Lima, Peru – Former U.S. Vice-President and long-time climate campaigner Al Gore gave an impassioned powerpoint performance today. The rapt audience for his Climate Reality Project presentation was composed of the negotiators, activists, and reporters at the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP-20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The U.N.'s side event listing promoted Gore's talk as explaining "In the struggle to solve the climate crisis, a powerful, yet largely unnoticed shift is taking place."
Gore started off by saying, "I am going to present an optimistic message here." To set up the two-part structure of his talk, Gore whipped out the well-worn, but wrong, cliché that the Chinese word for crisis is composed of the two characters signifying danger and opportunity. The danger, of course, is man-made global warming. The opportunity…we'll get to that.
To illustrate the danger, Gore graphically showed the uncontroversial data that global average temperature has been increasing over the last few decades at least. He displayed a bell curve graph taken from a study by climatologist James Hansen and his colleagues showing that summer high temperatures have been shifting toward the right over the past 60 years. Gore also cited the World Meteorological Organization's recent statement that 2014 is on track to be the hottest year in the instrumental temperature record.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate noted that most of the excess heat from global warming is being stored in the oceans and hinted, without stating outright, that rising sea surface temperatures are already intensifying hurricanes and typhoons. As examples, he cited the massive damage that Typhoon Haiyan and Superstorm Sandy inflicted on the Philippines and the U.S. respectively. Those storms were indeed intense, but not as intense as earlier storms such as Typhoons Tip (1979), Nora (1973), and Ida (1958). Gore also failed to mention that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) new Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report found, "There is low confidence that long-term changes in tropical cyclone activity are robust and there is low confidence in the attribution of global changes to any particular cause."
Gore further stated, "The climate crisis disrupts the water cycle which increases the frequency of extreme events." He noted that warmer air can hold more water vapor; specifically that a 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature boosts the atmosphere's ability to hold more water vapor by 7 percent. In fact, climate researchers report that the global atmosphere now holds 4 percent more water vapor than it did 30 years ago. On the principle of what-goes-up-must-come-down, the result of increased water vapor is an increase in the number of heavy precipitation days. Indeed, the Synthesis report reckons, "There are likely more land regions where the number of heavy precipitation events has increased than where it has decreased."
The former Vice-President evidently concluded if it rains more that must mean it floods more. Gore said that floods and mudslides are increasing "on every continent." He then treated the audience to a long series of slides featuring pictures and videos of recent fearsome floods and landslides from around the world. The cumulative impact of the dramatic images is to suggest that floods are getting worse and coming soon to your town. But the Synthesis report observes, "There is low confidence that anthropogenic climate change has affected the frequency and magnitude of fluvial floods on a global scale."
If it is raining more, then why isn't it flooding more? Largely because significant floods don't result from intense short downpours, but instead from longer events such as a slow moving storm systems that intersect with spring snow melt. In any case, the good news is that number of people who die annually from floods around the world is down 98 percent since the 1930s. It is true that floods are destroying more property than before, but that's almost entirely because, as a result of economic growth, there's more property around to be destroyed.
Gore next suggested that the extra heat from man-made global warming "also pulls water out the soil which deepens droughts and makes them longer." Consequently, the world is experiencing "more droughts" and more "epic droughts." Again, the former Vice-President ran through a succession of photographs depicting heat-blasted fields and dried up reservoirs to illustrate his point. During his talk, Gore certainly left the impression, but didn't quite say, that global warming caused the recent California drought. And well he should be reticent; even Mother Jones reported just two days ago that "according to new research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, California's drought was primarily produced by a lack of precipitation driven by natural atmospheric cycles that are unrelated to man-made climate change." Due largely to data issues, the Synthesis report concludes, "There is low confidence in observed global-scale trends in droughts."
It is true that the amount of ice and snow on the planet is falling and the Vice-President had the slides of retreating mountain glaciers, ice sheet melting in Greenland and shrinking Arctic sea ice to prove it. The Synthesis report notes, "Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass (high confidence). Glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide (high confidence). Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover has continued to decrease in extent (high confidence)." In addition, since 1979 the rate of decrease in the annual mean of Arctic sea ice extent has been "very likely in the range 3.5 to 4.1 percent per decade."
Melting ice on land will contribute to rising sea level and increase the probability of coastal flooding. The Synthesis report concludes that "global mean sea-level rise will continue during the 21st century, very likely at a faster rate than observed from 1971 to 2010." Depending on how high greenhouse gas concentrations go the report notes with medium confidence the rise will likely be in the ranges of 0.26 to 0.55 to 0.82 meter by 2100.
Somewhat oddly in the context of a talk on the dangers of climate change, Gore next cited the recent Living Planet Index report by the World Wildlife Fund that finds since 1970 that the populations of vertebrate species—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish—have dropped by half. This is indeed alarming, but the report itself notes that climate change accounts for only 7 percent of the threats to the survival of the measured wildlife populations. That's not insignificant, but as the report makes clear reducing hunting, habitat loss and habitat degradation would do a lot more to protect endangered species.
Having recited his litany of the present and future dangers of man-made global warming, the Vice-President suggests that humanity is at a tipping point. "Easter Island stands as example of choices made wrongly by an ancient civilization," intones Gore. "We have a similar choice to make." Obviously, Gore is deploying as a parable for our times the popular narrative in which the population and culture of Easter Islanders collapsed after supposedly committing ecocide by chopping down all of their trees. Unluckily for Gore, that account is now being challenged by archaeologists, many of whom argue that any social "collapse" occurred after European contact as a result of epidemic disease and enslavement.
So what then is the opportunity that the climate crisis presents us? Investing in wind and solar power. No really. Gore enthusiastically cited the fact that wind turbine generation capacity has increased globally 10-fold since 2000. Actually, it's increased nearly 20-fold and is projected to nearly double by 2018. The investment consultancy Lazard reports that the cost of installing wind turbines has fallen by 58 percent since 2009. The firm now estimates that the unsubsidized levelized cost of wind is now between $37 and $81 per megawatt-hour compared to $61 and $87 per megawatt-hour for natural gas generation.
But what really excites the Nobel Prize winner is solar photovoltaic panels. Gore argues that solar panels are now entering the steep end of an exponential curve. In 2000, global solar PV capacity was 1.5 gigawatts. In 2012 it was 98 gigawatts and is projected to rise to 300 gigawatts by 2018. Lazard notes that since 2009 the cost of solar PV has dropped nearly 80 percent and that the unsubsidized levelized cost of utility-scale solar PV is between $72 and $86 per megawatt-hour.
Gore likened the growth trajectory of solar panel technology to that of mobile phones. Gore cited with glee AT&T's 1980 projection that world would be using about 900,000 mobile phones by the year 2000. Instead it was 109 million and the number is now 6.3 billion. Like mobile phones, solar PV is experiencing sharp cost reductions; their quality has greatly improved; individuals are choosing to buy them, not big centralized bureaucracies; and they enable people to leapfrog over legacy technologies, e.g., landlines. He pointed out the conference host country, Peru, has 3 million telephone lines and 30 million mobile phone subscriptions.
In his presentation Gore skipped over the intermittency issue (the sun doesn't always shine and wind doesn't always blow) that makes wind and solar power problematic as baseload sources of electricity. Given that issue, an optimistic assessment of the prospects for renewable energy issued by the International Energy Agency this year forecasts that wind and solar together could supply 38 percent, and solar PV 16 percent of the world's electricity by 2050.
What do we need to escape the looming danger and seize the opportunity? A price on carbon and the application of the "renewable resource" of political will, asserted Gore. (I can't help but observe that the development of cheap utility-scale batteries would help a lot too.) Of course, if Gore is right that the prices for energy from wind and solar will soon fall below the prices for energy produced by conventional fossil fuels, a carbon price and political will be entirely superfluous.
Note: The Al Gore Effect was curiously absent in Lima.