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Climate Change Action Update

Greg Studen  |  01/03/11 @ 8:42pm

December's fifteen degree weather, complete with raging snowstorms, was enough to make global warming skepticism tempting to anyone. To resist that temptation, we have to be reminded again that weather is not climate. We have recently had some cold weather, relatively speaking, but not a colder climate. In fact, the reason for so much  lake effect snow in December is that the summer and fall were quite warm, and the lake temperature has been chilly but very much unfrozen. A cold wind coming from the North at 15 degrees was enough to turn some of that lake water into snow, but it is not all that cold for this time of the year. The average low for the month of December in Cleveland is 21 degrees, and this last December was not far off. The lowest temperature for the month was 13 ? on the 19th; the highest was 60?--on the 31st, no less! And we were far from the record low, which is a truly bone-chilling minus 21 degrees. Meanwhile, the Southwest of the United States has been experiencing record high temperatures, which is one of the reasons why a cold spell here does not necessarily mean that the global average temperature--in other words, the Earth's climate--is cooling.  Global average temperatures for 2010 are in a close race with 2005 to see which will be the overall warmest year since reliable records began to be kept in the 1860's.

In spite of the periodic winter cold spells that we have to endure, the Earth overall is getting warmer. The evidence is abundant, and increasingly shows a trend that is moving us towards the dangerous upper limit of warming that scientists believe must not be exceeded. That limit is two degrees centigrade (3.6 ? F) over the pre-industrial baseline. We have already warmed by 0.6? C during the 20th century, and are on a path to reach two degrees by the mid 21st century. We are at about 390 ppm of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere right now, and need to keep below 450 ppm to have a good chance of limiting warming. The level of CO2 is going up by about 2 ppm per year at present rates of fossil fuel burning, and will increase substantially unless we severely limit fossil fuels in the near future. In addition, we must not forget that about half of the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has dissolved in the oceans, making them more acidic. Further acidification of ocean waters threatens the viability of the food chain upon which all ocean life depends. 

A stark reality is that awareness and acceptance of the dangers of global warming caused by increased CO2 emissions is low among theAmerican  public, and especially among key legislators in Congress. The political will for strong legislative action is lacking, and the prospect of significant public pressure to regulate CO2 is dim. At the same time, a small but persistent and well-publicized group of scientists continues to deny the reality of human caused global warming. The deniers keep coming back to arguments about changes in the strength of the sun's radiation, or the effect of volcanoes, or omissions of soot into the atmosphere, or changes in cloud cover due to natural causes, as the factors that are driving the warming of the earth. There are even a few people who still deny that the earth is warming, although they are becoming a smaller and smaller minority. Studies of public attitudes about global warming show that a large number of the American people are aware of the problem, and concerned about it, but this has not translated into a strong program at the federal governmental level. Several state governments and cities have embarked on ambitious programs to increase energy efficiency and develop alternative energy sources, but these are still far from having a very significant impact on the amount of CO2 that Americans are emitting into the atmosphere.

On international level, many governments are moving toward a program of replacing fossil fuels and reducing CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, most of the really big countries which cause the lions share of admissions are acting very slowly. This includes the United States, China, India, and Russia. Recently, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change met in Cancun, Mexico. The purpose of the meeting was to address the problem of trying to get treaty commitments from both industrialized and developing countries that would reduce their CO2 emissions to acceptable levels. The talks in Cancun, which were completed on December 11, were an attempt to create a framework for determining what will follow upon the heels of the 1997 Kyoto Accords, which has provided the international legal framework for national commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. The United States never approved the treaty which would have implemented the Kyoto Accords in this country. The international treaty expires in 2012, and another UN conference is planned for next year in South Africa in an attempt to finalize an internationally binding set of treaty commitments.


The Cancun meeting of the UN climate change conference finished with mixed results, but with a positive feeling that the world's nations are beginning to get serious about reducing CO2 emissions. The final agreement of the conference lacks any legally binding goals to reduce carbon dioxide emissions; however, there was a strong feeling of trust among the party nations and a growing consensus around a series of goals that will guide future climate negotiations. Among other things, the final conference agreement recognizes that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required, and that long-term international cooperation must form the basis for effective action. The parties explicitly agreed that greenhouse warming must be limited to 2? C over pre-industrial levels. Agreements were made to provide funding to assist developing countries in adapting to climate change, and to avoid deforestation and conserve natural habitats. 


The challenge remains to see whether the nations of the world can agree to legally binding commitments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, there remains a substantial divide between the richer, more developed countries of the world and the poorer nations. The carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere now is largely the result of two centuries of unregulated fossil fuel burning by the industrialized countries. These rich countries also continue to have carbon dioxide emissions that are 10 to 20 times higher than those of the poorer nations. Any future binding climate agreements will have to face squarely up to the issue of equity between the rich and the poor. Progress in this area is likely to come only as evidence of the harmful consequences of global warming continues to mount, and the rich nations realize that they have no choice but to reorient their economies away from fossil fuels.


Next year the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet in Durban, South Africa. At that time the participating nations will decide whether to extend the expiring Kyoto Treaty. The key issue will be whether the parties can agree upon the firm 2050 CO2 emission targets that will be needed to meet the 2? C warming limit. Individual countries will have to face up to the need to make specific emission commitments in order to meet that goal. In this sense, the pessimistic view of the Cancun conference is that the world just postponed the day of reckoning for another year. However, given the historic aura of distrust under which climate change negotiation has taken place, Cancun is a step in the direction of building trust, and the conference results may be all that could be hoped for at the present time.


The really good news is that, while governments negotiate at the international level, there is at the same time a tremendous amount of work being done at the national, state, and local level to improve energy efficiency, and to develop carbon free sources of energy. Slowly but surely, cars are getting more efficient, builders of both commercial and residential structures are moving rapidly to a higher and higher standard of energy and resource efficiency, and sources of renewable energy are growing. This effort is gradually transforming our economies. For example, the world's largest wind farm, which will contain up to 338, 2.5 MW turbines in Oregon, is now approaching final approval. A huge new solar thermal (concentrated solar) project is planned for the Sahara Desert. In California, 650 MW of solar thermal are planned, with molten salt heat storage so that electricity can be generated at night. However, it remains to be seen if the steady evolution of the energy economy that is now taking place will be enough to avert the potentially disastrous effects that would come from a global temperature increase of over 2C. Without concerted interntional action, and a set of laws that begin to make carbon-based fuels much more expensive in the marketplace, it is doubtful  whether the slow, incremental changes which are now taking place will transform the economy soon enough.


What is clearly needed is a sustained and sophisticated approach to educating the general public about the reality of global warming and the available alternatives to the present fossil fuel based economy. Change at the US national level will come only from a bottom-up effort by citizens to motivate Congressional law makers. In this effort the role of science is paramount. Although the debate continues to rage, and the global warming deniers seem to have an influence out of proportion to their numbers or the power of their arguments, the inexorable accumulation of scientific information continues to support the need for  a major restructuring of our energy economies. Those who support the scientific consensus must continue to make every effort to educate the public through all possible channels, in order to build the underlying political will for eventual strong governmental action to recognize and combat the threat from the continued burning of fossil fuels.

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