Friday, December 19, 2008

What a change

Watch Obama's new science adviser John Holdren speak about climate change.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Attack of the skeptics XXIII: Inhofe won't quit

It appears that the ranks of Inhofe 400 club has now swelled to 650. The U.S. Senator's expanded list of experts skeptical of the consensus view on the human role in climate change contains few people who have been educated about climate science, have conducted any research about climate science, or have any truly relevant experience.

Of course, life is too short to occupy oneself with the slaying of the slain more than once, a quote from Thomas Huxley that bears repeating every time this horror show franchise coughs up another lame effort. So, here's an excerpt from my previous critique:

The real deception, here, is the way the members of the 400 club claim expertise on climate change. Here are three of the most common tricks:

1. “An IPCC expert reviewer”: The claim of many a 400 Clubber. It means absolutely nothing. The IPCC reports are public documents. As Tim Lambert pointed out, anyone who asks to see them and considers submitting a comment can call themselves an expert reviewer. Even if you were actually asked to review a section, it still means nothing. On request, I reviewed the corals and climate sections of WGII. That doesn’t mean I can claim the authors had any respect for my review, nor could I claim any responsibility whatsoever for the final report.

2. “Weather expert”. I'm reluctant to pick on this. But the fact is, weather-people or meteorological experts are not climate scientists nor do they have experience with climate models. They have a grounding in basic atmospheric physics similar to many climate scientists but they operate at massively different scales in time and space. This is not a comment on the value of their work, or their expertise, just a reminder that it is different. As a climate person, I know a fair bit about meteorology, but you wouldn’t want me doing your weekend forecast. Vice versa.

3. Peer-reviewed” scientist: Being a “peer-reviewed” scientist doesn’t make you an expert in every branch of science. I am a peer-reviewed scientist. I regularly publish articles on climate change, biogeochemistry and corals in peer-reviewed journals. You would not turn to me for expertise on protein structures, HIV vaccines, environmental toxicology, mammalian genetics, galaxy formation, nor to build a bridge, design an interplanetary craft or remove your kidney. Freeman Dyson, the eminent physicist in Imhofe’s 400 Club, is no doubt a very brilliant man. One thing he is not, however, is an expert on climate science, something rather evident from reading his quotes on the subject.

A bonus category:

4. Recently converted from a believer to a skeptic: Inhofe's list contains many of these supposed converts. A scientist that has been legitimately researching climate change would never call themselves a "believer". This is about evidence. Choosing to reject the human role in climate change is not terribly meaningful if the person had little knowledge about the evidence from the beginning.

Most of all, the compilation of this list reflects a complete misunderstanding of the IPCC process (explained here at Worldchanging). The IPCC's scientific consensus is not restricted to the roughly 2000 members of the IPCC itself. Those members are representatives of the community from around the world. They spent years compiling reviews that summarize all peer-reviewed research on climate change. The members of the IPCC are the spokespeople for the greater community of climate experts. A paltry list of 400 or 650 people, the vast majority of whom have no specific expertise on the science of climate change, is not terribly meaningful.

Americans should be offended that this drivel is perpetuated by a sitting U.S. senator and housed on a U.S. government website. Those are your tax dollars being wasted.


Supressing Canadian science

From the Globe and Mail:

Canadian scientist Don MacIver resigned yesterday as chair of the working group organizing the next World Climate Congress after the federal government revoked his permission to speak at an event in Poznan, Poland, where United Nations climate-change negotiations are being held.

One of Canada's leading climate-change experts, Gordon McBean, called this an indication of the Conservative government's policy of ignoring the real effects of greenhouse-gas emissions and supporting the development of heavily polluting fossil fuels, especially the Alberta oil sands.

"Unfortunately, the weight of the tar sands lobby is such that the federal government is not capable at this point to show the leadership that we need," Dr. McBean said. "In Environment Canada there are a lot of outstanding people. But I'm not sure that as a department it is functioning in a way that is conducive to providing the kind of leadership that we need."


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Coal-powered holiday rituals

The coal lobby group America's Power has launched the utterly bizarre "Clean Coal Carolers" just in time for Christmas. Watch for yourself.

The site begs the eternal marketing question: is any publicity is good publicity? The creators had to know it would be ridiculed by the online environmental community. Was their goal to create a meme? Is my drawing to such sites, even out of ridicule, a mistake because it gets the term "clean coal" on people's minds?

[and should I be relieved or offended that there is no adjoining Hanukkah site the features little lumps of coal wearing yarmulkes and singing "dreidel, dreidel dreidel"?]

UPDATE: For a counter-example, this popular anti-coal ad has been criticized because the repeated use of the term "clean coal" could have unintentional subliminal consequences. Paranoia?


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Is climate science strong enough for the courts?

Today's climate models allow us to simulate the state of the climate system under different sets of "forcings": solar variability, volcanic eruptions, greenhouse gas emissions, aerosol emissions, even nutty idea like big like big orbiting mirrors. The recent advances in model resolution are allowing climate scientists to do improved climate change "detection and attribution". This is where we model output under different forcings with observed weather, climate and/or ecological data, to get at the burning question:

How likely was the event -- a strong hurricane season, a heat wave, a flood, or a mass coral bleaching -- with and without the emissions of greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution?

Note that climate scientists don't ask: "Is the event caused by climate change?". That particular question is essentially impossible to answer. Weather and climate is multi-factorial -- no event is caused solely by any one forcing. But we can use observed data and modelling to examine the statistical likelihood of an event under different climate scenarios.

In the Guardian, a UK scientist argues that the advances in detection and attribution may pave the way for litgation:

Myles Allen, a physicist at Oxford University, said a breakthrough that allows scientists to judge the role man-made climate change played in extreme weather events could see a rush to the courts over the next decade.
He said: "We are starting to get to the point that when an adverse weather event occurs we can quantify how much more likely it was made by human activity. And people adversely affected by climate change today are in a position to document and quantify their losses. This is going to be hugely important."

Ignoring for now questions of just who one would sue (oil companies? governments?), the key questions are in the numbers.

First, what degree of change in the probability of an event is sufficient to apportion blame? 10% more likely? 100% more likely? Or would courts assign damages based on the change in probability of the event (10% increase, so you're responsible for 10% of the damages)?

Second, what exactly is the burden of proof in a court of law? Is p<0.05 the same as "beyond a reasonable doubt"?

[Hat tip to Stoat on this]


Friday, December 05, 2008

Reporting about climate change

Over at DotEarth, Andrew Revkin has a short piece on trends in reporting on climate change. The data shows the episodic nature of reporting on climate change and also a huge divergence between different parts of the world (see my comment).

The post is based on work led by Maxwell Boykoff at Oxford, who has done some great work in the past (pdf) showing how striving "balance" in reporting becomes "bias" when the subject is climate change. We devote an entire lecture to that problem in my spring undergraduate course on climate.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Towards bilateral climate agreements

In an article for Salon, Joe Romm argues (link) that the US needs to negotiate a climate agreement directly with China outside on the UNFCCC process. The idea is an anathema to those committed with good reason to a global post-Kyoto agreement. But it does take an unfortunate political reality into account:

Yet for all his talents, Obama can't move the immovable conservatives in Congress. He can't deliver the 67 Senate votes needed to approve any international treaty that is likely to come out of the UNFCCC negotiating process in Copenhagen. Yes, Democrats have expanded their majority in the Senate, edging close to the magical 60 votes needed to stop filibusters, and they just may get there on key issues with the help of the few remaining moderate Republicans.

But as I discussed in June, the conservatives in Congress seem stuck in 1985, unwilling or unable to acknowledge the now painfully obvious reality of global warming or the remarkable advances that have been made in clean technologies. They lined up as a solid bloc against a U.S. climate bill and will surely do so until the last lump of coal can be pried from their submerged hot hands.

Yet if Copenhagen ends in failure, the Kyoto Protocol itself may well fall apart. Why would European companies (and those elsewhere) pay for the right to emit greenhouse gases in, say, 2011, when they will have no binding restrictions on their emissions in 2013? And if there is no subsequent agreement, there can be no enforceable penalty for countries that miss their targets.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Farming the oceans

An NY Times article a couple weeks back included this snapshot of global fisheries decline, based on data compiled by the experts here at the UBC Sea Around Us Project. The image tells the story of the article, a story not repeated often enough. Without a drastic change in management, we are nearing the end of the wild harvest in fish.

The world is in the middle of phase transition from wild harvest to farming, similar to what happened with land animals. The depletion of the natural resource itself is driven in part by the rapid transition to an energy-intensive farming industry. Consider the proportion of wild fisheries required to support fish and animal feed:

Nearly one-third of the world’s wild-caught fish are reduced to fish meal and fed to farmed fish and cattle and pigs. Aquaculture alone consumes an estimated 53 percent of the world’s fish meal and 87 percent of its fish oil. (To make matters worse, as much as a quarter of the total wild catch is thrown back — dead — as “bycatch.”)

A substantial proportion of the wild harvest is used to maintain marine aquaculture of carnivorous species like salmon. It is wildly inefficient, the marine equivalent of farming wolves rather than herbivorous cattle. This is why many experts conclude that the future for pescetarians is probably the blander, lower-on-the-food-chain species like tilapia and catfish. Continued consumption of popular favourites like tuna and salmon could only happen with drastic improvements in fisheries management.

Marine aquaculture shares many of the shortcomings of industrial animal agriculture. A high input of energy (fish meal, animal feed) is required per unit of food production. Also, a large proportion of the natural resource base (wild-caught fish, agricultural land) must be used to produce the inputs. Finally, research concludes that shifting towards less energy-intensive options (lower on the food chain or "closer to the sun", effectively the same statement) would help sustain the natural resource.

The two forms of farming are now also highly intertwined. As the quote above notes, fish meal from wild-caught fish is including in animal feed. And one suggested solution to high energy demands of aquaculture is to produce fish feed from common feed crops like corn and soybeans.

Sure, fish did not evolve to eat grain. Then again, neither did cattle.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Commerical ship uses the Northwest Passage

GJOA HAVEN, Nunavut (CP) — CBC News is reporting that a commercial ship has travelled for the first time through the Northwest Passage this fall to deliver supplies to communities in western Nunavut. The broadcaster says the Canadian Coast Guard says the MV Camilla Desgagnes, owned by Desgagnes Transarctik Inc., transported cargo to the hamlets of Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk, Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak from Montreal in September.

Brian LeBlanc of the coast guard told CBC he believes it's the first commercial cargo delivery from the east through the Northwest Passage, which normally is impassable due to thick ice.

Louie Kamookak, the director of hamlet housing and public works in Gjoa Haven, said deliveries usually come from the west. He said the vessel brought municipal equipment, including a sewage truck, as well as provisions for the local co-op stores.

Waguih Rayes, the general manager of Desgagnes Transarctik's Arctic division, said it used the MV Camilla Desgagnes because it is a super ice-class vessel. Mr. Rayes went along on the trip and didn't see “one cube of ice.”


Friday, November 28, 2008

Climate change's third rail

After a fisheries seminar this morning, someone asked what key issue the research and conservation community was missing. The immediate answer from a senior colleague was meat consumption.

Given how growing feed and raising livestock is responsible for a large proportion of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, it is quite amazing that we don't talk about it more. An article in the Vancouver Sun last month asked a few of us why. Here are some of the explanations:

Dale Marshall, a climate-change policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation:
"Food is something that's very personal," Marshall said. "I think there may be a reluctance to start talking about people changing what they eat. When you start telling people to sell their car and jump on the bus, that's a little more out there. But when you start talking about diet and what they eat, that becomes even more personal. So that raises some difficulty in organizations not wanting to go there."

Gideon Forman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment: "It's a difficult sell. We're a culture that eats a lot of meat. Unlike in Europe, where it's often a side dish, for North Americans, unfortunately, it's the main attraction. So that's a problem. But I agree, eating less meat would be a big step."

Matt Horne, acting director of the B.C. energy solutions program for the Pembina Institute, said by asking people to reduce their meat consumption, you're asking them to make a real change in their lives. And even though the consequences of not making such changes are calamitous, people are still reluctant to make them. By contrast, buying a fuel-efficient car instead of an SUV is simply a different means to the same end, Horne said. You can still get from A to B.

Dennis Cunningham, a project officer with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, suggested it could be a funding issue. He explained that when environmental groups apply to governments or large corporations for money to produce an education program, the funding organization can dictate the priorities such a program should take. And no government wants to risk offending a powerful agriculture lobby by telling people to eat less meat - even if it's good for them.

Sarah Cox of the Sierra Club of B.C. tried to conflate eating less meat with encouraging people to eat locally produced food, something the Sierra Club does do. But Donner said they're entirely different things, and that if one were to choose between eating less meat and eating locally produced food as a more effective way to reduce your carbon footprint, there is only one choice: eat less meat.

He believes the real reason green groups are so shy about discussing meat consumption is that there's an image associated with being a vegetarian or vegan they want no part of. "Environmental organizations often and unfairly have this image of vegan or vegetarian hippies," Donner said. "So if they were to come out and say 'We don't want you to eat meat,' it might reinforce that image and not win over the people they want to win over."

Is meat consumption the third rail of climate change mitigation?


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The times they are a-changin'

Barack Obama's recorded address to the US Governors' climate change summit is marks a complete about-face in US policy and philosophy on climate change. If only Obama would stop talking about "clean coal"...


Monday, November 17, 2008

New Scientist on the coral reef crisis

This article from the October issue of New Scientist looks at some of the latest thinking on actions that could help coral reefs withstand climate change. It includes common suggestions like protecting areas that are less prone to bleaching (e.g. places with natural upwelling of cooler waters) and more radical ideas like artificially pumping up cooler waters, transplanting more temperature-tolerant zooxanthallae, or transplanting corals themselves to higher latitudes. The fact that scientists are even suggesting the extreme ideas tells you the scale of the threat posed by climate change.

The writer Mark Schrope was kind enough to grant me a final, important thought:

There is no doubt about the most crucial measure, though. "It will all go for naught if we don't reduce greenhouse-gas emissions," says Donner. "We are frittering away time. This all has to start now."


Saturday, November 15, 2008

I'll have the corn, with a side of corn

It is no secret that corn is a major ingredient in animal feed, food oils, and a wide range of food products. A new paper shows that most fast food can in fact be chemically traced back to fertilized feed corn.

The idea behind the paper is relatively straightforward.
The authors use the breakdown of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in a variety of fast food - burgers, chicken patties, french fries, etc. - to trace the ingredients and feed back to their source. The only thing missing from this fascinating study is an analysis of the drinks. Whether a cola or "iced tea", the drinks available at most fast food restaurants all have the same two main ingredients: water and high-fructose corn syrup.

The analysis works because of some well-documented patterns in the distribution of carbon and nitrogen isotopes.
Corn has a predictably low concentration of carbon-13, because of a strong bias against this "heavier" isotope of carbon during photosynthesis. So much so that if you measure the relative proportion of the carbon-12, the more common isotope, and carbon-13 in the tissue of one of us corn-fed North Americans, you'll find much less carbon-13 than you would in the tissue of a more rice-fed Asian person [and definitely less than in the tissue of a hunter-gatherer from the last ice age]. The basic chemistry shows that North Americans are built from corn.

Nitrogen isotopes also come in handy. They can be used to determine whether chemical fertilizers were used in raising the crops that were fed to the animals or used to create the french fry oil. Fertilizer nitrogen tends to include less of the nitrogen-15 than naturally derived soil nitrogen, because the processes that make nitrogen available in the soil bias against the heavier isotope. So by combining the nitrogen and carbon isotope results, the authors are able to trace fast food items back to their origin:

From the entire sample set of beef and chicken, only 12 servings of beef had 13C < 21‰; for these animals only was a food source other than corn possible. We observed remarkably invariant values of 15N in both beef and chicken, reflecting uniform confinement and exposure to heavily fertilized feed for all animals. The 13C value of fries differed significantly among restaurants indicating that the chains used different protocols for deep-frying: Wendy’s clearly used only corn oil, whereas McDonald’s and Burger King favored other vegetable oils; this differed from ingredient reports

The conclusion is an indictment of North American fast food:

Fast food corporations, although they constitute more than half the restaurants in the U.S. and sell more than 1 hundred billion dollars of food each year (18), oppose regulation of ingredient reporting‡. Ingredients matter for many reasons: U.S. corn agriculture has been criticized as environmentally unsustainable
(19) and conspicuously subsidized (20). Of 160 food products we purchased at Wendy’s throughout the United States, not 1 item could be traced back to a noncorn source. Our work also identified corn feed as the overwhelming source of food for tissue growth, hence for beef and chicken meat, at fast food restaurants. We note that this study did not include an examination of beverages served, which are dominantly sweetened
with high fructose corn syrup (21). In 2002, the European Union adopted Regulation 178 (11) requiring suppliers to trace the origin of materials used for production. At this time in the United States, such tracing is voluntary and seldom-invoked. Our work highlights the absence of adequate consumer information necessary to facilitate an ongoing evaluation of the American diet.


Tracking changes in CO2

The NOAA Coral Reef Watch program has a new "ocean acidification" online tool that maps changes in ocean chemistry brought about by rising carbon dioxide concentrations. The information is critical to understanding the long-term threats to coral reefs.

Here's a brief explanation (see NOAA's site for more):

Carbon dioxide dissolves in water - that's how you make a carbonated beverage. Around one-quarter to one-third of the CO2 emissions from human activity each year are absorbed by the oceans. The CO2 react with water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3), reducing pH in the process. That's where we get the term "ocean acidification".

The central concern for coral reefs is that this alters the balance of the common dissolved carbon compounds. The process of "buffering" the pH change consumes carbonate ions (CO3--) which corals and other calcifying organisms use to build their skeletons. So as CO2 levels increase, the proportion of ocean carbonate decreases, and the ability of corals to build reefs decreases. The slower-growing, weaker reefs are then more vulnerable to erosion. This can be seen today in parts of the eastern equatorial Pacific like the Galapagos, where corals do persist but naturally high carbon dioxide levels (from upwelling of high pCO2 deep waters) limit reef growth and ecosystem development.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Fierce urgency of now (reprise)

If you are involved in marine or coral reef conservation, this is an opportune time. Not only does the incoming US President support serious action on climate change, he grew up in Hawaii.

When you are snorkeling through the coral reefs, you realize that a slight change in temperature or increase in sediment and runoff could end up destroying it all and making it unavailable for your children. That is something you worry about - Barack Obama

The urgent need for new messages and new policies to protect the world's coral reefs from climate change was discussed here, after July's International Coral Reef Symposium. So, all of you out there in the community, this really is your moment. What needs to be done? Imagine you're trapped in an elevator or on a basketball court with hoops-mad US President-elect Obama. What would you say?


Cuba survives Hurricane Paloma

This weekend, Paloma became the third Category 3 Hurricane to strike Cuba this season. If, that is, you include November 9th as a part of the "season". The 190 kilometre per hour winds and 6 meter storm surge damaged thousands of buildings in Santa Cruz del Sur. Yet, like with Hurricane Gustav back in August, Paloma caused no fatalities and few injuries in Cuba.

The civil defense and evacuation efforts in Cuba are without parallel. According to the Cuban government, 1.2 million people were evacuated in less than 48 hours. Trains and government vehicles brought 18% of the evacuees to government shelters. The remainder of the people took shelter in the homes of family and friends inland, what the Cuban newspaper Granma calls "the habitual gesture of solidarity".

Certainly, Cuba's government is not a shining example for the world. The news of successful evacuations are infected with government hyperbole, as the above Reuters photo suggest. Nevertheless, there is no denying that Cubans are in some ways far better prepared for extreme weather events than any other nations in the Americas. I've said this before, and I'll say it again. Leaving politics aside, even the US should consider studying the Cuba's emergency management for any lessons that can be applied to management in democratic nations.


Friday, November 07, 2008

US Energy plans

Here's a general list of Obama's energy platform, courtesy of Robert Rapier a good source for expertise these issues. The initiatives on "clean" coal and ethanol will raise hackles. Canadians should take note of the "low-carbon fuel standard". If such a standard is implemented, it would affect importation of oil from extracted carbon-intensive oil sands. And that's one reason the Canadian Government has been quick to call for cooperation on a joint North American climate change strategy. [UPDATE: Surprise, the Globe and Mail is reporting that the oil sands is in fact the main reason for Canada's quick call for cooperation]

The list is after the bump:

Provide Short-term Relief to American Families

• Enact a Windfall Profits Tax to Provide a $1,000 Emergency Energy Rebate to American Families.
• Crack Down on Excessive Energy Speculation.
• Swap Oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to Cut Prices.

Eliminate Our Current Imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 Years

• Increase Fuel Economy Standards.
• Get 1 Million Plug-In Hybrid Cars on the Road by 2015.
• Create a New $7,000 Tax Credit for Purchasing Advanced Vehicles.
• Establish a National Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
• A “Use it or Lose It” Approach to Existing Oil and Gas Leases.
• Promote the Responsible Domestic Production of Oil and Natural Gas.

Create Millions of New Green Jobs

• Ensure 10 percent of Our Electricity Comes from Renewable Sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.
• Deploy the Cheapest, Cleanest, Fastest Energy Source – Energy Efficiency.
• Weatherize One Million Homes Annually.
• Develop and Deploy Clean Coal Technology.
• Prioritize the Construction of the Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline.

Reduce our Greenhouse Gas Emissions 80 Percent by 2050

• Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.
• Make the U.S. a Leader on Climate Change.


Thursday, November 06, 2008

Keeping our eye on the ball

Leave it to the Onion to truly capture how people are feeling. Even living outside of the US, I find it impossible to have a conversation, let alone write a blog post, without coming back to Obama. Maribo will be back to talking climate science and policy soon!

Kobe Bryant Scores 25 In Holy Shit We Elected A Black President

LOS ANGELES—Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant had a typically solid performance from the field last night, scoring 25 points to propel his team to a holy shit, it's hard to believe these words are even gracing this page, but on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008, the American people elected a black man to the office of the President of the United States.

Words really can't describe how…or what, or…. Wow.

Bryant, who got off to a slow start early, but managed to find his touch late in the third, incredible. A black president for a nation whose entire history has been haunted by the specter of slavery and plagued by racism since before its inception. That this happened in our lifetime is remarkable; that it happened within 50 years of a time when segregation was still considered an acceptable institution is astonishing. Absolutely astonishing. This is an achievement on par with the moon landing.

Bryant closed out the fourth quarter with eight points in five minutes.

"It was just a question of finding my rhythm, not forcing it, and playing within the offense," said Bryant, who also...a black man. President. Not the president of a community board, or the president of a business, but the president of the United States of America—the highest office in the land, the commander in chief, the de facto leader of the free world—is a black man chosen by a majority of his fellow citizens.

"This game shows you that free throws really do matter and [the great American Paradox—that is, the conflicting notion that a nation could be founded on the guiding principle that all men are created equal, but be built upon the backs of slaves—may not have been completely resolved on Tuesday night, but it was certainly resolved to an extent that would have been unimaginable to Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and most certainly Thomas Jefferson, and it was resolved by the combined will of the American people]."

"You also have to give the bench a lot of credit," Bryant added.

Lakers forward Lamar Odom also chipped in with 16 points and eight boards in the historic 349-162 Electoral College victory over the slumping Clippers, who are clearly missing the presence of former power forward Elton Brand—a Democrat, let alone a black Democrat, winning Indiana for the first time in 44 years? Florida? Ohio? Maybe even North goddamned Carolina? Are you fucking kidding? Is it absolutely confirmed that he won Virginia? Virginia, for crying out loud. Fucking crazy is what that is.

The 2008 league MVP was solid on the defensive end of the court as well, holding Clippers guard Baron Davis to just 12 points and when they called Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida for Obama, basically ensuring victory, that was a moment in which all Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or party affiliation had to stand back and say, "Holy shit, this is actually going to happen. Holy shit.... Holy shit. Holy shit! Holy shit!"

The undefeated Lakers came into Wednesday night's game against the Clippers with a 3-0 record, and looked to continue their dominance in states like New York, California, and Massachusetts, but Bryant looked to get Lakers center Virginia involved early, and as recently as four years ago, it would have been unfathomable that citizens there would vote for a Democrat, let alone an African-American.

"We see the election of a black president, and Pau Gasol's good shooting night, as a positive sign of things to come," Lakers head coach Phil Jackson said. "It's still early in the season, and there are a lot of things we need to work on, but I'm a product of the '60s, a baby boomer, so I'll blame our lull in the third quarter on me thinking back to the race riots during the civil rights movement, the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the separate but equal laws that plagued this nation, and how I thought then that in a million years we would never elect a black president. The fact that I am even saying these words is pretty fucking incredible."

"Kobe works well when he remains poised and trusts the triangle offense," Jackson added.

Two hundred thousand people of different races and ages—some crying, some cheering, all overjoyed because of the racial barrier they helped break down—were in attendance at Chicago's Grant Park for Wednesday's game, and stayed through the night, laughing, singing, cheering, and high-fiving even after the Lakers game was over and they won Colorado and the election was officially in garbage time.

Said Lakers forward Barack Obama to the entire world on his team's victory: "Yes, we can."

Fucking right we can. We did! We really did! I don't mind telling you I spilled out into the street along with all my joyfully screaming neighbors and danced right there to whatever songs anybody wanted to sing, including—and I can't believe we actually did this, but compared to electing a black man to the presidency, absolutely nothing is unbelievable anymore—an impromptu version of "God Bless America," which is the least danceable song in the world, but fuck it, we sang and danced to "God Bless America," and I'll bet you anything that no one there ever meant it more.

"I just wish that my mother, father, and grandfather could have seen this," said 52-year-old African-American Mark Booker, a Lakers fan who called this the single greatest moment of his entire life. "We won. We won. We won."


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Canada awaits Obama's leadership on climate

From the Canadian Press. Maybe the new Conservative cabinet reads Maribo?

[Preface: It is rather fanciful to claim the Conservatives nascent cap-and-trade plan is similar to president-elect Obama's proposed cap-and-trade system that features auctioned carbon permits. The timing of these remarks from the Foreign Affairs Minister suggests the Conservatives hope to get credit for working with the universally-popular Obama to create a North American climate change initiative, even though in reality, they would simply be swept up by a plan put in motion by the US. Either way, it is a good start]

OTTAWA – Canada hopes to negotiate a North American climate-change deal with U.S. president-elect Barack Obama and will begin working on the file within weeks, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said today. Meantime, officials told The Canadian Press the Harper government has been waiting for the departure of President George W. Bush to work with his successor on an integrated carbon market.

While states and provinces have been cobbling together a patchwork of approaches to climate change, federal officials said they have been eyeing a continent-wide solution for some time.

Cannon confirmed the issue will be a priority. He said the Conservative government will make Canada's positions on the environment known to the incoming Obama administration.

"We will be able to tackle this file on the North American level – on a continental level," he said.

"Over the coming weeks I know my colleague Jim Prentice, minister of the Environment, will be active on that file. I see that in a positive light."

The climate file offers a glimpse of the political benefit the Harper government could draw from an Obama presidency.

Liberals have been expressing hope for months that Obama's election might herald a progressive tidal wave across North America that would propel them back to power.

But even at an Ottawa election party where Liberals celebrated Obama's victory, several predicted that the prime minister will align himself closely with the new occupant of the White House.

They cited the climate issue as an example where the Conservatives have taken flak for repudiating the Kyoto Protocol – but could actually win plaudits by twinning their approach with Obama's.

The Conservatives plan to lower greenhouse gases three per cent from 1990 levels by 2020 – or 20 per cent from 2006 levels over that same period.

Obama has set a similar objective of reducing greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020.

Both targets fall well short of Kyoto, an international agreement ratified by 180 countries, including Canada but not the U.S., that sets targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Obama and Harper plans would rely in part on a cap-and-trade system.

Cap-and-trade systems place a ceiling on greenhouse gases and allow participating countries, provinces and states, or companies to buy and sell emissions permits within that cap.

Participants who don't meet the emissions targets can buy credits from those with a surplus instead of reducing their emissions.

The idea is to gradually lower the ceiling to control emissions. The Conservatives pledged in their 2008 election platform to work with the U.S. and Mexico to develop and implement a continent-wide system between 2012 and 2015.

Cannon said the next White House and the Harper government could easily work together on environmental issues. "There are a lot of similarities between the positions put forward and our position. This augurs well for a North American approach on environmental issues – specifically on climate change."

An internal Environment Canada briefing prepared in April compares Canada's regulatory requirements with those in major U.S. global-warming legislation that could become law under Obama's administration. The briefing says a "rough comparison" of the bi-partisan U.S. Climate Security Act and the Conservatives' Turning the Corner plan ``suggests that the two pieces of legislation are comparable."

The Canadian Press obtained the briefing under the Access to Information Act. The document, dated April 14, says Canada will seek a shared carbon market with the U.S., once Washington sets out its own regulations.

"If a greenhouse-gas regulatory regime and offsets system is developed in the United States, cross-border trading in emissions credits and offsets will be pursued," it says.

Another federal official close to the issue said Ottawa has been in a holding pattern for some time, expecting that only in a post-Bush era would there be movement toward a continental system like the one in Europe. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has hinted at that himself. At a G8 summit in Germany last year, he said it's difficult for one country in a shared economic space to set steep targets while its neighbour doesn't.

"We didn't want to go too tough on targets with Bush in the White House," said the federal official. "Because then if they (Americans) didn't follow, it would place Canadian industry at a disadvantage."

In the absence of a continental or national carbon market, regional schemes have popped up. The Western Climate Initiative, a coalition of four Canadian provinces and seven U.S. states, plans a regional market to trade carbon emissions. And earlier this year, the Ontario and Quebec governments agreed to forge ahead with an interprovincial carbon trading system. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has said he would like the program in place by 2010.


What can you say

I'm not smart enough, eloquent enough, wise enough, nor have I struggled enough in life or, for that matter, been on this planet long enough, to put into words the significance of Barack Obama's victory in the US presidential election.

Courtesy of the NY Times:

5 November 2008

Senator Barack Obama, Chicago

Dear Senator Obama,

We join people in your country and around the world in congratulating you on becoming the President-Elect of the United States. Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place.

We note and applaud your commitment to supporting the cause of peace and security around the world. We trust that you will also make it the mission of your Presidency to combat the scourge of poverty and disease everywhere.

We wish you strength and fortitude in the challenging days and years that lie ahead. We are sure you will ultimately achieve your dream making the United States of America a full partner in a community of nations committed to peace and prosperity for all.


N R Mandela


Sunday, November 02, 2008

Looking south

With the media even on the cold side of the 49th parallel also obsessed with Tuesday’s US election, Canadians may have missed the news that we have a new Environment Minister. Industry Minister Jim Prentice, a possible future Harper successor, has been shuffled over to the Environment portfolio.

Ignoring the basic fact that climate change does not belong solely under the jurisdiction of a ministry or department or organization labeled "environment", a mistake that diminishes the scale of the issue and is made far, far too often in Canada and around the world , when you combine the Prentice cabinet re-assignment with the political response to the ongoing economic crisis and the sorry spectacle of a Liberal leadership campaign on the heels of the defeat of Dion and the Green Shift, it is safe to say that we can say goodbye to whatever faint hope there was that the Conservative Party would announce, or be pushed by the opposition into announcing, a real plan for reducing industrial greenhouse gas emissions. It’ll be a surprise if the Conservatives do anything to implement or enforce the vacuous emissions-intensity based plan announced during the last session of Parliament, let alone assemble a plan with any teeth.

Unless, that is, there is pressure from the next US administration. Times sure have changed.


Friday, October 31, 2008

Global warming, circa 1990

Long before blogs, inconvenient documentaries and climate scientists urging political leaders to place a price on carbon, astronomer and science populist Carl Sagan was sounding the alarm about global warming.

In the early 60s, Sagan did some back of the envelope calculations that showed that our neighbour Venus was subject to a runaway greenhouse effect. It led to a lifelong interest in the greenhouse effect on Earth. In 1990, Saturday Night Live spoofed his Earthly obsession in the "Carl Sagan Global Warming Christmas Special" (here's the transcript, the video may not cooperate).

Notice the confusion between ozone depletion and global warming. Oh, we've come so far.

Thanks to Jaymie Matthews of UBC for mentioning this in a recent talk.


Friday, October 24, 2008

"Ocean deoxygenation"

Our friend Caspar Henderson has been searching for a good short phrase to describe the increase the ocean's "oxygen minimum zones" expected to happen as a result of climate change. His query led to a pretty fascinating exchange between a number of experts and the suggestion of ocean deoxygenation.

Just what is this "deoxygenation"?

A lot of intermediate and deep parts of the open ocean are depleted in oxygen. It is natural. First, algae growth on the surface leads to a rain of dead matter to the bottom. Decomposition of that material consumes oxygen. The deep oxygen can be refreshed by oxygen diffusing out of the air into surface waters if there is a lot of vertical mixing. But if the water is highly "stratified" -- say, a light, warm layer lying about a cold, dense layer -- there is little vertical mixing of waters.

This mechanism alo explains coastal hypoxic zones like the famous Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone". The waters on the continental shelf of the northern Gulf are very stratified, thanks to the influx of fresh, light water from the Mississippi River. Hypoxia develops in the bottom water during the summer in part because of the lack of vertical mixing. That's why when a hurricane blows through, and the water gets all mixed, the dead zone tends to dissipate, or at least decrease in severity and extent.

The "ocean deoxygenation" concern comes from the fact that if climate change heats up the surface ocean, we get more stratification, less vertical mixing, and expansion of the existing ocean minimum zones in the ocean. Recent evidence suggests that is just what is happening.

Large areas of the intermediate and deep ocean have "naturally" low levels of oxygen.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Market meltdowns and the drawbacks of trading carbon

There are valid economic arguments on either side of the carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade debate. If implemented properly, either policy instrument could accomplish the goal of pricing carbon and gradually reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

One common conclusion after the Canadian Liberal Party's electoral drubbing is that a carbon tax will never sell. It is deemed a political loser, because of the public's knee-jerk reaction to any invocation of that dirty little three-letter word. People much prefer the idea of industrial caps on emissions and a market system. Let the market solve the problem, not the government is a common refrain.

Right. How well are our markets do today?

There's a reason that many of the major investment banks from Goldman Sachs on down are in favour of establishing a carbon market. And it ain't polar bears or coral reefs. They see a massive opportunity for profit in trading of carbon permits.

It is incredibly naive to think the same problems that sunk the financial system won't arise in a carbon market. This article from the Wall Street Journal investigating sales of landfill "carbon offsets" on the voluntary Chicago Carbon Exchange offers a window into how profit-seeking would win out over greenhouse gas reductions in a freely traded carbon market.

I'm not against a cap-and-trade system. But we need to wake up and realize that a carbon trading system will be fraught with the very complications that have created and burst financial bubbles in the past twenty years. Traders will come up with complicated derivatives and trading instruments that regulators do not understand. Companies will propose offsets and reduction measures that cannot be guaranteed. And so on and so on.

Sure, a carbon tax may look like a political loser. Given the way lack of regulation and open cross-border financial trading is causing a meltdown of the global financial system, is the really public is willing to open a multi-billion or trillion dollar carbon trading system, not to mention the future of the planet, in the hands of the markets and investment firms?

Call me crazy, but I think the Liberals should save the Green Shift from the shredder.


Friday, October 17, 2008

A mesmerizing end to the week

This fin-fish blimp is from an entry to an airship competition in Germany. The jaws of ichthyologists and biomechanists are dropping.

Air Art from flip on Vimeo.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

RIP theGreen Shift

Of all the political obituaries written last night, the most troubling is not that of a person, but that of a concept.

The Liberal Green Shift, specific inadequacies aside, would have done exactly what economists have been recommending for years. Shift taxes from income to carbon.

The Conservative victory, particularly here in BC where a provincial version of the income-to-carbon tax shift has met public resistance, is likely to convince a generation of politicians in Canada and abroad that an income to carbon tax shift is good policy, but bad politics. It make take years to overcome that judgment.

For now, one can hope that the opposition parties at least push the Conservative minority to install a more politically viable cap-and-trade system.

It would be ironic. Under cap-and-trade, companies are likely to pass some or all of the cost of emissions reduction on to the consumer. Despite the NDP's protestations about making the big polluters not the consumers pay, the net effect on a cap-and-trade system everyday activity will be quite similar to the carbon tax.

The biggest difference? The large bureaucracy and regulatory structure required for reporting, monitoring and management under cap-and-trade. That increase in government bureaucracy is exactly the sort of thing that no Canadian political party wants to support.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Canadian scientists and economists plead with voters

A group of top climate and environmental scientists from across Canada have released a letter stating that "climate change is the defining issue of our time" and urging voters to "vote strategically for the environment" in Tuesday's election. That means vote for a party advocating a price on carbon. [Update: the Pembina Institute has a great analysis of the parties' carbon pricing policies]

It is a strong, clear statement. I can add only one thing: A vote for carbon pricing and action on climate change is not just a vote for the environment. It is a vote for the economy of the future.

And it is not just scientists. A group of top Canadian economists have released a very similar letter. The economists agreed on key principles:

  1. Canada needs to act on climate change now.
  2. Any substantive action will involve economic costs.
  3. These economic impacts cannot be an excuse for inaction.
  4. Pricing carbon is the best approach from an economic perspective.
    1. Pricing allows each business and family to choose the response that is best and most efficient for them.
    2. Pricing induces innovation.
    3. Carbon is almost certainly under-priced right now.
  5. Regulation is the most expensive way to meet a given climate change goal.
  6. A carbon tax has the advantage of providing certainty in the price of carbon.
  7. A cap and trade system provides certainty on the quantity of carbon emitted, but not on the price of carbon and can be a highly complex policy to implement.
  8. Although carbon taxes have the most obvious effects on consumers, all carbon reduction policies increase the prices individuals face.
  9. Price mechanisms can be regressive and our policy should address this.
  10. A pricing mechanism can allow other taxes to be reduced and provide an opportunity to improve the tax system.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Developing a national climate policy

Last year, the UN Human Development Program released a report on how climate change will effect international development and global inequality. The report includes several case studies of industrial nations - including Canada (written by yours truly) and the US - and their progress, if any, towards "carbon neutral" growth.

Here are the general findings of the Canada case study. Implicit in this excerpt is the need for a price on carbon, established via either cap-and-trade, suggested at the time by all parties at the time the report was assemble, or a carbon tax, a political third rail until the introduction of the Green Shift:

Over the past fifteen years, Canada has failed to control growing GHG emissions despite a number of policy pronouncements. With a rapidly growing economy, grounded in oil and gas, and a growing population, achieving carbon neutral growth in Canada appears to be a formidable challenge. However, one should not forget that Canada is a highly educated and innovative nation with a strong history of promoting peace, equality, international development and global environmental protection. Canada also has a strong national interest in mitigating climate change which may already be impacting forestry and its Arctic peoples. A recent example is temperature-driven northward spread of the mountain pine beetle in British Columbia and Alberta that has devastated the Canadian forestry industry and forced the federal government to change its policy on including forests in the national carbon emissions budget.

Canada could achieve carbon neutral growth by shifting the national attention to improving energy efficiency, reducing emissions from energy production and developing new low-carbon technologies. The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, an independent advisory body for the federal government, reports that Canada could achieve a 60% reduction in energy-related emissions 2050 through energy efficiency measures and new technologies in energy production. In addition to reducing Canada’s emissions burden, setting the country on this path would also address growing concerns about air quality and produce expertise and technology that could be exported to the world. A plan based on the following five themes would place Canada on the path towards long-term reductions in emissions without sacrificing economic development.

1. Strong leadership from the federal government: Following on the recommendations of Auditor General, Canada’s climate change effort should be centralized, ideally in the Prime Minister’s Office. This could ease integration of emissions reduction goals into all government operations, including energy, environment and international development, and reduce the territorial disputes between government departments and the provinces that inhibited past federal efforts. Though the provincial emissions reduction policies are promising, due to the breakdown of powers and taxation in the federalist system, the federal government must take the lead on implementation of carbon capture and storage technology in the energy sector, automotive fuel efficiency and funding public transit

2. Leverage existing policies. Despite years of relative inactivity on emissions reduction, many useful policy levers do exist. For example, the implementation plan can take advantage of: i) the Canadian Environmental Protection Act for regulating air pollutants, ii) the Energy Efficiency Act for setting residential, commercial and industrial standards, iii) the Wind Power Production Initiative for a framework for a renewable energy portfolio standards, iv) the Income Tax Act for expanding capital cost allowances for energy efficient construction and reducing capital cost allowances for development in the oil sands. Existing municipal and provincial policy initiatives and renewable portfolio standards can help introduce the appropriate forms of renewable energy – like hydro in Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia, and wind in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – into each region’s electricity mix.

3. Address the large final emitters (LFEs). To date, no government to has shown willingness to address the LFEs, responsible for almost half of Canada’s emissions. A clear policy signal from the federal government would direct capital investment and provide incentives for companies to develop new technologies. The most effective option may be the proposed cap-and-trade system that features hard emissions targets by sector, limited purchase of domestic and international offsets and the development of a national green investment fund. It would take advantage of existing market forces, provide financial opportunities for Canadian industry and fuel spending in research and development.

4. Empower communities. Canadian cities have shown the ability to reduce emissions through control over urban planning, public transit, energy purchases and building codes. Infrastructure funding from higher levels of government can be directed to proven initiatives like tax credits for retrofitting buildings, mortgage assistance for energy efficiency improvements, expanded public transit, vehicle and road restrictions, waste reduction and landfill gas capture, electricity co-generation and development of renewable energy sources.

5. Promote new technology. Reducing emissions from the oil and gas sector and the transportation sector will depend on technological development, some of which will occur outside the country. Federal policy and infrastructure funding will be needed to promote the development of carbon capture and storage technology to reduce emissions from the oil sands. Although Canada has little direct control over vehicle technology, joining the initiatives by some U.S. states to place limits of carbon emissions from passenger vehicles, and direct U.S. attention to the often overlooked issue of truck fuel efficiency, would expedite the shift to more fuels efficient vehicles.

The shift in national attentions must happen soon to meet a long-term the suggested emissions target. With almost $100 billion in investments in development planned for the next 15 years in the oil and gas sector alone, Canada risks increasing its global atmospheric burden. A binding, long-term federal emissions policy and implementation plan is crucial to encouraging sustainable investment by the private sector, especially in the oil and gas sector.


Monday, September 22, 2008

More opinions on the Green Shift

A few comments from Globe and Mail columnist Jeffery Simpson:

On the Conservative approach:

... the Conservatives have said nothing in the campaign about greenhouse gas emissions, except that they have a "plan," before launching into an attack on the Liberal Green Shift. They do have a "plan," of sorts. It is based on getting GHGs down from a 2006 baseline by 20 per cent by 2020. I and almost everyone outside the Conservative Party do not think the plan will achieve that objective, but we shall see.

In any event, it consists of (a) a series of small programs under the heading "eco" that are designed to get people to use energy more efficiently and to promote non-fossil fuel use, (b) intensity improvements in the emissions produced by larger emitters, (c) payment into a technology fund if emitters do not meet their reductions, (d) tighter vehicle emission standards, and (e) the completely useless ethanol subsidies for farmers to grow more corn. They have also muted the possibility of a national cap-and-trade system.

On the the consequence of failure to support the Liberal Green Shift:

... the policy will not be picked up politically for a long time. In other words, politicians of every stripe will be unwilling to take the political risks involved. It will therefore be like private delivery of health services paid for publicly, something permitted under the Canada Health Act but deemed political suicide by politicians everywhere.

We will therefore settle for a series of rather ineffectual but feel-good policies such as the Conservatives "eco" ones — energy efficiency etc — and intensity targets from which companies can and will escape by paying into a technology fund which will bring benefits perhaps many years from now.

When and if the Americans establish a cap-and-trade system, as Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain have endorsed, we will seek to negotiate joining the U.S. system to make it a North American one.

Similarly, should the Americans adopt tougher vehicle emission standards than those proposed by the Harper government, we will toughen ours.

In other words, the Americans will save us from our own policy incoherence.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Truth and complications: The Green Shift

Read any story, online or in print, about the Liberal Party’s “Green Shift” and you will learn two things. First, that the Green Shift is a “carbon tax”. Second, that it is complicated.

The first is inaccurate. The second is just false.

We could discuss how these memes have spread, who is to blame, and the general warping of reality in modern politician campaigns (say something, anything, enough times and it might become true). I’ll leave that to the political bloggers. Here, let's cover the truth about the Green Shift.

First, the Green Shift is an economic plan. The main feature of the plan is a small shift in taxation from income to carbon-based fuels. Yes, the plan features a carbon tax. It also features income tax cuts, corporate tax cuts, tax credits for green investments, tax credits for rural and northern communities, and tax credits for middle class families. Labeling the Green Shift a carbon tax is defining an economic plan based on one incomplete component; you could just as soon call the Green Shift an income tax cut.

Second, it is not complicated. Here’s how it works. The tax on carbon-based fuels begins at $10 per tonne of carbon, and will increase by $10 a ton until reaching $40 in the fourth year. At the same time, income and corporate tax cuts will return the revenue from the carbon-based fuel tax to consumers and the marketplace. Government revenue will not change.

In fact, the Liberals are so vigilant about the tax shift being revenue neutral that the plan will require the Auditor General to evaluate the revenue every year. If there is a net increase in government revenue, it will be returned to taxpayers.

There you go. That’s essentially the plan. Not complicated.

Now, working out the exact impact on your taxes and your fuel, heat and electricity expenditures requires a bit of math. Of course it does. That is true every time there is a change in the tax code or a change in government.

It is an insult to Canadians to keep calling this too complicated. If anything, the Green Shift is actually simpler than the tax plans put forth by the other parties. The Green Shift integrates all the major tax changes into one plan, one document. It is easy to read and evaluate. The other parties are announcing tax changes one by one, making it difficult to assess the aggregate impact on personal, or federal, finances.

I am not advocating for the Liberal Party or the specifics of the Green Shift. I am advocating for a real, intelligent, honest discussion about reducing Canada's greenhouse gas emissions.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Watching the cryosphere

The Arctic sea ice appears to have reached the minimum extent for this season, short of last year's record. If you just can't wait another eight or nine months for more news about the shrinking cryosphere, never fear. There a several sites monitoring the movement of mountain glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet.

The Extreme Ice Survey has some fantastic still (and time lapse photos) from cameras set up on a few mountain glaciers and in Greenland. And I just got a note from someone at Sermitsiaq, a Greenlandic newspaper about a new web cam that offers the opportunity to "watch as Greenland melts". Be sure to get yourself a comfortable seat, the melting may take a while.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Global NIMBYism

I have a post up on Worldchanging about the opportunity posed by the otherwise silly U.S. debate about offshore drilling. The post was inspired by a random experience in Malaysia a few years ago.

An excerpt:

For years, far too much of environmentalism has been rooted in old-fashioned "not in my backyard" arguments known as NIMBY-ism. It worked when the issues were simply protecting a local park from a new roadway. In a globalized world, with raw resources, goods and services openly traded from Anchorage, Alaska to Zanzibar; from Addis Ababa to Zephyr, North Carolina—with resource extraction and pollution causing global environmental crises (from climate change to transboundary air pollution to global fisheries depletion), we need to think beyond our backyards, and beyond our coasts.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

McCain and Obama positions on climate change

Science Debate 2008 - the proposed televised presidential debate on science and science policy - will not actually happen this election season. The candidates have now both responded to the organizers list of 14 questions about science and science policy.

This written Q&A lacks the unscripted exchange that could, although often does not, occur during an actual live debate. It does at least provide voters with an outline on each campaign`s position on range of important issues related to science, something not happening in the Canadian election. It also spares us the possible spectacle of interviewers testing the candidates knowledge of science; the Palin interview on ABC was like watching a stern high school teacher conduct an oral exam and the student repeat everything memorized during a recent cram session (that should not be necessary, nor is it terribly useful for anyone involved).

The NY Time`s DotEarth suggests we can at least cheer the responses to the question about climate change. Both McCain and Obama both support cuts in steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change.

I was struck by the difference between the opening sentences. The McCain line is particularly disappointing.


We know that greenhouse gas emissions, by retaining heat within the atmosphere, threaten disastrous changes in the climate.

What is striking here is the choice to open with threaten disastrous changes in the climate. Why not open with what the science states: that greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate, and the changes could become disastrous if left unchecked? The omission of the first clause is very curious. McCain`s opening line fails to recognize that the climate is currently changing, only that it might some day. That is a big difference.

Obsessive nitpicking? Possibly. However, we should keep in mind the words in these prepared statements are chosen very carefully.

For comparison, Obama:

There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively.

This statement is far more direct. Influencing is a bit more subtle than the preferred word changing but not unusual for statements about climate change (perhaps Obama is worried about the issue stealing the change mantle?)

The differences in wording are small, and appear unimportant. But they matter when it comes to federal and international climate policy. Look at the mess made by the Bush Administration`s continued use of aspirational goals rather than targets.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Hurricane Ike's impact on the US, Cuba and Haiti

Hurricane Ike is about to make landfall in Texas. Ike is so broad that it is affecting an area from Mexico all the way to Florida. Though only a category 2-3 storm, Ike may turn out to be one of the most destructive hurricanes in US history. Thankfully, a million or more residents of coastal Texas have left for higher ground.

The immediate concern from such a large storm is the surge, which may top 20 feet in Galveston, Texas. Heavy rainfall may also be a serious concern, and not only in coastal areas. The forecast rainfall in the central and midwestern US, far from the Gulf of Mexico, is also expected cause extensive flooding.

Amidst the U.S. media storm that is likely to follow the actual storm, we may forget about the victims of Ike in Haiti and Cuba [UPDATE: like, for example, worrying about gas prices]. In Haiti, a poor nation with little modern infrastructure and a deforested countryside prone to landslides, Ike and earlier storms have killed a thousand or more people, left hundreds of thousands more temporarily or permanently homeless and destroyed most of the nation's crops. Donations to aid the relief effort can go to the American Red Cross and the Canadian Red Cross, as well as a number of other organizations.

The impact of Ike on Cuba was not quite as severe. Regardless of what one might think about the Cuban government, there is no denying from current and past experience with hurricanes that the centralized system is reasonably effective at dealing with disasters. The difference between the impact of Ike in Haiti, Cuba and possibly the US is a reminder adaptive capacity is as, if not more, important than the physical magnitude of the storm or other "disturbance" event.


Biofuels losing luster?

After all the hubbub, could biofuels turn out to be an example of science leading to sound policy? Legislators in Europe are responding to the evidence questioning the efficiency of biofuels.

From the NY Times:

PARIS — European legislators said Thursday that government goals for using biofuels should be pared back, prompting the fledgling industry to fire back with a campaign warning that alternatives may be no cleaner.

European governments pledged last year to increase the use of biofuels to 10 percent of all transport fuel by 2020, amid expectations that energy derived from crops would provide a low-carbon alternative. On Thursday, the European Parliament’s influential Industry Committee endorsed the general 10 percent target — but added a number of modifications meant to move away from traditional biofuels made from grains or other crops toward other, renewable energy sources.

By 2015, it called for having 5 percent of transport fuels be from renewable sources, with at least a fifth of that amount from “new alternatives that do not compete with food production.” That could include sources like hydrogen or electricity from renewable sources, or biofuels made from waste, algae or non-food vegetation. The lawmakers stuck to the 10 percent target for 2020, but said at least 40 percent of that should be made up of such “second-generation” renewables. But that target would have to be reviewed in 2014.

The lawmakers were reacting to waning enthusiasm for biofuels. Over the last year, scientists and environmental advocates have warned that some biofuels may be more polluting than fossil fuels, and that the diversion of crops to fuel production may be a factor in rising food prices.


Regardless of the reason for climate change

From ABC News:

"Do you still believe that global warming is not man made?" Gibson asked Palin.

"I believe that man's activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming, climate change. Here in Alaska, the only arctic state in our Union, of course, we see the effects of climate change more so than any other area with ice pack melting. Regardless though of the reason for climate change, whether it's entirely, wholly caused by man's activities or is part of the cyclical nature of our planet -- the warming and the cooling trends -- regardless of that, John McCain and I agree that we gotta do something about it and we have to make sure that we're doing all we can to cut down on pollution."

Consider the last sentence. We need to take action against climate change regardless of whether it is caused by humans. That is a very bizarre statement. If the entire scientific community is wrong and climate change was not actually caused by humans, instead, say, by the sun as some skeptics argue, what would you do to stop it? Are we talking about geoengineering? Moving the Earth's orbit? This cannot be what Gov Palin or her advisors were intending to say.

"Certainly can be contributing" is hardly unequivocal support for science. At least the fact that this question was asked, and the tortured wording in the response, confirms that the media expects our leaders to grasp the importance of climate change.


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Climate change on the Late Show

Watch this. You might disagree with the specifics or the "we're dead meat" tone. Regardless, it is good to see televisions hosts like David Letterman talk about climate change and talk about it with what seems to be real passion.


Monday, September 08, 2008

Is international climate policy a failure?

A recent post on the Nature blog Climate Feedback comparing the GHG emission reduction targets under various international policies with the recent changes in those emissions. The point includes the figure (right), which shows that international GHG emissions are diverging away from the long-term targets. Naturally this is leading others out in the online echo-chamber to imply that international policy has not worked or will not work (e.g. Prometheus).

No doubt, the world has failed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But this particular glass is half-empty because it has a few cracks.

First, the targets set at the 1988 Toronto Conference and the inaugural 1992 UNFCCC meeting were preliminary goals. At the time, reporting frameworks and institutional mechanisms were not in place. It is debatable whether the targets, especially the Toronto Conference target, belong on the graph.

Second, the other targets applied to only a subset of nations. Only developed countries accepted reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. Now, of course, the increase in global emissions since 1990 (the open circles) is obviously the greatest concern to the climate. But if the goal of the figure is to illustrate the efficacy, or lack thereof, of international policy, it makes no sense to plot global emissions against emissions reduction targets for selected nations. Only the emissions reported by developed countries under the UNFCCC (the solid circles) should be compared to the Kyoto target, and the emissions of a subset of those countries should be compared to the EU target. A revised figure (right) gives a different impression.

Rather than use the emissions data to assert that setting reduction targets does not work, one might actually argue the exact opposite. The difference between dark and open circles suggests that emissions growth has occurred mostly only in countries did not set targets. In other words, it is possible, at least from the data, that the target setting made a difference.

There’s one more complication, too. As we all know, the United States, the largest emitter among the developed countries, failed to ratify the Kyoto agreement. Yet the U.S. emissions are included in the total for developed countries (the solid circles). Subtract out the U.S., where emissions have increased by ~16% since 1990, and the countries with targets would appear even closer to the Kyoto target.

This is a very simple analysis. I am not defending the Kyoto Protocol or any other international climate agreements. There are a myriad of problems with the pace of the international negotiations and with the progress on emissions reductions in Europe, in North America, in countries from the former Soviet Union and definitely in China, India and the rapidly industrializing countries. Regular readers know that this blog has been extremely critical of Canada’s lack of effort to meet the Kyoto target, of the U.S. failure to participate in emissions reductions, and of the achingly slow process of setting long-term emissions reduction targets based on scientific analysis of the dangerous impacts of climate change.

Nevertheless, it would simply be incorrect to conclude [from the mix of regional and global data on the original figure] that existing international policies have completely failed, or that a truly global policy, in an emissions target is set for the entire planet, will fail.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

Climate and the election (I)

The writ dropped this morning. The Canadian election is on for Oct 14th.

Over the next 38 days, I'll do my best to summarize the pros and cons of each party's climate and energy policies or lack thereof.

If you fear that the tone of this campaign season will descend to, or below, that of the neverending shouting match that is the US election, I offer this half-full glass.

We are, at least, finally fighting an election about how to address climate change and future energy needs. This should have happened many cycles ago.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Elections, elections oh my

For the second time in eight years, both Canada and the US are headed for elections at roughly the same time. Climate change should have been a central issue back in 2000: there was climate change expert Al Gore running against a largely unaware George Bush in the US, and Jean Chretien and the Kyoto-trumpeting Liberals angling for re-election in Canada. But it barely cracked the agenda.

This time around, climate change is much more front and central. But not in the way we, or the planet, needs.

Three examples:

1. On August 29th - four DAYS ago - the following question was posed to Sarah Palin, John McCain's running mate: "What is your take on global warming and how is it affecting our country?". The answer?

A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I'm not one though who would attribute it to being man-made.

Either McCain's team truly did fail to talk to Palin in depth before offering her the job, or her selection is about religious politics, and nothing else. The news organizations and blog are attacking Palin's qualifications for Vice-President, musing about foreign policy experience, governing experience, etc. In 2008, after four IPCC reports and countless summaries of the science by the National Academies of different nations have definitively concluded that human activity is changing the climate, and after leaders of countless nations have stated that climate change is one of, if not the, greatest threat of the 21st century, not "believing" climate change is manmade should alone be a disqualification. And in 2008, this belief, in general, also raise concerns about trusting and evaluating expert judgment, one of the most important jobs of a political leader.

[don't even get me started on teaching creationism in school]

2. Barack Obama is not innocent either. In his acceptance speech, Obama threw a bone to the coal industry by citin "clean coal" as a solution to oil and climate crises. Clean coal, a term promoted by the coal companies, refers to coal-burning plants which emit lower concentrations of air pollutants like sulfur. It has nothing whatsoever to do with greenhouse gas emissions. Experts or regular readers on climate and energy know this. Does the average voter?

3. The Canadian election promises to be equally petty. The Harper Government has attacked revenue-neutral Dion's Green Shift plan as a tax hike and grab. Revenue-neutral. That is not a tax hike. The Liberals, fearing these attacks, are already weakening the plan by providing subsidies for fishers, farmers and truckers. Changes like this are not unreasonable. But they show that the public discourse will be dominated by juvenile and distracting "tax grab"-like arguments rather than the very necessary discussion of how Canada can implement a price on carbon.

How do we change this? We've got only around six weeks in Canada, and only eight weeks in the US, to elevate the discussion.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Shouldn't the show jumping horses get to stand on the medal podium along with the riders?


In honour of the Olympics

A blast from Maribo's past:

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

Pierre Martin, who chairs the Olympic testing facility, said they 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 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, Marion Jones, 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?”


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Accidents in the Arctic

This summer has seen a record number of boats - cruise ships, commercial vessels, military ships, and boats full of scientists - in the Arctic. Aware that the downward trend in ice cover is prompting an increase in boat traffic, the Canadian military decided to rehearse for any possible accidents:

Beginning tomorrow , the army, navy and air force will begin Operation Nanook 08, the latest in a series of manoeuvres designed to boost Canada's Arctic sovereignty and increase the military's ability to respond to emergencies.

Operation Nanook will simulate an outbreak of disease on a cruise ship, a hostage-taking on a cruise ship, a fuel spill and a fire on a Russian cargo ship.

Are the exercises necessary? More than you might think. Apparently the opening of the Northwest Passage is already drawing yachtees tired of the Caribbean:

A total of 26 commercial cruises are planned in the Canadian Arctic this season, a historic high and an increase of four trips over last summer. As well, at least eight private vessels are thought to be sailing in and around the Northwest Passage.

Franklin would be jealous.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Over 400 dead zones around the world (Science)

The latest issue of Science features a new review of the world's marine dead zones. Scientists have now reported over 400 regions of the coastal ocean like the Gulf of Mexico dead zone where nutrient pollution fuels the depletion of oxygen from the bottom waters, threatening ecosystem function and marine species. Most of these "hypoxic" - less than 2 mL of oxygen per litre of water - and anoxic zones arose in the last few decades due to nitrogen fertilizer use and associated intensive agricultural activities, and to industrial pollution.

The map below shows the dead zone along with a measure of the human footprint on land. The dead zones have also been plotted on Google Maps.