Objectively Pro-Planet

earth-shineEarth, that is.

Is there a consensus that this is the best planet? I mean, everyone talks about Mars and then there’s Jupiter. Saturn has those rings… but Earth? Do we care about it? Is it a question on familiarity? Are we bored with seven continents and the oceans maintaining certain levels, the tides and one moon? Asking for a friend.

The idea of a climate war should be the height of absurdity. But do we even register affront when news is reported this way? Maybe the media on other planets is also better.

Paying energy companies to arrest climate change

Tar Pit #3In a piece about a new essay by MSNBC host and Nation editor-at-large Chris Hayes, an interesting view on the climate crisis and a new notion (to me) about what might be required:

Drawing off of an earlier essay written by climate activist and expert Bill McKibben — as well as the work of the Carbon Tracker Initiative — Hayes notes that the total amount of carbon in the proven fossil fuel reserves of the world’s energy corporations and fossil fuel-producing countries (2,795 gigatons) vastly exceeds the amount scientists say we can release into our atmosphere by the middle of this century before risking catastrophic climate change (565 gigatons). And what makes this disparity even more alarming is the fact that these carbon reserves are worth an estimated $20 trillion. If we’re going to save the planet, in other words, then a lot of powerful interests in the energy sector will have to leave a lot of money on the table.

Taking into consideration the enormous amount of wealth that will have to be nullified if climate activists are to achieve their goal, Hayes draws an intriguing parallel between the modern divestment movement and the abolitionist movement of the 19th century. While he makes pains to emphasize that he doesn’t see people in the energy industry as morally equivalent to slaveholders, Hayes argues that the only precedent in American history of a political group relinquishing so much wealth is the emancipation of the South’s slaves in the 1860s — an achievement that was reached in part through a hideous Civil War.

So… are we going to have to compensate energy companies not to take more carbon out of the ground? While not as crazy as you might think (it’s in some way crazier), this gambit has some historical analogs in the immediate pre-Civil war that were also seen as desperate, last gasp efforts. And abandoned. What the suggestions say about us and craven lack of ability to deal with our own planetary suicidal tendencies, they say rather loudly. This type of self-extortion should be reserved for dystopian sci-fi adventures. And the [horrible] thing is, I’m not at all certain that we shouldn’t do it!

Paying companies for not making money from poisoning us all. Do not attempt to think about this for extended periods, or depression may occur.

Image: Alberta Tar Sands, via Occupy.com

On not cutting emissions immediately

Extratropical_formation_areasOr, as we say around the schoolyard, a 2° Celsius rise in global temperatures. Or maybe not:

“At some point, scientists will have to declare that it’s game over for the 2°C target,” says Oliver Geden, a climate policy analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “But they haven’t yet. Because nobody knows what will happen if they call this thing off.” The 2°C target was one of the few things that everyone at global climate talks could agree on. If the goal turns out to be impossible, people might just stop trying altogether.

Recently, then, some scientists and policymakers have been taking a fresh look at whether the 2°C limit is still the best way to think about climate change. Is this simple goal actually making it harder to prepare for the warming that lies ahead? Is it time to consider other approaches to climate policy? And if 2°C really is so dangerous, what do we do when it’s out of reach?

The best way to think about climate change – that is quite the challenge. What we can tolerate, what the remaining flora and fauna can tolerate, what does tolerate mean? how hot is too hot? These are but the tip of the iceberg of stupid questions, because if we’re asking them, we are looking for ways to put off doing anything about the reasons the temperatures are going up. In the meantime, evidence is mounting that cutting carbon emissions makes economic sense, smashing the most constant rationale for just sitting there (in traffic). Start by decarbonizing some part of your life today and begin to work out from there. Think of it as freeing yourself from something, if you have to. Take some individual steps, and don’t worry about what China or India isn’t doing. As the article points out, if our body temperature goes up 2°C, we have a significant fever.

Image: extratropical cyclone formation areas, between approximately 30° and 60° N/S latitude, via wikimedia commons.

Fishing Nets and Fighter Jets

Chinese_Fishing_Nets_CochinAnd I should have thrown Opening Day in there too, but, you know, symmetry.

The new IPCC report, building on previous assessments, has made the future impacts of climate change all the more specific and detailed:

Scientists are increasingly finding a greenhouse gas fingerprint in extreme weather around the world. In the UK, the floods of this winter and the droughts of three years ago are a potential sign of things to come: risks of floods, droughts and heatwaves will increase in future. This is because of carbon already in the atmosphere and what we will add in years to come – even if we are successful cutting emissions.

And it’s very true, I know some of these scientists, though I don’t look favorably on their new fondness for adaptation in the face of these changes. One – we don’t mean it. Two – we don’t mean us. If you have the means, you will continue to design and develop useless, needless fighter jets. Meanwhile, Bangladesh. Should be meanswhile. I’m calling the dictionary people tomorrow.

We should still be focused on mitigation – reducing the greenhouse gas pollution that leads to climate change – it is still the cheapest path:

Mitigation efforts bring many “co-benefits” in addition to their reduction of greenhouse gas pollution. They benefit human health, energy security, biodiversity, and the general resilience of our environment and economy. The figures in the article do not include the economic impact of these co-benefits, which significantly reduces the net cost of mitigation.

Likewise, climate change brings harmful impacts that are not included in the purely economic cost estimate used here. This is acknowledged in the article, but it bears repeating. Lost lives don’t have a recognized economic value, and many of the soonest and harshest impacts of climate change will be in poor countries that won’t make a big splash in terms of global GDP.

Image: Chinese fishing nets in Kochi (India) via wikimedia commons.

Around to See It

Whether it’s color, cash, inexperience or the ins and outs of renewable energy development in general, I often find myself tacking away from the original intent of the meaning of the essence of this site. But then some new article comes out to bring it all back around:

Another conclave of the global great and good is looking at what should be done in the much trickier area of climate change. The premise of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate is that nothing will be done unless finance ministers are convinced of the need for action, especially given the damage caused by a deep recession and sluggish recovery.

Instead of preaching to the choir the plan is to show how to achieve key economic objectives – growth, investment, secure public finances, fairer distribution of income – while at the same time protecting the planet.

The author provides us the Kennedy space-race analogy as an illustration of the kind of efforts and leadership needed to curtail the effects of climate change, which is fine and well-meaning enough. But then he drops the second Pop-Tart® by suggesting that we need first to show/guarantee business the long-term benefits of greening the economy. I have one: how about you get to still have an economy?

That’s what the whole question is about: do we have enough greed to stifle the impulse toward self-preservation?

Okay – no one can use Enough Greed as a band name or an album title, because I just thought of it and realized its multitudes. Individual songs are fine as long as WDGM is ID’d in the bridge someplace.



Good faith vs. Bad

Sometimes, within the context of a supposed competition and especially one between competing ideas, it’s instructive to remember that the two sides might not even be playing the same game. One example.

Students at Harvard and other universities are agitating for the university to divest themselves of investments in the fossil fuel industry. Last week the President of Harvard Drew Faust issued a statement saying thanks but no thanks harvard will no do no such thing. Here’s a response from Divinity School student and climate activist Tim DeChristopher (who served a two-year federal sentence for civil disobedience):

Drew Faust seeks a position of neutrality in a struggle where the powerful only ask that people like her remain neutral. She says that Harvard’s endowment shouldn’t take a political position, and yet it invests in an industry that spends countless millions on corrupting our political system. In a world of corporate personhood, if she doesn’t want that money to be political, she should put it under her mattress. She has clearly forgotten the words of Paolo Freire: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and powerless means to side with the powerful, not to remain neutral.” Or as Howard Zinn put succinctly, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

She touts all the great research on climate change that is done at Harvard, but she ignores the fact that the fossil fuel industry actively works to suppress or distort every one of those efforts. To seriously suggest that any research will solve the climate crisis while we continue to allow the fossil fuel industry to maintain a stranglehold on our democracy is profoundly naive.

Emphasis mine. One side is trying to convince the public that climate change is real, the other is working, and largely succeeding, at stifling debate. Climate change denialists aren’t even that – they can’t and won’t debate the issue on the merits, and the public should take note. What they choose to do is attack the open system whereby society can debate what is happening to it and decide what to do. This course is at least as pernicious as the effects of the dirty energy of which it is service, as it provides for a comprehensive anti-democratic attack on the objective of self-government itself.

Forever changing

the climate.

It seems that potential new Shale oilfields in Argentina, Russia and Algeria also hold giant reserves of expensive, hard-to-get, difficult-to-refine, sludge to pout in our gas tanks.

Analysis by IHS published on Tuesday morning suggests fields including the Vaca Muerta of Argentine, the Bazhenov shale of Siberia and the Silurian shales of north Africa could produce more than the Bakken shale of North Dakota and the Eagle Ford of Texas.

However, the research group’s findings also show that costs for extracting “tight oil” reserves, held in shales and other challenging rocks, are significantly higher in other countries than in North America, suggesting they will need a higher oil price to be commercially viable.

Giant waves of pain

Climate change is disturbing the pattern of atmospheric flow around the globe, says the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK):

“An important part of the global air motion in the mid-latitudes of the Earth normally takes the form of waves wandering around the planet, oscillating between the tropical and the Arctic regions. So when they swing up, these waves suck warm air from the tropics to Europe, Russia, or the US, and when they swing down, they do the same thing with cold air from the Arctic,” explains lead author Vladimir Petoukhov.

“What we found is that during several recent extreme weather events these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks. So instead of bringing in cool air after having brought warm air in before, the heat just stays. In fact, we observe a strong amplification of the usually weak, slowly moving component of these waves,” says Petoukhov. Time is critical here: two or three days of 30 degrees Celsius are no problem, but twenty or more days lead to extreme heat stress. Since many ecosystems and cities are not adapted to this, prolonged hot periods can result in a high death toll, forest fires, and dramatic harvest losses.

I know I don’t like when my flow is disturbed; It’s tough out there for a planet.

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and change

Our societies are built to move slowly, says Bill McKibben in the Guardian. And that’s the difficulty with climate change:

We’re talking about a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics couldn’t care less if precipitous action raises gas prices, or damages the coal industry in swing states. It could care less whether putting a price on carbon slowed the pace of development in China, or made agribusiness less profitable.

Physics doesn’t understand that rapid action on climate change threatens the most lucrative business on Earth, the fossil fuel industry. It’s implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into heat, which means into melting ice and rising oceans and gathering storms. And unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets. Do nothing and you soon have a nightmare on your hands.

What are the dimensions to understanding climate change? He lists them, but what do you tell yourself that you have to know? More importantly, and this is the sticky part, what do you tell yourself so that you don’t have to think about it? This gets ugly, quickly, but it’s not like a +4 degree C is going to be a walk in the park.

I think we’ve figured out one of the key metrics – 350 PPM. Get down to that, charge people for the carbon we pump into the atmosphere and the problem… at least begins to change.

The Ocean-Carbon Cycle

I just heard about this yesterday, from a marine scientist working on modeling the associated feedback loops as the pace of climate change alters the extent to which giant green zones in the deep ocean are sucking up some of our bulging CO2 inventory. Because of the ‘nature’ of our stupid discourse about climate change, no one hears about this at all. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t, you know, still happening:

Evidence suggests that the past and current ocean uptake of human-derived (anthropogenic) CO2 is primarily a physical response to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Whenever the partial pressure of a gas is increased in the atmosphere over a body of water, the gas will diffuse into that water until the partial pressures across the air-water interface are equilibrated. However, because the global carbon cycle is intimately embedded in the physical climate system there exist several feedback loops between the two systems.

So this is different from hypoxia zones in the Gulf of Mexico, as the shelf there is so shallow that the giant algal blooms just take up all of the oxygen, from everything. At greater depths, the rot has the chance to sink to the bottom and be absorbed by phytoplankton, eventually becoming some form of poop, settling to the bottom and working its way into the system (explanation below). This is why these giant expanses of green water in the open ocean are good things, even as they emanate from the Amazon River and cloud the pristine Caribbean. They are caused by the same forces that create biological dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico – the spewing of nutrient-rich effluent into ocean. But the rate they are changing from other forces, like the changing hydrologic cycle (warning: giant pdf) in the Amazon basin*, must go un- or under-discussed all because of the issue which must not be named, per the above mentioned discourse stupidity, which is more like cupidity than anything.

*The Amazon basin has experienced its worst droughts and its worst flooding in the last five years. Talk about naturally alarming. This is the kind of thing that needs to be reported on with the seriousness given to the pregnancy of a titular princess, mailed out and extensively unpacked, where you are left with the realization that you need to start walking to work now and forever more, saving your car trips for something special-er than buying lottery tickets or browsing at the mall. I have intentionally tried to offer a cursory explanation of the ocean-carbon cycle to demonstrate about how difficult it is to talk, which is one of the lower reasons that we don’t know more about it. No excuse, though it remains.