Friday, December 19, 2008

What a change

Watch Obama's new science adviser John Holdren speak about climate change.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Attack of the skeptics XXIII: Inhofe won't quit

It appears that the ranks of Inhofe 400 club has now swelled to 650. The U.S. Senator's expanded list of experts skeptical of the consensus view on the human role in climate change contains few people who have been educated about climate science, have conducted any research about climate science, or have any truly relevant experience.

Of course, life is too short to occupy oneself with the slaying of the slain more than once, a quote from Thomas Huxley that bears repeating every time this horror show franchise coughs up another lame effort. So, here's an excerpt from my previous critique:

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.

A bonus category:

4. Recently converted from a believer to a skeptic: Inhofe's list contains many of these supposed converts. A scientist that has been legitimately researching climate change would never call themselves a "believer". This is about evidence. Choosing to reject the human role in climate change is not terribly meaningful if the person had little knowledge about the evidence from the beginning.

Most of all, the compilation of this list reflects a complete misunderstanding of the IPCC process (explained here at Worldchanging). The IPCC's scientific consensus is not restricted to the roughly 2000 members of the IPCC itself. Those members are representatives of the community from around the world. They spent years compiling reviews that summarize all peer-reviewed research on climate change. The members of the IPCC are the spokespeople for the greater community of climate experts. A paltry list of 400 or 650 people, the vast majority of whom have no specific expertise on the science of climate change, is not terribly meaningful.

Americans should be offended that this drivel is perpetuated by a sitting U.S. senator and housed on a U.S. government website. Those are your tax dollars being wasted.


Supressing Canadian science

From the Globe and Mail:

Canadian scientist Don MacIver resigned yesterday as chair of the working group organizing the next World Climate Congress after the federal government revoked his permission to speak at an event in Poznan, Poland, where United Nations climate-change negotiations are being held.

One of Canada's leading climate-change experts, Gordon McBean, called this an indication of the Conservative government's policy of ignoring the real effects of greenhouse-gas emissions and supporting the development of heavily polluting fossil fuels, especially the Alberta oil sands.

"Unfortunately, the weight of the tar sands lobby is such that the federal government is not capable at this point to show the leadership that we need," Dr. McBean said. "In Environment Canada there are a lot of outstanding people. But I'm not sure that as a department it is functioning in a way that is conducive to providing the kind of leadership that we need."


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Coal-powered holiday rituals

The coal lobby group America's Power has launched the utterly bizarre "Clean Coal Carolers" just in time for Christmas. Watch for yourself.

The site begs the eternal marketing question: is any publicity is good publicity? The creators had to know it would be ridiculed by the online environmental community. Was their goal to create a meme? Is my drawing to such sites, even out of ridicule, a mistake because it gets the term "clean coal" on people's minds?

[and should I be relieved or offended that there is no adjoining Hanukkah site the features little lumps of coal wearing yarmulkes and singing "dreidel, dreidel dreidel"?]

UPDATE: For a counter-example, this popular anti-coal ad has been criticized because the repeated use of the term "clean coal" could have unintentional subliminal consequences. Paranoia?


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Is climate science strong enough for the courts?

Today's climate models allow us to simulate the state of the climate system under different sets of "forcings": solar variability, volcanic eruptions, greenhouse gas emissions, aerosol emissions, even nutty idea like big like big orbiting mirrors. The recent advances in model resolution are allowing climate scientists to do improved climate change "detection and attribution". This is where we model output under different forcings with observed weather, climate and/or ecological data, to get at the burning question:

How likely was the event -- a strong hurricane season, a heat wave, a flood, or a mass coral bleaching -- with and without the emissions of greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution?

Note that climate scientists don't ask: "Is the event caused by climate change?". That particular question is essentially impossible to answer. Weather and climate is multi-factorial -- no event is caused solely by any one forcing. But we can use observed data and modelling to examine the statistical likelihood of an event under different climate scenarios.

In the Guardian, a UK scientist argues that the advances in detection and attribution may pave the way for litgation:

Myles Allen, a physicist at Oxford University, said a breakthrough that allows scientists to judge the role man-made climate change played in extreme weather events could see a rush to the courts over the next decade.
He said: "We are starting to get to the point that when an adverse weather event occurs we can quantify how much more likely it was made by human activity. And people adversely affected by climate change today are in a position to document and quantify their losses. This is going to be hugely important."

Ignoring for now questions of just who one would sue (oil companies? governments?), the key questions are in the numbers.

First, what degree of change in the probability of an event is sufficient to apportion blame? 10% more likely? 100% more likely? Or would courts assign damages based on the change in probability of the event (10% increase, so you're responsible for 10% of the damages)?

Second, what exactly is the burden of proof in a court of law? Is p<0.05 the same as "beyond a reasonable doubt"?

[Hat tip to Stoat on this]


Friday, December 05, 2008

Reporting about climate change

Over at DotEarth, Andrew Revkin has a short piece on trends in reporting on climate change. The data shows the episodic nature of reporting on climate change and also a huge divergence between different parts of the world (see my comment).

The post is based on work led by Maxwell Boykoff at Oxford, who has done some great work in the past (pdf) showing how striving "balance" in reporting becomes "bias" when the subject is climate change. We devote an entire lecture to that problem in my spring undergraduate course on climate.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Towards bilateral climate agreements

In an article for Salon, Joe Romm argues (link) that the US needs to negotiate a climate agreement directly with China outside on the UNFCCC process. The idea is an anathema to those committed with good reason to a global post-Kyoto agreement. But it does take an unfortunate political reality into account:

Yet for all his talents, Obama can't move the immovable conservatives in Congress. He can't deliver the 67 Senate votes needed to approve any international treaty that is likely to come out of the UNFCCC negotiating process in Copenhagen. Yes, Democrats have expanded their majority in the Senate, edging close to the magical 60 votes needed to stop filibusters, and they just may get there on key issues with the help of the few remaining moderate Republicans.

But as I discussed in June, the conservatives in Congress seem stuck in 1985, unwilling or unable to acknowledge the now painfully obvious reality of global warming or the remarkable advances that have been made in clean technologies. They lined up as a solid bloc against a U.S. climate bill and will surely do so until the last lump of coal can be pried from their submerged hot hands.

Yet if Copenhagen ends in failure, the Kyoto Protocol itself may well fall apart. Why would European companies (and those elsewhere) pay for the right to emit greenhouse gases in, say, 2011, when they will have no binding restrictions on their emissions in 2013? And if there is no subsequent agreement, there can be no enforceable penalty for countries that miss their targets.