15 August 2013

Bruce Melton : Kick the Climate Deniers off the Island

The Greenwood Acres fishing pier on Lake Buchanan, west of Burnet, Texas. Photo by Bruce Melton / The Rag Blog.
The climate science is certain:
Time to kick the deniers off the island
In just eight years, permanent climate conditions across the North American Southwest (including Austin) will be comparable to the worst megadrought in 1,000 years.
By Bruce Melton / The Rag Blog / August 15, 2013

AUSTIN, Texas -- The science is certain, but the deniers are just as certain that their pseudo science is certain. Getting the last few deniers to agree with 97 percent of climate scientists though -- is that a good use of resources? We have the vast majority of the public on our side -- isn't that enough votes?

We can kick the deniers off the island. This is not a mean-spirited thing -- far from it. It's about the optimal path for resource-deprived situations.

The denier crowd is no longer a viable voting block. We need to be focusing on the rest of us. Very few understand the extreme nature of the most recent findings in climate science and the relative ease with which our climate pollution problem can be solved. Environmentally aware voices today advocate for Kyoto Era policies. But Kyoto Era policies were created in the early 1990s.

The psychology of denial is a tricky thing to overcome. It's not about what we think it is about. It's not about "their science" being as good as ours in their eyes. It’s deeper than that and involves social upbringing, false intuition, authority figures, geography, gender, and religion. Because "believers" control the voting block it no longer matters why deniers disbelieve. We no longer need to change their minds.

Because of the dwindling number of deniers, their opinions are no longer relevant. The only thing that has a chance of changing their minds is time or personal experience -- so says the global warming psychology literature. We can influence neither of those, so why waste valuable time and resources? In just eight years, permanent climate conditions across the North American Southwest (including Austin) will be comparable to the worst megadrought in 1,000 years. (1)

This megadrought has now begun. In Austin we are suffering from a devastating long-term drought, but only four of the last eight years in Austin have seen significantly below normal rainfall (less than 0.5 inches below average). In the Highland Lakes watershed at San Angelo, where the water comes from to fill our lakes that are at 36 percent of capacity, only three of the last eight years saw significantly below normal rainfall. Yet inflows to the lakes have fallen below the 1950s Drought of Record levels four times in the last eight years. How can this be?

A longer growing season soaks up more soil moisture and leaves less for the springs to create inflows into the lakes. More numerous bigger rainfall events and fewer smaller rainfall events happening already mean that dry periods are longer. When it does rain, more soaks in and less runs off.

Winters are warm enough now that many species do not go dormant any longer (in Central Texas). They keep using groundwater through the winter and leave less to create inflows into the lakes. Evaporation is disproportional to warmth. A little warmth equals a lot more evaporation; more evaporation creates a drier atmosphere allowing it to get warmer creating a feedback loop.

Inflows to the Highland Lakes during the drought of record were 14 percent more than what we have seen today. They were more during the Drought of Record.
  • 1947 to 1956: 10,333,493 acre feet
  • 2003 to 2112: 9,070,919 acre feet
(This does not include the drought buster year of 1957 with 4.4 million acre feet of inflow.)

Plus, during the Drought of Record, LCRA was releasing 460,000 acre feet of water annually above what they release today because of hydroelectric generation. If hydroelectric releases similar to LCRA’s hydroelectric generation era were made today, in 2011 lake levels would have been far lower than they were in the 1950s and today the lakes would be completely dry. LCRA quit making hydroelectric releases in the late 1970s and early 80s as coal- and natural gas-fired power plants came on line.

But the biggest surprise is that rainfall in Austin is 7 percent more than it was in 1990. Yet, inflows to the lakes are far, far below the average of the previous 50 years. Drought can be perpetuated even with greater rainfall.

Climate scientists have been telling us these things will happen for decades, and now they are happening. It shouldn't be counterintuitive, but the denier and delayer crowd has effectively killed discussion about anything except whether or not global warming exists from a high school greenhouse effect point of view.

We need to be focusing on the level of "belief" of the "believers." It's a business decision. We can fire the deniers. It might not be the "right" thing to do, but we do not have time to be so kind. As a bonus however, we can preserve our relationships with deniers by ignoring the topic like they do. It's ok, we have enough votes.

The amount of resources needed to convince the denier and delayer gang is disproportionally large compared to the fine-tuning of the message that needs to be delivered to "believers." Time is short. We are likely too far gone to forego major tipping points like the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, desertification of the interior of continents, and a 50 GT methane outburst from clathrates. Now we need to prevent our climate from crossing even more severe thresholds.

Solution requirements are much larger today than in the Kyoto Era. We were supposed to have reduced our emissions to 1987 levels by 2012 to prevent dangerous climate change. Instead we have increased emissions by 57 percent. Since 1987 we have emitted 81 percent of all greenhouse gases emitted from the beginning of mankind's emissions until 1987.

Greater than 100 percent emissions reductions are now needed to prevent "extremely dangerous climate change." (2) Spending all of our time trying to convince a few deniers that climate change is real is not a good use of limited time or resources.

The public needs to know the ease with which we can "treat" climate pollution. The 2 percent global gross domestic product cost of dealing with climate pollution advocated by most economists over the last decade is the same as we spend on advertising every year; or the annual U.S. military budget not counting wars; or the yearly costs of the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act; or the costs of normal weather losses every year in the U.S. alone not counting climate enhanced events. It is one quarter the annual cost of health care in the U.S. averaged from 2000 to 2009 -- before Obamacare went into effect.

But the latest research leaves the science of the mid-2000s in its dust. The Stanford/Cornell Plan for a fossil fuel-free New York State suggests that New York build a new alternative energy infrastructure at a cost of a bit more than $500 billion by 2030. Beginning in 2030, the savings and profits -- above a fossil fuel economy in New York State -- are $114 billion per year. This pays off the investment in less than five years. Savings and profits then only increase with time relative to the ever-increasing costs of a fossil fuel infrastructure.(3)

[Bruce Melton, a regular contributor to The Rag Blog, is a professional engineer, environmental researcher, filmmaker, and author in Austin, Texas. Information on Melton’s new book, Climate Discovery Chronicles, as well as more climate change writing, climate science outreach, and critical environmental issue documentary films can be found on his website and at climatediscovery.com. Melton’s Climate Change Now Initiative has applied for nonprofit 501(c)(3) status. Read more articles by Bruce Melton on The Rag Blog.]


(1) In just eight years, permanent climate conditions across the North American Southwest will be comparable to the worst megadrought in 1,000 years -- Evaluation of work from NOAA and Columbia Earth Institute (Seager 2012) for Truthout.org. Melton, Worst Drought in 1,000 Years Could Begin in Eight Years, Truthout.org, Feb. 21, 2013.
Seager et al., Projections of declining surface water availability for the southwestern United States, Nature Climate Change, December 2012, page 5, last paragraph.
Abstract: http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate1787.html
Earth Institute press release: http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/12/23/smaller-colorado-river-projected-for-coming-decades-study-says/
(2) Extremely dangerous climate change, two degrees C: 550, 450, 350 and 300 ppm CO2 -- Morrigan, Target Atmospheric GHG Concentrations Why Humanity Should Aim for 350 ppm CO2e, University of California Santa Barbara, 2010.
Ramanthan, On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, 2008.
Hansen et al., Target Atmospheric CO2, Where Should Humanity Aim, Open Atmospheric Science Journal, NASA, November 2008.  
IPCC 2007, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,, B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, P.R. Bosch, R. Dave, L.A. Meyer (eds), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, Chapter 13, Policies, Instruments and Co-operative Arrangements.
IPCC 2001, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Third Assessment Report, Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, Technical Summary.  
(3)A Fossil Fuel Free New York State -- Melton, A Fossil Fuel Free New York State by 2050: An in-depth look at Stanford and Cornell's 100 percent alternative energy road map for New York state, Truthout.org, May 26, 2013.  
Jacobson et al., Examining the feasibility of converting New York State's all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight, Energy Policy 57 (2013) 585-601.

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