Wednesday, January 4, 2012

No joy in recent reports on climate future for Hawai`i

There is no current scenario that looks good for Hawai`i when you study climate and energy.

A quick start-of-the-year review of the most recent research on energy use, climate change, and sea levels makes one long for the days when we still had the opportunity to do something about what’s coming.

The International Energy Agency’s recent global energy report said this:

“`If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re heading’... There are few signs that the urgently needed change in direction in global energy trends is underway.”

Oil prices bounced around in the $30 range from the late 1980s to the late 90s, and then began an inexorable climb. Prices broke through the $40s in the first third of the century’s opening decade, the $60s in the second third, and around the $80s late in the decade, with a burst to near $150 a couple of years ago.

It was bouncing around $100 in recent months.

Why has it been rising? Could it be because world energy demand is climbing just as inexorably?

World primary energy demand was about 9,000 Mtoe in 1990. (Mtoe: That’s million tonnes of oil equivalent.) The demand passed 10,000 Mtoe by 2000, passed 11,000 Mtoe before 2005 and was more than 12,000 Mtoe by 2010. And it’s still apparently rising. That’s all from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2010.

The IEA just released their 2011 outlook. It views things as worse, not better.

It’s worse in part because even at $100 a barrel, fossil fuels in many countries are subsidized, so in comparison to its real cost, it’s still cheap. What do you do? The 2010 IEA World Energy Outlook said this: “Getting the prices right, by phasing-out fossil-fuel subsidies, is the single most effective measure to cut energy demand.”

But in 2010, according to the executive summary of the 2011 report, “Subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption of fossil fuels jumped to over $400 billion.”

What does all this mean, besides high-cost energy, international restiveness, and economic malaise? Of course, because high oil and coal consumption dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it means that climate change, already evident around the globe, gets worse.

A few years ago, folks were talking about maybe enacting strict policies that might keep global temperature rise to 2 degrees Centigrade. Virtually nobody did what was needed.

“The door to 2°C is closing,” the 2011 IEA report says. And without significant new policies around the globe, it’s on track to 6°C, it says.

What’s that mean for the Islands? For the bad news check out the University of Hawai`i Coastal Geology program’s sea level website.

It means that within the lifetimes of many of us, ocean levels will be significantly higher—feet higher—than they are now. The impact:

“Most of the buildings will probably still be inhabited and residents will have to time their movement between the tides, just as they do today in Mapunapuna. Back up in the McCully and Makiki areas residents won't see any seawater, they will see the wetlands of the 19th century reemerging as the water table rises above ground level in some areas (not all areas). Under these conditions, when it rains, we will have a real problem. The runoff will raise the water table, the storm drains will be full of seawater except at the very lowest state of the tide, and standing pools of water will accumulate throughout the region without a place to drain. Travel will be limited and many lands will turn to wetlands, there may be some areas of permanently standing water,” writes the Hawai`i sea level site author, Chip Fletcher.

And his scenarios envision warming of significantly less than 6 degrees. It's hard to imagine how bad it could be if sea level rise goes significantly higher--and there are scenarios that predict that.

And as for a classic Hawaiian day at the beach? It’s likely that public policy will protect onshore development before it protects beaches, he argues.

“Beaches will be mostly gone and we'll have built large seawalls lining most of our shores,” Fletcher wrote.

The impacts of all that, to the tourism economy, property values, groundwater, to our coastal transportation systems, including harbors, low-lying airports and the rest, are impressive to consider.

And the impacts on our natural resources, including changes in rainfall patterns, the loss of green sea turtle nesting sites, the loss of monk seal pupping and haulout beaches--they make some of our current planning and regulation initiatives seem ill-considered and short-sighted.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

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