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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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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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EPA’s Proposed CO2 Emissions Rule in Context

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If you follow climate and energy news, you probably have or will encounter media regarding today’s proposed CO2 emissions rule by the EPA.  Unfortunately, that media will probably not be clear about what the rule means in understandable terms.  I’m writing this in an attempt to make the proposed rule more clear.

The graph above shows US CO2 emissions from energy consumption.  This includes emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas.  I have differentiated historical emissions in blue from 2013 EIA projections made in red, what today’s EPA proposal would mean for future emission levels, and low and high reductions prescribed by the Kyoto Protocol, which the US never ratified.

In 2011, historical US energy-related emissions totaled 5,481 million metric tons of CO2.  For the most part, you can ignore the units and just concentrate on emission’s magnitude: 5,481.  If the EPA’s proposed rule goes into effect and achieves what it sets out to achieve, 2020 emissions could be 4,498 MMT and 2030 emissions could be 4,198 MMT (see the two green triangles).  Those 2030 emissions would be lower than any time since 1970 – a real achievement.  It should be apparent by the other comparisons that this potential achievement isn’t earth shaking however.

Before I get further into that, compare the EPA-related emissions with the EIA’s projections out to 2030.  These projections were made last year and are based on business as usual – i.e., no federal climate policy or EPA rule.  Because energy utilities closed many of their dirtiest fossil fuel plants following the Great Recession due to their higher operating costs and the partial transfer from coal to natural gas, the EIA now projects emissions just above 2011’s and below the all-time peak.  I read criticism of EIA projections this weekend (can’t find the piece now) that I think was too harsh.  The EIA historically projected emissions in excess of reality.  I don’t think their over-predictions are bad news or preclude their use in decision-making.  If you know the predictions have a persistent bias, you can account for it.

So there is a measurable difference between EIA emission projections and what could happen if the EPA rule is enacted and effective.  With regard to that latter characterization, how effective might the rule be?

If you compare the EPA emission reductions to the Kyoto reductions, it is obvious that the reductions are less than the minimum requirement to avoid significant future climate change.  But first, it is important to realize an important difference between Kyoto and the EPA rule: the Kyoto pathways are based off 1990 emissions and the EPA is based off 2005 emissions.  What happened between 1990 and 2005 in the real world?  Emissions rose by 19% from 5,039 MMT to 5,997 MMT.  The takeaway: emission reductions using 2005 as a baseline will result in higher final emissions than using a 1990 baseline.

If the US ratified and implemented Kyoto on the `Low` pathway (which didn’t happen), 2020 emissions would be 4,031 MMT (467 MMT less than EPA; 1445 MMT less than EIA) and 2050 emissions would be 2,520 MMT (no comparison with EPA so far).  If the US implemented the `High` pathway, 2020 emissions would be 3,527 MMT (971 MMT less than EPA!; 1,949 MMT less than EIA!) and 2050 emissions would be drastically slashed to 1,008 MMT!

Since we didn’t implement the Kyoto Protocol, we will not even attain 2020 `Kyoto Low` emissions in 2030.  Look at the graph again.  Connect the last blue diamond to the first green triangle.  Even though they’re the closest together, you can immediately see we have a lot of work to do to achieve even the EPA’s reduced emissions target.  Here is some additional context: to keep 2100 global mean temperatures <2C, we have to achieve the lowest emissions pathway modeled by the IPCC for the Fifth Assessment Report (see blue line below):

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Note the comment at the bottom of the graph: global CO2 emissions have to turn negative by 2070, following decades of declines.  How will global emissions decline and turn negative if the US emits >3,000 MMT annually in 2050?  The short answer is easy: they won’t.  I want to combine my messages so far in this post: we have an enormous amount of work to reduce emissions to the EPA level.  That level is well below Kyoto’s Low level, which would have required a lot of work in today’s historical terms.  That work now lies in front of us if we really want to avoid >2C warming and other effects.  I maintain that we will not reduce emissions commensurate with <2C warming.  I think we will emit enough CO2 that our future will be along the RCP6.0 to RCP8.5 pathways seen above, or 3-5C warming and related effects.

Another important detail: the EPA’s proposed rule has a one-year comment period which will result in a final rule.  States then have another year to implement individual plans to achieve their reductions (a good idea).  The downside: the rule won’t go into effect until 2016 – only four years before the first goal.  What happens if the first goal isn’t achieved?  Will future EPA administrators reset the 2030 goal so it is more achievable (i.e., higher emissions)?  Will lawsuits prevent rule implementation for years?  There are many potential setbacks for implementing this rule.  And it doesn’t achieve <2C warming, not even close.


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NASA & NOAA: April 2014 Warmest Globally On Record

According to data released by NASA and NOAA this month, April was the warmest April globally on record.  Here are the data for NASA’s analysis; here are NOAA data and report.  The two agencies have different analysis techniques, which in this case resulted in slightly different temperature anomaly values but the same overall rankings within their respective data sets.  The analyses result in different rankings in most months.  The two techniques do provide a check on one another and confidence for us that their results are robust.  At the beginning, I will remind readers that the month-to-month and year-to-year values and rankings matter less than the long-term climatic warming.  Weather is the dominant factor for monthly and yearly conditions, not climate.

The details:

April’s global average temperature was 0.73°C (1.314°F) above normal (14°C; 1951-1980), according to NASA, as the following graphic shows.  The past three months have a +0.63°C temperature anomaly.  And the latest 12-month period (May 2013 – Apr 2014) had a +0.62°C temperature anomaly.  The time series graph in the lower-right quadrant shows NASA’s 12-month running mean temperature index.  The 2010-2012 downturn was largely due to the last La Niña event (see below for more).  Since then, ENSO conditions returned to a neutral state (neither La Niña nor El Niño).  As previous anomalously cool months fell off the back of the running mean, the 12-month temperature trace tracked upward again throughout 2013 and 2014.

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Figure 1. Global mean surface temperature anomaly maps and 12-month running mean time series through April 2014 from NASA.

According to NOAA, April’s global average temperatures were +0.77°C (1.386°F) above the 20th century average of 13.7°C (56.7°F).  NOAA’s global temperature anomaly map for April (duplicated below) shows where conditions were warmer and cooler than average during the month.

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Figure 2. Global temperature anomaly map for August 2013 from NOAA.

The two different analyses’ importance is also shown by the preceding two figures.  Despite differences in specific global temperature anomalies, both analyses picked up on the same spatial temperature patterns and their relative strength.

Influence of ENSO

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Figure 3. Time series of weekly SST data from NCEP (NOAA).  The highest interest region for El Niño/La Niña is `NINO 3.4` (2nd time series from top).

There has been neither El Niño nor La Niña in the past couple of years.  This ENSO-neutral phase is common.  As you can see in the NINO 3.4 time series (2nd from top in Figure 3), Pacific sea surface temperatures were relatively cool in January through March, then quickly warmed.  This switch occurred because normal easterly winds (blowing toward the west) across the equatorial Pacific relaxed and two significant westerly wind bursts occurred in the western Pacific.  These anomalous winds generated an eastward moving Kelvin wave, which causes downwelling and surface mass convergence.  Warm SSTs collect along the equator as a result.  These Kelvin waves eventually crossed the entire Pacific Ocean, as Figure 4 shows.

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Figure 4.  Sub-surface Pacific Ocean temperature anomalies from Jan-Apr 2014.  Anomalously cool eastern Pacific Ocean temperatures in January gave way to anomalously warm temperatures by April.  Temperatures between 80W and 100W warmed further since April 14.

The Climate Prediction Center announced an El Niño Watch earlier this year.  The most recent update says the chances of an El Niño during the rest of 2014 exceeds 65%.  There is no reliable prediction of the potential El Niño’s strength at this time.  Without another westerly wind burst, an El Niño will likely not be very strong.  Even moderate strength El Niños impact global weather patterns.

An important detail is whether the potential 2014 El Niño will be an Eastern or Central Pacific El Niño (see figure below).  Professor Jin-Yi Yu, along with colleagues, first proposed the difference in a 2009 Journal of Climate paper.  More recently, Yu’s work suggested a recent trend toward Central Pacific El Niños influenced the frequency and intensity of recent U.S. droughts.  This type of El Niño doesn’t cause global record temperatures, but still impacts atmospheric circulations and the jet stream, which impacts which areas receive more or less rain.  If the potential 2014 El Niño is an Eastern Pacific type, we can expect monthly global mean temperatures to spike and the usual precipitation anomalies commonly attributed to El Niño.

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Figure 5. Schematic of Central-Pacific ENSO versus Eastern-Pacific ENSO as envisioned by Dr. Jin-Yi Yu at the University of California – Irvine.

If an El Niño does occur later in 2014, it will mask some of the deep ocean heat absorption by releasing energy back to the atmosphere.  If that happens, the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015 will likely set global surface temperature records.  2014, 2015, or both could set the all-time global mean temperature record (currently held by 2010).  Some scientists recently postulated that an El Niño could also trigger a shift from the current negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO; or PDO for just the northern hemisphere) to a new positive phase.  This would be similar in nature, though different in detail, as the shift from La Niña or neutral conditions to El Niño.  If this happens, the likelihood of record hot years would increase.  I personally do not believe this El Niño will shift the IPO phase.  I don’t think this El Niño will be strong enough and I don’t think the IPO is in a conducive state for a switch to occur.

The “Hiatus”

Skeptics have pointed out that warming has “stopped” or “slowed considerably” in recent years, which they hope will introduce confusion to the public on this topic.  What is likely going on is quite different: since an energy imbalance exists (less energy is leaving the Earth than the Earth is receiving; this is due to atmospheric greenhouse gases) and the surface temperature rise has seemingly stalled, the excess energy is going somewhere.  The heat has to go somewhere – energy doesn’t just disappear.  That somewhere is likely the oceans, and specifically the deep ocean (see figure below).  Before we all cheer about this (since few people want surface temperatures to continue to rise quickly), consider the implications.  If you add heat to a material, it expands.  The ocean is no different; sea-levels are rising in part because of heat added to it in the past.  The heat that has entered in recent years won’t manifest as sea-level rise for some time, but it will happen.  Moreover, when the heated ocean comes back up to the surface, that heat will then be released to the atmosphere, which will raise surface temperatures as well as introduce additional water vapor due to the warmer atmosphere.  Thus, the immediate warming rate might have slowed down, but we have locked in future warming (higher future warming rate).

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Figure 6. Recent research shows anomalous ocean heat energy locations since the late 1950s.  The purple lines in the graph show how the heat content of the whole ocean has changed over the past five decades. The blue lines represent only the top 700 m and the grey lines are just the top 300 m.  Source: Balmaseda et al., (2013)

You can see in Figure 6 that the upper 300m of the world’s oceans accumulated less heat during the 2000s (5*10^22 J) than during the 1990s.  In contrast, accumulated heat greatly increased in ocean waters between 300m and 700m during the 2000s (>10*10^22 J).  We cannot and do not observe the deep ocean with great frequency.  We do know from frequent and reliable observations that the sea surface and relatively shallow ocean did not absorb most of the heat in the past decade.  We also know how much energy came to and left the Earth from satellite observations.  If we know how much energy came in, how much left, and how much the land surface and shallow ocean absorbed, it is a relatively straightforward computation to determine how much energy likely remains in the deep ocean.

Discussion

The fact that April 2014 was the warmest on record despite a negative IPO and a neutral ENSO is eye-opening.  I think it highlights the fact that there is an even lower frequency signal underlying the IPO, ENSO, and April weather: anthropogenic warming.  That signal is not oscillatory, it is increasing at an increasing rate and will continue to do so for decades to centuries.  The length of time that occurs and its eventual magnitude is dependent on our policies and activities.  We continue to emit GHGs at or above the high-end of the range simulated by climate models.  Growth in fossil fuel use at the global scale continues.  This growth dwarfs any effect of a switch to energy sources with lower GHG emissions.  I don’t think that will change during the next 15 years, which would lock us into the warmer climate projections through most of the rest of the 21st century.  The primary reason for this is the scale of humankind’s energy infrastructure.  Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy will take decades.  Acknowledging this isn’t defeatist or pessimistic; it is I think critical in order to identify appropriate opportunities and implement the type and scale of policy responses to encourage that switch.


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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.

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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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