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Archive for the ‘Mitigation and Policy’ Category

You may have already heard that carbon dioxide concentrations have surpassed 400 ppm. The most famous monitoring station, Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, reached this value on May 9th. Due to the seasonal cycle, CO2 levels began to decline almost immediately thereafter, but next year they will easily blow past 400 ppm.

Of course, this milestone is largely arbitrary. There’s nothing inherently special about 400 ppm. But it’s a good reminder that while we were arguing about taxation, CO2 levels continued to quietly tick up and up.


In happier news, John Cook and others have just published the most exhaustive survey of the peer-reviewed climate literature to date. Read the paper here (open access), and a detailed but accessible summary here. Unsurprisingly, they found the same 97% consensus that has come up over and over again.

Cook et al read the abstracts of nearly 12 000 papers published between 1991 and 2011 – every single hit from the ISI Web of Science with the keywords “global climate change” or “global warming”. Several different people categorized each abstract, and the authors were contacted whenever possible to categorize their own papers. Using several different methods like this makes the results more reliable.

Around two-thirds of the studies, particularly the more recent ones, didn’t mention the cause of climate change. This is unsurprising, since human-caused warming has been common knowledge in the field for years. Similarly, seismology papers don’t usually mention that plate tectonics cause earthquakes, particularly in the abstracts where space is limited.

Among the papers which did express a position, 97.1% said climate change was human-caused. Again, unsurprising to anyone working in the field, but it’s news to many members of the public. The study has been widely covered in the mainstream media – everywhere from The Guardian to The Australian – and even President Obama’s Twitter feed.


Congratulations are also due to Andrew Weaver, my supervisor from last summer, who has just been elected to the British Columbia provincial legislature. He is not only the first-ever Green Party MLA in BC’s history, but also (as far as I know) the first-ever climate scientist to hold public office.

Governments the world over are sorely in need of officials who actually understand the problem of climate change. Nobody fits this description better than Andrew, and I think he is going to be great. The large margin by which he won also indicates that public support for climate action is perhaps higher than we thought.


Finally, my second publication came out this week in Climate of the Past. It describes an EMIC intercomparison project the UVic lab conducted for the next IPCC report, which I helped out with while I was there. The project was so large that we split the results into two papers (the second of which is in press in Journal of Climate). This paper covers the historical experiments – comparing model results from 850-2005 to observations and proxy reconstructions – as well as some idealized experiments designed to measure metrics such as climate sensitivity, transient climate response, and carbon cycle feedbacks.

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The term “fossil fuels” is a very large umbrella. Coal, oil, and natural gas are the usual distinctions, but there’s also unconventional oil (such as the Alberta tar sands) and unconventional gas (such as shale gas from fracking). “Unconventional” means that the fuel is produced in a roundabout way that’s less efficient and takes more energy than regular fuel. For example, oil in northern Alberta is mixed with sand and tar that’s difficult to remove. As global supplies of conventional oil and gas decline, unconventional fuels are making up a growing segment of the petroleum market.

The different types of fossil fuels are present in different amounts in the ground. Also, for each unit of energy we get from burning them, they will release different amounts of carbon emissions. Given these variables, here’s an interesting question: how much global warming would each type of fuel cause if we burned every last bit of it?

A few weeks ago, a new study addressed this question in one of the world’s top scientific journals. Neil Swart, a Ph.D. student from the University of Victoria, as well as his supervisor Andrew Weaver, one of Canada’s top climate scientists, used existing data to quantify the warming potential for each kind of fossil fuel. Observations show the relationship between carbon emissions and temperature change to be approximately linear, so they didn’t need to use a climate model – a back-of-the-envelope calculation was sufficient. Also, since both of the authors are Canadian, they were particularly interested in how burning the Alberta tar sands would contribute to global warming.

Swart and Weaver calculated that, if we burned every last drop of the tar sands, the planet would warm by about 0.36°C. This is about half of the warming that’s been observed so far. If we only burned the parts of the tar sands proven to be economically viable, that number drops to 0.03°C. If we don’t expand drilling any further, and stick to the wells that already exist, the world would only warm by 0.01°C, which is virtually undetectable.

Conventional oil and natural gas would each cause similarly small amounts of warming, if the respective global supplies were burned completely. Unconventional natural gas would cause several times more warming – even though it’s cleaner-burning than coal and oil, there’s a lot of it in the ground.

The real game-changer, though, is coal. If we burned all the coal in the ground, the world would warm by a staggering 15°C. There’s a large uncertainty range around this number, though, because the linear relationship between carbon emissions and temperature change breaks down under super-high emission levels. The warming could be anywhere from 8°C to 25°C. In the context of previous climate changes, it’s hard to overemphasize just how dramatic a double-digit rise in average temperatures would be.

The main reason why the warming potential of coal is so high is because there’s so much of it. The Alberta tar sands are a huge resource base, but they’re tiny in comparison to global coal deposits. Also, coal is more polluting than any kind of oil: if you powered a lightbulb for one hour using coal, you would produce about 30% more CO2 emissions than if you ran it using conventional oil.

The tar sands are more polluting than regular oil, but exactly how much more is a very difficult question to answer. The end product that goes into your car at the gas station is essentially the same, but the refining process takes more energy. You can supply the extra energy in many different ways, though: if you use coal, tar sands become much more polluting than regular oil; if you use renewable energy that doesn’t emit carbon, tar sands are about the same. The authors didn’t include these extra emissions in their study, but they did discuss them in a supplementary document, which estimated that, in an average case, tar sands cause 17% more emissions than regular oil. Taking this into account, the tar sands would cause 0.42°C of warming if they were burned completely, rather than 0.36°C.

Therefore, headlines like “Canada’s oil sands: Not so dirty after all” are misleading. Canada’s oil sands are still very dirty. There just isn’t very much of them. If we decide to go ahead and burn all the tar sands because they only cause a little bit of warming, the same argument could be used for every individual coal plant across the world. Small numbers add up quickly.

The authors still don’t support expansion of the tar sands, or construction of pipelines like the Keystone XL. “While coal is the greatest threat to the climate globally,” Andrew Weaver writes, “the tarsands remain the largest source of greenhouse gas emission growth in Canada and are the single largest reason Canada is failing to meet its international climate commitments and failing to be a climate leader.” Nationally, tar sands are a major climate issue, because they enable our addiction to fossil fuels and create infrastructure that locks us into a future of dirty energy. Also, a myriad of other environmental and social problems are associated with the tar sands – health impacts on nearby First Nations communities, threats to iconic species such as the woodland caribou, and toxic chemicals being released into the air and water.

Tar sands are slightly preferable to coal, but clean energy is hugely preferable to both. In order to keep the climate crisis under control, we need to transition to a clean energy economy as soon as possible. From this viewpoint, further development of the tar sands is a step in the wrong direction.

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A lot of great articles reflecting on the Durban talks have come out in the past few weeks, particularly in the mainstream media. Some of my favourites are Globe and Mail articles by Thomas Homer-Dixon and Jeffrey Simpson, The Economist writing that climate change, in the long run, will be more important than the economy, and George Monbiot on how much money we spend bailing out banks while complaining that cutting carbon emissions is too expensive.

Share your thoughts, and other articles you like, in the comments.

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Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Following the COP17 talks in Durban, South Africa – the latest attempt to create a global deal to cut carbon emissions and solve global warming – world leaders claimed they had “made history”, calling the conference “a great success” that had “all the elements we were looking for”.

So what agreement did they all come to, that has them so proud? They agreed to figure out a deal by 2015. As James Hrynyshyn writes, it is “a roadmap to a unknown strategy that may or may not produce a plan that might combat climate change”.

Did I miss a meeting? Weren’t we supposed to figure out a deal by 2010, so it could come into force when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012? This unidentified future deal, if it even comes to pass, will not come into force until 2020 – that’s 8 years of unchecked global carbon emissions.

At COP15 in Copenhagen, countries agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The German Advisory Council on Global Change crunched the numbers and discovered that the sooner we start reducing emissions, the easier it will be to attain this goal. This graph shows that if emissions peak in 2011 we have a “bunny slope” to ride, whereas if emissions peak in 2020 we have a “triple black diamond” that’s almost impossible, economically. (Thanks to Richard Sommerville for this analogy).

If we stay on the path that leaders agreed on in Durban, emissions will peak long after 2020 – in the best case scenario, they will only start slowing in 2020. If the triple black diamond looks steep, imagine a graph where emissions peak in 2030 or 2040 – it’s basically impossible to achieve our goal, no matter how high we tax carbon or how many wind turbines we build.

World leaders have committed our generation to a future where global warming spins out of our control. What is there to celebrate about that?

However, we shouldn’t throw our hands in the air and give up. 2 degrees is bad, but 4 degrees is worse, and 6 degrees is awful. There is never a point at which action is pointless, because the problem can always get worse if we ignore it.

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Two events to celebrate today:

First, the Australian Parliament passed a carbon tax last week. Although it is relatively weak (oil for cars is exempt, and most emission permits are given out for free), it gets the country off the ground, and will hopefully strengthen in the future. It will be interesting to watch the effectiveness of this tax compared to cap-and-trade systems in other countries.

Additionally, income taxes have been reworked to offset the revenue from the carbon tax, to the point where most households, particularly low-income ones, will benefit financially. So much for “the new Dark Age”!

Secondly, Obama has delayed a decision on the Keystone pipeline until after the 2012 elections, due to environmental concerns with the planned pipeline route. A few months ago, it was fully expected that Obama would approve the pipeline by the end of the year, but opposition from scientists, Nobel Laureates, environmental organizations, and most of Nebraska seems to have tipped the scales.

Canadian coverage of Obama’s announcement is both amusing and infuriating. I read the Globe and Mail, which I would describe as fiscally conservative but socially liberal (really, I just read it because its science coverage is substantially more accurate ahead than my local newspaper). The Globe and Mail seems to define Canada as the tar sands industry and nothing else. Check out this article: a decision regarding a single Canadian oil company is now “a setback for Canada-U.S. relations“, to the point where “Canada is going to have to diversify away from the United States, not just in energy but in everything else we can“, because “they don’t treat us as nicely as their self-interest suggests they should“. And finally, “Canada’s challenge is to ensure other potential markets for Alberta’s crude are not hobbled by the same anti-oil-sands forces“.

Canada’s challenge? How is international anti-environmental lobbying anything but the industry’s challenge? Canada includes millions of young people who will grow up to face the consequences of climate change, millions of Aboriginals whose lives and livelihoods have been damaged by tar sands extraction, and millions of citizens already opposed to the industry. To ignore all of these groups, and to imply that Canada is the oil industry, is frankly quite insulting.

I am a Canadian, and I don’t want this fundamentally unethical industry to define my country. TransCanada’s interests are not necessarily Canada’s interests, and Canada-U.S. relations do not revolve around this single sector of the economy. Maybe the Canadian government doesn’t see this yet, but the American government seems to.

Between Australia and the United States, is the tide turning? Is the pendulum swinging? I’m not sure, but I think I will take advantage of these two small reasons for hope.

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Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

What is the most important policy issue facing today’s young people? Climate change might not seem like an obvious contender, as it feels so distant. Indeed, the majority of impacts from global warming have yet to come. But the magnitude and extent of those impacts are being determined right now. Only today’s young people will still be around to witness the effects of today’s actions.

Many people see climate change as just another environmental issue that will only impact the polar bears and coral reefs. In fact, it’s far more wide-reaching than that. An increase of only a few degrees in average global temperature will affect human systems of all kinds: agriculture, public health, economics, and infrastructure, just to name a few.

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeller at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s top scientists studying global warming, says that significant changes in global temperature can be expected within the lifetimes of young people alive today – “somewhere between two, three, five degrees Celsius, depending a little bit on the scenario, and a little bit on how sensitive the climate actually is.” It might sound like a small change, until you look back at the history of the Earth’s climate and realize that the last ice age was only around 5 degrees Celsius cooler than today. Additionally, the rate of warming (which is the more important metric for the ability of species, including people, to adapt) is higher today than it has been at any time for at the least the past 55 million years. Human technology has far surpassed the natural forces in the climate system, to the point where significant future warming is inevitable. In fact, says Schmidt, the climate system “hasn’t even caught up with what we’ve put into the atmosphere so far. As it continues to catch up, even if we don’t do anything else to the atmosphere from now on, we’ll still see further warming and further changes to the climate.”

However, the future is still quite malleable. Two degrees of warming is bad, but five degrees is far worse, and the difference between the two ends of the spectrum will depend on what we decide to do about the problem. Since our emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, are causing global warming, the solution is self-evident: cut our emissions, as quickly as we can reasonably do so. Implementing this solution is not so simple, as fossil fuels are currently highly integrated into the global economy. Luckily, free-market mechanisms exist which alter the price signals of fossil fuels to better reflect the damage they cause. A revenue-neutral carbon tax, which is offset by reductions in income taxes or paid back evenly to the public as a dividend, is one solution; a cap-and-trade program, which treats carbon emissions like a currency, is another. While virtually nothing has been done in North America to cut emissions, the rest of the developed world has made a pretty good start.

Here in North America, the outlook for action is somewhat bleak. In the United States, says Schmidt, many people “perceive the science itself – just describing what’s going on and why – as a threat to their interests…they choose to attack the science and they choose to attack the scientists.” The Republican Party has adopted this strategy of denial, to the point where top presidential candidates such as Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry truly believe that climate change is a hoax scientists cooked up to get grant money. The Democrats largely accept the science, but after nearly a full term in office, President Barack Obama hasn’t made any progress on the cap-and-trade program he promised upon his election. In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly said that he will follow whatever actions the United States takes, or does not take, on climate change policy.

It seems that action necessary to mitigate global warming won’t be taken unless citizens demand it. Otherwise, emissions will likely continue unabated until the problem is too severe to ignore any longer – and even then, the situation will get worse for decades while the climate system catches up. “No action,” says Schmidt, “is a decision in and of itself.”

What decision, then, will we make? Will we get our act together in time to keep the warming at a tolerable level? Or will we choose to let it spiral out of control? Will future societies look back on us with resentment, or with admiration? Remember, you and I are part of those future societies. But we are also part of today’s.

Thousands of years from now, it won’t matter what the US deficit was in 2011, or which nations went to war with each other, or how much we invested in higher education. These issues matter a great deal to people today, but they are very transient, like many aspects of human systems. Climate change, though, will alter the earth on a geological timescale. It will take the planet around one hundred thousand years to undo what we are doing. We are leaving behind a very unfortunate legacy to the entirety of future human civilization, and all life on Earth – a legacy that is being shaped as you read this; a legacy that we could largely avoid if we chose to.

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Apologies for the few weeks of silence. Moving cities again, combined with the beginning of a new term, meant hardly any writing time! I should be back into a regular routine now, though. Enjoy.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama seemed serious about climate change action. He promised an 80% reduction in American greenhouse gas emissions by 2050: a target which, if reached, would go a long way in solving global warming. Therefore, when he won the election, citizens concerned about climate change cheered the world over. “We will restore science to its rightful place,” Obama said following his inauguration. “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories…All this we can do. And all this we will do.”

This cheery picture of a renewable energy economy is about as far away as one can get from the energy source Obama is now considering supporting: tar sands. Concentrated in Western Canada, the tar sands are an unconventional, and very dirty, form of oil. They produce more carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy than regular petroleum – in fact, if you take transport and refinery into account, they’re slightly worse than coal. If we aggressively develop the tar sands, we will have no hope of stabilizing climate change at a reasonable level.

The problems don’t end there. Extraction and refinement takes over an incredible amount of land that would otherwise serve as vital habitat for wildlife. Additionally, tar sands are loaded with toxic substances such as heavy metals, which are removed during the refinement process. These byproducts inevitably leach into the water system, endangering the health of nearby First Nations communities and the viability of entire ecosystems in the boreal forest.

In my opinion, this is Canada’s most shameful practice. A short-term spike in jobs will lead to centuries of social, environmental, and economic damage. Sadly, many of our politicians think this trade-off is acceptable.

Now, industry is hoping for an American partnership in tar sand development. The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline would run all the way from Alberta to Texas, so tar could be refined in the US. Imagine the habitat destruction and pollution required to construct this pipeline. Imagine the consequences of a leak in the pipe. And imagine how much more of the tar sands will get dug up and burned if there is a demand from the US.

Luckily, this pipeline requires special permission from the president in order to be built. There is no deadlock in Congress to worry about; no concessions to make for the Tea Party. It’s all down to Obama. Will he keep his campaign promises?

How could someone promise to “restore science to its rightful place” while making decisions that every line of science predicts will endanger our future? How could someone make specific goals and targets, then turn around and take actions that guarantee these goals will fail? If the Keystone XL Pipeline is approved, it won’t be by the Obama we knew in 2008.

350.org, a nonprofit climate change action group, is coordinating a movement pressuring Obama to reject the pipeline. It includes typical lobbying efforts, including a petition signed by over 600 000 people, but is centered on a two week stretch of civil disobedience. Waves of volunteers formed a peaceful sit-in on White House property, and were willing to get arrested to draw attention to the issue. As of the sit-in’s conclusion on September 3rd, a total of 1,252 people had been arrested, including top climate scientist James Hansen, environmental journalist Bill McKibben, and author Naomi Klein.

Others condemned the pipeline at more of a distance. Recently, nine Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, including the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, wrote to Obama, pleading with him to reject the proposal. Youth leaders from the PowerShift conferences threw in their support. Unsurprisingly, Al Gore denounced the pipeline, calling it an “enormous mistake”.

Is civil disobedience the answer? Will it build up the movement, or polarize it? If governments don’t listen to letters, why would they pay attention to protests? But if they don’t listen to this, why should we trust them at all?

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Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

A landmark report (summary available here) was published this week by the National Research Council in the United States, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences. The report, “America’s Climate Choices”, was requested by Congress several years ago. It focused on the observed impacts of climate change in the United States, as well as the policy choices most likely to be effective.

The report was created not just by scientists, but also by business executives and politicians. The diverse author committee is made apparent in the report’s message. Climate scientists tend to follow the IPCC mantra of “policy-relevant but policy-neutral” – they might discuss the potential ramifications of different policy choices, but they don’t recommend one over the other.

In contrast, this report includes phrases such as, “Current efforts of local, state, and private sector actors are important, but not likely to yield progress comparable to what could be achieved with the addition of strong federal policies that establish coherent national goals and incentives, and that promote strong U.S. engagement in international-level response efforts.” This is toeing the line of policy-prescriptive. It doesn’t hesitate to say that some policy options will be better than others for reducing global warming, and that the policy option of doing nothing would be foolish.

More specifically, the authors recommend a price on carbon, and describe a system similar to a carbon tax for the most effective option. They also name elements of what they see to be the best course of action for the United States:

  • “significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions”
  • “begin mobilizing now for adaptation”
  • “invest in science, technology, and information systems”
  • “participate in international climate change response efforts”
  • “coordinate national response efforts”

These recommendations conflict with many postulates of the conservative American ideology. “Historically there’s only one thing Congress dislikes more than science and that’s international treaties,” writes Kevin Grandia, and this report recommends both. It’s no surprise, then, that Tea Party politicians are dismissing the report out of hand, as the New York Times reports. Apparently, Joe Barton thinks that doing nothing about climate change is a viable policy option. Fifty years from now, when civilizations and ecosystems worldwide are struggling to survive the impacts of climate change, what will history books say about Joe Barton?

The New York Times article illustrates much of what is wrong with mainstream climate journalism. It balances a massive report from the National Academy of Sciences with statements from an extremist politician. Additionally, it does a hilarious job of framing decades-old scientific findings as new and controversial, as if this report was the first to discuss them. “Not only is global warming real, but the effects are already becoming serious,” writes the New York Times. “Not only is the science behind the climate-change forecast solid, the report found, but the risks to future generations from further inaction are profound.”

If this is news to the New York Times, they need to catch up on their science. Right now, they’re stuck in the 1980s.

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Next week, I will be giving a speech on climate change to the green committee of a local United Church. They are particularly interested in science and solutions, so I wrote the following script, drawing heavily from my previous presentations. I would really appreciate feedback and suggestions for this presentation.

Citations will be on the slides (which I haven’t made yet), so they’re not in the text of this script. Let me know if there’s a particular reference you’re wondering about, but they’re probably common knowledge within this community by now.

Enjoy!

Climate change is depressing. I know that really well, because I’ve been studying it for over two years. I’m quite practiced at keeping the scary stuff contained in the analytical part of my brain, and not thinking of the implications – because the implications make you feel powerless. I’m sure that all of us here wish we could stop global warming on our own. So we work hard to reduce our carbon footprints, and then we feel guilty every time we take the car out or buy something that was made in China or turn up the heat a degree.

The truth is, though, the infrastructure of our society doesn’t support a low-carbon lifestyle. Look at the quality of public transit in Winnipeg, or the price of local food. We can work all we want at changing our practices, but it’s an uphill battle. If we change the infrastructure, though – if we put a price on carbon so that sustainable practices are cheaper and easier than using fossil fuels – people everywhere will subsequently change their practices.

Currently, governments – particularly in North America – aren’t too interested in sustainable infrastructure, because they don’t think people care. Politicians only say what they think people want to hear. So, should we go dress up as polar bears and protest in front of Parliament to show them we care? That might work, but they will probably just see us as crazy environmentalists, a fringe group. We need a critical mass of people that care about climate change, understand the problem, and want to fix it. An effective solution requires top-down organization, but that won’t happen until there’s a bottom-up, grassroots movement of people who care.

I believe that the most effective action one person can take in the fight against global warming is to talk to others and educate others. I believe most people are good, and sane, and reasonable. They do the best they can, given their level of awareness. If we increase that awareness, we’ll gain political will for a solution. And so, in an effort to practice what I preach, I’m going to talk to you about the issue.

The science that led us to the modern concern about climate change began all the way back in 1824, when a man named Joseph Fourier discovered the greenhouse effect. Gases such as carbon dioxide make up less than one percent of the Earth’s atmosphere, but they trap enough heat to keep the Earth over 30 degrees Celsius warmer than it would be otherwise.

Without greenhouse gases, there could be no life on Earth, so they’re a very good thing – until their concentration changes. If you double the amount of CO2 in the air, the planet will warm, on average, somewhere around 3 degrees. The first person to realize that humans could cause this kind of a change, through the burning of fossil fuels releasing CO2, was Svante Arrhenius, in 1897. So this is not a new theory by any means.

For a long time, scientists assumed that any CO2 we emitted would just get absorbed by the oceans. In 1957, Roger Revelle showed that wasn’t true. The very next year, Charles Keeling decided to test this out, and started measuring the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. Now, Arrhenius had assumed that it would take thousands of years to double CO2 from the preindustrial value of 280 ppm (which we know from ice cores), but the way we’re going, we’ll get there in just a few decades. We’ve already reached 390 ppm. That might not seem like a lot, but 390 ppm of arsenic in your coffee would kill you. Small changes can have big effects.

Around the 1970s, scientists realized that people were exerting another influence on the climate. Many forms of air pollution, known as aerosols, have a cooling effect on the planet. In the 70s, the warming from greenhouse gases and the cooling from aerosols were cancelling each other out, and scientists were split as to which way it would go. There was one paper, by Stephen Schneider, which even said it could be possible to cause an ice age, if we put out enough aerosols and greenhouse gases stayed constant. However, as climate models improved, and governments started to regulate air pollution, a scientific consensus emerged that greenhouse gases would win out. Global warming was coming – it was just a question of when.

In 1988, James Hansen, who is arguably the top climate scientist in the world today, claimed it had arrived. In a famous testimony to the U.S. Congress, he said that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” Many scientists weren’t so sure, and thought it was too early to make such a bold statement, but Hansen turned out to be right. Since about 1975, the world has been warming, more quickly than it has for at least the last 55 million years.

Over the past decade, scientists have even been able to rule out the possibility that the warming is caused by something else, like a natural cycle. Different causes of climate change have slightly different effects – like the pattern of warming in different layers of the atmosphere, the amount of warming in summer compared to winter, or at night compared to in the day, and so on. Ben Santer pioneered attribution studies: examining these effects in order to pinpoint a specific cause. And so far, nobody has been able to explain how the recent warming could not be caused by us.

Today, there is a remarkable amount of scientific agreement surrounding this issue. Between 97 and 98% of climate scientists, virtually 100% of peer-reviewed studies, and every scientific organization in the world agree that humans are causing the Earth to warm. The evidence for climate change is not a house of cards, where you take one piece out and the whole theory falls apart. It’s more like a mountain. Scrape a handful of pebbles off the top, but the mountain is still there.

However, if you take a step outside of the academic community, this convergence of evidence is more or less invisible. The majority of newspaper articles, from respected outlets like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, spend at least as much time arguing against this consensus as they do arguing for it. They present ideas such as “maybe it’s a natural cycle” or “CO2 has no effect on climate” that scientists disproved years ago. The media is stuck in the past. Some of them are only stuck in the 1980s, but others are stuck all the way back in 1800. Why is it like this?

Part of it comes from good, but misguided, intentions. When it comes to climate change, most journalists follow the rule of balance: presenting “two equal sides”, staying neutral, letting the reader form their own opinion. This works well when the so-called controversy is one of political or social nature, like tax levels or capital punishment. In these cases, there is no right answer, and people are usually split into two camps. But when the question at hand is one of science, there is a right answer – even if we haven’t found it yet – so some explanations are better than others, and some can be totally wrong. Would you let somebody form their own opinion on Newton’s Laws of Motion or the reality of photosynthesis? Sometimes scientists are split into two equal groups, but sometimes they’re split into three or four or even a dozen. How do you represent that as two equal sides? Sometimes, like we see with climate change, pretty much all the scientists are in agreement, and the two or three percent which aren’t don’t really publish, because they can’t back up their statements and nobody really takes them seriously. So framing these two groups as having equal weight in the scientific community is completely incorrect. It exaggerates the extreme minority, and suppresses everyone else. Being objective is not always the same as being neutral, and it’s particularly important to remember that when our future is at stake.

Another reason to frame climate science as controversial is that it makes for a much better story. Who really wants to read about scientists agreeing on everything? Journalists try to write stories that are exciting. Unfortunately, that goal can begin to overshadow accuracy.

Also, there are fewer journalists than there used to be, and there are almost no science journalists in the mainstream media – general reporters cover science issues instead. Also, a few decades ago, journalists used to get a week or two to write a story. Now they often have less than a day, because speed and availability of news has become more important than quality.

However, perhaps the most important – and disturbing – explanation for this inaccurate framing is that the media has been very compliant in spreading the message of climate change deniers. They call themselves skeptics, but I don’t think that’s accurate. A true skeptic will only accept a claim given sufficient evidence. That’s a good thing, and all scientists should be skeptics. But it’s easy to see that these people will never accept human-caused climate change, no matter what the evidence. At the same time, they blindly accept any shred of information that seems to support their cause, without applying any skepticism at all. That’s denial, so let’s not compliment them by calling them skeptics.

Climate change deniers will use whatever they can get – whether or not it’s legitimate, whether or not it’s honest – as proof that climate change is natural, or nonexistent, or a global conspiracy. They’ll tell you that volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans, but volcanoes actually emit about 1% of what we do. They’ll say that global warming has stopped because 2008 was cooler than 2007. If climatologists organize a public lecture in effort to communicate accurate scientific information, they’ll say that scientists are dogmatic and subscribe to censorship and will not allow any other opinions to be considered.

Some of these questionable sources are organizations, like a dozen or so lobby groups that have been paid a lot of money by oil companies to say that global warming is fake. Some of them are individuals, like US Senator James Inhofe, who was the environment chair under George W. Bush, and says that “global warming is the greatest hoax ever imposed upon the American people.” Some of them have financial motivations, and some of them have ideological motivations, but their motivations don’t really matter – all that matters is that they are saying things that are inaccurate, and misleading, and just plain wrong.

There has been a recent, and very disturbing, new tactic of deniers. Instead of attacking the science, they’ve begun to attack the integrity of individual scientists. In November 2009, they stole thirteen years of emails from a top climate research group in the UK, and spread stories all over the media that said scientists were caught fudging their data and censoring critics. Since then, they’ve been cleared of these charges by eight independent investigations, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the newspaper. For months, nearly every media outlet in the developed world spread what was, essentially, libel, and the only one that has formally apologized for its inaccurate coverage is the BBC.

In the meantime, there has been tremendous personal impact on the scientists involved. Many of them have received death threats, and Phil Jones, the director of the research group, was nearly driven to suicide. Another scientist, who wishes to remain anonymous, had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with bodyguards. The Republican Party, which prides itself on fiscal responsibility, is pushing for more and more investigations, because they just can’t accept that the scientists are innocent…and James Inhofe, the “global warming is a hoax” guy, attempted to criminally prosecute seventeen researchers, most of whom had done nothing but occasionally correspond with the scientists who had their emails stolen. It’s McCarthyism all over again.

So this is where we are. Where are we going?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, which collects and summarizes all the scientific literature about climate change, said in 2007 that under a business-as-usual scenario, where we keep going the way we’re going, the world will warm somewhere around 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. Unfortunately, this report was out of date almost as soon as it was published, and has widely been criticized for being too conservative. The British Meteorological Office published an updated figure in 2009 that estimated we will reach 4 degrees by the 2070s.

I will still be alive then (I hope!). I will likely have kids and even grandkids by then. I’ve spent a lot of time researching climate change, and the prospect of a 4 degree rise is terrifying to me. At 4 degrees, we will have lost control of the climate – even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases, positive feedbacks in the climate system will make sure the warming continues. We will have committed somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of the world’s species to extinction. Prehistoric records indicate that we can expect 40 to 80 metres of eventual sea level rise – it will take thousands of years to get there, but many coastal cities will be swamped within the first century. Countries – maybe even developed countries – will be at war over food and water. All this…within my lifetime.

And look at our current response. We seem to be spending more time attacking the scientists who discovered the problem than we are negotiating policy to fix it. We should have started reducing our greenhouse gas emissions twenty years ago, but if we start now, and work really hard, we do have a shot at stopping the warming at a point where we stay in control. Technically, we can do it. It’s going to take an unprecedented amount of political will and international communication

Everybody wants to know, “What can I do?” to fix the problem. Now, magazines everywhere are happy to tell you “10 easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint” – ride your bike, and compost, and buy organic spinach. That’s not really going to help. Say that enough people reduce their demand on fossil fuels: supply and demand dictates that the price will go down, and someone else will say, “Hey, gas is cheap!” and use more of it. Grassroots sentiment isn’t going to be enough. We need a price on carbon, whether it’s a carbon tax or cap-and-trade…but governments won’t do that until a critical mass of people demand it.

So what can you do? You can work on achieving that critical mass. Engage the apathetic. Educate people. Talk to them about climate change – it’s scary stuff, but suck it up. We’re all going to need to face it. Help them to understand and care about the problem. Don’t worry about the crazy people who shout about socialist conspiracies, they’re not worth your time. They’re very loud, but there’s not really very many of them. And in the end, we all get one vote.

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If you know what these colours mean, you probably share my surprise:

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Canadian politics, past and present, here’s a quick brush-up. (If parliamentary democracy or constitutional monarchy is new to you, Rick Mercer gives a great explanation.)

Liberal Party (Red Seats)

  • Politics: More liberal than the American Democrats, but not by a huge amount.
  • How they usually do: They’ve won elections so many times that they’re deemed “Canada’s natural government”. Whether it’s a majority or a minority, a Liberal government is the rule, rather than the exception.
  • What happened on Monday: 34 Liberal MPs were elected – only 11% of the available seats. The leader of the party, Michael Ignatieff, wasn’t even elected in his riding – a rare (but not unprecedented) occurrence.

Conservative Party (Dark Blue Seats)

  • Politics: Somewhere between American Republicans and Democrats. Canada’s most right-wing party that’s mainstream enough to win seats.
  • How they usually do: When it’s not a Liberal government, it’s a Conservative one. The last time they had a majority, it was under Brian Mulroney – an event that eventually led to the party’s collapse and division. The two halves of the party rejoined for the 2004 election, under Stephen Harper, the leader of the more right-wing of the two. Since 2006, he has held seemingly never-ending minorities. Again, Rick Mercer hits the nail on the head.
  • What happened on Monday: They got their first majority – 54% of the seats, but with only 40% of the popular vote.

Bloc Quebecois (Light Blue Seats)

  • Politics: Diverse, as the party’s sole platform is the intent to make Quebec a sovereign nation. These days, it’s pretty liberal.
  • How they usually do: Fifty-some seats in Quebec.
  • What happened on Monday: Only four Bloc were elected – most seats were lost to the NDP. The leader, Gilles Duceppe, lost the election in his riding. Now they don’t even have enough seats for party status.

New Democrat Party (Orange Seats)

  • Politics: The most liberal of the mainstream parties, they subscribe to social democracy. If Tea Partiers think Obama’s a socialist, I wonder what they’d say if the NDP swept the US Congress.
  • How they usually do: Twenty seats or so, scattered throughout the country, but rarely any from Quebec.
  • What happened on Monday: The NDP unexpectedly swept Quebec, and won 102 seats – for the first time, they’re the Official Opposition. Many of their MPs are brand new and never expected to get elected. Some are still university students. One spent her campaign in Las Vegas, but ended up winning the riding. Their growing popularity wasn’t limited to Quebec, but in many ridings – most notably some in Ontario – they split the vote with the Liberals, giving a lot of seats to the Conservatives.

Green Party (I’ll let you work out their colour of seats)

  • Politics: Not quite as left-wing as the NDP. They focus on environmental issues, climate change mitigation, and the legalization of marijuana.
  • How they usually do: Over the past few elections, they have held between 1 and 10% of the popular vote, but have never had an MP sit in Parliament. Once a Liberal MP switched to the Green Party, but Parliament was dissolved for an election before he got to sit in it as a member of the Greens.
  • What happened on Monday: Elizabeth May, the party leader, won the election in her riding, defeating a Conservative cabinet minister. She is the first elected Green and will be the first to sit in the House of Commons.

If that isn’t enough to convince you of what a massive change this election was, look at the diagrams on this page. Start at the bottom for the most recent Parliaments.

It is arguable that, although the Conservatives only have 40% of the popular vote, Stephen Harper has 100% of the power in the federal government. They hold a majority not only in the House of Commons, but also in the Senate – their five years of minorities have ensured that only Conservatives get appointed to the upper house. It is common for party leaders to demand that their caucus vote the party line on important issues, so Harper can pass pretty much any bill he wants. Also, unless his own party turns against him, he doesn’t have to call an election for another five years. Despite a more left-wing opposition that will be stronger on issues such as climate change (Elizabeth May, in particular, is a fabulous debater), they can’t actually sway results away from what Harper wants. Additionally, the new NDP MPs will have to prove their worth quickly if they want to be taken seriously.

But this is nothing new. It’s nothing specific to Harper. This concentration of power happened before with all the Liberal majority governments, as well as the Conservative exceptions such as Mulroney. This is the way majority governments in Canada work. They will pass a great deal of legislation in their favour, much of which will be undone when the opposing party eventually takes over. I am just worried because, given the Conservatives’ stance on climate change mitigation, we will likely move backwards on an issue where we don’t have time to waste. These decisions, or lack thereof, cannot be undone or reversed.

Thoughts?

Data from Elections Canada

More coverage from CBC News

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