Archive for the ‘CO2’ Category

The World Meteorological Organization Would Like Just a Moment of Your Time

Stormy SkyYou don’t have to read the whole report which isn’t long, but is full of “facts” and “numbers” and “science” and things of that sort. Just look over the WMO’s press release about its latest greenhouse gas bulletin – the chill you feel may compensate for the heat we’re generating. The report has thorny sentences like this: “This conclusion is consistent with GAW measurements of the spatial distribution of CO2 at the Earth’s surface and its rate of increase, a decrease in the abundance of atmospheric oxygen (O2), and a decrease in carbon isotope ratio, 13C/12C, in atmospheric CO2.”

The Organization’s press release is blunter and more to the point: “The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2013, propelled by a surge in levels of carbon dioxide.” While the WMO has traditionally focused on atmospheric concentrations of CO2, this year’s report states that the current rate of ocean acidification appears unprecedented at least over the last 300 million years. We don’t live in the oceans so we tend to take them for granted but, as the press release points out, the oceans are the primary driver of the planet’s climate and attenuator of climate change. As Wendy Watson-Wright, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO says in the release, “If global warming is not a strong enough reason to cut CO2 emissions, ocean acidification should be, since its effects are already being felt and will increase for many decades to come – we ARE running out of time.”

While you contemplate the WMO report, consider as well that warming oceans are beginning to belch unprecedented amounts of methane, a global warming gas even more potent than CO2.


Shut Up and Light the Charcoal

via Wikimedia

via Wikimedia

What if you went camping with a bunch of friends and they decided it would be really cool to barbecue burgers and brats inside the tent. You take one look at the bright red warning label on the charcoal bag and pitch a fit (you’re also the one who pitched the tent). The label announces in no uncertain terms that burning charcoal inside can kill you. “You can’t grill in here,” you say. “We’re all going to die!” But your friends pooh-pooh your sissy concerns and insist there’s nothing wrong with throwing meat on a hot grill indoors. Where’s your scientific proof that everybody is going to die? What harm is a little smoke going to do? Besides, it might rain and  who wants to get wet? Would you stay in the tent? Slip into your sleeping bag after dinner expecting to get up in the morning for bacon and eggs cooked on the same barbecue? I doubt it.

But that’s pretty much where we are with greenhouse gases and global warming today. The warnings are clear and unambiguous but still there’s a concerted campaign to ignore the blaring claxons and carry on grilling in the tent. Between November 2012 and December 2013 2,258 peer-reviewed articles were published in scientific journals by 9,136 authors detailing man’s contributions to global warming.  Only one article, by a single author in the Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, rejected man-made global warming. A new draft United Nations report concludes that the nations of the world have dragged their feet so long in combating climate change that the situation has grown critical and the problem could become impossible to solve with current technologies within 15 years. According to the report, our feeble efforts at instituting alternate energy simply can’t compete with the subsidies offered to the fossil fuel industries. Even as more clean energy comes onto the market, emissions continue to outpace any reduction the clean energy might bring. Failure to reign in emissions, the report says, will saddle future generations with enormous disruption, enormous costs, and the challenge of solving the problems were are creating now with technologies which have yet to be invented.

Still, the climate change deniers soldier on, insisting that filling the tent with smoke is a capital idea and that anyone who says the contrary is a tree hugging alarmist. And the deniers aren’t just fringe characters. Some of them occupy positions of great power and influence, such as, say, the Chair of the House Science and Technology Committee. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), is a vociferous critic of any attempts to reduce carbon emissions, and has noisily denounced the Environmental Protection Agency’s pollution rules for new power plants. Representative Smith has not turned his back on science entirely, though. Just one day after condemning the EPA, he held a hearing to explore the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Smith is hardly the lone denier on the committee. The Subcommittee on the Environment is now chaired by a representative who rejects the scientific fact of anthropogenic global warming.

If your camping buddies insisted on filling the tent with a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas that could kill you within an hour, you could at least go sleep outside. There is no outside when it comes to climate change. We’re all trapped inside the tent.

Old Wine in New Bottles: Can Nuclear Power Pull Us Out of Global Climate Change?

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

We wrote recently about how the Fukushima disaster seems to have slipped from our collective ADD-addled memory. We also wondered whether global climate change was best characterized as a calamity, a catastrophe, or a cataclysm.

Without a doubt, Fukushima has cast a pall over the nuclear industry around the world. A number of countries are taking a long hard look at the risks involved in nuclear energy production, Germany, which produces 20% of its electricity via nuclear energy, is vowing to eliminate its nuclear program within a decade and replace it with renewable energy, a task Chancellor Angela Merkel describes as Herculean.

But even in the midst of all the hand wringing over the risks of nuclear energy, support for our old friend the atom continues grow, and in some surprising places. Those over a certain age may remember Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalogue, the combination Bible /Sears Catalogue of the 60s counter culture. From his old haunts of Sausalito, Brand is now proselytizing nuclear power as the best (or at least the least-worse) remedy for a carbon-choked planet.  Originally a staunch opponent of nuclear power, he feared we would be handing off the problem of nuclear waste to future generations, a solution that struck him as “poor civilizational behavior.” But he now believes nuclear energy is the most promising path towards a carbon emissions-free future.

Brand is hardly alone in perceiving that nuclear power might still offer a future of comparatively clean carbon-free energy. Nuclear reactors might still produce radioactive waste and pose grave environmental risks – look no further than Fukushima if you doubt that. But the relative (and relatively local) risks nuclear reactors pose may pale in comparison to the cumulative effects of burning oil, coal, and natural gas. It can even be argued that nuclear power is more economical than alternative energy sources, such as wind energy, despite its long history of dramatic cost overruns and the ever escalating costs of storing spent fuel.

Existing reactors are still largely based on old technology, much of it developed in the early years of the nuclear era. The Three Mile Island or Chernobyl model – a massive, water cooled centralised system using massive fuel cores date to the ‘50s and ‘60s. Newer technologies are out there, waiting to be tested and deployed. So-called Generation IV reactors , among them the Pebble Bed Reactor are designed to avoid the dangers posed by traditional generators. The federal government is aggressively funneling money towards next generation reactors.

In announcing the grant of millions for nuclear energy research, energy secretary Steven Chu stated”As a zero-carbon energy source, nuclear power must be part of our energy mix as we work toward energy independence and meeting the challenge of global warming.”

In Knowledge Mosaic’s own back yard, a consortium of utilities and nuclear reactor designers are proposing construction of small-scale nuclear reactors to meet future demands for carbon-free power.

Nuclear power has a nasty reputation. Some of it is doubtless fall out from the nuclear era’s unholy birth at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The disasters at the plants in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have only cemented public distrust of all things nuclear. But in an ironic twist, nuclear energy may prove to be the last best hope for weaning us away from carbon based energy. That is the argument made in the new documentary Pandora’s Promise.

The film argues that in the face of massive climate change, nuclear energy is really the only game in town. Brand, who features prominently in the movie, notes that the ill effects of the Fukushima disaster are still largely localized, and the area around Chernobyl isn’t the apocalyptic moonscape many feared it would be. The premise of Promise is that the least-bad alternative may be a very good alternative indeed. Wherever you land on the nuclear spectrum – vehemently opposed or staunchly in favor – the movie is worth taking in. It’s a profoundly thought provoking shot across the climate change bow, and a challenge to ideologues on both sides of the divide.

Oil and Water Don’t Mix

Ogallala Aquifer via Wikimedia Commons

Ogallala Aquifer via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama gave his long-awaited climate change speech this week. In it, he discussed possible approval of the Keystone Pipeline – the massive conduit to bring Canadian tar sands oil down to the gulf coast. In discussing the pipeline’s potential environmental effects, he focused – as most commentators do – on the impact of carbon emissions, both in extracting the tar sands oil and burning the stuff after it makes its way down the pipeline and into American (or Chinese) automobiles. “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest,” he said. “And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Obama said that he would only approve the pipeline if the State Department certifies that it will not lead to a net increase in global carbon emissions. That drops the fate of the Keystone project in the lap of the new Secretary of State John Kerry who has not shown himself to be an enthusiastic backer of the plan.

The Keystone pipeline has been drawing lots of heated opposition of late, and not just from the usual tree-huggers and totebaggers.  Rock-ribbed Republican sections of the country are beginning to sour on the idea of sluicing some of the filthiest fuel ever devised across the entire center of the country.

And carbon pollution is hardly Keystone’s only problem, despite Obama’s emphasis on emissions. It’s not just the stuff flowing through the pipes which can cause problems when it’s ultimately burned. The pipelines themselves pose significant environmental hazards on their own.

Existing pipelines haven’t been doing Keystone any favors lately in the publicity department. The fact that the nation is crisscrossed with fuel pipes literally burst into the country’s consciousness when a natural gas line exploded in Bellingham, Washington in 1999, killing three boys playing nearby. A decade later, a PG&E pipeline exploded in Burlingame, California, killing eight people and leveling 38 homes. In March, an ExxonMobil pipeline dumped some 5,000 barrels of diluted bitumen onto Mayflower, Arkansas, forcing an evacuation, contaminating local rivers and lakes, and sickening local residents.

Then, just this month, a whopping 9.5 million liters of toxic oil waste leaked in Alberta, the source of Keystone’s tar sands oil.  The Globe and Mail tells us that across a broad expanse of northern Alberta, the landscape is dead. “Every plant and tree died” in the area touched by the spill, said James Ahnassay, chief of the Dene Tha First Nation. The leak is just one of several major spills in the region, and local residents are alarmed at what all those toxins will do to wetlands and their water supplies.

And what of Keystone? Well, aside from providing a means of moving filthy fuel from one of the largest and most destructive energy projects in the world, the proposed pipeline just happens to run smack dab through the Ogallala Aquifer, the principal source of water in an area composed of  174,000 square miles of eight states. The Ogallala Aquifer is the single most important source of water in the High Plains region, providing nearly all the water necessary for residential and industrial use, and supporting a whopping one-fifth of  the wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle raised in the United States. It’s a big, big deal.

The Aquifer is already being severely stressed by drought and over-consumption.  In some areas, the water table has declined by 200 feet.  Aquifer residents, already alarmed about stresses to their vital water supply, aren’t taking kindly to the prospect of a foreign company laying down hundreds of miles of inevitably leaky pipe over that precious resource.  Quite aside from balking at TransCanada’s aggressive pursuit of eminent domain claims over farmland, High Plains residents are increasingly concerned about the possibility of oil leaking into their wells. One notable property of tar sands oil is that it sinks, rather than floats, making clean up difficult and expensive.

TansCanada is lobbying furiously to gain approval for it’s pipeline. But Secretary Kerry would be well advised to consider the likelihood of contaminating some of America’s key drinking and agricultural water as his agency weighs the environmental impact of the Keystone pipeline. Carbon emissions are only one of the problem Keystone poses. Its potential threat to one of our nation’s most vital water supplies should not be shrugged aside.

The EPA, Greenhouse Gases, the D.C. Circuit, and Political Warfare

Photo via D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

Photo via D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

The Obama administration, increasingly frustrated by Congressional hostility to any efforts to contain greenhouse gases, has turned to the EPA as a tool for reining in carbon emissions. The agency is developing regulatory standards under the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon pollution on a number of fronts. It is coordinating with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to promote new technologies with the goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles by 3,100 million metric tons by the year 2025.  It is implementing rules requiring minimum amount of renewables in transportation fuel, setting national limits on carbon emissions by power plants, and implementing rules which are expected to bring about a 95% reduction of  volatile organic compound emissions from fracking gas wells. Where Congress has refused to act, the Agency has embarked on an aggressive and far-reaching effort to fill the void.

But the agency’s efforts to curb America’s copious carbon discharge may encounter a fatal snag in an unexpected place: the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It is this court, arguably the second most important in the country, which reviews decisions and rule-making by many federal agencies,including the EPA, and has jurisdiction over regulations enacted under the Clean Air Act, the very act upon which the EPA is basing its regulations. The D.C. Circuit Court has a conservative reputation and environmentalists have been growing increasing concerned about the likelihood of it de-clawing the EPA’s efforts. As Steven Pearlstein has written in the Washington Post, the D.C. Circuit represents a “ new breed of activist judges …waging a determined and largely successful war on federal regulatory agencies.”

Without question, the court is well positioned to block the administration’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions via agency action. The administration, however, is determined to counter-balance the political composition of the court. The court currently has three empty spots on the bench.  The administration has put forth candidates to fill the vacant seats, a move which has some Republican politicians reaching for Orwellian political analogies. Senators Mitch McConnell and Charles E. Grassley accused Obama of “court-packing”, as though simply filling long-vacant seats on the court were the equivalent of President Roosevelt’s efforts to expand the size of the Supreme Court, a plan that would have resulted in a total of six new justices at the time. The senators know perfectly well that the D.C. court, like many others across the nation, is under staffed – it’s just in their interests to keep it that way. A dysfunctional, chronically short-staffed, and conservative court is exactly what is called for to keep the EPA’s hands off the climate control switch. The New York Times has called Republican intransigence on filling the court’s vacancies “something not far from a crisis in our constitutional system.”

Readers of this blog are well aware of the necessity of tackling global climate change. Faced with a stone wall of willful denialism and industry resistance, the administration had little choice but to turn to the EPA. The political battle over greenhouse gas emissions has now shifted inexorably to the courts: The Republican’s bone-deep hostility to regulation has assured it. Filling the D.C. court’s empty seats is likely to provoke more than a skirmish. It could turn into a major battle in the country’s – and the globe’s – efforts to keep from cooking itself to death.

Exxon Makes Its Priorities Clear

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The great muck-raking American novelist Upton Sinclair once wrote that it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

Sinclair’s trenchant observation sprang to mind when I came across the astonishingly revealing statement by Exxon Mobile’s CEO to a shareholders meeting this week. Responding to a proposal to reduce the company’s greenhouse gas emissions, Rex Tillerson laid down a marker by demanding “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”

Perhaps Mr. Tillerson’s salary depends upon his not understanding the imperatives of global climate change. Perhaps the gleam of their dividends make it difficult for Exxon shareholders to grasp what the future might hold for their grandchildren: they agreed with Tillerson and voted nearly 3-to-1 against the proposal.

If quoting Upton Sinclair seems a tad cynical, consider that Exxon Mobile was the second most profitable company on the planet last year and posted its second highest profit ever.

Tillerson couched his statement as concern for lifting the downtrodden of the world out of poverty. He then then fell back on simple climate change denial-ism, asserting that the world’s temperature “hasn’t really changed” in the last decade. But what really pegged the absurdity meter is the Hobson’s Choice he created between “saving the planet” and preventing human suffering. Poaching humanity in a stew of carbon emissions seems like plenty of suffering. As  Ryan Koronowski and Joe Romm point out at Think Progress, heat waves, conflict, food insecurity, Dust Bowl-like drought, extreme flooding, sea level rise, increasingly destructive storms, and worsening refugee crises are the inevitable results of staying on the current emissions path.

More than anything, Tillerson’s risible dichotomy reminded me of that infamous declaration from the Vietnam war: “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Sinclair’s most famous work, The Jungle, was a stomach-churning look at the meat packing industry at the turn of the last century. I wonder what he would make of this century’s oil industry.

Keeling Over: Carbon Dioxide Levels Higher Than At Any Time In Human Evolution

Keeling CurveEvery day, millions of tons of carbon dioxide are spewed into our planet’s atmosphere as a result of extracting and consuming fossil fuels. According to the GAO, global CO2 emissions have increased over 2.5 percent a year over the last century. Decades ago, Charles Keeling noted that CO2 levels were increasing steadily over time, along with emissions and global temperatures. Thus was born the “Keeling Curve”, a widely used measure of atmospheric CO2. Now, Keeling’s curve is about to breech a new record. For the first time in human history, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will reach 400 parts per million. Keeling’s son Ralph, a researcher at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, says “There’s no stopping CO2 from reaching 400 ppm. That’s now a done deal.”

Two hundred, four hundred, a thousand parts per million. What does that number mean, exactly? According to NOAA , before the Industrial Revolution, global average CO2 was about 280 ppm. During the last 800,000 years, CO2  fluctuated between 180 ppm during ice ages and 280 ppm during warmer periods. Today’s rate of increase is more than 100 times faster than the increase that occurred when the last ice age ended.

Andrew Freeman, writing at Climate Central, puts the new CO2 figure in terrifying context: These carbon dioxide levels haven’t been seen on planet earth during the whole of human evolution. In case that 800,000 year figure cited by NOAA doesn’t grab your attention, Freeman points to research indicating such levels haven’t been seen in 15 million years.

‘The last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, modern humans didn’t exist,” writes Freeman. “Megatoothed sharks prowled the oceans, the world’s seas were up to 100 feet higher than they are today, and the global average surface temperature was up to 11°F warmer than it is now.”

The notion that human evolution has brought our species to the point where we can alter the basic planetary conditions which allowed us to thrive in the first place is sobering, to say the least. Given that the Keeling curve’s trajectory is likely take us beyond 450 ppm or higher, bending that curve down should be a global priority. There’s no guarantee we could survive a precipitous plunge back into a climate like that which prevailed fifteen million years ago.

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