Thursday, February 01, 2007

Coral reef may benefit from global warming

Jennifer Marohasy expands on the few points I made yesterday:

On Friday in Paris the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will launch a new report, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, with an up-to-date assessment of likely temperature rises because of global warming. Three related reports will be released later in the year, including a report on the likely effects of the rise in temperature. The report on impacts is likely to include a chapter on Australia and a warning that corals on the Great Barrier Reef could die as a consequence of global warming.

The idea that the Great Barrier Reef may be destroyed by global warming is not new, but it is a myth. The expected rise in sea level associated with global warming may benefit coral reefs and the Great Barrier Reef is likely to extend its range further south. Global threats to the coral reefs of the world include damaging fish practices and pollution, and the UN should work harder to address these issues.

Most of the world's great reefs are tropical because corals like warm water. Many of the species found on the Great Barrier Reef can also be found in regions with much warmer water, for example around Papua New Guinea. Corals predate dinosaurs and over the past couple of hundred million years have shown themselves to be remarkably resistant to climate change, surviving both hotter and colder periods.

Interestingly, scientific studies show that over the past 100 years, a period of modest global warming, there has been a statistically significant increase in growth rates of coral species on the Great Barrier Reef. There have also been periods of coral bleaching, but no conclusive evidence to suggest that either the frequency or severity has increased.

Coral bleaching is a breakdown in the symbiotic relationship between corals and the algae that provide them with food. When coral becomes stressed from extreme heat or cold, the algae are expelled. Some corals are more susceptible to bleaching than others. Most corals can adapt to higher water temperatures.

There was damaging coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 and then again in 2002, but at different hot spots. The Great Barrier Reef comprises more than 3000 individual reefs extending for 2700km. The bleaching was associated with extended periods of calm weather and less wave action, with the hot spots rising in temperature by as much as 2C. Extended periods of calm weather are not predicted with global warming; when Cyclone Larry hit Innisfail last year, some claim it reduced the threat of bleaching at that time.

About 17 per cent of the world's reefs can be found around Australia and PNG. According to the last global assessment of the coral reefs of the world, Australian reefs are among the best protected in the world. And as a consequence of environmental campaigning there has been a significant commitment from the Queensland and commonwealth governments to further reduce fishing and the potential for pollution from land-based activities, including farming.

In other parts of the world many reefs are under increasing pressure from blast fishing, illegal capture of live fish for the restaurant trade in places such as Hong Kong, coral mining, industrial pollution, mine waste and land reclamation. In PNG, high sediment loads from uncontrolled forestry, with some of this wood probably ending up as furniture bought by Australians, has also affected coral reefs. There clearly are global threats to coral reefs, but reef ecosystems have historically been resilient to climate change, and global warming may bring more opportunities than threats.

Corals grow upwards. Interestingly, north of Cairns there are large areas of reef with dead coral because of localised falls in sea level. A significant rise in sea level as a consequence of global warming could make these reef flats come alive again. It will be the next ice age that will leave many of the world's coral reefs high and dry.

Global warming may be the big environmental issue of our times and the UN may feel compelled to include the world's main environmental symbols in its climate models and assessments. But there are higher priorities for the world's coral reefs.

Australia's Great Barrier Reef may actually benefit from some global warming. But other coral reefs are unlikely to benefit enough to survive the real and immediate threat from destructive and often illegal fishing practices and pollution.


Righteous carbon crusaders let down by the V8 under the cape

In my lifetime I've experienced two religious movements, Christianity and Marxism. Now there's a third, the belief our civilisation is doomed unless we take urgent and significant action to reduce our output of carbon dioxide. The three share several core characteristics. One is a possible explanation for what believers consider an important chunk of our existence. Another is a moral framework so we can identify goodies and baddies, something human beings seem compelled to do. A third is fundamentalism: believers ignore or downplay facts or events that don't support their proposition.

But if the carbon crusade is to succeed as a religion it needs to purge the insincerity that characterises many of its prophets. I find I'm often chastised for not taking global warming seriously enough by people who in their own lives produce far more carbon dioxide than I do. This raises questions about their sincerity and brings the cause into disrepute. You can't be a good priest if you lie with prostitutes, and you can't be a good Marxist if you exploit workers. And you shouldn't be taken seriously as a global warming prophet unless your actions reflect your words.

Here are a few guidelines. People who want to be taken seriously when they tell us to reduce our carbon dioxide output do not, in their own lives: drive much (and when they do, their cars have small motors); fly unnecessarily (and never on holidays); or use unnecessary power, such as dishwashing machines and air-conditioners. Nor will they, once Sydney gets its desalination plant, have gardens or swimming pools unless they supply the water for these from their own tanks. One could add to the list, but these are some basic requirements.

This raises the question of carbon offsets, the increasingly popular arrangement whereby you can buy trees to absorb the carbon you produce. Tony Blair is a recent convert. Launching the Stern review on global warming last October, Blair, with all the confidence of Moses descending the mountain, supported its conclusions and declared: "Unless we act now . these consequences [of global warming], disastrous as they are, will be irreversible." But this sense of urgency had mysteriously evaporated a few weeks ago, on his return from a vacation at the Miami mansion of Bee Gee Robin Gibb. Sky News asked him if maybe, given his great and commendable concern for the future of civilisation, the vacations by air should stop. "I personally think these things are a bit impractical," said the perky one, "actually to expect people to do that. It's like telling people you shouldn't drive anywhere."

Britain was shocked. It was as if Winston Churchill, after announcing the need to fight on the beaches, had later conceded he hadn't actually meant any form of activity where people, well, him anyway, might get hurt. The press had a field day, and a few days later Blair announced he would offset his family's attack on the environment by purchasing 89.92 pounds (about $228) worth of carbon offsets.

It would have been better for Blair and everyone else if the Stern review had been more sceptically received. As it was, despite the political circumstances of its birth, the review was accepted instantly by a huge range of people, and is now pointed to as justification for certain behaviour with all the enthusiasm that earlier generations pointed to the Bible. I haven't seen one of its supporters explain why the review is superior to the far more sceptical report produced by the House of Lords a year earlier. That's fundamentalism in action.

In fact, there's reason to suspect the review is a prime example of what Britain's leftish Institute for Public Policy Research calls "climate porn". Late last year World Economics, a reputable and mainstream British academic journal, published a lengthy rebuttal of the review by 14 experts. It's worth quoting from the abstract at some length because the rebuttal has been almost completely ignored. Google Australia gives it 10 references compared with more than 10,000, mostly adulatory ones, for the Stern review itself. That's fundamentalism in action, too.

The authors in World Economics "conclude that the review fails to present an accurate picture of scientific understanding of climate change issues, and will reinforce ill-informed alarm about climate change. Two interrelated features of the Stern review are that it greatly understates the extent of uncertainty as to possible developments, in highly complex systems that are not well understood, over a period of two centuries or more; and its treatment of sources and evidence is persistently selective and biased . the Stern review mishandles data; gives too little attention to actual observation and evidence, as distinct from the results of model-based exercises; and takes no account of the failures of due disclosure, and the chronic limitations of peer reviewing, that have been characteristic of work relating to climate change which governments have commissioned and drawn on. As to specifically economic aspects . the review systematically overstates projected costs of climate change [and] underestimates the likely cost - including to the world's poor - of the drastic global mitigation program that it calls for."

The non-religious view of global warming is this: we know the world has warmed slightly over the past century, but we don't know how much of this was caused by humans and how much by the natural variations in temperature that occur frequently. We have no idea if the warming will continue or, if it does, whether this will be good or bad.

Source. (The author above, Michael Duffy, was Australian Federal Attorney General 1990-1993 in a Labor Party government)

5 Myths About Suburbia and Our Car-Happy Culture

They don't rate up there with cancer and al-Qaeda -- at least not yet -- but suburban sprawl and automobiles are rapidly acquiring a reputation as scourges of modern American society. Sprawl, goes the typical indictment, devours open space, exacerbates global warming and causes pollution, social alienation and even obesity. And cars are the evil co-conspirator -- the driving force, so to speak, behind sprawl. Yet the anti-suburbs culture has also fostered many myths about sprawl and driving, a few of which deserve to be reconsidered:

1.Americans are addicted to driving.

Actually, Americans aren't addicted to their cars any more than office workers are addicted to their computers. Both items are merely tools that allow people to accomplish tasks faster and more conveniently. The New York metropolitan area is home to the nation's most extensive transit system, yet even there it takes transit riders about twice as long as drivers to get to work.

In 1930, the interstate highway system and the rise of suburbia were still decades away, and yet car ownership was already widespread, with three in four households having an automobile. Look at any U.S. city and the car is the dominant mode of travel.

Some claim that Europeans have developed an enlightened alternative. Americans return from London and Paris and tell their friends that everyone gets around by transit. But tourists tend to confine themselves to the central cities. Europeans may enjoy top-notch transit and endure gasoline that costs $5 per gallon, but in fact they don't drive much less than we do. In the United States, automobiles account for about 88 percent of travel. In Europe, the figure is about 78 percent. And Europeans are gaining on us.

The key factor that affects driving habits isn't population density, public transit availability, gasoline taxes or even different attitudes. It's wealth. Europe and the United States are relatively wealthy, but American incomes are 15 to 40 percent higher than those in Western Europe. And as nations such as China and India become wealthier, the portion of their populations that drive cars will grow.

2.Public transit can reduce traffic congestion.

Transit has been on the slide for well more than half a century. Even though spending on public transportation has ballooned to more than seven times its 1960s levels, the percentage of people who use it to get to work fell 63 percent from 1960 to 2000 and now stands at just under 5 percent nationwide. Transit is also decreasing in Europe, down to 16 percent in 2000.

Like auto use, suburbanization is driven by wealth. Workers once left the fields to find better lives in the cities. Today more and more have decided that they can do so in the suburbs. Indeed, commuters are now increasingly likely to travel from one suburb to another or embark upon "reverse" commutes (from the city to the suburbs). Also, most American commuters (52 percent) do not go directly to and from work but stop along the way to pick up kids, drop off dry cleaning, buy a latte or complete some other errand.

We have to be realistic about what transit can accomplish. Suppose we could not only reverse transit's long slide but also triple the size of the nation's transit system and fill it with riders. Transportation guru Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution notes that this enormous feat would be "extremely costly" and, even if it could be done, would not "notably reduce" rush-hour congestion, primarily because transit would continue to account for only a small percentage of commuting trips.

But public transit still has an important role. Millions of Americans rely on it as a primary means of transportation. Transit agencies should focus on serving those who need transit the most: the poor and the handicapped. They should also seek out the niches where they can be most useful, such as express bus service for commuters and high-volume local routes.

Many officials say we should reconfigure the landscape -- pack people in more tightly -- to make it fit better with a transit-oriented lifestyle. But that would mean increasing density in existing developments by bulldozing the low-density neighborhoods that countless families call home. Single-family houses, malls and shops would have to make way for a stacked-up style of living that most don't want. And even then the best-case scenario would be replicating New York, where only one in four commuters uses mass transit.

3.We can cut air pollution only if we stop driving.

Polls often show that Americans think that air quality is deteriorating. Yet air is getting much cleaner. We miss it because, while we see more people and more cars, we easily overlook the success of air-quality legislation and new technologies. In April 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that 474 counties in 31 states violated the Clean Air Act. But that doesn't mean that the air is dirtier. The widely publicized failing air-quality grades were a result of the EPA's adoption of tougher standards.

Air quality has been improving for a long time. More stringent regulations and better technology have allowed us to achieve what was previously unthinkable: driving more and getting cleaner. Since 1970, driving -- total vehicle miles traveled -- has increased 155 percent, and yet the EPA reports a dramatic decrease in every major pollutant it measures. Although driving is increasing by 1 to 3 percent each year, average vehicle emissions are dropping about 10 percent annually. Pollution will wane even more as motorists continue to replace older, dirtier cars with newer, cleaner models.

4.We're paving over America.

How much of the United States is developed? Twenty-five percent? Fifty? Seventy-five? How about 5.4 percent? That's the Census Bureau's figure. And even much of that is not exactly crowded: The bureau says that an area is "developed" when it has 30 or more people per square mile.

But most people do live in developed areas, so it's easy to get the impression that humans have trampled nature. One need only take a cross-country flight and look down, however, to realize that our nation is mostly open space. And there are signs that Mother Nature is gaining ground. After furious tree chopping during America's early years, forests have made a comeback. The U.S. Forest Service notes that the "total area of forests has been fairly stable since about 1920." Agricultural innovations have a lot to do with this. Farmers can raise more on less land.

Yes, American houses are getting bigger. From 1970 to 2000, the average size ballooned from 1,500 square feet to 2,260. But this hardly means we're gobbling up ever more land. U.S. homeowners are using land more efficiently. Between 1970 and 2000, the average lot size shrank from 14,000 square feet to 10,000.

In truth, housing in this country takes up less space than most people realize. If the nation were divided into four-person households and each household had an acre, everyone would fit in an area half the size of Texas. The United States is not coming anywhere close to becoming an "Asphalt Nation," to use the title of a book by Jane Holtz Kay.

5.We can't deal with global warming unless we stop driving.

What should be done about global warming? The Kyoto Protocol seeks to get the world to agree to burn less fossil fuel and emit less carbon dioxide, and much of that involves driving less. But even disregarding the treaty's economic costs, Kyoto's environmental impact would be slight. Tom M.L. Wigley, chief scientist at the U.S. Center for Atmospheric Research, calculates that even if every nation met its obligation to reduce greenhouse gas, the Earth would be only .07 degrees centigrade cooler by 2050.

Wigley favors a much more stringent plan than Kyoto, but such restrictions would severely restrict economic growth, particularly in the developing world. Nations such as China and India were excluded from the Kyoto Protocol; yet if we're serious about reversing global warming by driving less, the developing world will have to be included.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that during the 20th century the Earth's temperature rose by 0.6 degrees centigrade and -- depending on which of the many climate models turn out to be closest to reality -- it expects the temperature to rise 1.4 to 5.8 degrees by 2100.

What does the IPCC think the effects of global warming may be? Flooding may increase. Infectious diseases may spread. Heat-related illness and death may increase. Yet as the IPCC notes repeatedly, the severity of such outcomes is enormously uncertain.

On the other hand, there's great certainty regarding who would be hurt the most: poor people in developing nations, especially those who lack clean, piped water and are thus vulnerable to waterborne disease. The IPCC points out that the quality of housing in those countries is important because simple measures such as adding screens to windows can help prevent diseases (including malaria, dengue and yellow fever) from entering homes. Fragile transportation systems can also frustrate disaster recovery efforts, as medical personnel are often unable to reach people trapped in flooded areas.

Two ways of dealing with global warming emerge. A more stringent version of Kyoto could be crafted to chase the unprecedented goal of trying to cool the atmosphere of the entire planet. Yet if such efforts resulted in lower economic growth, low-income populations in the United States and developing countries would be less able to protect themselves from the ill effects of extreme heat or other kinds of severe weather.

Alternatively, the focus could be on preventing the negative effects -- the disease and death -- that global warming might bring. Each year malaria kills 1 million to 3 million people, and one-third of the world's population is infected with water- or soil-borne parasitic diseases. It may well be that dealing with global warming by building resilience against its possible effects is more productive -- and more realistic -- than trying to solve the problem by driving our automobiles less.


Very, Very Big Corn: Ethanol and its consequences

How to lose all round

President Bush made a big push for alternative fuels in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, calling on Americans to reduce gasoline consumption by 20% over 10 years. And as soon as the sun rose on Wednesday, he set out to tour a DuPont facility in Delaware to tout the virtues of "cellulosic ethanol" and propose $2 billion in loans to promote the stuff. For a man who famously hasn't taken a drink for 20 years, that's a considerable intake of alcohol.

A bit of sobriety would go a long way in discussing this moonshine of the energy world, however. Cellulosic ethanol--which is derived from plants like switchgrass--will require a big technological breakthrough to have any impact on the fuel supply. That leaves corn- and sugar-based ethanol, which have been around long enough to understand their significant limitations. What we have here is a classic political stampede rooted more in hope and self-interest than science or logic.

Ostensibly, the great virtue of ethanol is that it represents a "sustainable," environmentally friendly source of energy--a source that is literally homegrown rather than imported from such unstable places as Nigeria or Iran. That's one reason why, as Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren note in the Milken Institute Review, federal and state subsidies for ethanol ran to about $6 billion last year, equivalent to roughly half its wholesale market price. Ethanol gets a 51-cent a gallon domestic subsidy, and there's another 54-cent a gallon tariff applied at the border against imported ethanol. Without those subsidies, hardly anyone would make the stuff, much less buy it--despite recent high oil prices. That's also why the percentage of the U.S. corn crop devoted to ethanol has risen to 20% from 3% in just five years, or about 8.6 million acres of farmland. Reaching the President's target of 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017 would, at present corn yields, require the entire U.S. corn harvest.

No wonder, then, that the price of corn rose nearly 80% in 2006 alone. (See the chart nearby.) Corn growers and their Congressmen love this, and naturally they are planting as much as they can. Look for a cornfield in your neighborhood soon. Yet for those of us who like our corn flakes in the morning, the higher price isn't such good news. It's even worse for cattle, poultry and hog farmers trying to adjust to suddenly exorbitant prices for feed corn--to pick just one industry example. The price of corn is making America's meat-packing industries, which are major exporters, less competitive.

In Mexico, the price of corn tortillas--the dietary staple of the country's poorest--has risen by about 30% in recent months, leading to widespread protests and price controls. In China, the government has put a halt to ethanol-plant construction for the threat it poses to the country's food security. Thus is a Beltway fad translated into Third World woes.

As for the environmental impact, well, where do we begin? As an oxygenate, ethanol increases the level of nitrous oxides in the atmosphere and thus causes smog. The scientific literature is also divided about whether the energy inputs required to produce ethanol actually exceed its energy output. It takes fertilizer to grow the corn, and fuel to ship and process it, and so forth. Even the most optimistic estimate says ethanol's net energy output is a marginal improvement of only 1.3 to one. For purposes of comparison, energy outputs from gasoline exceed inputs by an estimated 10 to one.

And because corn-based ethanol is less efficient than ordinary gasoline, using it to fuel cars means you need more gas to drive the same number of miles. This is not exactly a route to "independence" from Mideast, Venezuelan or any other tainted source of oil. Ethanol also cannot be shipped using existing pipelines (being alcohol, it eats the seals), so it must be trucked or sent by barge or train to its thousand-and-one destinations, at least until separate pipelines are built.

Even some environmentalists cry foul. Steve Sanderson, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, tells us that intensive, subsidized sugar farming in Brazil--where the use of ethanol is most widespread--has displaced small tenant farmers, many of whom have taken to cutting down and farming land in the Amazon rain forest.

In the U.S., there is now talk of taking the roughly 40 million acres currently tied up in the Agriculture Department's conservation reserve and security programs and putting them into production for ethanol-related plants. "The land at risk under this ethanol program is land that's shown by the USDA to have had great results for the restoration of wildlife," Mr. Sanderson says, pointing especially to the grasslands of eastern Montana and the Dakotas. Hello ethanol, goodbye bison.

But what about global warming, where ethanol, as a non-fossil fuel, is supposed to make a positive contribution? Actually, it barely makes a dent. Australian researcher Robert Niven finds that the use of ethanol in gasoline--the standard way in which ethanol is currently used--reduces greenhouse gas emissions by no more than 5%. As Messrs. Taylor and Van Doren observe, "employing ethanol to reduce greenhouse gases is fantastically inefficient," costing as much as 16 times the optimal abatement cost for removing a ton of carbon from the atmosphere

It's true that scientific advances will probably improve and perhaps even transform the utility of ethanol. Genetic modification will likely improve corn yields. And the President insists we are on the verge of breakthroughs in cellulosic technology, though experts tell us the technical hurdles are still huge. We'd be as happy as anyone if DuPont researchers finally discover the enzyme that can efficiently break down plants into starch, but betting billions of tax dollars and millions of acres of farmland on this hope strikes us as bad policy. If cellulose is going to be an energy miracle--an agricultural cold fusion--far better to let the market figure that out.

Not that any of these facts are likely to make much difference in the current Washington debate. The corn and sugar lobbies have their roots deep in both parties, and now they have the mantra of "energy independence" to invoke, however illusory it is. If anything, Congress may add to Mr. Bush's ethanol mandate requests. So here comes Big Corn. Make that Very, Very Big Corn. Sooner or later, our experience with this huge public gamble may make us yearn for the efficiency, capacity, lower cost and--yes--superior environmental record of "Big Oil."



Many people would like to be kind to others so Leftists exploit that with their nonsense about equality. Most people want a clean, green environment so Greenies exploit that by inventing all sorts of far-fetched threats to the environment. But for both, the real motive is generally to promote themselves as wiser and better than everyone else, truth regardless.

Global warming has taken the place of Communism as an absurdity that "liberals" will defend to the death regardless of the evidence showing its folly. Evidence never has mattered to real Leftists

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Anonymous said...

re: "Very, Very Big Corn: Ethanol and its consequences"

Here's a reference that does the math in comparing various alt fuels with gas.


Ian Parker said...

I find it hard to take politicians seriously. Blair can in fact be dismissed very quickly. Blair has commissioned a think tank to discuss "robot rights". He seems too think we will have strong AI by 2050. Yet he still discusses global warming which would take only weak AI in the shape of a Von Neumann machine to sort out. A sunshield could be constructed either at L1 or at MEO. In both cases we will be abale to get all the power we need + live ast the temperature we would like.

Tony - you cannot have it both ways.