Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

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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:  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.


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:


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.


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.


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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The Scary State of Science in American Society

As we come to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, I find the state of science in America to be scary.  A lot of good research and development is being conducted, yet fewer Americans display a basic understanding of scientific fact than do most (any?) other industrialized nation.  Americans’ religious evangelism has a great deal to do with this.  Yet the following came as somewhat of a shock to me.  Bill Nye (the Science Guy) was booed at a lecture last week in Waco, TX.  Why?  For saying the moon reflects light from the sun.  People are certainly entitled to believe whatever they choose.  I simply find it interesting that faith can shove fact out of the way so easily for so many.  I also think the episode reflects a great deal of disrespect on the part of the Christians in attendance.  They’re free to disagree with whatever Nye said in his lecture.  But to boo at him during the lecture isn’t classy – it’s the behavior of people who love to self-victimize.

The second example of the sad state of science in America today is related, of course, to politics.  In this story, Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton asked Energy Secretary Stephen Chu a question during testimony on President Obama’s clean energy proposals.  The question was incredibly ludicrous and demonstrates how important it is to send science-savvy officials to Washington to represent you.  Here is the question:

I have one simple question for you in the last six seconds. How did all the oil and gas get to Alaska and under the Arctic Ocean?

I’m not going to mince words on this one: what is this idiot thinking by asking this question?  He has to have an intense desire to publicly show how scientifically ignorant he is.  Contrary to what today’s Republican Party (co-opted by extremists, granted) think, this lack of savvy isn’t a positive attribute for Barton to hold.

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Barack Obama Responds to Sciency Policy Questions!

Not surprising, given his record of supporting science and technology as cornerstones of American prosperity. He recognizes the importance of science as a critical facet of the 21st century. Also unsurprisingly, John McCain hasn’t responded to the same questions, which were offered by Scientists & Engineers for America and 18 other science organizations. McCain’s record of not supporting policies based on science is well established and is one of the primary reasons I do not support his candidacy for President. Further, McCain’s choice for Vice-President is incredibly disturbing as she has publicly called for creationism to be taught in schools and denies that climate change is influenced at all by human activities.

I’m going to summarize a few things from some of Obama’s answers, things that I find most important or impressive. You can look at every question and answer at SEA’s website.

On climate:

There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively. [...] reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 [...] Specifically, I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. I will start reducing emissions immediately by establishing strong annual reduction targets with an intermediate goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Obama clearly recognizes the threat presented by catastrophic climate change and is ready and willing to listen to valid scientific advice on how best to change our behavior to address the challenge. The 80% below 1990 levels is a significant marker. The much-balleyhooed Warner-Lieberman bill that failed to clear the Senate this summer would have used 2005 as the benchmark year. Obviously, emissions grew considerably from 1990 to 2005, so I’m very pleased to see Obama use the more aggressive threshold.

I will also create a Technology Transfer Program dedicated to exporting climate-friendly technologies, including green buildings, clean coal and advanced automobiles, to developing countries to help them combat climate change.

I like the TTP Obama has proposed. I wish clean coal would be removed from Democratic lexicon. It allows coal corporations to claim they’re pushing for “clean coal” when they aren’t and won’t. This is one policy point on which I disagree with Obama.

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Fiscal Sanity, Slow Internet & Obama + McCain Pander

Who spends more: Democrats or Republicans? If you have a pulse, chances are you automatically said Democrats. That’s actually not the case. Here is a good, short piece explaining things differently than conservative brainwashing.


I want to write a little more about this, but thought I should link to it in the interim. According to a second test conducted by SpeedMatters, Colorado’s median Internet speed is 2.34 megabits per second, 0.01 behind the U.S. median speed. Everyone has heard the U.S. is the greatest country on Earth, right? So how come the U.S. ranks 15th in the world in median internet speed? France connects at a median speed of 17.6 megabits per second (8 times faster than ours) and they’re only fourth on the list. Who’s first? Japan, of course, with a median speed of 63.60 megabits per second. People in Japan can download a feature-length movie in 2 minutes. The same movie takes 2 hours in the U.S. And this is the best part: we pay as much per month as the Japanese do for service that is 30 times slower! We need to tell the corporations that link us to the Internet that 15th place isn’t good enough. We need to demand 30 times better service. Anything less means we’re letting ourselves get robbed.


Barack Obama and John McCain succumbed to pop politics yesterday by meeting with Rick Warren and discussing their faith and how it affects their public policy stances. This has no business in politics. A person’s faith is their own, it is a one-on-one relationship between them and whatever they believe in. Did the candidates meet with a panel of religious and non-religious figures that included a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew, an atheist, or a Wiccan? No. They met with an evangelical Christian only. They will preside over a country with more than evangelical Christians making up its population, but they sat down with only one narrow interpreter of faith. That is deeply disturbing.

Beside the lack of participation by other figures of faith, when has Barack Obama or John McCain sat down with a leading science figure to discuss how their understanding of science affects their approach to public policy? The answer: they haven’t. Religion continues to be given a higher level of public importance than science, despite the clear effect science has on the public and despite the fact that taxpayer dollars funds science research. Shouldn’t that process be open to the public? A number of scientists and bloggers called for a Science Debate this election cycle. Few campaigns even responded and those that did rejected the idea, citing the number of debates already agreed to and the logistics involved in adding another one. Yet this meeting with Rick Warren occurred. That’s insulting to science and its advocates.

I know John McCain doesn’t believe in science. He believes in getting bought off and pandering. But I expected more from Sen. Obama. If elected, he will oversee agencies responsible for science research and development. I want to know his level of understanding of science policy and what is important to him before he is President, not after. We all deserve that opportunity. That opportunity is being denied to us.

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Netroots Nation 2008: Science Blogging

Just a teaser for now as I’m getting too hungry to keep blogging for the moment: the Energizing America session was very good. I’ll have to provide only a short summary later tonight as I continue to digest the swarm of information provided. Three good energy candidates were present, as well as three prominent bloggers.

Okay – I was too tired after the Drinking Liberally/Daily Kos party last night at Maggie May’s to blog any more.  I’m still quite tired this morning.  So for now, a short update will have to suffice.  I attended the Markos Zuniga & Harold Ford Jr. lunch discussion on party infrastructure.  After eating, the floor was opened to questions.  From my perspective, the questioners were overly rude to Mr. Ford.  I don’t agree with the man’s approach to politics, but that doesn’t mean I or anybody else in that room should have been rude.  We have similar interests, just different strategies of accomplishing our goals.  Trashing his distracts from those goals.

I attended a science policy session after lunch.  That was very informative: evolution, stem-cells and global warming censorship were on the table.  I received a nice piece of advice as part of a discussion with one of the panelists afterward that I can put to immediate effect.

My last session of the day was establishing a progressive NASA and space policy.  Interestingly, the FAA officials (former and current) were on the panel.  If we can figure out how to frame space as an opportunity and prevent neoconservative militarization thereof, we’ll be happy folks.  Prominent blogger Chris Bowers was there, so I imagine much more on this will be written in the future.

I met up with some folks last night to watch a large group of bats come out from underneath a bridge in Austin.  It’s quite the sight, though we were debating right before it happened if it was really a locals’ favorite to get a bunch of tourists to look at a nondescript bridge for an hour.  I’ll post pictures later.

Finally, the Drinking Liberally/Daily Kos party.  Good times there!  Every TV screen in the place was playing Bill O’Reilly’s F*!% It, We’ll Do It Live episode on Live Edition in an endless loop.  Hilarious!  Met up with some folks that were at last year’s YearlyKos in Chicago and traded additional strategies and information.


Netroots Nation: Opening Day Blogging

Made it to Austin without any problems yesterday. They have a very good bus service that cost $0.50 to get from the airport to the downtown hotel! I’m here with a large group of folks to gather and network around the theme of blogging. The main focus is on political blogging, but there are efforts at hand to expand the scope of topics into areas not normally associated with politics. Colorado has a decent contingent down here again. johne, pacified, em dash, greenchiledem and others are all here.

Today’s schedule is a little light on substance. I’m going to a state level blogger caucus within the hour, then a state blog lunch. After lunch, a DNC strategizing session, a break, then a science bloggers caucus, which I’m excited to go to. The kick-off really starts tonight with former Gov. Howard Dean addressing the group. I attended an address he gave at last year’s YearlyKos, my first time seeing him in person, and understood for the first time how he was able to generate so much enthusiasm.

I’ll provide updates as the day goes on.


[Update 10P CDT]:

It’s been a good first day. The state level blogger caucus was led by one of Colorado’s finest, though they didn’t relish the opportunity to moderate. I think they did a very fine job of allowing the group to develop the conversation. We talked about best practices and success stories. SquareState and Colorado Confidential were discussed more than once. Some interesting tips included maintaining a relationship with state party communication staff, writing a column in alternative weeklies in addition to online work, working with the university system (important for Colorado with regard to Bruce Benson @ CU!), boosting commentors or diarists by direct communication and front-page promotion (something that S2 editors are good at), and working to develop new voices by reaching out to under-represented demographics. I got a contact with the National Wildlife Federation – one more resource to battle climate change deniers/delayers.

I inadvertently got in a discussion with ActBlue and johne regarding online fundraising opportunities and tips. I do want to mention that I’m very glad I wore a Jared Polis for Congress button – I’ve received numerous positive comments regarding his candidacy and his utilization of ActBlue resources. I’ve liked the things ActBlue can do for good candidates and the progressive movement. It was a pleasure to talk to some of their staff.

The last caucus I attended was the science bloggers’ caucus. This was very well attended by a range of people. Devilstower and DarkSyde from DailyKos moderated the session. Two years ago, a similar session got caught up in an evolution/creationism discussion for the entire hour. While still very important and relevant, they felt that energy policy was a topic more worthy of debate and discussion this year. There is a community organized effort that I have neglected to blog about for some time: Energize America. This country needs a realistic energy policy platform enacted right now. Progressives seem to be the only group willing and capable of pushing that set of policies. The intersection of energy and transportation, for instance, is a huge piece of low hanging fruit that needs to be picked. Renewable energy development won’t do a thing about our transportation addiction to oil until we make electric cars a viable option. Converting city fleets of cars and providing incentives to convert taxis and school buses to electric vehicles were presented as a possible solution to producing the stability in the market needed for that technology.

Energize America had come up with 20 pieces of legislation (written by the community) that a Democratic majority could introduce and pass that would revolutionize our energy policies. At today’s caucus meeting, they told the group a slimmed down set of bills is likely to be their focus in the near future. The group has a 9:00A session tomorrow that I’m going to attend to get more details. Gov. Ritter in Colorado has shown that a progressive energy policy can be successfully pushed by Democrats that are running for office and supported by those already in office. A lot more work needs to be done in this arena. In a larger sense, the Overton window needs to be moved and I’ll have more on that in the future.

The big celebrity event of the day was the Keynote address earlier this evening. Gen. Wesley Clark and DNC Chairman Howard Dean spoke to 2,000 of us. Both gentlemen did a good job. Dean’s talent for connecting to a crowd was on full display. Interestingly, the energy in the room was different this year than it was for the speech Dean gave last year in Chicago. My impression is that bloggers have grown up a lot in the past year. We’ve experienced some setbacks and frustrations in these last twelve months and we’re not as hype-able by someone, even someone as talented as Gov. Dean. Don’t get me wrong – there was plenty of excitement at a number of points in his speech. But for some points that were also made last year, the crowd didn’t bite as hard as they did before. I would like to think that bloggers are looking for more action and less talk than before. I know I am.

So I’m starting off with the Energize America discussion tomorrow morning. I might go to the Netroots platform session. Markos and Harold Ford Jr. are scheduled to have a discussion during lunch. No-holds barred, I hope. Then Restructuring Science Policy followed by Progressive NASA & Space Policy in the afternoon. Gosh, that sounds wonky!

Cross posted at SquareState.

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Random Hits 7/9/08

Science matters to voters when choosing who to vote into office.


Science Debate 2008 has released 14 questions the presidential candidates should answer. Actually, I’d like to ask Senator McCain if he bases his decisions on scientific underpinnings or not and what examples can he provide if he does. What he says today and what he would do as president to prove to the science-hating crowd he’s one of them are likely to be two very different things.


Interesting take on the FISA capitulation by thereisnospoon, whose writings I search for. Obama tacked toward the center of the Overton window. It’s up to activists to move the window. More evidence that we activists are the leaders and elected officials are by design the rearguard.


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