Krugman on climate change legislation

Looking forward to the debate on climate change legislation, Paul Krugman takes the ethical position that action is urgently needed [LINK]. Good for him. Do legitimate commentators have any sway with the public anymore, though? Or are the Glenn Becks of the world now in complete control? [coverage of Beck, the boycott, and Van Jones: 1 2 3 4 5]


the chemistry of the greenhouse effect

Just a quick mention of an interesting study that I saw today. Three researchers from NASA and Purdue have a paper in the Journal of Physical Chemistry called Identifying the Molecular Origin of Global Warming [LINK]. It was brought to my attention by a news story on NewScientist.com [LINK]. Now based on that title, what would you expect from this paper? The news article doesn't completely make sense to me, perhaps because the writer tries to get so many barely-related things into such a tiny piece. It had me intrigued though, so I went and read the paper.

Before we get to the conclusions of the paper, let's consider what we know about global warming, specifically the greenhouse effect. We know that the most important greenhouse gas in terms of the human impact on climate is carbon dioxide. The way that the greenhouse effect works is that the molecules of carbon dioxide absorb infrared radiation emitted from the Earth's surface. Those molecules then emit infrared radiation at a slightly colder temperature, and they radiate in all directions. This has the effect of storing energy in the system, first by keeping it in molecules (before they radiate it away), and second by radiating back to the atmosphere and surface. So what does this paper have to offer?

The study uses calculations of molecular properties to investigate the greenhouse warming potential of different gases. The GWP of a gas is essentially a measure of how strongly a gas absorbs in the infrared, and how much warming it could cause over a given time in the atmosphere (typically 100 years). The way I've seen it presented, carbon dioxide is given a value of 1, and other gases are then shown compared to carbon dioxide. This study shows that there are a couple of families of molecules that have very large GWP, and presents an argument for how it comes about. The gist seems to be that molecules that have carbon-fluorine or carbon-chlorine bonds are particularly good greenhouse gases. These happen to include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFC) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The warming potential increases strongly with the number of bonds between the F or Cl and the carbon atom. This seems to be because the vibrational modes of the molecules, which are quite pronounced for these bonds, plus the stretch length of these bonds mean that the infrared interaction is within the atmospheric window. If this is all sounding vague and Greek-ish, it's because I don't completely understand all the terminology in the paper. The point is just that F, and to a lesser degree Cl and H, have strong bonds with C in these molecules, and their vibrational modes are in the atmospheric window, meaning they can absorb strongly in the correct band to make a difference to climate.

The major problem with the paper is that these gases are quite rare in the atmosphere, and it is hard to make the case that they are making a significant difference to the climate. The counter to such an argument is that this paper shows the physical mechanism at the molecular level that is responsible for some gases being very good greenhouse gases. It means that you can basically know from the outset whether some gas, perhaps an industrial product of some sort, will be a strong greenhouse gas. It also can serve as an early warning against over-using these gases, since large increases in their production could have consequences for the climate system.

The secondary problem with this paper is the way it seems to be interpreted in that news story (and thus likely others). It's presented almost like it's the first time we've understood what is going on with the greenhouse effect. Of course, that is rubbish, as we've had a good handle on the basics for over a century, and detailed studies of CO2 for decades. The authors don't try play down their results either, which you can tell just from the title. This is not a world-shattering study; it is a nice piece of chemistry that has some application to climate science.


The cynicism is back, thanks politicians

Well, after yesterday's brief glimmer of hope, I read a similar article in the NYTimes.com [link]. This essentially gets back to the political business as usual methods of blaming everyone else, ignoring compromise as an option, and insisting on some perverse sense of fairness that is totally mistaken. Hooray for arguing about what to do about climate change as the world warms, ice melts, and species die. Hooray.


Displacing world leaders from their comfort zones

Just read an interesting article about plans for the upcoming UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen [LINK]. Apparently the world leaders in attendance will be stripped of their entourage and be allowed just a single aide. That aide should be their country's environment minister, or equivalent. They will be put into small groups to talk about climate change and its impacts, pairing high-emission countries with those feeling the impacts. They will dine with activists and corporate executives. The idea is to get these leaders out of their political bubbles and force them to think about the effects of climate change in human terms (dare I say in ethical terms?). This seems like a great idea. I wish that the summit were longer, and that this kind of immersion therapy could be extended for several days. Removing the physical and artificial barriers of distance and isolation does wonders for thinking about a topic, and I have some hope that this will spur more urgent action. (Then I'll go back to being cynical when, e.g., the USA congress starts bickering about jobs and fairness and postpones actual action.)


The Ethics of Climate Change

I recently read a book called The Ethics of Climate Change by James Garvey, who is a philosopher. Rather than go into any details of the book, I just want to recommend it as a fast, interesting read. It probably won't change your perspectives on climate change (well, maybe if you happen to be on the fence about the science), but it will provide a new voice to the conversation about the human response to the changing climate. It was refreshing to have a philosopher's view of climate change instead of the more typical science journalist or occasional scientist. The book also taught be a little bit about moral philosophy, but it isn't too technical or high-minded; in fact, the tone is quite conversational and readable.

What it seems to come down to is that there are ethical reasons for us to take action on climate change. No surprise, I suppose, but the reasoning in this book is slightly more clear and thought-out than we often get from other sources, even if the basic premises are the same. Garvey also points out that "us" means mostly those of us in industrialized countries that have contributed unevenly to the changing climate compared with most of the world, plus it means both governments and individuals. Much of the book is devoted to investigating reasons not to take action, or to delay action, or to distribute the response evenly among everyone (e.g., the USA and Peru both have to make cuts, or the USA won't). In the end, each of these objections is rejected as ethically wrong... that is, there is a right and wrong thing to do, and we (western governments and individuals) have been, and continue to be, doing the wrong thing. The arguments for the biggest polluters sacrificing more are clear; the arguments that delaying action (directly or indirectly) are clear; the reasons for taking immediate, dramatic action are clear. Garvey leaves little wiggle room for opposing views, and he certainly does not apologize for being one-sided. He argues from one perspective, but with solid reasoning. If this were a true debate, then this work would be quite a challenge to the other side, for an opposing viewpoint would have to show an essentially new argument against action, since the current ones are demolished.


The warming arctic

Over the past week or so, I've noticed a number of articles and posts about the Arctic. There seems to be some kind of ongoing flap about some climate change deniers denying that the extreme north is warming. I have (mostly) avoided reading those original posts because they can't be a good use of time (one example will essentially prove my point). Following each denier rant seems to be a barrage of posts refuting their claims. The good things about these posts are that they more carefully present evidence to support themselves and the reader can actually learn something from them (here's a good example from Tamino). Unfortunately, I don't think these posts help to convince the public of the state of the science, since the public doesn't read them (sorry, but they don't). If a person is willing to dig into the climate change issues enough to read these posts, I think they have already decided what they believe before they get involved (even passively) in these "debates." (They are, of course, not debates at all.)

Another article from the NYTimes.com helps explain why the warming Arctic is an important issue, not just for climate research, but for geopolitical and economic reasons. A commercial ship is about to finish traversing the Northeast Passage from South Korea to the Netherlands. This cuts thousands of miles off the usual trip. If more ships start going this way during the summer, Russia stands to profit because the ships will sail through Russian waters. The path has historically been blocked by ice even in the summer, but as the Arctic has warmed, summer ice has become reduced in area and thickness, and over the past few years the Northeast Passage has been open for a few weeks each year. Similarly the Northwest Passage through Canada's many islands has been open, but so far commercial ships haven't used it yet (they will soon, I would wager). These are impacts of climate change, and unlike most other impacts, these ones could be interpreted as positive for some of the involved parties. Of course, along with these routes opening, the open waters spell doom for the polar bears who have become unwitting symbols of the ecological impacts of a warming world.

On the research side of things, the warming Arctic has long been considered the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Because of strong positive feedbacks associated with snow and ice retreat and atmospheric water vapor, there has emerged a general understanding of the polar regions (especially in the north) as being particularly sensitive. The poles are expected to warm most rapidly, an effect usually called "polar amplification." There is some scientific uncertainty about whether the amplification is observed yet (e.g., this RealClimate post from C. Bitz), but there is strong consensus among researchers that it will emerge from the noise. This view is supported by climate modeling experiments, in which all the reliable models predict an amplified response in the Arctic. From my reading, which is incomplete, this extends to the Antarctic, but only on slightly longer timescales because of the heat transfer into the Souther Ocean.


Hatoyama says emission cuts are coming, maybe

So Japan's PM says that the country is going to reduce carbon emissions by 2020 to 75% of 1990 emissions [LINK], but is requiring other countries to come along for the ride.

First off, great! It is terrific to see a world leader take a stand and give a real goal... dare I say a target.

Second, this could be a genius move on Hatoyama's part. Japan is pretty amazing when it comes to designing and building stuff, and there is a strong track record of taking ideas/concepts originated elsewhere and making them more useable, streamlined, and efficient (cars, VCRs, etc). So my first take on this is that Japanese companies like Toyota and Mitsubishi ( cf.) are going to have an obvious target for building efficient things (things of all kinds!). These companies already have a head start down this path, and having a huge economy destined to reduce emissions means there is economic incentive to improve R&D.

If these companies, which are already leading the world, now accelerate their R&D, they will be selling their wares to the rest of the world shortly. This will be especially true if Hatoyama gets his way and other countries do vow to reduce emissions. If Japanese companies can do for power generation what they have done for other industries, then the whole world will be buying Honda wind turbines and Sony solar panels in now time. (possible example) What a boost to the Japanese economy! Wish the USA could have thought of that.