Friday, 20 April 2018

Planes, trains, and ...

The Age of Engines

How we got so far into the Anthropocene era

For the past two centuries we've been digging up coal and burning it. We've burned coal for space heating--far more convenient than firewood!--and to fire steam boilers for locomotives, pumps (first, to de-water the coal mines and get even more coal), power turbines, and smelting steel.

For over 100 years we've been drilling oil and then gas wells, piping the gas to market (heating, industrial processes, fertilizer), and refining crude oil to gasoline, kerosene, and heavier oil, while burning the oil distillates in cars, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles, taxis, buses, ships, trains, planes, tractors, ATVs, jet skis, dragsters, Indy cars, rally cars, funny cars, monster trucks... A lot of 'sports' entertainment relies on the excitement value of seeing which powerful gasoline engine will carry which daredevil competitor the fastest--or jump the farthest over other, less gigantic vehicles. I looked at photos and TV shows of a whole lot of these internal-combustion powerhouses. Every boy in my school drew pictures of 'cool' cars, and collected HotWheels(TM) toy cars. The coolest of all had to be Sizzlers - tiny battery-powered speedsters we raced around the FatTrack(TM) until they needed recharging. (Hey, electric vehicles in the 70's!) 

The fossil fuel sector is an historic stand-out: it transformed our global society into a hyper-connected, always-on-the-move rat race/traffic jam. Today we routinely catch flights halfway around the world, hop 14-storey cruise ships (all you can eat!), and order a lot of stuff online which was built far away, perhaps shipped by vast container ship, rail and/or tractor-trailer to the Giant Warehouse. Then it was packaged up just for us, barcode labelled and dispatched to us - perhaps by air freight, then onto a delivery van right to our door (or if you still go to 'stores,' the whole chain still worked to get your cornucopia of products onto the store shelves.)

Think of how many internal combustion engines were needed in that supply chain--then consider how many times a day items are loaded up and sent via whatever fossil-fueled vehicle. There are now well over a billion internal combustion engines worldwide--hundreds of millions of passenger and freight vehicles, plus tractors, mowers, pumps, generators, ...

Modern civilization is exquisitely dependent on the internal combustion engine.

Is this a problem?

Two distinct issues arise when we reflect on the vast scale and breathtaking rate of growth of the fossil fuels and the hardware in which we burn them: 'peak oil', and the greenhouse effect. I'll get into the issue of greenhouse gas emissions later; here, let me first focus on fossil fuel limits. First, these resources cannot be infinite, and a day must come when we can no longer go on increasing the volume produced. This is summed up in the concept of 'peak oil': that we must face the inevitability that the earth will eventually stop yielding as much oil (and gas and coal) as we have been demanding. The best case for geological limits on oil extraction that I've seen is Ken Deffeyes' book Hubbert's Peak. Here's a good review of Deffeyes' recent work. The website offers readers plenty of info on this viewpoint.

For a while, the concept of peak oil started to take root, impacting investors and even the world of policy. But it has always been held at bay as a 'fringe' movement. The powerful fossil fuel sector wanted no part of coming to terms with this, and free market fundamentalists clung to the blind faith that whatever we are going to need in the future, the 'magic of the marketplace' will always deliver it, somehow. Talk of ultimate limits remained anathema to this mindset.

Many more of us, mostly not wedded to such extreme ideology, still choose not to take the step back to look at these questions. The economy is ticking along, utterly reliant on ever more oil wells. It has to work. Don't ask me whether future generations will have the luxury of carrying on burning fuels as we've always been able to do -- too much for me to think about!

After a brief spell of very high oil prices, where it appeared that the 'peakers' may have been vindicated, oil prices fell as hydraulic fracturing methods came into play on a large scale. The U.S. is less dependent on imported oil than it has been in many decades.

One might try to point out that this new technique only delays the inevitable reckoning; that 'fracking' for oil is a lot more intrusive and disruptive to local residents, and it too must at some point hit a peak beyond which it can grow no further and must over time start to decline. So far, though, the extra time that fracking has bought the U.S. has pushed these considerations far off the front page, or the top-of-mind. Trump's EPA Administrator Scott Priutt feels justified in seeking to cancel established regulations setting fleet fuel economy improvement targets for the coming years. Go ahead, keep making and driving gas guzzlers -- we'll just keep fracking til we've got wells on every block.

What, me worry?

Monday, 28 April 2014

It's not just me ... and it's not just climate

This commentary on Canada's falling standing globally in the top-tier UK medical journal The Lancet pulls no punches. It will not come as news to anyone involved in climate policy discussions in Canada that the HarperGovernment(TM) has sought to muzzle federally-funded climate and environmental scientists. What's new here is how this is being noticed abroad, and the large negative impact this and Harper's other pro-industry ploys are having on Canada's world status.

The commentary points out several independent, global performance rankings on qualities other than GDP on which Canada's standing has been plummeting. I'll offer that tracking performance on these rankings is one good check on the job performance of our federal government. If we are dropping on civil society indices of openness, that's a big strike against the PM and party in power. Our fall to 55th out of 58 on the Climate Action Network ranking is just one more sign of this extremist skew. But hey, we're still not quite as bad as Khazakstan, Iran or Saudi Arabia (remember, we're the "Saudi Arabia of tar"!)  It cannot help our credibility in challenging Putin's expansionism when our ranking on this scale falls below that of Russia.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Leading climate tweeps

I enjoy Twitter and lately I went a bit overboard searching for people to follow. I discovered that Twitter sets a ceiling on how many people you can follow, which varies based on how many people follow you, but they won't tell you what the equation is. So I had to go back and un-follow some accounts I either found were tweeting far too little, or that I forgot why I followed them originally.

One group I've been searching out to follow is those who work in climate science, paleoclimate and paleoecology, glaciology and ice stuff, remote sensing - all that good stuff I've been reading and attending classes and guest lectures on for several years now.

I found some names I knew, then looked at who they follow, found some more names I recognized, and this week I went through my "following" list looking to see who I'd latched onto in this area. I was pleasantly surprised as I discovered quite a few very prominent names in the field are tweeting now. Here are some of the top names I found - please tweet or email me to suggest more tweeps!

Click the links to go to their Twitter profile - where you can click "Follow"

 (follower stats as of 2012-12-10 except the later additions as of add date):


@IPCC_CH  The IPCC's twitter feed (followed by 2342)
@Cfigueres UNFCC Executive Secretary Dr. Christina Figueres (followed by 12046)
@pwatkinson Head climate negotiator for France (followed by 782)
@JPvanYpersele IPCC vice-chair (followed by 119)

climate leaders:

@MichaelEMann Univ. of Pennsylvania, (followed by 6388)
@HeidiCullen climate scientist, science journalist (followed by 4087)
@GlobalEcoGuy Johnathan Foley, Director, Institute on the Environment (IonE), Univ. Minnesota (followed by 3030)
@rjtklein Richard Klein, Climate policy analyst at SEI and CSPR, IPCC author (followed by 2606)
@KenCaldeira senior climate scientist Stanford U. (followed by 2351)
@dr_andy_russell Lecturer in Climate Change at  (followed by 1920)
@richardabetts  Climate scientist, Met Office Hadley Centre and Exeter University. IPCC AR5 Lead Author (followed by 1778)
@AGW_Prof  Prof. Scott A. Mandia - SUNY Suffolk, founder of Climate Science Rapid Response Team
@PaulREhrlich population ecologist (followed by 1115)
@climate_ice Prof. Jason Box, Ohio State U. - "Mister Cryosphere" (followed by 1010)
@rahmstorf Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf - PIK, (followed by 738)
@popepolar Dr. Allen Pope (followed by 736)
@TusconPeck  Johnathan Overpeck (followed by 726)
@SimonLLewis (followed by 652)
@TheCostOfEnergy Lou Grinzo (followed by 648)
@simondonner Simon Donner, Univ. of British Columbia (followed by 643)
@BrianBledsoe (followed by 637)
@ed_hawkins (followed by 584)
@AJWVictoriaBC Dr. Andrew Weavers FCMOS FAMS - UBC (followed by 491)
@SMEasterbrook Prof. Steve Easterbrook - Univ. of Toronto (hi Steve!) (followed by 388)
@ClimateOfGavin Dr. Gavin Schmidt - GISS, (followed by 368)
@AlanRobock Dr. Alan Robock - Rutgers U (followed by 214) [added to this list 2013-06]
@NeilAdger - Univ. of Exeter (followed by193)
@vickypope2 UK Met Office (followed by 111)
@ericsteig - (followed by 54)
@climatebook Dr. Ray Pierrehumbert FAGU - Univ. of Chicago, (twitter feed for his textbook - followed by 46)
@mcmaccracken Dr. Mike MacCracken FAAAS, IAMAS, ICIA (followed by 43)
@BarryBickmore1 Brigham Young U. (followed by 37) 
@rikleemans Vageningen U (followed by 14)

While I've sorted these by current number of followers, that's sometimes quite different from the order you'll find them on my table of most highly-cited authors on climate science. Some of the most highly cited who could use some more love on Twitter in proportion to their publication record are Neil Adger, Mike McCracken, and Rik Leemans -- but everyone here is well worth following, so don't be shy!

UPDATE 2013-06-25:

I somehow overlooked @AlanRobock at time of writing, so I've just added him. I gmailed his name this morning, and when I logged in to Twitter just now it suggested I follow him. Coincidence, or spooky SEO? You decide...

UPDATE#2, 2013-08-07:

Just noticed two more important names in climate science now on twitter:
@PdeMenocal Peter DeMenocal of Lamont-Doherty at Columbia (followed by 141)
@moraymo Maureen Raymo of Lamont-Doherty at Columbia (followed by 189)

UPDATE#3, 2014-01-17

Some more key climate scientists now on Twitter:
@OveHG Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of U. Queensland (followed by 503)
@ClimateOpp Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton (followed by 437)

UPDATE#4 2014-05-23

The follower counts posted above will be way out of date by now, but I don't have spare time to go back through the whole list and update them. Anyway, I'm adding one more update for Naomi Oreskes who just joined Twitter, along with some important names in #scicomms and climate politics/public understanding of science research:
@NaomiOreskes Naomi Oreskes of Harvard (followed by 422 after just one week and 12 tweets - got some good early #FFs)
@skepticscience John Cook of U.Queensland (followed by 9211)
@ChrisCMooney of MotherJones and ClimateDesk (followed by 12.3K)
@Boykoff Max Boykoff of CIRES CSTPR, Boulder, CO (followed by 1392)
@STWorg Shaping Tomorrow's World team, led by Stephan Lewandowsky of U Bristol (followed by 598)
@ecotone2 Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale PCCC (followed by 582)
@AaronMcCright Aaron McCright of MSU (followed by 391)

Also some climate science aware journalists worth a follow:
@georgemonbiot George Monbiot of The Guardian (followed by 92.5K)
@DVergano Dan Vergano of National Geographic (followed by 13K)
@ElaineMcKewon Elaine McKewon journalism PhD cand., Syndey, AU (followed by 295)

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Dusting off my climate authors site


A new open letter about climate change, published last month in Canada's Financial Post, got me busy going back into my website covering who signs such things and how seriously we should take them. I'm preparing a new post on this letter in particular, but I'm also going back and dusting the cobwebs off the rest of my web listing of climate scientists, statements, petitions and so forth. 

After having worked at length in 2009 and 2010 to get the site to its current state, I gave myself a well-earned rest from updating it for a while. I devoted free time to other pursuits I also value, such as upgrading the energy-efficiency of our 1920 Toronto home, in time to claim some energy-retrofit tax credits that were set to expire. I made it in time, and had fun in the process. I upgraded the insulation in my attic (after struggling mightly trying to seal air leaks around the fixtures in the 2nd floor ceiling.) By renting the machine to blow in the shredded fiberglass as a D-I-Y, I actually got back the full cost of that upgrade.

I also had our foundation dug out and waterproofed, then insulated the basement and headers which were big areas of heat loss. I had new high-performance windows installed in the basement as well (we had the first and second floor windows done already some years back.) The basement was labour-intensive and I felt like I was holding down two jobs, but I did get some help by hiring a couple of neighbourhood youth (at or above the youth minimum wage.) When it came time for drywalling, I hired some tradesmen. I took digital photos at each stage, and presented before-and-after album to the inspector who verifies the work for the government rebates. He said mine was the best-documented job he'd ever inspected 8-) And yes, our heating bill was considerably lower the next winter - but then, the weather was a good deal milder too, so I don't have a clear read on how much good this did yet (I should probably do some math involving degree-days.)

Once that huge job was done, I had some actual leisure to catch up on reading, both fiction and non-fiction. I'm a pretty voracious reader, and now with e-books my ever-growing pile of pending 'must reads' extends into cyberspace (and forks between Kobo, Kindle, and Goodreader... sigh. I realised today I have a problem remembering which e-book space a given unfinished title is languishing.)

So when I started looking over my website, I found a lot of links had gone stale. First I reviewed my list of sources - links back to the original documents from which I noted who had signed which statements and letters. Sadly, several more of these had gone missing; fortunately each lost document is still housed at, so I've updated my links to that. I don't actually understand how they pay for this free service, and I got to wondering what will happen to people like me if that site ever goes under. {Tangent} Even worse would be the loss of a site like, tinyurl, or any of the big URL shortening services. If one of them simply folded without donating their existing link base to the public good, a *whole* lot of web content would start to unravel. Just try not to think about this... {/Tangent}

Next I went back to my big long list of names, citation stats and website links for authors. I thought of several new tidbits to start collecting: who has a Twitter account now? (32 found so far, many more to come I'm sure.) Who is written up at Wikipedia? (a column I started some time back and am just getting rolling on filling out.) Who has ties to coal, oil & gas interests? Who has an author profile page at Google Scholar? (Neat new feature, solves the problem of separating an author's own works from those of others with similar names; also shows Google's results on handy stats like h-index) Who is written up in SourceWatch or in DeSmogBlog's reference database? 

After going back to data entry mode for a number of days, I thought I'd look at the scripts I use to extract the data from Excel, format it for both HTML and JSON/jquery, and sort and summarize the results. I enjoy this kind of coding immensely, but I hadn't run this for quite some time and had to get my bearings a bit. After getting errors from code I know I used okay at the last batch run, I realised I'm not supposed to run it under Solaris, but on a Linux host. I found the code in perl's Spreadsheet::XLSX module doesn't like when your spreadsheet contains any formula error warnings - so I learned to use the "Review errors" button in the Formulas tab. (Turns out I'd just type a stray letter into a column where numbers belong, which another cell referenced in a calculation. Clear - problem solved.)

Finally I had phase 1 of my script back up and running. I decided to activate the routine I'd added to check all the URLs for broken links as they are imported. This takes a lot longer, but with two years since the last pass, they really needed re-checking. 

The results were stark. Some 25% of URLs I collected in 2009-10 have gone 404 in the intervening two years. A large majority of the URL base are on academic websites. I guess everyone feels compelled to "improve" their sites with a big re-org once in a while... sigh. Lots of manual searches to see what new paths everyone got reorged off to. Here are the specific numbers:

Finished URL checks. Found 3029 okay, 1153 broken

I checked URLs for homepage and mugshot photo that I'd collected. I may just give up on trying to have a photo link for each person, though I thought that was nice to include. It's just a lot of added search time that might be better spent on other tasks.

I see I'll also want to add an option to my script to verify the other types of URL I've started gathering: Wikipedia, DeSmogBlog, Sourcewatch, and implicitly any Twitter handle can be formed into a URL for the person's Twitter profile. These at least should have a lot less turnover than the university homepage ones turn out to do.

Watch this space for more on this big push, including a "top climate science tweeps" report - some really big names are showing up on Twitter now. It's quite exciting.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Commenting on lists and name-calling

Well, last week Marc Morano posted my email on his climatedepot website and his email blast, in the process of comparing me to the Stasi (secret police of the former East German one-party-rule Communist regime.) Over the past week I've had a stream of hostile emails in response.

Here I re-post an earlier reply I gave at Joe Romm's ever lively and thought-provoking site

As for web lists of statement signers: thanks Michael Tobis for saying it better than I ever could. Every list I compiled was from a statement already posted on the web. All the links are on my page of list sources ~prall/ climate/ list_sources.html

As for Marc Morano’s attempt to Swiftboat this as “Stasi-esque”: what amazing gall! He’s famous for having built a long list of climate skeptics during his term with Sen. Inhofe. Hypocrite! Why wasn’t that list “Stasi-esque?” Just because he agreed with their “side”?
Nothing in our PNAS paper justifies comparisons to the Stasi. We don’t *say* anyone should persecute or blacklist signers of either type of statement, because of course we *don’t believe* that. (Hard to believe I’m even having to say this at all.) What we say is that the media should consider people’s qualifications and standing (oooh!)
The only other way to spin this into something sinister is to argue that someone evil *might use* the lists to persecute people regardless of our intentions. That seems to be the main theme at Roger Pielke Jr’s blog.

That objection of what someone might do with the list really falls down on the point Michael makes so well, that all the source lists I compiled were already on the web. Anyone who could misuse my list could just as well have found the same names on the original sources, or many of the same names plus many more on Morano’s list – and not all on his list by choice.

Morano publicized his list relentlessly, and listed many more names as skeptics than I have. Morano also tended to quotemine, leading to false positives where the person in question would protest their inclusion as unrepresentative of their actual views, yet Morano would refuse to take them off. He’d just point to the mined quote he had, ignoring anything the source might say about being taken out of context or trying to tell him what their actual views are.

If the fear is that someone biased against supporters of one “side” could focus their bias on people on a list, why was it okay for Morano to subject people to that risk with his list? Was Morano’s list “Stasi-esque” as well? If not, why not?

Thanks again to those offering supportive comments on the PNAS paper. Since Morano published my email and compared me to the Stasi, let’s just say I’ve had a stream of unfriendly responses. (Oddly, people keep sending me really weak arguments like “there is no greenhouse effect” or predicting global cooling.)

That's the end of my posting on climateprogress. Site host Joe Romm aptly commented:

[JR: Remember, Morano publicly stated how he believes climate scientists should be treated: “I seriously believe we should kick them while they’re down,” he said. “They deserve to be publicly flogged.” He proudly linked to that interview on his blog.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Early reactions to Anderegg et al in PNAS

I'm the second author on the article "Expert Credibility in Climate Change" just out yesterday at It's been written up several places, and is quickly making the rounds on the web, attracting a lot of comment and critique. I'll try to address questions or challenges here as I get time.

Today I received email from an author in Germany who said he was on the Stasi's list under the G.D.R (a horrific world, one that we who've never been there can scarcely imagine.)

I wanted to address his concern about my online list. Here's what I wrote:

Dear Dr. _______,

I can't imagine what it must have been like to live in the shadow of the
Stasi. I would never want to see anything like that take place today. At
least now Germany is one country again and is a democracy, and I think a
good example of it as well. I admire the mixed-member proportional
system you have. Here in Canada we have winner-takes-all voting, and our
Green Party has never won a seat in Parliament despite polling over 11%
of the national vote. There is a group here promoting a change to such
an MMP system, though we are having trouble getting people to think
about this with so many other concerns on the agenda, especially the

As for seeing my listings as some kind of "blacklist" - I'm quite
disappointed that people are viewing it in that light; that was never my
intention. I've only listed those whose names were already on an
existing public declaration, available on the web, and I list people who
signed affirmative statements as well (may we never see a day where any
government would persecute members of either group for their opinions!)

I want the media to understand who has really researched climate and who
has not. Conversely, I certainly don't want to silence or exclude anyone
from civil policy debate; no one of us has all the answers on what
policies we should adopt to prepare for the future, and I do want to
hear from others on their views. The policy process must be democratic,
even though that can be painfully slow. In the U.S. there is a
distressingly strong role for corporate spending on political campaigns,
with no limits at all since their Supreme Court's recent "Citizens
United" case. Companies like Exxon can dominate the discourse, leaving
ordinary citizen's voices little heard. Here again I think most European
countries have far more rational approaches to campaign spending laws. I
see corporate spending power and P.R. tricks as a more immediate threat
to the common good than actual (state) censorship of free expression.
Currently our major democracies have fairly good laws against state
censorship, which courts defend actively.

I believe that rational public action to prepare for a future without
fossil fuels is one key to keeping prosperity and peace, and avoiding
the prospect of conflicts over scarce and declining non-renewable energy
sources. Again, Germany is far ahead of either Canada or the U.S. in
making those sensible preparations. The professor just down the hall
from me works on thin-film solar panels; the joint-venture company
developing his technologies opened their factory in Bischoswerda in the
former GDR thanks to strong support from the German government.

[ I see I mis-spelled "Bischofswerda" in the email. Oops. Here's their WP page: ]

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Pesky scientists - so annoying!

Scientists can be a real nuisance. They use big words, and act all smart and everything. Then they come around and tell us scary stuff like dangers we never even knew were there: radioactivity and cancer-causing chemicals and UV rays and nicotine. What a bunch of spoil-sports.

Plus, they are often very hard to pin down - we pick up some story (or rumour) about a new danger, and try as reporters to get their take on it, but as often as not, they can't even give a simple yes or no answer. It's all "likely" this and "probable" that, and "statistically significant" or "balance of the evidence" or whatever. Lots of "on the other hand" until you just don't have enough hands, or even fingers, to count the different angles they want to look at.

Now and then I think we'd almost rather not have those black and white answers that scientists hate to give. Take global warming, for example: if this is real, it's going to be quite a nuisance -- 'inconvenient,' so to speak. I mean, think about our lifestyle! It could cramp our ability to drive vehicles as big as some people's houses for personal security and -- let's face it -- ego gratification. I think a lot of us would just rather not know.

So now, we have to deal with scientists who keep coming out and saying 'yes, this is a real problem' - over and over again. They keep putting out declarations and open letters telling the world that our greenhouse gas emissions are already changing the climate, and forecasting that the problem has to get a lot worse if we keep on at the current rate. This is the problem with the IPCC - behind all the "very likelys" and "probables," they basically say the same thing: this is a real problem. This same theme keeps coming up in declarations signed by thousands of scientists - over 5000 of them, on eight statements issued since December 2009.

Okay, scientists, now you're just starting to scare us. You're also sounding uncharacteristically decisive. Those of us who aren't comfortable with your message may have to do something about this. Here are some of our options:
  • call your views "alarmist"
  • claim you are now too unified, so this must be 'group-think' and you're just bullying the numerous dissenters that we can't seem to find 
  • find the handful of you who don't see the problem, and get them on TV a lot - a whole lot
  • take out full-page ads in the NYT saying you are wrong, signed by over 100 non-experts
  • get Rush Limbaugh to call you "socialists" and imply you want the UN to run everything
  • host a string of anti-conferences with lots of non-experts, to make you look less convincing
  • if all else fails, we can turn to Fox News!