Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Let's try understanding, not denigrating, those who cite religion as a reason to doubt climate change

In a recent post on Climate Progress, the prolific Joe Romm highlighted a video of famed climate change skeptic and US Senator James Inhofe explaining that "God's still up there".

Thank God the Senator from Oklahoma is here to promise us that that the Almighty will override at a planetary level the laws of physics He created and simply stop human-emissions of heat-trapping gases from ravaging his Creation. Now if we can only get Inhofe to tell God to stop all cancers and traffic accidents, too.

The post goes on to say that "this fundamentalist, anti-scientific tripe, far from disqualifying Inhofe, puts him in very good company with other leading conservative politicians". This includes a representative (John Shimkus, R-IL) who challenges the possibility of sea level rise because of God's covenant with Noah, that the Earth will not flood again.

Like Romm, I'm obviously no fan of Senator Inhofe's attacks on climate science not his efforts to obstruct climate policy. For all we know, Inhofe's comments are a calculated ploy to bring in religious viewers. Regardless, Romm's religious line of attack, all too common in scientific and activist discourse, is self-defeating and unproductive. It is also a lost opportunity to discuss the role religion plays in the average person's understanding of climate change.

First, from a purely practical perspective, denigrating Conservative climate skeptics as religious wingnuts is certain to alienate many other religious Christians who may actually be more open to accepting the scientific evidence for the effect of human activity on the climate. Matt Nisbet has argued this point, with respect to climate and other issues, many times on his blog Framing Science.

Second, the comments of Inhofe and the other Christian conservatives quoted in the post provide a window for us scientists and communicator into why so many people in the US and other parts of the world often have difficulty accepting, at a gut level, that human activity is changing the climate. As I've argued in Climatic Change and on the web, the notion that humans can change the climate goes against thousands of years of belief that the weather and climate is controlled by the gods, or the Judeo-Christian God. However much one might dislike and distrust Inhofe, his comments provide an opportunity for education and discussion of the public perception of climate change, an opportunity that is lost when the fangs come out.

To use just one example, Rep Shimkus' assertion that sea level rise won't happen because God promised Noah never to flood the Earth again is not some fringe claim by one crazy, fundamentalist congressman. Ask an elder in almost any Pacific Island nation about sea level rise and you'll get the same answer. And why not? The Bible and the flood narrative are a core part of their belief system - as it is for millions of people in North America. You're unlikely to alter your audience's belief in God's covenant not to flood the earth again with a 45 minute lecture or a 400 word blog post that is dismissive of the audience's belief system.

Community leaders in the Pacific figured this out and took action. The churches gathered together to develop literature and sermons that reconcile their people's strong religious beliefs with the seemingly heretical notion that the climate is changing and the seas are rising because of human activity. Their ideas are crystallized in the 2004 Otin-taii declaration, named after the Kiribati hotel where it was signed. The approach has been effective.

If you really want to effect change, you need to understand how different people, who have had different experiences, interpret the world. You need to work together to find common ground, as the churches have done in the Pacific. Attacking is easier than understanding. It also does more harm than good.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Ketsana and crying wolf about climate change

Ketsana is a deadly reminder that a tropical storm does not need to be powerful, by the conventional measure of wind speed, to do immense damage. Unfortunately for the people of the Philippines, another tropical storm may be on its way.

The image at right (thanks to Jeff Masters) shows the rainfall rate from NASA's TRMM satellite just before Ketsana passed Manila. Note the area in white is off the scale of the chart. The storm dumped one third of a meter of rain on Manila in less than six hours, flooding out much of the city, killing at least 140 people, and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

The combination of intense rainfall and a dense population living on deforested slopes has led to a tragedy reminiscent of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Although Mitch was a far more powerful storm, it was the flooding not wind damage that led to thousands of deaths in Honduras.

The climate policy talks in "nearby" Thailand have led to a number of sloppy media reports and climate activist statements about the role of climate change in Ketsana. For once, I actually agree with Roger Pielke Jr, that people need to stop crying wolf about climate change and extreme events. Asking about climate change after a prolonged summer heat wave that could have come right out of a doubled CO2 regional climate model simulation is reasonable. The effort to draw a link between climate change and tropical storms during a rather middling storm year (in terms of power) is scientifically questionable. When the storm in question has had such a terrible human tool, it is also a bit tasteless.

For those wanting to help in the recovery, donations are being accepted through the Philippine Red Cross.


Important viewing on corals

It is worth taking the time to watch Charlie Veron's talk "Is the Great Barrier Reef on Death Row?", presented at the British Royal society earlier in the summer. A version of this talk inspired Chris Turner's terrific article in this month's issue of the Walrus.

Veron literally wrote the book about corals. His three volume tome Corals of the World has a prominent place on the shelf of every coral reef scientist. In 2008, he published a paper in the journal Coral Reefswhich posited that CO2-related changes in ocean chemistry, like what is happening today, may have contributed the five mass marine extinctions in the geological record. It was awarded the best paper of the year by the International Society of Reef Sciences.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dust storm in Australia

Southeastern Australia is recovering from the worst dust storm in decades, that damaged farmland and practically closing down Sydney and the surrounding area.

The satellite image, from NASA's terrific Earth Observatory web-site, shows the brown dust cloud stretching from Queensland far south into New South Wales, before it moved off the coast.

The storm was made possible by a dry and record hot August, conditions that may continue thanks to the development of El Nino conditions in the Pacific. The western Pacific, including Australia, Papua New Guinea, and some western Pacific island countries, typically experience dry weather during El Nino event due to longitudinal shift in the major pressure systems. For example, during the 1997/98 El Nino, there were extensions fires in PNG, droughts in Australia, and major food shortages and lost agricultural productivity in Fiji.


Framing climate policy

Here are the headlines to stories about the Chinese president's speech at this week's UN meeting, from the three largest Canadian newspapers:

China diminishes hope for global climate deal (Globe and Mail)

China steps up as climate change leader (Toronto Star)

China, U.S. urge action on climate change (National Post)

Perhaps effective leadership on climate change policy is in the eye of the beholder.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An argument for climate policy

Today's NY Times describes the new carbon capture and storage system developed for the Mountaineer coal-burning power plant in West Virginia. This important nugget is in the middle of the story:

American Electric Power’s plan is to inject about 100,000 tons annually for two to five years, about 1.5 percent of Mountaineer’s yearly emissions of carbon dioxide. Should Congress pass a law controlling carbon dioxide emissions and the new technology proves economically feasible, the company says, it could then move to capture as much as 90 percent of the gas.

The challenge in agreeing on emissions policy, in the US, in Canada, and worldwide, is often used as an argument for an alternative "technology-based approach". In reality, it is a false dichotomy. Technology in the absence of emissions policy is unlikely to work.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Important listening and reading on the oceans

A week ago, CBC's Quirks and Quarks did a full one-hour episode on the state of the world's oceans. The show is a one-stop shop for learning about dead zones, ocean acidification, coral bleaching (my bit), overfishing and the Pacific Garbage Patch.

The October issue of Canadian literary magazine the Walrus also has a long meditation by Chris Turner on the "anthropocene", ocean acidification and the fate of the Great Barrier Reef, based in part on the thoughts of the dean of corals Charlie Veron.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

The slippery slope to slime

Overfishing and increasing ocean dead zones are thought to be leading us on a oceans dominated by fleshy algae and jellyfish, a trend coined the "slippery slope to slime" by Jeremy Jackson. This photo is from Fast Company:

fishermen in the Sea of Japan are tormented by invasive swarms of Echizen Kurage (Nomura's jellyfish), a giant jellyfish that weighs up to 450 pounds and measures two meters wide... The students capture Nomura's jellyfish in fixed fishing nets from a lake in Fukui prefecture, an area plagued by the swarms.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Catching a breath

Maribo's going to be quiet for about ten to twelve days. After the short hiatus, we'll be back with some more on climate change adaptation, the Canadian policy conundrum and some interesting new research papers.


The problem with an intensity-based target for the oil sands

Earlier this week, the Toronto Star reported that the Harper government is planning to release a carbon trading system which will use intensity-based targets for the oil and gas sector. Yesterday, we took a trip down memory lane, looking at op-ed about climate policy from 2004. Let's look at one from 2006, where I warned that the Harper government will try to use the trick of intensity-based targets.

At first glance, the intensity concept is logical and appealing. It appears to address both economic growth and the climate by making the economy more greenhouse gas “efficient” over time. A couple minutes with a calculator, or a morning of Economics 101, will reveal a hole in the intensity plan so big you can drive a Hummer through it.

The math in my 2006 article was based on the Bush administration plan to reduce greenhouse gas intensity by 18% by 2012. My conclusion?

Canadians should be wary of any similar Conservative policy that uses words like greenhouse gas intensity and claims to address both economy and the climate. When the announcement is made, have a calculator handy.
A real emissions policy is one that addresses emissions. Canada may have failed to date in the implementation of Kyoto. But it is not too late to try.

There is still over five years to reduce emissions at home, to negotiate investments in emissions reductions in other countries and to purchase emissions credits from overseas. The other Kyoto signatories and the rest of the world will respect a concerted effort that comes up short more than a plan that can be debunked in two minutes with a $10 calculator.

The irony is had the Alliance-Conservatives not strongly opposed controls on greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade, the current Conservative government may not be in what they term an impossible position. That is the lesson of climate change: we all need to think ahead.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Canada: Five years, three elections, and still no climate policy

With the distinct possibility of yet another Canadian election this fall and news the Conservative government, after several years in power, is just now working on a climate policy, and a policy that would "favour" the oil sands (more on this tomorrow), it's interesting a look at a column I wrote five years and three elections ago. Or was it four elections? I'm losing count.

The following is the opening of my June 2, 2004 op-ed in the Globe and Mail:

The real issues at election time are often the ones our political leaders work hardest to hide. There is no greater skeleton in the electoral closet than climate change and the Kyoto Protocol.

The Martin government seems to wish climate change would just go away. Facing a disgruntled electorate, the government fears even mentioning climate change could turn some voters toward the anti-Kyoto Conservatives. At the same time, the Conservatives also wish to avoid the issue for fear of alienating any pro-environment Liberals angry with the Martin government. As a result, only the NDP and the Green Party have dared utter the word "Kyoto."

The disappearance of prominent environmental issues at election time is hardly a new phenomenon. In the battle for votes, everyone longs to appear green, but will not advocate any policy that might be perceived, correctly or not, as damaging to the voter's wallet.

This election in particular has fallen prey to the opportunistic notion that scoring a favourable headline in the morning paper on the issue of the day is more important than presenting an integrated vision for the country. The result is fragmented political platforms in which environmental issues are the big losers.

The high price of gasoline provides a perfect opportunity to promote the need for higher automotive fuel efficiency, more funding for public transit, and reduced smog in our cities. These are issues of interest to all Canadians; dealing with them would help reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, the debate focuses entirely on which party can deliver lower gas prices.

The problem for the Liberals and the Conservatives is that climate change is one environmental issue that will not go away.

Still true after all these years? This was the conclusion:

Canada is responsible for a small fraction of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and cannot stop climate change alone. But a serious Canadian effort to meet the Kyoto commitment and promote future climate policy could provide much-needed international leadership and restore this country's green reputation - which has been sullied by the passivity of the previous decade.

Will Canada become a leader in preventing dangerous climate change, in promoting new energy technologies, higher fuel efficiency, improved urban infrastructure and sustainable international development? Those are the issues that should inspire an election.


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Communicating climate change in an unscientific world

Greenfyre's has a new post reminding people to take reports of public skepticism about climate change into context, like public literacy on other scientific issues. This is one theme of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's new book "Unscientific America".

Those of us communicating about climate change with the public tend to forget that the very notion that humans can change the climate is a major paradigm shift. For thousands of years, we believed that climate (or weather, in general, the sky) was something controlled by gods. So to believe that human activity is changing the climate requires a real paradigm shift. This was the subject of an essay of mine in Climatic Change a couple years ago.

One hundred and fifty years after Darwin published the Origin of the Species, many people are still struggling to accept the theory of evolution. The figure above, taken from a recent presentation of mine, shows the fraction of Americans who believe in Darwin's theory is only slightly greater than the fraction that believes in ghosts. The point of showing this in a presentation is not that North Americans are scientifically illiterate - though that may be in fact be the case - but that changing fundamental beliefs can take time. From Climatic Change:

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 mistake that's often made in climate change communication is assuming that the science should just intuitively make sense to people. What can help is to acknowledge, really address it, not spend thirty seconds, right off the bat in every presentation, that what we are saying may be hard to "believe" in part because if challenges traditional ways of thinking. That's why we use science to carefully examine whether humans are changing the climate, and the results are conclusive [ed's note: original post mistakenly had "inconclusive"!]


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Should I fly or should I type?

From the Economist, with irony:

AVIATION has long been blamed for its share of anthropogenic global warming. Indeed, some travellers now ask themselves whether their flight is strictly necessary and, if they decide it is, salve their consciences by paying for the planting of trees. These, so they hope, will absorb the equivalent of their sinful emissions. But you, dear reader, are indulging right now in activity that is equally as polluting as air travel: using a computer.

According to a report published by the Climate Group, a think-tank based in London, computers, printers, mobile phones and the widgets that accompany them account for the emission of 830m tonnes of carbon dioxide around the world in 2007. That is about 2% of the estimated total of emissions from human activity. And that is the same as the aviation industry’s contribution. According to the report, about a quarter of the emissions in question are generated by the manufacture of computers and so forth. The rest come from their use.


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Does Canada have a Minister of the Environment?

Is Jim Prentice the Environment Minister? Or still the Industry Minister?

This is from the National Post commentary on Petro-China's $2 billion investment in the oil sands:

Environment Minister Jim Prentice is no fan of a single-buyer market for exported bitumen, which actually sells at a discount in the U. S. compared with Middle East oil despite coming from a friendly neighbour. He'd like competition injected into the system.

"Doesn't it help Canada's exporters to have alternative market choices?" he noted in a recent interview.

"We need transportation mechanisms to ship it to the West Coast. Refineries in the U. S. have limited capacity and we don't have anywhere else to sell it. Having the capacity to ship it to the West Coast would keep everybody honest, so I think it's good policy."

Mr. Prentice, you are the Minister of the Environment. In case you need a reminder, this is the mandate of Environment Canada:

to preserve and enhance the quality of the natural environment; conserve Canada's renewable resources; conserve and protect Canada's water resources; forecast weather and environmental change; enforce rules relating to boundary waters; and coordinate environmental policies and programs for the federal government.

Could you at least pretend to be interested in the environmental implications of expanding extraction in the oil sands and/or building a pipeline to the Pacific?