Climate-Related Doomsday – Early Signs: Harvey

Houston Market Street before and during HarveyFigure 1 Before and during Harvey

Mumbai monsoon floodFigure 2 Mumbai monsoon, August 2017

Most expensive hurricanes in the USFigure 3Cost of recent hurricanes in the US

The three figures above demonstrate early signs of a climate-related doomsday. Figure 1 shows Market Street in Houston both before and during Harvey last week. The side-by-side photographs look like two different worlds. People have referred to the hurricane-powered rain that flooded Houston – in many places reaching depths of close to two feet – as a biblical deluge. Indeed, throughout history, we often have turned to religion to account for natural events that we did not understand. This tendency is fine unless it freezes our resolve to mitigate our own impacts on the physical environment.

Wikipedia describes floods such as the one found in the Bible:

A flood myth or deluge myth is a narrative in which a great flood, usually sent by a deity or deities, destroys civilization, often in an act of divine retribution. Parallels are often drawn between the flood waters of these myths and the primeval waters found in certain creation myths, as the flood waters are described as a measure for the cleansing of humanity, in preparation for rebirth. Most flood myths also contain a culture hero, who “represents the human craving for life”.[1]

The flood myth motif is found among many cultures as seen in the Mesopotamian flood stories, Deucalion in Greek mythology, the Genesis flood narrative, Manu in Hinduism, Bergelmir in Norse Mythology, in the lore of the K’iche’ and Maya peoples in Mesoamerica, the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa tribe of Native Americans in North America, the Muisca, and Cañari Confederation, in South America, and the Aboriginal tribes in southern Australia.

As we can see, floods play a major role in countless religions; in many, they constitute divine retribution for human misbehavior – this fits with the principal elements of climate change. Almost all the religious texts allow for remediation of that wrath through a change in human behavior. Nearly half of the United States, including our government, appears reticent to make such changes.

Biblical deluges and their equivalents are almost always global. So are ours. Figure 2 shows a photograph from a Guardian piece on Mumbai, the largest city in India:

Heavy monsoon rains have brought Mumbai to a halt for a second day as the worst floods to strike south Asia in years continued to exact a deadly toll. More than 1,200 people have died across India, Bangladesh and Nepal as a result of flooding, with 40 million affected by the devastation. At least six people, including two toddlers, were among the victims in and around India’s financial capital. The devastating floods have also destroyed or damaged 18,000 schools, meaning that about 1.8 million children cannot go to classes, Save the Children warned on Thursday.

This is a worldwide problem.

Figure 3 shows the price tag associated with estimates of the damage that recent hurricanes have inflicted on the US. The cost it lists for Harvey is 40 billion dollars. However, while the source of the information is a reputable organization, it reflects an estimate presented at the beginning of the storm. There is no way that anybody could have accurately approximated the final economic impact. Indeed, a few days after that initial figure, some publications came out with an estimate of $160 billion and the September 2nd issue of The Economist – which features the flood on its front page – presented the cost as $100 billion. Real money. Imagine that occasionally, as is expected, we are going to be hit simultaneously by more than one storm of this intensity.

President Trump and others referred to Harvey as a 500-year-storm. Still others referred to it as a 1000-year-storm. This terminology is associated with the perceived probability of such an intense storm in a given year. So a 500-year-storm refers to the probability of 100/500 = 0.2% while a 1000-year-storm refers to a 0.1% probability in a given year.

These probabilities are inferred based on the history of the events – not on evaluation of future probabilities. The list in Figure 3 and the detection of a new hurricane, Irma, which is now crossing the Atlantic, are powerful indications that these historically-based probabilities are no longer valid and that the overarching occurrence we now refer to as climate change is bringing with it different, much higher, probabilities.

Shortly before Harvey hit, President Trump cancelled some of the major efforts that the Obama administration made to try to mitigate the impact of these changes. Business Insider covered the story:

Ten days before Hurricane Harvey descended upon Texas on Friday, wreaking havoc and causing widespread flooding, President Donald Trump signed an executive order revoking a set of regulations that would have made federally funded infrastructure less vulnerable to flooding.

Attribution of the changing climate to human activities is an important issue. Climate and weather have changed throughout Earth’s history (around 4.8 billion years). Direct human impact started only recently. The common starting reference point is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the middle of the 18th century, because it drew its power from fossil fuels. In other words, hurricanes were around but the only clear human contribution to a storm like Harvey before that time was its name. However, it now borders on certainty that human-triggered (anthropogenic) climate change is a major cause in the variability and intensification of the weather events. “Harvey would have been here with or without human contributions,” is a meaningless statement. Yes, Harvey would have probably occurred but as a much less intense storm with a much milder impact. I will return to our attempts to quantify human attributions in future blogs. Here is a summary of the human attribution analysis of Harvey by a noted climatologist:

There are essentially two global warming mechanisms at play here, according to Mann. First, sea levels in the Houston region have risen by more than half a foot over the past few decades due to global warming. That obviously makes it much more likely for an area to flood.

The second — and more complicated — factor is the amount of moisture in the air. As Mann explained, the rising temperatures in the region add up to 1°C to 1.5°C higher temperatures than average a few decades ago. Based on the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, Mann calculated that amounts to roughly 3 to 5 percent more moisture in the atmosphere — which means more rain.

“That large amount of moisture meant the potential for much greater rainfalls and greater flooding,” he noted.

He also goes into one last, but less certain, issue: It’s possible that global warming contributed to Harvey “stalling” near the Texas coast, due to “‘stationary’ summer weather patterns” that Mann argued global warming may contribute to. (He cited a recent paper in Nature about it.) This stalling is one of the reasons Harvey has become so dangerous: It’s expected to stay in the area for days, blasting the region with literally feet of rainfall.

“In conclusion, while we cannot say climate change ‘caused’ hurricane Harvey (that is an ill-posed question), we can say that it exacerbate several characteristics of the storm in a way that greatly increased the risk of damage and loss of life,” Mann wrote. “Climate change worsened the impact of Hurricane Harvey.”

Other climatologists agree with Mann. Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, told the Atlantic, “The human contribution can be up to 30 percent or so up to the total rainfall coming out of the storm. … It may have been a strong storm, and it may have caused a lot of problems anyway — but [human-caused climate change] amplifies the damage considerably.”

That helps explain how Harvey suddenly led to what experts have called a 500-year flood.

Other climatologists agree with this 30% attribution.

What about insurance against future events?

An editorial in the NYT summarizes the history of federal flood insurance and addresses necessary steps post-Harvey:

It was clear long before Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas that the National Flood Insurance Program, the government’s most important means of recovering from such disasters, needed to be overhauled. It fails to account for the full extent of flood risk, encourages development in areas known to be flood-prone and is not realistically funded.

Congress created the program in 1968 after most private insurers stopped selling flood policies or began charging very high premiums because the business had become too risky.

In recent years, the staggering costs of storms like Katrina and Sandy have left the program, which has about five million policies, with a nearly $25 billion debt to the federal government.

Congress is to blame for this. It requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the program, to subsidize premiums, but has not provided it with money to do so. Reform efforts in recent years have fallen short, but lawmakers have another chance to fix the program, which will lapse if not reauthorized by Sept. 30.

It is being reported that 85% of Houston homeowners don’t have flood insurance.

Stay tuned.

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Doomsday Predictions – Disaster Porn?

Figure 1Doomsday Clock

Three weeks ago (before Charlottesville) I summarized the climate-change-related events that took place during my July vacation and promised to expand upon those issues. Given my necessary digression, I am reposting some of those elements here for easy reference. I am also including the relevant section of a critique of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Sequel” movie, in which the critic equates his doomsday predictions to disaster porn.

Here’s a segment of my outline:

Distant Future: the end of the present century – i.e. my definition of “now” (the projected lifespan of my grandchildren):

However, to incorporate some of the sense of conflict that has been playing out between optimists and pessimists, here’s part of a joint critique of Al Gore’s new film and the David Wallace-Wells piece:

“An Inconvenient Sequel,” which opened in select cities on Friday and will open nationwide next week, arrives on the heels of a widely shared New York magazine article by David Wallace-Wells. The piece describes, in dramatic terms, the worst-case repercussions of climate change. “Absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century,” Wallace-Wells writes. Some climatologists objected to the article’s characterizations of their work, but the real controversy centered on its approach. Michael Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center, at Pennsylvania State University, declared that he was “not a fan of this sort of doomist framing,” and the sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen described it as “climate disaster porn.”

I teach a graduate course on Physics and Society in which climate change and the transition to the Anthropocene are key components. One of the students last semester was clearly upset and left the course in the middle of the semester; she hated the idea of what she saw as doomsday scenarios masquerading as science. On the other hand, if we want to impact the future in such a way as to negate these predictions, we need to work on understanding how best to approach mitigation.

I didn’t like the Al Gore movie for a different reason. In my opinion, it did not put enough emphasis on the predicted impacts of business as usual scenarios – how a continuation of the ways in which we achieve our current standards of living (e.g. our present energy mix, population growth, water use, etc.) is causing/will cause destruction of the physical environment. “An Inconvenient Sequel” focused almost exclusively on climate events and Al Gore’s activities in the time period following his Oscar-winning first film. There was no discussion at all about how we figure out human contributions to these climate events. This omission detracts a considerable amount of credibility from the advocacy in the movie. It is difficult to make movies about the future or about how we attribute blame, but it is not impossible. His first movie did a much better job at including these important elements.

The two figures in this blog summarize some of the challenges. Figure 1 shows a doomsday clock:

The Doomsday Clock is a symbol which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. Maintained since 1947 by the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists‘ Science and Security Board,[1] the Clock represents an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war. Since 2007, it has also reflected climate change[2] and new developments in the life sciences and technology that could inflict irrevocable harm to humanity.[3]

The Clock represents the hypothetical global catastrophe as “midnight” and The Bulletin’s opinion on how close the world is to a global catastrophe as a number of “minutes” to midnight. Its original setting in 1947 was seven minutes to midnight. It has been set backward and forward 22 times since then, the smallest-ever number of minutes to midnight being two (in 1953) and the largest seventeen (in 1991). As of January 2017[update], the Clock is set at two and a half minutes to midnight, due to a “rise of ‘strident nationalism‘ worldwide, United States President Donald Trump‘s comments over North Korea, Russia, and nuclear weapons.”[4][5] This setting is the Clock’s second-closest approach to midnight since its introduction.

Throughout its conceptual existence, the clock – although it allows for the possibility of other scenarios – has been heavily weighted towards world annihilation by way of nuclear holocaust (see February 2, 2016 blog). Here our focus will be climate change.

Figure 2IPCC projections of future climate change impacts based on two different scenarios

Figure 2 shows the IPCC’s projected impacts of climate change as estimated in its Fourth Assessment Report ten years ago (September 24, 2012 and October 14, 2014). One can see in the figure a gradual transition from yellow to orange. As we enter into the dark orange region, we see:

Few ecosystems can adapt; 50% of nature reserves cannot fulfill their objectives. Predicted extinction of 15 – 40% endemic species in global biodiversity hotspots.

This continues, as we progress further into the dark orange zone, with:

>4oC: Major extinctions around globe (as exemplified for USA and Australia). Likely extinctions of 200 – 300 species of New Zealand alpine plants.

We can arbitrarily define the transition from yellow to orange as the transition into end-of-the-world conditions and try to figure out why a respected sociologist and others labeled it disaster porn. Not being an expert in that subject or the use of the phrase, I assume that it stems from porn being considered “cheap” and not “real.” It is obvious, however, that porn is very real to both its participants and producers and it comes with a variety of prices. My job here is to make a case that doomsday scenarios cover a similar range of spectra – from viscerally frightening situations with limited quantitative details to rigorous scientific quantitative evaluations. All of these descriptions seek to encourage the masses to actively seek out ways to immediately implement policies and activities that could keep any sort of doomsday at bay for as long as possible.

Stay tuned and let me know where I succeed and where I fail.

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Never Again?? Charlottesville, Nazis, the Holocaust, and Climate Change

My original plan was to dedicate this blog, and several following ones, to pornography. Not the kind that you have in mind – this is not that kind of a blog – but the kind that the sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen meant when he referred to David Wallace-Wells’ piece in New York Magazine and critiqued other recent efforts to explore the consequences of climate change. I also promised (August 8, 2017) to move away from my coverage of the Trump administration and to restore my focus to climate change.

The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, were frightening enough to change my intentions.

Figure 1 – Members of the alt-right mimicking the Nazi salute

A demonstrator holds signs during a rally in response to the Charlottesville, Virginia car attack on counter-protesters after the “Unite the Right” rally organized by white nationalists, in Oakland, California, U.S., August 12, 2017. Picture taken August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Figure 2 – Sign carried by a counter-demonstrator

Figure 1, without the caption, could have been mistaken for a picture taken in Germany in the mid-1930s while Figure 2 shows a much more modern response from a young counter-demonstrator.

My background is immediately relevant to this situation and forced me to try to address what happened. I gave a summary of my earlier life in my first blog here, more than 5 years ago (April 22, 2012):

I was born in Warsaw, Poland in May, 1939. The first three years of my life were spent in the Warsaw Ghetto, as the Nazis developed their plans for systematic Jewish genocide. Before the destruction of the Ghetto in 1943, I was hidden for a time on the Aryan side by a family friend, but a Nazi “deal” to provide foreign papers to escape Poland resulted in my mother bringing me back to the Ghetto. Then a Nazi double-cross sent the remnants of my family not to safety in Palestine, but to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as possible pawns in exchange for German prisoners of war. As the war was nearing an end, in April 1945, we were put on a train headed to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp further from the front lines. American tank commanders with the 743rd tank battalion of the American 30th Division intercepted our train near Magdeburg in Germany, liberating nearly 2500 prisoners. Within the year, my mother and I began building new lives in Palestine.

The rest of that blog and the blog that followed tried to explain my perspective on the connection between the Holocaust and the impending disastrous future that unmitigated climate change could bring to us all. The prospective consequences of continuing careless business as usual practices will lead to what I called “self-inflicted genocide,” which is an alternative description of the doomsday scenario that Daniel Aldana Cohen labeled as porn. More on that in the next few blogs.

The show of Nazi symbolism in the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville that resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer and the serious wounding of many others, together with President Trump’s sick responses, caused me (and many others) to resurrect the slogan that titles this blog – with a large question mark.

To be a Holocaust survivor I have to be old. As my short bio describes, I am 78 years old. I was born three months before the start of WWII. Now, and on many other occasions, I am fully aware that I am part of the last generation that survived the Holocaust and the atrocities that the Nazis wrought upon the world. American soldiers saved me along with the rest of the world at that time and it is hard to believe that the same hate that inflamed Germany before WWII is now starting to do the same to American society.

I have convinced myself that – given I am the last Holocaust survivor at the school where I work – it is my duty to be part of the effort to stop the penetration of hate into the highest echelons of our country. I am too old to take part in the demonstrations to counter hate so the only activities that I can pursue are teaching, writing, speaking, and voting.

HBO’s short documentary filmed during the demonstrations, “Charlottesville: Race and Terror,” convinced me to join many others in contradicting President Trump’s attempts to find symmetry between the alt-right participants and the counter-demonstrators standing against hate. The alt-right participants were well organized, their slogans well coordinated, and in many cases even their “uniforms” matched. Their age distribution seems to be very narrow, tilted toward the younger generations, and their ranks were mostly populated by males. Some of their slogans such as “Blood and soil,” were directly plagiarized from Nazis in the 1930s, some, such as “Jews will not replace us,” were a bit more specific to the period. Others were modifications in response to the recent Black Lives Matter movement: demonstrators chanted, “White lives matter.” The resemblance to 1930s Germany was not to the Holocaust itself, but rather the SA (Sturmabteilung – Storm Detachment): the original paramilitary units of the Nazi party that ultimately perpetrated the atrocities of WWII.

There is also an abundance of parallel conspiracy theories between the two eras. Alex Jones, a prominent voice of the alt-right, is propagating the perception that Jewish actors mascaraded as members of the KKK. The HBO video includes a segment with David Duke, ex-grand wizard of the KKK, among the demonstrators. I guess that he must be part of the conspiracy.

The demonstrations did not only parallel 1930s Nazi Germany; they also reflected early 20th Century Ku Klux Klan history and their murderous actions in the US. The KKK in the South targeted Blacks while the Nazis primarily targeted Jews but neither movement spared other non-White or non-Aryan minorities.

The most frightening aspect of these events to a guy with my background is the apparent nod that the alt-right demonstrators are getting from the president of the United States. This makes the correlation with Nazi Germany almost complete. President Trump made the killing of Heather Heyer the only real crime in the event. Aside from this crime, he equated a false symmetry between the alt-right demonstrators and the anti-white-supremacy demonstrators. Fortunately for us now, as opposed to at the rise of the Nazis, and the height of the KKK, we have a powerful anti-Nazi and anti-KKK movement that is eager and ready to confront such demonstrations while the Germans and older American generations didn’t.

Some of the key players in the Trump administration are Jewish. It was reported that they were shaken and upset by the events but they didn’t resign. However, many voices on the right and left, in the business community and in the army raised their voices in protest. One such instance, directly related to my own background and my liberation by American soldiers will serve as an encouraging example and strengthen our hope that in spite of President Trump, America will not deteriorate into a Holocaust-equivalent reality.

Among the estimated thousands of alt-right demonstrators, many of whom carried firearms, social media zoomed in on one guy who was wearing a baseball hat with the insignia of the 82nd Airborne Division on it. The Washington Post covered the backlash: “He put on an 82nd Airborne cap and gave a KKK salute in Charlottesville. Vets had words”:

And the man in the hat — who hasn’t been publicly identified — drew rebuke after rebuke from the official twitter handle of the unit’s association. “Respectfully, anyone who thinks this man represents our culture and values has never worn the maroon beret … and never will,” one tweet for the 82nd’s Twitter account said.

Seventy years ago, members of the 82nd Airborne had fought against the Nazis. On a hot Saturday in 2017, someone wearing their hat was fraternizing with neo-Nazis.

The 82nd Airborne saw heavy fighting during World War II, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Paratroopers advanced into Germany and liberated the Wöbbelin camp, a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp. At its height, Neuengamme held 5,000 prisoners, many of whom were diseased and starving. The unit saw nearly 7,000 battle casualties, according to the museum.

The man looks much too young to have been alive in WWII or at the height of the KKK atrocities. From the quoted feedbacks in the paper we have no idea how he got the hat.

I have a hat like this with the insignia of the 30th Division on it. I have it because I was granted an honorary membership in the Division for being a concentration camp survivor saved by its soldiers. The background of that Division is similar to the 82nd as described above. After discovering the identity of the soldiers that saved me, I have participated for the last 10 years in annual meetings of survivors and liberators around the country. Unsurprisingly, all of the liberators were soldiers in their late 80s and 90s. We became drinking buddies and shared stories. They viewed us, the survivors, as one of the main causes for which many of their friends gave their lives fighting the Nazis. They had nothing to do with the KKK-saluting guy that was photographed in Charlottesville.

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Conflict and Confusion

The Trump administration’s approach to climate-related, policy becomes clear from the following:

The administration gave “official” indication to the UN that it will abandon the Paris 2015 international agreement:

WASHINGTON — The White House formally notified the United Nations on Friday that it intends to abandon the Paris agreement on climate change but remains open to “re-engaging” on the accord.

The United States will participate in United Nations climate negotiations later this year despite its planned withdrawal, according to the administration’s statement of intent.

The letter has no legal weight and does not set in motion the United States’ departure from the pact of nearly 200 nations to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, it is a political document that affirms President Trump’s declaration in June that the Paris agreement is a bad deal for America.

The US Justice Department has amplified its effort by to catch and prosecute leakers:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Friday that the Justice Department has more than tripled the number of leak investigations compared with the number that were ongoing at the end of the last administration, offering the first public confirmation of the breadth of the department’s efforts to crack down on unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information.

The announcement seemed designed both to reassure the president, who has criticized the attorney general as being “weak” on leak investigations, and to scare government officials away from talking to reporters about sensitive matters.

Sessions said he was devoting more resources to stamping out unauthorized disclosures, directing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray to actively monitor every investigation, instructing the department’s national security division and U.S. attorneys to prioritize such cases, and creating a new counterintelligence unit in the FBI to manage the work.

The administration is attempting to eliminate “Climate Change” from the vocabulary of the US government:

A series of emails obtained by the Guardian between staff at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a USDA unit that oversees farmers’ land conservation, show that the incoming Trump administration has had a stark impact on the language used by some federal employees around climate change.

A missive from Bianca Moebius-Clune, director of soil health, lists terms that should be avoided by staff and those that should replace them. “Climate change” is in the “avoid” category, to be replaced by “weather extremes”. Instead of “climate change adaption”, staff are asked to use “resilience to weather extremes”.

The primary cause of human-driven climate change is also targeted, with the term “reduce greenhouse gases” blacklisted in favor of “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency”. Meanwhile, “sequester carbon” is ruled out and replaced by “build soil organic matter”.

A report by The New York Times that seemed to have stemmed from information leaked by government scientists appeared to demonstrate the impact of all these policy changes:

WASHINGTON — The average temperature in the United States has risen rapidly and drastically since 1980, and recent decades have been the warmest of the past 1,500 years, according to a sweeping federal climate change report awaiting approval by the Trump administration.

The draft report by scientists from 13 federal agencies, which has not yet been made public, concludes that Americans are feeling the effects of climate change right now. It directly contradicts claims by President Trump and members of his cabinet who say that the human contribution to climate change is uncertain, and that the ability to predict the effects is limited.

“Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” a draft of the report states. A copy of it was obtained by The New York Times.

The authors note that thousands of studies, conducted by tens of thousands of scientists, have documented climate changes on land and in the air. “Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change,” they wrote.

The report was completed this year and is a special science section of the National Climate Assessment, which is congressionally mandated every four years. The National Academy of Sciences has signed off on the draft report, and the authors are awaiting permission from the Trump administration to release it.

Except that in reality, there was no such suspense surrounding the publication of the report; it had already been released. The New York Times had just spectacularly failed to do its homework. I quickly found this out when I searched for more information on the report that hadn’t been aware of.

In fact, the report has been available and open to public comment as of the end of last year and can be downloaded in its final draft here.

Almost everybody else caught on immediately and The New York Times apologized. The Washington Post commented on the mistake:

The New York Times on Wednesday appended a correction to a story about a climate change study:

Correction: August 9, 2017
An article on Tuesday about a sweeping federal climate change report referred incorrectly to the availability of the report. While it was not widely publicized, the report was uploaded by the nonprofit Internet Archive in January; it was not first made public by The New York Times.

That correction, which sits at the foot of the story, dutifully straightens out the record. Yet given the magnitude of the screw-up, it should sit atop the story, surrounded by red flashing lights and perhaps an audio track to instruct readers: Warning: This story once peddled a faulty and damaging premise.

The report is long (close to 700 pages) but I’m including the Table of Contents and some of the background of its publication for your reference.

The report is certainly up to date regarding the extent of climate change, future forecasts, and evidence of the key role that humans are playing in the process. It seems counterintuitive that this is an official document of the US Government issued under the same administration that claimed climate change was a Chinese Hoax and that just removed our country from the only international agreement to try to mitigate the human impact on the problem. As I said, the report was opened to the public before the new administration took office. This week the White House Office of Science and Technology must decide whether to approve the final version. The White House has plenty of time to insert its own perspective.

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Back to Climate Change: A Summary of What Happened in July

Siberian craterFigure 1 Melting Siberian permafrost results in craters

 Antarctic iceberg detachment map

Figure 2Detachment of Antarctican Iceberg the size of Delaware

Even though I was on a vacation in Asia and Australia for a month, in this day and age it is easy enough to follow the news no matter where you are. I was trying to follow both the global news (through my electronic gadgets) and local news via English-language newspapers. Regardless of the scope of the publication, the hullabaloo made by President Trump’s administration dominated the news. It seems that whatever happens in the US is news everywhere. In the midst of all the craziness, climate change garnered almost no coverage. The blogs that I posted in July were written before I left so they do not reflect the news bias. Climate change was not in the news in July but that doesn’t mean that nature took a break as well. Nature and the human impact on the physical environment were very busy. Now that I’m back it’s time to return to my blog’s core questions: how climate change affects the global physical environment and what our options are to remediate the impacts on our children and grandchildren.

The two pictures (Figures 1 and 2) above show the most dramatic climate-change-related events from last month. Figure 1 illustrates the melting permafrost in Siberia. The frozen tundra is not melting gradually – and the melting process releases vast quantities of trapped organic gases that explode to form large craters. The gases are primarily made up of methane, which is 20 times (per molecule) more active as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The release of these trapped gases is one of the main mechanisms that enhance the scope of global climate change. Figure 2 shows a more exaggerated impact in terms of scale – the detachment of a new iceberg from the Antarctic Peninsula. The iceberg is around 2250 square miles; depending on the publication that you read, this is equivalent in size to the State of Delaware or four times the area of the city of London. Nobody that I know would claim that either phenomenon is solely caused by human activities. These sorts of events occurred long before humans even existed. However, nor will any friend of mine maintain that these occurrences are not going through major acceleration due to our warming climate. Similarly, they all agree that by changing the earth’s atmospheric chemistry with our increased carbon dioxide emissions, human activities are a major contributing factor in the warming atmosphere.

Two other related incidences took place last month that I want to mention here: Al Gore released a sequel to his Oscar- and Nobel-winning movie An Inconvenient Truth, and multiple major publications presented climate change-related doomsday scenarios that might occur by the end of the century. One such projection was David Wallace-Wells’ article, “The Uninhabitable Earth” in New York Magazine.

I have organized some of the climate-change-related issues that surfaced in July into three categories and some subcategories:

My new semester starts at the end of August. As usual, I’ll be teaching an introductory course on climate change. This blog is a great help in my teaching so the next few blogs will expand on the outline above.

However, to incorporate some of the sense of conflict that has been playing out between optimists and pessimists, here’s part of a joint critique of Al Gore’s new film and the David Wallace-Wells piece:

“An Inconvenient Sequel,” which opened in select cities on Friday and will open nationwide next week, arrives on the heels of a widely shared New York magazine article by David Wallace-Wells. The piece describes, in dramatic terms, the worst-case repercussions of climate change. “Absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century,” Wallace-Wells writes. Some climatologists objected to the article’s characterizations of their work, but the real controversy centered on its approach. Michael Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center, at Pennsylvania State University, declared that he was “not a fan of this sort of doomist framing,” and the sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen described it as “climate disaster porn.” Wallace-Wells, for his part, acknowledged that his piece was “alarmist,” and proudly so. “We should be alarmed,” he wrote after its publication. (Earlier this month, the biologist Paul Ehrlich used a similar defense after co-authoring a study that warned of a coming “annihilation” of vertebrates. “I am an alarmist,” Ehrlich told the Washington Post. “My colleagues are alarmists. We’re alarmed, and we’re frightened. And there’s no other way to put it.”)

Psychologists have studied the dynamics of what advertisers call “fear appeals,” and they have found that while fear is very good at getting our attention, it’s not very good at keeping it. For that, the scary stuff must be followed by solutions that are small enough to be practical but large enough to be meaningful. Wallace-Wells’s article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” successfully got attention, quickly becoming the most-viewed article in New York’s history.

I’ll look into the clash between more hopeful scientists and those who promote doomsday scenarios next week.

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Visible Transition to the Middle Class

I am back from a family vacation that took me to Australia, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and a few other Asian countries. I still haven’t completely recuperated from the jet lag (distance, duration, and age) so this blog will be heavy on photographs that I took on the trip. As usual, I tried to look around to see if I could identify any markers with useful global implications that I could use in class and include in the blog. One of the interesting aspects of the countries that I visited is that they span a range from developing to developed nations, starting with Cambodia on one end and ending with Australia on the other.

Table 1 shows the GDP/Capita (PPP – US$) of these countries (taken from the IMF 2016 data). I also included China and the world as a whole to give context. I wrote blogs (August 11 and 18, 2015) that addressed similar issues after my vacation in China and intend to correlate some of the data from these countries with what I covered then.

Table 1

Country 2016 GDP/Capita (PPP) (US$)
World 16,138
Cambodia 3,500
Vietnam 6,499
China 15,399
Thailand 16,888
South Korea 37,740
Australia 48,899

Last week’s blog discussed the global shift taking place in primary carbon emissions origins from the production of electricity to transportation. My analysis points to the growth of the global middle class as the main cause of this shift. “Global Trends” described the group as follows:

There are multiple applicable definitions of what constitutes membership in the middle class. The International Futures model that we use in this report focuses on per capita consumption expenditures rather than GDP per capita. In that model, middle-class membership is defined as per capita household expenditures of $10-50 per day at PPP. Goldman Sachs used a comparable GDP per capita of $6,000-30,000 per year, which yields a similar estimate of 1.2 billion middle-class people in the world in 2010. Kharas (OECD study) calculated the number of those in the middle class at 1.85 billion in 2009; Ravallion (World Bank) calculated that 2.64 billion people were in the middle class in 2005.

Going back to Table 1, it is clear that Australia and South Korea are fully developed countries while the other countries in Southeast Asia that I visited are in various stages of development. Cambodia has yet to reach the “middle class” level; Vietnam is on the lower end and China and Thailand rest in the middle of the scale.

The transportation transition from bicycles to cars in China was mostly generational. These other countries’ transitions from scooters to automobiles have been much more gradual.

Figures 1 and 2 show “typical” urban traffic in Hanoi and Bangkok. Thailand has a similar GDP/Capita to China, and in the Thai capital of Bangkok, traffic looks almost identical to that which dominated Shanghai when I went two years ago – almost entirely made up of automobiles and not much different from what you would see in other large metropolitan areas like Seoul, Sidney, or my home of New York City. The traffic in Hanoi, which sits on the lower end of the middle class scale, is more of a mix of scooters and cars.

Figure 1 – Traffic in Bangkok, Thailand

Figure 2 – Traffic in Hanoi, Vietnam

Figures 3 and 4 show a coffeehouse in Hanoi with its predominant clientele of socializing youngsters and their preferred transportation.

Figure 3 – Coffee shop in Hanoi

Figure 4 – “Parking lot” near the coffee shop from Figure 3

Figures 5 and 6 show the loading of extra-large loads on a scooter and a bike. Figure 5 was taken at a painting gallery near the coffee shop in Hanoi while Figure 6 is from an exhibit at a museum in the same city. It is worth noting that the latter has been deemed worthy of such display.

Figure 5 – A loaded up scooter in Hanoi

Figure 6 – A fully loaded bike, as shown at a museum in Hanoi

Families riding together on scooters (Figure 7) are a common sight in both Vietnam and Cambodia that makes me extremely nervous. I have no idea about any safety rules or regulations in place but safety doesn’t seem to be their primary concern.

Figure 7 – Family transportation near Siem-Reap, Cambodia

Starting next week I will get back to climate change. The headline-dominating stories here in the US and around the world are starting to bore me and many others. Climate change doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of the news now but many things are in motion behind the spotlight and it’s time to refocus.

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Driving Forces in the Anthropocene 2 – Shift in Carbon Emissions Dominance from Electricity to Transportation

The global shift that I talked about last week – from electricity to transportation as the biggest contributor to carbon emissions – is complicated. It has to do with the increased demand for transportation (mainly fueled by gasoline) within developing countries just as much of the electricity production is shifting from coal to natural gas and correspondingly reducing carbon emissions. The indicator that plays a fundamental role in both phenomena is the recent swell in both the size and consumption of the global middle class.

The two most recent Global Trends reports issued by the American intelligence community touched on that marker. The Global Trends – 2030 report discussed it in “Megatrend 1: Individual Empowerment

Middle classes most everywhere in the developing world are poised to expand substantially in terms of both absolute numbers and the percentage of the population that can claim middle class status during the next 15-20 years.

Figure 1 shows the projected shift in graph form (Global Trends uses the same graph but the one that I show here is much clearer)

Graph of shares of global middle class consumption 2000-2050

Figure 1 – Shares of global middle class consumption (OECD)

Here is how Global Trends defines the middle class:

There are multiple applicable definitions of what constitutes membership in the middle class. The International Futures model that we use in this report focuses on per capita consumption expenditures rather than GDP per capita. In that model, middle-class membership is defined as per capita household expenditures of $10-50 per day at PPP. Goldman Sachs used a comparable GDP per capita of $6,000-30,000 per year, which yields a similar estimate of 1.2 billion middle-class people in the world in 2010. Kharas (OECD study) calculated the number of those in the middle class at 1.85 billion in 2009; Ravallion (World Bank) calculated that 2.64 billion people were in the middle class in 2005.

I observed the rapid shift to automobile use in urban China and described some of the consequences in two previous blogs, “China – How Many Cars Can a City Handle” and “Cars in China – Cap and Pay.” Many of the largest Chinese cities now have so many cars that they are approaching their estimated “saturation ranges.” This is an immense contrast with what I observed in China on my previous visit in 1995, when the predominant mode of urban transport was bicycles.

The world electrification for a similar period of time is shown in Figure 2 (the actual data in Figures 1 and 2 are similar; the time period between 2015 and 2050 in Figure 1 are extrapolated data). Global availability of electricity as a share of global population has expanded by 10% according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Map of electrification rate by country 1994 vs 2014Figure 2 Global electrification rate

Below is the EIA explanation of the reasons for the expansion of access of electricity:

Part of the increased share of access to electricity is attributable to the faster rate of population growth in urban areas; the share of the world’s population living in urban areas grew from 44% in 1994 to 53% in 2014. Urban areas tend to be more electrified, but most of the world’s population without access to electricity live in rural areas. In 2014, 27% of the world’s rural population did not have electricity access compared with 4% of urban populations.

Figure 3 quantifies the split between rural and urban gains in access to electricity.

World population access to electricity 1994 vs 2014Figure 3Urban and Rural Split Access to Electricity

By 1994, the urban areas throughout the world were already close to fully electrified. What happened afterward was a massive migration from the rural areas to the urban ones. As we’ve discussed repeatedly, the middle class is moving to the cities on a global basis, in both developed and developing countries. The planet is becoming more and more urbanized, with major political consequences and related environmental impacts. Most of the people that move do so to find work in the cities, hoping to escape poverty and rise to the middle class. Since the cities are already hooked up to power, they are more or less able to accommodate this massive migration. The use of electricity is increasing much slower as a result of the newly urbanized population. Other elements are starting to play major role. The residents of these booming cities are starting to demand clean air on par with international standards. These demands for cleaner city air are forcing governments to switch fuels in nearby power stations from coal to the cleaner options of natural gas and sustainable energy sources. These shifts result in much slower increase in carbon emission.

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Driving Forces in the Anthropocene 1 – Education and Transportation

As I have often mentioned, I teach two courses: one undergraduate climate change class and a more advanced one about Physics and Society that is open to both undergraduate and graduate students. The latter mainly aims to provide advanced students – especially those who focus on Physics – with broader opportunities in their career choices. My lower level course falls under Brooklyn College’s General Education program. Like all such setups, the school seeks to widen its students’ horizons and facilitate their ability to contribute constructively to a changing society. Both courses mix basic principles of science with current events.

Governance plays a large role in shaping current events and in a democratic society, much of that control is subject to politics. In many countries, including the United States, academics tend to be more liberally inclined than the rest of the general public. This creates a political gap between academics and the government.

One such rift came to light recently in Israel. Naphtali Bennet, the Education Minister and the head of a right-leaning Nationalist party, decided to take action to reduce this divide. His strategy was to issue guidelines for university faculty forbidding any digressions from published syllabi – especially if they regarded politics:

Last December, Bennett asked Asa Kasher, who wrote the IDF’s ethics code, to draw up a document laying down the lines for acceptable behavior by academic lecturers regarding political activism during teaching sessions. Kasher recently presented the code to Bennett and the latter now plans to submit it for approval by the Council for Higher Education in Israel, the national governing body for academic institutes, according to a Friday report in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

Although the code is not directed at any particular political orientation, Israeli academia is often seen as left-leaning. Bennett, head of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party, has been seen as attempting to limit left-wing voices in educational institutions while bringing in more views from the right.

While all of the academic institutions in Israel object to the law, they lack the voting power to prevent it from passing. Topics such as mine will be unteachable in such an environment.

In a global epoch dominated by humans (Anthropocene) politics cannot be left out of the classroom. I have touched on this topic many times [Politics (May 3 and May 17, 2016) and Education (May 24June 14, 2016) in the Anthropocene]. I firmly believe, however, that this teaching should be balanced, anchored on first principles, and not used as a recruitment opportunity for a particular party or dogma.

Right now, our energy use (and the production of such energy) is most likely the largest impact that humans are making on the physical environment. The brunt of this comes from the corresponding changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere, which in turn affect our planet’s energy balance with the sun and therefore the global climate. We have extrapolated that these changes – based on business as usual practices – over just a few generational lifetimes, will destroy the planet’s ability to support life. That relatively short timespan is barely enough time to reverse these practices. The world is now in the process of trying to actively slow or mitigate climate change but the current administration is forcefully pulling the US out of this effort. The educational system is feeling the pull between the two directions, as is the political arena.

Some of the main driving forces that power the changes in the atmospheric chemistry are summarized through the IPAT identity. The IPAT identity contains two basic socioeconomic indicators – population and standard of living, and three energy terms that specify the yearly carbon emissions that result from energy use. Traditionally, the electricity generation sector is the dominant carbon emitter, followed by the transportation sector. Figure 1 demonstrates typical global carbon dioxide emissions by sector. Figures of this sort vary because of different sector accounting (e.g. power generated on site is often associated with industry or residential sectors).

Figure 1 Global carbon dioxide emissions by sector (2015)

There is a major new shift taking place within such sector distributions. Rather suddenly, carbon emissions from transportation are starting to compete for impact with those that result from generation of electricity. The shift starts in developed countries, with a strong indication that it is expanding to developing countries as they get richer. Figure 2 demonstrates the change in the US. As we will see below, markets are responding quickly to accommodate.

US carbon dioxide emissions in billions of metric tonsFigure 2Carbon dioxide emission in the US resulting from energy use that drives electricity production and transportation.

Recently the valuation of Tesla Motors ($51.4B) overtook that of the 109-year-old company General Motors, in spite of the fact that the latter has yearly sales of more than 100 times that of the former. Tesla is developing and selling electric cars, one of the main selling points for which is that they are the future of motor vehicles because they don’t burn carbon fuel and thus don’t pollute the air. Of course, electric cars get their energy from the electric grids. The sales pitch doesn’t include the obvious detail that if said electric power is being generated using coal plants, the electric cars are far from being environmentally benign. As a matter of fact, they might be more polluting than their fossil fuel counterparts. Yet the attraction of electric cars is not confined to the US. Here is a Reuter’s story about the global trend:

Demand for gasoline in Asia may peak much earlier than expected as millions of people in China and India buy electric vehicles over the next decade, threatening wrenching change for the oil industry, oil and auto company executives warned.

They said refiners should prepare for a future in which gasoline, their biggest source of revenue, will be much less of a cash cow.

Change is being prompted by policy moves in India and China, where governments are trying to rein in rampant pollution, cut oil imports, and compete for a slice of the fast-growing green car market.

In its “road map”, released in April, China said it wants alternative fuel vehicles to account for at least one-fifth of the 35 million annual vehicle sales projected by 2025.

India is considering even more radical action, with an influential government think-tank drafting plans in support of electrifying all vehicles in the country by 2032, according to government and industry sources interviewed by Reuters late last week.

“We will see a clear shift to electric cars. It’s driven by legislation so electric cars are coming, it’s not a niche anymore,” Wilco Stark, vice president for strategy and product planning at German car maker Daimler (DAIGn.DE), told Reuters.

In the next blog I will try to correlate this shift in energy use with a shift in socioeconomic class – the world is getting richer and the global middle class is exploding the use of cars, trains and airplanes.

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Vacation Notice

This week I am taking a break from the blog, so there will be no post. Please do come back next Tuesday, when I promise to continue our discussions.

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Happy 4th of July, everyone!New rooftop solar panels on the Kentucky Coal Museum

Figure 1 – The rooftop of the Coal Mining Museum in Kentucky

A coal mining museum in Kentucky is switching to solar energy, hoping to save money on energy costs.

The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum, owned by Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, houses four floors of coal mining equipment, memorabilia, and displays. A two-ton block of coal sits at the front door, and the museum also houses an actual underground mine guests can walk through.

“We believe that this project will help save at least 8 to 10 thousand dollars off the energy costs on this building alone, so it’s a very worthy effort,” KCTC Communications Director Brandon Robinson told WYMT.

President Trump specifically mentioned our country’s continuous coal use in his withdrawal speech from the Paris Agreement:

According to this same study, by 2040, compliance with the commitments put into place by the previous administration would cut production for the following sectors: paper down 12 percent; cement down 23 percent; iron and steel down 38 percent; coal — and I happen to love the coal miners — down 86 percent; natural gas down 31 percent. The cost to the economy at this time would be close to $3 trillion in lost GDP and 6.5 million industrial jobs, while households would have $7,000 less income and, in many cases, much worse than that.

Further, while the current agreement effectively blocks the development of clean coal in America — which it does, and the mines are starting to open up. We’re having a big opening in two weeks. Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, so many places. A big opening of a brand-new mine. It’s unheard of. For many, many years, that hasn’t happened. They asked me if I’d go. I’m going to try.

China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. So we can’t build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement. India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020. Think of it: India can double their coal production. We’re supposed to get rid of ours. Even Europe is allowed to continue construction of coal plants.

In short, the agreement doesn’t eliminate coal jobs, it just transfers those jobs out of America and the United States, and ships them to foreign countries.

In spite of the president’s dire predictions, US electric utilities are becoming the first to shift away from the use of coal – for economic reasons rather than as a result of the previous administration’s policies:

WASHINGTON — In Page, Ariz., the operators of the Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal-fired power plant in the West, have announced plans to close it by 2019. The electric utility Dayton Power & Light will shut two coal plants in southern Ohio by next year. Across the country, at least six other coal-fired power plants have shut since November, and nearly 40 more are to close in the next four years.

President Trump campaigned on a pledge to restore the limping American coal industry, vowing to bring jobs and production back to a sector that has been on a steady decline for over a decade. But to do that, he would have to revive demand for coal by electric utilities, which for decades have been the largest consumer of the heavily polluting fuel. Nearly all the coal mined in the United States generates electricity.

The trend away from coal started long before the Paris Agreement – even before the Obama administration took office; our withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is unlikely to reverse that pattern. Figure 2 shows the numbers:

Graph of US coal mining employment 1985-2015

Figure 2 – Coal mining jobs in the US 1985-2015

The Energy Collective and NYT each put out highly relevant articles:

Trump Coal Obsession Largely Irrelevant To Electric Utility CEOs

The Trump administration’s obsession with the coal industry has driven many of its early energy and environmental policy initiatives—with the Energy Department’s thinly veiled baseload power plant review just the latest in a string of efforts to buttress the troubled sector. But none of these policies are going to change coal’s central problem: The utility industry, far and away its largest customer, is steadily moving away from the black rock. This transition won’t happen overnight, but the direction is clear, as a close review of recent utility executive statements and company publications clearly demonstrates.

Coal Mining Jobs Trump Would Bring Back No Longer Exist

Pressured by cheap and abundant natural gas, coal is in a precipitous decline, now making up just a third of electricity generation in the United States. Renewables are fast becoming competitive with coal on price. Electricity sales are trending downward, and coal exports are falling. All the while, the coal industry has been replacing workers with machines and explosives. Energy and labor specialists say that no one — including Mr. Trump — can bring them all back.

Coal Country’s Power Plants Are Turning Away From Coal

Coal is on the defensive in the nation’s power industry. Even in coal country.

The pressure to shift more of the country’s electric supply to renewable sources is not just a rallying cry for environmentalists. Some of the power industry’s biggest customers, like General Motors and Microsoft, have made a commitment to clean energy. And to help them meet it — and keep them from taking their business elsewhere — utilities are changing their ways.

West Virginia, where coal is king, is no exception.

Appalachian Power, the leading utility there, is quickly shifting toward natural gas and renewable sources like wind and solar, even as President Trump calls for a coal renaissance. Appalachian Power still burns plenty of coal, but in recent years it has closed three coal-fired plants and converted two others to gas, reducing its dependence on coal to 61 percent last year, down from 74 percent in 2012.

Recently, natural gas driven electricity generation overtook coal powered electricity generation in the US:

US electrical generation by source 1949-2011

Figure 3Share of US electricity generation by source

The gradual departure from coal is not restricted to the US, so President Trump’s argument that the Paris Agreement’s main consequence will be shifting coal mining jobs from the US to China doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Here are some data from the most recent BP Plc Statistical Review of World Energy as published by Bloomberg:Carbon Crash: Production of coal fell the most on record last year as consumers turned to cleaner energyFigure 4

Stable Emissions: The volume of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere has barely changed for the past three yearsFigure 5

Rise of Renewables: The combined growth of wind and solar power continues to accelerateFigure 6

The global energy transition is probably here to stay. President Trump’s withdrawal will almost certainly have an impact (see my last several blogs) but the results are likely to be different from the “America First” world that he envisions.

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