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, February 26, 2014

Secretary Kerry’s Global Warming Initiative

Summary.  U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited China and Indonesia in
February 2014 to promote international support for combating global warming.  He is making this issue a major theme of his tenure in office.  In
China he discussed upcoming negotiations on a new worldwide climate treaty with his hosts.  In Indonesia he spoke on the critical nature of the problem of worsening global warming, and on the importance of reaching international accord to limit further emissions.  He is personally committed to making global warming be a central theme in U. S. diplomatic efforts.

Recent U. N.-sponsored meetings to negotiate a treaty to replace the expired Kyoto Protocol have stalled on the issue (among others) that is the same as the  one that arose originally when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated: a split between already industrialized countries and developing countries based on the contention by the latter group that mature countries have had a century of fossil fuel use, which leads to greenhouse gas emissions, to power their industrialization.  They feel they too should be allowed unfettered opportunity to do the same.  But in the time since Kyoto, developing countries have expanded so rapidly that emissions from this group are now a major contributor to continued global warming.

A new treaty should treat all nations equally, since global warming is indeed a single, worldwide crisis, not a differentiated one.  All nations should unite behind Secretary Kerry’s efforts, and those of others, to reach agreement on substantive and substantial approaches to constrain the buildup of greenhouse gases and limit further warming of the planet.

Introduction: The Kyoto Protocol.  In 1997 the members of the United Nations agreed to the Kyoto Protocol (KP) to reduce emission rates of greenhouse gases (GHGs).  KP excused developing countries from its constraints; only the already industrialized nations were to be bound by its terms.  For this and other reasons the U. S. Senate rejected KP.  The treaty came into force in 2005 and expired in 2012.  Since then members of the U. N. have been unable to agree on a new treaty to take effect on expiration of KP.  The effort currently under way is to agree to a new treaty by 2015 and have it take effect by 2020.

U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry is making the achievement of an international agreement, as well as other multilateral understandings, to limit further global warming a major policy goal of his tenure.  He hopes to lead the world effort to conclude the new treaty to replace the expired KP reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and to expand its terms and coverage.  Carbon dioxide (CO2), a principal GHG, is emitted when we burn fossil fuels for energy.

Mr. Kerry has made mitigation of global warming a primary effort of the State Department.  In the U. S., President Obama’s executive actions to reduce emission rates have enhanced the credibility of the U. S. among the international community as it negotiates the new agreement.

In Secretary Kerry’s speech in Indonesia on Feb. 16, 2014 he pointed out that both President Obama and he consider global warming to be an “urgent” challenge that the world needs to address.  Indonesia’s emissions of GHGs from burning fossil fuels are rising dramatically, as is true for practically all developing countries.  Annual emission rates from China, India, South Korea, Indonesia and Mexico all have similar increases over the last 22 years (see Analysis below); China is now by far the country with the highest annual emissions rate of all countries and regions .  Indonesia ranks third in the world in overall emission rate behind China and the U. S.  An additional contributor to Indonesia’s emissions rate is deforestation by burning to clear land for agricultural use.  In contrast, industrialized countries have relatively level annual emission rates with time. 

Secretary Kerry summarized the conclusion of 97% of climate scientists around the globe that this problem is arising because of manmade increases in atmospheric GHG levels.  These act to trap heat in the earth system, leading to extremes of heat and drought, heavy precipitation and flooding, and rising sea levels, all of which wreak havoc on affected human societies and economic activities.

The Secretary intends to continue stressing the dangers of global warming and the economic opportunities in addressing it.  He emphasized that around the world political and financial institutions “need to stop providing incentives for the use of energy sources like coal and oil. Instead, we have to make the most of the innovative energy technology that entrepreneurs are developing all over the world.”  He pointed out that the time remaining for action is dwindling. 

He stated the “United States is prepared to take the lead in bringing other nations to the table. And this is something that President Obama is deeply committed to. And as Secretary of State, I am personally committed to [having global warming be central] in all of our diplomatic efforts.”

Secretary Kerry’s Visit in China.  Prior to visiting Indonesia Secretary Kerry conferred on global warming with counterparts in China on Feb. 15, 2014.  The meeting with Chinese officials resulted in pledges to promote a successful conclusion to the international climate negotiation of 2015.

China is setting up market based (i. e., cap-and-trade) mechanisms in several regions to reduce GHG emission rates, in contrast to the U. S. which has never enacted such policy at the national level.  The recent worsening of urban air pollution in many Chinese cities has also led authorities to begin programs to reduce emissions, especially particulates and smog precursors arising from cars and coal-fired electricity plants; such efforts also lower GHG emissions.  China initiated a US$250 billion program that includes a ban on cars that contribute excessively to pollution and reduces the use of coal in power generation.

Mr. Kerry was instrumental in putting together a bilateral initiative with China to help that nation reduce its emissions of hydrofluorocarbons.  These compounds are used in refrigeration and are released by leakage and when refrigeration units are retired from service.  They are extremely potent GHGs, possessing up to 12,000 times the heat trapping power,  molecule by molecule, as CO2.  They are entirely manmade, so they were not present in the atmosphere before the industrial revolution. 


Updating the Kyoto Protocol.  It is highly significant that Secretary Kerry and President Obama are actively pursuing policies that address worsening global warming.  The annual U. N. meetings in recent years, convened to develop a global framework to follow the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol, have failed to reach agreement (although certain building blocks have been agreed to).  Much of the continued difficulty remains the same as the differences that led to exclusion of developing countries from being bound by KP.  These nations felt that, in contrast to their third world status, the industrialized countries of the developed world had already attained an advanced standard of living as a result of having used fossil fuel-derived energy for a century.  The developing nations have felt that they should be able to follow the same path for their economic growth, including use of fossil fuels.  Objection to this reasoning was one of the factors cited when the U. S. Senate denied ratification of KP.

Rapid Growth of Emissions from Developing Countries.  It is easily seen why developing countries wanted to remain unfettered by KP in the late 1990’s; their goals of increasing development and economic expansion have come to fruition in dramatic fashion since then.  In “Trends in Global CO2 Emissions– 2013 Report” issued by the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission information appears for A) per capita CO2 emission rate per year in tonnes (metric ton; about 1.1 English ton) tracked from 1990 to 2012; B) change in per person emission rate over the 22 year interval, %; C) absolute change in emission rate over the same time period , %; and D) % change in population over the same time period.  Selected results are tabulated below:

Nation/ Region
A) Per capita CO2 emission rate per year
B) Change in per person emission rate, %
C) Absolute change in emission rate, %
D) Change in population, %
Examples of developing countries, not governed by KP
 increased from 2.1 to 7.1
 increased from 0.8 to 1.6
Examples of industrialized countries, negotiated to be covered under KP
U. S.
decreased from (19.6-20.6) to 16.4
European Union
decreased from 9.1 to 7.4

This selection shows how dramatically emissions in developing countries have risen from 1990 to 2012 in both per person use [ A) ] and overall emissions [ C) ]; most of this originated from burning coal.  In contrast, over the same period for industrialized countries both per person and overall emissions fell modestly from already very high levels.  Also, the data show that in 1990 the per capita rates of CO2 emissions per year for the industrialized countries were 5-10 times higher than the rates for developing countries.  But by 2012 the rates for the developing countries were rapidly closing that difference.  For example, the per capita rates for the European Union and China in 2012 were almost the same.  This selection shows the strong growth in CO2 emissions from the largest developing countries.  Absolute CO2 emissions by China became the highest of any country 4-5 years ago.

Global warming is indeed just that – warming of the climate assessed by averaging temperature measurements over the entire globe over long time periods (years to decades).  Historically the increase in the worldwide average temperature follows the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 and other GHGs such as methane (natural gas), and the refrigerants mentioned above.  Projections of future global temperature increase likewise track scenarios for future emissions of GHGs. 

CO2, a principal GHG, remains in the atmosphere for centuries or longer, once emitted.  There is no technology currently known that removes CO2 from air, so humanity is cementing into place the worldwide warming climate we now experience.  We cannot go back to an earlier, lower global average temperature or more benign climate.  The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued September 2013, in its Summary for Policymakers , additionally shows other indicators of warming, including continued sea level rise, increase in overall heat contained in the world’s oceans, and loss of land-based snow and ice cover.  Increased occurrence of damaging extreme weather events, consistent with behavior expected from global warming, include more, and more violent, storms with more precipitation, flooding, higher temperatures and heat waves, droughts, forest wildfires, and stronger ocean storm surges.

Secretary Kerry’s efforts to implement international and multilateral climate agreements deserve full support.  The urgency of reaching meaningful, significant reductions in further emissions of GHGs as soon as possible is clear.  The ultimate goal has to be approaching near zero rates of annual worldwide emissions, in order to stabilize the atmospheric GHG level, and the concomitant rise in global temperature, to as small a further increase as possible above their present levels.

This will require industrialized countries (whose emission rates are already falling, albeit from high starting values) to continue on their paths of lowering emissions toward zero.  It will further require developing countries to accept the present climatic status of the world rather than to dwell on past history; in other words developing countries need to install renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuel-powered sources as they expand their energy economies.  Both groups of nations will need to band together to help the most vulnerable nations adapt to continued global warming and to help them develop renewable energy sources for their development.

American diplomacy, led by Secretary Kerry and President Obama, conducted energetically and with conviction, should contribute meaningfully to achieving a substantive worldwide agreement that supplants KP. It would start our world on a path to reduced GHG emissions and the smallest future increase in warming attainable.
© 2014 Henry Auer

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Comment Sent to the State Department on the Keystone XL Pipeline

Summary.  TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, L.P has applied for approval to construct a pipeline from Canada to a pipeline terminal in Oklahoma in order to ship “tar sands” oil to refineries on the U. S. Gulf Coast.  The State Department has evaluated the application in its Environmental Impact Statement.  The U. S. must weigh this application to determine whether it meets the national interest.  This post presents a Comment submitted by this writer recommending that the application not be approved, for several reasons.

I. Introduction: The Department of State (DOS) is evaluating the Presidential Permit Application of TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, L.P. (the Application) to determine whether the project serves the national interest.  DOS weighs “a wide range of factors, including … environmental… and economic impacts; [and] foreign policy”, among others.  In this regard DOS issued its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Final SEIS) concerning the Application In January 2014.  An earlier application, which was not approved, covered the pipeline’s full length from Canada to U. S. Gulf Coast.  The present Application covers only the northern portion of this route, since construction has already begun on the remainder, which, as a fully domestic project, does not require presidential approval. 

The currently pending project is intended to transport “heavy crude” oil, also called “tar sands” oil, from the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) to the terminal in Oklahoma where the domestic pipeline to the Gulf Coast refineries begins.  The capacity is to be 830,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd); the project portion to Oklahoma is estimated to cost $3 billion. 

DOS is accepting comments on the Final SEIS until March 7, 2014 (Federal Register / Vol. 79, No. 24 /p. 6984).  This post presents a Comment submitted by this writer addressing certain aspects of the Final SEIS, based on the Executive Summary (ES) thereof, and considers broader policy factors affecting the national interest. 

II. Effects of Man-Made Greenhouse Gas Emissions on Global Warming

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued the first of three sections of its Fifth Assessment Report (5AR; see the Summary for Policymakers) in September 2013.  It finds that the historical warming of the earth’s climate to date is “unequivocal”.  Since the 1950’s many climate parameters have changed to an extent that is “unprecedented” over decades to thousands of years.  Humanity’s activities, burning fossil fuels to provide energy, have been the dominant factor producing global warming due to the increased emission of the greenhouse gas (GHG) carbon dioxide (CO2).  5AR projects future climate patterns, concluding that if humanity continues emitting GHGs the earth will warm further, with long-lasting effects.

5AR concludes “Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond…. Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.”  It further states “[Most] anthropogenic climate change … is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale” because there is no natural process operating within this time scale that removes CO2 from the atmosphere. 

The warmer climate will worsen extremes of weather and climate that are already occurring, causing serious harm to people and major damage to the land. 

For these reasons domestic and foreign environmental policy should be guided by the need to abate the continued accumulation of GHGs in the atmosphere.

III. The Final SEIS minimizes impacts of the pipeline project.

A. Lifecycle analysis of GHG emissions omits consideration of the no-transport case.

The Final SEIS presents an analysis of the full lifecycle effect on GHG emissions from operation of the pipeline (Section ES.4.1.2).  It estimates that transporting 830,000 bpd would cause emitting between 147 and 168 million metric tons of CO2-equivalents (MMTCO2e) per year. 

The Final SEIS mentions the case in which production from WCSB is reduced by 830,000 bpd, i.e., one in which tar sands oil destined for the proposed pipeline is never extracted.  It argues that no such case need be considered because “…approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil”.  This means that the GHG emissions identified above would continue unabated.

It is possible, however, that if the Application is not approved the volume of WCSB oil corresponding to the pipeline’s intended capacity would not be extracted, and that no corresponding emissions would arise.

In other words, the Final SEIS seeks to render futile the possibility that the Application will not be approved by proposing that extraction and shipment not under the control of the U. S. administration would occur regardless.  This is highly improper, for it seeks to make the U. S. complicit in promoting further emissions even if the Application is not approved.  No such responsibility in fact exists.  The U. S., acting in accord with considerations of global environmental policy and its own national interest may indeed decide against approving the Application.  Any consequences of such a decision due to actions of third parties would be beyond the scope and power of the U. S. and should not influence the decision to be made.

B. Assessment of alternative routes for oil transport belittles the no-transport case.

The Final SEIS sets out three alternatives to the pipeline project (Section ES.5.0 and subsections therein); a) the No Action Alternative, presenting potential market reactions if the pipeline is not constructed; b) Major Route Alternatives for transporting oil to Steele City, NE (just upstream from the Cushing, OK terminal); and c) Other Alternatives presenting additional route options and alternative pipeline designs.

The No Action Alternative includes an assessment of a Status Quo Baseline, according to which no pipeline would be built and no emissions would arise.  This reflects the current situation.  The No Action Alternative also considers three alternative scenarios involving rail transport of WCSB oil.  All the rail scenarios include loading fourteen 100-tanker car trains per day to transport oil.

Certain Major Route Alternatives are assessed in detail; these would have comparable lengths, costs and environmental impacts as the intended route.

DOS considered Other Alternatives further adjusting routing and design, and concluded that none were appropriate for the purpose of the Application.

Here too, as in Section III.A of this Comment, assessment of the Status Quo Baseline is given scant attention in the ES.  By thoroughly analyzing the rail scenarios and the alternatives, all involving extracting and shipping WCSB oil, the Final SEIS emphasizes the preconception that WCSB oil will indeed reach the Gulf Coast refineries, regardless of whether the Application will be approved or not.

As noted in Section III.A, here too the Final SEIS infers the futility of not approving the Application by strongly implying that importation will occur in any case, in ways no longer under the control of the U. S. administration.  This is highly inappropriate, for it seeks to burden the U. S. government with consequences of promoting further GHG emissions even if the Application is not approved.  No such attribution in fact exists.  The U. S., acting in accord with its global environmental policy and its own national interest may indeed decide against approving the Application.  Any consequences of such a decision due to actions of third parties would be beyond the scope and power of the U. S. and should not influence the decision to be made.

IV. U. S. Climate Change Policy

A. Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The lifecycle analysis presented in the Final SEIS estimates that, if operational, the pipeline would emit between 147 and 168 MMTCO2e per year, throughout its lifetime.  Oil pipelines have lifetimes of 30 years or longer. The permit for the Alyeska pipeline, for example, has been extended so that it may remain operational for 57 years.  Thus approving the present Application would single-handedly significantly increase the world’s atmospheric CO2 burden.  An emission level of 158 MMTCO2 per year, for example, would correspond to about 2.7% of present U. S. annual emissions produced by burning fossil fuels (fossil fuel data).  Because of the harms brought by increasing GHG concentrations, the U. S. should be embarking on policies that avoid adding new GHGs to the atmosphere.  Approving the Application would have the opposite effect, worsening global warming.

B. President Obama’s stated policy is to reduce GHG emissions.  His Second Inaugural Address in January 2013 stated “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”  The President’s Climate Action Plan issued June 2013 reiterates his “pledge that by 2020, America would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels if all other major economies agreed to limit their emissions as well.”  The Plan stated “…we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted and damaged”, recognizing that extreme weather and climate events in the preceding year, attributed at least partly to global warming, cost the U. S. over $110 billion.

Approval of the Keystone XL Application would enshrine significant new GHG emissions for up to half a century or longer.  This would directly contravene the President’s pledge to honor our “moral obligation to future generations” to mitigate global warming.  It would make it harder to attain meaningful reductions in the future.

C. The U. S. is involved in negotiations for a worldwide pact to reduce GHG emissions.  Long-term negotiations sponsored under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are in progress, with the intention of reaching agreement by 2015 and entering into force in 2020.  If successful it presumably would cover ratifying members of the U. N.  Secretary of State John Kerry and his Special Envoy for Climate Change are directly involved in these negotiations.  Approval of the Application would critically jeopardize these negotiations, and would make it harder for the U. S. to attain international agreement to limit GHG emissions.

D. Climate models show that the longer we wait to undertake abatement of emissions, the more intensive and the more expensive those efforts will be.

Calls to action have been made at least since the first IPCC Assessment Report in 1990, and have become more urgent as the global climate situation worsens.  Recent urgings include those from Thomas Stocker, a Coordinating Lead Author of 5AR, and James Hansen, formerly head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.  In 2013 Stocker wrote…every year counts; if mitigation actions are delayed, much larger emissions reductions are later required to maintain a selected [emissions reduction] target”.  Also in 2013 Hansen and many coworkers including Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University wrote “…the world must move rapidly to carbon-free energies and energy efficiency, leaving most remaining fossil fuels in the ground, if climate is to be kept close to the Holocene [the present geological epoch] range and climate disasters averted”.   There is overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that humanity has to migrate from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources as early as practicable.  The U.S. would promote these goals by denying the present Application.

E. The anticipated cost of the Keystone XL pipeline, if redirected, could be used to install significant renewable energy capability.  The Final SEIS estimates the cost for the U. S. portion of the pipeline project (from the Canadian border to an existing pipeline in Nebraska) at $3 billion.  Cost overruns in such projects are not unusual, and could double the cost.  One alternative to invest such a sum would be construction of wind turbine farms and transmission lines from the farms to urban areas for distribution.  Using information from the Lawrence BerkeleyNational Laboratory and the American Electric Power Company, it is estimated that dividing a realistic estimate of $4.5 billion evenly between a wind farm and a transmission line could provide 639 2 MW turbines and 703 miles of a 765 kV transmission line.  It would be in our national interest to develop policies and practices that induce fossil fuel energy companies to invest in renewable energy sources.

F. The Final SEIS pays short shrift to the viable option of not approving the application and investing instead in renewable energy.  As noted above, the document improperly seeks to make the U. S. government responsible for added emissions arising from alternative strategies if they are implemented by other, foreign, parties.  It is inappropriate to make such an unfounded attribution.

V. Conclusion

This Comment has identified fundamental omissions in the DOS Final SEIS whose effect is inappropriately to suggest that failure to approve the Application would implicitly implicate the U. S. in the consequences of continued burning of WCSB oil.  DOS and President Obama should resist such implications, and decide the fate of the Application purely according to the national interests of our country.

Those interests lie exclusively in undertaking actions with regard to global warming that safeguard our nation and our planet from further climatic degradation.  This Comment summarizes many facets in the science underlying global warming and policies that we need to undertake to address this critical problem.  In general, as urged by climate scientists around the world, we should not continue policies that expand use of fossil fuels.  Rather, we should develop new practices that promote energy efficiency and use of renewable energy sources.
In this way President Obama can contribute to fulfilling our “moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted and damaged”.

© 2014 Henry Auer