Thursday, June 28, 2012

Idiot comment of the day: Godwin FAIL

From a Redstate rant on the horrors of the Rio conference:

 food for thought - AGW is all bad all the time

bobmark Monday, June 25th at 2:47AM EDT (link)
I know the bulk of the folks on this site are lawyerly inclined, but for we scientifical types, this stuff is red meat.
Good sources of retorts to the climate change / sustainable development / rggi foolishness.
Is he being deliberately ironic in calling himself "scientifical" and then linking to "the Nazi roots of sustainable development"? We may never know.

You're all NAZIS!
It seems more and more frequently ignorant right-wingers assert their "scientific" chops, not in the expectation that anyone will believe them, but as a way of illustrating how little facts and reason matter to them generally.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why Keystone Mattered

Dan Moutal comments:

Frankly this is very over-optimistic. As you noted the Canadian government is working hard to re-write legislation to ensure that opponents to the pipeline don't get in the way.

I would be very surprised if the pipeline is not built before the next election in 2015.

It might be over-optimistic to predict that no new pipeline will ever be built for the tar sands, but I didn't say that. Rather, note is taken of the fact that, contrary to the anguished protests of pro-Keystone folks like Nocera, an alternative route is not automatic, and will only come about by means of further political battles as yet unfought.

Those battles are yet to be won or lost, but without the defeat of Keystone XL, the oil interests would not have had to fight them at all. This is in stark contrast to the arguments of Nocera and others that refusing to approve Keystone XL would cost us jobs and otherwise not affect the development of the tar sands whatsoever.

The benefits of the bare-knuckled fight over Keystone XL are many:

* The pipeline itself is not being built, and hopefully will not be built.
* It is uncertain whether an alternative pipeline will be built. That uncertainty discourages further investment in and development of Canadian dirty oil today, even if an alternative route is built eventually.
* The pipeline has been delayed, which hits oil company profits, provides more time for alternative sources of energy to fall in price, provides more time for an international carbon regime to be put in place, and more time for the government of Canada to change course, as democratic governments are wont to do.

* Alternative pipeline routes are sure to involve further bruising political fights -- hence Harper's attempt to target the charities opposing the pipeline. Even if the oil interests win those fights, they still have to expend time, money and political capital to fight them, and no interest, no matter how powerful, has an infinite supply of those.

It's important that we recognize what was accomplished by the people who demonstrated, who called their representatives, who donated money or spoke out or went to jail, even though it is, of course, a matter of only one possible route of one possible source of dirty-fuel disaster.

Of late I've been re-reading Shelby Foote's epic history of the Civil War; I highly recommend it. One of the things that strikes me, in reading it again, is that the most important and effective commanders were not always the smartest; Grant, for example, was neither a masterful tactician nor a great strategist, he was often caught unprepared, and he was beaten in the field repeatedly. What successful commanders, North and South, Army or Navy, possessed is aptly described by Foote as "[A] hard-driving, bulldog, cut-and-slash aggressiveness, a preference for action at close quarters, and a burning sense of personal insult at the slightest advantage gained by an opponent at [their] expense."

That is the quality that sent Keystone XL down to defeat and left the tar sands developers and the Harper administration with another pipeline fight in the offing, this one in their own backyard. At if their is a similar spirit of action by opponents up there, they may very well lose again. We can only ever fight today's battle, and the reward for winning it -- now and for the foreseeable future -- is tomorrow's battle.

Say not the Struggle Naught availeth
Arthur Hugh Clough. 1819–1861
SAY not the struggle naught availeth, 
  The labour and the wounds are vain, 
The enemy faints not, nor faileth, 
  And as things have been they remain. 
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;         5
  It may be, in yon smoke conceal'd, 
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers, 
  And, but for you, possess the field. 
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking, 
  Seem here no painful inch to gain,  10
Far back, through creeks and inlets making, 
  Comes silent, flooding in, the main. 
And not by eastern windows only, 
  When daylight comes, comes in the light; 
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!  15
  But westward, look, the land is bright!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Keystone XL: The truth comes out

The purveyors of dirty oil are getting impatient:
LONDON, Ontario — As the United States continues to play political Ping-Pong with the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, Canadian officials and companies are desperately seeking alternatives to get the country’s nearly 200 billion barrels in oil reserves — almost equal to that of Saudi Arabia — to market from landlocked Alberta.

Oil companies complain that they are losing revenues from pipeline bottlenecks. So Canada is plunging ahead with plans to build more pipelines of its own. 

To hasten development of new export routes, the Conservative government is streamlining permit processes by accelerating scheduled hearings and limiting public comment. The government has also threatened to revoke the charitable status of environmental groups that are challenging the projects.
Wow, they sound a little desperate, don't they?  It's a far cry from the lazy confidence of the "they'll just sell it to China" crowd, well represented by the noxious Joe Nocera:

  “The effort to stop Keystone is part of a broader effort to stop the expansion of the tar sands,” Brune said.  “It is based on choking off the ability to find markets for tar sands oil.”

This is a ludicrous goal.  If it were to succeed, it would be deeply damaging to the national interest of both Canada and the United States.  But it has no chance of succeeding.  Energy is the single most important industry in Canada.  Three-quarters of the Canadian public agree with the Harper government’s diversification strategy.  China’s “thirst” for oil is hardly going to be deterred by the Sierra Club. And the Harper government views the continued development of the tar sands as a national strategic priority.
Thus Joe, in the ironically titled "The Poisoned Politics of Keystone XL." The government of of Canada is still eager, obviously, but its power is not limitless.  The environmentalists opposing the project have obviously shaken the Harper regime rather badly:
And Public Safety Canada, the equivalent of the United States Department of Homeland Security, has classified environmentalists as a potential source of domestic terrorism, adding them to a list that includes white supremacists.
"Sell it to China" turns out to be easier said than done:
Indigenous groups must be consulted if new pipelines cross their land. To gain coastal access, pipeline companies must also navigate the politics of some of the most environmentally conscious Canadian provinces, British Columbia and Quebec, where public opinion tends to be against both pipelines and further fossil fuel development.
Vancouver’s City Council recently passed a motion requiring that pipeline companies take on 100 percent liability for the economic and environmental costs of a worst-case spill. Even though the federal government gives permissions for pipelines, such local maneuvering and lawsuits can cause severe delays.
“It’s poetic justice that Vancouver, the birthplace of Greenpeace, stands between the last big oil deposit on Earth and the expanding markets in Asia,” said Ben West of the Wilderness Committee, a consortium of environmental groups. “I’d anticipate it won’t get built for years.”
By which time we will maybe all be a little wiser, have gained some years to observe and reflect on the damage that has been done so far.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

El Nino is coming


Red means hot
Solar cycle 24, after a brief dip, is also continuing its gradual escalation:

Obviously these are short-term oscillations that have little or nothing to do with the long-term climate picture. Where they may be important, however, is in the political calculus. The US and Europe have been mired in deep recessions, and the trouble is far from over:

Old chart, but the picture has changed little recently
The American public has allowed climate change to be shunted out of their consciousness by other priorities, especially the recession. That's a shame. What we most need to pull us out of the doldrums is a stiff jolt of Keynesian stimulus, the kind of stimulus that could be achieved by, say:

* Overhauling the power grid with low-loss high-voltage direct current lines (HVDC), cutting transmission losses and creating the infrastructure for a true national market in energy.

* Modernizing our commercial rail network with dual tracks and electrified rail, decreasing our reliance on our diesel-fueled truck fleet to move goods.

* Weatherizing millions of homes and commercial buildings.

 . . . and so on. We could attack the jobs problem and the climate change problem simultaneously -- but at the moment, that is not the political conversation we are having.

My point, with this, is that there are opportunities ahead. This recession will give way to an expansion as they generally do. Sometime in the next few years, maybe as soon as the fall, we will see for the first time what we get from the combination of El Nino conditions, the upper half of the solar cycle, and CO2 concentrations flirting with 400ppm. And that is going to be a new conversation, politically speaking.

The American public has lost interest in climate change -- but this too shall pass. Unlike, say, famine in Africa, or conflict in the Middle East, climate change is going to become more and more intrusive until it is impossible for the public to ignore. For those of us already focused on the need for strong action on greenhouse gases emissions, now is the time to be sharpening a common message and a clear, simple plan.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Science illiteracy as cultural signifier

The Dish reminds us that conservative science denial is bigger than climate denial:

Notably, belief in straight-up evolution is increasing, even as naive creationism flourishes. I think Sullivan's take on this bears repeating:
I'm not sure how many of the 46 percent actually believe the story of 10,000 years ago. Surely some of them know it's less empirically supported than Bigfoot. My fear is that some of that 46 percent are giving that answer not as an empirical response, but as a cultural signifier. That means that some are more prepared to cling to untruth than concede a thing to libruls or atheists or blue America, or whatever the "other" is at any given point in time.
Right now, climate change denial is an easy way to throw red meat to the radical right. Americans (and Europeans -- most of the world, for that matter) is focused on the economy. We've had two back-to-back La Ninas coming on the tail end of the deepest solar minimum of the last century, making last year's very hot temperatures relatively cool by 21st century standards.

These short-term circumstances have been used to advance the ridiculous claim that serious climate change legislation is now and forever dead -- the politics are impossible. What usually follows from such an analysis is a plea for appeasement -- Won't we please drop this whole upsetting subject of greenhouse-gas emissions, and start talking about energy independence or local adaptation or something that is less provocative to the "God created humans in their present form" crowd?

Well, no. We won't drop it, and the graph above shows why such a tactic wouldn't work; the right wing in America is hardening and deepening its rejection of modernity. That's not a process that's being cause by provocation from the other side; when was the last time you were confronted with an angry Darwinian polemicist? Yet naive creationism flourishes, because the people who proclaim it are looking for a fight.

Thinking that you are going to win over right-wing climate "skeptics" with energy independence is like thinking you are going to find common ground with anti-abortion activists in promoting free contraception and universal sex ed -- hey, it cuts the abortion rate!

We need to win this fight, not evade it. There is a saying in chess: "The surest way to lose is to play for a draw." I think that applies here. To win the fight, we don't give up the high ground. The high ground is the truth: Our greenhouse gas emissions are warming the climate and endangering our civilization; many things must be done to confront this reality but the most important is to dramatically cut humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases.

This fight is far from over. Elections are coming, and so is El Nino, and so is the peak of the solar cycle. Climate impacts will multiply; the damage will become more dramatic and threatening year by year. The political calculus on this issue will be recalculated again and again in the coming years, with the only constant being that the further we travel into the future, the more destructive change will have happened.

How do you beat a cultural signifier? You make it too expensive in terms of how the culture is viewed from the outside. Support for segregation was a cultural signifier. Segregation lost when people peacefully but determinedly got up in segregationists' faces and forced them to declare to the nation just how ugly, irrational, and destructive their hatred was. They didn't win by changing subject. They won by turning the conversation again and again towards the truth their opponents' insisted was divisive and inflammatory.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Pop-up forests; positive or negative climate feedback?

Forests spreading fast in the Russian Arctic

The mighty Revkin has a post up on pop-up boreal forests in the Arctic:

“The speed and magnitude of the observed change is far greater than we expected,” said Prof. Bruce Forbes of the Arctic Center, University of Lapland, corresponding author of the paper. Adds Dr. Marc Macias-Fauria from Oxford University, lead author, “Previously people had thought that the tundra would be colonized by trees from the boreal forest to the south as the Arctic climate warms, a process that could potentially take centuries. But what we’ve found is that the shrubs that are already there are transforming into trees in just a few decades.”
Sorting out what this means in term of the climate will take some time, I think. But in the first place, if you care about the future of human civilization, you should wince at another invocation of that near-mantra of modern climate science, We Thought It Would Take Centuries But It Is Happening Now (dot tumblr dot com).

Pet peeve: neither Revkin nor even the article's own press release give the title of the article cited. The press release, but not Revkin, gives us the first author on the paper, and Revkin, but not the press release, gives us the correct issue. Drumroll please: "Eurasian Arctic greening reveals teleconnections and the potential for structurally novel ecosystems." Full text free online. Why wouldn't you link to that? Or at least cite it by name?

OK, decline-of-journalism (and public relations) rant over. Getting down to brass tacks, is this likely to be a positive or a negative feedback to global warming? Revkin doesn't speculate, and the article doesn't say. But we can do a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation to get an idea.

There are all sorts of interesting and dramatic effects that pop-up forests have on the local hydrology, ecology, potential for human use and so on, but the big long-term climate impacts, at first blush, would seem to be a) Forests sequester carbon dioxide, and b) Forests capture a lot of solar radiation that snow-covered tundra reflects back into space. So which effect is bigger?

Locally, the net effect will be warming, because the effect of the increased solar radiation will be local, while the effect of reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide, a well-mixed gas, will be distributed across the entire world. This local warming could be seen either as a bug (even more warming in the most rapidly warming part of the planet, unlocking more permafrost carbon, melting more sea ice, losing more of Greenland's glaciers to the sea) or a feature (warming concentrated in a colder climate where few people live, (relative) cooling over the entire world where everybody lives.) But what is the absolute magnitude of the two effects?

Well, to take a stab at it, suppose we have a large amount of tundra --> forest, enough to cut CO2 by 20ppm.

Some figures:
1ppm CO2 = 2,130,000,000 tons of CO2

Mature tundra sequesters about: 60 tons/acre of CO2
Mature boreal forest sequesters about: 182 tons/acre of CO2

The difference between the net absorption of solar radiation by snowy tundra (94W/m^2) and "snowy" forest (which ends up still having a dark canopy) (445W/m^2) is 351W/m^2. The difference without snow is less, though still favoring the forest's absorption. I decided to ignore it, and concentrate on the snowy season, which I ballparked at half the year (0.5).

1 acre = 4,047 m^2

Surface area of the Earth: 5.1 *10^14

Let's suppose, then, that in the 21st century, that 20ppm proves to be the difference between 600ppm and the more preferable 580ppm. The difference in greenhouse gas forcing is easy to calculate (i.e., even I can do it) and comes from this equation:

[5.35 * ln(600/278)] - [5.35 * ln(580/278)] = about 0.18 W/m^2

That's nothing to sneeze it -- it's sizable. Now we need to know how much area would need to shift to the lower albedo (greater absorption) forest to sequester that much carbon:

[(2,130,000,000 tons * 20)/122 tons per acre] * 4,047 meters per acre = 1.413 * 10^12m^2

(1.413*10^12) * 351Wm^2 (the difference in radiation)/2 (only half the year, when the tundra is snowy) = 2.48 * 10^14W.

Since the CO2 force is expressed in W/m^2 over the entire earth, we need to convert the number above to that convention by dividing by the surface area of the Earth: (2.48*10^14)/(5.1*10^14) = 0.49W/m^2.

About 0.18 W/m^2 (of decreased greenhouse gas warming) < about 0.49W/m^2 (of increased absorption of solar radiation). By my crude calculations (and feel free to point to obvious errors and/or better sources in the comments) the rapid expansion of boreal forest in the Arctic will likely be a net positive feedback to global warming, driving up temperatures further.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Better power lines, dammit!

Steam pollution

The Times' Matthew Wald finds that warming rivers may hamper the water cooling on which all steam-generating reactors depend:

 Using computer projections of climate change possible outcomes, the researchers wrote that generating capacity in the United States could fall 4.4 to 16 percent on hot days from 2031 to 2060. And the number of days when river water is at a temperature that is now considered extremely high will be triple the number today, on average, they said.
But here's the spit-take moment:
It found that in addition to making electricity harder to generate, warm weather would make peaks in electricity demand even higher. That would raise costs, it said, because utilities might need more generating stations that would run for only a few hours a year, during the peak summer demand periods.
It also pointed out that if rainfall patterns changed, hydroelectric dams would be less productive.

The solutions to this problem are not obvious. Wind generation might not help much, because the wind usually does not blow much in hot weather. Solar photovoltaic cells could help, but they do not generate much in the last hour before sunset, and not at all after that. That is the period in which many utilities experience peak demand, as people return home from work and turn on air-conditioners, television sets and ovens.
Mr. Wald is talking about the energy of the future -- two to four decades out, no less! -- but assuming we will still be saddled with the same inefficient power grid in which -- due to technology, local energy monopolies, and a Balkanized regulatory environment -- power is mostly generated and consumed within a couple hundred mile radius.

Make it easy to exchange power over a few thousand miles, practical with the current lines, or even further, with HVDC upgrades, and you do have an easy solution to peak demand at sunset -- get the power from somewhere it's not sunset. Spread your turbines over a wider area so that torpid spells idle only a fraction of them. Build your nuclear plants in cooler climes and send the power southward (or northward, as the case may be.) And so on.

Seems like a pretty obvious solution to me -- and one that happens to involve opening up local monopolies to competition and simplifying and streamlining local regulations. Seems like Heartland would want to get right on that. Perhaps they're a bit preoccupied.