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Renewables Meet NIMBY…Everywhere

Suddenly, everywhere you look nowadays, prospects for clean, green energy are being muddied by NIMBY* syndrome.

Windmills dwarf a dairy farm in upstate New York. Photo: Craig Miller

Wind farm: Windmills dwarf a dairy barn in upstate New York. Photo: Craig Miller

We saw it first-hand in Rob Schmitz’s series on “green gridlock” in California’s southeastern deserts. Trepidation there turns more on the transmission lines that would have to go up, to connect solar, wind and geothermal fields to population centers where the power is needed.

We’ve seen it at work in efforts to license wave power projects along the West Coast.

In Marin County, it took the McEvoy Ranch nine years from concept to completion, to get one 150-foot windmill up and running, to power the olive operation. Objections from the neighbors forced them to move the site more than a half-mile, and downsize the turbine to three quarters the proposed height and one third the power output (more about this in the next Quest/Climate Watch special, to premiere on August 25).

Now, as James Glanz reports in the New York Times, seismic fears are causing tremors in geothermal fields north of San Francisco.

Glanz writes that with venture funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Google, Sausalito-based AltaRock Energy is deploying “enhanced” geothermal technology to wrest more steam from the earth. But fears over the potential for unleashing earthquakes in the process are not enhancing their prospects.

*For the truly uninitiated: “Not in My Back Yard”

No Shockers in White House Climate Report

The Obama Administration released a much-vaunted update on climate change today. In its nearly 200 pages, the report contains no new data and few new conclusions on the pace and impact of climate change across the U.S. Rather it affirms the core findings of recent research and sounds the alarm for rapid, definitive action to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for changes already on the way.

In a statement from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Evan Mills, one of the report’s 28 co-authors, calls it “the most thorough and up-to-date review ever assembled of climate-change impacts observed to date as well as those anticipated in the future across the United States.” Mills is one of two northern California scientists listed in the report’s credits, along with Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

One clear signal from the report is that it’s time to move adaptation strategies to the front burner; preparing for climate effects already in the pipeline.

Louis Blumberg directs the California climate change team for The Nature Conservancy, and told me in a telephone interview this morning, “I would say it’s a very clear signal that even if we dramatically reduce emissions immediately, which we need to do as soon as possible, we’ve already put enough CO2 into the atmosphere where we’re going to have have significant changes to our way of life. And we need to begin now and plan to adapt to these unavoidable impacts and I think this report underscores that urgency.”

But neither Blumberg nor Mills have given up on the mitigation side. Mills says “the good news is that the harshest impacts of future climate change can be avoided if the nation takes deliberate action soon.”

Here is a summary of  “key findings,” taken directly from the report:

1. Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.

Global temperature has increased over the past 50 years. This observed increase is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.

2. Climate changes are underway in the United States and are projected to grow.

Climate-related changes are already observed in the United States and its coastal waters. These include increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the ocean and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows. These changes are projected to grow.

3. Widespread climate-related impacts are occurring now and are expected to increase.

Climate changes are already affecting water, energy, transportation, agriculture, ecosystems, and health. These impacts are different from region to region and will grow under projected climate change.

4. Climate change will stress water resources.

Water is an issue in every region, but the nature of the potential impacts varies. Drought, related to reduced precipitation, increased evaporation, and increased water loss from plants, is an important issue in many regions, especially in the West. Floods and water quality problems are likely to be amplified by climate change in most regions. Declines in mountain snowpack are important in the West and Alaska where snowpack provides vital natural water storage.

5. Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged.

Agriculture is considered one of the sectors most adaptable to changes in climate. However, increased heat, pests, water stress, diseases, and weather extremes will pose adaptation challenges for crop and livestock production.

6. Coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise and storm surge.

Sea-level rise and storm surge place many U.S. coastal areas at increasing risk of erosion and flooding, especially along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Pacific Islands, and parts of Alaska. Energy and transportation infrastructure and other property in coastal areas are very likely to be adversely affected.

7. Threats to human health will increase.

Health impacts of climate change are related to heat stress, waterborne diseases, poor air quality, extreme weather events, and diseases transmitted by insects and rodents. Robust public health infrastructure can reduce the potential for negative impacts.

8. Climate change will interact with many social and environmental stresses.

Climate change will combine with pollution, population growth, overuse of resources, urbanization, and other social, economic, and environmental stresses to create larger impacts than from any of these factors alone.

9. Thresholds will be crossed, leading to large changes in climate and ecosystems.

There are a variety of thresholds in the climate system and ecosystems. These thresholds determine, for example, the presence of sea ice and permafrost, and the survival of species, from fish to insect pests, with implications for society. With further climate change, the crossing of additional thresholds is expected.

10. Future climate change and its impacts depend on choices made today.

The amount and rate of future climate change depend primarily on current and future human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases and airborne particles. Responses involve reducing emissions to limit future warming, and adapting to the changes that are unavoidable.

On KQED Public Radio’s Forum for Wednesday, 6/17

9am Forum with Michael Krasny
White House Climate Report
We discuss the report, as well as federal climate change legislation from Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey. Guests include Dan Kammen, professor of energy at UC Berkeley and co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment; and Katharine Hayhoe, professor of geophysics at Texas Tech University and a lead author of the climate study.

Heat Relief for Coral Reefs?

This post is condensed from a Stanford News Service release. Cassandra Brooks is a science-writing intern at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford.

Reed Galin

Photo: Reed Galin

Stanford scientists find heat-tolerant coral reefs that may resist climate change

By Cassandra Brooks

Some experts say that more than half of the world’s coral reefs could disappear in the next 50 years, in large part because of higher ocean temperatures caused by climate change. But now Stanford University scientists have found evidence that some coral reefs are adapting and may actually survive global warming.

“Corals are certainly threatened by environmental change, but this research has really sparked the notion that corals may be tougher than we thought,” said Stephen Palumbi, a professor of biology and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment.

Palumbi and his team began studying the resiliency of coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean in 2006. “The most exciting thing was discovering live, healthy corals on reefs already as hot as the ocean is likely to get 100 years from now,” said Palumbi, director of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. “How do they do that?”

Coral reefs form the basis for thriving, healthy ecosystems throughout the tropics. They provide homes and nourishment for thousands of species, including schools of fish that feed millions of people across the globe.

Corals rely on partnerships with tiny, single-celled algae called zooxanthellae. The corals provide the algae a home, and, in turn, the algae provide nourishment, forming a symbiotic relationship. But when rising temperatures stress the algae, they stop producing food, and the corals spit them out. Without their algae symbionts, the reefs die and turn stark white, an event referred to as “coral bleaching.”

During particularly warm years, bleaching has accounted for the deaths of large numbers of corals. In the Caribbean in 2005, a heat surge caused more than 50 percent of corals to bleach, and many still have not recovered, according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, an international collaboration of government officials, policymakers and marine scientists, including Palumbi.

Havens of healthy reefs

In recent years, scientists discovered that some corals resist bleaching by hosting types of algae that can handle the heat, while others swap out the heat-stressed algae for tougher, heat-resistant strains. Palumbi’s team set out to investigate how widely dispersed these heat-tolerant coral reefs are across the globe and to learn more about the biological processes that allow them to adapt to higher temperatures.

In 2006, Palumbi and graduate student Tom Oliver, now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, traveled to Ofu Island in American Samoa. Ofu, a tropical coral reef marine reserve, has remained healthy despite gradually warming waters.

The island offered the perfect laboratory setting, Oliver said, with numerous corals hosting the most common heat-sensitive and heat-resistant algae symbionts. Ofu also has pools of varying temperatures that allowed the research team to test under what conditions the symbionts formed associations with corals.

In cooler lagoons, Oliver found only a handful of corals that host heat-resistant algae exclusively. But in hotter pools, he observed a direct increase in the proportion of heat-resistant symbionts, suggesting that some corals had swapped out the heat-sensitive algae for more robust types. These results, combined with regional data from other sites in the tropical Pacific, were published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series in March 2009.

Global pattern

To see if this pattern exists on a global scale, the researchers turned to Kevin Arrigo, an associate professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford and an expert on remote satellite sensing of marine microalgae. Arrigo gathered worldwide oceanographic data on a variety of environmental variables, including ocean acidity, the frequency of weather events and sea-surface temperature.

Oliver then compiled dozens of coral reef studies from across the tropics and compared them to Arrigo’s environmental data. The results revealed the same pattern: In regions where annual maximum ocean temperatures were above 84 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit (29 to 31 degrees Celsius), corals were avoiding bleaching by hosting higher proportions of the heat-resistant symbionts.

Most corals bleach when temperatures rise 1.8 F (1 C) above the long-term normal highs. But heat-tolerant symbionts might allow a reef to handle temperatures up to 2.6 F (1.5 C) beyond the bleaching threshold. That might be enough to help get them through the end of the century, Oliver said, depending on the severity of global warming.

A 2007 report by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change concluded that the average surface temperature of the Earth is likely to increase 3.6 to 8.1 F (2 to 4.5 C) by 2100. In this scenario, the symbiont switch alone may not be enough to help corals survive through the end of the century. But with the help of other adaptive mechanisms, including natural selection for heat-tolerant corals, there is still hope, Oliver said.

Heat-resistant corals also turn out to be more tolerant of increases in ocean acidity, which occurs when the ocean absorbs excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere–another potential threat to coral reefs. This finding suggests that corals worldwide are adapting to increases in acidity as well as heat, Oliver said, and that across the tropics, corals with the ability to switch symbionts will do so to survive.

“Although we are doing things to the planet we have never done before, it’s hard to imagine that these corals, which have existed for a quarter of a billion years, only have 50 years left,” Palumbi said. “And part of our job might be to figure out where the tougher ones live and protect those places.”

For more on this story:

MICRODOCS: BRINGING THE LAB TO THE REEF

MICRODOCS: EXPERIMENTING WITH GLOBAL WARMING

Dancing With the Devil

Sometimes that’s what it feels like, confronting another fire season in California. But last week, network news videographer Tim Walton found himself literally in that position, while covering the Jesusita Fire near Santa Barbara.

Walton spends much of his time chasing the state’s most threatening wildfires, shooting video for outlets like NBC Nightly News.

Santa Barbara "Fire Devil." Photo: Tim Walton

Santa Barbara "Fire Devil." Photo: Tim Walton

On Wednesday (5/6) he was shooting a “fully involved” home, when he was visited by a dangerous and awe-inspiring presence. In an email, he writes:

“I was filming the house when it felt like someone was standing next to me. I panned the camera over and this “fire devil” was spinning around outside the burning house. It came out a window for a few seconds and went right back where it came from in the house (of course “it” is just gases that were sucked out of the burning house by the wind and ignited by the heat).  The vortex stays as long as the wind.

BTW this fire started on the same date as the Summit Fire did last year, I observed the same type of fire behavior we saw early last season. I think we are in for a very interesting year. “

Fire devils are also referred to as “fire tornadoes” or “fire whirls.” Walton’s remarkable collection of photos from California wildfires is posted at his Flickr site. The photo of this “devil” is actually a still frame from some of his HD video:

California Not Catching the Wave…Yet

Tom Banse’s radio report on West Coast wave energy aired Thursday morning on The California Report. It’s also posted to the Climate Watch Radio section on this site.

A Crib Sheet for West Coast Ocean Energy

Every now and then when the government gets something right, it’s only fair to give credit.  So today we give props to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for making public records easily accessible.  Combined with our handy-dandy crib sheet, you can be the reporter and dig up all sorts of newsworthy nuggets.  We’ll get to some examples, but first the overview:

Wave energy buoys proposed for Reedsport, OR (artist's conception). Photo by Tom Banse.

Wave energy buoys proposed for Reedsport, OR (artist's conception). Image provided by: Ocean Power Technologies

Starting in 2006, there was a “gold rush” on the ocean to stake claims for wave energy sites.  Now the spray is settling and an industry shakeout is occurring.  Energy developers have given up on about a third of the wave power projects they proposed along the West Coast.  Some tidal power proposals are ebbing away as well.  When things go sideways, we rarely get a press release about it.  Often the news pops up first in a filing to FERC.

FERC is the agency that oversees wave and tidal power projects in state waters (up to 3 miles offshore).  The agency’s webmasters set up an “eLibrary” to archive project applications and correspondence.

You can see on the crib sheet that FERC dismissed three ocean energy projects in California waters last month.  The simple explanation is that the three projects ended up on the wrong side of a bureaucratic turf battle.  The Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) won jurisdiction over all energy development on the outer continental shelf, defined in this case as more than three miles offshore.  Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company president Burt Hamner explained in an e-mail:

FERC has cancelled its entire preliminary permit process for projects located on Federal ocean waters, and thus dismissed our seven pending applications for preliminary permits (as well as those of a few others).  The new MMS framework says that applicants for wave projects must first get a MMS lease for space, then apply to FERC for a commercial hydropower license.  But, MMS is prohibited from issuing leases in national marine sanctuaries.  Two of our projects, San Francisco and Hawaii, are in sanctuaries.  Therefore these are terminated because there is no way to get a lease or permits there.

At the City of San Francisco, utility specialist Randall Smith said the FERC dismissal of the city’s preliminary permit for the Oceanside project “doesn’t put us back to square one, but does force a step back.”  Smith elaborated, “The difference with MMS is getting a lease.  That’s a little more protracted.”

One wave power project was proposed for waters off San Francisco's Ocean Beach (upper right).

A wave power project proposed for waters off San Francisco's Ocean Beach (upper right) is in limbo.

The voluminous dockets for PG&E’s WaveConnect projects off Humboldt and Mendocino Counties, and the Green Wave Mendocino Wave Park suggest those are the ones moving ahead the fastest.  PG&E recently secured $6 million to pay for environmental studies, design work, and permitting.  The utility started its community outreach by scheduling two town meetings–in Eureka on May 19 and Ft. Bragg on May 21–both scheduled for 6 pm.

And now, the secret code: An easy way to keep tabs on a marine energy project is to make note of the applicant’s docket number (the one that starts with P-xxxxx) and then periodically plug that number into a “Docket search.”  (Click on “Submit” rather than the more prominent “Search Consolidated Dockets” button.)Here are all of the West Coast wave energy projects proposed to FERC, listed from north to south, as of this week:

P-12751 Makah Bay (Finavera)  license surrendered  4/09

P-13058 Grays Harbor Ocean Energy (Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company)  11/2007

P-13047 Oregon Coastal Wave Energy (Tillamook Intergovernmental Dev. Entity) 10/2007

P-12750 Newport OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  permit surrendered 3/09

P-12793 Florence Oregon Ocean Wave Project (Oceanlinx)  4/2007, withdrawn 4/08

P-12713 Reedsport OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  3/2006

P-12743 Douglas County Wave Energy (Douglas County, OR)  9/2006  (oscillating column device on Umpqua River jetty)

P-12749 Coos Bay OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  3/2006

P-12752 Coos County Offshore (Bandon, Oregon) (Finavera) permit cancelled w/o objection 6/08

P-12779 Humboldt County WaveConnect (PG&E)  2/07

P-12753 Humboldt County Wave Energy (Finavera) permit surrendered 2/09

P-13075 Centerville OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  11/2007

P-12781 Mendocino County WaveConnect (PG&E)  2/07

P-13053 Green Wave Mendocino Wave Park (Green Wave Energy Solutions, LLC)  10/07

P-13377 and P-13378 Fort Ross Project- N & S (Sonoma County Water Agency)  2/09 pending

P-13376 Del Mar Landing Project (Sonoma County Water Agency)  2/09 pending

P-13308 San Francisco Ocean Energy Project (Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company, LLC)  10/08 Dismissed 4/09

P-13379 San Francisco Oceanside Wave Energy Project (City and County of SF)  filed 02/09 Dismissed 4/09

P-13052 Green Wave San Luis Obispo Wave Park (Green Wave Energy Solutions, LLC) filed 10/07 pending

P-13309 Ventura Ocean Energy Project (Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company)  10/08 Dismissed 4/09

Total proposed wave energy projects since 2006: 21

Total projects scrubbed by developer: 5

Total projects rejected by FERC: 3

For extra credit – Noteworthy tidal energy projects:

P-12585 San Francisco Bay Tidal Energy Project (Oceana Energy)  10/08

P-12672 Columbia River Tidal Energy Project (Oceana Energy) Permit surrendered 3/08

 

The Insidious Side of Climate Change

If you think climate change just means hotter summers in California, think again. The writer of this week’s guest post argues that we’ll all “feel the heat” in myriad ways, both obvious and subtle.

Climate and Nature
by Anthony Barnosky

Some impacts of climate change in California are pretty obvious, things like rising sea level submerging large parts of the San Francisco Bay region, or drought cutting into our water supplies.  Less obvious, but every bit as important, are impacts on something you probably don’t even know you have: your relationship with nature.

One part of that relationship is the concept of “ecosystem services;” the direct benefits you get from nature.  California’s Climate Action Team highlighted some of the state’s ecosystem services in their recent report.  Examples include the ski trip you may have taken this winter, the salmon fillet you may have bought at the grocery store, or surprisingly, even your hamburger.

barnosky_snowfunSnow will be less, soggier, at higher elevations, and on the ground for fewer days of the winter, melting some of the $500 million-per-year revenues of the ski industry–not to mention melting your favorite ski run.  Altered river dynamics and temperatures will almost certainly cut into the state’s $33-million-per-year salmon industry. Climate-caused loss of forage means that in 2070 California’s cattle ranchers will be losing up to $92 million in comparison to today’s markets, which means higher beef prices at the grocery store.  Combined, the losses in these ecosystem services likely will cost the state’s already suffering economy well over a hundred million dollars per year as we move into the next few decades. And those are just three of many ecosystem services that will be affected.

A second part of your relationship to nature is the species around you, that is to say, biodiversity. Simply put, biodiversity is which species live in a place, and the extent to which those species are rare or common.  In general, biodiversity means more productive and healthier ecosystems, which translates as more benefits to humans that inhabit those areas.  As it turns out, California is a globally recognized biodiversity hotspot, unique in the world.  But biodiversity losses from global warming promise to be severe: one study predicts that two-thirds of the 2387 plant species found only in the state will lose 80% of their range within the century.

barnosky_icylakeThe third part of your relationship to nature is how it makes you feel.  There’s no question: you can’t get the same feeling you get looking at a giant redwood anywhere but in a redwood forest.   Among species that may have little or no suitable climate left in California, however, are its coastal redwoods and sequoias.

Such impacts of climate change on nature are not confined to California.   Many other reports indicate that global warming is redefining our relationship to nature worldwide.  As with other impacts, this one can be partially mitigated by reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately, but also will require some new management strategies for preserving nature in the age of global warming.  California, in particular, has a lot to lose.

Anthony D. Barnosky is a Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the recently published Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. You can read more on this topic in his blog. Photos by the author.

Barnosky is scheduled to appear Saturday as part of Berkeley’s “Cal Day” activities. His talk is scheduled for noon at the Valley Life Sciences Bldg, Room 2060, followed by a book-signing at the T-Rex (which is hard to miss).

Robust Discussion of Rising Seas

KQED’s Forum program devoted a full hour this morning to recent projections for sea level rise and the threat it poses to California. Listen to the archived program here.

I joined host Michael Krasny and guests Peter Gleick and Will Travis, to discuss some of the recent findings. Travis heads the Bay Conservation & Development Commission and Gleick’s Pacific Institute issued a new report on the impacts last week.

Travis is just back from a trip to The Netherlands where he was studying some of the engineering techniques that the Dutch have deployed, to keep the North Sea at bay. Gleick has been tracking the issue here in California since 1990.

Gleick’s impact projections were underscored last week when scientists at a climate conference in Copenhagen projected a potential one-meter rise in the mean sea level by the end of this century, depending on how soon and how much we’re able to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a pretty significant adjustment from the 2007 UN report, which had the rise pegged at a foot or two over the same time span. And two months ago, a USGS-led report postulated that a four-foot rise isn’t out of the question.

Some interesting questions and comments that came in from listeners:

- Sewage treatment plants in the Bay Area recently overwhelmed by storms are one glimpse into a future with higher sea levels.

- If pumps that convey water through the giant state and federal water projects in the Central Valley were solar-powered, it would reduce the carbon footprint of moving water around in California (often cited as 20% of our electricity use).

- A barrier at the Golden Gate could help “stem the tide” and potentially be part of a plant generating tidal power (Travis was skeptical).

- The Earth’s rotational bevavior also affects sea level and should be factored in.

In response to a listener who asked about a recent newspaper column that was dismissive of the prevailing climate science, I got the following note from Dave Johnson, a former Silicon Valley lawyer who teaches at Stanford:

“As to the climate-change contrarians, my short-form answer is this: I favor giving the scientifically-credible contrarian point of view some credit, and quite likely more than Al Gore or others would like. Why? Not because they necessarily have the science part right (or closer to right) than the IPCC.  Rather, it’s because the problem itself is a very complex system. Science is just now scoping the boundaries and behaviors of complex systems; to predict their behavior (especially of non-physical systems) will, to paraphrase Edward Witten, require ’22nd century’ knowledge.  As such, we all have to recognize the possibility, if not likelihood, that the global climate system might do things that we cannot fathom, much less predict. One possibility is self-correction to an equilibrium that can hold for another century or two. The other, sadly, is the converse – a spin-out into disequilibrium. Objectively, each has its percentage of possibility; so, objectively, each has to be seriously considered.  In short, whether I agree or disagree with the contrarians is, objectively, of no moment whatsoever.  In science, the strongest advocate of a particular conclusion must embrace the most aggressive testing of that conclusion. “

Hard to disagree with that. It’s always perilous to dismiss contrarian views out of hand. Galileo was a contrarian.

A Rising Tide Raises All Costs

Pacific Institute. Complete maps at link, below.

Photo: Pacific Institute. Complete maps at link, below.

This has been a week of dire predictions about the rising sea level and its eventual consequences.

On Tuesday, scientists preparing for the Copenhagen climate talks this year said that the current IPCC working model for sea level is out of date and overly cheerful.  German climate researcher Stefan Rahmstorf told the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change that even the most optimistic outlook for carbon emissions now portends at least a one-meter rise, or 3.28 feet by the end of this century. The U.N.’s 2007 report had anticipated a rise of up to two feet over the same time period.

Then today, analysts at Oakland’s Pacific Institute chimed in with a projection of California impacts from rising seas, based on a rise of 1.4 meters by 2100.

The report, which includes maps of projected inundation, projects nearly a half-million people at risk of a “100-year” flood event and loss of 41 square miles of coastal land, due to erosion.

“Critical infrastructure” in harm’s way includes highways, hospitals, schools, power and sewage treatment plants, as well as residential neighborhoods. It also includes several of the state’s busiest airports.

The report estimates that the tab for protecting that infrastructure could easily run to $14 billion. According to co-author Matt Heberger, “Communities really have to decide what it is that they value about the coast, whether that’s habitat, recreation, aesthetics, boating, shipping, all sort of things. We won’t necessarily be able to preserve all of those things at the same time. ”

The Governor has already issued an executive order requiring sea level rise to be factored into urban planning in all vulnerable regions of California. There remains an enormous planning task ahead.

Heberger sums it up thusly: “The evidence is in and we know what the impacts to the state are going to be. Now, what are we going to do about it?”

We’ll get some answers to that question on Monday’s Forum program on KQED and Sirius satellite. Listen to the archived program here.

Oceans Rising
Guests joining our discussion include Will Travis, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission; Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a non-partisan research institute on the environment and social equity; and Craig Miller, senior editor of KQED’s Climate Watch.

PPIC Analyst: Start Adapting Now to Climate Change

This is a guest post from Louise Bedsworth, research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.  She and PPIC Research Director Ellen Hanak are co-authors of the report: “Preparing California for a Changing Climate,”  which we wrote about here last month. The report discusses the challenges that climate change poses for a number of the state’s environmental and resource institutions and how well prepared we are for addressing these challenges.

What is adaptation to climate change and why do we need it now?

We have discussed our report on preparing for climate change with a variety of audiences over the past several weeks, beginning with a half-day event in Sacramento on December 2nd that included state leaders, representatives from environmental organizations, and city officials from all over California.  We found that while the topic of adaptation can seem to be all doom and gloom, there are several programs in place and underway that should help California prepare for the effects of climate change that we can’t prevent. One important question that keeps coming up at these events is why we need to be thinking about adapting to global warming now that the state has focused on fighting it.

Adaptation, or climate change preparedness, refers to the adjustments that can be made to help to cope with the effects of climate change.  These impacts include higher temperatures, accelerated sea level rise, and disruptions to the state’s water supply, all of which have real consequences for California.  For example, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission has prepared maps showing what the Bay would look like with one meter of sea level rise.  These maps show the significant impacts on San Francisco Bay communities and infrastructure, including inundation of the region’s airports and Silicon Valley.

Ideally, adaptive actions will help to reduce vulnerability in the face of change or to improve resiliency.  Even under the most optimistic scenarios (e.g., successful emission reductions globally), some amount of climate change appears to be inevitable.

Adaptation goes in hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Generally speaking, the more successful efforts to reduce emissions are, the less adaptation will be needed.  And, some efforts to reduce emissions – such as energy efficiency – will also help us adapt by lessening energy use under high demand conditions.  But, adaptation and mitigation efforts can be in conflict – for example, planting non-native trees either to store carbon or provide shade can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but could place additional stress on efforts to protect native species in a changing climate.  To avoid such conflicts now and in the future, adaptation needs to be well-defined and integrated in the current climate policy discussion in California.

A recent report from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies found significant obstacles to climate change adaptation in the United States.  These were similar to barriers that we observed for California – uncertainty in the science of climate change, lack of funding or resources, regulatory and legal obstacles, and lack of political will or incentive.

But, we also found some reasons to optimistic about the prospects for adaptation in California.  Water and electricity agencies appear to be out in front on adaptation and overcoming these obstacles.  As service providers, both water and electricity providers have an incentive (and an obligation) to be considering adaptation.  They are used to doing long-range planning and weathering supply uncertainties.  Finally, and very importantly, water and electricity providers have a rate-payer base that can provide funding for undertaking adaptation.  In addition, there are tools in other sectors that can help with adaptation.  There are public health programs such as disease tracking and heat emergency plans that can provide a starting point for developing climate change preparedness.

As the California Resources Agency develops the state’s Climate Adaptation Strategy, the knowledge and experience from these programs should provide a solid starting point.

“Is the Planet Just Doomed?”

3117211300_7c2dceccac_m.jpgThe world needs to completely phase out coal emissions over the next 20 years to avoid climate disaster, James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) told a room packed with several hundred people at the AGU conference in San Francisco on Wednesday.

An immediate moratorium on new coal use that does not capture CO2 and phasing out of all other coal emissions by 2030 is the path to reach a target for CO2 emissions of 350 parts per million (ppm) identified in a new study led by Hansen. Previously, Hansen has said that the dangerous level for CO2 was likely to be 450 ppm or higher, but in light of new observations and analysis of ‘slow’ feedback processes like ice melt and greenhouse gas release from the ocean and soil, the study team revised that projection.

Unfortunately for the world, current atmospheric CO2 levels are already at 385 ppm.

(Hansen, a well-known climatologist, received a lot of publicity in 2005 and 2006 over his assertions that NASA administrators tried to censor his public statements about the causes of climate change.)

“We’ve got to get politicians to understand that it is more serious, and we’re at a more critical stage, than they seem to understand,” said the scientist. “No one is doing anything even close to what’s needed, even those countries who appear to be the most serious.”

Hansen’s colleague Pushker Kharecha acknowledged in an earlier lecture that phasing out coal over the next 20 years would be a “Herculean” task, but that it is possible, and necessary. Even if the world comes together to meet this goal, atmospheric CO2 would peak at 400-425ppm before gradually declining with the help of reforestation and other efforts.

Hansen warned that because of certain feedback loops, there will be no escape from “The Venus Syndrome” – runaway global warming – once the climate reaches certain tipping points. We may have already reached the tipping point with the Arctic sea ice which has decreased dramatically, he said. Other indicators he cited are a quadrupling of wildfires in American West over the last 30 years and the rapid retreat of glaciers, which he predicted will have disappeared within 50 years under a “business as usual” scenario.

All of this led one member of the audience to ask the question in everyone’s mind:

“Is the planet just doomed?”

To that Hansen replied that some human causes actually have slowed, such as CFCs and methane, and that there are technologies worth exploring like burning nuclear waste. Then he added, “I think we’ll solve the problem, but we need to tell the truth that it does require a carbon price. Politicians are not willing to do this.”

I can’t say I found his answer especially reassuring.