Thursday, September 29, 2011

Global Warming, the Kyoto Protocol, and 350 - Oh My!

Tammy, Luke, Zoe, and Mikah

Last Saturday It was my pleasure to attend one of 2000 events in 175 plus countries concerning Global Warming and Climate Change, sponsored, or organized by 350-Moving Planet. Here's their website:
Here's what they say is their mission: " is building a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis. Our online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions are led from the bottom up by thousands of volunteer organizers in over 188 countries."
The number 350 refers to 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth's atmosphere. 350 ppm is considered the safe upper limit for CO2... anything more and we'll be seeing things like melting glaciers, depriving millions of drinking water; the spread of mosquitoes and insect born disease; drought, making agriculture impossible in some places around the world creating famine; rise in sea levels which may inundate coastal cities, island nations, and vulnerable farmland, acidic oceans (due to CO2 adsorbtion), which devastates corals and other forms of sea life, etc.
Here's a little animation which illustrates the point:
Unfortunately for all of us living things, the current CO2 levels equal about 392 ppm, which for those of you who were bad at math like me, is more than 350.
The implication here is that we humans need to reduce the total amount of atmospheric CO2 down to at least 350 ppm. As the 350 people (which now includes me) like to say: "350 is more than a number—it's a symbol of where we need to head as a planet."
The United States is one of the biggest air polluters on Earth, by some measures the biggest. But we have a whole political party devoted to denying the effects of global warming and climate change. They're called Republicans. The Republicans, headed by rich industrialists like David and Charles Koch, deny climate change because to reduce CO2 emissions would be bad for their businesses. They prefer accumulating money to breathing I guess, as if they didn't already have enough cash (both of them combined are worth 50 billion dollars).
Foreigners think we're crazy ( I don't blame them. Republicans, and their Tea Bagger minions are crazy. They're sociopathic, just like David and Charles.
Anyway, as I said I attended the Los Angeles rally right on the southern lawn of city hall. It was fun. Lots of people were there. Some brought pizza, but didn't have enough for everybody, so I got assed out on that. No pizza for Ricky.
Such is life.
But we weren't there to eat pizza, damn it. We were there to talk, and become aware of climate change.
A nice man by the name of Luke Massman-Johnson (picture above, along with his lovely wife Tammy, and his lovely daughters, Zoe and Mikah) spoke about it, and tomorrow I'm going to publish what it was that he said.
Today however I'm going to publish a kind of introduction to the subject that Luke Emailed to me, so we can all be better prepared for tomorrow's speech.
It's very important, so please pay attention. Global warming will effect all of us surely, it already is with the extreme weather events around the country. But it will surely effect our children, and their children, much, much more.
And don't worry, dear readers, Luke has made reading this very interesting.
By the way, the title for this post came from Luke, and is actually the title of this overview. Just thought you'd like to know.

A Global Warming & Climate Change Overview for The Oaks School Green Committee
© 2009 Luke Massman-Johnson

Which is it: Global Warming or Climate Change?
Global Warming and Climate Change are closely related and often confused, but there is an important distinction. Global Warming refers to a rise in the average temperature of the entire globe, while Climate Change is the changing weather patterns of a particular region of the world due to Global Warming.
Over the past century, average worldwide temperatures have risen between 1°F and 1.6°F. They have risen twice as fast in the recent 50 years as they did in the 50 before that.
At the same time, the increased energy of Global Warming in the atmosphere will make the weather in many places more volatile. Worldwide increases in droughts and wildfires, storms and floods are already evidence that Climate Change will make most places hotter and dryer overall, but a few locations potentially cooler and wetter.
So why is there still debate on Global Warming?
The remaining debate on Global Warming isn’t on the science, it’s on policy. The science is irrefutable. But some politicians and pundits will intentionally conflate Global Warming with Climate Change in an attempt to introduce uncertainty in a scientific matter that has already been proven. For example, the dwindling ranks of Global Warming skeptics will claim that Global Warming can’t be real because there are places that actually got colder or received more snow than before. But as we just discussed, Global Warming is a worldwide average rise in temperature over decades, and volatile Climate Change is precisely the reason some parts of the world can have cold snaps or heavy rains even while the overall global temperature is increasing. Momentary events and singular locations don’t disprove a rising average that spans many years.
In short, no one is still debating Global Warming except in the halls of the US Congress and on
conservative radio & TV. Virtually every reputable climate scientist and top scientific associations from almost every country on the planet have come to the same unequivocal conclusion: Global Warming and Climate Change are real, they are caused by the excessive CO2 emissions of our modern civilization, and they are accelerating.
How come some people say we only have a couple years to address Global Warming while others say we’re OK for another 50?
Predicting Climate Change on a global scale for a decade or five into the future, including the effects of rapid industrialization in developing nations, is phenomenally complex. So yes, since research began several decades ago the timelines and thresholds for Global Warming have been adjusted.
But get this: each year as the science gets better and the evidence more incontrovertible, corrections have been made because it turns out the scientists have continually underestimated the coming impacts. The climate’s red-flag warning signs (droughts, collapsing glaciers, disappearing polar ice caps, coral bleaching, etc) are coming faster and with more force than even the pessimists expected.
So how do we fix it? Let’s start by understanding what makes Global Warming tick ...
Carbon who?
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a naturally occurring gas and a necessary part of life on Earth. Everything in the animal kingdom — yes, that includes you and me — exhales CO2. Happily, everything in the plant kingdom inhales CO2, and in turn exhales Oxygen. It has worked out really nicely for all living things over the past 2 or 3 billion years.
Are you’re telling me too many people are exhaling? I thought cars and factories were the problem.
People breathing isn’t the problem – it’s people burning. Carbon Dioxide is created by the burning of wood, coal, natural gas, and oil. And in just a few hundred years our species has fueled the explosive growth of our civilization by burning. We burn wood to clear land, for heat, and to cook. We burn coal to smelt metal, to boil water into steam to power early machines and trains, and to spin the turbines which today generate the vast majority of electricity worldwide. Did you know your computer and cell phone, and even a 100% electric car, are all powered primarily by coal, the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels? We burn natural gas in furnaces, water heaters, stoves and BBQs. We refine oil into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel and it burns in virtually every lawn mower, car, freight truck, train, ship, and airplane.
Life as we know it is built on burning, and burning at the scale we do it pumps unnatural and unsustainable volumes of CO2 in the atmosphere.
It’s a good thing trees and plants love to breathe all that CO2, right?
Exactly. They’re like our very best friend (sorry, Fido). Except ... in our rush to make room for our factories, cars, malls, and runways, we shot ourselves in the foot: we clear-cut the forests which would have scrubbed the air clean for us, and erected countless CO2 spewing ‘conveniences’ in their place.
I still don’t understand how CO2 is making us warmer ...
The atmosphere — the air, the sky — is a 50 mile thick blanket with miraculous abilities. It allows plants and animals to breathe. It recycles fresh water through rain and snow into rivers and lakes for us to drink. It shields the surface of the Earth from the harmful cosmic radiation in space, while simultaneously maintaining a cozy life-sustaining temperature down here on the ground. And it does all this with a deceptively simple recipe: 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, and almost 1% Argon.
Wait, that’s almost 100%. Sooo ... where’s the CO2?
Are you sitting down? The much maligned but critically important Carbon Dioxide — the epicenter of the entire Global Warming drama — compromises less than four hundredths of one percent (.039%) of the big blue yonder. If the atmosphere were $100, CO2 is less than 4¢!
What? How can a cheapskate 4-cent gas tip the balance of life on Earth?
Well, Carbon Dioxide turns out to be extremely potent at trapping heat. When sunlight shines down through the atmosphere, some of its energy bounces off the Earth and radiates back out into space. But CO2, and a few other trace gasses like Methane, act like a glass ceiling within the atmosphere, trapping some of that heat energy and earning their nickname ‘greenhouse gases’.
Are you suggesting we need to get rid of greenhouse gasses?
No. A natural level of greenhouse gasses is not only good, it’s essential. In fact, life as we know it couldn’t have come into being without an atmosphere and the greenhouse effect already in place. The Earth, and life evolving on it, have had some 3 billion years to develop their delicate balance, but anthropogenic (human-made) carbon emissions have dramatically increased the natural CO2 levels beyond a sustainable limit in the atmosphere.
So how do we know what is a safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere?
Now we’re getting somewhere. 350 parts per million (350ppm) is what virtually all professional climate scientists around the world acknowledge is the highest safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Anything higher than 350ppm is unsustainable and must be reduced. Think of it as a speed limit on our lifestyle.
OK I get it: we’ve got to keep CO2 below 350. Where are we at today?
More bad news. For the 20 million years of human evolution, CO2 content in the atmosphere has been around 270 parts per million (.027%). In stark contrast, our most recent 100 years of civilization have spiked CO2 to 390ppm (.039%).
GIANT RED FLAG WARNING: We are already well beyond the 350 danger point and rising fast.
How much time do we have to get it back down below 350?
Climate models indicate we need to be below 350 by 2025. That may sound like a long way off, but consider that we first need to slow the rising curve, then flatten it off before we can bend it back down — all while population, consumption, and energy use continue to climb exponentially. Furthermore, we can see on a graph that we have to be at the highest point of that curve by 2015.
2015. Folks, that’s just 4 years away! Keep in mind that President Obama is by far the climate-friendliest president we’ve had since Carter. But with the economy, healthcare, and a war in the Middle East commanding his attention, he has been unable to focus seriously on Global Warming. If we don’t get him to sign the Kyoto Protocol this December (exactly 8 weeks from today!) we will have lost our best and most timely chance to head off a downward spiral.
The implications of missing this opportunity are serious. By 2015 we may be at or beyond the point-of-noreturn on unchecked emissions, and we could be in the hands of a different administration even less able to move forward on Global Warming.
What happens if we don’t reduce the excess CO2 in the atmosphere?
Answers to this have already filled many books and websites, all with one thing in common: the predictions range from bleak to disastrous.
We’ve all heard about polar bears drowning, rising sea levels threatening coastal cities, and that our grandchildren might never ski. Those issues pale compared to some of the outcomes researched by strategic global think tanks, including the US Department of Defense (not your typical hippie liberal tree huggers). Just over the edge of Global Warming are dozens of scenarios that threaten civilization worldwide. Here are two that strike me as especially worrisome:
1. Resource conflicts (aka water and food). Glaciers around the world are melting radically faster than even the most pessimistic Global Warming alarmists predicted just a few years ago. The Himalayan glaciers provide fresh water to billions of people in India and SE Asia. As they dwindle, clean water for drinking and crop irrigation will become scarce. The likelihood of resource conflicts and billions of ecorefugees amidst some of the worlds poorest countries is a nightmare that would dwarf the Holocaust.
Meanwhile in Africa there is plenty of evidence to suggest that droughts, crop failures, and a lack of clean water are entangled in the many heartbreaking struggles with disease, malnutrition, tribal conflict, genocide, and mass displacement.
2. Irreversible tipping points (aka bio-feedback loops). If we allow more than a 2°C rise in average global temperatures, then human-made Global Warming will slip beyond our ability to reverse it as the Earth takes over and heats herself more and more. We simply must not allow ourselves to sink into this scenario. The alarming end begins in the most unalarming ways, and we’re sliding into them already.
For example, every square foot of white snow on glaciers and ice caps reflects most of the sunlight energy that hits it (that’s what makes it bright white). But ice melts with just one degree warming — the threshold between 32°F and 33°F. And as each square foot melts, it reveals dark tundra or black ocean underneath. Those dark colors absorb almost all of the sunlight energy that hits them (that’s what makes them dark). The warming ground and ocean heat up the next square of ice faster than the previous, and the Earth begins heating itself. Keep in mind there is no way for humans to re-freeze the glaciers, and they are already melting decades sooner than we assumed just a couple years ago. But wait! There’s more. Melting tundra is a double-whammy feedback. As the permafrost layer melts, trillions of tons of organic matter warms and then gasses off Methane. Methane is 21 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. As it joins the CO2 in the atmosphere even more Solar radiation is trapped, accelerating the entire process. There are biofeedback loops in the jungle and ocean too – the two places doing most of the CO2 scrubbing from our factories and cars right now.
Well crap. Anything else you’d like to throw on the pile?
Sorry, yes. GIANT RED FLAG WARNING: The world’s best climatologists suggest that even if we lower CO2 levels to 350ppm by 2025, we may still only have a 50/50 chance of stopping runaway Global Warming!
I know I know ... all this alarmist drama sounds like science fiction. But this calculation is coming from the very top, including NASA’s Dr. James Hansen (father of Global Warming science) and the UK’s Meteorological Office.
Not convinced? >
I’m losing hope. My eyes are crossing. I have to pee.
Believe it or not, this is where the silver lining starts to show. Because finally, this is where you and I can jump in and help with their Day of Climate Action on October 24th. The campaign is designed to focus worldwide attention on the United Nations climate committee, to bear witness that people from all walks of life understand the urgency of Global Warming and 350ppm, and to pressure the UN to include 350 in the update to the Kyoto Protocol this December in Copenhagen.
Learn more about and see inspiring “climate actions” from around the globe >
Kyoto what?
The Kyoto Protocol is the closest thing humans have to a worldwide agreement outlining how all countries need to move toward a sustainable future. It was first negotiated in 1997 and signed by many countries by 1999. But the treaty required that at least 55% of the world join in before it could become ‘active’. The U.S. and China both declined, preventing the 55% compliance, so it wasn’t until Russia joined in 2005 that the Kyoto Protocol finally went into effect. It is now signed by 183 of the 195 countries in the world.
The Kyoto Protocol is far from perfect; as a worldwide law affecting every nation’s society and economy there is understandably much debate about it’s approach, its priorities, and it’s enforcement.
Still it’s the best we have so far, and it is especially important that all major industrialized nations sign on because it lays the foundation for essential international regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon cap-and-trade agreements. Portions of the treaty even attempt to navigate the disparity between poor non-industrialized nations who don’t pollute, newly industrialized nations who are polluting to pull their citizens out of poverty, and first world countries who have historically created the vast majority of the pollution.
The United States is one of only a couple nations who still haven’t ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but we are arguably the most conspicuously absent.
But China now pollutes more than we do. What about them?
When the first Kyoto Protocol was written in ‘97, China was still counted among the ‘developing’ nations and therefore wasn’t required to shoulder as much of the Kyoto burden as fully industrialized nations like the U.S. Of course since then China is modernizing at an astronomical rate. They are putting a new coalfired power plant on line every week (!) to power their new civilization, and their nation’s total CO2 emissions just recently eclipsed those of the U.S. They are now the single largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world and their responsibility in the Kyoto Protocol needs to be revisited.
China’s role in the Kyoto Protocol has been a very contentious point in Western politics. The debate in both countries during the Bush administration was a game of “you first” and it has cost the entire world an excruciating 8 years of delayed collaboration.
Before the U.S. gets righteous about China’s new emission numbers, though, we might consider these two points. First, the United States sustained two centuries of industrial growth and modernization without any consideration of carbon emissions at all. Our way of life flourished because we used energy with abandon.
And second, China’s population is about 4 times that of the US, so on a per-capita basis — which I think is the fair comparison — we still pollute about 4 times what that of the modernizing Chinese do.
Regardless of the politics, it is absolutely critical that both the U.S. and China come to agreements and join the rest of the nations in ratifying Kyoto this December.
What’s so important about this December?
For the past 6 months the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been drafting an update of the Kyoto Protocol to be ready for signatures at the Climate Summit in Copenhagen this December. This new draft must include 350 as a benchmark, or regulations and emission controls will have no enforceable targets. And of course if the U.S. and China don’t sign, meaningful international legislation can’t happen and the world will have to wait even longer for us to find our integrity.
Remember: the consensus of scientists agree that in 5 years, by 2015, we need to have stopped the worldwide growth curve on CO2 emissions, so that we can start reducing them over the following decade.
And even if we do, we still have only a 50/50 chance of avoiding runaway Global Warming!
Global Warming isn’t waiting. We can’t afford to either.
Thus endeth the overview.

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