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Chris Field, Director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, 2010:
The fact that we have the technology does not mean we have the solutions … there’s a question of scale.
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On Friday (10/1) and Saturday (10/2), I was in the audience at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California, as Chris Field, Director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, gave a presentation titled “The Velocity of Climate Change: 2010”.
The post below consists of selected snippets of my record of the presentation. All portions are included in chronological order.
An ellipsis (…) indicates that I was not able to capture the words or thoughts skipped. The presentation is transcribed as accurately as possible – punctuation choices are mine.
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… What I want to do is talk about pace … in four different contexts … We already know enough to make smart decisions and the challenge is how we go from at atmosphere of doubt to one where we can really make decisions … … The idea of a threshold isn’t necessarily the best way to think of this issue – there are some places that have probably already passed their threshold … we need to instead think of risk management …
Risk = probability x consequence
In terms of the calculation of risk, there’s risk in high-probability events, but also risk in low-probability events that happen over a wide spectrum … Steve Schneider compared climate change to playing with loaded dice …
… … …
Today, I want to talk about the velocity of climate change in terms of the rate of climate change, the history of understanding climate change, the velocity required for ecosystem and societal responses (adaptation), and commitments to future changes.
The warming of the climate system is unequivocal … there is some indication that the pace is increasing … What we do in the future makes a huge difference … It’s really striking that there’s still a tremendous amount of uncertainty about where we’ll wind up … We can see a very wide range between the low end and the high end of temperature impacts … We need research into coping and adaptation strategies …
There is now more thinking about climate change impacts in the context of risk … fire in the western United States … risk of extreme events (2003 heat wave in Western Europe) …
There is also thinking about velocities of ecosystems on the ground … the plants and animals that are best at moving and taking advantage of climate change are the weeds and pests …
… … …
… We are not looking at consequences of a century or two of climate change, but essentially fixed changes … The inertia in the system is really dramatic … The Hoover Dam was completed in 1936, and we are still using it … When we’re thinking of setting up energy infrastructure for the future, we need to remember that the infrastructure lasts for a long time. We’re building the energy infrastructure for the next century now … There are significant emissions commitments from existing infrastructure … In China, much of the infrastructure is new and won’t be retired very fast. In the United States, we have mostly old infrastructure, so the committed emissions could drop rapidly. This type of analysis gives us a sobering picture of the amount of climate change we can’t avoid …
In looking at where the missions are coming from, it’s useful to look per country and per capita … the United States still has fives times the emission per capita as China …
… … …
In terms of the pace of human responses to climate change, there are many reasons we might want to delay: to avoid unnecessary expenditures, to allow natural progress with technology development, and to start from a position of greater wealth … But there are questionable economics in the study of rapid emissions reduction. In a paper in Nature (Wigley et al, 1996), it was concluded that if you want to optimize economically, you would stay with “business as usual” but then deploy technologies aggressively. But the paper didn’t really discuss the implications of delay. Delay doesn’t mean do nothing – it has to mean get prepared with investment and readiness to aggressively deploy technology …
Is the technology available? Humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial knowledge now to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half century …
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This exchange was followed by a question and answer session with the audience.
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