9 09 2012

People are starting to notice that the weather is getting weird.  It’s drier than it’s ever been, it’s wetter than it’s ever been, it’s hotter than it’s ever been, and here and there it’s still getting colder than it’s ever been, or at least snowing, more than it ever has.  I’ll explain that in a moment.

The most ominous changes are taking place where few of us witness them–in the Arctic Ocean and the thinly inhabited, long-frozen lands surrounding it.  This year, the Arctic ice shelf has shrunk more than it ever has before, even before it reaches its maximum shrinkage point in mid-September.  The dark, open Arctic Ocean is absorbing more heat than it has in millenia, warming the Arctic still further.  Just a few years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change thought the Arctic might be ice-free in the summer by the end of this century.  Now it’s looking more like that historic event will happen by the end of this decade.

The arctic’s warming is a strong driver for our freakier weather.  The one characteristic that unites all the different modes–rain, drought, heat, cold–is that they are moving much more slowly than we are used to seeing weather move.  Tropical Storm Beryl lingered for days over Florida.  Hurricane Isaac inched its way through Louisiana and up the Mississippi Valley. Super-hot temperatures roasted the Western and Central U.S. for weeks without relief.

The driver, or lack of one, in all these cases is the diminishing temperature difference between the Arctic and the rest of the planet.  Here’s how George Monbiot describes this new weather pattern:

The north polar jet stream is an air current several hundred kilometres wide, travelling eastwards around the hemisphere. It functions as a barrier, separating the cold, wet weather to the north from the warmer, drier weather to the south. Many of the variations in our weather are caused by great travelling meanders – or Rossby waves – in the jet stream.

Arctic heating,… both slows the Rossby waves and makes them steeper and wider. Instead of moving on rapidly, the weather gets stuck. Regions to the south of the stalled meander wait for weeks or months for rain; regions to the north (or underneath it) wait for weeks or months for a break from the rain. Instead of a benign succession of sunshine and showers, we get droughts or floods. During the winter a slow, steep meander can connect us directly to the polar weather, dragging severe ice and snow far to the south of its usual range. This mechanism goes a long way towards explaining the shift to sustained – and therefore extreme – weather patterns around the northern hemisphere.

And how are our governments and the businesses that drive them responding to this alarm bell?  They are treating the retreat of the ice as if it were the opening of a treasure trove, and rushing in after the quantities of fish and fossil fuels that now lie exposed for exploitation.  Their only concern seems to be how many fish they can catch before oil spills decimate the piscene population.  They seem heedless of, the possibility of waking the fire-breathing dragon who guards this hoard.

For not all the fossil fuels coming to the surface in the Arctic are under human control. as Albert Bates reports.   As the North Polar region of our planet warms and melts, enormous quantities of methane are starting to seep to the surface, and the amount of methane entering the atmosphere is, apparently, snowballing, so to speak.  A decade ago, the typical methane seep was perhaps a few meters across; now areas as big as a kilometer in diameter are commonplace, both on land and at sea.  The average methane level of the Arctic atmosphere is the highest it has been in 400,000 years.  Four hundred thousand years ago is about when humans first started making our own fires.  This is not exactly a digression–we may be about to ignite much, much bigger fires. Read the rest of this entry »


7 05 2007

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just issued its report on mitigation of climate change. They’re doing their best to act calm, but let me put it to you straight—we are screwed. Really, really screwed. The heat waves and freak freezes, the mile-wide tornadoes and super-hurricanes and disappearing bees we’ve seen so far are just a warmup act, and yes that’s a very bad pun. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

The chart on page 24 of the IPCC “summary for policymakers” is where they finally get around to spelling out the bad news. What they calculate as our very best efforts at curbing greenhouse gas emissions is still going to lead to a rise in CO2 and other gasses to a level of between 445 and 490 parts per million, with a concurrent temperature rise of two to two and a half degrees. There’s one problem with this “prediction”: it is already coming true. Our current greenhouse gas, level, or GHG level for short, is already 459 ppm, and paleoclimatic research shows that where GHGs go, temperature soon follows. If civilization stops dead in its tracks tomorrow, it’s still gonna get mighty warm in here, folks.

Alas, there is every indication that we as a species are not yet ready to put the brakes on our rising GHG emissions. China pushed hard to leave the door open for it to continue boosting its carbon output, and even to have the “danger level” of atmospheric greenhouse gases set higher, despite mounting evidence that the situation is already dire. Although they are making gestures to ameliorate the massive pollution their industrialization has caused, they are still planning to burn more coal, pump more oil, build more automobiles, and strip the remains of the world’s rain forests for cardboard boxes, advertising circulars, and toilet paper. The US is doing no better.

This strikes me as purely delusional. It is also going to send the greenhouse gas level of the atmosphere up into the 5-600ppm range, which is what puts temperatures over the 3 degree tipping point that I talked about last month—but I’ll say it again: above a three-degree, 550pm rise, things start spiraling out of control. Our efforts may put the brakes on a little, but it will be a question of how fast things will get catastrophic, not whether they will. If we can summon the collective will to back away from the precipice right now, we will only have a calamity to deal with, not a catastrophe. Isn’t that reassuring?

So, what does the IPCC suggest we do about GHG mitigation? And could we do better?

Their first suggestion is a nice, stiff, carbon tax—the stiffer, the better. In economic terms, this internalizes one of the externalities—the assumption has always been that it doesn’t cost anything to release CO2 into the atmosphere, but experience is now proving otherwise. They suggest a maximum charge of $100/ton, and project that that would result in as much as a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030, but possibly only a 25% reduction. Given the fact that for-profit corporations are designed to avoid any out-of-pocket cost they can, and the burgeoning world population, and seeing the way mere “carbon trading” has been manipulated on its trial run in Europe, we probably ought to push for a carbon emissions tax more on the order of $200/ton.

That would add about $1200 a year to the average cost of running a gas-powered motor vehicle in this country, $11-1400 to the cost of heating a home, and about $1600 to the average family’s electric bill. That’s an extra $4,000 per family just for those items, which constitute about a third of the average family’s CO2 output of 60 tons a year—which would thus cost the average family about an extra $12,000 a year—even at the IPCC’s recommended rate, it would still be another $6,000 per family. No wonder politicians are not eager to embrace this idea, especially since the current world average carbon output for a family of three is thirteen tons and that will need to be halved—in other words, we Americans need to cut our average carbon output from sixty tons per family to six. No, this is not going to play well with the voters. This burden cannot be borne at the family level—is the business community ready to make the sacrifices and structural changes it will take to save our sorry American asses?

My wife and I live pretty quietly and frugally—we garden, heat with wood from our land, don’t buy into the consumer rat race, don’t travel much, and keep our electricity usage down. Our carbon footprint came out 25% below the world average—but half again what it needs to be. This is not good news.

The IPCC recommends changes in the fields of energy supply, transport, buildings, industry, agriculture, forestry, and waste disposal.

In energy supply, they expect that we will not cut back our use of fossil fuels very much, will increase sharply our use of alternative generating technologies, will increase slightly our use of nuclear power, and devise a system for storing CO2 underground. So, if we want to work harder at this, we will need to cut back sharply on fossil fuel use, and, I would suggest, instead of the massive infrastructure expenses of nuclear power, that we put a lot more research into clean, renewable, alternative power generation modes. As for “carbon capture” by piping CO2 underground, it sounds too much like shaking a bottle of soda to me—and we all know the results of that. I think we are just going to have to bite the bullet and cut the carbon.

In the travel department, they suggest more efficient vehicles and a shift to public transportation and non-motorized transport—they emphasize walking and bicycling, but I would think that modernized sailing ships would be an important addition to our transport options, and that we should pursue something the IPCC didn’t mention—serious cutbacks in air travel, which grew by 5% just last year. They also make the suggestion that we redesign society so that people don’t have to commute so much. Great idea!

For revamping the building sector, they suggest the same things we in the alternative community have been championing for forty years—more efficient kitchen, heating and cooling systems, and homes designed for solar light and heat. If the building industry had taken this up back when it was first proposed, there would be a lot less of a problem now. As it is, almost every new home that goes up is a crime against humanity in the builder’s thoughtless assumption that as it is, it ever shall be. Not. Not, not, not. Too bad, all you suburbanites. You have been screwed.

For the industrial sector, they suggest greater efficiency again, including finding ways to turn one industry’s waste into another’s raw materials. I think we also need to look at whether some “industries” need to exist at all. The arms industry, for openers. It’s highly polluting and serves no useful purpose. War is a luxury we can no longer afford.

They don’t really spell it out in the agricultural section, but it looks to me like the unspoken key word is “organic.” Conventional agriculture is very fossil-fuel dependent and profligate in its treatment of carbon outputs. The chemical fertilizer free ride has got to end. It wasn’t a free ride anyway. We are about to have to pay very dearly for it. There’s better uses for natural gas.

They do spell it out in the forest section–”afforestation, reforestation, forest management, reduced deforestation, wood product management, use of forest products for bioenergy to replace fossil fuels.” That’s why my household scores so low in our carbon footprint—it’s “called heating with wood from your own land.” Now, obviously not everyone can do that, especially if we are trying to plant so many trees all over, but we really do need to let the forests grow back, all over the world—not monoculture pine plantations, but diverse, ecologically stable forests. They are the lungs of the planet. Losing your lungs is not a good way to go. Believe me, I’ve seen it on an individual basis, and I don’t want the whole planet to have to deal with it.

And lastly, under waste, they urge “landfill methane recovery, waste incineration with energy recovery, composting of organic waste, controlled waste water treatment, recycling and waste minimization.” Again, all that same old hippie bleep that we’ve been talking about for the last forty years. They all laughed at us, but fewer and fewer are laughing now. I hope we can gather our collective wits and take action fast enough to beat the odds.

music:   Burning Times—(We Could Be Dancing In) The Only Green World

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