08 November 2012

Mitigation vs Adaptation: What's The Difference?

We hear a lot about climate change "mitigation" these days . . . or is it "adaptation"? What's the difference and why should we care? The video says it in a nutshell:


"Mitigation" means making something less severe. Like reducing carbon emissions to reduce the rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases and thus slow global warming. "Adaptation" means dealing with a problem once it exists, like moving north to avoid heat waves, or installing more air conditioning, or attempting geoengineering projects to roll back climate change.

Mitigation--doing something now to slow global warming and make its impact on future generations less harmful--seems to be very difficult. We haven't been able to achieve much, even with the Kyoto Agreement and lots of handwringing among liberal Western consumers. In spite of Kyoto and a global economic recession CO2 levels in the atmosphere are increasing faster today than they were back in 1990, the Kyoto base year. And there seems to be little prospect of a more effective global political agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or even to extend the Kyoto program in modified form.

The reasons are easy to see. People don't want to sacrifice if they aren't going to benefit.
  • The real beneficiaries of emission reduction are future generations. Future generations don't vote (yet). 
  • Greenhouse gases emitted anywhere have impacts everywhere: Unless almost everybody sacrifices, nobody benefits. 
  • There is a "freeloader" problem. Many consumers may sacrifice (change consumption patterns or pay extra costs) to reduce emissions, which will have world-wide benefits if enough participate. But those benefits will also accrue to those who chose not to make those sacrifices.
The result is that we are doing practically nothing and we are on a path to global temperature rises of 4, 6, or more degrees celsius. (We've seen less than 1°C so far.)

So what will happen if we continue on this path? Global warming, climate change, and sea level rise. Some have characterized the potential impacts as "hell on Earth". 

Feasibility Cost
Mitigation Politically very difficult; needs worldwide cooperation; present costs benefit future generations; externalities Significant costs: Maybe 1%-2% of GDP
Adaptation Politically easier: Local investments to address local threats; immediate benefits High costs: Maybe 3%-5% of GDP or more

More on the future we are heading toward at sister blog A Very Different Earth.

The course mentioned in the video is described in more detail here.

01 November 2012

Classic Reposted: Storm Warning From Katrina Era

image of hurricane warning flags[This is a repost of a "Science In Action" classic, just to illustrate that the idea that big hurricanes might owe something to global warming is not news.]

Is Hurricane Katrina an example of "Global Warming" affecting the local weather? Recent evidence suggests that the warming of the oceans caused by our generation of greenhouse gases over the past century or two may be causing more intense hurricanes.

Climate scientists have known for some time that
  1. The Earth is heating up, and
  2. As the Earth's surface and atmospheric temperatures increase, this will affect the distribution and intensity of weather events.

Global Warming Is Real

Among scientists, any remaining arguments about global warming are questions of degree. There are a few lonely holdouts, as there are with any paradigm shift in science (Leading 19th century American scientist Louis Agassiz went to his grave opposing Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection). But most of the denial is outside the scientific community and is purely political. (That is to be expected -- see my earlier post on science and politics.)

Graph of Global Temperature Over Past 2000 Years

Sea Temperatures Affect Storms

One predicted effect of global warming is an increase in the intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms. As sea surface temperatures increase, these storms can draw more energy and moisture from those warmer waters.

What Drives a Hurricane?

The intense tropical cyclonic storms we call hurricanes (or typhoons, baguio, or cyclones) are driven by transfer of heat from the ocean to the atmosphere. They can form only over warm water (at least 26°C). The air over the sea is warmed, decreases in density, and therefore rises. The coriolis effect is strong enough to cause these rising currents to form spiraling winds. As the warm air expands and rises it cools, and eventually the water vapor in it condenses, releasing heat.

Heat of Condensation

As everyone knows, to boil water into steam (convert it into water vapor) you have to apply heat. When that water vapor recondenses that heat is released. Since water is a polar molecule, it takes a lot of heat to vaporize (evaporate) it, and a correspondingly large amount of heat is released by condensation.
This heat warms the air, causes further expansion, and reduces the atmospheric pressure below even further. As long as the system remains over warm water this cycle can build and the storm grows in size and windspeed. [Update: more about how this works in this Science In Action post on latent heat of water.]

Recent Research Has Shown:

1. Sea surface temperatures are clearly rising. This is one of the clear signs of global warming.

An influential study demonstrating that human activities have caused these sea surface temperature increases was reported in this press release from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Here is a pdf file of the article "Penetration of Human-Induced Warming into the World's Oceans" in Science. (If that link to the pdf doesn't work, get it through Dr. Pierce's publications site.)


A warming signal has penetrated into the world's oceans over the past 40 years. The signal is complex, with a vertical structure that varies widely by ocean; it cannot be explained by natural internal climate variability or solar and volcanic forcing, but is well simulated by two anthropogenically forced climate models. We conclude that it is of human origin, a conclusion robust to observational sampling and model differences. Changes in advection combine with surface forcing to give the overall warming pattern. The implications of this study suggest that society needs to seriously consider model predictions of future climate change.
2. Increasing sea surface temperatures will cause stronger hurricanes.

A recent paper, "Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years", published in Nature, confirms what theory predicts: hurricanes have increased in intensity as seas have warmed, and the two factors are highly correlated. Here is a pdf file of the article.


Theory and modelling predict that hurricane intensity should increase with increasing global mean temperatures, but work on the detection of trends in hurricane activity has focused mostly on their frequency and shows no trend. Here I define an index of the potential destructiveness of hurricanes based on the total dissipation of power, integrated over the lifetime of the cyclone, and show that this index has increased markedly since the mid-1970s. This trend is due to both longer storm lifetimes and greater storm intensities. I find that the record of net hurricane power dissipation is highly correlated with tropical sea surface temperature, reflecting well-documented climate signals, including multi-decadal oscillations in the North Atlantic and North Pacific, and global warming. My results suggest that future warming may lead to an upward trend in tropical cyclone destructive potential, and--taking into account an increasing coastal population--a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the twenty-first century.
Whether we are seeing an increase in the number of hurricanes and typhoons is less clear. The theoretical basis for such an increase based on higher sea surface temperatures is also not established. [Update: Evidence in: See this more recent post.]

Breaking News

Graph from Science editorial showing upward trend in category 4 and 5 stormsAnother study has recently been published: "Changes in Tropical Cyclone Number, Duration, and Intensity in a Warming Environment". (Editorial about the findings, which is the source of this graph; link to full text in Science)

Abstract and concluding paragraph

We examined the number of tropical cyclones and cyclone days as well as tropical cyclone intensity over the past 35 years, in an environment of increasing sea surface temperature. A large increase was seen in the number and proportion of hurricanes reaching categories 4 and 5. The largest increase occurred in the North Pacific, Indian, and Southwest Pacific Oceans, and the smallest percentage increase occurred in the North Atlantic Ocean. These increases have taken place while the number of cyclones and cyclone days has decreased in all basins except the North Atlantic during the past decade.

We conclude that global data indicate a 30-year trend toward more frequent and intense hurricanes, corroborated by the results of the recent regional assessment. This trend is not inconsistent with recent climate model simulations that a doubling of CO2 may increase the frequency of the most intense cyclones, although attribution of the 30-year trends to global warming would require a longer global data record and, especially, a deeper understanding of the role of hurricanes in the general circulation of the atmosphere and ocean, even in the present climate state.
The research reported in these articles is not the last word, and some other scientists don't completely agree with these findings. But it sure is beginning to look like the evidence supports the existence of these trends and implications.

Hurricane Warning

These changes have been caused by an increase in the temperature of the top 300 meters of the world's oceans of about one-half degree Celsius over the past fifty years. Global temperatures are expected to rise between 2°C and 4°C over the coming century. Think how this will affect hurricane strength and other weather! And consider the enormous amount of heat that had to be added to the oceans to raise their surface temperatures even 0.5°C. It would take centuries for them to cool down (or even to stop warming up!) even if we immediately stopped the human activities that contribute to global warming. Maybe we and our descendants had better get used to a stormier future.


[2013-03-19 1530GMT: Recent research found a "twofold to sevenfold increase in the frequency of Katrina magnitude events for a 1 °C rise in global temperature". That is pretty scary. Reuters item here. Abstract of PNAS article here.]

Additional Resources

The world scientific consensus on global warming is summarized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the UNEP and WMO. Here is its summary of evidence for sea surface warming trends. Here are graphs of sea surface temperatures from that report.

Wikipedia article on global warming.
The Tropical Storm Risk consortium predicts a record-severe hurricane season this year. Here is a press release regarding their updated forecast of 5 August (here is the pdf file with details).

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15 October 2012

Green eLearning: On-Line Business Sustainability Education

Learn how to
make the
business case
"Green is nice, but the real reason businesses do it is to save money." Now on-line learning tools make these money-saving advantages available to every business.

Big multinational businesses have been spending billions for many years to make their products, facilities, supply chains and operations more "green" and more "sustainable". The main driving force has been the ability to save money by reducing waste and inefficiency.

Many smaller and medium-sized businesses have yet to sieze these competitive advantages. This is partly because "green" seems like a luxury, rather than a business necessity, and because it seems confusing and complicated. True, it is complex, and changing rapidly, but the benefits of improved efficiency and cost savings are so important that every business should be taking advantage of them.

Fortunately, many good on-line sustainability learning tools for business have become available. These can be a very quick and cost-effective way for businesses to get up the sustainability learning curve, and to actually see concrete benefits in their operations.

  • Some courses are quite elaborate, more like on-campus executive education programs, both in content and price. An example is the University of Vermont's Advanced Certificate in Sustainable Innovation. It offers three eight-week courses, and costs thousands of dollars.
  • Other programs offer more detailed technical training. For instance, Schneider Electric's Energy University offers courses on such topics as "Boiler Types and Opportunities for Energy Efficiency" and eight courses on "Building Controls".
  • A recent entrant is the Talearnt Green Tech program, which is kicking off with a free mini-course on "Basics of Business Sustainability", targeted at managers in small and medium-sized businesses and those who aspire to business careers. [Full disclosure: I am the Director of the Talearnt Green Tech program, and the instructor for the "Basics of Business Sustainability" course.]

My opinion is that every business can save money and become more competitive by reducing waste and increasing efficiency. Businesses starting today can learn from the successes and failures of those that have gone before. But you should follow a proven method: walk before you try to run. The savings from early, easy green actions can help pay for more complex projects later. Don't start with hard-to-justify green branding programs or capital-intensive on-site renewables schemes. Start at the beginning.

Since every business can benefit from effective green action (and maybe help save the planet a little at the same time), that means every manager and every employee should understand sustainability issues. And these inexpensive, efficient, and effective on-line programs can be an essential tool to build those skills and achieve both corporate and career goals.

Image credit: Everaldo Coelho and YellowIcon from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crystal_Clear_app_business.png

12 October 2012

What Adam Smith Said About Making Businesses Sustainable

Adam Smith said many insightful things in his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. He didn't have a great deal to say about what we currently call "sustainability", the efforts of companies to be more "green". But he did point out what motivates businesspeople to do things, and these motivations also apply to getting businesses to reduce their (and thus our) environmental impacts.

Green is nice, but the real reason companies do it is to save money.


Unless you are a hermit or a subsistance farmer disconnected from all commerce, most of your environmental impact is due to things you buy. That includes food, shelter, electricity, gas, water, stuff (like cars, clothes, books, or electronics), services (like travel, education, entertainment, cloud computing, waste disposal, or health care), food, motor fuel, public services, and all sorts of other purchases. Thus your environmental footprint is essentially the environmental footprint of the producers and deliverers of those products and services--mostly businesses. They affect the environment as they produce and deliver those things you demand.

You can reduce your environmental footprint by buying and consuming less of those products and services. For example, you could probably cut your carbon footprint in half by taking fewer car and airplane trips (if any) and using a bicycle or telepresence instead. Or maybe you could eat less beef.

But those businesses (or public agencies) that provide those products and services could also help you reduce your environmental footprint by becoming more efficient in their own operations. And they have a very strong motivation to become more efficient: it can save them money and thus increase their profits.

Self-Interest Gets Things Done

We can try to urge businesses to be more sustainable for the good of the planet, or we can try to force them to be more sustainable with laws and regulations. But as Professor Smith perceived, the strongest motivation for any business is its own self interest. And if you look at what businesses are actually doing that results in reduced environmental footprints you can see that saving money, increasing sales, and remaining competitive is exactly what is driving them.

(For some examples and more discussion of why and how businesses can be more efficient, and more green, and more profitable, you are welcome to access the free Talearnt Green Tech Basics of Business Sustainability mini-course.)

You can read this famous passage of The Wealth of Nations here.

10 July 2012

The Pitfalls of "Green" Standards: Defeat of EPEAT?

EPEAT® is an environmental rating system that is supposed to help buyers choose green and sustainable computers and electronic equipment. Recyclability is one of its criteria. But apparently modern tablets and mobile devices don't fit easily into its standards. Apple has withdrawn all its certified products and won't submit future products for approval. Does this mean EPEAT is obsolete? What does this suggest for other "green" standards?

[Update 2012-07-13 2245gmt: Apple has announced that it will rejoin the EPEAT system and that all of its products that were formerly registered there are back on the EPEAT list. However, "We look forward to working with EPEAT as their rating system and the underlying IEEE 1680.1 standard evolve." Such standards have to evolve if newer, cooler products are to receive the EPEAT certification. Much of this post is still relevant: Certification systems need to be adaptable if they are not to be left behind by advancing technology.] [See further updates below.]

Dare to Share: 

The voluntary EPEAT standard was developed in 2003-2004 by a team representing "manufacturing, environmental advocacy, academic, trade association, government and recycling entities", including Apple Computer Inc.

However, computers have evolved quite a bit from the desktops, CRTs and laptops of that period. Apparently Apple has decided that its current and future designs will be unable to be disassembled and recycled as the EPEAT standard requires. So it has asked that its products be removed from the registry, and will not submit products for certification in the future (see this WSJ blog post).

According to that post,
One of Apple’s newest products, the MacBook Pro with a high-resolution “Retina” display, was nearly impossible to fully disassemble, said Kyle Wiens, co-founder of iFixit.com, a website that provides directions for users to repair their own machines. The battery was glued to the case, and the glass display was glued to its back. The product, released just a month ago, had not been submitted for EPEAT certification, according to the organization.
[Robert] Frisbee[, CEO of EPEAT,] said that the structure of that laptop would have made it ineligible for certification. “If the battery is glued to the case it means you can’t recycle the case and you can’t recycle the battery,” Frisbee said.
Presumably other manufacturers of tablets, smartphones, and newer laptops are facing similar design challenges. (No tablets are listed in the EPEAT registry.)

Green Standards

This situation raises a question that applies to all green certification, labeling, and registration schemes: What happens when technology outruns your carefully crafted compromise criteria?

And what happens when an obsolete certification scheme has become embedded in purchasing requirements? Many educational and public-sector institutions have established purchasing preference for EPEAT-registered electronic equipment. ("On 2007-01-24, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13423, which requires all United States Federal agencies to use EPEAT when purchasing computer systems." Source Wikipedia article.) Presumably educational institutions and government agencies will still want to buy Apple products sometimes. They will have to find ways to work around their outdated purchasing rules. Or maybe they will forego Apple products, as San Francisco threatens to do.

There are hundreds of green seals, badges, certifications and the like. Some, like ENERGY STAR, are managed by government agencies. Others, like LEED, UL Environment, and Marine Stewardship Council, and  are administered by industry groups or private organizations. All are meant to provide a shorthand way to communicate with purchasers, compressing elaborate evaluation criteria into a simple symbol or three- or four-level rating ("platinum, gold, silver, bronze").

It is a symptom of all such efforts to cram real-world complexity into a few simple categories that much information is lost, and sometimes unintended consequences result. Maybe such "seals of approval" make sense on a consumer product. They show that someone (but who?) has done some homework for you (and how?). But this is the information age: purchasing managers should be able to handle a certain degree of complexity.

[Update 2012-07-16 1500gmt: EPEAT has issued a statement welcoming Apple back (currently on its home page). It says in part:
We look forward to Apple’s strong and creative thoughts on ongoing standards development. The outcome must reward new directions for both design and sustainability, simultaneously supporting the environment and the market for all manufacturers’ elegant and high-performance products. 
An interesting question for EPEAT is how to reward innovations that are not yet envisioned with standards that are fixed at a point in time. Diverse goals, optional points awarded for innovations not yet described, and flexibility within specified parameters to make this happen are all on the table in EPEAT stakeholder discussions. And of course, timely standards development, as with newly created Imaging Equipment and Television standards, and the current refresh of the PC/Display standard, is critical as well.
Elsewhere it is reported that Apple's "MacBook Pro computer with Retina display, rumored to have been the reason for Apple's withdrawal from the registry in the first place, was added to its list of certified products, achieving an EPEAT Gold rating, said Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguent." (Source GreenBiz.com item).

So has EPEAT shown unexpected flexibility to enable the new MacBook Pro to be registered, or was Apple's earlier withdrawal based on some other issues? (Remember, just a couple of days ago the CEO of EPEAT "said that the structure of that laptop would have made it ineligible for certification" [see above].) And what will happen with tablets, which still aren't registered on EPEAT? I guess "ongoing standards development" and "flexibility within specified parameters" can make standards like EPEAT adaptable enough to survive after all. Especially when a participant with the clout of Apple throws their weight around.] [See more updates below the line.]

How Green is Apple?

Apple hasn't focused on green or sustainability as a marketing angle. It has been in the middle of the pack in Greenpeace's Guide to Greener ElectronicsThis post from last year reviews some of Apple's steps and missteps in sustainability. But the company has become increasingly transparent and responsive on green issues, as reflected in its environmental reports here.

[Update 2012-07-13 1430gmt: Greenpeace has upgraded Apple's rating on greenness of power used for its iCloud servers, though it still ranks Apple behind leaders in green power for the cloud.]

And Apple has clearly decided that it can be green on its own terms, even if that means its cutting-edge designs won't meet the requirements of EPEAT certification. Obviously it will still comply with the raft of existing regulations that cover hazardous materials and recycling of electronics, such as RoHS and WEEE. And many of its products are still listed as ENERGY STAR qualified, including those that have been removed from the EPEAT registry.

[Further update--2012-10-15 2318UTC: Apple's MacBook Pro with Retina display, and several other ultra-thin compact computers with similar disassembly problems, have been given EPEAT's seal of approval, though Greenpeace still objects. See Environmental Leader story.]

[Yet another update--2012-10-16 1832UTC: More on environmental groups' concern that EPEAT relaxed its standards under pressure from Apple: businessGreen story.]

The image of the iMac G4 is in the public domain

The image of the "iPad 3" is by pahudson, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license