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On the Horizon (02/10/06)

Our regular Friday mix has a new name! Today we check out the flurry of reports about just what we can do to respond to global warming induced climate change. The Pew Center has a plan; so does the UK government. And Dr. Peter Flynn of the University of Alberta has come up with something that starts to look awfully close to Terraforming the Earth...

Agenda for Climate Action: The Pew Center for Global Climate Change is a mainstream institution seeking to educate business and government leaders on climate-related issues; we've pointed to their efforts in the past, which have largely centered on laying out the case that global warming-induced climate disruption is happening. Like most of us, the Pew Center has now moved past the quite settled "is it real?" debate and is looking at how we deal with the problem.

Their new report, Agenda for Climate Action, proposes a series of realistic steps we can take to slow the changes, mitigate global warming's impact, and handle the unavoidable longer-term changes. The full document (which is relatively brief at only around 20 pages) can be downloaded here (PDF); the executive summary hits the major points. Few of the recommendations will be foreign to even casual WorldChanging readers; what's notable is that even the more radical steps seem positively mainstream at this point.

The highlights:

  • Invest in science and technology research.
  • Establish greenhouse gas limits and a cap-and-trade emissions market.
  • Stimulate innovation in transportation (create tradable corporate average emissions standards), manufacturing (emphasize low-GHG practices and products) and agriculture (support sequestration efforts).
  • Drive the energy system toward greater efficiency, lower-carbon fuels and carbon capture technologies.
  • Develop a strategy to adapt to the inevitable consequences.
  • Strengthen the international effort.

Two elements stand out for me.

The first is the suggestion that the corporate average fuel economy model ("CAFE") be dropped in favor of tradable corporate emissions limits -- essentially doing for cars what the Kyoto treaty does for industry. I was initially uncertain about the idea, but I'm warming to it, as it could end up being a remarkable economic stimulus for the smaller, non-mainstream automakers focusing on ultra-high-efficiency vehicles. It's important that the limits decline over time, and that "banked" credits (purchased but not used) expire. The one remaining concern I would have is that such a program might interfere with more aggressive local efforts, such as California's emission limitation rules.

The second is the use of the term "adapt." There's something of a back-channel discussion going on at WC central about the word, as the term has been grabbed by the Do Nothing crowd as a way to avoid making changes that might reduce fossil fuel profits. Much of the material out there talking about "adaptation" argues against any other kind of response; we've avoided using the word terribly often so as to not reinforce that particular agenda.

The problem is, there's really not a good word meaning "make changes to self in response to environmental changes" -- and, as the Pew report suggests (and we've said a few times), we're already committed to some pretty significant warming of the atmosphere, with serious global results that we will need to make changes in response to. That is, we will have to adapt our economies, our infrastructure, our lives to heavier weather, droughts, rising sea levels, more disease, and so forth, even while we make all sorts of other changes to prevent climate disruption from getting any worse.

The lesson here: pay close attention to how people use the word "adapt," and make sure it's used as one element in a broader strategy of response.

Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change: The Pew report emphasized policy, but Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, from the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, emphasizes the science. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it should: the title was used for the February 2005 Exeter Conference bringing together 200 of the world's top climate scientists. This book -- freely downloadable (PDF) and soon available for purchase -- is an adaptation (ahem) of their findings.

There's another major difference between the Pew report and Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change: ADCC runs to over 400 pages. This is not light reading. But you can think of the Pew report as a study guide for this book, giving the overview of how the pieces all fit together, even as ADCC discusses in detail how various proposals work.

As with the Exeter Conference, the material in Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change ranges from big picture examinations of worst-case scenarios to specific methods and technologies for keeping the worst-case scenarios at bay, with narrow studies of the effects of climate change on particular topics and regions (such as biodiversity, tropical forests and Arctic ice) along the way. And while the WorldChanging focus is on the final section of solution ideas, it's useful to read the earlier material, too, if only to make abundantly clear why "adaptation" alone is no answer.

Robert Socolow's updated "Stabilization Wedges" article remains an anchor piece for the final section. We've talked about the concept before; this version gives it a bit more jargon and scientific rigor, but still lays out in a compelling way the argument that a solution is entirely within our reach. The underlying concept is one that we firmly believe: we can prevent climate disaster, but it will require a coordinated variety of approaches, not a single "silver bullet" solution.

One of the new elements to the Socolow article gives a good explanation why waiting until it gets cheaper and easier to undertake greenhouse gas mitigation is a bad idea. Here's the graphic:


This illustrates that waiting results in dramatic increases of accumulated CO2 but still requires radical reductions in our output to keep even that increased level stable. Waiting 50 years (a suggestion which, fortunately, is rarely heard these days) is the difference between stabilizing at 500 ppm and stabilizing at 850 ppm, with roughly the same long-term reduction required in CO2 output. Given that 450 ppm is often mentioned as a potential "tipping point" concentration, even the long-term 500 ppm level is ominous.

Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change is a sobering read, but should not be demoralizing. We know that preventing climate disaster is not going to be easy -- but the point here is that it is possible. We know how to do it; we just need to start.

Turbine Barges: And what if we don't start in time?

As much as we'd like to rule that scenario out, we can't. Neither can we say "if that happens, we die, so there's no point in focusing on it." (In my past life as a consultant, I had a client dismiss an "economy goes sour" scenario -- in early 2001, mind you -- with that exact phrase. The economy soured, and the company died, in large part because they had no contingency plans.) It's important that we keep in our figurative back pockets a well-thought-out set of last-ditch plans to keep an emergency from turning into a catastrophe.

That's been the point of my Terraforming Earth series of posts (a subject I will be returning too soon, by the way), as well as Alan's recent "We Must Mega-Engineer." We may face a choice between certain disaster and uncertain technologies; I'll take door number two, thank you.

And so will Dr. Peter Flynn of the University of Alberta. Dr. Flynn has worked out a plan to prevent an abrupt climate change event from taking Europe (and potentially all of the northern hemisphere) from overheated to ice age in less than a decade. His plan involves lots and lots of barges -- and for those of you who have read Kim Stanley Robinson's Fifty Degrees Below, it's not the same idea that KSR uses.

In "Geoengineering Downwelling Ocean Currents: A Cost Assessment," Flynn looks at what kinds of large-scale efforts would be required to restart the thermohaline cycle that keeps Europe relatively warm. His conclusion as to the best choice:

Flynn and a graduate student evaluated seven different methods to enhance down-welling currents. They found one way was far more cost effective than the others: making thicker sea ice by pumping salty ocean water on top of ice sheets.
They envisioned more than 8,000 barges moving into the northern ocean in the fall, speeding the initial formation of sea ice by pumping a spray of water into the air, and then, once the ice is formed, pumping ocean water on top of it, trapping the salt in the ice and reaching a thickness of seven meters.
In the spring, water would continue to be pumped over the ice to melt it, forming a vast amount of cold, salty water that sinks and adds to the down-welling current to re-strengthen it.

The barges and pumps would be powered by wind turbines -- a particularly good use of renewable energy, as the results of 8,000 diesel barges pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere all at once would not be appealing. But how much would this cost?

The project comes with a hefty pricetag: $50 billion. But during an appearance on the CBC science program Quirks and Quarks, Flynn reasoned that Europe’s big chill could affect 100 million people, which works out to just $500 each.
“If the glaciers are at your back door or if the Thames is freezing over, $500 per person is not too large a number,” he said.

8,000 barges. 100 million people. 50 billion dollars.

We may have to get used to thinking in terms of numbers like that.

Comments (1)


Reminds me of this:

Stephen Salter outlined his latest idea: a floating wind turbine that sprays water vapour high into the air, to increase evaporation from the ocean and precipitation over land.

He says it could help defuse burgeoning conflicts over access to water, stop deserts spreading, improve soil quality, top-up water tables, save rainforests and neutralise the impact of climate change.



This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 10, 2006 6:31 PM.

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