Tag Archives: National Academy of Sciences

Monster Storms: Deniable Culpability

No one knows for sure who killed Ronnie Lee Gardner.

Shortly after midnight on June 18th, 2010, Gardner was strapped into a massive chair in a Utah state prison block, and a bull’s-eye was pinned over his heart. Twenty feet away in the shadows stood five marksmen with rifles issued by the State of Utah. On command, they fired in one deafening volley. Five rifles recoiled together. But only four lead bullets slammed into Gardner’s chest.

No one on the firing squad will ever know for sure if he fired a lethal shot. One gun was loaded with a dummy – probably wax – bullet, which is said to deliver the same recoil as a live round.

The dummy bullet – or blank cartridge – is a time-honored device to assuage the conscience of those pressed into duty as executioners by the archaic means of a firing squad. There’s always the possibility, anyone can tell himself, that I only fired a harmless ball of wax. Call me a killer? Who knows? You can’t blame me with any certainty.

And that’s the comfort that a country in denial can take as we watch reports of utter devastation coming out of the island nation of Vanuatu in the wake of Cyclone Pam, one of the strongest tropical storms to visit the world since record-keeping began. Pam, a Category 5 cyclone, slammed into this Pacific nation of 252,000 souls spread across 80 islands last Friday, destroying virtually everything in its path.

Boy on Vanuatu salvages a deflated football from his home's wreckage

Boy on Vanuatu salvages a deflated football from his home’s wreckage

According to an estimate by the University of Wisconsin, the central atmospheric pressure of Cyclone Pam was a near-record-low 879 millibars. That would make Pam stronger than any Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, except the two most powerful. Early reports indicate that 80-90 percent of structures in Vanuatu have been destroyed or damaged. How do you rebuild a nation after almost all the human structures are in ruins?  For this archipelago, a direct hit by a world-record mega-storm likely spells the beginning of irreversible decline.

Climate science uniformly links increased tropical storm intensity to manmade climate change. Last year, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences summed it up like this: “Basic physical understanding and model results suggest that the strongest hurricanes (when they occur) are likely to become more intense and possibly larger in a warmer, moister atmosphere over the oceans.”

But responsible scientists almost never blame any particular event on global warming trends. Does manmade global warming lead to stronger storms and floods? Sure. Did climate change turn Cyclone Pam into a monster? Well, that’s complicated. How long do you have?

And so, to the climate-change deniers, who currently control the legislative agenda in the US Congress, you can breathe easy for a bit. Cyclone Pam may have rendered the homeland of a quarter-million Pacific islanders functionally uninhabitable, but who can say for certain whether you bear any blame? This should bring immense relief to politicians like Boehner, McConnell and Inhofe (the Oklahoma senator who invented the “greatest hoax” narrative).

With scores of outlying islands, Cyclone Pam's damage will take

Early reports: 80-90% of Vanuatu structures destroyed or damaged.

And why pick on these poor guys? In fact, 49 of 54 GOP Senators just voted against a non-binding Senate resolution simply affirming the global consensus that “human activity significantly contributes to climate change.” Ever since the Supreme Court tilted the electoral playing field in favor of unlimited moneyed interests, Republican politicians who admit that we need an alternative to oil, gas and coal have been tossed out one by one, or have “evolved” in their views.

So, American politicians, maybe you look silly to most voters today. Maybe the average European, African or Asian is aghast that you’re still professing climate ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence. Maybe future generations will beg to know how you could possibly have ignored their chances of survival with your last-ditch stand on behalf of polluters. But you can take comfort in this: No scientist will ever blame you specifically for Cyclone Pam, and the destruction of a Pacific nation.

Thousands on Vanuatu – and millions more around the world – may be permanently homeless. But who can say that you’re to blame?

Maybe, after all, you only fired the dummy bullet.

Psst! Wanna Join the War on Coal?

We hear lots about war these days. Not just the real, shooting type, although there’s plenty of that here in America – with a whopping 31 separate foreign military ventures since the year 2000 and a Pentagon budget that dwarfs any other country in the world.

No, I’m talking about all those other wars that populate the nightly news. There are the wars that we hear Obama is bent on fighting: the War on Guns, or on Doughnuts, or on Christmas. Change the channel, and we hear of the wars that the GOP is waging: the War on Science, or on Women, or on the Poor, or on Food Stamps. And then there are the bipartisan wars: the War on Terror, or on Poverty, or on Drugs, or on Cancer.

My, my! We Americans sure like to fight our wars!

But there’s a new war that’s appeared in the American lexicon of late. It’s called the War on Coal. It pops up in response to efforts to control mercury pollution, limit mountaintop-removal mining, or to set standards for carbon emissions.

stop-war-on-coal-fire-obamaReports of the War on Coal come with plaintive appeals on behalf of America’s hard-working coal miners and beleaguered mining communities. We are reminded of the elusive goal of “home-grown” energy independence. Regulators and bureaucrats are the sinister forces directing the assault. You wouldn’t want to be associated with them, right?

Well, as of today, I’m unfurling my true colors. If you want, you can buy the war bonds to defeat Crack Cocaine, or Al-Qaeda, or Assault Rifles. I’m enlisting in the War on Coal.

I bet you haven’t heard anyone admit this yet. Am I right?  But then, I’m not running for office. And besides, no one’s talking about attacking coal; this war’s purely defensive. It’s a war aimed at putting an end to massive harm wreaked on all of us by one single industry dominated by a handful of huge companies.

By now, most everyone ought to know about this. Last month, the UN’s global climate science panel told us that the world is now on a strict carbon budget. For the next hundred years or more, we can only dig up and burn fossil fuels that emit a cumulative total of one trillion tons of Earth-warming gases, or else we’ll heat the entire Earth by another 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or more. However bad that may sound to us laymen, it’s a risk to Earth’s inhabitants rivaling cataclysms not seen in millions of years. The problem is, we’ve already burned more than half of that budgeted amount since the beginning of the Industrial Age. So we’re left with less than 500 billion tons of fossil-fuel CO2 remaining in our budget.

And here’s an even thornier problem: Proven reserves of coal around the world represent 2.2 trillion more tons of CO2. So if all we do is burn the remaining coal we already know about, then we blow through our carbon limit about four times over – even if we totally forget about oil and gas reserves. This isn’t a case of slowing things down five, ten or even fifty percent. We’ve simply got to stop. Somehow, we’ve got to stop burning coal.

Last Monday, Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, addressed coal industry executives who were meeting in Warsaw. Her message was clear: Most of the world’s coal needs to stay in the ground, if the world is to avoid 3.6-degrees Fahrenheit in global warming. “I am here to say that coal must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone’s sake,” she told industry leaders.

And it’s not just the UN demanding the wind-down of coal. In the U.S., we’ve got the National Academy of Sciences. They’ve told us that the coal industry is fundamentally uneconomic, surviving only on a massive subsidy paid by the entire rest of the world. In 2010, the Academy produced a report called The Hidden Costs of Energy, which took a close look at the “external costs” of coal – the costs in public health and climate disruptions associated with coal pollution that are paid by everyone from Texas firefighters to Filipino fishermen.

Now, everyone knows that many human activities carry external costs borne by others, and some of us regard them as inevitable consequences of life on Earth. But for coal, the numbers are simply staggering. Coal producers receive about 4.5 cents when they sell the amount of coal necessary to generate one kilowatt-hour of electricity – the amount consumed by a 100-Watt light bulb left on overnight. But the National Academy has determined that the external costs of that same amount of coal totals somewhere in the range of 4.2 cents to as much as 13.2 cents – triple the entire value that any coal company receives for delivering the stuff in the first place. The coal companies get four cents; the rest of us bear as much as thirteen additional cents in health and climate pollution costs.

National Academy of Sciences report on coal's staggering cost to the rest of us

National Academy of Sciences report on coal’s cost to the rest of us

At first glance, maybe thirteen cents doesn’t sound like much. But American power companies burn a lot of coal. In a single year (2005) they burned enough so that the 13-cent subsidy totaled more than $200 billion. That’s $200 BILLION in one year – paid by everyone on Earth. And that comes to around $40 apiece for every man, woman and child in the world. All for a few American coal companies.

You might say we’d be better off paying the industry exactly what they’re making today not to produce a single ton of coal. We’d be cutting our losses by about two thirds.

Is there any other industry in the world with such perverse fundamentals? Crack cocaine makes money for drug dealers, but it surely costs addicts, hospitals and law enforcement much more. But is the tiny crack business as globally harmful as coal? Cigarette makers deliver steady profits to corporate owners, but cost smokers and the health system dearly in respiratory diseases. Are they as bad as coal?

Well, I haven’t seen the numbers on crack and cigarettes. But there’s a reason that they are regulated, taxed or banned entirely. The more they sell, the worse off the rest of us are. And if the National Academy is anywhere near to being right, it’s even worse for coal. Every single ton produced puts us all further and further behind.

And so, the next time you hear a politician accuse someone of waging a “War on Coal,” you can be pretty sure you’ll hear a strenuous denial, with vague endorsements of “clean coal technology.” But feel free to call in and tell them you know someone who has actually enlisted.

I’m John Elwood, and I approved this message.

Power Plant Carbon Pollution: Unlimited and Unpriced?

I’m starting to think about my testimony before the EPA later this week. I’ll be speaking about their proposed carbon standards for coal and gas-fired electric plants. What’s at stake is this: How much pollution should utilities be permitted to dump into the atmosphere – for you, me and our children to pay for in health, infrastructure and climate disruption costs?

The answer would seem to be pretty simple, wouldn’t it? It’s clearly wrong for a buyer and seller to enjoy all the benefits of a transaction, and then leave part of the cost for everyone else to pick up – what they sometimes call “externalities.”  It’s not even all that controversial – I can’t dump my motor oil in the river; and I can’t toss my garbage in my neighbor’s yard. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Someone else shouldn’t have to pay the cleanup costs, the medical bills or suffer a lower quality of life. If it’s my mess, it’s mine to clean up.

Even my three-year-old granddaughter knows this: Before you play another game, you clean up the mess from your last one. Grandpa and Nana have better things to do.

Picture1 (3)In the case of coal-fired power plants, perhaps we once thought that the atmosphere was a mostly infinite resource. Utilities could burn as much coal as they wanted; we could buy the cheap electricity; and maybe there wouldn’t be too much collateral damage for others to deal with.

But we’ve learned otherwise. An epidemic of respiratory diseases has beset America’s children, especially the poor who often live downwind of power plants. Elevated mercury levels – a byproduct of coal burning – are found in one in eight American women of childbearing age, often resulting in birth defects and neurological disorders. And climate disruptions from unprecedented carbon emissions are coming home to roost in the form of all sorts of extreme weather. Most recently, millions of American coastal dwellers are now getting stuck with the carbon tab in the form of skyrocketing flood insurance premiums associated with rising sea levels and more intense storms.

We know this is wrong. I pay a measly fourteen cents per kilowatt-hour for my electricity; the utility makes a tidy profit; and you lose your home because you can’t afford the flood insurance premiums.

It’s so obviously wrong, that we have to wonder why it’s gone on so long, and how so many can still argue against efforts to redress the injustice. Personally, I think the reason is one of sheer scale and obscure connections: There are so many of us who benefit from this shady deal; and there are so many others who suffer the burdens; and the specific causal links among perpetrators and victims are so hard to prove with specificity – let alone quantify.

But that has begun to change. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has been working on the matter. In 2010, they produced a study that went a long way toward setting the price tag that the public is picking up for the coal companies and the utilities. It’s called The Hidden Cost of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use. At 507 pages, I can’t recommend it for your next beach vacation, but you can download it for free.   Continue reading

How the West Was Burnt

“Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died…, those who loved them forever questioning “this unnecessary death,” and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one.”   ― Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Darrell Willis prayed desperately. He called his wife, and then the head of the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department. They prayed too.

In the background, the radio crackled pleadingly: “Are you there Granite Mountain? Are you there Granite Mountain?” Over and over, but there came no answer.

Courtesy, Terry Tomkins, U.S. Forest Service

Courtesy Terry Tomkins, U.S. Forest Service

Minutes before, one of nineteen young Granite Mountain Hotshots working a fire on nearby Yarnell Hill had radioed Willis, the Prescott Wildlands Fire Chief, to report that they were being overrun by flames, and were deploying their emergency fire shelters, lightweight cocoons used as a last resort by wildlands fire fighters.

Almost instantly, the eyes of the entire country were riveted on Prescott, now the scene of the most deadly wildfire disaster in several generations. What had begun the day as a routine 15-acre fire had grown to 200 hundred acres. By late afternoon, a sudden thunderstorm had shifted the winds nearly 180 degrees, sending a wall of flame into Yarnell, and over the thin line of exhausted men fighting to contain it.

Over the three weeks since the tragedy, we have mourned and prayed for the fallen, and for the nineteen families left to wipe away their tears and carry on without fathers, brothers and sons.  And finally, we have begun to ask: Why did this happen? Why were these nineteen precious lives cut short in their youth?

Helmets and boots of 19 who died on Yarnell Hill

Helmets and gear of the nineteen who died on Yarnell Hill

Of course, there are the proximate answers. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous calling. Freak storms can always cause fires to behave erratically. Maybe this-or-that measure could have reduced the danger. But what about the spike in wildfires engulfing the West these days? What could explain the almost-daily incidence of forest fires on the national news? Isn’t it time to take a serious look at the reasons for these events?  Continue reading

U.S. National Academy of Sciences: Guidance on Climate Change

Today marks the 150thanniversary of the creation of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.  It may seem impossible in today’s gridlocked environment, but in 1863, President Lincoln proposed it, and Congress passed the law creating the National Academy (NAS) in a matter of days. Its mission was to advise our government about matters of science and engineering that were beyond the training of politicians. And the Industrial Revolution was expanding exponentially the number and complexity of such issues.

Today, the NAS numbers more than 2,000 elected members from among the country’s most distinguished researchers. These are private citizens who share their expertise with the nation without compensation. It is, without question, the most authoritative voice in the nation on matters of science, engineering, medicine and technology.


NAS climate guidance: Free download
Our politicians, meanwhile, are deadlocked today over the issue of climate change: Is it real? What’s causing it? How severe are its consequences? We hope they’re aware that the NAS has repeatedly weighed in on the subject, and has provided some very accessible guidance. The most useful of these, in our judgment, is a 36-page downloadable booklet titled, Climate Change: Evidence, Impacts & Choices. In the following paragraphs, we summarize this short work with a still-shorter outline of key messages from America’s best climate scientists.
  1. Evidence for Human-Caused Climate Change
    1. How do we know that Earth has warmed?  Widespread measurements of temperature around the world began around 1880. These data have steadily improved and, today, temperatures are recorded in many thousands of locations on the land, over the oceans, and from satellites, ocean sensors and weather balloons. These analyses all show that Earth’s average surface temperature has increased by more than 1.4°F (0.8°C) over the past 100 years, with much of this increase taking place over the past 35 years. 1.4°F is like the difference between the average temperature in Washington, DC and Charleston, SC.
    2. How do we know that greenhouse gases lead to warming?  In 1824, French physicist Joseph Fourier was the first to discover the greenhouse effect. In the 1850s, Irish-born physicist John Tyndall demonstrated the greenhouse effect as scientific fact. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius calculated the warming power of excess CO2, predicting that if human activities increased CO2 levels, climate warming would result. Much research has built on these classics, but they are no longer in doubt.
    3. How do we know that humans are causing greenhouse gases to increase? CO2 is produced and consumed in many natural processes that are part of the carbon cycle. However, once humans began digging up long-buried forms of carbon such as coal and oil and burning them for energy, additional CO2 began to be released into the atmosphere much more rapidly than in the natural carbon cycle. Other human activities, such as cement production and deforestation also add CO2 to the atmosphere. Today, atmospheric CO2 concentrations exceed 390 parts per million—nearly 40% higher than preindustrial levels, and, according to ice core data, higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years.
    4. How much are human activities heating Earth? There are several well-known human impacts on climate: greenhouse gas emissions are the most familiar; emissions from burning fuels also produce small atmospheric particles called aerosols, which have a slight cooling effect; and land-use changes (farming, urban development and deforestation) also have – surprisingly – a slight overall cooling effect. But when these human impacts are taken together, the net climate impact is pushing the earth toward warming.


Ice core data: CO2 and temperature move together
To visualize the extra heat from human climate warming, picture the small Christmas lights that many of us use to decorate our trees or homes over the holidays. Imagine four of them burning brightly in a square meter of space – about the area of your shower stall or bathtub bottom. Now, add four of those same lights to every single square meter over the face of the earth and ocean.  This extra heating equals about 50 times the amount of power produced by all the power plants of the world combined, and that heat is added to Earth’s climate system every second of every day.
    1. How do we know the current warming trend isn’t caused by the Sun? Since 1979, we have measured the Sun’s energy from satellites. These records show that the Sun’s output has not shown a net increase during the past 30 years and thus cannot be responsible for the warming during that period. And since the 1950s, weather balloons have measured temperatures in both the lower and upper atmosphere. More intense heat from the Sun would warm all layers; but in fact, the upper layers have cooled, and the lower layers have warmed. Satellite and weather balloon measurements have been closely scrutinized, and both show a warming trend in the lower layer of the atmosphere and a cooling trend in the upper layer. The Sun is not the cause of today’s global warming.
    2. How do we know the current warming trend isn’t caused by natural cycles? Many natural factors affect the Earth’s climate, including volcanic activity, El Nino and La Nina cycles, and small changes in our orbit around the Sun. Scientists have modeled the impact of these natural impacts on climate over the last 50 years, and have concluded that their combined effects have been largely neutral to slightly cooling. There is a more than 90% chance that most of the observed global warming trend over the past 50 to 60 years can be attributed to emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities.
    3. What other climate changes and impacts have been observed? Global warming is not uniform all over the globe, and its effects vary from place to place. Major observed impacts include:
                                                               i.      The strongest warming has occurred over land, and most significantly in the Arctic.
                                                             ii.      Heat waves and record high temperatures have increased across most regions of the world.
                                                            iii.      Arctic sea ice cover has decreased 10% per decade, and continues to set new lows.
                                                           iv.      Many of the world’s glaciers and ice sheets are melting.
                                                             v.      Sea levels are rising due to thermal expansion as oceans warm, and because of ice melt.
                                                           vi.      More CO2 in the atmosphere reacts with sea water to form acids. Ocean acidity has increased 30% since preindustrial times, and this is radically altering marine ecosystems.
                                                          vii.      With more water vapor in warmer air, storms are becoming more intense. The Northeast region of the U.S. has seen a 54% increase in intensity of storms over the last century.
                                                        viii.      Species have shifted their ranges pole-ward to adjust to warming climates, or have become endangered due to immobility.
                                                           ix.      Plant and animal behaviors, such as breeding, blooming and migration occur on average 5 days earlier per decade. This affects the timing and severity of insects, disease outbreaks and other disturbances.
  1. Warming,  Climate Changes, and Impacts in the 21st Century and Beyond
    1. How will temperatures be affected?  By the end of the century, the center of the United States is expected to experience 60 to 90 additional days per year in which the heat index is more than 100°F. The ratio of new record high temperatures to record low temperatures currently stands at 2 to 1. But that ratio is projected to increase to 20 to 1 by mid-century and 50 to 1 by the end of the century.
    2. How is precipitation expected to change? Globally, dry areas are expected to get even drier and wet areas even wetter. Some notable details:
                                                               i.      The subtropics, where most of the world’s deserts are concentrated, are likely to see 5-10% reductions in precipitation for each degree of global warming. Mexico and the American Southwest are likely to get much drier.
                                                             ii.      Polar and temperate regions are expected to see increased precipitation, especially during winter.
                                                            iii.      Extreme rainstorms are likely to intensify by 5-10% for each 1°C (1.8°F) of global warming, resulting in more intense flooding, even in regions that will be drier.
                                                           iv.      Wildfires will become more intense and widespread. For every degree of warming, the forest area burned is expected to increase by a factor of 2x to 4x.
    1. How will sea ice and snow be affected? In the Arctic, sea ice will decline 25% for each 1°C (1.8°F) in global warming this century. In the Antarctic, sea ice is expanding due to the stratospheric “ozone hole” which developed because of the use of ozone-depleting chemicals; this effect is expected to wane as ozone returns to normal levels by later this century. In many areas of the globe, snow cover is expected to diminish, with snowpack building later in the cold season and melting earlier in the spring. Each 1°C (1.8°F) of local warming may lead to an average 20% reduction in local snowpack in the western United States; reduced snowpack will restrict summer drinking water supply and hydropower production.
    2. How will coastlines be affected?  Sea-level rise is projected to continue for centuries in response to human- caused increases in greenhouse gases, with an estimated 20-39 inches of mean sea-level rise by 2100, and more beyond. However, there is evidence that sea level rise could be much greater, due to unexpectedly rapid melting from glaciers and ice sheets. If sea levels rise by 39 inches this century, many parts of the U.S. coastline will be impacted (see map below). In any event, global “hotspots,” including the Mississippi, Ganges and Mekong River deltas will be seriously affected.
    3. How will ecosystems be affected? Species are adapted to specific climatic conditions in their ecosystems. As the climate changes, many species will be forced to migrate. But this threatens many species with limited mobility. Special stress is being placed on cold-adapted species on mountain tops and at high latitudes, which cannot move higher or further pole-ward. Shifts in the timing of the seasons and life-cycle events such as blooming, breeding, and hatching are causing mismatches between species, disrupting patterns of feeding, pollination, and other key aspects of food webs.
Large losses to American cities from 39” sea rise (pink shading)
In the ocean, warmer surface waters are mixing less with cooler, deeper waters, separating near-surface marine life from the nutrients below and ultimately reducing the amount of phytoplankton, which forms the base of the ocean food web. Ocean acidification, brought on as the oceans take in more of the excess CO2 will threaten many species over time, especially mollusks and coral reefs.  Ocean acidification will continue to worsen if CO2 emissions continue unabated in the decades ahead.
    1. How will agriculture and food production be affected?  Warmer weather and increased CO2 do not necessarily mean a decline in food production. However, temperature increases above 1°C (1.8°F) will reduce yields in almost all of the world’s staple foods, a result of water stress and temperature peaks. Local results will also vary, with a projected 40% yield decrease in a broad cross section of California crops by 2050. Growers in prosperous areas may be able to adapt to some climate threats. However, adaptation may be less effective where local warming exceeds 2°C (3.6°F), and will be limited in many poorer countries and the tropics, where crop yields are restricted principally by moisture.
We are glad that for the last 150 years, so many of America’s brightest researchers have been willing to donate their expertise for the sake of our country and its leadership. President Lincoln had the foresight to see the value of such an enterprise. Let us pray that today’s leaders will show similar wisdom.
“Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14).
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood
Further Resources