Finding Reality

pew-studyThis item grows out of a recent study noting that in the US today few people have friends on the other side of the ideological fence.

It’s easy to imagine how that happens—there are just too many subjects to avoid!   That raises the question of why all those topics are taboo.   There are many reasons, but we deal here with one specific problem:  distinguishing real issues from pretexts.

The problem is that while there are plenty of real policy issues where debate should be possible, they tend to be mixed-in with taboo topics where the policy positions are actually donor’s self-interested pretexts (“climate change is a discredited hoax”).  Public debates can be (and often are) staged to discuss issues in the taboo category, but they never get very far.  There’s not much to be discussed when the stated policy is not the point.

It’s not necessarily easy to figure out what’s real, and undoubtedly many people will disagree with the examples here.   However the idea is to focus on a few issue areas where we as a country ought to be able to make progress if we can keep track of what is real and what isn’t.

We put issues in two categories:  non-issues and real issues.  Non-issues are issues only if donors (or other political considerations) force them to be.    We owe it to the country to get past them.  Real issues are the significant questions we need to solve.

 

  1. Climate change

As just noted, climate change is a poster child for pretexts.  There is of course one primary reason this whole subject is partisan, and his name is Charles Koch.  In addition to the false hoax claim, there is a continually-morphing litany of other misrepresentations.  It used to be easier to be a skeptic.  By now more than enough is known, so that ordinary risk analysis says the time has come to get serious.

Non-issues

Climate change is real.

Burning of fossil fuels is causing it.

The people working on it are not political hacks, but dedicated scientists faced with a hard problem.

Real issues

Risk assessment and what needs to happen now.  Steps and timing.

Roles of government and the private sector, e.g. supporting the power companies.

How research, particularly energy research, can best support the private sector.

What infrastructure changes will be needed and when?  Where will the jobs go?

Coordinating the whole effort.

It is worth pointing out that there are plenty of good, multi-year working-class jobs involved in dealing with climate change.

 

  1. Environmental policy and the EPA

What is frustrating about this topic is the extent to which the whole discussion of environmental regulation has gone on without specifics.   Is it really possible to believe that all environmental regulation is bad?  Even after the Flint disaster?  It is not viable to have environmental regulation whipsawed back and forth between administrations.

Non-issues

Not all environmental regulation is bad.

Not all environmental regulation is bad for business.

Real issues

Agreed-upon standards for regulation.  Work from the current list of Trump administration actions and responses.   Criteria to avoid overreach by all sides.

What is an appropriate process to assure that both the public interest and businesses have a say?

Should there be compensation for consequences of new rules?

 

  1. Healthcare

Now that all the repeal and replace nightmares are out of our system, we really ought to be able to do something good about healthcare.   This isn’t rocket science.   Every other prosperous country has come up with something that works.

Non-issues

Obamacare works well enough to be a starting point.  Sabotaging it helps no one.

The country needs a nationwide solution.  Uniform treatment for all people is good.

Single-payer systems are used by most of the world and may have a role to play.

Real issues

Availability of plans

Cost of plans

Assuring participation and coverage

Addressing needs of businesses

Getting religion out of the debate

Controlling costs of the program

 

  1. Jobs

Thus far the whole treatment of jobs has been based on campaign slogans.  The current tax cut plan is a case in point.   The millions of affected people deserve better.

Non-issues

Decline of good, low-skill working class jobs.

Decline in workforce participation.

Decline of upward mobility in the US.

No silver bullet.

Real issues

What is and isn’t cured by growth.

Workable options for tariffs, subsidies, or other government actions on trade.

Long-standing issues with wage growth and inequality.

Role of education.

Role of government as an employer (e.g. infrastructure, climate projects).

Budget impact and tax plans.

Geographic coverage.

Protecting the next generation.

 

It would be nice to believe that the country is now ready to get down to work.   On real issues some level of bipartisan cooperation could even be the norm.

The NFL and the EPA

Nothing more needs to be said about the cowardly and calculated attacks launched by Trump on individual NFL and NBA players.  But it’s hard not to be shocked by the deliberate appeal to racial hatred—we know all about those traitorous bastards.

However, the main subject here is the attack on the NFL itself and what’s behind that one.  For anyone who has somehow managed to escape it, here is the quote:

“Today if you hit too hard—15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! The referee gets on television—his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.”

The first thing about this quote is that it was not made up off-the-cuff; he told exactly the same story a year ago so he knows what he is saying.  In that case he made the conclusion explicit:  the problem with the NFL is that “it’s become soft and our country has become soft.”

What does that actually mean?  He is asserting that it shows our moral superiority as a nation if one of our most widely-watched activities is a spectacle in which people are maimed for life.   Why would he say that?  Part of it may be cultural I suppose, but not all of it.   In this particular context he’s talking about working conditions and attitudes of viewers.   There should be no constraints on what people are asked to do, and it shows weakness to care about it.

The “working conditions” comment is not far-fetched.   This is exactly what is proposed for OSHA—businesses should be able to get away with whatever they deem necessary.  Bosses should tell workers what has to be done, and workers need to be tough enough to go do it.   It’s like the army.  Of course you’re going to be shot at—stop being a sissy.

But implications go farther than that.  The latest event at the EPA was the nomination of Michael Dourson–whose career has been spent helping businesses fight restrictions on toxic compounds in consumer goods—as lead chemical regulator for the EPA.  We the public need to suck up that pollution stuff and be tough too.  Business needs to be able to do what is necessary to get the job done.  If anyone gets in the way it’s because “our country has become soft.”

It’s a great world where you can order people around, and anyone who doesn’t agree is a traitor or a sissy.  There are people with a lot of money trying to make it happen.   If we don’t watch out they will.

Living with the Dark Side

There has been a lot of talk recently about possible Democratic cooperation with Trump.   There is of course little basis to that yet, but it is interesting how quickly we’ve gone from hoping the Republican Party would save us from Trump to the other way around!  With that as motivation it is worth thinking a little more about the players and issues in this game.

First about the choice of evils:

On one hand we have the Republican Party:

– This has become largely a Koch brothers organization.  Low taxes for the very rich is the only real objective.

– Opposed to all social programs (no accident they couldn’t do healthcare).

– Pro-business, but perhaps not completely nuts on economic issues.

– Can find individuals to work with.

On the other hand we have Trump, with two sometimes contradictory impulses:

  1.  Sees everything as though he were still managing his own businesses

– Cut taxes on businesses and rich people

– No interest in unemployed people or other “losers”

– All regulations are bad; anything of value happens in the private sector

  1.  Sold himself as a “populist” and wants to believe he is delivering on it

– Primary focus is jobs via tax cuts and tariffs.  Not much has actually happened.

– Support for coal miners, abandonment of Paris Agreement, killing DACA

– Not much else yet; AHCA would not have been a winner

The business side of Trump is only subtly different from the Koch brothers agenda, and separating Trump’s two sides is tricky.  His speech on exiting the Paris Agreements was all about the populist side, but everything behind it was driven by Koch brothers people (Pruitt, Pence).  Similarly, AHCA was nominally populist, but really an excuse to cut taxes for rich people.

Thus far Trump hasn’t done much for the populist side, but he keeps talking about it.   That’s actually what has thus far stopped healthcare.  Republicans spent six years repealing ACA with no worries about who would lose coverage–but that became an obvious issue now.  Even though Trump supports AHCA, it’s not so easy for Congress just to laugh off the coverage.

Ideally that is an opening to find Democratic proposals of obvious benefit to Trump’s core constituency that are somehow salable to Trump.  We have to accept these will only get mileage if they are presented as Trump’s initiatives.  If it all fails, that will at least point out the hypocrisy of the populism.

There are some obvious possibilities:

  1. Healthcare

Anything here is conditional on Republicans really giving up on the AHCA nightmare. If that happens Trump will need something.  That could conceivably be whatever comes out of the bipartisan work on ACA, but Trump may want something really different to put his name on.

It should be pointed that this is not just an issue for the Trump core.  Business needs it too, even more than the tax cut if you if you believe Warren Buffett.  A good solution here could incorporate elements of a single payer system into a public option based on Medicare.  For that it is important to realize that the existing Medicare infrastructure is actually administrated by the private sector.

This is a low probability, but you never know–he might bite if it really does save money for business.

  1. Infrastructure

Trump has said he wants to do this, but a pure private sector approach won’t work for poor areas.  Appalachia is not going to benefit without some kind of compromise approach.

  1. Transitional job assistance (retraining and support)

Thus far Trump has put all his eggs in the “growth = jobs” basket.  His target budget killed any assistance programs, including a successful one in Appalachia.   However, it is now clear things are going to take longer than he expected.  If this is viewed as transitional, we may actually be able to help people.

  1. Early childhood education; cost of college

All polls I’ve seen of Trump’s base say that they want something better for their children.  Paul Ryan Republicans have been disastrous for such programs.  These would be clear benefits for the working class.

  1. Tax reform

Trump likes to talk about reducing the current 35% corporate income tax.   However, the average effective rate is more like 24 %, in large part because of special provisions delivered by lobbyists for particular corporations.  A lot of Trump support is from small businesses who aren’t so lucky.   A fair system may not appeal to Paul Ryan, but there is more reason for it to appeal to Trump.   No one is supporting 15%, but 25% with real tax reform would not break the bank and would recall an achievement under Reagan.

  1. Promoting American jobs

Trump has made high tariffs the miracle solution to all problems for everyone.   That’s not true, but it doesn’t mean there is nothing sensible to do.   Trump probably doesn’t know anything else.   We may be able to help.  This is not the Republicans’ area of expertise.

  1. Climate Change

This is so crazy it’s hard to give up, even if it means fighting the Koch brothers directly. There’s both a carrot and a stick involved here, with recent developments for both:

– Harvey is the most recent example of what worsening weather can mean.  As noted in the previous post, no reasonable business faced with such a large potential risk would choose just to ignore it.

– The reality of climate change will create enormous business opportunities—wholesale migration to electric cars is just one.  With current policies we could very well cede all that to the Chinese.  This would not be the only time that a first mover like Tesla would lose out in the end.

In all these areas, in contrast to the Republican healthcare fiasco, Democrats should be able to offer real proposals.  So you never know….

Hurricane Harvey and the Burden of Proof

 

Hurricane Harvey was an extraordinary event.   The rainfall totals and flooding were without precedent even in the hurricane-prone Texas Gulf region.  The New York Times pointed out that fully 40% of the flooded buildings were in areas classified as “of minimal flood hazard.”

Scientists have been very circumspect about what part of this to attribute to climate change.   Michael Mann gave a careful summary of contributing factors, principally sea-level rise and water temperature.  The message is that climate change didn’t cause the hurricane, but did make it worse.  No one can quantify just how much worse, and certainly out-of-control development in Houston contributed to the destructive effects.

However, the fact remains this was an unimaginable storm.   It was out of the range of what anyone thought to see from weather, even from hurricanes.  That is the threat of climate change.  Weather isn’t limited to what we know and understand.  Once we perturb the system, the power of the elements can surpass anything we are used to—that is what’s at stake.  We can’t even guarantee the changes will be gradual.

The evidence behind climate change is considerable and increasing.  A previous post here discussed one particular way of looking at it.  Any reasonable business, faced with a risk of this magnitude, would be doing its best to quantify that risk, so as to take appropriate action.   Businesses that choose to ignore disruptive new technologies or entrants are the ones that disappear—along with their disparaging comments on how the new stuff will never amount to anything.

That’s us.   Coal and oil interests (Koch brothers and their cohorts) are horrified that anyone would even think about keeping their assets in the ground.   With this administration anything that any business doesn’t like is bad–and for climate change we actually have Koch representatives (Scott Pruitt, Mike Pence) running the show.  So climate change doesn’t exist.  Can’t even talk about it.   Come back to me when things are so bad I can’t laugh at you.

What is the burden of proof here?  We are long past the stage of serious concern.   We haven’t reached the stage where people with something to lose are ready to give in, but that’s not going to be until their businesses blow up in a storm.   With climate change you have to act early if you want to prevent a future of weather run amok.   Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere just adds up.  If you wait for things to get bad, they will go from bad to continually worse through all the years it takes to get off coal, oil, and gas—and then stay that way for many decades more.

We are at the stage where the appropriate response to risk is action.  Research and the Paris Agreement process are imperatives.  CEO’s of failed companies can always go on to the next one, but with climate change there’s nowhere to go.

Forecasting Climate Change

This note is an introduction to the task of forecasting climate change.  It avoids most details of the climate simulation models, but it does try to give a feel for what we know and why.  This fits with the previous more general post on climate change and the Paris Agreement.

At its basis climate change is straightforward:  the burning of fossil fuels puts extra carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air.   That raises the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.  And that in turn causes temperatures to rise.

You can go a long way with just that, but as we’ll see the story is ultimately far from simple.   The story here has two parts:

  1. Projecting historical trends
  2. New factors in a warming world

The two parts are quite different.   The first identifies clear patterns from the data going back over the past 70 years.   The second is necessarily more difficult, as it covers new phenomena resulting from climate change itself.  The first functions as a baseline, with the second adding new effects to the base.

Part 1 – Projecting historical trends

The point of departure here is the correlation of CO2 in the atmosphere (in “parts per million”, abbreviated ppm) and temperature change.  The following slide shows how that looks over time.  (“Temperature anomaly” just means temperature rise since the start of the industrial revolution.)  The temperature rise and CO2 concentration are clearly tied closely together.

Figure 1

Forecast1

 

We can do better than Figure 1 however, just by explicitly correlating annual temperature values and CO2 concentrations.  We use online data from 1959 to 2016 for the calculation, taking temperature values from here and CO2 concentrations from here.

When we plot it up, the result is a remarkably clear trendline:

Forecast2

In the trendline the temperature value y (in degrees C) is related to the concentration x (in ppm) by the equation y = .0105x – 3.3886.  The slope .0105 is particularly important.  It says that on average whenever the ppm value increases by 1, the temperature increases by .0105 degrees Centigrade.   As in the previous chart the temperature scale here shows degrees above the pre-industrial world temperature (i.e. the temperature pre-1880).

(To be clear, the linear relation between temperature and ppm is remarkably obvious in the data, but not a surprise.   The temperature rise comes from reflection of infrared radiation back to earth.  The probability of that happening is the probability of radiation interacting with a CO2 molecule–and that is proportional to the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.)

We have now have a precise statement of how CO2 concentration changes affect the temperature.  The next step to see how the CO2 production affects those concentration changes. For that we need another slide as introduction.

Figure 3

Forecast3

What this says is that the first thing to understand about the effect of CO2 production is how much CO2 actually ends up in the atmosphere.  We’ll talk about each side of the slide separately.

The left side points out that CO2 from fossil fuel burning is only 91% of the total, because there is another factor that is completely different—deforestation and similar land use changes.  For our purposes we will simply inflate our production number by 10% to get to the correct total.

The right side then points out that of the total (inflated) production number, only 44% actually stays in the atmosphere.   The rest is absorbed by trees and oceans.

Hence we have the simple equation:

CO2 added to the atmosphere = CO2 produced x (1.1) x (.44).   (For what follows you should know that CO2 production is reported in “gigatons”, abbreviated Gt.)

Next we need to get from gigatons of CO2 in the atmosphere to CO2 concentration in ppm.   That, however, is just physics—counting molecules in the air—and it has a standard answer:

Increased CO2 concentration (in ppm) = Added CO2 (in Gt) / 7.81.

(To be precise, the reference gives the equation: extra CO2 ppm = added carbon / 2.13.  To get the equation for CO2 instead of carbon, you correct for the relative atomic weights of CO2 vs carbon.  Since CO2 has two oxygen atoms in addition to carbon, that means 2.13 is replaced in the formula by 2.13 x 44/12 = 7.81)

Putting the two equations together we get this simple relationship:

Increased CO2 concentration (in ppm) = CO2 produced (in Gt) x (1.1) x (.44) / 7.81.  That is

Increased CO2 concentration (in ppm) = CO2 produced (in Gt) x (.0614)

Since annual CO2 production figures are also available online, we can actually verify this result using real data.  The following figure gives the result (computed using rolling 5-year averages for the annual incremental ppm):

Forecast4

As before slope of the line is most important, because it gives the added ppm resulting from a 1 Gt of CO2 produced.   In other words, .0625 is the observed value corresponding to the theoretical .0614 we just mentioned.  Remarkably close given all the factors involved.  (As additional confirmation, it should be noted that there are even studies based on carbon isotopes identifying the extra CO2 in the atmosphere as coming specifically from burning of fossil fuels.)

 

We can now put the two stages of our argument together.

We have found two results:

  1. For each additional Gt of CO2 produced, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increases by .0614 ppm.
  2. For each concentration increase of 1 ppm, we get a temperature increase of .0105 degrees C.

Putting those together we get:

For each Gt of CO2 produced, the temperature can be expected to rise by .0614 x .0105 = .0006447 degrees C.  You can’t get much more explicit than that.

 

Using that formula we can establish a baseline for climate change.

First we need to clarify that the 2 ⁰ C upper limit in Figure 2 was there for a reason.  For quite some time, a 2 ⁰ C temperature increase has been regarded as a tipping point, where temperature-related changes become both serious and irreversible.  For that reason the Paris Climate Agreement is targeted specifically at avoiding a temperature rise of that magnitude.  (More details on the tipping point can be found here.)

First question:  how much more CO2 can we emit before we hit the limit?

In stating this question we have implicitly used an important fact about CO2 that underlies much of the analysis of climate change:  carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for decades, so long in fact that for analysis purposes we can assume it just adds up.  For that reason the IPCC (“Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”—the key international research body for climate change) refers to a so-called “CO2 budget”.  The CO2 budget is the amount of carbon dioxide you can put in the atmosphere and still stay under the 2 ⁰ C target temperature limit.  The idea is that it doesn’t matter when or how you do it, that’s the budget you’ve got.

For 2016 the current world temperature was estimated to be .99 ⁰ C above the per-industrial level.  Since we are at .99 ⁰ C above the pre-industrial value, we are 1.01 ⁰ C from the limit value of 2 ⁰ C.

From our final equation we have as baseline

(Gt’s to get there) x .0006447 = 1.01 degrees.   So the limit is = 1.01/.0006447 = 1567  Gt’s of CO2.

Next question:  How long will it take to get there at current production levels?

To answer that we need to look at the following chart of historical CO2 production levels:

Figure 5

s08_FossilFuel_and_Cement_emissions

 

At least for now production seems to be stabilizing, so we will use the 2016 value of 36.4 Gt for the annual CO2 production.  With that we get, again as baseline,

Time to 2 ⁰ C limit = 1567/36.4 = 43 years.  So if nothing changes we hit disaster in 2059. (Of course avoiding disaster means acting earlier.  We’ll return to that later.)

What this number means

As we’ve been careful to say, this isn’t the whole story.   However what it does say is that the trend of the last 70 years is unambiguous and specific.   It yields a carbon dioxide budget and a date to reckon with.   Even this most straightforward calculation says we have a serious problem.

The reason that isn’t the whole story is that climate change itself has produced new phenomena that add to the baseline.   Examples include

– Temperature change in the oceans

– Acidity change in the oceans

– Decline in arctic sea ice

– Melting of ice caps

– Melting of permafrost

So before we can be precise about carbon budgets and timeframes we need to incorporate the effects of these new kinds of changes, because it all adds up.

Since this is new territory, we can’t rely on history for this new piece.   It requires both new science to understand the effects and new simulation models to track their interactions.   That effort is the subject of the next section.

 

Part2 – New factors in a warming world

For the newer changes to the environment, the only way to understand the future is to learn enough to model the actual behavior.  That effort is a major goal of ongoing climate science.

Then, since the effects are linked with each other, they must be tied together into a simulation model of the natural environment.   Of necessity, this must include not only the atmosphere but land and water effects as well.  The IPCC currently has four major simulation projects, to model scenarios with low, medium, and high levels of retained heat in the atmosphere.  Those simulations are enormously complicated; they model specific per-year patterns of greenhouse gas generation in particular geographic locations with associated ocean currents, forests, glaciers, and so forth.

While the complexity of the models is beyond the scope here (see this overview for a summary), what we can do is describe some of the issues that are modeled, with an indication of ongoing work to support the results.

We should also underline the importance of this work.   Because warming trends already put us in new territory, there is no history to estimate or even bound the magnitude of these new interrelated effects.  Without looking in detail, we just plain don’t know what is going to happen.  One sobering lesson from the longer historical record is that with climate, small changes can produce big effects.

With that as introduction, we now look at some of the important issues under study.  In this we’ll see how the changes mentioned earlier actually come into play.

CO2 uptake in the oceans and on land

As we noted earlier, only 44% of the CO2 that is produced ends up in the atmosphere.  The following chart shows how that has evolved over time.  What gets into the atmosphere is what isn’t captured by the ocean and land sinks.

Figure 6

Forecast6

Any change in the absorptive capacity of the ocean or land sinks has a big effect on climate, by multiplying the impact of whatever carbon dioxide is produced.  And there have been concerns, particularly recently, that the absorptive capacity may be reaching a saturation limit.  So there is considerable ongoing work to understand the mechanisms responsible for the uptake.

For the oceans the story turns out to have several parts:

– The oceans are warming, and warmer water has less capacity for CO2.   That part is relatively easy to quantify.

– A large part of the uptake, however, is due to photoplankton in the water.  It turns out that there are multiple species and issues to be understood.  Very significantly, the photophlankton are sensitive to the rise in acidity of the oceans.   So there are a quantifiable scenarios where rising acidity will reduce the ocean uptake by killing photoplankton.

– Additionally, all of the ocean uptake involves a relatively thin layer of surface water.  That upper layer is refreshed by the operation of ocean currents.   As we’ll discuss in a minute, the currents themselves are vulnerable for disruption by climate change, so refresh rates will change in some scenarios.

For land sinks the story is simpler—threats to forests from rising temperatures, and new forest areas created by natural or artificial means.  Note that the land sinks have been historically volatile, as you can see in Figure 6, so modeling has to be explicit and detailed.

Melting ice caps

One of the most obvious effects of climate change has been the melting of ice caps and glaciers in Greenland, Antarctica, and elsewhere.   This melting contributes to warming by reducing reflectivity of ice-covered surface, but can later increase carbon uptake if the glacier is replaced by forest.  Both effects are included in the models.

Glacial melting now appears to be happening faster than expected, so there is active work on the timetable.  The melting also affects the salinity and therefore density of the surrounding water, which in turn can affect ocean currents.  And that, as we just saw, affects ocean uptake of CO2.

It should be noted that melting of glaciers is one of the longest lasting effects of climate change.   Once ice sheets begin movement toward the sea, the process becomes virtually unstoppable.  Which means locking-in many meters of sea level rise in long-term projections.  The Greenland ice cap alone represents 7 meters of sea level rise.

Ocean currents

Over the past few decades, it has become clear that ocean currents are linked with each other in a more comprehensive way than was understood before.  The current view (the “ocean conveyer belt” or “thermohaline circulation”) is shown in the following simplified figure.

Figure 7

Figure7

What is relatively new is the notion of deep water currents connecting surface flows—so disruption of any part of the circuit affects the flow overall.

Disruption of the circuit has many consequences.  We have already seen it can affect carbon dioxide uptake by the oceans.  It also affects upwelling of nutrients and hence most life in the oceans, as well as the weather worldwide.

One important special case is the down-welling in the north Atlantic, in that it appears to be affected by melting of the Greenland ice cap.   That directly impacts the Gulf Stream, but the via the “conveyer belt” the effects would be felt worldwide.   Details are described here.

Other greenhouse gases

Thus far we have talked only about CO2, because its residence time in the atmosphere is much longer than for other greenhouse gases, such as methane.  Methane, however, is much more potent molecule-for-molecule, so there are examples where it needs to be taken specifically into account.

One such example is permafrost melting in the Asian tundra.   Since permafrost is partially-decayed vegetable matter, melting of permafrost actually releases methane directly.   The methane only persists in the atmosphere for about a year, but because of its potency it creates a short-term effect on climate that has been incorporated into the models.

Note that because permafrost is a phenomenon of the tundra, this is a case where the models need to react to the specific effects in particular geographic regions.

Cloud cover

Cloud cover is a surprisingly contentious subject.  On one hand it is nothing new, so in that sense it is already in the baseline.  On the other, it has such large potential effects both positive and negative, that it is hard to dismiss as something that might fundamentally change.

The basic arguments are straightforward:   clouds reduce warming by reflecting sunlight back but they also trap heat coming from the earth.   In general for high clouds the warming effect is predominant and for low clouds the cooling effect is.

There has been considerable effort to decide upon the net effect, which for now appears weakly warming.

Carbon capture

Carbon capture is a technological idea that has been around for some time without ever maturing to the point where it can be called real.   The idea is that CO2 would be captured at emission or even removed from the atmosphere and either stored somewhere (underground or at the sea bottom) or handled by a biological process that would render it harmless.

Anyone who thinks the current IPCC models are deliberately alarmist should realize that the models actually include carbon capture technology starting as early as 2030.  As this indicates, the models are in fact a best shot at the future and should not be thought of as a worst case.

Darken the sun

Finally, as a last item, we mention one more category of climate work that does not fit in the IPCC models.  These are the speculative “if all else fails” projects.   They are directed to the case where the IPCC process has failed, and the world is locked into an unlivable future.  For that case they propose gases or particles to be dispersed around the earth to cut down the strength of solar radiation.

While such projects turn up occasionally in the press, all of them have very serious downsides—to start with they reduce photosynthesis and hence food production everywhere on earth—and the people working on them recognize that explicitly.  It is important to realize those are not alternatives but risky and desperate measures for a future we are trying to avoid.

 

That ends our short summary of modeling issues.

While we have given only a few examples, it should be clear that the effects are potentially large.  And we see that in the last IPCC report from 2014. (That was the 5th such report.  The next one is scheduled for 2018.)

By incorporating all effects, the IPCC’s carbon dioxide budget drops to about half of the baseline–800 Gt starting from the end of 2014.  That means the time to exhaust the CO2 budget is also about half—twenty years.  The specific effects are described in some detail in the IPCC report itself.

Figure 8 presents the IPCC conclusions as a single key chart.

Figure 8

s51_JacksonBridge15_Fig1_lines

The chart shows that with current fuel consumption (black curve) we will get to 2 degrees C in about 20 years, but in that scenario the temperature just keeps rising afterwards. If we want to stay below 2 degrees C, we need to be cutting carbon dioxide production much sooner, about 2020 in the -4% per year scenario.  Recall that since CO2 just adds up, things only stop getting worse when we are essentially done with coal, oil, and gas.

That summarizes the scientific consensus.  Time is short to stay under the 2 ⁰ C limit.  But as discussed in the overview post on climate change, getting there requires action but not miracles.

To end, it is worth emphasizing the importance of research going forward.   There are two points:

1. The world’s climate has already changed in unprecedented ways, and we’ve had little time to understand all its new workings and dangers. This is a very complicated system, and we have perturbed it in a significant way.   There are no guarantees that all changes will be gradual.  The world needs the most accurate possible view of the future.

2. For the transition from fossil fuels—we’ve said we don’t need miracles. But it’s a big job to do, so the more we know the better!

 

Urgency on Climate Change

There is no special event triggering this note, just a feeling that the urgency behind climate change action is somehow getting lost.

To start with, there’s one part of the science that everyone needs to know.  Carbon dioxide, the primary factor in climate change, remains in the atmosphere for many decades.   For practical purposes, all the carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil, and gas just adds up.

As a consequence, even with a world really ready to act on climate change, things will continue to get worse through all the years while we try to get fossil fuel usage down to zero.   And it will stay that way for many more decades afterwards.  The commitment has to be made with enough lead time–or it will be too late.

The Paris Agreement was never intended as more than a first step.  At the current stage, the Paris Agreement is effectively a vehicle by which we are getting China and India to stabilize fossil fuel use at a per capita value far below ours–for the benefit of the rest of the world including us.  The following figures give the aggregate and then per capita carbon dioxide production by country.  Note the sharp rise and recent stabilization in China on the first chart and the high US curve on the second.

s11_Top_FF_emitters_abs

s12_Top_FF_Emitters_percapita

Current commitments do not get all the way to the Paris Agreement’s goals, but those are only first steps in an ongoing process.  Our exit from the Paris Agreement deliberately undercut the international unanimity that was doing the job for us.

What’s more, for initial steps on climate change, the world and the US in particular have gotten lucky.  The now large-scale production of recently-discovered American natural gas means that we can get a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide production—as compared with coal–without trying very hard.  (Coal is all carbon, so burning it produces just carbon dioxide.  Natural gas is half hydrogen, so half the output is water.  Note that the same logic shows that for climate change there is no such thing as “clean coal”.)

There is in fact an ongoing conversion to natural gas.   Despite our Paris Agreement rhetoric, we don’t have a problem meeting near-term climate goals–much of it is already happening based in part on the price of gas.  But by promoting coal use domestically (and weakening environmental rules for natural gas producers) we insist on creating problems for ourselves and–worse–sending a damaging message to others.  To be clear, natural gas is only a half-step, but it is buying time for renewable sources to be more widely deployed.   The Paris Agreement goals require an ongoing commitment–but not miracles.

The following figure shows our status now.   After many years of increase, global carbon dioxide production has been stabilizing.  However the only year of decrease is still the 2008 crash.s08_FossilFuel_and_Cement_emissions

Scientists have given 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial temperatures as a tipping point, where temperature-related changes become serious and irreversible.  (See here for a good summary of the scientific consensus, here for a blog post on forecasting.)  This is not something to be laughed away.  We are now at 1 degree. The next chart shows that with current fuel consumption (black curve) we will get to 2 degrees in about 20 years, but in that scenario the temperature just keeps rising afterwards. If we want to stay below 2 degrees C, we have to start cutting carbon dioxide production much sooner, about 2020 in the -4% per year scenario. And that means every country in the world has to keep at it every year —hence the importance of unanimity in the Paris Agreement process. Things only stop getting worse when we are essentially done with coal, oil, and gas.

s51_JacksonBridge15_Fig1_lines

Notice there are no winners and losers with climate change.   Either we stop using fossils fuels or we don’t.  If we do, then we can stabilize the temperature, and it is to everyone’s advantage to keep it under 2 ⁰ C.  If we don’t, then temperatures will continue to rise, and there will be nowhere to hide.

That’s the situation.  There never was any hoax, conspiracy or political game playing—95% of climate scientists worldwide support this.  Try to get that kind of agreement on any subject.  Read this if you want the history.

The bottom line is that climate change is more urgent than we like to think.  It is natural to want to wait and see how bad things will get.  But this is a not a case where that works.  If we wait for symptoms of warming to become our top priority it will be too late.  We will be locked-in as carbon continues to add up, bringing years of increasingly disastrous change.   This is like cancer—first symptoms may be bearable, but if you don’t act now it’s all over.

We need to do everything possible to prepare, and that’s a big job.  We need research both on climate change itself and on everything to do to counteract it.  Industry and government need to prepare for a major transformation, and we need to get back to productive engagement (for our benefit) to finish the job started by the Paris Agreement.

It may be a big job, but it is our role to play, and there is no barrier–other than inaction–to getting it done.

Trump’s 100 Days – Threats We Now Know

There have been many articles celebrating Trump’s lack of progress despite Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.   There are two problems with that:

  1. We should not be confusing tactical victories with permanent success, as there are still years ahead.  (If you want to be pessimistic, you could even say that Trump doesn’t concern himself much with Congress, because if he gets another Supreme Court judge he won’t have to.)
  2. We are doing Trump a favor by focusing criticism on his tactical failures. What’s bad about Trump is his program, and if he hasn’t been very successful at getting it done, so much the better.

With that as introduction, the major takeaway from Trump’s first 100 days is not what didn’t happen but what we now know about what is to come.  This post hits a few particularly painful points on that list.

Climate change

This is an issue where orthodoxy has thus far taken precedence over any kind of rational decision-making.  As things stand Trump is blocking all climate change research or even discussion, thereby not only impeding progress on a critical international issue but also effectively handcuffing US businesses in competing for the monumental work that will need to be done.

The only glimmer of light is that Trump has not yet decided what to do about the Paris agreements.   With that there may be some chance for reason.   No business could ever run this way—head in the sand on an issue critical for its future.   Given the level of support among scientists, climate change cannot seriously be dismissed as a hoax.  And given the huge threats and business opportunities it poses, we should be after all the data we can get.   You’d think there was some rational business person in the White House?

The economy

It seems strange that with a President elected for his business background, we have a clear potential for economic disaster.  The problem is that Trump acts with the same impulses built up over the years of running his own business:  taxes and regulation are bad, stimulus is good, research is irrelevant.  The fact of being President has not changed his point of view.

Trump’s new tax plan looks like a classic case of bad management:  huge unbudgeted stimulation of an economy already moving toward full employment, producing unsustainable deficits, leading to a shutdown of government spending, and then a crash.  On the Congressional Republican side, despite all the balanced budget hawkishness of the past, it seems no one is watching the store.

There are of course other problems as well.  Trump’s fixation on traditional businesses discounts the real sources of the country’s economic strength.  Non-competitive, non-unionized businesses selling only domestically at artificially high prices will not make this country great—there’s nothing keeping that boat afloat.  The US has maintained dominance by staying ahead of the innovation curve—based in significant measure on government-supported research.  In that respect cutting the NIH budget is incredible given the importance of biotech.  Energy research is equally important and fares even worse.

Trump-promoted xenophobia counts here also.  For many years the US has attracted the best and brightest from all over the world, as the perceived best place to realize their dreams.  As has been much discussed, more than half of Silicon Valley companies have non-native CEO’s.   As a telling symbol, we should remember that Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian immigrant.  Trump has torn up the welcome mat, and we will pay.   This is already not just theory.

Jobs

Trump presents himself as the jobs President, and astonishingly many people still believe him.  However there seems to be only one kind of job he is interested in—low skill, low wage jobs in price sensitive industries.  Those are the “stolen” jobs that he has convinced people he can bring back.  Trump made a big show of supposedly reviving coal mining, but had no time for the three times as many jobs in alternative energy.   Even more to the point are his proposed budget cuts for successful Appalachian job training programs.

Trump’s fixation on reviving old-time factory jobs makes him the bad jobs President.  Manufacturing has changed since the “stolen” jobs went away—they are now high-tech (and the immigrants didn’t steal them).  The fewer low-tech versions—most certainly in non-union states—are not what anyone has in mind.  There’s nothing that prevents economic revival in Appalachia and elsewhere, but there’s an essential role for government in making that happen:  education, retraining, and incentive to locate.   Trump’s much-discussed solutions–tariffs, relaxed regulation, expulsion of immigrants—don’t even address the problem.   Trumps proposed tax cuts are a windfall for the richest of the rich, but no salvation for the blue-collar types claims to represent.

On jobs Trump has been selling a particularly insidious message:  that jobs are gifts from business, and for that reason any regulation or taxation immediately translates to a loss of jobs.  Therefore government has no power to do good and must just stay out of the way.

That is an easy story to sell–and particularly to people worried about their jobs—but history has shown it is manifestly false.  Government action, including regulation, is necessary for prosperity.  Business by itself will not deliver a high standard of living, an educated work force, an unpolluted environment, a research base for continued economic power.  Jobs come from providing all conditions for economic growth, and good jobs need both good government and good business.  States with strong economies work that way.

Trump is inviting us to a race to the bottom:   Let’s stake our future on competing with China, Korea, Mexico to make the same products everyone else does.  And if we have to throw away environment, education, healthcare, unions—heck that’s what it takes to make America great!  (The much-discussed book Strangers in Their Own Land gives a telling picture of where that argument leads.)

Education

Education is as crucial as anything you can think of for the standard of living in this country and for anyone’s definition of making America great.  The Department of Education, however, has been sold to a rich ideologue.  As has been pointed out, Betsy DeVos is the first Education Secretary to be opposed to public education–her stated aim is to put as many children as possible in religious schools.  Her program–as she shoved it down the throats of several midwestern states–has not produced results (including in her own state of Michigan).  Further, her objective–a fully privatized school system with vouchers but no regulation of schools–is characterized by:

– No standards for schools

– No constraints on student selection by schools

– No constraints on tuition cost—the voucher just pays what it pays

Incredibly this is complete segmentation of opportunity based on ability to pay, with no one responsible for the quality of what is delivered for the voucher fee.

Since all of this is well-known, one can wonder why she had only token opposition from Republicans at confirmation.  That question unfortunately has a clear answer:  this was a matter of party principle—the office was paid-for and delivered.

(Since confirmation DeVos has also rolled back efforts to deal with student college debt without an alternative proposal.  This is a real problem for the country, as even state universities have become much more expensive in the last decade.)

Healthcare

We now see the alarming spectacle of healthcare being deliberately sacrificed to a program of tax cuts for the rich.

Protecting the environment

The EPA is now put at the service of the people it is supposed to regulate.  All academics have been removed from its Scientific Review Board to be replaced by business people.

Equality and equality of opportunity

Trump is proposing three different tax cuts explicitly for the rich:

  1. Repeal of the Obamacare-financing surcharges.
  2. Reduction of the business income tax with proceeds passed through to investors
  3. Reduction of high-end tax rates together with a new loophole for private companies

Trump gleefully predicts all of this will be revenue neutral, because of the huge growth that will follow.  No one else thinks that’s true, so what it will mean is a reduction of government services (note that the Republican Healthcare plan is not self-financing like Obamacare—it is just another vulnerable budget item) and ultimately more taxes for the middle class.

Democracy in America

Trump’s congratulations to Erdogan in Turkey and praise for Duterte in the Philippines tell you everything there is to say about Trump’s respect for democracy.  With one more Supreme Court appointment we may find that we are in a war on terror, where the President as Commander in Chief can do as he sees fit.

We just have to hope that Ruth Bader Ginsburg can hang around for the duration.