Monday, November 30, 2009

China's emissions pledge depends entirely on economic growth

Last week, China announced that it will reduce carbon "intensity" by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by the year 2020. The emissions intensity (emissions/$GDP) approach taken by the Canada and the US in the past has been much maligned here as a dishonest dodge.

First, it looks like a reduction in actual emissions until you realize that the denominator (GDP) generally increases over time. Second, it tends to naturally decrease over time as countries switch to more efficient energy production [and overall economic production].

It is, however, a reasonably fair way to bring a reluctant developing nation like China into an international emissions control framework. The problem of course is that actual emissions target depends entirely on how much the Chinese economy grows by 2020. So 40-45% sounds impressive, but won't amount to an actual reduction in emissions.

The graph above shows a spectrum of possibilities. Unless the growth rate is less than ~4%/year - highly unlikely - Chinese carbon emissions will be higher in 2020 than 2005. If China keeps up the planned 8%/year growth, emissions in 2020 will be 74-90% higher than 2005 levels.

And, just like in the US and Canada cases, Chinese emissions intensity will naturally decrease over time without any policy intervention. It decreased 10% from 2000 to 2005, and well over 40% from 1990 to 2005.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Skeptics aren't necessarily in it for the money either

A number of us like to joke about the ridiculous contention that climate scientists are in it for the money. It is worth noting that the critics of climate science are not necessarily in it for the dough either.

There appears to be this mistaken assumption that the few scientists who are skeptical of climate change science are doing so because the coal or oil industry wrote them such a big cheque (Canuck sp.) that they chose to abandon their previous understanding of climate science. It's not that simple. In most cases, the scientists who are influential climate skeptics were so well before receiving money from the fossil fuel lobby. The funding came to them because they were already making the argument for other reasons, usually political ideology and/or a horribly shortsighted faith in simple models*.

A great example is Myanna Lahsen's 2008 article on the three physicists from the George Marshall Institute that more or less founded climate change skepticism (hat tip to Eli):

By contrast to common suggestions, these scientists’ motivation is not fundamentally rooted in desires for financial gain. Being past retirement age and no longer active scientists, their fight for basic science, for instance, does not benefit them individually. And it is hard to believe that, upon retirement, these physicists would jeopardize their cherished professional images for mere financial gain.

Climate change "activists" make a huge mistake assuming that their opposition are only in it for the cash. There is real ideology at work. As I've argued before and will again, it's worth thinking about what motivates people the "other side". That may be the only way we'll ever find workable solutions to this mess.

* e.g. like arguing that since CO2 "only" changed from 0.028% to 0.038% of the lower atmosphere, it couldn't possible alter the climate, and thus ignoring all of radiative science


US to pledge emissions cut in Copenhagen

It's a step. Not a great leap for mankind; there is no teeth behind a emissions promise without legislation and an action plan to back it up. But a step nonetheless.

Mr. Obama will tell the delegates to the climate conference that the United States intends to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions “in the range of” 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, officials said. The administration has resisted until now delivering a firm pledge on emissions reductions because Congress has not yet acted on global warming legislation and because several large developing nations, including China and India, have not detailed their own plans. (NY Times)

Lots of people will undoubtedly now take credit for Obama's promise to attend the meeting.

Mr. Obama... had been under considerable pressure from other world leaders and environmental advocates to make the trip as a statement of American seriousness about the climate change negotiations.

Right, must have been all that pressure from environmental advocates. And the band had not planned on doing that encore either.


Monday, November 23, 2009

The "CRU hack" and the deplorable state of reporting and blogging

This episode is a sad sad sad comment on the state of blogging and news reporting. Three reasons.

First, for legal reasons, I'd like to think that no news organization should be allowed to report on the content of that mail. This is the equivalent of someone breaking into your mailbox in front of your house, opening your mail, then publishing it. Seriously, how would you feel if the NY Times wrote about a private letter you mailed to a colleague or friend being stolen and tacked to lampposts all over town? Would you sue? Do you think it should be admissible in court? Is the lesson here that we can never consider e-mail or any communication to be private so we should go back to using the postal service?

Second, even if you ignore the legality, there's ample reason to consider the contents of the mail with caution. It is private communication so people for whom that communication were not intended are not qualified to interpret that communication. I barely am able to follow some messages that I receive without looking over past correspondence for context. So, no, I will not defend anything that the scientists wrote. Nor will I condemn any of it either. For one reason: I have no idea what exactly those words meant. Neither do you. Every single thing in those messages could be misinterpreted because we are missing the context.

Finally, even if you ignore the legality, and ignore the lack of context, this episode is full of the same "post first, ask questions later" approach that usually destroys whatever good the blogosphere might accomplish. The vast majority of the bloggers, reporters and comment-ers are reacting to snippets pulled out private conversations, and done so by people whose objective is to question climate science. Stop it.

This episode is not a window into how climate science works. It's a window into how electronic communication has altered our standards and the way we work. Nobody looks good here. We should all be embarrassed.

This is the last you'll hear of it on Maribo.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Public confusion about scientific consensus

The Globe and Mail reports that a new poll from Hoggan & Associates found Canadians are embarrassed over the lack of Canadian action on climate change. Now it is possible that readers will dismiss that finding because the pollsters are connected with a number of environmental organization (an observation, not a judgment), but I encourage people to think about the following:

There was also strong support for the view that “most scientists agree that human activity is the primary cause of climate change,” a position held by 62 per cent of the public, compared to the 38 per cent who felt there was “still much debate” among researchers.

The key "accomplishment" of the movement to question the science of climate change is seeding doubt among the public. There is widespread agreement that human activity is causing climate change among scientists who actually study the issue. But poll the public on whether scientists agree and you get a different answer.

The results at right, which I've used to spur discussion in class, are from work in the U.S. by Jon Krosnick at Stanford University, who has done some terrific research on public perceptions of climate change.

The irony is that many of the people being polled think climate change is happening and caused by humans, yet also think scientists are not sure. This clear contradiction - people learned of climate change from scientists, after all - shows just how effective the lobbying and disinformation campaigns have been.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Narnia plans to reduce emissions by 30% by the year 2020

As we head towards Copenhagen, there will be endless comparison of proposed emission targets.  For example, from the NY Times:

This week, South Korea said it would cut emissions by 30 percent from “business as usual” by 2020. Russia’s president said his country would try to reduce emissions by 25 percent by then, instead of 15 percent as announced earlier. Last week, Brazil promised reductions of about 40 percent below current projections by 2020.

Ah, fractions.

The Narnians and reporters everywhere need to do a bit of math. 30% of what? The simple climate policy public relations trick is to emphasize the percent reduction and de-emphasize the year from which that percent is being calculated. Narnia's 30% could be a reduction from emissions during the Kyoto base year of 1990. It could use the present as the base year. Or it could be a reduction from the business-as-usual projection for the year 2020.

This excerpt about S Korea, Russia and Brazil tells us very little about the actual emissions policy. Russia's emissions are lower than they were in 1990, before the collapse of the Soviet Union [and its greenhouse gas emissions], so it still uses the 1990 baseline. The 25% is not as much a change from today as it sounds. For South Korea and Brazilian, we'd need to know what  "current projections" and "business as usual" are to understand their targets. In both countries, the projections being used are higher than what the countries actually expect would happen.  So the proposed decrease, while laudable, is not as big as it sounds.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Visit a warmer Canada?

This is a joke, right?


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

US-China cooperation on climate and, er, coal

The US and China have released a joint statement on a number of issues, including "Climate Change, Energy and the Environment". After the standard political jargon about the need for full co-operation in global agreements, comes some specifics:

The two sides welcomed the launch of a U.S.-China Electric Vehicles Initiative designed to put millions of electric vehicles on the roads of both countries in the years ahead. Building on significant investments in electric vehicles in both the United States and China, the two governments announced a program of joint demonstration projects in more than a dozen cities, along with work to develop common technical standards to facilitate rapid scale-up of the industry.  The two sides agreed that their countries share a strong common interest in the rapid deployment of clean vehicles.

This is terrific climate change initiative if the source of electricity is substantially less carbon-intensive than oil. It is a tad worrisome coming from the two countries with the largest coal reserves on the planet. Which leads into the next item in the statement:

The two sides strongly welcomed work in both countries to promote 21st century coal technologies. They agreed to promote cooperation on large-scale carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) demonstration projects and to begin work immediately on the development, deployment, diffusion, and transfer of CCS technology.  The two sides welcomed recent agreements between Chinese and U.S. companies, universities, and research institutions to cooperate on CCS and more efficient coal technologies.

This is followed by a paragraph about partnership on renewable energy ("wind, solar, advanced bio-fuels, and a modern electric power grid"). The order is not a fluke. Read through the statement, and it is appears that both countries expect coal to remain king, and that emissions reductions will depend on the development and widespread implementation of CCS technology at coal-fired power plants. No surprise, I suppose.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

World Leaders Agree to Delay Climate Change Deal

This news comes from the APEC summit in Singapore. NY Times:

SINGAPORE — President Obama and other world leaders have decided to put off the difficult task of reaching climate change agreement at a global climate conference scheduled for next month, agreeing instead to make it the mission of the Copenhagen conference to reach a less specific “politically binding” agreement that would punt the most difficult issues into the future.

The announcement is a simple dose of reality: there simply was not enough time left to reach a deal at Copenhagen. It'll be universally reported as "bad" news for the climate. Maybe yes. The flip side is that perhaps now that the artificial December deadline is removed, the key countries can engage in intelligent policy conversations. The "Copenhagen" or bust mentality was not helping anyone.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Himalayan glaciers and the virtue of reading beyond the headline

My number one pet peeve with the blogosphere is that too many bloggers post on a new report or paper without actually looking at the new report or paper. Bloggers regularly bash mainstream media for lazy reporting then often go ahead and base entire posts solely on newspaper stories. Hypocrisy aside, it is a real shame. Blogs should be an opportunity to examine and debate science and policy issues in more depth than is available in the mainstream media

Case in point, the excitement in the blogosphere (see Roger Pielke Jr) over a new report from the Indian government claiming there is "no evidence" for climate change shrinking Himalayan glaciers. It's worth looking at the actual report.

First, the report is part of a series that "is meant to serve as a basis for informed debate and discussion on critical issues related to the environment." In other words, it is not a scientific assessment conducted by the Indian Government. The report even has a disclaimer that the views contained in the report "are not necessarily endorsed" by the government.

Second, the report is about glaciology. It contains no analysis that could determine, one way or another, if human-induced climate change is contributing to glacier decline. In order to detect a climate change signal, you'd need to combine the glaciology data with climate data and most likely models capable of simulating the evolution of the climate with and without human influence.

Third, despite all this, the report does in fact state that glaciers in the Himalayas have been retreating over the past century.

Glaciers in the Himalayas (India) have been exhibiting a continuous secular retreat since the earliest recording began around the middle of the nineteenth century. Kumdan glaciers, of the Upper Shyok valley, have been the only exception for their periodic fluctuations.

There are plenty of charts and graphs to support the fact that glaciers have been retreating. The author's quibble appears to be over the "alarmist" portrayals of glacier decline in other forums. The first line of the conclusion:

Data that has been generated from the glacier studies, in the Himalayas, over the last 100 years or so, indicates that the glaciers, in the Himalayas, have been, by and large, shrinking and retreating continuously, barring a flip here and there, but the rate of retreat can not be considered as alarming / abnormal, especially in the last decade or so.

The report presents no definition of "alarming / abnormal" (say, in terms of % change) nor does it present data or any analysis to test the notion that the retreat is or is not alarming / abnormal. All we're really left with is that glaciers are retreating and the retreat may or may not be caused by climate change.


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Science lesson on the Late Show

Al Gore's long interview with David Letterman last night could serve as an object lesson for scientists on how to relate a complex subject like climate change to a popular audience. Though it is a sad comment on the media that a late night comedian asks better questions about science and the planet than a network news anchor [and that a retired politician is the best spokesmen on those same issues].

Alas, the highlighted video on the Late Show website is not the section where Gore and Letterman discussed Copenhagen, or ocean acidification, or the plight of the world's coral. It is the final minute of the interview, in which Letterman asked about the "carbon billionaire" accusation in that dreadful New York Times train wreck I mentioned yesterday.

Controversy, even artificial and debunked controversy, wins over content, which is why the editors at the NY Times should be hanging their heads over the decision to publish that article.


New York Times drops the ball reporting on Gore

The New York Times printed this absolute train wreck about Al Gore. Apparently some commentators are claiming Gore is arguing for action on climate change in order to make himself rich. So the NY Times printed a pointless story about those claims. It is ridiculous on a number of levels.

Level one: This is news because some people say it is news.

Critics, mostly on the political right and among global warming skeptics, say Mr. Gore is poised to become the world’s first “carbon billionaire,” profiteering from government policies he supports that would direct billions of dollars to the business ventures he has invested in. Representative Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, asserted at a hearing this year that Mr. Gore stood to benefit personally from the energy and climate policies he was urging Congress to adopt.

The claimants are politically motivated. They are also quite likely to be wrong. The story even goes on to suggest that possibility. If they are wrong, and the argument is politically motivated, why give the story any attention at all? It simply provides a mouthpiece.

Level two: Complete lack of context

Mr. Gore is not a lobbyist, and he has never asked Congress or the administration for an earmark or policy decision that would directly benefit one of his investments. But he has been a tireless advocate for policies that would move the country away from the use of coal and oil, and he has begun a $300 million campaign to end the use of fossil fuels in electricity production in 10 years.

Interesting, you say. Unless, of course, you contrasted the single investment data point in this article (Gore) with data on other investors in the energy sector. The article does not make one mention of the fact that the CEOs and investors in the fossil fuel industry do actively lobby in Washington, do ask Congress for earmarks and policy, and do financially benefit from those activities.

Level three: Politics anyone?

But Marc Morano, a climate change skeptic who until recently was a top aide to Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said that what he saw as Mr. Gore’s alarmism and occasional exaggerations distorted the debate and also served his personal financial interests.

Shouldn't the second clause in that sentence make the editors think that Morano might not be worth quoting on this subject? This is a classic case of the knee-jerk reaction of quoting "the other side", even though the other side is not the least bit objective. In this case, it adds nothing, other than a chance to further polarize the readers.

Listen, I'm not defending Gore. I'm criticizing the Times for an abominable editorial decision.
It's perfectly legitimate to report on Gore's growing wealth from his investing activities. That's not this story. This is reporting on a made-up controversy. And even though the story debunks many of the claims about Gore being "in it for the gold" as MT would say, the harm is done by shining a light on it.

There's no reason to run articles like this. Just because someone makes a stupid claim does not mean you have to report about it.