This figure shows the size of U.S. wildfires over a 25 year period from 1983 to 2008. Wildfire season is now longer on average and increases in wildfire frequency have been greatest in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests where land use histories have little effect on fire risks. (Westerling, 2006)
Source: USGCRP/National Interagency Fire Center
Increased moisture in the atmosphere as a result of warming temperatures increases the risk of extreme precipitation events. In the United States, the frequency of heavy downpours has increased by almost 20 percent on average. The following figure shows changes in the number of days with heavy precipitation since 1958 on a regional basis.
Source: US GCRP, Groisman et al, (2009)
The top figure shows dryness trend as measured by the Palmer Drought Severity Index from 1900 to 2002 for different regions of the world. For most areas, drier (red and yellow) conditions are now significantly more common than wetter (blue and green) conditions. The bottom figure shows the trend over time of increasing drought, indicating that for much of the world, droughts are more common.
Source: IPCC AR4, Adapted from Dai et al, (2004)
This blog is co-written by Jay Gulledge
Recently, President Obama quipped about GOP presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry: “You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change.” While this type of election jousting risks further politicizing an issue that should be totally non-partisan, it raises a legitimate question: Is climate change increasing the risk of drought and wildfires in Texas?
With the Northeast still reeling from the impacts of Hurricane Irene, the possibility of even more flooding was almost too much to comprehend. But last week the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee stalled and sent plumes of precipitation toward the Northeast, creating a replay of the floods a few weeks earlier. This time the area along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and New York was in the bulls-eye. Since the ground was still saturated from Irene, this new round of flooding was worse, surpassing the previous record event set in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes dropped a torrential downpour on the area.
This Q&A orginally appeared on Singapore International Energy Week's website.
Q1. The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Do you see an agreement on its successor during negotiations at Durban later this year? Or is an extension of the Kyoto Protocol or a move to a transitional framework a more likely outcome?
Eileen Claussen: The Kyoto Protocol has played an important role in advancing climate change efforts in some parts of the world. Most notably, the European Union established its successful Emissions Trading System and other policies in order to fulfil its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. However, because developing countries are exempt from Kyoto's emission targets and because the United States has chosen not to join, the Protocol covers just one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Japan, Canada and Russia have made clear that they will not take on new binding targets post-2012 without commensurate obligations by the United States and the major developing countries, which are not prepared for binding commitments. Hence, there appears very little prospect of new Kyoto commitments being adopted in Durban.
While our ultimate aim should be a comprehensive and binding international climate framework, we must accept that getting to binding commitments will take time. The Cancún Agreements made important progress in strengthening the existing frameworks in the areas of finance, transparency, adaptation and technology. Further incremental progress in these areas will promote near-term action and will strengthen parties' confidence in one another and in the regime, thereby building a stronger foundation for a later binding agreement. At the same time, countries must continue strengthening political will and policies domestically. In Durban, parties should make concrete progress in implementing the Cancún Agreements--for instance, by establishing the Green Climate Fund and agreeing on stronger transparency measures--while affirming their intent to work toward binding outcomes.
Q2. Global GHG emissions increased by a record amount last year. Is the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degree Celsius just a "nice Utopia" as IEA's Dr Fatih Birol put it?
EC: Long-term goals are tricky. On the one hand, they provide a rallying point to help focus attention and orient action, and a yardstick for measuring progress. On the other hand, they are meaningful only if they can be operationalized, and if interim efforts don't appear to be on track, people may be discouraged as a result and the will to act may actually weaken. In the case of climate, a temperature goal is appealing because it is easily related in the public mind to the core issue--global warming. But as a metric, it is several steps removed from the action that is needed: Reducing emissions. From a practical standpoint, a global emissions goal might be more helpful.
Countries' pledges to date clearly do not put us on the path to meeting the 2 degree goal. While achieving the goal is not yet out of the question, it would require a dramatic acceleration of efforts around the globe. The bottom line is that we know what direction we must go. Whatever our long-term goal--indeed, whether or not we have a long-term goal--the immediate challenge is the same: Ramping up our efforts as quickly as possible.
Q3. How much of an impact will the recent nuclear power crisis in Japan have on GHG emissions reduction?
EC: It is still too early to know what impact the Fukushima disaster will have on energy choices and greenhouse gas emissions around the world. The most dramatic example is the recent decision by Germany to completely phase out nuclear power. While many in Germany believe that the gap can be filled by renewable energy and improved energy efficiency, others are deeply concerned that the country will deepen its reliance on coal, making it impossible to achieve its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals.
Other countries must assess for themselves the implications of Fukushima for their energy futures. For those countries choosing to continue or deepen their reliance on nuclear power, the tragedy clearly offers lessons for improving safety. Given the continued growth in energy demand projected in the future, particularly in developing countries, it is difficult to imagine that we will be able to meet the world's energies needs and simultaneously meet the climate challenge without continued reliance on nuclear power. It is therefore imperative that we continue striving to enhance safety and solve the issue of long-term waste disposal.
Q4. Technology is seen as a key enabler to achieve low emissions growth. In your opinion, what are the top three technologies available today that can make the biggest impact?
EC: There are thousands of technologies available today that could make a huge impact with the right policy support, such as a price on carbon. But the problem, at least in the US today, is that it is unclear when such policy support will be forthcoming. So I will pick my top three based on the ones that need the least additional policy support to make a contribution, either because they yield multiple economic benefits beyond climate, or because they benefit from existing policy drivers.
a. Batteries in cars. Batteries can be used in vehicles in a variety of ways. While a battery-only vehicle may only be able to fill a niche market, hybrid vehicles that run on either gasoline or electricity will likely have broader appeal, and start-stop batteries, which turn off the gasoline engine while a vehicle idles, can be applied to just about any vehicle, achieving modest per-vehicle reductions that add up to significant reductions fleet wide. The combination of new US standards for fuel economy and GHG emissions and electric utility interest in selling electricity can drive battery costs down. The potential emission reductions are enormous, but they depend on cleaning up the electricity grid.
b. Information technology. IT can enable dramatic GHG reductions, for example through energy efficiency (e.g. smart buildings that turn on lights and HVAC when they're needed and turn them off when they're not), substituting videoconferencing for travel, and using wireless communication to optimize transportation routing for people and goods. Convenience and time savings are such powerful drivers of IT that it needs little incremental policy support.
c. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) using CO2. CCS is technically available, and potentially a game changer, enabling us to continue to use fossil fuels but with very low CO2 emissions. CO2-EOR is already economic using naturally occurring CO2, and is close to economic using captured CO2. With very little policy support, EOR using captured CO2 could yield some near-term emission reductions while driving CCS costs down, thereby enabling enormous emission reductions in the future.
Q5. Energy efficiency has long been touted as the lowest hanging fruit to address the energy and climate change challenges. Many Asian countries have announced ambitious targets to cut their energy and carbon intensities. For example, as part of its 12th Five-Year Plan, China has indicated that it aims to cut energy intensity by 16 percent and carbon intensity by 17 percent in the next five years. Do you think Asian countries are doing enough? What more can they undertake to help combat climate change?
EC: Efficiency improvements that generate more economic output with less energy input are important for a variety of reasons, including energy supply security, pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction, and improvement of livelihoods. Countries such as Korea, China and India have taken significant measures to improve efficiency, with the result that the energy intensity of their economies has been lowering over the past decade.
Many energy efficiency measures are classified as "low hanging fruit," meaning the energy savings and other benefits they produce far outweigh the cost of investing in them. Asian countries are currently focusing on exploiting these low hanging fruit, notably in the industrial and power sectors, as well as in appliances and equipment, and large commercial and public buildings. Eventually, achieving additional energy savings will require more expensive investments, and targeting more difficult sectors, such as small and medium enterprises and households.
Asian governments will need to adjust policy tools to meet these new challenges. Policy certainty and appropriate price signals are important to ensure the efficiency improvement potentials of current investments are maximised. One way of providing these is through cap-and-trade type systems, such as those being considered or developed in China, India and Korea. This will also require the phase-out of subsidies that artificially decrease energy prices and encourage consumption rather than conservation. Though progress is slow, several Asian countries have taken or are taking steps in this direction as well.
Limiting the growth of or reducing energy consumption is, of course, essential. However, shifting to less carbon-intensive sources of energy is equally important in the medium to long term. As such, many Asian countries should also be commended for investing in developing less GHG-intensive energy sources.
The Pew Center's September 2011 newsletter highlights a new intiative focused on expanding carbon dioxide enhanced oil recovery, a new brief on international climate assistance, the lessons we can learn from Hurrican Irene, and more.
Researchers must make a stronger case for funding in the face of a perfect storm of budget cuts and eroding political support, says Jay Gulledge.
This op-ed appears in Nature magazine.
By Jay Gulledge
The current U.S. debt crisis sets the stage for a potential tipping point in federal science spending. The ideology that government-sponsored science is crucial to the well-being of society has eroded along with the cold-war security agenda, which embraced and fortified science for decades. Meanwhile, science has been pulled repeatedly into political clashes on cultural issues. Against this backdrop, the global economic crisis portends a decade-long reduction in federal budgets. To avoid a permanent retraction of government support for research, the science community must be more strategic and aggressive in conveying the value of its work to society and in gaining robust support from politicians.
US federal science spending has long been rooted in the national security agenda. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was established shortly after the Second World War “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense”. NASA was established less than 10 months after the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, in a frenzied response to the Soviets’ early lead in developing ballistic missiles. Through the decades of the cold war, support for science straddled party lines.
But, after the fall of the Berlin wall, the United States stood as the sole great power and shifted its strategic emphasis from establishing scientific superiority to cultivating democratic movements in the developing world. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks reinforced this shift: security analysts believed that Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the main US enemies, would be defeated by winning hearts and minds, not by building a better mouse trap.
The erosion of the cold-war security doctrine therefore removed the bipartisan backstop to science funding. The quest for economic competitiveness might reasonably have replaced it, but has not done so. For example, the America COMPETES Act, passed in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010 by Democrat-run Congresses, planned to expand the NSF’s budget from US$6.6 billion in 2008 to $8.1 billion in 2010, but appropriators froze NSF budgets in response to the economic crisis. The current Republican-led House of Representatives is unlikely to support the increase of science budgets. Representative Ralph Hall (Republican, Texas), the recently installed chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has said that the America COMPETES Act is “just too heavily drowned in money”.
Add to this the ‘culture wars’ that have gripped the United States for some time. They split the nation into two camps along divisive issues such as abortion, gun control and gay rights. In recent decades, some of the most contentious issues have put science in the crossfire, from evolution to tobacco health effects, stem-cell research and most recently my own area of expertise — climate change. This year, an informal survey of US Earth-science teachers found that climate change was second only to evolution in evoking protests from parents and school administrators (S. Reardon Science 333, 688–689; 2011).
These divisions threaten science budgets. Hall has expressed doubts about the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change and recently sponsored an amendment to the 2011 spending bill to stop the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from spending money to set up a national climate service; the bill passed with support from 227 Republicans and 6 Democrats.
In the midst of all this, the debt-ceiling deal — formally the Budget Control Act of 2011 — has the potential to administer a massive shock to science budgets. The law requires non-defence discretionary spending (which includes science funding) to be cut by $917 billion over the next ten years, an average of 15 percent per year. On top of this, an automatic trigger will reduce spending on defence and on social entitlements — the sacred cows of Republicans and Democrats, respectively, if by the end of the year Congress cannot agree on ways to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next decade. The two parties will therefore be strongly motivated to cut non-defence discretionary budgets as much as possible.
Whether future Congresses will soften the impact of the debt-ceiling deal depends on the pace of economic recovery, the evolution of the culture wars, and the public’s perception of the return on taxpayer investment in research. The scientific community can directly influence the last of these, but it needs a coherent strategy to do so. Like industry, it needs to document its net value to society and flaunt it. Unfortunately, through decades of cold-war complacency, the scientific community has developed a culture that runs counter to doing this.
An institution representing the U.S. science community is needed to undertake a broad, ongoing, quantitative assessment of the overall contribution of science to society and the economy and communicate these effects to the public and politicians through the media and other channels. As ever, the contribution to national security is a good place to start. Neutralizing today’s threats — terrorism, biological and chemical weapons, nuclear proliferation, and cyberwarfare — is an intensely scientific undertaking. Social sciences are needed to tackle joblessness, food and energy insecurity, financial disruptions and climate-change-induced destabilization of developing countries. Economic development, cost savings through innovation and efficiency enhancement, environmental quality, mental health and happiness are all affected by scientific research and development.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science is the traditional home for such cross-cutting efforts, and its work is laudable. But the ongoing public misunderstanding of science shows that the established approaches are inadequate.
There are signs of new ways of thinking. In March, the American Geophysical Union hosted a gathering of the presidents and top administrators of 17 US scientific societies and research consortia, from a broad spectrum of fields, to discuss how they might cooperate to improve public understanding of climate science — a unique and remarkable effort that should be expanded.
At the same time, science institutions need to enhance their value to society by incorporating socioeconomic benefits into their missions. Although some branches of academies already embrace this role to some extent — medical, law and engineering schools, for example — basic-science and social-science schools traditionally eschew it. In part this is because the production of social benefits is scantily rewarded. In the words of Anthony Janetos, director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland in College Park, at a 2009 meeting of the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC: “Nobody asks me, ‘How many policy decisions did your work inform?’ Instead they ask, ‘How many papers did you publish and how much grant money did you raise for the institute?’” Both should matter.
Peer-reviewed publications, research grants, and professional impact should remain the core metrics of success in academia. But the remit should be broadened so that recognized publications include assessment reports and science-based articles in public-policy, interdisciplinary, and business journals. Recognized grants should include those from mission-oriented agencies, foundations, and non-governmental organizations. And recognized impact must include influence on government, business, and civil-society decision makers.
The drive for international superiority during the cold war passively nourished a wide spectrum of sciences, the true value of which manifested in an array of benefits outside defence. In today’s chillier strategic and political climate, the scientific community must work hard to enhance and advertise those benefits. Those in academia who worry about the erosion of curiosity-driven science should have a greater fear: the erosion of science in general.
Jay Gulledge is the Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
This op-ed appeared in CQ Researcher.
By Jay Gulledge
The risk of extreme weather is rising because of climate change. In the United States, long-term trends show an increasing number of heat waves and heavy downpours and longer, more destructive droughts and wildfires. Climate models simulate these same trends when scientists examine the effects of increases in global warming’s main ingredient – greenhouse gases.
Risk is the best way to understand the link between climate change and extreme weather. Just as smoking and high cholesterol are risk factors for heart disease, natural cycles and global warming are risk factors for extreme weather. This year’s weather impacts have been particularly severe because multiple risk factors are aligned: A long, intense La Nina – a temporary cool period in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that is associated with extreme temperatures, droughts, and flooding in other parts of the world – is occurring at the same time we are experiencing the warmest decade in at least 130 years. The big difference between these risk factors is that natural cycles come and go, whereas global warming increases over time as atmospheric greenhouse gases grow, constantly adding more weather risk to the climate system.
Escalating weather impacts are cutting deeply into the economy. The world’s largest re-insurance company says the number of weather- and climate-related disasters worldwide more than doubled over the past 30 years. Economic losses attributable to weather variability run $485 billion annually. Several multi-billion-dollar events have occurred this year, including Texas’ worst single-year drought, the Mississippi floods, and Hurricane Irene, which is expected to rank among the ten costliest hurricanes in U.S. history. As the weather becomes more volatile, economic risk will continue to grow.
As recent weather events teach us more and more about our vulnerabilities, the taxpayer-funded National Flood Insurance Program is already $18 billion in debt. Because most of the damage from Hurricane Irene is not privately insured, this financially-strapped program is under pressure once again. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is running out of money to respond to disasters, even as Congress bickers over how to refill the coffers.
Flood insurance is the federal government’s second-largest fiscal liability after social security. Ignoring rising climate risk will only allow these hidden costs to suck up more taxpayer money. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to changes already under way bends down the risk curve, just as exercise and medical insurance lower health risks. If we don’t take these steps, our children and grandchildren will inherit a more dangerous and costlier climate.
Jay Gulledge is the Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.