See the Tabbed Pages for links to video tutorials, and a linked list of post titles grouped by topic.

This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Friday, December 14, 2012

Storm Surges and Sea Level Rise

Summary.  Hurricane Sandy inflicted heavy damage on the northeastern U. S. states of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut on October 29, 2012.  Much of the damage arose from the storm surge of unprecedented intensity that accompanied the storm.

This post summarizes several recent scientific articles characterizing melting of polar ice, historical sea level rise over recent decades, and model calculations projecting future sea level rise.  Melting of polar ice, higher sea levels, and stronger storm surges have occurred in recent years, in conjunction with the long-term increase in global average temperature.  Model projections incorporating various scenarios that continue to emit carbon dioxide predict that sea levels will continue rising to high levels for the next 290 years.

The nations of the world will continue paying the damages caused by extreme events such as Hurricane Sandy, with expenses passed on as higher tax rates and higher insurance premiums, among others.  As an alternative to spending resources on such remediation, humanity should undertake investment in technologies that limit greenhouse gas emissions, and indeed should deploy industrial scale technologies that deplete carbon dioxide already emitted from the atmosphere.


Introduction.  Hurricane Sandy struck the state of New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area on Monday October 29, 2012.  It caused damage estimated at upwards of US$50 billion, much of it due to storm surges that impacted wide stretches of shoreline in New Jersey, the heart of New York City, and eastward along the states of New York and Connecticut. 

The ravages of the storm are likely due to factors related to global warming, such as increases in the moisture content of air over warm ocean waters, rising sea levels, and a blocking high pressure system that forced the path of the storm westward toward land instead of northeastward following the coastline.

U. S. President Obama is submitting a request for about US$50 billion to the Congress for emergency funding to help recovery efforts from the storm.  This amount is based on estimates of the physical damage suffered from the storm and costs for new infrastructure to minimize future storm threats.  It is less than the amount of US$80 billion sought by the affected states, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, which includes estimates for complete restoration of property and lost economic activity.

Much of the damage from Hurricane Sandy arose from an ocean storm surge.  This was made worse by the documented increase in sea levels in recent decades attributed to global warming.  The world-wide average sea level rise is shown in the graphic below.
Global average sea level trend from 1870 to 2000, referenced to a zero value given as the average for the period from 1961 to 1990, in mm (50 mm is approximately 2.0 in.).
Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 4th Assessment Report, 2007; 
Sea level rise has not attracted as much of the public’s attention as have other phenomena related to global warming, such as extreme weather events more generally.  Purely by coincidence several articles in scientific journals appeared in recent weeks related to sea level rise.  This post reviews some of them.  They were all submitted by their authors to the respective journals some months before Hurricane Sandy hit, so they cannot be considered to have been stimulated by this event. 
Historical Record of Sea Level Rise
Polar Ice Melting.  A team of 47 climate scientists from 26 institutions in eight countries, assembled as the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Exercise, reviewed and collated existing data on loss of ice mass in Greenland and Antarctica. 

Details: Their report (A. Shepherd and coworkers, Science, Vol. 338, pp. 1183-1189, 2012 ) assessed previous data sets obtained over 19 years by satellite using the methods of radar altimetry (elevation measurement), laser altimetry, radar interferometry between two satellites and gravimetry (measuring changes in the force of gravity due to lost ice mass), 32 years of model calculations of surface mass balance, and other models of changes in glacier properties.  There was a need for this because the earlier reports from one technique or another were never considered together.  It was not clear whether the results were or were not consistent.

After demonstrating that the differing methods produced consistent results, Shepherd and coworkers obtained results for Greenland as a whole, and for three different regions in Antarctica, as summarized in the following table:
Source: Shepherd and coworkers, Science, Vol. 338, pp. 1183-1189, 2012;
About two-thirds of the change originates in Greenland and West Antarctica.  The rates of mass loss become more pronounced at the end of this time span.  This can be seen in the following graphic:
Cumulative traces of ice mass (left vertical axis) and the equivalent contribution to sea level rise in mm (right vertical axis; 5 mm is about 0.2 in.).
Source: Shepherd and coworkers, Science, Vol. 338, pp. 1183-1189, 2012; 
The significance of the report by Shepherd and coworkers is emphasized in an accompanying news comment (R. A. Kerr, Science, Vol. 338, p. 1138, 2012),  as providing a single set of results that all agreed to.  The report firmly establishes the large and accelerating rate of loss of ice mass especially from Greenland and West Antarctica.  Kerr points out that the loss reported represents about 20% of the contribution to sea level rise, the remainder originating from melting mountain glaciers and the expansion of the water of the oceans as its temperature increases.  All these effects are due to global warming.
Mechanisms of Polar Ice Melting.  In a review I. Joughin and coworkers (Science, Vol. 338, pp. 1172-1176, 2012) discuss the present state of understanding of the factors involved in ice sheet loss in Greenland and Antarctica. 
Details:  The principal source of melting is the heat content of ocean waters bathing the ice shelf (Antarctica) or the outlet glacier (Greenland).  The mechanisms involved are complex, and differ in the two cases.  The Antarctic ice shelf floats extensively over ocean waters, which circulate according to circumpolar ocean currents, with changes in density arising as fresh water from melted ice enters the ocean, and from tidal mixing at the surface interface with the ice.  Recent warming of the underlying ocean currents leads to more rapid melting of the ice shelf from its lower surface.
Greenland glaciers, on the other hand, migrate directly over land surfaces without floating on the ocean, so the flow of currents differs greatly.  These glaciers calve icebergs, and are bathed in the North Atlantic Circulation.  Surface melting occurs in Greenland, but not in Antarctica, and the liquid descends through glacial crevices to the ice-land interface, thus changing the salinity of the ocean at the glacial front. 
Over the past two decades, Greenland glaciers have flowed 50% faster than before, likely owing to the effect of global warming on providing warmer water at the ice-ocean boundary.  The authors conclude that much still remains to learn about these phenomena.  Incorporating the present knowledge into general circulation models in order to predict future melting rates will be successful if the models operate with high spatial resolution.  It appears that such models for melting “indicate the potential for far more extreme changes within this century than had been anticipated”.
Atlantic storm surges.  A. Grinsted and coworkers (Proceedings of the (U. S.) National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 109, pp. 19601-19605, 2012), based in China, Sweden, Finland and the United Kingdom, studied storm surges along the Gulf of Mexico and the U. S. Atlantic coast over the period 1923 to 2008 by analyzing tide gauge readings from six locations along these shorelines.  (1923 was chosen for the start because it is the year of a strong storm surge; active surges continued during the 1930’s.) 
Details:  The small number of locations is justified because surges extend large distances from storm centers (their cutoff was 250 km (155 mi,)) and last several days.  The authors constructed a new surge index which accounts for the potential energy contained in elevated water levels, and adjusts the data by removing an annual background tidal level for each location.  The results are correlated with whether an event falls in a cold year or a warm year, where deviations from the median temperature for the interval studied here govern whether an event is classified as a cold or warm year event.  The temperature data are global average annual temperatures.  They cross from being generally cold to being strikingly warm at about 1978; the years in the period from 2000 on are generally 0.4-0.7ºC (0.7-1.3ºF) above the median.  This temperature trend is already quite well known.  The authors then generate a graph of the surge index for all surge events, plotted against the frequency of their occurrences.
Surge events were segregated according to whether they occurred in a cold year or a warm year.  Strikingly, events with high surge indexes (i.e., having the highest energy at landfall) occur twice as frequently in warm years as in cold years.  Additionally the authors find that warm years generate more storm surge events than do cold years. 
This suggests that global warming leads to more intense storm surges, understandably since warmer air can hold higher amounts of water vapor, leading to stronger winds.  Wind strength is an important factor in creating the energy contained in a storm surge.
In a commentary on the work of Grinsted and coworkers, G. J. Holland (Proceedings of the (U.S.) National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 109, pp. 19513–19514, 2012) notes that an advantage of the surge index created by these workers is its inherent assessment of storm intensity, and propensity for damage at landfall, incorporating separate factors such as storm speed, wind speed and overall size.
Historical Sea Level Trends.  A. Sallenger and coworkers (Nature Climate Change, Vol. 2, pp. 884–888, 2012) report a hotspot in recent sea level rise along the northeast coast of the U. S. between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and Boston, a distance of about 1000 km (620 mi.).  This includes the New Jersey-New York-Connecticut shoreline subjected to the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy. 
This study analyzed tide gauge data from 1894 to the present.  Most analysis focused on time windows of 60 years, 50 years and 40 years all ending in 2009.  They find that as the time window narrows and becomes weighted more to recent decades, this hotspot becomes more intense.  The 60 year window shows tide gauges in this region with annual rates of sea level rise in the range (this writer interpreted color-coded data points) of about 1 to 3 mm per year, whereas the 40 year window shows that this rate has increased to 3 to 5 mm per year in most cases.  In contrast to this hotspot, the gauge data from further south than Cape Hatteras and further north than Boston show mostly no sea level rise, indicating that the regional nature of the hotspot appears to be real.  The authors relate that their demonstration of a sea level rise hotspot along the northeast coast is consistent with several model predictions by other workers of such a hotspot.
S. Rahmstorf, one of the coworkers with M. Schaeffer in work described in detail below, warned on Nov. 28, 2012 that sea levels have been increasing in recent decades even faster than predicted earlier by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 
Large Future Sea Level Rise Due to Further Planetary Warming.  M. Schaeffer and coworkers (Nature Climate Change, Vol. 2, pp. 867–870, 2012) modeled sea level rise projected into the future based on a range of greenhouse gas/temperature rise scenarios. 
Details:  At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change annual conference held in Cancun, Mexico in December 2010 the nations of the world pledged to restrain further emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) such that the long-term global average temperature increase would not be greater than 2ºC (3.6ºF) above the level that prevailed before the industrial revolution began.  This limit corresponds to an atmospheric concentration for carbon dioxide or its equivalent GHGs of about 450 ppm (parts per million).  Sea level rise model projections were calibrated by correctly reproducing sea level data starting from the year 1000 up to 2006.  Projections overlapped by starting as early as 1860, extending to the year 2300.
Large sea level rises are foreseen for 2100, continuing to even higher sea levels by 2300.  In the year 2100, an emissions scenario that maintains the 2ºC limit is predicted to generate a sea level rise of 75-80 cm (29.5-31.5 in.) above the level of 2000, while a scenario with no abatement of emissions generates a rise of about 1 m (39.4 in.) and a radical scenario in which all emissions cease after 2016 provides a rise of about 60 cm (23.6 in.) by 2100. 
The oceans contain a great deal of thermal and climate inertia since the ability of liquid water to store and release heat is about 1000 times greater than for air, and various ocean depths circulate to exchange heat content only over very long time frames.  For these reasons sea level rise trends that are apparent in projections at the year 2100 continue along similar trajectories further into the future.  Schaeffer and coworkers extended their projections to the year 2300.  The scenario maintaining the 2ºC limit is projected to generate a sea level rise of 2.7 m (8.9 ft.) above the level of 2000.  A relatively unconstrained scenario (similar to no abatement) is predicted to produce a further sea level rise of about 3.5 m (11.5 ft.).  Even in the third scenario, reducing emissions to zero in 2016, sea level is projected to continue rising to 1.25 m (4.1 ft.) by 2300.
Schaeffer and coworkers show by their sea level projections that drastic extents of sea level rise are locked in place already at this time, regardless of which emissions policy is undertaken; only the degree of rise is subject to vary.  They conclude that sea level rise can be constrained “within a few centuries” only by implementing worldwide industrial scale processes to lower the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.  This has not been commonly discussed to date; Schaeffer and coworkers suggest such reductions, for example, by combining a switch to bioenergy (which permits approaching zero net emissions) coupled with use of technology for carbon dioxide capture and geological storage in energy generating facilities.  This combination would result in a cumulative negative flux of carbon dioxide, lowering its concentration in the atmosphere.
Schaeffer and coworkers importantly conclude “A key aspect of [slowing sea level rise] … is the long response time of sea level that is physically expected from the slow response of large ice sheets and the deep ocean to climate change, [which is] also found in [the geologic climate record]. This … means that about half of the twenty-first century [sea level rise] is already committed from past emissions. It further means that mitigation measures, even [radical reductions], have practically no effect on sea level over the coming 50 years and only a moderate effect on sea level by 2100.  [Such measures, however, can have] … a major effect on magnitude of [sea level rise] in the centuries thereafter.”
This post summarizes several recent scientific articles, most of which (except for the Rahmstorf release) were transmitted to the respective journals several months before Hurricane Sandy impacted the northeast U. S. coast.  Thus their publication is not a response to that event.  Shepherd and coworkers, and the comment by Kerr, documented the regions in Greenland and Antarctica that have undergone the most loss of ice mass, generating liquid water that contributes to sea level rise.  Joughin and coworkers review physical mechanisms that come into play in providing the heat that results in melting of ice mass.  Grinsted and coworkers, and the comment by Holland, traced historical tide gauge data, showing that storm surge frequency and intensity have been increasing in recent years and preferentially arise in years of warm global average temperatures.  Sallenger and coworkers analyzed tide gauge data along the northeast Atlantic coast of the U. S. and showed a recent trend of increased sea level rise, and rate of rise, as a hotspot in this region, which is not present along adjacent coastlines.
Schaeffer and coworkers, projecting sea level rise trends into the future using several different scenarios for the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, predict that pronounced increases in sea level will occur by 2100.  Furthermore, the trends creating them will continue beyond that time, generating even stronger sea level increases by 2300.  They conclude that worldwide efforts must be undertaken not only to slow the rate of new emissions, but in fact to use combinations of technologies that result in a net depletion of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Hurricane Sandy struck the northeastern U. S. in October 2012, causing profound damage, much of it due to Sandy’s ocean storm surge.  This post summarizes that sea levels are rising, and storm surges are becoming more intense, in correlation with increased global warming. 
President Obama’s US$50 billion request for unbudgeted emergency relief to help restore the northeast is particularly difficult to consider now, in December 2012, coming as it does during intense fiscal negotiations seeking to balance reducing outlays and increasing revenues.  It is believed the request will not include compensating offsets to spending elsewhere.  This means that any emergency aid passed into law is added to the U. S. national debt, requiring that it be paid back at some later time by increasing taxes and/or cutting spending.  Likewise, insurance companies have been hit hard by anticipated claims arising from the storm.  Their benefit payments will have to be made up by increasing future premiums for weather-related claims.  More generally, because of the high probability that global warming contributes to the damage caused by storms such as Hurricane Sandy, it is expected that future extreme weather events caused or worsened by global warming will inflict continued large financial consequences on the nations of the world for their remediation.
In recognition of this clear understanding, Schaeffer and coworkers have called for large scale remediation involving the deployment of new technologies for decarbonizing energy production, including the implementation of carbon capture and storage.  This blog has taken a comparable position many times over the past year or more.  The consideration of the harms brought about by intensifying sea level rise, summarized in this post, creates a clarion call for robust action by all nations of the world to act as soon as possible.  Investment in mitigating technologies will reduce the need for emergency government expenditures as responses to extreme climate events.
© 2012 Henry Auer

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: Economic Costs and Global Warming

Summary.  Hurricane Sandy struck the state of New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area on Monday October 29, 2012.  It caused damage estimated to range as high as US$50 billion, much of it due to storm surges that impacted wide stretches of shoreline in New Jersey, the heart of New York City, and eastward along New York and Connecticut. 

The ravages of the storm could be due to factors related to global warming, such as increases in the moisture content of air over warm ocean waters, rising sea levels, and a blocking high pressure system that forced the path of the storm toward land.

Global warming is expected to worsen the impacts of extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy.  Society is faced with the prospect of having to remediate their effects as emergency situations each time one occurs.  Costs of such efforts affect us all, since they ultimately create a demand for higher taxes and for higher insurance premiums.  An alternative would be to undertake investments now to eliminate fossil fuels from our energy economy.  The sooner the world decarbonizes its energy usage, the smaller the accumulated level of atmospheric greenhouse gases will be, and the less harmful will be the effects of global warming on the people of the world.

Hurricane Sandy was an extensive and highly damaging storm that crossed from its ocean track onto land in New Jersey on Monday October 29, 2012.  Its characteristics, contributing to the high damage it caused, were the very large area it covered and the very high storm surge that it generated.  In addition, its winds, while not as high as those of other hurricanes, brought down many trees that severed electricity service, damaged homes, and even directly caused some deaths.

Why was Sandy destructive?  The climate science underlying the warming of the planet provides predictions, or scenarios, in terms of probabilities of trends occurring over long time periods and spanning wide regions of the planet.  Long term projections of future trends in the climate are not able to ascribe causes for short term weather events, such as hurricanes, with certainty.  In addition, not enough time has passed as of this writing for climate scientists to assess Hurricane Sandy in terms of its relationship to the warming of the planet.

Nevertheless, three factors from warming involved in hurricane activity include increased moisture content of air, higher sea level, and a weather block that caused the storm to shift its course.  First, as water temperatures get warmer, the absolute amount of water vapor that the air above it can hold increases by about 7% per ºC (about 4% per ºF) (for any temperature, this amount defines 100% on the scale of relative humidity).  As the ocean surface warms, a storm such as a hurricane picks up more water vapor which can be deposited as rain as the storm proceeds.

Second, sea levels have been rising since the industrial revolution began. Glaciers and land-based ice sheets have been melting, contributing new water to the oceans; this is attributed at least partly to global warming.  Also, water expands by about 0.026% per ºC at 25 ºC (0.015% per ºF at 77 ºF).  This expansion can proceed only upwards.  Although this percentage may seem insignificant, increased temperatures of ocean surface water penetrate to sufficient depths that expansion occurs throughout this layer.  This results in measurable increases in sea level as the earth warms.  The long-term rise in global average sea levels is shown below for the period 1870 to  2000.

Global average sea level trend from 1880 to 2000, referenced to a zero value given as the average for the period from 1961 to 1990, in mm.
Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 4th Assessment Report, 2007;

It is seen that over this interval the global average sea level has increased by about 190 mm (7.5 in.).  Furthermore, a report published on Nov. 28, 2012 finds that sea levels have been increasing in recent decades even faster than predicted earlier by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Third, the path followed by Hurricane Sandy was not typical for Atlantic hurricanes.  They usually track northeastward following the coast of the eastern U. S.  Sandy took an abrupt shift westward after following a northeastward path, due to the presence of a blocking high pressure air mass over eastern Canada and Greenland.  It is possible that the this blocking high was present as a result of an Arctic summer in which more sea ice melted this summer than ever recorded previously.  Loss of ice results in absorbing more heat from sunlight during the Arctic summer than when more ice is present.  It is possible that this altered weather over the Arctic placed the blocking high in Sandy’s path, a pattern that would not have been present without the exceptional extent of melting of Arctic sea ice.

These and other factors contributed to an unprecedented extent of damage from the storm surge accompanying Hurricane Sandy; there was also damage and economic loss inland including massive losses of electric power.  Coincidentally, a report by Grinsted and coworkers (submitted for publication some months earlier) appeared in the Proceedings of the (U. S.) National Academy of Sciences (commentary here) .  They surveyed records of storm surges from previous hurricanes and found, using a storm surge index, that hurricane-associated storm surges have increased recently in correlation with the increase in the global temperature.  They found that the highest values of the index occurred with the most extreme storm events.  More generally, climate scientists foresee that the intensity, and possibly the number, of severe tropical storms will increase as global warming proceeds.

The economic costs of Hurricane Sandy are hard to estimate, but are extremely high.  The New York Times reports that New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie together have assembled the aggregate damage assessment of US$71 billion.  They intend to petition the U. S. federal government for assistance in meeting these emergency expenses.  This sum includes US$9 billion estimated by Gov. Cuomo to construct new facilities and devices intended to mitigate any new threat of more intense, more damaging storms in the future.  Gov. Cuomo broke down his damage estimates in some detail , itemizing the categories of government response, individual assistance, housing, business impact, health, schools, transit, roads and bridges, parks and the environment, water, waste and sewer, utilities, and government operation revenue.  He estimated that the storm destroyed or damaged 305,000 housing units, caused 2,190,000 customers to lose power, and impacted   265,300 businesses.  Overall, in 16 states 8,510,000 million customers lost power. 

Gov. Christie issued a preliminary estimate of damage in New Jersey of US$29.4 billion.  His estimates included personal property, businesses, transportation, utilities infrastructure, and effects on the state’s tourism industry.  As is likely true for all areas impacted by the storm, more long-term effects include loss of economic activity, induced population shifts and impacts on the value of real estate.  [Addendum on Dec. 5, 2012:  ADP, the payroll processing firm, estimated that for the month of November, 86,000 jobs were lost because of the hurricane.  Losses were highest in manufacturing, retailing, leisure and hospitality, and temporary help industries.]

Insured losses from Sandy estimated by three firms fall in the range of US$16-25 billion, according to Zacks Equity Research.  In addition, one of the firms estimated that lost economic activity can be estimated at US$50 billion; these typically are uninsured and cannot be recovered.  Many large insurance companies that cover losses in the area hit by the storm have indicated that their ability to absorb the benefit payments due from their coverages exceed their capacity.  [Addendum on Dec. 5, 2012:  For instance, the insurance companies Travelers Corp. and Allstate report that losses they sustained due to Hurricdane Sandy are each over US$1 billion. ]


Extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy appear to be increasing in number and severity in recent years, in conjunction with the increasing global average temperature.  This pattern is consistent with the expectations from climate modeling for a warming planet, which foresees, at various locations on the surface of the earth, more intense storms, increasing rainfall with flooding, and more extreme heat waves with drought.  Previous posts have surveyed the economic consequences of earlier extreme weather in the U. S.  and globally.

Global warming and its harmful consequences for humanity reflect not the annual rate of emission of greenhouse gases, but rather their total concentration accumulated in the atmosphere.  As long as even low annual rates of emission continue, the accumulated total continues to grow.  Accumulated atmospheric greenhouse gases determine the extent of global warming.  Carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, remains in the atmosphere for decades or centuries.  Therefore the greenhouse gas level cannot retreat to values we experienced in earlier decades.  We are stuck with the greenhouse gases currently present, and the extent of global warming they confer, indefinitely.  If the world wishes to stabilize the global average temperature, necessarily at a new, higher value, we must work toward developing a zero-carbon energy economy. 

Each extreme weather event is a natural disaster inflicting enormous damage, both physical and economic, on its victims.  Societal harms also arise as social and local economic structures are disrupted.  Each event brings with it the need for compensation at a large scale to help victims recover and restore their lives and livelihoods.  Eventually all citizens pay for this, because relief comes from governments, insurance benefits, and private charities.  Costs attributed to governments potentially lead to higher taxes that we all bear, and insurance benefit payments lead to higher premiums that many of us will pay.

The alternative to unscheduled needs for emergency response to extreme weather events is to invest in creating a carbon-free energy economy. All nations of the world should be striving to achieve a zero emissions energy economy as soon as possible.  This means that instead of creating the need for even more emergency relief by continuing “business-as-usual”, we invest early in zero carbon energy.  These investments will help stabilize the atmospheric level of greenhouse gases at lower levels, so that warming of the planet is attenuated.

© 2012 Henry Auer

Friday, November 16, 2012

Conference on “Global Climate Policy without the United States”

Summary.  A conference entitled “Global Climate Policy without the United States: Thinking the Unthinkable”, was held at Yale University Law School November 9-10, 2012.  After an opening talk detailing the worsening state of global warming already under way, several speakers dealt with frameworks and strategies that could bypass the stalemated international deliberations on global warming.  These include transnational actions involving fewer nations, and cooperation among nations, nongovernmental organizations and private corporations.  Additionally two talks addressed geoengineering, and the need to act cautiously if at all in implementing it.

Since the pace of greenhouse gas emissions is increasing, and the resulting warming of the planet grows accordingly, stratagems such as discussed in this conference should be pursued with all deliberate speed.  Avoiding the worsening effects of global warming may well rely on transnational and extra-governmental strategies such as these in pursuing mitigation and adaptation, unless and until a binding international agreement enters into force.

Introduction.  International negotiations toward an agreement on mitigating and adapting to global warming have been going on for many years under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) without apparent progress.  Among the impediments has been the reluctance of the two major emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs), the U. S. and China, to accommodate the viewpoint of the other side.  When the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated under the UNFCCC in 1997, all developing countries including China were excluded from coverage.  When the Protocol was presented to the U. S. Senate for ratification, the Senate decisively rejected it.  Among other reasons the debate cited the exclusion of developing countries while constraining the U. S. under its terms.  It was argued this would put the U. S. at a competitive disadvantage in international trade.  In the interim the U. S. Congress has repeatedly failed to pass domestic global warming legislation.  As a result, the U. S. currently has no legislated national policy governing mitigation of and adaptation to the worsening effects of increased average global temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions.

A conference on this topic, entitled “Global Climate Policy without the United States: Thinking the Unthinkable”, was held at Yale University Law School November 9-10, 2012.  This post summarizes selected presentations to this conference immediately below (indented).  Then, in the Analysis section following the summary, the talks are considered against the perspective of the failure so far to reach a global agreement. 

Why Action on Global Warming is Needed.

Sir Robert Watson, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 1997 to 2002, opened the conference with a dire characterization of the present climate situation.  Increased concentrations of man-made greenhouse gases (GHGs) and other atmospheric components that affect heat retention have already had effects across the globe on precipitation patterns, a rise in sea levels, and melting of the polar ice caps. 

The strongest change in global average temperature has occurred in the last 50 years, and is due to human activity.  Projections of further increases in surface temperature by 2100, depending on the details of the modeling employed, range from 1.5-7ºC (2.7-12.6ºF).  Warming is not uniform across the globe; it is stronger in polar latitudes than in the tropics, and affects land surfaces more than the oceans.  Dry areas are projected to become drier and wet areas to become wetter.

The present rate of rise of sea level is greater than the IPCC predicted in its report of 2001, due to thermal expansion of water, and to the increasing runoff from glacial melting.

Other serious effects on humanity include loss of biological diversity, ocean acidification with attendant killing of coral reefs (which nurture much of the marine food chain that humans depend on), a decrease in agricultural productivity, and an increase in infectious disease rates.

The IPCC adopted the standard that world climate negotiations should strive to constrain the overall increase in global average temperature to 2ºC (3.6ºF) in order to keep warming from causing excessive damage to human life.  Sir Robert pointed out that because of projected GHG emissions and their attendant temperature increases, this constraint will be breached.  The annual meetings under the UNFCCC, most recently in Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban, have made scant progress toward reaching agreement on emissions abatement.

Sir Robert concluded by listing the mitigation strategies that need to be pursued: development of carbon capture and storage technology (if successful, this would allow continued use of fossil fuels), development of biofuels (this will alleviate the dependence on fossil fuels), setting a price on carbon to deter use, and altering our behavior patterns to avoid use of fossil fuels.  He was hesitant about any role for geoengineering (see below) because there was not enough known about its capabilities and risks. 

Transnational and Public-Private Cooperation in Global Climate Initiatives

Robert Howse, Professor of International Law at New York University, spoke on transnational actions that can be taken in the absence of a binding international climate agreement.  In place of a broad mitigation agreement nations can dispense cross-border emissions allowances imposing cross-border taxes.  An example is that, under the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, any airplane landing in an EU country has to purchase allowances covering the fuel used in the flight. (Coincidentally, the New York Times reported on November 15, 2012 that this requirement is being postponed for one year in view of strong opposition from non-European countries.)  Prof. Howse cited a court case from the period before the WTO affirming such taxes, since the harms are inflicted on a global commons, and are not restricted to the offending country.

Dan Farber, Professor of Law at University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that rather than “without the U. S.” in the title of the conference, it could be “without Congress”.  He noted that administratively the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency is regulating emissions under the Clean Air Act, having effects at the international level.  He also noted the regional compacts in California and the northeastern states’ Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.  Within the U. S., such compacts face the problem of carbon leakage by purchases of energy from, or goods made with energy provided in, other states.  The U. S. Constitution prohibits taxation across state boundaries.  Ultimately there is no substitute for a legislated federal emissions framework and for a formal agreement on international emissions abatement.

Richard Stewart, Professor of Law at New York University, recognized that to date formal, international negotiations have failed to produce an agreement on global warming.  He cited the reluctance of China, and the levels and timing of commitments sought to be made as contributing causes. 

He suggests that instead of “mega” negotiations, which emphasize the dominance of nation-states, bottom-up efforts be made, developing trans-national climate regimes involving a smaller number of actors.  Ways of proceeding might include 1) private agreements among companies, non-governmental organizations and governments, working on goals such as industrial development and carbon capture and storage; 2) linkage and leverage agreements that could proceed even without the U. S. and China; and 3) building blocks that start with a small number of actors focusing on limited goals such as marine transport, or the European Union’s mitigation program.  Prof. Stewart believes such alternatives could pave the way toward developing trust among nations and lead toward an international treaty that is the ultimate objective.

Michael Gerrard, a Professor at Columbia Law School, offered perspectives on the previous three talks; these echoed as well many of Robert Watson’s thoughts.  First, the goal of limiting warming to a 2ºC limit is unattainable.  Second, emissions from China alone currently and in coming decades, will be largely responsible for the increase in atmospheric GHG levels.  Furthermore fossil fuel use is likely to increase radically as other developing countries, and currently impoverished countries, undergo economic growth; this projection includes the expected increase in the world’s population over coming decades.  Third, in the U. S., there is minimal prospect politically for abating GHG emissions because Congress has rejected putting a price on carbon.  According to Prof. Gerrard, 46% of Americans are anti-science, which hinders spreading an appreciation of the science underlying global warming.  He notes that global warming is clearly occurring already.  For these reasons he advocates promoting adaptation to warming far more intensively than has occurred to date.  He compares this with the costs incurred by society by inaction.
Kenneth Abbott, Professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University, gave a talk that was similar in theme to that of Prof. Stewart, above.  Prof. Abbott recognizes the failure of the international framework to make progress on an agreement to combat global warming.  He noted that Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, and that Japan and other nations have opposed extending it beyond 2012.  Instead, he proposes bypassing states, promoting actions by governmental and nongovernmental actors within states.  These groups would establish transnational advocacy activities.  Prof. Abbott models these by a pyramid, as shown: 

Prof. Abbott populated this pyramid with about 70 examples of organizations arrayed according to their characteristics; each could establish bilateral or multilateral associations with others.  He envisions that these activities would involve entrepreneurs and officials that catalyze and support unconventional advances, building transnational liaisons that combat global warming.


Two speakers addressed the controversial topic of geoengineering: Edward Parson, Professor at UCLA School of Law, and Jane Long, Associate Director at Large, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  The terms “geoengineering” or “climate engineering” encompass several technologies.  These talks focused in particular on injecting white aerosols into the stratosphere that would remain airborne for several years and act to reflect sunlight back into space.  Prof. Parsons noted that aerosol-based geoengineering is fast, cheap and imperfect.  Rocket-based injection of aerosols is easily accomplished, and would probably cost a few billion dollars a year.  Yet it is imperfect because its effects are uncharacterized.  Geoengineering raises several concerns related to the global reach of the technology.  First, if successful it could create the moral hazard of relieving the incentive among humanity to mitigate GHG emissions.  Second, in spite of its universal effect around the globe, it could be accomplished unilaterally by a state acting alone, thereby affecting other states without their consent.  Currently no aspect of international law covers such activities.  Because mitigation and geoengineering act in complementary fashions, Prof. Parsons suggests proceeding simultaneously on mitigation activities coupled with research on geoengineering.

Dr. Long likewise believes that geoengineering cannot be a substitute for mitigation activities.  She described policy activities within the U. S.  She recommends setting up “protogovernance” to deal with geoengineering policy, which should be a new advisory commission established within the federal government.  It should be in the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, since no other agency is appropriate.  Currently there is no policy guiding research on geoengineering, since most work originates as investigator-initiated projects.  Additionally, there are private groups considering the deployment of geoengineering, such as a pilot project in the Eastern Pacific.  Some of these are offered as having only regional rather than global effects.  


Recent UNFCCC annual conferences, including those in Copenhagen (2009), Cancun (2010) and Durban (2011), have striven unsuccessfully to supplant the Kyoto Protocol on its expiration at the end of 2012.  These involve the 193 member states of the United Nations.  The Cancun Agreement established binding objectives and subgroups to advance aspects of mitigation and adaptation.  At the Durban conference it became clear that agreement on a global warming treaty would be seriously delayed.  The delay represents a serious setback to limiting atmospheric GHG levels, and clearly is one factor underlying the observation by speakers at the Yale conference that the goal of constraining global average temperature rise to 2ºC cannot be achieved.

The extent of increase of the global average temperature is determined by the total accumulated level of GHGs, not by the annual rate of emissions.  Since the principal GHG, carbon dioxide, persists in the atmosphere for at least 100 years (and probably much longer), each year humanity emits more GHGs into the air raises the total accumulated level of GHGs, thereby raising the global average temperature higher and higher.  The only way to stabilize the global average temperature is to reduce the annual emission rate to near zero, or to sequester GHG emissions underground.  These considerations lead to the conclusion that the delay enshrined in the Durban Platform will produce irreversibly higher global average temperatures than would have been obtained had an international agreement been successfully negotiated earlier.

Since the U. S. and China, the two highest emitters of GHGs, approach these negotiations with seemingly irreconcilable differences, both of them may be considered to be responsible for the historical failure to reach agreement.  The theme of the Yale conference was to examine paths that can be taken that skirt the necessity of involving the U. S. government.  In view of the strategies evinced in the conference, the title might also have included the phrase “[without] China” as well.

The speakers at “Global Climate Policy without the United States: Thinking the Unthinkable” offered a variety of ways for actors other than sovereign nations to undertake initiatives that advance the objective of constraining global temperature rise.  Some of these involve regional transnational regulatory regimes.  Others, such as those within the U. S., involve states or provinces which are smaller entities typically not having authority to act internationally.  Still others envision development of extra-governmental consortiums among nations or states/provinces, non-governmental organizations and private corporations to advance global warming initiatives.  Only in considering geoengineering did speakers rein in their proposals because of the many risks involved.

This conference emphasized the dire need to stabilize global average temperature at as low a level as possible in order to minimize the harms to human society already happening.  These harms are destined to become worse absent meaningful action.  Many innovative stratagems, involving state actors, nongovernmental organizations and private enterprise, offer the prospect of making meaningful progress even without the participation of the two largest emitting nations, China and the U. S.  Speakers at the conference encouraged these efforts, including both mitigation and adaptation, in order to help humanity meet the global climate crisis.
  © 2012 Henry Auer