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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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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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Deep Decarbonization Pathways Interim Report Released

An international group of folks put together an interim report analyzing “Deep Decarbonization Pathways”.  Decarbonization refers to the process of using less carbon within an economy.  The intent of the report was to show ways forward to keep global mean temperatures below 2C.  Readers of this blog know that I no longer think such a goal is achievable given the scope and scale of decarbonization.  We have not moved from a “business-as-usual” approach and have run out of time to reduce GHG emissions prior to relevant limits to meet this goal.  I argue the exact opposite of what the authors describe in their summary:

We do not subscribe to the view held by some that the 2°C limit is impossible to achieve and that it should be weakened or dropped altogether.

Thus the main problem with this report.  They’re using a threshold that was determined without robustly analyzing necessary actions to achieve it.  In other words, they a priori constrain themselves by adopting the 2C threshold.  Specifically, a more useful result would be to ascertain what real-world requirements exist to support different warming values in terms real people can intuitively understand.  The report is not newsworthy in that it reaches the same results that other reports reached by making similar assumptions.  Those assumptions are necessary and sufficient in order to meet the 2C threshold.  But examination unveils something few people want to recognize: they are unrealistic.  I will say that this report goes into more detail than any report I’ve read to date about the assumptions.  The detail is only slightly deeper than the assumptions themselves, but are illuminating nonetheless.

An important point here: the authors make widespread use of “catastrophe” in the report.  Good job there – it continues the bad habit of forcing the public to tune out anything the report has to say.  Why do people insist on using physical science, but not social science to advance policy?

On a related note, the report’s graphics are terrible.  They’re cool-color only, which makes copy/paste results look junky and interpretation harder than it should be.  So they put up multiple barriers to the report’s results.  I’m not sure why if the intent is to persuade policy makers toward action, but …

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Distopias are not Preferable to Distopias

Grist’s Nathanael Johnson has a good article up discussing the Anthropocene – a term that describes Earth influenced by mankind.  I highly recommend reading it, then thinking through what Andy Revkin and Clive Hamilton discussed.

I for one disagree with Clive Hamilton’s language.  Some examples:

I don’t accept this idea that we consumers in the West are irrevocably attached to cheap energy.

This from a person in Australia (dominant energy source: cheap coal) using 1st world technology to talk with Johnson and Revkin across the planet using Skype.  Those technologies are also powered, by and large, by cheap energy.  He continues with:

It’s easy for us in the US and Australia to forget that some countries in Europe have less than half — a third — of our emissions per person. And with strong public support, I’m thinking of Germany here, for policies that cut emissions. I think Western consumers can quite easily be weaned off high-polluting energy sources.

This ignores easily verified objective data that shows if the developing world used German-level energy, global energy consumption would triple or quadruple.  The developing world, like the developed, will expand energy production as cheaply as possible – and that means fossil fuels.  How will we meet stated climate goals with 3x more dirty energy?   Moreover, the West has not weaned itself from high-polluting energy sources.  If it was easy, we would have done it by now.  If we want to achieve the deepest emissions cuts pathway modeled by the IPCC, we need one 1GW carbon-free energy plant to come online every day between now and 2050.  That simply isn’t happening.

Or we can look at it with open eyes, and allow it to blast away all our utopian imaginings, and say, well, we are in really deep trouble, and it’s extremely unlikely that we are going to get out of it unscathed. So what do we do in that situation? And what does it mean for how we act? Does it mean we go for the muddle-through approach even though we know the consequences are likely to be catastrophic? Or do we fundamentally try to rethink and change strategies?

The “utopian imaginings” Hamilton refers to are solidly based in reality.  They are projections that new technologies will allow people in the future access to low-polluting energy at prices lower than today.  These technologies include renewables, carbon capture and sequestration, and things we can’t envision today because they haven’t been invented.  That’s not utopian.  By analogy, Hamilton would have said in the 1880s that mechanized transport will never exist and so stop imagining utopia.  But I also have problems with his characterization that we “are in really deep trouble”.  This is based on the concept of “civilization collapsing” and “catastrophe”.  I have written at length against this language since I read social science peer-reviewed literature that using it immediately makes people shut down anything else you have to say.  Thus, Hamilton and others continue to accomplish exactly the opposite of what they want.

Thankfully, Johnson immediately followed up with what Hamilton’s suggestion might look like.  You know, suggest something practical and not purely philosophical.  Hamilton’s response:

I don’t have an answer to that, Nate, except to say the first thing we must do is face up to the facts.

This is the fundamental problem for climate activists in my opinion.  They don’t have practical suggestions for solutions.  But they want everyone else in the same disaster-based landscape that the activists are in.  Only after everyone is miserable and paralyzed can we talk about ways forward.  This is not the solution.  Or it’s not my solution, anyway.  I just wrote a post about what happens when you present facts to people without the appropriate context.  In that example, N.C. residents directly challenged “the facts”.  And instead of long-term sea-level policy, N.C. now has short-term sea-level policy because a Commission did what Hamilton suggests without offering practical ways forward.  There isn’t evidence that Hamilton can be persuaded on this, as he ends with this:

It’s a question of a bad or less bad Anthropocene.

Good luck getting people to react to that in ways that advance a clean energy future.  Because history quite clearly tells us it won’t happen any time soon.  Hamilton in this instance advocates for a distopia while disdaining others’ viewpoints because he thinks they are distopian.  We should not replace one for the other.


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N.C.’s Sea Level Rise Reaction

Many people involved in climate activism have probably heard of North Carolina’s reaction to sea level projections.  The reaction has been exaggerated by some of those same activists.  I read this article and had the following thoughts.

By the end of the century, state officials said, the ocean would be 39 inches higher.

There was no talk of salvation, no plan to hold back the tide. The 39-inch forecast was “a death sentence,” Willo Kelly said, “for ever trying to sell your house.”

Coastal residents joined forces with climate skeptics to attack the science of global warming and persuade North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature to deep-six the 39-inch projection, which had been advanced under the outgoing Democratic governor. Now, the state is working on a new forecast that will look only 30 years out and therefore show the seas rising by no more than eight inches.

Up to this point, readers probably have one of two reactions.  They either agree with quoted environmentalists and think N.C. tried to “legislate away sea level rise.”  Or they agree with Kelly’s reactions and the legislature’s boundaries on projection scope.

I think the reactions were entirely justified from a personal standpoint and easy to predict if anyone had stopped to think things through.  Nearly everybody would have the same reaction if your property was under threat to be considered worthless – regardless of the underlying reason.  Why?  Because you have an emotional attachment to your property that far exceeds the attachment to a 90-year sea level projection.  You’re going to react to the former more strongly than the latter.  The article identifies the underlying process:

“The main problem they have is fear,” said Michael Orbach, a marine policy professor at Duke University who has met with coastal leaders. “They realize this is going to have a huge impact on the coastal economy and coastal development interests. And, at this point, we don’t actually know what we’re going to do about it.”

This is the problem with the vast majority of climate activists’ language: they coldly announce that civilization will collapse and won’t offer actions people can take to avoid such a collapse.  Well, people will respond to that language, just not the way activists want them to.  People will fight activists and identify with climate skeptics’ arguments since they view the announcements as a threat to their way of life.

Where I differ with Kelly and others is this: she and other coastal residents had better look for viable long-term solutions before that 30-year period is over.  If they prevent long-term planning beyond 2040, inland residents of N.C. will be unfairly burdened with the cost of subsidizing Kelly and others for their lifestyle choices.

Kelly’s view is not without merit, to be sure:

Long before that would happen, though, Kelly worries that codifying the 39-inch forecast would crush the local economy, which relies entirely on tourism and the construction, sale and rental of family beach houses. In Dare County alone, the islands’ largest jurisdiction, the state has identified more than 8,500 structures, with an assessed value of nearly $1.4 billion, that would be inundated if the tides were 39 inches higher.

That’s 8,500 structures in just one county – worth $1.4 billion – an average of $165,000 per structure.  I would absolutely fight to keep my $165,000 worth as long as I could.  Nationwide, the estimate is $700 billion; not a trivial sum is it?  The article has this choice quote:

“What is it you would ask us to do differently right now? Tell people to move away?”   “Preaching abandonment is absurd. People would go in the closet and get the guns out.”

The Coastal Resources Commission bungled their attempt to evaluate the science and establish policy.  By the time they announced results with no action plans, rumors fed by misunderstanding and bias confirmation ran rampant.  The result was Kelly’s actions to change the time horizon that planners could use.

So what are the solutions?  The Commission should establish and maintain relationships with stakeholders.  Get to know the mayors and planners and scientists and property owners.  Find out what their interests are and what motivates them to do what they do.  Identify actions they can take in the next 30 years that sets them up for success afterward.  But don’t release information without context.  Because sea level rise is likely to accelerate in the 2nd half of the 21st century.  But most people will focus on potential direct threats to themselves and their livelihoods, not global concerns.  So get into the weeds with folks.


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N.C.’s Sea Level Rise Reaction

Many people involved in climate activism have probably heard of North Carolina’s reaction to sea level projections.  The reaction has been exaggerated by some of those same activists.  I read this article and had the following thoughts.

By the end of the century, state officials said, the ocean would be 39 inches higher.

There was no talk of salvation, no plan to hold back the tide. The 39-inch forecast was “a death sentence,” Willo Kelly said, “for ever trying to sell your house.”

Coastal residents joined forces with climate skeptics to attack the science of global warming and persuade North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature to deep-six the 39-inch projection, which had been advanced under the outgoing Democratic governor. Now, the state is working on a new forecast that will look only 30 years out and therefore show the seas rising by no more than eight inches.

Up to this point, readers probably have one of two reactions.  They either agree with quoted environmentalists and think N.C. tried to “legislate away sea level rise.”  Or they agree with Kelly’s reactions and the legislature’s boundaries on projection scope.

I think the reactions were entirely justified from a personal standpoint and easy to predict if anyone had stopped to think things through.  Nearly everybody would have the same reaction if your property was under threat to be considered worthless – regardless of the underlying reason.  Why?  Because you have an emotional attachment to your property that far exceeds the attachment to a 90-year sea level projection.  You’re going to react to the former more strongly than the latter.  The article identifies the underlying process:

“The main problem they have is fear,” said Michael Orbach, a marine policy professor at Duke University who has met with coastal leaders. “They realize this is going to have a huge impact on the coastal economy and coastal development interests. And, at this point, we don’t actually know what we’re going to do about it.”

This is the problem with the vast majority of climate activists’ language: they coldly announce that civilization will collapse and won’t offer actions people can take to avoid such a collapse.  Well, people will respond to that language, just not the way activists want them to.  People will fight activists and identify with climate skeptics’ arguments since they view the announcements as a threat to their way of life.

Where I differ with Kelly and others is this: she and other coastal residents had better look for viable long-term solutions before that 30-year period is over.  If they prevent long-term planning beyond 2040, inland residents of N.C. will be unfairly burdened with the cost of subsidizing Kelly and others for their lifestyle choices.

Kelly’s view is not without merit, to be sure:

Long before that would happen, though, Kelly worries that codifying the 39-inch forecast would crush the local economy, which relies entirely on tourism and the construction, sale and rental of family beach houses. In Dare County alone, the islands’ largest jurisdiction, the state has identified more than 8,500 structures, with an assessed value of nearly $1.4 billion, that would be inundated if the tides were 39 inches higher.

That’s 8,500 structures in just one county – worth $1.4 billion – an average of $165,000 per structure.  I would absolutely fight to keep my $165,000 worth as long as I could.  Nationwide, the estimate is $700 billion; not a trivial sum is it?  The article has this choice quote:

“What is it you would ask us to do differently right now? Tell people to move away?”   “Preaching abandonment is absurd. People would go in the closet and get the guns out.”

The Coastal Resources Commission bungled their attempt to evaluate the science and establish policy.  By the time they announced results with no action plans, rumors fed by misunderstanding and bias confirmation ran rampant.  The result was Kelly’s actions to change the time horizon that planners could use.

So what are the solutions?  The Commission should establish and maintain relationships with stakeholders.  Get to know the mayors and planners and scientists and property owners.  Find out what their interests are and what motivates them to do what they do.  Identify actions they can take in the next 30 years that sets them up for success afterward.  But don’t release information without context.  Because sea level rise is likely to accelerate in the 2nd half of the 21st century.  But most people will focus on potential direct threats to themselves and their livelihoods, not global concerns.  So get into the weeds with folks.


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More on EPA’s Proposed CO2 Emissions Rule: Podesta; Role of Science

I just found this article and wanted to point out a couple of things related to my post on the EPA’s proposed CO2 emissions rule.  The first (emphasis mine):

In a two-hour interview conducted just weeks before his return to Obama’s inner circle as White House Counsel, Podesta told me that the president had been willing to take risks and expend political capital on the climate issue. “But fifty years from now, is that going to seem like enough?” Podesta asked. “I think the answer to that is going to be no.

Podesta blamed Obama’s spotty climate record in part on the president’s top aides during his first term (aides who Podesta, as Obama’s transition director in 2008, helped select). The aides’ attitudes about climate change, Podesta recalled, were dismissive at best: “Yeah, fine, fine, fine, but it’s ninth on our list of eight really important problems.

I agree with Podesta’s assessment that fifty years from now people will look back and judge that Obama and everyone else didn’t do enough to curtail GHG emissions and prevent a great deal of additional global warming.  That isn’t a slight on Obama’s character – or anyone else’s – it’s a statement on how I view action on the topic.

Isn’t it interesting that Podesta helped select the same aides who refused to push climate higher on the problem list?  Podesta is a smart guy – he knew what peoples’ pet issues were and what weren’t on their list of priorities.  So in the same interview that Podesta says Obama’s climate actions won’t seem like enough in fifty years, Podesta lays some blame at the feet of first-term aides who didn’t prioritize climate for the lack of Obama’s action.  Perhaps a little self-assessment didn’t make the article due to editing, but it would be nice to see people take responsibility for how we’ve gotten here.  That includes Democrats and climate activists right along with Republicans and skeptics.

The next quote really rankles me:

The Obama Administration’s newly proposed regulations on power plants illustrate how the president continues to fall short of what science demands in the face of rapidly accelerating climate change. From a scientific perspective, there is much less to these regulations than either industry opponents or environmental advocates are claiming.

[...]

The science he is faced with [...] demand actions that seem preposterous to the political and economic status quo.

This language implicitly assumes that what certain people want should take precedence over others.  The author, like many others, think they would like those certain people to be scientists instead of conservative theologians or accountants or any other person.  Science doesn’t demand anything in this or any other instance.  We use physical science to assess what the physical effects of GHGs have been and will be on the climate system.  That’s where physical science ends.  If you want to do anything about that information, you bring in social science – political science, sociology, environmental science, philosophy, etc.  Those fields have much to say about what to do and why a particular course of action might be desirable – see normative theory.

Too many people confuse the two.  Or more accurately in the climate change realm, they argue using physical science as a proxy in normative debates.  This is a large source of the polarization of science today.  Instead of using proxies, people should debate the core issues.  If the core issue is the political left versus right, the debate should be on value systems and specific values.  Instead, people drag climate science into the normative debate and among the results is the refusal to accept climate science as valid by skeptics.  This has more to do with perception of legitimate authority than the actual science.

Back to the science:

Podesta, however, acknowledged that Obama’s climate policy (as it stood last November) would not hit the 2°C target. “Maybe it gets you on a trajectory to three degrees,” he said, “but it doesn’t get you to two degrees.”

I wrote much the same thing.  The science is quite clear on this.  Whether you think the policy is bad or good or whether hitting or not hitting the 2°C target is a bad or good thing are separate discussions.  Personally, I think not hitting the 2°C target is a bad thing.  But I know that’s a normative judgment about a scientific result.  I therefore support more effective policy actions such as a carbon tax.

Again, this rule is merely proposed at this time.  EPA originally said it would propose the rule in 2011-2012, then put it on indefinite hold so Obama could run for re-election.  It will now face legal challenges.  It will not go into effect for at least two years, and quite possibly four to six years after all the legal challenges.  In that time frame, we will have at least one new president, who will put their choice for EPA administrator in place, who will be responsible for directing the agency on the rule’s implementation.  The rule will be effective until 2030 and will face two additional presidential election results.  Do climate activists think Republicans will leave the rule alone through 2030?  How do we square that with the knowledge the rule is far from sufficient to limit warming to <2°C?  What are the next policy steps with these real world boundaries?


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Climate and Energy Topics – 21 May 2014

The New York Times’ Andy Revkin had this very interesting post last week: “Three Long Views of Life With Rising Seas“.  He asked three folks for their long-term view on how human might deal with the centennial-scale effects of Antarctic glacier melt.  Some of their (partial) responses merit further thought:

Curt Stager, Paul Smith: Imagine the stink we would all raise if another nation tried to take even one inch of our coastline away from us – and yet here is a slow taking of countless square miles from our shores by a carbon-driven ocean-turned-invader.

David Grinspoon: But I think if our society is around for several more centuries we will have to have found different ways to deal collectively with our world-changing technologies. If we’ve made it that far, we’ll find ways to adapt.

Kim Stanley Robinson: It was when the ice core data in Greenland established the three-year onset of the Younger Dryas that the geologists had to invent the term “abrupt climate change” because they had so frequently abused the word “quick” sometimes meaning several thousand years when they said that. Thus the appearance of “Abrupt Climate Change” as a term (and a National Research Council book in 2002).

Andy Revkin finished with: The realities of sea-level rise and Antarctic trends and China’s emissions, etc., make me feel ever more confident that the [bend, stretch, reach, teach] shift I charted for my goals in my TEDx talk (away from numbers and toward qualities) is the right path.

Chinese coal use almost equals that of the rest of the world combined, according to the EIA:

 photo ChineseCoalUsage20140521_zpsac73e973.png

This is but one reason I believe <2C warming is already a historical consideration.  All of this coal production and consumption would have to stop immediately if we have any hope of meeting this political goal.  That will not happen – absent coal generated power, which constitutes the majority generated, the global economy would spin into a depression.

On the good news front, U.S. consumers are expanding home energy efficiency and distributed power generation, according to Deloitte.  These practices started with the Great Recession, but for the first time are continuing after the economy “recovers”.  In 2013, new solar growth occurred among families making between $40,000 and $90,000.  The most engaged demographic could be Generation Y: “1/3 said they “definitely/probably” will buy a smart energy application, which is up from 28 percent in 2011.”

I’ve let my drought series lapse, but have kept watching conditions evolve across the country.  California has obviously been in the news due its drought and wildfires.  All of California is currently in a “severe” drought for the first time since the mid-1970s (see picture below).  So the quick science point: this has happened before (many times; some worse than this) and isn’t primarily caused by anthropogenic forcing.  The quick impacts point: California’s population is double today what it was in the mid-1970s.  Therefore, the same type of drought will have more impact.  Wrapping these points together: drought impacts could be greater in the 2010s than the 1970s due to sociological and not physical factors.  An important caveat: Californians are more adept now at planning for and responding to drought.  They recognize how dry normal conditions can get and have adapted more so than other places in the U.S.  Drought conditions likely won’t improve until this winter during the next rainy season since last winter was a bust for them.

 photo CAdrought20140521_zpsd403ee59.jpg

An incredible story comes from the New York Times about what it takes to engage communities on climate and energy issues.  Nebraska farmers and ranchers are fighting against the Keystone XL pipeline.  Why, you might ask?  Well, they’re certainly not a bunch of hippie greens.  No, they’re responding to their lifestyle and value system.  If KXL is built, it will be built on their land.  That means someone will take away small pieces of a bunch of farmers land, because the locals have already refused $250,000 payments for them.  If KXL is built, it will risk locals’ cattle.  Who do you think will suffer if the pipeline leaks?  The cows, the ranchers, and the Ogallala Aquifer of course.  A critical piece of the paper is this:

Here was one of the best stories she’d ever seen: Conservative American farmers rise up to protect their land. She could use the image of the family farm to reframe the way Nebraskans thought about environmentalism. It wasn’t going to be Save the Sandhill Cranes. It was going to be Save the Neighbors.

To get Nebraskans to respond to environmental issues, you have to engage them on their values, not yours (unless of course you share them).  This is the key that environmentalists have missed for decades and its part of the reason why environmentalism is so politicized.  It’s why conservatives tend not to respond to climate activism framing.

There’s plenty more where this came from.  Stay tuned.


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Research: Antarctic Glaciers – What’s The Real Story?

Two new papers examine historical and projected Antarctic glacier behavior.  The research is illuminating.  Some of the commentary about it is downright confusing.  I’ll sort it out in this post.

From the source: West Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Collapsing at the highly respected journal Science.  This news intern’s article references a paper published in Science this week, “Marine Ice Sheet Collapse Potentially Under Way for the Thwaites Glacier Basin, West Antarctica.”  You can already see where some confusion arose: the actual science article itself used the key work “potentially” while the news piece trumpeting the article used the word “is”.  Potentially implies there is a chance the marine ice sheet may not collapse.  The news article headline completely misses that critical descriptive adverb.

Just as importantly, the news headline misses the operative time scale, which is of course of great importance.  The decision to not include the time scale leads casual readers to assume this collapse will happen soon.  Well, what is soon?  It depends on one’s perspective.  I think the time scale omission was purposeful, so as to boost readership.  Because if the headline had included the article’s values, few people would have paid much attention to it: 200 to 900 years.  Based on a computer model simulation, the authors suggest that the Thwaites Glacier may finish its collapse in two to nine centuries – nowhere near the operative time frame that people think about.  The article dances around the issue a bit in the first three paragraphs – long enough for the author to come out and report on what the paper actually said in my opinion.

If you’re interested, I’ve covered previous research findings on Antarctic glaciers, including in January 2009, November 2009, January 2010, and December 2012.

What is not in question is the science results.  The glacier is indeed melting faster than snowfall can replenish it, and this is increasingly due to human influence.  Once the edge of the glacier recedes past a ridge, the glacier’s melt will accelerate.  As most sea-based glaciers do, Thwaites holds back land-based ice.  As this ice melts, sea level rises.  Thus, the rate of sea level rise could increase from <0.25mm per year to >1mm per year due to all melting land-based glaciers.

The second paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters, Widespread, rapid grounding line retreat of Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith and Kohler glaciers, West Antarctica from 1992 to 2011, the authors report on satellite data analysis showing that

Pine Island Glacier retreated 31 km at its center, with most retreat in 2005–2009 when the glacier un-grounded from its ice plain. Thwaites Glacier retreated 14 km along its fast-flow core and 1 to 9 km along the sides. Haynes Glacier retreated 10 km along its flanks. Smith/Kohler glaciers retreated the most, 35 km along its ice plain

Upstream of the 2011 grounding line, there remain no more physical obstacles (higher sea bed regions) that will hold back the glaciers.  Thus nothing remains to stop further melting of the basin.  These results are an independent corroboration of the Science paper results and build the body of literature on Antarctic glaciers.  Once Thwaites melts, the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet is at risk of melt.  There are other researchers who think the 200-900 year timeline is too slow because important feedbacks are not properly modeled.  But so far no evidence suggests the time scale is off by an order of magnitude (i.e., not 20-90 years).

Absent significant climatological shifts away from anthropogenically forced climate change, West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets will continue to melt for centuries.  Sea levels will rise, probably at a faster rate than what we’ve seen historically.

But the presentation of these studies is disappointing.  Here are some places that covered this news.  I found probably the best headline at Slate: “Huge Antarctic Glacier Slow-Speed Collapse May Now Be Past Point of No Return“.  That gives the reader all the critical information.  Thwaites is huge, it will undergo slow-speed collapse, and that process is likely now irreversible.  Good on Slate.  The normally staid Jeff Masters’ somewhat less accurate headline: “Slow-Motion Collapse of West Antarctic Glaciers is Unstoppable, 2 New Studies Say“.  This is better than Science’s own headline, but notice the “is” in this one.  Again, I don’t think we can justifiably conclude based on science to date that the collapse is definitely unstoppable, as this headline claims.  Is it likely?  Yes, it is.  This headline doesn’t convey that.

And now the worst example, from an Environment America fundraising email: “Antarctica to melt completely”.  What?!  These two studies do not say Antarctica will melt completely; such an event will take at least thousands of years, even under the highest GHG emissions scenarios.  And again, there is no mention of any time line in the email header.  The email includes this nonsense: “The melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now unstoppable – but we can still prevent even worse disasters, and President Obama is taking action right now.”  I’m not sure what they consider a worse disaster than the entire Antarctic ice sheet melting (they certainly don’t make a specific claim in their fundraising request).  They go on to include the worst type of messaging: “This is the nightmare scenario”.  Fantastic – shut down everybody’s response mechanisms with the worst possible language.  Moreover, if this is the nightmare scenario, what is the “worse disaster” they can prevent if only I send them money?  The email continues “As bad as this news is, we simply don’t have time for despair.”  Then why use language that causes despair?

This is exactly what the Science news piece tried to generate, and it worked.  Unfortunately, that’s where the working stops.  People that know about Antarctic glaciers melting are already taking action.  People that don’t won’t do so just because of this email.  It operates from the wrong frame and doesn’t engage alternative values.  It doesn’t engage and it doesn’t present opportunities.  But it’s what prominent environmental groups do and it’s why there has been polarization and inaction surrounding the issue. They continue to squander time and resources.


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Climate Communication: Case Study

Climate Communication

What gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise?  Is it carbon dioxide, hydrogen, helium, or radon?

I’ll give you an opportunity to think about your answer.

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60% of 2013 Pew poll respondents answered correctly: carbon dioxide.

What was the political affiliation of those correct responders: Democratic, Unaffiliated, or Republican?

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There was no statistically significant difference between the responders’ affiliation, but Republicans were somewhat more likely than Unaffiliateds and Democrats to answer correctly:

 photo PewPoll-CO2andTempbyPoliticalParty_zps96cdd163.png

What a minute.  Does that make sense?  More Democrats than Republicans believe that humans are causing global warming, but they don’t know the most fundamental fact about the topic.  Conversely, more Republicans do not believe the human-global warming relationship, but know that CO2 is a GHG and causes the atmosphere to warm.  Don’t climate activists rail against Republicans for dismissing facts or being uneducated?  They sure do, and I  think it increasingly hurts their cause.

In a nutshell, it’s not about education.  Belief statements about climate change don’t convey science knowledge; they express who people are.

This is a very good piece, which Dan Kahan delivered at Earthday “Climate teach in/out” at Yale University last month.  The  upshot: What you “believe” about climate change doesn’t reflect what you know; it expresses *who you are*.  This flies in the face of the approach many physical scientists (and academic faculty) take.  According to them, people are stupid and need only be filled with knowledge they possess.  That isn’t the case at all.  Instead, people respond to this and similar questions according to their identification with a cultural group.  As Kahan writes:

It [the result of taking the “wrong” position in relation to a cultural group] could drive a wedge—material, emotional, and psychological—between individual the people whose support are indispensable to his or her well-being.

And note this doesn’t just apply to evangelical Christians, a group many climate activists derogatorily cite.  This applies just as equally to those climate activists – which explains ideological positions entrenchment on the topic of climate change, evolution, the Big Bang, etc.

Kahan continues:

But while that’s the rational way for people to engage information as individuals, given what climate change signifies about their cultural identities, it’s a disaster for them collectively.  Because if everyone does this at the same time, members of a culturally diverse democratic society are less likely to converge on scientific evidence that is crucial to the welfare of all of them.

So there’s more helplessness as a result of climate change?  No, there’s not.  Kahan offers a solution and well stated opinion on where things stand:

If we want to overcome it, then we must disentangle competing positions on climate change from opposing cultural identities, so that culturally pluralistic citizens aren’t put in the position of having to choose between knowing what’s known to science and being who they are.

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That means you, as a science communicator, can enable these citizens to converge on the best available evidence on climate change.

But to do it, you must banish from the science communication environment the culturally antagonistic meanings with which positions on that issue have become entangled—so that citizens can think and reason for themselves free of the distorting impact of identity-protective cognition.

If you want to know what that sort of science communication environment looks like, I can tell you where you can see it: in Florida, where all 7 members of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners — 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans — voted unanimously to join Broward County (predominantly Democratic), Monroe County (predominantly Republican), and Miami-Dade County (predominantly Republican) in approving the Southeast Climate Compact Action plan, which, I quote from the Palm Beach County Board summary, “includes 110 adaptation and mitigation strategies for addressing seal-level risk and other climate issues within the region.”

I’ll tell you another thing about what you’ll see if you make this trip: the culturally pluralistic, and effective form of science communication happening in southeast Florida doesn’t look anything  like the culturally assaultive “us-vs-them” YouTube videos and prefabricated internet comments with which Climate Reality and Organizing for America are flooding national discourse.

And if you want to improve public engagement with climate science in the United States, the fact that advocates as high profile and as highly funded as that still haven’t figured out the single most important lesson to be learned from the science of science communication should make you very sad.

Those last two paragraphs convey my sentiments well.  Climate activists rail against skeptics as uneducated and ideologically motivated.  They label them anti-scientific and Luddites.  They try to put themselves on the high ground of the debate landscape by claiming the science flag.  Unfortunately, they focus their attention singularly on physical science and discount social science results.  While they do this, they alienate potentially receptive audiences and ensure the pace of climate action remains glacial.

There are proven ways to better communicate climate risk to a culturally pluralistic population.  Small examples are available for study and emulation.  We need to break old communication habits and adopt new ones.

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