Climate Change & Sustainability


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INSTAAR Director Dr. Jim White's presentation to the Colorado Biology Teachers' Association at their 2013 Symposium on Climate Change, held at University of Colorado, Boulder.

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Climate Change & Sustainability

  1. 1. Climate Change andSustainabilityFacing Physical Reality 101Jim WhiteUniversity of ColoradoInstitute of Arctic and Alpine Research
  2. 2. Times have changed• We live in truly historic times• We have sought dominion over theearth for as long as we have been aspecies• In the last 30 years, we havedemonstrably achieved that goal
  3. 3. Times have changed• While all previous generations saw theearth as limitless in some way, all futuregenerations will need to considerplanetary limits• Sustainability is our goal• To achieve that goal, we mustunderstand how our planet functions
  4. 4. If the goal is sustainability…
  5. 5. Is it surprising that humansare changing the planet?• Simply put…we’re impressive, the biggest cause ofchange on the planet.• We have altered the Earth’s energy balance andchanged climate• We cause 10 times more erosion than all naturalprocesses• We make more fertilizer than all bacteria in the world• We make more sulfate than all ocean phytoplankton• Our current energy needs equal all harvestable windenergy in the atmosphere
  6. 6. PopulationYou arehere
  7. 7. Use per capita: the bigmultiplierChina: 5 times belowEuropeIndia: 8 times belowEuropeUS: 2 times morethan EuropeThe Nasty Dilemma:we want others to livewell, but if theydo, the energy andresource needs willbe staggering
  8. 8. Fossil Fuel CO2 Emissions: Top EmittersGlobal Carbon Project 2010; Data: Gregg Marland, Tom Boden-CDIAC 20101990 95 2001 05 200997 99 03930400800120016002000CarbonEmissionsperyear(Ctonsx1,000,000)ChinaUSAJapanRussian Fed.India072009Time (y)
  9. 9. The challenge ofglobal domination• Unintended consequences– Fertilize crops in Iowa: Mississippi Delta DeadZone– Global commerce: species spread and ecosystemdestruction– Fossil fuel energy: climate change– Climate change: birds and caterpillars• Costs of management: replace ecosystemservices• Costs of change: mismatch of resourceavailability and need/use
  10. 10. The challenge ofglobal domination• Resource scarcity– Food– Fresh water– Minerals: e.g. Lithium– Energy• Shrinking adaptation time: coal example
  11. 11. Timing and tipping points• Not classical… notalways recognized andnot always abrupt, but athreshold, a point of noreturn is crossed resultingin large, inevitablechange.• The“canoe on theNiagara River” typeevents: strong positivefeedbacks
  12. 12. Is it economics, or is it ethics,morals and religion?Economicargumentswill win ifgrow is whatwe do.
  13. 13. The exponential: a hypothetical exampleCoal Lifetime: 500 yrs, no growth in use
  14. 14. Coal Lifetime: 500 yrs, growth in useNote thescalechange!0500100015002000250030000 20 40 60 80 100 120 140 160 180 200reservoir with 1% growth in usereservoir with 3% growth in use
  15. 15. Kyoto was passed in 1997…Since then, CO2 levels are >20%higher… in other words, about 20% ofall FF’s ever burned were burned since1997…One generation, the post WWIIgeneration, will burn nearly all of the oiland natural gas economically availableSobering thoughts…
  16. 16. The loose railroad ties• The targets are still fuzzy, so the solutions must beadaptable:• Time scale mismatch: planetary versus politicaltimescales• The Earth also contributes (feedbacks): polar carbon,melting ice sheets, shrinking sea ice…• Hysteresis (aka: can you really go home again?):geoengineering• A dynamic and changing planet: sea level, rainfall,etc.
  17. 17. Beyond climatechange• Climate change is training wheels forsustainability• We have larger problems to face and solve– Food– Water– Mineral resources– Population– International cooperation• Every problem faced is a step towardssustainability
  18. 18. Living with our (inevitable)footprint• CH4 is in part a food greenhouse gas. Itis produced by rice cultivation anddomestic animals• N2O is a food gas• Birds and the bees: Rachel Carson (westill check very few new chemicals forimpacts) and pollinators (what’s killingthe bees?)
  19. 19. Finalcomments:ResponsibilityEthics and economicsMy 3 simple rules ofsustainability:1. Everything must cycle2. Population must becontrolled (equality ofthe sexes), and varyinversely with resourceuse per capita3. Equity must beconsidered and actedupon