Yesterday’s New York Times contained a sobering assessment by Elizabeth Rosenthal on the impact of global economic turmoil on any progress toward a low-carbon energy future.
While Western governments seem determined to adopt meaningful carbon caps, she points out, several significant renewable-energy projects have already been stalled by the recent drop in the price of oil. One example: On Nov. 12, T. Boone Pickens announced he’s putting his West Texas wind farm project on hold until energy prices rebound.
Serious recessions have usually suppressed energy use. This time around, the serious slow-down in Chinese industrial production will forestall the construction of new coal plants there, while reduced driving worldwide should cut carbon emissions temporarily.
Nonetheless, according to Dr. James Hansen and his research team, the carbon clock is at midnight.
Sunday’s New York Times ran a solid look at Exxon, the world’s largest corporation. Business writer Jad Mouad reports that company is dedicated to squeezing every drop of profit out of every barrel of oil it can find over the next half century.
During the tenure of Lee R. Raymond, who ran the company from 1993 to 2005, Exxon became the lightning rod in the debate about climate change. Throughout the 1990s, the company was vilified by environmental groups and scientists for questioning the impact of human activities — especially the use of fossil fuels — on global warming.
In fact, according the Union of Concerned Scientists, Exxon spent about $16 million on a misinformation campaign meant to delay carbon-mitigation measures (NREL’s Chuck Kutscher discusses the UCS report in the upcoming January/February issue of SOLAR TODAY). Now, Mouad says,
Gingerly, over the last three years, Exxon has moved away from its extreme position. It stopped financing climate skeptics this year, and has sought to soften its image with a $100 million advertising campaign featuring real company executives, scientists and managers. One of the ads said the company aimed to provide energy “with dramatically lower CO2 emissions.”
That’s a smokescreen. The current chairman, Rex Tillerson, is even more rigidly devoted to fossil fuel strategies. Unlike some of its competitors, Exxon has made no moves to diversify into non-fossil energy sources. Last summer, Tillerson beat back an attempt by rebellious shareholders — including members of the founding Rockefeller family — to take a broader view of the company’s future.
Freeman Dyson is emeritus professor of physics at the Center for Advanced Studies at Princeton — the chair once held by Einstein and Oppenheimer and currently by nobellist Frank Wilczek. In the current issue of The New York Review of Books Dyson tackles The Question of Global Warming.
Specifically, Dyson excoriates Yale professor of economics William Nordhaus for the kind of financial forecasting that ignores the state and progress of technology. In his new book A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies, Nordhaus identifies putting a price on carbon as a necessary first step for climate action, and Dyson likes this. But then Nordhaus dismisses as horribly expensive and counterproductive most aggressive investment in new technology. Nordaus identifies “low-cost solar power, geothermal energy, some nonintrusive climatic engineering, or genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” as “low-cost backstop” technologies that might save the world.
Concerning the possible candidates for a low-cost backstop technology . . . Nordhaus has little to say. He writes that “no such technology presently exists, and we can only speculate on it.” The “low-cost backstop” policy is displayed in his tables as an abstract possibility without any details. It is nowhere emphasized as a practical solution to the problem of climate change.
Dyson points out very sensibly that low-cost backstop technologies do exist now, and others will exist within five to ten years. A number of these technologies (solar power, tidal power, wind power and even carbon-eating trees) are economically scalable to eliminate the need for coal and other fossil fuels within a very few decades. Economists don’t like to place bets on new industries, but the very existence of these technologies moots the whole book.
For a more optimistic take on what the future holds in efficient technology — in direct opposition of the dire economists’ view — see Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. –Seth Masia
Interesting article in Scientific American on the ethics of climate change, by John Broome, professor of moral philosophy at Oxford.
Formerly an economics professor, Broome notes that economists inevitably value current decisions by applying a discount rate. They do so, he says, without recognizing that a discount rate is a moral judgement: How can we value a future life, or a future quality of life, differently than a life today?
It’s a good read. It largely ignores more proximate issues: What are the costs of massive migration and resource wars, and what are the potential benefits of immediate investment in emerging technologies and industries. Historically, the cascading effects of wars and new technologies have far exceeded “realistic” forecasting. Choosing between resource wars and profitable new investment should be a no-brainer for any ethical person. The question for the financier might be this: which investment has a richer, more immediate payout, General Dynamics (a defense contractor) or Nanosolar (a new photovoltaic technology)? If you choose the defense contractor, you’ve made a morally indefensible discount-rate decision.
The comment train following the article is also instructive. It’s amazing how many flat-earth climate-change deniers are still out there, and reading Scientific American. –Seth Masia
Filed under: Climate science
Arctic sea ice melted quickly in April, leading researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center to forecast that the Arctic may have more open water this coming September than ever.
After reaching an historic minimum last September, polar sea ice bounced back over a cold winter. Now much of the cover is composed of thin first-year ice, which disappears more than twice as fast in the spring melt as thicker, denser second-year ice.
Full details are available at the NSIDC website.
Filed under: Climate science
By Seth Masia
For years, a debate has raged between climatologists who forecast global climate change based on greenhouse gas forcing, and global-warming deniers who say it’s just part of a natural cycle and we can expect things to cool off again someday.
Deniers often point to a phenomenon called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation as a natural cycle causing climate heating and cooling. The AMO is a 70-year cycle in ocean-surface temperature first identified in 1994 by Michael Schlesinger and his team at the University of Illinois. Schlesinger doesn’t like the name, because the same cycle can be found in Pacific and Indian Ocean waters, too. The temperature oscillation can be traced back to the last ice age, and beyond. The cycle last “bottomed” 35 years ago, and it has just peaked.
Last August, a group of researchers at the British Met Office reported that the AMO’s upcoming cooling mode is likely to “flatten” global warming for the next few years. Now a team of climate modellers at the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at Kiel University confirm that prediction. They say the AMO cooling trend will flatten out most global warming trends for about 10 years. After that, their model predicts, temperature will soar upward again, assuming we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions sharply in the interim. According to both the British and German models, as long as greenhouse gases continue to rise, average global temperature will snake upward in a 70-year stepping pattern: upward for several decades, then flat for awhile, then upward again — but never downward.
The danger, of course, is that climate change deniers will jump on any “flattening” we may experience as evidence that global warming is a myth.