Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

Why is climate change different?

By: RickyRood, 10:25 PM GMT on March 27, 2014

Why is climate change different?

This blog was motivated by a question on piece that I posted in the Michigan Journal of Sustainability, The Conversation: Climate Change: A Fundamental Shift of Our Place in the World.

Climate change means that the average surface temperature of planet will warm, that ice will melt, that sea level will rise and that the weather will change. Climate change is a unique environmental challenge. One aspect of its uniqueness is that we have knowledge with adequate certainty that we can anticipate and plan for climate change. This type of knowledge of the climate of the Earth is knowledge that the generations that preceded us have not had. It is knowledge that we can use or that we can squander.

1) As I stated in Climate Change: A Fundamental Shift of Our Place in the World, the science-based reality of climate changes stands as a fundamental breakthrough of human knowledge. We have the ability to transform the very nature of the planet – and we are doing so. Our individual and group perception of our place in the world is changed. We have to assume the responsibility of what we are doing to the planet. There is the responsibility of how we use the knowledge that we have generated of the ways the planet will change.

2) There is no going back. We should strive to make the best future possible. Ecosystems are changing rapidly, and they will continue to change. Our agriculture will need to adapt. When there are ecosystem disruptions such as fires and storms, the recovery will be in a different climate. The familiar idea of conservation to protect and conserve is challenged at its foundation. How we build the things that we build will need to change. Returning to the climate that we grew up with is not possible.

3) Compared to the classic problems of air and water pollution, the scale of climate change is truly global. We’re melting ice (takes a lot of energy). We’re warming the ocean (takes a lot of energy). We’re heating the surface air temperature. We’re changing ecosystems.

4) Compared to the classic problems of air and water pollution, the length of time that the carbon dioxide pollutant remains with us is long. If we were to turn off the carbon dioxide pollution today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would not just go away. If you turned off carbon dioxide pollution, then the Earth will continue to warm.

5) Carbon dioxide pollution is a measure of societal success. When we think of air and water pollution we think of a contaminant such as mercury that is trace element from burning coal - or a spill of something bad into the water. We immediately think we can remove the contaminant, turn off the spill or contain the bad chemicals. Carbon dioxide pollution is different, because our economic success comes from the use of energy and our use of energy remains linked to burning fossil fuels. Release of carbon dioxide is therefore a measure of societal success. Carbon dioxide is not a trace contaminant of a bigger process; carbon dioxide pollution is the process.

6) The impacts of climate change are greater for people in future generations. Because the length of time that carbon dioxide pollution remains with us is long and its spatial extent is global, we have a difficult time conceiving how to address the problem. What we do today to reduce pollution is often viewed as hurting us in the short term with the benefit being for those not yet born. This strikes against our collective sensibilities.

7) Climate change is not a problem that we can fix and then forget about. The success of our billions on the Earth requires us to alter our environment. With climate change our environment becomes global.

Therefore, our success requires us to alter our environment, to manage our pollution and, hence, to manage the climate. We are too many and too consuming to live the fantasy that the Earth is large enough that the spoor of our enterprise is safely absorbed by the ground, the air and the rivers, lakes and oceans. The more we pollute, the greater the change, the more difficult the adaptation.

We have never lived in a time when the future was without peril. The knowledge that the climate will change gives us an idea of what some of the peril will be. We have the ability to anticipate and adapt to that peril. We can lessen the peril. For all the generations we can imagine, the climate will be changing. Some would say that has always been true. Today we know how it will be changing.


Climate Impacts and Risks

Updated: 11:00 PM GMT on March 31, 2014


No Energy Policy and Even Less Climate Policy

By: RickyRood, 4:38 AM GMT on March 15, 2014

No Energy Policy and Even Less Climate Policy

This week I gave a lecture on current energy use. Of the lectures I give, those on current energy use and trends are the ones I have to change the most from year to year. I remember that as a child in 1961 my father gave me a world atlas that stated that the U.S. had the world’s greatest petroleum reserves, and that all was quite rosy for the future. That didn’t turn out so well. If I look at the past 8 years of lectures I highlight in one year hydrogen cells, the next year ethanol, the ups and downs of wind energy, the machinations over solar cells and trade with China, clean coal, dirty coal, now hydraulic fracturing and the emergence of the U.S. as a oil and natural gas giant. Three years ago one of my charts showed where the U.S. imported oil and the difficult relations we had with many of our suppliers.

A common factor from year to year is that taking a global perspective, the energy use continues to increase, and the dominate energy sources are coal, oil and natural gas. Coal use has increased significantly in the last decade, which includes U.S. coal exports. Renewable energy use has increased tremendously, but remains a small part.

I first wrote a blog about the Keystone Pipeline in December of 2011. The Keystone Pipeline has emerged as a litmus test of a federal commitment to climate change. The climate advocacy group 350.org maintains regular protests against the pipeline. In President Obama’s Speech on Climate Change (June 25, 2013), Obama stated that the pipeline had to be in our national interest and cannot significantly enhance carbon pollution.

This is a classic ethical problem of the near-term versus the long-term. The analysis by the State Department comes to the conclusion that the Keystone Pipeline will not significantly enhance carbon dioxide pollution. The basic argument is that the resource will be developed in any event. The Keystone Pipeline will bring jobs and likely restart closed refineries (U.S. as gasoline exporter). In the event that the pipeline is not built, there will be efforts to build new pipelines in Canada. Until there are pipelines, a whole range of petroleum products will be transported by train and truck. This transport is inefficient and risky.

We live in a time when there is a boom in U.S. production of oil and natural gas. We are on the verge of becoming an oil and natural gas exporting nation. Yet, the stress of a cold winter has stressed the gas distribution network, causing a spike in home heating costs. We are burning off the gas in the North Dakota oil shale fields because we have no way to get it out. We are considering the role of natural gas in future geopolitical crises such as Ukraine, which is a policy driver to lowering the cost of transport. It’s just a mess.

The climate policy importance for the Keystone Pipeline decision is largely that the pipeline facilitates the burning of fossil fuels. It eases the use as a source of oil, tar sands, which are especially dirty from a climate perspective. It is also dirty from a water quality perspective, with other environmental consequences. Fundamentally, the Keystone Pipeline helps to keep fossil fuels cheap, which is completely contrary to what is needed for climate policy. The decision calculation is addressing a whole host of existing short-term problems, versus making the stand against facilitating the continuation and, perhaps, acceleration of carbon dioxide pollution (Rood blog Burning Stuff). Another calculation is whether or not this is the opportunity point for catalyzing the development of climate policy.

The Obama Administration can claim that with regard to climate policy that they have directly targeted the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. This policy initiative can be linked back to better distribution of natural gas to displace coal as the primary fuel for electricity production. Natural gas when burned releases less carbon dioxide than coal. Whether or not natural gas on the whole reduces greenhouse gas emissions depends on the care to control leakage and waste in obtaining and transporting the gas. The Obama administration can also take credit for reducing transportation emissions through the requirements than came with the auto-industry bailout during the recession (a example of policy opportunity).

In what will be a significant debate in the climate community, Marcia McNutt, Editor in Chief of Science Magazine, has endorsed the building of the pipeline. (Science has provided open access to the editorial.) Dr. McNutt cites policy opportunity in granting the permits.

We have no energy policy. We have no climate policy. We have resisted the development of energy policy for more than 30 years. We have made fragmented investments in specific technologies, most of which proved to be poor investments. We know that investments in specific technologies are usually bad policy because there is not adequate flexibility to accommodate technological development and market forces. We use these poorly conceived fragmented technology developments to argue that any energy policy we develop is doomed to failure. That keeps us in a position that encourages cheap fossil fuels relative to other forms of energy. We have even less well formed climate policy. Therefore we continue our march increasing fossil fuel emissions. I don’t think that the Keystone Pipeline is the moment that catalyzes energy policy or climate policy no matter the decision. Therefore, I expect the short-term trumps the long-term. Then the ultimate resolution will lie in set of court cases and we will churn along in our mess. It’s a decision that I am happy I don’t have to make.


Climate Change Politics

Updated: 7:01 PM GMT on March 15, 2014


Enjoying the Cold

By: RickyRood, 6:22 AM GMT on March 04, 2014

Enjoying the Cold

In the last couple of weeks several people have sent me this comic, Cold, from xkcd. The cartoon draws from the work at Climate Central, an organization that is doing excellent work with data and communication about climate, weather and climate change. The point of the cartoon is that if you look back at the weather of not so long along ago, we saw cold temperatures like we have seen in the U.S. this winter. The planet was warmed up enough that we are not used to it being cold.

Every month the National Climatic Data Center releases an update on its Climate Monitoring page. In the February update, the graph of the differences (anomalies) from the 1981-2010 average shows that the eastern half of the continental U.S. was 4 – 5 degrees Celsius colder than average. Northern Siberia was also very cold. Look at Alaska (part of the U.S.), Greenland and China - downright toasty.

Figure 1: January 2014 temperature differences from a 1981-2010 average. From the National Climatic Data Center.

When the cold of the eastern U.S. is put into a global perspective, January 2014 was the 4th warmest global average since 1880. The U.S. was 53rd coolest, near the middle. If you go back to my blog on the behavior of the Arctic Oscillation, I show maps of 2010 and 2011 which were so cold that they motivated congressional hearings about climate change. In that blog, I also show figures from 1979, which was the coldest winter in the continental U.S.

As I started to put this into context, the first thing that I noticed was that those hearings-motivating winters of 2010 and 2011 were about 8 degrees Celsius warmer than 1979. This winter, 2013 – 2014, is objectively cold, but it is not colder than 1979. If you examine the figure above, the anomaly was calculated from the average 1981-2010, which includes the warmest decade we have measured since 1880. Therefore, the anomaly looks larger than it would if calculated against an earlier 30 year period or a 20th century average.

The last month when the global mean monthly average was below the 20th century average was February 1985. If I count correctly, then it has been 29 years, or 348 months, since we, globally, have experienced a month colder than the 20th century average. If we look at years, rather than individual months, then this span of time extends back to 1976. I remember the fall and winter of 1976 - 1977 very well. I had moved to Tallahassee. It snowed. People raked it under the trees to take pictures. People left their sprinklers on to see ice. They destroyed their trees.

Figure 2: Annual average temperature differences from a 20th average. Calculated using tools from National Climatic Data Center.

The extraordinary string of months and years above the 20th century average will continue. In a year, we will have gone 30 years, the official averaging time of climate, since we will have experienced a “cool” month. This locally cold winter in the eastern U.S. is more like the late 1970s than the nineties in the comic above. A big difference is that this locally cold winter still does not affect the average enough to keep January 2014, globally, from being one of the warmest on record. The cartoon is right, not only are we not used to it being cold, many of residents of the U.S. have never actually experienced such cold. Same is true for the stink bugs of Virginia.


Just Temperature

Climate Change News Climate Change

Updated: 5:16 PM GMT on March 04, 2014


About RickyRood

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.

RickyRood's Recent Photos

Clouds in the lee of the Rockies at sunset.
Clouds in the lee of the Rockies at sunset.
Clouds in the lee of the Rockies at sunset.
Clouds in the lee of the Rockies at sunset.