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, April 28, 2017

Sea Level Rise, Due to Human Activity, Imperils Many

Summary. This post discusses three newspaper articles concerning global warming-induced sea level rise, which all appeared in a one-week period about the third week of April, 2017.

Sea level rise is inexorable, already irreversibly “baked in” to the planet’s climate, because melting of ice in the summer season is not restored by new snow and ice in the winter, and because the melted water flows away into the ocean.
Sea level rise is already causing human societal and economic damage around the world.  It will continue unabated, and likely worsen, in future centuries.  To minimize these harms, the world has to minimize greenhouse gas emissions to near zero as soon as possible.  This process would be significantly advanced by adhering to the Paris climate agreement. 
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The Washington Post reported on April 26, 2017 that the rate of sea level rise now foreseen by scientists is considerably higher than published only four years ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fifth Assessment Report.

The Post article reports that the projections are a collaborative effort among 90 scientists, which was subjected to peer review by 28 other scientists.  Climate models based on two scenarios for continued rates of emission of greenhouse gases to the year 2100 were used for the projections.  One is a moderately stringent policy limiting emission rates.  The second is a scenario based on continued unconstrained emission rates comparable to those that reflect today’s fuel use.  The results are shown in the following table, which also includes the 2013 IPCC projections for comparison.

Predicted sea level rise by 2100 [2013 IPCC prediction]
Moderately stringent
At least 52 centimeters (1.7 feet) [32 centimeters (1 foot)]
At least 74 centimeters (2.4 feet) [45 centimeters (1.5 feet)]

The updated estimates take into account the increased rate of melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and Antarctic ice shelves recently observed, and expansion of the liquid ocean due to its higher temperature, among other contributing sources.

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This article reports that Tasmania, the island south of the Australian mainland, is already suffering the ravages of sea level rise.  The shoreline is being eroded by rising seas, and trees are being uprooted and falling into the sea.  An abandoned shoreline coal mine is being filled in by the sea.  The article states “The ocean is rising in large part…because people the world over have burned so much coal, pumping planet-warming carbon dioxide into the air. Perhaps a new stone marker [referencing a seaside prisoners’ graveyard] ought to be planted above the eroding mine: Cause, Meet Effect.”  A Tasmanian ecologist stated, with some irony, “It’s a smoking gun for sea-level rise causing an acceleration of erosion.  And it’s coal! Mined for burning!”

The article summarizes manifestations of worsening global warming: “In country after country, managers of national parks and other historic sites are realizing that climate change, with its coastal flooding and erosion, rising temperatures and more intense rainstorms, represents a profound risk to the heritage they are trying to preserve.”  It mentions damage to the Statue of Liberty’s foundation by Hurricane Sandy, loss of most of the glaciers in America’s Glacier National Park, damage to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef due to rising ocean temperature (vindicating a 10-year old prediction), among many other examples.
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Singapore is an independent island city-nation just off the coast of the southern tip of Malaysia.  It is a thriving metropolis, whose economic base is commerce and the financial industry.  The article notes that Singapore has felt the limitations of its small land area for decades.  This has constrained the ways it can develop additional useful real estate as its fortunes continue to grow. 

In recent years this quandary has been worsened by the encroachment of rising sea levels.  Singapore fortunately has the financial resources artificially to expand its land area by robbing it from the sea.  The image above shows one example.  The city sinks massive ocean-resistant caissons (seen above from the air) into the sea bed surrounding its natural land base, forming void rectangular enclosures.  It then imports huge quantities of sand, or of pulverized rock, and fills in the rectangles to provide new land area which, when completed, will form new surface area for development.  The new land is high enough to withstand sea level rise in the coming years.

The article contrasts the case of affluent Singapore with other, more impoverished, island “micro-nations” that are losing the battle against rising seas.  Solomon Islands is a Pacific Ocean nation on six major islands and several hundred smaller islands, with an area of 11,000 sq. mi.  The article notes that five small islands have already disappeared under rising seas.  Kiribati has bought 6,000 acres of land 1,000 miles away in Fiji for resettlement of its people.  The Maldives is considering a similar purchase in Australia.  Some of the people living on the island micro-nations of Tuvulu, the Marshall Islands and Nauru have already departed.


Newspaper reports on sea level rise.  The examples cited in the articles above pinpoint the flooding, and consequent damages, to be expected along coastlines all over the world as sea levels continue rising.  Man-made global warming, the main cause for the rising seas, is unequivocally due to humanity’s burning of carbon-containing fuels for energy, emitting the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  (Other man-made greenhouse gases also contribute to warming.) 
The fundamental problem is that carbon dioxide remains resident in the atmosphere for centuries because there are no natural processes that remove it at the speed and on the massive scale needed to balance the excess amounts that we produce.  As a result, warming will continue worsening until emissions are effectively minimized to near zero. 

Polar melting.  As noted in the Summary, the long-term average temperature of air in contact with the Greenland ice sheet and of ocean water in contact with the Antarctic ice shelves is already warm enough to lead to net melting of these ice reservoirs, raising global sea levels.  We cannot go back to a planetary regime having a lower temperature (which might slow or stop melting of the ice) because of the permanence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Consequently the sea level is projected to increase for centuries.  Projected higher temperatures will worsen this trend.
The “social cost of carbon” is an economic term for a framework that attempts to place direct financial costs, as well as indirect societal costs, on the consequences of carbon dioxide-induced global warming.  This is necessary because direct costs for the use of carbon-containing fossil fuels stop at the point of sale of the fuel.  The costs incurred as consequences of the resulting global warming are not reckoned in the sale price. 

This may be contrasted, for example, by the costs that residents bear to have their household waste removed by tax-supported services, or the charges that they pay for treatment of their waste water.  The separate expense of handling the waste is directly borne by property owners and/or municipal taxpayers.  No analogous cost for waste treatment is built into the cost structures of fossil fuel-derived energy use.  This is the accounting that enters into pricing the social cost of carbon.
Contributions to the social cost of carbon are seen in the journal snippets presented here.  Singapore is fortunate in having the resources to protect itself from sea level encroachment.  The other oceanic island micro-nations mentioned here do not; they face existential threats in the near future. 

In the U. S., coastal communities in Miami and south Florida, as well as Norfolk, Virginia, now suffer fair weather flooding at high tide, due to higher sea levels, that had not occurred previously.  Their cost of carbon lies in the extensive, expensive barriers they are forced to put in place to minimize the flooding.  Likewise, the New York region is planning to construct similar barriers as a defense against the possibility that future storm surges similar to that of Hurricane Sandy could occur.  All these projects were not foreseen in earlier budgeting processes.  The additional expenses for them become unexpected taxpayer burdens at the state and local levels.  They clearly represent social costs of carbon that are not included in the prices paid for fossil fuels at the time of use.

Three simultaneously published newspaper articles have pointed out the present and future harms to humanity due to sea level rise.  The rising level is due to humanity’s burning of fossil fuels, worsening the carbon dioxide-induced greenhouse effect and producing warmer global average temperatures that melt polar ice caps.
We must work together to minimize future increases in the carbon dioxide burden of the atmosphere in order to slow continued sea level rise.  (The world’s temperature is already too high to stop it outright.)  The Paris climate agreement of 2015 is a good start on this path.  All nations of the world should embrace its provisions, and improve the emission limits it has created.  Rejecting the agreement would be at humanity’s peril.

© 2017 Henry Auer

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Centennial Celebration of the Paris Agreement Arrives 99 Years Early

Early in 2016, shortly after the United Nations-sponsored meeting that culminated in the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, this writer posted a fable characterizing a fictional centennial commemoration of the 2015 Agreement in a scenario in which use of fossil fuels had continued unabated during that 100-year interval.  The fable is reproduced below:

The Centennial Commemoration of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement

A Fable

It was December 2115, the hundredth anniversary of the agreement to a climate treaty reached among all the members of the United Nations, in Paris.  The members of the Petrex extended family gathered to mark the occasion.  By that time, three to four generations after the event, the clan had grown considerably, and had established for itself a fully self-sufficient environment inside its terradome.  For the occasion the space was opulently fitted out with an artificial lake in which were moored several model oil rigs.  The pipe linking the rigs to shore ended in an internally illuminated fountain gurgling champagne.  Scattered about the artificially-turfed land areas were several working model oil wells erected in mud fields of black caviar, pumping dark chocolate and coffee liqueurs, and other reminders of the black gold that had started the Petrex fortune, more than one hundred years earlier.

Back then, the clan founder, Malvolio Petrex, chairman and chief executive officer of the largest oil company at the time, had come to realize the inconsistencies of his, and his company’s, position.  They were, at one and the same time, using all their financial power and political influence to perpetuate, indeed to expand, the use of the oil they extracted from the ground, while correctly realizing that their exploitative activities were worsening the global warming already well under way.  After all, the Paris agreement itself was reached in response to expert scientific findings, reported for at least the preceding twenty years, that burning oil and other fossil fuels, such as those his company and others were pulling from the ground, added irreversibly to the atmospheric burden of carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Malvolio Petrex knew that global warming was going to get much worse in the coming years, because his company and others were continuing to produce fossil fuels at ever-increasing rates of growth, year after year.  After all, more and more energy was needed to fuel the demands of economies all over the world, being used to expand their economies and raise the poorest peoples of the world out of poverty. 

He wasn’t too worried about his own welfare, though.  Thanks to his immeasurable wealth, he already had peppered several secure estates around the world, in various climatic and ecological settings.  But as any other dynastic figure that we may encounter throughout history, he was concerned about the wellbeing of his progeny.  He knew that the travesties his business activities were creating would worsen after he was gone, impacting the lives and indeed the safety of his scions.  He understood that worsening warming would lead to economic and political unrest among the impoverished and others less well off than he because they would be suffering the harmful effects of warming: flooding in some regions; droughts, wildfires and famine in others; and inexorable sea level rise driving millions around the world from their traditional homes and livelihoods.

And so he embarked on a program to develop self-contained environments for himself and his family.  The environments would insulate his family from the unpleasantness of dealing with the effects of climate change by keeping the open atmosphere out, and the family’s living quarters and areas for amusing themselves in.  The first models were installed on the grounds of his existing estates, and were relatively modest. 

Now, one hundred years later, after many rounds of development and improvement, this Petrex estate was enveloped in its own protective terradome.  It was a large, fully enclosed environment covering almost one square mile, incorporating the estate’s mansion, its recreational areas, and fields producing much of its food needs.  The terradome insulated the estate from the worst “weird” climate and weather events brought on by the extreme warming that the world had attained by then, as well as keeping a portion of the sun’s warming light from penetrating to the land within it.  The Petrex family had practically no need to travel outside the terradome; it was almost entirely self-sufficient.

As a result, they were insulated as well from the harms and damages induced by the warmer climate that most of the peoples of the world were suffering.  Or maybe they knew and, just like Malvolio Petrex a hundred years earlier, chose to ignore it.  The population at large was subjected to far worse conditions than Petrex’s world had experienced one hundred years earlier: debilitating heat waves and droughts, intense storms bringing on severe flooding, encroaching oceans because of the severe degree of sea level rise, all brought on by the excess global warming that burning fossil fuels induced. 

By the time of the centennial anniversary the opportunity for effective action to combat global warming had long passed.

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The fabled centennial celebration of the Paris Agreement has already arrived, 99 years early.  The newly elected U. S. President, Donald Trump, is a man whose wealth could well serve as a model for the patriarch Malvolio Petrex.  He shows his wealth at least partly by erecting palatial residences and developing exclusive golf courses around the globe. 

Mr. Trump has called global warming a hoax.  Now as president he is implementing policies and appointing people to important cabinet positions who share his sentiment.  From the outset, he is reversing important initiatives undertaken by his predecessor, who had set in motion important policies that curb emissions of greenhouse gases.   

Here is a partial list of President Trump’s actions and policy positions:

·        He appointed Scott Pruitt to be Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Instead of having an interest in protecting the environment, Mr. Pruitt is eliminating rules that preserve our natural world.  In his previous position as the Attorney General of Oklahoma, he repeatedly sued the EPA seeking to overturn its regulations that protect aspects of our environment, including emissions of greenhouse gases. Now he is the Administrator of that selfsame agency.  The Los Angeles Times writes “The Republican dogma of unrestrained economic exploitation drives the president and his EPA chief. As a result, climate science has become a heretical activity.”

·        Among fossil fuels coal emits the most carbon dioxide (per amount of heat obtained) when burned.  So its use should be limited as much as possible in order to reduce emissions.  But Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke ordered that a ban on mining coal on federal lands, put in place by former President Obama, be rescinded.  The order followed through on President Trump’s overall goal of increasing American energy independence.

·        PresidentTrump ordered a review of all policies deemed to interfere with enhancing America’s energy independence.  This includes directing Administrator Pruitt to reconsider the Clean Power Plan, an EPA regulation issued under President Obama that would produce significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power industry.

·        President Trump issued an order to review the program, issued by EPA and the Department of Transportation under President Obama, significantly increasing automobile Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards by 2025.  The review may lead to weakening the requirements or slowing the timeline for the CAFE regulation.

·        The budget proposal that President Trump outlined for Fiscal Year 2018 seriously cuts scientific research in many agencies of the U.S. government.  Concerning  activities related to curbing global warming, the proposal completely eliminates the Department of Energy’s Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy unit, reduces research support for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration by 52%, and cuts EPA research by 48% and National Aeronautics and Space Administration earth science research by 6%.  These agencies engage in essential research on the state of the planet’s climate and provide seed or venture funding for development of new technologies that lower greenhouse gas emissions.

President Trump, could easily serve as a model for Malvolio Petrex, since he can insulate himself from the ravages of intensified global warming.  His policies, to be implemented 99 years before the centennial of the Paris Climate Agreement, will have major immediate effects and indirect ramifications that worsen greenhouse gas emissions and lead to more severe harmful consequences of warming.  Yet we may imagine that, with the vast resources he controls, his children, grandchildren and further progeny can create environments for themselves that will protect them from harms and damages that global warming brings.  The same can be said for those he selected to implement his policies. 

But the peoples of the earth, considered at large, are not so lucky.  They can’t easily shield themselves from climatic harm.  They could well be defenseless victims of President Trump’s policies.  The climate framework that Mr. Trump is overthrowing, begun under President Obama and implemented worldwide with his leadership, could make significant progress to minimizing those risks. 

It’s not too late for the Trump Administration to reconsider, and rejoin the compact of the world’s nations to lower greenhouse gas emissions. 

      © 2017 Henry Auer