Last week our planet reached a scary milestone for carbon dioxide, the most important global warming gas. The average carbon dioxide reading exceeded 400 parts per million at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) on the island of Hawaii for the 24 hours that ended at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday, May 9, 2013. Earth hasn’t had this much carbon dioxide concentrated in the air for at least three million years, which is before human life on the planet.
This should be a wakeup call that major and potentially catastrophic global weather changes are coming and a sign we’re not doing enough to tackle climate change.
We’ve seen carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million in the Arctic last year and even in some hourly readings at NOAA’s MLO. However, this is the first time we’ve seen the average reading for an entire day exceed that level. Carbon dioxide levels do rise and fall along with the seasons. As foliage grows over the summer in the Northern Hemisphere, 10 billion tons of carbon will be pulled out of the air. But it’s only a temporary pardon in a situation that’s becoming direr by the moment.
We simply must invest in alternative energy technologies and begin curbing our dangerous global appetite for fossil fuels. Otherwise, the time will come soon where no measurement of the ambient air anywhere on earth, in any season, will produce a reading below 400.
The official target to limit the damage from global warming is 450 parts per million (PPM), which is generally agreed to be the maximum level compatible with that goal. Our relentless, long-term increases in carbon dioxide emissions are likely get us to 450 PPM in well under 25 years. The time to slow down global warming is dwindling quickly. Twenty five years may seem like a long time, but our planet is huge. It will take more time than that to right the ship.
Not every country has agreed to set binding emissions targets, either. Unfortunately, the United States count among those shirking their responsibility. Now greater efforts are necessary, and are all but impossible without severe economic disruptions.
Can we live on a planet that is warmer and wetter? Probably, but billions of people are going to suffer as we make the transition. It’s a better plan to lower our carbon footprints and speedily move to no and low carbon energy sources. The price is going to be high either way, and it’s only getting steeper as we hurtle towards the point of no return.
In a blog post last month, I wrote about how climate change science is set to be taught unevenly in the US curriculum. It’s great that middle and high school age kids in the US are going to learn about climate change. Unfortunately, the Next Generation Science Standards are voluntary and could take years to implement. So is there an option if we want our children to learn about global warming now?
The non-profit Alliance for Climate Education (ACE) fills this need. Their mission is to, “educate high school students on the science behind climate change and inspire them to take action to curb global warming”. One look at their website and you can see they are on the right track in reaching their target audience. It’s packed with social media links and interactive blog entries.
Since the fall of 2009, ACE has reached more than a million high school students at over 1,550 schools. While this is impressive, there are some teachers and parents who oppose the presentations, believing climate change to be a controversial and/or political issue. However, all of the climate science ACE presents comes from peer-reviewed published science articles, with a focus on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC AR4). The IPCC AR4 is one of the most heavily researched science reports in history.
ACE’s efforts don’t end with their presentations. They also offer Student Action Programs to help get kids started right away. Then ACE grooms student environmental leaders who influence peers and lead change.
With the help of an ACE grant, Daniela Lapidous and Shreya Indukuri installed energy monitoring technology at their school. Saving both energy and money led them to expand the project to other local schools. Their project’s success brought them to the White House’s attention, where a mere two years after their first ACE presentation, they advised Energy Secretary Steven Chu on their smartmeter project that reduced their school's electric bill by 13%. Daniela wrote about her experience on ACE’s blog, “Hot and Bothered” and is a co-founder of SmartPowerEd.org.
It’s inspiring to see the ripple effect that climate change education can bring about. And getting information about global warming to high school aged kids is critical and a conscious choice. "They're going to be the generation to feel the impacts [of climate change] hardest and first," says Matt Lappe, ACE's education director. "And so in some sense we target high-schoolers and young people in general, because they really have a right to know climate science."
We should all take a page out of the next generation’s book. Not only are they learning about global warming, but they are taking the next steps to do something about the problem. Taking charge of the future is what it is all about since they’re the ones that will have to live with the consequences if we don’t.
In a previous blog post about The Art of Climate Change Communication, I covered the six American publics and how they perceive climate change. The Dismissive is one of the smallest groups, making up a mere eight percent of the American public. They do not believe climate change is happening, nor do they believe it is human caused or a serious problem. Although small, they are very vocal. Sometimes it’s easy for climate change communicators to be discouraged by this group. Nonetheless, now there is evidence that more than half of Americans (58%) say, “global warming is affecting weather in the United States.”
The Extreme Weather and Climate Change in the American Mind report is based on findings from a nationally representative survey – Climate Change in the American Mind – conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. These two organizations interviewed 1,045 adults between April 8 and 15, and found that “many Americans believe global warming made recent extreme weather and climatic events ‘more severe,’ specifically: 2012 as the warmest year on record in the United States (50%); the ongoing drought in the Midwest and the Great Plains (49%); Superstorm Sandy (46%); and Superstorm Nemo (42%).” The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.
Typically, climate scientists avoid making a connection between climate change and the day-to-day weather. Their stance used to be that no single weather event is caused by climate change. In recent years, however, climate science has advanced to the point where researchers can see climate change’s impact on individual heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and other storms. At the very least, many are ready to admit that climate change makes extraordinary weather worse. And most of the American public agrees.
The report released this week also highlighted that, “overall, 85 percent of Americans report that they experienced one or more types of extreme weather in the past year, most often citing extreme high winds (60%) and extreme heat (51%).” It is part of The Psychology of Climate Change that humans need to tangibly experience phenomena in order to connect with it on a deeper level. We comprehend global warming is a serious threat more easily when we see the effects of extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy.
While it is vindicating to climate change communicators that our country is beginning to make the important connection between climate change and extreme weather, I am hoping the knowledge coalesces into further global warming realizations and ultimately stimulates a grass-roots movement that engenders meaningful change. Knowing there is a problem is an important first step. Doing something about the problem is an even more important next step.
For decades, fossil fuel companies have enjoyed the benefit of master limited partnerships (MLPs). A MLP is a business structure that acts like a corporation with its corporate stock trading on the open market, but is taxed as a partnership rather than at the corporate tax rate. This allows investors to buy and sell their shares in the public markets, and project developers to access cheaper capital through the markets. It’s an attractive tax benefit to be a MLP; an advantage that is inaccessible currently to renewable energy investment.
Since the 1980s, Congress has enabled investors to bundle energy projects like oil and gas pipelines and other fossil fuel developments from companies that extract, process or transport “depletable” natural resources and exempted them from corporate income taxes. The word “depletable” specifically excludes renewable energy.
U.S. Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, introduced a bill last year that would give wind, solar and other renewable projects the same tax benefit. The Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act was re-introduced this week by a bipartisan group of senators.
In order to effectively combat climate change, renewables need to be priced at, or better yet, lower than fossil fuels. It’s easier to sell shares to individuals and institutional investors such as pension funds when renewable projects are set up as MLPs. Widening the pool of potential investors adds new competition, which could lower the cost of financing projects, and in the end reduce the cost of renewable power.
Is leveling the playing field for wind, solar and other renewable projects the magic bullet to renewable energy investment? No, but it is a step in the right direction. The Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act is actually part of a broader toolkit, one that the federal government has used successfully in the past to develop domestic energy resources. Tax benefits such as the Production Tax Credit and Investment Tax Credit remain essential tools within the renewable energy industry.
Other tax reforms the industry and its supporters say will help level the playing field with fossil fuels include allowing renewable companies to organize as real estate investment trusts (REITs) and letting renewable tax credits be claimed by more types of investors. In December of 2012, a bipartisan group of 29 U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to the President calling for changes to both MLPs and REITs.
Even with bipartisan support in a deeply divided Congress, the bill faces some serious obstacles. A 2011 Congressional Research Service report estimated that extending MLPs to renewable energy companies would cost the U.S. Treasury about $2.8 billion between 2010 and 2014. At the moment, the broad political momentum in Congress involves eliminating loopholes and exemptions in order to raise revenue and lower tax rates. The report suggests that if leveling the playing field is the endgame, the alternative is closing the tax loophole for oil and gas companies.
Personally, I want to stop global warming and move into a sustainable energy future. Let your Congressional Representatives know you want them to support the Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act.
Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, temporarily stalling renewable energy production. When that happens, what fuel source fills in the energy gap? Traditionally the answer was coal, but due to increased supply and low prices, the answer of late has been natural gas. Coal is certainly the dirtier of the two fossil fuels, but natural gas is not a perfect choice either. The increased supply in natural gas was achieved through the process of hydraulic fracturing (called fracking), which can be harmful to the environment.
Last spring natural gas prices fell to all-time lows of $2 to $3 per thousand cubic feet in the United States. This spring natural gas prices are on the rise. In fact, they’ve doubled to just over $4 per thousand cubic feet, but the bottom line is natural gas is still pretty cheap. Experts say prices in the $4 or $5 range won’t affect the increasing use of the fuel by consumers and the energy industry since the price was $8 just a few years ago. In Europe and Asia prices are even higher; think $10 to $14.
According to a Citibank research report, “Gas and renewables could in fact be the making of each other in the short term.” Expect renewables to cost about the same as conventional fuels in many parts of the world “in the very near term.” Mark Brownstein, an associate vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, noted that the price of renewable energy has declined substantially in recent years, and that’s expected to continue, making them even more competitive. As demand for renewables builds, it will in turn “drive demand for more gas-fired” power plants to be used as backup.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) missed an April 13 deadline to issue much-anticipated new rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants. Proposed a year ago, the rules were first to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new plants. Once a limit is set for new facilities, the EPA is legally obligated to address existing plants, which pose the true climate threat at the moment. The US’ power plant fleet is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe said last week that the agency expects to propose new rules on greenhouse gases from existing plants in fiscal 2014.
The draft rule for new power plants sets a limit of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity. That cutoff point would be easy for natural-gas-fired plants to meet, but not conventional coal plants. Already, power companies build natural gas plants almost exclusively because of the low price of gas.
There is speculation that the EPA’s indefinite delay on the new rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants is due to second thoughts at the EPA and the White House over the single standard. The EPA is said to be contemplating setting two standards, one for coal plants and the other for natural gas, which might make the new rule more legally defensible in an attempt to avert the inevitable legal wrangling that goes on whenever the EPA sets a new rule including limitations.
Environmental groups argue that separate standards make little sense. “Setting a separate standard for coal- and natural-gas-fired plants would greatly weaken the standard’s ability to ensure a transition away from building high-carbon electricity-generation sources,” said economist Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Natural gas may be the interim answer as we build our renewable energy infrastructure and then the backup once we move to a sustainable energy future. For the sake of slowing down climate change, the EPA needs to set the rules on new electricity generation plants posthaste. Then they should tackle existing power plants without delay. Global warming won’t wait.
A national multi-state effort to create new standards in science education was announced this week. For the first time, science curriculum identifies climate change as a core concept and emphasizes the role that human activity has on climate systems.
The Next Generation Science Standards for state education curriculums is a joint effort of the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the nonprofit group Achieve. The new standards are the first extensive national recommendations for science instruction since 1996. They were developed by scientists and experts in 26 states, but they are optional.
So this means some middle and high school students enrolled in the American public school system will soon be required to study climate change as a scientific occurrence. About 40 U.S. states are expected to identify global warming as a man-made problem. Environmentalists are cheering, but unfortunately the issue is just as charged in the educational arena as the political one.
“Climate change is not a political issue and climate change is not a debate. It is science,” Mario Molina, deputy director at the Alliance for Climate Education, told the Guardian. “It is strongly supported heavily researched science, and our hope is that teachers will not see this as a political issue or a political debate.”
Unfortunately, some very vocal Americans do not consider climate change scientific. They see it as a controversial issue that shouldn’t be taught in schools. “It’s a shame that American school kids are being taught claims of certitude on an issue that continues to unravel before our eyes,” Marco Morano, communications director for Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, told The Washington Examiner, while referencing studies that suggest global warming has nothing to do with human actions. “To teach kids there’s a consensus… is a major disservice to children, and a disservice to education,” he added.
Here’s how the New York Times describes the new standards: “Educators involved in drawing them up said the guidelines were intended to combat widespread scientific ignorance, to standardize teaching among states, and to raise the number of high school graduates who choose scientific and technical majors in college, a critical issue for the country’s economic future.”
“The focus would be helping students become more intelligent science consumers by learning how scientific work is done: how ideas are developed and tested, what counts as strong or weak evidence, and how insights from many disciplines fit together into a coherent picture of the world.”
Meanwhile, The UK Department of Education has introduced a proposal that would completely ban climate change from educational discussions, due to its controversial nature. Children under 14 will no longer be able to learn about the human impact on climate change.
So the battle to educate Earth’s children about global warming rages on, but at least it will soon be an option in the U.S.
Global warming has become a highly charged political issue. The players in the climate change drama cast into different roles. It seems like you must be a Democrat to be interested in combating global warming, or if you’re a Republican, you cannot be environmentally motivated.
“The Earth’s climate does not care whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. It doesn’t care whether you’re liberal or conservative. Climate change will affect all Americans no matter what your political beliefs, your religious beliefs, your race, class, creed, et cetera, okay. And in the end, the only way we’re going to deal with this issue is if we come together as a country and have a serious conversation, not about is it real. But what can we do about it,” Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a Research Scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University said in an episode titled, “Encore: Ending the Silence on Climate Change” this month on Bill Moyer & Company.
For many years fossil fuel company interests have waged an active disinformation campaign that has borne fruit for them. They learned well from tobacco war strategy, which was to make people believe the science isn’t clear and that the experts do not agree. This leads the average person to reserve judgment on climate change. They aren’t likely to take global warming seriously until it seems that the experts reach a conclusion. Unfortunately that day will be long coming because these big, powerful companies will continue to spread misinformation.
The climate change disinformation campaign has spread so far that it’s even affected politics. In last year’s presidential election the question was, “If we focus on protecting the environment, won’t that harm the economy?” The truth is that there is no inherent contradiction. The U.S. could, in fact, lead the Green Industrial Revolution.
What is also interesting is that Republicans weren’t always painted with the not caring about global warming brush. They actually led the charge on issues such as acid rain. President George H.W. Bush passed cap and trade legislation on sulfur dioxide. It was one of the most successful environmental programs in American history, and it was accomplished at a cost far below even best guess estimates at the time.
The answer to the politicization of climate change is that the U.S. needs a groundswell of grassroots movement for environmental change. We need to get organized and demand change of our politicians. This country’s political system simply is not conducive to making the changes itself to deal with the global warming crisis we desperately need. Let’s take partisan gridlock out of the picture. We can begin by mobilizing and directing the 16 percent of Americans that are the Alarmed, defined in my last post on climate change communication, but are unsure what to do to make a difference in climate change.
My last blog post covered the psychology of climate change. The post closed questioning whether or not the public will heed global warming’s warning signs. One of the dilemmas facing climate change educators is that research has shown that there is no single American public. There are actually six distinct audiences that need to be communicated with differently regarding climate change.
Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a Research Scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, says in an episode titled, “Encore: Ending the Silence on Climate Change” this month on Bill Moyer & Company, “There are multiple publics within the United States. In fact, what we've identified are six Americas.”
Leiserowitz goes on to outline, “Six different Americas that each respond to this issue in very different ways and need different kinds of information about climate change to become more engaged with it.” He cautions those of us that want to educate others about global warming, “if we were to do a true engagement campaign in this country we would need to recognize that there are very different Americans who need to be engaged in very different ways who have different values and who trust different messengers.”
Here are the six publics that Leiserowitz refers to:
This group comprises roughly 16 percent of the public and is made up of people who believe global warming is happening. They acknowledge that it is primarily a human caused, serious and urgent problem, and they want to begin implementing solutions as quickly as possible.
However, they aren’t always certain what the solutions are. This is coupled with an uncertainty as to what they can accomplish as individuals as well as society at large. There are things we can do on both fronts, but there remains a communication gap climate change educators need to begin addressing.
This group composes about 29 percent of the public. Like the Alarmed, the Concerned believe climate change is happening, it’s human caused and serious. Where the two groups differ is on the urgency of the problem. The Concerned tend to think of global warming as a distant problem.
Distance is perceived by this group on two levels: in time and space. The Concerned think of climate change impacting their children or other future generations. Spatially, they think global warming is affecting Arctic animals or island nations such as the Philippines. In essence, climate change is a serious problem to this group, but they think there will be plenty of time to address it in the future.
Approximately a quarter of the public make up the Cautious group. This group is undecided. They question whether or not global warming is happening and what is causing it. They aren’t sure it’s even a serious threat, but at least they’re listening. Climate change educators need to engage this group on some of the basic facts of global warming.
This group comprises around eight percent of the public. These people have heard about global warming, but know nothing substantial about it. Climate change educators should begin by elevating the Disengaged’s basic awareness of the issue. Then they need to outline global warming’s causes, consequences and potential solutions.
The second to last group makes up roughly 13 percent of the public. This group doesn’t think climate change is really happening, and if it is it is natural and not human caused. This leads the Doubtful to believe there is nothing that we can do about the issue. These people pay scant attention to global warming, but even if they do they’re inclined to believe it is not a problem.
This last group comprises a mere eight percent of the American public, but they are very vocal. These people do not believe climate change is happening, nor do they believe it is human caused or a serious problem. Many of the Dismissive are conspiracy theorists who claim global warming is a hoax. They loudly and openly question the validity of climate science data, claiming it’s some sort of plot to further other countries and/or people’s gains.
As you can see from the six distinct publics, there are some definite climate change communication challenges, but the first step is certainly knowing your audience. Perhaps we should also consider looking at statistics in a different way, one that addresses humans’ visual nature.
Seeing Climate Change from a Different Perspective
Chris Jordan is a digital photographic artist best known for his large scale works portraying mass consumption, consumerism and waste. Jordan imbeds the message in his art. For example, the photograph above titled, “Caps Seurat” is made up of 400,000 plastic bottle caps, which is equal to the average number of plastic bottles consumed in the United States every minute. Jordan has said of his art, “There's this contrast between the beauty in the images and the underlying grotesqueness of the subjects. And it's something that I put there intentionally. Because I was using beauty as a seduction, to draw the viewer in to sit through the piece long enough that the underlying message might seep in.”
Now that you see the art of climate change communication, I’ll explore the political nature of the issue in my next blog post, which is the final in this three-part series.
Regular readers of this blog are all too aware of the dangers that are starting to manifest regarding global warming. Given the reality of 2012 being the hottest year on record, and other climate change related disasters such as Superstorm Sandy, why isn’t more being done domestically and globally to avert this crisis? The answer is in our psychology as humans.
Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a Research Scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, specializes in human behavior, in particular the psychology of risk perception and decision making as it relates to global warming. He is an expert on U.S. and international perception of climate change risks, support and opposition for climate policies, and willingness to make individual behavioral change. Leiserowitz points to humans’ needs to tangibly experience phenomena in order to connect with it on a deeper level. The first problem with the issue is that we cannot see carbon dioxide. Perhaps if we could see blue smoke, for example, billowing around us we would be more motivated to immediately tackle global warming.
The climate change problem is further complicated by its faceless nature. There isn’t one country or person we can point to as causing global warming. We are all responsible on a daily basis. Then add to that there’s the fact that climate change is not an immediate threat. It’s certainly becoming one, but it takes time for the planet to heat up and we are fast approaching the point of no return.
Many people do not understand how a few degrees one way or the other will make a difference to the planet. Leiserowitz likened it to a fever in an episode titled, “Encore: Ending the Silence on Climate Change” this month on Bill Moyer & Company. “People often will say, ‘Wow, you know, four, five degrees, that doesn't sound like very much. I mean, I see the temperature change more from night to day.’ But it's the wrong way to think about it. I mean, think about when you get sick and you get a fever, okay. Your body is usually at, you know, 98.7 degrees.”
He continued to say, “If your temperature rises by one degree you feel a little off, but you can still go to work. You're fine. It rises by two degrees and you're now feeling sick, in fact you're probably going to take the day off because you definitely don't feel good. And in fact, you're getting everything from hot flashes to cold chills, okay. At three you're starting to get really sick. And at four degrees and five degrees your brain is actually slipping into a coma, okay, you're close to death. I think there's an analogy here of that little difference in global average temperature just like that little difference in global body temperature can have huge implications as you keep going. And so unfortunately the world after two and especially after three degrees starts getting much more frightening, and that's exactly what the scientists keep telling us. But will we pay attention to those warning signs?”
My next blog post will discuss how to effectively communicate about climate change to overcome some of the psychological challenges humans face outlined in this post. There are ways to get the public to pay attention to, and in fact, engage on the issue of global warming. However, there is an art to it.
Many people have read in the news about how the United States is tapping into unprecedented natural gas reserves through the process of hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, where highly pressurized water, sand and chemicals are inserted to fracture shale rock which releases natural gas. Drilling can have environmental impacts such as contamination of ground water, air quality risks, migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface, and surface contamination from spills and flowback.
Or they’ve read about the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project that is seeking approval to move oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands down through the western United States to refineries along the Gulf Coast. There is evidence that extracting oil from the sands are increasing levels of cancer-causing compounds in surrounding lakes far beyond natural levels.
The latest news in accessing exotic forms of carbon comes from Japan, where their government announced that they’ve successfully extracted natural gas from methane hydrates, also called clathrates, buried beneath the sea bed. Clathrates are an ultra-concentrated frozen mix of water and gas. A cubic meter of clathrate contains 164 times as much methane as a cubic meter of methane gas. Extraction of methane hydrates opens up the possibility for a catastrophic release of gas in the form of accidents during the extraction process. Even releasing a small amount of clathrates could contribute significantly to climate change.
Governments and corporations worldwide need to stop spending hundreds of billions of dollars searching for new fossil fuel reserves and discovering ways to extract ever more unusual forms of buried carbon. And we need to stop giving them incentives to do so. Yes, it is hard to want less and do less, but for the sake of our planet’s health we need to curb our global appetite for fossil fuels. Let’s start by lowering our carbon footprints. Then we need to agree to leave fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
According to a detailed estimate, we need to leave four-fifths of global fossil fuel reserves untouched for a good chance of preventing more than 2°C of global warming. The worst part is we have already identified more underground carbon than we can afford to burn between now and the year 3000. Now is the time to implement a low carbon lifestyle. We should do it for our planet, ourselves and for the sake of future generations.