My Cartoon Supervisors

My supervisors are so distinguished that they now exist in cartoon form! If that’s not the mark of a successful science communicator, I’m not sure what is.

Here is Katrin:

And here is Matt:

A former supervisor of mine also got a cartoon:

There are 97 cartoons like this over at Skeptical Science, a site which is quickly becoming a force of nature. This campaign reached millions of people through Twitter alone, and was even retweeted by President Obama.

Well, This is a Problem

The back gardens of Mayflower, Arkansas aren’t looking too good:

spill

Yes, that’s oil. Canadian oil, no less. You’re welcome.

I’ve heard surprisingly little about this event, which occurred when an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured on Friday. It appears that the press have limited access while the cleanup crews are at work. National Geographic had a good piece, though.

Call me cynical, but I think the Canadian media are purposely keeping quiet on this one. It’s a very inconvenient time for a pipeline to burst, given that all levels of government and industry are pushing for Keystone, Northern Gateway, Energy East, etc., etc.

News of this event is largely relying on Mayflower citizens leveraging social media. There’s no way to verify their photos and videos, but they’re striking nonetheless. Here’s a video of the situation on a residential street – note the lack of cleanup crews.

The oil is going straight into the storm drain, the man in the video says, which makes me shudder. I don’t know anything about Mayflower’s stormwater system, but where I live those storm drains are about three steps removed from the Red River. Once oil got in there, I can’t imagine it ever getting out.

I find it puzzling that the negative impacts of pipelines are so often catalogued as “environmentalists’ problems” in the Canadian media – here’s a typical example. In reality, they’re everyone’s problems. Environmentalists (as much as I detest that label) are just the people who realize it. We are not a special interest group; we represent everyone. When it comes to disasters, from short-term spills like the one in Mayflower to millennial-scale impacts like climate change, Canadian oil will affect everyone indiscriminately.

Side note: Sorry I have been so absurdly quiet recently. I am busy building two climate models – just small ones for term projects, but so enjoyable that everything else is getting neglected. I’ll be posting much more on that in about a month.

A Conversation with Gavin Schmidt

Cross-posted from NextGenJournal

Dr. Gavin Schmidt is a climate modeller at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, as well as the editor at RealClimate. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Schmidt, one of the top scientists in his field, on what we can expect from the climate in the coming decades. Here is the entirety of the interview we completed for my article Climate Change and Young People.

Kate: In a business-as-usual scenario, what range of warming can we expect within the lifetimes of today’s young people – so to about 2070 or 2080?

Gavin: Well, we don’t have a perfect crystal ball for exactly what “business-as-usual” means, but the kind of projections that people have been looking at – which involve quite high increases in population and minimal changes in technology – you are talking about global temperature changes, by about 2070, of 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.

That metric is a bit abstract to most people, so how will that amount of warming actually impact people’s lives?

That’s a very good question, because most people don’t live in the global mean temperature, or the global mean anything. Those kinds of numbers translate to larger changes, between four and six degrees of warming, over the land. As you go towards the poles it becomes larger as well, because of the amplifying feedbacks of ice albedo changes and reductions in snow cover.

Right now the range between a cold summer and a warm summer, in most mid-latitude places, is on the order of a couple of degrees. You’ll be looking at summers then – the normal summer then – will be warmer than the warmest summers that you have now, and significantly warmer than the coldest summers. The same will be true in winter time and other seasons.

How will that impact metrics such as agriculture, food prices, the economy…?

It’s easy enough to say that there are going to be some impacts – obviously agriculture depends on the climate that exists. People will adapt to that, they’ll plant earlier, but crops are very sensitive to peak summer temperatures. So you’ll see losses in the fatally sensitive crops. But then you’ll see movement north of crops that were grown further south. You have to deal with the other changes – in nutrient balances, water availability, soil quality. We’re not talking about just moving the subtropics further toward the poles.

Lots of other things are going to change as well. Pests travel much faster with climate than do other kinds of species: invasive species tend to increase faster, because they’re moving into an empty niche, than species that are already well established. There’s going to be changes to rainfall regimes, whether it snows or rains, how heavily it rains – a lot of those things will tax infrastructure.

You’ve got changes for people living on the coast related to sea level rise. That will lead to changes in the damaging effects of storm surges when any particular storm comes through. We’re also looking at more subtle changes to the storms themselves, which could even amplify that effect.

How much of this warming, and these impacts, are now inevitable? Do we have the ability to prevent most of it, and what would that take?

Some further changes are inevitable. The system has so much inertia, and it 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. But we do have a choice as to whether we try and minimize these changes in the future, or we allow the maximum change to occur. And the maximum changes really are very large. It’s been said that if we allow that to happen, we’ll end up living on a different planet, and I think there’s some certain truth to that.

I hear you talking a lot about uncertainty, and that’s something a lot of people are paralyzed by: they don’t want us to take these actions because they think everything might be fine on its own. What’s your response to that attitude?

Any decision that you’re making now that has to do with the future is uncertain. We make decisions all the time: where to invest money, whether to buy a house – these things aren’t certain, and we still have to make decisions. The issue with climate is that no action is a decision in and of itself. That one is actually laden with far more uncertainty than if we actually try and produce energy more efficiently, try and use more renewables, adjust the way we live so that we have a more sustainable future. The uncertainty comes with what would happen if we don’t make a decision, and I find that to be the dominant uncertainty. But climate change is not unique in having to deal with decision making under uncertainty. All decisions are like that. It’s nothing special about climate change in that there’s uncertainty about what’s going to happen in the future. Any time we decide to do anything, there’s uncertainty about the future, yet we still manage to get out of bed in the morning.

Probably in response to this attitude, climate science has got a lot of bad press in the past couple years. What have your experiences been – what sort of reactions have there been to your research?

There are a lot of people, particularly in the US, who perceive the science itself – just describing what’s going on and why – as a threat to their interests. To my mind, knowing what’s going on in the planet and trying to understand why should just be information, it shouldn’t be a threat. But other people see it as a threat, and instead of dealing with either their perceptions or what the science actually means, they choose to attack the science and they choose to attack the scientists. Basically, you just have people adopting a “shoot the messenger” strategy, which plays well in the media. It doesn’t get us very far in terms of better understanding what’s going on. But it does add a sort of smokescreen to divert people’s attention from what the real issues are. That’s regrettable, but I don’t think it’s at all surprising.

And finally, are you at all optimistic about the future?

It depends on the day.

The Pitfalls of General Reporting: A Case Study

Today’s edition of Nature included an alarming paper, indicating record ozone loss in the Arctic due to an unusually long period of cold temperatures in the lower stratosphere.

On the same day, coverage of the story by the Canadian Press included a fundamental error that is already contributing to public confusion about the reality of climate change.

Counter-intuitively, while global warming causes temperatures in the troposphere (the lowest layer of the atmosphere) to rise, it causes temperatures in the stratosphere (the next layer up), as well as every layer above that, to fall. The exact mechanics are complex, but the pattern of a warming troposphere and a cooling stratosphere has been both predicted and observed.

This pattern was observed in the Arctic this year. As the Nature paper mentions, the stratosphere was unusually cold in early 2011. The surface temperatures, however, were unusually warm, as data from NASA shows:

Mar-May 2011

Dec-Feb 2011

While we can’t know for sure whether or not the unusual stratospheric conditions were caused by climate change, this chain of cause and effect is entirely consistent with what we can expect in a warming world.

However, if all you read was an article by the Canadian Press, you could be forgiven for thinking differently.

The article states that the ozone loss was “caused by an unusually prolonged period of extremely low temperatures.” I’m going to assume that means surface temperatures, because nothing else is specified – and virtually every member of the public would assume that too. As we saw from the NASA maps, though, cold surface temperatures couldn’t be further from the truth.

The headline, which was probably written by the Winnipeg Free Press, rather than the Canadian Press, tops off the glaring misconception nicely:

Record Ozone loss over the Arctic caused by extremely cold weather: scientists

No, no, no. Weather happens in the troposphere, not the stratosphere. While the stratosphere was extremely cold, the troposphere certainly was not. It appears that the reporters assumed the word “stratosphere” in the paper’s abstract was completely unimportant. In fact, it changes the meaning of the story entirely.

The reaction to this article, as seen in the comments section, is predictable:

So with global warming our winters are colder?

First it’s global warming that is destroying Earth, now it’s being too cold?! I’m starting to think these guys know as much about this as weather guys know about forecasting the weather!

Al gore the biggest con man since the beginning of mankind!! This guys holdings leave a bigger carbon footprint than most small countries!!

I’m confused. I thought the north was getting warmer and that’s why the polar bears are roaming around Churchill looking for food. There isn’t ice for them to go fishing.

People are already confused, and deniers are already using this journalistic error as evidence that global warming is fake. All because a major science story was written by a general reporter who didn’t understand the study they were covering.

In Manitoba, high school students learn about the different layers of the atmosphere in the mandatory grade 10 science course. Now, reporters who can’t recall this information are writing science stories for the Canadian Press.

What Does the Public Know?

Part 4 in a series of 5 for NextGen Journal

Like it or not, a scientific consensus exists that humans are causing the Earth to warm. However, the small number of scientists that disagree with this conclusion get a disproportionate amount of media time, particularly in the United States: most newspaper articles give the two “sides” equal weight. Does this false sense of balance in the media take a toll on public understanding of climate science? Are people getting the false impression that global warming is a tenuous and controversial theory? Recent survey data from George Mason University can help answer these questions.

65% of Americans say the world is warming, but only 46% attribute this change to human activities. Compare these numbers to 96% and 97% of climate scientists, respectively. Somewhere, the lines of communication are getting muddled.

It’s not as if people hear about scientific results but don’t believe them. Given that 76% of Americans “strongly” or “somewhat” trust scientists as sources of information on climate change, you would expect public knowledge to fall in line with scientific consensus. However, it appears that most people don’t know about this consensus. 41% of Americans say there is “a lot of disagreement among scientists” regarding global warming. Among Republicans, this figure rises to 56%; for the Tea Party, 69%.

If you could ask an expert one question about climate change, what would it be? Among survey respondents, the most popular answer (19%) was, “How do you know that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, not natural changes in the environment?” As a science communicator, this statistic intrigues me – it tells me what to focus on. For those who are interested, scientists can attribute changes in the climate to particular causes based on the way the global temperature changes: patterns of warming in different layers of the atmosphere, the rate of warming at night compared to in the day, in summer compared to in winter, and so on. You can read more about this topic here and here.

In this survey, the differences between Republicans and Democrats weren’t as extreme as I expected. Instead, it was the Tea Party that really stuck out. Self-identified Tea Party members are, based on their responses, the least informed about climate science, but also the most likely to consider themselves well-informed and the least likely to change their minds. A majority of members in every other political group would choose environmental sustainability over economic growth, if it came down to a choice; a majority of every other party thinks that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do. But the Tea Party seems opposed to everything, including solutions as benign as urban planning.

Luckily, this anti-science movement only made up 12% of the survey respondents. Most Americans are far more willing to learn about climate change and question their knowledge, and there is no source that they trust more than scientists.

Who are the Skeptics?

Part 3 in a series of 5 for NextGen Journal
Adapted from part of an earlier post

As we discussed last time, there is a remarkable level of scientific consensus on the reality and severity of human-caused global warming. However, most members of the public are unaware of this consensus – a topic which we will focus on in the next installment. Anyone with an Internet connection or a newspaper subscription will be able to tell you that many scientists think global warming is natural or nonexistent. As we know, these scientists are in the vast minority, but they have enjoyed widespread media coverage. Let’s look at three of the most prominent skeptics, and examine what they’re saying.

S. Fred Singer is an atmospheric physicist and retired environmental science professor. He has rarely published in scientific journals since the 1960s, but he is very visible in the media. In recent years, he has claimed that the Earth has been cooling since 1998 (in 2006), that the Earth is warming, but it is natural and unstoppable (in 2007), and that the warming is artificial and due to the urban heat island effect (in 2009).

Richard Lindzen, also an atmospheric physicist, is far more active in the scientific community than Singer. However, most of his publications, including the prestigious IPCC report to which he contributed, conclude that climate change is real and caused by humans. He has published two papers stating that climate change is not serious: a 2001 paper hypothesizing that clouds would provide a negative feedback to cancel out global warming, and a 2009 paper claiming that climate sensitivity (the amount of warming caused by a doubling of carbon dioxide) was very low. Both of these ideas were rebutted by the academic community, and Lindzen’s methodology criticized. Lindzen has even publicly retracted his 2001 cloud claim. Therefore, in his academic life, Lindzen appears to be a mainstream climate scientist – contributing to assessment reports, abandoning theories that are disproved, and publishing work that affirms the theory of anthropogenic climate change. However, when Lindzen talks to the media, his statements change. He has implied that the world is not warming by calling attention to the lack of warming in the Antarctic (in 2004) and the thickening of some parts of the Greenland ice sheet (in 2006), without explaining that both of these apparent contradictions are well understood by scientists and in no way disprove warming. He has also claimed that the observed warming is minimal and natural (in 2006).

Finally, Patrick Michaels is an ecological climatologist who occasionally publishes peer-reviewed studies, but none that support his more outlandish claims. In 2009 alone, Michaels said that the observed warming is below what computer models predicted, that natural variations in oceanic cycles such as El Niño explain most of the warming, and that human activity explains most of the warming but it’s nothing to worry about because technology will save us (cached copy, as the original was taken down).

While examining these arguments from skeptical scientists, something quickly becomes apparent: many of the arguments are contradictory. For example, how can the world be cooling if it is also warming naturally? Not only do the skeptics as a group seem unable to agree on a consistent explanation, some of the individuals either change their mind every year or believe two contradictory theories at the same time. Additionally, none of these arguments are supported by the peer-reviewed literature. They are all elementary misconceptions which were proven erroneous long ago. Multiple articles on this site could be devoted to rebutting such claims, but easy-to-read rebuttals for virtually every objection to human-caused climate change are already available on Skeptical Science. Here is a list of rebuttals relevant to the claims of Singer, Lindzen and Michaels:

With a little bit of research, the claims of these skeptics quickly fall apart. It does not seem possible that they are attempting to further our knowledge of science, as their arguments are so weak and inconsistent, and rarely published in scientific venues. However, their pattern of arguments does work as a media strategy, as most people will trust what a scientist says in the newspaper, and not research his reputation or remember his name. Over time, the public will start to remember dozens of so-called problems with the anthropogenic climate change theory.

Quality, Transparency, and Rigour

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports are likely the most cited documents on the subject of global warming. The organization, established by the United Nations, doesn’t do any original research – it simply summarizes the massive amount of scientific literature on the topic. Their reports, written and reviewed by volunteer scientists, and published approximately every six years, are a “one-stop shop” for credible information about climate change. When you have a question about climate science, it’s far easier to find the relevant section of the IPCC than it is to wade through thousands of results on Google Scholar.

The main problem with the IPCC, in my opinion, is that their reports are out of date as soon as they’re published, and then everyone has to wait another six years or so for the next version, which is subsequently out of date, and so on. Additionally, because there are so many authors, reviewers, and stakeholders involved in the IPCC, the reports come to reflect the lowest-common-denominator scientific understanding, rather than the median opinion of experts. In particular, government officials oversee the writing and reviewing of the Summary for Policymakers, to make sure that it’s relevant and clear. However, some governments are beginning to abuse their power in this process. The late Stephen Schneider, in his 2009 book Science as a Contact Sport, recounts his experiences with government representatives who absolutely refuse to allow certain conclusions to be published in the IPCC, regardless of their scientific backing.

The result is that the IPCC reports frequently underestimate the severity of climate change. For example, in the most recent report, the worst-case estimate of sea level rise by the end of this century was 0.59 m. Since then, scientists have revised this estimate to 1.9 m, but it won’t show up in the report until the next edition comes out around 2014.

Another example concerns Arctic sea ice: the worst-case scenario from the IPCC was an ice-free Arctic in the summer beginning around 2100. These estimates have come down so rapidly that there’s an outside chance the summer sea ice could be gone before the next IPCC report has a chance to correct it (presentation by Dr. David Barber, media coverage available here). It will more likely disappear around 2035, but that’s still a drastic change from what the IPCC said.

Despite this conservative stance, there are still some who think the IPCC is alarmist (this is usually paired with something about a New World Order and/or socialists using a carbon tax to take over the world). Naturally, the IPCC has become a favourite target of climate change deniers, who wish to obscure the reality of human-caused global warming. Last year, they claimed to have found all kinds of errors in the latest report, somehow proving that global warming wasn’t happening. In fact, most of these so-called “errors” were nothing of the sort, and the worst of the two real mistakes in the report involved a typo regarding which year certain glaicers were expected to disappear. Not bad, for a three-thousand-page document, but it created quite the media firestorm. Apparently scientists are expected to have 100% accuracy at all times, or else they are frauds.

Just a few weeks ago, the IPCC made some changes to their policies in response to these events. Their press release about the new policies featured the phrase “Boost Quality, Transparency and Rigour” in the title.

No, no, no. That’s not what the IPCC needs. These are very admirable goals, but they’re doing just fine as it is. Actions to “further minimize any possibility of errors in future reports” should not be their top priority. Further extending the review process will only further delay the publication of each report (making them even more out of date) and further enhance their lowest-common-denominator position. When you have an error rate on the order of 0.67 errors/1000 pages, should you spend your energy getting that all the way down to zero (a virtually impossible task) or on the real issues that need to be addressed?

I think the IPCC should adopt a continually-updating online version of their report. This would solve their chronic problem of being out of date, as well as help the organization adapt to the increasing role of the Internet in our world. Any future errors the deniers liked to yell about would be fixed immediately. Governments would be forming policies based on the best available evidence from today, not a decade ago. Everything would still be in one place, and version control would allow transparency to remain high.

The IPCC should also make it more clear when their estimates are too conservative. When a single sentence that didn’t even make it into the summary is shown to overestimate the problem, the climate science community ties itself up in knots trying to correct its tattered image. But prominent conclusions that underestimate the problem go unacknowledged for decades. If it were the other way around, can you imagine the field day deniers would have?

Luckily, the changes made to IPCC policy are not all aimed at appeasing the bullies. A long-overdue communications plan is in development: a rapid response team and Senior Communications Manager will develop formal strategies for public education and outreach. Hopefully, this will counteract the false claims and defamation the IPCC has been subject to since its creation.

Another new plan is to create an Executive Committee, composed of the Chair, Vice Chairs, Working Group Co-Chairs, and advisory members. This will “strengthen coordination and management of the IPCC” and allow for actions to be taken between reports, such as communication and responding to possible errors. A more structured administration will probably be helpful, given that the only people in the organization currently getting paid for their work are the office staff (even the Chair doesn’t make a cent). Coordinating overworked scientists who volunteer for a scientific undertaking that demands 100% accuracy can’t be an easy task.

Will the IPCC continue to be the best available source of credible information on climate change? Will its structure of endless review remain feasible in a world dominated by instant news? Should we continue to grant our governments control over the contents of scientific reports concerning an issue that they desperately want to avoid? Should we continue to play to the wants and needs of bullies? Or should we let scientists speak for themselves?

What Can One Person Do?

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.

Where Activism Fails

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

This weekend, 10 000 young people converged in Washington, D.C. and protested the American government’s inaction on climate change. Students stood in front of government buildings wearing green hard hats, holding signs saying “Make Polluters Pay, Not the EPA”. Students stormed the House of Representatives and sang a song about climate change, to the tune of the American national anthem. Fifteen minutes with President Obama, who agreed with their concerns but said “I can’t do this alone”, was PowerShift 2011’s biggest accomplishment.

This isn’t working.

The climate change mitigation lobby is currently a fringe group, at least in North America. It’s mostly made up of university students who mimic the campus protests of the 1960s, creating images that scream “socialism” to baby boomers who witnessed the original events. Governments, which are mostly made up of said baby boomers, largely ignore such fringe groups. Elected officials say what they think people want to hear, and most people don’t seem to care about climate change.

So what should we do instead? We don’t have a lot of money or connections to wealthy businesses. Youth don’t even vote in large enough numbers for governments to care what they want. What we do have, however, are facts on our side. We have the weight of the entire scientific community, agreeing that humans are causing a potentially catastrophic climate change which will only be stopped by major international action.

Instead of attempting to communicate with elected officials by marching around in front of their offices with our faces painted, I think we should focus our efforts on the public. If governments think people don’t care about climate change, we have to reverse that trend.

I believe that anyone who truly understands this issue will care about it and want to fix it. Who could honestly examine the overwhelming evidence for anthropogenic climate change and still have reasonable doubts about its existence? Who wouldn’t want to prevent future wars, famines, extinctions, and waves of environmental refugees? Of course, there are the crazies who will scream about “climate scientists in Al Gore’s pocket” and “the world needs more CO2” no matter what we tell them, but we shouldn’t bother engaging with these people. Instead, we should engage with those who are constantly exposed to the crazies, and who are at risk of dismissing climate change because they think people are still debating its existence.

We need public education to create a social movement, but not like the “Green Movement” in 2007 when magazines everywhere advertised “10 easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint”. We need people to understand the severity of climate change, and to see that planting a tree and buying organic lettuce will not solve the problem. We need people to understand that meaningful action, such as putting a price on carbon, is necessary to solve the problem.

Climate change education will spread most easily through the media, whether it is mass media or new media. People need to be aware of the level of scientific support surrounding this issue, and the reality that climate scientists are not ignorant or fraudulent. Researchers know that correlation does not equal causation, and they know that the climate has changed in the past. Many people still take these arguments seriously, though, because they are thrown around and not challenged. We need to challenge the media outlets that have spread dangerous, libelous misinformation regarding climate change for years. We need to challenge them on the level of lawsuits, not on the level of writing letters to the editor.

It is vital to engage with the apathetic and show them why they should care. Apathetic youth are particularly problematic. Why should the government care about the needs of the next generation when most of its members don’t even vote? We have to make the youth vote strong enough that political parties will compete for its support, just like they do with the ethnic vote and the women’s vote. As Canadian comedian and political analyst Rick Mercer said, “If you are between the ages of 18 and 25, and want to scare the hell out of the people who run this country – this time around, do the unexpected: vote.”

When faced with a depressing reality, many will turn away and ignore the problem. However, the only way to prevent the scary stuff from happening is to suck it up and face it. Just because we wasted 20 years of potential action and got ourselves into a bad situation doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and give up. It’s never too late to act, because this bad situation can always get worse if we let it.

The Pendulum

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

A few years ago, climate change mitigation became a major political issue. Before 2005, governments certainly knew that human-caused climate change was a serious problem – but the public knew next to nothing about it, so there was no incentive to act. However, between 2005 and 2007, a perfect storm of events splashed the reality of climate change onto the world stage.

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, finally came into force in early 2005, after years of negotiation. The United States refused to sign, and Australia signed on a little late, but every other developed nation in the world agreed to emission targets. Here in Canada, the Liberal government enthusiastically pledged its support for Kyoto. My local newspaper ran editorials exploring the different ways we could meet our targets, through combinations of clean energy, green infrastructure, and efficiency standards.

The summer of 2005 was a wake-up call for the United States, as Hurricane Katrina mercilessly demonstrated the amount of damage that extreme weather can bring. It’s impossible to say, at least with our current technology, whether or not Katrina was caused or even worsened by a warming planet. However, such devastating storms will become the norm as climate change progresses. Scientists aren’t sure whether or not hurricanes will become more frequent in a warming world, but the average hurricane is expected to become stronger and more damaging, and we are already beginning to see this rise in storm intensity. Katrina gave us an example of what we can expect from climate change – even if it wasn’t a direct effect in itself – and the world was shocked by the suffering that ensued.

2006 marked the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary about climate change. For scientists studying climate, the film was an admirable, up-to-date example of science communication, albeit with a few minor errors and oversimplifications. However, for citizens new to the issue (I particularly remember my classmates in grade 9 social studies discussing the film), An Inconvenient Truth was a disturbing reality check – scarier than any horror movie, because it was real.

The major scientific event of 2007 was a drastic, unexpected drop in Arctic summer sea ice. That season’s melt was exacerbated by coincidental weather conditions, so the next years weren’t quite as bad, but the trend was still worrying, to say the least. The research community had assumed that summer ice would stick around for at least a century, but this timescale was soon halved and quartered as ice melt exceeded even the worst projections.

By 2007, lead-up to the 2008 US presidential election was underway, and political awareness of climate change was obvious. It was no surprise that Democrat Barack Obama had ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but even the Republicans seemed to be on board. During his time in office, George W. Bush had insisted that, since climate change could be natural, any mitigating action was not worth the economic risk. Republican presidential candidates seemed to realize that continuing to adopt this attitude would be political suicide. The most extreme example, John McCain, who would eventually win the Republican presidential nomination, had emissions targets only slightly less extensive than Obama’s. As he said in 2007,

The world is already feeling the powerful effects of global warming, and far more dire consequences are predicted if we let the growing deluge of greenhouse gas emissions continue, and wreak havoc with God’s creation…The problem isn’t a Hollywood invention nor is doing something about it a vanity of Cassandra like hysterics. It is a serious and urgent economic, environmental and national security challenge.

However, McCain, once an author of a bill designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, would soon completely change his stance. By 2010, he was asserting that cap-and-trade legislation was unnecessary and carbon dioxide posed no harm to the American people. He even went so far as to question the political motivations of science he once wholly accepted:

I think [global warming is] an inexact science, and there has been more and more questioning about some of the conclusions that were reached concerning climate change. And I believe that everybody in the world deserves correct answers whether the scientific conclusions were flawed by outside influences. There’s great questions about it that need to be resolved.

The story of John McCain isn’t too surprising. Politicians frequently base their statements on public sentiment rather than personal opinion. They say what people want to hear, rather than what they truly believe is important. This aspect of our political system is depressing, but persistent. The real question, though, regards what changed public sentiment so quickly. Why did politicians like McCain feel compelled to denounce the importance of action on this problem, or even the existence of the problem itself? What happened since 2007 that made the pendulum swing so far in the other direction?

Strike one was the economy. The global recession that began in 2008 was the largest since the Great Depression, and concern for all other problems promptly went down the drain. It’s understandable for citizens to not worry about the environment when they don’t even have the means to feed and clothe their children properly. However, for governments to not realize the long-term economic implications of allowing climate change to continue, along with the potential job-creating benefits of a new energy economy, was disappointing, even though it wasn’t surprising.

Strike two was the all-out war on climate science, spearheaded by the fossil fuel industry and the far right. This PR campaign has been underway since the early 1990s, but was kicked up a notch just over a year ago. Since public understanding of the causes and effects of global warming was growing, and the science was becoming more solid by the month, the PR tactics changed. Instead of attacking the science, they attacked the integrity of the scientists. The most extreme example occurred in November 2009, when private correspondence between top climate researchers was stolen, spread on the Internet, and spun in an attempt to cast doubt on the scientists’ motives. This event, known as “Climategate”, spurred a great deal of anger among the political right, and everything from bitter editorials to death threats against scientists ensued. Perhaps most distressingly, by the time investigations found that the scientists involved were innocent, and the reality of climate change untouched, Climategate was old news and media outlets failed to adequately follow up on the story. Citizens heard the accusations, but not the exonerations, so political will to cut greenhouse gas emissions slipped even further.

Strike three – well, there has been no strike three, and a good thing too. Strikes one and two were so bad that some are hoping the pendulum has swung as far as it can go. It’s certainly difficult to imagine how the situation could get worse. The Kyoto Protocol is set to expire next year, and the Copenhagen meetings failed to create a replacement. As it was, many developed nations failed to meet their targets, and the Canadian government backed out completely.

The possibility of federal climate legislation for the United States is laughable now that not a single Republican Senator thinks action is necessary, and most doubt the reality of the problem, choosing to believe that the entire scientific community is out to lunch and/or an agent of conspiracy. President Obama’s director of climate policy, Carol Browner, recently left her position, although none of her major goals had been met. Obama’s recent State of the Union address included lots of hopeful statements about clean energy, but absolutely no mention of climate change, as if merely acknowledging the most pressing reason for a new energy economy would be political suicide. The time-honoured tradition of saying what the public wants to hear has even reached Obama, the man who promised change.

In Canada, legislation to simply set targets for emission reduction passed the House of Commons (made of elected representatives), but the Senate (composed of appointed politicians) chose to use their newfound Conservative majority to strike down the bill with no debate whatsoever, in a blatantly undemocratic move that has not happened since the 1930s. The Canadian government is all for a new energy economy, but not one based on environmental and social responsibility. The Alberta tar sands, which are substantially more polluting and carbon-intensive than traditional oil, continue to expand, and both federal and provincial governments are worryingly enthusiastic.

From 2005 to 2007, politics was high on promises of mitigation, but low on delivery. Since then, it has been devoid of both. It’s starting to seem as if it will take a major global disaster that can be unquestionably tied to climate change for governments to get their act together.

This would all be very well if there was no lag time between cause and effect in the climate system, but it doesn’t work that way. It takes several decades for all the warming in the pipeline to show up. If we waited until climate change became unbearable, and then cut off our emissions completely, the situation would still get worse for decades before it stabilized.

The worldwide failure of governments to take action on climate change is baffling. It seems that the best they can do is occasionally promise to fix the problem, but never actually get started. If this continues for much longer, we’re all going to pay the price for their mistakes – and so will people for generations to come.