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December 14, 2009

Copenhagen: A death panel for countries like Tuvalu

Born_in_tuvalu_tee  The tiny nation of Tuvalu has taken center stage in Copenhagen. 

"I woke up this morning crying, and that's not easy for a grown man to admit," Tuvalu's chief climate negotiator, Ian Fry, told hundreds of delegates in the Bella Center in Copenhagen on Saturday. "The fate of my country rests in your hands," he said, his voice breaking. Global warming is an existential issue for Tuvalu and other small island nations. If global warming goes unchecked, these countries will literally be wiped off the map. For countries like Tuvalu, COP15 is effectively referendum on their continued existence. Will the rest of the world step up, or will it write them off?

Tuvalu and its supporters want a treaty to protect island states. They also seek legally binding emissions targets for all countries geared to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. 

During the aftermath of the Iranian election, supporters sported green twitter icons to show their support for the protesters. In that spirit, I decided to change my twitter icon to an "I heart Tuvalu" button. The picture is from Tuvalu's official Cafe Press store. Join me!


I have high hopes but low expectations for the climate summit. The biggest problem is that, for the largest and most economically powerful nations on Earth, specifically the US, the PRC and India, there is no incentive, no enforceable imperative to cut emissions other than good will.

Cap & Trade favors wealthy countries and anything stricter is probably unenforceable as there is little the rest of the world can do to actively coerce such nations.

It seems copenhagen meeting is completely dead. Can't even agree on implementing kyoto agreement. (Basically, US is screwed if kyoto is implemented, cause need to catch up the past 7 years. Then China and India too.)

Thomas: in both China and India, a moderate sea level rise of about 3-5 meters would wipe out the most productive industrial areas. Greater Shanghai, Kolkata, and Guangzhou are in the floodplains formed by river deltas, just like Bangladesh, and Mumbai is an island city most of whose territory is landfill. The question is whether by the time those countries are rich enough to care it will be too late.

The first world is a much bigger problem. It has no incentive to do anything - the only major first-world cities at risk of going underwater are Miami and the Amsterdam-Rotterdam region. The other coastal cities would only lose a few neighborhoods even at a 10-meter rise. Granted, those neighborhoods include Wall Street and Canary Wharf, but finance would just move to Midtown and the West End, which are at much lower risk.

Every major port will drown, including my own Houston. California's central valleys are already turning to desert, and cities in the desert now (Phoenix and Las Vegas, perhaps large parts of Denver and L.A. also) seem destined to dry up and blown away. These are just the effects which are easily predictable.

There's no finding rational self-interest in any of this, except in the most debased and deranged sense of the words. The elites of this world are committing a form of murder-suicide.

The elites of this world are committing a form of murder-suicide.

Murder maybe, but suicide? How do you thinks the elites of this world skew agewise?

Houston isn't going to drown; sections of it are, just like with New York, Los Angeles, London, and Tokyo.

Drowning isn't a problem, since water rise very slowly on average. People would simply move and build somewhere else. (for eg. see venice beach, sand erosion. It's basically same social phenomena.)

But it's the flooding and storm that will wipe out city first. If a small city getting hit by huge storm twice in 5 years. That's pretty much it. The city will never recover. Or imagine another Katrina hit new orleans. N.O. isn't even fully recovering yet.

Bangladesh is definitely toast. storm, land erosion, flooding, etc.

more big problems: flooding from glacier melting, or severe rain/drought cycle. the last one can destroy farming land in semi arid area.

When global warming hit hard, the place to be probably is central russia, if you can stand the winter that is.

I wonder if Venice will sink into the ocean.

Squashed, there's a significant chance Bangladesh would lose half its territory. Where would Bangladeshis move to - India?

I don't know. They have 25 years time to figure out for each meter the sea rises. Build really tall dikes? 4-8 meteres aren't impossible. But things probably devolve into war or nation state cease to have same importance as now in the next 3-5 decades. Asia is moving toward EU style integration right now. If bangladesh doesn't do it, their economy will crash first due to currency speculation before the sea swallow them.

Values for predicted sea level rise over the course of the next century typically range from 90 to 880 mm, with a central value of 480 mm.

A startling fact from the previous link: "Each year about 8 mm [...] of water from the entire surface of the oceans falls into the Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets as snowfall. If no ice returned to the oceans, sea level would drop 8 mm every year."

This suggests a whole new agenda for geoengineering - controlling sea level by regulating Antarctic snowfall, in particular (and also the rate at which Antarctic ice returns to the oceans). I'm not sure how it would work - I would imagine there's some pattern of aerosol release which would produce extra cooling over Antarctica, but I have no idea how that would affect the amount of water vapor above Antarctica. If the air there dried up for some reason, you'd have less snowfall, not more.

Another thing one might want to watch for are tectonic or other effects arising from the increase in the mass of the Antarctic ice sheets. Significant mass changes there minutely affect the shape of the Earth. Again, I have no idea how much Antarctic snow-mass increase is required to offset sea-level rise, and whether it's anywhere near tectonically significant - I'm just thinking out loud.

Mitchell, even without talking about costs, this won't work. Regulating Antarctic snowfall would do nothing to reduce global temperatures, which means it would do nothing to stave off ice sheet collapse.

Ok. I found the solution to Bangladesh problem.

Move to Burmese jungle. The western par of Burma is practically empty tropical jungle.

Alon, the more I think about it, the less certain I am of the consequences. I even find myself wondering if sufficiently strong Antarctic cooling could initiate an ice age. That would certainly save Tuvalu!

With respect to ice sheet collapse, for sea levels to rise, there has to be a net loss of land ice. I read that the annual Antarctic snowfall is 6mm sea-level equivalent. That would seem to imply that even at equilibrium, Antarctica loses 6mm s.l.e. of ice every year, in the form of glacial outflow I guess. So it's a question of how much is coming in and how much is going out. Warmer oceans may make sea ice thinner and smaller in extent, but if the continental sheets get thicker in the interior, it could balance out.

But... Antarctica is getting warmer, not cooler. That's why there's more snowfall there - it comes from greater evaporation. And whatever small ice gain there is in East Antarctica will not offset the massive ice loss coming from the collapse of West Antarctica.

I'm talking about the consequences of an Antarctic geoengineering scenario, not about existing trends. Suppose you supercooled central Antarctica by feeding sulfate aerosols into the southern polar vortex. If it's just a regional cooling, the air entering the vortex should still be just as moist (since the rest of the Earth will still be warm), and so precipitation will be even greater. If the extra snowfall is sufficiently heavy, then the thickening of the central ice sheets could more than offset the coastal losses. It's a way to turn Antarctica into a net sink for H2O, even during a period of global warming.

It's just a madcap scheme that had never occurred to me before, and I have no idea whether it makes sense physically. Figuring that out might be a good homework problem for Geoengineering 101 students.

How exactly are you planning on feeding sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere in sufficient quantities?

The closest similar scheme as above that I know is making floating islands in the ocean containing pump that spray fine water midst. The water particle/fog/cloud change the reflective characteristic of earth surface, thus the hear absorbing rate. Basically, it's painting the earth with white cloud.

Injecting that much sulphure into the atmosphere is insane. ACID RAIN people.

frankly the easiest way is still stop spewing so much CO2 into the atmosphere. Combustion engine and coal power plant has to be replaced pronto. I for one think wind mill, solar collector, high temperature fuel cell.... maybe throw little nuclear and geothermal into the mix. All these are a question of cost. The technology is mature while improvement are promising.

>Injecting that much sulphure into the atmosphere is insane. ACID RAIN people.

Well, acting as the devil's advocate, the SO2 would be injected into the stratosphere. The stratosphere is extremely thin and semi-isolated from the troposphere by the tropopause. So you don't need much SO2 and it has a long dwell time. Very little acid rain would result.

But most geoengineering methods do have in common that if you stop, you get decades worth of masked warming hitting over a short period, weeks to years.

>How exactly are you planning on feeding sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere in sufficient quantities?

One proposal was to lift a plastic film pipe into the stratosphere on a tethered balloon. It would only need to be done in a couple of locations. The cost was very low. Another would be to fly jets with deliberately high-sulphur fuel at higher than normal altitudes.

It's actually a bit worrying just how easy these methods are. Even modifying the earth's orbit is a technically achievable project, albiet the method - nudging cometary cores from the kuiper belt into very close slingshot flybys - would be harrowing.

They all come back to the central problem - grand experiments with only one test subject.

What's even more worrying is that there are equally easy proven methods for GHG emission reduction. Just go to the least emitting developed countries, which are led by Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Sweden, and see what they do. If you break down emissions by sector and then look at low-emission countries in specific sectors, you can see even more clearly. Of the bottom emitters, none practices road socialism; on the contrary, all have high gas taxes, of both $3-4/gallon. None of the bottom emitters has an economy based on heavy industry; Hong Kong has a service economy, and Switzerland emphasizes knowledge-intensive, high value-added manufacturing. All are energy-efficient, and make an effort to generate energy from renewable sources or nuclear power. Enacting such policies along would cut the developed world's emissions by about 40%, and that's without a single new technology or untried development, like a carbon tax or regulations on industrial emissions.

Testing piece o' crap Typepad, Testing.

Weird, typepad works one minute and not the next. Sorry.

Longer comments are more likely to get rejected. Don't ask me why. The upshot is that it's forced me to cut on the tl;dr factor sometimes.

Alon Levy:

Let's be realistic here. Changing the orbit of the planet is way more achievable than passing high gas taxes in north america.

somewhat related. California is falling into the sea piece by piece. I guess the sea really is starting to swallow everything.

Tenants of apartments in Pacifica, California, were under evacuation Thursday after erosion threatened the cliff on which their building sits, a city official said.

Authorities have been watching the seaside building for years and were waiting for the erosion to reach a 12-foot safety zone behind it, said Doug Rider, a building official for Pacifica. The problem has reached that zone, he said, so officials notified the building's management and tenants began evacuating.

Bruce: this isn't necessarily true. Gas taxes could be passed in the form of steep tariffs on oil imports from non-NAFTA countries, which could be sold in national security terms. Last year Obama argued for more investment in fuel efficiency on the grounds that US oil addiction "funds petro-diplomacy in Caracas and radical madrasas," and opposed the gas tax holiday, though he stopped short of calling for increasing the gas tax.

Such tariffs are even WTO-compatible - I've read that oil is not regulated by the WTO, which means that the US may tax oil imports without violating trade agreements, and affected countries may not pass retaliatory tariffs on US manufactured goods. Obviously countries violate WTO agreements all the time, but the point is that the US would legally be in the right in such a trade war, to say nothing of the fact that Saudi Arabia and Venezuela need its markets more than it needs theirs.

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