Sunday, March 30, 2008

The silly season (in climate)

It is quite easy to get all self-righteous about the Democratic nomination process descending into an ugly, childish battle, the sort of thing usually reserved for the general elections or WWE Raw. It is not clear who is actually doing battle – the candidates, the advisors or the bobble-heads on cable – and it is not clear that most people actually care. It is all about the spectacle, the appearance of a dispute, the air of scandal. The facts, the issues, are secondary, probably even tertiary.

I like to think we are better than that. And by “we” I don’t mean Canadians – our own Liberal party has elevated political fratricide to a national art form that should be featured in future national museums alongside exhibits about the Group of Seven, the Winnipeg General Strike and the Burgess Shale. I mean those of us who hope to increase science literacy and use of science in public decision-making.

Yet those of us in the online or public science discussion community, myself included, spend a lot of our time stuck in petty arguments that from the outside appear no different that the disputes that populate what Barrack Obama called the “silly season” in politics.

There was plenty of online coverage of the Heartland Institute’s conference of climate skepticism and Fred Singer’s “non-IPCC report”. The conference and the report, in particular, were so silly, so obviously wrong as to be comical, like an alternate universe where the IPCC was composed of writers from the Daily Show, the Onion and Saturday Night Live. The goal of these efforts is not to present a rational counterargument to the prevailing scientific wisdom, but to muddy it up, just like many say is happening to Obama, and arguably, Liberal Leader Stephane Dion.

Then, there was this even sillier meme about “global cooling” (see Stoat). Our collective impatience for news has led to the bizarre phenomena of following the monthly global temperature data, like, say, they were the daily tracking polls, as if this month’s data could possibly convey some valuable information about the long-term trend. Whether January was warm or cold isn’t going to prove or disprove that the climate is warming. Take a three-year snippet out the global temperature record and you can conclude anything, that the planet is destined for another ice age or for a Venus-like runaway greenhouse effect. The same goes in politics. Take a three-day short snippet out of the polling data and you can conclude the Obama’s finished, Hillary’s finished, or even that Ron Paul’s Libertarian bid will be the deciding factor. Each of these conclusions is equally ridiculous.

If you stop and think about it, the real triumph of the IPCC, in its very existence and its receiving of the Nobel Prize, is the recognition that we need to thoroughly evaluate all the evidence and that wide agreement among the community on the basics is what matters. As Stephen Schneider explains in this fine lecture, you should mistrust any overly simplistic analysis claiming to debunk the general conclusions of the IPCC, whether that analysis is ‘skeptical’ and calls climate change a hoax or whether that analysis is ‘environmental’ claims all life on the planet is at threat of extinction. We abandon this reasoned thinking, that, as Schneider puts it, it is“the preponderance of evidence, stupid”, when we descend into debates about the meaning of a cold January in parts of the northern hemisphere, or a three-day dip in Obama’s polling among middle-class white factory workers in SE Pennsylvania, rather than use our time and energy to talk about the greater issues at hand, whether it be the need to improve understanding of ice sheet processes or the need for a comprehensive national climate policy.

The most recent example of this muddying of the discussion is the recent dust-up over the release of the pro-creationism movie “Expelled”, during which evolutionary biologist PZ Meyers was expelled from the screening, and his reaction led to further reaction by the scientific blogosphere, including Matt Nisbet, Meyers again,
Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s the Intersection, and countless others. Now, everyone involved agrees on the basic issues - evolution good, intelligent design bad - they disagree only on style (sound familiar?) Just like the campaign trail, bad things were said, calls for apologies or resignations followed, etc. etc.

It doesn’t matter who was right, or who was wrong. What matters was our, that's the greater we again, collective reaction. The phone lines lit up, as they’d say in the old days. The blogs in question had a record number of readers, a record number of comments. Just like the Democratic campaign, we were drawn by the mud, by the blood, not by the issues.

I'm not immune to the pull of the day-to-day fight, over that the long-term battle. And I'll admit, this may be new age Vancouver neighbourhood talking, the sort of place where many people walk down the street with a yoga mat in one hand (and a mug of coffee in the other, that absurd caffeinated contradiction common to the culture of gentrified North American cities). But I think sometimes we need to shut off the 24-hour news and blog cycle, sit still and just breathe a little bit. After calming down, maybe we can climb out of the mud and get back to working to improve public and political understanding of science and to talking about the issues.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Is energy expensive?

With the price of oil surging well past US$100, Michael Tobis reminds us that energy is actually quite cheap:

A hundred dollars a barrel. A barrel! Energy is unbelievably cheap.

That's about six million BTUs. One point seven megawatt hours. With that $100 barrel you can power your laptop for two years. You can ship hundreds of pounds of bananas from Guatemala. You can microwave a hundred and two thousand cups of tea to steaming warmth. You can power the digital clock on your microwave for seven million years!

Tobis and commenter John Mashey relate oil prices to the debate over buying local food.

So how much does it cost to carry a tomato from California to Maine?

It's about 3000 miles. It's about 1/4000 of a ton. So its about 3/4 of a ton mile. OK, make it a nice big juicy tomato. It's a ton-mile. So that costs about 1/200 of a gallon of fuel, or about a penny and a half.

Suppose the price of fuel quadruples. Your tomato will cost almost an extra nickel. Big deal.

The bottom line of many life cycle analyses is that buying local is not always the most efficient choice. One must weigh the energy required to produce the local food with the energy required to produce and ship the "global" food (including the indirect costs of maintaining the shipping network).


Monday, March 17, 2008

Hypoxic zones around the world

The World Resources Institute and scientist Bob Diaz of Virginia Marine Institute have compiled a new map of the world's coastal hypoxia zones like the famous Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone" we discuss in the recent PNAS paper on nitrogen pollution and corn production for ethanol. The new map includes 169 documented hypoxic areas, 233 are areas of concern and 13 areas in recovery.

Bottom-water hypoxia can develop when high input of nutrients like nitrogen promote the excessive algae growth. When algae eventually dies and sinks to the bottom, it decomposes, and that process depletes oxygen from the water.

It is worth noting hypoxia will not arise anywhere simply because nutrients are added. To get things started, you still need to feed the algae, and nutrient pollution does the trick. But certain
coastal areas are more naturally prone to hypoxia.

If, for example, the water column is highly "stratified", by that I mean less dense water lying above more dense water there is little mixing between the surface and the bottom waters (think of making a simple oil and vinegar salad dressing). It is then difficult for oxygen from the air to diffuse to the bottom and replace the oxygen consumed by decomposition.

The outlet of big rivers like the Mississippi can be ideal for hypoxia development because the fresh and therefore lighter water introduced by the river creates a stratified water column. That explains some of the year-to-year dynamics of the hypoxic zones like the Gulf Dead Zone. First, hypoxia development can be much worse in a wet or flood year because of the addition of more nutrients and the increased stratification. Second, if a hurricane blows through the Gulf, it encourages mixing just like you do by shaking that bottle of salad dressing, and can break-up the Dead Zone.

The new map supposedly includes only human-driven cases of hypoxia. Which raise the question, what is the cause of the zone between very sparsely populated Somerset and Cornwallis Islands in Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic? If you have an answer, let me know.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Corn ethanol production will worsen the Dead Zone

A new paper by my colleague Chris Kucharik and I looks at the new US Energy Policy, will calls for growing more corn to produce ethanol, will affect the "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. For a quick summary, see Reuters, the CBC or AFP (or my 15 Minuten ruhm on German ARD). Wired and Scientific American go into more detail.

The Mississippi dumps a massive amount of nitrogen, largely in the form of the soluble ion nitrate, into the Gulf each spring. It promotes the growth of a lot of algae, which eventually sinks to the bottom and decomposes. This consumes much of the oxygen in the bottom waters, making life tough for bottom-dwelling fish and creatures like shrimp. The Dead Zone has reached over 20,000 km2 in recent years.

The primary source of all that nitrogen is fertilizer applied to corn grown in the Midwest and Central US. Reducing the Dead Zone to less than 5000 km2 in size, as is suggested in US policy, will require up to a 55% decrease in nitrogen levels in the Mississippi.

The new US Energy Policy calls for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by the year 2022. Of that, 15 billion can be produced from corn starch. Our study found meeting those would cause a 10-34% increase in nitrogen loading to the Gulf of Mexico.

Meeting the hypoxia reduction goal was already a difficult challenge. If the US pursues this biofuels strategy, it will be impossible to shrink the Dead Zone without radically changing the US food production system. The one option would be to dramatically reduce the non-ethanol uses of corn. Since the majority of corn grain is used as animal feed, a trade-off between using corn to fuel animals and using corn to fuel cars could emerge.


Friday, March 07, 2008

How times have changed

And, no, I'm not talking about Canadian politics and government becoming so feckless and uninspiring that we must stoop to meddling in the US primary campaign for attention.

This can be found in the 2008 Canadian federal budget under the heading "Ensuring a Cleaner, Healthier Environment":

Investing $300 million to support nuclear energy