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Mon Feb 24, 2014 at 01:51 PM PST

Cause and Climate

by wcalvin

(another refugee from that black hole at

The short headline reads, “Drought’s Link to Climate Change Is Disputed” (New York Times, Justin Gillis). The evidence cited, however, is a version of “We’ve seen this before,” which might be an appropriate response had someone said “unprecedented” but which does not help establish doubt about a role of climate change. This misleads. Why should the standard be the discovery of brand-new phenomena, when all climate change has to do is to alter where and when the usual suspects return to the stage?

Another staple of climate coverage is when a cause is implied to be this-or-that. In reality, causes are always plural. No sooner do you learn about gravity causing the fall of Newton’s apple than you are faced with gravity being insufficient to explain the speed of the fall. Air resistance is also acting on the apple.

If everything has multiple causes, why do climate scientists go along with how reporters frame “the cause” question? The appropriate answer is nearly always, “Drought has a mix of causes. Climate change is not a new one. It just alters the mix.”

There is, however, a reason that overheating will create more drought episodes, and in new places. It comes, not from the global average overheating (which obscures uneven overheating), but because there are hot-spots, called continents.

We know that land has been warming twice as fast as the ocean surface. The Arctic warmed even faster. Unless warm air stops rising, we have to expect a rearrangement of our usual winds and moisture delivery. What would be surprising is if drought patterns did not change. That’s the appropriate starting point for discussing drought prospects.

And as long as overheating keeps increasing, there will never be a settled new arrangement of winds and moisture delivery. The obvious conclusion is that climate instability is going to characterize the future.

Averages often obscure important drivers. Rain arriving at inconvenient times can, for example, flatten grain crops in midsummer, leaving them to rot. Deluge and drought may come as a pair, yet not show up in the annual averages which continue to frame our approach to the climate problem.

Extreme weather can strike a serious blow to our civilization, and do so much more quickly than the effects of the slow rise in local temperature. In this new era of climate instability, don’t make the mistake of thinking things will change gradually. Or predictably.

All bets are off, which is bad news for our just-in-time food supply line. It’s time to return to the pharaoh’s policy of keeping a seven year stockpile of grain.

William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle.


Sun Aug 25, 2013 at 06:07 PM PDT

Why Tesla Is Not Enough

by wcalvin

There are many reasons to like Tesla Motors’ new aerodynamic sedan without a tailpipe, in production for the last year. Consumer Reports called it the best car they have ever tested, electric or not. “Filling up” my Model S overnight after driving 250 miles costs less than $10 of electricity, whereas my trade-in required $60 of gasoline.

Most electric vehicles are mere modifications of an existing car model; take out some machinery under the hood, fit in some new. But the Model S shows what a fresh start can do. The floor is the rigid compartment housing 7,000 small batteries. The quiet electric motor is between the rear wheels; there is no transmission. Together this makes for a low center of gravity and excellent stability.

The crash tests reported last week turned out, as Tesla’s designers had predicted, to be five star as well. Indeed, another best ever. What’s under the hood is a well-designed crumple zone, with no heavy machinery to threaten front seat occupants. It’s used as the second trunk. To see any machinery, one must crawl under the car.

The Tesla itself may have zero emissions but the electrical energy has to come from somewhere. Here in Seattle, 98 percent of our electricity comes from sun-powered renewables: hydroelectric, photoelectric, and wind. Switzerland also has 98 percent clean electricity, half from hydro and half from nuclear, also clean except for the mining of uranium.

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Wed Mar 27, 2013 at 05:49 AM PDT

Who Will Support Climate Repairs?

by wcalvin

Avoiding catastrophe has not worked very well as a motivation for doing something about climate. (Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief” for performances seems to kick in for reality that sounds like a disaster movie.) Nor has relying on the general environmental agenda been fast enough.

Mere reduction in the yearly fossil fuel emissions does not promise any reduction in heat waves or shoreline inundation or ocean acidification, only that they will grow a little more slowly. The extreme weather of the last decade will only continue getting worse.

But climate repair, on top of the current preventative measures such as emissions reduction, promises much more than slightly slowing civilization’s disorganization and collapse. Cleaning up the excess carbon dioxide in the air promises some real reversals in things that matter to many business and homeowner interests.

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Neither emissions reduction nor simple ocean fertilization will do much for the U.S. before we reach the 2°C (3.6°F) overheating frontier. That happens about 2028 when today’s toddlers finish high school.

But there’s still a class of climate fix that is analogous to plowing under a cover crop. If we immediately bury the new green stuff, we get a big boost in the efficiency of cleaning up excess carbon.

On land, one can grow extra greenery, then harvest and bury it somewhere that will keep its eventual carbon dioxide from making its way back into the circulating air. However, this too needs a lot of new growing space and water resources (and you have to keep it from burning in a time of worse droughts and higher winds)–all at a time when expanding human populations will contest such land and water use.

Not likely. What’s left, given that massive ocean fertilization looks unlikely to settle out enough carbon into the ocean depths? It turns out that we can augment settling out the new greenery with pumping it down.

In the ocean surface layer, three-quarters of the new green turns back into carbon dioxide within a week or two via respiration or rotting. Fortunately, we can use push-pull pumps to fertilize and then sink the new algae within days so that carbon dioxide production instead happens in the depths.

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Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 11:10 AM PDT

In Search of Climate Solutions

by wcalvin

So what would constitute a climate solution?

Even if rich countries somehow achieve zero emissions, the developing countries attempting to modernize are likely to continue burning their own coal and oil. (They already emit more than half of the yearly total).

Some will surely continue doing this for many decades, so we must continuously bury equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide elsewhere. Any “climate solution” that does not handle out-of-control emissions is unworthy of the name.

The obvious climate fix is to clean up the 41 percent carbon dioxide excess, taking it out of circulation to reverse the overheating and most of sea level rise. And then continuing to counter the out-of-control emissions. An emergency cleanup of the atmosphere is also the only intervention that stands a chance of reversing ocean acidification.

And unless we clean things up in the next decade or two, as today’s cute toddlers grow up, we stand a good chance of losing any ability to keep climate from spiraling into irreversible disaster. Like rotten teeth, climate disasters can become pretty ugly. Many of us will not survive the population crash.

What we need is a paradigm shift. The old one is plainly inadequate, dangerously so.

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Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 07:04 AM PDT

Our Understated Climate Problem

by wcalvin

For climate disease, there is no doubt remaining about the diagnosis:  global overheating, mostly from an insulating blanket of the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels. That’s what stirs up such knock-on effects as extreme weather and expanding subtropical deserts.

It's now dishonest to claim that the overheating hypothesis fails, just because some line of evidence seems dubious to you. Even if you were right to be suspicious, there would still be 11 other independent lines of evidence, all firmly pointing at global warming destroying our favorable climate.

Anyone still dubious about global warming immediately labels themselves as either a quarter-century out of date or a profit-making promoter of climate confusion.

The climate scientists’ forecast is also impressive -–so far as it goes. However, their state-of-the-art climate simulations leave out components where they are not sure enough about the numbers. "When in doubt, leave it out." Vicious-cycle feedback loops were originally omitted as insufficiently understood.

When only the slow accumulation of heat-trapping gases are included in simulations, it’s no surprise that they show the heat waves slowly getting worse.

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Tue Mar 12, 2013 at 07:58 AM PDT

Climate: Is This the Best We Can Do?

by wcalvin

Suppose that you went to the dentist with a toothache. But instead of filling the cavity, the dentist merely told you to brush your teeth more often.

Without a repair, a tooth not only hurts: it won’t survive long enough to benefit from better brushing. Once you’ve got a problem, what you need is a quick fix, then a redoubling of preventive measures.

Our current approach to global warming is also all prevention and no fix. We persist in framing the climate problem in the same way as we did before 1976, which is when major climate shifts began.

Prevention is no longer the appropriate way to look at this problem, not when we’ve already accumulated a 41 percent excess of carbon dioxide in the air. The overheating from it has been exaggerating the usual causes of extreme weather episodes.

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What went wrong? There will be a series of reasons, both proximate (sticking valves, operator errors, slow response) and ultimate (siting, design, and such).
    What can we say at this point about the failure to design for an earthquake-tsunami one-two punch?
1.    The safety systems detected the earthquake and, as designed or subsequently modified, shut down the chain reaction to below criticality.
2.    The earthquake might have damaged some systems, e.g., might have drained some of the 10m-deep pool at Number 4 holding removed fuel rods.
3.    The tsunami overtopped the sea walls built to protect the installation. That constitutes an obvious siting and design insufficiency, given Fukushima was near a subduction zone that generates tsunamis. These were errors made forty years ago by Tokyo Electric Power and the Japanese regulators.
4.    Because basement electrical control rooms were flooded by the tsunami, backup power failed and batteries were only good for four hours. Some sensor data and control functions were lost. Another obvious design insufficiency, easily avoided by locating this room on a higher floor.
5.    The Fukushima boiling-water reactors were designed by G.E. in the 1960s to be cheaper than the dominant design, the pressurized water reactor. But its slimmed-down containment was heavily criticized in the early 1970s for safety reasons that are likely to be relevant to the Fukushima disasters.
6.    About one-fourth of the U.S. reactors in operation today are of this cheaper G.E. Mark I design. The Chernobyl reactor that melted down in 1986 was a much cheaper Soviet design; not only did it not have a containment but the reactor was surrounded by very flammable graphite, what caused the building to burn for a month while lofting radioactive particles up to 30,000 feet to create fallout over a far wider area than anything likely from the multiple Daiichi disasters.
7.    As Matt Wald notes, “One simple improvement, in use now in most plants, is to keep some spent fuel in “dry casks” — steel cylinders filled with inert gas, sitting in small concrete silos. These have no moving parts and are unlikely to be bothered by earthquakes or tsunamis.” It sounds as if Tokyo Electric Power and the Japanese regulators failed to update their fuel-handling.
8.    Most of the four hundred reactors operating in the world today are of the more robust pressurized water design and most are not threatened by tsunamis, so many of the lessons of Fukushima may not prove relevant to them.
9.    Most of the reactors currently being constructed have forty additional years of operating experience and safety research to guide them. (The G.E. Mark I represented only ten years of commercial nuclear power experience.)

While the use of coal for electricity generation appears cheap, that is only because we take so little account of its hidden costs (climate change), pollution (coal-fired plants put more uranium into the air each year than all of the uranium consumed in nuclear reactors), and miner deaths. In China alone, there are an estimated 5,000 miner deaths each year. For hydroelectric, there are dam failures that wipe out downstream towns. Per megawatt generated, the hydro fatality rate around the world is a hundred times higher than for nuclear electricity.
    For commercial nuclear power, the death toll was about 50 in the first fifty years, all from Chernobyl. One death per year, on average. While Daiichi has already added perhaps a dozen to that total, it is clear that nuclear is still, by far, our safest method of generating electricity.

The nuclear contamination downwind of a damaged reactor must be compared to those of other industrial plants, say those for agricultural chemicals.
    The 1984 Bhopal disaster was the world's worst industrial catastrophe with perhaps 15,000 deaths and a half-million injuries from the leak of methyl isocyanate gas in to the air, which went undetected for a week.
    Such facilities get little of the design and regulatory oversight that characterizes the nuclear power industry. Nuclear power is not inherently safer so much as it has been made mostly safe by foresight.
    Were not nuclear power associated in peoples’ minds with something far scarier, nuclear bombs, we would have treated it about like we treat a pesticide plant. But I wouldn’t downgrade the nuclear power precautions; instead I would upgrade the safety requirements and disaster plans for many manufacturing operations that can generate fallout from a fire or leak.

My qualifications in this area, besides a Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics atop a physics-engineering background, come largely from a three-day course on reactor safety (and past accidents) given by the NRC. I reviewed the relative safety of various power sources in Chapter 19 of my 2008 book, GLOBAL FEVER: How to Treat Climate Change (University of Chicago Press). I am a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.


Fri Nov 26, 2010 at 10:37 PM PST

Discovering global fever

by wcalvin

You can’t say I wasn’t warned. When I was in the sixth grade (that’s in 1950), we got the Saturday Evening Post in the mail once a week—and so I probably read their article, "Is the World Getting Warmer?"

About the time I started high school in 1953, both Time magazine and Popular Mechanics were running warnings by the infra-red heat expert Gilbert Plass. I probably read them too.

Then I likely forgot all about the problem, since the Cold War and bomb testing seemed much more scary than any drip-drip-drip scenario—one even slower than dry rot from an unrepaired roof leak.

But five years later, when I was a physics major at Northwestern University, there was a weekly film series in the engineering auditorium and one cold Friday night, among the short subjects preceding the main feature, I saw a short documentary on global warming directed by Frank Capra. (You can view it on YouTube’s archive and marvel at the old "straight man" attempts to provide comic relief; the diagnosis and prognosis were, however, right on.) Then in my third year of college, I read Plass’ 1959 article in Scientific American, "Carbon Dioxide and Climate."

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Mon Nov 22, 2010 at 06:42 PM PST

How Much Time Do We Have Left?

by wcalvin

"Doc, just how long do I have left? A year?"

If the patient has a gradually failing heart, the physician's answer might be "One to two years if it’s just gradual deterioration. But you could also have a heart attack at any time. Don’t count on even six months."

Climate scientists similarly warn of an approaching catastrophe by climate creep—though a climate leap may kill off civilization even sooner as the human population crashes.

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Tue Jan 05, 2010 at 05:11 PM PST

A Humane Solitaire

by wcalvin

Solitaire is a great preparation for life. You lose, over and over again (in my experience, about six games in every seven). Often your access to the needed card has been closed off by a prior move and so you learn about burning your bridges. And in many of your games, you have the slowly dawning realization that you are trapped—simply going around in a circle, making no progress.

In the earliest digital versions of solitaire, there was no "Undo" command, quite a shock to those used to retrieving a real card from a pile. Undo was quickly added.

And the most recent versions have become even more humane. They have foresight and will usually tell you when you are hopelessly trapped, that there are no more moves you can make that will lead out of the maze. There are still occasions of endless loops-within-loops that the software doesn’t recognize, but usually it spares you the growing despair.

Humane solitaire might be useful for training physicians and climate researchers. Just when they get good at it, you take away the foresight feature. Next, you take away Undo.

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Sun May 24, 2009 at 06:18 PM PDT

We must clean up CO2 by 2030

by wcalvin

The testimony of Professor William H. Calvin at the EPA Endangerment Hearing in Seattle, May 22, 2009

I am William H. Calvin, a Seattle author, lecturer, and professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Medicine now affiliated with our Program on Climate Change. In 1958 when I was an undergraduate physics major, I saw a short movie where the climate scientists of the day were predicting global warming (you can now find it on YouTube). The science was good enough for an endangerment ruling back in the EPA’s first year, 1971.

We have squandered the fifty-year lead time that early climate science provided us. We now have a climate problem so big that CO2 emission reductions, even to zero, won’t be a climate fix. If we were removing CO2 in a big way, countering ongoing emissions and drawing down the 38% excess CO2, then emission reductions would speed the day and reduce the needed sequestration capacity. But without a program to quickly clean up the CO2 excess, emission reductions will not even buy us some time before we reach the overwhelming levels of climate change-and because of abrupt climate shifts, that could happen well before mid-century.

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