2009-12-17

Climate Scoreboard

A neat way to follow COP15 from ClimateInteractive.org.

2009-12-15

Go read Eric Steig's & Kevin Wood's analysis at RC

A great comparison of raw weather station data with the CRU temperature reconstruction. Pretty much puts to bed any allegations that the CRU data is fraudulent.

2009-12-11

Friday means a comic (2)


Well, I've been working on a follow-up to the CRU email fiasco, including a cameo by Sarah Palin, but it isn't done. Instead, please enjoy a terrific PhD comic:

2009-12-09

Climate Index

I just saw this article about a new climate-change index [LINK]. I'm not sure whether I agree with how they are defining the index, but I do totally support the existence of these kinds of indices. If one (or a few) can gain popularity, I think they will be a great way to communicate the degree of climate change the Earth is experiencing. One pitfall of these indices is that you want to measure the climate change, and not things that are not part of the changing climate. For example, this index includes atmospheric CO2 concentration, but this is the forcing on the system, not the response of the system. So imagine we stop CO2 emissions, then the CO2 levels in the atmosphere will stay about the same or decrease, but that doesn't mean the climate won't be changing still (cf. Soloman et al. 2009). On the other hand, arctic sea-ice extent, which is also included in this new index, has potentially large natural variability. I think this comes out when we consider the rapid sea-ice melt season of 2007, which was largely due to a high pressure system sitting in one place for a while (e.g., Zhang et al. 2008). Depending on how they implement the index then, the arctic sea-ice term might be diminishing the overall climate change "factor" because the short-term trend is for sea-ice recovery, but the long-term trend remains and shows decreasing summer sea-ice extent. I'm sure they thought about these issues when designing the index, but I have a feeling we're going to see a bunch of these indices come and go over the next few years. Eventually a few will get picked up and become standard.

2009-12-07

Updates on the climategate fallout

Over the course of the last week, I've been begrudgingly following the CRU stolen email story. It seems that the story is finally starting to dwindle, though it is still more prominent than I would have expected. Also, the consequences for those involved are still to be seen.

There have been quite a few notable responses to the story. Ben Santer has sent around an open letter, mostly defending Phil Jones and the work at CRU [link]. The IPCC has issued an official statement defending the science supporting the Assessment reports [link]. The American Geophysical Union also defended the science and condemned the theft of private email [LINK]. The American Meteorological Society has also reaffirmed its official position on climate change, though without coming to the defense of the scientists that have been "scandalized" [LINK]. The UK "science community" has also stepped up to defend climate science [LINK].

There has been some fun coverage from the blogosphere too, and I couldn't resist including the following video, which sums things up pretty neatly.
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Of course, this doesn't seem to pacify Sarah Palin, who has a ridiculous Op-Ed in the Washington Post [LINK], where George Will has also been spouting the now standard nonsense [LINK]. Thankfully, Alan Leshner was able to get a response to Palin's crazy into the WaPo [LINK]. Peter Sinclair has produced one of the best Climate Crock of the Week videos to date covering some of this stuff:

Besides the emails stolen from the University of East Anglia's CRU, there are scattered reports of other suspicious activity. The most blatant and most credible of these is that some people tried to gain access (in person) to computers at the Canadian Center for Climate Modeling and Analysis at the University of Victoria [LINK]. Apparently these people identified themselves as technicians initially, but left the premises when confronted by an employee. How weird is that? This may or may not be related to some reported break-ins to a U. Victoria professor's office [LINK]. What in the world is going on here?

All this is now going on at the same time as the big Copenhagen meeting. Again, no coincidence, I'm convinced. In a positive sign, 56 newspapers last week ran an editorial in support of the meeting, and urged the participants to come to some agreement, essentially to save the world [copy of editorial at RealClimate.org]. But the impact of this manufactured controversy has been felt in Copenhagen, not only by demanding attention of legitimate policymakers [e.g.], but has been prominently featured in the denialist activities taking place [e.g.]. It should also be noted that Saudi Arabia has latched on to the misinterpretation of these stolen emails in order to go backward in their stance on climate change [LINK].

2009-12-03

Ok, fine, the emails

I wanted to avoid it, I wanted to ignore it, I wanted it to blow over and be forgotten. Unfortunately, these leaked emails continue to cause headaches for the whole climate science community.

The background, which I'm sure you know, is that the Climatic Research Unit (usually abbreviated CRU) at the University of East Anglia had a cyber-security issue in which a server was compromised and data stolen. This happened on 17 November. The stolen data was published to a Russian server and made accessible to the internet; at the same time, someone tried to post the emails to RealClimate.org [see posts: 1, 2, 3]. I first became aware of the attack and theft on 23 November through an email warning that colleagues at my institution were involved in email exchanges that had been illegally published (and assuring us that our web servers were not compromised). If I hadn't been busy with other things, though, I'd have seen it sooner, as people like Frank Bi were already blogging important details by 20 November (read his follow ups as well). The news was also hitting the mainstream media (e.g., NYTimes.com, Wired.com) by 2o November.

The hoopla is not, however, that a prominent university was hacked and personal data stolen, but rather that the contents of these personal emails was combed through by climate change deniers who then announced that these were proof of some sort of conspiracy. The links above, and those contained therein along with web searches for terms like "climategate" will provide plenty of examples of the emails that are so "provocative," analysis from media, skeptics, and climate scientists.

The media has failed in many cases to properly parse this story. Setting much of the story straight, though, is Elizabeth May [deSmogBlog]. She read all the emails, and summarizes over a decade of exchanges in a well-written post. She's not really a journalist though, and isn't completely impartial, for whatever impartialiality is worth. This week's editorial in Nature also comes to the defense of the science and the scientists, and is worth a look [link, plus additional Nature coverage: 1, 2]. It is worth noting that there seems to be a lot of almost-finger-pointing at Steve McIntyre, who runs ClimateAudit and has been needling people for data for a while; case in point, a Nature news piece about a deluge of requests for CRU's raw data in August [link]. This doesn't directly implicate McIntyre in the break-in, but it should start sounding alarm bells, and, frankly, I would be surprised if the investigators don't eventually talk to him.

The consequences are serious. As of 3 December, the director of CRU, Dr. Phil Jones, has stepped down (at least temporarily) [Wunderground]. An investigation at UEA is pending, headed by Sir Muir Russell [UEA]. That is the investigation that will see if the CRU has been handling itself properly. There is also an ongoing police investigation into the break-in and theft, though there doesn't seem to be a lot of information about that. In the USA, Senator James Inhofe (a notorious climate change denier) has called for a senate investigation [link]. Of course, this whole ordeal is also fodder for the fringe of climate change deniers and the media who court them [e.g.]. All of this also is happening in the lead-up to next week's UN meeting in Copenhagen, and I can not believe that the timing is coincidental.

The irony, as far as I can tell so far, is that the denialists are yelling that these emails are evidence for some kind of vast conspiracy [e.g.], meanwhile all the evidence that I can see suggests that the situation is exactly reversed. There is a history of these deniers using PR tactics to manufacture doubt about human-caused global warming [cf.], there is a recent account of information requests to the CRU which seem to be connected to McIntyre and ClimateAudit, and suddenly there is the break-in and theft, with the published file name FOIA.zip (freedom of information act), and the first people to find these emails on the internet seem to be the denialist bloggers. It's not an airtight case, but this is much more connection than I've seen an any right-wing conspiracy theory lately.

2009-11-17

Trends in the central tropical Pacific

Well, since we've been thinking about the tropical Pacific, here's a bit more to ponder. There is an ongoing discussion in the literature about whether global warming, particularly across the tropical Pacific, will look more like El Nino or La Nina. One way this has tended to shake out is that the atmospheric scientists seem to favor El Nino conditions as the world warms, but oceanographers tend to lean toward La Nina [Eos]. The truth of the matter is that in the past couple of years, this has been shown to be a false analogy; it seems like there is evidence that the atmospheric circulation is changing to look somewhat more like El Nino, but changes in the ocean act against some of these atmospheric effects, looking more like La Nina. In fact, as these arguments mature, it seems like the dynamics involved are not really related to the dynamics that control El Nino and La Nina cycles [Vecchi].

The apparent controversy, though, is too good not to glom onto, and many authors have used it as a construct to present results. This is fine except that it clouds the emerging picture of climate change in the tropical Pacific.

A new paper by Nurhati et al (2009) includes this El Nino/La Nina kind of argument to highlight new isotopic measurements of coral reefs in the central Pacific. The geochemical techniques are applied to coral at three central Pacific islands, and show monthly-resolved temperature and salinity records over the 20th Century. The bottom line seems to be that there are statistically significant linear trends toward fresher, warmer water around these islands. The authors say that these trends are more consistent with more El Nino-like conditions in the central Pacific, are similar to other estimates of temperature changes, and is in line with modeling studies showing decreased upwelling of deep water in a warming world. Only in the final paragraph do the authors finally reveal that this El Nino stuff shouldn't be taken too seriously,
... this analogy likely over-simplifies the complexity of tropical Pacific anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, any of a number of large-scale climate changes that are likely to occur in a greenhouse world might overwhelm or at the very least fundamentally reshape the expected impacts of an “El Niño-like” trend. ... In this regard, the prominent warming and freshening trends uncovered in the coral reconstructions undoubtedly represent a combination of dynamics that are fundamentally different than those associated with the ENSO phenomenon.

2009-11-16

The delay tactics worked: no Copenhagen agreement in December

I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise, but it is now official: Copenhagen will not be the venue for a binding international agreement to address climate change [NYTimes.com]. As we've seen over the past months, the negotiations that should have set up the terms of such an agreement have systematically unravelled. To make matters worse, the USA has squandered its opportunity to be a leader in this arena by failing to pass climate and energy legislation. This despite the Democratic Party being in control of both houses of Congress and the presidency.

As expected, a few people -- notably the administration -- are trying to put a more positive spin on this story [LATimes.com]. Some say the Copenhagen meeting could still lay the groundwork for a real agreement next year, others suggest that getting some "commitment" from India and China might help the Senate pass climate legislation in the next few months.

My commentary is unnecessary, but just to be blunt: this is an inexcusable state of affairs. While the other parties have similarly failed to step up and and become meaningful leaders, my own feeling is that the USA has lost its chance to make a significant move to curtail global warming in the coming decade. These delays are damning humanity and uncountable species to suffer through the effects of dangerous anthropogenic climate change.

2009-11-14

The tropical ocean: more than just hurricanes

The Climate Prediction Center recently released a new El Nino Advisor [link]. The advisory says essentially that all indicators suggest that the current El Nino is still strengthening, and is expected to last through the winter and maybe into spring. It's likely, based on past El Nino events, that the largest anomalies of the tropical sea-surface temperature will happen some time in the next couple of months.

Recall that we knew this El Nino was forming last spring and summer, and that's why the Atlantic hurricane season was forecast to be relatively inactive. As we've seen, that forecast was pretty successful; we've only gotten up to "Ida" in the tropical storm names. The presence of El Nino conditions in the tropical Pacific ocean has effects that reach beyond hurricanes though, as this paragraph from the advisory lists:
Expected El Niño impacts during November 2009-January 2010 include enhanced precipitation over the central tropical Pacific Ocean and a continuation of drier-than-average conditions over Indonesia. For the contiguous United States, potential impacts include above-average precipitation for Florida, central and eastern Texas, and California, with below-average precipitation for parts of the Pacific Northwest. Above-average temperatures and below-average snowfall is most likely for the Northern Rockies, Northern Plains, and Upper Midwest, while below-average temperatures are expected for the southeastern states.

So those of you up north and in Seattle can probably expect relatively mild winters, which might not be bad news! Meanwhile, California is expected to have a wetter than normal year, which so far looks to be true. Some of these correlations aren't very robust, so you can't really count on them, but so far they seem to be holding.

It is also worth noting that the effects of the tropical oceans are not limited to this kind of El Nino action. There's a flip-side to the story, too, which has come to be called La Nina. This is the cold phase of the oscillation, when the eastern tropical pacific is a bit cooler than normal. An interesting side effect of La Nina conditions in the tropical Pacific ocean is that precipitation tends to decrease over the central part of the USA, especially Texas, but extending north into the upper midwest and also west through the southwest and California. The Pacific Northwest and much of the southeast experience extra precipitation. The crazy thing is that it isn't just a seasonal effect, but can be clearly seen at longer time scales. A new paper by McCrary and Randall (2009, link) examines this relationship in observations and climate models, confirming what I've just said on timescales of 6 years and longer. Much of the paper deals with comparing three leading climate models with the observed 20th Century droughts in the USA. While they find that the models do capture some aspects/statistics of long-term drought in the central USA, none of the models seems to convincingly capture the relationships between tropical ocean variability and precipitation seen in the observations.

Of course, the fact that the models struggle to establish these connections between the tropics and the extratropics does not come as a great surprise. A key challenge for these comprehensive climate models is to produce realistic patterns and cycles of El Nino and La Nina. One of the models in McCrary & Randall (2009) is the Community Climate System Model (v3.0), which is known to have an overly regular cycle of El Ninos, with a period of about 2 years. Along with this regular cycle, the observed connections with remote regions is underrepresented. (link) So when looking for longer-term variations, it's unlikely for CCSM to have realistic patterns. In this case, the CCSM's long-term droughts don't seem to be very connected to the tropical oceans at all. The other models have different problems, but do notably better at establishing at least some relationship between cool tropical Pacific surface temperatures and increased likelihood of drought conditions in the central USA.

A key point to emerge from this analysis is that the climate models only marginally represent long-term droughts, and without very convincing physical processes compared to the observations. This means that these models are not necessarily proper tools for studying the frequency of droughts in the future. This hasn't stopped people from doing just that, as the authors note. So if you come across stories about changes in drought, pay close attention to the methods used, and keep a skeptical view of the findings. In the meantime, climate models are now being developed that have much improved representations of El Nino and La Nina (see link above, e.g.), so the next generation of climate models may have more credible (and interesting) droughts. And if you're an optimist, they might even teach us something about how the future of the USA's grain belt will look, and if you are very optimistic, maybe they won't point toward perpetual Dust Bowl conditions in the future.

2009-11-12

NCAR YouTube Channel

Well, I just learned that NCAR has a whole bunch of videos posted on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/ncarucar. These are videos about the research done at NCAR (and UCAR), basically aimed at the general public. Non-experts will probably gain some insight into climate science, while those of us in the field can look for people we know. Enjoy.

2009-11-06

A terrible video you have to watch

Everything that this woman says is completely wrong. I'm amazed that someone can be so wrong in such a short span of time.



Did you watch it?

In case you were thinking, well, maybe some of that makes some sense, let me point out a potential "flaw" in her "argument."

She is making a claim that homeopathy is all about energy. As a refresher, remember that homeopathic treatments use some kind of natural agent to cure symptoms, but the application is a very dilute solution. So if onion is the agent, and I think it sometimes is in homeopathy, the homeopath will take an onion, grind it up and add it to water. But then they take that water, divide it into two, and add it to more water, and so on and so on. Eventually the solution is so dilute that there is no meaningful amount of onion in the water, so the homeopathic treatment is just water. I'm not exaggerating, either, go look it up. Anyway, the woman in the video tries to make sense of this because mass is energy, so in some sense she is saying that they are putting the energy of the onion into the water, so it doesn't matter if there is mass in there. She justifies this because the mass term in E = m*c^2 is very small. In fact, she says you can ignore the m because it is infinitesimal. Wah? Yes, she says this several times, including in her introduction, saying that all the matter in the universe could fit into a bowling ball. I'm not sure what that is supposed to mean, but I do know how to multiply.

Let's take the speed of light, c. Roughly, c is 300-million meters per second, c = 3*10^8 m/s. That's a big number. Now square it, c*c = 9*10^16 m^s/s2, and that is a really big number. No wonder that homeopath thinks we can just neglect the tiny little amount of matter in an onion, since this number is so big. Let's say we have a really large onion of 1 kg. Now how much energy does that mass turn into, well, 1kg*9*10^16 m^2/s^2 = 9*10^16 kgm^2/s^2, which is just 9*10^16 Joules, the SI unit of energy. Now, that sounds like a lot of energy, so it is fine to divide it into a lot of water, right, and spread that energetic wealth. So the homepath puts the pulverized onion into the water, then splits the water into two and adds water, and so on and so on. Eventually you find that the mass of onion in each drop of water is negligible, or infinitesimal, just like the homeopath said. So let's take a very tiny number for the mass, say 1 millionth of the original mass of the onion, so that much energy is actually E = 1kg/10000009*10^16 m^2/s^2 = 90 billion Joules. Still looks like a big number, but remember 1kg divided into a million pieces is still far more than infinitesimal, what about 1 billionth of a kilogram, well that'd be 90 million Joules, and 1 thousandth of a billionth of a kilogram would be 90,000 Joules, and a kilogram divided by the number of atoms in a mole (= 6.02*10^23) produces about 1.5*10^-7 Joules. Ah, there seems to be a trend. If you keep reducing the mass, the energy drops. Even way before you have a single atom per drop of water, you have a negligible amount of energy, despite the constancy of the speed of light.

Just to belabor the point, the homeopath is missing a fact of basic arithmetic. Multiplying a large number by a small number doesn't mean you get the large number. Spreading the onion's energy over a very large amount of water doesn't imbue the water with magical curative properties. You end up with water, plain and simple.

And I haven't even mentioned an essential physical error in her interpretation, namely that squishing an onion does not release the energy of the onion. You apply energy to the onion to break the bonds that hold it together. This does not convert mass to energy; for all practical purposes mass is conserved. Only when we deal with relativity does the Einstein's mass-energy equivalence come into play.

Homeopathy is bunk. At best it is a placebo, and at worst it convinces people to forego actual treatment, fork over their money to some snake-oil salesperson and not get better.

2009-11-04

Updates on Kerry-Boxer in committee

Well, as expected, the republicans left the committee meeting yesterday, so no quorum could be established. There have been a lot of analogies thrown around, but I actually like Arlen Specter's statement the best: "We have a practice in the world's greatest deliberative body of disagreeing without being disagreeable. But you can't disagree with an empty chair." [link] Democrats appealed to the republicans to come to the meeting, but eventually the room emptied, and a stark scene emerged. Senator Barbara Boxer, alone in the room, waiting for republicans. From that WaPo story:
"I guess at this point I'm going to just sit here and wait till they show up," she said, consulting her watch. The hearing had begun three hours earlier.
"I will just sit here for a bit," she said later. "Talk among yourselves." Boxer checked her BlackBerry and rearranged her papers. C-SPAN filmed the empty seats. "Chairman Boxer (D-CA) is waiting for Republican members to come to this meeting," the network flashed on screen. After 15 minutes of silence, the lone senator in the room tapped the gavel. "We're going to stand in recess," she said.


On the plus side, the executive branch is strongly supporting legislation [link], which could buoy the process in some important ways. Mostly, I think that if Obama et al. can keep pushing on the Congress to get a bill passed, it will prevent the bill from dying in committee; something will get pushed through. We can only hope it happens soon, before Copenhagen if possible, since that would give the USA some bargaining power and a least a modicum of credibility.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, the Europeans are going through negotiations in the lead up to next month's meeting in Copenhagen [link]. It sounds like the Environment ministers are ready to take serious action,
Last week Europe toughened much of its stance further. Environment minsters agreed to slash the EU’s long-term emission reduction targets from 80 percent to 95 percent by 2050, if a deal is reached at Copenhagen, while retaining its relatively ambitious mid-term goal of a 20 percent cut by 2020, rising to 30 percent if other countries promise similar measures (both cuts use 1990 emissions levels as a baseline).

And they also resolved that aviation should cut its emissions by 10 percent, and shipping by 20 percent, by 2020, using 2005 levels as the baseline (both sectors have been exempted from the Kyoto Protocol). And the European ministers said they had decided on vigorous measures to tackle deforestation.

Unfortunately, they Environment ministers don't have power to negotiate the financial side of the deal, and that is where things are stalling out. If the EU can't get their own agreements settled, it is likely that the EU won't come into the Copenhagen meeting with any real power, which is likely to derail the whole proceeding.

2009-11-02

Delay tactics

Well, while I've been neglecting the blog, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has been arguing over the Kerry-Boxer Climate legislation. From what I can tell [example link], the Republican committee members are trying to derail the legislative process. Essentially, they are threatening to just not go to their meeting, which would nominally mean that no rewriting or votes on the bill would be allowed since there wouldn't be a quorum present. Senator Boxer is saying that she hopes the R's will show up, but if they don't she might go ahead with a "different interpretation" of the rules. It is worth noting that the ranking R in this committee is James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a notorious climate denier of the worst ilk.

2009-10-23

Another day, another survey

And today we have less positive numbers. This is a newer poll of 1500 Americans, conducted by Abt/SRBI Inc. for the Pew Research Center [LINK]. This poll is a repeat of earlier ones focused on global warming (the science and the policy). The interesting part is that the Pew Center is reporting on the trends over the past few years, showing that there has been a strong decrease in the belief that global warming is supported by solid evidence and a decrease in the belief that global warming is a very serious problem. The numbers seem to suggest that this signal is mostly carried by the 365 Republicans and the 543 Independents in the survey, but even the 473 Democrats show a decline.

The news is not all bad, and not all contradictory to the older survey I reported on yesterday [LINK]. Despite the decline, the survey shows that 57% of respondent think there is solid evidence the earth is warming, and 65% think it is somewhat or very serious. That's a strong majority. Things get a bit dicier when you consider that only 36% believe there is solid evidence the earth is warming because of human activity; this is a ridiculously low number, and Jim Hoggan thinks this has a lot to do with the well-funded anti-environment, pro-coal lobby [LINK]. The other positive result is that of the participants 50% favor limits on carbon emissions, even if it means higher energy prices. Even more people, 56% of the participants, say that the USA should join other countries in global initiatives to address global warming.

Okay.... but wait a minute. Let me just state that I'm skeptical of the robustness of these results. To be fair, there is a plus or minus 3% on all of these, according to the methodology [LINK]. But even with that in mind, I have to wonder how 50% of the responses favor limiting emissions to address global warming and 56% want global action while only 35% of people think global warming is a "very serious" problem and only 36% think there is "solid evidence" of human-caused global warming. Maybe people are just really pragmatic about environmental policy, so they favor erring on the side of action because of the large risk. I'd support this, as it seems the most rational response (in the absence of "solid" evidence (of which there actually is a mountain)), as discussed in this video. I'm pretty sure people are not nearly that pragmatic nor rational, so I have to wonder whether there is something else happening. I don't really have an alternate hypothesis. One would be a biased sample, but the methodology does seem pretty good (but I'm no expert). A second alternative is that Jim Hoggan is right, but this just seems a little to conspiratorial. Another possibility is that in the past year or so Americans have gotten a little bit edgy because the economy went nuts, and now they are a bit shaken up, not knowing what to think about things like global warming. If this were the case, we'd see a shift in the numbers toward the more moderate or the "don't know" position. However, looking at the responses from April 2008 and October of 2009, the percent of people who think the earth is warming (at all) went from 71% to 57%, and the number of people who think there is not warming went from 21% to 33%. That'd pretty much mean people have changed their minds. However, the question is stated as:
From what you've read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, or not?
So we are restricted to "solid" evidence, so we can not reject my moderation hypothesis.

In this case, I think that we have to take these results with the figurative grain of salt. What would be more informative is to see the results showing whether people have shifted to what they might perceive as the more moderate position. Is there "solid", "compelling", "preliminary", "unconvincing", or no evidence at all that the earth is warming? My guess is that what has really happened is that people, in a haze of fear of the economy collapsing, have shifted to the more conservative position, adopting a more "wait and see" attitude. However, some of their previous thinking remains, and they are taking the more pragmatic position on action because of this. In fact, as a bit of evidence that this is the case, we can look at the follow up question:
Do you believe that the earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, or mostly because of natural patterns in the earth's environment?
The "human activity" answer changed from 47% to 36%, but the "natural patterns" stayed about steady, going from 18% to 16%. If Hoggan's conspiracy were the correct mechanism for the change in opinion, then more people would be jumping on the "natural patterns" bandwagon, since that is a very prevalent denial argument. Instead, I would suggest people are just feeling more skeptical about issues that they don't know much about (e.g., the economy, global warming, etc). Either way, it will be interesting to watch how public opinion changes in the coming months. And the fact that still half of Americans are in favor of action supports my repeated call for the current government to actually do something.






2009-10-22

How many Americans don't believe in climate change, or don't care?

There was a survey conducted in the Fall of 2008 that asked detailed questions about climate-related issues. The study was conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. The report is available for download [LINK], or you can read a summary at the Center for American Progress [LINK]. You should definitely start with the summary, and take a look at those graphs. The bottom line is that report breaks the American population into 6 groups based on their beliefs about climate change. Notable about this analysis is that it finds 51% of Americans are quite concerned about global warming, and are prepared to take actions (by voting and spending). That is terrific, as it shows that the message has finally penetrated to mainstream America. Even better, only 7% are "dismissive" of global warming, meaning they don't believe it is even happening. This makes all the deniers on the internet seem even more out of touch and fanatical. There are another 11% that are "doubtful," which is a mix of people who don't know what to believe or think it might be a "natural cycle." So, even if we take all 18% on this side, they only balance the "alarmed" on the other side. Of course, taken a different way, it means almost 1 in 5 Americans still don't think global warming is important.

I guess there are a couple of important things to take away from these results. First, that we can now confidently say that "most Americans" believe global warming is real, caused by humans, and should be addressed. Next, there are at least 18% of Americans that are willing to take strong action to be part of addressing global warming, and in fact, 34% think large-scale action should be taken by the USA government even if it costs a lot. These are the people who will engage in "consumer activism," meaning they will reward or punish companies based on their environmental stands. This means that companies that are eco-friendly should (and already are in many cases) say so, while companies that are not will try to obfuscate their views. In terms of activism, environmental groups should point out companies that are both ends of the spectrum to promote this consumer activism, as knowing which companies are where is a big impediment to actually acting.

I guess the last big point that strikes me is that these results are not in line with the USA government's actions in climate change and energy policy. As I have repeatedly pointed out, the government has done little of substance to address global warming. The current administration talks pretty good talk, but the congress has decided to sit on their hands and worry about getting re-elected. The big Copenhagen meeting is coming up, and it isn't likely that a binding resolution will come out of that. So the American people now have to make their voices heard on these issues. Since most Americans now believe that action should be taken, and since the basic science supports this majority opinion, and emerging science suggests impacts are already being felt in sensitive ecosystems and climate regimes, it seems no good can come from putting off actual action. When I say actual action, I mean (1) consumer activism as mentioned above, (2) political activism via voting for candidates who pledge to take action on climate policy, (3) political activism via pressuring congress to pass climate and energy policy, and (3) domestic legislation and international agreements with binding targets to reduce carbon emissions and punish those countries that do not participate or do not comply with the agreements.

Maybe a way to start is by visiting the up-and-comer in climate activism, 350.org. Sign a petition or send your congressperson a message. Go support climate change policy by participating in the International Day of Action on 24 October. As much as it doesn't sound like it, one of the most useful ways to help galvanize meaningful action is to donate money to organizations that interface more directly with lawmakers.... sigh, yes, these are "lobbyists." But there are good organizations out there that are really fighting for rational policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Examples are the Union of Concerned Scientists, 350.org, the Environmental Defense Fund, or the Save Our Environment Action Center (which is a confederation of other groups).

2009-10-20

Water vapor movie from NOAA

Just was directed to a mesmerizing animation of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season via Jeff Masters. You definitely should go and watch. They have stitched together all the GOES water vapor imagery over a nice topographic background. You get to just watch the large-scale flow swirling and pulsing over the course of several months. Amazing. This is the kind of thing that has inspirational power... for casual passers-by, school kids, and even those of us actively in the field. I can watch this all day.

2009-10-18

Watching Wave

I've been passively listening to some of the reaction to Google Wave lately. Yesterday (via Daring Fireball), I found a blog post by Daniel Tenner that explains how Google Wave will "replace" email for corporate environments [LINK]. I think Tenner is presenting a good case that the people currently testing Wave aren't really the audience that will most benefit from such a product. Where I think he's going slightly wrong is by using the "corporate" environment (which is what DF says too) as the model. Wave is collaboration software, and the way it is presented by Tenner, it really does sound like it could replace email to a large extent for projects and collaboration. It doesn't replace email for correspondence, and it doesn't replace Facebook or Twitter for "status updates" or "microblogging," and it doesn't replace your favorite IM software. But for people who use any of these tools to actually do work, and especially for people who switch between them (or want to be able to switch between them) for a project, Wave sounds like it will be amazing. The essential idea seems to be that you can start a "wave" as a virtual conversation, including having documents and files and thing, and you can add or drop people from the wave at any time (and they get to see everything, not just what is "happening" now), and Wave makes sense for seamless transitions from email to IM type communication. That is, you upload a document, and everyone has it and can read it and edit it, and everyone can see all versions of it. No more attachments. You can walk away from your computer and come back and get caught up with what is going on, or you can be sitting at your computer going back and forth with others in the wave.

Maybe my vision of Wave makes it better than it can possibly be. But I got excited by Tenner's post. I think this would be an amazing way to do collaborative science. Tenner presents things as problems with email and why Wave fixes it, and for every one I though, yes, that is a problem with email! In science there are many collaborations that could benefit by replacing the normal email with a more efficient communication stream. Examples are reports of all kinds, like when people have to report on the status of a project to the funding agency, or when a dispersed team is writing a paper about a project and different people are writing different sections. Another example might just be a grad student working on her/his thesis, their advisor could observe progress and give feedback using Wave, and postdocs, researchers, or committee members could be brought into the wave as needed for further advice and feedback. It could also work for planning projects, working on code, or even doing homework. Wave seems to be a way to clean up your communication stream, bringing different pieces all into one "wave" seems like a better way to get things done. But we'll see.

2009-10-16

Woo-hoo for me


Well, I took the Pew Research Center's science knowledge quiz, and as you can see, I did quite well. Go take the quiz yourself: LINK.

2009-10-15

Paul Hudson's climate change denier pornography

On BBC.co.uk a story by Paul Hudson appeared with the title "What happened to global warming?" [LINK]. My opinion of this article is that it is intentionally provocative and misleading, ignoring science for titillation. Hudson takes a mock impartial tone, giving much more credence to climate change deniers than is warranted, and inflating arguments that have been addressed by actual scientists over many years. Additionally he conflates completely different points about the variability of the climate system for the sole purpose of nudging readers toward the unsubstantiated view that global warming has stopped. Let's go through a few of these points in more detail.

Slower warming does not equal cooling


Point number one is essentially the lead of the story: that global average temperature has cooled since 1998. This is now more than misinformation, it has entered the realm of the canard. The source of Hudson's statement is a table at the Met Office website [Hudson's blog, the table]. Amazingly, if you go to the page with that table and actually read the text on the page, it states clearly that global warming has not stopped:
The record-breaking temperatures in 1998 occurred after three decades of warming, starting in the 1970s. These decades saw an increase in global average temperature of about 0.45 °C. After 1998, however, warming slowed significantly — trends over the past 10 years show only a 0.07 °C increase in global average temperature. Although this is only a small increase, it indicates that there has been no global cooling over this period. In fact, over the past decade, most years have remained much closer to the record global average temperature reached in 1998 than to temperatures before the 1970s. All the years from 2000 to 2008 have been in the top 14 warmest years on record.

So the Met Office make sure to inform their visitors that global warming is ongoing. Not only that, but there are other datasets of global average temperature that are slightly different than the Met Office numbers. For example, the National Climatic Data Center's global temperature anomaly data set [LINK], which shows 2003 as slightly warmer than 1998 (though in a statistical tie). This issue has also been thoroughly reviewed at RealClimate [LINK, see links from there].

It is not the sun


The second point Hudson makes is to suggest that something must be going on to explain the "cooling" (that doesn't exist), and his primary argument is that it must be the sun. He appeals to authority in Piers Corbyn (Weatheraction) who "claims that solar charged particles impact us far more than is currently accepted, so much so he says that they are almost entirely responsible for what happens to global temperatures.
He is so excited by what he has discovered that he plans to tell the international scientific community at a conference in London at the end of the month." Um, so Hudson is suggesting that somebody is about to announce that everything we know about climate change is mistaken, but provides no details? And there's no paper to reference? And Corbyn is going to a "conference in London" to announce the findings? Amazingly, Hudson has omitted that this conference is being organized by WeatherAction.com, which is Corbyn's company. Curious, don't you think. Reminds me of the Orbo in a lot of ways. By the looks of it, Corbyn is suggesting some kind of solar wind hypothesis, which makes no sense whatsoever. These ideas, I'm guessing, are rooted in the galactic cosmic ray hypothesis, which hasn't shown much promise [cf, RC].

PDO: refuge of the deniers


Then Hudson's article goes for the oceans. Wait, what do the oceans have to do with solar charged particles? Nothing. Yes, Hudson simply changes course in the middle of his article, which must be some kind of logical fallacy. Anyway, Hudson starts writing about the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, stating that is the most important cyclical warming-cooling mode in the oceans. This is an oversell: the PDO is a big signal, but it is not cyclical, and it is not necessarily the most important mode of variability for the climate. In fact, there is an ongoing debate about what the PDO even is; a current paper supports the view that the PDO is really just a ghost of the ENSO signal, and not a mode of variability unto itself [LINK]. Hudson falls right into the trap, quoting Don Easterbrook:
Professor Easterbrook says: "The PDO cool mode has replaced the warm mode in the Pacific Ocean, virtually assuring us of about 30 years of global cooling."
It should be noted that Don Easterbrook is a retired professor of geology, and has become a climate change denier as a hobby over the past decade or more. It seems quite unlikely that Easterbrook's prediction of cooling for the next 30 years will be right, no matter what phase the PDO is in.

Hudson does then state that people at the Met Office stand by the science and their modeling effort.

A climate crock continues


Then Hudson says, I assume without appreciating the irony,
To confuse the issue even further, last month Mojib Latif, a member of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) says that we may indeed be in a period of cooling worldwide temperatures that could last another 10-20 years.
Of course, Hudson has to say in the next paragraphs that this is not actually what Latif thinks, and that he isn't changing his long held belief that humans are causing the observed climate change. Amazingly, this is also a topic of recent debunking, this time at the hands of Peter Sinclair [LINK].

To end the piece, Hudson says it with the elegance it deserves:
One thing is for sure. It seems the debate about what is causing global warming is far from over. Indeed some would say it is hotting up.
Yes, I guess it really is hotting up.

2009-10-14

Military green

I just read an excerpt from Amanda Little's book Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells—Our Ride to the Renewable Future on Grist [LINK]. The excerpt is about the Department of Defense's efforts to be more "green," meaning energy efficient in this case. I had wondered a little about the fuel usage of the military, and specifically about how the military uses fuel and meets its energy needs in Iraq, but I hadn't really read much about it until now. Not to spoil the read, which I definitely recommend, but the most shocking numbers are probably that the cost of fuel (diesel or gas) increases by an order of magnitude when the cost of transport and security for field delivery is included, and another order of magnitude when it is delivered aerially. Also, just the sheer amount of fuel used by the DoD is amazing... billions of dollars annually? Crazy! So this excerpt is really about the efforts to improve energy efficiency, increase security, and decrease costs by the DoD. While I'm not a big proponent of many of the DoD's efforts, it is exciting to hear that it is looking pretty seriously at alternative energy technology. Many of our favorite things have come from such R&D efforts (e.g., the internet), so maybe these efforts will accelerate some technologies and get them into commercial use faster than could otherwise be expected.

2009-10-07

Watch this week's crock

Hey, I think this week's Crock of the Week by Peter Sinclair really shows how climate change deniers are chomping at the bit to get anything that even vaguely resembles a credible critique of human-caused global warming. Take a look:

2009-10-05

US Chamber of Commerce

It isn't a government agency, it's just a coalition of large businesses in the US. Really, it's a lobbying organization for these businesses. The US Chamber of Commerce position on climate change has been very regressive, and quite a few companies have started to take notice of it.

But now it is getting serious. Apple has quite the Chamber (as have other companies recently). [LINK] Note that Apple isn't the first company to do so, their move follows some others, which amazingly also include some big utilities [LINK1, LINK2].

2009-10-04

Fessing up to imminent delays

So Carol Browner (director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy) says there's very little chance Congress (that is, the Senate) is going to get climate/energy legislation passed and to the president before the UN meeting in Copenhagen [LINK]. This is no surprise, just an update, and an admission from the administration.

My feelings on this are a little jumbled. My first thought was, 'yeah, we knew that was coming.' After that though, I felt some anger and frustration, first with the Obama administration, and then with the Senate, and then -- and most viscerally -- with the Senate democrats. The administration is trying to get things done, there's no doubt about that. They are having so much difficulty convincing Congress that Americans deserve affordable health care that something has to give, and other massive legislative action is exactly what that something has to be. I can respect that they feel they need to focus their energy, it's just too bad. Which brings me to my feelings about the Democrats in the Senate. Rather than express these feelings, let's just say I have some left-populist rage about these people. Afterall, they now control the Senate with a filibuster-proof majority. That means if they could just agree to do something, they could do it. Instead, they play politics while the world suffers. Ooops, I'm starting to express those feelings I said I wouldn't.

Beyond the anger, though, I am very concerned. From my point of view, dealing with the USA's energy needs and with climate change (which we have all come to accept are intrinsically linked, right?) should be at the top of the agenda. The inertia in the climate system has protected humanity from it's own actions so far, but every day that passes brings parts of the climate system closer to the brink. When will the ocean stop buffering the temperature rise by absorbing CO2? When will acidification start to impact the base of the global food web? At what point will the snow/ice-albedo feedbacks kick in strongly and permanently alter the high latitudes? How will that impact the permafrost, holding it's vast reservoir of methane? I'm deeply concerned that if we don't take more drastic action now, that in the next few decades we will pay for it 10s or 100s of times over. Not just in economic terms, but with the cost of decreased biodiversity (that is, species going extinct) and lives of people lost to famine, disease, and natural disaster. At the same time, if we delay now, will we be pushed to the point of actually implementing some of the drastic geoengineering ideas that have been discussed in the past few years?

Then there is the guilt.... I feel guilty because in these possible consequences, I find that I'm genuinely curious about the outcome. I think we can learn a lot about natural systems by thinking about climate change, and even by really thinking about geoengineering schemes. This the guilt of being a climate scientist. There's also the guilt of being an American; we are most responsible for the climate change we're already committed to, and thus we are most responsible for ameliorating it. Yet we do nothing. We continue, as individuals and as a society, to live a carbon intensive lifestyle, fully knowing that we are poisoning the Earth for future generations. Frankly, I also have guilt as a human, since it is our species among the millions that have existed on Earth for billions of years that has discovered how to exploit the system so fully as to potentially bring it to a grinding halt.

2009-10-01

Blobfish

Okay, nothing really to do with climate change.... yet. But I just learned what a blobfish is. Perhaps one of natures least lovable animals [via Kottke].

2009-09-30

Krugman on climate change legislation

Looking forward to the debate on climate change legislation, Paul Krugman takes the ethical position that action is urgently needed [LINK]. Good for him. Do legitimate commentators have any sway with the public anymore, though? Or are the Glenn Becks of the world now in complete control? [coverage of Beck, the boycott, and Van Jones: 1 2 3 4 5]

2009-09-24

the chemistry of the greenhouse effect

Just a quick mention of an interesting study that I saw today. Three researchers from NASA and Purdue have a paper in the Journal of Physical Chemistry called Identifying the Molecular Origin of Global Warming [LINK]. It was brought to my attention by a news story on NewScientist.com [LINK]. Now based on that title, what would you expect from this paper? The news article doesn't completely make sense to me, perhaps because the writer tries to get so many barely-related things into such a tiny piece. It had me intrigued though, so I went and read the paper.

Before we get to the conclusions of the paper, let's consider what we know about global warming, specifically the greenhouse effect. We know that the most important greenhouse gas in terms of the human impact on climate is carbon dioxide. The way that the greenhouse effect works is that the molecules of carbon dioxide absorb infrared radiation emitted from the Earth's surface. Those molecules then emit infrared radiation at a slightly colder temperature, and they radiate in all directions. This has the effect of storing energy in the system, first by keeping it in molecules (before they radiate it away), and second by radiating back to the atmosphere and surface. So what does this paper have to offer?

The study uses calculations of molecular properties to investigate the greenhouse warming potential of different gases. The GWP of a gas is essentially a measure of how strongly a gas absorbs in the infrared, and how much warming it could cause over a given time in the atmosphere (typically 100 years). The way I've seen it presented, carbon dioxide is given a value of 1, and other gases are then shown compared to carbon dioxide. This study shows that there are a couple of families of molecules that have very large GWP, and presents an argument for how it comes about. The gist seems to be that molecules that have carbon-fluorine or carbon-chlorine bonds are particularly good greenhouse gases. These happen to include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFC) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The warming potential increases strongly with the number of bonds between the F or Cl and the carbon atom. This seems to be because the vibrational modes of the molecules, which are quite pronounced for these bonds, plus the stretch length of these bonds mean that the infrared interaction is within the atmospheric window. If this is all sounding vague and Greek-ish, it's because I don't completely understand all the terminology in the paper. The point is just that F, and to a lesser degree Cl and H, have strong bonds with C in these molecules, and their vibrational modes are in the atmospheric window, meaning they can absorb strongly in the correct band to make a difference to climate.

The major problem with the paper is that these gases are quite rare in the atmosphere, and it is hard to make the case that they are making a significant difference to the climate. The counter to such an argument is that this paper shows the physical mechanism at the molecular level that is responsible for some gases being very good greenhouse gases. It means that you can basically know from the outset whether some gas, perhaps an industrial product of some sort, will be a strong greenhouse gas. It also can serve as an early warning against over-using these gases, since large increases in their production could have consequences for the climate system.

The secondary problem with this paper is the way it seems to be interpreted in that news story (and thus likely others). It's presented almost like it's the first time we've understood what is going on with the greenhouse effect. Of course, that is rubbish, as we've had a good handle on the basics for over a century, and detailed studies of CO2 for decades. The authors don't try play down their results either, which you can tell just from the title. This is not a world-shattering study; it is a nice piece of chemistry that has some application to climate science.

2009-09-22

The cynicism is back, thanks politicians

Well, after yesterday's brief glimmer of hope, I read a similar article in the NYTimes.com [link]. This essentially gets back to the political business as usual methods of blaming everyone else, ignoring compromise as an option, and insisting on some perverse sense of fairness that is totally mistaken. Hooray for arguing about what to do about climate change as the world warms, ice melts, and species die. Hooray.

2009-09-21

Displacing world leaders from their comfort zones

Just read an interesting article about plans for the upcoming UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen [LINK]. Apparently the world leaders in attendance will be stripped of their entourage and be allowed just a single aide. That aide should be their country's environment minister, or equivalent. They will be put into small groups to talk about climate change and its impacts, pairing high-emission countries with those feeling the impacts. They will dine with activists and corporate executives. The idea is to get these leaders out of their political bubbles and force them to think about the effects of climate change in human terms (dare I say in ethical terms?). This seems like a great idea. I wish that the summit were longer, and that this kind of immersion therapy could be extended for several days. Removing the physical and artificial barriers of distance and isolation does wonders for thinking about a topic, and I have some hope that this will spur more urgent action. (Then I'll go back to being cynical when, e.g., the USA congress starts bickering about jobs and fairness and postpones actual action.)

2009-09-20

The Ethics of Climate Change

I recently read a book called The Ethics of Climate Change by James Garvey, who is a philosopher. Rather than go into any details of the book, I just want to recommend it as a fast, interesting read. It probably won't change your perspectives on climate change (well, maybe if you happen to be on the fence about the science), but it will provide a new voice to the conversation about the human response to the changing climate. It was refreshing to have a philosopher's view of climate change instead of the more typical science journalist or occasional scientist. The book also taught be a little bit about moral philosophy, but it isn't too technical or high-minded; in fact, the tone is quite conversational and readable.

What it seems to come down to is that there are ethical reasons for us to take action on climate change. No surprise, I suppose, but the reasoning in this book is slightly more clear and thought-out than we often get from other sources, even if the basic premises are the same. Garvey also points out that "us" means mostly those of us in industrialized countries that have contributed unevenly to the changing climate compared with most of the world, plus it means both governments and individuals. Much of the book is devoted to investigating reasons not to take action, or to delay action, or to distribute the response evenly among everyone (e.g., the USA and Peru both have to make cuts, or the USA won't). In the end, each of these objections is rejected as ethically wrong... that is, there is a right and wrong thing to do, and we (western governments and individuals) have been, and continue to be, doing the wrong thing. The arguments for the biggest polluters sacrificing more are clear; the arguments that delaying action (directly or indirectly) are clear; the reasons for taking immediate, dramatic action are clear. Garvey leaves little wiggle room for opposing views, and he certainly does not apologize for being one-sided. He argues from one perspective, but with solid reasoning. If this were a true debate, then this work would be quite a challenge to the other side, for an opposing viewpoint would have to show an essentially new argument against action, since the current ones are demolished.

2009-09-11

The warming arctic

Over the past week or so, I've noticed a number of articles and posts about the Arctic. There seems to be some kind of ongoing flap about some climate change deniers denying that the extreme north is warming. I have (mostly) avoided reading those original posts because they can't be a good use of time (one example will essentially prove my point). Following each denier rant seems to be a barrage of posts refuting their claims. The good things about these posts are that they more carefully present evidence to support themselves and the reader can actually learn something from them (here's a good example from Tamino). Unfortunately, I don't think these posts help to convince the public of the state of the science, since the public doesn't read them (sorry, but they don't). If a person is willing to dig into the climate change issues enough to read these posts, I think they have already decided what they believe before they get involved (even passively) in these "debates." (They are, of course, not debates at all.)

Another article from the NYTimes.com helps explain why the warming Arctic is an important issue, not just for climate research, but for geopolitical and economic reasons. A commercial ship is about to finish traversing the Northeast Passage from South Korea to the Netherlands. This cuts thousands of miles off the usual trip. If more ships start going this way during the summer, Russia stands to profit because the ships will sail through Russian waters. The path has historically been blocked by ice even in the summer, but as the Arctic has warmed, summer ice has become reduced in area and thickness, and over the past few years the Northeast Passage has been open for a few weeks each year. Similarly the Northwest Passage through Canada's many islands has been open, but so far commercial ships haven't used it yet (they will soon, I would wager). These are impacts of climate change, and unlike most other impacts, these ones could be interpreted as positive for some of the involved parties. Of course, along with these routes opening, the open waters spell doom for the polar bears who have become unwitting symbols of the ecological impacts of a warming world.

On the research side of things, the warming Arctic has long been considered the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Because of strong positive feedbacks associated with snow and ice retreat and atmospheric water vapor, there has emerged a general understanding of the polar regions (especially in the north) as being particularly sensitive. The poles are expected to warm most rapidly, an effect usually called "polar amplification." There is some scientific uncertainty about whether the amplification is observed yet (e.g., this RealClimate post from C. Bitz), but there is strong consensus among researchers that it will emerge from the noise. This view is supported by climate modeling experiments, in which all the reliable models predict an amplified response in the Arctic. From my reading, which is incomplete, this extends to the Antarctic, but only on slightly longer timescales because of the heat transfer into the Souther Ocean.

2009-09-08

Hatoyama says emission cuts are coming, maybe

So Japan's PM says that the country is going to reduce carbon emissions by 2020 to 75% of 1990 emissions [LINK], but is requiring other countries to come along for the ride.

First off, great! It is terrific to see a world leader take a stand and give a real goal... dare I say a target.

Second, this could be a genius move on Hatoyama's part. Japan is pretty amazing when it comes to designing and building stuff, and there is a strong track record of taking ideas/concepts originated elsewhere and making them more useable, streamlined, and efficient (cars, VCRs, etc). So my first take on this is that Japanese companies like Toyota and Mitsubishi ( cf.) are going to have an obvious target for building efficient things (things of all kinds!). These companies already have a head start down this path, and having a huge economy destined to reduce emissions means there is economic incentive to improve R&D.

If these companies, which are already leading the world, now accelerate their R&D, they will be selling their wares to the rest of the world shortly. This will be especially true if Hatoyama gets his way and other countries do vow to reduce emissions. If Japanese companies can do for power generation what they have done for other industries, then the whole world will be buying Honda wind turbines and Sony solar panels in now time. (possible example) What a boost to the Japanese economy! Wish the USA could have thought of that.

2009-08-26

Is peak oil a myth?

An op-ed piece by Michael Lynch in the New York Times suggests that "peak oil theory" is just a myth [LINK]. Really what he's saying is that it is a crazy left-wing conspiracy theory. I wanted to just post some reaction to his op-ed, calling some of his arguments into question. I'm not going to claim he's wrong, just that his arguments are far from persuasive. First, let's also have some disclosure, Michael Lynch is President and Director of Global Petroleum Service, part of Strategic Energy & Economic Research Inc [LINK]. This is a consulting firm, and I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of their clients are oil companies. He's also been associated with other energy policy organizations as well as MIT. I'm not saying he is not credible, I'm sure he's an expert, I'm just saying Lynch is probably as biased as the people he is criticizing.

Lynch dismisses the statement that the "easy oil is gone." This is a common point made by people concerned with peak oil, as Lynch points out. The idea is that 100 years ago, there were oil fields that literally had oil coming out of the surface. Remember the Beverly Hillbillies? Now there aren't such high-pressure fields. Instead of accepting that as true, Lynch says the argument is "vague and irrelevant." He then says that Persian oil drillers 100 years ago wouldn't think that oil was "easy." This is a false analogy. Nobody is saying that the labor of extracting oil was ever easy. The point is about how much energy has to be spent to extract a given amount of oil, which then produces a given amount of energy. It's not easy to quantify, but as I understand the state of oil today, more energy is used to extract oil per unit energy now than it was, say, in the 1950s.

A point made just after the one above revisits the oil crises in 1973 and 1979. Lynch points to predictions from "experts" saying prices would just keep going up. Then they didn't go up. This is supposed to be part of Lynch's op-ed about arguments of political instability playing a part in oil production; he's saying that political instability is nothing new. In my reading of his article, I find that this whole section is really a straw-man argument. He brings it up because, "When their shaky claims on geology are exposed, the peak-oil advocates tend to argue that today’s geopolitical instability needs to be taken into consideration." So he sets up an argument that is not about peak oil just to shoot it down. The question of peak oil is essentially one of geology and technology; geopolitics certainly plays a role in oil production (well, maybe not according to Lynch), but it isn't part of the peak oil theory except that if production ceases in a region, then the peak would be pushed back in time.

Finally, Lynch ends with this:
In the end, perhaps the most misleading claim of the peak-oil advocates is that the earth was endowed with only 2 trillion barrels of “recoverable” oil. Actually, the consensus among geologists is that there are some 10 trillion barrels out there. A century ago, only 10 percent of it was considered recoverable, but improvements in technology should allow us to recover some 35 percent — another 2.5 trillion barrels — in an economically viable way. And this doesn’t even include such potential sources as tar sands, which in time we may be able to efficiently tap.

Well, there's a bit of an appeal to authority here, but I'm not going to claim that there's a real logical fallacy. This might just be a case of presenting (without evidence) a number that differs from the estimates I've seen before. Because there are no sources or evidence presented, it is impossible for the reader to know if this point is true or not. My guess is that there are some large error-bars on that 10 trillion barrel number, and this value is probably at the high end of them. I would hazard to guess that the 2 trillion barrel number is too low (and I have heard that number before), but that 10 trillion barrels is a pretty high estimate. The recoverable part of whatever the true number is the real question. The truth is, though, that at some point the extraction of oil becomes cost ineffective compared to other energy sources. It might be when the oil has to be mined from 5000 feet below the ocean surface or when they have to drill miles into continental bedrock or when tar sands have to be utilized, but there must be a point where the amount of energy going into the extraction of oil is nearly the same as the amount of oil extracted. At that point, there's no need to extract any oil since becomes a zero sum gain. I've always heard the argument that alternative energy sources will become much more cost effective in the run up to the zero sum gain on oil, so we'll probably never reach that extreme.

The bottom line seems to be that there are still disagreements about whether peak oil theory will pan out or not. The oil consultants say no, and a bunch of academics say yes. Hmm, interesting. Like other, strangely similar, "debates," the answer will likely be learned in the next couple of decades. And also like those other issues, by the time we find out the answer, it might already be too late to change course without drastically impacting all of our lives.

2009-08-23

Tamino on methane release from sea floor

One of the scariest blog posts I've ever read: Tamino's Open Mind. I haven't been following these developments on possible evidence for methane clathrate instability, but clearly I should be, and we all should be.

2009-08-20

Acid rain, a blast from the past like hearing an MC Hammer song

I just read, and quite enjoyed, a Slate article by Nina Shen Rastogi looking back at the acid rain problems of the 1980s [LINK]. She brings up a good point about the public awareness campaigns; I remember well many cartoons and kids shows mentioning and vilifying acid rain. I'm not sure that is happening now with global warming, but maybe it should be if it isn't. Anyway, the review also brings up two other good points. First, enacting acid rain mitigation strategies through federal legislation (e.g., the Clean Air Act of 1990) has dramatically reduced emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide from power plants and factories, leading to an improvement in the pH (i.e., acidity) of rain across the northeast USA and eastern Canada. The point being that these strategies are proven to be successful. Second, acid rain hasn't actually gone away, and it's still a hazard in some areas in the USA and Canada. Worse yet, industrializing nations such as China and India haven't gone through the cycle of discovering they are poisoning themselves, figuring out a way to fix it, and enacting the strategy. These countries could face serious environmental and infrastructure harm if they don't preempt emissions of acid rain precursors.

All of this sounds so much like issues involved with carbon dioxide and climate change that it's eerie, huh? I guess the disappointing thing is that there's still so much hesitation and resistance to doing something about these environmental issues in our culture. We've got clear examples of success, like the ozone hole and acid rain, where science described the mechanisms and suggested the causes, and mitigation strategies were adopted, and environmental catastrophe was avoided (or at least averted). It makes me wonder if past success has lulled us all into a false sense of confidence.... you can finish this disturbing thought.

2009-08-17

Hectic summers and big monies

The dearth of posts the last week or so has been because of a ramp-up of activity around here, including giving talks, traveling and buying a house. Speaking of which, don't forget to click those adverts!

Anyway, I'm still trying to get caught up on things, and haven't stumbled on anything all that blog-worthy. However, I just remembered that I had found some interesting numbers that I'm happy to share. The question is, how much research money is really available for climate research? And how does that compare to money for other things, other science topics and completely different endeavors?

Well, I can't answer completely, but we can start putting some things in perspective. First off, let's just restrict our attention to the United States, which isn't fair, but let's do it anyway. What is the total annual budget for the USA? According to the USA Office of Budget and Management, the typical fiscal year has about 2.8 TRILLION DOLLARS of spending. Unfortunately for the USA, it only has around 2.5 Trillion of income (the difference each year is the national deficit) [LINK]. Amazingly, the deficit is 1-2% of the gross national product. Just under half of the total budget is allocated in "discretionary spending," which I think means that Congress gets to dole it out more or less as it sees fit (and the president approves it). More than half of the discretionary spending goes to "security;" which means that about 25% of the total budget, somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 BILLION goes to security. That's a spicy meatball! About $400 billion goes to everything else; yes, I know these numbers are rough, that's why I am supplying the link for you to go take a look yourself. Let me know if I'm totally misinterpreting something.

Of the remaining $400 billion, we can start to see how it gets distributed by looking at which departments get a piece of the pie. It looks like Health and Human Services and Education are the biggest beneficiaries of this money, getting about $70 and $55 billion respectively. The National Institutes of Health is mainly funded through the Dept of Health and Human Services, and is able to dole out about $30 billion annually [LINK]. Moving into physical sciences, much more of the research comes through the Dept of Energy, NASA, the Dept of Commerce, and the National Science Foundation, with lesser contributions from other departments (e.g., $1billion to all of USGS through Dept of Interior).

The total budgets for those organizations are roughly $24billion for DoE, $6billion for DoC, $16billion for NASA, and $6billion for NSF. The first three all have significant non-research allocations, while the NSF is the dominant source of funding for all basic science research in the USA.

Let's say that somehow if we were combing through the budget, we could take that NSF money and double it from other agencies. That gives around $12 BILLION for basic physical sciences (excluding biology/medicine money from NIH). That is about 2% of the USA's annual defense budget, and LESS THAN 1/10th of 1% of the USA GDP. Isn't that shocking?!

So I can't tell you how much of that is available for climate-related research, but bear in mind that that money covers most of physics, chemistry, mathematics, geology, astronomy, and a lot of engineering research in the USA, along with quite a lot of biological sciences, climate, and multidisciplinary science. The bottom line is that science in general is a drop in the proverbial bucket, and funding for climate research is a tiny fraction of that drop.

We're throwing around some crazy numbers here. How about comparing against some non-governmental values? The annual payroll for the National Football League teams this year is hovering around $3billion [LINK]. Football players are getting paid half as much as the entire NSF. There are 53 players per team on the 32 NFL teams, giving 1696 players getting paid $3,000,000,000. There are somewhere around 250,000 scientists and engineers employed just at research universities in the USA; this includes non-physical scientists, but doesn't include government labs [LINK].

Just as another number to compare with, USA and Canada citizens spend about $8-9 billion per year in cinema tickets [LINK]. Full a third more than the entire NSF budget.

2009-08-05

Nissan Leaf

I've never really wanted a Nissan before, but this looks pretty sweet: the Nissan Leaf, an all-electric hatchback.

[News]

2009-08-04

El Nino 2009/2010... waiting and watching

I am finally giving in and starting what I'm sure will become a series of updates on the emerging warm-phase of the ENSO phenomenon, namely El Nino. It's becoming pretty apparent that the tropical eastern Pacific is anomalously warm, and is likely to stay that way for the next year or so [LINK]. At this point, what we can say is that the indices that are used operationally to define and track El Nino point toward a moderate to strong El Nino, but their nature is difficult to predict. You can see the development of warm anomalies of 1-2 degrees Celsius along the equator and stretching from South America into the central Pacific Ocean at the CPC page. This is the major symptom of El Nino. The impacts are not completely understood, but the slackening of the trade-winds and shift in northern hemisphere jetstream are normal. These changes tend to increase wind shear over the tropical Atlantic, which reduces the number of Atlantic hurricanes (note there haven't been any yet this year). It's also expected to make the winter of 2009/2010 mild across much of the northern hemisphere, which might lead to 2010 being a record warm year in the global average.

I'm sure we'll revisit the topic frequently in the coming months, including some review of important aspects of ENSO, and maybe some debunking of ENSO myths (e.g., increased rainfall in Southern California?).

2009-08-02

The funny guy makes a good point

Here is Dara O'Brian saying things more convincingly than most more serious folks:



This video was drawn to my attention by Phil Plait's blog.

2009-08-01

The Indian problem

I was just reading a Grist article about India wanting a global agreement on combatting climate change, while at the same time opposing binding emissions limits [LINK]. This has been, and I think will remain, a key issue for international agreements and negotiations concerning climate change. India and China have a couple of billion people, many of whom live in abject poverty. Both countries are making long strides in their development, becoming global powerhouses in terms of manufacturing and providing low-cost services to the "developed world." In this dash to bring the standard of living in China and India into alignment with the developed countries, the fossil-fuel use in these nations has increased tremendously. Of course, at the same time most Indians still burn biomass for cooking and heating [LINK, see also video].

So on the face of it, this seems to be a dilemma. India and China want to lift their populations out of poverty, expand their economies, and become global leaders. Doing this requires dramatic increases in infrastructure, and includes expanding electricity and water resources. The apparent consequence is increased carbon emissions. So, from the perspective of these developing nations, to improve the standard of living for their populations requires intensive use of fossil fuels and increased emissions, and from their perspective it's not fair that just when they are making progress the "West" tells them that they can't use the cheap (and dirty) energy that will accelerate their endeavors. From the outsider's point of view, though, ramping up the carbon emissions is bad for the whole world.

The only solution that I see to this dilemma is actually exactly what India says it doesn't want: binding emissions restrictions. Such restrictions could be quite complicated in their details, but the point is to prevent the infrastructure in developing nations from building in a dependence on fossil fuels. The world's developed nations are now addicted to fossil fuel, and it is obvious that this has become an impediment to combatting climate change. Introducing the same addiction for another 30% of the world's population doesn't seem useful. Instead, by introducing binding emissions cuts for everyone (and that is key!), the developing nations will be able to practically leap-frog the fossil-fuel phase that the west has been stuck in for a century. It'll be cost efficient, too, since all the western nations are transitioning away from fossil fuels, driving the prices of renewable energy technology down. So while all the developing nations are spending gads of money to deconstruct their antiquated systems while building up entirely new infrastructure for a low-carbon future, India and China should be able to simply begin with renewable systems (for much of their countries at least). This strategy would actually accelerate China and India's progress in catching up with developed countries because they'd avoid what will undoubtedly be a painful transition away from fossil fuels, while pioneering the large-scale use of renewable energy technologies.

Of course, this has all been about energy and money. There are a host of issues related to the impacts of climate change that will disproportionately hurt developing nations, so avoiding those impacts should be a very high priority for those countries. Maybe we should review some of those issues in a future post.


2009-07-31

Short german video

Below find a nice short film about fossil-fuel based life. It's in German (w/English subtitles), and focuses on a German audience. Is there an equivalent film for the US?

2009-07-26

Should we prepare for the singularity?

The singularity is the hypothesized moment when artificial intelligence becomes as intelligent as humans. At that point, machines might have the ability to decide to make smarter machines, which will make smarter machines, ad infinitum, relegating humans to a subservient role in society. Another view of the singularity is that it will free humanity from the shackles of the material world, allowing unimaginable lifespan and freedom to think, create, and explore. A NYTimes.com article covers a meeting of computer scientists who are starting to wonder whether limits on artificial intelligence research should be imposed [LINK].

The article makes it seem as though these scientists are concerned with current, or near-future, technologies that could disrupt society. It cites a few recent advances, especially pushing this empathy simulating robot. From my reading, none of these technologies seems very threatening, and most have much more potential for good than harm.

Thinking farther into the future, to a time when the singularity is imminent, these concerns become very relevant. I suspect the scientists are more interested in dealing with ethical issues now that will help decision making then. The fact of the matter is that the singularity, in one form or another, is imminent, and so some thought about what it means is important. Regulating research seems like a wrong-headed direction to me though, because that will mean that the singularity will sneak up on us. Everyone will be pushing their science to bump around the edges of the rules, and suddenly that surface beyond which lies advanced artificial intelligence will be gone, disintegrated, and humanity won't be properly prepared because everyone promised they weren't going to go past that boundary.

Don't get me wrong, even at the moment of the singularity, I don't think it means machines will start taking over. Simply having the capacity to be more intelligent than humans doesn't mean those initial machines will be successful at autonomous thought and decision-making... i.e., they won't really be conscious. Rather, those intelligent machines will be in increment in the machine-human interaction that will, I hope, push the boundaries of the human experience. There are possibilities to extend lifespan, expand thought capacity, stimulate creativity, and boost productivity. These are the promises of intelligent machines, but so were they the promises of digital computers and nano-bots, so we can't rely on it happening. We still don't have flying cars and jet-packs, and we still don't have nanotechnology that repairs roads and buildings or constructs moon bases for us, nor do we know whether a simulation of the human brain pushes artificial intelligence to a new level, or if very advanced computing technology will be able to interact with biological systems in any interesting ways [cf. LINK]. Despite my hope for the coming singularity, it is far from certain that we'll know when it happens or what it means, and it is unlikely, with any amount of planning, that we'll know what to do when that day comes to make the most of the technology.