General Thoughts on AGU

I returned home from the AGU Fall Meeting last night, and after a good night’s sleep I am almost recovered – it’s amazing how tired science can make you!

The whole conference felt sort of surreal. Meeting and conversing with others was definitely the best part. I shook the hand of James Hansen and assured him that he is making a difference. I talked about my research with Gavin Schmidt. I met dozens of people that were previously just names on a screen, from top scientists like Michael Mann and Ben Santer to fellow bloggers like Michael Tobis and John Cook.

I filled most of a journal with notes I took during presentations, and saw literally hundreds of posters. I attended a workshop on climate science communication, run by Susan Joy Hassol and Richard Sommerville, which fundamentally altered my strategies for public outreach. Be sure to check out their new website, and their widely acclaimed Physics Today paper that summarizes most of their work.

Speaking of fabulous communication, take a few minutes to watch this memorial video for Stephen Schneider – it’s by the same folks who turned Bill McKibben’s article into a video:

AGU inspired so many posts that I think I will publish something every day this week. Be sure to check back often!

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The Tar Sands

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?

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.