Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The climate science filibuster

Over the past couple months, there have been another online kerfuffle about the famous "hockey stick" millennial temperature reconstruction. Namely, Steve McIntrye attempted to show that one the tree ring reconstructions may have been biased, such that selecting a different set of trees from a nearby site would imply no 20th century warming Tim Lambert had a fine summary of the dust-up. And James Hrynyshyn is one of a few who made the obvious but overlooked point that you don't need dendrochronology to tell us temperatures warmed in the 20th century - we have actual measurements.

Out of the dust came many complaints in the blogosphere about climate scientists not being responsive to online criticism like that of McIntrye. The implication is that scientists are obliged to respond quickly to any and all criticisms of my research as well as to any requests for data.

Now, it is quite unrealistic given the pressures on our time. But leaving that aside, is it even wise? Is responding to every online criticism and data request the best use of scientists' time? Think of it this way: wouldn't you rather that doctors spend their time actually developing treatments for autism, rather than refuting the crazy theory that MMR vaccinations cause autism?

There are only 24 hours in a day. It's a zero sum game. There may be some value in individual aspects of McIntrye's statistical criticisms of the hockey stick work over the year. A lot of it has been off the mark too. Either way, dealing with the constant hockey stick criticisms slows important research by paleo-climatologists work.

Add it all up and you have a filibuster. Keep talking and it will stop the rest of the participants from getting anything done.

That's why I sense peer review is even more important in the age of blogs. Research gets some vetting, the poor quality work is filtered out, and the community knows what to take seriously. The system may not be perfect, but I think even its greatest critics would agree that peer review works better than the US Senate.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Reactions to the International Day of Climate Action

I'd love to get people's reactions to the International Day of Climate Action. Whether you participated or not, take a minute to write a quick first reaction in the comments. A paragraph, a sentence, a word. Anonymity is fine.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Carbon consequences of the biofuels land use cascade

I've written here before about the land use cascade, the sequence of land transformations and land use changes that follow a change in one region.

A new Policy Forum in Science argues that ignoring the cascading carbon consequences of converting lands for biofuels will undercut global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The logic is not new. If croplands and pasture lands are converted to biofuel production, then some other forest or grassland must be cleared to produce the crops or providing the grazing area taken away by the biofuel production. It might happen in the neighbouring county. It might happen on another part of the planet. Either way, it will release soil carbon and plant carbon to the atmosphere (more immediately via burning or later via respiration and decomposition).

The authors argue that we need a new accounting system:

The accounting now used for assessing compliance with carbon limits in the Kyoto Protocol and in climate legislation contains a far-reaching but fixable flaw that will severely undermine greenhouse gas reduction goals (1). It does not count CO2 emitted from tailpipes and smokestacks when bioenergy is being used, but it also does not count changes in emissions from land use when biomass for energy is harvested or grown. This accounting erroneously treats all bioenergy as carbon neutral regardless of the source of the biomass, which may cause large differences in net emissions. For example, the clearing of long-established forests to burn wood or to grow energy crops is counted as a 100% reduction in energy emissions despite causing large releases of carbon.

If it is not fixed, this "accounting problem" has and will continue to cause poor national and international policy decisions.

The Kyoto Protocol caps the energy emissions of developed countries. But the protocol applies no limits to land use or any other emissions from developing countries, and special crediting rules for "forest management" allow developed countries to cancel out their own land-use emissions as well. Thus, maintaining the exemption for CO2 wrongly treats bioenergy from all biomass sources as carbon neutral, even if the source involves clearing forests for electricity in Europe or converting them to biodiesel crops in Asia.

This accounting error has carried over into the European Union's cap-and-trade law and the climate bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. Both regulate emissions from energy but not land use and then erroneously exempt CO2 emitted from bioenergy use.

How could it be fixed? The authors argue for a more full and fair accounting of emissions caused by biofuels or bioenergy.

The straightforward solution is to fix the accounting of bioenergy. That means tracing the actual flows of carbon and counting emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks whether from fossil energy or bioenergy. Instead of an assumption that all biomass offsets energy emissions, biomass should receive credit to the extent that its use results in additional carbon from enhanced plant growth or from the use of residues or biowastes. Under any crediting system, credits must reflect net changes in carbon stocks, emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, and leakage emissions resulting from changes in land-use activities to replace crops or timber diverted to bioenergy.

This full accounting is necessary but will be difficult to implement given the uncertainty in soil carbon budgets and the complexity of the land use cascade.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Letter from 18 US scientific organizations supporting the US climate bill

Released today (hat tip). It's signed by the leaders of American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union,American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Meteorological Society, American Society of Agronomy,American Society of Plant Biologists, American Statistical Association,Association of Ecosystem,Research Centers,Botanical Society of America, Crop Science Society ofAmerica, Ecological Society of America, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Organization of Biological Field Stations, Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Society of Systematic Biologists, Soil Science Society of America, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

I suppose Canadian scientific societies may want to consider a similar letter of support for the US bill, given that there's no Canadian legislation to support!

Dear Senator:

As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.

These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and on the environment. For the United States, climate change impacts include sea level rise for coastal states, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, urban heat waves, western wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems throughout the country. The severity of climate change impacts is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades.(1) If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced. In addition, adaptation will be necessary to address those impacts that are already unavoidable. Adaptation efforts include improved infrastructure design, more sustainable management of water and other natural resources, modified agricultural practices, and improved emergency responses to storms, floods, fires and heat waves. We in the scientific community offer our assistance to inform your deliberations as you seek to address the impacts of climate change.

1. The conclusions in this paragraph reflect the scientific consensus represented by, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and U.S. Global Change Research Program. Many scientific societies have endorsed these findings in their own statements, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, American Geophysical, American Meteorological Society, and American Statistical Association.


On Geoengineering

Ken Caldeira, at Yale E360, in response to a question about reducing CO2 via mitigation vs. reducing warming via engineering:

But I think if we had some magic thing that would reverse all effects of CO2 perfectly, then you could say, “Well the problem is not CO2.” But nobody really expects that we are going to have some magic, perfect CO2 nullifier. And it’s clear to me that if we continue allowing greenhouse gas concentration to grow in the atmosphere, and try to engineer our climate to counteract those effects, that as the greenhouse gases accumulate, and our counteracting system grows ever larger and larger, that the risk of some kind of catastrophic failure of this offsetting — or the imperfections in this offsetting — would grow in time and the net result would be pretty negative, I would imagine.

So, I do see CO2 as the problem. I think to present it as if, “Well, it not’s really CO2, but the effects of CO2,” it’s like if you got shot by a bullet and you said, “Well, it wasn’t really the bullet that was the problem, it was just that I happened to have this hole through my body...”

A good answer, and a good example of translating science into everyday English.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The message or the messenger

The online uproar over the new Superfreakonomics book is a welcome sign. The climate change section of the book is based on lousy and lazy research. Thanks to the thorough debunking in the blogosphere, the problems with the book are receiving public attention. The authors will certainly be asked about this during their promotional radio and television interviews in the next week.

All well and good. A case where science blogging serves an important function.

Unfortunately, as happens all too often in online debates, the argument quickly shifts from the message to the messenger. For a tale of the tape, take a quick glance at the recent posts by Roger Pielke and Joe Romm. This is not to specifically impugn them, the argument like many spills over into a number of blogs.

The anti-Romm posts now seem to be about how Joe Romm got a quote from Ken Caldeira, whose research on carbon dioxide is misrepresented in Superfreakonomics [encapsulated in the mis-quote "carbon dioxide is the wrong villain"]. Important? Yes. But is it also Beside the point? Definitely.

Caldeira's written important papers on ocean acidification, a problem that would not be addressed through geo-engineering by sulphate aerosols. Pay any attention to the literature and it's abundantly obvious that the "wrong villain" quote goes against the results of his group's research. When I first learned of that Caldeira was a major reference for the chapter in Superfreakonomics, my only thought was "what?".

Is anyone else concerned that worthy online discussions on science are descending into this schoolyard stuff? Are science blogs turning into Cable TV? You don't have an argument, you attack the person.

To some degree, it is the nature of the medium. Bloggers tend to insert themselves into discussions out of some mix of genuine interest, outrage and the push for more hits. Plus, it's easy to get self-righteous and bash someone when all you see is a name in 12 pt font on a laptop screen.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Superfreakonomics and the glory of contrarianism

The Union of Concerned Scientists, Joe Romm at Climate Progress, William Connolley and Tim Lambert have done a fine job rebutting the cynical and lazy "global cooling" section of the upcoming book Superfreakonomics*.

Of the criticisms that climate scientists receive from those skeptical of climate change, the most ridiculous by far is that we are in it for the money. Just ask Michael Tobis, who mocks this claim with the very name of his blog.

My first public talk on climate change was about ten years ago. I was the token graduate student panel with a local religious leader and a very well-known emeritus professor whom I have always held in high regard. A question came from the audience about scientific certainty. The professor said "Scientists are essentially paid to disagree. That's what makes the consensus on climate change so remarkable".

You won't advance far in science by repeating other people's work. If you want to get a grant funded, your proposal needs to pose a new question or challenge existing findings [note: people sometimes claim climate "skeptical" research cannot obtain funding; that's not because there's some cabal, it is because research must have a sound scientific basis and methods in order to get funded]. If you want to get a paper in a top journal like Nature or Science, your results have to be new, different, and important. And if you want to get popular coverage or your results, you need a splashy headline.

Levitt and Dubner made a splash with the first book Freakonomics, by expounding a variety of alternate explanations for societal phenomena. You could say the sales and the recognition was deserved too. It was new, it was smart, and it was based on thorough research. This book, at least the section challenging the science of climate change and the logic of mitigation, is not. The arguments are old, they have been used and refuted countless times before, and the research was clearly lazy (read Romm on this).

This time, the authors are simply getting paid for disagreeing with others.

* feel free to link to more rebuttals in the comments


Friday, October 16, 2009

Can the world meet the high cost of adaptation?

A few weeks ago, I posted what are more or less the three themes of Maribo. The third theme:

Adapting to climate change is far more difficult and far more expensive than most people and most supposed experts assume. This comes from spending too much time and effort estimating the costs of mitigation here in the developed world, and too little looking the efficacy of local development and especially international development projects.

The only thing more challenging than agreeing on emissions policy and acceptable limits of warming will be agreeing on how and how much to fund adaptation. The financial support for adaptation in the developing world may be as big an obstacle block to a deal in Copenhagen as the emissions targets. From the NY Times:

Many developing countries have made it clear that they will not sign a treaty unless they get money to help them adapt to a warmer planet. Acknowledging that a new treaty needs unanimity for success, industrialized nations like the United States and those in Europe have agreed in principle to make such payments; they have already been written into the agreed-upon structure of the treaty, to be signed in Copenhagen in December.

We're not terrible good at funding or implementing adaptation in the developed world, beyond measures that protect society from near-term threats. And thus far we've been reluctant to fund adaptation in the developing world, where the impacts of climate change are expected to be greater and the ecological and societal resilience is generally lower. Again from the NY Times:

Perhaps even more troublesome, the United Nations Adaptation Fund, which officially began operating in 2008 to help poor countries finance projects to blunt the effects of global warming, remains an empty shell, largely because rich nations have failed to come through with the donations they promised. The fund now holds about $18 million, a tiny fraction of what it was supposed to have, according to fund officials.

Funding, of course, is only one first step. Using the money wisely, and avoiding the top-down style that often limits the effectiveness of international aid, is another story entirely. More on that in the coming months.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Living in "the age of stupid"

The climate change film The Age of Stupid has being doing the film fest rounds, including a recent premiere here at the Vancouver International Film Festival. This pseudo-documentary tells the story of "a man living alone in the devastated world of 2055, looking at old footage from 2008 and asking: why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?". In other words, you and I are living in the age of stupid because we are not heeding the warnings from scientists about climate change.

After watching the film, I'd add this: We are the age of stupid because we are not heeding the warnings from psychologists and social scientists about communicating climate change.

The film presents a truly catastrophic vision of the impacts of climate change by 2055, supposedly based on mainstream scientific projections. It made me wonder if I'm subscribing to the wrong journals. In the film, the world is devastated by battles, Sydney's burning, London is flooded by what appear to be meters of water and the Arctic is a wave pool. The planet is in such peril that all of humanity's great works, the contents of all national museums and galleries, are stored in one Arctic facility for safe keeping. This vision of the future, where humanity is threatened by extinction from climate change, does not come from science.

The goals of the film and the associated promotional campaign are to raise awareness about climate change and motivate action. The catastrophe framing might, in political speak, stir up "the base"; motivate people already lobbying for climate change action. It will probably alienate the rest of the audience. When presenting with an argument entirely based on fear of catastrophe, most of the audience will either conclude that climate change is impossible to solve or dismiss the film and the science on which it is based (cognitive dissonance anyone?). The film is particularly vulnerable on the second count, as its vision of the future diverges quite wildly from actual scientific projections.

There's no need to exaggerate the impacts of climate change. In this case, it really is a shame. The interviews with six real present-day people, including a British wind turbine developer, an Indian airline owner, an New Orleanian petroleum geologist, which make up the bulk of the film are fascinating.


Monday, October 05, 2009

More on the coral reef crisis

A new viewpoint article by Charlie Veron and a number of top coral reef scientists summarizing the near-term threats of rising CO2 on the world's coral reefs appears in the latest issue of Marine Pollution Bulletin. The take-home message of the article is right there in the title: "Coral reef crisis: The critical importance of <350 ppm CO2"

The article is the outcome of a meeting held by the British Royal Society in July, where Veron delivered the presentation I mentioned in a recent post. It is an interesting read. The language, and the actual pdf of the article, should be accessible to most readers.

The abstract:

Temperature-induced mass coral bleaching causing mortality on a wide geographic scale started when atmospheric CO2 levels exceeded ~320 ppm. When CO2 levels reached ~340 ppm, sporadic but highly destructive mass bleaching occurred in most reefs world-wide, often associated with El Niño events. Recovery was dependent on the vulnerability of individual reef areas and on the reef’s previous history and resilience. At today’s level of ~387 ppm, allowing a lag-time of 10 years for sea temperatures to respond, most reefs world-wide are committed to an irreversible decline. Mass bleaching will in future become annual, departing from the 4 to 7 years return-time of El Niño events. Bleaching will be exacerbated by the effects of degraded water-quality and increased severe weather events. In addition, the progressive onset of ocean acidification will cause reduction of coral growth and retardation of the growth of high magnesium calcite-secreting coralline algae. If CO2 levels are allowed to reach 450 ppm (due to occur by 2030–2040 at the current rates), reefs will be in rapid and terminal decline world-wide from multiple synergies arising from mass bleaching, ocean acidification, and other environmental impacts. Damage to shallow reef communities will become extensive with consequent reduction of biodiversity followed by extinctions. Reefs will cease to be large-scale nursery grounds for fish and will cease to have most of their current value to humanity. There will be knock-on effects to ecosystems associated with reefs, and to other pelagic and benthic ecosystems. Should CO2 levels reach 600 ppm reefs will be eroding geological structures with populations of surviving biota restricted to refuges. Domino effects will follow, affecting many other marine ecosystems. This is likely to have been the path of great mass extinctions of the past, adding to the case that anthropogenic CO2 emissions could trigger the Earth’s sixth mass extinction.