I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.
By: RickyRood, 5:05 AM GMT on September 29, 2011
Politics, Events, and the Weather: A Collection
I have ended the series on Sustainability and Climate Change – for now (Sustainability 1, Sustainability 2, Sustainability 3, Sustainability 4). The responses to the series were interesting, and I owe a few notes to people who have written to me.
For some time I have been planning to collect together a summary of (not so) recent events. There are a lot of places that you can find information on weather and climate events, so that will not be my primary focus. My focus will be on some of those other things that are important to climate and climate change. Still, though, it is hard to start without some attention to the weather and climate.
Back in June Jeff Master’s had a blog about 2010-2011 being the host of more extreme weather than any year since 1816. Last week I was at a meeting talking about the Billion Dollar Events and the extreme summer of 2011 (see, Chris Burt, Weather.com, Earth and Sky). An extreme and persisting event is the heat and drought, largely associated with Texas and Oklahoma, but spread throughout the southern parts of the U.S. Here is a graphic from NCDC that is gathering a lot of attention right now.
Figure 1: Each dot represents a day where temperatures met or exceeded 100 degrees F.
The number of days in North Central Texas and the South West corner of Oklahoma where the high has been over 100 degrees F exceeds 70. This comes with extended droughts. The drought stands in contrast to the record floods to the north and east of Texas, in both the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys – and the Ohio.
In this potpourri of a blog, I want to now mention the prototype web site climate.gov. This is a rapidly growing NOAA web site that includes Climate Watch magazine. Here is an article on the summer 2011. climate.gov improves the accessibility to many weather and climatic products that are part of NOAA’s portfolio. It also features original summary articles and access to data and educational material.
So I want to take off in two directions from here. The first is on the politicization of climate. Representative Ralph Hall announced that the Science, Space, and Technology Committee will start an investigation into NOAA and whether or not NOAA is forming an “unauthorized” climate service. This is consistent with: 1) A statement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the political attack on climate researchers is, effectively, impeding the scientific process and stalling the advancement of science. (Which the readers of my blogs will know is the goal of the political arguments, hence, a successful strategy.) And 2) Forms a thread back to this entry in 2007, and, well, much longer. (Oreskes video: Merchants of Doubt) This has evolved to the point that Scott Mandia has started a Climate Science Legal Defense Fund to which you are welcome to contribute.
Figure 2: Climate Science Legal Defense Fund
The other direction that I wanted to go was in the spirit of climate “prediction.” A La Nina pattern has resumed in the eastern tropical Pacific; the water is colder than normal. For those who are thinking about climate predictions and the use of climate models in planning, the persistent cold eastern tropical Pacific offers opportunity. Experience suggests that the drought in the southern half of the U.S. will persist, and the risk for floods in the Missouri Valley will be higher than normal. Since we are highly sensitized to the events of summer 2011, and seemingly disinclined to paying for disasters, interest should be high in how to use this information to develop resilience and reduce risk - and cost.
Back to the political thread: Over the years I have written about the role of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. approach to climate change. The recap is that the Supreme Court affirmed that the EPA could regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. At one point the Obama Administration was inclined to have the EPA to enforce this notion. There was bipartisan opposition, strongly related to whether or not a state or district had jobs related to fossil fuels. In the absence of policy, regulation is often used as a environmental management tool, and in general, this is not desired by anyone. Throughout 2011 there has been push and pull on the EPA. There was a move led by Senators Mitch McConnell and James Inhoff to stop the EPA from enforcing carbon dioxide regulation, and repealing “a 2009 finding by federal scientists that climate change caused by greenhouse gases endangers human health …”. Though this particular effort failed, “Resistance from Democrats is what caused legislation in Congress to collapse during the first two years of the Obama administration even though the president’s party controlled both the House and Senate at the time.” In a complex set of legal actions the Supreme Court ruled against a set of states who were trying to use federal law to curb greenhouse emissions from electrical utilities. As I understand this issue the Obama Administration sided with the utilities against the state efforts at regulation. The net result of these political machinations is that there is one delay after another in the development of EPA rules, and the focus on the EPA as THE point of regulation.
The point I want to make here is that the persistent political resistance achieves the goal of prohibiting the U.S. from developing a unified approach to climate change. Especially with the economic growth remaining stagnant, there is little political motivation in either party to address climate change. There is not foreseeable development of national policy, and the political process is targeted on delaying or destroying any regulation-based approach. There is resistance to funding federal support to promote alternative energy, with the argument that market forces don’t support the need. Economy trumps climate change. And doesn’t this short-focused, tribal politics, ultimately, hurt our economy and competitiveness?
In response to this situation, no political party takes ownership of the climate-change problem. Organizations such as 350.org are holding the political mantle to take action on climate change, with efforts like last weekend’s Moving Planet.
That’s it for now. There is more. Perhaps it is all best summed up by Gary Trudeau in Doonesbury
Figure 3: Doonesbury, September 25, 2011. From Doonesbury.com
Updated: 3:04 PM GMT on September 29, 2011
By: RickyRood, 7:38 PM GMT on September 21, 2011
High-Value Crops: Sustainability and Climate Change (4)
In the past three articles (Sustainability 1, Sustainability 2, Sustainability 3) I have been exploring the relation between climate change and sustainability. I have focused on the interface between different communities and the conflicts that arise as people push and shove different agendas. There are many issues at play, and when you think about climate change and sustainability, and bring in population and consumption, there are many things that are done in the spirit of sustainability that don’t address climate change – and are, perhaps, not really sustainable.
It is my belief that disentangling the issues at the interfaces will, ultimately, lead to more people engaging in the pursuit of solutions to the challenges of climate change – rather than dismissing the climate issue as unimportant – at least, to me, right now, for this problem. For this final entry in the series I want to start with a local discussion about genetically modified sugar beets. (Bet you did not see that sentence coming.)
First, I don’t know exactly where I sit on the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There are many complex issues, including serious issues of ethics and social justice. Within the realm of climate change, some argue that one of our major adaptation strategies will be new GMO crops that are more heat and drought tolerant. Or, perhaps, to counter the spread of malaria by GMO mosquitoes. Enhanced removal of carbon dioxide by GMO plants? We could argue perhaps GMOs are some sort of fast evolution.
I want to talk about something far smaller. Beets. The arguments around here, Boulder County, Colorado, center on Roundup Ready Beets (for and against). Roundup is an herbicide, and the genetically modified beets definitively allow both less use of herbicides and fossil fuels – hence, cost reduction. According to the articles I linked above, the vast majority of the commercial sugar beet farmers have quickly embraced the GMO sugar beets. The argument in Boulder County is whether or not these beets should be allowed on county land that is leased for agricultural use. This leads, naturally, to discussions of local agricultural, organic farming, sustainability and things that are “good for the climate.” (Some local press coverage Boulder Weekly, Letters in Response)
The place I want to bring this blog is specifically, “high value crops.” One of the arguments that came forward is that rather than allowing GMOs, that local farmers could grow high-value crops, such as organic vegetables. It is argued that this supports local farmers and sustainability. (I cannot resist pointing out that the farmers who desire to plant GMO beets are also “local.”) It is pointed out that since, at least to some extent, that organic farming replaces the use of herbicides and fossil fuels with jobs for crop tenders. Hence it is good for the local workforce and, well, climate change.
The key to this argument is “high-value” crops. The organic and local vegetables that flow from Boulder County, definitely, require a population that can pay a high cost. This does not mean that the small local farmers are getting wealthy. It also does not mean that a large local workforce is being supported – many of the local farms have aggressive volunteer and education programs. The high cost represents a price that is indicative of the cost of raising crops in a region that is water-stressed, with a short growing season, with shifts between too hot and too cold, with more than its share of grasshoppers, magpies, rabbits and coyotes. And, the local farmer also needs to either be able to live in the region that can afford high-value crops.
High-value: High-value implies wealth, and in the here and now, wealth is correlated with energy use which is correlated with burning fossil fuels. The wealth that supports the ability to buy high-value crops follows, directly or indirectly, from the use of fossil fuels. Therefore the ability to buy high-value crops comes with a large carbon footprint. Therefore the argument that the small, local farm that generates high-value produce is climate friendly is, in the here and now, a hollow argument. In fact, if I wanted to make a climate-based argument, anything that requires less fossil fuel is more climate friendly. Perhaps, GMOs.
When I teach climate change problem solving, I advocate that my students try to organize the problem along three axes: time, is it near-term or long-term; space, is it local or global; and wealth, rich or poor. Wealth is the difficult axis. It represents consumption, how you think about mitigation and adaptation, and environmental justice. Earlier research shows that the wealthier a country is the less concerned they are about climate change. That’s a useful sociological consideration.
There are many issues that we conflate to support what we believe and what we want. (I also teach how do we separate what we know, we believe, we want.) We link things casually that make sense. When we think about sustainability and climate change, we have to think about our imperative to succeed, to consume. We live in a world where economic growth is required by policy, demanded by people, and economic growth means consumption. It gets back to energy and fossil fuels. To have a sustainable planet with more than 7 billion consuming humans, we have to decouple energy from carbon dioxide emissions. To address climate change we will have to figure out how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We might even need GMOs.
By: RickyRood, 6:57 PM GMT on September 11, 2011
Thinking about Water: Sustainability and Climate Change (3)
In the past two articles (Sustainability 1, Sustainability 2) I have been exploring the relation between climate change and sustainability. There are a couple of issues that floated to the top. The first is that both climate change and sustainability have complex and difficult issues of communication. For example, if an organization takes a strident and dogmatic position on a single issue, in my example, compostable plastic cups, then the important points about sustainability can be lost in a way that, bluntly, looks silly - and that is definitely damaging to advancing sustainability. The same is true for climate change. The second issue is that central to both sustainability and climate change is waste management – and in the particular case of plastic waste and carbon dioxide emissions there are some interesting parallels. The third is that there are practices in the sustainability movement that are not obviously “good” in the realm of addressing global warming. Ultimately, to address climate change we have to find sources of energy that do not emit carbon dioxide when energy is used.
In this entry, I want to visit the issues of water resources and sustainability and climate change; my primary purpose is to explore more fully the issues of communication, perspectives, and perhaps lumping people together into social and political groups.
In August I took a one-day course on grasslands and the reclamation of prairie land. Throughout eastern Colorado there are efforts to return farmland to natural prairie. Eastern Colorado is very dry, and in fact, southeastern Colorado was at the heart of the Dust Bowl ( an old dusty blog). To support crops such as sugar beets, corn, and Rocky Ford Cantaloupes, water for irrigation is required. The South Platte and Arkansas River watersheds are completely managed. If you drive the dirt roads through un-irrigated land, you see cholla growing.
The grasslands course that I took went to several fields where natural prairie grasses were being planted. Simply, this is agricultural land. If the land is abandoned, then all sorts of weeds, some of them considered pernicious invasive species, take over. That is, if there is some water. If there is no water then the land dries out and blows away. In the spirit of good land stewardship, grass seed are planted and the land is irrigated for a prescribed number of years. In this way, the broadleaf weeds grow first, the grass sprouts and takes hold, and then in five years the tough dry-lands grasses are left to fend for themselves – or perhaps used as rangelands. This appears to me to be good land management, sustainable perhaps, but I am not an ecosystems expert and if there are underlying problems with this, then I hope some readers will let me know.
What is the motivation for this return to prairie? The primary motivation is the capture of water for the cities along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains (Thirsty Cities, Dry Farms). So this might challenge some people’s notion of sustainability, especially those who couch the problem in terms of cantaloupes for suburban lawns.
But I don’t want to frame this in terms of suburban lawns. Denver Water is a large water owner in Colorado, and they have been long-time advocates for water conservation. In fact, if you look at most large U.S. West cities, their water consumption per person has gone down tremendously for the past decade or two. The population, their customer base, has gone up. Looking to a future with more people and a robust economy, water is important, so they are buying up water and water rights. These water rights, often, were originally for agriculture. Again this seems likes sensible, responsible behavior. From the point of view of sustainability, the fundamental problem is a lot of people in a dry land. But just to the west of Denver are the Rockies and they collect, or at least they always have collected – they collect water, store it snow and it flows down to the Plains in the summer. (Perhaps assisted by large tunnels and aqueducts – a good Latin word.)
So climate change – this is a blog about climate change. I started this series of blogs at the county fair. There were science exhibits, and a display on climate-wise gardening. There was a lot of attention to garbage; it was a zero-waste event. There was an exhibit and lecture on irrigation, with, of course, some discussion of stressed and contentious water resources. In one of the discussions I had, I brought up the climate-wise gardening exhibit, and the immediate response was that they did not think that climate change was a very important issue with regards to water for county farm land.
From the point of view of a farmer in eastern Colorado, the weather has always been an unreliable partner. You simply cannot count on water falling from the sky. When the farmer hears someone talking about climate change and the growing unreliability of water, they feel that they already have a large knowledge base about unreliable water. Already, they don’t count on the weather. If it rains, well, that is good fortune that means a little less irrigation or a little more corn. If you look at what affects the farmer’s water, it is cities buying up water rights at the head of the stream, in the mountains. The purchase of water, or more generally, water rights, water policy, and water engineering have a FAR greater impact than climate change. So if you are a farmer in eastern Colorado, the threat offered by climate change is pretty far down the list of risks.
The farmer’s climate risk is then influenced by, say, the cost of fuel. If you are reliant upon fossil fuels to pump water for your irrigation, then the increased cost of that fossil fuel to address climate change, that is threatening their water a few decades down the road – well it does not make a lot of sense. Ultimately, if it is the political will that matters, then the political support for climate change policy does not follow intuitively from their experiences. Plus, if you are a farmer in eastern Colorado, you likely sit on top of some oil or natural gas and with those high prices, and there’s a nice source of steady income – to replace the income lost because the water is being taken away by the city. That climate change is not a major environmental issue is not a surprise, and at least on the surface of policy options, much of what we propose to do about climate change does not appear to be in the farmer’s self interest.
So that’s one perspective of climate change. For another look at Denver Water. Denver Water looks at the mountains to their west, millions of people, and planning 50 years ahead. They look at cities that want to grow; towns that want to attract new businesses. They look across a large region. They look at changing seasonal supplies. Denver Water is one of the utilities that is most concerned about climate change. (Drought and Climate Change from Denver Water) The size of the problems Denver Water care about is large enough that climate change matters and is small enough that the climate projections, what will actually happen, is highly uncertain. They are prepared for the future, if the future looks like the past. But what if that future is different? The smart way to address such ambiguous risk is to buy more of the resource that you need.
I want to end with the grass tour. As we rode around in a bus looking at fields, you cannot help but be impressed by the presence of solar panels in those fields. Even if climate change is not a front-burner issue, energy, energy cost, energy access, energy reliability is.
Figure 1: From Rocky Mountain Climate Organization which works “to protect the West and its climate, by bringing about action to reduce heat-trapping pollution and to prepare for the changes that are coming.”
Updated: 3:31 PM GMT on September 21, 2011