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Planning for a Warmer World / Semester Summary

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 5:47 PM GMT on April 18, 2011

Planning for a Warmer World / Semester Summary

This is the last week of the winter term at the University of Michigan. We start just after New Year’s Day and march relentlessly to the end. It is the term when I teach my Climate Change Problem Solving. Class projects this term look at Adaptation Plans for Baltimore, Maryland; Institutional-scale Composting; Evaluations of Solar and Wind Energy in Chicago; and Understanding and Attribution of the 1930s Warm Period. Of course I got behind and Jeff Masters had to cover for me last week. (Thanks Jeff.)

Back at the end of December I was anticipating the semester with this blog. I was motivated to change the course by two syntheses of knowledge. The first was the National Academy of Sciences, Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia. This report draws attention to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – as opposed to consideration of our emissions with the idea that the carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere. The basic message is that all of the carbon dioxide that we release from coal, oil and natural gas, will be around for many thousands of years. There are many important messages from this synthesis, but one of those messages is that to stabilize carbon dioxide at any level, we will have to reduce our emissions by more than 80% of current. So the total amount we accumulate depends on when we have the ability and the will to end our emissions – a decision that will be strongly influenced by how the climate impacts us.

The accumulation of carbon dioxide suggests several things to me. At the top of the list is that, given our population and our energy consumption, there is no way that we will avoid an average rise of the global surface temperature of 2 – 4 degrees centigrade. In some regions the temperature rise will be much greater, and the temperature increases in the Arctic will be systematically high. Since I always worry about important issues that have slid into the background, the other major issue that demands our carbon-dioxide attention is ocean acidification. The National Geographic has a good collection of information on ocean acidification. Here is the Executive Summary of the Stabilization Report.

The other synthesis of information that influenced my course this year is the collection of papers on preparing for an atmosphere with more than 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide and with temperatures that are beyond our notional two degree average that represents our arbitrary and comfortable threshold of dangerous. The papers in this issue deconstruct the idea that, at least for some, that two degrees of global average warming is not dangerous. A key issue that follows from the report is the importance of considering the rate of increase of warming.

One of more important risks associated with a warming planet is the rate at which the planet is warming. We are in the midst of a period of great species extinction and rapid warming stress the ability or the inability to adapt to rapid changes in temperature and water. Thinking about people and climate, population is increasing and our current rate of temperature increase largely coincides with maximizing climate stress and population stress at the same time. With this rapid warming to a 2-4 degrees surface increase, climate stress, especially water availability, rises to a level comparable to other sources of stress. This brings attention to managing the rate of warming while we develop the needed technology to manage carbon dioxide. Policy wise – we need to focus real resources on technologies such as batteries, carbon removal and sequestration, and a whole range of water and energy efficiency challenges.

Each year the students who come to my class bring a different knowledge of climate change to the class and different points-of-view about the challenges of climate change. One of the things I find most encouraging is the desire to move to problem solving, and the realization that the political arguments that seem to paralyze, at least, our national approach to climate change, is, in fact, political. I divine from their comments that they see the behavior of our elected officials as irrelevant and obstructing. That is introduction to geo-engineering.

There are arguments about geo-engineering. There remains this argument that if we allow ourselves to think about geo-engineering, then we will use this to allow ourselves to do nothing about climate change. What becomes more and more obvious, as we consider the accumulation of carbon dioxide, our population, and our imperatives for growth and economic success, is that we are engaged in geo-engineering without thinking about it. It’s like if we release the carbon dioxide and it mixes around the atmosphere, then we lose accountability and responsibility. It is self-evident that we do have to think about our carbon dioxide waste. Whether or not we choose to label it as such, we are currently engaged in unintelligent geo-engineering. There remains fear to use the word geo-engineering in climate research programs. It is imperative that we seriously think about management of the climate. If there is a notion of “sustainability” with 8, 9, or 10 billion people, then there is a notion of climate management. I mention an effort by some scientists GeoMIP. This is an effort promoted by scientists, with a wide range of opinions on the merits of geo-engineering, to promote quantitative understanding of geo-engineering. Similarly, we need to know much more about the impacts of ocean acidification; climate change is an easy problem compared with acidification.

I will be getting back into the climate change blogging saddle. In the next few weeks I have a few series that need to be revisited – validating models, the Sun, media, the EPA. Again thanks to Jeff for covering for me.


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