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Regions Make Their Own Climate Stand

In the absence of an international agreement, states and provinces commit to work together to fight climate change.

Gov. Schwarzenegger making closing remarks at the Governors' Global Climate Summit (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s third and final Governors’ Global Climate Summit wrapped up Tuesday with the launch of a new international coalition aimed at developing projects that cut carbon emissions around the globe. R20, or “Regions of Climate Action” is the culmination of Governor Schwarzenegger’s efforts to spur “subnational” action to address climate change.

“We can’t afford to wait for national and international movement,” he said in a press release announcing R20. “Action is needed now.” Continue reading

What the Gov’s Global Climate Summit and “The Goonies” Have in Common

When the parents aren’t taking action, sometimes the kids need to step in and solve the problem in whatever ways they can piece together.

"GGCS 3" is Governor Schwarzenegger's third climate summit. (Photo: Governor's Office)

I’m at the Governors’ Global Climate Summit in Davis this week, where representatives from more than 80 regional and local governments have come together for two days to try to figure out ways to reduce emissions and put the brakes on climate change.  The idea is that since last year’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen failed to produce a binding international agreement, and the US Congress can’t get it together to agree on any sort of energy and/or climate bill, cities and states and provinces can’t stand by and do nothing while the international community haggles and CO2 levels continue to creep higher. Continue reading

The Carbon Footprint of Divorce in China

Couples often remain unhappily married for the sake of the kids. Now they might consider it for the sake of the planet.

Chinese households are outpacing the population by three-to-four times.

Jianguo (Jack) Liu, who directs the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University, has been tracking an interesting driver of carbon emissions in China: the explosion of households.

Speaking at the Society of Environmental Journalists‘ annual conference at the University of Montana, Liu said the number of households in China has been growing three-to-four times as fast as the population, which, in turn, is fueling a domestic boom in energy-intensive consumer goods, such as autos, air conditioners and major appliances (though one third of China’s carbon emissions are still due to products made for the export market, with the largest share bound for the US). Continue reading

Heat Records Set in 17 Countries — So Far

This post also appears at Climate Central, a content partner of Climate Watch.

By Andrew Freedman

California’s freakishly cool summer has been bucking a global trend this season. You’ve seen the headlines from Moscow and Pakistan–but that’s just part of the story. 2010 has featured several extreme heat events, as well as record flooding, in many countries worldwide. The number of countries that have set new national records for the warmest temperature recorded — 17 — would beat the old record of 14, provided that all of the new records are verified by meteorological agencies. According to meteorologist Jeff Masters of the private weather forecasting firm Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the countries that have set new records thus far this year comprise about 19 percent of the earth’s surface area. Continue reading

From Russia: More Heat, Less Wheat

This post also appears at Climate Central, a content partner of Climate Watch.

By David Lobell

The heat wave in Russia has captured international media attention, breaking temperature records left and right (see figure below). It has also captured the attention of commodity traders. In a typical year Russia produces about as much wheat as the United States, and is among the top exporters of wheat flour in the world. But this year, wheat has been decimated in the areas around Moscow, with yield expected to be 30 percent or so below normal. This week Russia announced they are banning all exports of wheat from August 15 through the end of the year. Since late June, wheat prices on the Chicago Board of Trade have risen by 50 percent, to more than $7 a bushel. Continue reading

Intersolar Chair: CA Losing Solar Race

Despite frequent pronouncements by the outgoing governor of the Golden State, the chair of the giant solar industry expo that winds up in San Francisco today says “California and the US are losing badly in the global race” for solar energy deployment.

Eicke Weber of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems made the comment on KQED’s Forum program this morning, during an hour devoted to solar energy prospects.

Weber said that California will represent a tiny fraction of the world’s growth in photovoltaics this year; just 200 of the 10,000 megawatts that he projects will be installed globally. California remains ahead of all other states in the deployment of solar panels. Weber’s forecast for California still represents two thirds of his projected total for the US. That’s “far below what could be expected from a country that’s as rich and sunshine-filled as the United States,” added Weber.

Chinese suppliers had a high profile at this week's solar expo in San Francisco (Photo: Craig Miller)

The global face of solar was impossible to miss at the Intersolar conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Three levels of exhibition space were crammed with industry exhibits. To get there, attendees had to jostle for space on the escalators. Though this was billed as the “North American” conference (following an even bigger one in Europe), the halls included major product exhibits from China, Germany, Spain, South Korea, and other nations. Organizers told the trade publication Solar Industry that they booked 30% more exhibitors than last year for the expo.

While speakers at the conference were calling for more government support for solar and other renewable energy sources, state officials in California were going to the mat to save what’s already in place here. On Wednesday attorney general/gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown said he is suing key players in the mortgage markets, in an effort to save the vaunted PACE program, which finances residential solar projects through property tax assessments. The announcement came even as the California Public Utilities Commission said it was suspending some solar incentive programs for schools and community organizations, after being overwhelmed with applications.

During the Forum discussion, Weber was sometimes at loggerheads with a former colleague from UC Berkeley, where Weber taught for more than 20 years. Weber predicted that rooftop solar could be cost-competitive with fossil fuels within seven years. But Severin Borenstein, who co-directs the Energy Institute at Berkeley, said he considered that forecast to be “at the very optimistic end of the range.”

Borenstein said he was not surprised that the PACE program is in trouble. He said that from the outset, mortgage lenders had been queasy about the program because when properties end up in foreclosure, the banks could find themselves second or third in line for their money, behind counties that finance the PACE energy upgrades.

Solar Heats Up In San Francisco

The solar industry has descended on the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco this week. Organizers of the third annual Intersolar North America Conference and Expo expect more than 20,000 attendees.

After a period of explosive growth, the current economic downturn has tested the mettle of solar businesses. Demand for products has declined and panels are sitting on shelves in Europe.

It’s expected that the industry will pick back up as individual states, such as California, and some countries, continue working toward renewable energy goals. As Climate Watch and KQED’s Quest science unit have highlighted in recent reports, California has set a goal for utilities to get a third of their electricity from clean sources by 2020.

But to put that in perspective, Germany, a world leader in solar production, hopes to reach 100% by 2050. And the recent move to cut subsidies notwithstanding, Germany might be on track to reach that goal. At the opening session of Intersolar today, Hans Josef Fell, who helped start a photovoltaic revolution in Germany and is a member of the German parliament, says it is that national commitment that has made the difference. Rooftop solar in Germany, for example, covers nearly 20% of single-family homes and, according to Fell, nearly 60% of multi-family homes and businesses have solar on the roof. During the current economic crisis, Fell says, renewable energy has been the biggest job driver in Germany.

Discussion of large-scale solar opportunities took up a big chunk of the first day at Intersolar. Market analysts, utilities and developers gathered on the dais to discuss ways to help “big solar” grow bigger, especially in California. The take-away: the biggest obstacle is not finding land or overcoming a slow permitting process, but updating transmission lines. A representative from SunPower Corporation said interconnection with the grid and more capacity are among the biggest obstacles to moving forward with medium and large-scale solar projects.

Later this week, attendees at Intersolar take up urban renewable projects and the ins and outs of doing solar business in California. The conference continues through Thursday.

What Will it Take?

An interesting confluence of events this week: A Senate committee votes down a contentious amendment to the “climate” bill, a new Stanford survey shows rising concern about global warming, and pundits gather in Pasadena to sort through it all.

87496035The survey, conducted by Jon Krosnick’s Political Psychology Research Group with funding from the National Science Foundation, suggests that some climate pollsters have been getting it wrong. About three in four respondents to the Stanford poll (74%) acknowledge that the “world’s temperature” is rising, and though they appear to be divided on the cause (with a slight edge to human causation), roughly the same majority (76%) favor federal limits on “the amount of greenhouse  gasses thought to cause global warming.” Krosnick summarized some of his findings in an editorial for the New York Times.

Meanwhile eminent climate scientists, social scientists and journalists assembled in SoCal this week, in part to ask the question: “What will it take to precipitate meaningful policy responses to climate change?” The answer from author Stewart Brand was succinct: “It takes warfare.” Brand was part of a panel at “Moving By Degrees,” a day-long forum hosted by American Public Media’s Marketplace program. Brand, who describes himself as an “ecopragmatist,” has concluded that when the planet’s “carrying capacity” is strained to the point where nations and peoples are fighting over dwindling resources, only then will coordinated international action begin in earnest.

Brand’s dim view was shared by physicist-turned-blogger Joe Romm, who said that while current US policy is driven by “denial,” he sees a coming shift in which people move “from denial to desperation.” That, says Romm, will be the catalyst. “Denial makes easy things hard and desperation makes hard things easy,” he said. Romm says he expects the desperation phase to set in about a decade from now, when extreme weather events and other likely manifestations of climate change intensify and become more frequent. Romm challenged the notion that technology will provide an easy solution to climate change and defied the gathering to come up with one “game-changing” technological breakthrough in energy, over the past three decades.

New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin points to a graph that shows the relatively low level of US R&D funding devoted to energy.

New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin points to a graph that shows the relatively low level of US R&D funding devoted to energy (it's the little green squiggle in the middle). Photo: Craig Miller

Romm and Brand were joined by two high-profile climate scientists, Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Lab and Michael Mann, who directs the Earth System Science Center at Penn State; social scientists Naomi Oreskes of UC San Diego and Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and Strategies for the Global Environment; as well as commentators from business and investment groups.

Most agreed that “putting a price on carbon,” through cap-and-trade or some other means, is an essential, if overdue policy step. Analyst Bruce Kahn of Deutsche Bank issued a plea for a coherent policy on carbon pricing. “You can’t put a policy in place today and change it tomorrow,” said Kahn. “A carbon price needs longevity and certainty so companies will add it to their business models.” Once that happens, Kahn said there’s “a massive amount of capital out there looking for a place to go,” and that investment capital will flow to where stable policies exist. Mindy Lubber, president of the CERES investor group, went a step further: “We are losing the jobs and opportunities right now in the clean tech sector,” said Lubber, “because we don’t have the right market signals in place.”

Brand also had some advice for environmentalists, which he says have become “the cohort of the Left:” Brand said “We need to de-tribalize,” and he offered that “The best thing Al Gore could do is shed the Democratic party.”

All of the day’s sessions are archived at the Marketplace conference website.

Population: The “Other” Climate Debate

Recently I saw a startling graph, plotting world population from the Middle Ages to projections for 2050. The red line remains relatively flat for several centuries, starts ramping up around the time of the 19th century Industrial Revolution, and then takes off like a Roman candle right about the time of my own birth, in the mid-1950s. Granted, the steep rise was enhanced by the drawn-out time scale of that particular graph. As you shorten the time frame you’re looking at, the slope flattens out. But the numbers paint a sobering picture on their own.

A world population graph similar to the one I saw. Image: United Nations

World population from 1750 to 2020. Extending the curve leads to 9 billion people by 2050. Source: United Nations

I decided to plot some of my own family history against that curve. When my father entered the world on the eve of the Great Depression, there were barely two billion people populating the globe. By the time I came along, the number had nudged above three billion.  This was America’s legendary Baby Boom and the beginning of the Roman candle phase (an exponential growth trajectory which continues today). Should I be so fortunate (or unfortunate) to make it to my own century mark, demographers project that by then (2055), the Earth will be asked to support more than nine billion people. That’s a tripling of the world’s population just in my (theoretical) lifetime.

Population growth seldom takes center stage in discussions of climate change, though the connection is undeniable (heck, nine billion people just breathing is a lot of CO2).

Pakistan87712955_blogBiologist William Ryerson, President of the Washington-based Population Institute, says that population growth is “not an inconsequential impact on the climate crisis.” But breathing is not the problem; it’s consumption. Appearing on KQED’s Forum program with Michael Krasny, Ryerson said that were that prediction of nine billion people by 2050 to be realized, it would be “the climate equivalent of adding two United States to the planet.”

Ryerson, who also heads the Population Media Center in Vermont, says we’ll be lucky to make it to nine billion. Ryerson said that in his view, “the resources just aren’t there,” for a doubling of the current population. He cites research by Stanford biologist Peter Vitousek, indicating that humans are already appropriating half of the total global “products of photosynthesis, i.e. all green plants.”

It seems that after decades of being dismissed by mainstream economists, 18th-century philosopher Thomas Malthus is getting a fresh hearing. Malthus made his reputation as a doomsayer in 1798, when he wrote that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

As procreation and climate change accelerate in tandem, the two forces may place a double bind on basic resources like water (see also Gretchen Weber’s post on “peak water“). Ryerson, who recently visited Pakistan, says that nation currently has 20% of the water that they had 50 years ago, on a per-capita basis, and “they’re on a 30-year doubling time,” meaning 368 million people by 2040.

The entire Forum program is available online.

Rising Temps Taking a Toll on Lizards

The mesquite lizard is a member of the Sceloporus genus. Sinervo's study included 48 species of Sceloporus.

Sinervo's study included 48 species of the genus Sceloporus, of which the mesquite lizard (above) is a member.

A new study published this week in the journal Science finds that local lizard populations around the world are going extinct, likely due to climate change.  According to the research, conducted by a team of scientists including Barry Sinervo, a herpetologist at UC Santa Cruz, four percent of the world’s lizard populations have disappeared in the last 35 years, and another 20% of all lizard species could go extinct by 2080 if global temperatures continue to rise.

Using field observation and experiments, and computer modeling, Sinervo and his team determined that increased daytime temperatures in some areas have shortened the amount of time each day during which lizards can forage for food. The data–and that of collaborating scientists on five continents–indicates that higher temperatures and reduced feeding time correlates with the pattern of local extinctions among lizard species across the globe (the Science website has a slideshow explaining how the research was conducted).

Sinervo described his research today on the NPR program Science Friday as part of a panel discussing modern extinctions.  He was joined by UC Berkeley integrative biology professor Tony Barnosky and San Francisco State Biology professor Vance Vredenberg.  Christopher Joyce reported on the study’s findings yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered.