Obama’s climate pact with China a great first step, not a swindle
by Allen Best
Chuck Kutscher hit it on the head last week when he spoke at the Colorado Renewable Energy Society meeting in Golden. “It’s not enough, but it’s a great first step,” he said of the agreement between the United States and China announced the previous week.
The agreement would more sharply constrain the United States during the next decade while allowing China to continue to expand its emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily from coal-burning power plants.
The right-wing press was quick to cry foul. Charles Krauthammer had a column in The Washington Post, “The Climate Pact Swindle,” in which he accused President Barack Obama of giving away the pantry.
What the right wing fails to understand is how utterly we are all in this together. Kutscher, a physicist by training, made that point in his presentation, citing the work of Peters and others from 2012. Those emissions in China are, in great part, our emissions. We have been outsourcing our emissions as we have relocated our factories for Macintosh computers such as the one I am using to write this.
That same point was made by Deter Helm, a British economist, in his 2012 book, “The Carbon Crunch.” While the European Union has been far more successful than other regions of the world in holding down its carbon emissions, he wrote, it is an illusion, because in fact the European Union has exported its more carbon-intensive manufacturing to China.
In Colorado, Kutscher has spoken frequently at conferences and other gatherings. His PowerPoints are always illuminating, rich in detail, and borderline scary. He speaks with conviction and knowledge, always a powerful combination. He encapsulates our predicament in terse words and images.
We have been accelerating the emissions of greenhouse gases, recently surpassing 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere. That’s the highest in at least the last 800,000 years. “The air we are breathing in this room has 25 percent more carbon dioxide than the day I was born,” he said. “This is just unprecedented.”
The effect of this? Glaciers are melting, of course, and of particular concern are the giant ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. Already, a massive ice melt “appears unstoppable,” he said, even if this takes several hundreds years to occur.
Kutscher also pointed to other weather events that he believes are evidence of the climate change. This is contentious, even among climate scientists. It’s understood that the atmosphere has about 5 percent more water vapor, and moisture itself is a powerful greenhouse gas. But does that mean that the hurricanes such as Sandy, which battered New Jersey and New York, or the deluges that swamped Colorado in 2013 are the result of increased density of greenhouse gases?
Not all climate scientists are so sure. “The historical record strongly suggests that a flood event of the extent and magnitude of September 2013 could occur even in the absence of climate change,” according to “Climate Change in Colorado,” a report prepared by Western Water Assessment for the Colorado Water Conservation Board. However, the report also noted that climate researchers in Colorado are now “addressing the anthropogenic climate change contribution to this event…” (See page 58.)
Many climate scientists have been similarly reluctant to conclusively link the intensity of hurricanes and other extreme weather events on global warming. Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado-Boulder, points to a further complication. He says we have developed housing along sea shores and other risky areas in recent decades, meaning that more damage is almost sure to occur when hurricanes, for example, come on shore.
But all of this is just arguing about the edges. The core of the problem is the additional energy, i.e. heat, that has been absorbed by the Earth because of the lid of greenhouse gases. Around the globe, measurements document the rising temperatures—not a lot, but just enough to push picas up mountain slopes and in other ways distend our ecosystems.
The impacts are on the edges. In Colorado, the growing season has lengthened just a little. But how much water will corn fields or even suburban lawns need during longer, hotter summers?
The most powerful chart that Kutscher showed, in my viewing, displayed the increased heat on the planet. The increased heat on land is one sliver. But the real story is in the increased heat absorbed by the ocean. (See chart at left.)
There is much speculation about how this heat might get transferred into the atmosphere and into the land mass, and when. That strikes me as a scary prospect, because then we can expect hurricanes, deluges of rain, and heat waves that are unmistakably outside the historic range of variability. At some point there will be no place to build that is not in harm’s way.