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".

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Our Children Look Us in the Eye: President Obama’s State of the Union Speech

Summary.  President Obama delivered his annual State of the Union speech on January 28, 2014.  A portion dealt with energy policy and global warming.  He laid down a fundamental guideline for the U. S. and the world to address climate change, one whose motivation is the moral imperative to leave a world for our children’s children that is powered by renewable energy rather than by fossil fuels.

The President’s administration has put in place several policies that promote reductions in the rates of emission of CO2.  Nevertheless, his “all of the above” energy policy emphasizes expanding the domestic production of fossil fuel, permitting the nation to approach energy independence.  The policies and the infrastructure underlying “all of the above” ensure that fossil fuels will be extracted, and CO2 will continue to be released, for decades to come, defeating the President’s moral imperative.

Only by migrating away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources as soon as practicable (given the long delay times involved in transforming the necessary infrastructure) can we ensure the energy security of our children’s children.                                

President Obama’s State of the Union speech  on January 28, 2014, delivered to a joint session of Congress, included an important section on energy policy and global warming.  He stated what is probably the most profound and basic motivation for attacking the problem of global warming: 

“Climate change is a fact.  And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.” 

This statement illumnates the core of our attitudes and behavior about global warming, namely, the strong desire we all feel to pass on to our children and further progeny a secure world not threatened by the consequences of our present environmental actions.  Unfortunately the President’s remarks omit the important aspect of attribution: humanity’s use of fossil fuels is a major contributor to global warming.  This is explained in the following Details.


1.     Climate scientists have shown that it is possible to assess the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), a principal greenhouse gas, as well as the ambient temperature by sophisticated analysis of geological samples; the assay for temperature is termed a “proxy”.  Over the last 800,000 years the data show that atmospheric CO2 and the temperature proxy fluctuate in cycles lasting thousands of years, and that their fluctuations over time are highly correlated with each other.  Over this interval the atmospheric CO2 concentration was almost never higher than 280 parts per million (ppm; volume of CO2 gas present in 1,000,000 volumes of air assayed).

2.     Just prior to the start of the industrial revolution, the CO2 concentration was 280 ppm.  The industrial revolution has been powered by human’s burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) to provide the energy needed for industrialization.  This releases additional CO2 into the air, increasing the atmosphere’s retention of solar energy as heat, warming the earth’s atmosphere.  Over the last 250 years all three data sets, humankind’s burning of fossil fuels, the atmospheric concentration of CO2, and the long-term globalaverage temperature, have all increased following timeline trends that are virtually identical to each other, i.e., they are closely correlated.  This raises the likelihood that there is a causative relationship among them.  The changes observed are occurring 50-100 times more rapidly than the natural geological changes described in the first paragraph.

3.     A further physical proxy can determine whether CO2 originated from mineral sources (e.g. release of CO2 dissolved in the water of the oceans) or from fossil fuels.  The time course of this fourth data set over the same time period follows the same course as do those for fossil fuel use, the increase in CO2, and the global temperature.  This shows unequivocally that the additional CO2 in the atmosphere appearing during the industrial era originates from our burning of fossil fuels, and not from some other natural process not involving humankind’s actions.  It also makes highly likely that the increase in global temperature is due to the increased CO2 in the atmosphere.

4.     Climate models have been used retrogressively to seek to reproduce existing temperature data from about 1915 to the present.  If the models omit the added CO2 from fossil fuels the predicted temperature remains low, not rising after 1950.  Only by including this additional CO2 do the models successfully reproduce the observed higher temperatures in the record.  This shows unequivocally that the additional CO2, which arises from fossil fuels, causes the increase in long-term global average temperature.
Projections of future greenhouse gas emissions predict that most developed countries of the world, including the U. S., will not increase annual emission rates significantly, whereas major emitters among the developing countries, especially China and India, will continue to do so at drastic rates.  This has been termed “business as usual”, and is projected to lead to large increases in atmospheric CO2, higher average temperatures, and more frequent and severe extreme weather and climate events.  The President pointed out “we have to act with more urgency because a changing climate is already harming western [American] communities struggling with drought and coastal cities dealing with floods.”  It must be emphasized, however, that policies at the worldwide level, not simply within the U. S., are needed to interrupt this trend and keep harmful consequences to a minimum.

President Obama reiterated his “all of the above” energy policy, which promotes current expansion of fossil fuel resources within the U. S. while at the same time implementing policies that reduce their use in the future.  He praised the “all of the above” strategy, noting that “today America is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades.”   He cited the migration to increased use of natural gas as a major factor in this trend, calling this fuel “the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”  He encouraged Congress to promote this trend by providing for natural gas fueling stations to help “shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas”.  At the same time, he noted, the U. S. is expanding its use of solar power, a renewable energy source.  He recognized the barriers facing expansion of renewable energy, urging “a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it so we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.”

The President reviewed the executive actions of his administration that will reduce fossil fuel consumption going forward.

“[E]ven as we’ve increased energy production, we’ve partnered with businesses, builders and local communities to reduce the energy we consume. When we rescued our automakers, for example, we worked with them to set higher fuel efficiency standards for our cars. In the coming months I’ll build on that success by setting new standards for our trucks so we can keep driving down oil imports and what we pay at the pump.”
Moral basis for climate action.  President Obama laid down a forceful imperative, that of working to abate global warming for the welfare of our children and their children, and by inference, our future progeny whom we will never know.  We can consider this the most powerful, fundamental driver for action against global warming.  It is a principal motivation for the faithful, who consider that they have been appointed to be stewards of God’s creation.  It is an important guiding principle for others as well who direct their actions to the improvement of the world and the lives of their fellow humans.  On the national level here in the U. S., establishment of the national park system clearly is consistent with these principles, for it set aside federal lands in perpetuity for the benefit of our fellow citizens.

President Obama’s administrative actions have promoted mitigation of global warming.  The President has been faced with Congressional opposition to combating global warming, continuing a long history of Congressional recalcitrance.  Faced with this situation he has acted in several ways to reduce fossil fuel use.  He has set in place automotive fuel efficiency standards that halve fuel use by 2025.  His administration has just issued emission standards for new large electricity generating plants, and will follow up with standards for existing plants.  These will have the effect of eliminating use of coal-fired plants unless they install expensive capturing technology, since burning coal emits almost twice as much CO2 per unit of electricity generated as does natural gas.  In addition, the President issued a comprehensive Climate Action Plan setting forth a broad range of policies.

President Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy needlessly prolongs CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.  President Obama’s administration controls permits to develop fossil fuel extraction on federal lands and offshore, but not on private land.  Conventional wells have long production lifetimes, so that once in operation, there is a legacy period of production that ensures emission of CO2 from the extracted fuels for the lifetime of the well, one to a few decades.  Installations for hydraulic fracturing to yield gas and oil have shorter service lifetimes.  To the extent that extraction on public lands is being promoted, “all of the above” ensures continued new emissions of CO2 for one to a few decades. 

CO2 and other GHGs persist in the atmosphere for a century or more once emitted; they are not cleansed by any natural process.  Ever since humans began burning fossil fuels in the industrial revolution, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has been higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.  The rate of accumulation of additional CO2 is now about 50-100 times faster than has occurred in the geological past from natural processes.   For all these reasons, the longer the nations of the world, including the U. S., delay combating global warming, the more difficult it will be to achieve results later.

For this reason, President Obama’s “all of the above” policy is counterproductive, promoting expanded domestic production of fossil fuels.  Production of natural gas is expanding rapidly, and new drilling for offshore oil is being allowed to proceed.  Oil and gas pipelines are growing and a major pipeline, the XL project for importing Canadian oil originating from tar sands, is being weighed for approval. 

Minimizing increased global warming.  Every energy policy should be evaluated  according to whether it abates emissions or contributes more.  We may slow the rate of accumulating more GHGs in the atmosphere, but we are powerless at present to reduce the amount already accumulated.  “All of the above” continues to add greenhouse gases.  Our energy economy should have only one objective, namely, to reduce the additional accumulation of GHGs as rapidly as possible.  Only in this way can we limit the long-term average global temperature to as small an increase as possible.  Only in this way, “when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, [can we] say yes, we did.”
© 2014 Henry Auer

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tallying Cumulative Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Fossil Fuel Producers

Summary.  In a recent article Richard Heede has analyzed the accumulated emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and natural gas from the beginning of the industrial revolution to the present.  He consulted a wide array of information available to the public to provide a cumulative accounting of total emissions of these gases by the emitting entities (rather than by country or region) using records beginning about 1850.

After establishing a cut-off, 90 entities, accounting for 63% of the world’s accumulated emissions over this period, qualified for tallying.  This post provides tabulated data for the top 20 entities; of these the first five are Chevron, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, BP and Gazprom.

This analysis, based on the emitting entity, represents a departure from commonly used analyses of global greenhouse gas emissions.  Importantly the analysis finds that a significant number of emitting entities are based in developing countries.  This conclusion suggests that the earlier insistence by the developing countries that they be spared from requirements to limit emissions are, at least by 2010 if not before, no longer appropriate for their economic status.  Global warming is clearly a worldwide problem, requiring global approaches to combat its effects.

Introduction. It is a daunting task to track the sources of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane, two major greenhouse gases, globally from the early days of the industrial revolution to the present.  The additional accumulation of these gases in the atmosphere originates from mankind’s extraction and burning of fossil fuels.  Richard Heede, of the Climate Accountability Institute, has done just that in his recent article “Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane [natural gas, CH4)] emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010” (Climatic Change (2014) 122:229–241;  doi:10.1007/s10584-013-0986-y; or pdf version).  Climatic Change publishes original research papers after having been rigorously evaluated by independent, anonymous reviewers.

Heede accessed information and records that are publicly available (see Details, Methods, at the end of this post) to find the total amount of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) extracted from the earth over the period analyzed.  Using the chemistry involved in burning these fuels to carbon dioxide (CO2) he calculated the resulting emissions.  In addition, carbon dioxide arising from converting limestone to cement is included in his accounting.  Furthermore Heede evaluated the amount of “fugitive” methane, a greenhouse gas about 20-30 more potent than CO2, originating from other fossil fuel operations.

Results.  Heede has found that the annual rate of global emissions originating from fossil fuels has increased dramatically since the industrial revolution began, as of course has their accumulated totals.  Annual emission rates are shown in the graphic below

Annual rates of emission of CO2 and methane (as CO2-equivalents) worldwide, and those originating from the Carbon Majors, in millions of tonnes of CO2-equivalents (MtCO2/y).
Source: Heede, (Climatic Change (2014); ).

for all industrial sources of CO2 and for methane worldwide (black curve), and for the 90 entities he tracked in detail, called the “Carbon Majors” (red curve), for the period 1850-2010.  The worldwide annual emission rates grew dramatically, on a relative basis, between about 1860 and 1910, again from about 1945 to about 1975, and is currently undergoing the sharpest rise yet starting at about 2000.  Emission rates for the Carbon Majors mirror the trends seen for total global emissions after about 1930.

Heede cites data from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) for providing an estimate for cumulative industrial CO2 emissions since 1751 of 1,336 GtCO2 (1,336,000 MtCO2 (Gt, gigatonnes; Mt, megatonnes); Heede, Online Supplementary Material (Climatic Change (2014)).  Over much of that interval, up to 1930, the cumulative emissions total remained only 10.4% of the total to 2010.  In other words, almost 90% of total worldwide emissions to 2010 have occurred in the 80 years following 1930.

The cumulative, i.e., total historic, global emissions of CO2 and methane from the 90 Carbon Majors is 63% of the total from 1750-2010; the remainder includes emissions from other, smaller entities not tracked and entities that no longer exist (Heede, Online Supplementary Material (Climatic Change (2014)).

Data for the 20 highest-emitting entities are tabulated below in Details, Cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide and methane.  The five entities with the highest cumulative emissions, as a percent of the total accumulated since 1750 are:

Chevron (USA):                          3.52%

ExxonMobil (USA):                      3.22%

Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia)       3.17%

BP (United Kingdom)                  2.47%

Gazprom (Russian Federation)    2.22%

These five alone represent 14.6% of the total historic emissions.  It is noteworthy that even in this upper echelon of historical emitters, entities from four nations are represented, including two that are from the developing world rather than from among industrialized nations.


Heede has performed a valuable service in this work by assessing historical emissions of major greenhouse gases according to the emitting entity instead of by region or extent of economic development.  He points out that this finding is not consistent with the early emphasis in deliberations of the United Nations leading to the Kyoto Protocol that the developing countries of the world should be absolved from constraints on emission rates.
Climate scientists agree almost unanimously that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases have led to more, and more severe, extreme weather and climate events in recent decades.  Since CO2, an important greenhouse gas, remains indefinitely in the atmosphere and cannot be removed, the present pace of occurrence of climate extremes cannot be reversed.  As emissions continue to grow, global warming will only worsen, increasing climate extremes even more.  Projections of future warming and the harms expected as a result are given in the recent Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued September 2013.  For example, projections for 2046-2065 and for 2080-2100 are tabulated below, for global average temperature and sea level rise, for four emissions scenarios of increasing severity (going from RCP 2.6 to RCP 8.5). 

Changes in global mean surface temperature in ºC (top) and global mean sea level rise in m (bottom) for the two time periods shown, referenced to the period 1986-2005.  The “likely range” gives confidence limits for a 5%-95% interval.
For temperature, corresponding values for ºF are exemplified as 1ºC =1.8ºF, 2.0ºC = 3.6ºF, and 3.7ºC = 6.7ºF.
For sea level, corresponding values for feet are exemplified as 0.24 m = 0.79 ft, 0.30 m = 1.0 ft, 0.40 m = 1.3 ft, and 0.63 m = 2.1 ft.

RCP 2.6 corresponds to a scenario in which emissions fall to zero in a few decades, while RCP 8.5 corresponds to continued expansion of the energy economy with no meaningful constraints on emissions.  Currently there is no worldwide agreement to constrain emissions.  Certain regions or jurisdictions in the world, representing a small fraction of the global emission rate, have constraining policies in place and are in the early stages of implementing them.  Considered planet-wide, therefore, the current status of the energy economy is one whose emissions are largely unconstrained.

Heede’s identification of the 90 highest-emitting entities around the globe provides useful information as we consider ways to address abatement of emissions.  His approach departs from the historical focus on nations and regional associations of nations.  Global warming is truly a global problem, requiring global approaches to mitigating emissions and developing adaptive measures to allay its effects.

Methods. Heede evaluated records from all entities presently emitting 8 million tonnes of carbon (29 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent) or more per year.  This provided a total of 90 entities, grouped into 50 investor-owned companies, 31 state-owned companies and 9 current or former national agencies.  56 of the entities produce crude oil and natural gas, 37 mine coal, and 7 produce cement (for which only data after 1990 were used).

Information was gathered from corporate annual reports, company websiotes, information filed with government agencies such as the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and company histories.  Carbon content of the extracted fuels was evaluated according to equivalencies established by agencies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency.  This is especially important for coal, whose carbon content can vary significantly according to its type (anthracite or bituminous) and carbon purity.  Account was made not to include non-energy uses (i.e. industrial uses other than combustion for energy).  Usable information could be obtained as far back as 1854.  This history accounts for changes in corporate identities, including mergers and divestments.  It is believed that double-counting of emissions due to overlapping record sources has been minimized.

The resulting data for all 90 entities is linked for review as “Electronic supplementary material” near the end of the online version of Heede’s article .

Cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide and methane. 

The highest twenty investor- and state-owned entities and their attributed CO2 and CH4 emissions.
Entity, nation
Cumulative emissions 1854–2010, MtCO2e
Percent of global emissions, 1751–2010
2010 emissions, MtCO2e
Chevron, USA
3.52 %
ExxonMobil, USA
3.22 %
Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia
3.17 %
BP, United Kingdom
2.47 %
Gazprom, Russian Federation
2.22 %
Royal Dutch/Shell, Netherlands
2.12 %
National Iranian Oil Company
2.01 %
Pemex, Mexico
1.38 %
ConocoPhil-lips, USA
1.16 %
Petroleos de Venezuela
1.11 %
Coal India
1.07 %
Peabody Energy, USA
0.86 %
Total, France
0.82 %
PetroChina, China
0.73 %
Kuwait Petroleum Corp.
0.73 %
Abu Dhabi NOC, UAE
0.67 %
Sonatrach, Algeria
0.64 %
Consol Energy, Inc., USA
0.63 %
BHP-Billiton, Australia
0.52 %
Anglo American, United Kingdom
0.50 %
Sum of Top 20 IOCs & SOEs
29.54 %
Total 90 carbon majors
63.04 %
Total global emissions
100.00 %

Please note that the data in columns 3 and 4 cover different time periods.  The fourth column compares each entity’s cumulative emissions to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center’s database of global emissions 1751–2010. This table excludes British Coal, whose production and assets have not been attributed to extant companies, and also excludes five of nine nation-states (the Former Soviet Union, China, Poland, Russian Federation, and Czechoslovakia). MtCO2e, million tonnes of CO2-equivalents emitted.
Peabody Energy is the world’s largest private-sector coal company (
Abu Dhabi NOC, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
IOC, investor-owned company.
SOE, state-owned entity.
Source: Heede, (Climatic Change (2014);

© 2014 Henry Auer