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Science & the Public

Science & the Public

Winter forecast: Sustained blizzard of climate news

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At least in our area of the country, consumers are already being assaulted  — well before Halloween  — with Christmas music, decorations and holiday-themed goods. Reporters are smack in the throes of their own early seasonal blitz: News items carrying a climate or global-warming theme.
 
And I don’t expect the crush of climate news and seminars to diminish until around Christmas. That’s when the next United Nations COP — or Conference of the Parties — will end this year’s pivotal round of negotiations in Copenhagen aimed at producing a new climate treaty. One intended to succeed and surpass the Kyoto Protocol, which a dozen years ago set out a blueprint for globally reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions.

I probably receive about a dozen news pitches a day by email geared toward climate issues. For much of the past six weeks, I’ve been invited to at-least weekly climate-related news briefings; lately, the calendar postings have snowballed  — now listing near-daily events.

Much of the information being flung at reporters is interesting and potentially useful. There’s just too much of it. Every organization seems to want to put its imprint on the Copenhagen talks by influencing policymakers and the public — via the media — about climate science, policy options, economic projections associated with those options, and why the clock is ticking on an impending climatic End of Days.

Yes, there’s hyperbole galore. But there’s also a lot of good science, thoughtful analyses and thought-provoking commentary. But the shear volume — and its unrelenting thumping urgency – risks making us all just cover our ears and say: Enough already!

Although most news pitches sound like variations on a theme, a few stand out for one reason or another.

Such as an announcement that I got yesterday from the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank. It seemed to propose veganism as one answer to climate concerns. An article in the latest issue of this organization’s magazine focused on the greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to livestock. Authors of this piece, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang (both with World Bank ties), have analyzed livestock data and concluded that direct and indirect emissions associated with farmed animals and their products account for at least 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents annually, or 51 percent of total yearly global emissions.

Replacing livestock products with soy-based and other alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change, Worldwatch argued, because it “would have far more rapid effects on greenhouse-gas emissions and their atmospheric concentrations — and thus on the rate the climate is warming — than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”

Just a day earlier, Stanford University pitched a story pointing in the opposite direction. It boasted the putative benefits in switching from fossil fuels and biomass energy to an all-electric economy by 2030 (which would include some electric-generated hydrogen fuels). Virtually all of the electricity would be powered by renewable sources. The news release cited a paper by Stanford’s civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson that projected renewables could satisfy global energy demand with just 11.5 million megawatts of power two decades from now. To do the same with a mix of fossil-fuel sources would require 16.9 MW — or 30 percent more, Jacobson calculated. Most of the technology to make the switch already exists, Jacobson and colleague Mark Delucchi of the University of California-Davis together argue in next month’s Scientific American.

Another provocative commentary was published recently in a prominent medical journal; it argued that birth control was a good strategy for reducing future energy demand. Reducing the number of people on planet Earth would reduce the calories needed to feed them, move them and keep them warm (or cool).

Of course, no one solution will head off climate catastrophe. After all, you won’t quickly or easily wean the world off of meat and dairy products. India and China — and even the United States — aren’t ready to give up on coal or pay the high costs of transitioning to less carbon-intensive fuels. And population control is not something that can be orchestrated well as a top-down social construct, not to mention that its advocates risk running afoul of certain religious beliefs.

Earth’s diverse cultures will likely need a rich tapestry of different technologies and strategies to lower humanity’s carbon and methane footprints. And trust me, you’ll be getting an earful — and eyeful — over the next two months about threads that might be selected to weave that tapestry.

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