Suggesting that we can reverse climate change or that it’ll be okay because we’re leveling off emissions is thinking that doesn’t reflect the real dynamics of our world. CO2 lasts in the atmosphere for lifetimes, meaning we are already locked in to some amount of climate change. If we were to just level off our emissions and leave it at that, we would still be adding far more CO2 annually to the atmosphere than we can cycle back down to Earth without contributing to climate change.
These are just two angles on some of the misaligned, but generally well-intentioned thinking that one can run across in the daily energy and climate news. Below are two recent examples, both of which pop-up in articles from people trying to find a foothold to defend the widespread exploitation of the reserves of natural gas and oil that have been opened up by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in a warming world — a tough argument to pull off.
Myth 1: We can reverse climate change. This is from New York Times Op-ed columnist Joe Nocera last Friday:
A reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Justin McCallum / The Tufts Daily
“As youth, we don’t have a voice in this fight. In the sense that, like, there’s no way that I can climb the government ladder and end up in a position of enough political power to save myself now. I’m never going to get that chance. And there are kids who are being born today, or born 10 years ago, they’re not really going to get that chance either, if we don’t start winning in the next couple of years.”
Those are the words of Alli Welton, a 20 year-old college student quoted in an excellent article in Grist by Wen Stephenson (The children: Why a generation is putting itself on the line for the climate). Stephenson’s article, and especially the strong clear words of the youth he interviews, can help us all see through the eyes of today’s youth climate leaders, who grasp the narrowing window of opportunity for strong and effective action on climate change and are mobilizing for fossil fuel divestment, against mountain top removal, and to block the Keystone XL pipeline in growing numbers.
At Climate Interactive, we are as likely to tell a story with numbers and graphs as we are with words. Our new CO2 Timeline Tool corroborates the point made in different ways by each of the young people interviewed by Stephenson; decisions about climate and energy that are being made today will reverberate, for better or worse, through lives of today’s children and youth. The long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere guarantees that today’s fossil fuel pollution will warm the Earth for decades to come. And policy that keeps fossil fuels in the ground today, keeps more options open for young people’s futures.
A tenant of systems thinking is that responsibility for important decisions should be given to those who will feel the impacts of the decision. For that reason alone all of us should listen, really listen, to what young people are asking, and, increasingly, demanding. In that sense the CO2 Timeline Tool tells an ethical story, and a story that should make all of us, young and old alike, stop and think about who should have the strongest voice in the climate fight.
Filed under Insights, Tools
This view from the CO2 timeline tool allows student leaders to show the expected tenure of key administration leaders (in gold) along with possible milestones in the student leaders’ own lives (in blue) on a century-long timeline. The shaded grey bar at the bottom of the graphic shows how much CO2 from a pulse released during thee student’s four years in college remains in the atmosphere throughout the century.
Youth climate leaders rightly argue that it is they – not current-day politicians, executives, and administrators – who will have to live with the consequences of today’s decisions when it comes to fossil fuel use. As these young people mobilize in hundreds of fossil fuel divestment campaigns we are excited to release a new tool designed to help them make their case powerfully, creatively, and rigorously.
- With the CO2 Timeline tool, a first year student making a presentation to a board of trustees can show, with accuracy and confidence, that at the time she reaches the age of retirement around 65% of the CO2 released during her four years in college will still be in atmosphere, by which time the trustees she is addressing will be 90-120 years old.
- Another youth leader could use the tool to find out how much CO2 from his college years will still be in the atmosphere around the time he would start a career (93%) or become a grandparent (70%) and use those benchmarks to explain to his roommate or his uncle why the divestment campaign matters to him. Continue reading
Even if today’s college students live to be 100 years old, more than half of the CO2 released into the atmosphere during the four years they are in college will still be present there at the end of their lives – warming the planet and contributing to extreme events, like droughts, floods, and storms all the while – long after the decision makers behind those investment choices will have left office. The college students across the US who are arguing that their education should not be funded by actions that diminish the health of the world in which their future will unfold have a strong case, supported by the basic physics of the climate.
The New York Times has a front page article about the growing number of student-led campaigns at colleges and universities across the US calling on board’s of trustees to divest of investments in fossil energy companies. According to the article, some college administrations are listening to the students and taking steps to eliminate fossil fuel companies from their investment portfolios. Others are, so far, not agreeing with the link the students are making: that fossil fuel investment undermines the very future colleges and universities seek to prepare young people for.
As students around the US find their voice and begin to insist that their generation’s stake in the long-term future be taken into account in investment decisions at educational institutions, we, as we like to do on timely issues at Climate Interactive, ran the numbers, asking a simple question:
Just how long will the fossil fuel related decisions made by college Presidents and Board of Trustees today continue to impact the lives of current students? Continue reading
Even if the world also has sustained success eliminating deforestation, reducing emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gasses and improving energy efficiency, new investment in fossil fuel infrastructure can’t occur much beyond 2015 in order to maintain a 50% chance of limiting temperature increase to 2°C in 2100. Having a higher probability of achieving the 2°C goal or keeping these even odds of meeting the goal but delaying the end of the era of fossil fuel investment would require additional measures such as shutting down already-constructed fossil-fuel-using infrastructure before the end of its useful lifetime, further reducing energy demand, or achieving so called negative emissions, where CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and sequestered.
The goal of the Copenhagen Accord – to limit temperature increase to 2°C is still in reach – but the actions to get there are far beyond what we see being implemented around us today.
A thought experiment with our En-ROADS global energy model makes this clear.
What if, in 2015, we eliminated any new investment in fossil-fuel-using infrastructure, anywhere in the world? En-ROADS shows a surge in creation of new low-carbon energy sources, and an improvement in the global temperature by 2100 compared to ‘business as usual’. Rather than the 4.5°C of temperature increase under ‘business as usual’, the scenario results instead in 3.2°C of warming.
In this thought experiment using the global energy system model En-ROADS, there is no new investment in fossil fuel using infrastructure after 2015, but the long lifetime of the existing infrastructure means that fossil fuel use continues well into the century.
Eliminating new fossil-fuel-using power plants, automobiles, and factories just a few years from now sounds very drastic, of course, so why don’t we see more impact on the global temperature? The figure to the left helps explain why: even though no new infrastructure is built after 2015, the existing infrastructure lives on (and continues to produce CO2 emissions throughout its lifetime), only fading away in the second half of the century. (See the black wedge of energy from coal and the red wedge from oil in the figure).
We know that coal is not our ticket to keeping the planet cool, but does an anything-but-coal solution work? In this video Climate Interactive Co-Director Drew Jones uses our new simulation En-ROADS to see how natural gas effects climate and the transition to a clean energy future. On the one hand, natural gas is not coal and it is cheap, but on the other it isn’t renewable energy either and it still pollutes — natural gas fits into an anything-but-coal scenario but can it put us on a path to limit warming to 2 degrees by the end of the century? Watch this recorded webinar to find out and also see Drew explore other areas that could help us reach our climate and energy goals from carbon prices to energy efficiency.
En-ROADS Exploration of Climate & Energy Scenarios from Climate Interactive on Vimeo.
If you have questions about En-ROADS or would like to see more, please join us on May 22nd at 1:00 PM EDT (4:00pm GMT) or May 25th at 9:00 AM EDT (1:00 PM GMT) for a similar interactive webinar.
“Measures should be taken to strengthen the interface between policymaking and science in order to facilitate informed political decision-making on sustainable development issues.”
UN Photo/Mark Garten
So reads one of the policy recommendations from the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability. The panel includes 22 international leaders many of whom are scientists or current or former heads of state such as, Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian prime minister, and Kevin Rudd, Minister for Foreign Affairs and former Prime Minister of Australia. The report, which comes on the heels of an early round of negotiations for the Rio+20 conference, offers a vision for the future “to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality and make growth inclusive, and production and consumption more sustainable, while combating climate change and respecting a range of other planetary boundaries.” To realize this vision they have laid out fifty-six recommendations for the global community to take up, on topics ranging from pricing the true cost of natural resources to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies. And number 44 on the list is the recommendation quoted above: bridging the gap between science and policy-making.
This recommendation hits the core of Continue reading
Debate over whether to promote natural gas or not has been elevated across the country following President Obama’s State of the Union address where he made a strong call for natural gas development. Just yesterday, one of the nation’s largest and oldest environmental organizations, the Sierra Club, announced that it will no longer support natural gas. Below is a post from systems modeler and Climate Interactive partner, Tom Fiddaman, about some of the dynamics at play when considering gas as a transition fuel to low-carbon energy sources.
Tom Fiddaman, February 3, 2012
A new article, 2011 Climate Change in Pictures and Data: Just the Facts, shares, in just two pages, seven of the most important graphs on the planet. The datasets are striking, and author Peter Gleick draws clear conclusions in a very tightly worded piece:
- ” CO2 in the atmosphere continues its inexorable rise.
- Higher concentrations of greenhouse gases leads to a hotter planet
- A hotter planet means an intensification of the hydrological cycle
- A hotter planet means disappearing glaciers and ice, especially in the Arctic.
- A warming planet also means more extremes of climate.”
I wish policy-makers, business leaders, and citizens around the world had these conclusions, and the datasets behind them, more deeply in mind. Most of the time, these trends aren’t in the headlines, though. They are crowded out by emergencies that feel more immediate, or by stories that feel more entertaining. Our planetary life-support system is changing quickly, but our collective awareness of that fact is slow to catch up with reality.
Is there anything to be done about that? Continue reading
Early adoption of renewable energy helps jump start the transition to a low-carbon economy via a reinforcing feedback loop. Anything that diminishes early adoption of renewable energy – including competition from ultra-cheap fossil fuels - slows down this transition.
Recent reports that unusually low natural gas prices in the US may be weakening homeowner’s enthusiasm for investing in solar panels are a cause for concern, especially considering a dynamic we have begun exploring with En-ROADS (our interactive scenario-testing tool that explores the dynamics of creating a low-carbon economy). In En-ROADS, just as described in the latest news accounts, when there is a lot of cheap gas around the growth in renewables tends to be slower.
On the surface, these reports seem to be telling the tale of a one-time event: cheaper gas this year means fewer new solar installations this year. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story.
Consider the virtuous cycle shown in the diagram above: with more units of solar installed there is more learning by doing. Costs of solar fall, leading to greater attractiveness of solar and even more units of solar installed, and so on.
But here’s the glitch – if the falling cost of natural gas makes the attractiveness of solar decline, then the early installations that launch the virtuous cycle falter, and the whole reinforcing process can lose momentum.
The impact of cheap gas is NOT just a smaller number of new installations this year; it’s a future loss in the speed at which solar becomes more affordable. Think of money not invested in a retirement account; it’s not just that the balance is lower, but that a lower balance earns interest more slowly.