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The Trump Effect

January 6, 2017 by Tony Noerpel filed under Columns, Sustainable Planet No Comments
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“Corals are marine magicians. As colonies of the tiny ocean organisms grow, they transform the calcium that circulates in seawater into enormous limestone reefs. These reefs—which can extend for more than 1,000 miles and provide homes for crabs, eels, sea horses, and other aquatic creatures—are counted among the world’s great natural wonders.” Emily Anthes, [16].

In my last two articles, I discussed the status of coral reefs [1-2]. Results from the third global mass bleaching event and third multi-year event, during 2014 to 2016, have not yet been published as a comprehensive summary but we can assume Coral reefs continue to be in sharp decline and since about 1980 have experienced a mortality rate in excess of 50 percent. A recent study by John F. Bruno and Abel Valdivia published in Nature [3] comparing the mortality of remote and isolated coral reefs with those in populated areas shows no difference. While coral mortality may be affected by local impacts such as chemical agriculture runoff and other pollutants, over fishing, and invasive species, the dominant causal agent is carbon emissions from fossil fuels into the atmosphere, resulting in both global warming and ocean acidification.

At the American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco last month, scientists reported that the population of the largest herd of reindeer in Siberia has declined by 40 percent since 2000 [4]. Svalbard Island reindeer have experienced a 12 percent decline in weight putting the population at risk [5]. The authors of both studies attribute the declines to human-caused climate change. Since these are remote areas less effected by other human misbehaviors this conclusion is reasonable.

In other articles, I’ve called attention to declines in African elephant populations of more than 98 percent since European colonization [6] and the near extinction of Gulf of Maine cod [7]. In both of these cases causes other than climate change are responsible. However, climate change does explain why cod have not recovered despite a fishing moratorium, and will certainly play a role in the likely extinction of elephants as it contributes to habitat destruction and human population stresses.

So safe to say the sixth great extinction event is well underway and yet we’ve only just warmed the planet 1.8 degrees F over the pre-industrial climate. What happens when we warm it 3.6 degrees, the agreed limit in Paris in December, 2015 and at a faster rate? It is worth considering President-elect Donald Trump’s legacy in light of his expected acceleration of all human misbehavior. But we will focus only on his administration’s likely impact on fossil fuels emissions recognizing that this will lead us to an overly optimistic assessment.

Climate scientist David Archer, one of the writers of the Real Climate blog estimates that the increase in emissions due to Trump during the next four years might be 1 to 1.6 billion tons of carbon which advances the time we would have to stop consuming fossil fuels cold turkey by only a few months [8]. However, the increase in US fossil fuels emissions isn’t the right way to look at the problem. After all, if we experience another global recession as in 2008, fossil fuels consumption will go down regardless of who is president or what that president does in the near term.

What is key is the investment in reserve development. Developed reserves are those for which investment has been made in their extraction: pipe lines have been constructed, wells drilled or mountaintops blown off. Money invested in developing fossil fuels cannot then be used to invest in alternative energy sources or in energy saving infrastructure and represents opportunity loss. At this moment, engineers like myself know what we need to do technically to avoid a climate catastrophe, but nobody knows how to keep developed reserves in the ground. Once the investment is made by the same plutocrats and oligarchs who wield all the power in our society [9], they are not going to agree to walk away from their money. They might agree to let us buy them out but we will not be able to afford that as current policy and future policy redistributes wealth away from the poor and middle classes towards the same pampered class who are making these ill-advised investments.

Figure 1 is a bar chart showing the amount of carbon in developed fossil fuel reserves. The blue bar on the left shows the amount of developed worldwide reserves in billions of tons of carbon as of November 7, 2016 [10]. The red bar shows the additional development of reserves as promised by President-elect Trump [11]. Trump promises to increase investment in fossil fuels reserve development by $50 trillion. I assumed $50 per barrel and assumed barrel of oil equivalents for coal and natural gas. This is overly optimistic because any investment in a reserve even well short of exploiting it fully, increases the amount that will be difficult to keep in the ground. It also ignores the response of other countries to America’s excesses. Argentina for one has vast as yet undeveloped reserves of shale oil. If our country is blowing off the Paris Agreement, why shouldn’t they?

The middle blue bar shows how much of this carbon humans can burn and still have a 67 percent chance of keeping the Earth surface temperature below 3.6 degrees F above pre-industrial surface temperature as of November 7, 2016. The red part of this bar is the reduced budget as of 2021 taking into account expected emissions between now and 2021; currently about 10 billion tons of carbon per year. The right-most blue bar is the emissions limit for a 50 percent chance of staying under 2.7 F above pre-industrial surface temperature as of November 7, 2016. By 2021 this budget goes negative so that it will no longer be possible to meet the 2.7 F temperature goal recommended by the Paris Agreement. It will not be that warm yet but there will no longer be any way, including giving up fossil fuels cold turkey, to prevent that from happening. I’ve used data from the IPCC report but amended it to account for carbon cycle feedbacks associated with deforestation [12] and permafrost decomposition [13], which the IPCC report does not include, following geophysicist Andy Skuce’s analysis [14].

Trump’s impact will be to nearly double the amount of developed resources which cannot be consumed from about 150 billion tons of carbon to 250 billion tons of carbon in order to comply with the 3.6 degree F limit. More problematic is that we will be replacing old developed resources, wherein investors have already made back their investment and a profit, and may be enticed to walk away, with sunk investment in new development which has not yet returned any revenue. New development would require investors to walk away not just from future profits but from capital. Burning all my estimate of developed reserves would likely result in a temperature increase of around 3 degrees F [15] corresponding to Arctic temperatures 6 degrees F and Antarctic temperatures about 4.5 degrees F higher than the pre-industrial climate.

The Trump legacy may be the permanent extinction of all corals and their associated flora and fauna as their survival is already doubtful at current temperatures. The human condition appears to have flipped states from “humans cooperating to give corals a chance” to “corals having no chance at all” in just one day.

My personal view is that moral judgment should lead us to share the resources of this planet not just with people who look like us or wear the same hats but with all people; and not just with those alive today but with all future generations; and not just with humans but with all the species of the biosphere with whom we share a common evolutionary history. We should not be a bunch of self-important anthropocentric greedy bastards. We should be concerned for corals whether or not they benefit us directly. Be that as it may, corals do have an interesting benefit to humans besides the trillions of dollars in fishing and tourist revenue [16]. See figure 2.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Figure 1 developed fossil fuel reserves and available budget.

Figure 1 developed fossil fuel reserves and available budget.

Figure 2 TO THE BONE: Studies of Porites coral (above) led to a breakthrough in dental implants, facial reconstruction, spinal fusion, and fracture repair. Source [16]

Figure 2 TO THE BONE: Studies of Porites coral (above) led to a breakthrough in dental implants, facial reconstruction, spinal fusion, and fracture repair. Source [16]

[1] Tony Noerpel, Blue Ridge Leader, December 7, 2016, http://brleader.com/?p=21711

[2] Tony Noerpel, November 20, 2016, http://brleader.com/?p=21562

[3] Bruno, J. F. and Valdivia, A. Coral reef degradation is not correlated with local human population density. Sci. Rep. 6, 29778; doi: 10.1038/srep29778 (2016). http://www.nature.com/articles/srep29778

[4] http://www.livescience.com/57180-russian-reindeer-populations-declining.html

[5] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/12/reindeer-are-shrinking-because-warmer-arctic-temperatures

[6] Tony Noerpel, Blue Ridge Leader, September 20, 2016, http://brleader.com/?p=21067

[7] Tony Noerpel, Blue Ridge Leader, February 19, 2016, http://brleader.com/?p=19426

[8] http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2016/11/trump-carbon-and-the-paris-agreement/

[9] Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, Perspectives on Politics / Volume 12 / Issue 03 / September 2014, pp 564-581 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1537592714001595 

[10] http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2016/09/OCI_the_skys_limit_2016_FINAL_2.pdf

[11] Donald Trump Contract with America, donaldjtrump.com/contract

[12] E. A. G. Schuur, A. D. McGuire, C. Schädel, G. Grosse, J. W. Harden, D. J. Hayes, G. Hugelius, C. D. Koven, P. Kuhry, D. M. Lawrence, S. M. Natali, D. Olefeldt, V. E. Romanovsky, K. Schaefer, M. R. Turetsky, C. C. Treat & J. E. Vonk, Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback, Nature 520, 171–179 (09 April 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14338 Received 14 July 2014 Accepted 12 February 2015.

See also: http://www.skepticalscience.com/Schuur2015.html

[13] R. J. W. Brienen, O. L. Phillips, T. R. Feldpausch, E. Gloor, T. R. Baker, J. Lloyd, G. Lopez-Gonzalez, A. Monteagudo-Mendoza, Y. Malhi, S. L. Lewis, R. Vásquez Martinez, M. Alexiades, E. Álvarez Dávila, P. Alvarez-Loayza, A. Andrade, L. E. O. C. Aragão, A. Araujo-Murakami, E. J. M. M. Arets, L. Arroyo, G. A. Aymard C., O. S. Bánki, C. Baraloto, J. Barroso, D. Bonal, R. G. A. Boot, et al., Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink, Nature 519, 344–348 (19 March 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14283 Received 09 April 2014 Accepted 04 February 2015 Published online 18 March 2015

See also: https://www.carbonbrief.org/amazon-rainforest-is-taking-up-a-third-less-carbon-than-a-decade-ago

[14] Andy Skuce, http://www.skepticalscience.com/CCFBRCP85.html

See also Hanqin Tian, et al., The terrestrial biosphere as a net source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, Nature, Vol 531, 10 March 2016

[15] Tobias Friedrich, Axel Timmermann, Michelle Tigchelaar, Oliver Elison Timm, Andrey Ganopolski, Nonlinear climate sensitivity and its implications for future greenhouse warming, Sci. Adv. 2016;2: e1501923 9 November 2016.

[16] Emily Anthes, From the Bottom of the Sea to the Operating Table, How coral revolutionized human bone repair, January 5, 2017, Nautilus http://nautil.us/issue/44/luck/from-the-bottom-of-the-sea-to-the-operating-table?utm_source=Nautilus&utm_campaign=8a5597823c-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_01_04&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_dc96ec7a9d-8a5597823c-60423361

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