Failing Narratives : Carbon Culprits

In the last few weeks I have attended a number of well-intentioned meetings on advances in the field of carbon dioxide emissions mitigation. My overall impression is that there are several failing narratives to be encountered if you make even the shallowest foray into the murky mix of politics and energy engineering.

As somebody rightly pointed out, no capitalist worth their share price is going to spend real money in the current economic environment on new kit, even if they have asset class status – so all advances will necessarily be driven by public subsidies – in fact, significant technological advance has only ever been accomplished by state support.

Disturbingly, free money is also being demanded to roll out decades-old low carbon energy technology – nuclear power, wind power, green gas, solar photovoltaics – so it seems to me the only way we will ever get appropriate levels of renewable energy deployment is by directed, positive public investment.

More to the point, we are now in an era where nobody at all is prepared to spend any serious money without a lucrative slap on the back, and reasons beyond reasons are being deployed to justify this position. For example, the gas-fired power plant operators make claims that the increase in wind power is threatening their profitability, so they are refusing to built new electricity generation capacity without generous handouts. This will be the Capacity Mechanism, and will keep gas power plants from being mothballed. Yes, there is data to support their complaint, but it does still seem like whinging and special pleading.

And the UK Government’s drooling and desperate fixation with new nuclear power has thrown the European Commission into a tizzy about the fizzy promises of “strike price” guaranteed sales returns for the future atomic electricity generation.

But here, I want to contrast two other energy-polity dialogues – one for developing an invaluable energy resource, and the other about throwing money down a hole.

First, let’s take the white elephant. Royal Dutch Shell has for many years been lobbying for state financial support to pump carbon dioxide down holes in the ground. Various oil and gas industry engineers have been selling this idea to governments, federal and sub-federal for decades, and even acted as consultants to the Civil Society process on emissions control – you just need to read the United Nations’ IPCC Climate Change Assessment Report and Special Report output to detect the filigree of a trace of geoengineering fingers scratching their meaning into global intention. Let us take your nasty, noxious carbon dioxide, they whisper suggestively, and push it down a hole, out of sight and out of accounting mind, but don’t forget to slip us a huge cheque for doing so. You know, they add, we could even do it cost-effectively, by producing more oil and gas from emptying wells, resulting from pumping the carbon dioxide into them. Enhanced Oil Recovery – or EOR – would of course mean that some of the carbon dioxide pumped underground would in effect come out again in the form of the flue gas from the combustion of new fossil fuels, but anyway…

And governments love being seen to be doing something, anything, really, about climate change, as long as it’s not too complicated, and involves big players who should be trustworthy. So, you get the Peterhead project picking up a fat cheque for a trial of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in Scotland, and the sidestep hint that if Scotland decides to become independent, this project money could be lost…But this project doesn’t involve much of anything that is really new. The power station that will be used is a liability that ought to be closing now, really, according to some. And the trial will only last for ten years. There will be no EOR – at least – not in the public statements, but this plan could lead the way.

All of this is like pushing a fat kid up a shiny slide. Once Government take their greasy Treasury hands off the project, the whole narrative will fail, falling to an ignominious muddy end. This perhaps explains the underlying desperation of many – CCS is the only major engineering response to emissions that many people can think of – because they cannot imagine burning less fossil fuels. So this wobbling effigy has to be kept on the top of the pedestal. And so I have enjoyed two identical Shell presentations on the theme of the Peterhead project in as many weeks. CCS must be obeyed.

But, all the same, it’s big money. And glaring yellow and red photo opps. You can’t miss it. And then, at the other end of the scale of subsidies, is biogas. With currently low production volumes, and complexities attached to its utilisation, anaerobically digesting wastes of all kinds and capturing the gas for use as a fuel, is a kind of token technology to many, only justified because methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so it needs to be burned.

The subsidy arrangements for many renewable energy technologies are in flux. Subsidies for green gas will be reconsidered and reformulated in April, and will probably experience a degression – a hand taken off the tiller of driving energy change.

At an evening biogas briefing given by Rushlight this week, I could almost smell a whiff of despair and disappointment in the levels of official support for green gas. It was freely admitted that not all the planned projects around the country will see completion, not only because of the prevailing economic climate, but because of the vagaries of feedstock availability, and the complexity of gas cleaning regulations.

There was light in the tunnel, though, even if the end had not been reached – a new Quality Protocol for upgrading biogas to biomethane, for injection into the gas grid, has been established. You won’t find it on the official UK Goverment website, apparently, as it has fallen through the cracks of the rebranding to gov.uk, but here it is, and it’s from the Environment Agency, so it’s official :-

http://www.greengas.org.uk/pdf/biomethane-qp.pdf

http://www.r-e-a.net/news/rea-welcomes-environment-agencys-updated-anaerobic-digestion-quality-protocol

http://adbiogas.co.uk/2014/01/30/biomethane-qp-could-boost-renewable-gas-to-grid-market/
http://adbiogas.co.uk/2014/01/30/biomethane-quality-protocol-published/

Here’s some background :-

http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/aboutus/wfo/epow/124111.aspx

To get some picture of the mess that British green energy policy is in, all you need do is take a glance at Germany and Denmark, where green gas is considered the “third leg of the stool”, stabilising renewable energy supply with easily-stored low carbon gas, to balance out the peaks and troughs in wind power and solar power provision.

Green gas should not be considered a nice-to-have minor addition to the solutions portfolio in my view. The potential to de-carbonise the energy gas supply is huge, and the UK are missing a trick here – the big money is being ladled onto the “incumbents” – the big energy companies who want to carry on burning fossil fuels but sweep their emissions under the North Sea salt cavern carpet with CCS, whilst the beer change is being reluctantly handed out as a guilt offering to people seeking genuinely low carbon energy production.

Seriously – where the exoplanet are we at ?

Just like they said it would be – how extreme weather is proving climate change theory

Nature has been sending a strong, chaotic message to many people in the last few months – drought, floods, storms, and very unusual temperatures and weather events.

Public communicators of science have been explaining the underlying phenomena – the ENSO cycle in the Pacific Ocean has been flipping winds and sea surface temperatures from a condition known as La Nina, towards the El Nino configuration; plus, in the northern hemisphere, wind flow high above our heads has been erratic.

Scientists have been careful not to claim every extreme weather event as proof of climate change theory. After all, any one violent storm or unprecedented high could be just that – freak – never to be repeated. Climatologists instead talk of “loading the climate dice”, a way to explain that extreme weather is more likely in a warming world.

Reticence and restraint are in evidence, however, now is a prime moment to assert, without triumphalism, that all this crazy weather does indeed offer confirmation of climate change theory – everything is happening just the way the atmospheric scientists said it would.

Arctic amplification

There is no doubt that surface of the Earth is warming up, and the Arctic region of the globe is warming faster than anywhere else. This is to be expected in a world with added Greenhouse Effect from rising carbon dioxide levels in the air. The climatologists projected that this would happen, due to localised additional heating resulting from the side effects of melting ice, snow and permafrost in the northern pole. Antarctica, on the other hand, would not show the same kind of strong “albedo” feedback response as it was still too cold and ice-and-snow bound and surrounded by isolating ocean and wind currents.

Up there, where the air is clear

Scientists predicted that because of Arctic amplification, the profile of the planet’s atmosphere would change under global warming conditions. And so it has. The tropopause – the place where the lower, thicker atmosphere – the troposhere – meets the upper, thinner stratosphere, has shifted, and the temperature change profile or “inversion” at this height has also been modified. While the air close to the Earth’s surface has become warmer, the air in the stratosphere has become colder. All just as the scientists predicted would happen.

Jet stream weaker and loopier

Close to the surface of the planet, wind tracks and the passage of storms, pressure systems and clouds are turbulent and pretty chaotic. But above this zone, winds flow freely. The winds stream because the atmosphere drags whilst the Earth turns. Because of the general patterns of billowing air below them, jet streams are usually centred at particular places – the polar jets at around 30 degrees angle from the poles, the subtropical jets at around 30 degrees from the Equator.

Atmospheric scientists have been monitoring these winds for change, as the models indicated that the northern polar jet, in particular, would shift its position northwards, because of the other climate changes, and weaken. As it weakened, they worked out that the normal wavy kinks in the jet stream would become big loops, and maybe even lock into certain shapes for longer than usual, a situation known as a blocking event.

Wobbly weather

Because jet streams have an impact on the movement of weather systems further down, the scientists projected that the more meandering jet stream would carry weather systems out of their usual tracks, and also create bubbles of unusual temperature. Normally cold places would see heatwaves, normally hot places would have cold snaps, and everywhere would experience unseasonal and more extreme weather. And this is exactly what we have been seeing.

The number of freak weather events is mounting, along with insurance company manager blood pressure readings. The flooding and drought that would be expected with the periodic Pacific ENSO system flip from La Nina to El Nino have been highly damaging, and when the final accounting is done, probably more damaging than previously.

The food on the table

Climate change scientists have long predicted altered patterns and increased variability of rainfall with global warming. There are real concerns that farmers can no longer predict when, or for how long, it will rain, and this is affecting major food growing regions. The major global rice, wheat and maize corn harvests are at risk, and recent years of failings have dented confidence and ballooned prices.

Strange weather is impacting on fruit and vegetable growing, as seasons are becoming unclear and even swapping their normal order. The weather has gone wrong, and this is exactly what the scientists have been warning us about for several decades in official reports. How much easier would we have accepted changing realities if we had understood the language of the early research papers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change !

Clicking with Climate

Image Credit : University of California at Berkeley

Human beings have two brains. The first is a self-centred workhorse of pragmatic decision-making, interested in social engagement in order to further individual interests – whether those interests are purely for personal enrichment or for the reward of the social group more widely.

The second human brain is a relativistic engine, constantly comparing, reflecting, analysing. We are concerned about other peoples’ emotional response, wondering what other people think about us, responding to peer group pressure.

Are we more successful, popular than others ? Do people listen to us more than others ? We know we’re right, but do they ? We need to pitch ourselves in the right way. We jostle for pole position, for a place on the platform, hoping not to make too many opponents, whilst making more converts to our point of view.

Personally, I don’t listen to my second brain very often. As a social animal, I hope I’m tolerant, and my priorities in interpersonal engagement are mutual empowerment, transparent collaboration and inclusion. In my public projection, I’m not trying to vaunt myself over others, or massage my image for approval, or put up a fake facade. You get me, you get direct.

But I can’t avoid the second human brain entirely – as it is the reason for a lot of fuzziness in our view of the world around us. It’s too easy to stir doubt, falsehoods and bad ideas into the collective cake mix of society, where it fizzes into a bubbling mess. In matters of climate change science and energy engineering, there are no grey areas for me. But for a number of people I know, these are subjects of much confusion, denial and disinformation.

People hold on to the totem of what other people think. And so you have even very intelligent social commentators reciting from paid-for public relations by companies and business pressure groups. Journalists often do not appear to understand the difference between pseudo-science and real live science. There are too many people selling unrealistic, unworkable technological “solutions”, particularly in energy, so it’s hard to know what to accept and what to dismiss.

Yet it is critical to know what rock, what branch to keep a hold of in the flood of information that could sweep us away. The social construction of climate change is an important edifice, a safe house in an information world at war with itself. What high wind can sweep away the grubby pages of non-science from the Daily Mail ? What rising sea can cleanse the Daily Telegraph of its climate change denial columnists ? What can stop the so-called Global Warming Policy Foundation from infecting the Internet with their contrarian position ? What can make us accept the reality and urgency of global warming ? How can we learn to click with climate change ?

Three significant academic thinkers on the social significance of climate change are launching new works at the British Library in London, on 16th January 2012. The British Sociological Association have invited Mike Hulme, John Urry and Gordon Walker to discuss chapters from their recent books which address the question – where next for society and climate change ?

In the words of Chris Shaw at the University of Sussex, “they pull no punches in their analyses, and their approach is based on years of research into the social dimensions of the climate change debate. This is an essential opportunity for all those interested in bringing climate change into the democratic sphere, to help understand the issues involved in such a transition. It is also a chance to discuss the ideas with the authors and other delegates.”

For more information, see here and here.

The Year of Unceasing Rain (4)

Irony alert ? “Typhoons ? They happen all the time. It’s just a little local storm. Nothing to worry about. Happens every season or so. The locals know how to read the warning signs, and head to high ground or build their huts on stilts. Power lines down ? Oh, they’ll be strung back up in no time. And the rice paddies will benefit from all that extra rain.”

Watch out China – here comes Megi :-

BBC Hedges

[ YouTube Credit : The link to the video above comes thanks to the endeavours of that most fair and balanced individual James “no net global warming since 1998” Delingpole. “No net global warming since 1998” ? James ! You’re quoting Pat Michaels, but did he perhaps make that up ? Or was it something that Christopher Monckton might have made up ? ]

The BBC puts the blame on Climate Change – almost – in a report on the Russian heatwave-wildfire disaster.

But they just can’t bring themselves to admit it as an organisation – and put the claims into the mouths of others – using quotation marks in the headline (‘partly to blame’) and ascribing the opinion to “researchers”, the “UK Met Office” and “experts” :-

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-10919460

“10 August 2010 : Climate change ‘partly to blame’ for sweltering Moscow : By Katia Moskvitch : Science reporter, BBC News : Global climate change is partly to blame for the abnormally hot and dry weather in Moscow, cloaked in a haze of smoke from wildfires, say researchers. The UK Met Office said there are likely to be more extreme high temperatures in the future. Experts from the environmental group WWF Russia have also linked climate change and hot weather to raging wildfires around the Russian capital. Meteorologists say severe conditions may linger for several more days…”

Well, I’ve got a bit of a question to pose – it might not be possible to ascribe the current weather conditions in Russia (and Pakistan and China and and and…) to Climate Change, statistically. I mean no one weather event can be said to have been caused 100% by Climate Change. But would these extreme weather events have happened without Climate Change ?

That is by far the most important question to ask, and Michael Tobis does just that :-

http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2010/08/moscow-doesnt-believe-in-this.html

“…Are the current events in Russia “because of” “global warming”? To put the question in slightly more formal terms, are we now looking at something that is no longer a “loading the dice” situation but is a “this would, practically certainly, not have happened without human interference” situation? Can we phrase it more formally? “Is the average time between persistent anomalies on this scale anywhere on earth in the undisturbed holocene climate much greater than a human lifetime?” In other words, is this so weird we would NEVER expect to see it at all?…”

Continue reading BBC Hedges