Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Kiribati's battle against sea-level rise: the perception and the reality

Last year, I published an article (Donner, 2012) reflecting on years of field work in Kiribati:

Tarawa, the most easily accessible atoll in Kiribati, is a popular destination for journalists and activists interested in observing and communicating the impacts of sea-level rise on a low-lying nation... common images of flooded homes and waves crashing across the causeways—collected during an anomalous event on islets susceptible to flooding due in part to local modifications to the environment—can provide the false impression that Tarawa is subject to constant flooding because of sea-level rise.

Kiribati's Abaiang Atoll (photo by author)
Tarawa and the rest of Kiribati are certainly under serious long-term threat from sea-level rise. The concern expressed in last year's paper is the effects of shoddy research and loose talk by journalists and climate activists, inside and outside of Kiribati, about specific events:

Such unverified attribution can inflame or invite skepticism of the scientific evidence for a human-caused increase in the global sea-level. 

I now bring you Exhibit A: "Kiribati: A Nation Going Under" by Bernard Lagan in the Kiwi publication the Global Mail, published a couple weeks ago when I was in the field.

Running out of options, and water, a nation’s leader enters an end game against climate change.  The President of Kiribati urges an orderly evacuation — “migration with dignity”.

Rare among international coverage of Kiribati, the article goes into accurate detail about the many local issues beyond climate change and is tough on President Anote Tong, who is usually lionized by the international press. Yet the article still butchers the evidence for impacts of sea-level rise, falling for the tempting bait I describe in the Donner (2012): flooding and erosion caused by climate variability and shoreline modification. It is a shame because otherwise, the article is one of few I've seen to capture the complex politics of responding to threats of climate change in this remote, developing nation.

Along comes Andrew Bolt, a skeptical writer from Australia. He does what I'll guess was a few minutes of research with Google, and then raises loud objections in the two bluntly-titled articles: "Are the satellites lying about poor drowning Kiribati?" and "Look at this other drowning island, the Global Mail writer insisted. So I did.

Most of Bolt's claims are ridiculous or sloppy. First, he tries to eyeball changes in Tarawa's land area using Landsat satellite imagery over a 12 year period. This would be like standing at the finish line of a 100 m race and trying to spot individual hairs on the heads of the sprinters in the starting blocks. Second, like many other journalists, he mistook reports that some islets expanded in area over past decades (Webb and Kench, 2010) as evidence that the islets are not being affected at all by sea-level rise. Think of it this way: islands can expand in surface area over time due to land reclamation and natural beach movement and still become "lower" and suffer saltier groundwater because the ocean is higher. Third, Bolt uses second-hand sources, citing selected text from a blog post on my work, rather than reading my work or dropping me a line.

Nonetheless, buried in the muck are some correct assertions, and the overall argument will come across as reasonable to many readers. The end result of an otherwise good Global Mail article is confusion about whether sea-level rise is affecting Kiribati.

How can this be avoided? More care in reporting about sea-level rise would help. The Global Mail article features three classic mistakes made by journalists and climate activists:

1. People are leaving a low-lying island so it MUST be a result of sea-level rise

Sea-level rise could very well lead to mass migration between atolls and from Kiribati to other countries. Is it happening now? The Global Mail:

But some outer islands are also being invaded by the sea. Their fragile fresh water reserves stored naturally beneath the ground are dying away and more and more displaced outer islanders are flocking to Tarawa.

Lagan's repeating an assertion commonly made by climate activists in and out of Kiribati. In reality, migration to Tarawa is driven largely by Kiribati's transition to the cash economy and the desire for jobs, as Bolt correctly asserts in his article. This is no secret; the same dynamic is at play in many developing countries. And had Lagan done some digging, he would have found that freshwater pressure on outer islands has always existed; people voluntarily evacuated in the 30s and 40s from the Southern Gilberts.

2. Land is eroding, so it MUST be because of sea-level rise

Sea-level rise will certainly erode Kiribati shorelines. But not every case of erosion you are shown in a short visit to Kiribati is actually due to
El Nino driven flood of 2005 (photo by auth
sea-level rise. The Global Mail:

Elsewhere on Abaiang Atoll, one village, Tebunginako, which villagers have battled to save for the past 30 years from the encroaching sea, has had to be moved inland — a development that is often referred to as hard evidence that Kiribati is being ravaged by climate change.

Ask yourself a question. If atolls feature long narrow strips of land, why would one village erode away by tens of metres more than the neighbouring villages? A quick internet search is all that's needed to uncover the very clear 2005 report by the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC) about Tebunginako. The village was built long ago on the sand spit created by a former passage between the lagoon and the outer island. It's eroding because of "shoreline processes consistent with an ocean / lagoon passage". Village consultations were done, and the evidence was accepted, as it agreed with the local oral history. People agreed that given the land was naturally eroding, it made more sense to move their homes than to build sea walls.

3. A weather extreme affected the shoreline, so the extreme MUST be caused by climate change

Once again, the Global Mail:

Yet, as far back as 1992, a technical report, funded by the Canadian government, said increasingly severe El Niño events were producing the large waves that were eroding the Abaiang coast... Only very recently — in the past year or two — have some climate scientists begun to suggest a strong link between severe El Niño events and global warming. However, this link is still contested among scientists.

In this case, it is worth talking to a climate scientist about El Nino events. Weather and high seas during El Nino events certainly lead to wave inundation in Kiribati, an issue I discuss in depth in Donner (2012). The El Nino driven variability in sea-level, ocean temperatures and wind direction is one thing that makes Kiribati so unique. Unfortunately, the desire to blame the El Nino inundation events on climate change has driven most of the flawed international coverage of climate change in Kiribati. Though flooding during already high water El Nino events is certainly statistically more likely to happen as global average sea-level rises, the events themselves are no more evidence of rising sea-level than an individual heat wave is evidence of rising global temperatures.

What to do

Climate change is frustrating. Though unprecedented in recent geological history, human-caused climate change still operates at too slow a pace to capture much of the public's attention. So people try to attribute current events to the long-term trend, and often make elementary mistakes: I'll end with my recommendation from my article:

Instead of incorrectly attributing individual flood events or shoreline changes to global sea-level rise, scientists and climate communicators can use such occurrences to educate the public about the various natural and human processes that affect sea-level, the shoreline, and the shape of islands. This would better prepare the public and policy makers for the changes that societies are likely to experience as global sea-level rises in the coming decades.

So journalists and climate activists: Before and after you go to Kiribati, or Tuvalu, or the Maldives, please call a scientist that works there. It will save us all a lot of trouble.


Thursday, May 09, 2013

The letter to Minister Oliver from climate scientists and energy experts (en francais)

Yesterday, Mark Jaccard posted a copy of the letter recently sent by 12 Canadian climate scientists and energy experts to Natural Resources Minister the Hon. Joe Oliver.  

The letter was actually sent in both official languages. As a service, I've posted the French version below.

The letter describes our concern with the Minister’s statements about climate change and advocacy for expanded fossil fuel production. These issues have been raised here repeatedly in the past few months; an earlier letter I wrote to the Minister purely clarifying the science has not elicited any response.

For coverage of this issue, see recent articles in the Globe and Mail, the CBC online, and watch CTV's Power and Politics today.


Monsieur le Ministre Oliver,

En tant que scientifiques spécialistes du climat, économistes et experts en élaboration de politiques, notre travail est centré sur la compréhension du climat et des systèmes énergétiques. Nous sommes d’accord avec vous lorsque vous dites que « la question des changements climatiques est un problème très sérieux ».

Certains de vos commentaires récents, par contre, nous inquiètent. En résumé, nous ne sommes pas convaincus que votre appui en faveur des nouveaux oléoducs et d’un accroissement de la production de combustibles fossiles tient sérieusement compte de la question des changements climatiques.

Pour éviter les conséquences dangereuses des changements climatiques, nous devrons réduire de façon marquée notre dépendance aux combustibles fossiles, et faire la transition vers des énergies plus propres.

Les infrastructures que nous construisons aujourd’hui auront des répercussions sur nos choix énergétiques futurs. Si nous investissons en fonction d’une hausse de la production de combustibles fossiles, nous risquons de nous enfermer dans une logique de forte production de carbone, ce qui implique une augmentation de nos gaz à effet de serre (GES) pour les années et les décennies à venir. 

Dans son « scénario des 450 ppm », l’Agence internationale de l’énergie (AIE) a examiné les implications des politiques nécessaires pour avoir une chance raisonnable d’éviter un réchauffement global de plus de 2 ˚C. Dans ce scénario, la demande mondiale en pétrole atteindrait un sommet au cours de la présente décennie, puis elle descendrait à 10 % sous le niveau actuel au cours des décennies suivantes. L’AIE conclut qu’à moins d’assister à un déploiement majeur de la technologie de captage et stockage du carbone, plus des deux tiers des réserves mondiales actuelles de combustibles fossiles ne pourront pas être commercialisées. D’autres experts sont arrivés à des conclusions semblables.

Nous sommes à un point critique. Selon l’Académie nationale des sciences des États-Unis, « chaque tonne additionnelle de gaz à effet de serre que nous émettons nous expose à des changements plus importants et à des risques plus grands ». Plus nous attendrons avant de passer à une économie à faibles émissions de GES, plus la transition sera radicale, perturbatrice et coûteuse. L’implication est claire : ce sont les décideurs actuels qui ont la responsabilité d’agir pour empêcher les changements climatiques dangereux. 

L’AIE nous met aussi en garde contre les conséquences de la voie que nous suivons actuellement. Si les gouvernements posent peu de gestes pour réduire les émissions, la demande en énergie va continuer à croître rapidement et, pour l’essentiel, ce sont les combustibles fossiles qui vont répondre à cette demande. Un tel scénario pourrait entraîner un réchauffement de 3,6 ˚C selon les estimations de l’AIE.

Pourtant, quand vous défendez, ici et à l’étranger, le développement des combustibles fossiles au Canada, c’est précisément cette voie très dangereuse que vous semblez empruntez – et non pas le scénario des 450 ppm qui permettrait de limiter la hausse à moins de 2 ˚C.

Si nous voulons vraiment avoir une « discussion sérieuse » sur l’énergie et les changements climatiques au pays, comme vous l’avez vous-même proposé, nous devons commencer par reconnaître que nos décisions en matière d’infrastructures pour les combustibles fossiles auront d’importantes répercussions aujourd’hui et pour les générations à venir.

Nous vous demandons de faire en sorte que les émissions de GES liées aux infrastructures pour combustibles fossiles soient soit un facteur central dans les décisions et les activités de relations publiques de votre gouvernement en ce qui concerne les ressources naturelles du Canada.

Il nous ferait grand plaisir de vous informer plus à fond sur les plus récentes avancées scientifiques en ce qui concerne les changements climatiques et le développement d’énergie.

Merci de porter attention à ces questions importantes.

Veuillez recevoir, Monsieur le Ministre, l’expression de nos sentiments respectueux.

J.P. Bruce, O.C., MSCR

James Byrne
Professeur, géographie
Université de Lethbridge

Simon Donner
Professeur adjoint, géographie
Université de Colombie-Britannique

J.R. Drummond, MSCR
Professeur, physique et sciences de l’atmosphère
Université Dalhousie

Mark Jaccard, MSCR
Professeur, gestion des ressources et de l’environnement
Université Simon Fraser

David Keith
Professeur, physique appliquée, politiques publiques
Université Harvard

Damon Matthews
Professeur agrégé, géographie, planification et environnement
Université Concordia

Gordon McBean, C.M., MSCR
Professeur, environnement et développement durable
Université Western

David Sauchyn
Professeur, Initiative de collaboration pour l’adaptation des Prairies
Université de Regina

John Smol, MSCR
Professeur, Chaire de recherche du Canada sur les changements environnementaux
Université Queen’s

John M.R. Stone
Professeur auxiliaire, géographie et environnement
Université Carleton

Kirsten Zickfeld
Professeur adjoint, géographie
Université Simon Fraser


Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Talking about climate change in a hot and cold world

There's been a small burst of skepticism about the science of climate change in the media in the past few months, as if arguments usually confined to dark corners of the internet oozed out into the hallway. This was encapsulated in the well-researched but misleading article in the Economist that suggested the climate may be much less sensitive to greenhouse gases than previously thought. This emergence of skeptical arguments in the public realm is in sharp contrast to last fall, when concern about climate change was supposedly increasing, both among the media, and in opinion polls.

What has changed?

For one, the weather.

Last winter, central and eastern North America bathed in record heat, including cases where March temperature records were broken by 8 degrees Celsius. That was followed by the warmest summer in U.S. history [and, in the fall, by the sea-level rise assisted storm surge from Hurricane Sandy].

Consider this quote about the U.S.:

By July... there were cover stories in news weeklies, lead articles on broadcast news programs, and hundreds of newspaper and magazine writeups appearing on the presumed connection between the heat wave and the greenhouse effect. With a few exceptions, there was very little scientific content in most of the stories. Instead, dramatic visuals of damaged crops, dried up rivers, sweltering cities, record hurricane pressures, or burning forests dominated the coverage...  

Unlike last year, this winter and early spring was cold and snowy across central and eastern North America as well as much of Europe, regions that happen to be home to much of the world's English-language prestige press, not to mention most of the loud voices on climate change.

A recent paper by my former student Jeremy McDaniels and I found that American attitudes about climate change tend to follow the weather. Analysing polling data and newspaper op-ed content from 1990 through 2010, we found that after periods of unusual warmth, people tend to be more convinced and more concerned about climate change. Conversely, after unusually cold periods, people's views tend to go in the opposite direction.

Let's be clear: The relationship detected in our paper does not necessarily mean that people confuse weather and climate, concluding after a cold winter that, say, global warming has stopped. The cold period may directly or indirectly lead people to revisit a meme about slowing of global warming. And it's impossible to say with any level of certainty whether this dynamic has played an important role, or any role, over the past few months. We're talking in loose terms about a single data point, and a fuzzy one at that.

Plus, I have misled you about one thing.

That quote? It was not actually from last year. It is from a 1989 Climatic Change editorial by Steve Schneider about the summer of 1988. It continues:

Better stories pointed out that there was some debate as to whether anyone could ascribe the weather events of one year to a global trend. After all, the drought in May and June was a result of an out-of-position jet stream, which diverted storms up into Canada rather than across the mid-United States... But most coverage, especially on television, had little discussion that reflected the consensus of views on what is well accepted and what is deemed speculative by most researchers. Mostly, the association of local extreme heat and drought with global warming took on a growing credibility simply from its repeated assertion. 

Sound familiar? Schneider was worried about how scientists should talk about human-caused climate change in light of the natural variability in the climate. If we talk only about the "signal" and ignore the "noise", we are not being completely forthright, and we risk confusion down the road.

Therefore, my excitement at the long-overdue public attention the greenhouse affect was finally receiving was tempered substantially by a fear that should next summer be anomalously cold and wet - by no means a remote possibility - not only could we lose the momentum of public interest, but some of our credibility as well.

Rather than just blame the media for the swings in coverage and public opinion, scientists and all the climate "activists" should recognize that they may also be at fault here. There's so much effort to talk about climate change during the heat waves, that it can create a backlash during cold spells.

The message of climate change is one of a signal emerging from the noise. Perhaps we need to talk about the signal at a more constant rate over time, rather than let our communications efforts go up and down with the noise.