Saturday, April 17, 2010

Record warmth continues in March

The unprecedented warmth across Canada stands out in the NOAA global temperature map for March. But Canada was not alone. According to NOAA's data, this was the warmest March and the fourth warmest January - March in recorded history.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Climate change and human rights

I had a nice long interview about different aspects of climate change with human rights expert Darren Thorne as part of a new podcast series Human Rights and Wrongs, hosted by the Mark. As always, feedback and comments are welcome.

[Update] On the podcast, we discuss the pitfalls of Canada relying on the US to determine climate policy. One of the problems is that it may be a long wait. From the Globe and Mail:

Environment Minister Jim Prentice is signalling further delays in imposing greenhouse gas emission standards on the oil sector and other industries, saying Ottawa does not want to lose jobs and investment by driving activity out of the country.

The Conservative government is waiting for the United States to decide how it will impose climate-change regulations before acting here. And the U.S. Congress could take up to two years to pass legislation that sets caps on greenhouse gas emissions, Mr. Prentice told a Senate committee Thursday.

Add the delay to the fact that the whatever US legislation is produced will be tailored to the US economy (i.e. provide loopholes for industries that are more prominent in the US than in Canada), and there's even more reason to pursue a national strategy.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Mark: Why U.S. environmentalists should support offshore drilling

Last week, President Obama shocked environmentalists by opening millions of acres of the American continental shelf to oil and gas drilling. The announcement reminded me of a backpacking trip I took to Malaysian Borneo several years ago.

Read more at the Mark.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Pod science: PRI's The World Science

For all those lamenting the decline of science journalism in print and on television, its worth checking out the growing number of science podcasts.

One great example is Public Radio International's The World: Science hosted by Rhitu Chaterjee. The show has a more global focus than most other programs, including some recent interviews with young inventors in India and this week's discussion of the international politics of geoengineering. The show also features a fun segment on the music that scientists listen to while they work. The music segment features yours truly this week, but don't hold that against the show!


Thursday, April 08, 2010

Tongue-tied on global warming

A few days ago, I waded into the old "global warming" vs. "climate change" debate to demonstrate a simple point about public communication.

The issue at hand is not which term is most appropriate. Of course, there is a legitimate argument to be had on that question. Michael Tobis intelligently advocates for climate change, as do most scientists. Others argue that the two terms describe different phenomena and should not be used interchangeably.

These arguments highlight the very disconnect between scientists and the public that I was getting at in the initial post. I'll obnoxiously quote myself:

Rights and wrongs of the different labels aside, the fact is that there is a disconnect here. We use a term that means less to people. And it puts scientists and others communicating the real scientific consensus at a disadvantage.

Too often, we are oblivious to the way the public perceives science. And if we do see the disconnect between scientific and public language (or style), we tend to stubbornly insist that our language (or style) is the only correct option. This only exacerbates the problem. High-minded debates about semantics like the phrase-ology certainly won't diminish the common view that academics and scientists are disconnected from reality.

Should we suspend those debates? Of course not. But let's save our energy for the more critical issues. We also shouldn't allow semantic debate to get in the way of public communication, as the Google search history I showed suggests may be the case. Like many scientists, I not wild about the terms global warming or ocean acidification or ozone hole; but if the price of increasing public understanding of the science is occassionally having to say one term instead of another, well, that's a pretty good deal.


Sunday, April 04, 2010

Coal ship runs aground on Great Barrier Reef

Ironic, yes. Why bother with that whole slow process of burning the coal and oil, then having to wait for the emitted CO2 to change the climate and alter the ocean chemistry, thus threatening corals that are the cornerstone of the Great Barrier Reef, when you can just ram a ship right into the reef itself?

From the Onion New York Times:

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) -- A coal-carrying ship that strayed outside a shipping lane and ran aground in protected waters was leaking oil on Australia's Great Barrier Reef and was in danger of breaking apart, officials said Sunday.


Saturday, April 03, 2010

Global warming trumps climate change?

So much of the online climate "debate" is about effective communication, not science. Earlier this week, I met with a public opinion expert who critiqued the way many scientists and environmental groups speak about, er, climate change, no global warming, maybe the climate crisis, global heating, countdown to a meltdown, springtime for CO2, waterworld, the greatest threat facing humanity, well, you know what I mean.

The expert raised example after example of scientists, NGOs, government, etc. shooting themselves in the foot while talking about, um, the impact of human activity on the climate system. Take the oldest argument of them all: global warming or climate change?

At right is the Google trends graph of average worldwide searches for global warming (in blue) and climate change (in red). The top graph is standard Google searches, the bottom graph is news references.

The graph shows that "global warming" is far more common a search term. The average person is more likely to use and recognize the label "global warming", as evidenced by the search volume. But  "climate change" appears more often in the news. Why? In no small part because all the writers, and especially all the people quoted in the articles, say "climate change".

Now, we can argue the semantics of the different terms. Generally, scientists reject the term "global warming", because it is not used in the literature and supposedly "less accurate" because the entire planet is not warming at the same rate. I've used that argument many times, and now wonder if it may be a mistake to do so (as has been pointed out to me, "global" simply implies the whole planet is warming, which is true!).

Rights and wrongs of the different labels aside, the fact is that there is a disconnect here. We use a term that means less to people. And it puts scientists and others communicating the real scientific consensus at a disadvantage. Do a Google search for "global warming" and "climate change". With "global warming", the term the public is more likely to use, a "skeptical" site comes up second [note: search is done from Canada, others may find different results].