Monday, December 26, 2011

The airing of grievances

A large number of folks spent December 24th and 25th writing rather animated responses to the post of our short video on climate change and lake ice. In honour of traditional Festivus "airing of grievances", I've published many of the comments, and will continue to do so, even though in many cases I disagree with the contents, the tone and the writer's choice to remain anonymous.

A number of comments, however, were rejected because they were in extremely poor taste. I try to keep a civilized tone on the blog. Regular readers will know that on the blog and in my professional work I consistently argue that climate scientists should be humble and use civilized tone. I expect the same from commenters. Let's have an adult conversation and not resort to anonymous personal insults.

In light of this episode, there will be no more anonymous comments on Maribo.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Climate change and the holiday season

This short video, made with the help of my great undergraduate assistant Cory Kleinschmidt, tells the story of how climate change might be affecting a holiday tradition among many Canadian families, including my own.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

60 Minutes on Coral Reefs and the challenge of depicting ocean acidification

This weekend's 60 Minutes featured this great segment on coral reefs, in which a well-protected "Gardens of the Queen" in Cuba are used a possible example of a resilient reef ecosystem.

The segment touches on coral bleaching, though perhaps not with the authority or depth that is warranted by science. What's most striking, however, is that the segment does not even mention ocean acidification.

I'm sure the media conspiracy theorists might claim this all as evidence a U.S. network shying away from discussing "controversial" subjects like climate change. But I suspect something else is at play, and it is something that science communicators everywhere need to consider. This is television - you need engaging, interesting video. Just how do you film ocean acidification? It's a slow, invisible process, nothing like the exciting action shots of the host and scientists diving among sharks and lionfish.

This is not a criticism - it is a challenge. What are the best ways for documentarians to capture the effect of changing ocean chemistry on coral reefs?


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why would Canada withdraw from Kyoto before the end of the year?

Timing is everything, they say.

If the timing of this rumoured decision by the Canadian government to officially withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol near the end of December - rather than to remain a part of Kyoto and just continue ignoring the provisions - strikes you as curious, I strongly recommend reading Andrew Leach's post on the subject. He points out Article 27 of the Kyoto Protocol (bold is mine).

1. At any time after three years from the date on which this Protocol has entered into force for a Party, that Party may withdraw from this Protocol by giving written notification to the Depositary.
2. Any such withdrawal shall take effect upon expiry of one year from the date of receipt by the Depositary of the notification of withdrawal, or on such later date as may be specified in the notification of withdrawal.

It's been suggested that Canada will withdraw to avoid "non-compliance". The 2008 - 2012 Kyoto compliance period officially ends on December 31, 2012. After that, the math will be done to determine whether each country met their emissions targets.

If Canada withdraws before December 31, 2011 then Canada's withdrawal will be official before the compliance period ends, and Canada will, to be a scientist and use a double negative, not be considered in non-compliance. In other words, the Canadian government just a few weeks to play its get out of jail free card.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Climate change aid and the upcoming Durban summit

The next UN Climate summit - technically the 17th "Conference of the Parties" to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change - starts in less than a week in Durban, South Africa. The issues on the agenda, including the debate over continuation of the Kyoto architecture for emissions targets which did not include targets for developing nations, are contentious. The debate about the emissions targets, summarized briefly in a Nature News piece,  will likely dominate the coverage of the summit here in North America.

But the other, equally complicated and arguably as important, issue is the management and operation of the proposed $100 billion per year in climate change financing, which we discuss in our new article in Science (also see good recent coverage in Climate Wire and the Vancouver Sun, as well as the Canadian Press and Agence France Press; you may also contact me for a copy of the paper).

Success in planning the Green Climate Fund, the proposed body that will manage a significant proportion of the $100 billion per year, is critical to building the public and political will to provide the funds and to ensuring there are real results on the ground. It is also could be critical to creating the unity necessary to tackle the other contentious issues; as Timmons Roberts argued in the Nature News piece, the promise of funding to respond to climate change is one of the things that kept the developing countries at the negotiating table.


Friday, November 18, 2011

More on managing climate change aid

A primary goal of our work, published in Science, about managing climate change financing is to encourage the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to learn from the failures and successes of international aid in the design of the "Green Climate Fund". We argue that the initial $30 billion in "fast-track" financing to the Green Climate Fund represents an opportunity to demonstrate that funding pledges will be met, waste and misappropriation will be minimized, and the money will support the most effective climate change projects. This is critical in building the public and political will to meet the long-term pledge of mobilizing $100 billion per year by the year 2020.

Stories about this work are beginning to appear in the Canadian and international media, including Agence France Press, the Canadian Press (here via the CBC), the Vancouver Sun and elsewhere. For the most part, the articles I have seen capture some of the key points in our research paper, but as is always the case, there are important nuances to the research that can be missed from only seeing the short media articles.

There's one point in particular that I'd like to clarify: The lede of CP wire story, which appears in some publications, says "The UN's past record of suddenly injecting vast sums of money into countries to solve a problem doesn't bode well for the future of the massive Green Climate Fund say three University of British Columbia professors."

On this point, I must be clear: our work does not specifically mention or target the past practices of the United Nations or its agencies (nor, for that matter, does it state that the GCF is already being mismanaged). In the article, we look at evidence from across the whole international aid world, and provide advice for managing the GCF based on that evidence.

Raising, managing and disbursing international aid is inherently challenging, regardless of the organization or agency involved. Learning from the recent history of international aid can help ensure that the funding pledges are met and that the money provides real results in the developing world.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Science: Managing climate change aid

My colleagues Milind Kandlikar, Hisham Zerriffi and I have an article in Science about managing the funding that has been pledged to help the developing world respond to climate change.

Here's the UBC press release:

In advance of a major United Nations climate conference, University of British Columbia researchers are recommending how to manage a $100 billion annual commitment made by the international community last year to help the developing world respond to climate change – a funding promise almost equal to all existing official development aid from major donor countries today.

In today’s issue of Science, three UBC professors – Simon Donner, Milind Kandlikar and Hisham Zerriffi – argue that the aid commitment made by developed nations at last year’s United Nations climate conference is unprecedented and that the world must learn from the troubled history of international development to ensure that countries meet the commitment and provide real actions on the ground.

“Climate change is expected to have a much greater impact on people in the developing world, even though they are least responsible for the problem,” says Donner, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and faculty associate in the Liu Institute for Global Issues at UBC. “This funding is critically important. We need to make sure the money is provided and supports real action.”

The international community’s pledge to mobilize $100 billion in “new” and “additional” funding annually by 2020 was an agreement made at last year’s United Nations climate meeting, the 2010 Cancun Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The international community will review proposals for the management and operation of this program at a meeting in Durban, South Africa, beginning on November 28.

“The Cancun aid commitment represents a large influx of money into an international aid system already fraught with problems,” says Zerriffi, an assistant professor and the Ivan Head South/North Research Chair at Liu Institute for Global Issues. “To be effective, mechanisms must be established to ensure that the funding is administered wisely so that it can be sustained through political changes and economic constraints.”

Donner, Kandlikar and Zerriffi provide specific recommendations for ensuring that countries meet the funding commitment, that waste and misappropriation are minimized and that money is directed to the most effective programs. These guidelines include instituting an “adaptive” regulatory system to close funding loopholes, employing a decentralized network of third-party auditors and adopting a scientific approach to evaluating program effectiveness.

“Randomized control trials – a form of scientific experiment – are being increasingly used to improve outcomes in a wide range of development initiatives, from local governance to child education and infectious disease prevention,” says Kandlikar, an associate professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues and the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC. “The use of such trials could be very beneficial in improving climate change outcomes.”

The climate change funding, which amounts to more than twice the annual lending by the World Bank, is expected to flow through various channels, including a new Green Climate Fund (GCF) being discussed at the upcoming Durban climate summit. The UBC researchers say that careful stewardship of the initial “fast-track” funding to the GCF is critical.

“We can’t afford to make mistakes in the next few years,” says Donner. “That will sap the public and political will to support this incredibly important long-term initiative.”


Tuesday, November 08, 2011

New paper: Making the climate a part of the human world

The full version of the promised paper on climate change and belief is out in the latest issues of BAMS (pdf).


Monday, November 07, 2011

New data on carbon emissions per capita

To follow up Friday's post, I put together a chart of per capita emissions, based on the CDIAC's preliminary 2010 fossil fuel CO2 data and the estimated population. The per capita emissions were calculated using the most up-to-date source of population data I know (Wikipedia!).

The chart includes roughly the top twenty fossil fuel CO2 emitters in the preliminary 2010 data, shown in order from top (China) to bottom. Once again, keep in mind this is preliminary data and does not include other emissions from land use change or emissions of other greenhouse gas emissions.

The chart serves as a reminder that despite large increases in total emissions from fossil fuels over the past several years, countries like India, Indonesia and Brazil still have very low per capita emissions compared to North America. China has become an interesting in between, with per capita emissions still far below that of North America, but rivalling some European countries.

The simple calculation of per capita emissions is potentially misleadings, and raises a number of questions about attribution. If China is manufacturing goods for the North American market, should some of China's CO2 emissions be attributed to North America? Also, how is energy use and emissions distributed within each country? Is the per capita emissions value skewed by a very unequal distribution of wealth? [I'll let the Occupy movement tackle that one]


Friday, November 04, 2011

Stunning new carbon emissions data

The headline from the Associated Press "Biggest Jump Ever in Global Warming Gases" tells part of the story. The preliminary estimates of fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions for 2010 from Oak Ridge National Laboratory reveal what appears to be a quick rebound from the global financial crisis. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement production increased 6% from 2009 to 2010, driven in large by by China. This was the largest one-year (and total) increase in carbion dioxide emissions in the Oak Ridge data. 

If you drill into the numbers, which can be found here, you discover how economic turmoil, international development and, yes, maybe even a push to low-carbon economy in some countries, is changing the world. In the 2010 data (top right), China is by far the top emitter, ahead of the U.S., and India is now in the third spot. Of course, this ranking does not take population into account; the per capita emissions in China, and especially India, are far lower that that in the U.S. and Canada.

What is even more striking is the change over the past three years. I've plotted the percent change from 2008 to 2010 for the same "top twenty" countries (bottomr right). Here you can see that fossil carbon emissions increased rapdily in the major developing economies - China, India, Indonesia, etc, emissions from all of the major emitting countries in the developed world decreased. The industrialized nations that ratified the Kyoto might actually come close to reaching the emissions reductions targets set back in 1997 (we need to wait a couple more years to know for sure). Emissions growth in the developing world, however, is outpacing predictions, so total global emissions continue to increase. This will undoubtedly trigger further arguments about the value of the developed world actions without commitments from the developing world, and counterarguments about equity and sustainable development.

A final note: There are two very important things to keep in mind when looking at these charts. First, this is only carbon dioxide. Despite the use of the plural gases in AP headline, the data is just carbon dioxide. The country-by-country breakdown might be a bit different if the metric were carbon dioxide "equivalent", the catch-all term in which the radiative effect of methane, nitrous oxide and the other greenhouse gases is convered into units of carbon dioxide. Second, this is only from fossil fuel and cement. Again, the numbers would be different if greenhouse gas emissions from land use change were included. For one, Indonesia, might vault up the list, at least to sixth spot, probably even higher.


Thursday, November 03, 2011

My "outtakes" from 24 Hours of Reality

Check out the latest issue of UBC Reports for my brief "outtakes" story about participating in the Climate Reality Project with Al Gore. A snippet:

Once the make-up was done and the microphones were attached, the segment producer led us out to the stage and assigned us seats on the couch. I was last. “Simon, take the end there, and Mr. Gore will sit beside you before we go live.”

Wonderful, I thought. Thanks for the warning.

Once you are there, click over to the story about the brand new Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, the "greenest" building in North America. It is a really amazing place.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Climate in the era of humans

The latest episode of the radio show and podcast Big Picture Science is all about the idea that we have entered the "anthropocene" or era of man. The guests include William Steffan, talking about the anthropocene concept, and a host of others including yours truly discussing the evidence that humans are changing the climate, and how we can best describe that evidence to people.

On a related note, the Yale Climate Media Forum has a story up about whether culture matters in discussing climate change, based on my upcoming publication on belief and climate change. 


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Can we make the climate a part of the human world?

A new paper of mine, about to be published in the October issue of BAMS (Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society), looks at how the common, ancient human belief that the weather and climate are out of human control affects education and outreach about human-caused climate change. I outlined these ideas and my outreach message at a talk earlier this year. An early online version of the paper is available.

The article could really be a book, and, in fact, it may become one in a year or two. It grew out of several years of interdisciplinary research, involving everything from reading history and religious texts, to interviewing religious leaders, to participating in outreach programs, to donning a sulu and attending church in Fiji.

Here's the core argument:

Skepticism about anthropogenic climate change may therefore be reasonable when viewed through the lens of religion or the lens of history. In order to create a lasting public understanding of anthropogenic climate change, scientists and educators need to appreciate that the very notion that humans can directly change the climate may conflict with beliefs that underpin the culture of the audience.

I briefly trace the history behind this argument, and provide some modern evidence for the influence of belief on acceptance of the evidence for climate change. Despite what William Briggs, a critic of the early online release, my argument is not purely about religion, rather it is about the sense that the climate is to large to be affected by humans. This idea that we are small compared to the grand forces of nature and the atmosphere may be encoded in a structured belief system, or it may drive people's desire to climb mountains and stare at the view from the top.

Even in secular communities, a broad sense that forces beyond humans control the climate may partly explain the persistence of the argument that natural forcings like solar activity are the primary cause of observed 20th century climate change despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

I conclude with two broad suggestions for reforming climate change education and outreach:

Climate change outreach efforts need to address the perceived conflict between the scientific evidence and deeply ingrained cultural perceptions of climate. First, the development of human beliefs about climate should be added to educational materials and lesson plans. Existing education and outreach efforts rarely acknowledge any thinking about climate or climate change prior to the Svante Arrhenius’ 1896 study on atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature....

Second, educators and scientists should take lessons from approaches used in teaching of evolution, another subject where science can appear to conflict with pre-existing beliefs. Pedagogical research on evolution finds that providing the audience with opportunities to evaluate how their culture or beliefs affect their willingness to accept scientific evidence is more effective than attempting to separate scientific views from religious or cultural views.

The paper concludes with a message that I am regularly repeating at scientific forums, and will continue to write about at Maribo:
Climate scientists, for whom any inherent doubts about the possible extent of human influence on the climate were overcome by years of training in physics and chemistry of the climate system, need to accept that there are rational cultural, religious and historical reasons that the public may fail to believe that anthropogenic climate change is real, let alone that it warrants a policy response. It is unreasonable to expect a lay audience, not armed with the same analytical tools as scientists, to develop lasting acceptance during a one hour public seminar of a scientific conclusion that runs counters to thousands of years of human belief.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Climate change debates and flags of convenience

One of the perverse thrills of paddling in Vancouver is cozying up to the massive container ships parked out in English Bay (right). A little while back, I paddled past one rusting behemoth with the word "Monrovia" painted in white on the red hull. Each letter was about the size of my little kayak.

Monrovia is the capital of Liberia, the country where that vessel is registered. There is no thriving trade between Liberia and western Canada. Merchant ships merely register in Liberia in order to avoid regulations and to reduce costs. Liberia is the flag of convenience.

As a scientist, I sometimes find the challenge of communicating about climate change similar to that of operating a ship according to the rules of your native country while the "competitors" take advantage of the lawless wilds of other nations.

People opposing the basic science of climate change in the public sphere need not adhere to the slow, rigorous method of hypothesis testing or build coherent arguments over time based on the balance of published evidence. That provides the rhetorical advantage of adopting whatever "flag" or argument is convenient that week, whether about sunspots, an error in an IPCC report, or temperature trends on Mars. If the argument is proven false in the court of public opinion, you adopt another flag. The sequence of arguments does not have to be logically consistent. The goal of the organized sceptic movement* is simply to keep the ship sailing.

The temptation for scientists to adopt the practices of the opponents in the debate is what the late Steve Schneider described called the "double ethical bind" in a famously mis-used quote:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both

The response to that honest, clear assessment of the communications challenge says enough. For years, that one line about offering up "scary scenarios" was itself a Liberia to many of Schneider's opponents.

It can be challenging to stay level-headed about communication in the face of often unscrupulous opposition. That's why I find that the keys to communication about climate change are not the usual suspects of technical expertise, passion, ability to drop jargon, etc. etc. In my experience, successfully communicating about climate change takes, more than anything else, patience and humility.

* Note: It's important to separate the funded movement from individual people's doubts about the science of climate change, which can be grounded in science, culture, religion, politics, moral values, you name it. And there are vocal sceptics who rely on a consistent line of argumentation; perhaps Lindzen's earlier arguments about the water vapour feedback could fall in this category, though it's fair to say that ship has since migrated to other shores.


Sunday, October 02, 2011

Nutrient limitation missing from an otherwise good NY Times story on forests and climate change

The NY Times published a lengthy article about the climate implications of the forest diebacks and fires. It is, on the whole, a great and all-too-rare example of longform science journalism.

The article does miss one important point about CO2 fertilization, the increase in plant growth thought to come from adding more CO2 to the air.

Climate-change contrarians tend to focus on this “fertilization effect,” hailing it as a boon for forests and the food supply. “The ongoing rise of the air’s CO2 content is causing a great greening of the Earth,” one advocate of this position, Craig D. Idso, said at a contrarian meeting in Washington in July.

Dr. Idso and others assert that this effect is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, ameliorating any negative impacts on plant growth from rising temperatures. More mainstream scientists, while stating that CO2 fertilization is real, are much less certain about the long-term effects, saying that the heat and water stress associated with climate change seem to be making forests vulnerable to insect attack, fires and many other problems.

The CO2 fertilization effect is limited, because plants require more than just CO2 to do their job:  photosynthesis. Water is certainly a limiting factor, but nutrients are just as important. In experiment after experiment, scientists find that the CO2 fertilization effect is short-lived without additional inputs of nutrients, particularly nitrogen.

One of the reasons CO2 fertilization may have accelerated plant growth in parts of Europe and North America over the past few decades may be the fact that we've inadvertently been fertilizing the plants with nitrogen, as well as CO2. We'll actually be talking about this in GEOB400 in a couple weeks. For the 6.7 billion or so of you who were unable to register this semester - yes, yes, the class is too small, I hear that all the time - I wrote about this on Maribo a few years ago, in a cross-post with Eli and Tamino:

One culprit is carbon’s chemical sibling nitrogen, that’s #7 on your periodic table if you’re scoring at home. Like many siblings, carbon and nitrogen are quite co-dependent, and, one might argue, a bit resentful about the whole thing. Carbon fixation - photosynthesis, plant growth – is limited by the availability of nitrogen. Though only up to a point. If there’s too much nitrogen, things get saturated, and the carbon-based plants pout and refuse to grow more.

You might find it strange that nitrogen is limited, given that N2 or di-nitrogen gas makes up the majority of the atmosphere. However, N2 is unreactive. It only becomes available to plants when converted to reactive form by microbes. In the process of making fertilizer and burning fossil fuels, we not only have increased the rate at which this conversion happens, leaving more nitrogen in our soils and waterways, we've emitted nitrogen in other reactive, gaseous forms, like nitrogen oxides or NOx


Monday, September 26, 2011

The folly of broad statements about adapting to climate change

In my climate change course, we devote a week to discussing climate and past civilizations. Among the goals of that week is to erase the notion that climate change is inherently "bad", or inherently "good", from the student's minds. The effects of climate change on any system, whether a society or an ecosystem, depends on the adaptive capacity and the rate of the climate change. The same climate change that spelled the end of the Norse settlements in Greenland did not affect (ed. crowd-sourced copy editing) the well-adapted Inuit of the region.

A recent, and controversial, book hypothesizing that the Easter Islanders were not done in by "ecocide", as argued by Jared Diamond and most archaeological evidence suggests, led to some discussion about the societal resilience to climate change. All roads lead to climate these days, I guess.

Judith Curry concludes a post on the subject with this statement, which supports a dangerously simple view of adaptation to climate change:

Occam’s razor suggests that we should tend towards simplest theories.  However, in complex coupled social-ecological-environmental systems, simple theories are almost certain to be too simple.  The complexity of such coupled systems precludes simple cause-effect analyses.   If we are arguing about such a system on the scale of Easter Island, what hope do we have of understanding and managing such interactions on  continental or even global scales? Ecosystems eventually adapt to climate change and insults from humans.

The comments about Easter Island notwithstanding - we argue about places like Easter Island because it all happened in the past and thus evidence is disputable, not because we can't understand complex systems - this statement concludes with exactly the type of simple, blanket view of complex problems that we should be teaching students to avoid. Theories like "Ecosystems eventually adapt to climate change and insults from humans" are indeed too simple!

Ecosystems do adapt. In a broad sense. But the question is not if they can eventually adapt, because we don't live in eventually. And, regardless of the time frame, we must remember that adapt itself is a vague term. To estimate the impacts of climate change, or other human insults, in the real world, we need to delve deeper and dispense with the vague generalities:

1. Define eventually: At what rate can the system adapt? Is the change happening faster than ecosystems, or people, can adapt such that they stay in the present state?
2. Define adapt: What exactly does adaptation look like? Say, coral reefs can "adapt" (in a collective, rather than an individual biological sense) to climate change by killing off the less resilient species and growth forms. That, for example, may be what is happening in South Tarawa where I do field work. You've got reefs dominated by a single, weedy species, and little habitat diversity. This new adaptation may not be desirable for those who depend on the ecosystem.

That's science. You don't just assume away an answer ("oh, we'll be just fine") based on a pre-conceived notions of what's "good" or "bad". You gotta analyse the data, do the math, unpack how the system works.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Climate change: An accounting problem

The latest RealClimate post, which describes the latest ice melt data from Greenland, features this really important figure. It illustrates an issue that arises every semester in my climate change course, and is, in a sense, fundamental to understanding to biogeochemical cycles and issues like why carbon is accumulated in the atmosphere.

The figure shows model-based annual anomalies (thanks ED) of snowfall (reddish-orange), water loss through surface melt and runoff (yellow) and net accumulation of mass (blue), all in Gt/yr. The key point is that an ice sheet shrinks not simply because it is melting (yellow), but because the loss of water through melt (yellow) is greater than the gain through snowfall (red). The difference is the change in mass (blue). It is an accounting problem; like your bank account, you need to look at the debits and the credits to know whether the balance is changing.

This is the same fundamental concept that  underlies carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere, and as MIT management expert John Sterman has shown, befuddles most people. Carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere not simply because we are burning fossil fuels and clearing land, but because the flux in to the atmosphere from those sources is greater than the flux out (to land, and the oceans).

As an aside, in my climate change course, one of the many ways we discuss these points is by watching the infamous "CO2 is life" advertisements created a few years back by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The "Glaciers" video cites scientific evidence for snowfall-driven growth of ice sheets in the interior of Antarctica to suggest that ice sheets around the planet are not shrinking. The mistake in the ad is that in order calculating whether an ice sheet is shrinking, on net, you need to do the full accounting of all inputs (from snow) and all the outputs (from melt), not just cherry pick one part of the ice sheet, or one flux in or out.

The CEI ads, by the way, are hilarious. If you've not seen them, you really must. They are well worth two minutes out of your day; the Onion News Network couldn't have come up with fake ads that funny.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

24 Hours of Reality, 365 days a year

If you missed it live, all of the videos from the 24 Hours of Reality are available online. Pick a region of interest and watch the video. Each hour is comprised of a short introductory video, a local speaker delivering a variation of Al Gore's presentation about climate change, followed by a panel of experts back at the studio talking about the science and the issues.

The panel members rotated throughout the 24 hours based on expertise, and who could stay awake. Kudos to Paul Higgins from AMS for doing the overnight shift as well as some of the daytime panels. It's worth watching the highlights from multiple hours and/or watching multiple panel discussions, as the rotating cast made for some fascinating and interesting conversations. I was a part of panels that included Al Gore and four scientists (Kotzebue, Alaska, Hour 4) as well as mix from academia, broadcasting the UN, Hollywood and NGOs (French Polynesia, Hour 5; Dubai, Hour 16).


Monday, September 12, 2011

Climate reality... What a concept.

Starting a 8pm EST on Wednesday night, the Al Gore's Climate Reality Project will be doing a 24 hour live broadcast of people around the world talking about climate change. Here's their pitch:

24 Presenters. 24 Time Zones. 13 Languages. 1 Message. 24 Hours of Reality is a worldwide event to broadcast the reality of the climate crisis. It will consist of a new multimedia presentation created by Al Gore and delivered once per hour for 24 hours, representing every time zone around the globe. Each hour people living with the reality of climate change will connect the dots between recent extreme weather events — including floods, droughts and storms — and the manmade pollution that is changing our climate. We will offer a round-the-clock, round-the-globe snapshot of the climate crisis in real time. The deniers may have millions of dollars to spend, but we have a powerful advantage. We have reality.

I'll be taking part in some of the expert panels back in the studio, discussing some of the science and some of the issues after the on-site presenters are finished (for updates on times, follow me on Twitter: @simondonner).

As regular readers of Maribo, or people who heard my talk at AMS this spring know, I've been an advocate of what one might call a "humbler" approach to outreach about climate change. That approach is informed by my field research in the Pacific Islands, some related historical research over the past five years, and my outreach experience; the argument for it is described in a paper currently in press with the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (more on that later). I'll be bringing some of that thinking to portions of the broadcast.

In case you are not a child of the 80s... the title of this post is a play on a Robin Williams comedy album from the Mork and Mindy days.


Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Joining the twitter-verse

Following up on a promise made earlier this summer to expand to other online "media", I've joined Twitter (@simondonner).

I was initially quite skeptical of Twitter. That should come as no surprise; I am a scientist, an academic one at that, and skepticism is what we do. But the last thing the world needs is more academic curmudgeons.


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Was Hurricane Irene caused by climate change?

Every major weather event raises the same debate over the same unanswerable question: was it caused by climate change?

And every time, some prominent name or public figure, fed up with media coverage or with the persistence of skepticism about science or the lack of action, throws statistics out the window and says yes. Or says something like "Irene’s got a middle name, and it’s Global Warming", as founder Bill McKibben wrote in the Daily Beast. That in turn draws legitimate pushback, further polarizes the public discussion about climate change, and makes some long-time participants of the debate want to smash their head against a wall.

The good news is that this cycle has been going on for long enough that people have finally began to reword the question. In Climate Central, Michael Lemonick tried "Is climate change making this storm worse than it would have been otherwise?". That is a slightly better than the staple question, but still demands more certainty than can really be provided by the evidence.

The New York Times asked the subtly different, but far more sensible question: "Are hurricanes getting worse because of human-induced climate change?". By shifting from the particular storm to the sequence of storms over time, it becomes a question we can actually answer with data and statistics. As the article by Justin Gillis finds, scientists including NOAA's Tom Knutson, who I worked with on a related subject, are divided on the interpretation of past data on hurricane intensity.

Hurricane Irene was a reminder of one of factor that should draw more attention in the climate change and hurricanes discussion: rain. The worst damage from Irene came from the heavy rains and floods in Vermont and surrounding areas (the above photo is from CBC News). You can see the data yourself on the USGS real-time streamflow page for the state, a fantastic resource for everyone from regional planners to recreational paddlers (my old haunt the Millstone River in New Jersey reached almost triple the flood stage on Sunday) which may be subject to budget cuts.

If I had to place money on which feature of tropical cyclones or hurricanes would increase the most because of climate change, I'd bet on rainfall, ahead of other metrics like intensity (wind speed) or surge height. Warmer water means more evaporation; warmer air can hold more water.

That doesn't mean the flooding in Vermont was caused by human-induced climate change. But it might mean that we can get more agreement on the answer to the New York Times question.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Another Friday afternoon, another buried climate/energy policy decision

It may very well be an unfortunate coincidence. Or perhaps it may be the start of a trend. In a move that could appear in a dictionary under "burial, as in a controversial decision", the U.S. government has announced support for the much-debated Keystone XL pipeline, which will carry oil from the Alberta oil sands to the central U.S. and the Gulf Coast, on a Friday afternoon in the summer when the news media is less active. And not just any Friday afternoon... a Friday afternoon when a hurricane is bearing down on the several of the largest metropolitan areas of the country, including New York City.


Storm surge calculus

Jeff Masters' latest forecast for Hurricane Irene, besides warning New York City and coastal New England of damage, serves as a reminder of something to consider whenever you see a static map depicting what your community would look like if sea level rises by X m: the level of the sea is constantly varying, because of the astrononomical tides, storm systems and ocean currents.

On Sunday, New York City could be seriously damaged by the storm surge from Irene, even though the storm will have weakened to Category 1 at most, because the passage of the storm could coincide with a high tide:

At 9:30am EDT this morning, a wind analysis from NOAA/HRD (Figure 1) indicated that the potential storm surge damage from Irene rated a 5.1 on a scale of 0 to 6. This is equivalent to the storm surge a typical Category 4 hurricane would have. While this damage potential should gradually decline as Irene moves northwards and weakens, we can still expect a storm surge one full Saffir-Simpson Category higher than Irene's winds. Since tides are at their highest levels of the month this weekend due to the new moon, storm surge flooding will be at a maximum during the high tidal cycles that will occur at 8 pm Saturday night and 8 am Sunday morning. At those times, Irene is expected to be near the NC/VA border, then close to Long Island, NY, respectively. Thus, storm surge damage rivaling that experienced during Hurricane Isabel in 2003 is likely in northern NC, southern Maryland, and up Chesapeake Bay on Saturday night. It looks like Irene will pass New Jersey during low tide, which may limit the storm surge inundation to 3 - 6 feet there. Coastal New England from New York City to Massachusetts may also see storm surges characteristic of a Category 1 hurricane during Sunday morning's high tide, even if Irene has weakened to a tropical storm. I continue to give a 20% chance that a storm surge high enough to over-top the Manhattan flood walls and swamp the New York City subway system will occur on Sunday.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

The reality of Canada's new regulations on carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants

On Friday, the Canadian Minister of the Environment announced new emissions rules for coal plants which supposed encourage a shift to effective capture and storage of carbon. And, yes, you may be right to be suspicious about any new regulations announced on a Friday afternoon in the middle of August, when the vast majority of Canadians are planning for the weekend and ignoring the news. According to Minister Peter Kent:

These proposed regulations take into account the fact that many electricity facilities across Canada are old and need to be replaced soon. We're acting now to ensure that power companies understand today, the rules that will affect the new investments they have to make tomorrow. It allows for an orderly process - the bedrock of certainty.

The scant news coverage pointed out that the new standards only apply to plants built after July 1, 2015, thus exempted some proposed new coal plants.

That includes Calgary-based Maxim Power Corp.'s contentious proposal for a 500-megawatt expansion at its HR Milner facility, which received final approval from the Alberta Utilities Commission earlier this month and must be built by July 31, 2015 - a condition of the go-ahead (Calgary Herald)

The actual regulations may prove to be even more controversial. I encourage interesting followers of Maribo to read the text of the regulations (pdf from Environment Canada) and provide their interpretation in the comments.
In my reading of the reults, I found what I think, but I could be mistaken, are very large loopholes which could prevent any real reduction in carbon emissions from coal-electricity generation until at least 2025.

First, here's the actual emissions limit, and I'll leave the intrepretation of the number to the readers:

3. (1) A responsible person for a new unit or an old unit must not, on average, emit with
an intensity of more than 375 tonnes CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels in the
unit for each GWh of electricity produced by the unit during a calendar year.

Then it gets complicated:

(b) a declaration that includes the following statements:
(i) that, based on the economic feasibility study referred to in paragraph (c), the unit,
when operating with an integrated carbon capture and storage system is, to the best of
the responsible person’s knowledge and belief, economically viable, and
(ii) that, based on the technical feasibility study referred to in paragraph (d) and the
implementation plan referred to in paragraph (f), the responsible person expects to
satisfy the requirements referred to in section 9 and, as a result, to be in compliance with
subsection 3(1) by January 1, 2025;

So, again, if I am reading this right, you can gain an exemption from the regulations if you are able to conduct a study showing that the CCS system will be capable of meeting the new emissions regulation by 2025.

Putting this all together: 

1. Any coal plants built before July, 2015 which have not reached the end of their useful life [ed - see comment #1] are exempt. Given the expected shift towards natural gas in the next few years, it is entirely possible that the regulations will not end up applying to any coal-burning plants unless they are old units, as all the other coal-burning plants will be "grandfathered" in. [ed - fair?]

2. Any coal plants built after July, 2015 are exempt until 2025 so long as it is technologically possible to install a CCS system by 2025. Therefore, CCS systems are unlikely to be operating at any large scale coal plants in Canada for another 15 years. This delay may reflect the technological challenge of CCS or the values of the current government, or both.

Hopefully, I'm wrong.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Science and communication post-doctoral fellowships at UBC

A rare bit of academic business here on Maribo:

The University of British Columbia’s new TerreWEB program is interested in engaging a scientist to facilitate challenges in building research and training involving TerreWEB researchers and collaborators. Highly qualified candidates interested in developing innovative research programs and fostering Graduate Student training are invited to apply. Appointments can range from 2 to 3 years. Click on the image for the full ad.

This is a great program. A large range of UBC faculty, including myself, are a part of program, so applicants have a terrific choice of potential supervisors.

The one drawback: The applications are due on August 31st! If you're interested, get cracking on that application.

Potential students interested in the program should contact a TerreWEB faculty member for more information about applying to UBC (and to the program).


Friday, August 12, 2011

Canada's sham of a federal climate policy

In yesterday's Globe and Mail, Marc Jaccard wisely pointed out the gaping flaws in the Canadian pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2020. The pivot point is a proposed new coal-burning power plant in B.C.Alberta:

Stephen Harper can’t allow new coal-fired electricity plants to be built, such as the one Maxim Power is proposing in Alberta, and achieve his promise to reduce Canadian greenhouse-gas emissions 17 per cent by 2020. As a researcher of energy-economy systems, I say this with virtual certainty. I also know that any scholar in my field would agree with me, and that the Prime Minister’s expert advisers would tell him the same thing.

There are two stories here. The first is that Canada has made many emissions pledges but repeatedly failed to enact any plan to meet those pledges. This is not a partisan issue. It happened under majority and minority Liberal governments, and it is happening under minority and now majority Conservative governments:

In 2007, Mr. Harper committed Canada to a 2020 target for greenhouse-gas reduction but hasn’t implemented policies that would achieve it. Like Mr. Chrétien, Mr. Harper must know his scant policies will fail. Recently released internal government documents show he’s receiving information from civil servants telling him his current policies are not transforming the energy-economy system in the direction he’s promised.

The second story is that climate policy is ineffective and meaningless without short-term and long-term goals. With no short-term emissions target, we end up delaying shifts in the energy infrastructure, and in the case of the coal-burning power plant, committing to future emissions which make meeting the long-term goal more difficult if not impossible. Jaccard praises the approach taken by the Campbell government in B.C.:

In 2007, then-B.C. premier Gordon Campbell also committed to a 2020 emissions reduction target. But to convince people of his sincerity – especially after two decades of climate policy failure by all Canadian governments at all levels – Mr. Campbell acted very differently. First, he got an independent body to set interim targets for 2012 and 2016, so people would know within a political time frame if he were on track to keep his promise. Second, he asked his advisers what investments needed to happen in 2007, and every year thereafter, to meet the 2020 target. On that basis, he immediately implemented a zero-emission electricity policy, which caused the cancellation of two proposed coal-fired electricity plants that had signed preliminary supply deals with BC Hydro.

Granted this approach is certainly easier, and more politically palatable, in a jurisdication where hydro-power is abundant. Nevertheless, it is a good model to follow.


Friday, August 05, 2011

The complexity of climate change policy

Buried in a couple recent news stories, which themselves were buried by the news of the debt standoff in the U.S.,  were a couple fascinating nuggets that reveal a lot about how climate change mitigation policy does, and does not happen.

One is an agreement to raise fuel efficiency standards in the U.S., which will presumably also become the rule in Canada. The... greement to that vehicles sold will average 54.5 mpg by 2025, although with loopholes related to measurement of efficiency, the actual average will be more like 43 mpg.

Why did it happen? (NY Times):

It is an extraordinary shift in the relationship between the companies and Washington. But a lot has happened in the last four years, notably the $80 billion federal bailout of General Motors, Chrysler and scores of their suppliers, which removed any itch for a politically charged battle from the carmakers...

The new mind-set in Detroit has been helped by some give and take on the government’s side. G.M., Ford and Chrysler pressed for less onerous mileage goals for their profitable pickup trucks and got them. And the administration agreed to revisit the new requirements halfway through their course, with the possibility of adjusting them. In the end, though, Detroit was faced with an undeniable political reality: there was no graceful way to say no to an administration that just two years ago came to its aid financially.

The auto bailout as climate policy: investing in the companies provided some leverage in the battle to reduce emissions from passenger vehicles. Was the Obama administration prescient here, knowing that there were little odds of carbon tax on fuel? More likely, the U.S. government was merely taking advantage of an opportunity to use some leverage to push an emissions reduction effort. Of course, the idea of "nationalizing" companies in hopes of enforcing a climate change policy would cause the "Tea Party" to self-combust.

The other example is the Alberta government's approval of a carbon capture and storage project (Globe and Mail):

Calgary-based Swan Hills Synfuels LP aims to use an unproven method, coal gasification, to reach 1.4-kilometre-deep coal deposits in central Alberta, convert them to gas underground, capture the emissions before they ever see daylight and use the gaseous coal to run a power plant. The new plant would serve a whopping 300,000 homes while producing one-third the emissions of a similarly sized regular coal plant – or about the same carbon output as a natural-gas plant. Because the project will divert 1.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – providing the cost certainty of coal and environmental performance of natural gas – Alberta coughed up $285-million for the $1.5-billion development.

Now, investment in a CCS project in Alberta is not a huge surprise, especially considering the particular plant can aide in oil recovery. But then there't this nugget:

Industry members, politicians and academics said provincial funding is necessary because there’s little incentive to reduce emissions. CCS is “viable, but it comes at a cost,” said Don Lawton, a University of Calgary geophysicist who studies CCS. “But until there’s a price on carbon, it’s an expense that has to be borne by somebody.” Mr. Lambert said the project would die without provincial money. “I don’t think I could deliver the returns investors would need to put their money up,” he said.

So the CCS projects go ahead, but solwly, and at great expense to the province of Alberta because of the lack of a federal carbon price, which was strongly opposed by politicans from Alberta. Unlike the automobile case above, pricing carbon is critical to making CCS work.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Organic vs. conventional agriculture

The new Scientific American blog Science Sushi dispels some myths about large-scale organic agriculture. Here's one example:

Some people believe that by not using manufactured chemicals or genetically modified organisms, organic farming produces more nutritious food. However, science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than non-organic ones – and scientists have been comparing the two for over 50 years.

Better for the environment does not necessarily mean better for you (or for the climate). Not that the environmental benefits are clear either:

Yes, organic farming practices use less synthetic pesticides which have been found to be ecologically damaging. But factory organic farms use their own barrage of chemicals that are still ecologically damaging, and refuse to endorse technologies that might reduce or eliminate the use of these all together.

It's worth a read. 


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Is it time to start holding virtual conferences? The case of the International Coral Reef Symposium

The only thing hotter than the U.S. and Canada (east of the Rockies!) in the past week was the discussion on the Coral-List, the NOAA-managed read by pretty much anyone that does research related to coral reefs, about the cost of attending next year’s International Coral Reef Symposium. The ICRS is THE meeting in the world of coral reef research. Thanks to the Olympian once-every-four-years timing, attendance is, I’d argue, as mandatory as it comes in the sciences. Miss an American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting, and you can attend another in six or twelve months. Miss an ICRS, and, well, you’ve got four full years to train for the next one.

The full week registration fee for the meeting has been set at AU$960 - AU$1250, depending on membership in the scientific society and the date of purchase. While registration fees of $1000 or more are not unheard of for scientific meetings in other branches of research, like say medicine, the price is extraordinary for the natural sciences, and especially for a sub-field in which many of the researchers are based in developing countries. Naturally, people from small NGOs in SE Asia to large academic instituions in North America are upset and stating that they will not attend.

Shocking as they be to many, the real story is not the registration fees. The real story is is the travel.

In addition to timing, the ICRS shares a logistical challenge with the Olympics. There is no optimal site for the event. Coral reefs are found throughout the tropics and subtropics, and that is excluding the cold water reefs in places like our own BC coast. Coral reef researchers are even more widespread, with scientists dotting every continent save Antarctica (I think - anyone at McMurdo care to correct me here?). No matter where the ICRS is held, be it Florida (2008), Okinawa (2004) or Bali (2000), a majority of top researchers in the field will have to travel long distances to attend. That means a lot of money – I estimate a weeklong trip to Cairns for the meeting from this part of the world could cost CAN$3500-4000 with registration. Moreover, that means a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. All for a scientific meeting about an ecosystem which many argue is existentially threatened by climate change and ocean acidification.

Hence the question on many people’s minds. Should the ICRS go virtual?

Of any scientific conference, there are certainly strong arguments for making the ICRS virtual: no optimal location for the meeting, cost being a significant barrier for many potential participants, travel restrictions being problematic (e.g. Middle East researchers requiring special visas for places like the U.S. and Australia), and of course the subject of conference being sensitive to atmospheric CO2. A counterargument is that the meeting is held only once every four years, in part for some of these very reasons, so rather than make ICRS virtual, other annual meetings should go virtual and adopt an Olympic schedule for the “live” meetings. A compromise first-step would be a hybrid meeting in which people had to option to participate "live" or online.

Society has adapted quickly to tectonic shifts in the way we communicate. Virtual conferences, which so many disdain for missing that personal connection of a live meeting, will become perfectly normal to us at some point in the future, just as e-mail, web browsing, Google Earth, Facebook, and Twitter have. It's a question of when, not if.

My question is: Which scientific society is willing to be the early adopter?


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Climate impact of different foods

Earlier this week, the Environmental Working Group, a research and lobby group in DC, released a report on the “environment” and "health" impact of different foods. It found that lamb is the worst offender, followed by grain-fed beef, pork, cheese and farmed salmon.

The report was brought to my attention by a writer at the Huffington Post, who subsequently published this story which includes thoughts on the report a number of outside experts on the issue. I commented on the climate impacts of feed production and the logic of farming top-of-the-food chain fish like salmon, both issues that have been discussed frequently here at Maribo.

Here's a more complete list of my thoughts upon examining the short report:

1. “Environmental” impact or “health” impact can be very different than “climate” impact. For example, I’d expect lamb to be much lower on a list based purely on greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. per gram of food produced). I can't comment on "health" impacts as it is not my area of expertise.

2. What I call the “land use cascade” is potentially the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions from food production, but also the hardest to calculate. That’s why GHG emissions from dairy relative to beef cattle tend to be overestimated (more methane from dairy cattle, more land required to grow feed for beef than dairy products). It’s also why any study like this should have large positively skewed error bars.

3. All meat is not created equal in terms of greenhouse gases. Grain-fed beef is far less efficient than pork, which is again far less efficient than poultry.

4. If your food choices are motivated purely by concern about greenhouse gas emissions, eating less grain-fed beef is more important than eating locally.

5. Historically-speaking, we are just starting to develop industrial-scale farming of fish, as discussed in the recent Time cover story. Farming the ocean is, in a sense, thousands of years behind farming on land. Right now, many of the choices we are making are, as I put bluntly in the Huffington Post story, “stupid”. Cattle are logical choice for farm animals. They eat grass, so they are only one step away from the sun. Salmon are much higher up the food chain. That’s why many of us say farming salmon is like farming wolves or tigers – you need the whole ecosystem to support the one salmon.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Eliminating the US corn ethanol subsidy is no panacea

One possible casualty of the endless U.S. budget fight may be the federal subsidy for corn ethanol production. There's been a lot of quiet, and some not-so-quiet, cheering from the environmental community, based on the premise that eliminating the subsidy will lessen nutrient pollution from growing so much corn.

In reality, cutting or repealing the 45-cents-per-gallon ethanol tax credit is unlikely to have much of an effect on planting decisions. As a recent article in the NY Times nicely explained last week, the subsidy is, at this point, unnecessary. Between laws requiring blending of ethanol into gasoline, the federal ethanol mandate, the tariff on imports, the size of the ethanol production industry, and the high price of corn, there's already enough incentive to maintain the status quo in corn production and corn ethanol production.

There are certainly good reasons to eliminate the subsidy. No one should pretend that doing so will solve of the problem of nutrient levels in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. That is a far greater challenge.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Housekeeping and new links!

I wanted to draw people's attention to the updated list of links on Maribo. I've added a few new links which I learned of at the terrific Google Science Communication Fellows workshop last month: Alan Townsend's new blog State Factors, Jon Koomey's blog and Eugene Cordero's effort Green Ninja.

Maribo itself is likely to change in the next few months. I'm considered new formats for the blog, and also alternative approaches to online outreach about climate issues. Feel free to pass along any suggestions!


Monday, July 11, 2011

Farming the sea

The cover story in this week's issue of Time Magazine tackles the pros and cons of farming fish, a subject that gets suprisingly little solid media coverage in North America. Bryan Walsh's article does a decent job covering the decline of the world's fisheries, and the need for solutions. But like so many articles on the subject, it buries what should be the lede:

Especially troubling, many of the most popular farmed species are carnivores, meaning they need to be fed at least partly with other fish. By one count, about 2 lb. of wild fish ground up to make fish meal is needed on average to produce 1 lb. of farmed fish, which leaves the ocean at a net loss.

I've written about this before: A substantial proportion of the wild harvest is used to maintain marine aquaculture of carnivorous species like salmon. It is wildly inefficient, the marine equivalent of farming wolves rather than herbivorous cattle. This is why many experts conclude that the future for pescetarians is probably the blander, lower-on-the-food-chain species like tilapia and catfish.

In coverage of aquaculture, we tend to focus on the sexier and scarier subjects: pollution from farms, genes mixing with the wild population, PCBs in farmed salmon, etc. Certainily, no doubt, these are all serious concerns (except perhaps the PCBs). But the feed-to-fish ratio is the very core of the matter; if you get less fish protein out than you put in, aquaculture doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense.

Walsh gets to this central dilemma in the second half of the article:

When producers began raising fish intensively, they picked species that people like to eat: salmon and sea bass. But those species are high on the food chain, and raising them on a farm is a bit like trying to domesticate tigers. [ed - nice. I always say wolves] The aquaculture industry has gotten better at replacing fish meal with plant-based feed, but not fast enough. You're not feeding the world sustainably if you need to remove the base of the marine food chain to do it. 

The solution that many propose is expanding the use of plant-based products in fish food. That brings it's own complications. For one, salmon certainly didn't evolve eating soymeal, cornmeal or wheat, so shifting to a majority plant-based diet will likely involve further genetic engineering, which has supporters and detractors. 

And second, feeding plant products to fish would add another player in the struggle for the world's productive croplands. 

Forget food vs. feed. Or food vs. fuel. In the future, it will be a battle of the 4 Fs:  food vs. feed vs. fuel vs. fish.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Canada upsets other countries at climate negotiations

Though news of Canada's selective emissions reporting drew little attention here at home, other countries took notice. From Post Media News:

OTTAWA — Foreign diplomats bombarded Canadian climate change negotiators with questions Thursday in Bonn, Germany, as they challenged the Harper government's transparency and policies to fight global warming.

In the wake of media coverage highlighting missing and conflicting information in an Environment Canada submission to the United Nations, officials from Australia, China, Lebanon, the United Kingdom and the Philippines questioned government policies regarding fossil fuel subsidies and the Alberta "tarsands," a lack of investment in clean energy and the scientific evidence used to determine its greenhouse gas emissions target...

Representatives from other countries pounced on Canada after Michael Keenan, an assistant deputy minister at Environment Canada, delivered a presentation suggesting that the government was showing "significant ambition" in its proposal to crack down on greenhouse gas emissions.

But his presentation appeared to generate more questions than answers.

"I was also struck that the colleague from Canada didn't refer to the tarsands issue or at least only once in passing," said Peter Betts, the lead European Union negotiator and a director at the United Kingdom's Department of Energy and Climate Change, during the session. "This has been an issue featured much in the press, and I know there have been allegations from the press that the emissions from that sector have not been included in Canada's inventory (report submission to the UN)."

His remarks were followed by a delegate from Australia — traditionally a Canadian ally at climate negotiations — who questioned how Canada could increase its "level of ambition" when it was turning away from engaging international markets. Lebanon also jumped in, questioning the pace of a commitment to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels, including the "tarsands," and raising doubts about Canada's intention to harmonize its policies with the U.S. without matching its partner's proportion of investments in clean energy.


Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Honesty in Canadian emissions reporting

For five years, Canadian government represnetatives have claimed they are meeting all the obligations under the Kyoto Protocol... except the emissions target. In other words, Canada has met the reporting deadlines but achieved little else. The claim has been subject of much ridicule, here and elsewhere. [it is, incidentally, a classic and well-documented problem with international policy; governments viewing success as filling out the paperwork, not achieving the goals of the actual policy]

It turns out, we are now aren't even filling out the paperwork properly:

OTTAWA — The federal government has acknowledged that it deliberately excluded data indicating a 20 per cent increase in annual pollution from Canada’s oilsands industry in 2009 from a recent 567-page report on climate change that it was required to submit to the United Nations...

The numbers, uncovered by Postmedia News, were left out of the report, a national inventory on Canada’s greenhouse gas pollution. It revealed a six per cent drop in annual emissions for the entire economy from 2008 to 2009, but does not directly show the extent of pollution from the oilsands production, which is greater than the greenhouse gas emissions of all the cars driven on Canadian roads.

... Environment Canada provided the oilsands numbers in response to questions from Postmedia News about why it had omitted the information from its report after publishing more detailed data in previous years. A department spokesman explained that “some” of the information was still available in the latest report, which still meets Canada’s reporting obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
“The information is presented in this way to be consistent with UNFCCC reporting requirements, which are divided into broad, international sectors,” wrote Mark Johnson in an email.
He was not immediately able to answer questions about who made the decision in government to exclude the numbers from the oilsands or provide a detailed explanation about changes in emissions.

To be fair, maybe this is a common problem this past year, and the reporting by other UNFCCC signatories  was also limited or delayed.
Although the report was due in April, during the last election campaign, Canada was the last country to file its submission. Environment Canada even filed its submission after earthquake-stricken Japan, and was unable to explain in detail why its report was late.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Climate communication: Shaking things up

I've been advocating that scientists need to experiment with new ways of communicating with the public. Now I don't know whether this video will work as a communications strategy, or whether I even agree with what they are saying ("we're scientists, you're not" could come across asarrogant), let alone the language they use to say it. But let's not be too academic here. Regardless of what you think of the finished product, this group deserves props for at least trying something different:


Monday, April 18, 2011

An argument for a gas tax

Last Thursday I gave a talk at the annual American Association of Geographers meeting in Seattle. The AAG attracts throngs and throngs of academic geographers from around the world. Frankly, the meeting is so big you need to be a geographer to navigate your way to a chosen talk, the subject of which may very well be a Marxist analysis of neoliberal influence on the map of the conference centre (“the orientation places the economic geography presentation rooms at the top”).

Seattle is just close enough to Vancouver that someone who is busy, or who possesses an unrealistic and slightly delusional sense of what is possible in a fixed amount of time, or, in my case, both, could convince himself to go there and back in a day. I chose to take the bus, rather than drive, because doing so is more energy efficient and would give me the chance to do some work.

The return bus fare was $48 (that’s Canadian $ for those of you scoring at home). It was, I later discovered, a bit of a deal – return fares can run up to $72 or so. That morning, the price of gas at the station near our house was $1.33 per litre (L). At that price, in order for a single-occupant vehicle trip to be cheaper than the bus fare, the car would need to average less than 7.88 L per 100 km (or 30 mpg) on the 458 km return trip from our house to the conference centre*.

You are unlikely to get that fuel efficiency with anything other than a small vehicle or hybrid car, especially given the traffic you can expect to encounter. And that’s not including the cost of parking. If you add in $20 for parking, the car would have needed to average 4.6 km/100 L, or 51 mpg, which is probably only possible, if at all, with a carefully-driven Toyota Prius, a Chevy Volt, one of the older two-door Honda Insights, or maybe Nissan Leaf if you asked the polar bear in the backseat to hold a bunch of extra batteries on his or her lap. Even at the premium, book-at-the-last-minute bus fare of $72, a car would still need to average at least 11.8 L/100 km (~20 mpg) excluding parking costs, or 8.5 L/100 km (27 mpg) including parking costs, in order to best the bus costs. In other words, at today’s price, there is a clear and immediate financial benefit to leaving the car in the driveway and taking the bus**.

At low prices, gasoline is inelastic. The price won’t significantly influence our behaviour. But as prices move well upwards of $1 per L (towards $4 per gallon), the story may change. The last time gas prices reached beyond today’s level there was an increased demand for high-efficiency vehicles and public transit.

The problem, to remove my scientist hat and channel Thomas Friedman, is that the price signal is coming from the wrong place. Right now, gas is expensive because of the price of oil. The proceeds are going to the oil industry – some of that money stays here in Canada, but much of it goes overseas – and inspiring more exploration, which could conceivably lower prices, or maybe to things like CEO bonuses. If the price of gas were high because of a tax, especially one for which the revenue was invested in things like transit, improved automotive fuel efficiency, battery technology and charging stations, wouldn’t we all be better off? I’d guess that the only thing people hate more than paying a premium at the pump is paying that premium to oil companies.

*L per 100 km? What foreign tongue is this you ask? Canada and the metric world measures fuel efficiency as the gasoline required to go a distance, whereas the US and some other nations use the distance you can cover on some fixed quantity of gas. That difference is in itself rather fascinating, and probably the subject of someone’s cultural geography thesis.

** A full accounting would include the wear and tear on your car – with that, the bus wins hands down over any car on the market. I’ve ignored that here because I’m interested in what will most likely factor into the choice of bus vs. car. My sense is that people don’t consider the daily dribbling costs of wear and tear when making decisions. We moan when the mechanic says you need a new fan belt, but don’t think about the prorated cost when going on a subsequent trip. So we’re unlikely to make a decision based on the per km wear and tear. This is just a hunch; I could be wrong.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Geopolitics at Climate Dialogue

Over at Climate Dialogue, Gerald Singh writes about the geopolitics of climate change and the strengths of weaknesses of scenario analyis:

... This raises the interesting question of what is the value of scenario studies. The future is inherently unpredictable, and there are entire books dedicated to the failures of humanity’s best and brightest when it comes to predicting the future. The problem is further compounded by the idea that our own predictions influence how we act in the future. But where would that leave us? If we rid ourselves of the tools that scenario analysis gives us (regardless of how poor they might be), what can we do?

The post goeson to talk about a climate change and Mexican immigration study that caused some debate last year. Check it out!


Monday, April 11, 2011

REDD: Seeing the forest for the trees

The newest Climate Dialogue post looks at the pros and cons of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries Programme (REDD+):

At first glance, the REDD+ framework seems to hold great promise; upon closer inspection, however, the list of barriers to REDD’s success is long. Most criticisms of REDD+ are focused on the details of the Programme’s framework and challenges for its implementation...

For more, check Climate Dialogue!


Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Faster sailing across the Central Pacific: Wind speeds and El Nino

The new paper by Young et al. about increasing wind speeds and wave heights over the past twenty years created a bit of a buzz in the climate science world, not to mention the sailing world. Finally some good news, the windsurfer in me first upon seeing the paper.

The paper itself does not speculate about whether human-caused climate change is the driver of the global trend in wind speeds. That may have been a wise choise, as it would be difficult, statistically or dynamically, to attribute the rend in the reasonably short time series (~23 years) to any single forcing factor.

The spatial pattern, however, is quite striking:

If there were no labels on this figure, I'd have guessed it was the trend in sea surface temperatures over the same time period. The steepest trend is in the Central Pacific, including the waters around the Gilbert and Phoenix Islands of Kiribati.

In a map of temperature trends over the past two to three decades, the Central Pacific should jump out because of the increasing frequency of "Central Pacific" El Nino events, also known as El Nino Modoki. The more freuqent occurences of the "CP" El Nino is a subject of much research, and has been attributed by some authors to climate warming. The CP El Nino is responsible for a number of mass coral bleaching events, including 2002-3 in the Phoenix Islands, 2004-5 in the Gilbert Islands, and 2009-10 across the whole region.

It is not surprising to find a similar -- at least visually, take this with a grain of salt, I've not done the statistics -- spatial pattern in the surface wind speeds across the Pacific. More frequent Central Pacific warm events likely means larger pressure gradients, more convergence, and higher winds across the region (my paper in  the Atoll Research Bulletin describesa CP El Nino event in relatively lay terms). More analysis will need to be done, but at first glance, the wind speed trends over the Pacific appear to be driven by temperature trends and the status of climate oscillations, which themselves may be driven in part by climate change.


Monday, April 04, 2011

Let’s Get the Lipstick off the Pig (at Climate Dialogue)

"Climate change is not being effectively addressed through the UNFCCC process, which has instead evolved into a sterile talk shop, unable to overcome the resistance of those who would block meaningful action on climate change."

For more, read the latest post by the student team at Climate Dialogue!


Thursday, March 31, 2011

Adaptation, Fairness and Finance at Climate Dialogue

Here's a teaser:

We face an extremely difficult, complex challenge in responding adequately to mitigate and adapt to climate change. One particularly thorny aspect of this challenge is how best the West can fulfil their ethical obligation to help developing countries build capacity and fund the level of response required to successfully adapt to climate change.

Head to Climate Dialogue to read the rest!