February 4th, 2009

Data on Montana Climate Change is In

From the Helena Independent Record today:

Data on climate change is in, UM professor says

By EVE BYRON - Independent Record - 02/04/09

Steve Running, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and University of Montana professor, isn’t a big fan of what’s termed “clean coal,” which is touted as being environmentally friendly by Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

While it’s technically possible to capture the carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired plants and sequester the gas underground, the cost and energy involved to do so is “so overwhelming it doesn’t end up as being logical,” Running said on Tuesday. He came to the Queen City this week to lecture on the effects of climate change to Montana.

Running knows that not everyone believes the Earth’s climate is warming, and people point to blizzards on the East Coast and record cold temperatures as proof. But as a scientist, he’s studied the data and firmly believes that humans are significantly contributing to global warming.

“I think there are some well-funded professional deniers who are following the tobacco and cancer lobbies’ model, in a broad sense,” Running said. “They continue to say that in the broad sense, all the data isn’t in. But in reality it is in and no climate scientist comes to any different conclusion. The world is warming up.”

Climate scientists spent 40 years developing models and theorizing whether shorter, warmer winters were due to different earth orbits, sun spots or even a wobbling axis, Running said.

“But no model can recreate the acceleration of global temperatures without including greenhouse gases,” such as carbon dioxide, Running said. “We’re using our atmosphere as a free garbage can.”

Capturing those greenhouse gases and injecting them underground just moves the problem around, he added. Montana’s Legislature is looking at creating rules on carbon sequestration, and during Schweitzer’s State of the State address last week, the governor said sequestration is vital for coal development in Montana.

“I think we’ll end up ultimately with a better solution,” Running said.

But whether the world does that before it reaches the tipping point is the big question.

“We won’t know that we’ve hit the tipping point until we look backward,” Running said.

He does note that it took 100 million years for plants to decompose underground into fossil fuels like gas and coal, but we’re digging it up in only 100 years — an acceleration speed of about 1 million.

“That simple statement says that can’t work for very long,” Running said. “We haven’t moved very far in coming up with solutions in the past 10 years, but I’m hopeful that will change soon. It has to.”

The easiest first step, he added, is to embrace a variety of energy-efficient opportunities, like electric cars or simply walking or riding bikes to work.

“In Europe, everything they do reduces their energy consumption,” Running said. “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to ride a train around town?”

Montanans are getting a front-row seat to the impacts of a warmer world, with shorter winters, hotter summers and a beetle epidemic that’s killing all of the lodgepole pines in the forests. Running theorized that in the future, the lodgepoles could be replaced by cactus and sagebrush, and Montana could start to look like Utah.

“Not that there’s anything bad about Utah,” he said, laughing.