Archive for December, 2005

Swiss Re

Friday, December 23rd, 2005

The largest reinsurance company has just produced a documentary
Global Warming: The Signs and the Science for the US (temperatures are in Fahrenheit). I just watched it on PBS.

The documentary is along the same lines of other documentaries on the subject with some minor differences. Social equity is emphasized: when we see a couple in China buying their first car, we are told the Chinese want what YOU already have. (The number of people in the world who use Fahrenheit and rely primarily on public transit/muscle is fairly small.)

Social justice is also emphasized. Black Americans will suffer disproportionately from climate change. Because blacks are more often poor, more susceptible to asthma (ragweed pollen may increase by more than half if atmospheric carbon levels double), more unable to afford huge air conditioning bills. A Central American town was devastated after it got 25 years of rain in 3 months in a strong El Nino year — El Ninos appear to be occurring more frequently as the climate changes. In Colorado, the drought is almost a decade old, and it’s driving particularly the older ranchers out of business. It isn’t just a decrease in precipitation, but a change in when it occurs, so there isn’t the water to feed cattle in the summer.

Rice, 30% of the calories humans consume, will be 10% less productive with a 1 C increase. With a 1 C increase, the soil in England, everywhere, will be dryer, and 10% more rain will be needed just to keep the soil from becoming dryer.

Some scientists speak. Martin Parry, co-chair of IPCC Working Group 2 (the impacts), says that we will need 10 to 20 times the Kyoto level reductions to keep climate change from being a problem. Kyoto was intended to be just a modest first step.

Stephen Schneider doesn’t look happy. “It took 100 million years of co-evolution of climate and life to give the distribution and kind of species we have. In one generation, or two generations, one species, us, so clawing over one another to get richer faster that we didn’t stop to think about what kind of damage we could do to tens of percent of the rest of the creatures. I think people in the future will look back on our generation and ask, ‘What was wrong with their values?'”

There is some emphasis on changing our behavior — students in a New Jersey and a Beijing school paying attention to turning lights off, etc. The discussion of technology, biodiesel, Nebraska farmers, and wind and solar, is both overly optimistic and realistic — we can only slow climate change. Definitely check out the Montreal green housing — the neighbors have to be jealous of the yearly $50 utility bill.

Happy Solstice!

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

We have reached the shortest day of the year for Northerners, though the sun will continue to rise later for a few more days, even as the sunset has already been setting later these last few days.

The stellar day, the rotation time of the Earth on its axis, the time that passes while a star returns to the same position in the sky, is about 23 hours, 56 minutes. The Earth rotates 366 1/4 times/year. The time between noons averages 24 hours. This is because while the Earth rotates, it shifts slightly in its orbit, and now must rotate a little more to put the sun in the same point in the sky.

We are near our closest approach to the sun now, so the Earth is moving faster in its orbit, and must rotate a little more to get back to true noon. As a result, the time between noons is a little over 24 hours.

The solstice has not always been December 21/22. The spinning (rotating) Earth wobbles on its axis. Like a spinning top, this wobble is very slow compared to the rotation, about 26,000 years for a complete wobble. The North Pole points to three different pole stars over this period, with Polaris looking most northerly in 2017.

We see the wobble as a Precession (moving earlier) of the Equinoxes. From the viewpoint of the winter (Northern) solstice, the day the northern tip of the axis points most away is moving earlier in the year, about one day every 70 years.

Seventeen centuries ago, when the Church formally chose the date of Jesus’ birth, the solstice would have been 23 days later, January 16.

Much thanks to Bill O’Reilly and others who have triggered numerous stories on how the birth date of Jesus was chosen to compete with Saturnalia, the refusal of many early American Christians through the early 19th century to celebrate Christmas (it’s not in the Bible), the contribution of Jewish immigrants to creating “traditional” Christmas songs about the weather and community, and the well-posed questions from our legislators as to why Congress is celebrating the birth of Jesus by cutting health, housing, and education for the poor while providing even more tax cuts for the rich and profits to corporations.

For myself, this part of the year will be a time of renewal, a time to consider who I am and who and what I value, a time for family and friends. A time to hold in my heart and find ways to help those in need. May you find it a time to restore your strength and values as well.

Save a Tonne

Sunday, December 11th, 2005

Someone wrote to say that it is absolutely inconceivable that Americans could make 90%+ reductions in carbon emissions in the next couple decades. Well maybe. But we could do a lot better.

The average American emits directly and is responsible for the emission of more than 5 tonnes of carbon annually. (See end for a comparison with other units.) How could we save even a tonne?

I’ll give two examples, beginning with a paragraph with the numbers followed by the bottom line.

Let;s start with oil use. 1,000 gallons of oil emits 2.4 tonnes directly, then there’s another 25% markup for discovery, drilling, refining, and delivery, so about 3 tonnes total. So if we consume 335 gallons less/year, that’s a tonne carbon less. The average licensed driver is behind the wheel 13,500 miles/year, more for the age group with young children, less for those who are older or younger. The average EPA determined mileage is 20.7 mpg, so the actual value is probably closer to 18 mpg. That’s 750 gallons. If you drive instead a car that gets at least 40 mpg, you’ve saved your tonne right there. Or if you drive half as far. (Or both??) The average American flies 2,000 miles/year, and this is probably a case where most of us are below average. About 10,500 miles leads to the release of one tonne. (Assume 13 miles/kg C, then add 25% for refining, etc, to make it about 10.5 miles/kg C.)

Bottom line: some combination of reducing automobile and taxi use by 335 gallons/year and cutting airplane mileage by 10,500 miles/year will let us proudly proclaim a one tonne drop.

Electricity is another prime area to cut back. The average American consumes almost 4,000 kWh/year, or 11 kWh/day. (In California, where electricity costs more and we have considerably less weather, use is close to 2,350 kWh/year or 6.5 kWh/day.) Each 5,000 kWh results in the release of one tonne carbon, more if your utility uses loads of coal, less if it has high hydroelectric and nuclear use. The three biggest savings could come from using the most efficient air conditioners and refrigerators, and switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs. Let’s just begin with the light bulbs. You can check out Energy Star to learn more about appliances, insulation, etc.)

A 100 W light bulb on 5 hours/day consumes 180 kWh/year. Replacing it with a 23 W compact fluorescent will save money just in terms of how long the bulb lasts, plus about 3/4 of that energy – it uses 45 kWh/year, saving 135 kWh/year. So switching 7.5 high use bulbs to compact fluorescent saves a tonne. Turning off lights in unused rooms saves even more. Switching to an Energy Star air conditioner reduces electricity use by 10%. (Closing off unused rooms and switching to compact fluorescents also reduces air conditioning costs – one small businessman figured the switch was the same as turning off three 1500 W heaters.) Energy Star says that its qualified refrigerator models use at least 15% less energy than required by current federal standards and 40% less energy than the conventional models sold in 2001. It doesn’t take much time to save real energy. Additionally, electric driers are major energy users – one friend switched to hanging up clothes, and enjoys seeing smaller and cheaper electric bills each month. If you have to change local regulations about hanging clothes, change them!

Bottom line: the average person can’t save one tonne in home electricity use, but the average household can. Look at where your electricity use can be lowered: switching to compact fluorescents from incandescent, replacing inefficient refrigerators and air conditioners, and using solar power to dry your clothes. Reducing your household electricity use by 13.7 kWh/day will save one tonne C/year.

Changing our energy sources, such as shifting to biofuels (plants or waste to fuels) or solar, wind, or nuclear power will also cut carbon emissions. (You’re not going to convince people to build any more dams, though a little more electricity can be obtained from using existing dams and from small-scale hydro projects.)

These don’t require major behavior changes. Of course, you have to replace the current car, and the current light bulbs and appliances. But you save money and reduce the emissions of carbon and other pollutants. And importantly, you too can be proud every time you open your electric bill.

You can see why people in energy policy are confused when people say that meeting Kyoto would harm our economy. For most of us, these small changes will help our personal economy.

Units: One tonne is a metric tonne = 1.1 American ton

Many people count carbon as carbon dioxide, which has 44/12 x the mass, so you can get to one tonne carbon dioxide 3.7 times as fast, and one ton 4 times as fast. On the other hand, you have 3.7 or 4 times as far to go, so you choose.

Early Warning Systems

Sunday, December 11th, 2005

Mickey Glantz of NCAR asks what good it does to have an improved hurricane prediction system if there is no social system to use it. The same question can be asked of climate change: we have an early warning system (scientists) and almost no way to use it. The New York Times covers James Hansen’s important comments to the American Geophysical Union this week:

The two-week United Nations conference that ended here on Saturday was no exception. And as the delegates return to their own countries, with modest, last-minute agreements to keep talking about how to move beyond existing environmental treaties, many scientists and others who keep track of climate change say much more urgent action is needed.

Summing up that view, James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told a conference in San Francisco this week that a continuation of “business as usual” would result in so much warming as to “constitute a different planet.”

There are lots of reasons to do nothing. I would like to hear from readers what they are doing, what your Meeting or church or synagogue or other religious body is doing.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Two messages at For the Coal Miners. Rick points out that coal mining does great damage to the land as well. Even if we go the route of carbon capture and storage, coal is still a damaging energy source. But it is overwhelmingly less damaging with carbon storage than without. And James Aach has a book he wants you to know about.

Carbon Sequestration – geological

Wednesday, December 7th, 2005

Biological carbon sequestration, the storing of carbon in plants above and below ground, has not been studied sufficiently that businesses would be willing to buy into this method of storing the carbon they produce. Geological sequestration, on the other hand, has a long history: for 30 years oil companies have been injecting carbon dioxide to help push oil up, and the carbon is staying down. The carbon content of the natural gas in Norway’s Sleipner field is much higher than allowed for export, and encouraged by a $55/ton tax, Norway has been ridding itself of a million tons of carbon dioxide (about 0.3 million tonnes carbon) through sequestration each year for a decade.

Carbon sequstration is not quite ready to go big time, as the behavior of sites with large carbon storage is known to differ, so it awaits this large storage characterization. People in business, however, assume that within ten years, geological carbon sequestration will be required at coal plants and other large sources of carbon.

Geological storage is considered a bridging technology, one of the technologies that can be used for a short time (70 – 100 years in this case) while society makes the transition away from carbon. A major positive: good storage sites include coal mines and oil wells, so power plants and refineries located near these sites are pretty much guaranteed storage.

The energy requirements are intense, so a hefty carbon tax – you’d definitely see it in your electricity bill – will be necessary to encourage it. Prepare for our electric bills to rise, as we do a little more to limit climate change.

You may have heard of Governor Schweitzer’s plan (PDF) to build a synfuel, coal to liquids (gasoline) plant, in Montana. (This document has a number of short stories: the Chinese are going to invest in carbon geological storage, most proposed American coal plants will be built without the more expensive integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) – because of the high initial cost. No IGCC, no later sequestration. Will retrofitting in a few years really be a cheaper way to go with coal plants?) Synfuel production depends on carbon sequestration, as transforming coals to liquids is an energy intense process. On the one hand, we will have cleaner oil products, without many of the non-carbon pollutants, and we won’t notice much at the gas pump. On the other hand, we won’t notice much at the gas pump, with all of the costs driving exacts on our society.

We in the US consume 20 million barrels/day, so 150,000 barrels/day would supply less than 1% of our needs.

Um, that’s a pretty large number, 200 million barrels, 850 million gallons, pretty close to 3 gallons/person/day for our cars, airplanes, and heating oil. Um, perhaps “need” overstates the case. What are you and your family/religious group/city doing to reduce our individual and corporate use?

North Europe cooling?

Friday, December 2nd, 2005

A new study in Nature shows a decided decrease in the amount of warm water going north. However, the article in Science at least has lots of caveats:

The picture is still fuzzy, however. “It would be dangerous to jump to the conclusion that there’s a persistent weakening” of the conveyor circulation, says ocean and climate modeler Richard Wood of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Exeter, U.K. Wood, Rhines, and Bryden all worry that the near-instantaneous snapshots taken by the ocean surveys might have been misleading. Like any part of the complex climate system, the conveyor is bound to slow down at times and speed up at others. The two latest surveys, Wood says, may have happened to catch the Atlantic as the conveyor slowed temporarily, giving the impression that a permanent change had taken place.

RealClimate addresses some of the observations and some of the doubts. These include large errors in measurement and, well, North Europe has been warming.

So there may be a problem, or not. Stay tuned.