Jan 3, 2008 (From the CalCars-News archive)
Getting back after the holidays to the campaign for plug-in cars, where we now define our goal as "Successful Commercialization of PHEVs ASAP," we're reminded about one of the three reasons we're doing this: because our atmosphere can't wait a decade to start fueling cars with electricity instead of liquid fossil fuels. In this campaign, and the larger effort to evolve to a low-carbon economy, we're just at the beginning of an incredible mobilization and transformation.
Five items start us all off: one on solutions, two about the magnitude of the challenge, one about "adaptation" and finally a good story about PHEVs and climate change.
1. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MAGAZINE'S cover story for January 2008: "A Grand Plan for Solar Energy: By 2008 it could free the U.S. from foreign oil and slash greenhouse emissions...here's how." Buy it at the newsstand for $4.99 to read the 10-page article, including elaborate graphics, or read it online at http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=a-solar-grand-plan&page=1 and view comments at http://science-community.sciam.com/thread.jspa?threadID=300005637#comments Key Concepts as presented by SciAm's editors [plus our comments]
2. BILL McKIBBEN: this powerful environmental writer (who organized the 2007 StepItUp events, and recently merged that campaign into a new broad national campaign, http://www.1sky.org/ ) wrote a provocative Op Ed in the Washington Post December 28 on the magnitude of the challenge. We reprint it here, followed by an equally thought-provoking response from Joseph Romm.
Remember This: 350 Parts Per Million
By Bill McKibben
Friday, December 28, 2007; Page A21
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College and the author of the forthcoming "Bill McKibben Reader."
This month may have been the most important yet in the two-decade history of the fight against global warming. Al Gore got his Nobel in Stockholm; international negotiators made real progress on a treaty in Bali; and in Washington, Congress actually worked up the nerve to raise gas mileage standards for cars.
But what may turn out to be the most crucial development went largely unnoticed. It happened at an academic conclave in San Francisco. A NASA scientist named James Hansen offered a simple, straightforward and mind-blowing bottom line for the planet: 350, as in parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It's a number that may make what happened in Washington and Bali seem quaint and nearly irrelevant. It's the number that may define our future.
To understand what it means, you need a little background.
Twenty years ago, Hansen kicked off this issue by testifying before Congress that the planet was warming and that people were the cause. At the time, we could only guess how much warming it would take to put us in real danger. Since the pre-Industrial Revolution concentration of carbon in the atmosphere was roughly 275 parts per million, scientists and policymakers focused on what would happen if that number doubled -- 550 was a crude and mythical red line, but politicians and economists set about trying to see if we could stop short of that point. The answer was: not easily, but it could be done.
In the past five years, though, scientists began to worry that the planet was reacting more quickly than they had expected to the relatively small temperature increases we've already seen. The rapid melt of most glacial systems, for instance, convinced many that 450 parts per million was a more prudent target. That's what the European Union and many of the big environmental groups have been proposing in recent years, and the economic modeling makes clear that achieving it is still possible, though the chances diminish with every new coal-fired power plant.
But the data just keep getting worse. The news this fall that Arctic sea ice was melting at an off-the-charts pace and data from Greenland suggesting that its giant ice sheet was starting to slide into the ocean make even 450 look too high. Consider: We're already at 383 parts per million, and it's knocking the planet off kilter in substantial ways. So, what does that mean?
It means, Hansen says, that we've gone too far. "The evidence indicates we've aimed too high -- that the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2is no more than 350 ppm," he said after his presentation. Hansen has reams of paleo-climatic data to support his statements (as do other scientists who presented papers at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this month). The last time the Earth warmed two or three degrees Celsius -- which is what 450 parts per million implies -- sea levels rose by tens of meters, something that would shake the foundations of the human enterprise should it happen again.
And we're already past 350. Does that mean we're doomed? Not quite. Not any more than your doctor telling you that your cholesterol is way too high means the game is over. Much like the way your body will thin its blood if you give up cheese fries, so the Earth naturally gets rid of some of its CO2each year. We just need to stop putting more in and, over time, the number will fall, perhaps fast enough to avert the worst damage.
That "just," of course, hides the biggest political and economic task we've ever faced: weaning ourselves from coal, gas and oil. The difference between 550 and 350 is that the weaning has to happen now, and everywhere. No more passing the buck. The gentle measures bandied about at Bali, themselves way too much for the Bush administration, don't come close. Hansen called for an immediate ban on new coal-fired power plants that don't capture carbon, the phaseout of old coal-fired generators, and a tax on carbon high enough to make sure that we leave tar sands and oil shale in the ground. To use the medical analogy, we're not talking statins to drop your cholesterol; we're talking huge changes in every aspect of your daily life.
Maybe too huge. The problems of global equity alone may be too much -- the Chinese aren't going to stop burning coal unless we give them some other way to pull people out of poverty. And we simply may have waited too long.
But at least we're homing in on the right number. Three hundred and fifty is the number every person needs to know.
3. JOSEPH ROMM (former US Dept of Energy official, author of Hell and High Water and The Hype About Hydrogen) at his "Climate Progress" Blog responds to Hansen and McKibben, makes clear the enormity of the challenge we face, and in responding to some of the two dozen comments, explains how important it is to distinguish between what's "politically impossible" and what's "doable" -- to figure out ways to evolve our priorities so what's acceptable and what's technically feasible match up.
"Parting company with McKibben and, maybe, Hansen" http://climateprogress.org/2007/12/29/bill-mckibben-james-hansen-350-ppm/ Posted on Saturday, December 29th, 2007
The nation's top climate scientist, NASA's James Hansen, apparently now believes "the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2 is no more than 350 ppm," according to an op-ed by the the great environmental writer Bill McKibben. Yet while preindustrial levels were 280, we're now already at more than 380 and rising 2 ppm a year!
Like many people, in the 1990s I believed 550 was the target needed to avoid climate catastrophe -- but now it's clear that
1. 550 ppm would lead to the greatest disaster ever experienced by human civilization -- returning us to temperatures last seen when sea levels were some 80 feet higher. This is especially true because…. 2. Long before we hit 550, major carbon cycle feedbacks -- the loss of carbon from the tundra and the Amazon, the saturation of the ocean sink (already beginning) would almost certainly kick in to high gear, inevitably pushing us to much, much higher CO2 levels (see here and here and my book).
Exactly when those feedbacks seriously kick in is the rub. No one knows for sure, but based on my review of the literature and interviews of leading climate scientists, somewhere between 400 and 500 ppm seems most likely. It could be lower, but it probably couldn't be much higher.
So I, like the Center for American Progress and the world's top climate scientists, now believe 450 ppm is the upper bound. That said, I have spent two decades managing, analyzing, researching, and writing about climate solutions and can state with some confidence that:
1. Staying below 450 ppm is technologically doable, but would be the greatest achievement in the history of the human race, by far. It would require a global effort sustained for decades comparable to what the U.S. did for just the few years of World War II (the biggest obstacle is not technological, but political -- conservatives currently would never let progressives and moderates pursue such a strategy). 2. If 350 ppm is needed (and I'm not at all sure it is) then the deniers and delayers have won, since such a target is hopeless.
In 2008, I will devote a fair amount of ink bits to laying out the solution (there really is only one), but to understand why 450 is so hard, and 350 all but inconceivable, let's look at the odd way McKibben describes the solution:
[McKibben]: And we're already past 350. Does that mean we're doomed? Not quite. Not any more than your doctor telling you that your cholesterol is way too high means the game is over. Much like the way your body will thin its blood if you give up cheese fries, so the Earth naturally gets rid of some of its CO2each year. We just need to stop putting more in and, over time, the number will fall, perhaps fast enough to avert the worst damage.
Not a great analogy. Yes, CO2 concentrations will probably start dropping once we cut emissions 80% from current levels. But you can change your entire diet -- cut cholesterol intake or carbohydrates 80% or more -- tomorrow. Humanity cannot, however, cut its hydrocarbon diet 80% tomorrow or even, realistically, in 10 years. That would require replacing the world's entire energy infrastructure -- power plants, cars, planes, factories, fueling infrastructure, large parts of homes and commercial buildings -- while simultaneously deploying a hydrocarbon-free energy system in the rapidly-growing developing world.
McKibben certainly understands some of the difficulty:
[McKibben]: That "just," of course, hides the biggest political and economic task we've ever faced: weaning ourselves from coal, gas and oil. The difference between 550 and 350 is that the weaning has to happen now, and everywhere. No more passing the buck. The gentle measures bandied about at Bali, themselves way too much for the Bush administration, don't come close. Hansen called for an immediate ban on new coal-fired power plants that don't capture carbon, the phaseout of old coal-fired generators, and a tax on carbon high enough to make sure that we leave tar sands and oil shale in the ground. To use the medical analogy, we're not talking statins to drop your cholesterol; we're talking huge changes in every aspect of your daily life.
A better analogy might be stomach stapling, but even that doesn't do justice to what we would need to do to get to 350. Hansen's three proposals are a drop in the bucket. Dealing with electricity is trivial compared to dealing with transportation.
Suppose we could get global carbon emissions to peak in 2020 at 10 billion tons, level off for a few years, and then decline 3% per year afterwards. No easy feat since emissions are currently at 8 billion and rising over 3% per year. China and India, for instance, would have to agree to a hard emissions cap in 2020. Rich countries would need to start slashing emissions immediately. CO2 concentrations in 2020 would be about 410 ppm (and rising over 2 ppm a year).
Around 2050, we'd be at 5 billion tons and very likely over 450 ppm, rising over 1 ppm a year. But remember, we need to average 5 billion tons a year for the entire century just to stabilize at 450 ppm (according to the IPCC -- and that is probably a best-case scenario)!
So the scenario I laid out won't get us to below 450 (I have a long discussion in the book about why beating 500 ppm is so hard if we try to do it the tradtional [i.e. slow] way). That's why I say 450 needs a World War II scale effort starting in the next decade. I think 350 ppm is simply beyond serious practical and political consideration. You might as well tell people we need to develop a time machine to go back 20 years and warn the world that we need to start cutting emissions then … then again, who would listen.? [And who would we send back, anyway? That's an interesting parlor game all by itself]. McKibben ends:
[McKibben]: But at least we're homing in on the right number. Three hundred and fifty is the number every person needs to know.
I part company with him here. I haven't talked to Hansen yet and I'll reserve further judgment until I see a paper or PPT by him.
Since beating 450 ppm is doable and certainly necessary -- that's where I draw the line. One advantage of pursuing 450 is that if we do get some sort of unexpected breakthrough -- a cheap and practical way to draw CO2 out of the air (that doesn't use a lot of land, water, or energy) and stick it someplace permanent -- then we would have a system in place to deploy it fast enough to perhaps get to below 400 ppm. And even if turns out 450 doesn't avert catastrophe, it will surely slow down the impacts enough to make adaptation more viable.
So I'm sticking with 450. Implausible? Yes. Impossible? No. Less costly than inaction? By far.
4 NEWSWEEK on "Learning to Love Climate 'Adaptation" in the December 31-January 7 issue says "It's too late to stop global warming. Nowo we have to figure out how to survive it. Read the piece at http://www.newsweek.com/id/81390 -- Author Sharon Begley returned to Newsweek recently after five years writing The Wall Street Journal's "Science Journal." She wrote the magazine's summer '07 cover story about global warming deniers. In this story she starts to outline a few of the ways the world will be changing and how to think about adaptation.
What do we think about those who say let's start planning for the consequences of rising oceans, extreme climate, species extinction, etc.? Some who are devoting their lives to heading off a climate crisis feel that those who focus on adaptation are undermining their efforts. I don't see it that way; I say "thank you" to everyone working on adaptation. Clearly however much we're able to defer the worst consequences, our world is going to change, and we're going to need smart people and enormous resources to find ways to respond. It's certainly better that people work on adaptation rather than do nothing. At the same time, I'd hope most of those who recognize the magnitude of the challenge will choose to devote their energies to prevention
5. THE TORONTO GLOBE & MAIL had a good story, "How technology can help fight climate change," by Martin Mittelstaedt, December 19, 2007 featuring PHEVs, quoting us and Lester Brown at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20071212.wbaliside12/BNStory/Technology/home