Climate change's cost in Arctic could chill future economy worldwide, study finds

rm iwest mugIn what its authors admit is almost certainly an underestimate, a new study says the catastrophic climate changes coming to the Arctic will cost at least $2.4 trillion by mid-century. (To put that into perspective, President Obama just proposed a $3.8 trillion federal government budget for next year.)

The true cost is likely to be a whole lot more -- probably in the range of the combined gross domestic products of Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, says the report, which was financed by the Pew Environment Group.

A melting Arctic heats the climate in two basic ways: First, when all the white snow and ice on the land and in the ocean melts, the darker colors underneath absorb more heat instead of reflecting it.

The second thing that happens is that as the permafrost melts, it releases methane -- remember methane, that other greenhouse gas, the one we fingered not long ago for its powerful greenhouse punch?

The researchers came up with estimates of how much both of these effects will have and converted those numbers into carbon dioxide equivalents -- i.e., how much of that better-known greenhouse you'd have to release to create this much climate warming.

Those figures are sobering: The amount of warming to be wrought this year alone by Arctic melting will equal about 42 percent of all the emissions from the United States! That's the equivalent of building 500 new coal-burning power plants.

The short but interesting (and climate-clobbering) life of methane, that *other* greenhouse gas

rm iwest mugRichard Harris' NPR piece today on methane's climate-clobbering effects jolted me to remember a post I planned but that went by the wayside when I got so busy editing our coverage of last month's big climate conference in Copenhagen.

During the big UNFCCC negotiations, an op-ed of huge import came out but didn't get as much attention as you might think, considering it was co-authored by Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Mohamed El-Ashray, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is important, they acknowledged, but a big focus in the next few years should be methane, because it traps heat in the Earth's atmosphere much more efficiently than CO2. And methane converts to carbon dioxide after 10 or 12 years -- compared to CO2's residence time in the atmosphere that's measured in hundreds of years.

Methane's quite a bit easier to control, too (for now -- more on that shortly). So, to buy time to invent better ways to reduce CO2 emissions,  focus on methane, Watson and El-Ashray argue:

If we need to suppress temperature quickly in order to preserve glaciers, reducing methane can make an immediate impact. Compared to the massive requirements necessary to reduce CO2, cutting methane requires only modest investment. Where we stop methane emissions, cooling follows within a decade, not centuries. That could make the difference for many fragile systems on the brink.

Both Harris' piece and the op-ed point out that controlling methane also helps fight ground-level ozone, a public health threat.

Superfreakonomics, Schmuperfreakonomics. Solving climate change just ain't that easy.

An economics professor who went on the Jon Stewart Show to flog his book Superfreakonomics the other night has been taking a flogging in the blogosphere. Reason: The book points out ways to fight climate change without reducing consumption of carbon-based fuels. The favorite idea of economist-author Steven Levitt: Pump sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which has a shading effect (and mimics what happens when a big volcano blows.)

Now, I was an economics minor. I'm open to solutions that make sense, harness markets and save money. This isn't one of them. I'm here today to tell you a bit about why, but also to argue that we are going to need to find technological solutions to global warming, and they might not all be pretty.

[caption id="attachment_5869" align="alignright" width="133" caption="University of Calgary researcher David Keith with his machine, which he says pulls carbon dioxide from the air. Why is he getting so little attention compared to the Superfreakonomics authors? Ken Benditksen photo, courtesy University of Calgary"]University of Calgary researcher David Keith with his machine, which he says pulls carbon dioxide from the air. Why is he getting so little attention compared to the Superfreakonomics authors? Ken Benditksen photo, courtesy University of Calgary[/caption]

Recall that back in economics class, when the professor described an effect, it would only be after first giving the caveat that we were holding constant all the other variables.

Methane bubbles out from permafrost to enhance global warming

For the second day in a row, we have some really disturbing news coming out of the Far North regarding the pace at which climate change is hurtling forward. (The first was this Western Exposure post.)

Charles J. Hanley of the Associated Press reports that in Canada's Northwest Territories, the permafrost is melting and the Earth is burping out huge slugs of methane, one of the most potent of the greenhouse gases.

This methane has the potential to drive extremely rapid warming. It's known as  a feedback loop: As more methane escapes, it traps more heat in the atmosphere, which in turn melts more permafrost, and so on.

It's not that the earth has never gotten as hot as it apparently is about to get -- there were once balmy beaches and tropical vegetation in Alaska, for instance.

But the pace at which this warming is occurring is giving scientists serious pause, Hanley reports:

Researchers say air temperatures here in northwest Canada, in Siberia and elsewhere in the Arctic have risen more than 4.5 degrees Farenheit since 1970 -- much faster than the global average...

In 2007, air monitors detected a rise in methane concentrations in the atmosphere, apparently from far northern sources.

Alaskan village moving, a victim of global warming

The Anchorage Daily News has a fascinating account of how Newtok, a native Alaskan village, is being forced to move miles upriver to escape coastal erosion that's thought to be exacerbated by climate change.

Newtok is just the first of at least four villages that will have to move in coming years, the others being Kivalina, Shishmaref and Unalakleet.

Newtok itself is something of a modern invention. Until the last century, the ancestors of the natives had lived a semi-nomadic existence, moving according to the seasons to where they could subsist.

Kyle Hopkins' story outlines how difficult it is likely to be to get the $80 million to $130 million it's estimated the move will cost. (Also check out the audio slideshow) The town's dock has been underwater since 2005, and with sea ice not around to block incoming swells, some interesting challenges already are a part of daily life:

Normally, a village would have a community sewage lagoon to contain the waste -- a pond set off from where people live. But there's little chance of that, or anything else new, being built in Newtok these days. The relocation effort has frozen the community in a kind of public-funding purgatory because no one wants to spend money on a place that's about to be abandoned.

The river used to wash the waste out to sea. But the erosion has turned the Newtok into a shallow slough, and lately, residents say, it doesn't wash out like it used to. Sometimes floods sweep it back into town.

On a recent afternoon, the riverbank reeked of sewage.

Construction of the new village won't start before 2011.