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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Continuing a Theme

The Nordhaus & Shellenberger piece certainly has kicked up a lot of dust, including from someone whose work I normally enjoy.  Tom Toles issued his own ranting screed at the Washington Post yesterday.  It includes most of the same over-the-top grousing about the N&S piece as other writers.  But it includes a couple of things I’d like to highlight for additional discussion.

The ‘concern’ is that as a tactic it can ‘backfire’ and not win over conservatives to climate change action. Not win over conservatives! The article doesn’t place ALL the blame on faulty environmentalist tactics. It pauses to include what may be the most understated disclaimer in history: “Other factors contributed. Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming.” Some! Really???

At what point will people realize that if we nullify conservative’s work against climate action, then the very thing Toles and others claim to care about so deeply will finally happen: widespread and robust climate action?!  No, Tom is right.  We should continue the same strategies that failed for 30+ years, because one day, gosh darn it, they’ll magically work.  It’s quite simple really: identify and work via values and tactics that resonate with conservatives to achieve the same goal that working via different values and tactics that resonate with liberals.  This is where tribalism rears its ugly head big time.  Instead of recognizing inherent worldview differences and expending effort to talk to conservatives differently than liberals, it is much easier to shut your brain down and scream about how conservatives are “others” and should therefore be banned from all decision-making.  What a wonderful strategy!  Obviously it’s worked since so many conservatives are voting for carbon taxes and setting up subsidies for renewable energy and … that’s right, none of that is happening, is it?

N&S pointed out that many environmentalists work against their stated goals by purposefully shutting out 1/3 of the population.  That doesn’t sit well with Toles or Romm or many others.

Here is the second thing Toles writes that irks me:

If environmentalists aren’t careful, it says, sufficient support for an adequate policy response might go away. Go away! As though it was ever even close to being there in the first place. They cite Al Gore’s 2006 ‘Inconvenient Truth’ as contributing to backlash and division. Do they think no one has any memory whatsoever? Let me remind those who don’t. Before “Inconvenient Truth’ there was close to ZERO widespread public concern about climate change.

How close to ZERO was there, Tom?  Let’s check the first thing that comes up when I Google search ‘global warming polling 1980′:

 photo GlobalWarmingPollingGallup1989-2013_zpsf586fd1f.gif

Well, would you look at that – somebody polled Americans for decades now – who would have thought?  It turns out that 50-72% of Americans worrying a great deal or a fair amount is close to ZERO in Tom’s world.  That’s enlightening.  Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth” in early 2006.  In Gallup polling, worry jumped from 51% in 2004 to 62% in 2006 and 66% in 2008.  So yes, Truth likely brought American’s attention back to the issue in a way that other efforts did not.  Note however a couple of things this time series shows us: support was higher in 1999 and 2000 than 2008.  So Truth wasn’t the most effective strategy.  Also, worry post-2008 fell back to 2004 levels: 51%.  Worry was falling in 2009 – when Waxman and Markey were writing their cap-and-trade legislation – through 2010 – when the legislation failed to pass Congress.  That was despite having a Democratic President and a Democratic-led House and Senate.  That combination will not repeat itself any time soon.  So what should liberals do?  Find alternate tactics to motivate conservatives instead of denigrating and alienating them?  That sounds crazy to me.

Gallup’s page has plenty of other interesting results to chew over.  I will include one more in this post for illustrative purposes because it gets at the heart of what N&S really wrote about.  Gallup started asking in 1997 whether people thought global warming was a threat in their lifetime.  Guess what the majority answer was.  That’s right: most people said “no”.  Most people (50%-69%) hold this belief at the same time they believe that global warming is real, that human activities cause it, and that news reports on it are correct, if not underestimated.

What does that mean?  It means that people view the problem as a distant threat that will impact others before Americans.  There is scientific truth behind this belief.  The first reports of impacts were on Asians and Africans.  Those same populations will continue to be disproportionately affected in the coming decades, as the IPCC AR5 reported this year.

N&S’s post was an attempt to change this perception.  If scientists employ “communications approaches that take account of individuals’ personal points of reference (e.g., based on an understanding and appreciation of their values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences) are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals with climate change,” more people are likely to view climate change as a direct threat to their own lives.  If that happens, support for climate action will break through traditional barriers.  But I guess Toles, Romm, and others aren’t really interested in that.  They’re interested in this topic on ideological grounds: so long as liberals beat conservatives and people with slightly different worldviews, they’re happy.


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On hit pieces and legions of destroyed strawmen

There is an ongoing case of intensifying tribalism in a part of the climate activist population.  There are prolific bloggers and twitter users that spend time attacking anyone – and I mean anyone – who doesn’t agree with them 100% of the time on every aspect of climate change activism.  Unfortunately, this leads to them making narrow interpretations, setting up and destroying strawmen, and writing obscenely character assassinations. Their works are becoming competitive: who can write the most damaging screed, or use the biggest set of words, etc.  They moved away in some respects from attacks on what they label ‘denier’s’ to people that actually agree with them on the seriousness of future climate change effects but offer differing prescriptions about what to do.  In their zeal to knock someone else down and establish themselves as the sole and ultimate arbiters of not only physical scientific truth, but also social scientific truth, they seem to forget about their core mission: motivate an apathetic public to apply political pressure to mitigate future climate change.

In the newest example, Climate Progress’ Joe Romm entitled this piece, The Brutally Dishonest Attacks On Showtime’s Landmark Series On Climate Change, which starts out with:

For instance, the piece [Global Warming Scare Tactics] repeats the tired and baseless claim that Al Gore’s 2006 movie “An Inconvenient Truth” polarized the climate debate.

For a piece with “Brutally Dishonest” in its lede, you might expect honestly within.  Unfortunately, this piece, like so many others, is prejudiced by Romm’s vitriol for the authors.  Here is what the piece actually says about “An Inconvenient Truth”:

For instance, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” popularized the idea that today’s natural disasters are increasing in severity and frequency because of human-caused global warming.

See the subtle difference?  Nordhaus & Shellenberger actually wrote that Truth popularized the misconception that global warming has already increased the severity and frequency of natural disasters.  They did not write about the larger climate debate.  This argument is one Romm (and many others) is particularly fond of, but isn’t supported by their ultimate arbiter of climate information, the IPCC, which wrote about the lack of such a signal in the recently released Working Group II report: “Economic growth, including greater concentrations of people and wealth in periled areas and rising insurance penetration, is the most important driver of increasing losses… loss trends have not been conclusively attributed to anthropogenic climate change (AR5 10.7.3)” and in a report dedicated to extreme weather: “Most studies of long-term disaster loss records attribute these increases in losses to increasing exposure of people and assets in at-risk areas (Miller et al., 2008; Bouwer, 2011), and to underlying societal trends – demographic, economic, political, and social – that shape vulnerability to impacts (Pielke Jr. et al., 2005; Bouwer et al., 2007). Some authors suggest that a (natural or anthropogenic) climate change signal can be found in the records of disaster losses (e.g., Mills, 2005; Höppe and Grimm, 2009), but their work is in the nature of reviews and commentary rather than empirical research.”

Moreover, the authors continued to write that there were other influences beyond “Inconvenient Truth” including two other favorite targets of Romm’s: “Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming.”

Probably the most critical aspect of missing climate action within the past decade went untreated by Romm: the Great Recession.  As a direct result of millions of Americans losing their jobs and houses, the depth of their concern for the environment understandably fell.  Millions more Americans knew somebody (or many somebodies) who lost their jobs and/or houses through no fault of their own.  That phenomenon had a chilling effect on American’s willingness to stick their necks out for an issue that is not impacting them to the same degree: climate change.  The 2009 Waxman and Markey could not have introduced their climate legislation at a worse time in contemporary history.  Congress provided 1/3 to 1/2 the stimulus that experts on the Great Depression said was required to restore America to full employment again.  With little hope of robust economic recovery, climate change was very much a background issue.  We’re still dealing with the short-sightedness of a paltry stimulus plan that agencies executed haphazardly.

Romm also dismisses the next part of the article – the part that he and other activists should really spend some time digesting: how to talk about climate change.  Again, activists fill blog posts and tweets with disaster porn language: apocalypse, catastrophe, end of civilization, end of the world!!!  Given the evangelical bent of many Americans, they view climate change as an act of God, not mankind.  That fundamental shift in perception turns anything else activists have to say about the topic into rubbish for many Americans.

There is a 2009 study entitled, “Fear Won’t Do It” by Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia in the UK – the same institution that was the target of an illegal email hack some years back.  The study concluded:

Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern, they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.

Well, look at that.  Denial is a natural response to disaster language and imagery that climate activists routinely employ in their communication attempts.  They go on to recommend more personally meaningful imagery and language:

The results demonstrate that communications approaches that take account of individuals’ personal points of reference (e.g., based on an understanding and appreciation of their values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences) are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals with climate change.

This kind of communication inherently requires more effort, which might very well be part of the reason why it isn’t employed more often by activists.  We’re all searching for paths of least resistance and quick returns on our efforts.  But if activists really believe that global warming is the penultimate problem of our species, they should be as interested in social science results as physical science results.  Pressing the latter while ignoring the former hasn’t achieved goals on the time-frame activists say is required to “avert catastrophe”.


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IPCC’s Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability Report Issued

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report’s Working Group II (AR5 WGII) issued their report today.  I do agree with some of the opining characterizing the report as ‘alarmist’ – from the standpoint that I don’t think there is enough information presented simultaneously regarding opportunities for action.  People don’t respond well to persistent negative messages.  Would climate activists subject their children to daily messages of upcoming death, devastation, and the collapse of civilization?  If not, then why do they think adults are any better at handling the same messaging?

That said, I believe that scientists settled the science years ago.  I think it is highly unlikely scientists will identify anything fundamental to change that science in business as usual activities.  What will change is the climate’s response to activities changed by policy.  With new and updated policies, mitigation and adaptation will occur.  Therefore, I spend as much or more time on policy discussion than science discussion, using the science as my foundation.  As the picture on this blog emphasizes, I operate as a bridge between these two distinct sides of the problem.  Scientists typically don’t understand policy processes (to the point they eschew social science findings and believe physical scientists should exclusively inform and decide policy), while policymakers continue to ask for more actionable information.

What follows is a summary of high-level results (Summary for Policymakers) from this new report. I want this post to serve as something I can point to repeatedly in the future for these results.

OBSERVED IMPACTS, VULNERABILITY, AND ADAPTATION IN A COMPLEX AND CHANGING WORLD

1. In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans.

2. In many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological systems, affecting water resources in terms of quantity and quality (medium confidence).

3. Many terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species have shifted their geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances, and species interactions in response to ongoing climate change (high confidence).

4.  Negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence).

5. At present the world-wide burden of human ill-health from climate change is relatively small compared with effects of other stressors and is not well quantified (small-medium confidence).

6. Differences in vulnerability and exposure arise from non-climatic factors and form multidimensional inequalities often produced by uneven development processes (very high confidence).  These differences shape differential risks from climate change.

7. Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence).

8. Climate-related hazards exacerbate other stressors, often with negative outcomes for livelihoods, especially for people living in poverty (high confidence).

9. Violent conflict increases vulnerability to climate change (medium evidence).

Number 6 tells me that differential risk can be reduced by helping developing countries develop more quickly.  They will bear the early and severe brunt of climate change effects despite contributing the smallest portion of anthropogenic climate change forcing.  Despite this, most climate activists want to keep these countries in their current state by preventing them from industrializing.

Number 7 is relevant to the climate activist vs. Pielke Jr. brouhaha (which activists claim means very little to them at the same time they issue post after post and tweet after tweet regarding their personal opinion of Pielke).  The IPCC states: “For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors” (emphasis mine).  What this tells me is human systems are vulnerable to today’s climate, which has a small fraction of human influence (read: overwhelmingly most influence is natural).  The focus then should be on preparing for today’s climate variability as primary steps toward dealing with tomorrow’s variability.  I don’t hear enough from today’s climate activists how today’s infrastructure can’t handle today’s climate variability.  Most of what I hear deals with 2050 or 2100 – dates when most of us will be dead.  Why not focus instead on today’s infrastructure, which we know are deficient?  Indeed, this is exactly what the report suggests we do.

The Summary continues with Adaptation Experience:

1. Adaptation is becoming embedded in some planning exercises, with more limited implementation of responses (high confidence).

2. Adaptation experience is accumulating across regions in the public and private sector and within communities (high confidence).  Governments at various levels are starting to develop adaptation plans and policies to integrate climate-change considerations into broader development plans.

It’s late in the <2C warming game for these adaptations to take place, but at least people are initiating them somewhere.  Municipalities and collections thereof are the hotspot for climate adaptation and mitigation plans and policies.  In the US, national policy is virtually nonexistent.  My hope is that local policies grow in scale.  We need to start evaluating plans and policies to inform additional locales as well as scale them up for larger governmental entities – how do they need to change for state and regional levels, for instance?

I’ll have more on this and related topics in the future as I continue to read through the report.


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Climate News & Opinion Links – March 26 2014

I’ve collected a number of interesting climate and energy related news releases, stories, and opinion pieces in the past couple of weeks.  In no particular order:

The only way we will take large-scale climate action is if there are appropriate price signals in markets – signals that reach individual actors and influence their activities.  One step in the right direction was phasing out federal subsidies for high-risk coastal properties’ flood insurance policies, as Congress did in 2012.  This had the expected effect of increasing premiums for policy holders.  Unsurprisingly, people don’t want to pay more to live in their high-risk homes.  So they complained to their representatives, who responded by passing new legislation … reinstating government subsidies.  Taxpayers across the country are shoveling good money after bad for a select handful of wealthy people to build without mitigating risk to their homes or paying the true economic costs of their lifestyle decisions.  We will pay for them to rebuild again and again (remember: sea levels will rise for centuries) unless we as a society decide to stop.

Tesla is entering the energy industry.  This could be a game changer in terms of home solar energy and electric vehicles, no matter how Tesla comes out in the long-term.

20 years of IPCC effort and “achievement”.  With no robust international climate agreement after 20 years’ of work, I have a hard time accepting the claim the IPCC has achieved much of anything except an excessive bureaucracy and huge reports that few people read.

News that’s not really news: Asia will be among those hardest hit by climate change.  This isn’t a new result, but something that the IPCC’s WGII report will report on with increased confidence in 2014 versus 2007 (see above statement).  The number of people living close to coasts in Asia dwarf the total population of countries who historically emitted the most greenhouse gases.  That was true in 2007 and will be true in the future.  It will take a generation or more before effects on developed nations generate widespread action.

New research (subs. req’d) indicates ice gains in Antarctica’s Ross Sea will reverse by 2050.  Recent temperature and wind current patterns will shift from their current state to one that encourages rapid ice melt, similar to what the Arctic experienced in the past 20 years or so.

An El Nino might be developing in the tropical Pacific.  The anomalous heat content traveling east via an Equatorial Kelvin Wave rivals that of the 1997-1998 El Nino, which was the strongest in recorded history.  Earlier this month, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center issued an El Nino Watch, citing a 50% probability that an El Nino would develop in summer or fall 2014, based in part on projections such as Columbia University’s.  El Nino is the warm phase of the ENSO phenomenon.  Warm ocean waters move from the western to eastern Pacific, affecting global atmospheric circulations.  Related to science policy, one result of Congress’ austerity approach to the economy is  monitoring buoys’ degradation in the Pacific Ocean.  NOAA helped deploy a widespread network of buoys following the 1982-1983 El Nino which helped track the progress of the 1997-1998 El Nino with greatly improved fidelity.  That network is operating at less than 75% of its designed capacity, hampering observations.  If we can’t observe these impactful events, we can’t forecast their effects.  This negatively impacts business’ and peoples’ bottom line.

Finally, I want to make some observations regarding goings-on within the climate activist community.  Vocal critics recently spent a lot of energy on hit pieces, this being only one example (poorly written with little on science, heavy on “he-saids”, with an overdose of personal insults and vindictive responses to anyone who didn’t agree with the piece, including my comments).  These writings demonstrate something rather simple to me: if you do not agree with 100% of what the activist consensus is, you’re no better than people the activists label ‘deniers’.  Additionally, the their argument is absurd: social scientists have no business analyzing climate data or commenting on activist’s claims.  Why is this absurd?  Because they simultaneously hold the contradictory belief that physical scientists should have exclusive input and decision-making power over climate policy (a social creation).  Furthermore, implicit in their messaging is social scientists don’t have the right kind of expertise to participate in “serious” discussions.  These efforts to deligitimize someone they don’t believe should participate (how very elitist of them) is reminiscent of efforts by many in the Republican party to deligitimize Barack Obama’s presidency simply because of his race.  Nothing is gained and much is lost by these efforts.  How does this advance the climate discussion to people not currently involved, which will need to happen if we are to ever take any kind of large-scale climate action?

Additional lack of critical thought is found in this post, mostly in this penultimate paragraph:

I’ve said before that I think people can believe what they want, as long as they don’t try to act on those beliefs in a way that interferes with others’ lives. When they deny the reality of global warming, and preach it to their flock, that’s exactly what they’re doing (incidentally, a large fraction of Americans believe to some extent the Bible is literally true).

The very same complaint is made by the people the author derides in this paragraph and post but in reverse and it’s one of the biggest reasons why we’ve taken so little climate action.  The author’s condescension is plainly evident for those who don’t believe exactly as he does. Instead of trying to reach out to people with different beliefs (and underlying value systems), he takes the lazy route and spends time insulting them.  Have you ever believed in something you didn’t previously after someone insulted you?  No, it’s an absurd and self-defeating strategy.  These basic problems underlie most climate change discussions and people retrench their positions instead of trying to step into other’s shoes.  I’m not sure how much this has to change before we undertake more widespread and effective climate mitigation strategies.


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Newest Climate Change Consensus Document Won’t Matter…

It won’t matter unless and until physical scientists leverage expertise outside of their silos and stop executing failed strategies.  In addition to summary after summary of government sanctioned peer-reviewed scientific conclusions, scientists now think they need to report on the perceived consensus on individual bases of those conclusions in order to spur the public to action.  Regardless of their personal political leanings, scientists are very conservative job actors.  They have long-held traditions that are upheld at every turn, which reduces the urgency of their statements.  As an analogy, think of a bunch of people sitting down who think for long time periods before any action is ever taken.  First, they calmly say there is a situation that requires near-immediate action.  Then they say it a little louder.  Then a handful start yelling because you’re not responding to their carefully crafted words and they think that you just didn’t hear them or you just aren’t smart enough to understand those carefully crafted words.  Then they start screaming because they’re convinced you’re an idiot and screaming will definitely work where yelling and saying those words didn’t work before.

Well, the screaming isn’t helping, is it?  You’re not an idiot.  The volume of words isn’t the issue.  The issue is you are motivated by things outside of the climate realm – things like having a job; a job that pays a living wage so you can pay for your mortgage and car payment and keep your children educated and happy.  An existence in an affluent world that allows you the time and energy to think of complex problems beyond your perceived immediate needs.  If those needs aren’t met – if you have insecure affluence – you place climate change and the environment far down on a list of priorities – just like a majority of other Americans.

But the newly released “American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society with a membership of 121,200 scientists and “science supporters” globally” report won’t change this dynamic.  While it is important that the AAAS engages scientists and the society it serves, this report is unfortunately just the latest effort by a group of physical scientists that ignores science results outside of their discipline to try to convince Americans that immediate and drastic action is necessary.  Like previous efforts, this one will not spur people to action, mostly because the actions listed are about limits, stopping, restricting, reversing, preventing, and regulating.  The conceptual model from which these words arise works in direct contrast to the fundamentals of American culture.  We are a people who are imaginative, who innovate, who invest.

As I have written before, there is no way we will achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions without substantial investment into innovation of new technologies that we research, develop, and deploy at scale.  There is nothing limiting or restrictive about this framework.  It it the opposite of those things.  This framework recognizes and sets out to achieve opportunities; it allows for personal and cultural growth; it is in sync with the underlying cultural fabric of this country.  It directly addresses people’s perception of the security of their affluence in the same way that developing countries’ economic growth allows people to move beyond basic material needs to higher order needs.

The reality of insecure affluence among many Americans today might be an indirect outcome of the 1%’s efforts to increase wealth disparity, but it is real.  We have to address that disparity first in order to address the real, valid perceptions of insecure affluence.  Only after Americans feel their personal wealth is secure will they have the resources to devote to higher order needs such as global climate change.  That can happen with concerted focus on investing and innovating a post-carbon economy.  But you won’t see that at the top of any policy prescription from the majority of climate scientists.


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Guest Teaching This Week

I’m guest teaching for my adviser’s Climate Policy Implications class while they are at a conference.  Yesterday was the easier task, as the class watched most of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “11th Hour“.  Like Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”, DiCaprio makes widespread use of catastrophic visuals in the first 2/3 of the film.  I had discussions with classmates when I took this same class and others about the effects of these visuals.  Filmmakers design them to evoke strong emotional responses from viewers, which occurs even if you know what the intent is.  Beyond that intent, the images generate unintended consequences: viewers are left overwhelmed and feel helpless, which is the exact opposite reaction for which the film is likely designed.

The film contains spoken references to the same effect: “destroy nature”, “sick” and “infected” biosphere, “climate damage”, “Revenge of Nature”, “Nature has rights”, “nobody sees beauty”, “demise”, “destruction of civilization”, climate as a “victim”, “ecological crisis”, “brink”, “devastating”, and “environment ignored”.  These phrases and analogies project a separation between humans and nature; they romanticize the mythologized purity of nature, where nothing bad ever happens until the evil of mankind is unleashed upon it.  These concepts perpetuate the mindset that the movie tries to address and change.  That’s the result of … science.  As advocates of science, the interviewees in the film should support scientific results.  But they ignore critical social science findings of psychological responses to framing and imagery.  Why?  Because they’re locked into a tribal mindset and don’t critically analyze their own belief system.  All the while knocking the skeptics who don’t either.  I stopped using catastrophic language once I learned about these important scientific results.  The best I can do is advocate that these students do the same.

We didn’t finish watching the film during class, but the last handful of minutes we did watch did something few environmental-related films manage: stories of action and opportunity.  Filmmakers and climate activists need to stuff their efforts with these pieces, not pieces of destruction and hopelessness.  If you want to change the culture and mindset of society, you have to change your message.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the 11th Hour as well as this video: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0492931/.  I also want to talk to the class (mostly undergraduate seniors, a couple of graduate students) about the scope of GHG emissions.  I’ve graded a few weeks’ worth of their homework essays and see clear parallels to the type of essays I wrote before I took additional graduate level science policy classes.  As my last post stated, too many scientists and activists get caught up using shorthand terms they really don’t understand (I should know, I used to do it too).  What does 400 ppm mean? 8.5 W/m^2?  2C warming?  Many of my science policy classes required translating these shorthand terms to units we can more intuitively grasp: number of renewable power plants required to reduce emissions to targets by certain dates.

My hope is that resetting the frame might elicit a different kind of conversation that what they’ve had so far this semester.  I also really enjoy talking about these topics with folks, so tomorrow should be fun.


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Future Emissions Scenario Requirements & Arctic Warming [With Update]

A recent research article didn’t generate anything terribly earth-shattering, but I wanted to write about some writing on it because it deals with a recurring theme on this blog.  For context, I’ll start with the news release and article (article subs. req’d).  In a nutshell,

Climate model projections show an Arctic-wide end-of-century temperature increase of +13∘ Celsius in late fall and +5∘ Celsius in late spring if the status quo continues and current emissions increase without a mitigation scenario. In contrast, the mean temperature projection would be +7∘ Celsius in late fall and +3∘ Celsius in late spring by the end of the century if a mitigation scenario to reduce emissions is followed, concludes the paper titled, “Future Arctic Climate Changes: Adaptation and Mitigation Timescales.”

Again, there is nothing terribly shocking there.  If we do nothing, the Arctic will likely warm a whole lot more than if we implement mitigation policies.

But that paragraph could use some additional context.  What do the greenhouse gas emissions scenarios look like to generate those varying warming projections?  To get a little technical (stay with me), the authors compared two out of four of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs): RCP8.5 and RCP4.5.  These pathways represent an additional 8.5 W/m^2 and +4.5 W/m^2 radiative forcing at the year 2100 relative to pre-industrial values.

But even though I’ve taken a graduate level radiation course and I’m using these same pathways in my own research, I don’t really know what +8.5 W/m^2 radiative forcing is, and neither do most people.  It’s a number with units that is not intuitively obvious.  This is where climate scientists underperform in communicating with the public and where I come in.

So instead of losing ourselves in the technical details, how can we understand what these two pathways represent?  Qualitatively, RCP8.5 represents a scenario in which we do not enact GHG mitigation policies until after the year 2100.  Economic growth and GHG emissions continue to grow throughout the rest of this century due to 4x 2000′s global energy use.  The radiative forcing is induced by 1370 ppm CO2-eq (CO2 and other GHGs).

By comparison, RCP4.5 represents a scenario that stabilizes forcing at 4.5 W/m^2 without overshooting it and has 650 ppm CO2-eq by 2100 (583 ppm CO2; 2013 mean CO2 concentration: 397 ppm).  Global energy use is just over 2x 2000 levels.  RCP4.5 achieves relatively lower CO2 concentrations by steadily decreasing the amount of carbon per energy unit supplied from 2000 to 2050, then decreasing the carbon/energy ratio very rapidly between 2050 and 2075, then leveling off from 2075-2100.  It does this via wider renewable energy deployment, but predominantly fossil fuel use with carbon capture and sequestration deployment.

In other words, RCP4.5 chiefly relies on slower CO2 concentration growth by assuming widespread and rapid deployment of technologies that do not exist today.  This point is very important to understand.

In a write-up on this same research, Joe Romm concludes thusly (emphasis mine):

This study essentially writes off the possibility of humanity doing any better:

The RCP2.6 scenario requires a 70% reduction of emissions relative to present levels by 2050, a scenario that is highly unlikely in view of the current trajectory of emissions and the absence of progress toward mitigation measures. We refer to the RCP8.5 and RCP4.5 future scenarios as business-as-usual and mitigation.

But the fact is that RCP2.6 — which is about 421 ppm CO2 — is entirely feasible from both a technical and economic perspective. It is only the irrationality, myopia, and, it would seem, self-destructiveness of Homo sapiens that make it “highly unlikely.”

No, it’s not.  RCP2.6 makes many more assumptions about technological capabilities and deployment than does RCP4.5.  It does this more quickly than RCP4.5 by modeling declining carbon per energy unit between 2010 and 2025 (which hasn’t happened yet), then declining much more rapidly starting in 2025 (only 10 years away) until 2050, then slowing down in 2050 and again in 2075.  But here is the kicker: it assumes negative carbon per energy unit after 2075!  How does it do this?  By assuming more carbon will be removed from the atmosphere than emitted into it starting in 2075 and continuing thereafter.  Do we have carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies ready for rapid global deployment?  No, there is to my knowledge only a couple of utility-scale projects currently operating and they haven’t achieved the level of capture and sequestration this pathway assumes.

In order for CCS to operate at the level RCP2.6 assumes, global investment in the technology would have to increase by many factors for years.  Is there any discussion of this occurring in any government?  Will we price carbon-based fuels without interference (i.e., an end to market manipulation by fossil fuel entities and governments)?  No and these things aren’t likely to begin any time soon.

Simply put, RCP2.6 is a fantasy scenario [see update below].  Absent global economic collapse that dwarfs the Great Depression, CO2 emissions and concentrations will continue to increase as economies continue to rely on relatively cheap dirty fossil fuels with manipulated prices.  At this point, I think RCP4.5 is to a lesser extent another fantasy scenario.  That’s neither irrational nor myopic, but realistic based on historical climate policy and my own reading of where international climate policy is likely to exist in the next 35 years.  We are currently on the RCP8.5 pathway.  Researchers use RCP4.5 because it is illustratively different from RCP8.5.  They think it is technically feasible simply because they understand the likely science ramifications of RCP8.5 and misunderstand the public’s desire for continued increasing quality of life that comes with fossil fuel use.  Case in point: researchers have shown the difference between “worst-case” and “best-case” climate scenarios for 30+ years.  Nobody enacted robust climate policy in response to these comparisons.  To continue to do so moving forward is a waste of resources.

[Update]

I wanted to share some updated data demonstrating my statement that RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 are “fantasy scenarios”.  Here are two plots I used in a related post in last 2012:

 photo CO2EmissionsScenarios-hist-and-RCP-2012-b.png

Figure 1. Historical (black dots) and projected (out to 2050 only) CO2 emissions from a Nature Climate Change article (subs. req’d).  Bold colored lines (red, yellow, gray, and blue) represent IPCC AR5 RCP-related emission scenarios.   Thick green dashed lines and thin green solid lines represent SRES emission scenarios used in IPCC AR4.  Light blue dashed lines represent IS92 scenarios.  Different generation scenarios are presented together for inter-report comparison purposes.

 photo CO2EmissionsScenarios-hist-and-RCP-2012.png

Figure 2. As in Figure 1 except projections shown to year 2100 and RCP scenarios highlighted.

Figures 1 and 2 show historical and projected annual CO2 emissions in Pg/year from 1980 until 2050 and 2100, respectively.  Historical data end in 2011 because the paper was published in 2012.  So there are two more year’s data available to us now.  How do you think global CO2 emissions changed since 2011?  Did they decrease, stay the same, or increase?

It’s more challenging than it should be to find similar graphics, but I found this update:

 photo CO2_emissions_Global_Carbon_Project_2013_zps7214b665.jpg

Figure 3. Historical (1990-2012; 2013 projection) global CO2 emissions in GtC/year (1 PgC = 1 GtC).

As Figure 3 shows, global CO2 emissions rose in 2012 compared to 2011, and emissions likely rose further in 2013 compared to 2012.  It further shows that emission rates increased only by 1.0%/year in the 1990s and accelerated to 2.7%/year in the 2000s.  While recent year-0ver-year increases aren’t at 2000 mean levels, they are at least twice that of 1990 levels.  In other words, there has been no stabilization of CO2 emissions, let alone a decrease, as RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 assume.

A fair counterpoint can be made that RCP2.6 assumes a decline starting in 2020, while RCP4.5′s decline starts in 2040.  Sure enough, Figure 1 and 2 demonstrate those assumptions.  To that, I say Figure 1 and 2 also shows RCP2.6′s maximum annual emissions peak at 2010 levels.  Emissions have already increased at 2%+/year since then historically.  For argument sake, let’s say emissions will peak in 2020.  Historical emissions will then be higher than RCP2.6 assumed, which would require even more CO2 removal to achieve <2C stabilization by 2100.  More CO2 removal means more efficient and widespread deployment than RCP2.6 already assumes, which makes it less likely to occur.

RCP4.5 assumes peak annual emissions in 2040 of approximately 11 PgC/year.  If annual growth rates continue near 2.1%, we’ll actually reach that level in 2018 – 22 years ahead of RCP4.5′s assumption.  What emissions growth rate is required to hit 11 PgC/year in 2040?  See the chart below:

 photo CO2Emissions-21and0475_growth_rates_zps20b1f74a.png

Figure 4. Historical (1959-2012) and projected (2013-2040) global annual CO2 emissions using mean 2000′s emissions growth (blue) and calculated emissions required to achieve 11 GtC/year in 2040 (red).  [Historical data: 2013 Global Carbon Project.]

Note that the RCP4.5 scenario has declining emissions growth rate between 2030 and 2040 while my computations uses constant growth rate assumption.  Still, this calculation sheds some light on required changes to achieve RCP4.5 scenario assumptions.  Figure 4 shows that if future emissions grow at constant rate of 2.1%/year (less than the mean 2000′s rate; more than the mean 1990′s rate), 2040 emissions will total >17 GtC/year (remember RCP4.5′s maximum of 11 GtC/year could be achieved as early as 2018).  To max out at 11 GtC/year, emissions would either have to grow at no more than 0.475%/year – less than half the 1990′s mean value – or grow more quickly in the near future, stabilize quickly, and decrease every year following 2030.

RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 demand that countries begin to change their entire energy production fleet from fossil fuels to renewables – either immediately (RCP2.6) or within the next 10-15 years (RCP4.5).  What costs are associated with this conversion?  How many people without energy access today are denied energy access in the future?  That is something that Romm doesn’t address in his talking point that “the fact is that RCP2.6 — which is about 421 ppm CO2 — is entirely feasible from both a technical and economic perspective.”  421 ppm CO2 means no higher concentration than what will occur by 2025.

A permanent emissions decline has obviously never happened historically.  What basis allows for the assumption that it will occur starting in 2030?  More sweeping and effective policies than have ever been implemented are required.  The point to this exercise is to demonstrate that we can play games with numbers all day, but the real world is quite different from economic and climate models as well as Excel spreadsheets.  Unless and until we see real world evidence that emissions stabilization occurs, I see little reason to discuss what RCP2.6 or RCP4.5 shows beyond what “could be” as a rhetorical exercise.


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CO Politics: Flooding and Gun Safety

I’ve read numerous “news” articles regarding the political implications of the historic flooding of Sep. 2013 and the votes that elected representatives took in the 2013 legislative session.  As is usually the case, the right-leaning Denver Post “news” staff parrots Republican talking points while they seek to undermine Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper and the Democratic-led legislature.  The Post enjoys writing about perceived partisan rancor, but they have to search pretty hard to do it.  How many people would read about the overwhelming majority of legislation that passed with huge bipartisan support in 2013?  Not many.  So in a self-fulfilling prophecy, many people think Democrats and Republicans are constantly at each others’ throats.

Aside from that, I found the most recent Post piece on flood and legislation effects interesting for the language used.  Here is a quote from CO Secretary of State Scott Gessler (who has been part of more than his fair share of conflicts of interest as Sec-State):

“Those [Hickenlooper poll] numbers reflect the fundamental feelings of all Coloradans, whether they live in rural communities or more populated cities,” said Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican who is among a field of candidates vying to unseat Hickenlooper in 2014.

“I’m not going to criticize his flood work; he did his job. But what he supported and signed into law — laws that make rural Coloradans pay higher rates for electricity and make them feel like they’re less safe — are fundamentally flawed.”

First, more people support Hickenlooper’s re-election effort than not.  Fundamentally, Coloradoans want Hickenlooper to continue governing the state of Colorado.
Second, when did Scott Gessler last examine how rural electricity co-operative rate changes?  Did the rates ever increase prior to a standardized renewable electricity standard?  You bet they did.  Where was Gessler’s concern back then?  He didn’t have any, did he?  What’s the real issue: higher rates or mandated sources?  If Gessler and rural Coloradoans have an issue with mandated sources, they need to prepare to discuss that, not push a proxy argument that fear mongers.
Third, “make them feel like they’re less safe” is actually the best way I’ve heard the gun safety legislation passed in 2013 framed.  And here is the legislation’s effects: background checks on all buyers (which many people erroneously believe already occurs and receives ~80% support from Democrats, Unaffiliateds, AND Republicans; limits on gun magazines to no more than 15 rounds (which also receives majority support).  Everybody still has their arms, regardless of their current magazine capacity.
Here is something Gessler and the Post never discuss: gun safety legislation helps urbanites actual public safety.  Note my own language: actual safety, not perceived safety – that’s a critical distinction.  Nobody is going to a movie theater in Brush or Cheyenne Wells or Clifton and murdering 12 people and injuring 70 others12 high schoolers and 1 teacher weren’t slaughtered in Rangely or Kremmling or Carr.  Those tragedies occurred in an urban location and Colorado urban elected officials decided enough was enough after 20 1st graders and 6 adults were ruthlessly slaughtered in Sandy Hook.  Why?  Because their constituents demanded action.  Actions taken were common sense, reasonable, and respect the 2nd Amendment.
In a civilized, modern society, public safety is paramount.  My family has a right to life that supersedes anybody’s perceived “right” to an assault rifle with unlimited ammunition.  This is real life, not some video game.  Colorado urban mass murders resulted in real people who are really dead.  Nobody’s safety in the aforementioned unpopulated portions of this state is threatened by mandatory background checks and 15 round magazine limits.  Senseless butchery of urban dwellers needs to stop.  There are ways to accomplish that goal while maintaining Coloradoans’ access to firearms for safety and hunting.
Scott Gessler and other Republicans would obviously rather see more Colorado massacres than implement any regulation on firearms.  I would love to see them defend that position to 2014 voters.


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Government Crisis Viewed Through D.C. Media Bubble

In the postmortem of Republican’s surrender from their extremist hostage taking and ransom demands, people everywhere are analyzing what they think happened.  One article contained glaring ideological framing.  I agree with the foundational analysis of “Short-term debt deal won’t mask big barriers ahead” by Charles Babington of the Associated Press: yesterday’s deal didn’t address the underlying problems in D.C.  But I do disagree with important parts that Charles uses as supporting evidence for his argument.

First:

Republicans still adamantly oppose tax increases. Powerful interest groups and many Democrats still fiercely oppose cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits.

The first sentence is mostly true.  Republicans oppose tax increases on the rich (witness the 2011 deal to lock in lower tax rates for people making $400,000 or more per year), but are more than happy to shift taxation onto the lower and middle class.  But the second sentence is even more painful to read for its vapidity.  What the heck are “powerful interest groups”?  Does Charles know who opposes Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts the most?  People that receive them!  Want to “fix” Social Security?  Lift the taxable income cap and Social Security is solvent for centuries.  But that means “raising taxes” to pay for a social good.  Does Charles seriously believe there are no “powerful interest groups” that oppose tax increases?  No, but he and the AP sure expects readers to.  And Republican supporters demonstrate that effort works.  It’s hip to trash Social Security and Medicare in the D.C. cocktail circuit, but remains wickedly unpopular in the rest of the country.

In fact, most of the “powerful interest groups” on the right – the same ones that pushed for the partial government shutdown and threatened the US’s role as the safest investment on earth -

Also, as usual, there is no mention of the national deficit’s growth under Republican President George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan.  But this fact is an obvious part of the Teabagger’s outrage at establishment Republicans.  It also serves another purpose: if Republicans can generate enough outrage over national debt (that they themselves accumulated), they can demand Social Security and Medicare cuts while the obscenely wealthy get their taxes cut, even though Social Security doesn’t contribute one penny to the national debt they’re supposedly so concerned about.

Second:

The Simpson-Bowles plan remains widely praised nationwide, and largely ignored in Congress.

What?!  Most of the nation doesn’t even know what the S-B plan is or what it would do.  S-B remains widely praised in the same D.C. circles where it’s cool to want to take insurance programs away from the disadvantaged, and that’s it.  Does Charles write that it’s Congress’ job to plan for and pass a budget every year?  Because they haven’t done that on time since 1996 – a time when Republicans dominated the legislature.  Instead, folks in D.C. turned to gangs as the answer – gangs of legislators trying to do the work the rest of their colleagues can’t be bothered to do.

Left out of this article, as usual, are the long list of concessions Democrats yielded all to willingly to Republicans in previous “negotiations” without acquiring Republican concessions.  This latest “reset” is no different: sequestration cuts to the budget (which nobody likes but too many voted and signed for) remain in place.  Those cuts reduce our national economic activity: reduced GDP of about 1%.  At a time of historically low interest rates, the government could rebuild our decaying infrastructure for nearly at-cost, while putting millions of people back to work who want to work.  We are squandering an immense opportunity that will not repeat itself.  That infrastructure will be rebuilt, but today’s politicians want to make sure we pay more than we have to.

Charles and the AP mention none of this.  Instead, it is “powerful interest groups” and crackpot plans.  The framing by the D.C. crowd belittles the American people.  It’s no wonder the media and Congress aren’t liked or trusted by a majority of Americans.

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