Thursday, March 18, 2010

Communicating Climate Change in Everyday Conversation with a Skeptic

Communicating climate change is necessary, communicating climate change to skeptics is most important.

Climate change is a tough topic to bring about in the United States, increasingly so for the rest of the world due to a powerful skepticism movement. However, if we are to have educated responses and responsible voters there will need to an understanding of climate change for everyone that is affected. The current status quo of ignoring the issue will not do. It was Lord Stern, whose pivotal study the Stern Review is the most widely referred to report on the Economics of Climate Change that said "It is intensive public discussion that will, in my view, be the ultimate enforcement mechanism." Unfortunately, we are not there and it is due to everyday conversations and communication.

Problems in communicating climate change: for greater depth, our blogger Brian Kahn has put together a series regarding the challenges of communicating climate change. Global warming has already reached a consensus among most scientists (90% of the scientific journal Earth scientists believe the earth is warming. 82% believe that human activity causes the increase in climate temperature.) Brian goes into length three things: language, media, and visualizing. These three elements of communication are poorly utilized and the cause of such climate change illiteracy in the US.

Politics: climate change has become more than just a scientific phenomena briefly mentioned in textbooks or television ads. It has become a political issue, with a line drawn between conservatives and liberals; or more accurately between economists and environmentalists. Once political lines are drawn, the conversation turns away from facts and solutions to “who’s right and therefore better.” In that situation everyone loses.

It must be understood quickly that unless we can pull the issue of climate change away from being categorized as a political ideology or religious view we’re never going to have a fruitful conversation on climate change. Without fruitful climate change conversations we won’t have the “ultimate enforcement mechanism” Stern mentions above. In order to win, you must lose. That is to say, you must treat the conversation like a friendly transaction between two scholars looking for the truth, not trying to convince the other is wrong.

How an everyday conversation should go between a climate change skeptic and an advocate against climate change: first, the topic is brought up. “So what are your views on climate change?” Their answer may be: “It’s a natural cycle that happens every 10,000 years, not man-made.” Bingo, we have a skeptic. You could cite all the climate change reports you’ve read and they would put forth theirs. Or you’d be better to discuss probabilities. Climate change has this fat-tail problem: small probabilities for highly catastrophic consequences: one computer model has shown if we become carbon neutral at 550ppm (with a strong global effort) there's a 4.2% probability of reaching an 8C rise in temperature (Stern, 2008). Ask them: what if we’re wrong to ignore climate change? Would you have wanted governments to put up 1% of GDP to save lives? If nothing else, than just to save money? Turn the conversation away from who’s right or wrong and make it about what if we could have done something, just in case it’s as bad as or worse than what many scientists suggest. You’ll rediscover common ground with skeptics needed to do good for the future; we’ll build from there.

Photo Credit : Anders V

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How Serious is China About Climate Change?

Many world leaders felt Chinese negotiators, including the Premier, were acting as obstructionists at the Copenhagen Conference of the Parties (COP) in December. Now, in an address to the media, Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, says he actually felt snubbed at Copenhagen.

One of the biggest points of contention was that Wen skipped a meeting of the world's top leaders in the waning days of the conference. In his addres, Wen said he was not aware of the meeting and that criticism of China hijacking the proceedings at Copenhagen are absurd. He also said China is committed to the Copenhagen Accord, which it helped craft along with leaders from South Africa, Brazil, India, and the US.

The fact that China recently signed on to the Accord indicates that China is still serious about international climate negotiations. Wen's statements further this position. While developed countries such as the US and England want China to take on similar emissions responsibilities to the rest of the developed world, it might not make the most sense. A recent report indicates that developed countries are outsourcing a large portion of their emissions to developing countries, particularly China.

China has benefited from those emissions through strong economic growth and a better quality of life for it citizens. While China has argument that developed countries should take on a greater burden in mitigating the effects of climate change holds some water, the economic benefits China has realized from accepting the role of the number one place to outsource emissions should not come without consequences.

If Wen's statement is to be taken at face value, then China should take on a greater role at COP16 in Cancun. Reducing carbon intensity, which the Chinese government has proposed, is not enough. China needs to be serious about finding way to reduce actual emissions. Remembering that all parties have the same goal should help the Chinese government find common ground with developed and other emerging economies like India, Brazil, and South Africa in setting up common but differentiated responsibilities.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Cheap Political Gains of Questioning Climate Change

There are a number of disconnects in the US right now about climate change. One of the more interesting ones is the disconnect between the majority of our current elected officials and candidates running for seats in the House and Senate as well as possible presidential candidates.
Aside from some outliers (I’m looking at you, James Inhofe), most elected officials at the national level believe climate change is happening. Some are even looking to craft solutions before its too late. Senator Lindsey Graham (D), is still working with with Senators John Kerry (D) and Joe Liebermann (I) to craft a bipartisan climate change bill in the Senate to compliment the one already passed in the House. Its one of the rare moments where Senators are working across the aisle on a big issue.
It could become even more rare if some Republican hopefuls win office this fall. There are prominent Republicans such as Marco Rubio, who is running for Senate in Florida, and Tim Pawlenty, who is eying a presidential big in 2012, who have suddenly backed off of supporting climate change legislation. This is a change of pace from their stances even a few years ago.
Pawlenty supported capping greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota earlier in his role as governor. Rubio, as leader of the Florida House of Representatives, helped get a unanimous vote urging the State Department of Environmental Protection to create rules for how companies operating in Florida could limit emissions. Both of them have suddenly had a change of heart about the science of climate change.
It would seem that their reasons for changing are purely political. The Tea Party movement coupled with oil and gas special interests have jerked the Republican Party to the far right on many issues including climate change. It’s dangerous ground to be standing on, though.
While short term gains by questioning the science of climate change could help Republicans pick up seats in the House and Senate, but they could diminish long term election chances. Lindsey Graham has warned that playing to party activists could alienate young voters, particularly in the future. He’s absolutely right.
The science may not be exact, but the trends are clear enough to know things are changing. Just because we aren't certain of exact temperatures or precipitation amounts in a given year doesn’t mean we should hold off on meaningful action to reduce emissions. Temporary political gains got by questioning the science will ultimately hurt Republican credibility as climate changes and more world leaders look to act to avert the worst effects of climate change. If people like Pawlenty and Rubio win election this fall or in 2012, they should enjoy the view from the top because they won’t be there for long.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Current Climate Change Series on Justmeans

Summary of current and new series at LEED Buildings, policy, renewable energy, organizations doing good work for climate change.

If it hasn't already become apparent, this climate change blog has a mother climate change blog at At Justmeans the number of excellent writers has doubled and in particular Brian Kahn has joined the family. He is in the middle of an excellent series on communicating climate change, be sure to check that out. Brian will be writing for climate change regularly, so be sure to follow him on as well. Other climate change series on Justmeans are also being published and a couple of new ones as well, they are:

The LEED Building and Energy Efficiency Series. This series will focus on the most successful green movement, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) run by the most successful green organization ever created, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). A rundown of credits and cost-saving measures will hopefully make it easier to understand why LEED is the future, today. It is an organization that exemplifies the triple bottom line: "People, planet, and profit." When I traveled to Denmark to learn from the nation’s world-class renewable energy programs, I learned that the most valuable thing they could still do was to increase energy efficiency of buildings. In the US, buildings consume over 72% of electricity and 30% of total energy (USGBC, 2010). Sustainable, green, and energy efficient buildings combat climate change, are profitable, and increase worker productivity and health.

The ongoing Climate Change Policy Series was originally designed to give a background of countries' climate change and energy policies leading up to the climactic (or anticlimactic) COP15 summit. It was the hope of this author, like many across the globe, that once the summit ended a global agreement on climate change would be signed. This would set us on the path of a concerted effort and a new series dedicated to new commitments would begin - maybe next time.

Another ongoing series is the Renewable Energy Solutions for Climate Change Series. Justmeans recently added an editorial category titled: Energy and Emissions, run by Paul Birkeland a former aerospace engineer and Brian Cotta a PhD in materials science, and that technically this series belongs there. However, it's difficult separating renewable energy and climate change, like separating sustainability and climate change. The problem is climate change and global warming; the solutions are renewable energy, efficiency, and sustainability.

The Organizations Doing Good Work for Climate Change Solutions Series. This can include companies, but a focus will be to dedicated climate change organizations. Submissions and press releases will only be accepted on Justmeans via messaging either me, Juan Carlo Pascua, or Brian Kahn. If you already have an account we'll scour your press releases on Justmeans as well, just be sure to follow the climate change editorial so that we may follow you as well, it's just easier to keep track of updates that way. Cheers!

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Specific Arguments For and Against Green Jobs: Climate Change or Sustainability

The specific arguments for and against green jobs, which are solutions to climate change or sustainability are discussed.

Green jobs combat climate change and even if climate change predictions do not arrive, many current or planned mitigation efforts are still worthwhile investments in sustainability. Any climate change project would create green jobs. In the unlikely even that climate change does not occur, we can rename the problem a need for sustainability and we’ll all still win. However, the argument continues: do green jobs exist?

The single most important piece of evidence that green jobs exist and will continue to create new jobs is the enormous amounts of investment into the green economic landscape. Billions of dollar are being invested into new companies and "Investment creates jobs." Specifically, the PERI (2008) reports six green industry sectors that are about to boom: building retrofit, mass transit, energy efficient automobiles, wind power, solar power, and cellulosic biofuels.

A UNEP (2008) reports $10 billion in investment were committed by leading investment groups by 2010, these groups represented $8 trillion dollars in assets. A Berkeley, California case study (2007) contained three noteworthy arguments for green jobs: 1) Green collar jobs are well suited for workers with barriers to employment - they offer low barriers to entry, meaning not even a high school degree is required; 2) people are interested in these jobs; 3) owners are willing to hire job ready applicants.

The arguments against green jobs focus on criticizing the meaning of the term “green job,” methodologies of the green literature, and paranoia against global economic change. Morriss et al. (2009) provide seven myths and their respective realities on green jobs:
Reason #1: There is no such thing as a green job because there is no uniformly agreed definition.
Reason #2: green jobs will not boost productive employment because estimates include huge numbers of clerical jobs that do not create actual goods or services for consumption.
Reason #3
: the green jobs forecasts are unreliable because they are made upon poor economic models and dubious assumptions.
Reason #4
: green jobs do not promote employment growth because they favor labor jobs over more efficient machines and technology.
Reason #5
: the world economy cannot be remade because local modes of production are inadequate to supply the desires of any country; special outside firms would be needed.
Reason #6
: mandates are not a substitute for markets, because companies react more swiftly to consumers than government entanglements.
Reason #7
: wishing for technological progress is insufficient, because technologies preferred by green studies are incapable of reaching a meaningful scale to meet demand.

As mentioned before, the debate on whether green jobs exist is the same debate as whether climate change is real. They do exist (green jobs) and it is real (climate change). Climate change is the problem; green jobs are the solution. Wewill go into more depth in following posts to discover that even if climate change is not real, the cost savings we’d get in investing for green jobs for sustainability make green jobs the necessary future.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tangled Web of Carbon Emissions

The UN published an eye-catching and educational graphic that illustrates society's sources of carbon emissions as well as the use that generated those emissions and the kind of emissions they are. You can pull a boatload of surprises off this one. Here are a few that surprised me. (All values are computed based on CO2 equivalent tonnage.)

Energy Consumption accounts for only 61.4% of total emissions. This is still the vast majority, but not as much as I thought it was. Land Use change is the second largest source at 18.2%. There's cause for thought.

Methane, which is 21 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, comes mostly from three sources Ð Agriculture 53.6%, Waste 25.7%, and the Oil Industry 20.7%. So a focus on those would be very effective.

Agricultural Energy Use is only 1.4% of the worldwide total emissions. So despite all the programs to reduce farm-based energy consumption, that really doesn't seem to be a problem. Much greater are the Agriculture Soils category, which I assume includes fertilizer applications, at 6%, and Livestock & Manure at 5.1%.

Transportation accounts for 13.5% of emissions, although I know that varies greatly from place to place. Here in the Pacific Northwest, with our blessing of hydropower, transportaion emissions are about half of our total.

Transportation Sectors
surprising than the Transportation total is the breakdown by sectors. Road travel accounts for 73.3% of Transportation sector emissions (9.9% of the world total.) Air and Rail make up the other 27% (11.8% and 14.8% respectively. Electric rail accounts for an additional 0.3% of world total, but it is counted under power plant sources.) The point here is that a fcous on road systems, either in reducing the usage or increasing efficiency or both, will yield the greatest benefit.

Nitrous Oxide
, the second most harmful greenhouse gas, is produced almost entirely by Agricultural Soils. Nitrous accounts for only 8% of the world's GHG production, but 75% of it comes from Soils, which generally means evaporation of synthetic fertilizers. So here's a significant chunk of emissions that can be stopped with a singular focus.

My take away here is one of hope. With focused efforts it's possible to reduce emissions pretty readily. There is a tougher challenge politically of course. But still, the research story is a positive one.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

CO2 Bathtub

A friend of mine, a retired aerospace engineer who helped send men to the Moon, tipped me off to this article and its simple, but effective analogy.

A recent National Geographic had a short article about an MIT professor who wrote a computer program he calls the "bathtub analogy." Very briefly, a bathtub has an inlet spigot and an outlet drain. If the spigot is letting in less than the drain can pass out, the tub will never fill up. If the spigot is flowing at exactly the same rate that the drain passes out, the tub won't fill up or if there's already an initial water level in the tub, that level will remain constant. And of course, if the spigot is flowing at a rate greater then the drain can pass out, the tub will eventually fill up and overflow.

The MIT professor uses this analogy for many scientific and economic systems. For example, with suitable adaptations, conversion parameters, input data, etc., his program will address how you can gain and/or lose weight, how your outstanding credit card balance will go up and down, and so forth. He recently applied this program to the level of CO2 in the atmosphere using input data from another professor at the University of Chicago and from the Carbon Project.

Without burdening you with a lot of analytical detail, his bathtub analogy program shows that in 2008, the latest year with adequate data, the "global spigot of everything" filled the Earth's CO2 Bathtub at a rate of 9.1 billion metric tons (bmt) per year. In that year the drain on our CO2 Bathtub drained out the following:
  • + 0.9 bmt were absorbed by sediments and rocks. They are a huge CO2"sink", but chemically work very slowly and would take centuries to absorb all the CO2 currently being emitted by all the natural and man-made processes on the planet.
  • + 2.8 bmt were absorbed by the oceans. This is also a huge CO2 "sink", but only absorbs CO2 on its surface. The CO2-laden surface sea water then sinks at various places defined by global sea circulations, and is replaced by new sea water. This also is a slow process, and physically isn't able to play catch-up at current CO2 emission rates.
  • + 2.7 bmt were absorbed by plants and soils. This is a more rapid process, but that reservoir is smaller (and will always be limited in size) and it will soon fill up, especially if global forests and agricultural land continue to be destroyed at current rates.
Obviously from simple arithmetic, the bottom line is that in 2008 our CO2 Bathtub spigot flowed at 9.1 bmt, but the drain only passed out 6.4 bmt. The difference stayed in the atmosphere.
So in order to keep the CO2 level constant in that year we would have had to reduce global CO2 emissions by (9.1 - 6.4) = 2.7 bmt, or by about 30%. Also, if we wanted to additionally decrease the CO2 level in the atmosphere, we would have had to turn the CO2 spigot down to a rate less than 2.7bmt, or more than 30%.

A very important conclusion from this arithmetic is that it's necessary to cut CO2 emissions below our current level of ~9.1bmt even to just keep the CO2 level in our bathtub constant! Just living with the current 9.1 bmt (or something a little less than that), or just stopping the annual growth in emissions that we've been experiencing, will not stop the CO2 level in the atmosphere from increasing! Just like water in the bathtub, the input spigot in our CO2 Bathtub has to be turned down to flow at a rate not more than the CO2 Bathtub drain can flow out to maintain a fixed level! This is a critical conclusion that most people don't comprehend. Accordingly, everybody must recognize that to keep the current CO2 level constant we need to talk about an annual CO2 emission reduction of 30% or more! Again, the spigot inflow has to be the same or less than the drain outflow (which is now ~6.4 bmt per year), for the level to remain constant.

Thinking about emission reductions of 10% or 20%isn't going to cut the mustard! And thinking about sequestering and other schemes to effectively increase the size of the drain in our CO2Bathtub is likely impractical - we're talking here of an excess of~3 billion metric tons per year! Therefore, as the MIT professor clearly implies, a 30% reduction goal should be the "magic number" for all scientific, economic, and political discussions.

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