Sunday, April 29, 2007

Adventures in Carbon-land

This map, a Maribo original, honours the states and provinces showing leadership on climate change. It is a play on the popular "Jesusland" cartoon that did the rounds in the aftermath of the '04 US election. The red includes states and provinces have enacted meaningful climate change legislation and/or joined regional initatives (e.g., British Columbia joined the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative last week).
Feel free to download a copy.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Emissions intensity: read the fine print

The coverage of the new Canadian GHG emissions regulations (technically, it's not a policy) generally opens with a sentence like this:

The plan, entitled Turning the Corner, calls on Canada to reduce its current amount of greenhouse gas emissions by 150 million tonnes by 2020 and will require most industries in Canada to reduce greenhouse gases by 18 per cent by 2010. (CBC-News)

It is wrong.

The plan - read it here - calls for an 18% reduction in emissions intensity by 2010. That, once again (and again, apologies to regular readers, I harp on this point only because it is important), is not the total emissions but the emissions per unit of GDP, or in this case, production by the company.

The plan is, right down to the numbers, eerily similar to the American policy I lampooned, as a warning to Canadians, in the Toronto Star almost a year ago. I'd like to claim some brilliance in debunking the US and, at the time potential, Canadian plans. The truth is, as I wrote then "A couple minutes with a calculator, or a morning of Economics 101, will reveal a hole in the intensity plan so big you can drive a Hummer through it".

A target of 18% reduction in emissions intensity by 2010? Reads like the "ambitious national goal" set by the Bush Administration in 2002. Canadian companies are being given less time, but that's merely catch-up for the lack of policy until now.

After 2010, the new plan calls for a 2% per year improvement in emissions intensity. If your production, measured in terms of dollars, tracks with the economy (at roughly 3% per year), guess what? The actual emissions could increase by roughly 1% per year.

Yes, the emissions would be lower in comparison to a business-as-usual growth scenario, but they would still be rising over all. That's one reason the environmental organizations and the opposition parties are attacking this policy with a fervour. Or why they should be. If industries are not required to reduce their actual emissions, the odds of reaching any long-term reduction goal, even the inadequate goal announced yesterday (20% below 2006 levels by 2020), are extremely low.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Banning the bulb

I considered writing what might have been a rather deflating post, about either the news that China is set to bypass the US as the world’s largest source of greenhouse gases next year (not 2025, not 2010, next year, in time for Olympics); the unfortunate twisting of an interesting new paper on wind shear, hurricanes and climate change by Gabe Vecchi at nearby GFDL; or the leaked and already battered new Canadian emissions policy.

But there is some very good news: following on recent pronouncements by Australia, California and the province of Ontario, the Government of Canada has decided to ban the sale of incandescent light bulbs by the year 2012.

I’ll dig into the rest of the new Canadian emissions policy later; frankly, I’m sick of analyzing the Canadian federal policies since they never seem to last more than a month or two. The bulb ban, however, is one thing that will stick, regardless of policy and government. The Ontario decision had already created a buzz; the federal ban will only increase the chatter and excitement (examples here, here).

Hopefully, it will also serve as an example. The country, every country, needs an overarching climate and emissions policy, complete with hard GHG emissions targets, plans for a carbon market or tax, etc. It also needs some actual direct actions that will guarantee GHG emissions reductions. Sure, the bulb ban is a drop in the bucket, accounting for at most 2% of the Canada's emissions. But at least the bucket is not entirely empty.

I’m no politician – too much compromise, too much tie-wearing for me – but my experience says this type of policy is a real political winner. It is simple, direct, something that impacts life at home. If the Conservative government is smart, they would follow this announcement with “win-win” interventions that will reduce emissions, things like banning the sale of inefficient appliances, setting building codes, etc. If not, you can be sure the Liberals and other opposition parties will.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Breaking news: B sample confirms warming

A Maribo exclusive, in honour of this.

PARIS (Unassociated Press) - The climate’s second doping sample contained elevated levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, scientists at a French doping lab confirmed on Friday.

Pierre Martin, who chairs the French anti-doping board, said that the lab discovered the carbon dioxide in the climate’s B sample had to have come from an outside source. The doping tests were ordered after the climate produced one of the warmest years in recorded history.

The result comes after years of speculation by scientists, environmentalists and the French media that the climate was participating in an elaborate, clandestine doping program. The test appears to confirm that ingestion of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by the climate is the primary cause of global warming.

Lawyers for the oil and coal industry continue to claim that warming is due to natural variability, and questioned the motives of the scientists at the testing lab.

“The climate has never knowingly ingested any illegal substances to enhance performance,” said spokesman Michael Henson. “This is the same old witch hunt, led by a group of maverick scientists jealous of the size of American cars and homes.”

The head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Richard Pound, dismissed the claims of the global warming ‘skeptics’.

“Barry Bonds, Floyd Landis, the Ozone Layer, the strategy never changes. Deny, deny, deny,” argued Pound. “This time, the evidence is incontrovertible.”

The testing lab reports that carbon dioxide appears to have been the main element in an elaborate greenhouse gas program. Scientists confirm unnatural levels of methane, human growth hormone, nitrous oxide and a several other lesser greenhouse gases.

“The extent of the doping program is unprecedented,” added WADA head Pound. “The atmosphere has even been using a mysterious substance that our scientists have labeled ‘black carbon’”.

Pound added that his agency will move to strike the climate’s many recent temperature marks from the record books.

The climate’s A sample, taken in the 1990s, found that the planet appeared to be warming. Carbon dioxide – commonly referred to by the code “CO2” – was thought to be the primary culprit. While carbon dioxide does exist naturally in the atmosphere, it can also be introduced through activities like the burning of fossil fuels like oil.

The natural level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is thought to be around 280 parts per million (ppm). The B sample, collected after the warmest year in recorded history, showed a level of close 380 ppm, far in excess of the WADA limit.

Most damning for the climate is a new carbon isotope ratio test used by French testing lab. The test confirmed that the additional CO2 in the atmosphere was not naturally generated, and must be derived from an outside source like oil or coal burning.

Computer models developed by scientists at NASA also show that the additional CO2 is the only way to explain the climate’s performance over the past thirty year.

“You simply cannot generate this pattern of warming from natural causes alone,” commented NASA scientist James Hansen.

In anticipation of a positive test results, the climate has engaged in a broad media campaign. In a book to be released this June, the climate floats a number of theories for the elevated CO2 level, including a rash of recent forest fires, medication being taken to rectify the ozone hole, dehydration from the Indian monsoon and a bratwurst festival in Milwaukee on the day of the test.

The climate has few supporters left in the Earth community. In a brief statement, the Greenland Ice Sheet, the small island nation of Tuvalu, the Great Barrier Reef and thirteen other prominent geographical features called for action:

“The latest positive test signals that it is time to end the fruitless debate about the science. We must move on to solutions to the doping problem.”

The positive test could lead to strict regulations on carbon emissions. The atmosphere has one earlier doping offense, a positive test for CFCs that caused the ozone hole over Antarctica. Under World Anti-Doping Agency rules, a second infraction brings a lifetime ban on industrial emissions.

Although it is unclear whether a restriction on emissions can be enforced, many in the Earth community argue it is necessary to level the playing field.

“We all knew something wasn’t right with the climate,” said the Arctic sea ice. “I’ve lost 40% of my summer cover in the past 30 years. You’re telling me that is natural?”


Friday, April 20, 2007

The truth on greenhouse gases and meat consumption

Last week, Washington Post George Will wrote a sadly uniformed column attacking the public campaigns to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It drew the usual array of responses and partisan blustering (left, right, ridiculous).

At heart was Time Magazine’s “Global Warming Survival Guide” which featured advice like 51 Tips on Saving the Environment, never mind that global warming is not merely an environmental problem, and that many of the tips have nothing to do with the environment, rather with improving human health.

Tip #22 -- Skip the Steak – claims that livestock is responsible for around 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not a mistake. The number comes from a prominent UN report released last year.

What Time, what George Will and what the vast majority of commentators on this subject get wrong is why livestock is responsible for such a large proportion of the world’s GHG emissions.

Columnists and pundits love to joke about cow farts and manure – producing methane and nitrous oxide, respectively – like they’re in bad Adam Sandler movie. That is an important source of GHG. But, in reality, the majority of the emissions attributable to livestock are not coming out the back end, but coming from all the energy used to grow the grain that is fed to livestock.

The United States alone grows almost half of the world’s corn and soybeans. And more than two-thirds of that production is used to manufacture animal feed. It requires an enormous volume of oil, to produce fertilizer and run farm machinery, and an enormous area of land. In turn, it is responsible in part for a number of ecological problems, like the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Will seems to mistakenly stumble upon this point, in the midst of some sarcasm, but :

Ben & Jerry's ice cream might be even more sinister [than a steak]: A gallon of it requires electricity-guzzling refrigeration and four gallons of milk produced by cows that simultaneously produce eight gallons of manure and flatulence with eight gallons of methane. The cows do this while consuming lots of grain and hay, which are cultivated by using tractor fuel, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, and transported by fuel-consuming trains and trucks.

The concept is right, the comparison is flat wrong. Producing a gram of dairy protein requires only a fraction of the energy of producing a gram of meat protein, especially beef (for the simple reason you don’t kill the cow every time you milk it).Of the feed produced in the United States, only 12% is devoted to dairy cattle (see here). The rest goes to beef cattle, poultry and pork production. That’s why you often hear claims that we should all eat less meat, but not less dairy.

In essence, this problem is not about meat consumption. It is about devoting a significant proportion of our energy and our land to produce meat. One of the biggest obstacles to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the future will be diet. We may or may not be exporting democracy to the world, but we certainly are exporting our meat-rich diets. As meat consumption rises in China and other parts of the developing world, the challenge of reducing oil consumption and reducing greenhouse gas emissions will grow. More on that later.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Climate change, the IPCC and the framing of science

In last week’s issue of Science, Matthew Nisbet and journalist Chris Mooney argued that scientists communicating issues like climate change to the public must “learn to actively frame information to make it relevant to different audiences”.

The paper has already generated a lot of debate. Should scientists be cowing to the demands of the marketplace in order to communicate their message? Or should we stick to our own means of discourse and risk losing the audience to well-crafted messages of non-scientists? Nisbet’s blog has a selection of the responses.

I thought about it a lot last week, when I was almost thrust into a short televised debate about climate change on Bloomberg News with Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, author of the utterly laughable book A Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming. In case you somehow can't tell from the title of his book, Horner’s not particularly interested in science, and he’s what you might call a skeptic of climate change.

In the end, there were technical problems with the studio on campus, and our department had to cancel. Before I continue… as I got online to post this blog – about Horner, communicating climate change and Nisbet and Mooney’s article – I found this post by NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt on the blog Realclimate, telling the tale of appearing on Bloomberg News with Horner. Don’t forget a second think Schmidt was a second-choice to me, or anyone. Let’s just say I happened to be by the phone when Bloomberg started making calls.

The invitation was a reminder that the “debate” is not over for many people. Sadly, some of North America has not graduated past the infantile pro-con, left-right, brown-green and environment-economy debates on climate change. Horner and Schmidt (or I or whomever) were (to be) given equal air time to discuss the findings in the (at the time, upcoming) IPCC report, even though as the token climate scientist, Schmidt was representing the conclusions of the 99+% of the scientific community that accepts the role of human activity in climate change.

Mr. Horner has recently become a regular on the pundit circuit. He relies on pithy, and frankly quite ridiculous, one-liners about climate science designed – “framed” – to:

a) tap into people’s pre-existing doubts that mere little people could affect something as grand as the atmosphere
b) reduce climate change to a partisan political issue.

The approach is well-suited to cable news channels, where statements are short, the viewer is distracted by stock quotes, baseball scores, terror alerts and flashing slogans, and everything is partisan. It is no surprise that Horner been featured on everything from the Daily Show to the Fox News’ childish bipartisan slugfest Hannity and Colmes.

As a scientist, what would I have done in response? Shrug off the one-liners and soberly summarize the facts and the strong consensus among the reputable research community? Engage in the debate, spending my precious air time spewing my own pithy counter-attack, featuring test-marketed phrases like “energy independence” or “the planet has a fever”? Or provide viewers with the rational, sober discussion of climate change that, in my mind at least, they deserve?

To best fit the medium and the audience, I would have towed the line between the approaches described above. Short, well-crafted statements about science peppered with more user-friendly language and key “it” words or phrases. What else can you do with 15-30 second snippets of air time to communicate information?

In others words, I would have “framed” the information to make it relevant to the audience. Now, I write this, at least the word frame, reluctantly. While logical and convenient, “frame” smells suspiciously of the marketing speak that is consuming everyday life, like the ubiquitous word brand, which not so long ago, was only used as a verb when discussing ruminants. We don’t want to just sell you our product or service or concept, we want to burn it deep into your flesh with a scalding hot metal rod. Alas, I digress...

The truth is, framing is not new to us scientists. Think of the research granting process. In most grant applications, the investigators must fit the proposed work to the constraints of the call for proposals and the funding agency. Research is essentially pitched in a particular vein to best fit the interested of the audience. Today, this often means framing your previous published research and your proposed research as crucial steps in understanding and solving great ecological and societal dilemmas like climate change, land cover change or declining biodiversity.

It goes on. Admission to graduate school? A post-doctoral job? A faculty job? The holy grail – tenure? At each rung on the ladder, one must present their area and method of research in a way that appeals to faculty or the university as a whole. Scientists, if they want to be successful, must know how to tailor information to the audience.

There is, nonetheless, some danger in the type of framing suggested by Nisbet and Mooney. By altering our method of communications to fit the medium, we risk lowering scientific research and expertise to the level of other partisan, subjective work produced by lobby organizations, political think tanks and the like. That’s why I so dislike the slandering of the IPCC process. Obsess over the politics too much, and the IPCC reports may start to appear, in the minds of the average public, as no better than all the other reports on climate change, or silly books like Mr. Horner’s, despite the fact that the IPCC represents the most thorough reading of scientific literature and expert knowledge on climate change.

Scientists are no different than anyone else. They’re not objective. What usually, though not always, sets scientific work apart is the method. State your hypothesis, state the way it was tested and state the way the results are analyzed, such that others, if so inspired, can replicate the results. The final results are then reviewed by others in the field before being officially released. The scientific method recognizes the subjectivity inherent in all work and attempts to remove, or at least reduce, it.

If we get too crafty in our presentation, stray too far from the core tenets of the profession, the true (and sometimes imagined) value of scientific work may be compromised.

In addition, I worry that, too often, the framing or presentation of science to the public is rooted, whether consciously or not, in the demeaning assumption that the public is not smart enough to understand the details. Personally, I feel this assumption has more to do with our arrogance, as scientists, than any true observation on the general public, though I admit I do not have any data to back this assertion (and could thus be convinced otherwise). And even if the assumption is correct, that the public isn’t able to or interested in understanding the details, then the root problem is not scientific communication. It is scientific literacy and basic education.

Framing may very well help win a few battles, say with folks like Christopher Horner, but only reforming science education and increasing scientific literacy will win the war.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Reactions to the IPCC

By my reading, the initial public response to the IPCC WG II report has been a mix of genuine concern (who is or will be affected), accusations (who edited what) and politics (who is to blame).

While I still want everyone to read the report, not the rhetoric, I have to say I was taken aback by this quote at the end of a Globe and Mail article:

"Climate change is now," says Avrim Lazar, president of the Forest Products Association of Canada. "It's dramatic and it's trashing Canada's forests as the first act of its appearance."

Just in case there was any doubt about how much people in Canada are freaking out about the mountain pine beetle and forest fires.


Saturday, April 07, 2007

Climate change and coral reefs

I'll be talking about climate change and coral bleaching on CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks, today (Saturday) sometime between noon and 1 pm. You can listen online or download the show the day after it airs.

Don't forget to read the new IPCC report.

The IPCC Summary for Policymakers (SFP) is a compromise document based on the scientific results in the full report, out this fall, and negotiations between representatives from different countries. As is being widely reported, the language in the just-released SFP - not the full report being released this fall - was softened at the urging of certain nations.

A shame, of course. One could, maybe one should (?), write an entire PhD thesis in a department like ours on that subject alone. In the end, even with the compromises, the overall message of the SFP, that impact of climate change are widespread and will accelerate without mitigation, is the same.


Friday, April 06, 2007

New IPCC report released today

The Summary for Policymakers of the second section of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 report is being released today in Brussels. The full report will be published in the fall.

This section - Working Group Two - of the IPCC report covers the ecological and human impacts of climate change, and the extent to which people and ecosystems can adapt to climate change.

The release of this science-based report is all over the news. By next week, the findings will have been spun back and forth by columnists, pundits, bloggers and the like. I encourgage you to ignore all the press coverage, left or right, green or brown, conservative or liberal, apple or pc, and read the report yourself.

For more on the IPCC process, check out my Worldchanging post.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The mountain pine beetle and the greenhouse gas budget

This is what you might call a kind of climate feedback. The Toronto Star reports that the Canadian government will not include carbon exchange in forests in the calculations of the country's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Heavily forested countries like Canada could theoretically benefit by including the potential forest carbon sink (in part due to re-forestation practices) in their official GHG budget. More carbon sinks, fewer emissions reductions required. The inclusion of (net) carbon uptake in forests has been a huge issue at international organizations.

Why the about-face? The mountain pine beetle. Infestations of the beetle have devastated lodgepole pine forests across the west in recent years. The Canadian Forest Service blames warm weather - hot, dry summer and mild winters - and a large number of mature trees for an epidemic in central British Columbia. If that was not enough, all the leftover, dry, dead wood has increased the fire risk. The Canadian government now recognizes that forests may no longer provide the same carbon sink, and may actually "hurt" the overall GHG budget.

This is a very, very, very big change in policy. Canada has been arguing internationally for the right to include forests in GHG budgets since the inception of Kyoto. Now, the effect of warmer weather on those forests may change that basic position.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Court says U.S. EPA should regulate greenhouse gases

In case you hadn't heard yet...

WASHINGTON, April 2 — In one of its most important environmental decisions in years, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate heat-trapping gases in automobile emissions. The court further ruled that the agency could not sidestep its authority to regulate the greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change unless it could provide a scientific basis for its refusal. (NY Times)

The ruling has as much to do with US law as science. It essentially means that federal action on greenhouse gas emissions must not depend on the US Congress agreeing to legislation. The EPA has the power and the authority to do so under the Clean Air Act. The President could simply tell the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases.

Today's news is that the current holder of that title, despite the court decision and despite pressure from Congress and the Senate, still won't regulate greenhouse gases.

So it is possible that the real impact of the momentous Supreme Court decision may not be felt until January 20, 2009.