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5 Zingers on Climate Crisis: McKibben/Romm on Parts/Million; SciAm on Solar; Newsweek on Adaptation; Globe & Mail on PHEVs

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  • Felix Kramer
    Getting back after the holidays to the campaign for plug-in cars, where we now define our goal as Successful Commercialization of PHEVs ASAP, we re reminded
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 2, 2008
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      Getting back after the holidays to the campaign
      for plug-in cars, where we now define our goal as
      "Successful Commercialization of PHEVs
      ASAP," we're reminded about one of the three
      reasons we're doing this: because our atmosphere
      can't wait a decade to start fueling cars with
      electricity instead of liquid fossil fuels. In
      this campaign, and the larger effort to evolve to
      a low-carbon economy, we're just at the beginning
      of an incredible mobilization and transformation.

      Five items start us all off: one on solutions,
      two about the magnitude of the challenge, one
      about "adaptation" and finally a good story about PHEVs and climate change.


      1. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MAGAZINE'S cover story for
      January 2008: "A Grand Plan for Solar Energy: By
      2008 it could free the U.S. from foreign oil and
      slash greenhouse emissions...here's how." Buy it
      at the newsstand for $4.99 to read the 10-page
      article, including elaborate graphics, or read it
      online at
      http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=a-solar-grand-plan&page=1
      and view comments at
      http://science-community.sciam.com/thread.jspa?threadID=300005637#comments
      Key Concepts as presented by SciAm's editors [plus our comments]
      * A massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas
      and nuclear power plants to solar power plants
      could supply 69 percent of the U.S.'s electricity
      and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050.
      * A vast area of photovoltaic cells would have to
      be erected in the Southwest. [46,000 square miles
      of land in the Southwest -- that's a 215x215 mile area]
      * Excess daytime energy would be stored as
      compressed air in underground caverns to be
      tapped during nighttime hours. [Though since the
      plan is described as including electricity to
      power 344 million PHEVs, we wish the authors had
      been aware of the potential of using those vehicles to store energy.]
      * Large solar concentrator power plants would be
      built as well. [These include molten salt that
      can store energy for up to 16 hours.]
      * A new direct-current power transmission
      backbone would deliver solar electricity across the country.
      * $420 billion in subsidies from 2011 to 2050
      would be required to fund the infrastructure and
      make it cost-competitive. [Loan guarantees and
      declining price subsidies, which the authors
      suggest be fueled by a carbon tax of 1/2 cent/kWh.]


      2. BILL McKIBBEN: this powerful environmental
      writer (who organized the 2007 StepItUp events,
      and recently merged that campaign into a new
      broad national campaign, http://www.1sky.org/ )
      wrote a provocative Op Ed in the Washington Post
      December 28 on the magnitude of the challenge. We
      reprint it here, followed by an equally
      thought-provoking response from Joseph Romm.

      Remember This: 350 Parts Per Million
      By Bill McKibben
      Friday, December 28, 2007; Page A21
      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/27/AR2007122701942.html

      Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence in
      environmental studies at Middlebury College and
      the author of the forthcoming "Bill McKibben Reader."

      This month may have been the most important yet
      in the two-decade history of the fight against
      global warming. Al Gore got his Nobel in
      Stockholm; international negotiators made real
      progress on a treaty in Bali; and in Washington,
      Congress actually worked up the nerve to raise gas mileage standards for cars.

      But what may turn out to be the most crucial
      development went largely unnoticed. It happened
      at an academic conclave in San Francisco. A NASA
      scientist named James Hansen offered a simple,
      straightforward and mind-blowing bottom line for
      the planet: 350, as in parts per million carbon
      dioxide in the atmosphere. It's a number that may
      make what happened in Washington and Bali seem
      quaint and nearly irrelevant. It's the number that may define our future.

      To understand what it means, you need a little background.

      Twenty years ago, Hansen kicked off this issue by
      testifying before Congress that the planet was
      warming and that people were the cause. At the
      time, we could only guess how much warming it
      would take to put us in real danger. Since the
      pre-Industrial Revolution concentration of carbon
      in the atmosphere was roughly 275 parts per
      million, scientists and policymakers focused on
      what would happen if that number doubled -- 550
      was a crude and mythical red line, but
      politicians and economists set about trying to
      see if we could stop short of that point. The
      answer was: not easily, but it could be done.

      In the past five years, though, scientists began
      to worry that the planet was reacting more
      quickly than they had expected to the relatively
      small temperature increases we've already seen.
      The rapid melt of most glacial systems, for
      instance, convinced many that 450 parts per
      million was a more prudent target. That's what
      the European Union and many of the big
      environmental groups have been proposing in
      recent years, and the economic modeling makes
      clear that achieving it is still possible, though
      the chances diminish with every new coal-fired power plant.

      But the data just keep getting worse. The news
      this fall that Arctic sea ice was melting at an
      off-the-charts pace and data from Greenland
      suggesting that its giant ice sheet was starting
      to slide into the ocean make even 450 look too
      high. Consider: We're already at 383 parts per
      million, and it's knocking the planet off kilter
      in substantial ways. So, what does that mean?

      It means, Hansen says, that we've gone too far.
      "The evidence indicates we've aimed too high --
      that the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2is
      no more than 350 ppm," he said after his
      presentation. Hansen has reams of paleo-climatic
      data to support his statements (as do other
      scientists who presented papers at the American
      Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco
      this month). The last time the Earth warmed two
      or three degrees Celsius -- which is what 450
      parts per million implies -- sea levels rose by
      tens of meters, something that would shake the
      foundations of the human enterprise should it happen again.

      And we're already past 350. Does that mean we're
      doomed? Not quite. Not any more than your doctor
      telling you that your cholesterol is way too high
      means the game is over. Much like the way your
      body will thin its blood if you give up cheese
      fries, so the Earth naturally gets rid of some of
      its CO2each year. We just need to stop putting
      more in and, over time, the number will fall,
      perhaps fast enough to avert the worst damage.

      That "just," of course, hides the biggest
      political and economic task we've ever faced:
      weaning ourselves from coal, gas and oil. The
      difference between 550 and 350 is that the
      weaning has to happen now, and everywhere. No
      more passing the buck. The gentle measures
      bandied about at Bali, themselves way too much
      for the Bush administration, don't come close.
      Hansen called for an immediate ban on new
      coal-fired power plants that don't capture
      carbon, the phaseout of old coal-fired
      generators, and a tax on carbon high enough to
      make sure that we leave tar sands and oil shale
      in the ground. To use the medical analogy, we're
      not talking statins to drop your cholesterol;
      we're talking huge changes in every aspect of your daily life.

      Maybe too huge. The problems of global equity
      alone may be too much -- the Chinese aren't going
      to stop burning coal unless we give them some
      other way to pull people out of poverty. And we
      simply may have waited too long.

      But at least we're homing in on the right number.
      Three hundred and fifty is the number every person needs to know.


      3. JOSEPH ROMM (former US Dept of Energy
      official, author of Hell and High Water and The
      Hype About Hydrogen) at his "Climate Progress"
      Blog responds to Hansen and McKibben, makes clear
      the enormity of the challenge we face, and in
      responding to some of the two dozen comments,
      explains how important it is to distinguish
      between what's "politically impossible" and
      what's "doable" -- to figure out ways to evolve
      our priorities so what's acceptable and what's technically feasible match up.

      "Parting company with McKibben and, maybe, Hansen"
      http://climateprogress.org/2007/12/29/bill-mckibben-james-hansen-350-ppm/
      Posted on Saturday, December 29th, 2007

      The nation's top climate scientist, NASA's James
      Hansen, apparently now believes "the safe upper
      limit for atmospheric CO2 is no more than 350
      ppm," according to an op-ed by the the great
      environmental writer Bill McKibben. Yet while
      preindustrial levels were 280, we're now already
      at more than 380 and rising 2 ppm a year!

      Like many people, in the 1990s I believed 550 was
      the target needed to avoid climate catastrophe -- but now it's clear that

      1. 550 ppm would lead to the greatest
      disaster ever experienced by human civilization
      -- returning us to temperatures last seen when
      sea levels were some 80 feet higher. This is especially true because….
      2. Long before we hit 550, major carbon cycle
      feedbacks -- the loss of carbon from the tundra
      and the Amazon, the saturation of the ocean sink
      (already beginning) would almost certainly kick
      in to high gear, inevitably pushing us to much,
      much higher CO2 levels (see here and here and my book).

      Exactly when those feedbacks seriously kick in is
      the rub. No one knows for sure, but based on my
      review of the literature and interviews of
      leading climate scientists, somewhere between 400
      and 500 ppm seems most likely. It could be lower,
      but it probably couldn't be much higher.

      So I, like the Center for American Progress and
      the world's top climate scientists, now believe
      450 ppm is the upper bound. That said, I have
      spent two decades managing, analyzing,
      researching, and writing about climate solutions
      and can state with some confidence that:

      1. Staying below 450 ppm is technologically
      doable, but would be the greatest achievement in
      the history of the human race, by far. It would
      require a global effort sustained for decades
      comparable to what the U.S. did for just the few
      years of World War II (the biggest obstacle is
      not technological, but political -- conservatives
      currently would never let progressives and moderates pursue such a strategy).
      2. If 350 ppm is needed (and I'm not at all
      sure it is) then the deniers and delayers have
      won, since such a target is hopeless.

      In 2008, I will devote a fair amount of ink bits
      to laying out the solution (there really is only
      one), but to understand why 450 is so hard, and
      350 all but inconceivable, let's look at the odd
      way McKibben describes the solution:

      [McKibben]: And we're already past 350. Does that
      mean we're doomed? Not quite. Not any more than
      your doctor telling you that your cholesterol is
      way too high means the game is over. Much like
      the way your body will thin its blood if you give
      up cheese fries, so the Earth naturally gets rid
      of some of its CO2each year. We just need to stop
      putting more in and, over time, the number will
      fall, perhaps fast enough to avert the worst damage.

      Not a great analogy. Yes, CO2 concentrations will
      probably start dropping once we cut emissions 80%
      from current levels. But you can change your
      entire diet -- cut cholesterol intake or
      carbohydrates 80% or more -- tomorrow. Humanity
      cannot, however, cut its hydrocarbon diet 80%
      tomorrow or even, realistically, in 10 years.
      That would require replacing the world's entire
      energy infrastructure -- power plants, cars,
      planes, factories, fueling infrastructure, large
      parts of homes and commercial buildings -- while
      simultaneously deploying a hydrocarbon-free
      energy system in the rapidly-growing developing world.

      McKibben certainly understands some of the difficulty:

      [McKibben]: That "just," of course, hides the
      biggest political and economic task we've ever
      faced: weaning ourselves from coal, gas and oil.
      The difference between 550 and 350 is that the
      weaning has to happen now, and everywhere. No
      more passing the buck. The gentle measures
      bandied about at Bali, themselves way too much
      for the Bush administration, don't come close.
      Hansen called for an immediate ban on new
      coal-fired power plants that don't capture
      carbon, the phaseout of old coal-fired
      generators, and a tax on carbon high enough to
      make sure that we leave tar sands and oil shale
      in the ground. To use the medical analogy, we're
      not talking statins to drop your cholesterol;
      we're talking huge changes in every aspect of your daily life.

      A better analogy might be stomach stapling, but
      even that doesn't do justice to what we would
      need to do to get to 350. Hansen's three
      proposals are a drop in the bucket. Dealing with
      electricity is trivial compared to dealing with transportation.

      Suppose we could get global carbon emissions to
      peak in 2020 at 10 billion tons, level off for a
      few years, and then decline 3% per year
      afterwards. No easy feat since emissions are
      currently at 8 billion and rising over 3% per
      year. China and India, for instance, would have
      to agree to a hard emissions cap in 2020. Rich
      countries would need to start slashing emissions
      immediately. CO2 concentrations in 2020 would be
      about 410 ppm (and rising over 2 ppm a year).

      Around 2050, we'd be at 5 billion tons and very
      likely over 450 ppm, rising over 1 ppm a year.
      But remember, we need to average 5 billion tons a
      year for the entire century just to stabilize at
      450 ppm (according to the IPCC -- and that is probably a best-case scenario)!

      So the scenario I laid out won't get us to below
      450 (I have a long discussion in the book about
      why beating 500 ppm is so hard if we try to do it
      the tradtional [i.e. slow] way). That's why I say
      450 needs a World War II scale effort starting in
      the next decade. I think 350 ppm is simply beyond
      serious practical and political consideration.
      You might as well tell people we need to develop
      a time machine to go back 20 years and warn the
      world that we need to start cutting emissions
      then … then again, who would listen.? [And who
      would we send back, anyway? That's an interesting
      parlor game all by itself]. McKibben ends:

      [McKibben]: But at least we're homing in on the
      right number. Three hundred and fifty is the number every person needs to know.

      I part company with him here. I haven't talked to
      Hansen yet and I'll reserve further judgment until I see a paper or PPT by him.

      Since beating 450 ppm is doable and certainly
      necessary -- that's where I draw the line. One
      advantage of pursuing 450 is that if we do get
      some sort of unexpected breakthrough -- a cheap
      and practical way to draw CO2 out of the air
      (that doesn't use a lot of land, water, or
      energy) and stick it someplace permanent -- then
      we would have a system in place to deploy it fast
      enough to perhaps get to below 400 ppm. And even
      if turns out 450 doesn't avert catastrophe, it
      will surely slow down the impacts enough to make adaptation more viable.

      So I'm sticking with 450. Implausible? Yes.
      Impossible? No. Less costly than inaction? By far.


      4 NEWSWEEK on "Learning to Love Climate
      'Adaptation" in the December 31-January 7 issue
      says "It's too late to stop global warming. Nowo
      we have to figure out how to survive it.
      Read the piece at
      http://www.newsweek.com/id/81390 -- Author
      Sharon Begley returned to Newsweek recently after
      five years writing The Wall Street Journal's
      "Science Journal." She wrote the magazine's
      summer '07 cover story about global warming
      deniers. In this story she starts to outline a
      few of the ways the world will be changing and how to think about adaptation.

      What do we think about those who say let's start
      planning for the consequences of rising oceans,
      extreme climate, species extinction, etc.? Some
      who are devoting their lives to heading off a
      climate crisis feel that those who focus on
      adaptation are undermining their efforts. I don't
      see it that way; I say "thank you" to everyone
      working on adaptation. Clearly however much we're
      able to defer the worst consequences, our world
      is going to change, and we're going to need smart
      people and enormous resources to find ways to
      respond. It's certainly better that people work
      on adaptation rather than do nothing. At the same
      time, I'd hope most of those who recognize the
      magnitude of the challenge will choose to devote their energies to prevention


      5. THE TORONTO GLOBE & MAIL had a good story,
      "How technology can help fight climate change,"
      by Martin Mittelstaedt, December 19, 2007
      featuring PHEVs, quoting us and Lester Brown at
      http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20071212.wbaliside12/BNStory/Technology/home



      -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
      Felix Kramer fkramer@...
      Founder California Cars Initiative
      http://www.calcars.org
      http://www.calcars.org/news-archive.html
      -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
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