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: Dr. Ricky Rood , 5:57 PM GMT on November 21, 2009
Copenhagen / Countdown (1) Potpourri
I have been more than occupied with getting ready for the Conference of Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen in December. The University of Michigan will have more than 40 members in its delegation, and our students have successfully raised enough money to go. Here is the first of many thanks to a variety of units at the University of Michigan and to Wunderground.com. Next week we will launch a special COP15 web page. It will be, primarily, student driven.
I was interviewed earlier this week about what I expected to happen in Copenhagen and what we should strive to accomplishment.
We already know several important things – there will be no U.S. climate legislation by the time we go to Copenhagen. You might recall that the US House passed the Waxman-Markey Bill in the summer. The Senate is developing their bill, which I can’t imagine before late in the winter or early in the spring. Then, with reconciliation of the House and Senate bills, the mid-term elections – well, I imagine that the machinations of legislation and lobbying will push climate change legislation close enough to the mid-term election that it will languish next to health care and Afghanistan and the economy. I think that there will be climate legislation, but I bet that it will be early in year 4 of the Obama administration, with its passage dependent on what Obama’s re-election looks like. (Uncharacteristic political prediction there.)
You already know that on Obama’s trip to Asia that China and U.S. agreed to table many issues of climate change. The realities of complex problem solving reveals its many heads. One of the reasons that the problem appears intractable is that there is so much focus on the long-term reduction goals. This comes at the expense of making progress on the near-term issues that would really matter in the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases - mitigation .
It is my opinion that we must focus on doing those things that build the base for the future. I don’t think it is possible to determine the end game, but it is essential to start down the path to manage our greenhouse gas emissions. As has been stated and restated, more efficient generation, transmission, and use of energy both reduces emission and saves money. Strategies and policies to “scale up” the actions of individuals should be incentivized and codified – that is, put into building codes. Not only should efforts to improve efficiency be accelerated, but policies to turn more efficient use of energy into actual greenhouse gas reductions are required. If we just use more energy because we can afford to use more energy, then it will not help to mitigate climate change.
Efficiency offers a strategy for reducing emissions, but it does not span the problem. We must make the investments in technologies that support development of viable non-fossil fuel sources of energy. We need investments in transmission infrastructure that both reduce stunning inefficiencies in electrical transmission and allow the transmission from energy rich areas to energy consumers - for example, wind-generated electricity from North Dakota or West Texas to Chicago or Dallas. Imagine the savings that would occur, even in coal generation, if the coal was not moved a thousand miles or across the ocean before it was burned.
As essential as technologies that improve the generation and use of energy, we must also develop technologies that allow us to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and that prevents carbon dioxide from combustion from ever getting into the atmosphere. We cannot rely on the terrestrial biosphere and the ocean to remove, safely, atmospheric carbon dioxide. We have to accept that our imperative for economic growth will lead to more emissions in the next decades. We have to invest to develop technologies that allow us to manage our waste – to manage the climate.
We have to accept that our present “built-in” warming and new emissions will cause warming and lead to sea level rise and change the usual ebb and flow of fresh water. This means that we would benefit from planning for the eventuality of the disruptions to the routine that will come from these changes. The scientists and engineers of the world are often drawn to projects such as sea walls, dikes and levees, floating cities, dams, lakes, tunnels and canals. Some prescient governments are already planning, if not making infrastructure expenditures in anticipation of predicted changes in the climate.
When I was doing my process-based analysis of climate change in India this past summer, the geo-political elements of the problem struck me. Bangladesh is often listed as one of the most vulnerable countries because it is low lying, crowded, and poor – that is, it will be highly impacted by sea level rise and more damaging storm surges associated with tropical storms. From another perspective, Bangladesh has very little domain over the rivers that supply its fresh water. The head waters of these rivers are in the high Himalaya and are controlled by more wealthy, larger countries. Plus, the seasonal cycle of snow, snow melt and rain will, with a high degree of certainty, change. It is hard to imagine that we have the political stability and the political and societal will to address these problems far in advance. An amazing outcome of a meeting like Copenhagen would be policies that link development and climate adaptation together with negotiations of super-national management of water resources.
While we have the means to address many of these problems in a substantive way, the rationalist in me doubts that we will move quickly in this direction. Therefore, greenhouse gases will continue to accumulate for some decades. Success in Copenhagen will be that we start to utilize and value efficiency in a systematic way, that we provide the marginal investments in technology and infrastructure improvement, that we don’t simply defer another 10 years, another 100 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
I will end this blog with some comments about the week’s news. First I watched with wonder as the publication of a new study about breast cancer screening became conflated with the efforts to reform the U.S. health care system. (I will state as a person privileged with a good job and presumably good health insurance, I have seen 15 years of deteriorating coverage, decreasing access to doctors, and startling denials and mismanagement of claims. I have hired someone to deal with my insurance company. This is a problem that needs addressing!) That said, I was watching the hyper-vigilant reporters and pundits and experts with the benefit of no sound at the gym. They reminded me of guppies in a fish tank waiting for food to be sprinkled into the water, where they would attack, shred, spit, and spew, and turn it all into a mélange of waste. The use of information and knowledge by society to align with what we believe and want simply, well , it is parsed into our growing tribalism.
It’s not just climate change.
We go into the meeting in Copenhagen with such an interesting set of circumstances. We have those who juxtapose this week’s weather and this year’s “climate” with the reality of global warming. We have the bizarre coincidence (I presume) of the hacking of the email of the Climate Research Unit and the viral chum-fest that spreads across the web. (RealClimate: The CRU hack ) We have new lows in northern sea ice in November (that seems important to me), and a new paper that shows record highs have been occurring a rate twice as fast as record lows.
I hope you have fun with it all.
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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.