Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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2 °C Warming Goal: Zombie Myths Continues

Fresh on the heels of my last post on whether 2 °C should be the exclusive threshold in international diplomacy negotiations, a link to a Grist article written yesterday caught my eye: “What you need to know about the next big climate report“.  What did I find in the 4th paragraph but this appeal to scientific expertise (emphasis mine):

The panel intends for this assessment report to guide international negotiators as they work, in the run-up to the big Paris climate summit in December 2015, to hammer out an agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The U.N. hopes nations will find a way to squeeze through the ever-shrinking window of opportunity and cut a deal to keep the planet from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius of warming — the goal scientists have set to avoid the worst impacts of climate change — before we blow right past that target.

It is worth reminding yourself that everything you encounter in any media is biased somehow.  We’re all human and we all have our own biases.  Nothing is unbiased or objective because the act of putting words to concepts is derived from brains with preferred neural pathways.  There is nothing inherently bad with the bolded language above.  It comes from Grist, which many in the climate activist community view as a legitimate source of information (unlike say, Fox News).  However, the 2 °C threshold was not originally scientific.  That was one of the fundamental take home messages of my last post.

Negotiators in the early 1990s for the IPCC asked for some type of threshold that they might use in negotiations because, not being scientists, they didn’t know what threshold might be useful or appropriate.  A German scientist offered up the 2 °C threshold as part of the UNFCCC process and because nobody else came up with a different threshold or challenged the temperature threshold, negotiators moved it through their process until politicians from countries around the world agreed to insert the language in a formal report.  As is usually the case with these type of things, it has remained as the public threshold ever since.  Climate scientists started using the threshold as part of their work in an attempt to maintain legitimacy in the funding process because politicians control research purse strings.  Finally, as I wrote in my last post, the status quo is very hard to change.  Witness the personalized (not science-based!) attacks on the authors of the Nature Comment that initiated the most recent version of the threshold discussion.

The language Grist uses plays into skeptics hands.  “The goal scientists have set.”  That implies that scientists have political power and have already exercised it at the expense of every other person.  Unsurprisingly, most people aren’t fans of yielding power without a chance at involvement.  Hence one very good reason to subvert those scientists.  Grist is helping perpetrate the meme that there is a conspiracy against non-scientists – a meme that many climate scientist activists further inflame when they claim exclusive providence over anything climate related.  If activists don’t view someone as a perfect example of their tribe, they attack the “other” without hesitation because they’re using the climate issue as a proxy for arguments they should have instead.

Politicians and diplomats set the 2 °C threshold.  They were the only ones that had the power to do so.  Scientists don’t approve the IPCC’s language.  They write their own papers and contribute to the IPCC process, but politicians are responsible for approving every last word in IPCC reports.  Grist writers and editors should know this.  They’re all too willing to allow zombie myths to keep roaming the discussion space, it appears.


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Climate mitigation and adaptation

Twitter and the blogosphere are aflutter with references to David Robert’s post, “Preventing climate change and adapting to it are not morally equivalent“.  I read the post with the mindset that David was trying to continue recent climate-related public themes.  With that in mind, I wanted to respond to some points.

Climate hawks are familiar with the framing of climate policy credited to White House science advisor John Holdren, to wit: We will respond to climate change with some mix of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering; all that remains to be determined is the mix. […] It makes them sound fungible, as though a unit of either can be traded in for an equivalent unit of suffering. That’s misleading. They are very different, not only on a practical level but morally.

I’ll start by noting my disagreement that Holdren’s framing establishes equitable fungibility.  That’s not the way I interpret it, anyway.  For me, it boils down to this: we have a finite amount of resources to devote to climate action.  What we spend them on remains undecided.  I don’t think of one unit of mitigation equaling one unit of adaptation.  Such a frame strikes me as silly, to be quite frank.  Many factors will go into deciding where to spend resources.  I think local and state US governments are choosing adaptation because they’ve correctly assessed that mitigation is costlier.  Governments have responsibilities to their constituencies – not far-off populations that are admittedly more at risk from climate change than ours.  That’s one of the Big Pillar Problems: climate change effects impact people with little responsibility to the problem disproportionately.  It is psychologically sound to muster less action for “others” than “selves” – for better or worse, altruism isn’t rewarded in our society.  Unfortunately, that’s the reality we live and operate in.  Wishes aren’t going to change that.

Communities and organizations could break up resources to mitigate potential dirty energy projects and make them clean in foreign countries where it is relatively cheaper to do so while simultaneously allocating remaining resources to address perceived threats locally.  That’s a harder thing to do than what I describe above – only adapt locally – but it’s also cheaper than mitigating locally (for now).

Say I pay $10 to reduce carbon by a ton. I bear the full cost, but because all of humanity benefits, I receive only one seven-billionth of the value of my investment (give or take).

David contradicts what he said prior to this with this statement.  The poorest and most vulnerable benefit more than he does.  But note the fundamental, critical point here: can anyone benefit by $10/7,000,000,000?  What can I do with 1.43*10^-9 dollars?  Absolutely nothing.  And neither can the primary benefitees, who have to share most of that calculable but meaningless number.  The second point which follows quickly on the heels of the first is that any mitigation investment requires multiple billions before anyone sees one dollar’s value and multiple trillions before anyone sees something meaningful.  Where does that money come from and how do we convince people to make the required investment with the aforementioned psychological barriers to doing so?

One obvious implication of this difference is that, to the extent spending favors adaptation over mitigation, it will replicate and reinforce existing inequalities of wealth and power. The benefits will accrue to those with the money to pay for them.

I’ll look at this differently to help understand it better: will additional mitigation spending reduce wealth and power inequalities?  Is David arguing that developing countries will be equally wealthy and powerful if climate spending is directed towards mitigation and not adaptation?  That’s probably a logical extreme.  Will we reduce inequalities between developing and developed countries to a greater extent due to mitigation or adaptation is one potential question we can address.  I haven’t seen anything that convinces me of one argument or the other.  I haven’t seen anything that addresses quantitatively either argument, to be frank.

It becomes more expensive to mitigate to an arbitrarily chosen threshold if the date by which to do so remains unchanged.  That is, if you accept <2C warming by 2100 as a goal (though I’ve detailed many times why such a goal is unfeasible), then mitigation costs are lower if we begin mitigation today instead of 20 years from now.  But why do we accept unnecessary firm boundaries on the problem?  If, as I’ve postulated, <2C warming by 2100 isn’t technologically or politically feasible, then one or both boundaries must change.  The further out in time we set the goal, the likelier it is that technologies will exist to more cheaply attain the goal.  The higher the temperature goal is, the likelier we are to achieve it.  And just like in the rest of our lives, the easier the goal is to attain, the likelier we are to do so.  And once done, the easier it becomes to attain subsequent along-the-road goals.

What’s left out of these goals is developed nation-level energy generation in developing nations – in other words keeping poor people poor indefinitely.  Mitigation alone won’t reduce wealth inequality.  If David wants to reduce wealth inequality, the best way to do so is to post-industrialize developing nations as quickly as possible.  With reduced inequality comes increased power.  The side benefits?  Developed nations actually work on mitigation (again, saving costs by mitigating where it’s cheaper) they can concentrate on adapting to climate effects along the way.

I recognize David’s valid point that skeptics are likely to latch onto the “we need to adapt” frame as a way to continue avoiding “we need to mitigate” concept.  But skeptics are going to continue avoiding the problem so long as we don’t switch how we talk with them.


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Language surrounding ozone depletion

As a physical scientist who has also studied social aspects of science and technology, language – specifically word choice – is important.  That is why when “ozone hole healing” jumped out from my Twitter feed today, it disappointed me.  Why?

Is the ozone layer alive?  Is it currently wounded?  Can it heal?

I know environmental activists like to use the frame of Earth as a living thing.  It’s not.  It is a celestial body with multiple interacting physical systems.  The Earth neither grows nor reproduces within its environment.  There are things that are alive (obviously) on Earth.  Phenomena occur within Earth systems, but that doesn’t qualify as life.  Thus it cannot heal because it is not diseased or injured.

There is ozone depletion in the stratosphere that is exclusively caused by on life form on the planet – people.  In news today, ozone depletion has for the first time since being discovered in the 1980s slowed and even reversed.  That is very good news, as ozone depletion impacted some of Earth’s physical systems as well as actual life on the planet.

Metaphors are powerful tools in our language.  We must take care to use them appropriately.  There is nothing wrong with using scientific language to describe scientific processes.  We can make explanations as simple as necessary, which should promote wider understanding of complex phenomena.


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The Wrong Lesson From Increasing GHG Emissions

I saw two seemingly separate items today that I think more people should draw together.

The first from BBC news: Greenhouse gas levels rising at fastest rate since 1984

This isn’t news to anyone that reads this blog regularly: concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide hit a record level in 2013.  News flash: they hit a new record in 2014.  And they’ll do it again in 2015, 2016, 2017, …, and on until we innovate and deploy technologies that remove the gas from the atmosphere.

The article also includes what I consider to be a fairly realistic assessment of upcoming climate negotiations:

While stressing the need for that agreement to be “legally binding”, Mr Davey explained that actual targets for emissions reductions may not be covered by that term.

“We do believe that the foundations of the agreement have to be legally binding, so what that might be? That might be the rules. That might include the measurements, the monitoring and the verification and those sorts of things.

“We would prefer the targets to be legally binding, we already have legally binding targets in the UK and we are trying to argue for more ambitious legally binding targets for the EU, but we recognise that other countries find that a little bit more challenging.

The agreement in question is the follow-up to the failed Copenhagen climate conference.  Countries since then have talked a lot about what they want to accomplish in terms of emissions reductions, but nobody has put together anything concrete.  As Mr Davey said, the UK has “legally binding targets”.  As with anything, the devil is in the details.  The UK isn’t going to meet their “legally binding” reductions (see below).  And what will happen when they finally acknowledge that they won’t?  Who knows – it will be the first time such a thing happens.  I think a safe bet is almost nothing will happen.  And therein lies the problem.  With no penalty, there is little incentive to actually make and enforce policies that will achieve stated goals.

The second article is one with which I disagree on many points, though its presence is good for discussion: Sorry policy-makers, the two-degrees warming policy is likely a road to disaster.

First, the obligatory admonishment: more disaster talk.  Really?  Really?  Quick to the chase: it turns people off from whatever else you have to say.  Starting your article with it is the worst strategy.  I’ve worked my way through climate disaster porn for over a decade now, so I continue.

The article tries to move the goal posts – the wrong way.  Alexander White, for the Guardian, argues that while a 2°C limit on global warming is the commonly used target for climate negotiations, the limit should be reduced to a 1.5°C.  After noting that national pledges aim only for 3°C and the real world is actually on track for 4°C.  Now I ask: what possible motivation would countries have to aim for 1.5°C when current policies lead to 4°C+?  Will moving the goal posts to 1.5°C somehow convince climate negotiators to go at it a bit harder?  No, of course not.

White makes several arguments for the 1.5°C target, based on moral points which I agree with.  However, neither he nor I can will the world to 1.5°C policies just because we want to.  Real people have to argue for real policies – mostly in democracies in Western nations.  Mr Davey had it correct: the first step is measurements, monitoring, and verification.  Countries should have implemented those rules 25 years ago.  They didn’t and we’re well on our way to 4°C.

Pricewaterhouse Cooper has the following in their summary:

In the Index’s G20 analysis, an unexpected champion surpassed the annual target – Australia –  recording a decarbonisation rate of 7.2% over 2013, putting it top of the table for the second year in a row. Three other countries – the UK, Italy and China – achieved a decarbonisation rate of between 4% and 5%. Five countries, however, increased their carbon intensity over 2013 – France, the US, India, Germany and Brazil.

The UK achieved a one-time decarbonization rate of between 4% and 5%.  What do they need to achieve their legally binding targets?  Between 7% and 9% every year until 2020.  And beyond too.  Those decarbonization rates have never been achieved in history.  To achieve them requires beyond Chinese-level investments in clean energy research and deployment by every country for the next 100 years.  Until we come close to achieving that, arguing over a 1.5°C target versus a 2°C or 4°C target is peeing into the wind.  It doesn’t accomplish much of anything useful.  On a related note, Chinese 2013 fossil fuel deployment far exceeded every clean energy deployment worldwide during the same year.  We need to spend our time establishing, implementing, and improving novel climate and energy policies.  What we’re really arguing over isn’t 1.5°C vs. 2°C, it’s 3.9°C vs. 4.2°C – which is not much of a difference, is it?

White finishes with:

A challenge for us all leading up to the New York summit is that the 2°C target rhetoric is likely sabotaging policy negotiations that would meaningfully tackle global warming.

I disagree.  This is the result of a fundamental misinterpretation of what policy negotiations failed to tackle historically.  Developed nations will continue to fail if the focus remains on abstract targets such as 2°C or 1.5°C – neither of which is achievable anyway.


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Climate and Energy Links – Jul 2014

Some things I’ve come across recently:
New mega-map details all the ways climate change will affect our everyday lives.  We’ll need more resources like this to help personalize climate change effects.  With personalization will come motivation to act.  It’s not a panacea, but a good start.

Is your state one of the 10 most energy-efficient US states?  Mine (Colorado) isn’t.  More context: the US is good at buzzwords, but lousy at implementing policies that increase energy efficiency.  Although it’s a good thing that China is currently ranked #4 globally – they’ll have much less legacy infrastructure than the US and other developed nations to upgrade in the future.

This might be news to some: climate models that did the best at portraying natural ocean cycles the best also did better than their peers when projecting the recent surface warming pause.  What most people don’t understand is that each climate model run portrays one individual potential outcome.  That said, scientists don’t claim that individual models make perfect predictions.  The recent warming trend is well within the range of available projections.  Many skeptics, of course, gloss over this important detail when they falsely claim the models are no good.  How much time do those same skeptics spend on financial projections, anyway?

This has the potential for misinterpretation and misuse: climate worriers don’t, on average, use less electricity than those who don’t worry about the climate (at least according to a very small UK study).  They use more.  This will continue the claims of hypocrisy by skeptics, and perhaps justifiably so.  My net utility use is 14% to 17% of the average American’s 903 kilowatthours (kWh) per month: 125-150 kWh per month during the past year.  That’s in a modern home with AC, computers, and smartphones.  People can use much less than they currently do with a modern lifestyle.  They just don’t prioritize it.

Continuing on the theme of energy efficiency and waste: we waste 80 billion USD per year due to inefficient electronic devices.  Wow.   And it doesn’t have to be that way: simple measures could save billions of dollars if we implemented them.  Priorities.

Random thought: poverty-wage employers always ask if people would be willing to pay more for products if they paid their employees living wages.  I haven’t come across an easy rebuttal: were customers asked if they were willing to pay more for products if they paid their executives millions of dollars with guaranteed golden parachutes?  Guess what most people would rather support?  That’s right, the folks in their communities, not executives in their fenced off country club homes.


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What’s Fiscally Conservative

A thought experiment today.

In recent years, Republicans in the US Congress, and in state legislatures as well, refused to approve budgets unless they cut programs.  Which programs?  Well, the ones that benefit the low and middle classes at the expense of the wealthy, of course.  There are a number of kinds of hypocrisy here, to be sure.  Two occupations and private defense corporation operations to the tune of $2,000 billion and counting?  Republicans didn’t bat an eyelash to approve all of that.  Tax cuts for the wealthy that weren’t balanced in the budget?  No eyelash there either.  A prescription drug program that cost additional billions of dollars?  Yup, still no eyelash.  Those are only a few examples of real costs that Republicans forced American taxpayers to pay for.  Cost that grew the national deficit and debt – issues that Republicans cared about only when a Democrat (and a black one at that) became President.  The Teabaggers didn’t get organized until the Kochs told them to get organized after Obama took office.  I don’t want to go through with this experiment, but if a Republican in 2016 is elected President, I’m willing to bet the Teabaggers wouldn’t object to continued deficit spending – so long as it’s their ideological causes that receive the largesse.

Given all this, I play “what if” when I read news stories.  Earlier this week, there was news that the Obama administration wanted to spend $236.3 million to eight states to improve electricity infrastructure in rural areas.  Which got me to think, “Where would Republicans demand spending cuts for “fiscal conservatism” to remain true to their debt fetish?”  Of course, Republicans will not demand spending cuts.  But maybe Democrats should.  In order to remain deficit neutral, what should we cut to spend $236.3 million taxpayer dollars – dollars that primarily came from urban areas by the way?  Should we cut agriculture subsidies?  Should we cut rural road spending?  How about drought and flood insurance subsidies?  See, this is where the rubber meets the road, Republicans.  What are you willing to give up to spend money to ensure rural areas have power in the face of weather losses?

Or how about the problem of forest fires?  By and large, this is a wilderness and rural problem.  Fires are burning in Washington and Oregon right now.  Where does the money come from?  Again, primarily urban taxpayers.  If Republicans want to cut SNAP money to veterans and children, why won’t they also propose cutting rural firefighting dollars as well?  Because they know the former affects more urban Democrats and the latter affects more rural Republicans.  Why don’t the mountain folks pull themselves up by the bootstraps and fight their own fires?  Why must they continue their federal welfare addiction?  Why do they like the nanny state so much?  Wouldn’t fighting their own fires instill a little confidence in themselves so we could reduce the federal debt?

How much do Republicans really care about the debt?  Only so much that it hurts their political opposition.  Republicans are considered serious thinkers when they propose cuts to programs that keep people out of poverty, that keep American children educated, that keep our food and water safer than they otherwise would be – programs that by and large impact more urban people.  The corporate media would make a clown out of any Democrat that, in the name of fiscal responsibility, proposed cutting programs that benefited rural populations.  I for one would sure like to know when Republicans are ready to get serious about debt reduction.


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On False Equivalence

The Guardian recently ran a couple of really bad climate pieces.  The first has a headline guaranteed to draw eyes, “Miami, the great world city, is drowning while the powers that be look away“.  Who would possibly allow a “great world city” drown?  The monsters!  Know that the author is billed as a “science editor”, which I take to mean he understands basic scientific concepts such as uncertainty, time scale, and accuracy.  What does Robin McKie have to say?

The effect is calamitous. Shops and houses are inundated; city life is paralysed; cars are ruined by the corrosive seawater that immerses them. […] Only those on higher floors can hope to protect their cars from surging sea waters that corrode and rot the innards of their vehicles. […] Miami and its surroundings are facing a calamity worthy of the Old Testament.

Really?  Old Testament calamity? Inundated. Paralysed. Ruined. Corrode and rot.

That’s fairly flowery language for a science editor.  How much of it is based in reality?  There are definitely localized effects of sea level rise in Miami.  Seawater is corrosive.  But I missed the news reports of Miami calamities, inundations, being a paralyzed city.  Those are serious effects he describes that aren’t quite as extensive or horrific as his article portrays.

Or, as Time writer Michael Grunwald writes, “I’m sorry to spoil the climate porn, but while the periodic puddles in my Whole Foods parking lot are harbingers of a potentially catastrophic future, they are not currently catastrophic. They are annoying. And so is this kind of yellow climate journalism.”

I agree with Michael on this one.  This type of journalism works against taking the very action that Miami actually is doing right now to adapt to a changing reality.  This quote says it perfectly:

What’s happening in the Middle East right now is calamitous. A blocked entrance is inconvenient.

Thank you, Michael, for some overdue perspective.  He adds,

But let’s get real. The Pacific island of Kiribati is drowning; Miami Beach is not yet drowning, and the Guardian’s persistent adjective inflation (“calamitous,” “astonishing,” “devastating”) can’t change that.

This encouraged a number of climate porn addicts to take to the Twitter and denounce Grunwald’s lack of enthusiasm for not wanting to be a part of their tribe.  Tweets displayed peoples’ camps:

Here is what folks were trying to say: person A has a gun held to their head right now; person B will die sometime in the future, but we don’t know exactly when.  And since the same characteristic will eventually apply to both persons, they both share existential threats.  Ask Kiribatians how much of their daily life is affected by sea level rise and I’d bet dollars to doughnuts you’ll get a very different answer than a Miamians’.  And contrary to most climate activists, that’s not because Miamians are climate uneducated.  It’s because their daily lives aren’t affected by climate change today to the same degree than a Kiribatian is.  Saying they are doesn’t make it so.

I also agree with Mike that this fact doesn’t alter the need to mitigate and adapt.  I agree with TheCostofEnergy that Miami and island nations face different timing and resource issues.  That is precisely why island nations face an existential threat today and Miami doesn’t.  Island nation people have nowhere to move to.  Their islands will disappear and they will be forced to move.  That presents an enormous culture disruption.  Miami has much more adaptive capacity than do island nations.  Miami will have to adapt, there is no doubt about that.  But that’s not an existential threat except in some absurdly narrow use of the term.

Disaster porn language usage has to stop.  It’s not accurate.  It dissuades instead of incentivizes action.  It breaks down instead of builds trust.

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