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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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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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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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Guest Teaching This Week

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

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

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

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

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


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Research: West Antarctic Warming Greater Than Thought

A new article in Nature Geoscience, Central West Antarctica among the most rapidly warming regions on Earth (subs. req’d), presents up-to-date information on conditions of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS).  The most common theme of climate science is present within this story: warming is occurring faster than scientists thought it was or projected just a few short years ago.  This study compares its results against similar efforts and confirms some of the fears of the cryosphere.  Large portions of both the Arctic and Antarctic are among the spots warming the fastest on Earth.  What does this mean?  It means accelerating sea level rise, influxes of fresh water into the world’s oceans, and rapidly changing ecosystems.  It means there are likely other effects of anthropogenic global warming occurring across the globe, but because our observation networks are sparse, we’re just not aware of them yet.

Two important figures from the paper:

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Figure 1. Color shadings show the correlation between the annual mean temperatures at Byrd and the annual mean temperatures at every other grid point in Antarctica, computed using ERA-Interim 2-meter temperature time series from 1979 to 2011. The star symbol denotes the location of Byrd Station. The black circles denote the locations of permanent research stations with long-term temperature records.

The warming observed at Byrd Station is, by incorporating ERA-Interim reanalysis data, also exists across a significant portion of West Antarctica.  This development’s significance is this: the WAIS rests on bedrock and is grounded below sea level.  As the WAIS melts, the meltwater runs to the ocean from the land, raising sea levels.  If sea level around Antarctica rises high enough, the bottom of the WAIS will be exposed to water, which will hasten its melt.

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Figure 2. Annual mean surface temperature change (trend×number of years) during 1958–2009 from the Byrd record (red and black circle) and from the CRUTEM4 data set (rest of map).

Figure 2 puts the Byrd warming into global context.  There are areas in the Arctic and now the Antarctic that have observed +2.4°C warming from 1958 through 2009.  The long time period is representative for climate and the non-zero warming represents change.  On a localized scale (WAIS), the warming observed at Byrd and likely at nearby locations probably counteracted the cooling resulting from increased circumpolar westerlies.  Those westerlies, as I’ve written about in my State of the Poles posts, were themselves the result of cooling in the Antarctic stratosphere as ozone depletion occurred.  In essence, the strong winds blowing across lines of longitude near Antarctica largely prevented warm air at higher latitudes from being blown across the continent.  The Byrd warming therefore presents an interesting case where this phenomenon isn’t the only one that occurs.

As the Montreal Protocol continues to reduce the amount of ozone-depleting substances in the stratosphere and the ozone layer replenishes itself, the anomalous westerlies will likely subside.  As additional warm air is advected over Antarctica, the continent will experience fuller effects of global warming.  In turn, the rest of the planet will experience the results of those effects.  This is an example of one science policy working while another science policy remains mostly flatlined.  The 2012 18th Conference of Parties continued to demonstrate that the same framework that allowed for the Montreal Protocol to be negotiated and successfully implemented has not and will not allow for a climate protocol.  Decades have passed while negotiators have tried time and again to do the same thing over and over.  A new approach is required.  Local, bottom-up efforts need to be expanded and stoked.  Someone somewhere has a much more effective set of solutions.  Heck, a bunch of someones somewheres have solution sets.  They need to be incubated and allowed to develop.  We need to take control of those strategies and processes.


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Call for Climate Change-Policy Paradigm Shift

Nature Climate Change‘s most recent issue included a paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows entitled, “A new paradigm for climate change” [subs. req'd].   Kevin works at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Mechanical Civil and Aerospace Engineering and Alice works at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, School of Mechanical Civil and Aerospace Engineering, University of Manchester.  The discussion and arguments in the paper aren’t exactly novel if you’ve paid attention to the policy side of the climate change topic but bears examination as much as other works on the climate-policy interface, in which I am very interested.

I think the paper has some serious flaws in its assumptions, which detracts from the policy prescriptions offered.  Prime among the flaws is this:

We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions

The latter part of this statement simply will not happen, barring additional severe economic distress.  The first part represents progress from the scientific community: developing nations want and deserve higher living standards, of which energy is a primary input.  But developed nations cannot and will not “immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions”.  There is a choice that these nations make every day: their own economies will grow and they will do so with the cheapest energy possible.

The U.S. recently achieved something through price signals that scientists and environmentalists have failed to achieve via policy for a generation: a significant reduction in overall CO2 emissions: 7.7% since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions.  This is after Congress failed to get a climate-energy bill passed in 2010.  Why did the decrease occur?  Because old coal-fired plants (the most polluting type) grew much more uneconomical to operate in the past few years compared to natural gas-fired plants.  There is a problem moving forward and that is there is nothing substantially cheaper than natural gas on the scale necessary to further reduce U.S. emissions.  Effectively, there is a new baseline from which the U.S. will operate for the next generation.  But natural gas, as most readers are familiar, still pollutes far more than renewable energy sources.  So U.S. emissions will continue to be quite high and more CO2 will accumulate in the atmosphere.

Despite the early flawed assumption, the papers’ authors quite correctly state the following:

[...]any contextual interpretation of the science demonstrates that the threshold of 2°C [increase in average global temperatures] is no longer viable, at least within orthodox political and economic constraints.  Against this backdrop, unsubstantiated hope leaves such constraints unquestioned, while at the same time legitimizing a focus on increasingly improbable low-carbon futures and underplaying high-emission scenarios.

I have written many times on the false hope that low- and moderate-emission pathways represent (given the unfortunate reality that our actual emissions are on a substantially different orientation) and lamented that even climate scientists misdirected their energies by rarely analyzing high-emission scenarios, thereby depriving policymakers with the required scope of potential futures from which we choose.

The authors do present this somewhat accurate portrayal:

At the same time as climate change analyses are being subverted to reconcile them with the orthodoxy of economic growth, neoclassical economics has evidently failed to keep even its own house in order. This failure is not peripheral. It is prolonged, deep-rooted and disregards national boundaries, raising profound issues about the structures, values and framing of contemporary society.

Rather than demonizing neoclassical economics, the authors should look for opportunities within such a framework that would actually result in emissions reductions.  But the authors’ do identify issues that really do lie at the heart of climate policy: the values of contemporary society.  If those values were more robustly analyzed and respected for what they were as a foundation to climate policy, we would have made meaningful progress on the issue.

The lack of such effort is evident in one of the authors’ concluding paragraphs:

It is in this rapidly evolving context that the science underpinning climate change is being conducted and its findings communicated. This is an opportunity that should and must be grasped. Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable. But this is still not enough. In an increasingly interconnected world where the whole — the system — is often far removed from the sum of its parts, we need to be less afraid of making academic judgements. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era. Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.

This thrown gauntlet is full of high-minded rhetoric but short on grasping the realities of the world.  I don’t know of any climate scientist who is afraid of making academic judgements.  But it is folly to accuse skeptics of unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice when advocates for climate activism also display their own set of opinions and prejudice – those opinion and prejudices arise through psychological lenses which themselves are rooted in biological constructs.  Insulting one another has done and will continue to not to anything to solve this problem.  Nobody has the “truth” market cornered.  The “new” paradigm championed by the authors bears remarkable resemblance to other recommendations from legions of climate activists before them.  What has such a stance accomplished?  Emissions continue to grow, concentrations continue to accumulate, temperatures continue to rise, etc.

Many of the same people who rail against unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice also vehemently dismiss new articulated paradigms.  I see nothing in this paper, or many others like it, that advocate for the rapid growth of developing economies based on 21st century technologies and innovations, even though such an effort is clearly needed while developed nations work at finding ways to decarbonize their own economies.  Quite simply, this is the least expensive path forward – it leverages opportunity within the economic framework in which we operate.  It strikes me as senseless to continue the same fight that has not achieved meaningful decarbonization in the last two generations.

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