For my March 2009 diary, go here.

Diary - April 2009

John Baez

April 3, 2009

I like wild, dangerous adventures. At least I like reading about them. And I especially like them when they serve some halfway useful purpose: actual exploration, or collecting scientific data, not just pure showing off.

So, I got very excited when I heard about the Catlin Arctic Survey group. Three people — Pen Hadow, Ann Daniels and Martin Hadley — have begun a trek 1200 kilometers across the Arctic. They were dropped onto floating ice 1000 kilometers north of Canada on March 1st. They planned to reach the North Pole by late May — and make lot of measurements of ice thickness along the way.

After 18 days, they were fighting for survival on half rations because their supply plane had to turn back due to stormy weather:

They got their food on March 19th: Then their sledges were much heavier: 110 kilos! So, the Arctic is still a tough place, despite all the high tech.

The mission leader, Pen Hadow, is clearly well-prepared: he was the first to trek solo from Canada to the North Pole, without resupply. He skied pulling a sledge that started out weighing 125 kilos, and he swam, wearing an immersion suit, whenever he hit water or thin ice. On the 45th day he lost a ski when he fell through the ice, so he had to walk the rest of the way. He reached the North Pole in 64 days. He clearly has the right attitude to succeed in such situtations — caution mixed with a nearly insane way of always looking at the bright side:

In the first entry, he writes how his spirits were lifted by seeing polar bear tracks. In the second:
A slight rise in temperature (-38 degrees C at the moment) has been a positive development on the whole. It means I can spend longer outside, carrying out the experiments that are the purpose of us being here. I made 48 snow measurements after we'd stopped walking today — the best yet.
The photographer, Martin Hartley, seems a bit more human — so I'm worried whether he'll make it! You can tell when I mean from the titles of his blog posts: By the way, the reason I'm including so many links to the mission blog is that it's miserably organized: a lot of dead links, and no way to read through all the blog posts in chronological order.

April 4, 2009

Now for the good news about climate change: But you should also read this: And also this: Let me quote a bit of the last. It assumes you're familiar with the rough idea of the "stabilization wedges", which I explained back on October 2nd, 2007. These are measures, each of which could reduce carbon emissions by 1 billion tons per year. Pacala and Socolow, two scientists from Princeton, listed 15 such measures and argued that by adopting 12 we could stabilize the atmosphere at 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide. (Right now it's 385.) This might mean about 2 degrees Celsius of warming.

Anyway, here's what Romm says:

In this post I will lay out “the solution” to global warming, focusing primarily on the 12 to 14 “stabilization wedges.” This post is an update to “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 2: The Solution.”

I have argued that stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at 450 ppm or lower is not politically possible today, but that it is certainly achievable from an economic and technological perspective (see Part 1). I do, however, believe humanity will do it since the alternative is Hell and High Water.

It would require some 12-14 of Princeton’s “stabilization wedges” — strategies and/or technologies that over a period of a few decades each reduce global carbon emissions by one billion metric tons per year from projected levels (see technical paper here, less technical one here). The reason that we need twice as many wedges as Princeton’s Pacala and Socolow have said we need was explained in Part 1. That my analysis is largely correct can be seen here: “IEA report, Part 2: Climate Progress has the 450-ppm solution about right.”

I agree with the IPCC’s detailed review of the technical literature, which concluded in 2007 that “The range of stabilization levels assessed can be achieved by deployment of a portfolio of technologies that are currently available and those that are expected to be commercialised in coming decades.” The technologies they say can beat 450 ppm are here. Technology Review, one of the nation’s leading technology magazines, also argued in a cover story two years ago, “It’s Not Too Late,” that “Catastrophic climate change is not inevitable. We possess the technologies that could forestall global warming.”

I also agree with McKinsey Global Institute’s 2008 Research in Review: Stabilizing at 450 ppm has a net cost near zero.

I do believe only “one” solution exists in this sense — We must deploy every conceivable energy-efficient and low carbon technology that we have today as fast as we can. Princeton’s Pacala and Socolow proposed that this could be done over 50 years, but that is almost certainly too slow.

We’re at about 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year — and notwithstanding the global economic slowdown, probably poised to rise 2% per year (the exact future growth rate is quite hard to project because it depends so much on what China does and how quickly peak oil kicks in). We have to average below 18 billion tons (below 5 GtC) a year for the entire century if we’re going to stabilize at 450 ppm (see “Nature publishes my climate analysis and solution“). We need to peak around 2015 to 2020 at the latest, then drop at least 60% by 2050 to at most 15 billion tons (4 billion tons of carbon), and then go to near zero net carbon emissions by 2100.

That’s why a sober guy like IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri, said in November 2007: “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.” Or as I told Technology Review, “The point is, whatever technology we’ve got now — that’s what we are stuck with to avoid catastrophic warming.”

If we could do the 12-14 wedges in four decades, we should be able to keep CO2 concentrations to under 450 ppm. If we could do them faster, concentrations could stay even lower. We’d probably need to do this by 2040 if not sooner to have a shot at getting back to 350 this century. [And yes, like Princeton, I agree we need to do some R&D now to ensure a steady flow of technologies to make the even deeper emissions reductions needed in the second half of the century.]

I do agree with Hansen et al that the basic strategy is to replace virtually all of coal as quickly as possible, which is why so many of the wedges focused on electricity — that, along with the need to electrify transportation as much as possible. I also agree that this will be harder and more expensive if conventional oil were not going to peak soon. But for better or worse, it is (see “Merrill: Non-OPEC production has likely peaked, oil output could fall by 30 million bpd by 2015” and “Normally staid International Energy Agency says oil will peak in 2020“).

Also, I tend to view the crucial next four decades in two phases. In phase 1, 2010 to 2030, the world finally gets serious about avoiding catastrophic global warming impacts (i.e. Hell and High Water). We increasingly embrace a serious price for carbon dioxide and a very aggressive technology deployment effort.

In phase 2, 2030 to 2050, after multiple climate Pearl Harbors and the inevitable collapse of the Ponzi scheme we call the global economy, the world gets truly desperate, and actions that are not plausible today — including widespread conservation — become commonplace (see here for a description of what that collapse might look like).

In the basic solution, I have thrown in a some extra wedges since I have no doubt that everybody will find something objectionable in at least 2 of them. But unlike the first time I ran this exercise, I have blogged on most of the solutions at length.

This is what the entire planet must achieve:

Here are additional wedges that require some major advances in applied research to be practical and scalable, but are considered plausible by serious analysts, especially post-2030:

That should do the trick. And yes, the scale is staggering.

April 9, 2009

This reminds me of my sabbatical visit with Ross Street and other category theorists in Australia. The long drought had already started back then...

What Will Global Warming Look Like?
Scientists Point to Australia

Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times
April 9, 2009

Reporting from the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia — Frank Eddy pulled off his dusty boots and slid into a chair, taking his place at the dining room table where most of the critical family issues are hashed out. Spreading hands as dry and cracked as the orchards he tends, the stout man his mates call Tank explained what damage a decade of drought has done.

"Suicide is high. Depression is huge. Families are breaking up. It's devastation," he said, shaking his head. "I've got a neighbor in terrible trouble. Found him in the paddock, sitting in his [truck], crying his eyes out. Grown men — big, strong grown men. We're holding on by the skin of our teeth. It's desperate times."

A result of climate change?

"You'd have to have your head in the bloody sand to think otherwise," Eddy said.

They call Australia the Lucky Country, with good reason. Generations of hardy castoffs tamed the world's driest inhabited continent, created a robust economy and cultivated an image of irresistibly resilient people who can't be held down. Australia exports itself as a place of captivating landscapes, brilliant sunshine, glittering beaches and an enviable lifestyle.

Look again. Climate scientists say Australia — beset by prolonged drought and deadly bush fires in the south, monsoon flooding and mosquito-borne fevers in the north, widespread wildlife decline, economic collapse in agriculture and killer heat waves — epitomizes the "accelerated climate crisis" that global warming models have forecast.

With few skeptics among them, Australians appear to be coming to an awakening: Adapt to a rapidly shifting climate, and soon. Scientists here warn that the experience of this island continent is an early cautionary tale for the rest of the world.

"Australia is the harbinger of change," said paleontologist Tim Flannery, Australia's most vocal climate change prophet. "The problems for us are going to be greater. The cost to Australia from climate change is going to be greater than for any developed country. We are already starting to see it. It's tearing apart the life-support system that gives us this world."

Deadly fires

Many here believe Australia already has a death toll directly connected to climate change: the 173 people who died in February during the nation's worst-ever wildfires, and 200 more who died from heat the week before. A three-person royal commission has convened to decide, among other things, whether global warming contributed to massive bush fires that destroyed entire towns and killed a quarter of Victoria state's koalas, kangaroos, birds and other wildlife.

The commission's proceedings mark the first time anywhere that climate change could be put on trial. And it will take place in a nation that still gets 80% of its energy from burning coal, the globe's largest single source of greenhouse gases.

The commission's findings aren't due until August, but veteran firefighters, scientists and residents believe the case has already been made. Even before the flames, 200 Melbourne residents died in a heat wave that buckled the steel skeleton on a newly constructed 400-foot Ferris wheel and warped train tracks like spaghetti. Cities experienced four days of temperatures at 110 degrees or higher with little humidity, and 100-mph winds. In areas where fires hit, temperatures reached 120.

On the hottest day, more than 4,000 gray-headed flying foxes dropped dead out of trees in one Melbourne park.

"Something is happening in Australia," firefighter Dan Condon of the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade wrote in an open letter. "Global warming is no longer some future event that we don't have to worry about for decades. What we have seen in the past two weeks moves Australia's exposure to global warming to emergency status."

For my May 2009 diary, go here.

Mother Nature doesn't do bailouts. - Glenn Prickett

© 2009 John Baez