Counting the ways we could be screwed by abrupt climate swings. Avoiding them? It's not all about CO2
December 9, 2009
We interrupt Dateline Earth's relentless search for the 100 one-percent solutions to global warming for a special report on a sweeping new look at how we can give ourselves a lot more time to find those solutions.
A collection of papers just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights a series of steps that would forestall the worst effects of climate change by years or even decades. That gives us a lot more time to develop the technology it's going to take to get us out of this mess. (Although, as we've pointed out before, we already have the know-how to cut emissions 80 percent by 2020.)
The research is aimed at avoiding the "tipping points" that scientists fear could make the fight unwinnable -- abrupt, irreversible climate change. You know, stuff like permafrost melting, changes in the African winds that bring nutrients to the Amazon and methane bubbling up from the ocean bottom in world-changing quantities. (See the summary.)
Most of this series of scientific papers is devoted to this laundry list of Things That Could Go Really Wrong Really Fast. But there's hope! Read on.
Now, the funny thing about this collections of papers is the proposed solutions, the ones to forfend sudden and dramatic climate change, do not target the most prolific greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. That's the gas the global climate negotiators are focused on in Copenhagen this week.
No, the final paper in the bunch says the two most surefire ways to head off what they call "tipping elements" is to stop using hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCS, and stop polluting the air so much.
You see, carbon dioxide is not as potent as other greenhouse gases, even though it's the most abundant. And it hangs around in the atmosphere for hundreds of years compared to, say, methane, which is up there maybe a dozen years before it turns into CO2. Methane, though, is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. So, ounce for ounce, the more you keep out of the air, the better off we'll be, and especially in the short term.
Same for hydroflurocarbons, the manmade chemicals that are being phased out in an effort to protect the ozone layer.
The very same thing goes for black carbon -- soot, essentially, from diesel exhausts, burning wood and so forth.
And you can say the same thing about ground-level ozone. (Which is caused by air pollution, doesn't protect us from anything and even harms us, unlike the ozone layer way up in the atmosphere that screens out the sun's most-harmful rays.)
The whole idea in avoiding these massive and no-doubt-harmful climate shifts is to keep the increase in temperatures, expressed as a global average, to no more than 2 degrees Centigrade.
Commenting on the solutions suggested in his paper is Mario Molina, a scientist who won a Nobel Peace Prize for laying out the threat to the ozone layer in the 1970s. That led to the Montreal Protocol, the global treaty to phase out hydrofluorocarbons and other chemicals harmful to the ozone layer:
The Montreal Protocol has already delayed climate change by seven to 12 years, and put the ozone layer on the path to recovery later this century. The Montreal Protocol is critical for avoiding abrupt climate change. We have to take advantage of the proven ability of this legally binding treaty to quickly phase down HFCs.
As for black carbon soot, here's something to consider: Although burning biomass has been touted as a solution to global warming, it produces the black carbon, which is now considered a leading cause of global warming. For instance, when the carbon lands on snow, in large quantities, it helps melt the snow, because the black particle absorb a lot more heat than the white snow. All of which makes things warmer.
Summarizing the hopeful part of the research is co-author Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the University of California at San Diego:
Cutting HFCs, black carbon, tropospheric ozone, and methane can buy us about 40 years before we approach the dangerous threshold of 2˚C warming. ... If we reduce black carbon emissions worldwide by 50 percent by fully deploying all available emissions-control technologies, we could delay the warming effects of CO2 by one to two decades and at the same time greatly improve the health of those living in heavily polluted regions.
Now, these are scientists, and they've been watching the world stage on climate for some time now. In a roundup paper, German researcher Hans Joachim Schellnhuber sounds positively bleak:
Whether this precautionary approach is an option at all, after two decades of failed climate protection since the 1999 Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change Report, is more doubtful than ever.
He sounds a bit more sanguine in a press release, but that's just about this new reasearch:
This is the first systematic analysis of the tipping elements issue. We have developed a mathematical formalism for describing tipping elements and we have reviewed the complete pertinent literature. We have also identified the tipping elements in the Earth’s climate systems with regard to their relevance for climate policy. One could look at this paper as a “mini-IPCC-report” focusing on tipping elements.
Will this miniature version of the worldwide climate report spur any more change than those that came before?
-- Robert McClure
Wealth and Poverty | March 2015
March 2015 marks the anniversary of a bold promise: King County's 10-year plan to end homelessness. Now that the 10-year plan is ending and local homelessness is worse than ever, talk of ending homelessness is being replaced with less-lofty aspirations: making homelessness rare and brief when it does occur.
In collaboration with KUOW this week, we examine the roots of the plan, the challenges it faced, and where community and city leaders think we go from here.
Equal Justice | December 2014
With grand jury reform elsewhere focused on eliminating racial bias and curbing police use of force, Oregon is an outlier: It is one of just 14 states that do not regularly record the citizen grand juries that charge people with felonies.
Almost five years after police killed an unarmed black man in Portland and the Multnomah Co. district attorney petitioned for that grand jury to be recorded, lawmakers in Salem are lining up behind a reform bill to mandate recording statewide, InvestigateWest has learned.
Seafood | December 2014
A struggle in Alaska over shrinking supplies of halibut is threatening the iconic centerpiece fish in favor of cheaper exports, fast-food fillets and fish sticks.
At risk is most of the frozen supply that sustains restaurants, food-service companies and retail stores nationwide, such as Costco and Whole Foods. Lee van der Voo investigates.
Photo: Peter Haley / The News Tribune
Environment | November 2014
It will take hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the Duwamish River. But how clean is clean? And who decides?
Robert McClure looks at how lobbyists and community groups have squared off over the health of the waterway and its neighborhoods.
Photo: Paul Joseph Brown/ecosystemphoto.com
Trafficking | October 2014
Authorities say organized gangs increasingly are trafficking children for sex in the Northwest, and even cooperating with each other to stymie police.
Meanwhile in Portland, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has become the third most prolific nationally in securing indictments for trafficking children and adults for sex.
Photo: Oregon DOT/Flickr
Minimum Wage | August 2014
"Everyone is aware that passing a $15 an hour minimum wage was historic," an advisor to Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council told InvestigateWest. "But if we cannot enforce that, we haven't accomplished much."
Based on a review of more than 20,000 wage theft complaints, hundreds of pages of reports and more than a dozen interviews, "Stolen Wages" shines a light on the dark world of pay violations in Seattle and across Washington.
Infrastructure | May 2014
Portable, modular or relocatable classrooms — whatever you call them — are a necessity for cash-strapped schools.
But many portables become permanent fixtures, in place for decades at a time. Costly and insufficient, these aging structures burden the grid, frustrate teachers and administrators and compromise student health.
Environment | April 2014
Energizing our world with wood sounds so natural. And it has quickly become a multibillion-dollar industry as governments including British Columbia and the European Union turn to biomass to replace dirty old coal. Yet what we found when we dug into the coal-vs.-wood debate will surprise you.