I came across a recent collection of photos by aerial photographer Bernhard Lang. This collection is that of an aerial shoot above the Hambach Mine in Germany. This lignite open pit mine is the deepest (in relation to sea-level) on the planet, being 931 feet below sea-level. Currently the mine is about 35 square kilometers large with a planned ending size of 85 square kilometers, roughly the size of Manhattan. All of this in a country that plans to be 80% renewable by 2050 and currently is the solar energy capital of the world. Some argue this is a result of the shutting down of nuclear facilities after Fukushima, as well as a result of the way emissions trading schemes are set up in the EU. The mine is still open and churning out coal everyday. Lang has done an excellent job of showcasing it, much in the way Balog has represented glacial melt and the impacts of anthropogenic global warming. This is not the first time Lang has been up in the air, attempting to capture the scale at which our society operates, much of his aerial work has taken on an environmental twist. As I find more artists looking to use their talents and passion to raise awareness and enact change, I wonder what else we might see in the coming decades.
In the Copenhagen Accord (UNFCCC, 2010), during COP15, 114 countries agreed that “the increase in global temperature should be below 2°C, on the basis of equity”. This has been interpreted as the “dangerous” level agreed to by the parties in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992). To have a more likely than not chance at staying below 2°C, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere cannot exceed 500ppm (IPCC, 2014). Every 2.13 GtCO2 emitted will raise the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 1ppm (Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, 2012). As of September 2014, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was 395 ppm (NOAA, 2014). Thus, there is approximately 224 more GtCO2 that can be emitted until there is a less likely than not chance of having warming greater than 2°C. To reach this level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, global emissions must be reduced by 40-70% by 2050 and be at zero or negative emissions by the end of the century (IPCC, 2014). A carbon tax is the most effective way to make the transformative change needed to keep emissions below the agreed upon dangerous level of atmospheric GHGs. An aggressive carbon tax will allow dangerous climate change to be avoided because it is proven to work, it can be implemented quickly, and it has the potentially to drastically reduce emissions.
A carbon tax is an effective tool to mitigate emissions in a least cost manner. Every use of fossil fuels that is worth less than the price of the emissions will not occur and thus reduce emissions. As the fee rises, more carbon intensive activities will become economically infeasible, driving down GHG emissions. Depending on the original fee and rate of increase this would be an effective tool to rapidly decrease emissions at the least cost because market forces will drive carbon reductions. By setting a tax floor, emission reductions are ensured (as opposed to a price cap in cap-and-trade systems) and increase over time with price increases (Sawin and Moomaw, 2009). A cap-and-trade system will be associated with less certain emissions reductions because an emissions cap is also an emissions floor (Burtraw and Woerman, 2012). This means that maximum emissions reductions cannot always be achieved because the number of permits issued sets the reduction amount as opposed to market forces pushing emissions with economic forces. This tax scheme allows for efficient carbon reductions.
Several European countries have already put a tax on carbon. Denmark was able to do this successfully by taxing industry emissions to fund renewable energy projects (Sawin and Moomaw, 2009). Denmark proved that the carbon tax works when you tax the polluters and subsidize renewable energy (Prasad, 2008). A recent study even found that a majority of republicans, democrats and independents in the United States would support a carbon tax similar to Denmark’s in which all revenues would be returned to research and development of renewable energies (Amdur, 2014). This could make a carbon tax feasible in the US and allow for economically efficient emissions reductions.
During the last week of October 2014, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse announced his intentions to introduce a carbon fee bill to the US Senate (Pantsios, 2014). This bill would put a price on the carbon to fund social programs including helping workers transition out of carbon intensive jobs (Pantsios, 2014). Two MIT economists hypothesize that it is better for the economy to have carbon taxes than high federal taxes (specifically looking at the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts) even if those funds go towards social programs or tax cuts (Rausch and Reilly, 2012). For all these reasons, it seems like a carbon fee bill would do well in US congress; it makes logical sense, but the politics can get messy.
Australia passed a carbon tax in 2012 (Meng and others, 2013) under a pro-labor government attempting to reach across party lines to gain votes (Taylor and Hoyle, 2014). The politics around this legislation have been messy for a number of years and in 2014 the law was repealed under the notion that it hurts business and is preventing Australia from exporting its rich energy resources to countries across the world (Taylor and Hoyle, 2014). AGL Energy was cited as saying that this would cause a loss in revenue in the near term due to loss in assistance from the government/carbon tax; however, long-term profits are now looking up (Taylor and Hoyle, 2014). This could lead to backlash from citizens as the government takes away a A$500+ check, which was promised to households in the form of yearly savings (Taylor and Hoyle, 2014). Australia is the first example of a nation to pass a carbon fee and then later repeal it. A program, which gives money to the citizens, would seem to have broad voter appeal, like British Columbia’s program (2014). It appears that the politics were not set up properly for Australia to have a carbon fee that sticks. This does not mean that a carbon fee is impossible, but rather that care must be taken to set up a program that is politically feasible.
Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) are a good first step and should not be discourage amongst UNFCCC parties. To be effective, an agreement with a great deal of stringency, participation and compliance must be reached in Paris. It does not appear to be politically feasible, but if a global price on carbon could be agreed upon, this would allow for the best system to tie everyone together ensuring participation and compliance. The tax could provide increasing stringency over time to ensure effectiveness. This would allow certainty around carbon leakage out of countries with strict carbon rules and into low regulation nations. The carbon tax is a clear transformation change that would work to drive emissions down. Incremental changes and small policy reforms are unlikely to put the world in a position to mitigate warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Effective and decisive action is needed immediately to instill transformative change.
Amdur, D., Rabe, B., Borick, C. Public Views on a Carbon Tax Depend on the Proposed Use of Revenue. Issues in Energy and Environmental Policy. Number 13. July, 2014.
British Columbia. Carbon Tax. Ministry of Finance. 2014.
Burtraw, Dallas, and Matt Woerman. “US status on climate change mitigation.” Resources for the Future (RFF) Discussion Paper (2012): 12-48.
Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center – Conversion Tables. September, 2012.
IPCC, 2014: 5th Assessment Synthesis Report, Summer for Policy Makers. [Myles R. Allen (United Kingdom), Vicente Ricardo Barros (Argentina), John Broome (United Kingdom), Wolfgang Cramer (Germany/France), Renate Christ (Austria/WMO), John A. Church (Australia), Leon Clarke (USA), Qin Dahe (China), Purnamita Dasgupta (India), Navroz K. Dubash (India), Ottmar Edenhofer (Germany), Ismail Elgizouli (Sudan), Christopher B. Field (USA), Piers Forster (United Kingdom), Pierre Friedlingstein (United Kingdom), Jan Fuglestvedt (Norway), Luis Gomez-Echeverri (Colombia), Stephane Hallegatte (France/World Bank), Gabriele Hegerl (United Kingdom), Mark Howden (Australia), Kejun Jiang (China), Blanca Jimenez Cisneros (Mexico/UNESCO), Vladimir Kattsov (Russian Federation), Hoesung Lee (Republic of Korea), Katharine J. Mach (USA), Jochem Marotzke (Germany), Michael D. Mastrandrea (USA), Leo Meyer (The Netherlands), Jan Minx (Germany), Yacob Mulugetta (Ethiopia), Karen O’Brien (Norway), Michael Oppenheimer (USA), R.K. Pachauri (India), Joy J. Pereira (Malaysia), Ramón Pichs- Madruga (Cuba), Gian-Kasper Plattner (Switzerland), Hans-Otto Pörtner (Germany), Scott B. Power (Australia), Benjamin Preston (USA), N.H. Ravindranath (India), Andy Reisinger (New Zealand), Keywan Riahi (Austria), Matilde Rusticucci (Argentina), Robert Scholes (South Africa), Kristin Seyboth (USA), Youba Sokona (Mali), Robert Stavins (USA), Thomas F. Stocker (Switzerland), Petra Tschakert (USA), Detlef van Vuuren (The Netherlands), Jean-Pascal van Ypersele (Belgium)]. November 1, 2014.
Meng, S, Siriwardana, M., and McNeill, J. “The environmental and economic impact of the carbon tax in Australia.” Environmental and Resource Economics 54.3 (2013): 313-332.
Monica Prasad, “On Carbon, Tax and Don’t Spend,” New York Times, 25 March 2008.
NOAA. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Earth Systems Research Laboratory Global Monitoring Division. Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. October, 2014.
Patsios, Anastasia. Sen. Whitehouse Proposes Carbon Tax to Repay Citizens for Pollution Costs. Eco-watch. October, 2014.
Rausch, S., and Reilly, J. Carbon tax revenue and the budget deficit: A win-win-win solution?. MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, 2012.
Sawin, J., and Moomaw, W.. Renewable revolution: low carbon energy by 2030. Worldwatch Institute, 2009.
Taylor R. and Hoyle R. Australia Becomes First Developed Nation to Repeal Carbon Tax. The Wall Street Journal. July, 2014.
UNFCCC. Copenhagen Accord. “Report of the Conference of the Parties on its fifteenth session, held in Copenhagen from 7 to 19 December 2009.” UNFCCC/CP/2009/11/Add.1. March 30, 2010.
UNFCCC. United National Framework Convention on Climate Change. UNFCCC/INFORMAL/84. 1992.
Lets face it, Halloween is all about the candy! Every October, Americans spend at least $2 Billion dollars on Halloween candy. However, what most people don’t realize is that the environmental impact of these sweet treats is actually a trick. Here is the low down on Halloween candy, and how you can avoid the tricks and enjoy more treats.
Palm oil, a type of edible vegetable oil grown specifically in tropical climates, is an extremely versatile cooking oil that, among many other household items, is also found in candies. Palm oil is inexpensive and can be found in “50 percent of items found in supermarkets” (Donlon, 2014). This global commodity is extremely popular and production rates are doubling. So what is the problem with palm oil? Palm oil is a driving force of deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions, which are all contributing factors to climate change. Large areas of tropical forests have been destroyed throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa in order to clear land for palm plantations. This process of deforestation has several impacts on the environment. The process of clearing the land involves slash and burn agriculture, which is the deliberate burning down of forests. This burning results in habitat loss and species disruption, which in some cases is leading to extinction. The clearing of the land also makes it easier for poachers to capture and sell wildlife. Orangoutangs are often targeted by poachers. Not only does this impact wildlife, but also it releases stored carbon into the atmosphere, thus altering the concentrations of greenhouse gasses. This is just one aspect that shows the unsustainable side of Halloween.
In 1965, our 36th president Lyndon Johnson delivered a special message to Congress. He said “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale though…a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.” These powerful words portrayed how many have known about this issue for a while now. But what has truly been done about it?
Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway introduce us to this special message in the beginning of the book “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issue from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.” Throughout the book, you can see how environmental issues have been just swept under the rug because of other pressing issues at hand that needed to be tended to. Newsflash! There will ALWAYS be pressing issues that need to be tended to! How much longer will we keep our lovely planet waiting?
Oreskes and Conway also point out that the media is responsible for how information is represented or should I say… misrepresented. Information is put out in an exciting way by journalists, which is not wrong. That captures people and engages them. However, somewhere along the lines of “exciting” the truth gets lost. Scientists depend on journalists to get it right because they honestly do not have time to deal with public relations. When information is tampered with, it is the public who goes and knocks on doubt’s door, enters and remains there until further information is released. Climate change and media have a very difficult relationship.
Science is always evolving. Climate science experienced great leaps forward during the 20th century, largely due to computers and the work of many leading researchers. Before 1896 no one had proposed a theory describing a cooling or warming of the earth, thus with his 1896 publication, Svante Arrhenius was the first to propose the theory of global warming. He found nothing to explain the forcings of the glacial epochs, there was no current understood mechanism that would explain these climatic transitions, but he knew they existed and that something was causing them. However, this landmark publication set the scene for a 20th century full of progress in understanding how the global climate fluctuates and changes.
In the 1930s, the Serbian Milutin Milankovic published about climate forcings due to changes in the earth’s relationship to the sun describing changes in the earth’s axis and elliptic orbit every twenty one thousand, forty one thousand and one hundred thousand years. Milankovic’s work provided the mechanism that Arrhenius had described to force the climate into and out of ice ages (eccentricity being the main driver over the past one million years). Milankovic was able to build on the work of James Croll and use glacial varves present in sediment deposits to correlate celestial events in relation to the earth. Milankovic’s work was crucial in advancing knowledge about paleo climates and thus allowed researchers to dive deeper into the past.
Edward Lorenz looked at much finer scale events in comparison with Milankovitch. In 1965 Lorenz used his computer model to show that small changes in one of his 28 variables in the fourth decimal place (and smaller) could have implications for future weather in as little as days, meaning that small changes in climate models have large implications. These models attempt to reconstruct nature using a computer as a predictive tool, but his observation was important nonetheless. This not only showed the importance (and need for further investigation) of computer models, but also provided a hypothesis as to how the climate could react given small (and seemingly insignificant) human inputs.
Any discussion on climate computer models is not complete without James Hansen. During his time with GISS, Hansen became the most famous climate scientists of the 20th century. Hansen and his team were able to maintain one of the leading models of the earth’s climate systems. Among other accomplishments, Hansen was able to correctly model how the earth’s atmosphere would react in the face of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption. Hansen predicted thatthe earth’s climate would take several years to eliminate the cooling aerosols pumped into the atmosphere by the volcano. In his 1996 publicationhe confirmed that his predicts had indeed come to fruition, that the earth’s global average temperature did not return to pre-Pinatubo eruptions until 1995.
Weart describes all of this and more in his book “The Discovery of Global Warming”. Over the progression of the timeline above (the Weart’s book) we moved from a vague understanding of global warming with Arrhenius to the complex computer models that have helped to produce our current understanding of future warming trends. Over time, we found smaller scale changes because better techniques and equipment were developed to measure small changes in climate, such as volcanic activity, ENSO events, and other oscillations. These methods have allowed scientists to more precisely determine climate forcings (such as a medium-sized volcanic eruption) instead of speaking in broad terms about large-scale orbital forcings.
Weart seemed to focus a great deal of his book around the importance and history of GCMs (both general circulation models and global climate models). This originally surprised me, but I came to realize the true importance of these models and how effective they can be in helping to predict the future. Current climate science relies on these models to help us understand how the world will be impacted by anthropogenic emissions decades into the future. These models are especially important as we begin to plan on climate adaptations in helping governments and the global community predict where climate change is going to impact the greatest number of people.
Some sources and further reading:
Arrhenius, Svante. “XXXI. On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground.” The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science 41.251 (1896): 237-276.
Hansen, J., et al. “Global surface air temperature in 1995: Return to pre‐Pinatubo level.” Geophysical Research Letters 23.13 (1996): 1665-1668.
Hansen, James, et al. “Potential climate impact of Mount Pinatubo eruption.”Geophysical Research Letters 19.2 (1992): 215-218.
Lorenz, Edward N. “A study of the predictability of a 28‐variable atmospheric model.” Tellus 17.3 (1965): 321-333.
The climate is increasingly more delicate due to human interactions with earth systems. We have entered the Anthropocene a world that is home to disappearing ice, high levels of greenhouse gases, rising temperatures, and uncertainty about what lies ahead for earth. Journalist Fred Pearce explores current climate science, discussing how the climate has changed in the past combined with modern scientific knowledge. Pearce takes a journalistic approach to telling the stories behind the people and their work to discover how the earth has worked in the past and what that can tell us about the future.
In the late 1920s Charles Midgley developed Freon and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that would eventually create the ozone hole over Antarctica discovered by Joe Farman in the 1980s. Three years after Farman’s discovery, the international community recognized the importance of the ozone hole, which led delegates to sign the Montreal Protocol. However, if Midgley had chosen to use bromine instead of chlorine in his refrigerant, the ozone would have been in much worse shape by the time Farman noticed the hole in 1982. According to Pearce, if Midgley had chosen bromine in his refrigerant instead of chlorine the effects could have been one hundred times worse due to bromines ability to destroy ozone given proper temperatures and sunlight conditions.
In his conclusion, Pearce warns that we are ending one of two known periods of climate stability in the past 100,000 years, pushing the climate over a tipping point towards a hothouse climate. He speculates about the possibility of an ocean circulation shut down in the North Atlantic, with warmer water no longer being able to sink into the depths of the arctic to appear two thousand years later in the pacific. If the great climate moderator does shut down, civilization as we know it will follow suite. Our current society will not be able to survive without the ocean circulation currently in affect, the gulfstream could disappear and Europe would freeze. Scientists don’t yet know what the tipping point could be, possibly when the Greenland ice sheet goes and an influx of fresh water cuts off thermo-haline circulation. Whatever the tipping point may be, it would be disastrous for life as we know it.
Pearce does a satisfactory job at compiling significant milestones in climate history, while helping readers understand the immensity of geologic time during which the climate has fluctuated. However, our current scientific knowledge around the intricacies of climate change is not well communicated to lay readers. This may represent the complexities of the current climate crisis, but does not communicate the urgency with which we must act to combat the situation. This is a point that we ought to develop as a society; we must begin to educate the general public about climate and atmospheric science because as a population we must understand the problems presented before we can act on them.
Bibliography and resources
Broecker, Wallace S. “Thermohaline circulation, the Achilles heel of our climate system: Will man-made CO2 upset the current balance?.” Science 278.5343 (1997): 1582-1588.
Farman, J. C., B. G. Gardiner, and J. D. Shanklin. Large losses of total ozone in Antarctica reveal seasonal ClOx/NOx interaction. 1985.
Joughin, Ian, Benjamin E. Smith, and Brooke Medley. “Marine Ice Sheet Collapse Potentially Under Way for the Thwaites Glacier Basin, West Antarctica.” Science 344.6185 (2014): 735-738.
Mann, Michael E., Raymond S. Bradley, and Malcolm K. Hughes. “Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries.” Nature392.6678 (1998): 779-787.
Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill. “The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature.” Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment 36.8 (2007): 614-621.