Category Archives: Science

Reality check: Society pays for carbon pollution and that's no benefit

This open letter, co-authored by Jeremy Proville and first published on EDF Voices, was written in response to a New York Times article citing Dr. Roger Bezdek’s report on “The Social Costs of Carbon? No, The Social Benefits of Carbon.”

Dear Dr. Bezdek,

After seeing so many peer-reviewed studies documenting the costs of carbon pollution, it’s refreshing to encounter some out-of-the-box thinking to the contrary. You had us with your assertion that: “Even the most conservative estimates peg the social benefit of carbon-based fuels as 50 times greater than its supposed social cost.” We almost quit our jobs and joined the coal lobby. Who wouldn’t want to work so selflessly for the greater good?

Then we looked at the rest of your report. Your central argument seems to be: Cheap fuels emit carbon; cheap fuels are good; so, by the transitive property of Huh?!, carbon is good. Pithy arguments are fine, but circular ones aren’t.

First off, cheap fuels are good. Or more precisely, cheap and efficient energy services are good. (Energy efficiency, of course, is good, too. Inefficiency clearly isn’t.) Cheap energy services have done wonders for the United States and the world, and they are still doing so. No one here is anti-energy; we are against ruining our planet while we are at it.

The high cost of cheap energy

Yes, the sadly still dominant fuels—by far not all—emit carbon pollution. Coal emits the most. Which is why the cost to society is so staggering. Forget carbon for a moment. Mercury poisoning from U.S. power plants alone causes everything from heart attacks to asthma to inhibiting cognitive development in children. The latter alone is responsible for estimated costs of $1.3 billion per year by knocking off IQ points in kids. All told, coal costs America $330 to 500 billion per year.

Put differently, every ton of coal—like every barrel of oil—causes more in external damages than it adds value to GDP. The costs faced by those deciding how much fossil fuel to burn are much lower than the costs faced by society.

None of that means we shouldn’t burn any coal or oil. It simply means those who profit from producing these fuels shouldn’t get a free ride on the taxpayer. Conservative estimates indicate that carbon pollution costs society about $40 per ton. And yes, that’s a cost.

Socializing the costs is not an option

As someone with a Ph.D. in economics, Dr. Bezdek, you surely understand the difference between private benefits and social costs. No one would be burning any coal if there weren’t benefits to doing so. However, the “social benefits” you ascribe to coal are anything but; in reality they are private, in the best sense of the word.

If you are the one burning coal, you benefit. If you are the one using electricity produced by burning coal, you benefit, too. To be clear, these are benefits. No one disputes that. It’s how markets work.

But markets also fail in a very important way. The bystanders who are breathing the polluted air are paying dearly. The costs, if you will, are socialized. Society—all of us—pays for them. That includes those who seemingly benefit from burning coal in the first place.

Your claim that what you call “social benefits” of coal dwarf the costs is wrong in theory and practice. In theory, because they are private benefits. As a matter of practice because these (private) benefits are very much included in the calculations that give us the social costs of coal. What you call out as the social benefits of coal use are already captured by these calculations. They are part of economic output.

Our indicators for GDP do a pretty good job capturing all these private benefits of economic activity. Where they fail is with the social costs. Hence the need to calculate the social cost of carbon pollution in the first place.

So far so bad. Then there’s this:

Plants need carbon dioxide to grow, just not too much of it

In your report, you also discuss what you call the benefits of increases in agricultural yields from the well-known carbon dioxide fertilization effect. It may surprise you to hear that the models used to calculate the cost of carbon include that effect. It turns out, they, too, in part base it on outdated science that ought to be updated.

But their science still isn’t as old as yours. For some reason, you only chose to include papers on the fertilization effect published between 1902 and 1997 (save one that is tangentially related).

For an updated perspective, try one of the most comprehensive economic analysis to date, pointing to large aggregate losses. Or try this Science article, casting serious doubt on any claims that carbon dioxide fertilization could offset the impacts on agricultural yields from climate change.

Farmers and ranchers already have a lot to endure from the effects of climate change. There’s no need to make it worse with false, outdated promises.

Coal lobby speaks, industry no longer listens

It’s for all these reasons that, to borrow the apt title to the otherwise excellent New York Times story that ran your quote: “Industry Awakens to Threat of Climate Change”. And it’s precisely why the U.S. government calculates the social cost of carbon pollution. Yes, sadly, it’s a cost, not a benefit.

To our readers: Want to get involved? The White House has issued a formal call for public comments on the way the cost of carbon figure is calculated, open throughFebruary 26. You can help by reminding our leaders in Washington that we need strong, science-based climate policies.

Also posted in Economics, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Setting the Facts Straight| 1 Response, comments now closed

Why the cost of carbon pollution is both too high and too low

(This post originally appeared on EDF Voices)

Tell someone you are a “climate economist,” and the first thing you hear after the slightly puzzled looks subside is, “How much?” Show me the money: “How much is climate change really costing us?”

Here it is: at least $40.

That, of course, isn’t the total cost, which is in the trillions of dollars. $40 is the cost per ton of carbon dioxide pollution emitted today, and represents the financial impacts of everything climate change wreaks: higher medical bills, lost productivity at work, rising seas, and more. Every American, all 300 million of us, emit around twenty of these $40-tons per year.

The number comes from none other than the U.S. government in an effort to uncover the true cost of carbon pollution. This exercise was first conducted in 2010. It involved a dozen government agencies and departments, several dozen experts, and a fifty-page, densely crafted “technical support document,” replete with some seventy, peer-reviewed references and an even more technical appendix.

Cass Sunstein, the Harvard legal scholar of Nudge fame, who was co-leading the process for the White House at the time, recently declared himself positively surprised how the usual interest-group politics were all-but absent from the discussions throughout that process. This is how science should be done to help guide public policy.

The cost of carbon pollution is too low

The number originally reached in 2010 wasn’t $40. It was a bit more than half as much. What happened? In short, the scientific understanding of the impacts of rising seas had advanced by so much, and the peer-reviewed, economic models had finally caught up to the scientific understanding circa 2007, that a routine update of the cost of carbon number resulted in the rather dramatic increase to near $40 per ton. (There are twenty pages of additional scientific prose, if you want to know the details.)

In other words, we had been seriously underestimating the cost of climate change all along. That’s the exact opposite of what you hear from those who want to ignore the problem, and the $40 itself is still woefully conservative. Some large companies, including the likes of Exxon, are voluntarily using a higher price internally for their capital investment decisions.

And everything we know about the science points to the fact that the $40 figure has nowhere to go but up. The more we know, the higher the costs. And even what we don’t knowpushes the costs higher still.

Howard Shelanski, Sunstein’s successor as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA, pronounced “oh-eye-ruh”), has since presided over a further update of the official number. In fact, this one didn’t incorporate any of the latest science. It was simply a minor technical correction of the prior update, resulting in a $1 revision downward. (The precise number is now $37, though I still say $40 at cocktail parties, to avoid a false sense of precision. Yes, that’s what a climate economist talks about at cocktail parties.)

And once again, it all demonstrated just how science ought to be done: Sometimes it advances because newer and better, peer-reviewed publications become available. Sometimes it advances because someone discovers and fixes a small mathematical error.

Your input is needed

While announcing the correction, Shelanski added another layer of transparency and an opportunity for further refinements of the numbers: a formal call for public comments on the way the cost of carbon figure is calculated, open through January 27 February 26th.

We are taking this opportunity seriously. EDF, together with our partners at the Natural Resource Defense Council, New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, is submitting formal, technical comments in support of the administration’s use of the cost of carbon pollution number as well as recommending further revisions to reflect the latest science.

The bottom line, as economists like to put it, is that carbon pollution costs society a lot of money. So as the technical experts trade scientific papers, you can help by reminding our leaders in Washington that we need strong, science-based climate policies.

Update (on January 24th): The official comment period just was extended for another month, through February 26th. More time to show your support.

Also posted in Economics, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Setting the Facts Straight| 1 Response, comments now closed

Global climate change can make fish consumption more dangerous

Hundreds of thousands of babies are born in the U.S each year with enough mercury in their blood to impair healthy brain development. As they grow, these children’s capacity to see, hear, move, feel, learn and respond can be severely compromised. Why does this happen? Mostly because a portion of mercury emitted from local power plants and other global anthropogenic sources is converted to methylmercury, a neurotoxic and organic form of mercury that accumulates in fish.

In addition to poisoning human diet, mercury continues to poison the Arctic. Despite a lack of major industrial sources of mercury within the Arctic, methylmercury concentrations have reached toxic levels in many arctic species including polar bears, whales, and dolphins because of anthropogenic emissions at lower latitudes.

Relationship between mercury exposure and climate change: In its latest report to policymakers, the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it clear that climate change and local high temperatures will worsen air pollution by increasing concentrations of ozone and PM2.5 in many regions. However, no scientific body has collectively assessed the potential impact of changing climate on mercury, a dangerous pollutant that contaminates not just our air but our soils and waters (and as a result human and wildlife’s food supply).

After attending this summer’s International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant (ICMGP) in Edinburgh (Scotland), I don’t have good news. In the past few months, I have talked to several leading scientists who do research on different aspects on mercury cycle and they all seemed to agree with many recently presented and published peer-reviewed studies (see a selected list below): Climate change can significantly worsen mercury pollution. Even if global anthropogenic emission rate of mercury was to somehow be made constant, climate change can make fish-eating more dangerous because of the following:

Enhanced inorganic mercury release into waters — A combination of the following climate-related factors can lead to the release of higher amounts of mercury into waters:

  • Climate change (i.e., increased local precipitation under warmer conditions) will cause more local direct deposition of the emitted inorganic mercury on our lakes and ocean as compared to deposition under colder and dryer conditions.
  • Run-off (i.e., flow of mercury over land in a watershed that drains into one water body) an indirect but primary means by which mercury enters our local waters, will also increase under warmer and wetter conditions.
  • Extreme events (storms, hurricanes, forest-fires, tornadoes and alternating wetting-drying cycles) will cause erosive mobilization of inorganic mercury and organic matter in soils and release it into coastal and open waters where it can get methylated.
  • Thawing of the enormous areas of northern frozen peatlands may release globally significant amounts of long-stored mercury and organic matter into lakes (including those in the Arctic), rivers and ocean.

Enhanced Methylmercury production from inorganic mercury: In addition to increased release on inorganic mercury into the waters, the inorganic mercury might also have higher chances of getting converted to methylmercury.

  • In the open ocean, methylmercury is produced in regions known as “oxygen minimum zones”. Increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will cause higher primary productivity  which will widen the existing ocean’s oxygen deficient zones leading to enhanced production of methylmercury.
  • Continued melting of permafrost will release organic matter which naturally contains high concentration of aromatic structures (structures similar to benzene rings). These kinds of organic matter have been shown to enhance the production rate of methylmercury.

Enhanced methylmercury bioaccumulation in the fish:

  • For a given amount of methylmercury in the water, there are various factors that control the concentration and bioaccumulation of methylmercury in the food chain. In a given water body, bigger fishaccumulate more methylmercury than smaller fish. Because of climate change, oceanic temperatures will be higher and higher temperatures have been shown to increase the metabolic growth rate and size of fish. Therefore, for a given amount of inorganic mercury emitted in the atmosphere or water, more methylmercury will accumulate in the fish (consequently, increase human exposure to methylmercury) as climate change becomes more severe.

These research results combined with the recent reports on higher genetic susceptibility of some people to mercury poisoning suggest that in order to protect human and wildlife health from negative effects of methylmercury exposure it is essential to swiftly enact and implement stringent laws to reduce both global mercury and greenhouse emissions from all major sources including coal power plants.

Governments across the globe now recognize that mercury is an extremely toxic metal that harms health of millions of children and adults every year and have moved forward with an international treaty to address this toxic pollution, called the Minamata convention. The Minamata convention was recently opened for signatures after 4 years of negotiations. The treaty will come into effect as soon as the 50th nation ratifies it. It has already been signed by 93 nation-states. I am happy to note that United States has been the first nation to ratify the treaty. We await , however, ratification from 49 more countries before the treaty can go into effect.

As an organization, EDF has been educating consumers and seafood businesses about mercury in seafood via our EDF Seafood Selector by doing quantitative Synthesis of Mercury in Commercial Seafood for many years. We also have expertise on the scientific, legal, and stakeholder processes that laid the groundwork for implementation of Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in the U.S; the health and economic implications of these emission standards; and the current state of technology available to reduce emissions from power plants in the U.S.

Thanks to your strong support, the U.S. has taken action to reduce mercury from power plants, the largest domestic source of mercury pollution. While many power plant companies are moving forward with investments to reduce mercury pollution, we need you to continue making your voices heard because the mercury standards (MATS) are still being challenged in the court from time to time.

References

  1. Kathryn R. Mahaffey, Robert P. Clickner, and Rebecca A. Jeffries (2009) Adult Women’s Blood Mercury Concentrations Vary Regionally in the United States: Association with Patterns of Fish Consumption (NHANES 1999–2004) Environ Health Perspect. 117(1): 47–53.
  2. Goacher, W. James and Brian Branfireun (2013). Evidence of millennial trends in mercury deposition in pristine peat geochronologies. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  3. Dijkstra JA, Buckman KL, Ward D, Evans DW, Dionne M, et al. (2013) Experimental and Natural Warming Elevates Mercury Concentrations in Estuarine Fish. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58401. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058401
  4. Webster, Jackson P. et al. (2013) The Effect of Historical and Recent Wildfires on Soil-Mercury Distribution and Mobilization at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  5. Blum et al (2013) Methylmercury production below the mixed layer in the North Pacific Ocean Nature Geoscience 6, 879–884
  6. Stramma, Lothar (2010) “Ocean oxygen minima expansions and their biological impacts,” Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers. 57: 587–595
  7. Bjorn, Erik et al. (2013) Impact of Nutrient and Humic Matter Loadings on Methylmercury Formation and Bioaccumulation in Estuarine Ecosystems. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  8. Bedowski, Jacek et al. (2013) Mercury in the coastal zone of Southern Baltic Sea as a function of changing climate: preliminary results. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  9. Grandjean, Philippe, et al. (2013) Genetic vulnerability to MeHg. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  10. Qureshi et al (2013): Impacts of Ecosystem Change on Mercury Bioaccumulation in a Coastal-Marine Food Web presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.

Also posted in Health, Policy| 2 Responses, comments now closed

Correcting the maths of the "50 to 1 Project"

A nine-minute video, released earlier this fall, argues that climate mitigation is 50 times more expensive than adaptation. The claims are based on calculations done by Christopher Monckton. We analyzed the accompanying “sources and maths” document. In short, the author shows a disconcerting lack of understanding of climate science and economics:

  1. Fundamental misunderstanding of basic climate science: Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) were at around 280 parts per million (ppm).[i] One of the most commonly stated climate policy goals is to keep concentrations below 450 ppm CO2. Monckton, oddly, adds 280 and 450 to get to 730 ppm as the goal of global stabilization efforts, making all the rest of his calculations wildly inaccurate.
  2. Prematurely cutting off analysis after ten years: Monckton calculates the benefits of the carbon tax over a ten-year time horizon. That is much too short to see the full effects of global warming or of the policy itself. Elevated carbon levels persist for hundreds to thousands of years.[ii]
  3. Erroneously applying Australian “cost-effectiveness” calculation to the world: This may be the most troubling aspect from an economist's point of view. Monckton first calculates the effect of the Australia-only tax on global temperatures, which is unsurprisingly low, as Australia accounts for only 1.2% of world emissions. Next, he calculates the tax’s resulting “cost-effectiveness” — defined as the Australian tax influencing global temperatures. No surprise once again, that influence is there, but Australia alone can't solve global warming for the rest of us. Then, Monckton takes the Australia-only number and scales it to mitigate 1ºC globally, resulting in a purported cost of “$3.2 quadrillion,” which he claims is the overall global “mitigation cost-effectiveness.” But this number simply represents the cost of avoiding 1ºC of warming by acting in Australia alone. Monckton has re-discovered the fact that global warming is a global problem! The correct calculation for a globally applied tax would be to calculate cost-effectiveness on a global level first. If Australia’s carbon price were to be applied globally, it would cut much more pollution at a much lower cost. And that, of course, is very much the hope. Australia, California, and the European Union are called “climate leaders” for a reason. Others must follow.

What’s the real cost of cutting carbon? The U.S. government’s estimate of the cost of one ton of CO2 pollution released today is about $40.[iii] That's also the optimal price to make sure that each of us is paying for our own climate damages. Any policy with a lower (implied) carbon price—including the Australian tax—easily passes a benefit-cost test.

With all due respect Lord Monckton, 3rd Viscount of Brenchley, your maths are way off.


[i] "Summary for Policymakers," IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group I (2013).

[ii] Results differ across scenarios, but a rough rule of thumb suggests that approximately 70% of the ‘peak enhancement level’ over the preindustrial level of 280 ppm perseveres after 100 years of zero emissions, while approximately 40% of the ‘peak enhancement level’ over the preindustrial level of 280 ppm persevered after 1,000 years of zero emissions (Solomon, Susan, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti and Pierre Friedlingstein, “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissionsProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 6 (2009): 1704-1709). Note that this refers to the net increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not the exact molecule. Archer, David, Michael Eby, Victor Brovkin, Andy Ridgwell, Long Cao, Uwe Mikolajewicz, Ken Caldeira et al. "Atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel carbon dioxide." Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (2009): 117-134 discusses these two often confused definitions for carbon’s ‘lifetime,’ and concludes that 20-40% of excess carbon levels remain hundreds to thousands of years (“2-20 centuries”) after it is emitted. Each carbon dioxide molecule has a lifetime of anywhere between 50 to 200 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Overview of Greenhouse Gases: Carbon Dioxide Emissions.” The precise number is under considerable scientific dispute and surprisingly poorly understood. (Inman, Mason, “Carbon is forever,” Nature Reports Climate Change 20 November 2008)

[iii] The precise value presented in Table 1 of the Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order 12866 for a ton of carbon dioxide emitted in 2015, using a 3% social discount rate increased is $38. For 2020, the number is $43; for 2030, the number increases to $52. All values are in inflation-adjusted 2007 dollars. For a further exploration of this topic, see Nordhaus, William D. The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World. Yale University Press (2013) as only one of the latest examples summarizing this kind of analysis. Nordhaus concludes that the optimal policy, one that maximizes net benefits to the planet, would spend about 3% of global GDP.

Many thanks to Michelle Ho for excellent research assistance.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Economics, International| Comments closed

IPCC mention of geoengineering, though brief, opens window for discussion

The IPCC's latest report includes a brief mention of geoengineering — a range of techniques for reducing global warming through intervention in the planet’s climate system. (Photo credit: NASA)

(Originally posted yesterday on EDF’s Climate Talks blog)

Just a few weeks ago, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first piece of their fifth crucial report on global warming – and it confirms that our climate is changing. Key messages from the report include:

  • Warming of the climate is unequivocal
  • Human influence on the climate system is clear, and the evidence for human influence has only increased since the last IPCC report
  • Further changes in temperature, precipitation, weather extremes, and sea level are imminent

In short, humans are causing dramatic climate change—and we’re already witnessing the effects. Oceans are warming and acidifying. Weather patterns are more extreme and destructive. Land-based ice is declining—and leading to rising sea levels.

None of this should be surprising to those following the science of climate change. What has generated surprise amongst some, however, is the IPCC’s brief mention of the science of geoengineering, tucked into the last paragraph of the IPCC’s 36-page “Summary for Policymakers.”

Understanding the science of geoengineering

As communities and policymakers around the world face the risks presented by a rapidly changing climate, interest in the topic of “geoengineering” is growing.

Geoengineering refers to a range of techniques for reducing global warming through intervention in the planet’s climate system, by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (carbon dioxide removal, or CDR) or by reflecting away a small percentage of inbound sunlight (solar radiation management, or SRM).

Some of these ideas have been proposed by scientists concerned about the lack of political progress in curbing the continued growth in global carbon emissions, and who are looking for other possibilities for addressing climate change if we can’t get emissions under control soon.

With the risks and impacts of rising temperatures already being felt, the fact that SRM would likely be cheap to deploy and fast-acting means that it has attracted particular attention as one possible short-term response to climate change.

The world’s governments tasked the IPCC with investigating these emerging technologies in its new report, and the IPCC summary rightly sounds a cautionary note on their potential utility, warning:

Limited evidence precludes a comprehensive quantitative assessment of both Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and their impact on the climate system…

Modelling indicates that SRM methods, if realizable, have the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise, but they would also modify the global water cycle, and would not reduce ocean acidification. If SRM were terminated for any reason, there is high confidence that global surface temperatures would rise very rapidly to values consistent with the greenhouse gas forcing. CDR and SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale.

So what does this mean? Three things are clear from the IPCC’s brief analysis:

  1. CDR and SRM might have benefits for the climate system, but they also carry risks, and at this stage it is unknown what the balance of benefits and risks may be.
  2. The overall effects of SRM for regional and global weather patterns are likely to be uncertain, unpredictable, and broadly distributed across countries. As with climate change itself, there would most likely be winners and losers if SRM technologies were to be used.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, SRM does not provide an alternative to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, since it does not address the rising emissions that are the root cause of ocean acidification and other non-temperature related climate change impacts.

This last point is particularly important. The most that could be expected from SRM would be to serve as a short-term tool to manage some temperature-related climate risks, if efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions prove too slow to prevent severe disruption of the earth’s climate.

In that case, we need to understand what intervention options exist and the implications of deploying them. In other words, ignorance is our enemy.

Need for inclusive and adaptive governance of solar radiation management research

While much of the limited research on solar radiation management has taken place in the developed world – a trend likely to continue for the foreseeable future – the ethical, political, and social implications of SRM research are necessarily global. Discussions about governance of research should be as well.

But a transparent and transnationally agreed system of governance of SRM research (including norms, best practices, regulations and laws) does not currently exist. With knowledge of the complex technical, ethical, and political implications of SRM currently limited, an effective research governance framework will be difficult to achieve until we undertake a broad conversation among a diversity of stakeholders.

Recognizing these needs, The Royal Society, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) launched in 2010 an international NGO-driven initiative to explore how SRM research could be governed. SRMGI is neither for nor against SRM. Instead, it aims to foster inclusive, interdisciplinary, and international discussion on SRM research and governance.

SRMGI’s activities are founded on a simple idea: that early and sustained dialogue among diverse stakeholders around the world, informed by the best available science, will increase the chances of SRM research being handled responsibly, equitably, and cooperatively.

Connecting dialogues across borders

A key goal is to include people in developing countries vulnerable to climate change and typically marginalized in discussions about emerging science and technology issues, to explore their views on SRM, and connect them in a transnational conversation about possible research governance regimes.

This month, for example, saw the launch of a report by the African Academy of Sciences and SRMGI describing the results from a series of three SRM research governance workshops held in Africa in 2012 and 2013. Convened in Senegal, South Africa, and Ethiopia, the workshops attracted more than 100 participants – including scientists, policymakers, journalists and academics – from 21 African nations to explore African perspectives on SRM governance.

To build the capacity for an informed global dialogue on geoengineering governance, a critical mass of well-informed individuals in communities throughout the world must be developed, and they must talk to each other, as well as to their own networks. An expanding spiral of distinct, but linked outreach processes could help build the cooperative bridges needed to manage potential international conflicts, and will help ensure that if SRM technologies develop, they do so cooperatively and transparently, not unilaterally.

The way forward

No one can predict how SRM research will develop or whether these strategies for managing the short-term implications of climate risk will be helpful or harmful, but early cooperation and transnational, interdisciplinary dialogue on geoengineering research governance will help the global community make informed decisions.

With SRM research in its infancy, but interest in the topic growing, the IPCC report reminds us that now is the time to establish the norms and governance mechanisms that ensure that where research does proceed, it is safe, ethical, and subject to appropriate public oversight and independent evaluation.

It’s worth remembering that the IPCC devoted only one paragraph of its 36-page summary report to geoengineering. So while discussion about geoengineering technologies and governance is necessary, the key message from the IPCC must not be lost: it’s time to recognize that the billions of tons of carbon pollution we put in our atmosphere every year are causing dangerous changes to our climate, and work together to find the best ways to reduce that pollution.

Also posted in Geoengineering, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News| Comments closed

Today’s IPCC Report is A Grim Reminder that We Must Find Solutions to Climate Change

People who are fond of conspiracy theories or enjoy rejecting mainstream science might want to stop reading now. What follows is solid, well-researched science based on mountains of peer-reviewed evidence. You have been warned.

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued their latest report, and the picture they paint is grim.

Hundreds of scientists from countries all over the world assessed the most recent research. The result – they are more certain than ever that climate change is caused by human activity. The report says it is extremely likely that humans are the main cause for our increase in global temperatures since the mid-twentieth century.

More greenhouse gas emissions will lead to more warming, and the consequences will be felt all over the globe.

And the worst part is IPCC’s predictions may have been conservative.

The international organization, which is one of the world’s foremost authorities on climate change, reports:

  • They are 95 percent certain human activity is responsible for the rise in global temperatures from the latter half of the twentieth century to the present.
  • The chances of an extreme heat wave have more than doubled, and heavy rainfall events are expected to intensify and occur more often.
  • Ocean levels may rise by three feet by the end of this century if emissions are not curbed.

That last prediction may sound like a worst-case scenario, but other experts warn sea-level rise could actually be much worse.

As reported in the Washington Post, the Climate Change Commission predicts the oceans may rise as much as six feet by the year 2100, depending on factors such as glacial ice melting. Sea level rise at that level would be catastrophic, especially when considering its impact on storm surges.

As scary as these predictions are, there are reasons for hope. As communities across the United States and the world increasingly face extreme weather events and other consequences of climate change, we are beginning to see our leaders take more action.

Just last week the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first nationwide limits on carbon pollution from new power plants. That’s the latest development in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, a bold mission to take meaningful steps toward a climate change solution.

The release of the IPCC report will no doubt lead climate deniers to spread the usual disinformation. You can find almost anything on the Internet if you Google long enough, but that doesn’t make it true.

Legitimate scientific debate is a good thing — when we stick to facts that are backed by evidence and reviewed by independent experts in the field.  It’s understandable when citizens with busy lives don’t know all the facts on a complex issue like climate change, but there’s no excuse for politicians and talking heads to spread false information. Solving this problem will require a discussion grounded in science, which is why the IPCC report is so valuable.

It’s time to recognize that the billions of tons of carbon pollution we put in our atmosphere every year are causing dangerous changes to our climate — and then work together to find the best solutions.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News| Comments closed

Protecting the Planet: A Report from the International Conference on Mercury in Edinburgh

(EDF’s Mandy Warner co-wrote this post)

This week, experts in science, policy, and industry are meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland at the International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant (ICMGP).

We are honored to join them to discuss international mercury science and policy, and to share EDF’s work on mercury.

The ICMGP has been held periodically for more than 18 years. It has become the pre-eminent international forum for formal presentation and discussion of scientific advances concerning mercury, and gathers between 700 and 1200 experts for the five-day conference and exhibition.

This year’s conference will be of particular importance, because this year will launch the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global Legally Binding Treaty on Mercury — which can provide much-needed global action on mercury.

This year, UNEP has also released its new report, Global Mercury Assessment 2013 – Sources, Emissions, Releases and Environmental Transport.

So this year’s meeting is perfectly timed to celebrate the release of the report AND the launch of the international treaty — and most important, to discuss how to put the treaty into practice. It will be a great opportunity for policymakers and scientists to collaborate on solutions that address worldwide mercury emissions.

It is well-known that mercury is an extremely toxic metal.

Mercury primarily exists in three chemical forms in nature: elemental mercury, oxidized mercury and methylmercury.

Methylmercury is the most neurotoxic substance that builds up collects in our aquatic foodchains.

About 400,000 children are born in the U.S. each year with so much mercury in their blood that healthy brain development is threatened.

As they grow, these children’s capacity to see, hear, move, feel, learn and respond is compromised.

While some forms of mercury are deposited near the emissions source, other forms — such as gaseous mercury — are stable in the atmosphere for approximately a year. Gaseous mercury can be deposited far from its source, even thousands of miles away – which is why it has global impacts.

The U.S. is leading the way to reduce mercury emissions from a variety of sources, including coal-fired power plants — the largest remaining source of mercury in America.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants are in place thanks in part to strong support from EDF members, and from our partners in the environmental, health, faith, environmental justice, and business communities.

Power companies are working now to meet emission standards by spring 2015, by installing American-made technology.

EDF has helped advance mercury policy at the state and national level in the U.S. over the past several decades.

During the development of the recently finalized Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, we provided technical comments and testimony; worked with EPA, states, companies; collaborated with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to defend protective standards; and worked through the courts to advance strong mercury standards.

Our partner organizations like Moms Clean Air Force have helped engage diverse voices from across America, and bring new constituencies to the forefront of the national policy discussion on air pollution and toxics.

We now have the privilege of highlighting the U.S. experience reducing mercury and advancing technology solutions in the power sector to this important international scientific and policy forum.

We hope to forge new partnerships to advance an international solution to mercury pollution that can protect the health not only of Americans, but people across the globe.

Also posted in Health, International, Policy| Comments closed

Climate Change Imperils Human Health

Health organizations have made it clear that climate change is a health issue.

American Lung Association has said:

[S]cientists warn that the buildup of greenhouse gases and the climate changes caused by it will create conditions, including warmer temperatures, which will increase the risk of unhealthful ambient ozone levels.

Climate change will impact many facets of human health in the U.S. through worsened air quality, increased transmission of infectious diseases from insects, and increased impacts from extreme weather.

These climate impacts will affect our health, daily lives, and our pocketbook.

Numerous health organizations have recognized the impact climate change is having on human health, and the need for action to mitigate emissions and assist with adaptation.

Here’s a look at what some leading health organizations and their representatives have to say about climate change and human health.

American Academy of Pediatrics journal publication:

Anticipated direct health consequences of climate change include injury and death from extreme weather events and natural disasters, increase in climate-sensitive infectious disease, increases in air pollution-related illness, and more heat related, potentially fatal, illness. Within all of these categories, children have increased vulnerability compared with other groups.

American Lung Association website:

Scientists warn that the buildup of greenhouse gases and the climate changes caused by it will create conditions, including warmer temperatures, which will increase the risk of unhealthful ambient ozone levels. Higher temperatures can enhance the conditions for ozone formation. Even with the steps that are in place to reduce ozone, evidence warns that changes in climate are likely to increase ozone levels in the future in large parts of the United States.

World Health Organization fact sheet:

Climate change affects social determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.

American Medical Association news/opinion piece:

Climate change produces weather extremes on both ends of the temperature spectrum. In Maine… it’s expected to have a rising rate of heart attacks and problems related to extreme snow, ice and cold. [Furthermore], in Maine, that’s being seen in a marked increase of Lyme disease. Warmer and shorter winters mean that deer ticks die off in smaller numbers, which means more will breed.

Asthma and Allergy Foundation website:

Twenty-five million Americans, including 7 million children, have asthma, and 50 million Americans have allergies… They are more likely to sleep poorly at night, miss school or work, and risk hospitalization and even death because of the increasing environmental triggers due to climate change.

Despite these alarming emerging health-climate issues, I am optimistic about our ability to implement the needed climate solutions to reduce emissions and adapt to impacts.

Just last year, 40 percent of all new electric capacity built was wind power, more than any other source added.

States like Texas, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and California are leading the way on wind power. The U.S. has now installed 60 gigawatts of wind, one-fifth of the world's total wind capacity.

The economic benefits of wind power are clear. Wind energy companies pumped $25 billion into the U.S. economy in 2012 alone through new project investments, and the wind industry employs 80,000 people.

Other solutions, like energy efficiency, continue to advance each year as well.

Annual savings from electricity and natural gas efficiency programs in 2011 were 19% higher than in 2010. That’s a huge improvement, although enormous efficiency savings – savings that can reduce emissions and save consumers money — still remain on the table.

Our fate is in our own hands.

We can continue to make progress reducing emissions by implementing President Obama’s Climate Action Plan while growing a strong economy.

Making the choice to reduce climate destabilizing emissions will mean a better world for my seven-month old daughter, her generation, and the generations to come. And better air quality will mean my daughter can take full advantage of those long summer days we all enjoyed growing up.

We have a responsibility to take aggressive steps now in order to help stem the tide of the more severe climate impacts we know are coming.

Also posted in Health, News| 1 Response, comments now closed

Facing a Frightening Milestone: What We Can Do About Greenhouse Gas Levels at 400 ppm

We recently learned that the earth’s greenhouse gas levels are surging past 400 parts per million (ppm), a level not reached in 3 million years. It is clear why: humans are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an ever-increasing rate, including last year’s all-time high of 35 billion tons. And as the planet warms as a result, we’re getting an early glimpse at the superstorms, drought and other challenges we’ll face in an increasingly dangerous environment if we don’t change course.

Lots of people are rightly worried, and the media have largely focused on the worst potential outcomes for us and future generations if we don’t curb emissions. It’s important for everyone to know what’s at stake, but it’s also crucial that everyone understands we’re not helpless to act. There are steps we can take that will make a real difference, as individuals and as a country. So before you become too pessimistic about the milestone, take a look at some of the ways we can do something about it:

Continue to feed the conversation.

Whether in the media or at your dinner table, simply talking about why 400 ppm is important will inform others and keep climate change at the front of everyone’s mind. It will be especially important to include less traditional allies whom studies show increasingly recognize the reality of climate change.

Reduce climate accelerants.

Because it burns cleaner than coal, natural gas can be a positive for our climate. The challenge is that natural gas comes with its own set of serious risks to public health and the environment, and methane (the main ingredient in natural gas) is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide. We must ensure this resource is harnessed in a way that minimizes methane leakage and has as little impact on people and the environment as possible. No one should have to trade their health or quality of life for cheap energy.

Accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy.

The U.S. is poised to spend around $2 trillion over the next two decades replacing our antiquated electricity infrastructure, creating a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revolutionize how we generate, distribute and use electricity. We must seize this opportunity to modernize our electricity grid and put the right policies in place to accelerate investments in clean, homegrown renewables, energy efficiency and other innovative ways to generate and use energy. These approaches can address the need for power, spur economic development, lessen our carbon footprint and help America gain a global leadership position in the multi-trillion dollar clean energy economy.

Use the Clean Air Act.

The Administration is authorized to use the Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama should utilize it to both establish new CO2 emission standards for power plants and vigorously defend the rules he has already put in place.

Put a price on carbon.

We must acknowledge and act on what economists from across the political spectrum have long argued — the most efficient way to cut carbon pollution is with a cap or tax. Either would be a powerful tool that would help drive cleaner power developments. We could ease the impact on working families and businesses through lower taxes on either labor or capital.

The 400 ppm milestone is a reminder that the status quo won’t do if we want to protect the world we leave our kids. But the news has prompted new conversations about emissions across the country. I hope we seize this opportunity to talk not only about how we got here, but more importantly, what we’re going to do about it.

Also posted in News, Policy| 3 Responses, comments now closed

Wanted: Sound Climate Science from the House Science Committee

House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that dangerously distorted the science behind man-made global warming.

It is patently false to suggest, as Chairman Smith did, that there is a “great amount of uncertainty” regarding the fundamental science underlying our understanding of the drivers of climate change. Man-made warming has been confirmed repeatedly by the vast majority of scientific organizations including NASA, the National Academies of Science and the American Meteorological Society. A recent review also reaffirmed that 97% of peer-reviewed scientific publications that address the causes of climate change endorse the consensus that climate change is real and man-made.

Chairman Smith argues that since the US decreased its greenhouse gas emissions between 2005 and 2012 we cannot be responsible for global greenhouse gas emissions. However, carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere so long the US is responsible for more of the warming we are currently experiencing than any other nation.  In 2011, the United States’ emissions remained the second highest behind only China, a country with more than four times the population of the US.  The US continues to emit significantly more greenhouse gas per person than does any of the larger nations of the world, the few smaller exceptions are major fossil fuel producing countries. The fact that the US is not currently the single largest emitter is no excuse not to lead on addressing climate change.  The logic used by Chairman Smith implies that we should only ask the very largest emitters to clean up criteria air pollution or water pollution across the US. If we utilized that strategy our water and air would not have seen the improvements of the past 40 years, which have reduced death rates and restored the places we cherish.

He also discusses recent findings that temperatures have not warmed significantly in the past 15 years, which is not actually the case – rather several cooler years has reduced the rate of warming, as it has several times over the past decades of rapid warming. As EDF Vice President Nat Keohane recently wrote in response to this finding, this “underscores the fundamental nature of climate change — that we are creating dangerous uncertainties” and there are various explanations for this finding, notably that an unusual amount of heat has been stored in the deep ocean, rather than at the surface.

Chairman Smith also claimed that Hurricane Sandy was not caused by climate change. Scientists, including Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Bob Corell from the American Meteorological Society and Jeff Masters of Weather Underground and formerly of NOAA, confirm that Sandy’s damage was increased by rising seas, warming oceans, and was consistent with scientists’ climate predictions based on a warming artic. Just as we can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther, and now climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme of weather events, giving us weather on steroids.

Lastly Chairman Smith says that greenhouse gas regulations would hurt our economy. He does not account for the economic costs of inaction on climate change that many studies say outweigh the cost of action. Three of the most costly weather disasters in the US, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the 2012 Midwest drought, have happened in the past 6 years, costing $128 billion, $62 billion and $35 billion respectively. American taxpayers are footing a large portion of this cost including $12 billion from Sandy and $16 billion from Katrina under the National Flood Insurance Program, and $11 billion in crop insurance claims from the 2012 drought. These costs will only continue to increase as the effects of climate change become more apparent.

I appreciate that Chairman Smith is writing about climate change because it is a critical national debate. As chairman of the House Science Committee, however, he should start that discussion by acknowledging the most important and sound scientific facts: Climate change is real, it is caused by pollution from human activity, and it will become increasingly expensive for the US and the world.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, News| 1 Response, comments now closed
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