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The cutting edge of (scary) climate science is here in Berkeley

2013 May 1

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Last week, I attended the Berkeley Lab “Science at the Theater Earth Day Event,” entitled  “How Hot Will It Get?” featuring five 15-minute talks by four LBNL scientists and one UC Berkeley economist. Overall, the event was a success, and the presentations were very informative, if not a bit frightening. The next “Science at the Theater” event is on May 13, so mark your calendars for “Eight Great Ideas”, where eight LBNL scientists will each have eight minutes to pitch their groundbreaking ideas. Here’s a summary of what was said the other night:

Bill Collins – What do computer models predict about the future of the Earth’s climate?

Since climate science started in the 1960’s, there has been nearly a billion-fold increase in computing power. This has enabled computers to become an increasingly powerful crystal ball for the Earth. Bill spoke about his visit to Australia for an IPCC meeting during the “angry summer”, where it was 120F in Sydney and 123 weather records were broken in 90 days. The 5th Assessment Report of the IPCC (AR5) will be released in 2014, and we can look forward to more well-informed (and more frightening) predictions of what is in store for our global climate. He noted that climate change through 2035 is largely already committed by the greenhouse gases we have emitted to date and the action we take now will dictate climate change in the latter half of the century. To date, this reality has been at odds with what has been politically possible on climate change. He ended with a quote from famous biologist E.O. Wilson: “A very Faustian choice is upon us: whether to accept our corrosive and risky behavior as the unavoidable price of population and economic growth, or to take stock of ourselves and search for a new environmental ethic.”

Margaret Torn – What happens to the Earth’s climate when the permafrost thaws?

The arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the Earth, and there is twice as much carbon in arctic soils as there is in the atmosphere. When the permafrost melts and the frozen organic matter beneath it thaws, the indigenous microbes will decompose that matter much faster, forming carbon dioxide and methane. As a biogeochemist, Margaret studies the dynamics of that decomposition in Alaska and how it will contribute to warming. She noted that the dynamics are complex and yet to be fully understood.  Bill Collins’ most powerful climate models don’t yet incorporate potential feedback loops from permafrost melt. One scenario is that the melting permafrost sends loads of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but shrubs also expand to new areas and increase carbon uptake. The overall effect on the “albedo” is yet unknown.

Michael Wehner – What does high performance computing tell us about heat waves, floods, droughts, and hurricanes?

“Climate is what you expect, and weather is what you get,” Michael said as he began his talk, attributing the quote to Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory. Michael studies the weather and increased risk of extreme weather (heat waves, cold snaps, drought, floods, hurricanes, etc.) from climate change. He estimates that the 2003 European heat wave, which caused 70,000 excess deaths, will happen in 9 out of 10 summers by the year 2040. That is, the risk change (over a baseline level pre-industrial revolution) for the event in 2003 was 2X. In 2023, the risk change for a similar heat wave will be 35X. In 2040, the risk change will be a startling 154X. This will equate to a probability of 90%. Yikes.

Jeff Chambers – How much carbon do our forests absorb and what if this rate changes?

Only 50% of the carbon we emit into the atmosphere stays there. The other half goes into the oceans, tropical forest sinks, and regular terrestrial sinks (soil and trees). Jeff studies what will happen to the forest and terrestrial sinks over time. There will be the effects a warming world, and the effects of specific weather disasters. He estimated that 320 million trees were destroyed in hurricane Katrina, which normally absorb a carbon equivalent of 105 million tons of carbon dioxide. Other impacts to forests include increased risk of wildfires, droughts, and pest infestations.

Maximilian Auffhammer – What kind of carbon tax might actually work?

“You know you’re at a nerdy event, when they bring out a German economist to close the show,” Maximilian quipped to begin his talk. Maximilian focused on what we might do to slow down climate change and potentially avoid some of doomsday. As a German economist, he is concerned about the costs of three things: 1) direct impacts (think hurricanes and floods), 2) mitigation, such as how to use less energy and produce more clean energy, and 3) adaptation. We can internalize the costs of climate change in three ways 1) regulation and standards, 2) carbon tax, and 3) cap and trade. The problem: about 200 countries have tried to negotiate a global agreement, it has not worked, there is no significant progress on the horizon, and any one country can block action. He proposes that the G20 (which account for about 80% of carbon emissions) agree to charge a significant carbon tax to start, say $20/ton to begin with. It would be enforced to non-compliers at the border (thus creating an incentive for other countries to adopt carbon policy). He says it would be much easier to negotiate than a global agreement, but admits it would still be pretty difficult.

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