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.