disappointed to see that my old friend had essentially turned his back on the real science of climate change in order to retain his ideological purity. In the process, he has become distinctly “anti-intellectual” with respect to one of the most important disciplines of mankind (science).
In pondering this personal experience, I was struck today by how precisely Paul Krugman explained all of this in his article referred to above. Yes, indeed, the main hurdle to action on climate change is not the costs involved (Krugman is a Noble Prize winning economist whose research has made this point clear). Instead that main hurdle is the anti-intellectual attack on science perpetrated by the likes of my friend and the pseudo-climate scientist, Matt Ridley.
I will finish with a few words from Krugman’s article – the first paragraph 0f which seems to be referring to my friend.
“Well, think about global warming from the point of view of someone who grew up taking Ayn Rand seriously, believing that the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem, never the solution. Along come some scientists declaring that unrestricted pursuit of self-interest will destroy the world, and that government intervention is the only answer. It doesn’t matter how market-friendly you make the proposed intervention; this is a direct challenge to the libertarian
So the real obstacle, as we try to confront global warming, is economic ideology reinforced by hostility to science. In some ways this makes the task easier: we do not, in fact, have to force people to accept large monetary losses. But we do have to overcome pride and willful ignorance, which is hard indeed.
Paul Krugman, New York Times, June 9, 2014″
As Krugman recommends, maybe I will continue to try to drill a bit of basic scientific common sense into the left side of my friend’s brain – he should pay more attention to what it would tell him if he allowed it to function. On the other hand, it is very difficult to convince someone of something if becoming convinced might result in the loss of one’s income. I am sure that the very generous Koch brothers, for example, would not like to see such a change of attitude by the President of PERC. Nevertheless, my friend’s example represents the main barrier we have today for preserving a better planet for its future residents. My thanks go to Krugman for making this important point so clear.
In posts I have placed on my blog during the last two years (see a full list of them at ericgrimsrud.com under the menu tab, author’s blog), I have painted a distinctly dark picture concerning our prospects for addressing CO2-caused climate change. In a recent article entitled “Seven reasons why America will fail on climate change” columnist Ezra Klein, has done the same by listing the seven basic reasons why he believes “all” is essentially lost (see it at http://www.vox.com/2014/6/5/5779040/7-reasons-America-fail-global-warming Like me, Klein would like to be more optimistic and would love to have someone point out why he could be more optimistic. On my blog and in my book entitled “Thoughts of a Scientist, Citizen and Grandpa on Climate Change” I have previously discussed all of Klein’s seven reasons – which I have listed below – and agree with his assessment of each of them. What I would like to draw primary attention to here, however, is his concluding statement concerning what might nevertheless be done for the benefit of future generations. I also share Kein’s view on this point – concerning why it is important to continue to do whatever we can – even if “our best” will very possibly not be enough.
First, Klein’s seven reasons for pessimism:
1) We’ve waited so long that what America needs to do is really, really hard — and maybe impossible.
2) The people most affected by climate change don’t get a vote. (Here he is referring to the numerous poor countries of the world that will be affected first and most intensely by climate change).
3) We’re bad at sacrenificing now to benefit later.
4) The effects of global warming are not easily reversible and has a “game over” quality to it.
5) The Republican Party has gone off the rails on climate change. It was Palin’s position, not that of John McCain, that captured the Republican Party.
6) The international cooperation required is unprecedented, and maybe impossible
7) Geoengineering is nuts. (I agree that the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere is not financially possible. The other geoengineering approach is to increase the reflection of incoming solar radiation. While that one raises many serious and probably show-stopping questions, nutty, questionable approaches might turn out to be our only remaining options).
Then,Klein concludes with his best attempt to envision why we should continue to fight this fight. I totally agree with his view on this point also and have provided it verbatim below. :
A more optimistic view – by Ezra Klein
“I could add that section here, too. I could make up a more optimistic story. I just don’t believe it (though — and I mean this seriously — I would be deeply grateful to anyone who could convince me of it). The world is failing to do nearly enough on climate change nearly fast enough. That isn’t to take away from the incredible work of the activists trying to push politicians further and faster, or to deny the possibility that a once-in-a-generation storm will upend the politics or a tremendous technological breakthrough will render the problem moot. Pessimism shouldn’t be considered fatalism. And impossible fights have been won before.
Perhaps more to the point, climate change isn’t binary. There’s not a single state of success and a single state of failure. Warming the world by 2.5 degrees Celsius is a whole lot better than warming it by three degrees Celsius. Warming the world by three degrees Celsius is vastly less catastrophic than warming it by four degrees Celsius. There are manageable failures and there are unmanageable failures. We’re currently on track for an unmanageable failure. I think it’s possible that we can slowly, painfully pull ourselves towards a manageable failure, but I’m not willing to call that optimism.
On climate change, the truth has gone from inconvenient to awful. Right now we’re failing our future. And we will be judged harshly for it.”
Occasionally in US history, we have been faced with a particularly difficult problem for which we nearly all knew what the correct solution was but found it nearly impossible to implement in a timely manner. For example, even before the American Civil War was fought, most well-read Americans, in the South as well as in the North, surely realized that the institution of slavery would eventually have to be discontinued if the USA hoped to be one of the premier countries of the world. Can you imagine, for example, that some of our states today might have remained potential customers in the sale of those 300 girls recently kidnapped in northern Nigeria? By one means or another, the institution of slavery would certainly have been discontinued in the US by now if it had not been removed relatively quickly during the American Civil War.
A similarly obvious but difficult issue faces us today. Most well-read people know by now that the heat content of our planet is rapidly increasing due largely to the combustion of fossil fuels. In addition, they know that if something close to the human-friendly conditions mankind has enjoyed during the last seven millennia are to continue into the next century and beyond, we must stop CO2 emissions as soon as we can – at least within the next few decades. But yet, we are presently stuck in a state of grossly insufficient action while the only score card that matters – the level of CO2 in the atmosphere – still increases at an increasing rate every year. Our planet has never seen such rates of CO2 increase before and we know that changing CO2 levels have been the primary cause of temperature changes in the past. The task at hand is taunting and little headway is being made on a scale large enough to matter. Thus, it is useful to consider more closely how America’s previous problem of enormous magnitude – the institution of slavery – came to be so suddenly addressed after the election of Abraham Lincoln.
First, it is important to note that the US President who is universally credited with abolishing slavery in the US did not actually set out to do that when elected in 1860. President Lincoln’s stated intention at that time was simply to set a new path for the US by which slavery would not be allowed to spread into the new states being added. While Lincoln abhorred slavery, he was not yet an abolitionist when first elected. He believed that slavery should not be precipitously abolished in the southern slave states by a federal decree but that it would be abolished eventually and gradually over time as that was increasingly perceived by all to be the “correct” and “just” thing to do. The slave states did not accept Lincoln’s offer of compromise in 1860, however, and chose instead to try to withdraw from the Union – an act that Lincoln would not tolerate.
Only after two years of horrific warfare over the question of Southern succession, Lincoln decided to expand the significance of the Civil War by taking an action on the slavery issue. By use of his power as Commander and Chief of the military during a time of war, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation by which all slaves living in the rebellion states would be free as of Jan. 1, 1863. This then led to a migration of former slaves from those rebel states to the North where they joined the Union forces. This greatly strengthened the Union side and caused the North and border states to be more sympathetic to the plight of American slaves. Thus in 1865, the 13th Amendment was passed by votes of 2/3 majority in both the US Congress and House, thereby freeing all slaves within the US. Thus, the institution of slavery came to be abolished throughout the entire USA far sooner than expected because Lincoln set his country on a new path in 1860 directed at the long-term solution to the problem.
I think and hope that our current President, Barack Obama, is following in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln as he approaches our nation’s greatest unresolved problems. On the national health care issue, for example, he has already managed to move our country onto a new path towards universal coverage. That first act, merely of setting a new path, is likely to be of far more historic importance than any specific details of the subsequent plans that have emerged so far. Continuous refinements and improvements are sure to follow.
The primary concern of this blog, however, is climate change and on that front I again think and hope that President Obama is proceeding in a Lincolnesque manner. With respect the termination of fossil fuel use, Obama is not yet an abolitionist. He resides still in the “all of the above” camp in which he and his administration has so far promoted the development of both fossil-fuel-based and alternate (wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear) sources of energy. As in the case of slavery in 1860, however, most of us probably realize that distinctly harmful habits should eventually be eliminated. That is, we simply must stop adding CO2 to our atmosphere each year and the only way to do that is to stop ALL conversions of geological carbon (fossil fuels) to biological carbon (CO2). The dire need for this course of action is amplified by the fact that once added, we have no means of removing that excess atmospheric CO2. It stays there for many centuries.
Therefore, it should be clear to all that Obama’s present “all of the above” strategy must gradually change into one in which “all of the above” no longer includes fossil fuels. The suppliers of fossil fuels know this, of course, and for their own financial reasons are likely to push back even on Obama’s initial “all of the above” strategy – just as the slave states of the South did in 1860 in response to the compromise Lincoln offered them. Everyone knows what happens when a ball gets rolling in a correct and needed direction and the multitude invested in our reserves of fossil fuels are undoubtedly doing their best to prevent that initial motion.
To fully appreciate the great resistance to the abolition of fossil fuel use today, one needs only to reflect on the following facts. The Earth today still contains at least 10 times more fossil fuels than have been used, to date, over the entire Industrial Age. If we use more than a very small portion of that huge remaining supply, we will be setting a course for future genocide on an unprecedented global scale. On the other hand, if and when we do manage to agree to leave most of those fossil fuels in the ground, that act will cause the greatest loss of personal wealth ever experienced in the USA since the abolition of slavery. While the fossil fuels in the ground presently have considerable value, we must now declare them to have essentially no value and, in addition, assign a stiff penalty to their continued use.
Since the financial stakes associated with the elimination of carbon emissions and the communal need to do just that are both so high, a world-wide battle of some sort very likely lies before us. Whatever form that battle takes, it will be one that simply must be won by the one and only side that is supported by science. In response to the impacts of Man on our planet, Mother Nature will call the shots and, to our knowledge, she will pay no attention whatsoever to our personal preferences concerning politics or economics. Without victory in this conflict, there will be no level of survival on which viable political and financial systems can be built. So, President Obama, please do continue to hold your course. Enormous beneficial changes occurred in the USA under President Lincoln’s wise and steady leadership and that can happen again.
In 1860, President Lincoln first drew his line specifically at the spread of slavery to the new states. He did not allow it and that simple, but forceful act changed everything. You, President Obama, can draw your line at the spread of North America’s vast supplies of fossil fuels throughout the world. You should block all such actions beginning with a cancellation of the pending Keystone XL pipeline project. That one clear act of hindrance to an outdated and unsustainable path could change everything.
“Hope isn’t the kind of thing that you can say either exists or doesn’t exist. It’s like a path across the land that’s not there to begin with, but when lots of people go the same way, it comes into being.” Chinese writer, Lu Xun.
In a recent article posted at Skeptical Science (see http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-not-slowing-its-speeding-up.html), Jim Wight provides an excellent summary of some of the factors recently discussed on this blog – such as where the extra heat due to our elevated greenhouse gases is presently going and how that will play out in the future. With about 94% of that heat going into the oceans and only small fractions going into our atmosphere and land masses, observations of surface temperatures, alone, reveal only a small portion of that total heat content and can be grossly misinterpreted and misused by the deniers of man-caused global warming. This is because natural cycles of the sun and oceans currents can also have significant effects on surface and atmospheric temperatures. During the last decade, for example, both of these natural cycles have been in the direction of cooling thus masking some of the surface heating caused by our continuously increasing greenhouse gas levels. Cycles, however, are things that eventually go up as well as down. So hang on, Wight says, as we are about to go for quite a hot ride upward – as the release of that stored heat in our oceans and the natural cycles begin to go in the same direction.
I have provided below most of his summary for his full article. See the full article for more and for the appropriate references to the primary scientific literature.
“Rapid surface warming will be back with a vengeance
In summary, the Earth is gaining heat faster than ever before. Arctic sea ice is melting at an astonishingly accelerating rate and could soon be all gone. Most indications of climate change are proving worse than scientists predicted. When you include the fast-changing Arctic, surface warming in the last 15 years has continued at only a slightly slower rate. This apparent “slowdown” in surface warming is temporary and can be explained by a combination of ocean and solar cycles, with a possible contribution from reflective particles emitted by volcanoes and/or Asian industry.
The apparent slowdown of surface warming is not only giving us a false sense of security; it actually indicates warming will accelerate in the future.
The “slowdown” of surface warming will not continue forever because natural cycles are just that: cycles. Although currently they are counteracting the underlying greenhouse warming trend, sooner or later the cycles will turn around and reinforce it, causing surface warming to catch up to where it would otherwise be. Solar activity is already ramping up again. And when the IPO inevitably shifts back into a warm phase, all the heat now being stored in the deep oceans will be released back into the atmosphere. Even if the cycles somehow get stuck, they will be overwhelmed by rising greenhouse gases as emissions continue (even if solar activity fell to its 17th-century low, the effect would be outweighed by just seven years of greenhouse gas emissions). Natural cycles are now merely waves on the rising tide of greenhouse warming.
Particulate air pollution also cannot continue sustainably because (by definition) it causes other harmful effects. In any case, it remains in the atmosphere for a much shorter timeframe than CO2, and cannot counter its ocean acidification impacts.
Temperatures over the next couple of years will be largely determined by the Southern Oscillation. Short-term models project it will either remain neutral or shift to an El Niño phase by mid-2014. In the latter case, 2014 will probably be warmer than 2013, and 2014 or 2015 is likely to be a record-smashing hot year.
Total cumulative CO2 emissions will be the main factor in the magnitude of long-term global warming. Under the world’s current climate policies we’re headed for >4°C warming by 2100, a temperature unprecedented for the human species and probably beyond our capacity to adapt. If we want global warming to truly pause, we must hit the pause button. We need to leave the vast majority of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground, even just to have a good chance of limiting global warming to the unsafe level of <2°C. To have any hope of stabilizing the climate, we urgently need to phase out global greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. Most importantly, we must phase out the largest and longest-lived cause of global warming, fossil fuel CO2 emissions.
There is no time to lose. Rapid global surface warming will be back – faster than ever before.”
Note of clarification added by EPG:
The two natural cycles referred to above are those of the sun and what’s referred to as the IPC. The intensity of the sun varies slightly, only about 0.1% up and down in a cycle frequency of about 11 years. During most of the last decade, it has been changing downward but is now headed upward.
The main cause of slower atmospheric warming during the last decade, however, has been the ocean circulation cycle called the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO). Ocean cycles periodically redistribute heat within the Earth’s climate system (particularly between the ocean and the atmosphere), and are unrelated to long-term climate change caused by the heat entering and leaving our planet via it’s absorption of sunlight and it’s emission of infrared radiation. This sort of internal variability is the reason climate scientists focus on long-term trends instead of short-term ones, and the total amount of heat building up rather than the rate of surface warming.
I was extremely pleased with John Kerry’s recent speech given in Indonesia on the subject of global warming. We have rarely seen to date a sitting high-level government official give such a strong speech on this subject in which he made clear the critical need for immediate international action concerning our emissions of greenhouse gases. You can either read or listen to his entire speech at http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2014/02/221704.htm?utm_medium=App.net&utm_source=PourOver
In response to what I just said some might be thinking “wait a minute – how about Al Gore?”. Wasn’t he the first politician to sound the alarm on climate change? I will remind you, therefore, that Al Gore became a prominent leader of the climate change movement in the years following his exit from politics in 2000. Prior to then, Al Gore and the President he served, Bill Clinton, were relatively quiet on the subject. Thus, that recent speech by John Kerry constitutes a milestone event for sitting American politicians.
One might think it would be a waste of time to try to recall a similarly strong statement ever made by an American Republican – and it indeed would be. This was evidenced in the last Republican nominating process prior to the presidential election of 2012. Only one Republican aspirant even recognized the existence of a climate change problem and John Huntsman’s candidacy finished near the bottom partially for that reason. The issue of climate change has never even been listed as an area of concern on the platform of the Republican Party.
Thus, in order to find a standing Conservative Leader who had sufficient scientific savvy and a sufficient sense of responsibility to the overall good of the public that elected them, we have to look beyond the borders of our own country. In that search, however, we have only to look to Great Britain and guess who we find there? None other than the leading Conservative of the late 20th Century, the so called “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain between 1979 and 1990. Although she was the first and only female Prime Minister ever elected in GB, she took more pride herself in the fact that she was the first and only research scientist to ever become Prime Minister of Great Britain. She had previously received a degree in chemistry from Oxford University and had done research in British industries while simultaneously immersing herself in local and then national politics.
Thatcher was clearly unique among the conservatives of her time and place and certainly would be among her American counterparts today. She actually held the fields of science in high regard and actually did pay attention to the consensus views of scientists when dealing with issues involving science. Thus, by the end of her term as Prime Minister, about 25 years ago, she was already very concerned about the rising emissions of greenhouse gases and became the first high level public official anywhere to sound the alarm of greenhouse gas warming (see her speech delivered to the UN General Assembly in 1989 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnAzoDtwCBg). We can be sure that she was also labeled an “alarmist” by the business-as-usual forces of her time. Knowing Margaret as we now do (if you don’t, see the recent movie “The Iron Lady” with Meryl Streep), we can be sure she wore that alarmist label as well as did her favorite British politician, Winston Churchill, when he sounded the alarm concerning Nazi expansion in Europe during the 1930’s.
Thus, when I say I am proud of John Kerry for his recent statement on the greatest problem of our time, I am sure that Margaret Thatcher would have been also. Nevertheless, we can be sure that Kerry’s speech will be ridiculed by our modern American set of so called, “conservatives” and that does bother me. I think the minds of conservatives today are continuously shrinking due to their self-righteous focus on narrow ideological points and trivial goals – almost always related to the embarrassment and removal of the person who was fairly and squarely elected in our last presidential election. Unfortunately, the present leadership of conservative party does not include a Margaret Thatcher who is both scientifically literate and socially responsible – as the Democratic Party now clearly does. It is ironic as well as sad to watch the conservatives of today doing their very best to confuse and delay the actions on climate change that their own leader did her best to initiate 25 years ago.
There has been much enthusiasm in the last decade for the increased development of natural gas (NG) for general energy use in our homes and vehicles and for the replacement of coal in power plants. Natural gas does, indeed, appear to be very “clean” relative to coal and non-traditional fossil fuels such as the tar sands. Also, that attractive lady on the Chevron commercials assures us that natural gas is really good – better than puppies and rainbows – and that all will be fine if we just let Chevron and other fossil fuel industries look after our energy needs.
Unfortunately, however, this hype concerning NG is BS – for the following reasons:
First, natural gas is a form of fossil fuel, of course. It consists mainly of methane (CH4) along with some ethane (C2H6) and propane (C3H8). When burned, the carbon in all of these molecules is converted to CO2 and emitted into the atmosphere, just as in the combustion of oil and coal.
Next, in the extraction, distribution, and use of NG, leaks occur resulting in release of large amounts of methane directly into the atmosphere. It is commonly estimated that those leaks amount to about 7% of the total NG extracted and are largely unavoidable. This is very bad news because on a molecule-to-molecule basis, methane is some 70 times more effective than CO2 in causing greenhouse gas warming. Thus, that 7% leakage of NG causes far greater immediate warming than does the equivalent emission of CO2. I have added the term “immediate” here because atmospheric methane is converted to CO2 in about 20 years by natural oxidative processes (after that conversion, the extra CO2 thereby produced simply adds to our total elevated CO2 level and lasts for several centuries).
In addition, our use of NG in power plants is not just replacing coal. It is also replacing and retarding the use and development of the non-CO2 producing methods of power production, including wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear. Even though the combustion of methane provides about twice the energy per CO2 molecule produced relative to coal, its continued use will lead us to the same “dead end” concerning greenhouse gas warming that is being caused by all of the other fossil fuels. Only by the use of non-CO2 producing methods can that degradation be arrested.
Any detailed analysis of future NG use clearly supports what I have said here. That is, the replacement of coal in power plants and gasoline in vehicles by NG is a losing proposition and you should not be taken in by the claims of that attractive lady in the Chevron commercials. Increased use of (so called) “clean” NG is not a solution to global warming. Instead, it is becoming one of the major causes of global warming. For more on this topic with the numbers to support my message, see http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/02/19/3296831/natural-gas-climate-benefit/
In understanding the science associated with climate change it is very useful to separate the most basic and well understood parts from the rest which can be very complex and challenging even for professional scientists to fully comprehend. The easy-to-understand and most basic part of climate change concerns the overall total heat balance of the Earth.
The crust of the Earth receives and emits energy almost entirely via electromagnetic radiation (EMR). EMR emitted by the sun (sunlight) is absorbed by the Earth and EMR in the form of Infrared Radiation (IR) is emitted back into space by the Earth. Only a small portion of the IR emitted by the surface of the Earth passes directly into outer space, however. Most of it is absorbed and then reemitted by the IR-active molecules in our atmosphere that we call the greenhouse gases (GHG’s). The net effect of the GHG’s is to act as the Earth’s “insulation” – warming both our atmosphere and the surface below. The most abundance permanent GHG is CO2 and due primarily to our combustion of fossil fuels, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen from 280 to more than 400 parts per million over the Industrial Age. This excess CO2 will stay there for several centuries because it takes a very long time for nature to convert biological carbon (that which cycles through plants, the atmosphere, and the oceans) back to its geological forms (fossil fuels and limestone).
Thus, the Earth is warming up and will continue to do so for a very long time as the thermal inertia of the Earth (provided mainly by its oceans and glacial ice) is steadily overcome. Furthermore, the magnitude of expected future warming is increasing every year as we continue to add more CO2 to the atmosphere – causing its level to rise about 3 ppm per year. In addition, the fraction of incoming solar radiation (about 30% over the entire planet, called the “albedo”) that is reflected back into space is decreasing as our planet’s surface ice is turned into either open ocean or ground. This effect also warms the planet – especially in the Arctic regions.
Concerning the issue of average global warming, the above tells the story – it really is that straightforward. But wait a minute! In response to this comment we can expect to see the deniers of the world try to muddy the issue as much as possible in an effort to make the science involved seem far more complex, less understandable and much more uncertain than I have related above. You will also note, however, that all of these other issues will concern how that extra energy is being spread and distributed throughout the world – thus affecting local climates. That is a different subject, however, called “meteorology” which is, indeed, exceedingly complex and not so well understood. Thus, we will hear a lot about things such as local surface temperatures, the El Nino and La Nina effects of the ocean currents, the unusually cold and snowy weather being experienced here and there, and proliferation of animal and plant species here and there. Although all of these parameters and the exceedingly important discipline of meteorology are linked to the total global heat content of the Earth, they do not affect the total heat content of the Earth. That is, our planet will continue to heat up as described initially no matter how, where, and when that extra energy is distributed.
So what can be done about stopping our ongoing increase in the total heat content of the Earth? The answer to that question becomes very clear, does it not, when proper attention if given to central cause of that heat increase. Concerning the CO2 we have already put into the atmosphere – probably relatively little can be done – we will undoubtedly have to learn to live with the heat increase we already have as well as that which already is in the pipeline. But concerning the additional CO2 we will be putting into the atmosphere in the future, we have the option of doing a lot – the future cumulative emissions of CO2 is, in fact, the only parameter we have any control over.
A potential rub here will depend on what sort of “solution” will be viewed as having the “least impact on our quality of life”. If we are concerned only with our immediate, short-term future, we will undoubtedly continue to “party on” with business-as-usual for a couple of decades – and then just watch the Earth degrade at an even faster pace thereafter. If we also care about future generations, however, life across our entire planet must change a great deal – starting with going “cold turkey” on our addiction to fossil fuels. While science can certainly help us make it through that process, it is unlikely to offer easy and pain-free fixes. The required changes will have to include that old-fashioned bit (stop the addiction) before other measures (development of carbon free energy sources) will have significant beneficial effects. And if you happen to believe that there is no point in trying because of the increasing emissions of other countries, such as China and India, you have already given up and have effectively joined the “party on” group.
I realize that the obvious but tough solution to the global warming problem I am suggesting here will not be readily accepted my many who will continue to embrace the various “happier” versions of science being dispensed by the numerous pseudo-scientists in our midst. You will note, however, that these deniers will invariably use details of “meteorology” rather than “the total average heat content” of the Earth in trying to confuse the issue as much as possible. Sure, we do not know exactly how, when, and where the effects of continuous additional heat will play out. But we do know for certain that our planet is presently being heated up at a rate thousands of times faster than any previous point in the last billion years. As described in my previous post concerning “tipping points”, we also know what is sure to happen when heat-induced natural emissions of methane and carbon dioxide begin to exceed those of mankind.
When we consider the undesirable effects of global warming, the one that is by far the most alarming is the possibility of reaching a major “tipping point” beyond which Mother Nature’s response to the effects of man will be to drive our planet to such an extremely warm state that most forms of life will be driven to near or even full extinction. A most distressing aspect of reaching that state is that future generations would not even have any hope whatsoever for future corrections and improvements. The “game” of life, as we have come to know and love it, would, indeed, be over.
Wow! That is truly an alarming statement is it not? But is there any basis to it other than conjecture? Unfortunately, there is, indeed, a great deal of historical basis for it. Our planet has gone through several of these so called “extinction” events before and most occurred for exactly the same reason that we think another is in the works today. That is, rising levels of carbon dioxide will eventually (and possibly even soon) warm the Earth enough to cause the release massive amounts of solid-phase methane that has been made and stored over the last several tens of millions years under our ocean floors. An additional boost to methane and carbon dioxide levels will be provided by the melting of our tundra’s permafrost.
My statement above is superbly illustrated in a recent video that can be seen at lasthours.org Please do have a look and when you do, try to remember that this is not science fiction. It is based on geologists’ studies of the Earth’s crust. Also recall that measurements of atmospheric CO2 levels have clearly shown that mankind is already pulling very hard on that “CO2 trigger” required for the onset of another extinction event and is capable of doing so in a “geological second”. Our atmospheric level of CO2 is currently increasing – due mainly to fossil fuel combustion – at a rate thousands of times faster than all previous rate increases naturally caused by volcanoes. Again, have a look at lasthours.org and note the great resemblance of what is starting to happen today to the history lesson provided there.
A couple of weeks ago, the State Department released its final environmental impact statement on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Both critics and supporters of the pipeline have awaited the report, ever since President Obama last year singled out carbon pollution as a parameter in Keystone’s national interest calculation. That report, however, turned out to be distinctly disappointing to anyone who understands the basic science involved. Its findings are internally inconsistent – it confuses rather than clarifies the issues. Let me explain.
First and foremost, the report does recognize the obvious and most important factor associated with future warming by the greenhouse gases: that is, that “the total direct and indirect emissions” resulting from the development of the pipeline “would contribute to cumulative global GHG emissions.” If we can assume that the State Department knows about the extraordinarily long lifetime of the extra CO2 we put into the atmosphere, the word “cumulative” in this case means the CO2 emitted over all of the next several centuries.
Then, the report goes on to say that the proposed pipeline is “unlikely to significantly affect the rate of extraction in oil sands areas,” and does not actually consider the overall cumulative greenhouse gas emissions of the tar sands oil that would ultimately flow through it for the many years after it is built. As has been pointed out many times on several posts on this blog, it is only the “cumulative” emissions (I might have added “stupid”) over the next several centuries that matter – rather than shorter term “emission rates”. Thus, it appears that the authors of this report have been duped into an irrelevant and misleading representation of the problem that would be caused by the construction of a long-lived conduit to the tar sands of Alberta. As has been also pointed out in several previous posts on this blog, the world cannot afford to use even a large portion its existing and relatively clean sources of gas and oil. All coal and the relatively dirty and low-energy forms of fossil fuels – such as the tar sands – must be left in the ground.
So what’s next on the tar sands question? We can only hope that the Secretary of State, John Kerry, and the President of the USA, Barack Obama, have the courage to do the scientifically responsible thing and block the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. I know that both of these men are not scientifically stupid and realize how important this moment is with respect to the USA’s future role in addressing this global, not just regional, issue. If they fail to do this, perhaps the only remaining significant points of potential resistance to all-powerful business-as-usual (even if scientifically mindless) forces of the USA and the world will have been bypassed. A huge new spigot to continued global degradation will have then been turned on.
Personally, I don’t think that either of these two men will do that, however. Both of these very well and broadly educated men do not wish to be future welcomed guests of only the Chamber of Commerce’s throughout the USA. Also, I don’t think either of them want to be less than irrelevant footnotes in future historical accounts of how the USA failed to seriously address the most important issue of our time. If they pass on this one, where else could a substantial stand be made? Talk on this subject has become so cheap, it is meaningless. A decision is due soon so get your own input in ASAP and if courage is finally demonstrated, celebrate it!