24 February 2011

Key Topics for the UNFCCC COP Process, part 2

Continuing from part 1 my list of topics on which I think discussion will follow in the UNFCCC process over the next several decades...

7. Following a long discussion and possible agreement on tropical forests (item 2 in part 1 of this list), the temperate mixed forests and subarctic boreal forests (taiga) will become an issue to be addressed for the global north.  This will likely come alongside a discussion of tundra regions and thawing permafrost zones throughout polar Eurasia and North America.  The conversion of tundra to peat bogs and swamps or marshes on a global scale will, of course, bring about more discussion of continental carbon and methane emissions.  It will be a different discussion from the controls on anthropogenic methane emissions, however.  In a recent interview (pdf) in EOS (subscription required), the weekly news of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the lead editor of the 2009 AGU Monograph Carbon Cycling in Northern Peatlands was quoted:
"…The amount of carbon stored in northern peatlands is between 3 and 5 times that stored in the Amazon and about 50 times the global annual emissions of carbon through fossil fuel burning. There is concern that the carbon stored in peatlands may 'leak' back to the atmosphere as peatlands warm and respond to changes in rainfall. They could be a sleeping giant that still remains asleep, but if that sleeping giant wakes up, then we could have problems, and they could have a big effect on future climate."  
And still, as much as the process has focused on carbon dioxide all these years, we have known that methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.  It is the "sleeper cell" in our human story of climate change in the 21st century.

8. With the rise of the discussion on continental methane (above) will come a closer look at ocean temperatures and their cycles, which we are only beginning to understand now, but hope to know a great deal more about by mid-century.  The principal contributor to predictions regarding sea level rise is not the volume of sea ice expected to melt, but the expansion of the water with warming.  In the meantime, the methane potentially to be released from sea-floor sediments (methane hydrate) as the oceans could dwarf any observations of naturally-sequestered land-based methane in permafrost, peat and wetlands.  As it is now, we know far more about the physics, thermodynamics and chemistry of the oceans than we know about the variety and behavior of land cover.  This is one reason why the influence and response of the land surface remains so poorly represented, comparatively, in climate models (maybe I should address that disparity in another post sometime soon).  In the meantime, our advanced knowledge of the oceans and their influence on the global climate will draw the discussion back from more obvious land-based changes, such as permafrost conversion, to the subtle changes happening in the world's oceans.  This will be the second great round of discussion on the world's oceans, with a focus more on the thermodynamics and chemistry of the ocean-climate system this time around (as compared with item 3 in part 1 of this list).

9. With the discussion brought around again to the global oceans, we will see more focus on fisheries (if any are still viable) in the climate negotiations.  National claims of territorial sovereignty and exclusive economic zones will come into conflict on a greater scale, and far sooner, on the sea than on land.  The US President is already taking comments from the public on strategic actions toward some rather vague objectives of a National Ocean Policy, a portion of which is oriented on climate change and ecological factors.

10. International groundwater basins will finally see some discussion.  I'm not sure about the rest of the world, but I get the impression that other countries see what the US and many of its states do not: surface water and groundwater are connected.  If that just seems natural to you too, then you're not a water lawyer in the US either.  Groundwater has been described, by engineers, in terms of "megawatersheds" because a single aquifer can span large areas and numerous topographic watersheds at the land surface.  For example, the Ogalalla Aquifer underlies portions of eight states in the midwestern US and receives percolated surface water (though very little) from several major and numerous minor watersheds, including the Missouri River and Arkansas River systems, while providing pumped water supplies to millions of farmers and residents of the American Great Plains.  In other areas of the world, aquifers nearly as large also span national borders, bringing into consideration the shared use of subsurface water resources just as on the surface in international river basins (item 6 in part 1 of this list).

11. Continental and coastal wetlands will re-enter the discussion as slowly disappearing and degrading hotspots of biodiversity.  Though the ranks of the protected wetlands areas under the Ramsar Convention have been increasing slowly, wetland areas in general are decreasing in number, size and quality around the world.  In their normal and natural state, healthy wetlands function as carbon sequestration mechanisms.  However, wetlands that lose their source of, and ability to cycle, clean water will turn hypoxic and can end up eutrophic, releasing carbon-based methane from plant materials in the decay and reduction process.  Continental wetlands act as chemical buffers, connecting surface waters with groundwater and filtering both.  Coastal wetlands act as both chemical and physical buffers, filtering nutrients from land-based runoff at a brackish interface while the vegetation, such as mangroves and grasses, protect the shore from the full brunt of land-falling storms such as tropical cyclones.  Just as sea-level rise will put saltwater pressure on coastal aquifers, coastal wetlands will come under increasing stress because of the rising salinity of their brackish waters.  I have written previously and at length on wetlands, for World Wetlands Day (2 February) in 2009 and this year.

12. As I mentioned in item 6 of part 1, International Rivers estimates that there are more than 45,000 large dams (taller than 20 m) around the world, with more than 5,000 of them over 50 years old and in need of repair or replacement.  It is suggested that all of these are increasingly hazardous because of their design on past understanding of the hydrologic cycle; they are not built to handle the accelerated cycle that is expected with global warming with stronger storms in some regions and reductions in rainfall elsewhere, not to mention changes in the timing of snowmelt and peak runoff seasons.  It is estimated that 40-80M people worldwide have been displaced by their construction over time, and that another 2M residents are displaced or have their livelihoods affected every year as new dams are built. On the other side of the debate, the International Hydropower Association has recently formed its own voluntary standards for dam construction, known as the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol.  These standards have already been derided by environmentalists as entirely self-serving for the industrial stakeholders that formulated the protocol and that fund and build such projects.  For that matter, funding for various and controversial projects is diverse and not always transparent; some stakeholders may provide funding simply as an investment in the infrastructure and expect a return on power sales, while others have less benign reasons for contributing.  One of the problem is that dams and hydropower are still viewed as "clean energy," while others cite the science of reservoir methane production and the downstream ecological and geomorphological changes and human impacts.  It has now been more than 10 years since the World Commission on Dams, convened by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union (now the International Union for Conservation of Nature), issued its report.  The final report of the Commission was meant to "encompass basic values of human rights and sustainable development that are essential to minimizing the negative impacts of large dams on people and the environment."  Since that report, global dam-building has only accelerated in the number of projects under consideration and construction, with increasing media scrutiny of personal displacement, land rights abuses, and impacts to the livelihood of citizens around the world.  The media, however, remain neutral in their reporting.  It is up to grassroots supporters and their opinions voiced to larger international bodies and processes such as the UNFCCC and the World Bank itself to put the WCD policies and recommendations into action, making judgments on projects on a case basis and holding the dam-funding and -building groups to higher standards than we have seen thus far.


    Robert Woodman said...

    Hi, Dr. Garcia,
    All three of these posts are very interesting. I was amused by your comment,

    "surface water and groundwater are connected. If that just seems natural to you too, then you're not a water lawyer in the US either."

    Having had to deal with lawyers for various reasons, I find that they can make the most naturally things in the world seem completely unnatural. :-)

    You wrote this at the beginning of 2011. It is now the end of 2013. The Kyoto Protocol has expired. The U.S. continues to fail to lead on climate change. I'd put the blame solely on the Republicans, except for the fact that the U.S. failed to lead when the Democrats controlled House, Senate, and White House. The leadership failure is bipartisan, and blaming one party or the other, while it might be satisfying, is pointless. So I have a few questions:
    1. How have your views changed in the past 2+ years since you wrote these posts? How have they stayed the same? And (naturally) why?
    2. In our tweet exchange, you said that the US is not good at crisis management. I disagree in part. We are good at finding and fixing the immediate crisis (especially when politicians aren't involved), but like a child with ADHD, we have no power to stay focused on a problem that requires long-term commitment. Nevertheless (and here's the question), given the U.S. failure of leadership on climate change and accepting for the sake of argument that the U.S. is not very good at crisis management, what is the solution?

    3. Given that a significant percentage (albeit a minority) of the US voting population doesn't trust (or, more significantly, fears and despises) the United Nations, is it possible to implement in the USA any UN-mandated global solution to climate change? If not, how do we go about implementing a solution that the USA will accept?

    4. While climate change deniers are a tiny, vocal minority worldwide, they exercise enormous political influence in this country. In what ways can we move the conversation away from the areas where deniers have been influential and bring it into areas where deniers will have a very hard time gaining any traction?

    Robert Woodman said...

    (continued from previous comment)
    As I said in our Twitter exchange, I think that we need to move the conversation to ocean acidification. Here's my reasoning (feel free to criticize):

    a. Water is essential for life, and everybody understands this.
    b. Ocean acidification due to excess carbon dioxide is a process that is much better understood and much better modeled than climate change. (This is why the vocal minority of deniers can maintain so much political pressure in this country; scientifically illiterate Americans simply don't understand how to deal with the uncertainties of climate science.)
    c. Moreover, as you pointed out on Twitter, we can conduct ocean acidification experiments to give us a better feel for how the food webs and ecosystems will collapse if the process doesn't end.
    d. The solution to ocean acidification and to climate change is to curtail carbon dioxide emissions.
    e. If we can push curtailing carbon dioxide emissions as a solution to ocean acidification, which, as I have already stated, is much better understood and modeled than climate change, then we effectively mitigate two problems, i.e., ocean acidification and climate change.

    I will grant you that the problems are massive, and the solutions are enormously difficult to implement. However, both ocean acidification and climate change have a common root cause in carbon dioxide emissions. If we can bring the discussion to bear on the better understood and better modeled problem and get action taken on that problem now, then it becomes much easier for governments to accept solutions for climate change, when those solutions overlap with the solutions for ocean acidification.

    My background is microbiology (B.S.) and bichemistry (Ph.D.). I'd love to engage you in a discussion on these subjects. I would very much like to hear how your views have evolved since you wrote these three blog posts.

    Best Regards,

    Robert H. Woodman