Posts tagged “apocalypse”

The Koch coke pile in Detroit

The NYT reports on a growing pile of coke, a byproduct of refining, in Detroit. In this case, the coke is produced as a result of tar sands refining; due to its high sulfur and carbon content, it is largely useless in the developed world. It seems that Koch brothers, who have purchased the coke from tar sands operations in Alberta, plan to sell it abroad.

Coke, which is mainly carbon, is an essential ingredient in steelmaking as well as producing the electrical anodes used to make aluminum.

While there is high demand from both those industries, the small grains and high sulfur content of this petroleum coke make it largely unusable for those purposes, said Kerry Satterthwaite, a petroleum coke analyst at Roskill Information Services, a commodities analysis company based in London.

“It is worse than a byproduct,” Ms. Satterthwaite said.”It’s a waste byproduct that is costly and inconvenient to store, but effectively costs nothing to produce.”

Murray Gray, the scientific director for the Center for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta, said that about two years ago, Alberta backed away from plans to use the petroleum coke as a fuel source, partly over concerns about greenhouse-gas emissions. Some of it is burned there, however, to power coking plants.

Loading the Climate Dice & Global Warming's Terrifying New Math

Two stunning pieces of climate change work from pre-eminent scholar-journalists hit the internet in the past couple days. The first, from Paul Krugman in the NYT, focuses on the situation in the US:

How should we think about the relationship between climate change and day-to-day experience? Almost a quarter of a century ago James Hansen, the NASA scientist who did more than anyone to put climate change on the agenda, suggested the analogy of loaded dice. Imagine, he and his associates suggested, representing the probabilities of a hot, average or cold summer by historical standards as a die with two faces painted red, two white and two blue. By the early 21st century, they predicted, it would be as if four of the faces were red, one white and one blue. Hot summers would become much more frequent, but there would still be cold summers now and then.

And so it has proved. As documented in a new paper by Dr. Hansen and others, cold summers by historical standards still happen, but rarely, while hot summers have in fact become roughly twice as prevalent. And 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.

But that’s not all: really extreme high temperatures, the kind of thing that used to happen very rarely in the past, have now become fairly common. Think of it as rolling two sixes, which happens less than 3 percent of the time with fair dice, but more often when the dice are loaded. And this rising incidence of extreme events, reflecting the same variability of weather that can obscure the reality of climate change, means that the costs of climate change aren’t a distant prospect, decades in the future. On the contrary, they’re already here, even though so far global temperatures are only about 1 degree Fahrenheit above their historical norms, a small fraction of their eventual rise if we don’t act.

The second, from McKibben writing in Rolling Stone, is more far-reaching and expansive. He starts with some striking, scary numbers:

If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere - the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation - in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.

Not to mention floods in China. 179 fires raging across Russia. Drought alerts across many states in India. He outlines three big numbers to focus on.

One: 2ยบ Celsius

Despite such well-founded misgivings, political realism bested scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target - indeed, it’s fair to say that it’s the only thing about climate change the world has settled on. All told, 167 countries responsible for more than 87 percent of the world’s carbon emissions have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, endorsing the two-degree target. Only a few dozen countries have rejected it, including Kuwait, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Even the United Arab Emirates, which makes most of its money exporting oil and gas, signed on. The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can’t raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius - it’s become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees.

Two: 565 Gigatons

Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. (“Reasonable,” in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)

This idea of a global “carbon budget” emerged about a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. Since we’ve increased the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we’re currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.

Three: 2,795 Gigatons

This number is the scariest of all - one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number - 2,795 - is higher than 565. Five times higher.

The top half is great and informative. The bottom half really gets going, though, with salient discussions of the politics and economics of change. Read it.

Business Insider: Tar Sands: A View from Above

Another look at the Athabascan tar sands operation, this time from above. The scale of the undertaking — both logistically and literally — is mind-bogglingly immense. From the air, the trucks look like micro-machines playing in the mud. Micro-machines, though, don’t have tires 17 ft tall; they don’t claim to be able to roll over full-sized Ford and Chevy trucks with little effort; they aren’t bucketwheels, the “largest crawling machine in existence”; they don’t cost 40-6000 USD each. They don’t obliterate their surroundings so completely that you can see the whole blighted region on Google Maps (embedded below - zoom in, scroll around).

Two things stand out. First, the whole thing is on the scale of a hellish scene from a Michael Bay Transformers movie — the machines; the muted colors, occasionally splotched with a frightening vibrance; the flames; the mud-spattered faces; the destruction. A disaster, in every possible sense of the word.

Second, and more seriously, the impact here is tremendous. There’s the immediate environmental impact, which is severe. Then there’s the fact that the tar sands contain two times the carbon dioxide emitted by humanity’s cumulative fossil fuel use. The long-term implications of accessing and using this resource, while continuing to exploit our current stores of coal, natural gas, and oil, is nothing short of apocalyptic.

James Hansen, the pre-eminent climate scientist, put it nicely in a recent NYT Editorial.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to add 120 p.p.m. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m. — a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control.

See more pictures from Business Insider’s trip at Flickr. Check out my first post on the Athabascan Tar Sands.

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