Local researchers’ work will take center stage at Copenhagen climate conference

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Courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory.
Visitors to NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder can view the "Science on a Sphere" exhibit, which was invented by a Boulder scientist and will play a prominent role in the United Nationals Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen next month.

When world leaders gather in Copenhagen, Denmark, next month to discuss a new international agreement for dealing with climate change, Boulder scientists and their findings will be in the spotlight.

From key data in a presentation by former Vice President Al Gore to timelapse photography of deteriorating glaciers to a giant high-tech globe that will be used throughout the event, Boulder’s fingerprints will be all over the United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held Dec. 7–18.

The conference, known simply as COP15 (15th Session of the Conference of the Parties) could result in a successor to the 2005 Kyoto Protocol: a binding treaty among nations for reducing greenhouse gases and global warming.

The conference continues a process started in 1994, when 192 countries agreed to share information about climate change and launch national strategies for addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

While the United States did not sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, Boulder County and several of its municipalities have incorporated similar emissionsreduction goals into their own environmental plans, even though most local officials agree it may be unrealistic to reduce emissions by the target set in Kyoto: 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Dozens of representatives from Boulder are expected to attend COP15, primarily from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and University of Colorado at Boulder.

The city of Boulder was also invited to send representatives to Denmark, and two city officials will participate in COP15 events as part of a delegation of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Jonathan Koehn, regional sustainability coordinator, was invited to be one of the speakers on a local government action panel at the conference. David Driskell, executive director of community planning and sustainability, will also represent Boulder in Copenhagen, and city council approved a resolution on Nov. 17 outlining the messages the delegates should take to COP15.

Gore’s presentation

One Boulder-based research scientist, Richard Armstrong of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at CU, is not going to Copenhagen — but Al Gore will be relying on a report Armstrong coauthored when the former vice president delivers a presentation there. Armstrong was one of a half-dozen people who served on an international task force that compiled the report “Melting Snow and Ice — A Call for Action.”

The roots of Armstrong’s role in creating the report stretch back about two years, he says, when Gore was in Denver to deliver a talk at the Pepsi Center. One of Gore’s staffers told the former vice president that “the place where you get all of that snow and ice data is just up the road,” and Gore replied, “Let’s go there,” according to Armstrong.

Armstrong says Gore spent three or four hours at the CU center, quizzing the scientists about their latest findings.

“He was on his laptop, playing with his next PowerPoint presentation,” Armstrong says. “He’d ask, ‘Here’s the figure I’m using, is it still good, or is it crap?’” As a result of that meeting, Armstrong says he was invited to speak at “A High Level Conference in Melting Ice” in April in Troms%uFFFD, Norway, where Gore was the key player and had a “commanding presence.” It was at that conference where Armstrong was asked to help prepare Gore’s report for Copenhagen.

Armstrong says he does not know of any scientists from his center who are traveling to Denmark, in part because one of the most important conferences in their field — the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union — is being held at the same time.

Ice photography

James Balog, an award-winning National Geographic photographer who directs the Boulder-based Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), specializes in documenting the decline of glaciers in photographs and video. Since 2006, EIS has set up more than 30 time-lapse cameras at 17 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. The cameras shoot one frame during each daylight hour, producing about 4,500 images a year.

Balog is attending the Copenhagen conference to deliver presentations at the request of NASA, showing time-lapse images he has gathered over the past three years.

One of the most startling findings documented by EIS has been the rapid deterioration of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska, which has retreated more than two miles over the past three years. Twice, Balog’s team has had to move one of its cameras at Columbia because the glacier retreated out of the frame.

EIS also captured the biggest icecalving event ever recorded on film on May 29, 2008, when it took about 75 minutes for a block of ice three miles wide and three-fifths of a mile deep to break off the Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland. Images are available at www. extremeicesurvey.org.

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High-tech globe

Beth Russell, a scientific communication and data specialist at NOAA’s Boulder lab, the Earth System Research Laboratory, will also attend COP15 in Copenhagen. She will provide training and technical support for “Science on a Sphere,” a six-foot-wide suspended globe, onto which computer images are projected from four sides to simulate the earth and its shifting
conditions. Animated images of atmospheric storms, climate change and
ocean temperature can be shown on the $160,000 sphere to show complex
environmental processes.

Russell
says the sphere will be used every day of the conference, and her role
will be to maintain the technology, help teach scientists how to use it
and contribute to NOAA presentations. Alexander “Sandy” MacDonald,
director of the Earth System Research Laboratory, invented the
high-tech globe in 1995 and will deliver a presentation using the
sphere on Dec. 8. That presentation will be a “spherecast,” Russell
says.

Not only
will video of the presentation be streamed live online, but any of the
41 museums around the world that have the giant Science on a Sphere
exhibit will be able to carry a live feed showing everything MacDonald
is projecting — on their own globes.

“So it will be a worldwide remote lecture,” Russell says.

MacDonald’s
lecture, which is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Mountain Standard Time
on Dec. 8, will be aired online at sos.noaa.gov/spherecasting.

NOAA
Research Scientist Janet Intrieri says MacDonald will use the Science
on a Sphere to show world leaders things like decreases in polar ice
caps and how various levels of carbon dioxide increases correlate with
rises in global temperature. Intrieri is helping MacDonald compile
material for a second presentation that MacDonald will deliver at the
conference, about the history and science of monitoring carbon dioxide
and other greenhouse gases.

Satellite imagery

Another
Boulder scientist who hopes to use the Science on a Sphere in
Copenhagen is Waleed Abdalati, an associate professor of geography and
director of the Earth Science and Observation Center at CU. Abdalati,
who is also attending COP15 at the invitation of NASA, will speak on
the first morning of the conference about the most recent changes in
polar ice, possibly using the sphere to show the latest satellite
imagery.

He can
only stay at the conference for the first two days; he has to get back
to teach class. But Abdalati says he is looking forward to making an
impression on world leaders during that short time.

“I
hope to deliver more than I take away,” he says. “I want to impress
upon them the significance of the change we’re seeing and the scope of
it.”

Abdalati says
he also plans to emphasize the important role that satellites and
satellite imagery play in monitoring climate changes. He says 14 of the
15 earthobserving satellites now in orbit are beyond their design life
and need to be replaced, but current plans only call for launching
seven more in the next seven years. Abdalati plans to argue at COP15
for more aggressive replacement of the satellites.

“I think the information is crucial for how earth is changing and how to respond to that, adapt to that and mitigate that,” he says. “Without some investment for the tools, we’ll be in the dark.”

Abdalati,
a former NASA scientist, also says the work done by researchers in
Boulder is at the international forefront of the field of climate
change.

“The work
we do is a critical part of the broader process,” he says. “When I left
NASA and looked for an environment where scientists do this robustly,
Boulder was at the top of my list.”

“We’re where the carbon dioxide samples come to from all over the world,” NOAA’s Intrieriadds.

Climate change ethics

Ben
Hale, an assistant professor of philosophy and environmental studies at
CU, is also traveling to Copenhagen for the conference, but not for the
hard science. Hale is an ethicist, and he explores moral questions
about the permissibility of government policies and actions, as opposed
to individuals’ rights and responsibilities.

Hale
says his interests in attending COP15 involve weighing the costs and
benefits of climate change policies, at the global level, against the
implications for particular populations and individuals. For instance,
he says, certain climatechange agreements may affect one population
more than another, and his interests lie in the social and human
dimensions of any agreements proposed at the conference.

Hale
says it could be beneficial to set different goals for different
countries, taking into consideration the impacts on certain
populations. He says he is attending the conference to observe and to
blog, but also to participate in a side event with about 10
philosophers and ethicists.

A
main focus in Hale’s research has been to examine environmental
problems and the remediation technologies used to address those
problems. He says that historically, one flawed approach, in the case
of oil spills, for example, has been for the polluter to swoop in and
clean up the mess and pretend that the damage has been dealt with
adequately.

“There
is something moral always left behind,” Hale says. “I can’t go into
your house, mess it up, then clean it up, and think everything is
fixed.”

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Updating a Rough Guide

Another
COP15 attendee from Boulder who doesn’t fit the traditional mold of
climate scientist is Robert Henson, a writer/editor for the University
Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the organization involving
70 universities that manages NCAR.

Henson
is not going to Copenhagen on behalf of NCAR or UCAR, although he says
he will contribute to the UCAR website “Notes from Copenhagen” while he
is there. But he is paying his own way because the main reason for
making the trip is to gather material for a side project: the third
edition of his book, The Rough Guide to Climate Change, which was published in 2006.

Henson
says that when he was writing the book, in 2005, the U.S. politics
surrounding climate change were different. In America, there was still
some question about the validity of claims that man-made greenhouse
gases increase global warming, even among some scientists, he says,
while in England (Rough Guides are based in London) there was already
wide acceptance of those theories. So he had to strike a balance
between those two political environments when writing his book and be
“as nonpolitical as you can be on this issue.”

Now,
he says, the issue has become more polarized. The U.S. scientific
community has, by and large, confirmed the effects of carbon and other
gases on the environment, even though there are still many people who
reject that view — often for political reasons.

“Basic science isn’t political,” Henson says. “How you respond is what is political.”

Now
that there is sound evidence that “humans are warming the planet,” he
explains, the discussion has turned to the question of how to respond
to it, and he needs to reflect that shift in the new edition of his
book.

“My hope in
going to Copenhagen is to get a better handle on the global politics,
from different perspectives around the world,” Henson says. “I’m going
to listen, learn and talk to people. I want to get a sense of how
people from other countries feel about the issue.”

As
for lodging, Henson took advantage of New Life Copenhagen, a website
set up for conference attendees to connect with Copenhagen residents
willing to put them up in a spare bed. Henson, who found an available
spare room thanks to the online service, calls the network “a huge
couch-surfing operation.”

Henson
says that if a binding international agreement is signed in the next
year or so, it will represent a major political shift that sets a
course for the years to come.

“The big question is whether that shift will occur before my deadline,” he says.

Carbon and deforestation

Julie
Teel, a research fellow in the Center for Energy and Environmental
Security (CEES) at the CU School of Law, will be attending COP15 with
CEES Senior Research Fellow Kevin Doran. Doran is the lead coordinator
for the Carbon Management Center of the Colorado Renewable Energy
Collaboratory, a joint project of CU, the National Renewable Energy
Laboratory in Golden, Colorado State University and the School of Mines.

She
says she and Doran, who are both attorneys, study carbon capture.
Doran’s specialty is geological sequestration — storing carbon deep
underground — while her field is terrestrial sequestration, storing
carbon above ground or along the surface.

In addition to representing the Collaboratory,
Teel says she will be representing the interests of Reducing Emissions
from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). She explains that 15
percent to 20 percent of global carbon emissions come from
deforestation, and since the Kyoto Protocol did not address that area
sufficiently, it has become a top priority for any new agreement that
arises from Copenhagen.

Teel
says that the conference presents an opportunity to meet in person with
partners in countries like Indonesia and Brazil, with whom
correspondence is done typically by phone or e-mail.

“We’ll all be in one place, and that’s a rare opportunity,” she says.

CU
School of Law Associate Professor William Boyd, who is also involved in
REDD with Teel, says he is going to COP15 because he advises leaders in
states and provinces in Brazil, Indonesia and the United States,
specifically California, which has taken a lead in climate-change
policy. He plans to meet with those government leaders and participate
in a couple of side events to discuss his most recent work with those
leaders.

Boyd
specializes in legal and policy issues involved with carbon market
design and compliance, including carbon credits and cap and trade. Key
questions he explores include how carbon should be measured, and at
what level — local, state/province or national. Boyd points out that
one size does not fit all; different countries will likely have
different goals in any international emissions-reduction agreement.

Boyd
says it will be interesting to observe the political dynamics at the
conference, such as the role played by the members of the U.S. Congress
who attend, and the pressure that could be put on countries like India
and China to commit to climate-change goals if other developing nations
like Brazil really step up to the plate.

But
international leaders agreed publicly last week that it is unrealistic
to expect a signed agreement to come out of COP15. And Boyd agrees that
there likely won’t be a signed international agreement until late 2010,
at the earliest.

Other
countries are waiting on the U.S., he says, but Congress is not
expected to consider any climate-change legislation until the first
half of 2010. If Congress hasn’t acted by June 2010, it may be too late
and may have to wait until 2011, since climate change will probably be
a hot-button issue in the mid-term election season, Boyd says.

Kevin
Trenberth, head of NCAR’s Climate Analysis Section and member of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that won the 2007
Nobel Peace Prize, told Boulder Weekly that he is not attending COP15
because it is not a scientific meeting.

Another prominent IPCC member, NOAA Senior Scientist Susan Solomon, does not plan to attend, either.

“I don’t think much will come out of Copenhagen,” Boyd says. “You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that.”