Sunday, 9 December 2007

Republican War on Science

I've been busy catching up on my reading, while at the same time piling on new titles that I just have to get to soon. This plays into what I term "book guilt" -- the feeling that I really should have made time to read each of those titles that are on my stack that I really wanted to read. Well, that's the price of keeping current.

Recent finds: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush & His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country & Hijacking Our Democracy [2004: Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0-06-074688-9](Amazon link) In the tradition of Reagan appointee James Watt to Secretary of the Interior, W has filled dozens of senior posts with anti-environment ideologues.

Stauber & Rampton Trust Us, We're Experts [2001] on paid 'experts' and Toxic Sludge is Good for You [1995] (Amazon link) on the role of high-powered P.R. firms in advancing corporate 'spin' against scientific evidence and warnings. The authors are also contributors to the Center for Media and Democracy website P.R. Watch which lists all their related books.

Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science [2006] (Amazon link) covering the sad tendency for right-wing legislators to cherry-pick the few skeptic shills like Fred Singer who will deny whatever problems science is currently pointing out, in hopes of delaying any response that might hurt their fossil-fuel industry backers.

On my to-read list for "soon" is Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason [2007: ISBN 978-1594201226] (Amazon link) covering similar issues as Mooney, but of course with an insider's point of view. Gore faced many of the denialist legislators and "expert" witlesses oops, I mean witnesses, but could make little headway against closed minds and a wall of denial, distraction and obfuscation.

How do I know that, if I haven't gotten my hands on Gore's new book yet? Well, I did dig out my old copy of Ross Gelbspan's landmark 1998 book The Heat Is On which recounts many of the congressional hearing-but-not-listening events. There is Pat Michaels once again trying to spin the climate issue into a non-issue. Gore challenges him on specific science, Michaels retreats, changes the subject, equivocates... then the R's all vote to do nothing and cut funding for climate science. Yikes. Find a copy of this book, or see his companion website The Heat is Online. He has a newer book following on the same theme that I haven't read yet: Boiling Point (Amazon link), also available in Spanish on the heatisonline site.

What this tells me is that we've known since the mid-90's that Big Oil and Big Coal were spinning us to the limit, and that anyone who really wants to understand climate change has access to the real facts. Sadly, there are lots of people who just don't want this inconvenient truth to be true, and they have plenty of places to turn for comfort of like-minded pollyannas. A few of these are paid by Exxon or coal producers to be spokes-shills, and the rest are parrots all repeating the same meaningless bromides like "CO2 is only a fraction of a percent of the atmosphere" as if that decided the question of whether CO2 is an important greenhouse gas (hint: it still is.) These aren't science; I won't even call them "factoids", they're merely glib distractoids.

Evidently the distraction business is still going strong. Today I took another look at the CBC-TV (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) website for the Fifth Estate documentary "The Denial Machine" by Sheldon MacIntyre link. It's a good documentary covering links between today's climate skeptics and a P.R. firm that previously worked to promote doubt about the link between second-hand tobacco smoke and cancer.

The show was probably rebroadcast this fall, as the discussion board on this site is full of comments from this October. Sadly, at least half the comments still express doubts about the science behind this, and some are harshly critical of CBC for being lefty, alarmist, not being balanced, blah blah blah. This just makes me sad. The comments are all over the map - some seem very right-wing, while others are just muddled. Far too many of the comments contain points that appear to come straight from the climate skeptics' list of failed arguments. It makes me think the denial project has been all too effective.

It all fits with the names of two arch-denialist congresscritters: DeLay and Doolittle. That's pretty much the agenda of the denialists, and from the mid-90's to now in the U.S. and Canada that's where we've been stuck.

The one bright spot is that Australia voted last month to turf out anti-Kyoto PM John Howard, and the newly elected PM Kevin Rudd made ratifying Kyoto a key plank in his election campaign, which he fulfilled as one of his first acts in ofice.

With Australia gone, now the U.S. is completely isolated among industrial economies in remaining outside the Kyoto treaty. Canada, sadly, remains nominally a signatory but the Harper rightists have made it clear we are not even going to try to get close to our treaty obligations.

Yesterday I attended our local event as part of the worldwide "D8" rally for action on climate change. Ours was at Toronto's Dundas Square. The turnout was good despite a very chilly and windy day. I had a poster made of rigid pink insuation foam with the slogan "Pink is green" (think about it...) The TV news today said the Vancouver rally had a fairly poor turn-out.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Bird brains

Okay, I realize I never posted why I chose the online identity "birdbrainscan" for myself. I often find myself curious about other people's choices of nicknames, so for people like me who think of things like that, here's where mine comes from.

It's obviously a "before-and-after" combination of "birdbrain" plus "brain scan". My wife is a keen fan of Wheel of Fortune, and I watch along. My favorite puzzle format of theirs is before-and-after, in which two common phrases, titles, etc. are joined with some amount of overlap, such as "Bleak House at Pooh Corner." There is a whole genre of puzzle where you have to link two words or phrases by creating a chain of before-and-afters. The TV game show Chain Reaction uses this game.

I don't have any personal links to brain imaging, other than finding it really kewl, and it starts with "brain" so it completes the puzzle. But as a keen birder I proudly accept the label of birdbrain for myself.

I am particularly smitten with the inspiring book Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays by Candace Savage, which recounts the remarkable intelligence of corvids, fitting into a broader literature on animal intelligence that I've enjoyed. I checked this book out of the library several years ago and I still recall vivid details of several stories. Ask me about the crow and the crosswalk (technically a zebra crossing, as this was in the U.K. but I like the alliteration.) Another very clever bird was the late, lamented Alex the African Grey parrot, trained by Irene Pepperberg to answer subtle questions about fridge magnets. News of Alex's passing this fall was met with an outpouring of public grief. Alex was truly amazing and Dr. Pepperberg has contributed greatly to our appreciation of the power of tiny but well-used brains.

I couldn't just use birdbrain as a nick since it is far too popular. So a before-and-after combo seemed just the ticket to make a term that had never shown up on the web previously. A google search now finds all sorts of message boards where I've used this nick dating back to 2003 at least.

How it all ends on YouTube

I just stumbled upon a crazy series of videos on YouTube that have made a crazy amount of buzz:

How It All Ends

This has been viewed over 2.5 MILLION times so far. The author, wonderingmind42, AKA Greg Craven, (story) is a high school physics teacher with a flair for small, controlled tabletop explosions and a vast collection of funny hats. His video sums up the pros and cons of taking action on global warming in a way designed to bypass the idea that we can't act until scientists hand us 100% certainty. And all that in 9.5 minutes!

Well actually he has much more to say on the subject, which he has recorded and linked together with another video index and table of contents, under the revised title "How it all ends" (along with a re-cut of his original video to address some objections.) The expanded version runs to dozens of short clips, each addressing one slice of the pie. It's too bad streaming videos can't include clickable links to other videos - if anyone needed that feature, it's this guy. For now, just view his index to get titles of the additional pieces of his puzzle. [Update: thanks to tbolger for pointing out the clickable menu of these videos on the website]

In fact, Greg is really plugged in to the state of the art in replying to "climate denial." He gives props to "How to talk to a climate skeptic" (holds up a poster saying to google that phrase ;-) I notice he didn't mention RealClimate in his main video (who knows what's in the hours of additional content - I just saw this today!) But his point is that we need to move beyond just bickering about specific tidbits of evidence and look at the big picture of risk management (a point not lost on the RealClimate scientists).

Here's a blog by another birder who also noticed the viral video by
Born Again Birdwatcher. (I'll say more about my online nickname "birdbrainscan" in a follow-up post.)

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Denial in decline

Glancing at the subheading I set up for this blog, I remembered my aim was to focus on climate change deniers. Lots of what I've read this fall (as covered in my last post) applies to this topic, particularly the two Stauber and Rampton titles. Another book I haven't yet checked out that applies directly here is Al Gore's new one The Assault on Reason, reviewed by The New York Times, Brent Budowsky of The Hill's Pundit Blog, and The Guardian.

Gee, I'll have to make time to read that one too. Will the must-reads never let me rest?

Anyway, I want to reflect a bit on the past year and the change in public reaction to climate change. This year saw the release of the IPCC's fourth assessment report ("AR4"), starting in February with working group I and just wrapping up this past week with the final summary of the synthesis report. Over that time, public attention to climate has certainly been building steadily, and the hold-out energy hog nations of the USA, Canada and Australia have begun to wake up to the crisis. This past weekend Australia voted out long-serving anti-Kyoto P.M. John Howard. The new Labour P.M.-elect Kevin Rudd has vowed to ratify Kyoto as soon as he takes office. This leaves the U.S. as the sole major emitter still outside the Kyoto treaty, while Canada stands as the only other G8 member pulling in the wrong direction, despite our earlier ratification.

Canada's policy responses to the threat of global warming have been pretty sorry. As Simpson, Jaccard and Rivers lay out in Hot Air (see previous post), Canada has done precious little of substance to begin slowing the growth of our GHG emissions. Stephen Harper called Kyoto "a socialist plot", and his first year in office saw Rona Ambrose earn Canada a black eye for obstruction and foot-dragging, as typified by the "Fossil of the Day" award from the Climate Action Network during last year's Nairobi conference. Ambrose stunned the delegates by using the occasion to attack our prior Liberal government for inaction on climate, and to boast that Harper's Tories were now leading the world in setting the most ambitious targets. This while Canada's current emissions continued to soar, with no actual legislation in place or on the table to stop that increase. All the Tories did for their first year was to cut existing programs, limited as they were, in an orgy of Liberal-bashing.

A year has passed since then, Ambrose was soon shuffled out of that post and replaced by John Baird. Baird has also taken up the mantle of boasting of how ambitious the Tory targets are (going to be?) But we still don't have any legislation to curb soaring GHG emissions. And this month, Harper drew renewed criticism of Canada's obstructionism on climate for his stand against binding targets at the Commonwealth Summit in Kampala. Then Harper's minions have the gall to claim Canada showed "leadership" on climate. Feh. "Advance to the rear!" does not count as leadership, guys. Here's a report warning Canada risks losing credibility internationally on climate if we don't get moving.

Maybe next year?

The one ray of hope is that the public appears increasingly impatient with government delaying tactics, hollow rhetoric and fig-leaf measures like rebates and feel-good ads. Canada needs to get down to brass tacks and impose a carbon tax. Cap and trade for Large Final Emitters or "LFEs", as proposed by the Tories, is second best. But what we simply can't afford is another decade of claiming we have "targets" for reductions, with no hard choices actually taking place to achieve them.

As for denialists, the are losing the battle in the public arena. Most have given up claiming that the climate isn't really warming (usually accompanied by "nobody ever claimed that...") Plenty of people still buy their lame arguments, but the media has all but abandoned the "equal time" sham of airing one real scientist beside one denialist shill. A strange exception was the recent CNN series "Planet in Peril" which paired stunning location photography and undercover work with well-stated summations by Sanjay Gupta, Anderson Cooper, and Jeff Corwin. The series covered a range of current environmental crises, including global warming. In the set-up, they said what all journalists are saying this year: the scientific debate is over, climate change is real. Yet jarringly, in the wrap-up to that segment, they gave equal time and billing to industry patsy Patrick Michaels right next to Real Climatologist James Hansen of NASA Goddard. The segment was otherwise powerful and may have gotten the message out to many Americans, although giving Michaels air-time merely let those in denial continue to grasp at the straw of "scientists still don't agree." Sigh.

Another really great information format I've hit on is podcasting. It turns out there are all sorts of great podcasts on climate science and politics, and on renewables and other solutions. A few of my favorites are Renewable Energy Access, NPR Climate Connections, Weekly Radio Spin, the Insider Podcast from Environmental Defence, and EarthBeat Radio. Podcasts help fill "in-between" time including commuting, making supper, ironing, exercising, etc. It's like having a custom radio station that only plays content I want to keep up on. I'm definitely more plugged in to current events in the fight against global warming thanks to these podcasts.

I've especially enjoyed hearing about the youth conference "Power Shift 2007" and the ongoing youth action movements arising from that.

Locally, there's lots of work going into organizing the Dec. 8 Rally for Kyoto. I don't know if anyone is doing this here, but a lot of cities are joining in Greenpeace's polar bear plunge to save the polar bears.

So come out out to the rally on Dec. 8th and drive the message home!

Catching up again

Once again I've had so much going on I haven't made time to post to this blog for several months. Let's see if now with winter here I can settle back into this.

I've been to some interesting events this fall, notably the one-day conference at UofT entitled A Globally Integrated Climate Policy for Canada. This was an interesting change from the science-heavy events I've been attending previously. Several panels of three speakers each offered a wide range of viewpoints and much lively interchange. The lunchtime keynote by UofT Prof. Thomas Homer-Dixon painted a stark portrait of the dire outcomes we can foresee if GHG emissions continue rising. Prof. Mark Jaccard of SFU had interesting points about what kind of policy instruments are effective in reducing emissions, and which are less so--notably all the ones Canada has tried so far, including information campaigns and incentives for individual actions to improve home insulation. Incentives can tend to reward behaviour that would have occurred anyway, rather than generate additional action.

I was particularly interested to hear Jaccard as I'd been reading his previous book Sustainable Fossil Fuels. Despite the initial impression from the title that he must be a cornucopian who thinks peak oil is no threat, I found the book realistic and pertinent. He specifically notes that coal appears to be abundant enough to permit extensive coal-to-liquids as a cushion against foreseeable declines in conventional oil. Further on in the book he returns to the point that CO2 sequestration will be necessary to avoid dangerous climate change. I had to return the book to the library and I'm afraid I can't give a clear rendition of how he proposed that sequestration could work for liquid fuels (hydrogen from syngas would allow sequestration, but then doesn't deliver a normal liquid fuel. Sorry, but I'm just unclear on his position on this one. I'm not saying he was mixed up - this is me not remembering.)

I found Jaccard's contributions at the conference pertinent and well presented. I ended up buying a copy of Jaccard's new book, co-authored with Jeffrey Simpson and Nic Rivers, entitled Hot Air: meeting Canada's Climate Change Challenge [McLelland & Stewart, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7710-8096-8] Chapter 1 is a short overview of why a warming climate is bad news (perhaps needed for Canadians who may glibly assume "oh, we'll have longer growing seasons"). Chapters 2 and 3 are entitled "Canada's Do-Nothing Strategy" and "More Wasted Years of Talk." I haven't gotten to the end yet, though it's already clear that the authors favour mandatory measures placing a real cost on carbon, whether a tax or a cap. There's lots more to say about cap-and-trade vs. carbon taxes, but I want to get on to some other items tonight. In sum: I like Jaccard's clarity and directness.

Other books I'm reading currently are two by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You [Common Courage Press, 1995. ISBN 1-56751-060-4] and Trust Us, We're Experts [Tarcher/Penguin, ISBN 1-58542-139-1]. Both cover corporate P.R. and spin, campaigns to obscure clear scientific warnings to the public, and the blight of paid "experts" who leave the public thinking that no risk is ever clear enough to warrant action or legislation.

I've also gone back to my unfinished reading Linda McQuaig's It's the Crude, Dude: war, big oil, and the fight for the plaent on the real motives behind the Bush administration's push for the invasion of Iraq. I can't finish this one still, as it just makes me crazy reading about Vice President Voldemort's scheming ways for very long.

Monday, 16 July 2007

It's not about Al's House

I've been so busy lately I haven't posted to this blog for some time. I've read some excellent books recently, including Andrew Dessler's The Science and Politics of Global Warming (his blog) and Joseph Romm's Hell and High Water. (his blog) Each does a fine job of spelling out the reality of the climate crisis, pointing out the strong scientific concensus on the matter. Each in its own way then delves into what has gone wrong over the past decade in the political process in the USA. Their failure to come to grips with this crisis rests on a tragic history of disinformation, spin, and cheap debating tactics, playing on public reluctance to accept a truth that is truly inconvenient.

As I've followed the public debate over the past few years I've witnessed so many foul plays I don't know where to begin. So to start somewhere, I'll pick the uproar over the power bill for Al Gore's quite large family estate. Apparently it's many times higher than a typical family home. Well, that may take a bit of the shine off of Mr. Gore's public image as a green superhero; but what the heck does it have to do with the validity or otherwise of the science recounted in his film? I thought of this as a snippet of dialogue on an imagined evening newscast:

anchor: "Climate change: we've all heard about it and read about it. But is it true? Is CO2 really a greenhouse gas after all? For answers, Dan Dubious has gone right to the source - Al Gore."

Dan D.: "That's right Bob. We're here in Tennessee to look at Al Gore's electric bill. And it's a whopper. What a hypocrite. How can any of us ever believe anything he says from now on?"

anchor: "Wow, Dan, that's amazing. Well, I guess I can stop worrying about droughts and sea-level rise, now that I know the size of one house in the U.S. southland."

Dan D. "Okay, Bob. Glad I was able to set that straight for you."

I'm trying to make the fallacy really glaring, just so we can all agree it doesn't answer the question. The problem is, this tactic doesn't need to address the real question; it works because it distracts. In a sense, it might actually mean something if the question were "Should we follow Al Gore's advise on what to do about climate change?" For that question, at least, Mr. Gore's personal commitment to reducing his own emissions might even be relevant. But Al Gore is not a scientific authority; he's just reporting on what the scientists have found. Even if you hate Gore and everything he stands for, you really can't escape the question of global warming simply by dismissing Gore the messenger.

You have to answer the question: is CO2 a greenhouse gas, and is the huge increase in CO2 that humans have undeniably started going to change the climate substantially? Al Gore's power bill is not a relevant contribution in looking for that answer. The IPCC has of course reviewed all the good sources of information for answering this one. You can read their reports online if you want to know.

But I realize a lot of Americans (and others) are just hoping this very inconvenient idea will go away if we just avoid reading those reports for a little longer. We've avoided them for a decade already.

The sad thing is that the science of spin is so well developed, and no matter how much we may try to bring the USA back to the actual science, the denialist camp has a whole suite of clever debating tactics lined up like so many smoke grenades. There was the astounding move by Micheal Crichton to link global warming activism with ultra-rich ultra-liberals tooling around in private jets. Huh? My climatology prof cycles to work right through Toronto's snowy winter. (As for me I wimp out and switch to the subway once it gets below freezing.) But that's another story.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Where's your certainty?

Another recurring theme from people who argue against the fact that humans are changing the climate is a big focus on uncertainty. They are critical of forecasts of future temperature increases from complex climate models run on massive computer arrays. The models require simplifying assumptions to be computable, and they argue these assumptions could be "rigged" to make the models artificially confirm global warming.

Yet somehow, each of the rival proposals that they latch onto are excused from this scrutiny. They talk about galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) or solar variations as though we had clear, indubitable data showing these are the "real reason" behind recent temperature trends. In fact, neither of these external forcings is at all well characterized; we are far from having any clear basis for projecting long term trends in either one.

Then there are economic forecasts. Critics of the Kyoto accord regularly project "catastrophic" economic harm if the CO2 reduction targets are implemented. They are quite adamant about this; they seem certain of these projections. Yet the academic literature on this question tells a different story. The recent Stern Report is only the latest instance. Quite a while earlier there was Robert Repetto and Duncan Austin, The Costs of Climate Protection: A Guide for the Perplexed [World Resources Institute, 1997. 60 pages. ISBN 1-56973-222-1, 60 pages] link.

This document looks at projections made with several different economic models, and how much impact on GDP growth there could be if greenhouse gas reductions are implemented. They focus on seven key assumptions, and assess how strongly the outcome depends on each one. For each issue, they look at a "worst case" and "best case" assumption, and work through how much GDP growth would be impacted if all seven are for the worse, or if some or all are the better case. If all seven are in the negative--a "worst worst" case--the models project a significant hit to GDP, something like 7% less GDP growth over the time span needed to reach a 60% cut in emissions. That's not minor, but looked at in context, it is a reduction in foreseen economic growth (something on the order of a doubling of GDP over several decades.) If this takes 30 years, that's the difference between 2.1% per year and 1.9% per year of growth. The growth that would have taken 30 years might now require 33. Catastrophic?

But that's only the "worst worst" case; if even two of the seven factors turn out to the better, the projected impact shrinks to just a 2% hit to GDP over the whole interval. Then the annual growth is 2% vs. 2.1%.

If four of the seven factors turn out favorably, the impact is projected to be very near zero. Once five go favorably, mitigation turns out to be a net benefit to the economy! Some catastrophe.

Of course there are probably many serious studies proposing that greenhouse gas mitigation will be terribly costly to the economy. I won't try to claim that economists can give us a single, persuasive forecast of what's going to happen. There's plenty of room for debate over the economics. Repetto and Austin is already dated, but the Stern Report brings the issue up to the present with much the same import.

It's only the science that's so clearly worked out. We really can't say for sure what will develop economically over the next century. But some critics seem to want to have the reverse: the economics is settled, on the side of catastrophe if Kyoto is implemented; but the science is still cloudy. So we show forget the "Precautionary Principle" and keep stalling. They have everything backwards.

Friday, 16 March 2007

And thanks for all the fish...

"Oh, no! Not again!" is the reaction of a bowl of petunias materialized as a side-effect of a passing spaceship powered by Infinite Improbability Drive in The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The petunias find themselves high above the planet, and thus doomed to a brief lifespan of plummeting. We're left puzzling over how many times the petunias may have been put through this brief and pointless plunge.

This could well be the motto for anyone running across a global warming denier as well. I'm constantly struck by how often the exact same seemingly obscure "objections" are raised by ordinary people - regular folk, outside the hothouse of academia, who don't seem like the type to sit about reading up on galactic cosmic rays or paleoclimatic reconstruction. The selection of odd topics just keeps repeating in a most suspicious way.

I'm attending a course on the physics of radiative processes in the atmosphere (okay, so I am enfolded in the hothouse of academia). Chatting before class this morning, our prof mentioned having given a talk on global warming to grade 5 class. The kids had viewed An Inconvenient Truth and were now quite concerned.

The odd part was that one of the parents attended the talk and make it clear he is a full-out climate change naysayer. He interjected with a few rather technical questions, then buttonholed our prof for half an hour afterward. Apparently one of his issues was galactic cosmic rays (GCRs).

I don't know what sources this guy was working from, but it's fairly easy to imagine. There is no shortage of partisan websites which exist to collect new ways to argue against the reality of global warming, or at least trying to avoid human responsibility for it. They tend to engage in scientific "cherry picking," jumping on any publication or media statement by any scientist that could be either used, or twisted, in their campaign of denial.The flavour of the month is GCRs. Before that it was changing solar output as expounded by, e.g. Russian solar physicist K.I. Abdusamatov.

If you want a detailed account of what these are all about, and why they don't in any way refute the reality of human-induced global warming, I'll recommend RealClimate as a great resource. For my part, I'll just point out that in any of these "alternate explanations" of recent temperature changes that I've checked out, none have even attempted addressed the basic point that we know CO2 traps heat, and we have a good idea how strongly it affects climate. There are facts of basic physics that form the basis for the theory of the greenhouse effect and the role of CO2 as well as methane and other human additions to the atmosphere like CFCs.

Now, I'd say it's simply undeniable that humans are the cause of CO2 concentrations having risen suddenly to levels unseen for a million years or more. It's also unreasonable to suggest that we are not headed for a doubling or more over pre-industrial levels, barring a major reduction effort. The physics of the greenhouse effect tell us that this much additional CO2 will inevitably force a hotter climate.

So if you want to argue that CO2 is not already warming the planet and that higher levels in the future won't lead to more warming, it's not enough to say "I've found another outside forcing factor." Mainstream scientists using basic physics and spectroscopic measurements have worked out a figure known as the "radiative forcing" for a doubling of CO2 concentrations. The typical denial argument skips over this issue, implying that the forcing factor is zero or near zero. There is almost never any justification for that departure from the scientific literature. Richard Lindzen takes this tack, though at least he allows a non-zero value--something like 0.25 W m-2 versus the consensus value of about 3.75 W m-2. Lindzen at least gets points for giving his own number, but most denialists simply dismiss all this physics out of hand. The latch on to some new proposed candidate like GCRs or solar variability as if these could simply erase the existence of the greenhouse effect.

The point is that we have a clear theoretical handle on how and why CO2 absorbs infrared radiation in the range of the spectrum where the earth and atmosphere radiate strongly. This comes from hard science with precise laboratory measurements, as well as lots of ground- and space-based observation. This area of hard science provides a basis for predicting how much more heat we will trap by a given rise in CO2.

Saying there are other external forcings as well (solar variation, GCRs) says nothing to change these facts. Yet the denial movement regularly trots out these red herrings as if they somehow showed there is no greenhouse effect. The correct response to a proposed new forcing is to treat it in context of all the other forcings that have been so well covered in the IPCC assessment reports (ARs). Solar variation barely shows up on the chart; GCRs are too new a theory to have been covered in existing ARs; we'll have to wait to see how the dust settles on this new proposal.

But please be clear that this is all we have so far: a new proposed external forcing factor, which if confirmed (far from a certainty), would just have to be superimposed on all the existing forcings we have already identified and quantified. A new forcing does not wipe away all the others. Each known forcing has been assigned an error bar reflecting the remaining uncertainties over their exact values. A few are still poorly understood, but the forcings for CO2, methane and CFCs are fairly tightly constrained (unless you ask Richard Lindzen).

Next month, expect the denialist websites to latch on to some new claim, raising whatever it is to the level of a sure thing, and suggesting once again that this one means we can forget all about any greenhouse effect.

The non-sequiturs just keep rolling.

Oh, no! Not again!

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Does anyone still doubt whether humans are changing the climate? Well, unfortunately...

Last month the IPCC released the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of their Fourth Assessment Report (AR4); the full report is due out this Spring. I was really struck by the change in tone of the media coverage in the wake of this document, coming on the heels of the Stern Report and the big audience response to Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth." Up until this past month, a lot of media coverage of global warming fell victim to a "he said, she said" format where global warming proponents and deniers were given "equal time" in the interest of supposed "fairness." But after the release of the AR4, across the board I kept seeing media headlines saying that the debate is "finally over." Mind you, the scientists knew this some time before the media caught on; but at least now they have taken note.

Strikingly, both the Bush White House and Canada's Kyoto-defeatist minority Conservative government both went on the record as conceding that humans are changing the climate. Even John Howard's Kyoto-rejecting administration in Australia has given up questioning the human role: "I am not as fanatical about it as others," he said. But, "the accumulated evidence is undeniable ... we do have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." [International Herald Tribune, January 25, 2007] link

All this is quite new. These were the last three G8 leaders who were playing both sides of the fence on the science until recently. Harper in particular got slammed after his recent epiphany on climate science, as the Liberal party found a copy of a fundraising letter he sent out in 2002 calling Kyoto a "socialist plot" and touting "tentative and contradictory scientific evidence about climate trends." But the opinion polls showed a strong surge in public concern over global warming, so Harper had to give ground.

Once the AR4 SPM was released, the media flashed the "debate is over" headline, then spent a good ten days summing up the science. The Globe and Mail ran a two-page centre spread with a map of Canada's projected climate by 2099 - the map showed isotherm lines of mean temperate rise, with Toronto inside a +6C contour. Wow.

I take this to mean that the scientific "debate" in the mainstream media can now be framed as settled, instead of "he said, she said." Journalists are in effect giving themselves permission to point to the IPCC as the received wisdom, instead of having to bracket it with opposing views. This will certainly save them time.

Looking around the internet over the past few weeks, it is starting to look like a lot of the deniers have not yet received the memo that the debate is "over." Blogs and discussion groups continue to roll with back and forth over such profound topics as a debate on whether the scientists of the IPCC (and the NAS, AAAS, Britain's Royal Society, Swedish Royal Academy, ...) can or cannot be called a "consensus." If they can, deniers next say that science "does not operate by consensus" (so, what? Now we have too many scientists in favour? Oy vey!) Perhaps they also claim the missing scientists on side B of the "debate" have been driven underground by the other scientists not being nice to them.

If you try to work through the logic of the greenhouse effect with some of the deniers, they may throw stones at every step in the chain of reasoning. A lot of times the exact same very specific debating points will turn up over and over from different people in many different forums. There's a great "taxonomy of skepticism" on the wonderful blog A Few Things Ill Considered. I'm afraid I've seen almost all these objections tossed out more than once - each one refutable, but there is such a litany of them.

A lot of these points have been hammered repeatedly in the op-ed pages of conservative newspapers like Canada's National Post. So I guess it's no surprise that I also encounter the "man in the street" following virtually the same script as the online debating club crowd. Last week I spoke to someone I hadn't seen in some time. When I mentioned I was taking a university course on global warming, he started posing a series of questions that could have come straight from the Ill-Considered skeptic's checklist. He was very polite, and I gave my best short responses to them one by one. After the seventh or eighth "but what about" question, I had to stop myself from asking what editorial page he had been reading. The deniers have been quite effective in getting their program of doubt across to the public.

So it looks like so far, the message has not reached all the foot soldiers in the trenches that the climate denial army has been forced to surrender. Should we be dropping leaflets, perhaps?

Of course, the end of one debate, over the science, leads inevitably into the start of another, over the politics: what shall we do now? That's the right place to be in the discussion. But for the deniers, they have a Plan B response that may startle you. As the "scientists can't agree" objection gets worn away, a lot of opponents are quickly switching their tune to "it's too late to stop global warming." Whew - that was QUICK, eh? Last week you said it wasn't even happening, and now suddenly it got away from us? In two weeks?

I've read a string of pieces by opponents of Kyoto this week arguing that climate change is now inevitable, and mitigation (lowering our CO2 emissions) sufficiently is impossible, so we all need to brace ourselves and start planning for how to cope - so called "adaptation."

The flaw in this argument is that we can't afford to give up on the mitigation front; however poorly you feel about our prospects for keeping CO2 levels from soaring, it's absurd to say we should not even try, and just sit back and prepare for all the consequences. The impact of CO2 is not just linear - there are good reasons to be concerned that as levels rise, new and more serious consequences come to bear.

Monday, 26 February 2007

How I chose the title

Every piece of writing needs a good title. It's the hook, to get grazing passers-by to stop and sample the writing. When I decided to start this blog I didn't have the title worked out yet.

Well this morning on the subway it hit me. What I'm up against is a lot of spin, smoke-screening and irrelevant arguments -- the sort of thing we call a "red herring." Their aim is to throw you off the trail (dried salt herrings, which can go reddish, are very smelly -- so I'm told.)

I want to counter all those red herrings with a good, solid environmental reality check. Something from the other side of the spectrum ... something green.

So there it is. I'm calling this "Green Herring." Of course I had to google the term to see if someone else had thought of it. Of course someone had: there's a vegetarian restaurant in Canberra that has the name already. Here's one online online review - they liked it. I'll have to look it up if we ever get to Canberra. We've got friends in Melbourne that we're overdue for another visit.

There was also an entry in a Matlab contest that used this title. I haven't run the code to see what it does, but it sounds like some pretty pictures may emerge...

Well that's it for how I chose the title.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

About me

Welcome to my blog. This is something I should have started a long time ago. I'll start with a brief tidbit about me as an intro.
At work I do computer support for university engineering researchers. One great thing about this job is access to lectures, seminars and courses on campus. I've been making the best of this opportunity to get up to date on topics in science such as genetics, as well as climate change and sustainable energy.
I'll have plenty to say on these topics as I get under way with this blog.