July 31, 2012
A power failure in North India has left 620 million people without electricity. That’s a 100 million more than the total population of North America. That’s like the lights going out from Anchorage in Alaska all the way down to Caracas in Venezuela.
The Associated Press reports:
The massive failure — a day after a similar, but smaller power failure — has raised serious concerns about India’s outdated infrastructure and the government’s inability to meet its huge appetite for energy as the country aspires to become a regional economic superpower.
But what’s driving that growing energy demand is not simply economic growth but also a warming planet evident in “a booming market for air conditioning — world sales in 2011 were up 13 percent over 2010, and that growth is expected to accelerate in coming decades.”
The United States has long consumed more energy each year for air conditioning than the rest of the world combined. In fact, we use more electricity for cooling than the entire continent of Africa, home to a billion people, consumes for all purposes. Between 1993 and 2005, with summers growing hotter and homes larger, energy consumed by residential air conditioning in the U.S. doubled, and it leaped another 20 percent by 2010. The climate impact of air conditioning our buildings and vehicles is now that of almost half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
China is already sprinting forward and is expected to surpass the United States as the world’s biggest user of electricity for air conditioning by 2020. Consider this: The number of U.S. homes equipped with air conditioning rose from 64 to 100 million between 1993 and 2009, whereas 50 million air-conditioning units were sold in China in 2010 alone. And it is projected that the number of air-conditioned vehicles in China will reach 100 million in 2015, having more than doubled in just five years.
As urban China, Japan, and South Korea approach the air-conditioning saturation point, the greatest demand growth in the post-2020 world is expected to occur elsewhere, most prominently in South and Southeast Asia. India will predominate — already, about 40 percent of all electricity consumption in the city of Mumbai goes for air conditioning. The Middle East is already heavily climate-controlled, but growth is expected to continue there as well. Within 15 years, Saudi Arabia could actually be consuming more oil than it exports, due largely to air conditioning. And with summers warming, the United States and Mexico will continue increasing their heavy consumption of cool.
It’s easy to forget that every piece of our current infrastructure — roads, rails, runways, bridges, industrial plants, housing — was built with a certain temperature range in mind. Our agricultural system and much of our electrical generating system (including dams, nuclear power stations and conventional thermal electric plants which burn coal and natural gas) were created not only with a certain temperature range in mind, but also a certain range of rainfall. Rainfall, whether it is excessive or absent, can become a problem if it creates 1) floods that damage and sweep away buildings and crops or 2) if there isn’t enough water to quench crops and supply industrial and utility operating needs.
This summer has shown just what can happen when those built-in tolerances for heat, moisture (or lack of it) and wind are exceeded. The New York Times did an excellent short piece providing examples of some of those effects:
- A jet stuck on the tarmac as its wheels sank into asphalt softened by 100-degree heat.
- A subway train derailed by a kink in the track due to excessive heat.
- A power plant that had to be shut down due to lack of cooling water when the water level dropped below the intake pipe.
- A “derecho“, a severe weather pattern of thunderstorms and very high straight-line winds, that deprived 4.3 million people of power in the eastern part of the United States, some for eight days.
- Drainage culverts destroyed by excessive rains.
Past attempts to forecast the possible costs of climate change have been largely inadequate. They failed because of unanticipated effects on and complex interconnections among various parts of critical infrastructure.
Back in 2007 Yale economist William Nordhaus wrote in a paper that “[e]conomic studies suggest that those parts of the economy that are insulated from climate, such as air-conditioned houses or most manufacturing operations, will be little affected directly by climatic change over the next century or so.” Having air-conditioning does not do you much good, however, if the electricity is out. And, manufacturing operations depend on reliable electric service. Many manufacturing operations are also water-intensive and so will be affected by water shortages.
India’s current energy demands have been worsened by this year’s weak monsoon and consequent higher temperatures — in some states rainfall has been 70% below average. Monsoons are erratic in four years out of ten, but as Fred Guterl explains, the Indian monsoon may be subject to a much greater vulnerability: the dynamics of a climate change tipping point in which the monsoons could be here one year and then gone the next. In that event, the effects will be devastating not only across India but far beyond.
So far 2012 is on pace to be the hottest year on record. But does this mean that we’ve reached a threshold — a tipping point that signals a climate disaster?
For those warning of global warming, it would be tempting to say so. The problem is, no one knows if there is a point at which a climate system shifts abruptly. But some scientists are now bringing mathematical rigor to the tipping-point argument. Their findings give us fresh cause to worry that sudden changes are in our future.
One of them is Marten Scheffer, a biologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who grew up swimming in clear lowland ponds. In the 1980s, many of these ponds turned turbid. The plants would die, algae would cover the surface, and only bottom-feeding fish remained. The cause — fertilizer runoff from nearby farms — was well known, but even after you stopped the runoff, replanted the lilies and restocked the trout, the ponds would stay dark and scummy.
Mr. Scheffer solved this problem with a key insight: the ponds behaved according to a branch of mathematics called “dynamical systems,” which deals with sudden changes. Once you reach a tipping point, it’s very difficult to return things to how they used to be. It’s easy to roll a boulder off a cliff, for instance, but much harder to roll it back. Once the ponds turned turbid, it wasn’t enough to just replant and restock. You had get them back to their original, clear state.
Science is a graveyard of grand principles that fail in the end to explain the real world. So it is all the more surprising that Mr. Scheffer’s idea worked.
By applying the principles of dynamical systems, Mr. Scheffer was able to figure out that to fix the ponds, he had to remove the fish that thrive in the turbid water. They stir up sediment, which blocks sunlight from plants, and eat the zooplankton that keep the water clear. His program of fixing the Netherlands’ ponds and lakes is legendary in ecology.
Mr. Scheffer and other scientists are now trying to identify the early-warning signals for climate that precede abrupt transitions. Tim Lenton, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter in England, has identified a handful of climate systems that could reach tipping points in the not-too-distant future. These are not so much related to global average temperatures — the main metric for climate-change arguments — as they are to patterns of climate that repeat themselves each year.
El Niño is one such pattern — a gigantic blob of warm water that sloshes around in the Pacific Ocean, causing weather changes across wide swaths of the globe. Another is the West African monsoon, which brings rain to the west coast of the continent. Each is subject to behaving like dynamical systems — which means they are prone to “flip” from one state to another, like one of Mr. Scheffer’s ponds, over time periods that vary from a year to a few hundred.
The most frightening prospect that Mr. Lenton has found is the vulnerability of the Indian monsoon. More than a billion people depend on this weather pattern each year for the rain it brings to crops. The monsoon, though, is being affected by two conflicting forces: the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is adding energy to the monsoons, making them more powerful. On the other hand, soot from fires and coal plants acts to blocks the sun’s energy, weakening the monsoons.
This opposition creates potential instability and the possibility that the atmospheric dynamics that bring the monsoons could change suddenly. Mr. Lenton’s analysis shows this could occur in a remarkably short time. The monsoons could be here one year, then gone the next year.
Other possible tipping points are the melting of the North Pole’s sea ice, Greenland’s glaciers and the Antarctic ice sheets, and the destruction of the Amazon rain forest and Canada’s boreal forests.
We know that the dynamical-systems idea worked for Mr. Scheffer’s ponds because he achieved real-world results. But why should we believe that the principle explains things like El Niño and the Indian monsoon? The acid test will be whether the real world behaves the way Mr. Lenton says it will. If the Indian monsoon disappears, we’ll know he is right.
What then? The real worst-case scenario would have one such event triggering others, until you have a cascade of weather flips from one end of the planet to another. It wouldn’t be quite as dramatic as Hollywood might want to depict, perhaps, but it would be dramatic enough to rewrite the predictions for sea level and temperature rises that are part of the current consensus. This worst case is highly speculative, but sudden shifts in climate patterns may already be happening.
The policy makers aren’t likely to be discussing dynamical-systems theory anytime soon. Fortunately, scientists like Mr. Scheffer and Mr. Lenton are trying to work out the details of how closely nature hews to these mathematics, what a true tipping point would look like and what we might do if and when we face one.
We need a tipping point in climate politics, where all of a sudden we start paying attention.
Read all posts by Paul Woodward