Charting the rise in natural catastrophes

The number of “significant” natural catastrophes in North America causing more than $1 billion in losses of more than 50 deaths, 1950-2012:

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Number of natural catastrophes in North America, 1980-2011:

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For the climate change skeptics in the audience, these charts come not the Ecology Action Centre, the Natural Resources Defence Council, or the Pembina Institute, but from Munich Re, a $265-billion company that is one of the world’s leading reinsurance brokers. (A reinsurer is an outfit that re-sells insurance liabilities when the risk becomes too great for a single retail firm, so it is on the front lines when catastrophic events loom.)

Bear in mind, this is what has already happened, when the sea level rise and ocean warming forecast by climate scientists has barely begun.

Both charts originated in Severe weather in North America: Perils · Risks · Insurance, a 260-page report Munich Re produced on the rise in major natural events. Perhaps because our coastlines are so built up, the rise is occurring faster in North American than in other parts of the world. The top chart is reproduced in a 44-page report of a forum hosted by the Washington DC-baseed Urban Land Institute: Risk & Resilience in Coastal Regions: A ULI Global Policy and Practice Forum Report [PDF]. The bottom chart appears in a 12-page executive summary [PDF] Munich Re’s report, the full version of which is available from the company for $100.

Take a walk along the shoreline of any city in Atlantic Canada. The Gabarus Sea Wall ain’t the only thing we need to be worried about.

H/T: Richard Stephenson

From NASA: 131 years of rising global temperatures in 26 Seconds

“Nine of the 10 warmest years since 1880 have occurred since the year 2000,” reports NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The first years of the new millennium experienced “sustained higher temperatures than in any decade during the 20th century.”

Goddard, which monitors global surface temperatures, compiled the findings into an animation showing global temperature trends since 1885.



The animated map charts differences from the average temperature recorded during a baseline period of 1951-1980. Dark Red zones are two degrees Celsius warmer than the baseline; dark blue are two degrees colder. You can download a copy of the animation here.

The average incremental change is not great — less than a Celsius degree in total — but the upward trend is, shall we say, hard to deny:


Download a much larger version here.

A climate change believer praises clean coal

China hand James Fallows expends a lot of time and words reassuring Americans that China is not the unstoppable, omnipotent superpower they fear it to be. Reality is more complicated, he argues, especially when viewed up close, from within China, where he has spent years.

However, a Fallows cover story in the current Atlantic warns of one technology in which China is leaving the west in its dust: the quest for ways to burn coal without emitting carbon. In exhorting the west to greater effort in pursuit of clean coal, Fallows takes aim at one of the environmental movement’s most sacred bovines: the belief that clean coal is a PR fraud perpetrated by coal and coal-power interests bent on evading responsibility for the planet-destroying externalities of their industry.

This has brought a shower predictable wrath in comments sections, as well as some thoughtful rebuttal, including a post from David Roberts at Grist. Roberts disagrees with Fallows on the future of coal, but regards him as “one of the most reliably excellent journalists working today.” He pays Fallows the further compliment of summarizing accurately the four broad points in the Atlantic piece:

  1. Coal does enormous damage to people and the environment.
  2. It will be impossible to meet future global energy demand without coal, which is cheap and plentiful. We can not eliminate it from the energy mix.
  3. We urgently need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a radical amount.
  4. Given 2 and 3, it follows that making coal cleaner must be a priority, alongside an “all-out effort on all other fronts, from conservation and efficiency to improved battery technology to wind- and solar-power systems to improved nuclear facilities”

Nevertheless, Roberts views the piece as a takedown of environmentalists (DFHs in his ironic coinage) to the benefit of the powers that be (PTBs), whose self-serving intransigence doesn’t merit the encouragement:

If DFHs continue to believe coal can be eliminated, they will… release more reports and white papers to that effect. They’ll lobby lawmakers (and a few of the ones from California might even listen). They’ll protest outside coal plants. They’ll organize Facebook petitions.

If the PTBs continue to believe that coal is a precious piece of American Heritage to be protected at all cost and that climate change is either alarmism or an outright hoax, they will continue to funnel subsidies to coal, block policies that subsidize clean energy, manipulate markets to protect coal from competition, and otherwise quash innovations that might threaten the interests of dirty energy incumbents. There will be no “all-out effort.”

Which is worse? Sounds to me like the PTBs are in a position to do serious damage to America’s energy future. The DFHs, not so much….

If you believe, as Fallows does, that climate change is an urgent, enormous challenge, then it’s hard to see the value in worrying that some idealistic green somewhere thinks we can tackle it without coal. Being contrarian toward DFHs is a little … safe.

Fallows responds here. The whole exchange, and especially the Fallows piece, deserve close reading.

I claim some expertise with this topic because Cape Breton, where I live, is an island is an island whose recent human history is defined by coal, from the first mine in North America at Port Morien, through a coal-fueled industrial boom in the first half of the 20th Century,  doomed government efforts to keep mines and a steel mill alive on subsidies its the last half, and finally to the mines eventual closure, protracted fights over cleanups, and an intractably depressed post-industrial economy. Unfortunately for us, our coal lies under the ocean, and the trip to the coal face, as much as five miles away, took an hour off each end of a shift, rendering them hopeless uneconomic. In a journalism career here, and subsequently as a communications director for a massive (and massively controversial) cleanup of coal-based industrial waste, I’ve lived with coal issues throughout my working life.
About a decade ago, a researcher at the National Research Council of Canada produced a Power Point talk about the future of energy supply and demand, and its implication for climate change action. I can’t find the presentation just now, but I will tell you what I remember of it, with what may be wildly inaccurate numbers.
Using informed but back-of-the-envelope calculations, David Hughes said North Americans use about 700 gigajoules of energy per person per year. If we were to adopt the most stringent conservation measures proposed by serious environmentalists, we might get that down to 400, or possibly 350. Chinese and Indians, by contrast, use about 20 gigajoules per capita per year, and they are on a rocket ship toward 50. (These figures, even assuming I am recalling them correctly, are about a decade out of date.)
So how can we in the west look down our long white noses at people in the third world and insist they curb their consumption?
Hughes’s first conclusion: Energy demand will continue to rise in our and our children’s lifetimes, and there is little we can do about it.
He then looked at energy supplies and concluded that, of the currently practical, easily exploitable sources, only coal had a secure long term outlook. A 350-year supply, as I recall.
Conclusion number two: we will continue to use lots and lots of coal.
This talk made Hughes in great demand, and he gave versions of it many times at conferences and universities across Canada for a few years in the early oughts. At the end of one of these talks, to</span></span><span style=”font-size: xx-small;”><span style=”font-family: Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif;”> an engineering school in Halifax, a student asked what the solution was: Conservation? Wind? Tidal? Clean coal?
“All of it,” Hughes replied. “We need to throw everything we have at this problem.”
This stuck with me, and led me to coin the term <em>eco-narcissists</em>: those who demand a solution to environmental problems, but for whom no actual solution is ever pure enough. Global warming threatens the planet, but heaven forfend we combat it with wind power (too many dead birds and too much disease-causing, low-frequency noise), nuclear (too dangerous, and too much long-lived radioactive waste), tidal (too much harm to fisheries and marine mammals), clean coal (“George Bush’s favourite techno-fix,” in the ad hominem phrase of Canada’s Green Party leader), etc., etc. I am sure you are familiar with these arguments.
Eco-narcissists are much in evidence in the comment to your story. Sad, but utterly predictable.
This is my long-winded way of saying thank you for a piece that will, I predict, play an important role in moving this debate to saner ground.

I claim some expertise with this topic because Cape Breton, where I live, is an island whose recent human history is defined by coal, from the first coal mine in North America at Port Morien, through a coal-fueled industrial boom in the first half of the 20th Century, doomed government efforts to keep mines and a steel mill alive on subsidies the last half, and finally to the mines’ eventual closure, protracted fights over industrial cleanups, and an intractably depressed post-industrial economy. In a journalism career here, and subsequently as a communications director for a massive (and massively controversial) cleanup of coal-based industrial waste, I’ve lived with coal issues throughout my working life.

Coal is massively destructive – to the health and lives of miners who extract it from deep mines; to the landscape wherever it is extracted by strip mining and mountain top removal; to the health of those living downwind of coal-fired power plant and cement factories; and most urgently to the planetary ecosystem through climate altering emissions from those plants.

But… North Americans and Europeans use vastly more energy per capita than the Chinese or the Indians, and much of China’s and India’s coal consumption occurs in the service of exports to the West. This leaves us in no position to look down our long white noses and demand restraint from our third-world brothers and sisters, especially when we are doing so little to curb our own steadily rising consumption.

Since coal is far and away our most abundant fossil fuel, the only one in no imminent danger of running out any time soon, the unmistakable conclusion is that the world will continue to burn lots and lots of coal. Let’s at least explore the technical and economic feasibility of doing so without unleashing carbon into the atmosphere.

For Roberts’s ironic term DFHs, I would substitute <em>eco-narcissists</em>: those who demand a solution to environmental problems, but for whom no actual solution is ever pure enough. In their reasoning, climate change threatens the very existence of the planet, but heaven forfend we combat it with wind power (too many dead birds and too much disease-causing, low-frequency noise), nuclear (too dangerous, and too much long-lived radioactive waste), tidal (too much harm to fisheries and marine mammals), clean coal (“George Bush’s favourite techno-fix,” in the ad hominem phrase of Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May), etc., etc.

Roberts contends that even if Fallows and I are right, we’re picking on a basically harmless, not to say easy, target. I think he underestimates the harm caused by environmentalist dogs in the manger.

Imagine if the driving forces of the civil rights movement in the 1960s had demanded an end to segregation, but opposed specific actions to desegregate buses, lunch counters, high schools, etc. In fact, conservative elements in the movement harboured grave misgivings about direct action. Had their views held sway, how much would that have slowed progress on the issue? How much does the dominant environmental movement position on coal — “The world is burning, but don’t use fire extinguishers; they contain chemicals that might increase asthma rates” — slow progress on this issue? It’s not obvious to me that the effect is trivial.

If you truly believe climate change threatens life on the planet, then surely we need to throw everything we have  at this problem — conservation, wind, solar, tidal, ocean energy, geothermal, nuclear, clean coal — and no potential solution should be dismissed out of hand, especially for reasons that are more firmly rooted in culture and ideology than science.

Annals of climate change: June, 2010

The deniers have some explaining to do:

Temperature anomalies - jun2010-550

The Weather Underground reports that the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Climatic Data Center rates last month as the warmest June since record keeping began in 1880, while  NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies calls it the third warmest (behind June 1998 and June 2009). Both NOAA and NASA rated the year-to-date period, January – June, as the warmest such period on record. Moneyquote:

A withering heat wave of unprecedented intensity brought the hottest temperatures in recorded history to six nations in Asia and Africa, plus the Asian portion of Russia, in June 2010. At least two other Middle East nations came within a degree of their hottest temperatures ever in June.

To judge from the map, Greenland and the the midwestern US got zapped pretty good, too.

Hat tip: Gus Reed.

1,200 limos & 140 private planes? Must be a climate change summit

The UK Telegraph has a witty tee-up for the Copenhagen conference, where celebrity travel and other extravagances will produce the equivalent of 41,000 tonnes of CO2, an amount equal to that produced by a small British city over the same period.

Among the nuggets:

[T]his being Scandinavia, even the prostitutes are doing their bit for the planet. Outraged by a council postcard urging delegates to “be sustainable, don’t buy sex,” the local sex workers’ union – they have unions here – has announced that all its 1,400 members will give free intercourse to anyone with a climate conference delegate’s pass. The term “carbon dating” just took on an entirely new meaning.

On a more serious note, the Telegraph notes a number of recent setbacks to Climate Change abatement efforts, including the East Anglia University email scandal.

In Copenhagen there was a humbler note among some delegates. “If we fail, one reason could be our overconfidence,” said Simron Jit Singh, of the Institute of Social Ecology. “Because we are here, talking in a group of people who probably agree with each other, we can be blinded to the challenges of the other side. We feel that we are the good guys, the selfless saviours, and they are the bad guys.”

As Mr Singh suggests, the interesting question is perhaps not whether the climate changers have got the science right – they probably have – but whether they have got the pitch right. Some campaigners’ apocalyptic predictions and religious righteousness – funeral ceremonies for economic growth and the like – can be alienating, and may help explain why the wider public does not seem to share the urgency felt by those in Copenhagen this week.

In a rather perceptive recent comment, [British Energy Secretary Ed] Miliband said it was vital to give people a positive vision of a low-carbon future. “If Martin Luther King had come along and said ‘I have a nightmare,’ people would not have followed him,” he said.

Hat tip: Colin May.

May and Monbiot narrowly lose climate debate – feedback

Contrarian reader Dana Doiron offers a subtly different take on Elizabeth May’s performance in the recent Munk debate on climate change:

I suspect that May was uncomfortable with the black and white (not another crayon issue) framing of the proposition.  One can support individual and collective action in response to climate change without making it the end-all and be-all, just as one can support our soldiers while having reservations about the conflict to which they have been deployed.

May and Monbiot narrowly lose Munk debate

Contrarian reader and tech fixer Mike Targett points out that Guardian columnist George Monbiot, whose blistering denunciation of Canada’s climate change policies appeared here yesterday, was in Toronto to take part in a Munk Debate Tuesday.

Munk - Monbiot

One of a series sponsored by Aurea Foundation, the debate considered this proposition: “Be it resolved: climate change is mankind’s defining crisis, and demands a commensurate response.” Monbiot and Elizabeth May took the affirmative; Bjørn Lomborg and Lord Nigel Lawson the negative.

Audience polls taken before and after the debate showed the con side to be slightly more persuasive. My reading is that Lomborg and Lawson won not by denying climate change but by acknowledging it as a real problem—just not the earth-imperiling calamity it’s been sold as. Solutions, they argued, need to be commensurate with the threat, and with other problems faced by humanity. That’s a much more interesting debate than denial vs. end of the world.

Contrarian is not sure who’s right, nor what impact doubts should have on public policy given the consequences if May and Monbiot are right. [Click the image to view the two-hour debate.]

Canada “is to climate what Japan is to whaling”

tar sands

The rhetoric is over the top, but the facts are only somewhat overstated in a UK Guardian column that foreshadows complaints Canadians can expect hear as the Copenhagen climate change summit approaches:

After giving the finger to Kyoto, Canada then set out to prevent the other nations striking a successor agreement. At the end of 2007, it singlehandedly blocked a Commonwealth resolution to support binding targets for industrialised nations. After the climate talks in Poland in December 2008, it won the Fossil of the Year award, presented by environmental groups to the country that had done most to disrupt the talks. The climate change performance index, which assesses the efforts of the world’s 60 richest nations, was published in the same month. Saudi Arabia came 60th. Canada came 59th.

In June this year the media obtained Canadian briefing documents which showed the government was scheming to divide the Europeans. During the meeting in Bangkok in October, almost the entire developing world bloc walked out when the Canadian delegate was speaking, as they were so revolted by his bullying. Last week the Commonwealth heads of government battled for hours (and eventually won) against Canada’s obstructions. A concerted campaign has now begun to expel Canada from the Commonwealth.

In Copenhagen next week, this country will do everything in its power to wreck the talks. The rest of the world must do everything in its power to stop it. But such is the fragile nature of climate agreements that one rich nation – especially a member of the G8, the Commonwealth and the Kyoto group of industrialised countries – could scupper the treaty. Canada now threatens the wellbeing of the world.

Hat tip: John Hugh Edwards

Contrarian to the C.O.R.E.

The Offshore/Onshore Technologies Association of Nova Scotia (OTANS) invited Contrarian to chair the Regional Energy Strategy panel at its annual CORE (Canadian Offshore Resources Exhibition) Conference this week, and that give him an excuse to make a speech.

To anyone who has looked at the challenges climate change poses for our region, it’s obvious that one key is to improve our regional energy infrastructure. It’s also obvious that doing so will be an expensive venture, and it’s far from clear how much of the expense will be shouldered by government and its taxpayers, and how much by private corporations, their shareholders, and their customers.

Decisions about these matters will be made in an atmosphere of mild public concern about climate, great public resistance to increased costs, and little to no public or political understanding of risk assessment.

Full text after the jump.

Continue reading Contrarian to the C.O.R.E.