Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Vancouver Winter Olympics: A climatic photo essay

Welcome to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Spring Olympics. These photos were all taken by yours truly this week. Enjoy the cherry blossoms and crocuses, courtesy of our changing friend El Nino.


Monday, February 08, 2010

Groundhog Day: six more weeks of climate change debates?

Thank you for sticking with Maribo during the unannounced hiatus over the past seven weeks or so.

This blog started a few years back as an effort to reach people who were not otherwise actively reading or thinking about climate change. I'd imagined the audience as people like the old friends and family that don't follow the climate news but do pepper me with questions about the state of the science or the politics whenever I'm visiting. Over time, Maribo, like most other climate-focused blogs became enveloped in the online game of whack-a-mole between the 20% of the internet-savvy population that is actively concerned about climate change and angry about the lack of action, and another 20% who see climate change as conspiracy cooked up by Al Gore. The battles may be necessary to stamp out the egregious mistakes and misrepresentations that permeate the internet and the daily news (*). The battles are also tiresome.

I'd like to get back to thinking about the other 60% of the population. I've been working on new ideas and venues for outreach which may involve a re-imagining of Maribo and/or a venture into other media. Keep checking Maribo for updates and feel free to send along ideas and suggestions.



* The mistakes and misrepresentations, I should add, can come from the "skeptics" and the irrational "alarmists" among the climate change activists; human-created emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the planet, despite what the "skeptics" might say, but it is not going to drive us to extinction, as I hear far too often.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2C or not 2C: Copenhagen and global temperature threshold (Part II)

In the previous post, we discussed the origin of the 2 deg C threshold for dangerous impacts of climate change.

An example is happening at Copenhagen. The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Caribbean nations are lobbying for establishing a warming limit of 1.5 C rather than 2C. The real-world value of setting a temperature threshold notwithstanding, the AOSIS position demonstrates that the acceptable limit of warming is a value judgment based on scientific results rather than an immutable law of nature.

Why 1.5 degrees C, rather than 2C? The argument is based on the effect that sea level rise (and storm surge height) and coral reef degradation from bleaching and acidification would have on the economy and society.


Monday, December 14, 2009

2C or not 2C: Copenhagen and global temperature threshold (Part 1)

Media coverage of climate change often gives the impression the world’s scientific community all met and firmly established that the warming beyond +2 degrees C is dangerous to the future of society.

The planet does not have one clear "dangerous" temperature threshold. Two things needs to be explained clearly. First, the definition of dangerous climate change or unacceptable climate change is a normative choice. That choice could be based on analyses of scientific results but it is not a direct outcome of the science. Second, even if society could agree on one definition of "dangerous", climate science could not possibly produce one exact temperature threshold (e.g. 2 deg C), rather a frequency distribution of possible values. Besides, if climate science could produce an exact number, it would be an amazing coincidence that the number turned out to be an integer.

The precise evolution of 2 degC towards its exalted status in the media is a bit of a mystery to me – I’m sure some of the readers have followed these developments in more detail, and their comments on the subject are welcome. It more or less began with efforts by scientists to define climate change impacts that could be construed as dangerous under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The common list of "dangerous" is the loss of major ice sheets, slowing of the thermohaline circulation, drops in food production, triggering a positive feedback like the release of methane from clathrates in ocean sediments, or loss of a major ecosystem like coral reefs.

Researchers tend to focus on physical and seemingly non-linear impacts like ice sheet melt rather than biological and gradual impacts like drops in food production or drops in biodiversity. True, there’s no ethical or scientific reason we should value sea level more than biodiversity or food production. In terms of policy, however, it is a more useful metric because we’re more likely to agree on whether losing the Greenland ice sheet is dangerous than what percent change in crop yields or biodiversity is dangerous. As well, future food production is fraught with technological, demographic and ethical uncertainties – although one could certainly argue the same is true for sea level.

Science can provide guidance for decision makers by projecting the impacts of different levels of warming, albeit with error bars. Beyond 2 deg C, paleo-climate results suggest possible long-term melting of the Greenland and /or West Antarctic Ice Sheets; studies have also pointed to the potential methane feedbacks and the degradation of the world’s coral reefs occurring at around 2 C.

But science alone cannot declare the "right" policy decision. Even such seemingly black-and-white definitions of dangerous like the loss of coral reefs or major ice sheets involve a normative judgment. Much of the world, for example, may decide that the productivity of coral reefs is acceptable collateral damage – it’s certainly possible that we’ve already inadvertently chosen that path. Although my colleagues and I who study the value of coral reefs to tropical cultures are likely to seriously disagree with such a decision to allow harmful impacts to reefs, we recognize (at least I do) that there is no immutable right or wrong policy decision that can emerge purely from our scientific results. Policy decisions need to consider real-world trade-offs that are often ignored by scientific analysis.

In sum, the oft-cited line that 2 degrees C is “what scientists conclude the world needs to avoid” is inaccurate. For one, the scientists disagree (Part II, coming soon). Moreover, though many of us may wish otherwise, the threshold can and should not emerge solely from science.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Turning down the volume (re-post)

This post from five months ago seems more apropos at this time:

While I was doing field work in Kiribati a few weeks ago, I started reading Voltaire’s Bastards, the 1992 polemic by Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul about the failure of reason in western society. You know, some light reading for the beach.

Saul steps back from the sniping between right and left to ask whether our deference to reason and structure has created an unthinking, technocratic society. It’s amazing this book was written before the internet transformed communications and before politics became a marketing exercise. This quote, speaking about how things of changed since the time of John Locke, could be talking about the inanity of the online debates between climate skeptics:

Facts at that time were such rare nuggets that no one realized how they would multiply. Everyone believed them to be solid and inanimate – to be true fact. No one yet understood that life would become an uncomfortable, endless walk down a seashore laid thick with facts of all sizes and shapes. Boulders, pebbles, shards, perfect ovals. No one had begun to imagine that these facts were without any order, impose or natural – that facts were as meaningful as raw vocabulary without grammar or sentences. A man could pick up any fact he wished and fling it into the sea and make it skip. A practiced, talented arm could make it skip three, perhaps four times, while a lesser limb might make a single plunk with the same concrete proof of some truth or other. Another man might build with these facts some sort of fortress on the shore.

As for Locke, he certainly did not think that facts would rapidly become the weapons, not only of good men but of evil mean, not only of truth but of lies.

Gavin Schmidt over at Real Climate has a terrific post about the repetitive spiral of blogging. In his case, the subject is debunking the climate skeptics. The basic conceit could apply to blogging as a whole. The popular politic blogs suffer from a more severe case of this affliction, rehashing the same issues over and over again, creating an urgency that often does not exist in reality.


Thanks to technology, anyone armed with either a few good sound-bites or an important sounding title can become an expert these days (link to IPCC “expert reviewer”). We end up with these shouting matches, on air and online, with both sides throwing out numbers and figures without any real context. The good lines, sound-bite or video clip enter the echo-chamber and get repeated, cited or linked over and over again. And voila, the steadily increasing ratio of commentary to original research and reporting.

This craziness is why we should appreciate institutions like the IPCC. With this all war of context-free facts, figures and soundbites being fought 24 hours a day, 365.25 days a year, sound summaries of the actual original research are more necessary than ever.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The path of climate science and the dissenting views

A scientific finding is not necessarily correct just because it appears in the peer-reviewed literature. There are a number of reasons. For one, not all journals are created equal. Some have less stringent review process. Some are more willing to accept papers from outside the editorial board's field of expertise or mandate. It's also important to remember that our scientific knowledge develops over time through trial and error via experiments done in the field, in the lab and on computers. Any one paper, no matter the author, no matter the journal, is not the law on a subject.

The trajectory of the publications and accumulated knowledge on a subject is going to be a better measure of scientific knowledge than the existence of one contrary publication, much like the multi-decadal temperature trends is a better indicator of what's happening to the climate than one year's weather.

A news story, I won't bother to link to the story, cited this list of "450 peer-reviewed papers supported skepticism of man-made global warming".

There are a few publications in well-respected scientific journals on the list. The large majority of those do not actually question the role of human activity in climate, rather point to complexity of climate change or the policy options(e.g. Zeebe et al. 2009 in Nature Geoscience). A large number are published editorials that do not actually contain any science. Many are from Energy and the Environment, a journal which advertises for papers skeptical of climate change, or Climate Research, where editors resigned because of a breakdown in the peer review process. And there are also papers from "Irrigation and Drainage", "Bulletin of Canadian Petroleum Geology", "Latvian Journal of Physics and Technical Sciences", "New Concepts in Plate Tectonics", "Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons", "Iron and Steel Technology" and "The Electricity Journal".

The list is being used to claim that there is widespread disagreement among scientists disagree about climate change. It is actually evidence for the exact opposite. Even if you included all 450 papers as relevant, critical analyses of the evidence for human influence on the climate, they would represent a minute fraction of the papers published on climate change in the past thirty years. In that way, it is evidence that the accumulated knowledge has led in another direction.

There's also a more common sense way to think about this list. If there really was so much disagreement about climate change in the scientific community, would the people who compiled this list needed to have included the articles from "Iron and Steel Technology" and "Topics in Catalysis"?


Monday, December 07, 2009

One reason the US climate bill will pass

Today the US EPA announced its intention to pursue regulations on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Don't overlook this development. The only thing that carbon-intensive industries and senators from carbon-intensive states hate more than the US climate bill would be the EPA regulating carbon dioxide.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Climategate positive feedback loop

I've avoided writing about "climategate" because of the artificial nature of the "scandal".

There is certainly a need to reduce tribalism in the scientific community (not just climate science!), improve peer review and improve the assessment process - I'll cheer those initiatives with enthusiasm.

That's not why the hackers released those emails were released online. The timing of the online publication of those e-mails were no fluke. The goal was to create a grand diversion from the important policy issues of the day. From the Times of London:

The computer was hacked repeatedly, the source close to the investigation said: “It was hacked into in October and possibly earlier. Then they gained access again in mid-November.” By not releasing the e-mails until two weeks before Copenhagen, the hacker ensured that the debate about them would rage during the summit. Very few of the e-mails are recent. One, in which Professor Jones mentions a “trick” which could “hide the decline” in temperatures, was sent in 1999.

Bob Ward, director of policy at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, based at the London School of Economics, said: “From the timing of the release of the e-mails, it seems that the intention was not just to inform the public but to undermine mainstream climate researchers and influence the process in Copenhagen.”

Many scientists are now offering eloquent public explanations for the problems with some scientific practice and the assessment process. Terrific, but only in the abstract.

The problem is the impression given by a public blood letting. Climate scientists, people who trained in the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere, realize that regardless of issues with how some scientists conduct and publicize their work, all the basic concepts are still solid. That's not true for everyone else. So by constantly questioning scientific practice in public forums, it gives people the mistaken impressions there is dissension about the basic concepts, no matter how many caveats are then offered about strength of our understanding of the basic concepts (caveats just make it look like you're dodging the truth!). Good intentions aside, it is fueling public misconceptions about science and feeding the 24-7 scandal machine.

Perhaps the hackers understand climate dynamics better than we assume; they sure knew how to initiate a positive feedback.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Huge disparity in emissions targets within Canada

If Canadians want an illustration of the disagreement on climate policy within the provinces, or foreigners want to know why Canada has become an obstacle to an international or even continental climate accord, look no further than this graph. Plotted is each the 2020 greenhouse gas emissions targets set in the individual climate policy of each promise, all translated to % change from 1990 levels. Kudos to the Globe and Mail for presenting the data this morning with the same base year.

Basically, the hydro-based and manufacturing-based provinces (the east and BC) are willing to be aggressive in reducing emissions and the more resource-intensive provinces are either reticent (Saskatchewan) or downright hostile (Alberta). 

The objective of post is not to dump on Alberta or the oil industry, rather to point out just how large the disagreement is within Canada. The huge disparity between the Alberta policy and that of all the other provinces does raise the question about what it is realistic for Canada. If, say, Alberta refuses to budge on its oil expansion and emissions plan, could neighbouring BC even come close to its reduction target? Keep in mind, a substantial quantity of the planned oil extraction may end up being piped across and refined in BC in order to be shipped to Asia.


Monday, November 30, 2009

China's emissions pledge depends entirely on economic growth

Last week, China announced that it will reduce carbon "intensity" by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by the year 2020. The emissions intensity (emissions/$GDP) approach taken by the Canada and the US in the past has been much maligned here as a dishonest dodge.

First, it looks like a reduction in actual emissions until you realize that the denominator (GDP) generally increases over time. Second, it tends to naturally decrease over time as countries switch to more efficient energy production [and overall economic production].

It is, however, a reasonably fair way to bring a reluctant developing nation like China into an international emissions control framework. The problem of course is that actual emissions target depends entirely on how much the Chinese economy grows by 2020. So 40-45% sounds impressive, but won't amount to an actual reduction in emissions.

The graph above shows a spectrum of possibilities. Unless the growth rate is less than ~4%/year - highly unlikely - Chinese carbon emissions will be higher in 2020 than 2005. If China keeps up the planned 8%/year growth, emissions in 2020 will be 74-90% higher than 2005 levels.

And, just like in the US and Canada cases, Chinese emissions intensity will naturally decrease over time without any policy intervention. It decreased 10% from 2000 to 2005, and well over 40% from 1990 to 2005.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Skeptics aren't necessarily in it for the money either

A number of us like to joke about the ridiculous contention that climate scientists are in it for the money. It is worth noting that the critics of climate science are not necessarily in it for the dough either.

There appears to be this mistaken assumption that the few scientists who are skeptical of climate change science are doing so because the coal or oil industry wrote them such a big cheque (Canuck sp.) that they chose to abandon their previous understanding of climate science. It's not that simple. In most cases, the scientists who are influential climate skeptics were so well before receiving money from the fossil fuel lobby. The funding came to them because they were already making the argument for other reasons, usually political ideology and/or a horribly shortsighted faith in simple models*.

A great example is Myanna Lahsen's 2008 article on the three physicists from the George Marshall Institute that more or less founded climate change skepticism (hat tip to Eli):

By contrast to common suggestions, these scientists’ motivation is not fundamentally rooted in desires for financial gain. Being past retirement age and no longer active scientists, their fight for basic science, for instance, does not benefit them individually. And it is hard to believe that, upon retirement, these physicists would jeopardize their cherished professional images for mere financial gain.

Climate change "activists" make a huge mistake assuming that their opposition are only in it for the cash. There is real ideology at work. As I've argued before and will again, it's worth thinking about what motivates people the "other side". That may be the only way we'll ever find workable solutions to this mess.

* e.g. like arguing that since CO2 "only" changed from 0.028% to 0.038% of the lower atmosphere, it couldn't possible alter the climate, and thus ignoring all of radiative science


US to pledge emissions cut in Copenhagen

It's a step. Not a great leap for mankind; there is no teeth behind a emissions promise without legislation and an action plan to back it up. But a step nonetheless.

Mr. Obama will tell the delegates to the climate conference that the United States intends to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions “in the range of” 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, officials said. The administration has resisted until now delivering a firm pledge on emissions reductions because Congress has not yet acted on global warming legislation and because several large developing nations, including China and India, have not detailed their own plans. (NY Times)

Lots of people will undoubtedly now take credit for Obama's promise to attend the meeting.

Mr. Obama... had been under considerable pressure from other world leaders and environmental advocates to make the trip as a statement of American seriousness about the climate change negotiations.

Right, must have been all that pressure from environmental advocates. And the band had not planned on doing that encore either.


Monday, November 23, 2009

The "CRU hack" and the deplorable state of reporting and blogging

This episode is a sad sad sad comment on the state of blogging and news reporting. Three reasons.

First, for legal reasons, I'd like to think that no news organization should be allowed to report on the content of that mail. This is the equivalent of someone breaking into your mailbox in front of your house, opening your mail, then publishing it. Seriously, how would you feel if the NY Times wrote about a private letter you mailed to a colleague or friend being stolen and tacked to lampposts all over town? Would you sue? Do you think it should be admissible in court? Is the lesson here that we can never consider e-mail or any communication to be private so we should go back to using the postal service?

Second, even if you ignore the legality, there's ample reason to consider the contents of the mail with caution. It is private communication so people for whom that communication were not intended are not qualified to interpret that communication. I barely am able to follow some messages that I receive without looking over past correspondence for context. So, no, I will not defend anything that the scientists wrote. Nor will I condemn any of it either. For one reason: I have no idea what exactly those words meant. Neither do you. Every single thing in those messages could be misinterpreted because we are missing the context.

Finally, even if you ignore the legality, and ignore the lack of context, this episode is full of the same "post first, ask questions later" approach that usually destroys whatever good the blogosphere might accomplish. The vast majority of the bloggers, reporters and comment-ers are reacting to snippets pulled out private conversations, and done so by people whose objective is to question climate science. Stop it.

This episode is not a window into how climate science works. It's a window into how electronic communication has altered our standards and the way we work. Nobody looks good here. We should all be embarrassed.

This is the last you'll hear of it on Maribo.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Public confusion about scientific consensus

The Globe and Mail reports that a new poll from Hoggan & Associates found Canadians are embarrassed over the lack of Canadian action on climate change. Now it is possible that readers will dismiss that finding because the pollsters are connected with a number of environmental organization (an observation, not a judgment), but I encourage people to think about the following:

There was also strong support for the view that “most scientists agree that human activity is the primary cause of climate change,” a position held by 62 per cent of the public, compared to the 38 per cent who felt there was “still much debate” among researchers.

The key "accomplishment" of the movement to question the science of climate change is seeding doubt among the public. There is widespread agreement that human activity is causing climate change among scientists who actually study the issue. But poll the public on whether scientists agree and you get a different answer.

The results at right, which I've used to spur discussion in class, are from work in the U.S. by Jon Krosnick at Stanford University, who has done some terrific research on public perceptions of climate change.

The irony is that many of the people being polled think climate change is happening and caused by humans, yet also think scientists are not sure. This clear contradiction - people learned of climate change from scientists, after all - shows just how effective the lobbying and disinformation campaigns have been.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Narnia plans to reduce emissions by 30% by the year 2020

As we head towards Copenhagen, there will be endless comparison of proposed emission targets.  For example, from the NY Times:

This week, South Korea said it would cut emissions by 30 percent from “business as usual” by 2020. Russia’s president said his country would try to reduce emissions by 25 percent by then, instead of 15 percent as announced earlier. Last week, Brazil promised reductions of about 40 percent below current projections by 2020.

Ah, fractions.

The Narnians and reporters everywhere need to do a bit of math. 30% of what? The simple climate policy public relations trick is to emphasize the percent reduction and de-emphasize the year from which that percent is being calculated. Narnia's 30% could be a reduction from emissions during the Kyoto base year of 1990. It could use the present as the base year. Or it could be a reduction from the business-as-usual projection for the year 2020.

This excerpt about S Korea, Russia and Brazil tells us very little about the actual emissions policy. Russia's emissions are lower than they were in 1990, before the collapse of the Soviet Union [and its greenhouse gas emissions], so it still uses the 1990 baseline. The 25% is not as much a change from today as it sounds. For South Korea and Brazilian, we'd need to know what  "current projections" and "business as usual" are to understand their targets. In both countries, the projections being used are higher than what the countries actually expect would happen.  So the proposed decrease, while laudable, is not as big as it sounds.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Visit a warmer Canada?

This is a joke, right?


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

US-China cooperation on climate and, er, coal

The US and China have released a joint statement on a number of issues, including "Climate Change, Energy and the Environment". After the standard political jargon about the need for full co-operation in global agreements, comes some specifics:

The two sides welcomed the launch of a U.S.-China Electric Vehicles Initiative designed to put millions of electric vehicles on the roads of both countries in the years ahead. Building on significant investments in electric vehicles in both the United States and China, the two governments announced a program of joint demonstration projects in more than a dozen cities, along with work to develop common technical standards to facilitate rapid scale-up of the industry.  The two sides agreed that their countries share a strong common interest in the rapid deployment of clean vehicles.

This is terrific climate change initiative if the source of electricity is substantially less carbon-intensive than oil. It is a tad worrisome coming from the two countries with the largest coal reserves on the planet. Which leads into the next item in the statement:

The two sides strongly welcomed work in both countries to promote 21st century coal technologies. They agreed to promote cooperation on large-scale carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) demonstration projects and to begin work immediately on the development, deployment, diffusion, and transfer of CCS technology.  The two sides welcomed recent agreements between Chinese and U.S. companies, universities, and research institutions to cooperate on CCS and more efficient coal technologies.

This is followed by a paragraph about partnership on renewable energy ("wind, solar, advanced bio-fuels, and a modern electric power grid"). The order is not a fluke. Read through the statement, and it is appears that both countries expect coal to remain king, and that emissions reductions will depend on the development and widespread implementation of CCS technology at coal-fired power plants. No surprise, I suppose.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

World Leaders Agree to Delay Climate Change Deal

This news comes from the APEC summit in Singapore. NY Times:

SINGAPORE — President Obama and other world leaders have decided to put off the difficult task of reaching climate change agreement at a global climate conference scheduled for next month, agreeing instead to make it the mission of the Copenhagen conference to reach a less specific “politically binding” agreement that would punt the most difficult issues into the future.

The announcement is a simple dose of reality: there simply was not enough time left to reach a deal at Copenhagen. It'll be universally reported as "bad" news for the climate. Maybe yes. The flip side is that perhaps now that the artificial December deadline is removed, the key countries can engage in intelligent policy conversations. The "Copenhagen" or bust mentality was not helping anyone.