“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.

When Mitigation Falls Short, Adapt

3042486968_0a474edd83_m.jpgWhile California has plans in place to reduce greenhouse gases, to mitigate the effects of climate change, it is only recently that the local governments have begun thinking about adaptation strategies, according to two reports released today by the PPIC.Preparing California for a Changing Climate” and “Climate Policy at the Local Level: A Survey of California’s Cities and Counties.” Both focus on what is being done currently to confront climate change and where the state and municipalities need to focus adaptation efforts, in order to prepare for future environmental changes.

According to Ellen Hanak, who co-authored both studies, while three out of  four California’s communities are “doing something” related to climate change, only half of that group is looking into adaptation strategies and developing plans for protecting community assets.

“The focus has been on bringing greenhouse gases down,” said Hanak. “Only recently have folks been looking into climate impacts.”

Adaptation is a critical element because even if the world does reduce emissions significantly, Californians still may face problems like sea level rise, increased wildfires and flooding, public health issues related to air quality and increased temperatures because of change that has already been set in motion.  The extent of these problems, of course, will depend on how successful we are with mitigation strategies.  The less successful we are at reducing greenhouse gases, the better we need to be at adapting to change.

Hanak sees the executive order issued by the Governor on Friday requiring state agencies to assess and plan for sea level rise due to climate change, which we blogged last week, as one positive step in this direction.  Because the order mandates an assessment of projected sea level rise, local governments will soon have a benchmark to use for planning their adaptation strategies.

The Cost of Sloth

The changing climate could cost Californians “tens of billions of dollars a year.”

Money Man

Those are just the direct costs, toted up in a new report by economists at U-C Berkeley.
“California Climate: Risk and Response” is billed as the first comprehensive report on the costs that may be inflicted on California from the effects of climate change. The 127-page report was co-authored by Fredrich Kahl and David Roland-Holst of Berkeley’s Center for Energy, Resources and Economic Sustainability (part of the Dept. of Agricultural and Resource Economics).

Higher energy demand, heat waves, scarce water, wildfire and rising sea levels–even the “collapse” of the state’s half-billion-dollar ski industry–are just some of the potential cost drivers. The “good news,” according to the report, is that much of this cost could be avoided by immediate investment in strategies to prepare.

A key question is where the money will come from—especially in tough economic times—to invest in the energy and other infrastructure needed to stave off the worst damage. Skip Laitner of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, says we’re not necessarily talking about finding “new” money for these investments. “In the US economy,” says Laitner, “we’re looking at almost two trillion dollars of investment anyway, regardless of how tight the market is. The point I think is a smart re-deployment of investment to more productive uses.”

That includes rapid development of renewable energy and measures to use water more efficiently. The study was funded by the nonpartisan think tank known as Next 10 and is just the latest in a repeating chorus of studies making the point that a full-on confrontation with climate change will, in the long run, be good for the economy, and may even provide some near-term stimulus.

Just weeks ago, Roland-Holst unveiled a separate study on the potential for job creation from promoting conservation and a shift to renewable energy. Earlier this week, a Cal State Fullerton study put a $28 billion-dollar current price tag on air pollution in the south coast and San Joaquin Valley regions.

Roland-Holst will be one of the guests on KQED’s Forum program tomorrow (Friday). He’ll be joined by representatives from Next 10 and Environment California, in a robust discussion of the cost of climate change.

A Long, Dry Season

In California, the term “fire season” is tossed around with a certain amount of vagueness, mainly because unlike, say “deer season,” there are no hard and fast rules for when it begins and ends. But like, for instance, “Holiday Season,” it does seem to be getting longer and more tedious.

For budgeting purposes, CalFire reckons it to be May 15 to November 15. As a practical matter, we don’t really expect the first wildfire to break out on May 15–except this year it did. The Summit Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains flamed up about a month before people really expect to start seeing smoke in the air. It was the start of what could be a record-breaking season.

Last year’s fire season was the worst in a decade; 1.5 million acres burned. This year we’re on track to surpass that.  Climatologists say: Get used to it. According to a 2005 report from the California Climate Change Center, using warming scenarios from the IPCC:

If average statewide temperatures rise to the medium warming range (5.5 to 8°F), the risk of large wildfires in California is expected to increase about 20 percent by mid-century and 50 percent by the end of the century. This is almost twice the wildfire increase expected if temperatures are kept within the lower warming range.
Along with temperature, wildfires are determined by a variety of factors, including precipitation. Because of this, future wildfire risk throughout the state will not be
uniform. For example, a hotter, drier climate could increase the flammability of vegetation in northern California and promote up to a 90 percent increase in large wildfires by the end of the century. A hotter, wetter climate would also lead to an increase in wildfires in northern California, but to a lesser extent—about a 40 percent increase by century’s end.

Phyllis Banducci, an El Dorado County forester for CalFire, says that normally they would start “ramping down” (laying off seasonal firefighters and so forth) in the north state around mid-October but this year CalFire has delayed winding things down until November 3rd.

Recently I took a walking tour through some Sierra burn sites with Crawford Tuttle, Chief Deputy Director at CalFire. You can hear excerpts from that and comments on the climate connection from UC Merced researcher Tony Westerling on The California Report, starting Friday morning.

You can watch a video of that walk by clicking on the viewer below. The first location is Sierra Springs. The second walk was on Icehouse Ridge, above Highway 50. Both locations are in El Dorado County.

We’ve also set up a spot where you can share your own fire photos and experiences.