Monday, December 02, 2013

On the move: Reflections on seven years of blogging

Maribo has set sail for new waters! The new site will continue to talk about climate change and other issues at the science-policy interface. We'll also experiment with dispatches from the field, interviews with experts about new research, and contributions from students. Please update your urls!

In 2006, a naïve young climate scientist realized he had become a climatic Kevin Bacon to friends and family. None of them studied or worked in the areas of physical science, environmental science or environmental issues. Yet they were all interested in news about climate change simply because there was one person in their community who studied climate change for a living. Maribo was his attempt to further engage and expand that community.

I remember the uncertainty. I deliberated about starting the blog for months. Was it worth the effort? Would it engage new people, or appeal only to those already thinking about climate and global change issues? Would comments or jokes about policy compromise my scientific career?

The final decision to launch Maribo was made less by an answer to those questions, than by an incident at U.S. Customs in the Toronto Airport. I had a story I wanted to share. Here's an excerpt:

[agent] “What do you study?”

Be calm, remember one wrong word, a customs agent may decide I look a bit Sephardic have me deported to Syria because my ancestors lived there 2000 years ago.

[me] “I’m a climate scientist but I work at the public policy department”

Did I just say that? Way too confusing. What happened to keep it simple, stupid?

[me] “Climate research is important for policy these days.”

Great, now I look too political.


The agent scanned my passport. He looked me in the eye.

Oy. Here we go.

He launched into a tirade about the Bush Administration’s repression of science and failure to address climate change.

With that, Maribo was launched.

In passing along the "Woody Guthrie" award, Michael Tobis out-ed me as a cautious decision-maker, a trait that works well in science and certainly in remote field work, though one that will, on occasion, drive my wife crazy.

This blog is one case where I do not regret the hand-wringing over a decision. In fact, I wish I had done more. If asked to give one, and only one, piece of advice to young scientists interested in public engagement, it would be this: Be extremely harsh with yourself about why you are getting engaged beyond the scientific world.

From a post on the subject:

What values are motivating your engagement, and how are those values affecting the public statements you plan to make? It is perfectly acceptable to advocate. We are citizens, we have every right to express our views. However, if we are not clear with people about when you are making a scientific or "objective" judgement (i.e. our analysis shows climate change will lead to an increase in coral bleaching) versus a value judgement or a "should" statement  (i.e. we "should" reduce greenhouse gas emissions), then we are only doing harm to the overall scientific enterprise...

... think very carefully about who you are representing when you deal with the public or policymakers, be it in a public seminar, a policy hearing or a blog post. Are you speaking on behalf of your specific new research? Your greater body of work? Your field? Or "science"? Always keep in mind that while you may think you are speaking on behalf of your own research, the audience may think you are speaking on behalf of "science". Sometimes highlighting an anomalous result, like a resilient coral reef that is an exception to the global rule, can end up misleading the public.

I've made plenty of mistakes with Maribo over the years. Ill-considered posts or positions, neglected links, bad analogies, typos, you name it. In fact, you have named them.

That statement encapsulates the good - and the bad - of blogging. Writing a post is easy and fast. The immediacy of the internet means mistakes large and small are instantly broadcast to the world. The good is that mistakes large and small are noted by readers and can be corrected; the system of wiki-checks and balances leads to real conversation, and really is the highlight of blogging. The bad is that people often remember that quick-and-easy original story, not the correction, retraction or discussion that follows.

Quite often the "mistake" is the choice of subject, rather than the choice of words. There is only so much time to devote to blogging, so it's important to use the time well. More than anything, the Maribo experience has taught me that it is important not just to get the story right, but also to choose the right story.  Too often, myself and other science bloggers get buried in the noise - petty debates and minutiae - at the cost of the signal of global change.

I hope to carry that lesson to a new url. The past holders of the informal Woody Guthrie award, John Neilsen Gammon and Michael Tobis, argued the award should recognize earth science bloggers who:

 "think critically and hope for a better world through better education and an honest media" and

"honor the memory of Woody Guthrie by connecting the larger trends in the world with due respect and empathy to the experience of the nonscientists who make up most of the world"

Their words roughly describe the goals of the new iteration of Maribo. We will try to choose stories that bring different, ideally forward-looking views on global challenges like climate change, and to tell those stories in a way that engages a broader audience of non-scientists. We'll also try to provide opportunities for students and young scientists to try their hand at this informal mode of science communication.

It is wonderful to see the scientific world increasingly recognize the value of public engagement. I highly recommend attending some of the many available trainings, workshops and conference sessions on science communication. But that is not enough. I have learned more about "public engagement" on climate change from talking to people from different cultures and backgrounds than from talking to other science communicators. With that in mind, the new Maribo will try to get outside the tribe as much as possible.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

What does Typhoon Haiyan tell us about adapting to climate change?

The Toronto Star asked "how much of the tragedy [of Typhoon Haiyan] was caused by nature, and how much was caused by human actions?"

Here was my answer:

Canada and other developed countries are good at disaster relief. When news of Typhoon Haiyan reached our shores, the Canadian government and the Canadian people opened their wallets and their hearts. Disaster relief, however, is a band-aid, not a cure. If we want to adapt to a climate with higher storm surges, more intense rainfall and stronger winds, we need to be proactive, not reactive. We need to provide the resources to build the knowledge, institutions and infrastructure to help make countries like the Philippines more resilient to future storms. That project requires consistent, long-term technical, political and financial support.

At the UN climate talks two years ago, the developed countries promised to mobilize $100 billion/yr by the year 2020 to help the developing world respond to climate change. Right now, we are nowhere near that target. The devastation of Typhoon Haiyan should serve as an example to the negotiators at this year’s climate talks in Warsaw of that consistent, long-term support for adaptation in the developing world is so necessary.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Guthrie: think critically and hope for a better world

Michael Tobis of Planet3.0 has kindly handed me the Woody Guthrie Award for "thinking" earth science bloggers. In the process, he's said many nice things, all of which I wish were true.

On the spectrum of awards, the coveted Guthrie lies somewhere between Darwin "award" and the Nobel Prize. I will allow the reader to judge precisely where on that spectrum it lies.

Over the next twelve months, I will try my best to "think critically and hope for a better world through better education and an honest media", as former recipient John Nielsen-Gammon wrote.

With the award also comes the burden honour of choosing next year's recipient. Let the grovelling begin!


Monday, October 21, 2013

Coral reefs and "Extreme Adaptations" at UBC's Beaty Biodiversity Museum

If you're looking to escape the dreary weather, head to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum on UBC's campus to learn about our field work on the coral reefs of Kiribati.

As part of the Extreme Adaptations program, the museum is featuring two interactive tables about different work led by UBC researchers, Jedediah Brodie and myself, to understand organisms adapted to "extreme" environments.

Hurry up, the equipment goes back to my lab in November!


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Creating a supportive environment for female scientists and science communicators

The article Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama? by Brysse et al. published earlier this year presents evidence that assessments of climate change science have leaned towards caution because of the dynamics of the scientific community.

The core argument raised predictable hackles in the blogosphere, despite the fact that several of the examples in the paper, such as estimates of sea level rise in the 2007 IPCC report and Arctic ozone depletion, are widely-known cases of scientists avoiding alarmism.

The news flooding my inbox about some of the largely male blogosphere coming to the defense of an influential male blogger who harassed a female science blogger brings to mind what I think is the most striking and important conclusion of Brysse et al: the gender implications of "erring on the side of least drama".

The risk of being accused of being overly dramatic, even hysterical, raises an additional (and worrisome) aspect of this issue: its gender dimension. Feminist scholars including Margaret Rossiter, Sandra Harding, and Donna Haraway have long discussed the strong association of science with supposedly male characteristics, such that ‘proper’ science is perceived to be “tough, rigorous, rational, impersonal, masculine, competitive, and unemotional” (Rossiter, 1982, p. xv; see also Harding, 1986 and Haraway, 1989). Scientists who come across as ‘too emotional’ or ‘too personal’ may thus be taken to be ‘unscientific’ by their peers, and a woman who exhibits these characteristics may be that much more rapidly dismissed. If this is so, then we may find either that women scientists publicizing the dangers of climate change may be more harshly judged for doing so than their male colleagues, or that women scientists may be particularly reticent to do so—to return to Hansen's phrase—for fear of losing hard-won scientific credibility. This poses another question for future research.

I don't claim to know enough about this particular case of harassment to add anything intelligent to that conversation. I do hope it gets more people thinking about women in science being exposed to overt sexual and subtle psychological harassment.

Most of my students have been women. I watch how here and elsewhere, despite some good intentions and good regulations, the atmospheres in our majority-male institutions, and many of the actual individuals in those institutions, can be unsupportive and at times threatening to female students. The same can be true of the science blogosphere. It is worth thinking about why the blogosphere  reacts so strongly and so paternalistically to the few outspoken female researchers, whether the uber-rational Tamsin Edwards, the lead authors of the Brysse et al. paper, both female science historians, or Judith Curry.

By now, I imagine some of you readers are preparing angry rebuttals. That's fine. We need to talk about these things. I ask only that you think a bit about your own gender before you write. The conversations here are, to my great dismay, largely among men. And men may not be best at judging whether men are being fair.

Brysse, K., Oreskes, N., O’Reilly, J., Oppenheimer, M. (2013). Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama? Global Environmental Change. 23(1): 327–337.


Monday, October 07, 2013

Has the flood of interest in the IPCC and climate change already dissipated?

The release of the IPCC report caused a short surge in public interest about climate change, according the Google Trends search data. Like a river after a flood, the waters have receded. Ten days later, the flood wave has dissipated, and search volume is back to baseline levels for the past year, or what hydrologists would call baseflow levels.


A longer view shows that this IPCC flood was much smaller than the last one. After the 2007 report was released, search activity for "IPCC" and "climate change" spiked. The report also left a legacy; searches remained at a higher level than before the 2007 report for several years, no doubt accentuated in late 2009 by the media coverage of and web obsession with "Climategate".


This comparison, however, may be misleading. The long-term trend smooths out the dips between the release of the reports from the different IPCC working groups. There are still two more IPCC reports to be released over the next year, starting with Working Group II's report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability in January. One thing that appears to have changed since 2007 is the preferred language. Global warming used to be a far more common search term than climate change; that gap has narrowed in recent years.

What has not changed is the relative public interest in the sister problem of ocean acidification. Search volume for ocean acidification has increased from essentially zero in the mid-2000s, but still pales in comparison to the volume for climate change and global warming. The search volume is too low, even today, to register on the same graph as climate change and global warming:


Thursday, October 03, 2013

Sea level rise demonstrates continued global warming

One of the most telling little figures that I've come across in the new IPCC report is this Chapter 3 comparison (Fig. 3.21) of changes in human-derived carbon dioxide in the oceans, global mean sea level and global mean upper ocean heat content since 1950. From the report:

The consistency between the patterns of change in a number of independent ocean parameters enhances confidence in the assessment that the physical and biogeochemical state of the oceans has changed.... High agreement among multiple lines of evidence based on independent data and different methods provides high confidence in the observed increase in these global metrics of ocean change

The oceans show that global warming has continued apace. The lack of a slowdown in the rate of sea level change is of particular interest given the media coverage devoted to the perceived slowdown in the rate of surface temperature change. Since >90% of the excess heat in the climate system goes into the ocean, and a warmer ocean should expand, sea level rise is a good metric for tracking changes in the overall heat in the climate system. From a great summary by G. Bala:

Sea level rise is probably a powerful metric that integrates both the ocean heat content as well as the melt in the cryosphere as sea level rise is due to both the thermal expansion of the oceans from heating and the melt waters from glaciers and ice sheets... It is time for IPCC to recommend and encourage climate change discussions that are centred on integrated measures of climate change such as ocean heat content and sea level rise to avoid confusion.  Alternatively, if we want to continue our discussions centred on surface temperature changes, it makes scientific sense to focus on 30-yr trends.


Monday, September 30, 2013

The oceans, on acid. And bacon.

The new IPCC report reminds that through the fits and starts of climate warming, we continue to steadily carbonate the ocean. From the Summary for Policymakers:

Measurements of CO2 partial pressure and pH from three stations
...atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification...
Ocean acidification is quantified by decreases in pH. The pH of ocean surface water has decreased by 0.1 since the beginning of the industrial era (high confidence), corresponding to a 26% increase in hydrogen ion concentration.

The chemical conditions are unlike anything that the vast majority of organisms living in the surface of the ocean have ever regularly experienced. The changes are predicted to continue:

Ensemble mean surface pH from suite of earth system models
Climate change will affect carbon cycle processes in a way that will exacerbate the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere (high confidence). Further uptake of carbon by the ocean will increase ocean acidification... Earth System Models project a global increase in ocean acidification for all RCP scenarios. The corresponding decrease in surface ocean pH by the end of 21st century is in the range of 0.06 to 0.07 for RCP2.6, 0.14 to 0.15 for RCP4.5, 0.20 to 0.21 for RCP6.0 and 0.30 to 0.32 for RCP8.5

The RCP2.6 scenario, one in which the world rapidly moves to limit carbon emissions, would likely avoid some of the worst damage to coral reefs and other marine ecosystems.

The RCP8.5 scenario, the current "business as usual", could be considered the "few corals" scenario. To use IPCC parlance, this would be stated with medium or high confidence.  Perhaps we should add bacon to this scenario. They say everything tastes better with bacon.

(with thanks to research assistant Matthew Wagstaff)


Thursday, September 26, 2013

The pause in public understanding of climate change

The Fifth IPCC assessment report on the physical science of climate change will be released tomorrow. It is probably the largest, most comprehensive scientific assessment in history.  Not just of climate change, but of any scientific subject. Really. Try to think of any scientific report with more contributors, more citations, more reviewers, more pages, and more preparation time.

Unfortunately, the report is being overshadowed by confusion about a perceived slowdown in the rate of global warming. The graph at right, is based on the GISS estimates of global average surface temperatures since the early 1970s. There is a clear signal of rising temperatures amidst the noise of natural variability.

The slowdown in surface temperature change is part of that natural variability.  The planet is still gaining extra heat due to human enhancement of the natural greenhouse effect. As Stephan Rahmstorf summarized nicely on RealClimate, the difference is that over the past decade or so, a larger proportion of that heat than normal has gone into the deep ocean. In a few years, the yin of deep ocean heating will give way to the yang of surface temperature warming. When conditions in the Pacific Ocean again allow the development of a strong, traditional El Nino event - a la 1997/8, or 1982/3 - we'll see new global surface temperature records. We should not mistake a landing for the top of the stairwell, as Richard Muller wisely analogized at the end of an article that otherwise is so obtuse I'm reluctant to give it mention here.

The media noise surrounding the perceived slowdown is part of the  natural variability of public understanding of climate change. Our research has shown that public attitudes about climate change in the United States ebb and flow with the climate. After a cool period, people tend to be less convinced and less concerned about climate change.

It's worth imagining different labels on the axes of the temperature graph. The public conversation about climate warming follows a similarly noisy trajectory. There is a long-term trend towards greater public understanding, better reporting, and better informed discussion at the political level. There is also variability, due to the natural ups and downs of the climate, current events, etc.

This is the natural process of knowledge acquisition. We're learning more about more about how the planet works over time. The path, however, is not smooth. There are also periods when the knowledge in the scientific community or the public barely changes, or even goes in the wrong direction before jumping back onto an upward trajectory. There is plenty of evidence for brief periods of  "negative learning" in the recent history, including scientific understanding of the causes of ozone destruction.

Years from now, we'll look back at this temporary slowdown in the rate of surface temperature warming and shake our heads. This is a temporary landing in the middle of the stairwell of rising air temperatures and rising public acceptance of the magnitude of the human role in climate change.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Did climate scientists make a mistake in predicting the decline of Arctic sea ice?

Each spring, the ice on the lake near the family cottage meets its demise.

As the days lengthen and warm, the ice gets thinner and thinner. No one ventures onto the lake for fear of breaking through. One sunny day, usually in early April, the ice disappears.

This death spiral of lake ice each spring is familiar to people across Canada and the northern United States. From above, the lakes look completely frozen during most of the melt process. The real sign of ice melt is the rapid drop in thickness or volume.

Thanks to climate change, the Arctic sea ice is in the throes of its own death spiral. The volume of sea ice in the Arctic, the key measure of ice change, has been declining rapidly for decades. There is now roughly 75% less summer ice in the Arctic than three decades ago.

Yet you don't hear about the volume of ice in the news. Journalists, activists and scientists normally highlight the very visible decline in area of ice during the summer.

There's a valid argument for talking on the more immediately relevant area of ice. Last September, area of ice cover dropped to only 3.4 million km2, less than half that in the 1980s. This dramatic melt was visible in satellite images. It was visible to the many boats transiting the once-forbidden Northwest Passage.

As with our small lake, the area of ice is not the best measure of the ice pack. Last summer's open water froze over the winter, forming a layer of ice thinner than what you'd find on our small lake during the height of winter. Due to natural variability in the weather, much of that thin Arctic ice survived the summer. Though the area of ice is still far lower than that of decades past, it is roughly 30% greater than last year.

This year's ice area has been manna for ardent climate change contrarians. Bold claims about the rebound of Arctic sea ice proving climate scientists wrong now abound on the internet.

In some cases, the claims about data are technically correct. In all cases, they miss the big picture.

The death spiral of Arctic ice continues. According to the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington, the volume of summer sea ice has declined by roughly 75% in the past few decades. The monthly ice volume figure (right) from their Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) actually looks like a spiral, with the ice volume for each month of the year declining over time.

Scientists' only mistake was not talking more about ice thickness or volume. This long-term change in ice volume, rather than the annual summer ice area, is the best harbinger of the future. Those boasting about the Arctic "rebound" this year should heed caution. They are standing on very thin ice.


Monday, September 16, 2013

False claims by contrarians, not scientists, caused Matt Gurney's cynicism about climate change

On Friday, Matt Gurney in the National Post blasted climate scientists, arguing that "repeated false claims have had the effect of turning a lot of people, including my fellow agnostics and I, into climate change cynics, if not yet outright skeptics".

He's right about the false claims. He's wrong about the source.

The false claims that are making Gurney and others "skeptics" come from contrarians, not the scientists.

Gurney's source material is not any actual science, it is an error-filled piece by Daily Mail columnist David Rose that has been torn to shreds by scientists.

In that column, Rose not only misinterpreted the findings in a leaked IPCC report, he flat out made up numbers. For one, the estimated rate of warming since 1950 dropped from 0.13 deg C/decade in the last report to 0.12 deg C /decade in the upcoming report -- not from 0.2 to 0.12, as claimed by Rose. Apparently there are no fact checkers at the Daily Mail, nor many people good at math, because Rose's easily debunked claim garnered the headline "Global warming is just half of what we said".

I'm sympathetic to Gurney's argument that alarmism, on any subject, can alienate the public and impede progress on solutions. We can make up legitimate arguments for and against different climate policies. We can't make up facts.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Drought was beyond Syria's "capacity as a country"

Another assessment of the role of drought in the Syrian conflict from long-time foreign policy expert William Polk:

The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population.  Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq.  Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers. And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.

Survival was the key issue.  The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation “a perfect storm,” in November 2008, he warned  that Syria faced “social destruction.” He noted that the Syrian Minister of Agriculture had “stated publicly that [the]  economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’”  But, his appeal fell on deaf ears:  the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time.”  (reported on November 26, 2008 in cable 08DAMASCUS847_a to Washington and “leaked” to Wikileaks )

Whether or not this was a wise decision, we now know that the Syrian government made the situation much worse by its next action. Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year.  The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive.

So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire.  The spark was struck on March 15, 2011  when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them.  Instead of meeting with the protestors and at least hearing their complaints, the government cracked down on them as subversives.


Thanks to Heidi Cullen of Climate Central for bringing this to our attention.


Monday, September 09, 2013

Flying flags of convenience in climate change debates

This is an updated post from two years ago:

One of the perverse thrills of paddling in Vancouver is cozying up to the massive container ships parked out in English Bay. 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 building coherent arguments over time based on the balance of published evidence. That provides contrarians or "deniers" the rhetorical advantage of adopting whatever "flag" or argument is convenient that week, whether about sunspots, a one sentence error in a 900+ page IPCC report, or year-to-year variability in the area of Arctic sea ice. 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 as "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 understanding the audience, 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 Richard 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.


Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Has climate change played a role in the Syrian conflict?

The Syrian conflict has become a humanitarian tragedy incomparable to others in recent history. Over 2 million people, 10% of the country, have fled during the ongoing conflict according to the UN.

While the proximate drivers of the Syrian conflict are a reaction to an oppressive government, the wave of Arab Spring protests, and other political, social and economic factors, a number of experts have argued that climate change, or at least climate, has served as a "multiplier".

Links between climate change and the Arab Spring have been suggested for the past couple of years. High wheat prices in 2010-11, driven by droughts in Russia and China, may have contributed to the unrest in Egypt and the overall timing of the Arab Spring protests. In Syria, add on the fact that a severe drought over the past decade has devastated farmers.

From a UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction report:

Poor and erratic rainfall since October 2007 has caused the worst drought to strike Syria in four decades. Approximately one million people are severely affected and food insecure, particularly in rainfed areas of the northeast – home to Syria’s most
vulnerable, agriculture-dependant families.

Since the 2007/2008 agriculture season, nearly 75 percent of these households suffered total crop failure. Depleted vegetation in pastures and the exhaustion of feed reserves have forced many herders to sell their livestock at between 60 and 70 percent below cost. Syria’s drought break point was the season 07/08 which extended for two more seasons, affecting farming regions in the Middle north, Southwestern and Northeastern of the country, especially the northeastern governorate of Al Hassakeh. 

The drought drove internal migration to the cities, depopulating some rural areas:

The drought is causing a high drop-out rate, families left in the area who cannot afford, or do not want, to move are suffering. Some figures estimated the people lifted their villages to be more than one million people. Thousands of Syrian farming families have been forced to move to cities in search of alternative work after two years of drought and failed crops followed a number of unproductive years. The field survey that conducted by ACSAD/MoLA/UNDP in January 2011 showed that most of the houses on villages are left empty and less than 10% are occupied by old people and children, The younger generations left for thousands of kilometers seeking work.

While the Syrian drought, like any individual event, cannot be definitively attributed to climate change, the Middle East and the Mediterranean region is one place where climate models agree that drought is becoming or will become more frequent due to human-induced climate change. From Hoerling et al. (2012):

The amplitude of the externally forced [ED-meaning "human-caused"], area-averaged Mediterranean drying signal (estimated from the ensemble mean of CMIP3 simulations) is roughly one-half the magnitude of the observed drying, indicating that other processes likely also contributed to the observed drying.
Naturally, these connections need to be viewed with caution. Climate change is not solely responsible for the Syrian drought, as natural climate variability and ill-conceived land use and agricultural policy clearly also contributed. And the drought itself is only one of many stressors that led to the crisis in Syria. The fact is we will never be able to precisely calculate the contribution of climate change to a geopolitical event or a humanitarian crisis.

Does the inability to provide a precise answer - 44% due to climate change - matter?

Inability to attribute events to climate change may make adaptation seem impossible. A solution is to not view adaptation as separate from other development activities. For example, the large aid institutions  recommend marrying climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. In other words, when working on a program or system to reduce future droughts, consider how climate change may alter the likelihood and nature of future disasters.

Right now, any of that would be a luxury in Syria. Dealing with the everyday humanitarian crisis is paramount. Hopefully, in time the crisis will abate enough to work on rebuilding people's lives and improving the capacity to deal with future droughts.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Climate change, not a carbon tax, is a war on the poor

Gas prices in BC, home to N America's only carbon tax (CP)
An op-ed by Elizabeth Nickson in Friday's Vancouver Sun relied on confused and un-factual "facts" to claim that a carbon tax, like we have here in British Columbia, is an attack on the poor. As I tweeted Friday, every single paragraph of the column was ridiculous.

I'll leave the correction of all Nickson's mistakes to colleagues, one of whom now has a response in the Sun (also see Andy Skuce), and focus on the backwards premise.

The fundamental objective of carbon controls is to reduce the emission of gases that contribute to climate change. A primary reason to combat climate change is to protect those most vulnerable to its effects. Pretty much every analysis, not to mention every extreme weather event, shows that the most vulnerable are and will continue to be the poor and disenfranchised. Politics certainly influence the design of the carbon policy,more than many people would like. Nevertheless, at the most base level, carbon taxes are being proposed and enacted to help the poor, not to hurt the poor.

There is evidence that the BC carbon tax is influencing the consumption of carbon-based fuels. At the same time, the system is not perfect, nor should anyone expect it to be. As we develop policies and programs to deal with climate change, there will inevitably be missteps, like the loopholes in the UN's Clean Development Mechanism, the number of carbon credits distributed in a cap-and-trade system, or the level of low income carbon tax credit (in BC). That happens with any policy, from climate to education to health care. The design is never perfect at first.

A sensible solution is to learn from and correct the missteps - close the loopholes, buy credits from the system, increase the tax credit, compensate those hurt - rather to throw the whole concept out the window.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Does temperature really cause depression? Correlation vs. Causation in "big data"

Image by Olimpia Zagnoli, New York Times
Back in Mr. Wardle's high school economics class, we were once asked to look for a correlation between any two datasets. I searched through the small school library and stumbled across historical data on marijuana use in Canada.

So, for fun, I compared it to unemployment data and found a strong negative correlation. More marijuana use, less unemployment.

Mr. Wardle liked my assignment. Granted, his sense of humour was famous; on the weekly ten point quizzes, we got a bonus mark for adding a caption to a Far Side cartoon, and he announced the funniest caption the following class.

When he handed back the assignment, he reminded me of one key rule of research:

Correlation does not imply causation.

Which brings us to an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economist interning at Google, presented evidence from Google searches for possible causes of depression in the United States. After unemployment, what was the best predictor of searches for depression?

I tested dozens of variables in many different categories. The strongest predictor by far: an area’s average temperature in January. Colder places have higher rates of depression, with the correlation concentrated in the colder months. The relationship between weather and mental health has been debated, but those debates have generally relied on “small” data. Google searches, the biggest data source we currently have, are unambiguous: when it comes to our happiness, climate matters a great deal. 

Paging Mr. Wardle, wherever you are.

What else happens in January in cold places?

It is dark. You don't need to be a mental health expert to know about 'seasonal affectiveed disorder', a common condition in places where the winter days are short. Yet Stephens-Davidowitz misses this critically relevant correlate to temperature and goes on to provide temperature-based advice:
The striking correlation between temperature and depression suggests they should consider moving to a more temperate location. Of course, people at risk for depression should hesitate to abandon a job in a cold-winter location for no job in a warm-winter clime, and they should think twice about moving away from family and friends.

The advice may be good, even though the op-ed is probably mistakenly attributing many cases of northern depression to lower temperatures rather than less sunlight. If colder places are also darker in winter, does it matter which variable you use? 
Yes, it matters, because we are talking about a correlation, not a perfect relationship. There are cold, northern cities with glorious sunny winters as well as mild, northern cities with depressing grey winter. 

For example, if you suffer from winter depression, should you move from Montreal, with its notoriously frigid winters, to more temperate Vancouver? Probably not, because in Vancouver you're likely to experience weeks on end without seeing the sun. I counted 22 days of non-stop rain a few Novembers back.
The availability of internet search data allows researchers to probe questions previously answered only with high effort, limited sample-size opinion polls. There can be real value to analyses with Google Trends or other storehouses or search data. The Centers for Disease Control, for example, works with Google because the number of people in an area searching for information on the flu turned out to be the best available indicator of a flu outbreak. On a simpler note, want to know whether people are more likely to use the term "climate change" or the term "global warming"? Try Google Trends, and you'll see the answer is clearly "global warming".

So by all means, examine data with Google Trends. Just remember Mr. Wardle's lesson; correlation does not imply causation. Even Stephens-Davidowitz seemed to understand this, at least in the case of one variable:

More Hispanic-Americans meant fewer searches (though this might have been a result of language factors).

Might have. You think?


Monday, August 05, 2013

Ask Google to stop supporting Senator Inhofe and others who deny and obstruct science

Last week, a group of us Google Science Communication fellows sent a letter to the Chairman and CEO of the Google, pasted below, expressing our disappointment that the company held a fundraiser in support of Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe.
Our reaction to news of the fundraiser was a mix of confusion and shock. We were brought to Mountain View in 2011 to learn how new technologies could improve science communication, with a focus on climate science. Raising funds for someone who has openly threatened climate scientists, mocked scientific practice and tried to impede scientific progress was completely incongruous with the conduct of the company we visited two years ago.

I urge people not to succumb to cynicism - "that's business" - about Google's actions. This is an opportunity. Google has made a mistake. Let's bring attention to that mistake, and ensure Google, and other companies, don't repeat it. As four of my colleagues wrote at Dot Earth:

Responsibility, however, also rests with scientists, civil society leaders, and the public.  Indeed, this may be the enduring lesson of Google’s mistake.  By speaking out when our admired companies and political leaders let us down, we are the only ones who can create the conditions where the morally right thing to do is also good for politics and business.

How do you speak out?

If you work for Google, sign the virtual petition at asking your employer to stop raising money for Senator Inhofe and others who obstruct and deny science. If you know people who work for Google, bring the petition to their attention.

Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman) and Larry Page (CEO)
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043 USA

August 1, 2013

Dear Dr. Schmidt and Mr. Page,

Google has earned its reputation as one of America’s most innovative and forward-thinking companies, and has shown climate leadership by improving its own environmental performance and investing in clean energy technologies.  That’s why it was deeply troubling for us, as Google Science Communication Fellows, to learn about Google’s July 11, 2013 fundraiser supporting Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe’s 2014 re-election campaign.

Among his most notorious statements, Senator Inhofe has outrageously claimed that climate change is "a hoax on the American people" and, in the absence of a shred of factual evidence, accused climate scientists of being "criminals."

The reality that human activities are causing major disruptions to our global climate and that these disruptions pose serious risks to society is accepted by virtually every climate scientist and by the world’s leading scientific organizations.  Yet for more than a decade, Senator Inhofe has attacked and demeaned the very scientists who have worked tirelessly to better understand the threat and to warn us of the risks posed to the environment, our communities, and our children.

In the face of intensifying heat, rising seas and extreme weather, corporate leadership and private sector innovation will be essential to developing clean energy technologies and implementing more sustainable business practices.  So too will be political dialogue, bipartisanship, and cooperation. That’s why we’re strongly supportive of the outreach efforts of former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis, who today leads the Conservative Climate Coalition.

Yet sadly, over the past decade, the polarization and gridlock that has derailed efforts to address climate change owes much to Senator Inhofe, who by relentlessly attacking the scientific community has undermined efforts at cooperation and consensus building.

Given Google’s commitment to educating the public about climate change, why would the company align its political efforts with Inhofe? In responding to criticism, a Google spokesperson acknowledged “while we disagree on climate change policy, we share an interest with Senator Inhofe in the employees and data center we have in Oklahoma.”

But Inhofe's assault on the scientific community is not a difference in climate policy; it's a strategy designed to promote dysfunction and paralysis; to destroy the reputation of scientists and the legitimacy of their institutions; and to undermine our ability to find common ground.

Such a strategy conflicts with the data-driven, problem solving culture that has enabled Google’s business success and is arguably contrary to its corporate philosophy of “Don’t Be Evil.”

In 2011, as participants in Google’s science communication fellows program, we witnessed first hand the company’s unique culture.  At its Mountain View headquarters, we were introduced to new communication technologies and strategies for effectively translating climate science to a broad audience.

At the time, we were proud to be part of Google’s investment in science education; inspired by the creative, talented, and passionate people we met; and eager to apply new tools and strategies in our public outreach activities.  But Google’s recent support for Senator Inhofe forces us to question the company’s commitment to science communication and to addressing climate change.

Nearly every large company must – and should – work with policymakers on both sides of the aisle. We also recognize the difficulty that corporations sometimes face in reconciling their core principles with their short-term business priorities.

But in the face of urgent threats like climate change, there are times where companies like Google must display moral leadership and carefully evaluate their political bedfellows. Google’s support of Senator James Inhofe’s re-election campaign is one of those moments.

The Signatories were all Google Climate Science Communication Fellows in 2011:

Brendan Bohannan, Professor, Environmental Studies and Biology, University of Oregon
Julia Cole, Professor, Geosciences and Atmospheric Sciences, The University of Arizona
Eugene Cordero, Professor, Department of Meteorology and Climate Science, San Jose State University
Frank Davis, Professor, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara
Andrew Dessler, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Texas A&M University
Simon Donner, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia
Nicole Heller, Visiting Assistant Professor, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University
Brian Helmuth, Professor, Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences and School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University
Jonathan Koomey, Research Fellow, Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, Stanford University
David Lea, Professor, Dept. of Earth Science, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA
Kelly Levin, Senior Associate, World Resources Institute
David Lobell, Associate Professor of Environmental Earth System Science, Stanford University
Ed Maurer, Associate Professor & Robert W. Peters Professor, Civil Engineering Dept., Santa Clara University
Suzanne C. Moser, Director, Susanne Moser Research & Consulting and Social Science Research Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University
Matthew C. Nisbet, Associate Professor, School of Communication, American University, Washington D.C.
Whendee L. Silver, Professor of Ecosystem Ecology, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley
Alan Townsend, Professor, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado Boulder

Note: Affiliations are for identification purposes only and do not imply endorsement by an individual’s institution or organization.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Has global warming continued?

Enter "Has global warming" into a search engine, and the autocomplete function will suggest the word "stopped".

That we need to stop. Let's flip this around: "Has global warming continued?"

Yes. Global warming continues along, as this nice graphic from Climate Nexus shows so clearly.

The confusion is about surface temperatures. Over the past 10-15 years, the global mean surface air temperature did not increase at the rate of the previous decades. The cause of the slowdown is primarily natural variability, variability that is driven by long-term oscillations in the oceans. The planet is still adding heat - we can see in this planetary energy balance data. The difference is for the past few years, more of that heat is gathering in the deep ocean.

In a few years, the yin of deep ocean heating will give way to the yang of surface temperature warming. Among other things, we'll see full El Nino events develop again - there has not been one since the climate shifted in 1998, something my lab is studying - and with that, new global surface temperature records.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

This is what you call extreme weather, Toronto edition

The thunderstorms in Toronto earlier this week broke that city's seemingly unbreakable one-day rainfall record, set in 1954 by the meteorological oddity known as Hurricane Hazel.


Monday, July 08, 2013

New videos on Communicating Climate Science

The videos from the AGU Chapman Conference on Communicating Climate Science are now available. There are several great talks on the history of climate science, effective and ineffective public engagement programs, and the research on why we sometimes struggle to explain the basic science outside the classroom. Among my personal favourites was John Calderazzo's talk on the importance of storytelling. 

Here's my contribution, on how the climate influences the way we think about climate change, both at home and abroad:


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Awaiting a Canadian response to Obama's climate speech

For about a decade, the explanation for a lack of coherent Canadian climate policy was the lack of a coherent American climate policy. How could our federal government move forward with actions like regulations, carbon pricing, renewable portfolio standards, international agreements or adaptation plans without our largest trading partner and BFF? 

This argument was literally encoded in Canadian policy by the current government (see page 15):

Given the degree of economic integration with the U.S., we are aligning our climate change approach with that of the U.S. as appropriate, to maximize progress on reducing emissions while maintaining economic competitiveness

Now the U.S has a plan. No, it is not perfect, but it is far more advanced than any plan proposed by any sitting President or Prime Minister.

The ball is in our court. Time for Canada, time for Canadians, to define "as appropriate".



Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Some of Rolling Stone's "10 Dumbest Things Ever Said About Global Warming" are not so dumb

There's no shortage of dumb things said about global warming. Compiling a list of the ten dumbest requires wading though thousands and thousands of inane extrapolations about climate change impacts, butchered explanations of the physics of the climate system, and downright wacky U.S. congressional testimonies that seem to come from an alternative universe.  There was an entire "global warming movie", the Day after Tomorrow, featuring storms that defied the laws of thermodynamics.

Given the full panoply of options out there, it is disappointing to see Rolling Stone's new top-ten list feature the following two entries:

4. Climate change is impossible because "God's still up there." 

8. Safeguarding the climate is "a worldview that elevates the Earth above man." 

These may seem dumb to people who read Rolling Stone, but not to many other people on the planet.

The entries are based on quotes from religious conservative American politicians, all of which essentially argue the climate is outside the human domain. As I've documented multiple times, the view that the climate is beyond human control is not radical. If you take a historical perspective, the opposite is true. The fact that we can change the climate is a relatively new concept, one that counters thousands of years of human culture and belief.

These two of the "dumbest" things are also not unique products of the politicized Western climate change debate. Here's an example from #4:

A close runner-up in this category: In 2009, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Illinois) cited God's post-flood promise to Noah as evidence we shouldn't be worried. "The Earth will end only when God declares it's time to be over," he declared.

Rep. Shimkus' argument about the flood is not an invented Republican talking point. The same argument about the covenant between the Biblical God and Noah (that the seas will not rise again) is made by many elders in Tuvalu and Kiribati, when told that human activity is making the sea rise.

Certainly, we need to fight wholly incorrect statements about climate change. It is important that people appreciate the fake, uncritical and often organized skepticism about climate change out in the ether. And, sure, it is possible that the statements by Rep. Shimkus and the others fall into that category; maybe the statements were carefully designed to tap into the audience's beliefs.

Regardless, many people in many countries honestly agree with those statements. You don't engage new audiences by mocking their core beliefs.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Follow the AGU Chapman "Communicating Climate Science" conference online

This week's Communicating Climate Science: A Historic Look to the Future conference is being web-cast.

It is not an empty gesture. The organizers are trying to mix in questions from the online viewers, sent either via the meeting web-cast site or using the twitter hashtag #climatechapman.

A number of people here, Gavin Schmidt, myself and others, are also tapping out live tweets during the sessions.


Tuesday, June 04, 2013

America's big three: corn, soybeans and wheat

Last night, after a scare from the tough Indiana Pacers, the Miami Heat's "big three" of LeBron, Wade and Bosh advanced to the NBA Finals.

Unlike the other major North American sports, in basketball, it is possible for teams with just three great players to dominate. In baseball, football and hockey, with dozens of players per team each with very defined roles, the presence of three great players alone won't get you to the championship.

U.S. agriculture is a lot like basketball. Over the past few decades, the big three of corn, soybeans and wheat have come to dominate U.S. agricultural land. Yet, as in basketball, the basic parameters of the game have not changed. The court - the amount of land used to grow crops - is the same size it was back in the 1930s, despite the players getting larger and more skilled.

This spring, planting of the big three crops account for an estimated 231 million acres of agricultural land. That is, by my estimate from USDA data, roughly two-thirds of all cropland, and 87% of cropland devoted to major crops (i.e. not fallow or idle). Outside of brief soybean-driven surge in the early 1980s, there is currently a greater amount and proportion of cropland being devoted to corn, soybean and wheat than ever before. The current surge is driven largely by the use of corn for ethanol, as well as the continued demand for soybean and corn for animal feed.

The Heat's opponent in the Finals are the San Antonio Spurs. Though the Spurs have their own big three - Duncan, Parker and Ginobili - the team is best known for its tough coach who makes use of every role player on the bench. It is a true clash in styles. I'll be curious to see who wins.


Monday, June 03, 2013

How scientists can talk about public policy

The latest episode of the Climate Report (mp3), a monthly podcast hosted to Tom Bowman, features a fun interview with yours truly about the risks and benefits of scientists' engaging with public policy.

After opening with a discussion of my own path to research on climate change and coral reefs, we go into details on the value of adopting a 'scientific' approach to policy judgements, the risk of 'stealth' issue advocacy (a term coined by Roger Pielke Jr.), the benefits of communications training, and the importance of engaging with the public without disengaging from science


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Kiribati's battle against sea-level rise: the perception and the reality

Last year, I published an article (Donner, 2012) reflecting on years of field work in Kiribati:

Tarawa, the most easily accessible atoll in Kiribati, is a popular destination for journalists and activists interested in observing and communicating the impacts of sea-level rise on a low-lying nation... common images of flooded homes and waves crashing across the causeways—collected during an anomalous event on islets susceptible to flooding due in part to local modifications to the environment—can provide the false impression that Tarawa is subject to constant flooding because of sea-level rise.

Kiribati's Abaiang Atoll (photo by author)
Tarawa and the rest of Kiribati are certainly under serious long-term threat from sea-level rise. The concern expressed in last year's paper is the effects of shoddy research and loose talk by journalists and climate activists, inside and outside of Kiribati, about specific events:

Such unverified attribution can inflame or invite skepticism of the scientific evidence for a human-caused increase in the global sea-level. 

I now bring you Exhibit A: "Kiribati: A Nation Going Under" by Bernard Lagan in the Kiwi publication the Global Mail, published a couple weeks ago when I was in the field.

Running out of options, and water, a nation’s leader enters an end game against climate change.  The President of Kiribati urges an orderly evacuation — “migration with dignity”.

Rare among international coverage of Kiribati, the article goes into accurate detail about the many local issues beyond climate change and is tough on President Anote Tong, who is usually lionized by the international press. Yet the article still butchers the evidence for impacts of sea-level rise, falling for the tempting bait I describe in the Donner (2012): flooding and erosion caused by climate variability and shoreline modification. It is a shame because otherwise, the article is one of few I've seen to capture the complex politics of responding to threats of climate change in this remote, developing nation.

Along comes Andrew Bolt, a skeptical writer from Australia. He does what I'll guess was a few minutes of research with Google, and then raises loud objections in the two bluntly-titled articles: "Are the satellites lying about poor drowning Kiribati?" and "Look at this other drowning island, the Global Mail writer insisted. So I did.

Most of Bolt's claims are ridiculous or sloppy. First, he tries to eyeball changes in Tarawa's land area using Landsat satellite imagery over a 12 year period. This would be like standing at the finish line of a 100 m race and trying to spot individual hairs on the heads of the sprinters in the starting blocks. Second, like many other journalists, he mistook reports that some islets expanded in area over past decades (Webb and Kench, 2010) as evidence that the islets are not being affected at all by sea-level rise. Think of it this way: islands can expand in surface area over time due to land reclamation and natural beach movement and still become "lower" and suffer saltier groundwater because the ocean is higher. Third, Bolt uses second-hand sources, citing selected text from a blog post on my work, rather than reading my work or dropping me a line.

Nonetheless, buried in the muck are some correct assertions, and the overall argument will come across as reasonable to many readers. The end result of an otherwise good Global Mail article is confusion about whether sea-level rise is affecting Kiribati.

How can this be avoided? More care in reporting about sea-level rise would help. The Global Mail article features three classic mistakes made by journalists and climate activists:

1. People are leaving a low-lying island so it MUST be a result of sea-level rise

Sea-level rise could very well lead to mass migration between atolls and from Kiribati to other countries. Is it happening now? The Global Mail:

But some outer islands are also being invaded by the sea. Their fragile fresh water reserves stored naturally beneath the ground are dying away and more and more displaced outer islanders are flocking to Tarawa.

Lagan's repeating an assertion commonly made by climate activists in and out of Kiribati. In reality, migration to Tarawa is driven largely by Kiribati's transition to the cash economy and the desire for jobs, as Bolt correctly asserts in his article. This is no secret; the same dynamic is at play in many developing countries. And had Lagan done some digging, he would have found that freshwater pressure on outer islands has always existed; people voluntarily evacuated in the 30s and 40s from the Southern Gilberts.

2. Land is eroding, so it MUST be because of sea-level rise

Sea-level rise will certainly erode Kiribati shorelines. But not every case of erosion you are shown in a short visit to Kiribati is actually due to
El Nino driven flood of 2005 (photo by auth
sea-level rise. The Global Mail:

Elsewhere on Abaiang Atoll, one village, Tebunginako, which villagers have battled to save for the past 30 years from the encroaching sea, has had to be moved inland — a development that is often referred to as hard evidence that Kiribati is being ravaged by climate change.

Ask yourself a question. If atolls feature long narrow strips of land, why would one village erode away by tens of metres more than the neighbouring villages? A quick internet search is all that's needed to uncover the very clear 2005 report by the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC) about Tebunginako. The village was built long ago on the sand spit created by a former passage between the lagoon and the outer island. It's eroding because of "shoreline processes consistent with an ocean / lagoon passage". Village consultations were done, and the evidence was accepted, as it agreed with the local oral history. People agreed that given the land was naturally eroding, it made more sense to move their homes than to build sea walls.

3. A weather extreme affected the shoreline, so the extreme MUST be caused by climate change

Once again, the Global Mail:

Yet, as far back as 1992, a technical report, funded by the Canadian government, said increasingly severe El Niño events were producing the large waves that were eroding the Abaiang coast... Only very recently — in the past year or two — have some climate scientists begun to suggest a strong link between severe El Niño events and global warming. However, this link is still contested among scientists.

In this case, it is worth talking to a climate scientist about El Nino events. Weather and high seas during El Nino events certainly lead to wave inundation in Kiribati, an issue I discuss in depth in Donner (2012). The El Nino driven variability in sea-level, ocean temperatures and wind direction is one thing that makes Kiribati so unique. Unfortunately, the desire to blame the El Nino inundation events on climate change has driven most of the flawed international coverage of climate change in Kiribati. Though flooding during already high water El Nino events is certainly statistically more likely to happen as global average sea-level rises, the events themselves are no more evidence of rising sea-level than an individual heat wave is evidence of rising global temperatures.

What to do

Climate change is frustrating. Though unprecedented in recent geological history, human-caused climate change still operates at too slow a pace to capture much of the public's attention. So people try to attribute current events to the long-term trend, and often make elementary mistakes: I'll end with my recommendation from my article:

Instead of incorrectly attributing individual flood events or shoreline changes to global sea-level rise, scientists and climate communicators can use such occurrences to educate the public about the various natural and human processes that affect sea-level, the shoreline, and the shape of islands. This would better prepare the public and policy makers for the changes that societies are likely to experience as global sea-level rises in the coming decades.

So journalists and climate activists: Before and after you go to Kiribati, or Tuvalu, or the Maldives, please call a scientist that works there. It will save us all a lot of trouble.


Thursday, May 09, 2013

The letter to Minister Oliver from climate scientists and energy experts (en francais)

Yesterday, Mark Jaccard posted a copy of the letter recently sent by 12 Canadian climate scientists and energy experts to Natural Resources Minister the Hon. Joe Oliver.  

The letter was actually sent in both official languages. As a service, I've posted the French version below.

The letter describes our concern with the Minister’s statements about climate change and advocacy for expanded fossil fuel production. These issues have been raised here repeatedly in the past few months; an earlier letter I wrote to the Minister purely clarifying the science has not elicited any response.

For coverage of this issue, see recent articles in the Globe and Mail, the CBC online, and watch CTV's Power and Politics today.


Monsieur le Ministre Oliver,

En tant que scientifiques spécialistes du climat, économistes et experts en élaboration de politiques, notre travail est centré sur la compréhension du climat et des systèmes énergétiques. Nous sommes d’accord avec vous lorsque vous dites que « la question des changements climatiques est un problème très sérieux ».

Certains de vos commentaires récents, par contre, nous inquiètent. En résumé, nous ne sommes pas convaincus que votre appui en faveur des nouveaux oléoducs et d’un accroissement de la production de combustibles fossiles tient sérieusement compte de la question des changements climatiques.

Pour éviter les conséquences dangereuses des changements climatiques, nous devrons réduire de façon marquée notre dépendance aux combustibles fossiles, et faire la transition vers des énergies plus propres.

Les infrastructures que nous construisons aujourd’hui auront des répercussions sur nos choix énergétiques futurs. Si nous investissons en fonction d’une hausse de la production de combustibles fossiles, nous risquons de nous enfermer dans une logique de forte production de carbone, ce qui implique une augmentation de nos gaz à effet de serre (GES) pour les années et les décennies à venir. 

Dans son « scénario des 450 ppm », l’Agence internationale de l’énergie (AIE) a examiné les implications des politiques nécessaires pour avoir une chance raisonnable d’éviter un réchauffement global de plus de 2 ˚C. Dans ce scénario, la demande mondiale en pétrole atteindrait un sommet au cours de la présente décennie, puis elle descendrait à 10 % sous le niveau actuel au cours des décennies suivantes. L’AIE conclut qu’à moins d’assister à un déploiement majeur de la technologie de captage et stockage du carbone, plus des deux tiers des réserves mondiales actuelles de combustibles fossiles ne pourront pas être commercialisées. D’autres experts sont arrivés à des conclusions semblables.

Nous sommes à un point critique. Selon l’Académie nationale des sciences des États-Unis, « chaque tonne additionnelle de gaz à effet de serre que nous émettons nous expose à des changements plus importants et à des risques plus grands ». Plus nous attendrons avant de passer à une économie à faibles émissions de GES, plus la transition sera radicale, perturbatrice et coûteuse. L’implication est claire : ce sont les décideurs actuels qui ont la responsabilité d’agir pour empêcher les changements climatiques dangereux. 

L’AIE nous met aussi en garde contre les conséquences de la voie que nous suivons actuellement. Si les gouvernements posent peu de gestes pour réduire les émissions, la demande en énergie va continuer à croître rapidement et, pour l’essentiel, ce sont les combustibles fossiles qui vont répondre à cette demande. Un tel scénario pourrait entraîner un réchauffement de 3,6 ˚C selon les estimations de l’AIE.

Pourtant, quand vous défendez, ici et à l’étranger, le développement des combustibles fossiles au Canada, c’est précisément cette voie très dangereuse que vous semblez empruntez – et non pas le scénario des 450 ppm qui permettrait de limiter la hausse à moins de 2 ˚C.

Si nous voulons vraiment avoir une « discussion sérieuse » sur l’énergie et les changements climatiques au pays, comme vous l’avez vous-même proposé, nous devons commencer par reconnaître que nos décisions en matière d’infrastructures pour les combustibles fossiles auront d’importantes répercussions aujourd’hui et pour les générations à venir.

Nous vous demandons de faire en sorte que les émissions de GES liées aux infrastructures pour combustibles fossiles soient soit un facteur central dans les décisions et les activités de relations publiques de votre gouvernement en ce qui concerne les ressources naturelles du Canada.

Il nous ferait grand plaisir de vous informer plus à fond sur les plus récentes avancées scientifiques en ce qui concerne les changements climatiques et le développement d’énergie.

Merci de porter attention à ces questions importantes.

Veuillez recevoir, Monsieur le Ministre, l’expression de nos sentiments respectueux.

J.P. Bruce, O.C., MSCR

James Byrne
Professeur, géographie
Université de Lethbridge

Simon Donner
Professeur adjoint, géographie
Université de Colombie-Britannique

J.R. Drummond, MSCR
Professeur, physique et sciences de l’atmosphère
Université Dalhousie

Mark Jaccard, MSCR
Professeur, gestion des ressources et de l’environnement
Université Simon Fraser

David Keith
Professeur, physique appliquée, politiques publiques
Université Harvard

Damon Matthews
Professeur agrégé, géographie, planification et environnement
Université Concordia

Gordon McBean, C.M., MSCR
Professeur, environnement et développement durable
Université Western

David Sauchyn
Professeur, Initiative de collaboration pour l’adaptation des Prairies
Université de Regina

John Smol, MSCR
Professeur, Chaire de recherche du Canada sur les changements environnementaux
Université Queen’s

John M.R. Stone
Professeur auxiliaire, géographie et environnement
Université Carleton

Kirsten Zickfeld
Professeur adjoint, géographie
Université Simon Fraser