Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Searching for Clues to Calamity

SO far 2012 is on pace to be the hottest year on record. But does this mean that we’ve reached a threshold — a tipping point that signals a climate disaster?

For those warning of global warming, it would be tempting to say so. The problem is, no one knows if there is a point at which a climate system shifts abruptly. But some scientists are now bringing mathematical rigor to the tipping-point argument. Their findings give us fresh cause to worry that sudden changes are in our future.

One of them is Marten Scheffer, a biologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who grew up swimming in clear lowland ponds. In the 1980s, many of these ponds turned turbid. The plants would die, algae would cover the surface, and only bottom-feeding fish remained. The cause — fertilizer runoff from nearby farms — was well known, but even after you stopped the runoff, replanted the lilies and restocked the trout, the ponds would stay dark and scummy.

Mr. Scheffer solved this problem with a key insight: the ponds behaved according to a branch of mathematics called “dynamical systems,” which deals with sudden changes. Once you reach a tipping point, it’s very difficult to return things to how they used to be. It’s easy to roll a boulder off a cliff, for instance, but much harder to roll it back. Once the ponds turned turbid, it wasn’t enough to just replant and restock. You had get them back to their original, clear state. More



Monday, July 23, 2012

Fool me twice, shame on me: The oil industry repackages the fake abundance story

[I]f you're still operating under the assumption that the earth's petroleum--or at least the cheap stuff--is about to run out, you're not going to thrive in the new oil era. Technology is making it possible to find, produce, and refine oil so efficiently that its supply, at least for practical purposes, is basically unlimited.

--BusinessWeek, December 14, 1998

That was the industry's story right before a decade-long climb in oil prices that ended with an all-time high in 2008. Only the oil industry would now have the audacity once again to peddle a story that it has gotten wrong for more than a decade as if it were brand new. Enlisting the media and its army of paid consultants, the industry is once again telling the public that oil abundance is at hand. And, what is doubly audacious is that it is promoting this tale as oil prices hover at levels more than eight times the 1999 low. Clearly, the industry is counting on collective amnesia to shield it from ridicule.

The industry's purpose is transparent: To ensure that the world remains addicted to fossil fuels by convincing all of us that our energy sources--more than 80 percent of which are fossil fuels--don't need to change. It's a winning strategy even if the industry's premise is wrong since the oil companies still have huge inventories of fossil fuels underground that they want to sell at top prices. And, they are only going to get those top prices if government, businesses and households fail to convert to alternatives and thus remain hostage to fossil fuels.

In a stroke of public relations genius, the industry recently sent one of its own, Leonardo Maugeri, an Italian oil executive, to moonlight as a "research fellow" at Harvard. It's hard to imagine a more prestigious name to use to propagate the industry's consistently overly optimistic pronouncements about oil supplies--even though we are told in italic type at the bottom of Maugeri's policy brief that "[s]tatements and views expressed in this policy brief are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs." Guess how many media outlets printed that disclaimer.

You can find Maugeri's report here. What you won't find there or in current media accounts are his consistently failed predictions about rising supply in the last decade, supply that was supposed to result in a flood of oil. Here's one gem from 2006 in a piece he authored forForbes Magazine: "A plausible forecast is that by the end of the decade the daily demand for oil will have expanded by 7 to 8 million barrels. If global production continues at present rates, it could grow by 12 to 15 million barrels per day in that period. In other words, there is more than enough oil in the ground." Maugeri's contention was that high prices would result in a supply response that would bring back the good old days of abundance. Of course, no one covering his recent policy brief bothers to mention that his 2006 prediction turned out to be wrong, and not by just a little. World oil production has been flat since 2005. His vaunted supply response never materialized.More


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

New Waste-to-Energy Facility Helps Barbados Toward Greener Economy

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Jul 18 2012 (IPS) - When it comes to pursuing a greener path to economic development, the tiny Caribbean island of Barbados is not about to allow its small size and limited resources to get in its way.

Cell Four at Vaucluse, St.Thomas parish, Barbados. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS
The island has opened the first phase of a multi-million-dollar state-of-the-art facility that will create energy from the tonnes of waste produced by households across the country.

Opening the facility, known as “Cell Four”, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart said Barbados has no choice but to diversify its energy resources to include more renewable and sustainable ones.

“Our fuel bill represents the heaviest demand on our foreign exchange. Fuel is of course, essential for the generation of electricity, the manufacture of goods, and for the transportation of goods and people.”

“These three development-oriented activities account for over 80 percent of our fuel consumption,” Stuart said.

With a population of 285,000, Barbados has a mammoth annual fossil fuel bill. According to Environment Minister Dr. Denis Lowe, it makes economic sense to convert waste to energy rather than simply burying it.

“We have a gluttonous appetite for energy,” he said. “It is in our best interest to ensure that we find alternative methods of generating energy to save our energy costs.”

The small island challenge

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently appealed to Barbados and other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to free themselves from dependence on fossil fuel imports and transform their energy sectors to encompass modern, efficient, clean and renewable sources of energy.

Stuart said he agrees wholeheartedly with the Secretary-General, pointing out that last year, his country spent just under 4 million U.S. dollars on oil imports, or six percent of its gross domestic product. This spending has hurt direct production costs and the overall competitiveness of the Barbadian economy.

“Although many SIDS are energy deficient in conventional energy, limitless potential for renewable energy and energy efficiency resides in our countries,” Stuart said.

“The fundamental issue then is how, do we, as Small Island Developing States with inherent structural problems and limited resources, convert this renewable energy potential into a tangible product that is accessible, affordable and adaptable?”

Barbados has been actively promoting sustainable energy practices both on the supply side – mainly using renewable energy sources – and on the demand side, encouraging energy efficiency and energy conservation, in an effort to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, enhance energy security and stability, improve the economy’s competitiveness and foster greater environmental sustainability.

Over 40,000 solar water heaters have installed on domestic and commercial buildings in Barbados, according to Stuart. At more than 45 percent, it is the fifth highest penetration of solar water heaters in the world. “We are using the country’s success in this industry as a platform for renewable energy development,” he added. More


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Toby Hemenway on sustainability and need

Hemenway is a frequent teacher, consultant and lecturer on permaculture and ecological design throughout the U.S. and other countries. His writing has appeared in magazines such as Natural Home, Whole Earth Review and American Gardener. He is an adjunct professor in the School of Graduate Education at Portland State University, a Scholar-in-Residence at Pacific University, and a biologist consultant for the Biomimicry Guild.

Antarctica at Risk from Human Activities

The continent of Antarctica is at risk from human activities and other forces, and environmental management is needed to protect the planet's last great wilderness area, says an international team of researchers, including a Texas A&M University oceanographer, in a paper published in the current issue of Science magazine.

Mahlon "Chuck" Kennicutt II, professor of oceanography who has conducted research in the area for more than 25 years, says Antarctica faces growing threats from global warming, loss of sea ice and landed ice, increased tourism, over-fishing in the region, pollution and invasive species creeping into the area. One of the longer-term concerns that may present the greatest threat overall is the potential for oil, gas and mineral exploitation on the continent and in the surrounding ocean, the authors note.

Kennicutt says the Antarctic Treaty System that governs the continent has worked well since it was established in 1962 and that 50 countries currently adhere to the treaty, but it is under pressure today from global climate changes and the ever-present interest in the area's natural resources, from fish to krill to oil to gas to minerals.

"Many people may not realize that Antarctica is a like a 'canary in a coal mine' when it comes to global warming, and Antarctica serves as a sort of thermostat for Earth," he points out. "The polar regions are the most sensitive regions on Earth to global warming, responding rapidly, so what happens in Antarctica in response to this warming affects the entire Earth system in many ways that we barely understand," Kennicutt explains. "Antarctica contains over 90 percent of the fresh water in the world, locked up as solid water in its massive ice sheets. Research that develops fundamental knowledge and understanding of these complex systems conducted in and from Antarctica is critical to understanding many of the challenges facing Earth today."

In addition to conducting research in the area, Kennicutt is also president of the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR), formed in 1958 to coordinate international research in the region. More


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Throwaway Economy Headed for Junk Heap of History

In their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart conclude that waste and pollution are to be avoided entirely. “Pollution,” says McDonough, “is a symbol of design failure.”

The challenge is to re-evaluate the materials we consume and the way we manufacture products so as to cut down on waste. Restructuring the transportation system has a huge potential for reducing materials use as light rail and buses replace cars. For example, 60 cars, weighing a total of 110 tons, can be replaced by one 12-ton bus, reducing material use 89 percent.

Savings from replacing a car with a bike are even more impressive. Urban planner Richard Register recounts meeting a bicycle-activist friend wearing a T-shirt that said, “I just lost 3,500 pounds. Ask me how.” When queried, he said he had sold his car. Replacing a 3,500-pound car with a 22-pound bicycle obviously reduces fuel use dramatically, but it also reduces materials use by 99 percent, indirectly saving still more energy.

Cutting the use of virgin raw materials begins with recycling steel, the use of which dwarfs that of all other metals combined. In the United States, virtually all cars are recycled. They are simply too valuable to be left to rust in out-of-the-way junkyards. With the number of cars scrapped now exceeding new cars sold, the U.S. automobile sector actually has a steel surplus that can be used elsewhere in the economy.

The U.S. recycling rate for household appliances is estimated at 90 percent. For steel cans it is 65 percent. For construction steel, the figures are 98 percent for steel beams and girders but only 65 percent for reinforcement steel.

Beyond reducing materials use, the energy savings from recycling are huge. Making steel from recycled scrap takes only 26 percent as much energy as that from iron ore. For aluminum, the figure is just 4 percent. Recycled plastic uses only 20 percent as much energy. Recycled paper uses 64 percent as much—and with far fewer chemicals during processing. If the world recycling rates of these basic materials were raised to those already attained in the most efficient economies, world carbon emissions would drop precipitously.

The rates of paper recycling in the top 10 paper-producing countries range widely—from China and Finland on the low end, recycling less than 40 percent of the paper they use, to Japan and Germany on the higher end, each between 70 and 80 percent, and South Korea, which recycles an impressive 91 percent. The United States, the world’s largest paper consumer, is far behind the leaders, but it has raised the share of paper recycled from roughly 20 percent in 1980 to 59 percent in 2009. If every country recycled as much of its paper as South Korea does, the amount of wood pulp used to produce paper worldwide would drop by more than one third.

In the United States, only 33 percent of garbage is recycled. Some 13 percent is burned and 54 percent goes to landfills, indicating a huge potential for reducing materials use, energy use, and pollution. Among the larger U.S. cities, recycling rates vary from 25 percent in New York to 45 percent in Chicago, 65 percent in Los Angeles, and 77 percent in San Francisco, the highest of all.

One way to encourage recycling is simply to adopt a landfill tax. For example, when the small town of Lyme, New Hampshire, adopted a pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) program that encourages municipalities to charge residents for each bag of garbage, it dramatically reduced the flow of materials to landfills, raising the share of garbage recycled from 13 to 52 percent in only one year, simultaneously reducing the town’s landfill fees, and generating a cash flow from the sale of recycled material. Nationwide, more than 7,000 U.S. communities now have PAYT programs. More


IPCC announces call for applications for second round of awards under the IPCC Scholarship Programme

IPCC announces call for applications for second round of awards under the IPCC Scholarship Programme

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Chance (IPCC) has opened a call for applications for the second round of awards under the IPCC Scholarship Programme.

The IPCC Scholarship Programme aims to build capacity in the understanding and management of climate change in developing countries by providing opportunities for young scientists from developing countries to undertake studies that would not be possible without funding under the programme.

Applicants must be post-graduate students under the age of 30 studying at PhD level. They must have already been accepted at a recognized educational institution to start studies in 2013, or be currently enrolled on continuing PhD courses. Research proposals should focus on one of the following fields of study:

* Socio-economic modelling related to climate change

* Underlying science of climate change

* Climate change and water

Applicants must be nationals of developing countries and priority will be given to students from Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

With a value of up to USD 20,000 per year, each award will be given for a period of one year and is renewable once, subject to satisfactory progress during the period of study and term reports signed by the research supervisor.

Applications will undergo a two-level selection process. IPCC scientific experts will first assess the applications in an initial review and the IPCC Science Board will then review the applications and make a final selection. The candidates selected for an award will be notified individually during the second quarter of 2013.

The IPCC Scholarship Programme was established with the funds received from the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. The IPCC Scholarship Programme benefits from the support of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.

Students interested in applying for an IPCC scholarship can download application forms at:


Completed application forms and supporting documents should be uploaded by 30 September 2012 at:



Sunday, July 8, 2012

Hurricane Protection and Carbon Sink

Under the Kyoto agreement, existing forestry does not qualify to be traded for carbon credits. However, newly created plantations do.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Effects of Climate Change Hit Home

More than 400,000 people are still without power in the Washington, D.C. area after one of the region’s most bizarre and damaging storms in history.

I am one of them.

The lights and air conditioning went out at my place around 10 p.m. three days ago, just as a half-dozen little girls were settling down in sleeping bags as part of my 7-year-old daughter’s sleepover birthday party. Cleanup from the storms that toppled 50-foot oak trees and ripped down power lines throughout my neighborhood will keep us without electricity perhaps for a week, we’re told, while the region continues to swelter in near 100-degree heat – about 10 degrees higher than average for this time of year and hovering around historical records.

Those of us in Washington, however, are lucky compared to the people of Colorado, where at least 350 families have lost their homes so far to the state’s worst wildfires on record. About 100,000 acres of some of our nation’s prettiest forests have already gone up in smoke, and the state is still on fire. The effects of climate change, once viewed as some far-off abstraction that could be denied or debated, are beginning to be felt here and now.

According to meteorologists, it is a historic record-setting heat wave in Washington that caused the powerful storm known as a “derecho” that left at least 18 people dead and our nation’s capital battered, bruised and sweltering in the dark.

Out in Colorado, climate change has led to drought, abnormally low snowfall and warmer winters. These events are far reaching: Warmer winters, for example, have resulted in an explosion in white pine bark beetles that kill trees and turn them in to ready-to-burn tinder.

There’s not always a direct link between weather disasters, a warming planet and the heat-trapping carbon emissions that have been rising since the advent of the Industrial Age and our dependence on burning fossil fuels.

But increasingly, there is a connection between climate change and extreme weather. Those who want to deny it – or irresponsibly try to convince the public that they too should deny it – should do some research and some reading before they turn their heads the other way. More


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sea Level Rise Accelerating in U.S. Atlantic Coast

Rates of sea level rise are increasing three-to-four times faster along portions of the U.S. Atlantic Coast than globally, according to a new U.S. Geological Survey report published in Nature Climate Change.

Since about 1990, sea-level rise in the 600-mile stretch of coastal zone from Cape Hatteras, N.C. to north of Boston, Mass. -- coined a "hotspot" by scientists -- has increased 2 - 3.7 millimeters per year; the global increase over the same period was 0.6 – 1.0 millimeter per year.

Based on data and analyses included in the report, if global temperatures continue to rise, rates of sea level rise in this area are expected to continue increasing.

The report shows that the sea-level rise hotspot is consistent with the slowing of Atlantic Ocean circulation. Models show this change in circulation may be tied to changes in water temperature, salinity and density in the subpolar north Atlantic.

"Many people mistakenly think that the rate of sea level rise is the same everywhere as glaciers and ice caps melt, increasing the volume of ocean water, but other effects can be as large or larger than the so-called 'eustatic' rise," said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. "As demonstrated in this study, regional oceanographic contributions must be taken into account in planning for what happens to coastal property."

Though global sea level has been projected to rise roughly two-to-three feet or more by the end of the 21st century, it will not climb at the same rate at every location. Differences in land movements, strength of ocean currents, water temperatures, and salinity can cause regional and local highs and lows in sea level.

"Cities in the hotspot, like Norfolk, New York, and Boston already experience damaging floods during relatively low intensity storms," said Dr. Asbury (Abby) Sallenger, USGS oceanographer and project lead. "Ongoing accelerated sea level rise in the hotspot will make coastal cities and surrounding areas increasingly vulnerable to flooding by adding to the height that storm surge and breaking waves reach on the coast."

During the 21st century, the increases in sea level rise rate that have already occurred in the hotspot will yield increases in sea level of 8 to 11.4 inches by 2100. This regional sea level increase would be in addition to components of global sea level rise. More