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, May 27, 2015

President Obama Says Global Warming Harms U. S. National Security

President Barack Obama addressed the graduating class at the U. S. Coast Guard Academy on May 20, 2015.  A major theme in his remarks was that the worldwide effects of global warming negatively impact the security of the United States in its military preparedness and military operations.

The President unambiguously embraced the conclusions of the worldwide community of climate scientists that “climate change is happening….[t]the science is indisputable….The planet is getting warmer”.  He stated that humanity’s burning of fossil fuels to produce carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, is a major contributing factor to this problem. 

As an example of its effects, the President cited the melting of polar ice and the resulting rise in sea levels worldwide.  By the end of this century, he said, the sea level could rise an additional one to four feet (between 0.31 and 1.2 m).  He pointed out “…the threat of a changing climate cuts to the very core of [the Coast Guard Cadets’] service.…[C]limate change is one of [the] most severe threats” that they will face.

Military Leaders Agree.  The President pointed out that military leaders in the various branches of the American armed forces agree on the reality of climate change.  He stated “climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security.  And make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country.  And so we need to act -- and we need to act now.   Denying [climate change], or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security.  It undermines the readiness of our forces.”

The President summarized recent instances of “instability and conflict” around the world, made worse by climate change, that affect the national security of the U. S.  Rising seas impinge on lowlands around the world, “forcing people from their homes”.    In other locations aridity and drought will lead to food and water shortages, causing additional migration.  This and other factors are expected to cause an increase in climate change refugees, leading to conflicts as populations migrate in attempts to find sustenance elsewhere. 

The President stated

“we … know … that severe drought helped to create the instability in Nigeria that was exploited by the terrorist group Boko Haram.  It’s now believed that drought and crop failures and high food prices helped fuel the early unrest in Syria, which descended into civil war in the heart of the Middle East.  So, increasingly, our military … will need to factor climate change into plans and operations, because you need to be ready.”

A Threat Multiplier.  Because these damaging effects of climate change are already happening and are foreseen only to become worse with time, the Department of Defense calls this issue a “threat multiplier”.  The President pointed out that climate change, and especially the effects of rising sea levels, threaten “our homeland security, our economic infrastructure, the safety and health of the American people.”  Already in Miami, Norfolk and Charleston fair weather flooding occurs routinely at high tide.  The Norfolk flooding already impacts the major naval base there.  Sea level in New York is about 1 foot higher than 100 years ago, which undoubtedly contributed to the flooding experienced from Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Reducing Emissions.  The U. S. is already committing hundreds of billions of dollars to remedy damages incurred from these past events and to defend against potential harms that may occur in the future.  But President Obama pointed out that it is critical to lower future emissions of greenhouse gases to minimize future harms.  He summarized the steps his administration has already put in place to promote these goals: making homes more energy efficient, doubling the fuel efficiency of the nation’s autos, and enhancing the efficiency of electricity generation.

International Leadership.  Most significantly, President Obama is committed to having the U. S. serve as a leader to other nations of the world to reduce annual rates of greenhouse gas emissions.  He overtly admits that the political landscape for achieving progress in this regard within the U. S. is fraught with difficulty.  Furthermore, he understands the challenges involved internationally: “working with other nations, we have to achieve a strong global agreement this year to start reducing the total global emission -- because every nation must do its part.  Every nation.”

The National Security Implications of a Changing Climate, a summary of findings of several federal departments, was issued by President Obama’s White House in May 2015.  The underlying reports include the Third National Climate Assessment, the White House’s 2015 National Security Strategy, the Department of Defense’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, and the Department of Homeland Security’s 2014 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review.

The summary points out that the worsening effects of climate change impact both domestic U. S. security and global security.  Importantly, on the domestic front, coastal installations will be seriously impacted by rising sea level and by extreme events such as hurricanes and coastal flooding involving storm surges.  Highly populated urban areas are vulnerable to damages such as temporary and/or permanent flooding of major infrastructure facilities, as happened, for example, during Superstorm Sandy.  Federal emergency responses to Sandy involved the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Guard and other units from the Department of Defense.  More extended responses involved rebuilding programs from many agencies.  

In the American West, extended drought and long-term extremes of heat affect water resources, agriculture and wildfire numbers and severity.  This affects military bases and training of troops.  Opening of Arctic waters to navigation as ice cover diminishes adds responsibilities for the Coast Guard and the Navy.

Our national security is also impacted by the effects of global warming internationally.  Our geopolitical situation could be threatened as global warming affects access to resources and security of international trade.  Military operations are always affected by climate and weather.  Extremes will lead to more difficult environments for operation of equipment and the endurance and effectiveness of our forces.

Warmer temperatures will lead to greater aridity in many regions of the world, imposing new pressures on availability of water, agricultural productivity and potential scarcity of food.  This could lead to higher poverty, political instability and social insecurity, all conditions that increase the risk of conflict to which our defense forces might have to respond.  For example, these factors likely contributed to the instability that led to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war.  Warming is leading the Department of Defense to rely more strongly on renewable energy sources in its operations as a hedge against geopolitical insecurity and potential constraints on availability of fossil fuels.
President Obama rightly emphasizes the importance of man-made climate change as a major process under way that requires federal action to combat its progress and overcome its effects.  This post discusses its role in military planning and operations.

Global warming is disrupting long-term climate and weather patterns on an abrupt time scale and in extreme ways.  In considering droughts and floods, sea level rise and wildfires, global warming affects military operations within the U. S. and around the world.  Changing environmental conditions affect military training by placing new stresses on the operation and maintenance of equipment and on the physiological resilience of our troops.  New climatic stresses bring about new changes in the overall geopolitical landscape that impact the security interests of the U. S. in ways that place new and unconventional demands on our armed forces.

As with other aspects of humanity’s response to global warming, choices here too balance a) responding minimally at present, for example to keep expenditures low, incurring the need for more intense, expensive responses later, with b) a recognition that significant investment now will minimize the need for major expenditures later.  The better part of wisdom is to recognize the military’s needs in their efforts to prepare for the new climate-induced challenges they face, and so to grant them the resources they need to prepare for the future. 

Similar reasoning can be brought to bear on America’s response overall to the crisis of global warming.  Early action at the federal level is needed to address this important issue directly, and to maintain America’s leadership role in dealing with global warming.

© 2015 Henry Auer

Thursday, May 14, 2015

President Obama Regrettably Approves Oil Drilling in the Arctic Ocean

The Obama administration granted conditional approval to Shell Oil Company to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean off the North Slope of Alaska on May 11, 2015 .  In addition to generating grave misgivings about possible environmental damage from drilling accidents, this decision represents a major compromise with the President’s own policies directed toward limiting global warming.  Burning any fossil fuel, such as the oil sought in this project, will add still more carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere, worsening the burden of greenhouse gases added to the earth’s air. 

In his second inaugural address of Jan. 21, 2013, the President committed to “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”.  Noting the recurrence of severe weather and climate events, he stated “none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms”.   In order to combat these trends, the President summoned the nation not to “resist this transition” to “sustainable energy sources”, but rather to “lead it” by developing the new “technology that will power new jobs and new industries”.

The President, in his State of the Union address the following year (January 28, 2014) pursued the same theme.  He stated a highly 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.” 

Nevertheless, in spite of these lofty goals, President Obama also stated (March 15, 2012 )

“We can’t have an energy strategy for the last century that traps us in the past. We need an energy strategy for the future -– an all-of-the-above strategy for the 21st century that develops every source of American-made energy.”

The “all-of-the-above” energy strategy is intended to promote economic growth and job creation, enhance energy security, and develop a low-carbon energy economy.  To the extent that ensuring energy security relies on exactly those “last century” strategies based on fossil fuels, “all-of-the-above” pits continued exploitation of fossil fuels against much smaller, but rapidly growing, renewable energy industries.

The President, to his credit, has indeed set out policies that will reduce emissions of CO2 from U. S. sources.  Emissions from passenger vehicles will be much lower since the fuel efficiency standard for cars and light trucks is to reach an average level of 54.5 mpg by 2025.  New standards for heavy-duty trucks are to be issued in 2016.  The proposed Clean Power Plan, to be finalized later in 2015, will lower emissions from large electricity generating plants by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.  These policies are significant positive developments along a path to lowering emissions produced by the U. S.

On the other hand the Obama administration has made many decisions that could expand production of fossil fuels beyond their present extent.  Its approval of exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean by Shell is only the latest policy shift away from minimizing further emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.  It is also authorizing extensive new coal mining operations in the Powder River basin in Wyoming and Montana.  And it has announced that leases for oil exploration in the Atlantic Ocean off the U. S. east coast could be issued beginning in 2021.  Its decision whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring Canadian tar sands oil to the U. S. is still pending.

Expanded development of fossil fuels requires the investment of large amounts of capital.  When considering expansion of our energy economy an important question always is how to deploy new investments.  In order to minimize new emissions of greenhouse gases it is important to direct such investment toward renewable energy, not to the further expansion of fossil fuel resources.  Decisions to extract more fossil fuels have long-lasting consequences, since such projects will take several years to reach fruition, and will lock in new greenhouse gas emissions for decades thereafter.  This directly interferes with achieving our goal of lowering new greenhouse gas emission rates.  Instead, it would be best to allow existing fossil fuel-burning assets to exhaust their useful lifetimes, and to replace them with renewable energy resources.

Coal is the worst among the fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas efficiency: burning coal generates a little more than half as much heat as natural gas per ton of CO2 emitted.  Although the administration’s Clean Power Plan would have the effect of phasing out most coal-fired electric plants on the one hand, on the other the administration is opting to expand coal mining.  Since demand for coal will be reduced within the U. S., it is clear that newly mined coal would be destined for export.  The U. S. should not be contributing to expanded use of this inefficient fuel abroad at a time when international efforts are being directed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Cars powered by internal combustion engines are very inefficient in their use of the energy contained in the fuel they burn.  Approximately 80% of that energy is dissipated, mostly as waste heat, rather than used to propel the vehicle along the road.  This is illustrated in the graphic below.
Electric vehicles are far more efficient in their use of electrical energy.  Whereas various gasoline-fueled cars can generally get between 20 and 40 miles per gallon (11.8-5.88 L/100 km), electric vehicles are reported to get well over 100 miles per gallon equivalent (less than 2.35 liter equivalents/100 km)  as evaluated by the U. S. Dept. of Energy .  To the extent that this electrical energy is supplied to the vehicle by renewable sources instead of from fossil fuels this represents a vast reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
President Obama has made a serious environmental mistake by permitting Shell to explore for oil in the Arctic Ocean.  Actions that would lead to further extraction of fossil fuels, such as this project, would worsen the Earth’s burden of the greenhouse gas CO2 in the atmosphere for several more decades, for the field being explored is thought to contain large supplies of oil.  The Shell Arctic project, as well as the Powder River coal development and exploration for new oil production off the eastern U. S. coast, run counter to the President’s pledge that the U. S. would lower its GHG emission rates by 26-28% from the levels emitted in 2005, by 2025.  This pledge was made during the President’s meeting with President Xi Jinping of China on Nov. 12, 2014.
The world faces a critical need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades.  Providing energy to support economic growth worldwide is a major component of the world’s economy.  Companies supplying fossil fuels provide a significant fraction of this energy need.  Most of these companies continue to expand production of the resources they control without heed for the welfare of our planet, and use their considerable influence to perpetuate the role that fossil fuels play in the energy economy.
Yet when opportunities arise for investments of new capital to supply energy to the economy, the decisions could just as well be made to develop renewable energy sources.  These industries, while presently much smaller than the fossil fuel industry, are expanding rapidly.  They provide jobs for our workers, and generate profits for the companies involved.  Now is the time for the great fossil fuel companies of the world to change their business models, resist the easy decisions to continue their usual ways of doing business, and invest in renewable energy sources instead.  Economic policies should be promoted that discourage continued development of fossil fuels and promote investment in renewable energy.
The nations of the world, through the United Nations, are currently involved in negotiating a worldwide climate agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  President Obama, by permitting expansion of fossil fuel extraction under his “all-of-the-above” energy policy, is compromising the leadership role that the U. S. should be playing in bringing this agreement to a successful conclusion. 
The President’s actions lead us to doubt whether, 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”, we will “be able to say yes, we did.” 
© 2015 Henry Auer