Environment Forum

Republican VP Who Scoffs At Greenhouse Gas Effect — Sound Familiar?

Stuart Gaffin is a climate researcher at Columbia University and a regular contributor with his blog “Exhausted Earth”. ThomsonReuters is not responsible for the content – the views are the author’s alone.

US Republican vice-presidential candidate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin shakes hands as she campaigns in O’Fallon, Missouri August 31, 2008. REUTERS/John Gress (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)I am not a Republican. However, early in John McCain’s campaign for the presidency, I would often say to friends and family-who know I am not a Republican-that if I did vote solely on the one issue I research most, climate change, I would probably vote for McCain.

He came across to me as the candidate who most respected the science and gravity of the issue (perhaps even as much as Al Gore I thought … why else take such a big political risk with his party?) and was prepared to lead America in a new direction. That was then, this is now.

The Republican political machine, in bringing new ‘discipline’ to the McCain campaign, has no doubt also shut him down on the global warming issue. I seem to hear little about it any more from him (“Drill here!  Drill Now!”). His new vice-presidential (VP) pick – Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska, is just further evidence of this. 

Palin believes that current global warming is somehow unrelated to the massive greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere.  

Are hurricanes, India floods signs of global warming?

Adrian (R) and his son John Herbert walk past an overturned travel trailer in their neighborhood in Houma, Louisiana, which was heavily damaged as Hurricane Gustav passed through, September 1, 2008. REUTERS/Mark Wallheiser (UNITED STATES)We seem to hear more and more about natural weather disasters – are these signs of global warming? 

Or do they just illustrate the unpredictability of the weather?

Luckily, Hurricane Gustav doesn’t seem to have inflicted devastation on the U.S. Gulf coast comparable to Katrina in 2005. On the other side of the world, the worst floods in India’s Bihar province in 50 years have displaced about three million people and killed at least 90.

Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Programme, says that more powerful hurricanes and more floods are in line with predictions by the U.N. Climate Panel of ever more disruptions linked to a build-up of greenhouse gases.    Flood-affected people wait for a rescue team at Chondipur village of Madhepura district in India’s eastern state of Bihar August 31, 2008. Authorities struggling to provide aid after devastating floods in Bihar said on Sunday they needed more boats and rescuers to help hundreds of thousands of people still marooned in remote villages. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri (INDIA)

A view from the North – Alaska’s melting glaciers

exitsign1.jpg Welcome to the front lines of global warming in the United States – the Harding Ice Field in Alaska, the biggest icefield in the United States.
   At the Exit Glacier north of Seward – the only glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park reachable by foot – the giant cerulean blue ice sheet gives every sign of staying put.
   But one only has to glance at the many signs along the roadway and footpath to the glacier’s edge to mark its retreat  – it hit its peak size in 1815 and has been receding ever since. Signs along a footpath leading to the base of the glacier show just how far it has retreated.
   The glacier lost about 10 feet from its front face over the summer of 2008.
   Since the 1980s, land-based glaciers and ice caps like this one in Alaska have contributed the most to sea level rise than any other source within their category, which includes other land-based glaciers like Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro and the Chacaltaya Glacier near La Paz, Bolivia, said Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists.ailikcrash11.jpg
   Unlike the ice cover around the North Pole or giant floating ice sheets, land-based ice contributes directly to sea-level rises.
   According to a 2007 report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, glaciers and ice caps have the potential to raise global sea levels by between .15 meters and .37 meters.
   That pales in comparison to the giant ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, which could raise sea levels by 63.9 meters if they fully melted.
   At the Aialik Glacier in the Harding Icefield – reachable by boat or plane, the living nature of the ice was more evident.
   On a visit to the glacier via tourboat on Aug. 15 on a trip hosted by the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, several chunks of ice broke apart and crashed into Aialik Bay.
   glacier7.jpgThroughout the visit, the ice cracked andgroaned, with a sound like thunder claps that punctuated the still air.

Is a “green revolution” inevitable?

Denmark’s Environment Minister Connie Hedegaard delivers her speech during the Malaysia-Danish Energy & Environmental Forum in Kuala Lumpur January 25, 2007. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad (MALAYSIA)Is a global ”green revolution” unstoppable, even with an economic slowdown?

That’s what Danish Climate and Energy Minister Connie Hedegaard (left) predicts, saying that a huge shift to renewable energies, such as solar and wind power, from fossil fuels will survive flagging economic growth.

She has to puzzle over the outlook since she is set to be host of a U.N. meeting in late 2009 in Copenhagen at which the world is meant to agree a new climate deal to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

Global warming research getting more dangerous?

polar.gif Talk about occupational hazards.Five Wildlife Conservation Society scientists studying the effects of global warming on shorebirds in Arctic Alaska had to be airlifted away from their remote camp late last month because of the appearance of another species whose life is changing as warming helps erode shores and melt sea ice. The researchers said a polar bear stuck on land forced them to evacuate their camp north of the remote Teshekpuk Lake on the Beaufort Sea –leaving food and tents behind.  The carnivorous bears would normally be out on sea ice this time of year. But with recent warming the ice is miles from shore and polar bears, which were recently listed as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, are becoming increasingly trapped on land well away from their usual seal prey, said Dr. Steve Zack, who leads Arctic studies for WCS ”We had no idea how hungry they’d be and thus how ornery they’d be,” Zack, who made the decision for the researchers to evacuate even though they had been trained in bear safety, told me by his mobile phone from his current base near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. ”Where there’s one polar bear there are usually more,” he said, adding that government scientists have seen 32 polar bears stuck on shore this year, up from only one or two in previous years. In subsequent fly-overs over the abandoned camp, the team discovered that bears had eaten all of the food left by the researchers and destroyed two $500 tents. ”It was an ironic circumstance that studying climate change issues for our shorebirds put us in harm’s way with climate change effects on polar bears,” said Zack.  Image by Mark Maftei, WCS 

The Lamborghini: the latest endangered species?

A Lamborghini Gallardo LP 560-4 is displayed during the first media day of the 78th Geneva Car Show at the Palexpo in Geneva March 4, 2008. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse (SWITZERLAND)Are European sports cars the latest ’endangered species’ because of climate change?

Read my colleague Pete Harrison’s fascinating feature about how automakers fear tougher restrictions intended to slow global warming could mean the end of the road for supercars such as the Aston Martin DB9, Ferrari F430 or Porsche 911.

They argue that the motoring icons need protection from European Union rules that will limit carbon dioxide emissions from new models from 2012.

Hoping for higher energy prices?

A resident refuels his car at a gas station in Valparaiso city, about 75 miles (120km) northwest of Santiago, July 2, 2008. Chilean state oil firm ENAP said on Tuesday it would sharply raise fuel prices to wholesalers from Thursday, with gasoline prices rising 5.0 percent, kerosene up 9.0 percent and diesel up 6.7 percent. REUTERS/Eliseo Fernandez (CHILE) Are gasoline and energy prices too high? What’s high enough? 

It may be a distinct miniority opinion, but if you were to ask me, I’d say I think they’re not high enough — and I sincerely hope they keep rising. It may be the only way the world wakes up to the perils of climate change — hitting people in their pocketbooks where it hurts most.
The higher energy costs are truly a blessing in disguise for anyone concerned about climate change and worried about the inability of world leaders to take any tough measures to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With the growing scientific evidence that global warming has been happening, there’s no excuse for this generation’s inaction.

And with the WTO talks ending in abject failure, who could possibly be optimistic about the world ever agreeing on taking the costly, pain-inducing steps necessary to at least slow global warming in our time?
So it is the soaring energy prices are filling the void the cowardly political leaders have left. Rising prices for petrol, natural gas and electricity are causing pain and leading to conservation — and reduced emissions of carbon dioxide It’s a good thing.

 Former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan speaks at the Per Jacobsson Foundation Lecture on the Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, pointed out in his excellent book “The Age of Turbulence” that as honourable as the fight against climate change was, he didn’t think there would be any significant reductions until economics figured into the equation. “I fear that a more likely response to global warming will be to quibble until the dangers it poses to national economies become more apparent,” Greenspan wrote. He was criticised by some for that but those “dangers” to economies are now now happening faster than anyone could have imagined. And it’s a good thing.
  A woman knits a traditional Faroese wool sweater in Torshavn June 01, 2007. REUTERS/Tony Gentile (FAROE ISLANDS)
Those who don’t see the light need to feel the heat. The finance minister in Berlin, Thilo Sarazzin, has been criticised this week for his suggestion that people turn down their thermostats and put on sweaters in the winter if they feel cold in their apartments. He said room temperatures of 15 or 16 degrees — with a sweater on — would be the best answer to rising energy prices rather than introducing a new government energy subsidy for low-income households as some other political leaders were clamouring for. Sarazzin has been getting bashed in the German media for his suggestion — but he’s right.   
In Britain, the announcement this week that natural gas and electricity prices would be raised sharply in the months ahead got a lot of people upset. But what better way to promote conservation and spur the development of renewable energy — which becomes increasingly attractive with every increase in the price of fossil fuels. In the United States, by far the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, fuel tax revenues are down sharply this year — because people are using less fuel. That’s a good thing.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the prices are high enough yet to really make a difference. A recent German news broadcast found several motorists who said the higher fuel prices would not change their driving habits and they said they hoped the higher prices would nevertheless force other drivers off the road so the streets would be less congested. So I do hope they keep rising — to the point those smug motorists will think twice about their driving patterns.
My personal answer to rising prices? I’m driving a lot less (one 60 litre tank now lasts six weeks instead of three weeks about two years ago), I use wood rather than natural gas for heat as much as possible, have taken a number of energy-saving measures on my house, commute by bicycle and have converted my monthly electric bill into a monthly windfall profit with the help of solar panels. I’m unfortunately still far from zero emissions. But that’s the goal — and an increasingly rewarding one.
So no, if you ask me, energy prices are not high enough. And I hope they keep rising.

Hot Air From Weathermen

Stuart Gaffin is a climate researcher at Columbia University and a regular contributor with his blog “Exhausted Earth”. ThomsonReuters is not responsible for the content – the views are the author’s alone.

A general view of a chemical factory during dawn in Xiangfan, Hubei province, November 28, 2007. Rapidly growing China is emerging as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from factories, farms and vehicles blamed for climate change. REUTERS/StringerOften when seeing anti-environmental commentary about global warming in the media, I feel like the first question I would like to ask these commentators is: “Why do you deny that carbon dioxide (CO2), which is increasing in an unprecedented way in the atmosphere, is a greenhouse gas?”

If they were to start their answer: “I don’t deny it …” I would think “Good, we’ve made some progress.” However, as I think would often be the case, if they start their answer: “Because …” we should be ready to pounce on the ensuing nonsense.

Cow manure to combat global warming?

A cow looks out from the barn at Smith’s Country Cheese in Winchendon, Massachusetts in this June 30, 2008 file photoCould cow manure curb global warming?

A study by scientists in Texas reckons that cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and other farm animals excrete enough waste to generate electricity for millions of homes, helping reduce reliance on coal-fired power plants and so cut greenhouse gas emissions released by burning fossil fuels.

Left to decompose naturally, manure emits the powerful greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide. If trapped by a devoted workforce (people with an impaired sense of smell encouraged to apply) the gases could used to drive microturbines to generate electricity. That works by the manure being “anaerobically digested” — a process a bit like making compost — to release energy-rich biogas which would be burnt to drive the microturbines.

The calculations, the scientists say they are the first to outline a procedure for quantifying amounts of energy and greenhouse gases linked to national herds, suggest that farm animals in the United States alone could generate about 2.4 percent of U.S. electricity and avert about 3.9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change, it’s snow joke

snowshow1.JPGIt’s summer at the G8 media centre in Hokkaido. Yet underneath the building are tonnes of snow to keep journalists cool as they write about global warming.

Japan budgeted $283 million for security at the summit and $30 million to build a temporary, low-emissions media centre far from where the G8 leaders are meeting in a luxury hotel.

The centre took five months to construct next to a ski resort and the company that built it says 95 percent of the materials will be recycled or reused once the building is torn down in the weeks after the G8 meeting.