Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2C or not 2C: Copenhagen and global temperature threshold (Part II)

In the previous post, we discussed the origin of the 2 deg C threshold for dangerous impacts of climate change.

An example is happening at Copenhagen. The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Caribbean nations are lobbying for establishing a warming limit of 1.5 C rather than 2C. The real-world value of setting a temperature threshold notwithstanding, the AOSIS position demonstrates that the acceptable limit of warming is a value judgment based on scientific results rather than an immutable law of nature.

Why 1.5 degrees C, rather than 2C? The argument is based on the effect that sea level rise (and storm surge height) and coral reef degradation from bleaching and acidification would have on the economy and society.


Monday, December 14, 2009

2C or not 2C: Copenhagen and global temperature threshold (Part 1)

Media coverage of climate change often gives the impression the world’s scientific community all met and firmly established that the warming beyond +2 degrees C is dangerous to the future of society.

The planet does not have one clear "dangerous" temperature threshold. Two things needs to be explained clearly. First, the definition of dangerous climate change or unacceptable climate change is a normative choice. That choice could be based on analyses of scientific results but it is not a direct outcome of the science. Second, even if society could agree on one definition of "dangerous", climate science could not possibly produce one exact temperature threshold (e.g. 2 deg C), rather a frequency distribution of possible values. Besides, if climate science could produce an exact number, it would be an amazing coincidence that the number turned out to be an integer.

The precise evolution of 2 degC towards its exalted status in the media is a bit of a mystery to me – I’m sure some of the readers have followed these developments in more detail, and their comments on the subject are welcome. It more or less began with efforts by scientists to define climate change impacts that could be construed as dangerous under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The common list of "dangerous" is the loss of major ice sheets, slowing of the thermohaline circulation, drops in food production, triggering a positive feedback like the release of methane from clathrates in ocean sediments, or loss of a major ecosystem like coral reefs.

Researchers tend to focus on physical and seemingly non-linear impacts like ice sheet melt rather than biological and gradual impacts like drops in food production or drops in biodiversity. True, there’s no ethical or scientific reason we should value sea level more than biodiversity or food production. In terms of policy, however, it is a more useful metric because we’re more likely to agree on whether losing the Greenland ice sheet is dangerous than what percent change in crop yields or biodiversity is dangerous. As well, future food production is fraught with technological, demographic and ethical uncertainties – although one could certainly argue the same is true for sea level.

Science can provide guidance for decision makers by projecting the impacts of different levels of warming, albeit with error bars. Beyond 2 deg C, paleo-climate results suggest possible long-term melting of the Greenland and /or West Antarctic Ice Sheets; studies have also pointed to the potential methane feedbacks and the degradation of the world’s coral reefs occurring at around 2 C.

But science alone cannot declare the "right" policy decision. Even such seemingly black-and-white definitions of dangerous like the loss of coral reefs or major ice sheets involve a normative judgment. Much of the world, for example, may decide that the productivity of coral reefs is acceptable collateral damage – it’s certainly possible that we’ve already inadvertently chosen that path. Although my colleagues and I who study the value of coral reefs to tropical cultures are likely to seriously disagree with such a decision to allow harmful impacts to reefs, we recognize (at least I do) that there is no immutable right or wrong policy decision that can emerge purely from our scientific results. Policy decisions need to consider real-world trade-offs that are often ignored by scientific analysis.

In sum, the oft-cited line that 2 degrees C is “what scientists conclude the world needs to avoid” is inaccurate. For one, the scientists disagree (Part II, coming soon). Moreover, though many of us may wish otherwise, the threshold can and should not emerge solely from science.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Turning down the volume (re-post)

This post from five months ago seems more apropos at this time:

While I was doing field work in Kiribati a few weeks ago, I started reading Voltaire’s Bastards, the 1992 polemic by Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul about the failure of reason in western society. You know, some light reading for the beach.

Saul steps back from the sniping between right and left to ask whether our deference to reason and structure has created an unthinking, technocratic society. It’s amazing this book was written before the internet transformed communications and before politics became a marketing exercise. This quote, speaking about how things of changed since the time of John Locke, could be talking about the inanity of the online debates between climate skeptics:

Facts at that time were such rare nuggets that no one realized how they would multiply. Everyone believed them to be solid and inanimate – to be true fact. No one yet understood that life would become an uncomfortable, endless walk down a seashore laid thick with facts of all sizes and shapes. Boulders, pebbles, shards, perfect ovals. No one had begun to imagine that these facts were without any order, impose or natural – that facts were as meaningful as raw vocabulary without grammar or sentences. A man could pick up any fact he wished and fling it into the sea and make it skip. A practiced, talented arm could make it skip three, perhaps four times, while a lesser limb might make a single plunk with the same concrete proof of some truth or other. Another man might build with these facts some sort of fortress on the shore.

As for Locke, he certainly did not think that facts would rapidly become the weapons, not only of good men but of evil mean, not only of truth but of lies.

Gavin Schmidt over at Real Climate has a terrific post about the repetitive spiral of blogging. In his case, the subject is debunking the climate skeptics. The basic conceit could apply to blogging as a whole. The popular politic blogs suffer from a more severe case of this affliction, rehashing the same issues over and over again, creating an urgency that often does not exist in reality.


Thanks to technology, anyone armed with either a few good sound-bites or an important sounding title can become an expert these days (link to IPCC “expert reviewer”). We end up with these shouting matches, on air and online, with both sides throwing out numbers and figures without any real context. The good lines, sound-bite or video clip enter the echo-chamber and get repeated, cited or linked over and over again. And voila, the steadily increasing ratio of commentary to original research and reporting.

This craziness is why we should appreciate institutions like the IPCC. With this all war of context-free facts, figures and soundbites being fought 24 hours a day, 365.25 days a year, sound summaries of the actual original research are more necessary than ever.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The path of climate science and the dissenting views

A scientific finding is not necessarily correct just because it appears in the peer-reviewed literature. There are a number of reasons. For one, not all journals are created equal. Some have less stringent review process. Some are more willing to accept papers from outside the editorial board's field of expertise or mandate. It's also important to remember that our scientific knowledge develops over time through trial and error via experiments done in the field, in the lab and on computers. Any one paper, no matter the author, no matter the journal, is not the law on a subject.

The trajectory of the publications and accumulated knowledge on a subject is going to be a better measure of scientific knowledge than the existence of one contrary publication, much like the multi-decadal temperature trends is a better indicator of what's happening to the climate than one year's weather.

A news story, I won't bother to link to the story, cited this list of "450 peer-reviewed papers supported skepticism of man-made global warming".

There are a few publications in well-respected scientific journals on the list. The large majority of those do not actually question the role of human activity in climate, rather point to complexity of climate change or the policy options(e.g. Zeebe et al. 2009 in Nature Geoscience). A large number are published editorials that do not actually contain any science. Many are from Energy and the Environment, a journal which advertises for papers skeptical of climate change, or Climate Research, where editors resigned because of a breakdown in the peer review process. And there are also papers from "Irrigation and Drainage", "Bulletin of Canadian Petroleum Geology", "Latvian Journal of Physics and Technical Sciences", "New Concepts in Plate Tectonics", "Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons", "Iron and Steel Technology" and "The Electricity Journal".

The list is being used to claim that there is widespread disagreement among scientists disagree about climate change. It is actually evidence for the exact opposite. Even if you included all 450 papers as relevant, critical analyses of the evidence for human influence on the climate, they would represent a minute fraction of the papers published on climate change in the past thirty years. In that way, it is evidence that the accumulated knowledge has led in another direction.

There's also a more common sense way to think about this list. If there really was so much disagreement about climate change in the scientific community, would the people who compiled this list needed to have included the articles from "Iron and Steel Technology" and "Topics in Catalysis"?


Monday, December 07, 2009

One reason the US climate bill will pass

Today the US EPA announced its intention to pursue regulations on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Don't overlook this development. The only thing that carbon-intensive industries and senators from carbon-intensive states hate more than the US climate bill would be the EPA regulating carbon dioxide.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Climategate positive feedback loop

I've avoided writing about "climategate" because of the artificial nature of the "scandal".

There is certainly a need to reduce tribalism in the scientific community (not just climate science!), improve peer review and improve the assessment process - I'll cheer those initiatives with enthusiasm.

That's not why the hackers released those emails were released online. The timing of the online publication of those e-mails were no fluke. The goal was to create a grand diversion from the important policy issues of the day. From the Times of London:

The computer was hacked repeatedly, the source close to the investigation said: “It was hacked into in October and possibly earlier. Then they gained access again in mid-November.” By not releasing the e-mails until two weeks before Copenhagen, the hacker ensured that the debate about them would rage during the summit. Very few of the e-mails are recent. One, in which Professor Jones mentions a “trick” which could “hide the decline” in temperatures, was sent in 1999.

Bob Ward, director of policy at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, based at the London School of Economics, said: “From the timing of the release of the e-mails, it seems that the intention was not just to inform the public but to undermine mainstream climate researchers and influence the process in Copenhagen.”

Many scientists are now offering eloquent public explanations for the problems with some scientific practice and the assessment process. Terrific, but only in the abstract.

The problem is the impression given by a public blood letting. Climate scientists, people who trained in the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere, realize that regardless of issues with how some scientists conduct and publicize their work, all the basic concepts are still solid. That's not true for everyone else. So by constantly questioning scientific practice in public forums, it gives people the mistaken impressions there is dissension about the basic concepts, no matter how many caveats are then offered about strength of our understanding of the basic concepts (caveats just make it look like you're dodging the truth!). Good intentions aside, it is fueling public misconceptions about science and feeding the 24-7 scandal machine.

Perhaps the hackers understand climate dynamics better than we assume; they sure knew how to initiate a positive feedback.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Huge disparity in emissions targets within Canada

If Canadians want an illustration of the disagreement on climate policy within the provinces, or foreigners want to know why Canada has become an obstacle to an international or even continental climate accord, look no further than this graph. Plotted is each the 2020 greenhouse gas emissions targets set in the individual climate policy of each promise, all translated to % change from 1990 levels. Kudos to the Globe and Mail for presenting the data this morning with the same base year.

Basically, the hydro-based and manufacturing-based provinces (the east and BC) are willing to be aggressive in reducing emissions and the more resource-intensive provinces are either reticent (Saskatchewan) or downright hostile (Alberta).

The objective of this post is not to dump on Alberta or the oil industry, rather to point out just how large the disagreement is within Canada. The huge disparity between the Alberta policy and that of all the other provinces does raise the question about what it is realistic for Canada. If, say, Alberta refuses to budge on its oil expansion and emissions plan, could neighbouring BC even come close to its reduction target? Keep in mind, a substantial quantity of the planned oil extraction may end up being piped across and refined in BC in order to be shipped to Asia.


Monday, November 30, 2009

China's emissions pledge depends entirely on economic growth

Last week, China announced that it will reduce carbon "intensity" by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by the year 2020. The emissions intensity (emissions/$GDP) approach taken by the Canada and the US in the past has been much maligned here as a dishonest dodge.

First, it looks like a reduction in actual emissions until you realize that the denominator (GDP) generally increases over time. Second, it tends to naturally decrease over time as countries switch to more efficient energy production [and overall economic production].

It is, however, a reasonably fair way to bring a reluctant developing nation like China into an international emissions control framework. The problem of course is that actual emissions target depends entirely on how much the Chinese economy grows by 2020. So 40-45% sounds impressive, but won't amount to an actual reduction in emissions.

The graph above shows a spectrum of possibilities. Unless the growth rate is less than ~4%/year - highly unlikely - Chinese carbon emissions will be higher in 2020 than 2005. If China keeps up the planned 8%/year growth, emissions in 2020 will be 74-90% higher than 2005 levels.

And, just like in the US and Canada cases, Chinese emissions intensity will naturally decrease over time without any policy intervention. It decreased 10% from 2000 to 2005, and well over 40% from 1990 to 2005.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Skeptics aren't necessarily in it for the money either

A number of us like to joke about the ridiculous contention that climate scientists are in it for the money. It is worth noting that the critics of climate science are not necessarily in it for the dough either.

There appears to be this mistaken assumption that the few scientists who are skeptical of climate change science are doing so because the coal or oil industry wrote them such a big cheque (Canuck sp.) that they chose to abandon their previous understanding of climate science. It's not that simple. In most cases, the scientists who are influential climate skeptics were so well before receiving money from the fossil fuel lobby. The funding came to them because they were already making the argument for other reasons, usually political ideology and/or a horribly shortsighted faith in simple models*.

A great example is Myanna Lahsen's 2008 article on the three physicists from the George Marshall Institute that more or less founded climate change skepticism (hat tip to Eli):

By contrast to common suggestions, these scientists’ motivation is not fundamentally rooted in desires for financial gain. Being past retirement age and no longer active scientists, their fight for basic science, for instance, does not benefit them individually. And it is hard to believe that, upon retirement, these physicists would jeopardize their cherished professional images for mere financial gain.

Climate change "activists" make a huge mistake assuming that their opposition are only in it for the cash. There is real ideology at work. As I've argued before and will again, it's worth thinking about what motivates people the "other side". That may be the only way we'll ever find workable solutions to this mess.

* e.g. like arguing that since CO2 "only" changed from 0.028% to 0.038% of the lower atmosphere, it couldn't possible alter the climate, and thus ignoring all of radiative science


US to pledge emissions cut in Copenhagen

It's a step. Not a great leap for mankind; there is no teeth behind a emissions promise without legislation and an action plan to back it up. But a step nonetheless.

Mr. Obama will tell the delegates to the climate conference that the United States intends to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions “in the range of” 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, officials said. The administration has resisted until now delivering a firm pledge on emissions reductions because Congress has not yet acted on global warming legislation and because several large developing nations, including China and India, have not detailed their own plans. (NY Times)

Lots of people will undoubtedly now take credit for Obama's promise to attend the meeting.

Mr. Obama... had been under considerable pressure from other world leaders and environmental advocates to make the trip as a statement of American seriousness about the climate change negotiations.

Right, must have been all that pressure from environmental advocates. And the band had not planned on doing that encore either.


Monday, November 23, 2009

The "CRU hack" and the deplorable state of reporting and blogging

This episode is a sad sad sad comment on the state of blogging and news reporting. Three reasons.

First, for legal reasons, I'd like to think that no news organization should be allowed to report on the content of that mail. This is the equivalent of someone breaking into your mailbox in front of your house, opening your mail, then publishing it. Seriously, how would you feel if the NY Times wrote about a private letter you mailed to a colleague or friend being stolen and tacked to lampposts all over town? Would you sue? Do you think it should be admissible in court? Is the lesson here that we can never consider e-mail or any communication to be private so we should go back to using the postal service?

Second, even if you ignore the legality, there's ample reason to consider the contents of the mail with caution. It is private communication so people for whom that communication were not intended are not qualified to interpret that communication. I barely am able to follow some messages that I receive without looking over past correspondence for context. So, no, I will not defend anything that the scientists wrote. Nor will I condemn any of it either. For one reason: I have no idea what exactly those words meant. Neither do you. Every single thing in those messages could be misinterpreted because we are missing the context.

Finally, even if you ignore the legality, and ignore the lack of context, this episode is full of the same "post first, ask questions later" approach that usually destroys whatever good the blogosphere might accomplish. The vast majority of the bloggers, reporters and comment-ers are reacting to snippets pulled out private conversations, and done so by people whose objective is to question climate science. Stop it.

This episode is not a window into how climate science works. It's a window into how electronic communication has altered our standards and the way we work. Nobody looks good here. We should all be embarrassed.

This is the last you'll hear of it on Maribo.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Public confusion about scientific consensus

The Globe and Mail reports that a new poll from Hoggan & Associates found Canadians are embarrassed over the lack of Canadian action on climate change. Now it is possible that readers will dismiss that finding because the pollsters are connected with a number of environmental organization (an observation, not a judgment), but I encourage people to think about the following:

There was also strong support for the view that “most scientists agree that human activity is the primary cause of climate change,” a position held by 62 per cent of the public, compared to the 38 per cent who felt there was “still much debate” among researchers.

The key "accomplishment" of the movement to question the science of climate change is seeding doubt among the public. There is widespread agreement that human activity is causing climate change among scientists who actually study the issue. But poll the public on whether scientists agree and you get a different answer.

The results at right, which I've used to spur discussion in class, are from work in the U.S. by Jon Krosnick at Stanford University, who has done some terrific research on public perceptions of climate change.

The irony is that many of the people being polled think climate change is happening and caused by humans, yet also think scientists are not sure. This clear contradiction - people learned of climate change from scientists, after all - shows just how effective the lobbying and disinformation campaigns have been.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Narnia plans to reduce emissions by 30% by the year 2020

As we head towards Copenhagen, there will be endless comparison of proposed emission targets.  For example, from the NY Times:

This week, South Korea said it would cut emissions by 30 percent from “business as usual” by 2020. Russia’s president said his country would try to reduce emissions by 25 percent by then, instead of 15 percent as announced earlier. Last week, Brazil promised reductions of about 40 percent below current projections by 2020.

Ah, fractions.

The Narnians and reporters everywhere need to do a bit of math. 30% of what? The simple climate policy public relations trick is to emphasize the percent reduction and de-emphasize the year from which that percent is being calculated. Narnia's 30% could be a reduction from emissions during the Kyoto base year of 1990. It could use the present as the base year. Or it could be a reduction from the business-as-usual projection for the year 2020.

This excerpt about S Korea, Russia and Brazil tells us very little about the actual emissions policy. Russia's emissions are lower than they were in 1990, before the collapse of the Soviet Union [and its greenhouse gas emissions], so it still uses the 1990 baseline. The 25% is not as much a change from today as it sounds. For South Korea and Brazilian, we'd need to know what  "current projections" and "business as usual" are to understand their targets. In both countries, the projections being used are higher than what the countries actually expect would happen.  So the proposed decrease, while laudable, is not as big as it sounds.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Visit a warmer Canada?

This is a joke, right?


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

US-China cooperation on climate and, er, coal

The US and China have released a joint statement on a number of issues, including "Climate Change, Energy and the Environment". After the standard political jargon about the need for full co-operation in global agreements, comes some specifics:

The two sides welcomed the launch of a U.S.-China Electric Vehicles Initiative designed to put millions of electric vehicles on the roads of both countries in the years ahead. Building on significant investments in electric vehicles in both the United States and China, the two governments announced a program of joint demonstration projects in more than a dozen cities, along with work to develop common technical standards to facilitate rapid scale-up of the industry.  The two sides agreed that their countries share a strong common interest in the rapid deployment of clean vehicles.

This is terrific climate change initiative if the source of electricity is substantially less carbon-intensive than oil. It is a tad worrisome coming from the two countries with the largest coal reserves on the planet. Which leads into the next item in the statement:

The two sides strongly welcomed work in both countries to promote 21st century coal technologies. They agreed to promote cooperation on large-scale carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) demonstration projects and to begin work immediately on the development, deployment, diffusion, and transfer of CCS technology.  The two sides welcomed recent agreements between Chinese and U.S. companies, universities, and research institutions to cooperate on CCS and more efficient coal technologies.

This is followed by a paragraph about partnership on renewable energy ("wind, solar, advanced bio-fuels, and a modern electric power grid"). The order is not a fluke. Read through the statement, and it is appears that both countries expect coal to remain king, and that emissions reductions will depend on the development and widespread implementation of CCS technology at coal-fired power plants. No surprise, I suppose.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

World Leaders Agree to Delay Climate Change Deal

This news comes from the APEC summit in Singapore. NY Times:

SINGAPORE — President Obama and other world leaders have decided to put off the difficult task of reaching climate change agreement at a global climate conference scheduled for next month, agreeing instead to make it the mission of the Copenhagen conference to reach a less specific “politically binding” agreement that would punt the most difficult issues into the future.

The announcement is a simple dose of reality: there simply was not enough time left to reach a deal at Copenhagen. It'll be universally reported as "bad" news for the climate. Maybe yes. The flip side is that perhaps now that the artificial December deadline is removed, the key countries can engage in intelligent policy conversations. The "Copenhagen" or bust mentality was not helping anyone.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Himalayan glaciers and the virtue of reading beyond the headline

My number one pet peeve with the blogosphere is that too many bloggers post on a new report or paper without actually looking at the new report or paper. Bloggers regularly bash mainstream media for lazy reporting then often go ahead and base entire posts solely on newspaper stories. Hypocrisy aside, it is a real shame. Blogs should be an opportunity to examine and debate science and policy issues in more depth than is available in the mainstream media

Case in point, the excitement in the blogosphere (see Roger Pielke Jr) over a new report from the Indian government claiming there is "no evidence" for climate change shrinking Himalayan glaciers. It's worth looking at the actual report.

First, the report is part of a series that "is meant to serve as a basis for informed debate and discussion on critical issues related to the environment." In other words, it is not a scientific assessment conducted by the Indian Government. The report even has a disclaimer that the views contained in the report "are not necessarily endorsed" by the government.

Second, the report is about glaciology. It contains no analysis that could determine, one way or another, if human-induced climate change is contributing to glacier decline. In order to detect a climate change signal, you'd need to combine the glaciology data with climate data and most likely models capable of simulating the evolution of the climate with and without human influence.

Third, despite all this, the report does in fact state that glaciers in the Himalayas have been retreating over the past century.

Glaciers in the Himalayas (India) have been exhibiting a continuous secular retreat since the earliest recording began around the middle of the nineteenth century. Kumdan glaciers, of the Upper Shyok valley, have been the only exception for their periodic fluctuations.

There are plenty of charts and graphs to support the fact that glaciers have been retreating. The author's quibble appears to be over the "alarmist" portrayals of glacier decline in other forums. The first line of the conclusion:

Data that has been generated from the glacier studies, in the Himalayas, over the last 100 years or so, indicates that the glaciers, in the Himalayas, have been, by and large, shrinking and retreating continuously, barring a flip here and there, but the rate of retreat can not be considered as alarming / abnormal, especially in the last decade or so.

The report presents no definition of "alarming / abnormal" (say, in terms of % change) nor does it present data or any analysis to test the notion that the retreat is or is not alarming / abnormal. All we're really left with is that glaciers are retreating and the retreat may or may not be caused by climate change.


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Science lesson on the Late Show

Al Gore's long interview with David Letterman last night could serve as an object lesson for scientists on how to relate a complex subject like climate change to a popular audience. Though it is a sad comment on the media that a late night comedian asks better questions about science and the planet than a network news anchor [and that a retired politician is the best spokesmen on those same issues].

Alas, the highlighted video on the Late Show website is not the section where Gore and Letterman discussed Copenhagen, or ocean acidification, or the plight of the world's coral. It is the final minute of the interview, in which Letterman asked about the "carbon billionaire" accusation in that dreadful New York Times train wreck I mentioned yesterday.

Controversy, even artificial and debunked controversy, wins over content, which is why the editors at the NY Times should be hanging their heads over the decision to publish that article.


New York Times drops the ball reporting on Gore

The New York Times printed this absolute train wreck about Al Gore. Apparently some commentators are claiming Gore is arguing for action on climate change in order to make himself rich. So the NY Times printed a pointless story about those claims. It is ridiculous on a number of levels.

Level one: This is news because some people say it is news.

Critics, mostly on the political right and among global warming skeptics, say Mr. Gore is poised to become the world’s first “carbon billionaire,” profiteering from government policies he supports that would direct billions of dollars to the business ventures he has invested in. Representative Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, asserted at a hearing this year that Mr. Gore stood to benefit personally from the energy and climate policies he was urging Congress to adopt.

The claimants are politically motivated. They are also quite likely to be wrong. The story even goes on to suggest that possibility. If they are wrong, and the argument is politically motivated, why give the story any attention at all? It simply provides a mouthpiece.

Level two: Complete lack of context

Mr. Gore is not a lobbyist, and he has never asked Congress or the administration for an earmark or policy decision that would directly benefit one of his investments. But he has been a tireless advocate for policies that would move the country away from the use of coal and oil, and he has begun a $300 million campaign to end the use of fossil fuels in electricity production in 10 years.

Interesting, you say. Unless, of course, you contrasted the single investment data point in this article (Gore) with data on other investors in the energy sector. The article does not make one mention of the fact that the CEOs and investors in the fossil fuel industry do actively lobby in Washington, do ask Congress for earmarks and policy, and do financially benefit from those activities.

Level three: Politics anyone?

But Marc Morano, a climate change skeptic who until recently was a top aide to Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said that what he saw as Mr. Gore’s alarmism and occasional exaggerations distorted the debate and also served his personal financial interests.

Shouldn't the second clause in that sentence make the editors think that Morano might not be worth quoting on this subject? This is a classic case of the knee-jerk reaction of quoting "the other side", even though the other side is not the least bit objective. In this case, it adds nothing, other than a chance to further polarize the readers.

Listen, I'm not defending Gore. I'm criticizing the Times for an abominable editorial decision.
It's perfectly legitimate to report on Gore's growing wealth from his investing activities. That's not this story. This is reporting on a made-up controversy. And even though the story debunks many of the claims about Gore being "in it for the gold" as MT would say, the harm is done by shining a light on it.

There's no reason to run articles like this. Just because someone makes a stupid claim does not mean you have to report about it.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The climate science filibuster

Over the past couple months, there have been another online kerfuffle about the famous "hockey stick" millennial temperature reconstruction. Namely, Steve McIntrye attempted to show that one the tree ring reconstructions may have been biased, such that selecting a different set of trees from a nearby site would imply no 20th century warming Tim Lambert had a fine summary of the dust-up. And James Hrynyshyn is one of a few who made the obvious but overlooked point that you don't need dendrochronology to tell us temperatures warmed in the 20th century - we have actual measurements.

Out of the dust came many complaints in the blogosphere about climate scientists not being responsive to online criticism like that of McIntrye. The implication is that scientists are obliged to respond quickly to any and all criticisms of my research as well as to any requests for data.

Now, it is quite unrealistic given the pressures on our time. But leaving that aside, is it even wise? Is responding to every online criticism and data request the best use of scientists' time? Think of it this way: wouldn't you rather that doctors spend their time actually developing treatments for autism, rather than refuting the crazy theory that MMR vaccinations cause autism?

There are only 24 hours in a day. It's a zero sum game. There may be some value in individual aspects of McIntrye's statistical criticisms of the hockey stick work over the year. A lot of it has been off the mark too. Either way, dealing with the constant hockey stick criticisms slows important research by paleo-climatologists work.

Add it all up and you have a filibuster. Keep talking and it will stop the rest of the participants from getting anything done.

That's why I sense peer review is even more important in the age of blogs. Research gets some vetting, the poor quality work is filtered out, and the community knows what to take seriously. The system may not be perfect, but I think even its greatest critics would agree that peer review works better than the US Senate.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Reactions to the International Day of Climate Action

I'd love to get people's reactions to the International Day of Climate Action. Whether you participated or not, take a minute to write a quick first reaction in the comments. A paragraph, a sentence, a word. Anonymity is fine.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Carbon consequences of the biofuels land use cascade

I've written here before about the land use cascade, the sequence of land transformations and land use changes that follow a change in one region.

A new Policy Forum in Science argues that ignoring the cascading carbon consequences of converting lands for biofuels will undercut global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The logic is not new. If croplands and pasture lands are converted to biofuel production, then some other forest or grassland must be cleared to produce the crops or providing the grazing area taken away by the biofuel production. It might happen in the neighbouring county. It might happen on another part of the planet. Either way, it will release soil carbon and plant carbon to the atmosphere (more immediately via burning or later via respiration and decomposition).

The authors argue that we need a new accounting system:

The accounting now used for assessing compliance with carbon limits in the Kyoto Protocol and in climate legislation contains a far-reaching but fixable flaw that will severely undermine greenhouse gas reduction goals (1). It does not count CO2 emitted from tailpipes and smokestacks when bioenergy is being used, but it also does not count changes in emissions from land use when biomass for energy is harvested or grown. This accounting erroneously treats all bioenergy as carbon neutral regardless of the source of the biomass, which may cause large differences in net emissions. For example, the clearing of long-established forests to burn wood or to grow energy crops is counted as a 100% reduction in energy emissions despite causing large releases of carbon.

If it is not fixed, this "accounting problem" has and will continue to cause poor national and international policy decisions.

The Kyoto Protocol caps the energy emissions of developed countries. But the protocol applies no limits to land use or any other emissions from developing countries, and special crediting rules for "forest management" allow developed countries to cancel out their own land-use emissions as well. Thus, maintaining the exemption for CO2 wrongly treats bioenergy from all biomass sources as carbon neutral, even if the source involves clearing forests for electricity in Europe or converting them to biodiesel crops in Asia.

This accounting error has carried over into the European Union's cap-and-trade law and the climate bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. Both regulate emissions from energy but not land use and then erroneously exempt CO2 emitted from bioenergy use.

How could it be fixed? The authors argue for a more full and fair accounting of emissions caused by biofuels or bioenergy.

The straightforward solution is to fix the accounting of bioenergy. That means tracing the actual flows of carbon and counting emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks whether from fossil energy or bioenergy. Instead of an assumption that all biomass offsets energy emissions, biomass should receive credit to the extent that its use results in additional carbon from enhanced plant growth or from the use of residues or biowastes. Under any crediting system, credits must reflect net changes in carbon stocks, emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, and leakage emissions resulting from changes in land-use activities to replace crops or timber diverted to bioenergy.

This full accounting is necessary but will be difficult to implement given the uncertainty in soil carbon budgets and the complexity of the land use cascade.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Letter from 18 US scientific organizations supporting the US climate bill

Released today (hat tip). It's signed by the leaders of American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union,American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Meteorological Society, American Society of Agronomy,American Society of Plant Biologists, American Statistical Association,Association of Ecosystem,Research Centers,Botanical Society of America, Crop Science Society ofAmerica, Ecological Society of America, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Organization of Biological Field Stations, Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Society of Systematic Biologists, Soil Science Society of America, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

I suppose Canadian scientific societies may want to consider a similar letter of support for the US bill, given that there's no Canadian legislation to support!

Dear Senator:

As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.

These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and on the environment. For the United States, climate change impacts include sea level rise for coastal states, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, urban heat waves, western wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems throughout the country. The severity of climate change impacts is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades.(1) If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced. In addition, adaptation will be necessary to address those impacts that are already unavoidable. Adaptation efforts include improved infrastructure design, more sustainable management of water and other natural resources, modified agricultural practices, and improved emergency responses to storms, floods, fires and heat waves. We in the scientific community offer our assistance to inform your deliberations as you seek to address the impacts of climate change.

1. The conclusions in this paragraph reflect the scientific consensus represented by, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and U.S. Global Change Research Program. Many scientific societies have endorsed these findings in their own statements, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, American Geophysical, American Meteorological Society, and American Statistical Association.


On Geoengineering

Ken Caldeira, at Yale E360, in response to a question about reducing CO2 via mitigation vs. reducing warming via engineering:

But I think if we had some magic thing that would reverse all effects of CO2 perfectly, then you could say, “Well the problem is not CO2.” But nobody really expects that we are going to have some magic, perfect CO2 nullifier. And it’s clear to me that if we continue allowing greenhouse gas concentration to grow in the atmosphere, and try to engineer our climate to counteract those effects, that as the greenhouse gases accumulate, and our counteracting system grows ever larger and larger, that the risk of some kind of catastrophic failure of this offsetting — or the imperfections in this offsetting — would grow in time and the net result would be pretty negative, I would imagine.

So, I do see CO2 as the problem. I think to present it as if, “Well, it not’s really CO2, but the effects of CO2,” it’s like if you got shot by a bullet and you said, “Well, it wasn’t really the bullet that was the problem, it was just that I happened to have this hole through my body...”

A good answer, and a good example of translating science into everyday English.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The message or the messenger

The online uproar over the new Superfreakonomics book is a welcome sign. The climate change section of the book is based on lousy and lazy research. Thanks to the thorough debunking in the blogosphere, the problems with the book are receiving public attention. The authors will certainly be asked about this during their promotional radio and television interviews in the next week.

All well and good. A case where science blogging serves an important function.

Unfortunately, as happens all too often in online debates, the argument quickly shifts from the message to the messenger. For a tale of the tape, take a quick glance at the recent posts by Roger Pielke and Joe Romm. This is not to specifically impugn them, the argument like many spills over into a number of blogs.

The anti-Romm posts now seem to be about how Joe Romm got a quote from Ken Caldeira, whose research on carbon dioxide is misrepresented in Superfreakonomics [encapsulated in the mis-quote "carbon dioxide is the wrong villain"]. Important? Yes. But is it also Beside the point? Definitely.

Caldeira's written important papers on ocean acidification, a problem that would not be addressed through geo-engineering by sulphate aerosols. Pay any attention to the literature and it's abundantly obvious that the "wrong villain" quote goes against the results of his group's research. When I first learned of that Caldeira was a major reference for the chapter in Superfreakonomics, my only thought was "what?".

Is anyone else concerned that worthy online discussions on science are descending into this schoolyard stuff? Are science blogs turning into Cable TV? You don't have an argument, you attack the person.

To some degree, it is the nature of the medium. Bloggers tend to insert themselves into discussions out of some mix of genuine interest, outrage and the push for more hits. Plus, it's easy to get self-righteous and bash someone when all you see is a name in 12 pt font on a laptop screen.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Superfreakonomics and the glory of contrarianism

The Union of Concerned Scientists, Joe Romm at Climate Progress, William Connolley and Tim Lambert have done a fine job rebutting the cynical and lazy "global cooling" section of the upcoming book Superfreakonomics*.

Of the criticisms that climate scientists receive from those skeptical of climate change, the most ridiculous by far is that we are in it for the money. Just ask Michael Tobis, who mocks this claim with the very name of his blog.

My first public talk on climate change was about ten years ago. I was the token graduate student panel with a local religious leader and a very well-known emeritus professor whom I have always held in high regard. A question came from the audience about scientific certainty. The professor said "Scientists are essentially paid to disagree. That's what makes the consensus on climate change so remarkable".

You won't advance far in science by repeating other people's work. If you want to get a grant funded, your proposal needs to pose a new question or challenge existing findings [note: people sometimes claim climate "skeptical" research cannot obtain funding; that's not because there's some cabal, it is because research must have a sound scientific basis and methods in order to get funded]. If you want to get a paper in a top journal like Nature or Science, your results have to be new, different, and important. And if you want to get popular coverage or your results, you need a splashy headline.

Levitt and Dubner made a splash with the first book Freakonomics, by expounding a variety of alternate explanations for societal phenomena. You could say the sales and the recognition was deserved too. It was new, it was smart, and it was based on thorough research. This book, at least the section challenging the science of climate change and the logic of mitigation, is not. The arguments are old, they have been used and refuted countless times before, and the research was clearly lazy (read Romm on this).

This time, the authors are simply getting paid for disagreeing with others.

* feel free to link to more rebuttals in the comments


Friday, October 16, 2009

Can the world meet the high cost of adaptation?

A few weeks ago, I posted what are more or less the three themes of Maribo. The third theme:

Adapting to climate change is far more difficult and far more expensive than most people and most supposed experts assume. This comes from spending too much time and effort estimating the costs of mitigation here in the developed world, and too little looking the efficacy of local development and especially international development projects.

The only thing more challenging than agreeing on emissions policy and acceptable limits of warming will be agreeing on how and how much to fund adaptation. The financial support for adaptation in the developing world may be as big an obstacle block to a deal in Copenhagen as the emissions targets. From the NY Times:

Many developing countries have made it clear that they will not sign a treaty unless they get money to help them adapt to a warmer planet. Acknowledging that a new treaty needs unanimity for success, industrialized nations like the United States and those in Europe have agreed in principle to make such payments; they have already been written into the agreed-upon structure of the treaty, to be signed in Copenhagen in December.

We're not terrible good at funding or implementing adaptation in the developed world, beyond measures that protect society from near-term threats. And thus far we've been reluctant to fund adaptation in the developing world, where the impacts of climate change are expected to be greater and the ecological and societal resilience is generally lower. Again from the NY Times:

Perhaps even more troublesome, the United Nations Adaptation Fund, which officially began operating in 2008 to help poor countries finance projects to blunt the effects of global warming, remains an empty shell, largely because rich nations have failed to come through with the donations they promised. The fund now holds about $18 million, a tiny fraction of what it was supposed to have, according to fund officials.

Funding, of course, is only one first step. Using the money wisely, and avoiding the top-down style that often limits the effectiveness of international aid, is another story entirely. More on that in the coming months.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Living in "the age of stupid"

The climate change film The Age of Stupid has being doing the film fest rounds, including a recent premiere here at the Vancouver International Film Festival. This pseudo-documentary tells the story of "a man living alone in the devastated world of 2055, looking at old footage from 2008 and asking: why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?". In other words, you and I are living in the age of stupid because we are not heeding the warnings from scientists about climate change.

After watching the film, I'd add this: We are the age of stupid because we are not heeding the warnings from psychologists and social scientists about communicating climate change.

The film presents a truly catastrophic vision of the impacts of climate change by 2055, supposedly based on mainstream scientific projections. It made me wonder if I'm subscribing to the wrong journals. In the film, the world is devastated by battles, Sydney's burning, London is flooded by what appear to be meters of water and the Arctic is a wave pool. The planet is in such peril that all of humanity's great works, the contents of all national museums and galleries, are stored in one Arctic facility for safe keeping. This vision of the future, where humanity is threatened by extinction from climate change, does not come from science.

The goals of the film and the associated promotional campaign are to raise awareness about climate change and motivate action. The catastrophe framing might, in political speak, stir up "the base"; motivate people already lobbying for climate change action. It will probably alienate the rest of the audience. When presenting with an argument entirely based on fear of catastrophe, most of the audience will either conclude that climate change is impossible to solve or dismiss the film and the science on which it is based (cognitive dissonance anyone?). The film is particularly vulnerable on the second count, as its vision of the future diverges quite wildly from actual scientific projections.

There's no need to exaggerate the impacts of climate change. In this case, it really is a shame. The interviews with six real present-day people, including a British wind turbine developer, an Indian airline owner, an New Orleanian petroleum geologist, which make up the bulk of the film are fascinating.


Monday, October 05, 2009

More on the coral reef crisis

A new viewpoint article by Charlie Veron and a number of top coral reef scientists summarizing the near-term threats of rising CO2 on the world's coral reefs appears in the latest issue of Marine Pollution Bulletin. The take-home message of the article is right there in the title: "Coral reef crisis: The critical importance of <350 ppm CO2"

The article is the outcome of a meeting held by the British Royal Society in July, where Veron delivered the presentation I mentioned in a recent post. It is an interesting read. The language, and the actual pdf of the article, should be accessible to most readers.

The abstract:

Temperature-induced mass coral bleaching causing mortality on a wide geographic scale started when atmospheric CO2 levels exceeded ~320 ppm. When CO2 levels reached ~340 ppm, sporadic but highly destructive mass bleaching occurred in most reefs world-wide, often associated with El Niño events. Recovery was dependent on the vulnerability of individual reef areas and on the reef’s previous history and resilience. At today’s level of ~387 ppm, allowing a lag-time of 10 years for sea temperatures to respond, most reefs world-wide are committed to an irreversible decline. Mass bleaching will in future become annual, departing from the 4 to 7 years return-time of El Niño events. Bleaching will be exacerbated by the effects of degraded water-quality and increased severe weather events. In addition, the progressive onset of ocean acidification will cause reduction of coral growth and retardation of the growth of high magnesium calcite-secreting coralline algae. If CO2 levels are allowed to reach 450 ppm (due to occur by 2030–2040 at the current rates), reefs will be in rapid and terminal decline world-wide from multiple synergies arising from mass bleaching, ocean acidification, and other environmental impacts. Damage to shallow reef communities will become extensive with consequent reduction of biodiversity followed by extinctions. Reefs will cease to be large-scale nursery grounds for fish and will cease to have most of their current value to humanity. There will be knock-on effects to ecosystems associated with reefs, and to other pelagic and benthic ecosystems. Should CO2 levels reach 600 ppm reefs will be eroding geological structures with populations of surviving biota restricted to refuges. Domino effects will follow, affecting many other marine ecosystems. This is likely to have been the path of great mass extinctions of the past, adding to the case that anthropogenic CO2 emissions could trigger the Earth’s sixth mass extinction.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Let's try understanding, not denigrating, those who cite religion as a reason to doubt climate change

In a recent post on Climate Progress, the prolific Joe Romm highlighted a video of famed climate change skeptic and US Senator James Inhofe explaining that "God's still up there".

Thank God the Senator from Oklahoma is here to promise us that that the Almighty will override at a planetary level the laws of physics He created and simply stop human-emissions of heat-trapping gases from ravaging his Creation. Now if we can only get Inhofe to tell God to stop all cancers and traffic accidents, too.

The post goes on to say that "this fundamentalist, anti-scientific tripe, far from disqualifying Inhofe, puts him in very good company with other leading conservative politicians". This includes a representative (John Shimkus, R-IL) who challenges the possibility of sea level rise because of God's covenant with Noah, that the Earth will not flood again.

Like Romm, I'm obviously no fan of Senator Inhofe's attacks on climate science not his efforts to obstruct climate policy. For all we know, Inhofe's comments are a calculated ploy to bring in religious viewers. Regardless, Romm's religious line of attack, all too common in scientific and activist discourse, is self-defeating and unproductive. It is also a lost opportunity to discuss the role religion plays in the average person's understanding of climate change.

First, from a purely practical perspective, denigrating Conservative climate skeptics as religious wingnuts is certain to alienate many other religious Christians who may actually be more open to accepting the scientific evidence for the effect of human activity on the climate. Matt Nisbet has argued this point, with respect to climate and other issues, many times on his blog Framing Science.

Second, the comments of Inhofe and the other Christian conservatives quoted in the post provide a window for us scientists and communicator into why so many people in the US and other parts of the world often have difficulty accepting, at a gut level, that human activity is changing the climate. As I've argued in Climatic Change and on the web, the notion that humans can change the climate goes against thousands of years of belief that the weather and climate is controlled by the gods, or the Judeo-Christian God. However much one might dislike and distrust Inhofe, his comments provide an opportunity for education and discussion of the public perception of climate change, an opportunity that is lost when the fangs come out.

To use just one example, Rep Shimkus' assertion that sea level rise won't happen because God promised Noah never to flood the Earth again is not some fringe claim by one crazy, fundamentalist congressman. Ask an elder in almost any Pacific Island nation about sea level rise and you'll get the same answer. And why not? The Bible and the flood narrative are a core part of their belief system - as it is for millions of people in North America. You're unlikely to alter your audience's belief in God's covenant not to flood the earth again with a 45 minute lecture or a 400 word blog post that is dismissive of the audience's belief system.

Community leaders in the Pacific figured this out and took action. The churches gathered together to develop literature and sermons that reconcile their people's strong religious beliefs with the seemingly heretical notion that the climate is changing and the seas are rising because of human activity. Their ideas are crystallized in the 2004 Otin-taii declaration, named after the Kiribati hotel where it was signed. The approach has been effective.

If you really want to effect change, you need to understand how different people, who have had different experiences, interpret the world. You need to work together to find common ground, as the churches have done in the Pacific. Attacking is easier than understanding. It also does more harm than good.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Ketsana and crying wolf about climate change

Ketsana is a deadly reminder that a tropical storm does not need to be powerful, by the conventional measure of wind speed, to do immense damage. Unfortunately for the people of the Philippines, another tropical storm may be on its way.

The image at right (thanks to Jeff Masters) shows the rainfall rate from NASA's TRMM satellite just before Ketsana passed Manila. Note the area in white is off the scale of the chart. The storm dumped one third of a meter of rain on Manila in less than six hours, flooding out much of the city, killing at least 140 people, and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

The combination of intense rainfall and a dense population living on deforested slopes has led to a tragedy reminiscent of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Although Mitch was a far more powerful storm, it was the flooding not wind damage that led to thousands of deaths in Honduras.

The climate policy talks in "nearby" Thailand have led to a number of sloppy media reports and climate activist statements about the role of climate change in Ketsana. For once, I actually agree with Roger Pielke Jr, that people need to stop crying wolf about climate change and extreme events. Asking about climate change after a prolonged summer heat wave that could have come right out of a doubled CO2 regional climate model simulation is reasonable. The effort to draw a link between climate change and tropical storms during a rather middling storm year (in terms of power) is scientifically questionable. When the storm in question has had such a terrible human tool, it is also a bit tasteless.

For those wanting to help in the recovery, donations are being accepted through the Philippine Red Cross.


Important viewing on corals

It is worth taking the time to watch Charlie Veron's talk "Is the Great Barrier Reef on Death Row?", presented at the British Royal society earlier in the summer. A version of this talk inspired Chris Turner's terrific article in this month's issue of the Walrus.

Veron literally wrote the book about corals. His three volume tome Corals of the World has a prominent place on the shelf of every coral reef scientist. In 2008, he published a paper in the journal Coral Reefswhich posited that CO2-related changes in ocean chemistry, like what is happening today, may have contributed the five mass marine extinctions in the geological record. It was awarded the best paper of the year by the International Society of Reef Sciences.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dust storm in Australia

Southeastern Australia is recovering from the worst dust storm in decades, that damaged farmland and practically closing down Sydney and the surrounding area.

The satellite image, from NASA's terrific Earth Observatory web-site, shows the brown dust cloud stretching from Queensland far south into New South Wales, before it moved off the coast.

The storm was made possible by a dry and record hot August, conditions that may continue thanks to the development of El Nino conditions in the Pacific. The western Pacific, including Australia, Papua New Guinea, and some western Pacific island countries, typically experience dry weather during El Nino event due to longitudinal shift in the major pressure systems. For example, during the 1997/98 El Nino, there were extensions fires in PNG, droughts in Australia, and major food shortages and lost agricultural productivity in Fiji.


Framing climate policy

Here are the headlines to stories about the Chinese president's speech at this week's UN meeting, from the three largest Canadian newspapers:

China diminishes hope for global climate deal (Globe and Mail)

China steps up as climate change leader (Toronto Star)

China, U.S. urge action on climate change (National Post)

Perhaps effective leadership on climate change policy is in the eye of the beholder.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An argument for climate policy

Today's NY Times describes the new carbon capture and storage system developed for the Mountaineer coal-burning power plant in West Virginia. This important nugget is in the middle of the story:

American Electric Power’s plan is to inject about 100,000 tons annually for two to five years, about 1.5 percent of Mountaineer’s yearly emissions of carbon dioxide. Should Congress pass a law controlling carbon dioxide emissions and the new technology proves economically feasible, the company says, it could then move to capture as much as 90 percent of the gas.

The challenge in agreeing on emissions policy, in the US, in Canada, and worldwide, is often used as an argument for an alternative "technology-based approach". In reality, it is a false dichotomy. Technology in the absence of emissions policy is unlikely to work.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Important listening and reading on the oceans

A week ago, CBC's Quirks and Quarks did a full one-hour episode on the state of the world's oceans. The show is a one-stop shop for learning about dead zones, ocean acidification, coral bleaching (my bit), overfishing and the Pacific Garbage Patch.

The October issue of Canadian literary magazine the Walrus also has a long meditation by Chris Turner on the "anthropocene", ocean acidification and the fate of the Great Barrier Reef, based in part on the thoughts of the dean of corals Charlie Veron.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

The slippery slope to slime

Overfishing and increasing ocean dead zones are thought to be leading us on a oceans dominated by fleshy algae and jellyfish, a trend coined the "slippery slope to slime" by Jeremy Jackson. This photo is from Fast Company:

fishermen in the Sea of Japan are tormented by invasive swarms of Echizen Kurage (Nomura's jellyfish), a giant jellyfish that weighs up to 450 pounds and measures two meters wide... The students capture Nomura's jellyfish in fixed fishing nets from a lake in Fukui prefecture, an area plagued by the swarms.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Catching a breath

Maribo's going to be quiet for about ten to twelve days. After the short hiatus, we'll be back with some more on climate change adaptation, the Canadian policy conundrum and some interesting new research papers.


The problem with an intensity-based target for the oil sands

Earlier this week, the Toronto Star reported that the Harper government is planning to release a carbon trading system which will use intensity-based targets for the oil and gas sector. Yesterday, we took a trip down memory lane, looking at op-ed about climate policy from 2004. Let's look at one from 2006, where I warned that the Harper government will try to use the trick of intensity-based targets.

At first glance, the intensity concept is logical and appealing. It appears to address both economic growth and the climate by making the economy more greenhouse gas “efficient” over time. 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.

The math in my 2006 article was based on the Bush administration plan to reduce greenhouse gas intensity by 18% by 2012. My conclusion?

Canadians should be wary of any similar Conservative policy that uses words like greenhouse gas intensity and claims to address both economy and the climate. When the announcement is made, have a calculator handy.
A real emissions policy is one that addresses emissions. Canada may have failed to date in the implementation of Kyoto. But it is not too late to try.

There is still over five years to reduce emissions at home, to negotiate investments in emissions reductions in other countries and to purchase emissions credits from overseas. The other Kyoto signatories and the rest of the world will respect a concerted effort that comes up short more than a plan that can be debunked in two minutes with a $10 calculator.

The irony is had the Alliance-Conservatives not strongly opposed controls on greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade, the current Conservative government may not be in what they term an impossible position. That is the lesson of climate change: we all need to think ahead.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Canada: Five years, three elections, and still no climate policy

With the distinct possibility of yet another Canadian election this fall and news the Conservative government, after several years in power, is just now working on a climate policy, and a policy that would "favour" the oil sands (more on this tomorrow), it's interesting a look at a column I wrote five years and three elections ago. Or was it four elections? I'm losing count.

The following is the opening of my June 2, 2004 op-ed in the Globe and Mail:

The real issues at election time are often the ones our political leaders work hardest to hide. There is no greater skeleton in the electoral closet than climate change and the Kyoto Protocol.

The Martin government seems to wish climate change would just go away. Facing a disgruntled electorate, the government fears even mentioning climate change could turn some voters toward the anti-Kyoto Conservatives. At the same time, the Conservatives also wish to avoid the issue for fear of alienating any pro-environment Liberals angry with the Martin government. As a result, only the NDP and the Green Party have dared utter the word "Kyoto."

The disappearance of prominent environmental issues at election time is hardly a new phenomenon. In the battle for votes, everyone longs to appear green, but will not advocate any policy that might be perceived, correctly or not, as damaging to the voter's wallet.

This election in particular has fallen prey to the opportunistic notion that scoring a favourable headline in the morning paper on the issue of the day is more important than presenting an integrated vision for the country. The result is fragmented political platforms in which environmental issues are the big losers.

The high price of gasoline provides a perfect opportunity to promote the need for higher automotive fuel efficiency, more funding for public transit, and reduced smog in our cities. These are issues of interest to all Canadians; dealing with them would help reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, the debate focuses entirely on which party can deliver lower gas prices.

The problem for the Liberals and the Conservatives is that climate change is one environmental issue that will not go away.

Still true after all these years? This was the conclusion:

Canada is responsible for a small fraction of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and cannot stop climate change alone. But a serious Canadian effort to meet the Kyoto commitment and promote future climate policy could provide much-needed international leadership and restore this country's green reputation - which has been sullied by the passivity of the previous decade.

Will Canada become a leader in preventing dangerous climate change, in promoting new energy technologies, higher fuel efficiency, improved urban infrastructure and sustainable international development? Those are the issues that should inspire an election.


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Communicating climate change in an unscientific world

Greenfyre's has a new post reminding people to take reports of public skepticism about climate change into context, like public literacy on other scientific issues. This is one theme of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's new book "Unscientific America".

Those of us communicating about climate change with the public tend to forget that the very notion that humans can change the climate is a major paradigm shift. For thousands of years, we believed that climate (or weather, in general, the sky) was something controlled by gods. So to believe that human activity is changing the climate requires a real paradigm shift. This was the subject of an essay of mine in Climatic Change a couple years ago.

One hundred and fifty years after Darwin published the Origin of the Species, many people are still struggling to accept the theory of evolution. The figure above, taken from a recent presentation of mine, shows the fraction of Americans who believe in Darwin's theory is only slightly greater than the fraction that believes in ghosts. The point of showing this in a presentation is not that North Americans are scientifically illiterate - though that may be in fact be the case - but that changing fundamental beliefs can take time. From Climatic Change:

From Galileo to Darwin, science is full of examples where new discoveries challenged traditional beliefs. If history is a guide, it can take decades or centuries for the new science to become the new orthodoxy. The battle over public acceptance of natural selection is still being fought 150 years after the publication of the Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The potential for human-induced climate change may not belong on a list of the most fundamental scientific discoveries of last 500 years. Like those discoveries, however, it does challenge a belief held by virtually all religions and cultures worldwide for thousands of years. This long view of history needs to be reflected in campaigns to educate the public, who do not have the benefit of years of graduate training in atmospheric science, about the science of climate change.

The mistake that's often made in climate change communication is assuming that the science should just intuitively make sense to people. What can help is to acknowledge, really address it, not spend thirty seconds, right off the bat in every presentation, that what we are saying may be hard to "believe" in part because if challenges traditional ways of thinking. That's why we use science to carefully examine whether humans are changing the climate, and the results are conclusive [ed's note: original post mistakenly had "inconclusive"!]


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Should I fly or should I type?

From the Economist, with irony:

AVIATION has long been blamed for its share of anthropogenic global warming. Indeed, some travellers now ask themselves whether their flight is strictly necessary and, if they decide it is, salve their consciences by paying for the planting of trees. These, so they hope, will absorb the equivalent of their sinful emissions. But you, dear reader, are indulging right now in activity that is equally as polluting as air travel: using a computer.

According to a report published by the Climate Group, a think-tank based in London, computers, printers, mobile phones and the widgets that accompany them account for the emission of 830m tonnes of carbon dioxide around the world in 2007. That is about 2% of the estimated total of emissions from human activity. And that is the same as the aviation industry’s contribution. According to the report, about a quarter of the emissions in question are generated by the manufacture of computers and so forth. The rest come from their use.


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Does Canada have a Minister of the Environment?

Is Jim Prentice the Environment Minister? Or still the Industry Minister?

This is from the National Post commentary on Petro-China's $2 billion investment in the oil sands:

Environment Minister Jim Prentice is no fan of a single-buyer market for exported bitumen, which actually sells at a discount in the U. S. compared with Middle East oil despite coming from a friendly neighbour. He'd like competition injected into the system.

"Doesn't it help Canada's exporters to have alternative market choices?" he noted in a recent interview.

"We need transportation mechanisms to ship it to the West Coast. Refineries in the U. S. have limited capacity and we don't have anywhere else to sell it. Having the capacity to ship it to the West Coast would keep everybody honest, so I think it's good policy."

Mr. Prentice, you are the Minister of the Environment. In case you need a reminder, this is the mandate of Environment Canada:

to preserve and enhance the quality of the natural environment; conserve Canada's renewable resources; conserve and protect Canada's water resources; forecast weather and environmental change; enforce rules relating to boundary waters; and coordinate environmental policies and programs for the federal government.

Could you at least pretend to be interested in the environmental implications of expanding extraction in the oil sands and/or building a pipeline to the Pacific?


Monday, August 31, 2009

More on climate change adaptation

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed a few days back, Bjorn Lomborg offered a list of ways that technology can fight global warming. Lomborg, the fingernail scratching across the climate scientist's blackboard, has rightfully upset a number of experts by once again playing loose with the facts and language. Bill Chamedies from Duke does a fine job pointing out Lomborg's most egregious errors and deceptive sleights of hand.

There's one seemingly innocuous passage in the op-ed that touches on the very concern I expressed in the previous post on adaptation:

A group of climate economists at the University of Venice led by Carlo Carraro looked closely at how people will adapt to climate change. Their research for the Copenhagen Consensus Center showed that farmers in areas with less water for agriculture could use more drip irrigation, for example, while those with more water will grow more crops.

We could also build levees in New Orleans strong enough and high enough to withstand a category five storm. That doesn't mean it will happen. The challenge of climate change adaptation is not identifying what is technically possible. It is overcoming the cultural, organizational, political and economic hurdles to implement that which is technically possible.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Climate change adaptation and the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.

The fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in the Gulf Coast passed this weekend with news about the state of the New Orleans economy, the ongoing recovery effort, and a presidental radio address. The common thread in all of the analysis is the magnitude of the challenge in coordinating and implementing better "hurricane preparedness" plan for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

The potentially catastrophic impact of a category three or stronger hurricane on New Orleans was no secret before Katrina hit. The knowledge that the levees and storm protection systems were inadequate to withstand a large storm surge did not spur investment to improve the infrastructure, restore the coastal wetlands and/or a prepare a better emergency management plan. Four years hence, despite the very real evidence of Katrina, the US government is still struggling to ensure New Orleans is protected from another category three or stronger hurricane.

This is the challenge of adapting to climate change. This is why I argue that "adapting to climate change is far more difficult and far more expensive than most people and most supposed experts assume."

There are really two separate questions to ask. First, are we capable of adapting to climate change? Second, will we actually implement the adaptation activities?

Forget for a moment the scientific uncertainty about how climate change will affect hurricane frequency and strength. Instead, think simply about today. Think about adapting our society and our infrastructure to deal with hurricanes, or another climate event, that happen under the background natural variability in the climate system.

Are we as a society investing the time and the money to construct the social and physical infrastructure required to minimize the impact of hurricanes (or other extreme events)? Moreover, are we investing even more time and money to construct the social and physical infrastructure in developing nations that are currently far more vulnerable to extreme events?
Finally, are these efforts successful?

Look at how difficult it is for the wealthiest country in the world to develop the necessary protection in one of its own cities. Even if the will is there, and the money is there, it may not happen. President Obama's address dealt with the challenge of coordinating such a large effort:

To complete a complex recovery that addresses nearly every sector of society, we have prioritized coordination among different federal agencies, and with state and local governments. No more turf wars – all of us need to move forward together, because there is much more work to be done. I have also made it clear that we will not tolerate red tape that stands in the way of progress, or the waste that can drive up the bill. Government must be a partner – not an opponent – in getting things done.

This is, again, in a wealthy nation four years after a storm that any meteorologist or atmospheric science student could have told you would happen one day. Now imagine doing this not just at home, but also for other less-developed countries through complex international aid, with imperfect knowledge of the future climate. Adapting to climate change will not be simple. Even with the ability and the resources, it might not happen.

That is the message of point #3 in the three themes of Maribo post.


The path of Tropical Storm Danny

I'll have more on what we should be saying about climate change shortly (there are couple interesting responses at the Energy Collective cross-post) .

The model projections at right show that fourth named tropical storm of the Atlantic season is expected to take a path quite similar to that of Bill, interesting given how El Nino events are thought to effect hurricane tracks in the Atlantic. On the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina striking the Gulf Coast, tropical storm Danny will likely be reaching New England and the Maritime provinces of Canada.


Monday, August 24, 2009

What we should be saying about climate change

Some end of summer thoughts. Consider these the three new themes of Maribo:

1. Climate change is not an "environmental" problem. The non-linear, multi-factorial and time-varying dynamics of the climate system make the problem of climate change radically different from most classic "environmental" problems. As such, we can learn more about how to address climate change from studying other grand societal challenges, like poverty or racism, than other environmental problems.

2. In general, we have a very poor understanding the effect of climate variability, climate events or "shocks", and climate change on our lives. In the western world, this comes in part from being largely isolated from the everyday reality of weather and climate. It is also comes from wrongly placing different types of climate change impacts (precipitation, sea level rise) and climate change impacts of different regions (droughts in the prairies, droughts in sub-saharan Africa) into separate mental boxes. In an interconnected, globalized world, the rain doesn't have to stop falling in your neighbourhood for you to be affected.

3. Adapting to climate change is far more difficult and far more expensive than most people and most supposed experts assume. This comes from spending too much time and effort estimating the costs of mitigation here in the developed world, and too little looking the efficacy of local development and especially international development projects. More on this later.

I plan to return to these three themes, especially #3, again and again.