Thursday, March 31, 2011

Adaptation, Fairness and Finance at Climate Dialogue

Here's a teaser:

We face an extremely difficult, complex challenge in responding adequately to mitigate and adapt to climate change. One particularly thorny aspect of this challenge is how best the West can fulfil their ethical obligation to help developing countries build capacity and fund the level of response required to successfully adapt to climate change.

Head to Climate Dialogue to read the rest!


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Food prices and the ongoing biofuel debate

People worldwide are being affected by a rise in the price of food. The causes are complex and interacting: last summer's drought in Russia, the price of oil, speculative trading in commodities, economic instability, political unrest on the Middle East, you name it. As Tamino mentions, some people sceptical of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions blame the increase in food prices on those efforts, namely the cultivation of biofuels like corn ethanol. Though I think Tamino's post misses the point of this debate.

The impact of corn ethanol, or an individual drought, or any other individual factor, on the price of a global commodity is very hard to quantify. The diversion of the U.S. corn crop to ethanol production over the past decade has undoubtedly affected food prices, despite U.S. government claims to the contrary. The various factors have interacting, nonlinear effects on the price of each commodity, and the commodity prices each affect the others, so it is hard to work out, say, a coefficient for each driving variable. But that's not the problem.

The real problem with any "climate change mitigation = more corn ethanol = higher food prices" argument is the first part: the claim that producing corn ethanol is addressing climate change.

In reality, the use of ethanol from corn as a fuel might actually result in greater greenhouse gas emissions than the use of gasoline, because of the land and energy required to grow the corn, harvest the corn, and convert the corn to ethanol. As such, the primary motivation for the expansion of corn ethanol production in the US is not climate change. Ethanol production is about appeasing regional interests, maintaining of the agricultural subsidy system and reducing reliance on imported fuels, probably in that order. 

The only reason that corn ethanol gets promoted by politicians in the U.S. as a solution to climate change is that in the current political atmosphere, very few actual climate change mitigation proposals can pass, and because of some effective lobbying and the power of the Presidential primary process, expanding corn ethanol production looks like climate change mitigation to the public.

Throw out the word biofuels and people might think action is being taken to address climate change. Look at the acutal conversion efficiencies and total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of the current feedstocks in the U.S. and you find a different story.

There is definitely reason to be concerned about the market effects of diverting so much of the U.S. corn crop to ethanol production. The real key to the story, the one to to look for in the coming months, is the price of meat. The majority of cereals and oils, the commodities for which the price has spiked the most, are used to generate animal feed. If you look back to 2008, you’ll see that the price of meat is likely to spike next.
This dynamic demonstrates the real battle we face in the future. It’s not food vs. fuel, it is feed vs. fuel. If the world wants to keep using the most productive croplands to provide biofuel feedstocks, we had better be prepared to eat less or much more expensive meat.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Climate change hits the big time

I received this "important" notice from "Desmond Tutu" today. You know an issue is important when it is being abused for email scams!

Perhaps the scam could also be seen as a unintentional bit of social commentary, on the fact that a lot of aid funding for climate change adaptation or awareness generally goes on international consultants rather than to people in developing nations.

Attention: Sir/Madam,

This is to inform you that the NELSON MANDELA FOUNDATION and WILLIAM J. CLINTON FOUNDATION in Collaboration with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has held an Internet Raffle Draw, and your Email Address was among the 2010 Email Addresses that was
picked through the computer ballot system. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change/Nelson Mandela Foundation and William J. Clinton Foundation were conceived with the objective of human growth, educational, and community development, and to create awareness to the dangers posed on our planet by climate change.

To celebrate the 18th anniversary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change /Nelson Mandela Foundation and William J. Clinton Foundation in conjunction with the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) is giving out a yearly donation of $ 900,000.00 (Nine Hundred Thousand United States Dollars Only) to 18 lucky recipients. These specific Donations will be awarded to 18 lucky international recipients worldwide in different categories for their personal business development and enhancement of their educational plans and to create awareness in their community on the dangers posed on our planet by climate change as a Result of pollution. Recipients are only eligible to be awarded this donation once. We therefore with great pleasure notify you that your email address happened to be among the eighteen email addresses selected for this Donation. BELLOW ARE YOUR WINNING DETAILS...

Please note that these donations/Grants are strictly administered by the UN. You are by all means hereby advised
to keep this whole information confidential until you have been able to collect your donation, as there have been cases of
double and unqualified claim, due to beneficiaries informing third parties about his/her donation. Finally, all funds should
be claimed by their respective beneficiaries, not later than 14 days after notification.
On behalf of the Board kindly, accept our warmest regards.
Rev. Dr. Desmond Tutu
Foundation officer.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Julie Bishop and Australian Opposition parties need to do better research about climate policy

The Australian Prime Minister, who heads a minority coalition in Parliament, has proposed carbon pricing scheme that will begin in 2012. The opposition parties are lobbying hard against the scheme, or any scheme that puts a price on carbon. In her regular blog for the Sydney Morning Herald, Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop uses an argument that will sound familiar to argues that will sound familiar to Canadians and Americans: in essence, why should "we" take action if China is not?

One of the principal arguments of the Julia Gillard - Bob Brown government to justify imposing a carbon tax on Australia is that the international effort on climate change will leave us behind and that even China is taking dramatic action to reduce its carbon emissions.

This is deeply misleading. What the government doesn't tell you is that even if the Chinese government met its stated targets of cutting carbon emissions "per unit of GDP", there will in fact be a massive increase in emissions from China for the foreseeable future.
And here is the evidence:

University of British Columbia Professor in Geography Simon Donner calculates in an article titled "China's emissions pledge depends entirely on economic growth" that the Chinese emissions "intensity" targets would still result in substantial emissions increases.He says: "If China keeps up the planned 8 per cent/year growth, emissions in 2020 will be 74-90 per cent higher than 2005 levels".

When I heard about this "citation" yesterday, I was puzzled. What article is she talking about? I'm fairly certainly I'd remember if I'd published an article about Chinese climate policy. It turns out she is referring to a brief Maribo post from two years ago in which I pointed out that the China's new emissions target is based on emissions intensity, and thus represents less of a decrease than it might sound. This brings up all sorts of interesting questions about appeals to authority, blog posts vs. published research, etc., which I'd be happy to discuss.

Now had the Deputy Leader or her staff or whomever writes the posts in her name contacted me or, say, done more than typed "china's emissions pledge" into Google (the post comes up #3, at least from here), she may have learned that many international policy experts think it is reasonable to allow nations with developing economies to set targets based on emissions intensity. I've written numerous posts arguing just that. In fact, that point was touched on in the previous paragraph in the post though only fully fleshed out in other posts:

It is, however, a reasonably fair way to bring a reluctant developing nation like China into an international emissions control framework.

The moral here is not what I wrote. The moral here is that Australians should be just horrified that by the lack of research and analysis being done by the opposition parties on the carbon tax proposal. They should not be citing a two-year old blog post written by a Canadian university professor for which the data is now out of date. I'd guess it took me about 20 minutes to do the analysis and write that post. Certainly that's not too much time to spend working on your position on a critical policy proposal.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Climate change and the oceans; UCAR Magazine

The UCAR Magazine has a good short review of recent research into the ocean's response to climate change. Bob Henson manages to summarize some of the new thinking about coral bleaching, plankton productivity, ocean acidification, and ocean "deoxygenation" all in one article. It's worth a read.


Climate Dialogue: Counting carbon

A new post about carbon accounting schemes is up on Climate Dialogue. Check it out!

The previous post looked at the logic behind temperature targets.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Phew, must be that global warming

Perhaps the climate change communications MVP should go to the funniest individual or organization. Humour is probably more effective than either aggression or humility.


Friday, March 11, 2011

The MVP of climate change communication

The Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason is giving out the third Climate Change Communicator of the Year award. Voting is open until April 15th.

The award raises a question that comes up around award time in the sporting world. Is the most valuable player the one who produces the most - say, hits the most home runs - regardless of the success of their team? Or is the most valuable player the one who captained or contributed the most to a successful team?

If you believe the former, then the communicator of the year is the one who racked up the most statistics, be it blog posts, policy briefings, public talks, op-eds, etc. Given the rough state of public and political discourse on climate change, maybe this is like voting for the slugger on the last place team. One could argue that the most valuable communicators may not score well using the standard individual metrics, but doing more to advance the "cause".

That raises a second question: for what should we award a climate change communicator? Advancing public understanding of the science? Or influencing public or political opinion on climate change policy or solutions? These are two very different goals. The most valuable communicators might in fact be ones who best help audiences differentiate between science and judgments made based on science. In that view, the most valuable communicator will not be the strongest advocate for action.


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Coverage of today's congressional hearing on climate science

The U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing about climate science this morning, as a part of the deliberations on a bill that would challenge the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. These congressional hearings can seem like a circus, with a set of climate scientists countered by people with nice sounding credentials making arguments by analogy or just wholly baseless claims about climate science (case in point: just read or watch Donald Roberts' testimony).

This time the real circus may have been the coverage. After my morning class, I clicked on Science Magazine's (by then complete) live blog of the hearing with Gavin Schmidt of Real Climate in hopes of getting a feel for what had come to pass in the halls of Congress. Unfortunately, this legimate attempt at science coverage by a news organization with the aide of an expert from the field became more of a circus than most congressional hearings thanks to the commenters. I think commenter Roger Pielke Jr. posted more than Schmidt and blog host Eli Kintisch combined.

But that's the whole challenge, isn't it? Climate communication, like climate change, is a signal to noise problem.


Monday, March 07, 2011

Banning the trade of shark fins

A note unrelated to climate change: The NY Times reports that the state of California is considering a ban on the sale and possession of shark fins. Frankly, it is hard to believe that dealing in shark fins is not already illegal in North America. There is no better example of a cultural obsession with a particular "delicacy" - in this case, shark fin's soup - contributing to the demise of a wild population.

I took the picture at left just a couple weeks back in a market on the Pacific Coast of Central America. Frankly, it the photo could be from the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean or the western Pacific, I've seen the same thing on the coasts of all the tropical oceans.
You'll notice the fin-less sharks in the bin are all small: the larger sharks are dumped at sea after being "finned". The fin is worth so much more than the meat that there's no value in bringing a big heavy dead shark back ashore, even though it is obviously a potential food source. In Kiribati, people do catch sharks and sell the fins, but at least they also take the shark home to eat.

You don't have to be the least bit interested in marine conservation or the dwindling global shark population to see the practice as finning and leaving the shark behind as ridiculously wasteful. Perhaps a ban of shark fishing may be politically or logistically impossible in today's world, I don't know. I can say that if we are going to continue to catch sharks for human consumption, let's at least catch the whole shark.


Thursday, March 03, 2011

Climate communication: Be aggressive or be humble?

There's continuing disagreement inside and outside the scientific community about not only what scientists should say about climate change, but how they should be saying it. The communications literature states there is not one right approach, but a range of different approaches which may be suitable depending on the audience.

The climate blogosphere got in a tizzy in January about an advance copy of the text of a talk to be presented by Kevin Trenberth at the recent American Meteorological Society. The debate centered around Trenberth's idea that certainty about climate change is so great we should invert the common "Is this event caused by climate change?" line of questioning. As it states in the abstract, "Given that global warming is unequivocal, the null hypothesis should be that all weather events are affected by global warming".

All the talks from the "Communicating Climate Change" session (One and Two) at AMS were recorded and are now available for viewing online.  Trenberth's talk and my own presentation "Making the climate a part of the human world" provide examples of two very different ways of thinking about communication of climate change (viewers be patient, the audio of my talk doesn't kick in for about 90 seconds). You might say the different methods of analysis - I take a deep historical perspective to explain the confusion of today - lead also to clear differences in what I can best describe as temperament. A simple breakdown would be that Trenberth goes on the offensive (i.e. prove me wrong) while I've been told my approach is almost defensive (i.e. let's be more humble, there's a good reason the science is hard to believe). Obviously, I'm partial to the latter, it is my research after all. I do accept that there may also be a time and a place for the former too.

Update: More discussion of these questions at Class M and Rabbet Run.