Sunday, December 30, 2007

Religion and the 400 Club

From Andrew Dressler at Gristmill, a quote from Imhofe's #10, weather expert Chris Allen, that links my last two posts on how the 400 Club claims expertise and how long-held religious beliefs can pose an obstacle to understanding climate change:

My biggest argument against putting the primary blame on humans for climate change is that it completely takes God out of the picture. It must have slipped these people's minds that God created the heavens and the earth and has control over what's going on...

What these environmentalists are actually saying is "we know more than God - we're bigger than God - God is just a fantasy - science is real...He isn't...listen to US!" I have a huge problem with that.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Attack of the climate skeptics XXII: Inhofe's last stand

Like most horror movie sequels, this flick is worse and even less plausible than the last. I normally hate to draw attention to this drivel. Unfortunately, the latest supposedly consensus-busting release from US Senator James Inhofe did not go straight to DVD. It received attention from the NY Times, inspired a shouting match on Fox News, granted, that's not much of an accomplishment, and naturally ticked off the blogs (Romm, desmogblog).

Climate change “skepticism” began with an industry-funded effort to question the science. It has since morphed into questioning whether the effects of climate change would really be so bad, a move I call the Smiling Lomborg. The latest salvo by Inhofe is a real throwback, like a greatest hits reunion tour from a band that broke up in the 70s. The report randomly quotes all four hundred people who have ever publicly questioned climate change in an effort to question the existence of a consensus in the scientific community (Eli's posted the list). The band has no new music. The concert just recycles the same old tired mis-hits.

The real deception, here, is the way the members of the 400 club claim expertise on climate change. Here are three of the most common tricks:
1. “An IPCC expert reviewer”: The claim of many a 400 Clubber. It means absolutely nothing. The IPCC reports are public documents. As Tim Lambert pointed out, anyone who asks to see them and considers submitting a comment can call themselves an expert reviewer. Even if you were actually asked to review a section, it still means nothing. On request, I reviewed the corals and climate sections of WGII. That doesn’t mean I can claim the authors had any respect for my review, nor could I claim any responsibility whatsoever for the final report.
2. “Weather expert”. I'm reluctant to pick on this. But the fact is, weather-people or meteorological experts are not climate scientists nor do they have experience with climate models. They have a grounding in basic atmospheric physics similar to many climate scientists but they operate at massively different scales in time and space. This is not a comment on the value of their work, or their expertise, just a reminder that it is different. As a climate person, I know a fair bit about meteorology, but you wouldn’t want me doing your weekend forecast. Vice versa.
3. Peer-reviewed” scientist: Being a “peer-reviewed” scientist doesn’t make you an expert in every branch of science. I am a peer-reviewed scientist. I regularly publish articles on climate change, biogeochemistry and corals in peer-reviewed journals. You would not turn to me for expertise on protein structures, HIV vaccines, environmental toxicology, mammalian genetics, galaxy formation, nor to build a bridge, design an interplanetary craft or remove your kidney. Freeman Dyson, the eminent physicist in Imhofe’s 400 Club, is no doubt a very brilliant man. One thing he is not, however, is an expert on climate science, something rather evident from reading his quotes on the subject.
Try hard enough, and you could dredge up 400 people with some scientific credentials who would doubt the theory of gravity. Hmm, now that would be a good project.
Consensus is unusual in science. That’s what makes the widespread agreement among the community of experts around the world on the basic science of climate change and climate change impacts so remarkable.


Friday, December 21, 2007

The separation of earth and sky

Apologies for the sporadic posting and delay on the series of Kiribati posts. Moving always takes longer than I imagine it will (any tips on buying furniture in Vancouver are welcome!)

In this month's Climatic Change, I have what probably appears to be an out-of-character editorial essay on how religious or traditional belief systems can pose an obstacle to climate change communication. The essay was initially developed during my field work in Fiji a couple years back (that explains what has to be the most unusual abstract in Climatic Change history) and supplemented with further research and interviews.

In a nutshell, I argue that the climate science and education community have been missing the base reason that people are reluctant to accept the urgency of human-induced climate change:

The notion that humans can strongly influence or be in control of the climate counters thousands of years of religious philosophy and existing traditional belief systems worldwide.... The conflict between the basic notion of human-induced climate change and a millennia-old belief in a separation between earth and sky may underpin the slow public response to warnings about climate change.

This is not an indictment or endorsement of religion, rather a discussion of the separation of earth (the domain of humans) and sky (the domain of the gods) in different traditions and the need for a long view of human history when communicating climate change. I encourage people to read the essay and provide feedback on how we can use these ideas to improve climate change communication efforts. Here's a bit of the conclusion:

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 true communications challenge facing climate scientists, educators and policymakers is time. Aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could need to begin in the next decade to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference” in the climate system, likethe collapse of major ice sheets, shifts in ocean circulation and the widespread degradationof coral reefs (e.g., O’Neill and Oppenheimer 2002). Garnering strong public and political support for any substantial near-term action is requiring society to adapt beliefs held relatively constant for millennia in a matter of years.


Monday, December 10, 2007

The Canadian Principles

Read them and weep? The leaked document contains Canada's official stance on the post-Kyoto agreement. On the surface, most the nine principles are quite reasonable though many said that about the statement from the APEC summit.

Three key, and questionable, items stand out:

i) "a truly global solution" and "binding emission reduction targets for all major emitters" = an old summer trick to plunging in a cold lake. I'll jump in the lake, but only if you (China and India) jump with us. You don't have to jump as far from the dock (lower target) but you have to agree to go now (which I know you won't do).

ii) "the agreement should set a target date..." = no short- or mid-term targets

iii) "... and include goals for global emission reductions by 2050" = actually, no long-term target either, as the word goal in the policy-speak means something is non-binding.

Yes, the caution is understandable given Canada's failure to reduce GHG emissions after signing Kyoto. Unfortunately, the climate may not understand.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

It just had to be Bali

I visited Bali eight years ago, just as Americans were going to the polls. After three long flights and a full day wandering the maze of narrow streets, a sunburned, CNN-starved American tourist told me that Al Gore was the new U.S. President. It was not until finding a copy of the Jakarta Post a few days later that I learned that the U.S. was engaged in an electoral test of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (for more of this story, see here).

With the crucial UN climate change meetings taking place in Bali, it is tempting, at least, personally, to conclude that things have come full circle. However, the dual realities in the U.S. and Canada, particularly over climate policy, continue. This schizophrenia hit an all-time high this week. The official Canadian and U.S. representatives in Bali are fiercely lobbying against mandatory GHG emissions targets in the post-Kyoto international agreement despite the fact that:

i) The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a bill requiring long-term cuts in GHG emissions, the U.S. Congress passed a progressive energy bill and the news media is a twitter about the guts of emissions policy like carbon taxes vs. cap-and-trade, auctioning permits, etc. (take a look at the Cleantech Collective for ongoing coverage and debate)

ii) The three opposition parties in Canada, which together have a majority of the seats in Parliament, strongly disagree with the Conservative government climate policy.

In essence, international climate policy is being sabotaged by North American politics. The subtleties in the reporting from Bali suggest, for one, that the world is falling for the policy ‘branding’ of the Bush Administration. Take this example from the Globe and Mail:

The United States says it wants to be part of the negotiations on a follow-up accord, but refuses to endorse mandatory cuts in emissions favoured by the European Union, choosing instead to focus on funding renewable energy projects and improving energy efficiency.

The Bush Administration has promoted this transparently false dichotomy that the international policy is a choice between mandatory emissions targets and investing in technology and energy efficiency, at international meetings for the past year. It is senseless. An international plan with mandatory emissions cuts would inspire renewable energy projects and improved energy efficiency. In fact, the national plans under an international emissions reduction framework are certain to specifically require funding of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Yet the use of the language of false choice, reminiscent of “you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists”, by Bush Administration officials, and the parroting by the talking and blogging heads is affecting the policy debate. The Conservative Government in Canada seems to hoping for that degree of influence, trumpeting a "Canadian" approach, which is not only deeply flawed... it is not even a Canadian idea, more or less lifted from US policy.

This raises the obvious question. Are elections in the US and Canada the key to ensuring a future climate policy with real targets?


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Searching for the right words

In today's NY Times, science reporter Andrew Revkin has a commentary about the challenge of communicating the need for action on climate change. The associated post on Dot Earth, Revkin's NY Times blog, includes my Desmogblog "100 year letter" and my thoughts on the communicating the urgency of action. If you have any other motivational campaigns or strategies, leave a comment here or at Dot Earth.

Ironically, this year the lake should be solidly frozen by mid-December, but with the recent move out west, I'll be missing the new year's tradition mentioned in the letter.

UPDATE: There are some interesting (and a couple crazy) comments after the Dot Earth post. My response was:

"In communicating publicly about climate change, my first instinct is always to talk about the inequality, that the developing world will pay the largest price for a problem largely created by the developed world. (followed by the unfortunate irony that the developed world also has more money to spend on adaptation). Unfortunately - I wish this were not true - opening up with photos from Bangladesh or Kiribati, the Pacific island nation where I have done field work, can lose the audience, for all the reasons cited by the sociologists in the earlier Dot Earth post. So, sometimes it may help to start with a real local or personal example, then talk honestly about how the rest of the world is being and will be affected by climate change."


Monday, December 03, 2007


One important, non-Kiribati related note. Although Maribo remains in the same place in the virtual world, back in the real world, remember that?, I have moved to the University of British Columbia in wonderful and currently rather damp Vancouver.

After several had a several fun, fascinating, educational and smog-choked year in Princeton and the NY/NJ areas, it was time to ditch the work visa. In other words, I remained in the U.S. for almost the entire reign of the climate-challenged Bush Administration, only to return to Canada when the equally climate-challenged Harper government is undermining international negotiations and aiming for a majority in Parliament. Political masochism? Or going where you are needed? You can choose.

Oy, Canada.


Re-opening: Climate change and Kiribati

The name of this blog is a local word that was once used to describes the waves on the outer reed in Tarawa, the capital of the equatorial island nation of Kiribati. Tarawa and the other 32 islands of Kiribati are coral atolls, low-lying circular chains of islands created entirely by corals.

An atoll is created by corals growing along the slopes of a sinking old oceanic volcano, a fascinating idea proposed by Charles Darwin during his famous voyages across the Pacific that was not actually confirmed until US scientists started drilling (and testing bombs) in the Marshall Islands in the 1950s. In short, the reef maintains itself near sea level, sand starts to collect, some seeds blow in, and you end up with a malleable ring of flat, narrow islands of sand, coral rock and a few trees all surrounding a shallow lagoon.

The islands in a developed atoll like Tarawa or others in Kiribati is protected - partly - from the erosive action of open ocean waves by a fringing or "outer" reef. When you visit a populated, claustorphobic atoll like Tarawa, you spend a lot of time looking at those waves and wondering about the future. That's why I called the blog Maribo.

Maribo's been on hiatus for six weeks while I was conducting field work in the namesake nation of Kiribati. Over the next few weeks, in addition to some of the usual news items, Maribo will feature stories about the reality - and the unreality - about climate change in what people assume is one of the most vulnerable places on the planet.

What's really happening in Kiribati? Is there evidence for sea level rise? Are other threats more prominent than climate change? What do the local people think? What can be done to help a low-lying nation cope with climate change? Stay tuned.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Nobel Prizes for all

There is an important message buried in the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize not only to Al Gore but to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Science rarely comes from one person or one eureka moment.

We all love the myth of the maverick scientist, the patent clerk that works out the theory of general relatively. Most scientific advances don't happen that way, they come from gradual increase in the understanding of the different aspects of a problem. There are breakthroughs along the way, there are people that rightly receive recognition for those breakthroughs, but none of it would happen without the work that came before.

Our knowledge of climate change comes from the work of tens of thousands of scientists around the world conducted over decades, much of it thankless grunt work in the field, in the lab, or in front of the computer screen. The genius of the IPCC (and the UN Framework Convention) is the recognition that with an issue this important, the world requires a summary analysis of the work of the entire scientific community. It is unique in all of science. It is by no means perfect, but without it, we would be left without evidence of the strong consensus among the scientific community about climate change, evidence that is needed to advance public understanding and public policy.

As for Al Gore, the duel awarding of the Nobel Prize says that an issue or cause needs a figurehead, and the figurehead needs that large community of workers to hold him/her up.


Friday, October 05, 2007

The 100 year letter project

The folks at Desmogblog asked a group of writers, scientists and activists to write "a letter to their great, great grandchildren about their vision and hopes for their world in 100 years, in the context of global warming". You can read my tres Canuck letter here.

The biofuels post generated some good discussion on the blog and elsewhere about who - scientists, journalists, editors - is responsible for placing a new piece of research in context. We need to keep having these types of conversations.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Greenhouse gases from biofuels and the reporting of science

You may have read that a study by Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen and colleagues currently under review reports that biofuels, like corn-base ethanol and rapeseed biodiesel, emit more greenhouse gases than the fossil fuels they replace. It was covered by Reuters, the Times (UK) and the magazine Chemistry World (update: podcasts available on Scitizen). The news then bounced all over the internet, appearing in Grist, Green Car Congress, and a number of blogs like Alternapower, Green Diary, Biofuels Digest, Climateer Investing, Earth2Tech, Big Biofuels Blog, Classically liberal, After Gutenberg, Digital Journal, I could go on.

The paper, submitted to Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, uses a global budget of the sources and sinks of atmospheric greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O), which originates in part from nitrogen fertilizer use, to estimate a rate at which N2O is emitted in the production of biofuel crops like corn, rapeseed (canola) and sugarcane. N2O is a much less common greenhouse gas than CO2, but has each molecule has a greater “warming” effect. The authors then contrast the global warming potential of N2O in growing the biofuel crop with that of the CO2 saved by replacing gasoline use. Their results suggest that corn ethanol and rapeseed biodiesel would lead to a net “warming” from the N2O emissions alone.

The problem is, as I was quoted as saying in the Chemistry World article, is that their method and their results are probably wrong. The paper is still under review and many of the comments on the paper, including my own, disagree with both their methods and their conclusions about a net “warming” from N2O emissions.

Let me be clear before continuing: this is not to say that the production and use of biofuels like corn ethanol will certainly emit far fewer greenhouse gases than the production and use of regular gasoline. A number of studies (Farrell et al, 2005) have concluded that when you include the entire production cycle, corn-based ethanol is either a small “win” or possibly a small loss. Either way, these other studies are including all sources of emissions during production, including operating the machinery, producing the fertilizer, processing the grain, and the N2O from fertilizer use. The Crutzen et al. paper reports that the N2O emissions from fertilizer alone makes corn-based ethanol and rapeseed net losers in the emissions reduction game.

Here’s the central science problem: The paper’s global budget analysis leads to the conclusion that 3-5% of nitrogen fertilizer is eventually emitted to the atmosphere as N2O, more than twice the rate of 1-2% found in all previous research. There is no actual physical evidence for the 3-5% result. The budget analysis used to determine that figure is interesting and clever, but it is fraught with problems (for more, I refer you to the comments). The take home message is that if you substitute the lower value, as most of us would, the basic conclusions of the study change.

The larger problem with this story has less to do with the science than with the reporting of science. You no doubt noticed one key phrase in the leading paragraph of this post. Nobel Prize Winner. That jumps out, no? The revered status implies this is research we should trust.

There is one other phrase you are unlikely to have noticed above. Under review. You see, the study in question has not been accepted for publication. It is under review with the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. That is important. It means that the journal and the reviewers, ostensibly assigned as representatives the scientific community, are deciding whether the methods are appropriate, whether the results can be falsified, whether the conclusions are sensible and whether the article as a whole is worthy of presentation in its submitted form.

The review process is key to science. It filters out fatally flawed research and helps authors improve a questionable paper by providing the judgment of outside experts. There’s no shame in reviews. All of us, whether graduate student or Nobel Prize winner, need them. Safe to say every paper I’ve published is better because of the input of anonymous peer reviewers.

In this case, that process is still underway. But that's where things get screwy. Unlike other journals, where submitted articles are sent to individual expert reviewers selected by the editors, APC includes an open review process. That means in addition to the normal peer review, anyone in the community can read the submitted paper online and offer comments. Personally, I like the system, as it gives authors a wider array of reviews and helps eliminate the chances that one irrational reviewer will derail a good piece of research.

The unintended consequence of the open discussion, however, is that an unpublished, and hence, unfinished paper is there for anyone to read. The paper can be reported in the media and the public can get the mistaken that the findings are accepted by the scientific community.

Science reporting is often a game broken telephone – I’ve argued about this before. As stories move from one medium to the next, the context fades away, the caveats are dropped, the uncertainty disappears, and we are left with just a headline.

If you look at the comments on the paper, you’ll see that several scientists have produced well-referenced arguments questioning the methods and the conclusions. The reporter from Chemistry World spent the time to speak with the critics. So the subsequent article presented not only the results of the study, but the controversy over the methods and the specific critiques of the scientific community.

But Chemistry World begat the Reuters and the Times. There, the context was reduced and the criticism of other scientists was gone. Reuters and the Times begat many, many more children, which spread like good little soldiers over the internet. In many cases, now even the context was gone, leaving us with just a headline: Biofuels are worse than gasoline.

This is also an example of what New York Times science reporter Andrew Revkin famously calls the tyranny of the peg (see Matt Nisbet’s discussion in reference to hurricanes and climate change). The peg is the “new study”, in this case a big strong peg, as it is a “new study by Nobel Prize winner”. The tyranny is that instead of a more democratic story about greenhouse gas emissions from biofuel production, including a full reading of the research, we get a linear story just about the latest study.

Think about this. Anyone writing about biofuels and GHG emissions, whether for a science publication, a general interest publication or even a small blog, knows that there have been a number of published studies comparing emissions from biofuel production with emissions from gasoline since those studies also received media attention. So before pounding this particular peg into the ground, there was one obvious question that should have been asked:

How could the N2O from fertilizer offset the GHG reductions from cutting gasoline use, if other studies accounting for GHG from all aspects of biofuel production, including N2O from fertilizer, found that biofuels were, at the worst, a wash with traditional gas? What, then, has this study done to find such a dramatically different result? And how is the scientific community responding?

I’m not advocating for or against biofuels, that's not the point of this post. Nor am I advocating for or against the open review process. I’m asking that we all stop, breathe and think a little bit before reporting new results. Resist the peg.


Friday, September 28, 2007

The "technology-based" approach

Politics today seems a lot like marketing without the free samples. The Bush Administration has elevated the political "branding" to an entirely new level - I'll let the reader decide whether it be considered a low or a high - whether it be the rather Orwell-ian naming of the major pieces of legislation, like the Healthy Forests Initiative, which supported logging on national lands, and the Clear Skies Initiative, which rolled back amendments from the Clean Air Act, to name just two, or the less formal labeling of policies like the "surge".

Everyone involved at some level in public policy has one example they love to mock. Remember the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism? That was the New Coke of the War on Terror, a moniker test-marketed in a variety of public addresses in the summer of 2005. It didn’t take. Government officials quickly reverted to the original formula.

At the various climate meeting and photo-ops this week, there was increasing mention of the Bush Administration's "technology-based" approach to climate change, something that began in earnest at the APEC summit. It is a careful exercise in branding. The Bush Administration is attempting to link technological solutions to climate change with its adherence to voluntary, non-binding, or "aspirational" emissions targets.

This is setting up a dangerous, false dichotomy: pitting the "technology-based" Bush approach vs. the economy-crushing emissions targets, falsely implying the proponents of hard emissions targets are suggested we get there without the use of technology, when in fact the entire purpose of the emissions targets is to force the development of cleaner energy technologies.

Let's not be fooled by this.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Intensity targets for the world, says PM Harper

The Globe and Mail reports that Canadian PM Stephen Harper is pushing for a new international climate change plan using intensity-based emissions targets rather actual emissions targets, like Kyoto.

Harper is correct in asserting that many countries, including China, are currently unwilling to accept hard targets. In that case, an intensity-based targets may be an acceptable middle ground (though not indefinitely!) for countries in the midst of economic growth and development. Not for the whole world, and especially not for the worst per-capita polluters like the US and Canada.

The claim that this "Canadian" idea is the best way to engage the US is laughable.

First of all, the emissions intensity tack taken by the Can. Conservative party and now at least temporarily enshrined in government policy came directly from Bush Administration policy set over five years ago. I wrote a warning about this 16 months ago in the Toronto Star (at the time, I admit, I never considered the plan would be lifted almost digit for digit from US policy!).

Second, time is running out on the Bush Administration and its refusal to accept real emissions targets. There are multiple bills with medium and long-term emissions targets before Senate and the Congress, summarized by this dizzying World Resources Institute chart. States representing almost half the US population have set long-term emissions targets. I even drew a map. And all the major contenders for the Democratic Presidential nomination are putting forward climate change plans with real emissions targets.

Third, the Conservative government is a minority, and all three opposition parties support real emissions targets. The only reason their approach to climate change may survive is that no party in Parliament wants to force an election over this, or possibly, any other issue. The result is that the Canadian government is now advancing a policy that is dishonest, regressive (with respect to other developed nations), and does not have the support of the Canadian people.

For other opinions, try the Toronto Star's latest editorial, the Globe's editorial, and the various angry online reactions (here here here).


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Greenhouse gases and meat production

There’s a lot of chatter today about the role of meat consumption in climate change. The UN entered the fray last year with a report estimating that livestock are responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, more than the total for all forms of transportation. It is, at first glance, hard to accept. But the UN estimate is, if anything, rather conservative.

Read more at Celsias


Saturday, September 22, 2007

A big week for the climate

A NY Times editorial sums it up:

The coming week could set a record for the number of high-profile hours spent discussing global warming and what to do about it. It begins with a special one-day session at the United Nations, at which Al Gore will press the case for strong collective action to stop the rise of greenhouse gases. It ends with a two-day White House “summit” involving all of the major emitters, including India and China. Both of those nations have been conspicuously absent from climate negotiations, but their help in arresting global emissions is essential.

The problem needs all the attention it can get. But if talk is good, it is also cheap. And it will change nothing unless it leads to a real treaty with real, and enforceable, limits on the production of greenhouse gases. That means a broader and more inclusive version of the Kyoto Protocol, a noble but flawed treaty that expires in 2012.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The complexity of ice melt

Over the past few months, the science media and those of us in the echo-chamber known as the blogosphere has been following the Arctic sea ice melt season with a fervour normally reserved for only for the hurricane season, and that arguably should also be applied to the summer fire season.

The chattering about this year’s record low may be giving the false impression that the Arctic sea ice dynamics are simple. A recent short paper in Geophysical Research Letters reminds us that the Arctic climate is complicated and the sea ice decline will not be smooth or orderly. The authors Jennifer Francis and Elias Hunter from Rutgers find that the factors influencing sea ice cover in the Bering Sea (that’s the Pacific side) and the Barents Sea (the Atlantic/Norwegian side) are quite different:

Between 1979 and 2005 in the Bering Sea, the ice edge is influenced mainly by anomalies in easterly winds associated with the Aleutian Low, which was particularly strong during the 1980s. The Barents Sea ice edge, in contrast, is driven primarily by two factors: anomalies in sea-surface temperature, particularly close in time to the maximum extent, and by southerly wind (from the south) anomalies integrated back to mid- and early winter. The hemispheric-mean decline in winter ice extent is due in large part to increasing sea-surface temperatures in the Barents Sea and adjoining waters, which are consistent with increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.

If you want a simple climate-ice connection, try a small temperate lake. There, mechanical (wind) action and ice dynamics have a relatively small effect on the areal ice coverage. The net accumulation of below-freezing temperatures in the fall is a very good indicator of the date of “ice on” – basically the inverse of how we predict coral bleaching. So when the late fall and early winter is warm, as happened last year in eastern North America, the lakes either freeze later or not at all. That’s little Muldrew Lake in the photo, with just an inch of slushy ice and snow on Dec. 28th of last year, to the consternation of those of us clutching hockey sticks. And the net accumulation of temperatures above freezing is a decent indicator of the date of “ice off”, though winter snowfall levels, winds and the non-linearity of albedo changes complicate matters a little bit.

Yes, limnologists do say “ice on” and “ice off” as if they are in a Canadian adaptation of the The Karate Kid. These days, it is probably safer for Ralph Macchio to clean the ice by hand. If this winter is as warm, I wouldn’t recommend driving a Zambonie out on the lake.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Delays on clean coal

This article about Saskatchewan Power withdrawing plans for a "clean coal" plant, because of rising costs and safety concerns, is an important reminder that implementing carbon capture and storage (CCS) at coal plants will not be easy. Many political, financial and logistical hurdles remain.


Monday, September 17, 2007

Franklin rises from the grave

"Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage,
to find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea."

Oh, if only John Franklin or Stan Rogers were still alive. The European Space Agency reported this weekend that ice-free passage from Europe to Asia is possible, causing all manner of excitement among climate change junkies, shipping companies, oil companies and sea kayakers.

I wouldn't blow your money on an Arctic sun cruise just yet. The Northwest Passage will probably freeze up or become blocked again in a matter of days or weeks. The real question is what happens next year, and in the years after that.

If you've got a hunch, lay down a bet with William Connolley.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Ice melt in Greenland

There's been plenty of discussion here and elsewhere about the current record lows for sea ice in the Arctic. A few days ago, the Guardian reported about evidence for rapid melting in Greenland as well this summer. The article reminded me of this picture I took in July of this meltwater pool on the slope of a east-flowing glacier in SE Greenland.

The IPCC's method for estimating of sea level rise do not account some of the processes that are now being observed and described in the article, particularly how meltwaters appear to be flowing to the bottom of the ice, effectively lubricating the path to the sea. There's a big push afoot to incorporate these more complex ice melt processes into global climate models. In a few years, the model predictions for sea level rise over the next century could be quite different.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Resolution at the APEC summit. Well, sort of.

The APEC nations have agreed on the expected deal (CNN/AP) on climate change and energy use.

Hmm. Note the many adjectives involve. Tentative (no one signed anything yet). Non-binding. Aspirational. Voluntary. Consensus-based.

Those words describes the deal best. The last one may jump out. The use of the term "consensus-based" implies that the alternative to this agreement, like a post-Kyoto plan involving all the nations party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, would not be consensus-based. It is setting up the straw man, much like saying [as Pres. Bush and PM Howard have] you desire a technology-based approach implies that others do not.

The Globe and Mail reports that Canada and Japan pushed for (a voluntary) 50% emissions reduction by 2050 goal though erroneously reports that the APEC leaders agreed on a 25% reduction by 2030. The agreement, as discussed here before, is for a 25% decrease in energy intensity.

I don't particularly enjoy repeating myself on this issue of intensity-based targets. But people keeps getting it wrong. Here's the key: An intensity-based target is not inherently evil. The problem is this target much those used in US policy and past Canadian government policy is, at best, a forecast of business-as-usual for the next 23 years. As such, it appears to be designed for show, and not much else.

So, presuming the APEC nations all sign the final agreement, the question remains: which is better, a weak deal or no deal at all? Is it better to have these reluctant nations put their names on something? Or will it undermine other efforts?


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Final word on the APEC summit

Forging an international climate change agreement that includes both China and the US was never going to be easy. And even an agreement with long-term emissions reduction targets might be ignored by future governments; just look at Canada's experience with Kyoto.

As I've been saying for in the past couple posts, there will be those that call the APEC Summit a success simply because it happened. Baby steps, right? There is some logic to that argument. Unless, that is, we are at a tipping point. Not for climate change, but for international climate policy. Then, the final word from Sydney and from the meeting in Washington later this month could push the political world down the wrong path and handcuff the efforts under the UNFCCC to set binding targets.

The text of Sydney Declaration on Climate Change and Energy is not much different from the draft leaked a few weeks ago. The APEC leaders did, however, manage to lift the already comical statement about aspirational goals to the height of absurdity.

We agree to work to achieve a common understanding on a long-term aspirational global emissions reduction goal to pave the way for an effective post-2012 international arrangement.

On the mountain of international climate policy, I'd say peak is a binding emissions target. Below the snowy, windy summit, amongst the alpine grasses and rising treeline might be a goal, which by most definitions, is a non-binding target. Further down, in the cloud forest, where el sapo dorado (the golden toad of Monteverde) teeters on the edge of extinction, you mind find an aspirational goal. At the bottom, in drying rainforest, might be a common understanding, which is somewhere short of an agreement, on an aspirational goal.

Unfortunately, this APEC statement does not even reach the level of our low-lying rainforest. If our policy mountain were a oceanic volcano, an agreement to work to achieve a common understanding on an aspirational goal would lie beneath the surface of the sea, where if nothing changes, it will be joined in several decades by the once-coastal villages.


Friday, September 07, 2007

Change in the climate of the APEC summit?

You might say the best case scenario for the climate is that the Asia-Pacific leaders fail to agree on a "Sydney Declaration" today. The likely agreement, a version of which leaked a couple weeks ago, would feature some nebulous technology and trade incentives and some very weak intensity-based or "aspirational" GHG emissions goals.

Such mitigation-light is a real danger. If the APEC summit succeeds in folding China, the US, Australia, Canada and others into a weak, non-binding greenhouse gas emissions plan, the UN efforts to assemble an aggressive post-Kyoto emissions reduction policy with actual science-based goals could be scuttled. One sign of hope is the Chinese preference for a UN-based climate change framework.

Even without an agreement, the danger is that the APEC summit and the upcoming US-planned summit in Washington will further the, for lack of a better, re-branding of international emissions policy. I'm struck by the language. Take for example, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's increasingly carefully worded statements: "strategies that are comprehensive, practical and realistic". They sound sensible, unless the objective is a long-term plan that avoids dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Another example was yesterday's Washington Post, reporting the false dichotomy that the US President Bush and Australian PM John Howard support a "technology approach" over a Kyoto-style approach, as if Kyoto requires going back to horse-drawn carriages.

If anything of value comes out of the APEC summit, it is that we have reached the point where the major world leaders all feel compelled, whether by science or by politics, to at least claim a serious desire to combat climate change [one reason why he won't have a chance to join the club, Law and Order reruns or not]. And this hilarious evidence of just how much the world trusts Canadians.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

To offset or not to offset

There is lots of furor over the ethics and the efficacy of carbon offsets. Personally, I doubt the validity of many of the offsets; it is a mystery how there can be be so many opportunities to purchase carbon offsets today, yet at the same time, few major programs that are substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions. When asked, I sometimes suggest people look at purchasing offsets (from certain organizations not these lunatics) like donating money to a worthwhile cause.

Bad advice? Gar Lipow at Gristmill picked up on this story in the Times of London that makes it seem as though offset business is on a slippery slope to slavery :

When David Cameron flew to India to open a JCB factory for a party donor, green-thinking supporters could rest assured that his visit would be carbon neutral. “We are offsetting all our emissions through Climate Care,” the Tory leader wrote on his blog. “As well as planting trees, they also invest in renewable energy projects in the developing world.”

Somewhere in the Indian countryside, a farmer is about to repay Mr Cameron’s debt to the planet. Climate Care’s latest enterprise is to provide “treadle pumps” to poor rural families so they can get water on to their land without using diesel power. The pumps are worked by stepping on pedals. If a peasant treads for two hours a day, it will take at least three years to offset the CO2 from Mr Cameron’s return flight to India.

If nothing else, that paragraph captures the vast income inequality. Let the angst and arguing begin.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Arctic sea ice continues to set records

Traveling from the tropics back to the poles:

The extent of sea ice in the Arctic continues set records. This map from the National Snow and Ice Data Center from Sept 3rd shows the sea ice at 4.42 million square kilometers, already far below the lowest recorded value of 5.32 million square kilometers from Sept 20-21, 2005. The pink line on the map is the median extent.

Just incredible. If you're looking for just one sign of dramatic climate change, one that follows from our basic understanding of the climate system and the exchange of heat between the planet's surface and the atmosphere, and one that may be out-pacing all of our predictions, skip all the complicated questions about hurricane frequency and intensity, and look at the precipitous drop in the extent of Arctic sea ice. May the flag planting continue...


Monday, September 03, 2007

The odd couple: hurricanes and coral bleaching

The Atlantic hurricane season is like the baseball season. Officially, it officially begins in the spring. Every year, the fans get all riled up for opening day. They then spend the subsequent months disappointed by the lack of drama and begin calling for the team to fire its manager (or hurricane forecaster). When the summer starts to wind down, the fans are reminded, once again, that all the big (ok, regular season) games tend to happen in late August and September.

With a trail of wreckage from Dean and Felix bearing down on Honduras and Belize (right), once again we're being reminded that hurricane activity often peaks right around now. Not in June, the time of the first peak in hurricane media coverage. Not in July, when everyone starts whining about the hurricane forecast. It happens in late August and September, when ocean temperatures in the tropical north Atlantic and the Caribbean tend to peak.

Coral bleaching events also happen during the annual peak in sea surface temperatures (SSTs). There are key differences, of course. Bleaching is driven largely by anomalously warm SSTs; UV light levels play a crucial role as well, although since the two variables tend to be correlated, temperature is a decent proxy. Hurricanes, on the other hand, are driven by a variety of factors, of which, the SSTs are only one.

You could say the ongoing furor over human-induced climate change in hurricane activity - the subject of Chris Mooney's recent book - is centered on this problem. The climate change --> warmer SSTs link is more or less straight-forward to test. The warmer SSTs --> more intense or more frequent storms is not. So, for example, the role of climate change in the 2005 Caribbean bleaching event, as we did in the paper published earlier this year, can be evaluated with more certainty than evaluating the role of climate change in the 2005 hurricane season.

While the SST link to hurricanes is more complicated than that to coral bleaching, it is not a complete surprise that strong hurricanes and coral bleaching events often occur in the same places each year. This year, there's been bleaching off Oman, near the region hit by Cyclone Gonu; in northern Madagascar, an area hit by a sequence of cyclones; in Okinawa, near the areas where typhoons have passed. So, the NOAA Coral Reef Watch data products like the Hotspot or DHW animations give a picture of the development of bleaching events and also a very rough idea of places that have experienced major hurricanes (try comparing the animations to this Google map of strong 2007 hurricanes). You can see that although thermal stress on corals is too low in much of the central and southern Caribbean where Dean and Felix have passed to cause coral bleaching, but temperatures are still above normal.

Like other odd couples, the combination of a coral bleaching event and a hurricane can be an utter disaster for the inhabitants of the area (e.g., corals weakened or killed by bleaching are then broken apart by the wave activity). A paper published earlier this year found an example of an opposite effect; cold water upwelling caused by the passage of hurricanes in 2005 reduced the thermal pressure on corals in the US Virgin Islands. Of course, the 2005 hurricanes and the bleaching were both driven by the warm water, so perhaps we would not have had one event without the other.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Coral decline in the Indo-Pacific

The decline of coral reefs has entered the literary world: a recent New Yorker featured Kimiko Hahn’s poem The Fever about coral bleaching. Take a look before it disappears from the online site.

The poem includes the passage "I wonder if it’s, yet again, the ozone layer". Hopefully the author is playing off the history human impacts on the environment not suggesting ozone depletion is the cause of coral bleaching. UV light does play a role; thankfully no corals are growing on the shores of Antarctica.

The poem's appearance is well-timed. First, in the past month, there have been warm-water anomalies in Florida, in Okinawa (Ishigaki) and the Northern Mariana Islands. In each case, people on the ground reported coral bleaching was underway. The predictive ability never ceases to amaze me. You can see the temperatures maps at NOAA's Coral Reef Watch (the data is best visualized using Google Earth).

Second, the IPCC's full Working Group II report - that's the climate change impacts section - is now available. The impact of climate change on corals reefs is one of several "cross-cutting" themes including the impact of climate change on coral reefs. Rather than look flip through the 20 chapters of the full report for information about corals, you can just read the case studies at the end (scroll down, it is before the appendix). The summary is a pretty solid survey of the science; unfortunately, since the IPCC report was finished a while back and could not include some more recent results.

Third, a terrific meta-analysis by John Bruno and Elizabeth Selig of UNC published a few weeks ago in the free (yes, free to anyone) online journal Public Library of Science documents the decline of coral cover across the Indo-Pacific. Bruno and Selig went through the arduous task of analysing every survey of coral cover conducted in the past 40 years. They found coral cover across Indo-Pacific reefs may have declined from over 40% in the 1980s to closer to 20% today. The method of averaging the data over such a large area may be questioned; there may be bias in where we choose to study corals. But the study makes it very clear that coral cover is decreasing. The paper has caused quite a stir (see Coral Bones and Climate Shifts for some accessible discussion).

The decline is believed to be caused by the usual suspects: overfishing, destructive fishing practices, disease, pollution / sedimentation, and coral bleaching due to rising ocean temperatures. The gradual decline in coral cover may seem to point to the direct human threats rather than coral bleaching, the rationale being that coral bleaching events like the 1997/1998 event are widespread and should result in step changes in coral cover (punctuated equilibrium over gradualism?). A tempting argument, but the data does not support it.

In truth, individual events are never that widespread. Coral bleaching has yet to occur in concert across globe or even across the massive and diverse region in the Bruno and Selig study. For example, the famed 1997/1998 was not really global: events occurred in the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, and parts of the Pacific, due in part to El Nino. The "Indo-Pacific" covers SE Asia and Australia east to Tahiti, an area largely not affected by the 1997/1998 El Nino (the W Pacific is, if anything, cooler during El Nino events; bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef happened when the Pacific flipped to La Nina conditions in 1998).

So, if bleaching was a major cause of a decrease in coral cover, a gradual decline, not a step change, in total average coral cover for a large region, or for the entire globe, is exactly what we should expect to see. That's not to say bleaching is "the" cause, rather one of the causes.

This year, the N Marianas and Okinawa. Next year?


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Cleantech Collective

I wanted to spread the word about the launch of the Cleantech Collective,
an exciting new online forum for people interested in or working on sustainability and clean energy:

"Cleantech Collective is a moderated online business community for clean tech investors, entrepreneurs, policymakers and concerned citizens. If that's you, sign up and start building a personal network with your peers and leading environmental experts...create a profile and promote your business...submit your own content, rate posts and leave comments... get advice you can use from the web's leading experts on clean technology."


Leak of Asia-Pacific climate policy

Apparently I’m not the only one talking about energy intensity.

A draft of the climate change declaration prepared by the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) Forum, which includes the US, Australia, China and others, was leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald last week. It is to be officially released next month, at a meeting oh so conveniently timed to coincide with the initial UN meetings on a post-Kyoto climate agreement.

The declaration – you can read it here – is a remarkably evasive document (if it is genuine...). It takes real craftsmanship to construct something like this.

The opening includes a call for a future global climate change framework based on a list of eight principles, none of which include the terms “greenhouse gas emissions”, “carbon emissions”, or for that matter, “climate change”. Then, betraying its roots in Bush Administration policy, the document calls for APEC nations to:

Agree that a long-term aspirational global emissions reduction goal will be a key component of the post-2012 framework

Aspirational, a word straight from the U.S. Government lexicon. As in I aspire to run the 100 m in 9.75 and reclaim rightful Canadian ownership over the record. And, am I paranoid, or is the use of the general term emissions, rather than greenhouse gas emissions, a trick used by the Conservative Government in Canada last year, just a wee bit suspicious?

But back to energy intensity. One of the few numerical targets is a 25% reduction in energy intensity by 2030. As I discussed recently, energy intensity or the energy use per dollar of GDP, has been declining for decades. Looking back at the graph of global energy intensity and emissions intensity over time, the global energy intensity actually decreased by 26% from1985 to 1995 (the last decade for which I have uninterrupted data; the IPCC reports a 33% drop from 1970 to 2004).

A 25% reduction in energy intensity, essentially producing more income with less energy is important, yes. Especially in China and India. But is it an accomplishment? No. Like the US and Canadian targets based on emissions intensity, this target is a farce. It is destined to happen with or without a "climate" policy. The real advance, as the graph shows, would be a decrease in the greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy production.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Reporting and promoting science

Science sells these days. In the push for advertising dollars and readership, the conventional and electronic media strive to link new scientific results to the pressing issues of the day.

And, to be fair, in the push for tenure and grant dollars, we academics can be guilty of the same. The holy grail used to be getting a paper in Nature or Science. Now it is getting a paper in Nature or Science so that the paper will be reported on CNN or the BBC.

The intent, in either case, can be benign. A lot of the published science today, on subjects like climate change, is important news. But in the effort to "frame" - to use the terminology in the Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney article that created buzz earlier this year - science for public and political consumption, a lot of mistakes are being made. It ranges from the inaccurate reporting and questionable publicity of the mythical lake that would resolve the very real crisis in Darfur to outright abuse of statistics to throw stones at solid science.

Take these three recent headlines... please.

1) Red faces at NASA over climate-change blunder

I call this is a "false positive". There's been a huge and unnecessary uproar over the discovery of a minor mathematical error in the NASA GISS historical temperature dataset. The error means that 1998 was no in fact the warmest year in US history, but is tied with 1934. As the NASA scientists themselves report (pdf), the error has a negligible impact on the global temperature, no impact on global rankings of the warmest years, and absolutely no impact on the evidence for human influence on the climate (see Tamino or Realclimate for details).

2) Warming will pause then full steam ahead, scientists contend

This is the "we didn't read the whole paper". These reports of a "global warming" forecast for the next decade come from a innovative short-term climate modeling study published in Science. The goal of the study was to test the ability to predict climate on decadal or shorter time-scales, a specially developed climate model that explicitly considers the frequency of large-scale atmosphere-ocean oscillations like El Nino (see Tamino). At the end of the study, after a lengthy model validation against observed data from the recent past, the authors discuss the model's predictions for the next ten years, stressing they are contingent on stochastic variables like the occurrence of El Ninos. The headlines made it seem as though the scientific community had confidently concluded that 'warming will pause' for a couple years.

3) Trees won't fix global warming

And finally, "we just didn't understand the paper". The headlines are based on research, presented at last week's ESA meeting, from Duke University's Free Air Carbon Enrichment (FACE) site, where scientists have been testing the effect of higher CO2 levels on tree growth for the past ten years. In the past, scientists had thought that higher atmospheric CO2 would effectively 'fertilize' plants. The Duke experiments showed that this fertilization effect was limited by the availability of water and nutrients (press release). In an effort to link the result to a public issue - carbon offsets - the media stories reported that new research shows planting trees won't work to combat global warming. In other words, planting trees won't take up ANY carbon. Of course it would; all that wood is made of carbon, where else could it come from? The Duke research only showed that there won’t be an extra growth bump because there’s more CO2 levels in the air, not that there won't be any growth at all.

This is the danger of popularizing science. As we saw with the coverage of the Darfur Lake, more attention was given to the initial headline than to the later reports that the 'lake' did not in fact hold any water. Unfortunately, with such quick turnaround in reporting, it is vital that all of us, the one's doing the research, the one's writing the press releases and the one's writing the news story, get it right the first time. It's not a trivial task. But otherwise, these misrepresentations (about global temperature) or misintepretations (about short-term climate prediction) or mistakes (about trees and carbon) make it into the public consciousness.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Arctic sea ice about to set record / Photo of the week

In case you missed it, William Chapman of the University of Illinois reported last week (on his site Cryosphere Today) that Arctic sea ice has, or will very soon, reach an all-time low, breaking the previous record low in 2005.
Skeptics are awaiting the results of the sea ice's blood test.

The news reminded me of this photo of the east coast Greenland I took a few weeks ago. This is well south of the sea ice limit, but as you can see, there are plenty of icebergs (leftovers from winter ice? Products of calving ice shelves / land ice on the coast?)

The National Snow and Ice Data Center disagrees Chapman's exact data - it uses a different averaging method - but concurs that the sea ice will reach a record minimum before the melt season is over. The Center even started a news site devoted entirely to covering the finer points of the ice melt season. It's a climate junkies dream: not only can you track the bleaching of corals and tropical storms online every day of the week, you can now watch the ice melt too. I'm waiting for the all global warming cable channel, with the 24-7 climate news ticker.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Energy intensity and the challenge that lies ahead

A passage about "energy intensity" in the, er, cheery Thomas Homer-Dixon book The Upside of Down got me thinking more about the historical trend in GHG emissions intensity.

For new readers, a couple months back I showed that the globally-averaged emissions intensity has been decreasing for decades even though the total emissions were increasing. In other words, the economy has been expanding faster than GHG emissions. Therefore, a future emissions target based on the rate of emissions per economic production, as was proposed in Canada, would allow total emissions to increase.

It is instructive to break the long-term trend in global emissions intensity into two component parts: the energy intensity, the energy use per unit of GDP, and the "GHG efficiency" of energy use, the GHG emissions per unit energy production. It is done below using energy data from the
History Database of the Global Environment (similar analysis has been done for the recent past by the IPCC's WG III and by Informetrica for Canada alone).

The graph shows that the emissions per unit energy - the blue line - has been relative stable since the Industrial Revolution. The energy intensity- the green line - mirrors the original emissions intensity curve. It peaked in the 1920s and has been decreasing since.

In other words, the emissions intensity has been falling for the past eighty years because we’ve been producing more stuff with less energy not because we’ve become more efficient, emissions-wise, at producing energy. Over the past three decades, world energy production has actually became less GHG efficient due largely to increased energy use in Asia. Emissions intensity decreased during this time only because, as a planet, we were able to produce more income with less energy.

The graph is useful for articulating the challenge that lies ahead. Since it will take time to rebuild the existing energy production infrastructure ("slow turnover of capital stock"), becoming more energy efficient, producing more stuff with less energy is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the short-term. That's the green line. But to achieve the long-term emissions reductions (ie. like these proposals) required to avoid dangerous interference with the climate, we'll need to move the blue line. In other words, we'll need to radically change the way be produce, not just use, energy. And, again, with the slow "turnover of capital stock", we need to start planning as soon as possible.


Monday, August 06, 2007

US Energy Bill passes, for now

The US Congress passed the broad and controversial Energy Bill on Saturday. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill over the cuts in oil subsidies and the 15% renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for utilities.

The utilities' anti-RPS argument is that renewable energy potential is low in some parts around the country. It has caught on with the media. As CNN puts it:

Utilities in Southeast and Midwest states that lack wind currents needed to justify new wind turbines would have to pay billions of dollars in penalties to comply with the rules.

Yes, wind energy potential varies geographically. The South would be at a disadvantage if wind were the only form of renewable energy available. The midwest, however, should have some of the highest wind energy potential in the country. And as long as the planet is receiving energy from the sun, there will be at least some wind currents everywhere.


Friday, August 03, 2007

US Congress to debate Energy Bill

The US Congress is debating an Energy Bill today (HR 3221 – read it here). It is different from the recently passed Senate Energy Bill in a number of ways.

The most publicized difference: this Bill does not set new CAFE standards, not even the inadequate new standards in the Senate Bill. This is thanks to opposition from Democrats like John Dingell, a thorn in CAFE’s paw for years. Dingell’s op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post pulls a bait and switch, supporting a carbon tax but not mentioning CAFE by name. He should read this article from the New Yorker which is summarized in a comment a couple weeks back.

Otherwise, the bill is a grab-bag of different projects, many good (testing photovoltaic roofs), many oddly specific (no incandescent lights on coast guard vessels), many that will be labeled pork barrel (money for some rather specific biofuel programs) and many that will cause a double-take (a line item study on ice sheets!).

And then there is this:

Sec. 6102. MANAGEMENT OF FEDERAL GOVERNMENT GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS… so as to achieve zero net annual greenhouse gas emissions from the agencies by fiscal year 2050.”

Yep, the bills says all US government operations are to be carbon neutral by 2050. As the NY Times reports, that would include the Pentagon. Let’s just hope this isn’t used as an argument to shift to nuclear, rather than conventional, warfare.

That is one area where Iraq is leading the US; as Eli points out, if the present trend continues, electricity generation in Baghdad will become carbon neutral by the end of 2008.

UPDATE: President Bush has threatened to veto the bill.


Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A good tool for calculating your emissions

If you're looking for a carbon calculator, try this one put together by the Berkeley Institute for the Environment (thanks to Atmoz for the tip). Unlike most of the calculators out there, it does more than multiply the # of miles your drive and fly by some factors and spit out in answer. It considers several forms of transport, home heating and electricity, the food you eat and even how you spend the rest of your money, then compares your results to the American and world average.

My estimated personal emissions in the past year were nothing to be proud of, thanks almost entirely to twice flying halfway around the planet and back. Coming back always gets you. I take little solace in the fact that my emissions total was still less than the average American, even in the transport category. Instead, I take two lessons: a) studying the effect of climate change on the environment often contributes to the problem, no surprise there, and b) transportation is so stunningly inefficient in this country that someone can circle the planet twice and still produce less greenhouse gas emissions than the average American.

As for the calculator, my only beef is the, er, beef. Emissions from consuming red meat and consuming dairy are similar (per $ spent), so a lacto-ovo vegetarian may end up with similar or higher food-related emissions than a regular at Mel's Char Palace. From all the research we've done, dairy is much more efficient, in terms of the grams of feed required to create a gram of food, for the simple reason that milking doesn't kill a cow. This point that seems to be missed a lot; the source of greenhouse gas emissions from meat is not the animal itself, but all the energy that went into growing the crops that are then fed to the animal.


Monday, July 30, 2007

Still no lake beneath Darfur

As Chevy Chase would say, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

In case you missed it, there is no miracle lake lying under the sands of Sudan. Unintentional or not, the development of the lake story is like a case study in Spin 101.

First, a (presumably unintentional) misleading press release. Second, some seriously sloppy media coverage. As the Columbia Journalism Review puts it "no reporter stopped to ask, is there water in the lake?" Third, the initial story finally gets the deserved, well-researched debunking in Nature, but it is too late, it is last week's news already. The result: the real story receives virtually no media attention.

I'm surprised the science blogosphere hasn't been screaming more about this. Wonder how all those scientific mistruths, like the crazy arguments used by climate change 'skeptics', entered the public conscience? Here you go. Ancient Lake Darfur, Exhibit A.


Dead Zone in Gulf is third largest since 1985

Though I'm reticent to link to any news article under the cable-TV-news-ish heading "Planet in Peril", CNN reports that this summer's Gulf of Mexico dead zone has been measured at about 20, 460 km2 in size. That makes it the third largest since measurement began in 1985.

The hypoxic zone was expected to be unusually large this year because of the high flux of nitrogen -- the nutrient that fuels the high productivity on the continental shelf that leads to the consumption of oxygen from the bottom waters -- from the Mississippi River this spring. The blame can likely be placed on the weather and possibly even the increase in corn planting (due to high prices / ethanol demand).

Now off to grab my cape. The planet is in peril.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

The mythical lake beneath Darfur

A news article in Nature mercifully explains the reality behind these crazy new stories about a "lake" underneath Darfur.

It is not a lake. Despite what was reported last week, nobody is going to drill down a few metres under the sand and find a massive body of freshwater. What the Boston University scientists found, using ground-penetrating satellite observations, was essentially an underground depression that signifies that a body of water likely existed underneath northern Sudan at sometime in the past.

Every aspect of the publicity of this story was disturbing.

First, the press release from Boston University was misleading, at best. It should have been explicit, right up front, that the scientists discovered a dry ancient lake bed beneath the sands, and hope that water from that lake might still be found in the adjoining rock.

From Nature:

The media's portrayal of a lake that actually contains water now stems from the way the Boston group presented its claims, says Mohamed Abubuker, an official at the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources in Khartoum. "The general public in Sudan, and even some very high-ranking officials, came to believe that what has been discovered is literally a lake — perhaps even with fish in it," he says. "The way El-Baz presented his efforts helped consolidate this misconception. It was like a political rally for a presidency run-up rather than
a scientific portrayal of facts."

El-Baz contests this allegation. "It is incomprehensible for anyone to think it is a physical lake," he says, adding that he consistently made it clear that his argument was that the lake's water would have seeped through the sandstone substrate to accumulate as groundwater, and that drilling the sandstone under and around the ancient lake could yield fresh water.

Even the coverage and Sudanese response is all an honest misunderstanding, this is what happens publicity of science trumps the science itself. It is clear from the strong negative reaction from other geologists and scientists with expertise on the region that there are legitimate concerns about the study's conclusions:

Geologists argue that the rocks beneath and around the ancient lake are no more likely to hold water than those elsewhere in the Nubian aquifer. "Nearly everywhere it is present in Egypt the Nubian sandstone is water-bearing, so it is a matter of simple common sense that it would be the first place to look for significant groundwater reserves in Sudan," says Neil Sturchio, a geologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, who describes the lake story as "hype".

There may actually be less chance of finding substantial water in the lake vicinity in northern Darfur than elsewhere on the aquifer. Although the porous, water-retaining sandstone aquifer is up to 3,500 metres thick at its northern fringes in Egypt, it thins to just a few hundred metres in northern Darfur, its southernmost reach.

Second, the press release begat these buoyant but almost comically naive stories about science saving Darfur. Even if Lake Superior was discovered five metres below the surface, it would not alone "bring peace" to the region. As was discussed here last week, the drying of the Sahel helped set the climate, there's a reason that word has dual meanings, for the current conflict. But it is not simple cause and effect. Opening a faucet won't end things tomorrow.

Is this merely a series of mis-communications? Is it a case of well-meaning people hoping to help an embattled part of the world? Or it it a case of scientists seeking publicity and of a hyperactive media not properly vetting stories? You tell me.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

New online voice on coral reefs and climate change

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg's new blog Climate Shifts is a welcome addition to the online coverage of climate change and coral reefs. Ove is one of the world's top experts on the subject; his 1999 paper on climate change and coral bleaching (in the Aussie journal Marine and Freshwater Research) helped bring the problem to the attention of the public and other scientists, myself included.

The comments after recent post on the ridiculous documentary "The Great Barrier Reef Swindle" (not to be confused with the equally ridiculous "The Great Global Warming Swindle", how about the great title swindle?) reflects the contentious debate with the coral reef science community on the right way to discuss the existential threat climate change appears to pose to many of the world's reefs. Some experts think we're fixing the place settings on the Titanic, so to speak, by not screaming about the climate change threat more. Others disagree.

Our friend Caspar Henderson in the UK picked out the astute comment from Charles Sheppard, who literally wrote the book on Indian Ocean corals. I'll do the same:

I think the media (and some simple scientists it seems!) can’t grasp the difference between species extinction (as in Dodo, Sabre-Tooth Tiger etc) and ecological extinction (as in the system is too broken to work any more). One remaining oak tree in a clear-felled mud-scape is not species extinction of the oak, but the forest doesn't do foresty things any more.

I have recently returned (again) from a very heat stressed region of the coral reef world - Arabian/Persian Gulf - and dived for many hours on once rich reefs. I saw a live coral at intervals of perhaps 20 or 50 metres apart, the rest being dead. That is zero coral cover to the nearest whole number, but it is still not species-extinct. You would need to measure cover to about 0.0001% to register a positive number there. But then, to how many decimal places do we need to measure ‘dead’? Answer: to many, if you are looking to confirm species extinction, but none at all if you want to determine whether you still have a reef.