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At a time when extreme weather incidents are causing billions in damages, businesses, governments and the public need the right information to make the right decisions. The bad news is that nature of superstorms like Hurricane Sandy has a human fingerprint. The good news is that if man is harming the climate, man can also do something about it.
Dr. John Abraham is a thermal sciences researcher and professor at the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota who has straddled many worlds in his quest for answers to climate change, from working with the US defense industry to pro-bono work creating low-cost energy solutions to Africa’s remote areas.
In an exclusive interview with Oilprice.com, Dr. Abrahams discusses:
• What climate change REALLY means
• How the Earth’s warming bears a human fingerprint
• How we can do something now about climate change, with today’s technology
• How and why the public remains ill-informed on the issue
• How Hurricane Sandy can be viewed from the climate change spectrum
• How the Earth’s warming has a human fingerprint
• Where the silver lining in all of this is
• Why Keystone XL will probably (but shouldn’t) be green-lighted
• How ‘micro-wind’ may be a hot seller in our renewable future
• How the future could see a merger of interests in the fossil fuel and alternative energy sectors
James Stafford: It is hard to imagine that our industrialization is NOT contributing to climate change in some significant way; still, this message meets with myriad roadblocks when attempting to portray it to a non-scientific public. And politics has hijacked the debate to an extent that has polarized the public. What should the message be, and how should it be delivered? Is the polarization irreversible?
John Abraham: First, the main message is:
1. Humans are causing climate change, we’ve know that for well over 100 years
2. We can do something about it now, with today’s technology
3. If we make smart decisions, not only will we help the climate, we will create jobs, improve national security, and diversify our energy supply
4. Doing nothing about the problem is a choice, with tremendous costs
Now, you are right, what should be a scientific issue has become a political issue. There are a number of reasons for that. It is clear that a lot of money is spent by organizations that want to ensure we do not invest in clean renewable energy or conservation. But that isn’t the entire story.
A major indicator of how people feel about climate science is how they view collective action. Persons who think working together on a shared problem (like energy and climate) can lead to exciting and profitable solutions are much more likely to accept the science. People who reject collective action or government intervention are much less likely to accept the science. The real tragedy is that many people in this latter category could develop the technologies to lead us into the energy future; instead they have held our country back. We are now at a technological disadvantage and every year we delay taking action increases the future costs to ourselves and our children.
James Stafford: Earlier this month, we conducted an interview with former TV meteorologist Anthony Watts, whose thoughts on climate change have been very controversial. Watts describes himself as a "pragmatic skeptic" on climate change. In your opinion, why is this "pragmatic skepticism" so controversial and how do you think it contributes to the dynamics of the climate change debate?
John Abraham: The fact is that Mr. Watts is not a pragmatic sceptic. Real scientists are sceptical by nature. We don’t believe what our colleagues tell us until we verify it for ourselves. Scientists honestly develop views of how the world works and they test those views by experimentation. As a result of approximately 150 years of climate science, the vast majority of scientists are convinced that humans are a major cause of climate change. Mr. Watts, on the other hand, dismisses evidence that is counter to his viewpoint. That is not scepticism--that is plain denial.
Let me expand on this by going back to his interview. Mr. Watts’s claimed that:
“’Global warming’ suggests a steady linear increase in temperature, but since that isn’t happening, proponents have shifted to the more universal term “climate change,” which can be liberally applied to just about anything observable in the atmosphere.”
First, scientists have never predicted a linear increase in temperature--we are not that naive. Things are much more complex than that.
Mr. Watts also argues that “proponents” have shifted from using the phrase global warming to “climate change”. He didn’t bother telling you that this was actually suggested by a conservative consultant, Frank Luntz, as a way to reduce public concern. Ironically, “climate change” is a better description of what is happening, and climate scientists use it to be more accurate. Let me give you some examples....
Related article: Climate Change without Catastrophe: Interview with Anthony Watts
• We are causing the ocean chemistry (pH) to change--that isn’t warming or cooling.
• We are causing some areas to become wetter and others to become drier--again, not warming.
• We are increasing humidity in the atmosphere.
• We are cooling the upper part of the atmosphere (the stratosphere).
• We are making weather swings more severe.
• We are losing polar ice at a rapid rate.
• Warmer oceans make hurricanes more severe here and here.
In these areas, and others, the changes are not just “warming” but the far more complex reality: the climate is changing.
Mr. Watts and others who deny that humans are a major cause of climate change have helped to create an environment where scientists are attacked mercilessly for their science. I have been attacked numerous times on Mr. Watts’s website, as have my colleagues. How can we encourage young scientists to go into this field when they are promised personal attacks and vilification? Fortunately, young bright scientists go into this field anyway and I am excited about the new crop of young minds that are rising through the ranks.
James Stafford: Watts spends a great deal of time discussing the "heat sink" effect in urban areas. Can you offer us an alternative view on what this means in terms of climate change?
John Abraham: This issue has been the calling card of Mr. Watts. Unfortunately, he did not disclose much in his comments.
• He didn’t tell you that he actually published a paper on this subject a few years ago where he concluded that temperature sensor siting had no impact on temperature trends.
• He didn’t tell you that other groups have looked at this issue and made similar conclusions.
• He didn’t tell you that recently a Koch-funded study looked at this issue and concluded that the real climate scientists were right: locations of temperature sensors didn’t matter.
• He didn’t tell you that he initially supported the Koch-funded study until the results were made known.
• He didn’t tell you that measurements of the atmosphere made by weather balloons and satellites agree the Earth is warming.
• He didn’t tell you that measurements of the ocean show a significant and long-term increase in temperature.
• He didn’t tell you that the vast majority of glaciers are losing ice, as are Greenland and Antarctica.
• Finally, he didn’t tell you that in the last 30 years, approximately 75% of the Arctic ice which remains at the end of the melting season has disappeared.
It isn’t surprising that Mr. Watts disagrees with all of these other researchers. What I was surprised by was the fact he seems to disagree with his own research.
James Stafford: Would you describe your own view as “pragmatic”?
John Abraham: I work mainly in the private sector, and I am strongly motivated by the belief that while we are causing climate change, we can do meaningful things right now to slow it down. I am also truly pragmatic.
One outcome of being pragmatic is that I search for efficient and low-cost solutions to our problems. If someone were to show me that adaptation would be cheaper than mitigation, I would support adaptation. If someone were to show me that the “solutions” to climate change are more expensive than just ignoring it, I would opt for ignoring it.
I have, however, come to a few conclusions on this topic. It is clear that climate change is happening, humans are a main cause, and the consequences will be expensive. It is also clear that the public is not well informed on this topic. When we are not well informed, we are likely to make poor decisions. It is also clear to me that many of the solutions to climate change involve wiser use of our energy supplies and, as a result, we will save money.
Much of my work is pro bono. I have travelled to Africa multiple times, bringing low cost energy to remote locations at my own expense. I do not want to be accused of using energy/environmental issues to my own benefit. A fact that would surprise my detractors is that I have also worked for many years for the defense industry.
James Stafford: Is there any way to remove the “camp” element from the issue of climate change? How far do disastrous weather events—like Hurricane Sandy—go towards reshaping the climate change debate.
John Abraham: It is a piece of irony that a few weeks before superstorm Sandy hit, Mr. Watts wrote to me, forwarding demeaning comments in response to an interview I had given about hurricanes becoming more powerful in a warming world. In his remarks to you he stated...
“The idea that Hurricane Sandy, a minor class 1 storm, was somehow connected to CO2-driven ‘climate change’ is ludicrous.”
Well, scientists studying this disagree with him. As the oceans warm, hurricanes become more severe. They have increased rainfall, more intense winds, and higher storm surges. We can even quantify some of the impacts. With respect to Sandy, the human impact was likely about 8-10 inches of the storm surge, about 15% of the precipitation, and the very warm oceans (partly human caused) off the Eastern Coast made Sandy larger and travel further north than it otherwise would have.
Finally, it is likely that Sandy took an unusual turn westward because of pressure zones caused by the loss of Arctic ice. So, were it not for humans, Sandy may never have hit the US at all! It isn’t just me saying this, it is experts in the field. There are many articles that clearly show human emissions are increasing extreme weather events.
In your interview with Mr. Watts, he claimed that the IPCC reports no “trends at all” in severe weather. He must not have read the IPCC reports, which state otherwise. The next IPCC report, called the AR5 report was leaked to the public early, partially with the help of Mr. Watt’s own website. Nevertheless, he must not have read the report. But it isn’t only the IPCC report that discusses extreme weather, it is other scientific articles like this one, this one, or this one. There are many many other articles that clearly show human emissions are increasing extreme weather events.
I look at the price tag of Sandy, and the price tag of the devastating drought of 2012, and the similar Texas/Oklahoma heat waves of 2011 and I ask two questions: First, are humans partly to blame for these expensive disasters (over $100 billion)? Second, if we are, is there something we should do about it?
My answer to those two questions is yes. I believe we can solve this problem with today’s technology. I think we can choose to use energy more wisely and efficiently. I think we can expand clean energy generation and power much of our country from the farm fields of the Midwest, create jobs, improve national security, and diversify our energy portfolio.
James Stafford: How is the issue of global warming, or climate change, being manipulated by the media in both directions?
John Abraham: No one wants to damage the environment and persons in the media don’t want to report poorly. But many media people believe that their duty is to “show both sides equally” as if this were some debate about foreign policy or which soda tastes better. Climate science, as all climate scientists know, is complicated. It takes years of study to understand the interconnections within the climate. When faced with this complexity, it is much easier to just find two representatives of each side to tell their story. Unfortunately, this leads to public misunderstanding, and the belief there is more controversy or uncertainty than actually exists.
Perhaps more important though is the ideology problem. Many people, Mr. Watts included, are committed to an ideology that precludes the ability to objectively view the science. As a result, they convey incorrect information to their readers who then are not able to make informed decisions. The business community is left with an information vacuum and there will be financial consequences because of this. The business community deserves better information than they are getting. They deserve to be armed with real facts so that they can make good decisions to protect their investments and their society.
James Stafford: Ultimately, then, do we have the ability to accurately determine how much of global warming is attributed to man-made causes and how much is evolutionary climate change, so to speak?
John Abraham: Well the first science on greenhouse gases was performed in the mid 1800s. This isn’t a “new” science. It is well tested. It isn’t just that the Earth is warming that convinces scientists. It is warming in the way scientists have anticipated. It has the fingerprints of humans. It doesn’t have the fingerprints of natural causes like the sun or changes to the Earth’s orbit – indeed, scientists have ruled out the possibility that natural causes can explain what we are observing worldwide. These two factors, more than anything else, have convinced scientists that humans are mainly responsible.
While that seems like bad news, there is a silver lining: it means we can take meaningful action to slow climate change. What would be more depressing, knowing that we are changing the climate but that we can do something about it or thinking the changes were natural and mistakenly thinking we were powerless?
James Stafford: Are there any genuine environmental concerns about the Keystone XL pipeline? Are there genuine long-term climate concerns over this pipelines dirty tar sands content?
John Abraham: In order to avoid the most serious and expensive consequences of climate change, we need to reduce carbon emissions. Expansion of Keystone is not consistent with that goal. The total amount of oil in the Alberta Tar sands is equivalent to six Saudi Arabia’s. Mr. Watts and others have claimed that the oil will be burned regardless but just because this statement is uttered doesn’t make it true. Approval of Keystone will increase production by about 35-40% and it will lock us into a long-term supply of the dirtiest of the dirty fossil fuels. Not only are Alberta tar sands dirtier than conventional oil, but their by-product (petroleum coke) is being used as a dirty replacement of coal.
Rather than approve this pipeline, and further contribute to driving society over the climate cliff, we should invest in long-term clean renewable energy production right here in the United States. If we did this, we would receive the economic benefits and the world’s climate would improve at the same time.
James Stafford: Will Keystone XL eventually be green-lighted? Do we really need it?
John Abraham: We don’t know what the Administration will decide: my personal belief is that it will be approved and the Obama Administration will propose a quid pro quo approach to the environment--approving Keystone but enacting other policies to reduce emissions. The problem is that a quid pro quo doesn’t help the climate. It changes a fast burn to a slow simmer. From a political standpoint, if the Obama Administration, with John Kerry as Secretary of State, cannot say “no” to the dirtiest of the dirty fuels, it would show that we cannot say no to anything. I hope I am wrong about this.
James Stafford: There is a lot of discussion right now about “Snowball Earth”—an event 635 million years ago in which Earth was covered by ice and now this was apparently reversed by an ‘ultra-high carbon dioxide atmosphere’. What can we learn from this and how can this contribute to the ongoing climate debate?
John Abraham: We have learned that the Earth’s climate has shifted radically in the past for natural reasons. Indeed, we have a good understanding of these changes. These shifts have occurred over very long periods of time. Human society has developed very recently, in a remarkably stable climate, and our infrastructure is tailored to the present conditions. We need to be mindful of pushing the climate into one of its wild swings that would cause significant economic costs.
Interestingly, the Earth recovered from “snowball” conditions by the same greenhouse gases we are concerned about now. It is a testament to the power of carbon dioxide.
James Stafford: Is nuclear power dead? Should it be dead? There is much talk about the development of smaller, safer reactors. How far are we from developing and commercializing new nuclear technology?
John Abraham: Perhaps the only thing Mr. Watts and I agree upon. Nuclear power can produce energy without reliance upon sometimes unreliable wind or sunshine. It can provide a low carbon alternative to coal. I think we should invest in the development of the next generation nuclear reactors that can play an important role in supplying a clean-energy portfolio.
James Stafford: You have been involved in numerous alternative energy projects. Which alternative energy sector has the most potential over the next 5 years … over the next decade?
John Abraham: I am particularly interested to see where microwind power goes. I have numerous articles on this topic here, here, and here for examples. This technology has the potential of supplying energy at the production site: to businesses, homes, telecommunication equipment, and other infrastructure.
James Stafford: Did the US jump the gun on the ethanol mandate? There seems to be a consensus emerging that we weren’t quite ready for this on a number of levels. There are two bills in Congress attempting to either delay or reverse this mandate and the commercialization of E15. What do you predict the outcome of this will be?
John Abraham: I wrote an important paper on this very topic in 2009. We looked at how viable corn ethanol is and compared it to other biofuel sources. We concluded that at best, corn-based ethanol is a bridge fuel that can help the development of the next generation of plant-based fuels which use less water and can be harvested on marginal lands.
James Stafford: Is there any room for a merger of interests here between the fossil fuels industry and the alternative energy industry?
John Abraham: When we can show that clean and renewable energy is the engine that will provide economic opportunity in the future, fossil fuel companies will, I hope, work to bring to market those technologies which not only produce energy, but create jobs and improve the climate. We aren’t there yet but there is always hope.
James Stafford is the Editor of Oilprice.com