Archive for December, 2009

Copenhagen Diagnosis Press Conference

Click to view the webcast of the Dec.15 press conference with the authors of the Copenhagen Diagnosis, including Scripps distinguished professor emeritus Richard Somerville.
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Scripps Oceanography/Stanford University Press Conference

Click to view the webcast of the Dec. 14 Scripps Oceanography/Stanford University COP-15 press conference, “The Oceans and Climate Change: Perspectives from Science”
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A Sea Change

This film is amazing. If every parent could see this film, they would be set on fire to do something to stop ocean acidification. It follows the journey of one man, the filmmaker, Sven Huseby, who, after reading an article in the New Yorker about ocean acidification, becomes determined to save the beautiful fragile pteropods who are in the most danger of losing their shells if we continue emitting carbon dioxide and acidifying the oceans, so his grandson will grow up in a world will an ocean teeming with life.

After a screening of the film on December 10, there was a Q&A with Vicki Fabry, Andrew Dickson, Tony Haymet, and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. The moderator, Brad Warren, kicked off this portion of the Q&A with an attempt to address two criticisms: Two kinds of hope being peddled at COP-15, both of which deserve to be thrown out of the window of a tall building. Geoengineering in the form of ocean fertilization. And the fact that adult lobsters grow thicker shells in a more acidic sea sometimes. You can click on the link to hear the panelists’ response: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fp-A-qCMhgY

Tamara Beitzel, Scripps graduate student

Week 2: Tuesday and Wednesday

The blog is back up!  Now, what I’d been meaning to post since yesterday, plus some today updates, so apologies if this gets a little long.

I arrived in Copenhagen yesterday after a marathon of flights (Orange County to Minneapolis/St Paul, Minneapolis to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Copenhagen) and hit the ground running. I was informed by the nice COP15 representatives at the airport that in the near 24 hours since I boarded my first plane, the situation had gotten a little crazy, with NGO delegates waiting in line for up to seven hours trying to get their badges. As I’d arrived around 15:30 local time and was already sleep-deprived and disoriented, I figured I might as well try to get in that afternoon rather than ruin my Wednesday morning, which proved fortuitous; through sheer luck I managed to get my badge within about three hours, and to my understanding we were the last batch to get badges, period.

Besides the logistical nightmares (more on that later), the experience so far has been almost surreal, possibly because of jet lag. When I got in Tuesday evening I wandered around the Bella Center a bit as I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get in today at all. There are representatives of practically every group that has an interest in the climate change issue; before yesterday I hadn’t really given it much thought that there could be a “women for climate solutions” organization (actually there may have been two or three!), then of course there were youth groups (which was encouraging), developing countries, alternative fuel industries, and universities such as Scripps Institution of Oceanography, just to name a few. I was also interested to see the number of vegetarian/vegan advocacy groups there, mostly handing out paraphernalia outside the front gate. I went fully vegetarian about a year ago primarily for the environmental benefits, and I feel it’s one of those often-overlooked climate mitigation strategies. It would be interesting to see delegates at one of these meetings try to offset their travel emissions by eating lower on the food chain for the duration of the conference.

I have to say the thing I’m most disappointed about is, as others have mentioned, the organization of the event (or rather, the lack thereof). Those in charge could definitely have done a better job of setting up NGO access, as well as facilitating the dissemination of information. They say there are about 40,000 people here, but the capacity of the Bella Center is only 15,000.  The solution to this was to limit the number of people by giving each delegation a certain number of “secondary” passes, so in order to get in you need both your primary photo badge and then a secondary badge. However, as of Tuesday, if you didn’t have a secondary badge they wouldn’t let you in to pick up your primary badge (I saw several fellow line-standers get turned away after getting through security because they didn’t have the secondary badges.) What an awful experience to fly all the way from somewhere like Africa or Australia to attend these events, only to be turned away before even getting through the door, or missing your side events because of the registration logjam! Beyond that, even, they are limiting the number of us who can get into the BC to fewer and fewer each day, so the secondary badges don’t even guarantee anything: 7,000 today, 1,000 tomorrow, and only 90 on Friday. Ostensibly this is to keep the building under capacity while protecting the heads of state from the protesters seen on the news today, but it is quite disappointing as those of us left had hoped to see Obama speak on Friday.  The BBC is reporting that some protesters have tried and succeeded to spend the night inside the BC; good luck to them, but those of us who succumbed to the desire to sleep in a bed and have a shower will probably go around to some of the external side events of Thursday and Friday, and with any luck find a closed-circuit broadcast of the proceedings airing outside the BC.  Something like that could probably have gone a long way in placating the masses as well as reducing congestion at the BC, especially considering the powers that be knew the people there would amount to almost three times the capacity, but as far as I can tell there is nothing widely publicized of that nature going on. Most of the information desk people were as helpful as they possibly could be, but there was definitely a gap in communication somewhere along the line.

We did manage to get in this morning, though they had already blocked NGO access to the main plenary. We were able to go into the secondary plenary hall and for a brief period they were broadcasting the ongoing plenary proceedings there. Heads of state were supposed to speak in the afternoon, but as of when they turned off the broadcast there was still a back-and-forth going on between negotiators, which was a shame, as I was hoping to see what el presidente Hugo Chavez and the other scheduled heads of state had to say.

Other highlights:
–on our final descent into Amsterdam, seeing not one but two offshore wind farms.

Offshore wind farm off Amsterdam

–going out to dinner with the group only to have the governor of California and the LA mayor walk in and sit at the next table, with an entourage of about 15. Look out soon for the picture of Tamara, me, and Arnold Schwarzenegger that Rob scored with his excellent communication skills.

John Kerry speaking at COP-15

John Kerry speaking at COP-15

–getting in to see John Kerry speak today. He was very optimistic about the potential for a climate bill passing the Senate next year, but emphasized that an agreement here would facilitate that process. I’m not quite so optimistic, but it’s nice to see sitting politicians recognize the gravity of the situation, and I hope he proves me wrong.

–sitting in the plenary and using the translating headphones!

–and, completely unrelated to the conference: snow!

Snow in Copenhagen (the dark blurred figures are bicyclists)

–Kristina Pistone, Scripps graduate student

Heading home…

I’ll be heading home in a couple hours since that is when the science ends and the political firestorm takes off. I don’t totally regret that I’m going home for the really interesting part though since I wouldn’t be able to see it if I were here anyway.  Denmark seems to have underestimated the number of delegates that this conference would draw while overestimating the size of their facility. The Bella center, as beautiful as it is, has a capacity of 15,000. With 5,000 members of the press and an influx of many thousands of party delegates inbound in the coming days, there is very little room for the ~20,000 NGO delegates. Each delegation is being given a small handful of secondary badges that will be needed from today on. Connie Hedegaard met with all of the NGO delegates yesterday and first asked us to not let up on the pressure, and then qualified that in response to a question with the apology that it’ll be so much harder to do that once the NGO delegate allotment vanishes in response. Again, a question answered so tactfully that I forgot the main reason people are grumpy is that we’ve been put in too small of a facility.

That said, I do wish there were a way I could sit in on the 16th of December speeches. They’ll go from noon to roughly 2 a.m. on the 17th… but how awesome would it be to hear a litany of speeches on climate change from some of the most powerful and controversial people of our era.  The speaker list seems to change every day, but right now it includes Hugo Chavez, Jose Manuel Barroso, Saad Harriri, Felipe Calderon, Kevin Rudd, Wen Jiabao, Hosny Mubarak, Prince Albert II of Monaco (winner of the Roger Revelle Prize at Scripps and advocate of ocean acidification research), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Luiz da Silva, Myung-bak Lee, Zapatero, Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi, Hsien Loong Lee, and Gloria Arroyo. The number of other heads of state speaking are really too numerous to count… these are just the names that I recognize from listening to NPR too much… I’m not sure if Berlusconi is on the list still and I didn’t check yesterday.

Yesterday saw the walkout of the G77 and a bizarre hoax played on Canada.

Also I was lucky enough to be present when two people from countries that don’t officially exist had a conversation over lunch. A girl from the British Virgin Islands was talking to me, Grant, and another girl from Taiwan about how her country was in a tough spot… as part of Britain they are an “Annex 1,” or rich, country, but as a developing island region they hardly have the resources to battle sea level rise much less reduce their own emissions. The assumption under Kyoto was that Britain would help, but, if I understood correctly, her region has so far seen 20,000 pounds from the mainland on this issue.  The girl from Taiwan then pointed out that she was in the equal and opposite situation… as a developed region that was lumped officially into China under Kyoto her region had no emission reduction responsibility under Kyoto.

Ok, I’m headed home now.  Good luck Copenhagen!

–Brendan Carter, Scripps Oceanography graduate student

Week Two

Delegation seating in main plenary hall, Bella Center.

Delegation seating in main plenary hall, Bella Center.

Week two of a COP conference is when the advance teams and assistants give way to world leaders, who lock the doors behind them and work out the deals that become a protocol. So far the prospects look dim for COP15: African and island state delegations boycotted the talks yesterday, arguing that developed nations needed to commit to deeper emissions cuts than had been offered. The U.S. and China have been trading accusations since the U.S. demanded that China submit to independent verification of its emissions.

So there may be a feeling of pessimism that this conference will produce anything solid, anything that will effect positive change. I see it a different way. I see progress coming from the periphery of this conference.  My hunch is that countries will come to embrace emissions reductions and alternatives to oil as a matter of domestic policy rather than as a means of compliance with international treaties. A China, for instance, might choose to stop investing its plentiful cash in U.S. bonds but instead put it into its own infrastructure. The global downturn could provide the breather the country needs to stop building coal-fired power plants at a weekly rate and raise the profile of wind and solar in its energy portfolio.

I see hope in the kinds of things that people ask questions about here at Bella Center. I’m thinking of the Kenyan researcher interested in the links between ocean acidification as a threat to tourism as coral reefs dissolve and die, becoming uninteresting to sport divers. No need to convince him that it pays to go green.

The issues that our scientists brought to COP15 — from the need to verify emissions to make carbon markets work to the rising threat of ocean acidification— gained traction among the media and high-ranking delegates. During COP15, NOAA Adminstrator Jane Lubchenco and London’s Sunday Times used the same term — “climate change’s evil twin” — to describe ocean acidification. Fresh from his time at COP15, our Veerabhadran Ramanathan attended the annual American Geophyscial Union meeting in San Francisco. His description of his Project Surya drew a packed audience.

Today, Tuesday, most of the Scripps delegation left town. The departed were fortunate to avoid a confusing United Nations scheme to address overcrowding that will progressively scale back the numbers of NGO members allowed at Bella Center. They are doing this to deal with an apparently unforeseen onslaught of press and delegates Even holders of the prized “secondary passes” issued this past weekend had to spend hours in bitter cold in queues outside the building before being separated from those awaiting basic credentialing. That was really the only downside of the event. Terrible planning.

COP15 Tourist

COP15 Tourist

But as the science is winding down, the conference and Copenhagen itself are gearing up for a final act that will involve most of the world’s heads of state. Climate change events and demonstrations continue and the city is draped in advocacy-group slogans. One gets the impression, though, that only a portion of this activism is for the conference. Copenhagen seems like a city that lives green all the time, not just when the world is watching. The public transportation is advanced, everyone rides a bicycle (naturally the people are all the fitter for it), the country gets 21 percent of its power from wind. Somehow these people are happy even without using foreign oil. Mystifying.

The beautiful city’s remarkable commitment has made it a model during the conference. Can other cities be like this?

Of course — though I think Mexico City has its work cut out for it before it hosts the next Conference of the Parties.

Signing off from Copenhagen.

–Robert Monroe, Scripps public information officer and editor of explorations

Posturing and Small Victories

Predictably, the bulk of the conference that I have seen has been nations advocating theories and mechanisms that would either limit their own responsibility for controlling emissions (relative to everyone else’s) or make it easier for them to achieve a given amount of climate change mitigation equivalent under the law. I’m sure that there are substantive negotiations going on behind closed doors, but it seems clear that now is the time for posturing and small victories.

The US state department hosted speakers from several nations (and India made the case in the main forum discussion) that CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage: grabbing CO2 as it is being emitted and sticking it somewhere out of the atmosphere) technology should be included as a CDM (Clean Development Mechanism: a way for rich countries to cheaply invest in carbon mitigation in developing countries instead of adopting more costly measures at home). This is controversial since CCS is a collection of unproven methods for reducing long-term emissions. During Q and A for the U.S. forum a person from the crowd called the speakers out for focusing on unreliable CCS technology when they could be developing renewable energy. The speaker responded that as rich nations it is the responsibility of the U.S. and others to develop the technology and to give it to the less fortunate countries. He presented the argument so well that I almost didn’t notice that he didn’t answer why these rich nations should be given credit for reducing emissions with this method before the technology is shown to work.

China, for their part, hosted a special session where a group of their think tank representatives suggested a plan that figured out how much obligation each nation has for reducing emissions based upon the per-capita national emissions to date. I couldn’t tell from the presentation where they got their population numbers, but it was clear where this plan was headed…with their recent industrialization and tremendous modern population their emission reduction obligation would be essentially negligible relative to other large emitters’.

A central battle that has developed is over the future of Kyoto. Kyoto doesn’t contain emission obligations for the nations of the world that were developing back in 1997, so many of the developing nations, China, and India would like to see the continuation of Kyoto after the U.S. signs on. Canada and the U.S. have pointed out that the developed world now accounts for only ~35% of the total emissions, so a continuation of Kyoto is not a viable way forward. There is also a lot of talk about parallel plans. Perhaps this means extending and strengthening Kyoto while also adopting another simultaneous plan that requires emissions reductions for everyone.

I’ve read that the U.S. has explicitly ruled out signing on to a Kyoto-like deal…

The flyer on my chair is demanding “reparations for climate debt”…

And never the twain shall meet?  Hopefully this is just posturing.

–Brendan Carter, Scripps Oceanography graduate student

Thanks to our Friends!

Nyhavn

Sunday in Nyhavn

There are thousands of options for nightlife in Copenhagen, especially in the middle of a United Nations conference. Every square in town has some sort of entertainment related to the climate talks — and of course, there are plenty of protests to watch.

But the evenings have been time mostly for quiet dinners among members of the Scripps delegation. They’ve been important opportunities for students, staff and faculty at Scripps to visit with the friends of the institution who have made this entire trip possible.

The Scripps presence at COP-15 has been entirely funded by friends of Scripps. No state tax dollars at work here. From the plane tickets to accommodations to the USB drives eagerly snatched up and coming home with journalists and delegates all around the world, supporters who care about science have succeeded in giving it a showcase at the world’s most importance gathering on climate. They have also allowed our students a chance to see science and policy come together on one of the most important issues of this era.

Generous support came from the Oak Foundation, Jesse Fink, Jason Khoury, Ellen Lehman, Lee Stein. Steve Strachan, and Kathy Paulin. Thanks one and all!

–Robert Monroe, Scripps public information officer and editor of explorations

Dec. 10 Scripps press conference webcast available

Watch Tony Haymet and Ray Weiss of Scripps host “Trust but Verify: Why Climate Legislation and Carbon-equivalent Trading Need Atmospheric Emission Verification to Work.”

Click to view webcast of Scripps COP-15 Press Conference, “Trust but Verify: Why Climate Legislation and Carbon-equivalent Trading Need Atmospheric Emission Verification to Work.” (It may take a few minutes to load)

–Robert Monroe, Scripps public information officer and editor of explorations

Ocean Acidification

Ocean Acidification is one of the three things that our delegation wanted to spread the word about at this conference. It has turned out to be a major theme among the scientists at the conference since the handful of other ocean science groups also realized that there was a need for outreach on this topic.

Ocean Acidification is also known as the “other CO2 problem.” It refers to the chemical reaction between water and carbon dioxide to form a weak acid. This is not quite the same thing as “acid rain” since that term generally refers to the creation of much stronger acids being formed in un-buffered rain water interacting with sulfur and nitrogen based compounds. The ocean is reasonably well buffered against (resistant to) changes in its pH from the addition of acids, but it is not immune to the effects.

There are layers of complexity, but the simplest picture is still fundamentally correct: more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more carbon dioxide in the oceans, more carbon dioxide in the oceans means more acid formation in the ocean, more acid formation means a lower ocean pH a.k.a. a more acidic ocean.

The extra CO2 that we’ve added to the atmosphere has made its way into the oceans already, and the pH has dropped by about 0.1 units already in response to our emissions. The pH scale is a little strange, so a drop of 0.1 units means that the water is actually about 30% more acidic. The ocean is slightly on the basic end of the scale on average (a bit over 8 at the surface, a bit over 7.5 at the bottom), so becoming a little more acidic isn’t going to melt the casual swimmer’s eyes or anything bizarre like that. However, as you might expect, life in the ocean has evolved to thrive in these higher pH conditions.

The main cause for concern comes from the reaction of this water-and-carbon-dioxide acid with a molecule in seawater called “carbonate” to form another common molecule in seawater called “bicarbonate.” This decreases the concentration of carbonate floating around. This is the same carbonate that could otherwise be used to form calcium carbonate, or the stuff found in chalk. Chalk and limestone are actually the calcium carbonate shells of tremendous numbers of dead microscopic plankton. Several very common varieties of modern plankton also make their shells out of calcium carbonate. When you consider that some of these plankton types are key components of the base of the food web in the ocean, the potential problem becomes apparent. Experimentation suggests that these organisms are increasingly going to make shells at a slower rate and with greater difficulty as carbonate becomes more scarce. Experiments using the carbon dioxide concentrations expected by the end of the century suggest that these shells will eventually dissolve in some surface seawater. Any ocean life that relies on a shell is also likely to have similar problems, and I understand that some oysters and clams show greatly reduced shell thicknesses already in modern conditions. Coral polyps also make their homes in calcium carbonate structures (the coral), and the reduced calcification rates are a likely additional threat to these species (along with warming induced bleaching, nutrient runoff, turbidity, dynamite fishing, and over fishing higher up in the food chain leading to over-predation…corals have it rough these days). Collectively acidification has a very real potential to rearrange the base of most ocean ecosystems. Ecosystems are known to adapt when change comes gradually but, as with global warming, this pH change is happening faster than any dramatic past ocean pH change we have record of. Naturally, past more-gradual acidification events also marked widespread mass-extinctions. It’s not definite that this will be large problem for humanity, but it is clear that it could be an enormous problem for the oceans and the ~50% of humanity that relies on the sea for its primary source of protein. We really need to take a closer look at how ocean ecosystems respond to the plight of it’s shell-formers. In the mean time, it is one heck of another big reason to stop dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

As I alluded to in a past entry there was an interesting exchange regarding ocean acidification at an early meeting…sadly my notes are nigh-illegible so the italicized text from here on out is paraphrases of my tattered memories. First the IPCC scientists presented acidification in their briefing as something that is almost definitely going to be in the next IPCC report (AR5). Two scientists in the audience then asked whether any mention of ocean acidification has been made to the decision makers formally and, if not, why not. They responded that no, the mandate of the IPCC is to release the reports on a preset time table after the standard multi-year review process and that to go beyond that would be to overstep their bounds.

At the same Q and A the question was asked how can you claim to not be involved in advocacy and still say ‘urgent action is needed (with respect to climate change).’ Rajendra Pachauri (I think) then responded that the full sentence that the reporter was quoting was urgent action is needed if the temperature increase is to be limited to 2 degrees C and that that is one of several exact questions of science which the IPCC is charged with answering. I appreciate this guy for his ability to competently deal with attacks…this is the same guy that pointed out that the UAE scientist’s enemy’s work made it into the IPCC. My favorite bit from him came when asked if he is concerned that Saudi Arabia has been making such a big deal of the UAE leak…I would be concerned if they hadn’t! It is said that politics and oil mix well, but I’m not sure that oil and science mix so well. Yes, I’ll leave it at that.

–Brendan Carter, Scripps Oceanography graduate student

 
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