Archive for February, 2008

A new blog on water policy and science, technology, law and so on

February 29th, 2008

Posted by: admin

So many blogs, so little time! Here’s another interesting blog from our students, this one on water policy and its intersection with a myriad of scientific and other issues. Recent posts have addressed riparian issues, acid mine drainage, and “National Science Day”. Check it out here. Comments welcome!

New blog on the Endangered Species Act and science policy

February 29th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Introducing you to a blog from one of our students on the science policy of the Endangered Species Act. The blog asks questions such as “how much science do we need?” and “how do we balance different values”? Check it out here. Comments welcome!

Matthews and Caldeira on the Mitigation Challenge

February 28th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Just when you thought that the mitigation challenge was dismal, Matthews and Caldeira publish a paper in GRL suggesting that things are in fact worse than that:

In the absence of human intervention to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere [e.g., Keith et al., 2006], each unit of CO2 emissions must be viewed as leading to quantifiable and essentially permanent climate change on centennial timescales. We emphasize that a stable global climate is not synonymous with stable radiative forcing, but rather requires decreasing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. We have shown here that stable global temperatures within the next several centuries can be achieved if CO2 emissions are reduced to nearly zero. This means that avoiding future human-induced climate warming may require policies that seek not only to decrease CO2 emissions, but to eliminate them entirely.

Have we mentioned that air capture is coming? And that is whether we like it or not.

Air Capture in the U.S. Congress

February 25th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Senator John Barosso (R-WY) has introduced a bill promoting a technology policy for air capture research, including prizes for technological achievements. From the press release:

U.S. Senator John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has introduced a bill aimed at developing technology to remove existing excess green houses gases from the atmosphere and permanently sequester them.

The “Greenhouse Gas Emission Atmospheric Removal Act,” or GEAR Act, will establish an award system for scientists and researchers.

“My proposal takes a new look at climate change,” Barrasso said. “This approach removes excess greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere. The GEAR Act aims to tap into human potential and the American spirit to develop the technological solutions we need to address climate change.”

“Where ever you find yourself on the issue of climate change, we can agree on one important dynamic – change not only awaits us – it is banging on the door. We need to change it on our terms before Washington ’s massive bureaucracy changes it for us.”

“It makes sense that we explore proposals to remove and permanently sequester excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to slow or reverse climate change. The best way to develop the technology we need to achieve this is through a system of financial awards, or prizes, for achieving technological goals established by Congress.”

“Putting strict limits on our economy is not the answer to climate change. A healthy economy that spurs American ingenuity makes more sense to me.”

Mark Northam, Director of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming , said: “Removal of greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere is the Holy Grail of climate change mitigation solutions. As currently envisioned, successful technologies will mimic natural processes and over time will help to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at acceptable levels.”

The full text of the bill follows after the jump.


A Sense of Proportion

February 25th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

3rd runway protest.jpg

At London’s Heathrow airport today environmental activists evaded security and climbed onto the tail of a British Air 777 to protest plans for building a third runway at the airport.

Meantime, last month the Chinese government announced plans to build 97 new airports in the next 12 years.

China announced plans Saturday to build nearly 100 new airports by 2020 to cater for soaring demand.

The proposals will mean eight out of every ten residents will live within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of an airport within 12 years, the General Administration of Civil Aviation said.

It put the cost of building the 97 new airports at 450 billion yuan (61.6 billion dollars).

Air traffic volume rose 16 percent to 185 million passengers in 2007, according to official figures.

The General Administration predicts passenger traffic will grow by 11.4 percent a year between now and 2020, and freight traffic by 14 percent.

The number of airports serving more than 30 million passengers a year will rise from three now to 13, it said.

New blog on carbon offsets and sequestration

February 22nd, 2008

Posted by: admin

Several students in our Science and Technology Policy class here at the University of Colorado are writing blogs for their projects this semester. I’d like to introduce you to them over a couple of posts. The first is called The Emission and covers issues related to carbon offsets, sequestration, and all things related to policy focusing on the carbon side of things. Please check it out!

R&D Funding – An Investment that Looks Like an Entitlement

February 20th, 2008

Posted by: admin

This post is prompted by the following quote from Raymond Orbach. Dr. Orbach is the head of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, one of the casualties of the government’s inability (or unwillingness) to fully fund the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). The ACI was announced in 2006, and, among other things, would double federal funding for the physical sciences at DOE, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The quote is taken from Dr. Orbach’s January 30 remarks at the Universities Research Association. (Hat tip from the American Institute of Physics’ FYI Bulletin. His remarks focused on the challenges facing the research community with the recent budget problems. I want to focus on the following quote for a particular idea.

“Compounding this danger is that we scientists tend to regard the proposed increases for the physical sciences under the American Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES Act as an entitlement. That attitude has failed us.”

Research funding as an entitlement? I’m guessing Orbach was hoping to get a rise out of people, but the idea is worth examining.


Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Spy Satellite Shootdown Attempt

February 20th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Navy is apparently going to try to shoot down that wayward spy satellite sometime in the next 48 hours. The attempt to shoot it down is justified in terms of protecting human life from the risk of harm caused by the satellite’s uncontrolled reentry. This post discusses whether or not the shoot down attempt can be justified in cost-benefit terms. I don’t think it can, at least in terms of the formal justifications provided by the U.S. government. There must be other factors involved. The costs per expected life saved are about $2-$3 billion dollars! Read on for details.


So Much for Peak Oil, Plug-In Hybrids, and Reliance on Foreign Dictators

February 18th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In the New York Times Kenneth Chang reports on a novel application of air capture of carbon dioxide that promises carbon neutral gasoline forever. If commercially viable the technology could prove enormously disruptive to all sorts of interests.

The idea is simple. Air would be blown over a liquid solution of potassium carbonate, which would absorb the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide would then be extracted and subjected to chemical reactions that would turn it into fuel: methanol, gasoline or jet fuel.

This process could transform carbon dioxide from an unwanted, climate-changing pollutant into a vast resource for renewable fuels. The closed cycle — equal amounts of carbon dioxide emitted and removed — would mean that cars, trucks and airplanes using the synthetic fuels would no longer be contributing to global warming.

Although they have not yet built a synthetic fuel factory, or even a small prototype, the scientists say it is all based on existing technology.

“Everything in the concept has been built, is operating or has a close cousin that is operating,” Dr. Martin said.

The Los Alamos proposal does not violate any laws of physics, and other scientists, like George A. Olah, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist at the University of Southern California, and Klaus Lackner, a professor of geophysics at Columbia University, have independently suggested similar ideas. Dr. Martin said he and Dr. Kubic had worked out their concept in more detail than previous proposals.

There is, however, a major caveat that explains why no one has built a carbon-dioxide-to-gasoline factory: it requires a great deal of energy.

To deal with that problem, the Los Alamos scientists say they have developed a number of innovations, including a new electrochemical process for detaching the carbon dioxide after it has been absorbed into the potassium carbonate solution. The process has been tested in Dr. Kubic’s garage, in a simple apparatus that looks like mutant Tupperware.

Even with those improvements, providing the energy to produce gasoline on a commercial scale — say, 750,000 gallons a day — would require a dedicated power plant, preferably a nuclear one, the scientists say.

According to their analysis, their concept, which would cost about $5 billion to build, could produce gasoline at an operating cost of $1.40 a gallon and would turn economically viable when the price at the pump hits $4.60 a gallon, taking into account construction costs and other expenses in getting the gas to the consumer. With some additional technological advances, the break-even price would drop to $3.40 a gallon, they said.

If their economic numbers are even close to the mark then air capture is coming to a refinery near you. Are you ready?

Climate Model Predictions and Adaptation

February 18th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

At a recent conference on adaptation in London, I co-authored a presented paper (with Suraje Dessai, Mike Hulme, and Rob Lempert) on the the role of climate model forecasts in support of adaptation. Our argument is that climate models don’t forecast very well on time and spatial scales of relevance to decision makers facing adaptation choices, and even if they did, given irreducible uncertainties robust decision making is a better approach than seeking to optimize.

For more evidence of why it is that climate models are of little predictive use in adaptation decision making, consider the recent discussion of cooling in Antarctica and the southern oceans from RealClimate:

The pioneer climate modelers Kirk Bryan and Syukuro Manabe took up the question with a more detailed model that revealed an additional effect. In the Southern Ocean around Antarctica the mixing of water went deeper than in Northern waters, so more volumes of water were brought into play earlier. In their model, around Antarctica “there is no warming at the sea surface, and even a slight cooling over the 50-year duration of the experiment.” In the twenty years since, computer models have improved by orders of magnitude, but they continue to show that Antarctica cannot be expected to warm up very significantly until long after the rest of the world’s climate is radically changed.

Bottom line: A cold Antarctica and Southern Ocean do not contradict our models of global warming. For a long time the models have predicted just that.

Today CSIRO in Australia reports that southern oceans have in fact been warming:

The longest continuous record of temperature changes in the Southern Ocean has found that Antarctic waters are warming and sea levels are rising, an Australian scientist said Monday.

I have no doubt that these observations of warming will also be found, somehow, to be consistent with predictions of climate models. And that is the problem; climate scientists, especially those involved in political advocacy for action on climate change, steadfastly refuse to describe what observations over the short term (i.e., when most adaptation decisions are made) would be inconsistent with model predictions. So all observations are consistent with predictions of climate models.

The reason for this situation of total ambiguity is a perceived need to maintain the public credibility of climate model predictions over the very long term in support of political action on climate change in the face of relentless attacks for politically motivated skeptics. So what do we get? Nonsensical and useless pronouncements such as a cooling southern ocean and a warming southern ocean are both consistent with climate model predictions, thus we can trust the models.

The lesson for decision makers grappling with adaptation to future climate changes? Make sure that your decisions are robust to a wide range of future possibilities, and use caution in seeking to optimize based on this or that prediction of the near-term future.