Of Bathtubs, Fracking, and Climate Treaties

Imagine a person who has a bad diet – too much meat, carbohydrates, sugars, that sort of thing.  A bad diet doesn’t kill a person right away, so it is extraordinarily difficult for this person to change his or her ways.  As the cholesterol accumulates, perhaps the changes are small and incremental – puffing when climbing the stairs, feeling tired easily because of not enough muscle mass and lowered metabolism.  Plus presumably our protagonist has to work, or has to look after other people, or both, and there is no time to think about a problem that doesn’t yet feel life-threatening.

Until our hero keels over one day due to a heart attack.

The problem of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere is similar to this problem.  It turns out that temperature rise depends on the total accumulation of carbon.  It doesn’t really matter if the carbon dioxide accumulated was done so in a brief burst or over a long period of time.  The point is that the total amount of carbon dioxide is what will affect the health of the planet.  So, just one indulgence in, say, a rich ten-course meal won’t necessarily kill our hero – it’s the total amount of crap in the blood vessels that counts.

Climate change is thus known as a “stock pollutant” problem, as I learned from the lectures of Dr. David Victor in last week’s lectures (UCSD’s Climate Change in 4 Dimensions course).  The challenge of such problems is that even though we know what steps to take, people are not motivated to act to prevent a future catastrophe, because the perception is that the consequences are distant and the effort to change things feels like too much.  In fact it is economically far more feasible and sensible to make changes before disaster hits, but tell that to the powers that be.  Or tell that to our hero, who is staring fiendishly at an invitingly greasy hamburger.

Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a very long time, over three time scales.  Soil and the upper ocean absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere within a couple of hundred years, while the deep ocean has a cycle of about a thousand years.  Then there is the slow absorption by the solid earth, what is known as the silicate cycle, barely perceptible on human time-scales – this takes hundreds of thousands to a million years.  Thus if we dumped a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere, it would take about forever to be re-absorbed by natural systems, at least on as far as humans are concerned.

So the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is what affects temperature.  We can simulate this through a bathtub analogy, where the water gushing from the tap represents the CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere, and the drain represents the abovementioned natural absorbers.  For the past 800,000 years that we have been able to look back through time via paleoclimate data, natural CO2 emissions have occurred at about the same rate as absorption, keeping atmospheric CO2 concentration at a steady average of 280 ppm.  This means the flow rates of the tap and drain match well enough, so that the bathtub contains a constant volume of water.  The bathtub content, of course, represents the CO2 in the atmosphere.

There are two ways humans have messed with the bathtub – we’ve increased the flow rate of water from the tap (burning fossil fuels), and we’ve partly blocked the drain (land-use changes such as deforestation, which decreases carbon absorption).  This means the water level is going to go up – and up, and up, if we don’t do something about it.

How much we are doing about it — which is to say, very little, if anything — is captured in the very readable summary “The Copenhagen Diagnosis,” penned by a group of prominent climate scientists as an update to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change after its Fourth Assessment Report.  (Note that the IPCC came up with a draft of its Fifth Assessment Report, AR5, in September 2013).  Dr. Somerville, who led the first half of this week’s lectures, is co-author.  The summary is lucid and a must-read.

The “stock pollutant” category of problems, according to Dr. Victor, are the ones that are harder to solve, since people are better motivated by issues that cause immediate catastrophe.  With regard to climate change we are like the proverbial frogs in the pan of water on the stove.  The warming is so subtle and gradual that we don’t even know we are in trouble – we might, in fact, enjoy the warmth, even thank the stove – until things get too hot for comfort.

So – people are better motivated to fix issues that have immediate negative consequences.  I can imagine that is in part human nature, and maybe in part the fact that urban culture encourages instant gratification.  We don’t have time to think about the future, even a few years from now.  To what extent is this cultural?  To what extent is it related to the speeding up of our lives?  This is something for psychologists and sociologists to answer.

But getting back to the issue of perceived immediacy – there is a climate issue that reportedly has immediate consequences – fracking.  The process of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and natural gas from tar sands is fraught with controversy.  Proponents claim that when well managed, it can be of benefit, as natural gas can provide a ‘transition fuel’ toward a zero carbon economy, being so much more efficient to burn than coal.  Opponents speak of poisoning of water, earth tremors, release of methane from the fracking process, and the fact that once you set up the infrastructure for natural gas, you’ve effectively delayed the transition to zero carbon energy sources.  Fracking has grown so quickly that communities and governments have not had time to study the issues.  There is no transparency for communities that are directly affected by fracking, as a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists states.  The anti-democratic nature of the fracking enterprise is deeply troubling.

The UCS report doesn’t take a stand on whether fracking is bad for communities or the environment.  It speaks to what communities need to know before they can make a decision.  This blog from UCS explains very clearly how science defines risk, and that ultimately it is up to communities to determine how much risk they consider acceptable.

And then there’s the Keystone XL pipeline issue.  Extracting natural gas from the Athabasca tar sands, James Hansen told us, would be “game over” for the climate.  Realclimate, a wonderful blog about climate from actual climate scientists, analyzed this statement and concluded that Hansen was in the right ball park.

Perhaps it is a good idea to get behind the anti-fracking movement not only for its immediate consequences but also because it is a way to draw attention to climate change in general.  Some view the fracking issue as a distraction from the ‘real’ issue of stopping carbon emissions, but it might well be the loop in the rug that trips the oil enterprise.

Dr. Victor’s lectures on the international law aspects of climate change, “Why Climate Change is an International Problem,” were revealing to me.  The science part seems easy in comparison to tangled webs of trade relations and treaties.  Completing my reading of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change made me feel virtuous.  Here are some things that stood out from Dr. Victor’s lectures:

  •   A 2011 graph from the World Economic Forum plotting GDP per capita against “quality of electricity supply” shows quite clearly that high GDP is correlated with better electricity supply.  Well, we knew that. Post-industrial-revolution capitalism exists by virtue of fossil fuels, so economic growth also means more carbon emissions.  (See here for the IPAT equation and the Kaya Identity, which attempt to quantify human impact via the relation to economics and other factors).  Exceptions are Norway and Sweden, who have high GDP and low emissions.  Yay for the Scandinavians!
  • CO2 emissions embodied in goods – before 1990, developing countries didn’t export too many goods whose extraction or manufacture emitted carbon. But a consequence of globalization and in particular the growth of China has resulted in a situation where, for instance, China might make steel and ship it to the United States.  Under this scenario it is not fair to charge China for emissions that were a result of manufacturing goods for the US. It seems that now the situation is flipped compared to pre-1990s.  Developing countries are exporting more embodied goods than industrialized nations.  No wonder climate is an international problem.  What a tangled web we weave when we globalize!
  • One of the most useful things I learned was “how to read a treaty.” So, next time you’re sitting down with a cup of tea and a treaty, look for these things:

a) What are the obligations of the signees?  What are the major        commitments, flexibilities, and when does enforcement commence?

b) What is the context for interpreting the treaty?  Read the Preamble, definitions and goal

c) Interpretation and Adjustment – how are decisions to be made?  What are the subsidiary bodies?  How is voting carried out?  What about amendments and adjustments?  How are disputes settled?

This should all come in useful next week when we get to read the Montreal Protocol, as part of a discussion on the ozone problem and whether and to what extent it might serve as a model for the climate change issue.  

Note in passing: There is a great deal of public confusion regarding ozone and climate change.  While there are connections between the two issues, they are two separate problems with entirely different mechanisms.  It is not true that UV radiation from the ozone hole is warming the planet.  Nor is it true that the ozone layer “keeps in” the CO2.  I am scratching my head, wondering where these misconceptions are coming from.   Science literacy, anyone?  


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