Showing posts with label Greenpeace. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Greenpeace. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Saving the Arctic Ice (#2)

By Nathan Currier

Greenpeace, Greenwashing and Geoengineering

Nathan Currier, senior climate advisor for Public Policy Virginia

I've been discussing the Greenpeace "Save the Arctic" campaign in light of the reality there, where we will likely reach near-zero summer arctic sea ice in just the next few years. Before exploring, in the next post, direct climate interventions that could really help save the arctic, we now must look at all our other options -- just as, in a medical crisis, one eliminates other options before opting for surgery.

Of course, one option is to blithely say, "Look, the ice can come back later," and therefore do nothing to impede the arrival of an ice-free arctic ocean. At the recent Greenpeace New York meeting, this seemed to be the tacitly assumed option. Now, I am quite aware of modeling studies demonstrating sea ice loss itself to be readily reversible. Andrew Revkin of the New York Times asked James Hansen at the meeting about the Eemian interglacial (~130,000-115,000 yrs ago), its ice loss and recovery -- seemingly keen to highlight this comforting reversibility. But this reversibility depends on environmental conditions. One minor detail that wasn't mentioned was that CO2 was then around pre-industrial levels (280ppm), hardly soaring up around 400ppm as now, a level possibly not seen on Earth for 15 million years, so one should hardly expect the planet to give an Eemian-style response now, either in the long-term or next year (for a variety of reasons aside from CO2 levels, in fact).

What about green energy, solar panels and the like, the kinds of things proposed at the Greenpeace meeting? Anyone contemplating emissions strategy ought to keep the UNEP graph (Shindell et al, 2011) in my first post up on their walls: Even pretty large CO2 source reductions won't bring relief from warming until about 2040 (and could bring near-term warming). By that time, the increased insolation to the arctic ocean might have gone so far as to give an ice-free arctic for a considerably larger chunk of the year, with really drastic effects. Is that a plan for "saving" the arctic?

The only way through emissions to have an impact on what is going on there right now is through non-CO2 reductions like black carbon and methane. And aside from that, there's nothing left except direct intervention -- which could cover a wide variety of options, some of them being what I'll call "localized geoengineering," and will discuss next time.

Now, Hansen has been the primary advocate of the concept of using non-CO2 reductions to help bridge the time gap of getting reduced warming from CO2 reductions, so my one question for Hansen at the meeting was whether he thought that could still be used alone to confront the arctic crisis. Hansen's answer was frank and accurate. As Hansen said, and I hope Greenpeace, Bill McKibben and all the others present heard, "If you need a rescue package, to some degree it inherently is geoengineering."

He didn't say that non-CO2 reductions wouldn't still be helpful (they are 100 percent necessary right away, just as massive CO2 reductions to near-zero by mid-century are necessary), but he certainly didn't say that they could halt the loss of the sea ice now alone, either -- indeed, I believe that the numbers show that they can't. It has now become clear that emissions reductions alone can no longer save the arctic ice. This is a big deal, and it needs to sink in.

Greenpeace's campaign aims to make the arctic a sanctuary, by which they primarily mean keeping out the fossil industry. Hansen himself has many papers stating that easily recoverable fossil sources inevitably will get used. The arctic's resources are obviously getting more easily recoverable by the season. Keeping the fossil industry away without cooling it is probably impossible -- and, at a certain level, might even be destructive. What if Greenpeace succeeded, but the arctic were left to melt? Picture some natural disaster, akin to the Macando well disaster, but happening all on its own. No, I don't mean an oil spill -- I mean a bunch of methane bubbling up from the seabed and reaching the atmosphere in large ongoing belches. This kind of thing is likely to start at some point if we let the sea ice disappear, as Hansen himself discussed at the meeting -- and it won't stop like an oil spill, but rather will likely become an ongoing process. Then we will actually need the fossil industry's expertise to go in there and help trap as much as possible. Believe me, I am not saying this to invite the fossil industry in. I am saying this because we must somehow keep the arctic cool. Lastly, ships and refineries both emit black carbon, which has an extremely strong but complex to quantify effect on local warming, and ice and snow-covered places are the most vulnerable to its effects because it settles on them and changes their reflectivity. So, even without fossil extraction, just if arctic ship traffic picks up dramatically, this could greatly accelerate ice (and snow) losses, helping ensure that this theoretical reversibility remains just that, something we'll never see. I'm sure Greenpeace means well, but currently their campaign most resembles those full-page greenwashing fantasies from Shell and PB, "Creating Your Clean Energy Future," and so on. At present, it's a sham.

The unquestioned reliance upon ice loss reversibility at the Greenpeace meeting might have been correct from a purely physical viewpoint alone, but was highly pernicious all the same, because it masks that we are about to quietly walk through the most monumental climate threshold we have yet crossed, and will then almost certainly discover, for a whole array of reasons -- all those minor physical mechanisms I elaborated last time, or the issues regarding the fossil industry I have just mentioned -- that it's difficult to turn around. Folks, what I am trying to say is: You can't let this happen, and yet you definitely can no longer prevent this happening just through emissions alone. That means that some form of direct climate intervention will be necessary there.

The clincher is this: When Hansen mentioned at the meeting that we could reverse ice loss, he also added, "And the truth is, we have to do that."

That is, he said, in order to avoid other major tipping points that clearly aren't reversible (ice sheets, methane hydrates). So the only remaining question is precisely when it must be reversed. London-based group AMEG, of which I am a member, takes the position: right away. Think of what this all means: It's completely impossible to achieve that reversal through emissions for many decades, even in the most optimistic scenario for large-scale emissions reductions -- and it would be far too dangerous to leave this unattended for that amount of time. So you will end up needing geoengineering in any case, just to achieve the reversal. Now, if you will quickly need to undo something that's about to happen, and potentially you might have great trouble undoing it at all later -- and the means will need to be the same in each instance -- then, isn't it far, far better to prevent that thing from happening, rather than trying to reverse it later?

Bill McKibben spoke with mild resignation about losing the sea ice, as though it were a pity, adding that we might "learn from it." But he's been profoundly ill-advised on the science, I'm afraid. If we don't fight this, we'll be "learning" like players of Russian roulette learn. And each decade left untreated might be like adding a bullet to the round.

Instead, we urgently need for Bill to understand this situation, and to start a "" (a 1250ppb target for methane) right away to complement his (Hansen's CO2 ppm target), and get his people back in the streets. Greenpeace must meet again with those scientists -- many more of them -- but with "time translators" present, so that Director Naidoo understands why Jim Hansen calls geoengineering a rescue package.

Trying to save the arctic is currently the most vital thing in the world, the front lines of the climate war, so let's all applaud Greenpeace for taking up the cause. Now they just have to bite the bullet, and recognize it's a fantasy unless two things happen right away, together at once:

1. A number of complementary direct arctic interventions (I'll discuss these soon).

2. Complete restructuring of the programs designed to reduce non-CO2 emissions (a long list of acronym-laden things like the M2M, GMF, GMI, CCAC), so that they really work -- and make this a public rallying cry, a global "1250" movement to help save ourselves.

[First posted at the Huffington Post; posted with author's permission]

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Saving the Arctic Ice (#1)

By Nathan Currier

Greenpeace, Greenwashing and Geoengineering

Nathan Currier, senior climate advisor for Public Policy Virginia

There was much media attention a couple of weeks ago when this year's sea ice extent minimum broke all records: it was down almost 50 percent from the 1979-2000 average. Little attention, though, accompanied a possibly even more significant figure, released a few days ago: those who run the PIOMAS sea ice volume model at the Polar Research Centershowed the 2012 sea ice volume minimum was down almost 50 percent not from decades ago -- but from 2007! That's right: the volume of arctic sea ice this September minimum was probably about half of what it was, just back in 2007. This figure should deeply trouble any reasonable human being, as it strongly suggests reaching an ice-free arctic sea ice minimum within half a decade, and, since there is little dispute that some summer sea ice will persist to the north and west of Greenland for much longer, the first "near-ice-free" point will likely arrive in just the next few years, as sea ice expert Peter Wadhams has pointed out, and the London-based policy group and think tank Ameg has maintained.

How should we respond? Greenpeace recently started a "Save the Arctic" campaign. That's great -- but you can only save the arctic by saving its ice. And, unfortunately, it is now clear that this can no longer be achieved through emissions reductions alone. It's too late for that. Greenpeace held ameeting on the polar emergency in New York City, by chance on the same day the record extent minimum was called, and while on the surface it seemed pretty ordinary, it was at heart very odd. Nobody suggested any change of approach, any specific re-strategizing, to respond to the accelerating situation. The word emergency was a common currency passing all lips, but in fact it was unclear whether people were really speaking the same language, especially as concerns that most precious thing in emergencies -- time. And there seemed to be no translator in the room, saying "this is the timescale of this, that's the timescale of that."

The meeting's two scientists, Wieslaw Maslowski (on ice) and James Hansen (general climate), themselves focusing on somewhat different time scales, were followed by the 'social/political' panel discussing what we should do: the panel discussed green energy, solar power, how we shouldn't move towards nuclear, that kind of stuff. But Jim Hansen had said in answer to a question (mine), "We are going to lose that sea ice," and also said that to save it, "You could do some quick things." As I'll discuss in my next post, Hansen meant geoengineering. Greenpeace Director Kumi Naidoo later couldn't even remember the word -- geoengineering. But if he's going to save the arctic, I'm afraid he's going to need to know it.

A big issue in whether to consider something an important 'threshold' is its reversibility, and we will discuss the reversibility of this one further in the next episode. At the meeting, since Maslowski focused on sea ice modeling failures, and Hansen on the whole climate picture, many of the potential immediate physical impacts of allowing this coming ice loss remained poorly or not at all elaborated -- although they are important for Greenpeace, and everyone else, to understand, I feel. Hansen showed a slide of three major tipping points which he said place us in a climate 'emergency,' because one can lose control around tipping points. One was methane hydrate, for example. But what Hansen didn't show were what I might dub the 'minor tipping points,' far more immediate changes stemming from this coming loss, which could make it hard to turn around, and could lead us straight to those more major ones Hansen fears, in a slippery slope.

Keep in mind that what we're talking about here is losing almost as much summer ice cover in just the next few years as we have over the last few decades, and that these are all circularly interrelated reinforcing mechanisms. Sorry, if it seems a bit mind-numbing for some readers, but here's my list:

1. Greatly increased arctic water vapor, increasing arctic warming (water vapor is a potent greenhouse gas) but also fundamentally altering arctic hydrology and hence weather patterns.

2. Immediately and fundamentally altered arctic atmospheric chemistry, causing increased arctic methane lifetime, among other basic changes.

3. Certain increase in acceleration of arctic warming, from increased solar energy entering the arctic ocean (this engenders 1.) and the release of latent heat into the atmosphere during autumn's rapid re-freezing.

4. Consequent increased potential for large arctic storms like the Great Arctic Cyclone this summer.

5. Consequent increased deep convection events (mixing to bottom) of arctic ocean, particularly important over the shallow water of the shelves, where lower layers can now often be methane-saturated.

6. Consequently an increase of seabed methane emissions -- including from seabed permafrost, shallow methane hydrate, and from thawing of either or both of these and increased gas migration pathways allowing free gas from underneath the hydrates to outgas.

(For full PowerPoint PDF, scroll down to Topic/Title Methane Release from Eastern Siberian Shelf.)

7. This increase in seabed permafrost thawing leads to a subsequent increased risk that a random seismic event could suddenly release large amounts of methane from the above combination of thawing sources, or from other thawed arctic carbon stores (see PowerPoint above).

8. Increased risk of general degradation of shallow methane hydrates leading to slope failure and consequent methane release.

9. Certain increase in chronic emissions of methane (and CO2) from thawing land permafrost, peat, etc. with the general added warming mentioned above.

10. The increased arctic methane lifetime (2.) is indistinguishable from an increase in its arctic abundance.

11. Increasing continued rate of ice (and snow) loss as the ice-free-period subsequently lengthens, from all the above, particularly significant as the insolation increases earlier in the season to around the solstice in June (discussion here, scroll down to An Ice-free Solstice).

And here are some immediate potential global impacts to chew on:

12. Recent research suggests that ice (and snow cover) loss is at least one causative factor in recentextreme weather -- drought, flood, fires, etc. -- and if so this could quickly be amplified.

13. Consequently, recent global impacts on food security could increase proportionally.

14. Economic losses from each of those (12., 13) would probably increase proportionally, and potentially could amplify into global economic recession or even depression.

15. If there's large-scale (multi gigaton-scale) methane release soon, this would of course fundamentally alter the whole path of global warming (see my Twilight posts #1,#2), with vast consequences.

16. If the ice-free period expands significantly, altered arctic tropospheric oxidation could rapidly start to impact high latitude urban areas, making cities with large populations rapidly become more difficult to live in (good discussion here at GISS, where Hansen is himself director).

No one said a word at the Greenpeace meeting, seemingly dismissing it as a major threshold at all. No one ever said, "Let's fight this." But I am suggesting that you should see skull and crossbones hanging above this threshold crossing. Like playing around high voltage wires or train tracks, allowing this threshold to be crossed will add considerable risk. And I'm suggesting that it will be crossed in just the next few years, unless we do something about it.

As I'll discuss next time, it might prove much harder to reverse than many assume within the climate world. Therefore, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu said about allowing an eventual runaway arctic permafrost carbon feedback, we must all say loudly now about this initial step onto that vast and treacherous slippery slope: "We cannot go there!" And if we don't want to go there, there's now no longer any question -- geoengineering will have to be part of the remedy.

[First posted at the Huffington Post; posted with author's permission]