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.