Central Coast delegation floats ocean science to the Denmark climate talks.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Just a few days before their trip to the international climate conference, Adina Abeles and Arlo Hemphill take a moment to acknowledge their own carbon footprints. All three of us of us had driven to the Center for Ocean Solutions’ bayside office that morning, where Abeles is the planning director and Hemphill the communications specialist.
“I recognize the irony that we’re all flying to Copenhagen,” Abeles says. But the fact that even climate change experts are carbon culprits supports the notion that change has to come on a larger level.
“We need to find ways to mitigate and adapt to what’s coming down the pipe,” Hemphill says. “It’s an immense thing we’re asking people to do.”
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Climate talks up to this point have barely considered impacts to the oceans, Abeles says. “Everyone’s heard of sea level rise, but it sort of ends there.”
The flooding of coastal lands as melting ice and thermal expansion swell the sea is serious enough. But while it’s chilling to think of tourists scuba diving in what once was Cannery Row, the ocean’s stakes in global warming are even higher.
A sea too acidic for corals. Mass migrations of marine creatures fleeing warming surface waters. Nutrients trapped in the cold deep, where plankton can’t get to them, triggering a collapse of the marine food web. The disappearance of plankton blooms, which produce half the oxygen we breathe. A spike in temperature and atmospheric carbon levels, as the ocean’s ability to absorb heat and CO2 maxes out. The spread of low-oxygen zones, where few marine creatures can survive. More frequent, stronger storms. Malfunctions in the “conveyer belt” of ocean currents that moves heat between continents, triggering a radical shift in the weather patterns on land.
These are the predicted ocean impacts of a global average temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the stated target of many world leaders headed to the Copenhagen climate talks. A delegation of 66 Stanford University affiliates – 14 interdisciplinary faculty and 52 students – are aiming to help leaders understand the staggering burdens of greenhouse gas emissions on the sea.
Three of the delegates hail from the Center for Ocean Solutions, a salty “think-do” tank managed by Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment and perched on Monterey’s breezy Heritage Harbor. COS is a collaboration of the region’s three leading marine science and policy institutions: Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), and Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. Launched two years ago as an interdisciplinary effort to increase science’s clout in ocean policy-making, COS has identified three key focus areas, including climate change.
COS Executive Director Meg Caldwell says this is an opportune time to get things done. Obama designated June as National Oceans Month and announced a goal of creating a national ocean policy. The White House Council on Environmental Quality quickly convened the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, which in September released a draft interim report.
“I am observing an administration that understands the centrality of environmental health to economic health, public health and national security,” Caldwell says. “You cannot have a healthy economy without a healthy environment and healthy citizenry.”
The Stanford/COS delegation has observer status in Copenhagen, which gives members seats in the back of the negotiating rooms. They may speak after the countries and intergovernmental organizations, but their comments may have no impact on negotiations. “We’re not going there with solutions,” Abeles says. “We’re going to make sure the information embedded in our institutions is part of the decision-making process.”
To that end, COS and Stanford’s Woods Institute have teamed up with the International League of Conservation Photographers for an exhibit on what the oceans would look like at the targeted 2 degree temperature cap. “Even that goal is going to be devastating for the ocean,” Hemphill says.
They pull much of their information from “The Copenhagen Diagnosis,” a summary of the most relevant climate change science since the 2006 data cutoff for the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Stanford’s Dr. Stephen Schneider is among the document’s 26 contributing authors.
From their summary of recent findings:
• Global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels in 2008 were nearly 40 percent higher than in 1990.
• The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting faster. Summer Arctic sea-ice melt has sped up “far beyond the expectations of climate models.”
• Average global sea level rise is happening about 80 percent faster than the IPCC had predicted.
“The risk of transgressing critical thresholds (‘tipping points’) increases strongly with ongoing climate change,” the report states. “Thus waiting for higher levels of scientific certainty could mean that some tipping points will be crossed before they are recognized. A decarbonized society – with near-zero emissions of CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases – needs to be reached well within this century.”
Caldwell says it’s time to move beyond the idea that global warming is only a threat to our children and grandchildren. By 2050, she says, climate change could drive coastal flooding, storm intensification, species loss and food insecurity. The nation of Maldives might disappear. California’s coastal populations are expected to surge with refugees of rising inland temperatures and worsening air quality. The flux could further stress Monterey Bay cities, whose supplies of fresh water are already maxed out. And most proposed solutions, such as desalination, require huge energy inputs, which only intensify global warming.
That’s why climate change experts are putting so much stake in Copenhagen. The conference is the 15th meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – and the most significant in 12 years. At the 1997 convention n Japan, U.N. leaders adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which set a target of reducing greenhouse gases to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Although 184 countries have ratified the treaty to date, the U.S. is not among them. As Kyoto times out, leaders are expected to negotiate a new treaty in Copenhagen – and the U.S. may actually sign on.
More than 100 nations have signaled support for the 2-degree target, which correlates to potential tipping points for the planet’s life-supporting cycles. Analysts have concluded a 2-degree cap would require developed countries to reduce fossil fuel emissions to 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 50-80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Existing government commitments to reducing CO2 emissions won’t get us there. A COS fact sheet reports that at current emission rates, we’d spew enough carbon to blow even a 25 percent change of achieving the 2 degree goal after 2030. We’re already at a 0.8 degree rise, with an atmospheric carbon level of 387 parts per million, higher than any time in the last 800,000 years. By the time that concentration hits 450ppm, the temperature will likely warm from 2 to 4 degrees Celsius. Achieving even the questionable goal of 2 degrees is going to take major changes.
That message will be front and center on Oceans Day, Dec. 14, when Caldwell and Stanford earth sciences professor Rob Dunbar speak on ocean acidification and other climate change impacts on the sea. Stanford delegation leader Schneider, who’s been involved in the IPCC, will use Copenhagen as a launch point for his new book, Science as a Contact Sport.
Aquarium director Julie Packard is scheduled to give an Ocean Day speech on “mobilizing the governments and the public and private sectors for action.” She later shares the floor at an evening reception with NOAA Undersecretary (and former Monterey Bay Aquarium trustee) Jane Lubchenco and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, among other high-profile world leaders and celebrities.
California can be a role model in Copenhagen, Caldwell says, with state laws such as AB32. “We really are a beacon for what’s possible in the U.S.,” she says. “[But] while California has been a significant actor, this is a global task. The world is watching what China and India are willing to commit to, what the United States will commit to.”
As global warming deniers continue to spin the press, it’s critical that policy-makers have a solid understanding of the science. Dunbar says fossil fuel burning poses serious challenges to life as we know it, beyond a warming planet. “Even if you didn’t believe in global warming – and I certainly do – the CO2 we’re putting in the atmosphere is already causing impacts that would make us want to stop,” he says. “The physics of how CO2 dissolves in the ocean and causes the pH to drop is very simple. There’s not going to be an ocean pH denier community like there is for global warming.”
Complex as the science is, simplicity helps sell the message. U.N. member nations have gravitated toward the 2-degree goal, while environmental writer Bill McKibben has launched the 350 movement, reflecting a target concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. But Stanford’s experts are reluctant to rally around such media-friendly goals.
“In some ways, it’s hard for scientists to get behind some of these numbers, because the response of the climate system is so heterogeneous,” Dunbar says. “A global average [temperature rise] of 2 degrees could be 6 degrees in the Arctic and half a degree in the tropics. There’ll be great damage at 1 degree or 1 and a half. Maybe we can coalesce around a better target.”
Live from Copenhapgen: Read COS's climate blog here.