Saturday, March 2, 2013

On Global Warming, Keystone Pipeline and Bernie Sanders

On Google+ today, I saw a post by Wil Wheaton quoting Senator Bernie Sanders, one of my state's Senators, which linked to this article and supplied a quote from it:
“It is bad enough that some people in Washington deny the overwhelming scientific evidence and claim that global warming is a hoax and a Hollywood conspiracy. In my view, it would be equally absurd to claim concern about global warming while then approving decisions that will literally throw fuel on the fire of this planetary crisis. The president must reject the Keystone XL project.”

My initial response to this was the following:

While I do believe that there is a fair amount of proof that there has been an increase in global average temperatures over the last 100 years or so, I am unconvinced about the possible future effects.  It appears, as noted here that the upper end of predictions for potential future warming are inconsistent with past warming, and thus unlikely to occur.
Additionally, even if you accept that the models of temperature increase are correct, one should consider whether a given action will serve to actually reduce the warming in any meaningful way?  As this post shows, it likely will not.   
Take the Keystone Pipeline as an example.  Would preventing the oil from Canada being burned, not simply preventing the construction of the pipeline, actually serve to reduce warming by any meaningful amount?  As this post shows, the "benefit" from this would be in reducing the temperature increase by something on the order of .0001 degrees centigrade per year. The benefit will likely be even less than that given that it is unlikely that this oil would simply be burned in addition to current sources (Mid-East oil or domestic coal for example) rather than replacing it.

I received two responses to my post, neither of which seemed to be from people who had taken the time to actually follow the links:
Yeah, quoting from a Koch brothers site known for pushing the oil agenda.
you "cite" from the cato institute which has been founded partially by one of the Koch brothers. And you have probably heard, the Koch brothers are those who would earn the big profit from building the keystone pipeline. And maybe you heard, that the Koch brothers heavily funded anti-GW propaganda. 
Below is my reply to these comments.

Sadly, both responses were mostly ad hominem attacks on the Koch brothers rather than a response to the science described in the posts I linked too, so I will summarize here. 
Using figures from the US Department of Energy in recent years world CO2 emissions have been in the neighborhood of 30,000mmt (million metric tons) per year.   
According to wikipedia (not necessarily the best source but the easiest to lay my hands on), atmospheric concentration has increased about 2ppm (parts per million) per year over the last 10 years.  So recently it has taken 15,000mmt of CO2 to increase atmospheric concentration by 1ppm.  One of the initial posts I linked indicated that this appears to have stayed relatively constant for at least the last 60 years. 
The site "Discovery of Global Warming" states that in the last 150 years or so, global average temperatures have increased 1 degree centigrade while atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have increased 104ppm.  This gives a global temperature increase of .01 degree centigrade for each 1ppm increase in concentration.  This gives us 1,500,000mmt of CO2 to increase global temperatures by 1 degree.  This is of course dependent on the assumption (and a risky one) that ALL increase in warming is attributable to the increase in CO2 concentration. 
According to Scientific American, burning the estimated 170 billion barrels of currently available oil from the Alberta tar sands would yield 22 billion metric tons of carbon, or about .13 metric tons of carbon per barrel.  According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, to convert from carbon to carbon dioxide you multiply the carbon by 3.667, which in this case gives us .48 metric tons or .00000048mmt per barrel.  
If the Keystone Pipeline is built and pumps 800,000 barrels per day, 365 days per year, this would result in about 140mmt of CO2 per year which would yield .0001 degrees per year, assuming there is no accompanying reduction in other fossil fuel use which would reduce this amount even further.  This is a figure likely impossible to measure let alone notice.

So it is extremely difficult to see how one can reasonably make the case, as Senator Sanders tries to do, that building the Keystone Pipeline is "throwing fuel on the fire of a global crisis."

One would hope that when it comes to public policy, there would be some balancing of costs and benefits before making a decision.  Such as balancing the potential for a .0001 degree per year rise in temperature against the economic gain, which in Nebraska alone is estimated to be significant:
Governor Dave Heineman noted in a letter to Obama that construction of the pipeline would bring his state $418.1 million in economic benefits and result in $11 to $13 million a year in additional property taxes. 
HT: Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger, Assistant Director, Center for the Study of Science who wrote the posts I initially was exposed to all this.

Edit - You can also find data on the increase in CO2 concentration at the NOAA site.  Since 2000, the increase has averaged out to 1.96ppm per year which is for all intents and purposes the same as indicated on Wikipedia.
Edit - A letter to Senator Sanders that was written based on this article, which I sent to all Vermont's Congressional delegates, just appeared as a letter to the editor in our local paper, the Caledonian Record.  Sadly you need an online subscription to see it.


  1. There you go, confusing liberal activists with the facts. Kinda like going into a battle of wits with the unarmed.

    As for our resident Socialist, Batshit Bernie seems to be losing what consistency of thought he may have once had, what with his endorsement of industrial wind turbines directly at odds with the "little guys" he's always professed to be looking out for.

    Great article.

  2. Thanks, I am considering reworking the second part of it to use as a letter to Bernie, not that it would do any good.