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Climate Change: A Snowball of Warmth July 9, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change.
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This is a follow-up to the previous post, which explained feedback loops and their significance within the climate system in much more detail.  Please refer to that post for background information.

“Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change.” -The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment.

That irreversibility is the result of positive feedback loops.

There are a number of self-magnifying positive feedback loops in the climate system.  Like a snowball rolling down a snowy hill, these phenomena grow stronger as they continue.  All of them are triggered by a warming planet and in turn warm the planet even more.

The presence of all these warming feedback loops means that once the planet warms past a certain threshold, we won’t be able to reverse the effects and global warming will be unstoppable.  That is not to say that it will continue forever, but we will not be able to stop the full extent of the warming that will then occur.

As I wrote yesterday about the snowball analogy, a person farther down the hill could theoretically stop the rolling snowball while it was the size of a baseball or a basketball or probably even the size of one of those big yoga balls.  But you wouldn’t be able to stop the snowball once it reached the size of a car or a house.  Once the snowball gets that big, it’s going to roll all the way to bottom of the hill no matter what you do.

There is some point in that progression where the snowball becomes too big to be stopped.  A similar threshold exists for climate change; once the planet warms enough and there is enough CO2 in the atmosphere, we are committed to the full extent of climate change.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure where the threshold lies.  Currently, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is 392 parts per million (ppm). Some scientists say the threshold is at 450 ppm.  Other say 500 ppm.  A few even say 350 ppm, which we are already past.  Either way, there is a point-of-no-return and it is close.

In this post, I will lay out the specific positive feedback loops that could make climate change unstoppable.

Sea Ice

As you’ve probably heard, arctic sea ice levels are declining rapidly as the oceans warm.  This sea ice decline is itself a positive feedback loop.  “Albedo” is a measure of how much radiation an object reflects.  What radiation isn’t reflected is absorbed (causing that object to heat up).  An object’s albedo is represented in decimal values ranging from 0.0 (0% radiation reflected) to 1.0 (100% radiation reflected)

Ice has a very high albedo, around 0.9.  It is very reflective (hence snow blindness and sun burns on the ski slopes) so it absorbs very little heat.  When solar radiation strikes sea ice, most of it gets reflected back up into the sky.  In the past, sea ice has covered much of the arctic ocean, turning the region into a giant mirror as far as solar radiation is concerned.

With warming waters, however, more and more of the arctic has lost its sea ice, exposing the water beneath.  Water has a very low albedo, around 0.1.  Instead of reflecting that radiation, it absorbs 90% of it and, as a result, heats up.  As sea ice levels decrease, more of the arctic is absorbing heat instead of reflecting it.  This, obviously, warms the water further.

Warming water melts more ice, exposing more water, which absorbs more heat, which melts more ice…you get it.  This is a classic positive feedback loop.

Water Vapor

When you think of a greenhouse gas, you probably think of carbon dioxide.  Most people are surprised to discover that water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas.  In fact, it is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

As the climate warms, the atmosphere becomes more humid.  Warmer air can hold more water vapor.  As a result, as the planet warms, the air will be able to hold more of this greenhouse gas, which will cause more warming, which will allow the air to hold more water vapor…etc.  Positive feedback loop.

Methane Hydrates

You may recall from BP’s containment dome debacle that the procedure was thwarted by “methane hydrates.”  Methane hydrates are a frozen slurry of – you guessed it – methane (and water). Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

If the oceans warm to a certain point, these hydrates could melt and release their methane, which would rise through the water and enter the atmosphere.  There, they would increase the greenhouse effect, warming the oceans further, melting more methane hydrates, releasing more methane etc.  …there’s a pattern emerging here.

Methane hydrate deposits are found around the world and could amplify global warming.


Permafrost is soil that has been frozen for at least two years.  It contains a lot of dead organic matter that would be decomposed very quickly in warmer climates.  That decomposition releases methane, and global warming is melting that permafrost and making the arctic one of those warmer climates.

Like methane hydrates, as permafrost melts, it releases significant quantities of methane.  This, as you now know, soon enters the atmosphere and causes more warming, which melts more permafrost etc.

Western Siberia contains the world’s largest peat bog.  Its 385,000+ square miles (France and Germany combined) are estimated to contain 100 TRILLION lbs of methane.  It is already melting…


Desertification, Amazon loss, cloud cover, and terrestrial phenomena such as forest fires and soil respiration may also form positive feedback loops for global warming, although they are less well established.


Climate propagandists dismiss this simple science and those who explain it as “alarmist.”  While it may be alarming, raising awareness about these threats is not dishonest or unduly sensationalist.  People need to know why the long-term threat of climate change poses short-term urgency.

Rest assured, though, even without these simple and highly probable positive feedback loops, climate scientists explain that global warming will still be “substantial and critical.”  We cannot afford to put off addressing climate change any longer.

A Eulogy for Cap-and-Trade July 1, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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Although it appears that immigration is cutting in front of energy on the legislative agenda, earlier this week, President Obama told Congress that he wants an energy bill that puts a price on carbon and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this year.

Cap-and-trade is the best way to accomplish this goal.  That is why the House passed the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act over a year ago.  Yet pundits have long ruled this elegant policy tool dead.

At this point, it seems that only a sea change within the Senate could ever bring cap-and-trade back again.  Before it receives its final judgment, it’s worth taking a look back at how this all started, how we got here, why it seemed like a good idea at the time, and why it still is.

Tom Crocker conceived of the cap-and-trade system as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s.  In the 1990s, it was applied with great success to control sulfur dioxide emissions from American coal plants that were producing acid rain.  Our sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade system achieved greater reductions than expected at less than half the projected cost. The Economist dubbed it “probably the greatest green success story of the past decade” in July 2002.

Here in the US, cap-and-trade efficiently reduced sulfur dioxide emissions for a fraction of the projected cost.

The EU implemented a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system in 2005 with mixed results.  But it is a rare step in the right direction and a valuable first try from which we can learn many important lessons.  To co-opt a Republican oil spill talking point, one plane’s turbulence shouldn’t preclude air travel.  We can rebuild it.  We have the technology.

A number of key Republican senators have stated that they will never vote on any energy policy that includes cap-and-trade.  This is an unabashed flip-flop for which they have not been held accountable. Many of these senators supported cap-and-trade before they started calling it a “job-killing energy tax.”

Point of clarification for Republicans: carbon dioxide is not energy.  It is a waste product and pollutant being dumped into a vital resource.  Cap-and-trade is no more an “energy tax” than charging people who pumped cow manure into our drinking water would be a “beef tax.”  Also, it creates jobs. Other than that though, “job-killing energy tax” is a perfect characterization.

Recent cap-and-trade “debates” have lacked relevant historical context; in 2003 John McCain cosponsored the first climate cap-and-trade bill, for crying out loud.  The theory remains unchanged, the only new development is these senators’ adherence to Republican lies talking points.  Blatant, partisan flip-flops are well-documented by McCain, Richard Lugar, Lindsay Graham, Scott Brown, and even Lisa Murkowski!

For decades, conservatives railed against “heavy-handed” traditional environmental regulations.  Known as “command and control” regulations, these laws mandate one solution for a given problem, regardless of the circumstances.  For example, if a factory emits too much of a given pollutant, by law it must install a specific type of scrubber to reduce that pollution, even if cheaper alternatives could produce that same emissions reduction.

While appropriate in many situations, economists and conservatives have argued against such regulations because they can be inefficient and impose higher costs than necessary upon businesses.  This is a valid criticism.  It is the reason why economists prefer and advocate for “market-based instruments” (MBIs) – such as cap-and-trade.

Market-based instruments, as their name implies, utilize markets for environmental regulation.  They are preferable to command and control regulations because markets enable us to achieve emission reductions as efficiently (i.e. cheaply) as possible.

Command and control regulations stifle innovation.  They mandate the use of a specific technology, and that is that.  In contrast, MBIs foster and catalyze innovation.  Cap-and-trade presents a great example.

Once we put a price on carbon pollution, it is suddenly within industries’ interest to invest in ways to cheaply reduce their emissions.  Instead of dictatorially deciding what technology to use, we unleash our nation’s intellectual resources upon this challenge.

Under cap-and-trade, cheaper emission-reducing solutions are developed and utilized.  And the benefits don’t just accrue for industry.  Third parties stand to gain from developing these technologies for them, so MBIs incentivize the creation of startups and the expansion of small businesses attempting to reduce carbon output and increase efficiency – and obviously spur renewable energy technologies for our future.

But just how does cap-and-trade put a price on carbon?

If you know how a cap-and-trade system functions, you will want to skip to the last paragraph.  If you’ve heard the phrase everywhere but aren’t really sure exactly what is entailed, I have provided a description here.

The Cap:

Regulators determine how much pollution the country is allowed to emit in a year.  Then they distribute permits for emissions up to that amount (the distribution method is a complicating factor that I will discuss below).  Because a fixed number of permits are issued, this system has the benefit of ensuring emission reductions (as opposed to a carbon tax).  Polluters want to emit a given amount of pollution but there are only so many permits available.  This creates a market for carbon pollution.  That market puts a price on emitting carbon and also provides a long-overdue economic disincentive to pollute.

A carbon tax also puts a price on carbon, providing some but not all of these same benefits.  A carbon tax is an inferior carbon control mechanism.  If you are interested in why this is or dispute this point, I could easily throw together a cap-and-trade vs. carbon tax post.

The Trade:

Suppose, for example, that there are two factories (see the graphic below to visualize this example).  One is ancient and spews pollution (Plant A) – making emission reductions at this factory is very expensive.   The other is brand new and could easily be upgraded to drastically cut its carbon emissions (Plant B).

Under traditional, command and control regulation (left example), it would be very expensive to bring the older factory into regulatory compliance.  Yet under a cap-and-trade system (right example), we could let the newer plant reduce its emissions for both itself and reduce its emissions further on behalf of the older plant.

In this cap-and-trade example, our polluters have permits entitling them to emit a certain amount of pollution.  In this scenario, the newer plant emits even less pollution than it has permits for; it has cleaned up so much that it has permits to spare.   So the older plant could pay the newer plant for offsetting its continued emissions (the newer plant sells its unused emission permits to the older plant).

Because paying the newer plant is cheaper than making further upgrades to the older plant would be, the same emissions reduction under command and control regulation is achieved for a fraction of the price using cap-and-trade.  And the system operates efficiently because we allow the market to determine the price of the permits.

Permit Distribution:

How these pollution permits would be distributed is the biggest source of contention within cap-and-trade proposals.  There are three ways to distribute credits:

1) Auction – companies bid for every one of the permits they think they need.

2) Allocation – the government gives away permits to polluters for free.

3) Grandfathering – permits are allocated based on historical emissions.  This accomplishes nothing because there is no incentive to reduce emissions, but it has been lobbied for heavily by major polluters.

Serious cap-and-trade proposals have included a mix of these distribution options.  From a climate change perspective, a pure auction is the best solution.  It raises the most money to help offset costs to consumers and spur research and development of renewable energy technologies while providing the most incentive to reduce emissions.  But direct allocations are attractive to legislators because it lets them in a sense “buy” the support of different groups that otherwise would not support the bill because they would be more greatly affected.

Some of this allocation falls into the realm of necessary political compromise, but it is also this aspect of previous climate bills that has doomed them in the contorted, propagandized public perception.  That being said, instituting a cap-and-trade system without any initial allocation would impose heavy costs on industry all at once.  I’m not saying they don’t deserve to pay for the free ride they have enjoyed for centuries, but helping them make the transition is not an outlandish idea.


In any case, this all may be a moot point because cap-and-trade’s prospects in the Senate are beyond dim as long as Republicans stick to those guns they love so much and Democrats do not control a supermajority (and probably still even then).

I wrote this post because as this policy dies at the hand of partisan politics, it needs to be said that this was our best vehicle to address climate change.  Study after study have shown that cap-and-trade bills would tackle our climate pollution while reducing the deficit, creating jobs, and increasing our energy security.

But who wants that?  Not Republicans, apparently.

Deeply Flawed Ruling Overturns Deepwater Drilling Moratorium June 24, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***UPDATE: Rachel Maddow has reported more information about Judge Feldman’s oil-related investments here.***

On Tuesday, Judge Martin Feldman granted a preliminary injunction brought by the oil industry against the Obama Administration’s 6-month moratorium on floating offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  That ruling lifts the drilling ban.

First of all, it is significant that Judge Feldman has reported extensive investments in the oil industry including both Halliburton and Transocean. Shockingly enough, his ruling does not read like it was penned by an impartial arbiter.  He uses phrases like “the government admits that the industry provides relatively high paying jobs” (p. 5-6).  Like that has anything to do with the safety of offshore drilling.

In describing the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Feldman even uses the exact same analogy trotted out by conservative pundits; “Are all airplanes a danger because one was?” (p. 19).  He also adds a few more analogies, including my personal favorite: “[Are] all tankers like Exxon Valdez?” (p. 19).  YES, FELDMAN, ALL THE SINGLE-HULLED TANKERS IN THE WORLD ARE JUST LIKE EXXON VALDEZ.  That’s why we’ve switched [embarrassingly slowly] to using double-hulled tankers!

Judge Martin Feldman. One of the 37 out of 64 active or senior judges in key Gulf Coast districts that have ties to the oil and gas industries.

Having read Feldman’s 22-page ruling, I am less than compelled by his arguments.

As I explained in my earlier defense of the moratorium, the logic for temporarily suspending deepwater drilling operations is very clear:

-Fact: We do not yet know what caused the blowout that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig.

-Fact: We do not have adequate prevention or containment methods for a deepwater blowout, so a massive oil spill is guaranteed if a blowout occurs.

-Fact: A massive oil spill is unacceptably destructive.

-Conclusion: Deepwater drilling must be halted AT LEAST until we know how to prevent and/or recover from deepwater blowouts.

Nobody has presented a counterargument to this logic.  This ruling does not contain one.  I don’t believe that one exists.

The oil industry and indeed Judge Feldman argue that the moratorium is a punitive action against innocent oil workers and that it would cause excessive job loss.  This is false.   Judge Feldman writes:

“Oil and gas production is quite simply elemental to Gulf communities” (p. 6).

As nice as that non sequitur would look on an oil billboard, all that says is that these communities need to diversify.

Employment has nothing to do with the justification for this moratorium. Even if it did, I have shown that blowouts such as this cause far more job loss in sustainable industries such as fishing and tourism than the moratorium would temporarily cost the drilling industry.

I find further faults in Judge Feldman’s ruling.

From a legal perspective, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act instructs the Secretary of the Interior to prescribe regulations,

“for the suspension or temporary prohibition of any operation or activity, including production…if there is a threat of serious, irreparable, or immediate harm or damage to life (including fish and other aquatic life), to property, to any mineral deposits (in areas leased or not leased), or to the marine, coastal, or human environment.” (p. 7-8).

This oil spill meets EVERY ONE of these conditions, ANY ONE of which justifies a moratorium.

Now, that same piece of legislation also preserves the right of any person “having a valid legal interest which is or may be adversely affected” by such regulations to sue to stop them (p. 8).  But those adversely affected workers do not make our oil rigs any safer or in any way reduce the threat that validates the moratorium.  If they have suffered financial burdens, make BP and friends compensate them.  Case closed.

The Administrative Procedure Act cautions that an agency action may only be overturned if it is “arbitrary” and “capricious”.  Lo and behold, Judge Feldman found this moratorium both arbitrary and capricious.

This moratorium is anything but arbitrary and whimsically impulsive.

Feldman contends that the government did not examine alternatives to the moratorium.  But until we know what caused the spill, there is no other effective preventative measure than not drilling (aside from blindly hoping it doesn’t happen again before we figure out what happened, but that’s not what I consider “effective”).

Feldman explains his ruling with the contention that the MMS report outlining the proposed drilling reforms “makes no effort to explicitly justify the moratorium: it does not discuss any irreparable harm that would warrant a suspension of operations” (p. 4).  Seriously Feldman?  Are you joking?  Have you read the news in the last two months?  You live in Louisiana for crying out loud.  Oh! I know, check the performance of your oil stocks.  Notice anything different?  Ya, something big happened.  It has consequences.

Feldman goes on to condescendingly demonstrate Secretary Salazar’s “pattern” of implying the catastrophic effects of deepwater drilling without explicitly stating them.

Instead of explaining the most convincingly implied point I have ever come across, I will take this moment to explicitly proclaim Judge Bubby Boy either decidedly dim or of integrity as oily and compromised as a deepwater blowout preventer.  Take your pick.

The points of contention continue.

Feldman repeatedly refers to the Administration’s “blanket” moratorium on offshore drilling.  If you’ve been following the oil spill, you may recall an earlier “mini-scandal” when the moratorium was announced: Secretary Salazar assembled a panel of experts to review the proposed safety reforms.  Those experts approved  – among many other reforms – a six-month moratorium on exploratory wells deeper than 1000 feet.  The final report proposed a six-month moratorium on exploratory wells deeper than 500 feet.  Everyone freaked out about DOI’s “blatant misrepresentation” of the experts’ recommendations (of which the moratorium was a small fraction).

Now, aside from sounding so far from impartial as to seem personally offended by these events, Judge Feldman wrote:

“[Eight of the experts] have publicly stated that they “do not agree with the six month blanket moratorium” on floating drilling.  They envisioned a more limited kind of moratorium, but a blanket moratorium was added after their final review, they complain, and was never agreed to by them.  A factor that might cause some apprehension about the probity of the process that led to the Report.” (p. 3)

First off all, that last sentence sounds like the script for a Fox News anchor.  My complaint here is for those experts that oppose the moratorium as well: just what kind of moratorium would you propose?  500 feet is the switchpoint between rigs that rest on the ocean floor and floating rigs.  That is, in Judge Feldman’s own words, “undisputed” (p. 18).

The oil industry (in this case, including Judge Feldman) isn’t angry that the Department of the Interior changed the moratorium depth by 500 feet.  They’re angry that it was implemented at all.  People talk about this “blanket moratorium” as if Obama tried to stop all offshore drilling.  In fact, he attempted to do nothing of the sort.

Feldman writes that he “is unable to divine or fathom a relationship between the findings and the immense scope of the moratorium” (p. 17).  Recurring oil spill delusion aside, “immense scope?”  Let’s look at what we’re talking about here.

The term “blanket” moratorium by itself is misleading.  The moratorium applied only to floating oil rigs drilling exploratory wells in depths deeper than 500 ft.  Existing production at those depths continued unaffected.  Shallower offshore drilling (the vast majority of offshore drilling) was unaffected.  The moratorium only applied to 33 oil rigs out of the ~4500 currently drilling in the Gulf!

How much more limited could the moratorium get? Should it only apply to deepwater wells owned by BP?  Only deepwater wells cemented by Halliburton? Only deepwater wells operated by Transocean rigs?  How about only those deepwater rigs that are about to explode and sink?

WE DON’T KNOW WHAT CAUSED THE BLOWOUT; how could we possibly refine the moratorium further? “Immense scale?”  This is the loosest-weave “blanket” moratorium in history.

Judge Feldman himself wrote that, “It is well settled that “preliminary injunction is an extraordinary that should not be granted unless the party seeking it has clearly carried the burden of persuasion” (p. 13).  That has not happened.  Yet Judge Feldman today rejected the government’s appeal to his Tuesday ruling. In doing so, he refused to delay his lifting of the drilling moratorium.    Why? For “the same reasons” given in his prior ruling. God bless America.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.