Monday, December 21, 2009

I'm Sorry, Son.

The Copenhagen Accord is an unmitigated disaster. Sure, it looks reasonable, the two largest polluters have agreed to take a look at their emissions and possibly decide on a target sometime in the future.

As I've said before, the international community has just a few years to agree to, engineer, and implement a full solution. We're expected, on our current course, to hit 650 ppmv CO2 by 2100. That's without all possible feedbacks included, such as methane release from the ocean bottom, or sudden and complete melting of the permafrost.

If we can't even agree to our limits until 2020, there is no possibility of reducing them enough to avoid 2 or 3 degrees C warming. I've hinted at problems associated with various warming scenarios before, but here are a few that we are going to see. Not "might" see, but going to see because of the failures of vision at the Copenhagen summit.

This is what's going to happen as we hit 2 degrees C warming, which was avoidable ten years ago, mostly avoidable five years ago, and is completely unavoidable now:
  • Dramatic changes to weather patterns worldwide
  • Elimination of fresh water for 1/3 of world's land surface
  • Permanent drought in US southwest, Australia, and Africa
  • Much of inner Australia will burn
  • Aquifer levels under the US Great Plains, Saudi Arabia, and Northern China are falling fast, without replenishment.
  • Rise of sea levels by at least 1.2 meters (2.75 billion people affected)
  • Food & water shortages will cause unstable States to fail:
    • African states, Pakistan*, North Korea*, Somalia, Iraq,
    • India*, China*, Afghanistan, Israel* Sudan, Lebanon*, ...
  • 1 degree of warming: wheat, corn, rice yields drop 10%.
  • Global food reserve was at less than 62 days and declining in 2008.
  • Disease epidemics will become worse and last longer
  • Over-Consumption is worse than high population.
Those states with a "*" after them are declared or undeclared nuclear states. We need to plan on Pakistan and North Korea failing or worse within the next 50 years. India's inability to provide clean water to its 1.1 billion people is going to make it unstable in the next few decades as well. China may be able to weather most of the problems, but its lack of clean water is going to be a huge problem to its 1.3 billion people. In 1997, Israel was withdrawing 287 cubic meters of water per capita. It's available resources were only 265 cubic meters per capita. The extra 8.3% came from other countries.

At 3 or more degrees C warming, we will see the following (in fact, some of this is happening already--we don't fully understand all of the feedback mechanisms):
  • At or above 2 degrees of warming, positive feedback systems become active.
    • Permafrost will begin to melt more quickly, releasing CO2.
    • Methane will be released from the seafloor bottoms, adding more GHG to atmosphere.
    • Composting rate of organic matter increases, CO2 release.
    • Amazon forest, grasslands die & burn, releasing CO2.
    • Plants begin to release CO2 instead of absorbing it.
  • At 3 degrees warming, run-away permafrost melting will begin, releasing more and more CO2.
  • 3-4 degrees warming is avoidable if we cut emissions by 80% by 2020.
  • At 6 degrees warming, hydrogen sulfide gas makes up a large part of the atmosphere.
  • We will hit 5-7 degrees of warming by 2100 at current emission growth rate of CO2.
Since the Copenhagen Accord doesn't commit anyone to cutting emissions 80% by 2020, but instead commits nations to talking some more, we have guaranteed 3-4 degrees warming, and that means that feedbacks will almost guarantee 5-7 degrees of warming by 2100. With the last, best hope having faded, we need to start talking about large-scale adaptation in addition to mitigation. See the blue arrow in the graphic below? That assumes that next year we'll start cutting emissions, not just talking about it, but actually cutting. So, we're looking at the orange or, more likely, the red arrows.

So, let me just say, son, that while we love you, we didn't think your future is important enough to protect by sacrificing any of our own comfort. Sorry. We hope that some of you will forgive us, but understand if that's difficult to do. Also, those morons who thought it would be a good idea to dump billions of tons of chalk into the oceans in 2025? We didn't do anything to stop them because, well, we just couldn't be bothered.

See this video of a talk at AGU last week.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Population Control a Solution to Human-Induced Global Climate Change?


I've seen more than a few suggestions that population is the problem to global warming/global climate change and therefore The Solution is population control.

There are three, surprisingly unrelated issues in the above statement.

First, the world is probably overpopulated. There are all kinds of discussions of the carrying (PDF) capacity (PDF) of the Earth. Most conclude that we've met that carrying capacity and that we're living on borrowed time. How much time is, of course, not clear.

As some examples of the idea that we've reached the limit of our ecosystem's carrying capacity:

In 1999, it was estimated that the world had about 116 days of food reserves stored. That is, if all food production stopped, we'd have about 116 days of food available to feed everyone in the world. As of 2006, those reserves had shrunk to 56 days.

Many people (PDF) agree (PDF) that we've reached the peak of oil production and that oil and its derivatives will become more and more difficult to acquire. That matters because all kinds of quality of life issues are directly related to availability of (cheap, easy) energy supplies. That is, we can extend the carrying capacity of an ecosystem by introducing external energy sources.

Human-induced global climate change is due, basically to resource utilization. There are too many of us and we're consuming too much energy making too much stuff.

From those three examples, I'm going to move on with the assumption that everyone agrees that we've reached (some kind of) carrying capacity of our ecosystem. That is, the earth is overpopulated by humans.

Can we solve that last example by limiting births? First, we have to understand the problem. I've posted several times about the problem of human-induced climate change. The biggest problem with our releasing of CO2 into the atmosphere is that there is a lot of inertia in the atmosphere. We're at 385.99 parts per million by volume CO2 (ppmv) in the atmosphere. During the Cretaceous, the atmosphere was at 340 ppmv but was 5 degrees C warmer (on average). Why aren't we this warm yet? Because it takes time for the atmosphere to respond. We may not get that warm this time, but even if we cut all CO2 emissions to 0, we'd still warm at least 1 to 2 degrees C over the next few centuries.

That's where the problem comes in. The scientific publications and the press are talking about 2050 (or something similar) as a target date for limiting CO2 concentrations, but we're already above the concentrations that will push us to 2 or more degrees C of warming and all of the associated problems. Those problems will not be slight, nor will they be easy to adapt to, but they will not be completely catastrophic for the entire human race. Some people in some places will suffer a lot more than others.

Now, with that in mind, let's go back to the idea of population control. We're expected to hit seven billion people within the next decade. For this little thought experiment, let's go with something simple and say we have no (0) births for 10 years. That is, we leave the world population at 6,790,062,216 (July 2009 est.) for the next 10 years. Our emissions of CO2 are growing at a rate of about 2-3% per year. Assuming all of that is due to population increases (which it isn't) and we would stop increasing our CO2 emissions (but not stop emitting), we'd still be emitting about 1.8 ppmv per year. So, we'd still be increasing our CO2 emissions over the 10 years of no population additions (and some population decreases, which I'm ignoring for the moment). So, we wouldn't stay at 385.99 ppmv over the decade of no births. We'd still be increasing, and we'd still be causing irrecoverable harm.

I ignored deaths in the above estimates. Let me correct that here. Let's assume, for a second, that the 1.8 ppmv of CO2 emissions per year is evenly distributed to all humans (it's not--more in a bit). Let's also assume the CIA estimate for death rate (8.2 per 1,000 people) is an accurate average. First, there is an average of 56 million deaths per year (assuming no increase) for the decade of no births. That's a decrease in the world population of 560 million people. Out of 6790 million people. We'd be down to 6230 million people (6.23 billion). Let's now go back to emissions. 1.8 ppmv per year for all 6790 million people is about 2.7 x 10^-4 ppmv per person per year. If we had "only" 6230 million people at the end of the decade, we'd be down to 1.65 ppmv per year. Or a rather slight decrease in emissions by the end of the decade of no births. We'd still be emitting too much, and it would be too late to do anything about it!

There's a huge problem with all of the above: Emissions are not equally divided. In fact, the five largest energy users (68%) account for only 36% of the world's population. That means that controlling population will only have an effect on emissions after many generations, by which time it would be way too late.

We need to control emissions, not population. At some point we'll have to deal with population, but it's NOT the solution to human-induced global climate change. It's not even A solution. It's a solution to exceeding carrying capacity, but it would be too little, too late to affect climate change... Unless people are advocating the removal of the 36% who pollute the most, which I'm sure is not the case since most of the people advocating population control are a part of that 36%. Even if we killed off "the other" 64% of the population as a "solution" we'd only buy ourselves a few decades at our current consumption.