Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

2011 Climate Events: A time of troubles

By: RickyRood, 7:44 PM GMT on December 26, 2011

2011 Climate Events: A time of troubles

I was asked last week what I thought the greatest science breakthrough of the year was. I’m not so good at those questions, and I know that the potential Higgs Boson glimpse will be at the top of most lists. Fundamental, perhaps, but it is definitely not at the top of the list in my little world. If I were to speculate on most important, I would look at fields that are more biological than physical – or maybe in routine energy production rather than high energy particle physics. But, I am old, slow and uninteresting, and I really don’t understand the significance of the Higgs Boson – so I will talk about a few of the breakthroughs or realizations that have influenced how I think about the climate problem.

At the top of my list is a synthesis which was published in 2011, though the results of that synthesis came at the end of 2010. This is the report Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia. This report is a collection and evaluation of knowledge that has been around for a while. The message from this report is that once released from its geological reservoirs, i.e. fossil fuels, carbon dioxide hangs around in the atmosphere for millennia.

I think it is safe to say that many people in the field of climate science and climate policy have anchored their thinking around the idea that carbon dioxide has a lifetime in the atmosphere that is on the order of a century or so. Therefore, our policy options, including the idea of stabilizing the amount of carbon dioxide at some value, relied upon this potential self-healing that relied on carbon dioxide going back into the oceans and soil. I remember reading in a magazine in 1968 about carbon dioxide and global warming, and many scientists at that time felt that the ocean would safely absorb both heat and carbon dioxide. As we have taken more data and increased our understanding of the processes that govern the exchange of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and ocean, we can now state with high confidence that the carbon dioxide we release today will be around for a very long time.

The consequence of this synthesis is that we have a certain amount of carbon dioxide we can release if we want to stabilize the atmosphere at a value that we might imagine limiting the global-average surface warming to approximate 2 degrees Celsius. The amount posed in the report was 1 trillion tons, and we are pretty much there. (Rood blog on a trillion tons, collection of Rood blogs on stabilization) Broader conclusions that I draw from this report are that we have to prepare for more than 2 degrees Celsius warming, and that if we want to stabilize carbon dioxide at levels that limit warming to, say, something less than 4 degrees, then we are going to have to figure out how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

As I wrote in my last entry we are currently accelerating our emissions. In the last couple of weeks we have seen Canada withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Canada is probably more typical than atypical, adherence to the Kyoto Protocol would require Canada to reduce their emissions 6% below 1990 emissions and they are currently 30% above that level. Canada has large tar sands resources, and looks to developing these resources as fuel. The current Keystone Pipeline controversy is about a pipeline to get crude oil products from Canada to refineries in the U.S. If this form of oil energy is opened for broad commercial exploitation, then it will be opening up a form of energy that, carbon dioxide emission wise, is more polluting than coal. But the pressure for energy, for jobs, for a growing economy, for wealth is high. The Keystone Pipeline has been tied into recent U.S. federal budget and tax bills. The climate advocacy group 350.org is organizing protests against the pipeline. (Here’s how to join the protest.)

This brings me to the final piece of news that rises to most important for 2011; namely, the effective politicization of climate change in the U.S. The Keystone Pipeline entanglement with unemployment and extension of the payroll tax reduction is forcing a decision that strongly impacts climate policy with short-term political and economical issues. There remains an attack in congress on the development of climate services. Like the Keystone Pipeline short-term budget bills are entangled with a prohibition on climate services, which prohibits the emergence of climate services and imperils current capabilities. In Texas we see censorship and suits to prohibit the mention of climate change in a report that discusses sea level rise in Galveston Bay. This placing of climate change in tension with short-term economic priorities motivates a series of decisions that assure continued rising emissions. This attack on climate science and other bodies of scientific knowledge that are in conflict with what people want to believe or need to believe in order to support some other behavior is a fundamental threat to U.S. leadership in science and technology.

Troubles: Some years ago my youngest sister and I went to a small village in France where some relatives had come from in the early 1800s. We were able to find civil records and departure of people from this village to the U.S. There were letters of reference written by the mayor assuring anonymous people in the U.S. that the person referenced in the letter was of good character and a good worker. People left during times of “the troubles.” The current times are very troubling for those concerned about carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. I will again teach my class on climate change problem solving in winter 2012. And I will focus on the world four degrees warmer – and what that will mean.


A couple of personal vanity links.

SETI Tribute to Bob Rood

Rood 2005 piece Christmas at the 7-11

Climate Change News Climate Change Politics

Updated: 12:15 AM GMT on December 27, 2011


Durban – Conference of Parties – What Happened?

By: RickyRood, 8:26 PM GMT on December 12, 2011

Durban – Conference of Parties – What Happened?

The Conference of the Parties in Durban, South Africa is over. The Conference of the Parties' (COP) are the annual meetings that are part of the governing body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. So what happened in Durban? (Rood Interviewed at livescience.com)

From the official point of view, the place to go is the UN Framework website. With a little bit of exploration, there are two official, short, perhaps preliminary documents. One is on the development of a Green Fund. This is something of a follow up from the 2010 COP in Cancun, Mexico. This is the development of a mechanism where the developed nations pay (certain) developing nations funds for both response to climate-change impacts and technological development. Tracing much further back, there were the seeds of this in the The Kyoto Protocol.

The other is being called the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. Here is the current official link and another link with a couple of readable introductory paragraphs. As I understand this agreement, in 2012 nations will start to develop a policy, a protocol, a treaty, some entity with legal implications, that will be completed in 2015 and will initiate reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.

It is hard to look at these short documents from Durban and to state with any precision what will happen. It is the nature of high level diplomatic documents to be ambiguous or perhaps to support flexibility so that the parties can agree to work together but can leave the details of implementation and execution to the individual parties. The implementation will vary widely from country to country.

Given this ambiguity allows people to see success and failure in different ways. It is a measure of success that the countries keep talking, and one gets the impression from year to year that more and more major greenhouse gas emitters are agreeing that something has to be done to try to limit warming and its societal disruptions. On the other hand, there is no real evidence that these continued international machinations are leading to meaningful reductions or strategies for reductions. It remains true that an international “solution” to the greenhouse gas emission problem is an unrealistic expectation, and solutions will trickle up from below. As the solutions trickle up perhaps some will be disruptive enough to markets and economies to have major impacts. Then these will define the international response.

What seems to be important to me? Durban continues to show the realignment of global power represented by the emergence of China as a economic and political power. The role of India, South Africa, and Brazil continues to grow. The European Union is in an interesting position, because of their commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, and the Kyoto Protocol, practically, expiring in 2012. There is, still, a seeming European commitment to emissions reductions, and this is motivating alliances of small island states and the “Least Developed Countries” with the European Union – at least there is a commitment to trying to reduce. The United States remains in its curious position as something of loner – a position that, IMHO, grows as the world economies realign. What is interesting to me is seeing that the countries that are most heavily investing in alternative energies are starting to say they might consider the 2020 reductions … even China, from Wall Street Journal.

Here are some links to different takes on the meeting:

Guardian: Durban a breakthrough leading towards a possible global treaty

Asian Age: India-EU deal saves global climate meeting.

Irish TImes: Durban falls short.

BBC: Durban winners and losers.

Aljazeera: “Important Advance”

Washington Post: Last Minute Compromise.

And here is a nice analysis from Mother Jones.

I will end this potpourri of Durbanesque events with a couple of points from the International Energy Agency (IEA). What is the IEA? From their website:

“The International Energy Agency (IEA) is an autonomous organisation which works to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy for its 28 member countries and beyond.

Founded in response to the 1973/4 oil crisis, the IEA’s initial role was to help countries co-ordinate a collective response to major disruptions in oil supply through the release of emergency oil stocks to the markets.” (about the IEA)

Prior to the Durban Conference the IEA did a press release associated with their annual World Energy Outlook. (Executive Summary ) The IEA documents state that the lock-in to current energy infrastructure and investments is making it increasingly difficult to imagine holding global-average warming to 2 degrees C. This year they do a thorough analysis of coal and the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. And in an Durban-related interview IEA Chief Economist, Fatih Birol, says that we are currently on the track for six degrees C warming. This analysis of our energy reality places any optimism reflected in some of the articles above in stunning realism. Here is the start of the Executive Summary:

“There are few signs that the urgently needed change in direction in global energy trends is underway. Although the recovery in the world economy since 2009 has been uneven, and future economic prospects remain uncertain, global primary energy demand rebounded by a remarkable 5% in 2010, pushing CO2 emissions to a new high. Subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption of fossil fuels jumped to over $400 billion.” Executive Summary

Without the availability and implementation of a low-carbon energy infrastructure that is cheap relative to fossil fuels, we have few choices and weak incentives to face the needed emissions reduction. So from Durban we are left with the same difficult choices, but with something of a new agreement and growing feeling of urgency for moving forward.


A new survey from Yale Project on Climate Change Communication: Majority in U.S. Support Emissions Reduction

Climate Change News Climate Change Politics Greenhouse Gases

Updated: 6:07 PM GMT on November 26, 2012


Durban – Conference of Parties – An Ethical Problem:

By: RickyRood, 4:24 AM GMT on December 02, 2011

Durban – Conference of Parties – An Ethical Problem:

This week is the start of the Conference of the Parties in Durban, South Africa. The Conference of the Parties' (COP) are the annual meetings that are part of the governing body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Two years ago, November 2009, I was planning a trip to the Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen. Before Copenhagen there was great energy, with some notion that the Copenhagen meeting would lead to a breakthrough on international climate change agreements. Of course, that did not happen and while there was spin that the meeting was a success, most people that I know were not enthusiastic about the outcome. (The Copenhagen Accord) My take of the outcome was that there was symbolic political recognition that global warming needed to be addressed, but no substantive steps were taken to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. Plus, the political, economic and technological realities are that we will not see international agreement on reducing emissions anytime soon. It will be much longer before there is any real reduction of emissions.

In 2010 the COP was in Cancun, Mexico. What were the results of that meeting? In my opinion, we continue to meet and that is good. There was continued recognition that we needed to curb our carbon dioxide emissions and there were voluntary commitments to do that. (Here is an All Things Considered interview with Todd Stern) The voluntary targets focused on keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius, which is both an ambiguous and impossible goal. My dedicated readers might recall that last year in my climate change class I decided it is disingenuous to continue to talk about limiting warming to 2 degrees, and I started my students reading the papers that look at the 4 degree warmer world (see this entry).

What do I expect at the start of the COP-17? There is no doubt that the chronic economic turmoil since 2008 has deflated interest in climate change. We want economic stability, and in a growing population economic stability means economic growth. And for the most part economic growth, still, means burning more fossil fuels. With this, the Durban meeting is welcomed with record high growth of carbon dioxide concentrations – we can say that we are ahead of the curve (in Washington Post, and World Meteorological Organization Greenhouse Gas Bulletin).

Ahead of the curve is where I expect we will stay for a while. It is interesting to think about where we would be without the Kyoto Protocol and the countries which made some effort. We would likely be way ahead of the historic emissions curve. We simply do not have the alternatives in place, yet, that allow us to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.

There are, in fact, substantial resources going in the installation of renewable energy resources. According the Bloomberg New Energy Finance there are now more initial investments in renewable energy than in fossil fuel energy (Press Release and Report). Europe is the leading market for money spent on these projects, and China will take over the lead in a couple of years. With this seeming shift in our energy infrastructure, in 20 years the amount of energy produced from renewable energy will be 15.7 % of the total.

One of the reasons for the rapid increase in renewable energy is because solar panels are becoming cheap. There is a large manufacturing base, much of it in China, and this is rapidly reducing the cost of solar energy. This has set off much consternation in U.S. solar industry (interesting story on Talk of the Nation). Also as people really start to think about solar energy and move away from the naïve arguments that have driven the discussion for a decade, it becomes clear that solar can fit into the existing energy infrastructure. Solar can be placed on houses, and it can scale to large solar fields that can address peak energy capacity in Texas.

Growth – this growth in renewable energy use is hopeful, ultimately, for the climate change problem. Alternative energy takes care of part of our required economic growth. But it does not take all of the growth, and it does not displace the existing capacity for decades. Again, for the present time we, at best, aim to not get too far ahead of the historical emissions curve.

For now long trains of coal lumber along the rails from Colorado and Wyoming to Texas and the Gulf ports. Growth – we require growth for economic stability. We require growth to have an economy for growing populations. Growth – we require growth to support our investment strategies and credit-based businesses.

But back to Durban and the Conference of the Parties: There is a big issue for Durban. Back in 2009 for the meeting in Copenhagen, the big ticket item was supposed to be what would follow the Kyoto Protocol? Effectively the Kyoto Protocol runs out in 2012, and for the countries that have made the attempt to reduce CO2, there would be interest in having some standards, some policy that follows. It would provide order, stability, continuity. It is unlikely that anything global will come from Durban. The way the U.N. works, I think that it is more likely that the Conference of Parties will cease to be in their current form than there will be any sort of global policy – even as a guideline.

More and more climate change moves to an issue of ethics and opportunity. In my course ethics is always a tough issue. In the climate change problem ethics often arise in the sense that the Island Nations which are being flooded are not the ones responsible for the rising seas. More generally, the rich CO2 emitting nations are not the ones that suffer the consequences most severely.

Ethical issues, however, are far broader that this simple rich-poor tension. One of the roles of environmental policy is to represent the ethical values of society. Ultimately, climate change, the control of emissions represents the importance that we give to consumption. This became even more clear to me in a recent article on the decline of the birthrate in Brazil in National Geographic. Brazil is an example of what is practically a truism, which is that economic development is associated with the reduction of birth rates. This is part of the mantra of those who advocate economic development as a precondition for addressing climate change (for example, The Skeptical Environmentalist by Lomborg). In that National Geographic article it is stated, however, that reduction of the growth of population is to allow more consumption, more use of energy, by a smaller number of people. (Note that Bjorn Lomborg is reportedly changing his evaluation of the climate change problem in a forthcoming book - article in Guardian.)

This consumption of much by a few is, of course, consistent with our history. While we point to growing population and growing CO2 emissions, the historical increase in CO2 emissions is only associated with a relatively small part of the population. And when we think about displaced consumption, meaning that much of the manufacturing in China and the developing world is to support consumption (cheap consumption) in the developed world, there is no reason to believe that economic development leads in any direct path to addressing the climate change problem. We can rest assured that we will pursue economic development more aggressively and directly than we will pursue mitigation to climate change.

In this framing, therefore, climate change is first and foremost a problem of ethics; that is, it is a problem of consumption, equitable consumption, excess consumption. If we have an imperative to consume, and I believe that as a whole we do, then we must have renewable energy; we must have resources whose use does not deplete and degrade the world.

This frames, strongly, both our history and our future. We will have to manage the climate. We are averse to geo-engineering, but we engineer a warmer and warmer climate every day. At the forefront we need to think about how to manage our waste, because there is little evidence that we are going to stop making our waste. Therefore, we must know how to remove carbon dioxide from the air and safely place it back into to the Earth. Likewise, at the forefront is the development of adaptation strategies that, globally, include less land, more extreme weather, and displaced people. All of these things are possible, and those with the foresight and the acumen to take advantage of opportunity will benefit. The benefactors will be those who look at the knowledge and are smart about using it – not the ones that look at the knowledge and deny its existence.


Prior to the Durban meeting the WMO issued its Provisional Statement of the Climate.

Here is the sub-title of the document

2011: World’s 10th warmest year, warmest year with La Niña on record, second-lowest Arctic sea ice extent. (and the link)

Figure 1: From WMO Provisional Statement. Temperature difference (anomaly) calculated for 1961-1990 average. La Niña years are marked. La Niña years should be cooler that average based on natural variability. 2010 was the warmest La Niña year on record, and the 10th warmest year on record.

Climate Change News Climate Change Politics Climate Change

Updated: 4:26 AM GMT on December 02, 2011


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.

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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.