Continuing Carbon Emissions Could Have Devastating Impacts on Poor Countries

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Populations and livelihoods—mostly in developing countries—will suffer as average global temperatures continue to rise. This is according to a study, conducted by the humanitarian organization DARA, which found climate change could cost the world more than $1.2 trillion annually and contribute to the deaths of more than 100 million people if action against climate change isn’t taken. Together, the cost of air pollution and climate change could rise to 3.2 percent of the global GDP by 2030, with developing countries suffering losses closer to 11 percent. Timothy B. Lee at Forbes argues that “lazy” reporting on the study has conflated deaths from traditional air pollution and those from climate change. A close reading of the study, he said, suggests that climate change alone would only kill about 12 million people. “Now obviously 12 million deaths is still a lot,” Lee says. “If the rest of their calculations pan out, that’s still a good argument for taking action on climate change.”

Meanwhile, two House Democrats, Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, have released a report highlighting the recording-breaking weather events of 2012 to try and build congressional momentum to address climate change. Its release, Think Progress reports, comes at a time “when political resistance to climate action is at an all-time high and both political candidates avoid speaking openly on the issue, ” despite polls showing that some voters want more action on climate. A Nature editorial argues that if President Obama wins a second term, he will need to “take on the political opposition and … [lay] out a clear vision for the future” for how to deal with climate change.

Meanwhile, the ubiquitous battle between media outlets over bias in coverage has not ignored the climate issue. Fox News’ and the Wall Street Journal’s opinion sections are under fire for what others characterize as misleading coverage of climate change. Media Matters runs down a list of 10 leading scientists’ public criticisms of Fox News coverage the last two years and offers guidance on navigating the misinformation.

EU Airlines Bill Passes, While Debate on Carbon Tax Continues

A bill shielding United States airlines from participating in the European Union’s (EU) emission reduction scheme was passed unanimously by the Senate, although it has yet to be reconciled with a similar House proposal. The EU scheme, which went into effect in early 2012, was projected by MIT to add between $3 and $6 to the cost of a flight bound from New York to London. Under the bill, all airlines flying in and out of European airports would be required to cut emissions or purchase allowances to cover them in order to curb emissions 20 percent by 2020. While the Senate vote would block U.S. airlines from complying, an amendment added to the bill requires that the ruling be reconsidered if the EU changes its plan or the U.S. introduces its own measures.

While some have found a carbon tax to curb emissions to be risky—claiming that it could be potentially damaging to the economy—a new report says imposing a $20 per metric ton carbon tax in the U.S. has the potential to reduce the country’s budget deficit by half in roughly a decade.

The Fate of Wind Energy

Wind power makes up roughly 3 percent of all electricity produced in the United States. In Washington, city government is now running 100 percent on wind. Sam Brooks, head of Washington’s Energy and Sustainability Division, says the district buys about $52 million of electricity each year—enough to power about 90,000 homes.

As the Dec. 31 cut off for tax credits tied to wind turbines looms, the New York Times says the wind industry is “withering.” Ed Dolan calls wind power a “success story of green energy.” In his blog, EconoMonitor, he urges decision makers to rethink energy and tax policy as the subsidy deadline grows near. Others aren’t in agreement, and see the tax credits’ potential expiration as a step toward reducing the deficit.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

What Is the True Social Cost of Carbon?

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences contends that the U.S. government significantly underestimated the social cost of carbon in 2010 in its effort to establish a unified cost of carbon for various agencies to use when formulating policy. The government arrived at a cost at $21 per ton of carbon, but the new study argues the “discount rate” was set too high, and that it the true social cost of carbon could be anywhere from $55 to $266 per ton.

Potential greenhouse gas policy, post-November, remains a murky picture. While candidate Mitt Romney has said he opposes a carbon tax, some of his economic advisers embrace the idea (subscription) as a means to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, especially in tight fiscal times. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein frames the carbon pricing debate as a bargain between Democrats and Republicans, and a Slate piece offers that carbon taxes are good not only for the environment, but also for the treasury. Meanwhile, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross argues in The Atlantic that, given the national-security challenges the issue poses for the U.S., Romney and the Republican party are “ceding important ground by tolerating and encouraging denialism” of climate change. Ralph Nader says Obama and the Democrats are “running away from the issue” of climate change.

Climate Change in the Stone Age

Just like fossils, climate change leaves a trail in sediments, coral and buried pollen. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which used models to simulate climate conditions over the last 120,000 years, indicates changes in climate coincided with some of early man’s migrations through Asia, north to Europe and all the way to Australia and North America. “The study fills in many of the links that have only been assumed or guessed at,” said Rick Potts of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It is the first time anyone has been able to explore climate’s power to facilitate human expansion, he added.

In the present day, humans’ expansion may cause urban areas to triple in size by 2030, placing more pressure on resources. Our everyday consumption  could be linked to record melting in the Arctic, making highly sought-after oil, gas and mineral resources more accessible. Local pollution created by the oil and gas industry, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says, may accelerate that thaw. “There is a grim irony here that as the ice melts … humanity is going for more of the natural resources fuelling this meltdown,” said Nick Nuttall, spokesman for UNEP. One need fueling this resource hunt: transportation. A new report says fuel consumption in new cars could be halved in less than two decades.

PBS Newshour has generated criticism for presenting “false balance” on the issue of climate change. Its Sept. 16 episode focused on the findings by “converted skeptic” Richard Muller that are consistent with the scientific consensus about climate change, but the show offered an equal-time rebuttal by climate change denier Anthony Watts—without disclosing his ties to the Heartland Institute, which has long promoted climate change denial. The New York Times’ Anthony Revkin called the interview with Watts “surreally softball.”

Country-Sized Emissions

Climate change may affect one ecosystem—covering 71 percent of the planet—most severely. As emissions continue to rise, ocean waters will rise with them, causing long-term degradation to about 70 percent of coral reefs by 2030. “Our findings show that under current assumptions regarding thermal sensitivity, coral reefs might no longer be prominent coastal ecosystems if global mean temperatures actually exceed 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level,” said lead study author Katia Frieler of the Potsdam Institute.

It turns out man-made emissions are not the only problem for our oceans. When disturbed, coastal habitats such as wetlands, mangroves and sea grasses, are also a huge factor in the production of greenhouse gases. Destruction of coastal wetlands, often as a result of urban development, aquaculture or farming, releases between 150 million and 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon per year with a central value of 450 million tons—10 times higher than previous reports. These coastal habitats could be protected and climate change combated, the study said, if a system were implemented that assigned credits to carbon stored in these habitats and provided economic incentive if they are left intact—much like what is being done to protect trees through reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). It would work similar to what the American Carbon Registry has just developed for wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Deep-Sea Methane, Wind that Could Power World?

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The U.S. Energy Department announced plans to spend more than $5 million researching the potential to produce natural gas from deep-sea methane hydrates—ice-like formations that contain natural gas and are stable at depths of more than 300 feet. The Energy Department calls them “the world’s largest untapped fossil energy resource”—some estimate they are twice as abundant as all remaining natural gas and petroleum reserves. According to William Dillon of the U.S. Geological Survey, “The worldwide amounts of carbon bound in gas hydrates is conservatively estimated to total twice the amount of carbon to be found in all known fossil fuels on Earth.” This is the same methane hydrate that could be released into the atmosphere if Antarctica’s ice sheets thin as a result of climate change.

Another abundant resource sharing headlines is wind: there may be enough wind on Earth to meet global power demands (subscription), at least technically, according to a new report. Wind power to such a degree would require covering much of the Earth’s surface and oceans with turbines. Though wind power currently supplies about 4.1 percent of U.S. electric power, the study concludes that we could produce about 400 terawatts of wind power from the Earth’s surface and 1,800 terawatts of power from the upper atmosphere.

Challenges of Climate Change

In the U.S., drought and rising temperatures are posing challenges for power plants. The Washington Post details the burdens these factors are placing on coal-fired, nuclear and hydroelectric power generators—including the Hoover Dam, where low water levels make meeting demand difficult. The news has Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush calling for a probe into whether climate change could threaten the nation’s electricity supply. In their letter, the two cite several cases in which power plants were forced to cease operation or cut back output when nearby water sources became too warm to cool the plants.

Despite suffering the worst drought in 50 years, farmers will collect far more corn crop than previously predicted. Still, at 10.727 billion barrels and the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts prices will remain at $7 per bushel. The corn yield is still projected to be the worst since 1995.

While climate conditions are impacting farmers, more and more big businesses are seeing the potential impact to their operations. A new report indicates approximately 81 percent of the largest global companies that report sustainability strategies and greenhouse gas emissions include disruptions from climate change among corporate risk disclosures. Thirty-seven percent of those companies consider droughts, fires and the like a serious threat.

Arctic Drilling Sees More Delays

Drifting ice halted Shell’s efforts to drill its first well in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea just one day into the already-delayed project. The arrival of the ice is the latest in a series of regulatory and equipment setbacks for the company, which has already spent about $4 billion on the effort. Though the federal government estimates the Alaska Arctic offshore region contains close to 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, sea ice and harsh conditions make for a short drilling season. The moving ice may bring them closer to the Sept. 24 close of the drilling season—stated in the terms of their permit—with little progress toward their goal. “Depending on conditions, it could be a few or, potentially, several days before it’s safe enough to resume drilling,” said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.

Shell has petitioned for an extension of the season because its projections had shown the arrival of ice much later in the season. The area’s unforgiving conditions have led some doubt how safely these efforts could be carried out—despite extra efforts to beef up the same equipment that failed in the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Even so, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Paul F. Zukunft, who served as the federal coordinator on the 2010 BP spill, said, “I would never be confident [we could handle a major spill]. You’ll never get all the oil.”

In Louisiana, that’s been the case. Nearly two years after the BP spill Hurricane Isaac has churned up tar balls positively identified as originating from the 2010 event. BP has proposed a “deep clean” of these beaches—sifting as deep as 4 feet—to remove contaminants before sand deposited by new storms covers over the tarballs. Researchers at Louisiana State University are looking at other methods—more specifically, blooms of bacterial biomass and whether they could consume oil and gas from the BP spill trapped about a half-mile below the water’s surface. Tests so far say yes—showing these microbes have consumed about 200,000 tons of this oil.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Presidential Candidates, Studies Dissect Climate Change

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

As campaigning for the November presidential election moves forward, President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney spelled out their interpretations on one issue in a bit more detail than usual. To Science Debate, Obama identifies climate change as one of the most pressing concerns of the era and lists the steps he has taken during his term to mitigate the effects climate change. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, agrees that “human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences.” But Romney offers a caveat: “However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk.” Neither Romney nor Obama suggest specific policies (subscription) to slow or guard against the effects of climate change.

More than 20,000 high-temperature records have been broken so far this year in the United States. A new study indicates that the number of species grew when global temperatures increased during periods in the geologic past. The timescales involved, roughly 500 million years, may cancel out any benefits from the rising temperatures.

Weather events linked to climate change could affect agricultural production significantly and cause dramatic food-price spikes within two decades. In their report “Extreme Weather, Extreme Price,” Oxfam researchers suggest extreme weather events such as the droughts and floods have been previously underestimated. More frequent extreme weather events will pose a more serious threat to the world’s poor, leading to millions of deaths from malnutrition among the world’s poorest if governments do not act on climate change. Another study on climate change and the food supply looks at whether it would be possible to increase global yields while reducing the use of agricultural inputs like water and fertilizers. They found that overall output of 17 of the world’s crops could be increased by 45 to 70 percent by closing the “yield gap”—that is, by reducing the tendency of farmers in many regions to produce less than their potential.

Arctic Sea Ice Melt Hits New Low

Arctic Sea ice hit a new record low of 3.6 million square kilometers—down from 4.2 million square kilometers Aug. 24. That leaves 25 percent of the original ice sheet intact, which means more summer sunlight is absorbed by a warmer Arctic Ocean. The melt, the BBC reported, is like adding 20 years of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere. A Washington Post editorial argues that the extent of the recent losses “should shock Congress and the president into more aggressive action.”

A large reservoir of close to 4 billion tons of methane may lie beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. Release of the methane—a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide—has the potential to accelerate global warming. “There’s a potentially large pool of methane hydrate in part of the Earth where we haven’t previously considered it,” Jemma Wadham, professor of Glaciology at the U.K.’s University of Bristol and lead author the study in the journal Nature. “Depending on where that hydrate is, and how much there is, if the ice thins in those regions, some of that hydrate could come out with a possible feedback on climate.”

Oil and gas reserves in the Arctic may not be as significant as many think, because extracting these reserves is cheaper elsewhere. Prices for these resources must remain high for it to be profitable to recover petroleum resources in the region, a new study said.

Three-Quarters of Americans Favor New Fuel Economy Standards

As one of the key architects of a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule doubling fuel economy by 2025 retires, a poll from the Consumer Federation of America found that 74 percent of Americans support the new standards. Most said higher fuel economy was important in their next vehicle purchase. The New York Times reported because California can set its own vehicle emissions standards, it has special place at the table in the negotiations over fuel economy standards. Some say the rule could give a significant boost to sales of electric vehicles, whose performance is measured in “miles per gallon equivalent” in order to account for electrical power in terms of fuel economy.

Meanwhile, India has approved a $4.1 billion plan to increase the number of hybrid and electric vehicles in the country. The goal: 6 million vehicles by 2020.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.