Storms of my Grandchildren

I hope everyone had a fun and relaxing Christmas. Here’s a book I’ve been meaning to review for a while.

The worst part of the recent book by NASA climatologist James Hansen is, undoubtedly, the subtitle. The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity – really? That doesn’t sound like the intrinsic, subdued style of Dr. Hansen. In my opinion, it simply alienates the very audience we’re trying to reach: moderate, concerned non-scientists.

The inside of the book is much better. While he couldn’t resist slipping in a good deal of hard science (and, in my opinion, these were the best parts), the real focus was on climate policy, and the relationship between science and policy. Hansen struggled with the prospect of becoming involved in policy discussions, but soon realized that he didn’t want his grandchildren, years from now, to look back at his work and say, “Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.”

Hansen is very good at distinguishing between his scientific work and his opinions on policy, and makes no secret of which he would rather spend time on. “I prefer to just do science,” he writes in the introduction. “It’s more pleasant, especially when you are having some success in your investigations. If I must serve as a witness, I intend to testify and then get back to the laboratory, where I am comfortable. That is what I intend to do when this book is finished.”

Hansen’s policy opinions centre on a cap-and-dividend system: a variant of a carbon tax, where revenue is divided evenly among citizens and returned to them. His argument for a carbon tax, rather than cap-and-trade, is compelling, and certainly convinced me. He also advocates the expansion of nuclear power (particularly “fourth-generation” fast nuclear reactors), a moratorium on new coal-generated power plants, and drastically improved efficiency measures.

These recommendations are robust, backed up with lots of empirical data to argue why they would be our best bet to minimize climate change and secure a stable future for generations to come. Hansen is always careful to say when he is speaking as a scientist and when he is speaking as a citizen, and provides a fascinating discussion of the connection between these two roles. As Bill Blakemore from ABC television wrote in correspondence with Hansen, “All communication is biased. What makes the difference between a propagandist on one side and a professional journalist or scientist on the other is not that the journalist or scientist ‘set their biases aside’ but that they are open about them and constantly putting them to the test, ready to change them.”

Despite all this, I love when Hansen puts on his scientist hat. The discussions of climate science in this book, particularly paleoclimate, were gripping. He explains our current knowledge of the climatic circumstances surrounding the Permian-Triassic extinction and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (usually referred to as the PETM). He explains why neither of these events is a suitable analogue for current climate change, as the current rate of introduction of the radiative forcing is faster than anything we can see in the paleoclimatic record.

Be prepared for some pretty terrifying facts about our planet’s “methane hydrate gun”, and how it wasn’t even fully loaded when it went off in the PETM. Also discussed is the dependence of climate sensitivity on forcing: the graph of these two variables is more or less a parabola, as climate sensitivity increases both in Snowball Earth conditions and in Runaway Greenhouse conditions. An extensive discussion of runaway greenhouse is provided, where the forcing occurs so quickly that negative feedbacks don’t have a chance to act before the positive water vapour feedback gets out of control, the oceans boil, and the planet becomes too hot for liquid water to exist. For those who are interested in this scenario, Hansen argues that, if we’re irresponsible about fossil fuels, it is quite possible for current climate change to reach this stage. For those who have less practice separating the scientific part of their brain from the emotional part, I suggest you skip this chapter.

I would recommend this book to everyone interested in climate change. James Hansen is such an important player in climate science, and has arguably contributed more to our knowledge of climate change than just about anyone. Whether it’s for the science, for the policy discussions, or for his try at science fiction in the last chapter, it’s well worth the cover price.

Thoughts from others who have read this book are welcome in the comments, as always.

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The Nature of Scientific Consensus

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

It is common for one to fail to grasp the difference between “consensus” and “unanimity”.

A consensus does not require agreement from absolutely every member involved. Rather, it is a more general measure of extremely high agreement, high enough to accept and base decisions on. It’s stronger than a majority-rules style of democracy, but does not necessarily equal unanimity. In fact, in the area of science, where the concept of consensus is particularly important, unanimity is nearly impossible.

With the exception of pure mathematics, scientific theories cannot be proven beyond a doubt. Every physical process that researchers study has some amount of irreducible uncertainty – because there is always, no matter how small, a chance that our understanding could be completely wrong. Additionally, science is never “settled”, because there is always more to learn, whatever the field. Even a law as basic as gravity is still being studied by physicists, and it turns out that it gets more complicated the more you look at it.

Despite this inherent uncertainty, scientists have developed consensuses around all sorts of topics. The Earth is approximately oblate-spherical in shape. Smoking cigarettes increases one’s risk of lung cancer. HIV causes AIDS. There’s a tiny chance that these statements are incorrect, but researchers can still have confidence in their accuracy. Incomplete knowledge is not the same as no knowledge.

However, when there is room for doubt, there will usually be doubters. Physicist Richard Lindzen continues to dispute the health risks of smoking (a conversation is recounted in a recent book by James Hansen). Peter Duesberg, an active molecular and cell biologist, prominently opposes the link between HIV and AIDS. Believe it or not, the Flat Earth Society was alive and well until the death of its leader in 2001 – and signs of the society’s renewal are emerging.

As these examples suggest, for a layperson to wait for scientific unanimity before accepting a topic would be absurd. When consensus reaches a certain point, the null hypothesis shifts: the burden of proof is on the contrarians, rather than the theory’s advocates.

Another case study that may seem surprising to many is that of anthropogenic global warming. A strong scientific consensus exists that human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels, is exerting a warming influence on the planet’s temperature, which is already beginning to show up in the instrumental record. This phenomenon is contested by less than 3% of publishing climatologists, a negligible amount of peer-reviewed scientific studies (so few that not one showed up in a 2004 survey’s random sample of almost one thousand papers), and no major scientific societies internationally. Additionally, scientists who dispute the existence or causes of climate change tend to have lower academic credibility than those who do not. It becomes apparent that this scientific question warrants “consensus” standing: never quite settled, never quite unanimous, but certainly good enough to go by. The mainstream media does not always reflect this consensus accurately, but it nonetheless exists.

As world leaders meet in Cancun this week to discuss a global policy to prevent or limit future climate change – a prospect that looks less likely by the day – science can only offer so much advice. Climatologists can approximate what levels of emissions cuts are required to prevent unacceptable consequences, but only when the governments of the world decide which consequences they are willing to accept. Can we deal with worldwide food shortages? Rising sea levels? What about a mass extinction? Even after we define “dangerous consequences”, scientists are unsure of exactly how much temperature change will trigger these consequences, as well as how much greenhouse gas emissions will need to be cut, and how quickly, to prevent the temperature change. All they can offer is a range of probabilities and most likely scenarios.

But remember, incomplete and uncertain knowledge is not the same as no knowledge. Of one thing climate scientists are sure: the more greenhouse gas emissions we emit, the more the world will warm, and the harder it will be to deal with the consequences. There’s no reason for you and I to doubt that simple correlation any longer.

The Real Story of Climategate

A year ago today, an unidentified hacker published a zipped folder in several locations online. In this folder were approximately one thousand emails and three thousand files which had been stolen from the backup server of the Climatic Research Unit in the UK, a top centre for global temperature analysis and climate change studies. As links to the folder were passed around on blogs and online communities, a small group of people sorted through the emails, picking out a handful of phrases that could be seen as controversial, and developing a narrative which they pushed to the media with all their combined strength. “A lot is happening behind the scenes,” one blog administrator wrote. “It is not being ignored. Much is being coordinated among major players and the media. Thank you very much. You will notice the beginnings of activity on other sites now. Here soon to follow.”

This was not the work of a computer-savvy teenager that liked to hack security systems for fun. Whoever the thief was, they knew what they were looking for. They knew how valuable the emails could be in the hands of the climate change denial movement.

Skepticism is a worthy quality in science, but denial is not. A skeptic will only accept a claim given sufficient evidence, but a denier will cling to their beliefs regardless of evidence. They will relentlessly attack arguments that contradict their cause, using talking points that are full of misconceptions and well-known to be false, while blindly accepting any argument that seems to support their point of view. A skeptic is willing to change their mind. A denier is not.

There are many examples of denial in our society, but perhaps the most powerful and pervasive is climate change denial. We’ve been hearing the movement’s arguments for years, ranging from illogic (“climate changed naturally in the past, so it must be natural now“) to misrepresentation (“global warming stopped in 1998“) to flat-out lies (“volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than humans“). Of course, climate scientists thought of these objections and ruled them out long before you and I even knew what global warming was, so in recent years, the arguments of deniers were beginning to reach a dead end. The Copenhagen climate summit was approaching, and the public was beginning to understand the basic science of human-caused climate change, even realize that the vast majority of the scientific community was concerned about it. A new strategy for denial and delay was needed – ideally, for the public to lose trust in researchers. Hence, the hack at CRU, and the beginning of a disturbing new campaign to smear the reputations of climate scientists.

The contents of the emails were spun in a brilliant exercise of selective quotation. Out of context, phrases can be twisted to mean any number of things – especially if they were written as private correspondence with colleagues, rather than with public communication in mind. Think about all the emails you have sent in the past decade. Chances are, if someone tried hard enough, they could make a few sentences you had written sound like evidence of malpractice, regardless of your real actions or intentions.

Consequently, a mathematical “trick” (clever calculation) to efficiently analyse data was reframed as a conspiracy to “trick” (deceive) the public into believing the world was warming. Researchers discussed how to statistically isolate and “hide the decline” in problematic tree ring data that was no longer measuring what it used to, but this quote was immediately twisted to claim that the decline was in global temperatures: the world is cooling and scientists are hiding it from us!

Other accusations were based not on selective misquotation but on a misunderstanding of the way science works. When the researchers discussed what they felt were substandard papers that should not be published, many champions of the stolen emails shouted accusations that scientists were censoring their critics, as if all studies, no matter how weak their arguments, had a fundamental right to be published. Another email, in which a researcher privately expressed a desire to punch a notorious climate change denier, was twisted into an accusation that the scientists threatened people who disagreed with them. How was it a threat if the action was never intended to materialize, and if the supposed target was never aware of it?

These serious and potentially damaging allegations, which, upon closer examination, are nothing more than grasping at straws, were not carefully examined and evaluated by journalists – they were repeated. Early media reports bordered on the hysterical. With headlines such as “The final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming” and “The worst scientific scandal of our generation“, libelous claims and wild extrapolations were published mere days after the emails were distributed. How could journalists have possibly had time to carefully examine the contents of one thousand emails? It seems much more likely that they took the short-cut of repeating the narrative of the deniers without assessing its accuracy.

Even if, for the sake of argument, all science conducted by the CRU was fraudulent, our understanding of global warming would not change. The CRU runs a global temperature dataset, but so do at least six other universities and government agencies around the world, and their independent conclusions are virtually identical. The evidence for human-caused climate change is not a house of cards that will collapse as soon as one piece is taken away. It’s more like a mountain: scrape a couple of pebbles off the top, but the mountain is still there. For respected newspapers and media outlets to ignore the many independent lines of evidence for this phenomenon in favour of a more interesting and controversial story was blatantly irresponsible, and almost no retractions or apologies have been published since.

The worldwide media attention to this so-called scandal had a profound personal impact on the scientists involved. Many of them received death threats and hate mail for weeks on end. Dr. Phil Jones, the director of CRU, 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. Perhaps the most wide-reaching impact of the issue was the realization that private correspondence was no longer a safe environment. This fear only intensified when the top climate modelling centre in Canada was broken into, in an obvious attempt to find more material that could be used to smear the reputations of climate scientists. For an occupation that relies heavily on email for cross-national collaboration on datasets and studies, the pressure to write in a way that cannot be taken out of context – a near-impossible task – amounts to a stifling of science.

Before long, the investigations into the contents of the stolen emails were completed, and one by one, they came back clear. Six independent investigations reached basically the same conclusion: despite some reasonable concerns about data archival and sharing at CRU, the scientists had shown integrity and honesty. No science had been falsified, manipulated, exaggerated, or fudged. Despite all the media hullabaloo, “climategate” hadn’t actually changed anything.

Sadly, by the time the investigations were complete, the media hullabaloo had died down to a trickle. Climategate was old news, and although most newspapers published stories on the exonerations, they were generally brief, buried deep in the paper, and filled with quotes from PR spokespeople that insisted the investigations were “whitewashed”. In fact, Scott Mandia, a meteorology professor, found that media outlets devoted five to eleven times more stories to the accusations against the scientists than they devoted to the resulting exonerations of the scientists.

Six investigations weren’t enough, though, for some stubborn American politicians who couldn’t let go of the article of faith that Climategate was proof of a vast academic conspiracy. Senator James Inhofe planned a McCarthy-like criminal prosecution of seventeen researchers, most of whom had done nothing more than occasionally correspond with the CRU scientists. The Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, repeatedly filed requests to investigate Dr. Michael Mann, a prominent paleoclimatic researcher, for fraud, simply because a twelve-year-old paper by Mann had some statistical weaknesses. Ironically, the Republican Party, which prides itself on fiscal responsibility and lower government spending, continues to advocate wasting massive sums of money conducting inquiries which have already been completed multiple times.

Where are the politicians condemning the limited resources spent on the as yet inconclusive investigations into who stole these emails, and why? Who outside the scientific community is demanding apologies from the hundreds of media outlets that spread libelous accusations without evidence? Why has the ongoing smear campaign against researchers studying what is arguably the most pressing issue of our time gone largely unnoticed, and been aided by complacent media coverage?

Fraud is a criminal charge, and should be treated as such. Climate scientists, just like anyone else, have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They shouldn’t have to endure this endless harassment of being publicly labelled as frauds without evidence. However, the injustice doesn’t end there. This hate campaign is a dangerous distraction from the consequences of global climate change, a problem that becomes more difficult to solve with every year we delay. The potential consequences are much more severe, and the time we have left to successfully address it is much shorter, than the vast majority of the public realizes. Unfortunately, powerful forces are at work to keep it that way. This little tussle about the integrity of a few researchers could have consequences millennia from now – if we let it.

Update: Many other climate bloggers are doing Climategate anniversary pieces. Two great ones I read today were Bart Verheggen’s article and the transcript of John Cook’s radio broadcast. Be sure to check them out!

Geoengineering the Climate

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Climate change would be a whole lot easier to fix if we could immediately see the results of our actions. First of all, we would have recognized the reality of the problem long ago, before very much harm was done. And even if we initially stalled on fixing the problem, we could throw all our weight into reducing greenhouse gases as soon as the floods and droughts and rising sea levels became too much, and stop the warming overnight.

This kind of fantasy scenario is like riding a bike. As soon as you jerk the handlebars to avoid running off the road, the bike responds. The only lag between your recognition of a problem and the subsequent resolution of that problem is your reaction time.

However, the climate system works more like a ship. Remember in the movie Titanic, when the crew first saw the iceberg, and cranked the wheel all the way to the right so they could go around it? The ship didn’t turn immediately. She kept going straight for a while before she responded. Unfortunately, she didn’t respond early enough to miss the iceberg, and you know what happened next.

The climate is very similar. There is a lag time between when we emit carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and when we see the effects of the subsequent warming. A lot of this has to do with the oceans, which store massive amounts of heat and slowly release it to the atmosphere. The warming we are seeing today is from fossil fuel emissions in decades past, and the actions we take today will not show up until decades in the future. Even if we bring global greenhouse gas emissions down to zero tomorrow, the world will continue to warm.

Because CO2 emissions continue to rise year by year, and because governments have had little to no success addressing this problem, some scientists are beginning to think that we won’t be able to stop climate change in time. Another unfortunate aspect of the climate system is its non-linearity – there are hidden thresholds and “tipping points” which, if crossed, could trigger feedbacks that cause global warming to spin out of our control. The scientific community thinks that, once the world has warmed about 2 C from pre-industrial times, these tipping points and feedbacks will start to kick in. We have already warmed 0.8 C, and at least another 0.5 C is in the pipeline, even if we were to cut off all emissions tomorrow. You do the math. There’s not a lot of wiggle room, especially given the increasingly low chances of climate legislation being passed by the world’s governments.

So what happens if we’ve gone too far? Do we have no choice but to sit back and watch all hell break loose? In fact, there are other choices, but they could easily come with unexpected side effects that make our situation worse. Techniques known as “geoengineering”, in which radical technologies offset our influences on the earth’s climate, fall into two categories:

1) Counteracting the warming. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide trap heat and cause the Earth to warm up, so we could introduce technologies that have a cooling effect on the Earth. By increasing the planet’s albedo (reflectivity), more of the Sun’s rays will bounce right off the Earth’s surface without being absorbed.

One way this could be achieved would be to inject massive amounts of sulfate particles into the stratosphere, blocking sunlight just like a volcanic eruption. However, this could have detrimental effects on the ozone layer, especially around the polar regions. We could end up trading the damaging effects of a warming climate for the damaging effects of too much UV radiation, a problem that we’ve already spent considerable time and energy addressing.

A similar proposal is to put objects in the Earth’s orbit that would reflect sunlight – giant mirrors, lenses, or sunshades in space.

2. Counteracting the CO2. If we can’t stop or even slow down our emissions of greenhouse gases, perhaps we could alter the biogeochemical systems of the Earth so they would absorb the gases and keep them safely out of the atmosphere. CO2 “sinks” already exist – forests, oceans, permafrost – but they’re not big enough to contain all of our emissions. How could we expand them, or add more?

The concept of artificial trees, that will perform photosynthesis anywhere, is intriguing – but the scale of implementation needed is not very feasible. Think of the amount of land that would have to be covered with these machines in order to offset our emissions.

A more widely discussed possibility for expanded carbon sinks involves fertilizing the ocean with iron filings, promoting blooms of phytoplankton that would photosynthesize, absorbing our emissions of CO2. However, as anyone living near the Great Lakes knows, overloading a water body with nutrients can have serious consequences for the ecosystem. Algal blooms can deplete the water of oxygen and block sunlight, killing the other plants and animals that share the habitat. For an ecosystem that covers most of our Earth’s surface, that might not be such a good idea.

All of these propositions have another dimension of questions attached: Who will control them? If we’re going to actively counteract our climatic influences, many careful decisions will need to be made. Who will calculate how much geoengineering, and of what type, to implement? Who will decide when enough is enough?

I have heard geoengineering described as a tourniquet: the worst possible option, except for bleeding to death. Scientists understand that it should be considered a “last resort” – only to be used when we have eliminated fossil fuel use and it still isn’t enough. However, there are doubtlessly politicians and industry leaders out there who see geoengineering as an attractive alternative to cap-and-trade systems or carbon taxes.

Recently, at their Convention on Biodiversity, the UN decided to ban geoengineering – it’s just too dangerous, and we don’t know enough. However, this ban will also restrict large-scale research projects on geoengineering, that could give us a clearer picture of what is and is not feasible. Isn’t it more prudent to take small risks now so that we understand our future options, rather than jump blindly into full deployment when the time comes?

Bart Gordon, the outgoing chair of the U.S. Congress Science & Technology Committee, just issued a congressional geoengineering report. He was interviewed by a Chemical & Engineering News article on the subject, and had these words to say:

A research moratorium that stifles science, especially at this stage in our understanding of climate engineering’s risks and benefits, is a step in the wrong direction and undercuts the importance of scientific transparency. If climate change is indeed one of the greatest long-term threats to biological diversity and human welfare, then failing to understand all of our options is also a threat to biodiversity and human welfare.

How many risks should we take in order to secure a safer alternative for possible future use? Will pursuing research into geoengineering distract us from the important task of reducing greenhouse gases, or is the situation already so far gone that preparing for the worst is worthwhile? One thing is clear: If earlier generations had thrown their efforts into fixing climate change as soon as scientists recognized it was underway, we wouldn’t be worrying so much today about the feasibility of giant mirrors in space or oceans full of iron.

What If…?

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Let’s start with the obvious – the U.S. midterm elections are upon us, and it’s quite likely that the Republicans will win a majority. (My American friends tell me that this is possible even with Barack Obama remaining president. Please bear with my limited knowledge of the American political system. It works very differently in Canada.)

I’m not going to comment on partisan issues – health care, immigration, economic stimulus. What I am here to talk about is an issue that should not be partisan, but has become partisan regardless: science, specifically climate science.

Climate change is not a theory – it is the logical result of several theories, based in physics and chemistry, that scientists have understood since the 1800s. What’s political about that? Exactly what part of the equation dF = 5.35 ln(C/Co) is an opinion that differs based on ideological factors?

The political part comes when we ask the question, “What do we do to stop climate change?” A carbon tax? Cap-and-trade? Regulation? Some of these solutions are more liberal or conservative than others. The only decision that doesn’t adhere to U.S. politics is to do nothing. Absence of action is a decision in itself, and the overwhelming scientific evidence (based not just on computer models, but also observations of past climate changes) shows us that doing nothing will allow this problem to spiral out of control, causing damages that no amount of money will be able to repair. What U.S. party advocates leaving that kind of world to their grandchildren? As Bill McKibben says, you wouldn’t expect it to be the Republicans:

If there was ever a radical project, monkeying with the climate would surely qualify. Had the Soviet Union built secret factories to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threatened to raise the sea level and subvert the Grain Belt, the prevailing conservative response would have been: Bomb them. Bomb them back to the Holocene—to the 10,000-year period of climatic stability now unraveling, the period that underwrote the rise of human civilization that conservatism has taken as its duty to protect. Conservatism has always stressed stability and continuity; since Burke, the watchwords have been tradition, authority, heritage. The globally averaged temperature of the planet has been 57 degrees, give or take, for most of human history; we know that works, that it allows the world we have enjoyed. Now, the finest minds, using the finest equipment, tell us that it’s headed toward 61 or 62 or 63 degrees unless we rapidly leave fossil fuel behind, and that, in the words of NASA scientists, this new world won’t be “similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Conservatives should be leading the desperate fight to preserve the earth we were born on.

But they’re not. Instead, many are choosing a psychological easy way out: if every solution seems imperfect, deny that the problem exists. Out of all the Republican contenders for the Senate, none support action on climate change, and most deny the existence of anthropogenic global warming.

It is questionable whether all of these statements are sincere. Politicians, after all, will say whatever they need to say to get elected. If these Republicans feel that their voting base denies climate change, they will adjust their public statements accordingly. Look at John McCain – during the 2008 presidential election, his promises for clean energy were nearly as strong as Obama’s. Now, he rejects cap-and-trade, and views the anthropogenic cause of climate change in the Arctic as an “opinion”.

Admittedly, a new, but growing, segment of the Republican voting base overwhelmingly denies climate change. As the New York Times reports, Tea Party supporters have all kinds of convoluted arguments against a field of science they know virtually nothing about. It contradicts “the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture”, and it could be caused by “the normal cycles of nature” (whatever those are), so thousands of scientists spending their lives studying this problem must be missing something. Or they could be part of a massive conspiracy.

Republican candidates are catering to the extreme segments of their party, and, arguably, to their party as a whole. However, their plans to base action (or lack thereof) on the fervent hope that the scientific community is out to lunch may alienate voters who understand what a risk that would be.

Or so we hope. If Republicans get their way, climate science will not just be disregarded: the men and women who study it will be criminally investigated, for no reason other than that their research supports the existence of anthropogenic climate change. And since James Inhofe can’t find any gaping holes in the math, that means the scientists must be fraudulent, right?

The Republican Party also hopes to conduct yet another investigation into the private correspondence of scientists, stolen and distributed a year ago. Although these emails show that climate scientists are not always very nice, it does not undermine one iota of our understanding of the climate system, as five independent investigations have concluded. But that’s not the answer Republican officials want, so they will waste taxpayers’ money and researchers’ time with their own investigation. Kind of hypocritical for a party that promises fiscal responsibility.

I’m a Canadian. I don’t get a vote in this election. I am also eighteen years old. I, unlike most Republican Senators, will be around to witness the effects of climate change. We have wasted twenty years in the fight against climate change, and if we continue to let petty politics and finger-pointing delay us more, the whole world will suffer.

It’s no secret that American politics disproportionately influence the world. The same is true for American emissions of greenhouse gases, and American agreements to reduce these emissions, and American patterns of energy use and energy sources. So please, when you go to vote this week, think about not just yourself and your country but other young people and other countries too.

And please vote. I’ll leave you with some wise words from Seth Godin:

If you don’t vote because you’re trying to teach politicians a lesson, you’re tragically misguided in your strategy. The very politicians you’re trying to send a message to don’t want you to vote.

Voting is free. It’s fairly fast. It doesn’t make you responsible for the outcome, but it sure has an impact on what we have to live with going forward. The only thing that would make it better is free snacks.

Even if you’re disgusted, vote. Vote for your least unfavorite choice. But go vote.

Does Breathing Contribute to CO2 Buildup in the Atmosphere?

I was recently honoured to join Skeptical Science, a comprehensive database of rebuttals to common climate change misconceptions, as an author. Here I am republishing my first article regarding the common myth that breathing out contributes to the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide. It is the Intermediate version, and I have also written a very similar Basic version, which includes a diagram by John Cook. Enjoy!

The very first time you learned about carbon dioxide was probably in grade school: We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Any eight-year-old can rattle off this fact.

More specifically, the mitochondria within our cells perform cellular respiration: they burn carbohydrates (in the example shown below, glucose) in the oxygen that we breathe in to yield carbon dioxide and water, which we exhale as waste products, as well as energy, which is required to maintain our bodily processes and keep us alive.

C6H12O6 + 6O2 → 6CO2 + 6H2O + energy

carbohydrates + oxygen → carbon dixoide + water + energy

It should come as no surprise that, when confronted with the challenge of reducing our carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, some people angrily proclaim, “Why should we bother? Even breathing out creates carbon emissions!”

This statement fails to take into account the other half of the carbon cycle. As you also learned in grade school, plants are the opposite to animals in this respect: Through photosynthesis, they take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, in a chemical equation opposite to the one above. (They also perform some respiration, because they need to eat as well, but it is outweighed by the photosynthesis.) The carbon they collect from the CO2 in the air forms their tissues – roots, stems, leaves, and fruit.

These tissues form the base of the food chain, as they are eaten by animals, which are eaten by other animals, and so on. As humans, we are part of this food chain. All the carbon in our body comes either directly or indirectly from plants, which took it out of the air only recently.

Therefore, when we breathe out, all the carbon dioxide we exhale has already been accounted for. By performing cellular respiration, we are simply returning to the air the same carbon that was there to begin with. Remember, it’s a carbon cycle, not a straight line – and a good thing, too!

Party Line

Brad Johnson from The Wonk Room recently released a comprehensive list of what Republican contenders for the U.S. Senate understand about climate change, inferred from their public statements. The result? 47 of the 48 deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change and/or oppose mitigating action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Take a look – many of the statements are what you would expect from trolling YouTube commenters, not politicians aspiring to run the most powerful country in the world. Through a combination of framing science as personal opinion, promoting artificial balance, and re-iterating the same misconceptions that people like you and I have been fighting to correct for years now, the Republican party has adopted a position that, frankly, terrifies me.

“There are dramatic environmental changes happening the Arctic region – whether one believes they are man-made or natural.” – John McCain, Arizona

“While I think the earth is warming, I don’t think that man-made causes are the primary factor.” – Ken Buck, Colorado

“The climate is always changing. The climate is never static. The question is whether it’s caused by man-made activity and whether it justifies economically destructive government regulation.” -Marco Rubio, Florida

“[Scientists] are making up their facts to fit their conclusions. They’ve already caught them doing this.” – Rand Paul, Kentucky

“There isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path of the Earth.” -Roy Blunt, Missouri

“I don’t buy into the whole man-caused global warming, man-caused climate change mantra of the left. I believe that there’s not sound science to back that up.” -Sharron Angle, Nevada

“There is much debate in the scientific community as to the precise sources of global warming.” -Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania

“It’s going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries ‘uncle’.” -Jim DeMint, South Carolina

“If you have one volcano in the world, that one volcano puts out more carbon dioxide than everything man puts out.” -John Raese, West Virginia

“I absolutely do not believe that the science of man-caused climate change is proven. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I think it’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity, or something just in the geologic eons of time where we have changes in the climate.” -Ron Johnson, Wisconsin

Who are these people to make statements about what the scientific community knows and does not know about climate change, when organizations like the NAS are quite capable of doing that themselves, and tell a very different story to these prospective Senators when they do?

Who are they to make informal analyses on the attribution of recent temperature change – assessing the likelihood of different causes via gut instinct, rather than looking at fingerprints like stratospheric temperature and tropopause height?

Who are they to spread around blatant mistruths like “a single volcano puts out more CO2 than people do”? Who are they to make damaging accusations about scientific fraud and false data, especially when these accusations have already been investigated multiple times, coming up completely clear?

I had hoped that politicians would be slightly more informed than the general public on scientific matters that have implications for policy. However, I must now change my mind, and hope instead that the American public realizes how off the mark this position is. If they don’t, there could be consequences up to millenia from now.

A Fabulous Contribution

I’ve really been enjoying the Advanced versions of Skeptical Science’s rebuttals to common misconceptions about climate change. So far, they have all been written by someone going by the name of dana1981, who I would like to give a huge shout-out to. I am a new B.Sc. student who is interested in pursuing a career in climate change research, and these articles have been very helpful in giving me a taste of basic atmospheric science.

In “How do we know more CO2 is causing warming?”, I was introduced to the relatively simple equation required to calculate the radiative forcing of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, as well as the expected equilibrium temperature change from CO2, using the range of values for climate sensitivity provided by the IPCC (as calculating climate sensitivity is not quite so simple!)

In “The human fingerprint in global warming”, dana1981 discussed different attribution studies, and explained how anthropogenic warming has certain “fingerprints” – more warming at night than during the day, a cooling of the stratosphere, and a rise in tropopause height – all of which have been observed. I had a basic understanding of these fingerprints and why they occurred, but it was great to read about the current research in attribution studies, with impeccable citations.

“How sensitive is our climate?” was similar to the first article, but also addressed the common misconception that climate sensitivity is specific to different forcings. If the climate has low sensitivity to CO2, it also has low sensitivity to solar radiation, cosmic ray feedback, etc. The equilibrium temperature change doesn’t care if the extra few W/m2 is from the greenhouse effect or planetary albedo – it changes with the same speed either way, which disproves many skeptical arguments. Additionally, since the prehistoric record shows large swings in climate resulting from relatively small forcings, scientists are confident that climate sensitivity is not very low.

“Solar activity & climate: is the sun causing global warming?” was absolutely fascinating. The equations required to calculate solar forcing using total solar irradiance were new to me, and dana1981 went so far as to analyze early 20th-century warming, calculating how much was due to an upswing in solar irradiance and how much was due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. During the latter half of the 20th century, solar irradiance has dropped back down, but warming has only accelerated.

Skeptical Science’s recent efforts to expand their rebuttals to include beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels of explanation were inspired by a RealClimate post written by Dr. Gavin Schimdt. He thoughtfully wrote,

I think we should be explicitly thinking about information levels and explicitly catering to different audiences with different needs and capabilities. One metaphor that might work well is that of an alpine ski hill. There we have (in the US for instance) green runs for beginners wanting a gentle introduction and where hopefully nothing too bad can happen. Blue runs where the technical level is a little more ambitious and a little more care needs to be taken. Black expert runs for those who know what they are doing and are doing it well, and finally, double black diamond runs for the true masters. No-one accuses ski resorts of being patronising when they have green runs interspersed with the more difficult ones, and neither do they get accused of elitism when one peak has only black runs going down (as I recall all too painfully on my first ski outing). People self-segregate and generally find their way to the level at which the feel comfortable – whether they want a easy or challenging ride – and there is nothing stopping them varying the levels as their mood or inclination takes them.

Skeptical Science took up this challenge, and although their efforts have largely been focused on creating “plain-English” beginner articles, as a huge target audience for climate change communication is the general public, I’m extremely grateful that they’re also catering to new science enthusiasts such as myself with the advanced articles. Please, keep them coming!

While we’re on the topic, I should also mention a great new post by Skeptical Science, which is not part of their argument database – “The contradictory nature of global warming skepticism”. You can’t hold the objection that the world isn’t warming and then turn around and say that global warming is natural, but these and other self-disproving arguments reach us on a daily basis. Deniers can’t seem to agree on a single unified objection to anthropogenic global climate change, and some individuals, as the post shows, contradict themselves up to five times in six months.

And hey, I just realized right now – that post was also written by dana1981. Whoever this writer is, he or she is doing a great job.

Priorities

I’m sick of all the politics surrounding climate science.

I wish it could go back to just being science, the way it was in the 1970s, without all these people trying to sabotage it for us. I wish we could concentrate on the joy and fascination we feel when we learn about the climate system, without having to deal with hate mail and quotes taken out of context.

I’m tired of the game of Broken Telephone in science journalism, the game that somehow always allows Fox News to make claims like “melting Arctic sea ice isn’t caused by warming temperatures”. I’m tired of the outright falsehoods that are permitted to circulate around the world, in respected publications, without consequences.

I’m tired of unnecessary investigations into the integrity of climatology researchers and organizations. I’m tired of the accusations of “whitewash” when these investigations invariably come up clear. I’m tired of scientists being portrayed as frauds if they don’t achieve a 100% success rate in their projections.

I’m tired of the politicians that attempt to subject innocent scientists to criminal prosecution. They’re so unwilling to accept the reality of anthropogenic global climate change that they think scientific fraud on an unprecedented scale is more likely than well-established properties of physics playing out as expected. It frightens and astounds me that people with such an upside-down understanding of the scientific process hold immense power in the American government.

I first became interested in climate science because of the science, not because of all the politics surrounding it. The earliest thing I can remember sparking my interest is learning about the different isotopes of oxygen, and how they can be used to reconstruct temperature.

These days, however, it’s nearly impossible to learn about climate science without running into silly arguments and widespread misconceptions and stubborn denialism. I started writing this blog so that I would have an outlet to keep myself sane as I waded through all the muddle. As time went on, an element of public education developed, along with priceless learning opportunities and collaboration. This blog has grown to so much more than I ever anticipated.

I don’t really have the heart to read Naomi Oreskes’ new book quite yet, or to re-read Climate Cover-Up, or to scroll down to the comment section when CBC publishes online articles about climate change. I know what a dire situation we are in, not only ecologically and climatologically, but also socially – in terms of public understanding and science communication. I know what a mess we’re in, and I don’t need reminding. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of the mess, but I try to do my part by continuing to pour my sociological musings into this sanity-inducing and morale-raising outlet.

I just want to work my way through David Archer’s book, Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, and learn how to use all the atmospheric science equations within it. I want to download papers from Nature and Science and read them on the bus. I want to keep a close eye on the “Advanced” versions of Skeptical Science rebuttals, because isn’t it just amazing that we have a simple logarithmic equation for the relationship between radiative forcing and atmospheric CO2 concentration?

Many people might find it strange that I see straight science as a break, some sort of retreat from that which is more difficult to stomach. But then, we’re in a strange situation here.

What Kevin Trenberth Has to Say

A comment from Steve Bloom several months ago got me thinking about a new kind of post that would be a lot of fun: interviewing top climate scientists, both on their research and their views of climate science journalism and communication. When I emailed Dr. Kevin Trenberth to see if he would be interested in such an interview, he responded with an entire essay that he had written about recent events in climate change communication. Although this essay is unpublished as of yet, he graciously suggested that I quote it for a post here.

It’s no surprise that Dr. Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, is angry about the way stolen emails between researchers were trumpeted around the world in an attempt to make them seem like something they were not. He was “involved in just over 100” of the emails, and from the looks of things, hasn’t heard the end of it since they were stolen.

One oft-quoted statement of his went viral: The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. Climate change deniers portrayed this quote as an admission that the world wasn’t warming after all, or even that scientists were trying to cover up a cooling trend. Taken in the full context of the email in which it was written, however, it’s clear that Trenberth was referring to a recent paper of his, which discussed our incomplete understanding of the factors affecting short-term variability in the Earth’s temperature. There were a couple years between 2004 and 2008 that weren’t quite as warm as scientists expected after looking at all the forcings, such as solar irradiance and ENSO. The paper and the subsequent email in no way mean that global warming has stopped. In fact, we’re well on our way to the warmest year on record. “It is amazing to see this particular quote lambasted so often,” says Trenberth.

Another quote, this time from a stolen email he was not even a recipient of, was written by Phil Jones, the director of CRU. I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report, wrote Jones, referring to several studies that were not regarded very highly by the climate science community, one of which was later retracted. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-reviewed literature is!

Dr. Trenberth offers an insight for this comment that was previously unknown to me. The IPCC’s 2007 report “was the first time Jones was on the writing team of an IPCC Assessment,” he says. “The comment was naive and sent before he understood the process and before any lead author meetings were held…As a veteran of 3 previous IPCC assessments, I was well aware that we do not keep any papers out, and none were kept out.” Indeed, both studies were discussed in the 2007 report, offering proof that the private emails of scientists do not always correspond to their ultimate actions.

To date, four independent investigations (five if you count the two Penn State reports as separate) “have confirmed what climate scientists have never seriously doubted: established scientists depend on their credibility and have no motivation in purposely misleading the public and their colleagues.” Referring to the only major criticism that the investigations had for CRU, Trenberth notes that scientists “are also understandably, but inadvisably, reluctant to share complex data sets with non-experts that they perceive as charlatans.”

Despite the complete absence of evidence for scientific fraud, the fact that no papers were changed or retracted due to these emails, and the obvious innocence of scientists like Dr. Trenberth, public confusion over climate change has grown in recent months. Almost everyone who keeps up with the news will remember hearing something about climate researchers accused of malpractice. “There should be condemnation of the abuse, misuse and downright lies about the emails,” says Trenberth. “That should be the real ClimateGate!”

After all this experience as the subject of libelous attacks and campaigns of misinformation, Kevin Trenberth can offer suggestions for other scientists in the same position. He does not recommend debating the conclusions of climate change research in the public sphere, as “scientific facts are not open to debate and opinion because they are evidence and/or physically based.” He has learned, like so many of us here at ClimateSight, that “in a debate it is impossible to counter lies [and] loudly proclaimed confident statements that often have little or no basis.”

“Moreover,” he adds, “a debate actually gives alternative views credibility,” something that climate change deniers haven’t earned. He and his colleagues “find it disturbing that blogs by uninformed members of the public are given equal weight with carefully researched information backed up with extensive observational facts and physical understanding.”

Much of the online climate change community has lost faith with climate journalism in recent months, and Dr. Trenberth is no exception. He asserts that the mass media has been “complicit in this disinformation campaign of the deniers”, and has some explanations as to why. “Climate varies slowly,” he says, “and so the message remains similar, year after year — something not exciting for journalists as it is not “news”.” He also notes the stubborn phenomenon of artificial balance, as “controversy is the fodder of the media, not truth, and so the media amplify the view that there are two sides and give unwarranted attention to views of a small minority or those with vested interests or ideologies.”

“The media are a part of the problem,” says Trenberth. “But they have to be part of the solution.”