Friday, February 24, 2012

Earthwatch: Culture and climate change


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Keeping our cool while the planet warms

Like many out there, I was saddened to hear about the role of Peter Gleick, a co-signatory on a recent op-ed about climate science, in the leak of the Heartland Institute e-mails.

I've worried for the past two years that an incident like this might happen. The segment of the climate science community that is active in outreach is subject to incredibly angry and personal attacks, starting but certainly not ending with the hacking of e-mails at the University of East Anglia. I'm certainly not that famous or public a figure, and even I often get e-mail and comments here on Maribo that make me wonder if I should have police protection. Perhaps it was inevitable that someone in the climate science community would, in a fit of frustration, respond to critics in-kind with similarly dirty tactics. We are human, after all. You can certainly understand why someone who's been unfairly attacked for years would be driven to fight fire with fire.

This is why I've been speaking and writing again and again and again about the importance, and the challenge, of maintaining perspective and humility when discussing climate change. At the risk of irritating regular readers by repeating this passage yet again, here is the conclusion from the recent BAMS paper about climate change and belief:

Reforming public communication about anthropogenic climate change will require humility on the part of scientists and educators. 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 why the public may fail to believe that anthropogenic climate change is real, let alone that it warrants a policy response.

The moderator of Saturday's jam-packed AAAS plenary discussion on science communication repeated the meme that scientists are in a "street fight". That may be true. But as I wrote last month, if climate discourse is a street fight, then we need to do more should not just* fight back with the same dirty tactics. If you want to win a fight, you need to be able to take a punch.

There is no doubt that planet is warming. The question is can we keep our cool long enough to find a solution?

* original language may been misleading


Monday, February 20, 2012

"Stewardship", Rick Santorum and climate change

Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum said the following yesterday:

"The earth is not the objective. Man is the objective, and I think that a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside down."

Leaving aside the politics and sexism, which probably warrant discussion but in more appropriate forums than Maribo, this statement serves as an important reminder about the complexity of religious attitudes about climate change. Climate activists often employ the Biblical notion of stewardship as an argument for action to combat climate change, despite the fact that stewardship is not necessarily viewed that way by their audience. Stewardship is viewed by some religious leaders as support as "our responsibility to protect the planet" and by others as "our responsibility to exploit the planet's resources for the benefit of humankind". As I mentioned in the recent paper about climate change and belief, there are religious groups which rely on the notion of stewardship to both support and oppose environmental laws and climate change action:

...a movement within the U.S. Christian evangelical community urges action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on the Biblical concept of stewardship, as well as intergenerational equity and social justice (e.g., ECI 2006). The effect of this movement on the public understanding of climate change in the United States is unclear (McCammack 2007). Attitudes about climate change among evangelical Americans may be influenced more by support for conservative politicians and by the evangelical organizations urging the rejection of climate science and climate action based on the Biblical notion of “dominion” over Earth (e.g., Beisner et al. 2006) than by the stewardship movement.


Sunday, February 05, 2012

Why I am opposed to Northern Gateway

After a few months of thinking, I came to the conclusion that there is no choice but to oppose the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline. There are many worthy arguments on either side of this issue, from the economy to First Nations rights, and from the preservation of the BC coastline to the reality of oil consumption here and abroad. My argument, presented in the Mark, is entirely about climate:

If the Harper government were not so consistently obstinate on federal climate policy, people like me (a climate scientist who has long been wary of the NIMBYism of environmental groups) might not become vociferous opponents of projects like Northern Gateway. We are forced to oppose individual carbon-intensive projects because the government refuses to listen to scientific or economic reason on climate change.

My compromise solution is a federal carbon pricing system.

A carbon-pricing system, like those of British Columbia and Australia, would not necessarily prevent pipeline construction. Rather, it could allow the market to decide whether the costs of a new pipeline outweigh the benefits, and ensure that any emissions from such new projects are more than compensated for by cuts elsewhere. This would also help Canada slowly transition towards a 21st-century economy, based on innovation and our plentiful renewable resources, without ignoring extractive industries of our past.

I encourage people to read, consider and comment on this argument. It is not based on concern about the direct effect of an individual pipeline like Northern Gateway on the physics and chemistry of the climate system. The approval of an individual project, and for that matter, the overall expansion of oil extraction in Alberta, would not specifically be  - physically or chemically speaking - "game over" for the climate, as some have claimed. They could, however, lead us down the wrong path. 

Absent a federal effort to manage carbon emissions, there will be a pitched battle over every new pipeline and every new coal-burning power plant. Many of those seeming slam dunks, like Keystone XL, will clang off the rim. We could keep fighting like this forever. Or we could work together on a federal climate policy.


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Who to trust about climate change

My sister is a neurologist. She's highly active in her field and is often asked by the media to comment about her particular area of expertise within the field of neurology.

It is great having a sibling who is a medical doctor. Though she and I do technically both have the title "Doctor", I have zero medical expertise, outside of some wilderness first aid, and maybe little random bits I've gleaned from various sports-related accidents and drinking the water in the wrong village during a field trip. When something medical comes up, I call my sister. She listens, humours me, and provides general advice. But if it is anything important, or that anything is not neurological, she tells me to see my family doctor, who is better equipped to either diagnose and treat the ailment, or to refer me to a specialist who can.

That's the gist of today's Wall Street Journal op-ed from 38 of us climate scientists. It was written in response to an earlier misleading op-ed about climate change by 16 scientists who were speaking far outside their field of expertise.

Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition? In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations.

The original op-ed argued that "There's no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to 'decarbonize' the world's economy". It's important to deconstruct that statement. Had the authors of that op-ed only argued against action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I would disagree with them, but not protest the publication of their op-ed.

What those 16 scientists did, however, was very different. They took advantage of their scientific credentials to raise questions about the evidence for climate change, using ad hominem attacks and analogies in place of math, before arguing against action to reduce emissions. Their credentials, though certainly legitimate in their fields, simply do not extend to all areas of science, just as my sister is not an expert in all areas of medicine.

Our response reminds the readers what the actual experts in the field of climate science think:

The National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. (set up by President Abraham Lincoln to advise on scientific issues), as well as major national academies of science around the world and every other authoritative body of scientists active in climate research have stated that the science is clear: The world is heating up and humans are primarily responsible. Impacts are already apparent and will increase. Reducing future impacts will require significant reductions in emissions of heat-trapping gases.

It concludes with a response to the original op-eds plea against action on emissions:

It would be an act of recklessness for any political leader to disregard the weight of evidence and ignore the enormous risks that climate change clearly poses. In addition, there is very clear evidence that investing in the transition to a low-carbon economy will not only allow the world to avoid the worst risks of climate change, but could also drive decades of economic growth. Just what the doctor ordered.

Andrew Revkin argues that with this final statement, which mixes science with economics and policy, we are speaking outside our area of expertise:

The reality for most of the signatories of the rebuttal letter is that they are more akin to medical technicians — making sure the thermometers gauging a fever are reliable — and radiologists — interpreting a CT scan — than diagnosticians prescribing the appropriate treatment.

The difference, I would argue, is twofold. First, some of the signatories to the letter actually conduct research at the interface of science (diagnosis, in Revkin's example) and policy (treatment). Second, we recommend a very general response to the diagnosis (reduce emissions) rather than prescribe a particular treatment. Certainly an X-ray technician, after seeing hundreds and hundreds of X-rays and working with doctors over the years, is justified in telling a patient "You should probably put some type of a cast on that broken leg".