Thursday, February 21, 2008

USA Today on Climate Changes

Our national daily newspaper calls its section "Weather and Climate Science," and on the Feb 17 page from that section it provides two interesting features.

First is an animated map of the Northeast U.S. that illustrates how scientific projections see local climate changing over the course of this century under reduced emissions and constant emissions scenarios. Worst case for Massachusetts: its climate toward the end of the century will be like South Carolina's climate today. Imaging adapting to THAT! The original version of the map can be found in this report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Second is an article inspired by the latest update from the Pew Center for Global Climate Change (PDF), which surveys cities, states and counties that have begun pursuing adaptation planning. All of these places are, in turn, inspired by their membership in ICLEI, which has focused for years on sustainability planning but has begun to emphasize adaptation planning.

The clear leader in local sustainability and adaptation planning is King County, WA, whose Executive, Ron Sims, has launched these initiatives and was just named to the board of ICLEI-USA.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lakes Powell and Mead dry by 2021 - Odds: 50/50

It's way beyond a slim possibility. Fifty percent odds make for an appreciable risk. This was the finding of a study by Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. To reduce those odds, cities, farmers and industry that rely on water from the Colorado River had better change their water use habits immediately. Not to mention the loss of electricity generated by the lost water.

The results underscore the importance of water-conservation measures that many communities throughout the region are putting into place. Other studies, some dating back nearly 20 years, have projected that Lake Mead could fall to virtually useless levels as climate warmed, but they lacked a sense of the timing. The new results, the Scripps scientists say, represent a first attempt to answer when lakes Mead and Powell would run dry, squeezing water supplies in Arizona, California, Nevada, and New Mexico.

"We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it is coming at us," notes Tim Barnett, a research physicist at Scripps who led the effort. By "dry," the team means that water levels fall so low behind the Hoover and Glenn Canyon Dams that the water fails to reach the gravity-fed intakes that guide it through turbines or out through spillways. In addition, the report estimates that the lakes stand a 50 percent chance of falling to the lowest levels required to generate electricity by 2017.

Call them "Tipping Elements"

This Science Daily article seems to unveil a climate change twist on "tipping points."

"Society may be lulled into a false sense of security by smooth projections of global change," the researchers around Timothy Lenton from the British University of East Anglia in Norwich and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research report. Global change may appear to be a slow and gradual process on human scales. However, in some regions anthropogenic forcing on the climate system could kick start abrupt and potentially irreversible changes. For these sub-systems of the Earth system the researchers introduce the term "tipping element".
Here's the short list from the UK-based team of researchers with their calculated tipping times:
  • Melting of Arctic sea-ice (approx 10 years)
  • Decay of the Greenland ice sheet (more than 300 years)
  • Collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet (more than 300 years)
  • Collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation (approx 100 years)
  • Increase in the El Nino Southern Oscillation (approx 100 years)
  • Collapse of the Indian summer monsoon (approx 1 year)
  • Greening of the Sahara/Sahel and disruption of the West African monsoon (approx 10 years)
  • Dieback of the Amazon rainforest (approx 50 years)
  • Dieback of the Boreal Forest (approx 50 years)
And this interesting description of their projections for the Greenland ice cap, which I'd been getting the impression lately losing ice at an accelerated rate. Total melt-off will take at least 300 years and a 7-meter contribution to sea level rise:
Warming over the ice sheet accelerates ice loss from outlet glaciers and lowers ice altitude at the periphery, which further increases surface temperature and ablation. The exact tipping point for disintegration of the ice sheet is unknown, since current models cannot capture the observed dynamic deglaciation processes accurately. But in a worst case scenario local warming of more than three degrees Celsius could cause the ice sheet to disappear within 300 years. This would result in a rise of sea level of up to seven meters.

Good language - Center for Climate Strategies

If new civic space is going to open up around climate change issues, an open process for making decisions and setting priorities is going to be essential. The Center's web site does a good job of describing the process it uses in working with state-level governments on climate mitigation planning. Often working through the governor's office, they convene teams of stakeholders who meet for a year in meetings open to the public.

Here's how answer the question Why was CSS created?

Many governors and other state leaders are addressing the problem of climate change by planning and implementing proactive solutions to the pollution caused by greenhouse gases (GHGs). CCS was formed to help these leaders develop effective, consensus based policy solutions through analysis, planning and collaboration with stakeholders, state agencies and other institutions. CCS has provided assistance to 18 US states involved in state or regional climate action planning, as well as Canadian Provinces and the border states of Mexico.
And What does CSS do?
The CCS team provides a forum for advanced learning and joint decision-making on climate strategies and solutions in an open, inclusive, non-partisan, fact-based, and collaborative environment. We provide impartial and expert analysis, planning, facilitation and technical assistance toward development of highly customized, consensus-based policies and plans to reduce GHG emissions. CCS works jointly with state officials, agency staff, and stakeholders to develop actions that meet or exceed state or regional GHG emission reduction goals and targets through a “portfolio” of coordinated actions, developed through the consensus building process. CCS provides similar assistance for the development of response actions and plans for adaptation to climate change impacts.

Stakeholders Help Plan Florida's Survival

Most of Florida has an elevation not much above sea level, and I've seen more than a few maps illustrating a largely submerged peninsula. Not surprisingly, the state government is trying to do something to help slow the warming, the melting, the resultant rise of sea level. This article describes the two-phase project that aims toward reducing the state's greenhouse gas emissions. Now beginning its Stage Two, the governor has assigned a 21-member Action Team to come up with a list of recommended actions.

The process will be facilitated by the Center for Climate Strategies, which is "working in 16 states to build consensus and develop comprehensive action plans."

The Center was quoted about its role in the process of helping the Action Team make the most worthy recommendations:

"We are not advocates for particular approaches with vested interests, and we do not take positions on policy or legislative issues. We assemble and facilitate complex decisions among diverse stakeholder groups."

Energy Expert prescribes, "fundamental shift in how we do things at every level."

A post on the CleanTech Blog by Richard T. Stuebi, the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, caught my eye because it's so rare that you see anyone with any influence acknowledging that there's sacrifice in our future.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Virtual Civic Centers for Local Resilience and Climate Adaptation

Why aren't we doing more to get ready for climate impacts? We know they're coming. They may already be here. We've seen from Katrina how lack of adequate preparation can leave a place vulnerable to even the most obvious risks. We know these impacts won't just come through once and be over. Sure, we need to slash carbon emissions, but we can do that and learn to adapt at the same time. In fact, they should go together.

Having been following the news and the science so closely over the past year in my research for Climate Frog I've learned a few things that are calling me to action:

  • The timeframe for many key forecasts has been compressing; the pace of change seems to be accelerating
  • Many locations have had - and are still having - extreme weather that may as well be climate change impacts even if they're not referred to as such
  • We're not going to reverse the climate change process and impacts for a long, long time
  • We're going to go through at least a decades-long period of "unstable" and extreme weather
  • Adaptation is defined by the location where climate impacts take place
  • Local is where the rubber meets the road in terms of government involvement with its constituents
  • Local governments have yet to begin addressing adaptation planning for their local conditions and populations
  • The Web is being underused as a local information and collaboration medium on climate
I'm proposing that we begin building a global network of local civic center sites that operate through enlightened (or at least willing) local government agencies to:
  1. inform their citizens about the latest science, news and commentary on climate change
  2. involve them in risk assessment and civic deliberation on planning issues
  3. support collaborative activities among citizens, businesses, groups and government
At the same time, these local sites will be networked to share knowledge and experience about risks and situations they have in common. All sites will contribute knowledge to a global knowledge base that anyone can draw from.

Yes, this is actually a serious business proposition. I'm taking the unorthodox path of announcing it here for anyone who might be interested in helping to get it off the ground. I'm calling it AdaptLocal, and here's a short version of the proposition.

Please circulate. Contact info is on the site or just comment here. Ciao.

Naomi Oreskes - A History of Denialism

Thanks to Joe Romm at Climate Progress for pointing us to this video of a presentation by science historian Naomi Oreskes. Joe has some good background on the lecture.

This meticulously put together presentation explains a lot about the uncertainty expressed by the America people when asked to describe their feelings about global warming. You've heard all these same tired arguments for years now. Oreskes reveals the original script writers.

Here's the YouTube intro:

Polls show that between one-third and one-half of Americans still believe that there is "no solid" evidence of global warming, or that if warming is happening it can be attributed to natural variability. Others believe that scientists are still debating the point. Join scientist and renowned historian Naomi Oreskes as she describes her investigation into the reasons for such widespread mistrust and misunderstanding of scientific consensus and probes the history of organized campaigns designed to create public doubt and confusion about science.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The link between strange and extreme weather and climate change. Does it matter?

The powerful killer tornados that blasted across the Southeast on Tuesday were - according to Dr. Jeff Masters, the most deadly mid-winter tornados in recorded history with the exception of a storm in January, 1949. The drought that continues to plague northern Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas is equally unusual in that region's history.

Scientists and responsible science writers (such as Chris Mooney) are admitting that in both cases - and in general - they must be very cautious about attributing these oddball extremes to climate change.

Fair enough. That's how science should and must be. But really, does it matter? If we are witnessing hundreds of broken records for temperature, rainfall and drought in the course of a year, there's a gut level instinct that tells you something is changing in the world. No one has yet defined how we'll mark the official, scientifically sanctioned and approved beginning of Climate Change. No one has described how we will someday look back on history and set a pushpin on a timeline and declare, "This is when the climate began to change."

We certainly can't say that just because over 50 people were killed in February tornados this year, we can expect to see such patterns repeated from now on. The most certain thing we can say about climate change is that its behavior will be uncertain. Our weather patterns may change, but they may not settle into any patterns at all.

I think it's fair to say that having the Arctic ice cover disappear, having countless glaciers retreat, having severe flooding in England, catastrophic drought in Australia and shrinking snowpack in the Rockies all represent changes in...something. We can studiously avoid blaming these facts on global warming, but not if it means denying that they are happening.

Monday, February 4, 2008

UK leading citizens in local flood protection

The Goole region of Great Britain was heavily flooded last year and is a high risk area for flooding in the future, if recent weather patterns persist. Britain's Environmental Agency is issuing guidance for local Members of Parlaiment for how to lead their constituents in preparing for floods and mitigating damage from them. As the Goole MP described it,

"Flooding is a real threat to people living in my constituency and it is vital that they listen to the Environment Agency's advice on protecting themselves and their home.

"Signing up to Floodline is a great service that will give you the best possible warning of a flood.

"Making a flood plan and getting a flood kit together takes a few moments, but can make an enormous difference if there is a flood."
As ever, the EA is trying to balance the need for building new homes with the risks of building them in known floodplains. (I still don't understand how new homes can be built on floodplains. It just stretches the bounds of reason!)

Take a class; get to water your lawn

Here's a new twist in drought adaptation from Georgia, where citizens who have been under a lawn watering ban since last September may be allowed a limited reprieve in exchange for attending a class on water conservation.

Green attitudes: same old action

The good news from a USA Today article reporting on a recent poll, is that a majority of Americans considers global warming to be "a very serious problem. The bad news is that it's a slim majority (62%) and that a very small percentage of those who support taking "green" action to mitigate global warming are taking the actions they advocate.

The author of the study, Edward Maibach - head of the climate center at George Mason University - observed that there's a strong need to raise more awareness of the situation and cited growing concern among behavior experts that "there has been too much fear-mongering and not enough emphasis on what people can do." Unfortunately, the acknowledgement of the problem reflects the political divide in the country.

Democrats are about three times more likely than Republicans to see high danger in global warming and think they can do something about it. But Democrats are living only slightly more green than Republicans.
Hey, folks, the climate is non-partisan!

This is where I'm convinced that local focus on the potential impacts of climate change on the places where people live and work is the most direct route to getting them to engage in the issue. It's not abstract when you look at global warming through the lens of your own experience. If you can visualize dramatic change in terms of how it may affect your daily life, it's that much more real to you. And it frames the answer to the question, "what can people do?"

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Georgia drought: tension in the air about water

They held a public meeting was held about the water crisis in metro Atlanta. The conveners placed the meeting in Gainesville, next to Lake Lanier - the reservoir whose cracked, dry bottom has become the poster child for the lengthening drought. Present to address the current were officials from regional water planning, local development planning and the Atlanta area chamber of commerce. Harold Reheis, a planning consultant, quoted below, provided some straight talk about the situation.

For all the big guns of local policy who were there to speak and answer questions, it's a bit disappointing that only 125 people showed up as an audience. Maybe the feeling of powerlessness has taken over. Certainly one of the quotes published indicated the dissatisfaction with explanations that must be running through the community.

Reheis, former director of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, forecast more drought in the future - if not an extension of the current one, then something as bad or worse in the future.

"There will be a worse drought," said Harold Reheis, who served as EPD director from 1991 to 2003. "I don’t know if it will be 10 years from now or 100 years, but it’s coming."
He also offered some tough love to those in regions outside of Atlanta who have complained that the metro area has been using more than its fair share of the limited supplies.
Reheis said he hopes the comprehensive plan will reduce the "paranoia" that the rest of Georgia seems to have about metro Atlanta. Some people accuse Atlanta of consuming more than its share of water.

"I hope there will be less whining, once all the facts are out there about how much water metro Atlanta actually uses," Reheis said.

He pointed out that Georgia law does not allow a community to withdraw so much water that it dries up a stream.

"Folks downstream need water, too," he said. "Some of our neighbor states don’t have that policy. Some of those states don’t regulate water withdrawal at all."

He said in Georgia, a municipal water source must be reliable enough to yield water even during a "drought of record." The state’s current drought is the new drought of record, so it is the standard by which new water sources will be measured.

"You’re going to have to build more and bigger reservoirs in the future," Reheis said.

Drought in the Southwest - "There are no knowns right now"

My wife, visiting family in Scottsdale, Arizona, called me this morning to tell me about a front page article in the Arizona Republic titled Climate-change realities could ruin water planning. The article was inspired by a new study reported in Science magazine - Stationarity Is Dead: Whither Water Management?

The killer quote (I thought) that wraps the AZ Repub article was this one, by Larry Dozier, deputy general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which delivers Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson:

"There are no knowns right now," Dozier said. "We have no more certainty."

Adaptation will be more an exercise of living with uncertainty that one of changing the way we live for a new steady-state environment. It won't be like traveling to another country and bringing the right clothes to fit a different climate. It will be more like being taken without any control to one new location after another, with surprise weather greeting you in each destination. You'd better bring everything from your swimming trunks to your down parka.

The article does a good job of explaining why the warm and heavy rains that have fallen on Arizona so far this winter are not the answer to its water shortage problems. The entire strategy of water management in the largely desert region of the American Southwest is based on snowpack. The real water storage should be held in the form of snow in the mountains of Arizona, Colorado and Utah, then released gradually to replenish reservoirs during the dry and hot summer months. If the winter precipitation falls as rain, it rapidly fills reservoirs to capacity, forcing releases of overflow into river channels - effectively wasting water that would have been available later in the year had it been in frozen state.

Authors of the Science article were interviewed for the newspaper article.

In the Science magazine article, researchers say that human-caused changes in the climate will play havoc on the averages and extremes used to plan for floods, droughts and water storage. Those measurements help determine how much water needs to be stored or how cities allocate resources.

"Climate change magnifies the possibility that the future will bring droughts or floods you never saw in your old measurements," said Christopher Milly, the study's lead author and a research hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

"For agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, this would mean fundamental changes in the way they do business," Milly said.

Scientists can't offer a solution yet, beyond urging water managers to consider a wider range of possibilities as they plan for the future.

"We need to have enough flexibility to change course in case the system goes in a way it hasn't before," said Kelly Redmond, deputy director of the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, one of six climate-study centers overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"We have to plan for possibly being in a new regime," Redmond said.

Whether the current drought represents a new regime is still unknown, Redmond said, but that question looms large in front of researchers.

"We know from the tree-ring records that the Southwest does experience long droughts on its own," he said. "Is it one of those droughts, or is it a new type of drought? That's what we don't know."