Thursday, December 19, 2019
A Science-Based Approach to Dealing with Climate Change in Washington State
Sometimes I muse about it–if I were in control of Washington State’s response to global warming, what would I do? What would a rational, science-based approach look like, devoid of the hype and politics that is hindering progress today?
I would start by noting few principles:
1. The implications of global warming for the Northwest is serious (more extreme rainfall, warmer temperatures, less mountain snowpack, rising sea level in place) but it won’t be existential and changes will initially be relatively small, accelerating later in the century.
2. Scientists and politicians must communicate the truth–the best estimates of our science. Exaggeration and hyping impacts “to get people to do the right thing” is both unethical and counterproductive. It produces unnecessary fear or turning away from the problem.
3. The effort MUST be bipartisan. Nothing major is ever accomplished by one party, something particularly true of our divided state and nation. We must not mix political goals (e.g., social engineering) with dealing with what is essentially a scientific/technical problem (increasing concentrations of one gas).
Last presidential election. Red is Republican. Blue Democrat.
4. Few people are willing to sacrifice today to stop global warming tomorrow (including climate scientists with huge travel-related carbon footprints). Thus, all steps should provide benefits in the short run or not produce large additional costs.
5. Global warming and its impacts will be solved with science and technology.
My approach to the problem can be divided into three parts:
1. A research program to better understand the implications of global warming for the region.
2. Promoting resilience and adaptation
3. Carbon emissions reduction (also known as mitigation)
1. Research: Understanding the implications of global warming for the Northwest
Global warming produced by increasing levels of CO2 is already influencing our area, although they are subtle at this point. Since additional warming is inevitable, it is important that we understand the expected changes and the associated uncertainties. This will give us the information we need for adaptation/resilience that will reduce impacts.
There has been some research by UW and NOAA scientists regarding the projected regional effects of global warming that provides a broad outline of expected changes, but MUCH more research is needed. For example, we need to understand the uncertainties in current global model forecasts and run high-resolution climate models to better understand the local implications of global warming.
I have been working quite a bit on this as part of my group’s research, securing some support from Amazon to run many regional climate model simulations. The results are fascinating with some surprises (see example below, which show drying in the lee of major mountains, but wetter everywhere else). Much more needs to be done (and unfortunately the Amazon grant has ended). Hopefully, we will find more support to do the analysis and continue such simulations (if you want to help, go here).
To summarize, task number one is to do the necessary research to gain a better idea of what will happen during the next century over the Northwest as the planet warms, and how this warming will vary with different emissions amounts. Support of such research should be bipartisan.
2. Adaptation and Resilience
As noted above, substantial warming of the planet and region is inevitable, with implications not only for temperature, but precipitation, snowpack, and flooding as well. The atmosphere hasn’t caught up with the CO2 up there right now and global emissions are still rising rapidly. And there are the associated problems of wildfires, air quality, water supply, and agriculture. We need to take steps to protect our people and economy.
Importantly we are not adapted and resilient to our CURRENT climate. Flooding has caused I-5 to close, a landslide has destroyed Oso, Washington, dry summers (e.g. 2015) have contributed in wildfires and agricultural losses, and minor rain events have resulted in massive sewer outflows in King County (there are many more examples). To a great degree, by making ourselves resilient to current weather/climate threats, we will do much to protect ourselves from the impacts of climate change (and vice versa!).
Importantly, work on resilience can be bipartisan. Some example include:
a. Invest in the infrastructure to prevent sewage overflows during heavy rain events. In addition, treat more of the water draining off our roadways This will also help improve the health of Puget Sound, and thus the survival of salmon and orcas.
b. Begin a massive project to repair our overgrown east-side forests. This will including thinning, removal of slash and debris, and bringing back fire (prescribed burns). It is estimated that 2.5-3 million acres need attention and the costs will be in the billions. Thinning/prescribed fire is the only way to restore the ecology of our dry-side forests and to prevent some of the huge catastrophic fires evident during the last decade. What we have been doing the past decade is pittance compared to what is necessary. A thinning/healthy forest program could also be an economic boon for eastern Washington, and will reduce the big smoke events. A win-win for everyone.
c. Building more reservoir capacity to serve agriculture in eastern Washington. Global warming will increase annual precipitation in our area, but lessen snowpack that supplies water later in the summer; thus, water must be stored in winter in expanded reservoirs to deal with the problem. Some efforts have been started in this direction with the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan. A substantial effort to increase storage capacity is needed.
d. A rational plan for selling/trading water rights is required, in contrast to the ineffective junior/senior rights approach of today that results in wasted water. Furthermore, the crop mix in eastern WA must shift to agriculture that is less water intensive, and the leaky, poorly constructed water distribution infrastructure of eastern WA must be fixed. Less hay.
e. The state must begin moving people away from vulnerable locations susceptible to flooding and landslides, such as areas next to rivers or adjacent to potentially unstable slopes. This will be costly, since property will need to be purchased.
Does Big Bend, Washington make sense?
f. Development in fire-prone areas on the wildland/urban interface should be stopped, and isolated homes bought out. Such areas should NOT have protective services that risk the lives of young firefighters.
This should not be encouraged.
g. Crops should be developed that are more heat and drought resistant. Washington State University is working on this approach actively.
3. Mitigation: Reduction of Emissions of CO2
Mitigation is the most controversial aspect of the global warming problem, since CO2 knows no state or national boundary and costs can be immense for even small reductions in CO2 emissions. Furthermore, Washington State, rich in hydrogeneration resources, is one of best states in the union for low-carbon electricity, so any improvements would be modest. Transportation is our biggest source of carbon emissions, and our potential for solar and wind generation is limited by our cloudy northern climate and modest areas of consistent wind. And folks rarely talk about the IMMENSE carbon footprints associated with our major industries, such as Boeing and Amazon.
Huge carbon footprint that politicians and others don’t talk about
The population of our state is clearly cool carbon taxes and fees, with two voter initiatives defeated and the legislation unable to pass cap and trade legislation. This is not going to change. And even if we passed such measures, the impacts on global carbon emissions would be small at best. That is not argument against them…everyone has to do their part if it makes sense.
With all that said, there is much that we can do that does makes economic sense and would provide multiple benefits immediately.
1. More nuclear power. Although hydropower is king in the Northwest, there is still substantial fossil fuel use, including coal (about 13% of electricity generation). Adding an additional nuclear power facility could fill this gap. Many environmental activists are against nuclear power, worried about safety and waste. But new nuclear power plant designs are inherently safe and waste can be dealt with responsibly. Consider France, where most of their power is from nuclear. Turning against nuclear power is one of the great mistakes of the climate activist movement.
And there is something else: fusion power, which does not have the waste problem, is probably only a decade or so away. Dozens of companies are working the problem (including Helion here in the Northwest). Don’t believe that fusion will be available within 10 years? Make it 30 years. But once it is available the whole game changes. We have an unlimited source of clean energy. And with energy we can also pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. Problem solved.
2. Natural gas for marine applications.
Most marine traffic burns oil. And not just any oil, but dirty bunker fuel, that is highly polluting. You can see the smoke with your own eyes when one of the cruise ships comes into Seattle. But there is a cost-effective option: liquified natural gas (LNG), which burns clean and produces less CO2 for the same energy. So we need to move marine traffic to LNG, particularly for coastal applications (like Puget Sound). Unfortunately, some climate advocacy groups like Seattle’s 350.org are against LNG and doing what they can to prevent the LNG facility in Tacoma. They are hurting our attempts to lessen local air pollution and to reduce CO2 emissions.
3. Improved agricultural practices to restore carbon to our soils
There is tremendous potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere by restoring organic matter to our depleted soils. UW Professor David Montgomery has written several excellent books describing the potential of carbon addition to soils through improved agricultural practices, and a local company, Nori is working on such agricultural carbon removal using a market-based approach. A substantial amount of CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere this way, while improving our soils. Another win-win.
4. Expand rail and mass transit much more quickly
Let me be blunt–the rate of expansion of rail transportation in the Northwest is pathetically slow and ineffective. The very limited Sound Transit system won’t be finished until around 2040. Crazy slow. Sounder trains to Tacoma and Everett are infrequent and unreliable, with even modest rain causing slides that close down rail traffic. Light rail from Seattle to the airport is horrendously slow, with too many stops. Our region needs to get serious about rail, with frequent service up and down the Sound, with more east-west routes. We also need rail service into the mountains (imagine going skiing by rail as in Europe?) What takes a decade in China takes 50 years in the Northwest… assuming it even gets done.
An obvious and powerful approach has been neglected–running commuter boats up and down the Sound and across Lake Washington. Ironically, such service used to be available–the old mosquito fleet. Now that our roads are locking up, marine transportation is needed more than ever. Seattle can be the Venice of the U.S (without the flooding).
5. Reduce traffic
The increasing traffic in our region has a huge carbon footprint, and there are immediate steps that could reduce it. In Seattle and elsewhere, some municipalities have deliberately throttled traffic by reducing the number of lanes. A huge mistake that has contributed to fuel-burning traffic jams. Traffic light timing needs to optimized on more streets to foster better flow. And then there are the increased number of accidents due to distracted drivers playing with their phones, food, and other distractions. More effective steps are needed to deal with such distracted driving, which already illegal in most localities. Better law enforcement, requirement that smartphone texting and other interactions will not work in moving vehicles. We need creative solutions. Less traffic, lives saved, less carbon emission. Cars are not going to disappear from our roads–they will simply go electric.
6. Most important of all, science and technology development
Washington State is only a small part of the global warming problem through our direct emissions, with our indirect emissions (e.g., Boeing jets, Amazon worldwide transportation infrastructure) probably being larger. If we are REALLY going to make a big contribution to reducing CO2 in the atmosphere, there is only one way to do so–to develop the technologies the will result in less emissions, from battery technology, to fusion, to better agriculture, to improved renewables, and more. Developing the technology of sequestration (pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere will also be important. In fact, I suspect the solution to the global warming problem will end up fusion power coupled with sequestration of CO2 from the atmosphere, injecting it deep into the earth.
A local company, Carbon Engineering, is working on industrial size carbon capture facilities.
This blog is getting long, and there is many more things that could be done regarding mitigation. There is much we can do, with some approaches having nearly immediate benefits (less traffic, more rail, less pollution).
The optimistic bottom line. There are so many local politicians, media outlets, and activist groups that are painting a depressing, fearful picture of our future regarding global warming. They are simply wrong. There is so much that can be done to prepare and mitigate global warming, and the impacts will me more gradual than some are suggesting. This is a scientific/technological problem that can be solved in a rational way, together.