Monday, January 14, 2013

Suspicions of doping cost climate extremes chance at fame

NEW YORK (CP) - At an annual meeting held last week, scientists chose not to induct two of the top events in climate history into the Hall of Fame due to suspicions of doping. The U.S. weather of 2012 and the Arctic sea ice decline, which each broke numerous climate records during their long, illustrious careers, fell well short in the voting among eligible scientists.

Courtesy: UCAR
The strong consensus signifies an important change in the willingness of the scientific community to attribute individual climate achievements to drug use. It leaves behind the controversial election of other climate events suspected of doping, including the Russian Heat Wave and Pakistani floods of 2010.

In the past, scientists have been reluctant to attribute extreme events or unusually hot years to any one cause, whether natural ability, new training techniques or doping. They reach decisions only after years working with sophisticated computer models that assess the factors influencing performance of each event, and using statistics to compare each event to others throughout history. Even after this exhaustive process, the wording in official statements tends to be highly cautious, with repeated references to uncertainty.

This year’s decision reflects frustration among scientists with what was viewed as flagrant and obvious drug use in setting the US temperature and Arctic sea ice minimum records, and the persistent denial of what their data shows is a rampant doping problem.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” said Ken Rosenthal, an outspoken climate scientist and baseball writer from the NASA Goddard Institute of Climate Research. “Last year, almost every state in the nation broke a temperature record. That’s not happening without help."

2012 temperature anomaly (NCDC - NOAA)
It remains to be seen whether the latest decision will have any influence on drug policy. Despite repeated previous warnings from scientists over the past two decades, there has been little progress in curbing the use of carbon-based drugs. Random tests indicate that recent policies to close loopholes in the testing system and to increase the penalties for repeat offenders have had little effect on the drug use.

The challenge mirrors that facing major league baseball, cycling, and many other sports. Several scientists at the meeting even alleged that doping was playing a role in ongoing events, including last week’s unprecedented Australian heat wave.

A recent letter to the commissioner Bud Selig, signed by 30 Nobel laureates, called for fundamental reforms to the system that would address the low cost and widespread availability of the banned substances. Drug policy experts claim that the system could be supported by alternative training techniques and natural food supplements, which do not have climate-altering effects, with no additional costs. Opponents in Congress, most of who represent drug-producing states, fear the effects of a switch on jobs in their districts.

The Heartland Institute, a drug-industry funded think tank sceptical of the human role in climate doping, announced it would appeal the decision, claiming that the scientists’ testing procedures and models were flawed. The appeal has no factual basis and is highly unlikely to succeed, but could accomplish the think tank’s secondary goal of taking scientists away from their valuable research and delaying action on drug policy. 


Friday, January 11, 2013

New oil sands pipeline plan would even more dramatically increase carbon emissions

The Vancouver Sun reports that Kinder Morgan, operator of the Trans Mountain pipeline that transports oil from Alberta to the Port of Vancouver, hopes to increase the capacity of the proposed pipeline "twinning" project. Here, I've updated previous estimates of embedded carbon emissions in proposed pipeline to the British Columbia (BC) coast.

The annual flow of carbon through the proposed twinning project and the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project (presuming full operation) would dwarf greenhouse gas emissions from British Columbia, an issue presented here in the past. Carbon emissions embedded in the Northern Gateway project alone would be greater than current BC emissions, and close to twice the 2020 goal. With the proposed increase in capacity of the Kinder Morgan twinning project (shaded green), emissions embedded oil exports from the proposed pipelines would be more than twice the current emissions from within the province itself. Total oil exports from the BC coast would be equivalent to over 3.6 times the provincial emissions target for the year 2020.

As we also discussed before, the pipeline expansion would completely undermine not just B.C.'s emissions reduction policy, but the entire country's emissions reduction policy.
The second graph shows the estimated gap (i.e. necessary reductions) between the most recent national emissions estimate (2010, 692 Mt) and the policy goal for 2020 (17% reduction, ~607 Mt). The emissions embedded in the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline (82.5 Mt) is alone almost as great as the Canadian 2020 emissions gap (85.3 Mt). Add in the original Kinder Morgan proposal, the recent proposed bump in capacity, and the emissions embedded in oil exports of the pipeline would be 1.6 times the national emissions gap.

Ay, here's the rub. Carbon exports are not included in a country's emissions budget. The very reasonable international greenhouse gas accounting system allocates emissions to the country where the carbon, not the country where the carbon is extracted from the ground. From a pure accounting standpoint, BC and Canada's carbon emissions would be affected by the construction and operation of the pipelines, but not the amount of oil or bitumen flowing through pipes to tankers on the coast.

The point here is about the greater challenge. The climate does not care where the carbon is burned. Should Canada bear some responsibility for the climate implications of extracting and transporting the carbon? Are we hypocrites to promote local emissions policies and controls while dramatically increasing exports of carbon to the rest of the world?


Tuesday, January 08, 2013

We really have work to do

And evolution had more than a one hundred year head start on global warming (with the public!)

Climate scientists and educators can actually learn a lot from the long battles over the teaching of evolution in schools.


Monday, January 07, 2013

We have work to do

A symbol of public confusion or a driver of public confusion?


Thursday, January 03, 2013

Climate change in the age of truthiness

Does reality shape our beliefs, or do our beliefs shape "reality"?

A fascinating paper by "Did the Arctic Ice Recover? Demographics of True and False Climate Facts" by Lawrence Hamilton examined this question using polling data on people's beliefs about climate change and their knowledge of several key climate facts, including that the Arctic sea ice is decreasing.

 Record low Arctic sea ice, September 16, 2012
 (NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio)
Hamilton finds that existing beliefs about climate change influence acceptance of the facts, or, better put, which "facts" one chooses to accept. In the study, 80% of people who believe climate change is happening and is caused by human activity know that sea ice is declining. Of those who do not believe climate change is happening or who do not think it is caused by human activity, however, only 60% think the Arctic sea ice has been in decline.

Hamilton argues that two things are at play here. One is simply science literacy: if you are right about the facts, you likely believe climate is changing. The other is what experts call "biased-assimilation": you choose or seek facts that match your worldview. The results are not that surprising in light of all the research on public perception of scientific issues. On the ice question, wrong answers are predicted by the responses to political and belief factors in the poll.

This post was inspired not so much by that core finding, as by something in the background polling data: more people (70%) knew that there is less Arctic sea ice(than 30 years ago) than knew that CO2 concentrations were increasing (~60%) or than knew the meaning of the greenhouse effect (~55%).

The fraction of the respondents aware of the increase in CO2 concentrations is not in itself surprising. Though lower than what most of us in the science community would like to see, it is decent considering low public literacy on so many different science issues. What's really striking is that more people know about an impact of climate change than the main driver of climate change.

This raises two interesting, and quite different questions, which I'll leave for readers to answer:

1. Do climate change communicators and the media work so hard to connect human-caused climate change to physical events that they neglect to reinforce the basic causes of climate change? Maybe we really are doing a poor job of communicating the basic facts.

2. Does it matter? In more explicit terms, does everyone need to understand the guts of what is causing climate change, or is it enough to know the impacts, and trust that there are people with expertise who know why it is happening? Many communication and sustainability experts I encounter argue that public education about climate science is largely irrelevant; so long as people trust there's a problem, something that education about science alone cannot change, and see benefits from possible solutions, what is the difference?

One note on the latter: Though I find this attitude is troubling, as I should being in a profession centered around education, it is food for thought. After all, we make decisions everyday predicated on science that we do not understand. We take medication. We use computers. And, as Richard Alley reminds regularly in presentations, we use, or at least trust the concept of, heat-seeking missiles, whose development hinged on the discovery that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.