Thursday, May 31, 2007

Moving forward on climate change, backwards on evolution

President Bush announced that the US will push for global greenhouse gas emissions targets (correction: the word is "goals") in a post-Kyoto framework by the end of the year. It may be cynical attempt to undermine the G8 summit and the other post-Kyoto plans. Even if so, the fact that the Bush Administration feels it necessary to be so openly disruptive is a sign they are concerned that the other G8 members could actually be successful in advancing a post-Kyoto strategy. A moral victory, either way.

While I'm hesitant to veer off my main topic into the head-scratching debate in this country about evolution, the op-ed piece by Republican Presidential candidate Sam Brownback in today's NY Times requires a response, other than the spit-take I performed while reading it.

In a recent post, I wrote:

... the ten Republican candidates for President were asked if “anyone here does NOT believe in evolution”. Three of the candidates raised their hands.

Brownback was door #3. The column, presumably intended as self-defense, tries, and fails miserably, to show how faith and reason can peacefully co-exist:

The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths.

Hmmm. You see, Brownback believes in evolution, just not the "exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence". The column about bridging science and faith devolves to this:

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Don't worry America, I'll defend you from the immoral scientific hordes.

That doesn't sound like science, or even like religion, which is analyzed and questioned by theologians every day. It sounds like irrational fundamentalism.

In essence, his thesis is: religion, or his religion, is the truth, and cannot be questioned. Aspects of that theory should be firmly rejected as theology posing as science.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

The danger of a one year drop in US emissions

The Washington Post reports that US carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 1.3% in 2006.

A good sign? Perhaps. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration is attributing the change to "effectively confronting the important challenge of global climate change through regulations, public-private partnerships, incentives, and strong economic investment."

Oy. Just as we can't look at one warm year and declare global warming has happened, we can't look at a one year drop and claim an emissions policy is working. CO2 emissions vary year-to-year because of the weather (reduced heating required during the warm winter), changes in the economy (higher gas prices, less fuel use), etc. There's no evidence any Bush administration initiatives, it's not even clear what policies or investments that statement could possibly be referring to, are having any measurable effect on emissions.

The danger, here, is that the one-year drop may convince some people the US is on the right track. Cover your ears as that 1.3% is tossed about by opponents to federal emissions controls during the impending debate over climate legislation in the US Congress.


Monday, May 21, 2007

A climate policy lesson, courtesy of Monty Python

Every once in a while, a story or news item reminds me of the classic Monty Python skit “Four Yorkshiremen” in which Eric Idle et al one-upped each other with increasingly absurd tales of their tough upbringings.

“House! You were lucky to live in a house! We used to live in one room, all twenty-six of us, no furniture, 'alf the floor was missing, and we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of falling. “

Eh, you were lucky to have a room! We used to have to live in the corridor!

Oh, we used to dream of livin' in a corridor! Would ha' been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woke up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us!“

Usually, it takes an exaggerated tales of climatic hardship, the old I-remember-when, to conjure up memories of John Cleese intoning “Well, when I say it was a house it was only a hole in the ground covered by a tarpaulin, but it was a house to us”.

You know those conversations. Ah, kids today have it easy. When I was young, we battled – 30 C temperatures and mountains of snow every day on the walk to school (granted, my parents grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, it is entirely possibly some of those stories are true).

Last week, however, it was Presidential Candidate Bill Richardson’s climate and energy plan that reminded me of Cleese and the gang. Richardson’s plan is easily the most aggressive of all the candidates, thus far. Following a cue from Al Gore, he calls for a 90% reduction in GHG emissions by the year 2050 (and 80% by 2040).

Not 50% below 1990 levels, as may be proposed, er, and rejected by guess who, at the G8 summit. Not 60%, like the British plan. Not even 80%, a la those nutty West Coasters California and British Columbia.

Ninety percent.

I applaud the effort. I applaud the recognition that we must aggressively reduce GHG emissions to avoid the dangerous long-term implications of climate change. What follows is not a criticism of Richardson, persay, but of the current, er, climate of climate policy in the US. As I wrote last year, I fear that in an effort to attract the green, and I mean the environment AND the almighty dollar, vote, politics is descending into Python-dom. What’s next? “As a show of dedication to the cause, I pledge not to exhale CO2 during this campaign”?

First off, the specific 90% pledge, well-intentioned or not, is I suspect a bit of showmanship. The baseline for most emissions projections, for international policy, is usually 1990. The older 50-60% reduction targets, and often the 80% targets, are based on the 1990 baseline. The 90%? The baseline, presumably, is today. In that case, the total emissions reduction (for the US) is similar to an 80% reduction from 1990 levels.

Regardless, the candidates engaged in a bout of climatic chest-bumping would be wise to learn a lesson from Canada. Yes, we need national targets. But as Canada’s haphazard Kyoto promise has clearly demonstrated, a target is not enough, nor is an implementation plan full of lofty goals. Former PM Chretien pledged to a 6% reduction target under Kyoto, rather than the 0-3% agreed to with the provinces, purely to match the US (and, yes, to use a British-ism, Canada was snookered). Not only was no serious plan for meeting that, or the lesser target, the one-up-man-ship alienated the provinces and seeded the ongoing discord.

A pledge to aggressively reduce greenhouse gases should not be made lightly, in the heat of a campaign. And a pledge to aggressively reduce greenhouse gases cannot be one of a hundred campaign promises. It goes to the root of energy, of transportation, of agriculture, of industry. If it is to work, if it is to happen, it must be a central organizing theme of the government, it must underlie all policies and programs.

The actual target is important -- I’ve been hammering the Canadian government on this point for three years. We Canucks like to gripe about how Canada is ignored by the US. This is one time that Americans could really learn from Canada - Canada's mistake. If one hopes to actually reach, or even approach, an aggressive target, be it a 60% reduction, or a 90% reduction, that target can’t be a part of the policy package, it can't start only as a way to win votes. The target has to lead off off every speech, every policy declaration, every conversation the candidates have.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Speaking with students about climate change

A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to talk about climate change to an auditorium full of high school students in northern New Jersey. The students showed a surprising amount of interest in my presentation; in high school, I could barely stay awake during class. But these students were alert, they asked questions, and many stayed afterwards to thank me for explaining the basics of the science.

The next week, I spoke again about climate change to a group of high school science supervisors from around the state. Inspired by the experience with the packed auditorium, I settled on a core message, which went more or less like this:

"Like it or not, the life of your students will be defined in large part by climate change. They will experience the impacts of climate change. And their generation, along with mine, will be responsible for coping with and/or solving the problem.

Whatever their chosen path in life, whether they become mechanics, scientists, architects, farmers, government workers, you name it, climate change and the effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change, will in many ways define their lives.

If students do not learn the science and the evidence in a formal, organized way, as can happen only in school, we are not only doing the world a disservice, we are doing them a disservice."

Naturally, this led to a discussion about the oft-proposed solution of showing An Inconvenient Truth in schools. Many of the teachers and supervisors spoke openly about their concerns with the film. I think it is an ideal film for a current events or social studies class. It can be a springboard for discussions on crucial topics like the ethics of climate change, the balance between adaptation and mitigation, how science should be used by society, etc.

My feeling is that it should not, however, be shown in science class. Not because Al Gore botches the science: the basic explanation of climate change in the first half of the film is quite good and not terribly different from what I often present myself (although the discussion of impacts in the second half is too loose and vague about timing of things like sea level rise). But because we don’t teach use popular films to teach students the guts of Newtonian physics or Mendelian genetics*.

We shouldn’t here either. Students can, and should, learn about the climate and climate change the way all science is taught. Classroom lectures, problem sets, tests, essays, etc. Unlike people in the working world, the students of today have the great opportunity to learn about climate change in an organized fashion, in school, rather than in the public sphere, where the science is warped by media bias, by overly "framing" science, or by political rhetoric.

* A blog footnote: My first instinct in writing that sentence was to use evolution as an example of a pillar of science education. Sadly, that is not true in much of this country. In a recent debate, the ten Republican candidates for President were asked if “anyone here does NOT believe in evolution”. Three of the candidates raised their hands. I admit I did too, though only to smack myself on the forehead.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The IPCC on emissions intensity

The IPCC Working Group III report – the one on mitigation and adaptation – contains some more interesting data on emissions intensity. Once again, emissions intensity is a handy concept for comparing economic efficiency, but a pointless metric for climate and emissions policy.

The report summary explains that world GHG emissions increased by 70% from 1970 to 2004, a statement widely referenced by the press. The next line of the report, not as widely referenced, explains that despite this GHG emissions increase, there was a 33% decrease in energy intensity (energy supply per $GDP) and 40% decrease in emissions intensity (emissions per $ GDP) over the same time period. As I’ve been arguing for weeks, both here and over at Worldchanging, it is important to read the IPCC summary reports yourself.

So I’ll say it again. Emissions intensity naturally decreases over time, even as total emissions increase. Setting an intensity-based target is a foolish way to reduce total emissions. And, yes, I intend to keep hammering away at this point until emissions intensity is removed from North American policy.

The above figure from the IPCC report shows that the more economically developed countries tend to have lower emissions intensity (on the y-axis). In other words, as the economy develops, it tends to become more greenhouse gas efficient. The graph also shows that emissions intensity is much higher in the US and Canada than in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the EU. You could argue that reducing emissions should be “easier” for the US and Canada because we are less greenhouse gas efficient than other countries at a similar stage of economic development. While there is some truth to that argument, it ignores the large differences in sources of emissions in North America (e.g., large energy production) than in Europe.

What about China? Bucking the global trend, the emissions intensity in China has increased in the past decade. As the IPCC reports, the economic boom has been fueled by dramatic increases in coal and other carbon-based fuels. This is not surprising – it is just what happened in the west during the Industrial Revolution (see here). Emissions and emissions intensity rose until the early 1900s. Economic growth and emissions then began to decouple – emissions continued to soar, but the economy grew even faster.

If anything, the fact that China is bucking the global trend demonstrates the tremendous lack of leadership from western nations on this issue. Rather than learn from our experience, China is reliving it.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Let the wrangling begin

US President Bush has announced that he will push lawmakers to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, as was more or less required by a recent Supreme Court decision.

This should be a momentous day. Unfortunately, with the track record of the Bush Administration on this issue, it is hard to know what this announcement will actually mean.

In the coming days and weeks, there will be much debate about the merit of market-based strategies vs. actual standards and regulations. There will also be, at least there should be, much consternation about the long-term consequences of 'mitigation-light' (ie. weak emission reductions legislation that falsely convinces that public and lawmakers that climate change is being 'solved').

It is too soon to predict. Hopefully, with all that has come to pass in North America over the past several years, and with the public pasting that the Canadian government has taken on climate policy, the Bush Administration and Congress will at least have the sense not to use intensity-based emissions targets this time.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Climate change and the limits of reef restoration

Last week's NY Times had a feature article on coral reef restoration, namely growing corals in tanks and transplanting them to degraded reefs. This was my response, printed in today's Science Times:

Re “Coral Is Dying. Can It Be Reborn?” (May 1): The coral farming and transplantation efforts described in Cornelia Dean’s article may prove useful in restoring individual patches of reef in popular tourist sites. However, such labor-intensive and costly coral reef restoration work is no match for the threat that global climate change poses to coral reefs worldwide.

Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world who depend on coral reefs for food, income and shelter from ocean waves will suffer. Perhaps we should focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, rather than protecting our favorite dive spots.

We should not delude ourselves into thinking that we can regenerate the world's coral reefs by transplantation. The article alludes to that point (and includes some good quotes from Nancy Knowlton) but the grand headline and large photos give another impression.

What the article misses entirely is the inequity of restoration efforts. This is an example of where the developing world is not only experiencing greater impacts of climate change, it is receiving less of the adaptation money.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Emissions intensity: Declining for decades

In case you are still not convinced that the emissions intensity concept is a sham, take a look at this graph.

In fact, don’t just look at it. E-mail a copy to the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Or fax it to the Environment Minister. Or walk around Ottawa with it stapled to your forehead (er, ok, you can use tape instead).

I’ve calculated the change in global emissions intensity since 1750, using data on manmade CO2 emissions by (Oak Ridges National Lab) and a recreation of world GDP expressed in 1990 dollars.

The data is not perfect. Obviously the 1800 GDP is an estimate. But it demonstrates the point. Emissions intensity increased during the industrial revolution, as the world learned how to burn coal, drilling for, etc. Afterwards, we became more efficient in the way we produce and use energy.

Emissions increased throughout the 20th century, but not as fast as the economy. The global emissions intensity has been naturally decreasing - at an average rate of around 1.5%/year – since the early 1900s! The pace actually accelerated over the last few decades. Global emissions intensity dropped 27% during the 1990s alone.

The moral of the story: Emissions intensity is naturally decreasing as the economy becomes more efficient. This has been happening for a century. The idea – promoted in the Canadian government’s new climate plan and the Bush Administration’s 2002 policy – that reducing emissions intensity by a couple percent a year is the way to tackle greenhouse gas emissions is a complete farce.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Further adventures in carbon-land

While my Carbonland vs. States United for Climate map is intended to be whimsical, it does nonetheless reflect the reality of climate and emissions reductions policy-making in North America. The latest example is this week's debate between the Canadian premiers. B.C. and Ontario want an emissions trading system between the provinces, or between provinces and US states. Quebec prefers regional trading, with the eastern provinces and northeastern states. Canada's carbonland (largely Alberta) is against every proposal.