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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

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Cliven Bundy Development

Well, what could possibly go wrong with this?

“The letter also says militiamen have a presence on state and local roads as well as federal highways. In some areas, according to the letter, militiamen have set up checkpoints where drivers are stopped and asked to provide a proof of residency.

They’ve been seen carrying high-caliber weapons and keep a round-the-clock security detail on Bundy.”

As I discussed over the weekend with someone, this would never happen in other developed nations. People might shut down streets as a part of the political process, but they do so unarmed.  Having access to high-caliber weapons significantly raises the stakes and imposes risks on the public that few public officials could countenance.

Additional thoughts: people aren’t likely to support this kind of activity if they don’t think the militia members have legitimate authority in the area.  Militia aren’t police or sheriffs, or national guardsmen, or the army. These folks are instead domestic terrorists masquerading as authority figures. Which could further cement people’s anti-assault weapon opinions.  It’s one thing when the topic is abstract (i.e., you’ve never even seen an assault weapon outside of the movies); when someone with a weapon asks for your ID while you’re driving your kid home … well, that’s entirely different.  On top of that, it’s only a matter of time (if the sheriffs and ATF don’t respond to this) before an accident occurs and a militia person murders an innocent civilian.  The NRA might argue that they themselves should have been armed with their own assault weapon, but I think reasonable people will see through that nonsense.  Finally, Bundy might be able to argue he can hire private security contractors for his ranch, but those contractors can’t operate on public roads.

The most obvious analogy continues: can anyone seriously imagine a group of brown/black people checking IDs on public roads in support of a brown/black person that owed the federal government a million dollars after two decades of being a deadbeat?  I mean, seriously…


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Continuing a Theme

The Nordhaus & Shellenberger piece certainly has kicked up a lot of dust, including from someone whose work I normally enjoy.  Tom Toles issued his own ranting screed at the Washington Post yesterday.  It includes most of the same over-the-top grousing about the N&S piece as other writers.  But it includes a couple of things I’d like to highlight for additional discussion.

The ‘concern’ is that as a tactic it can ‘backfire’ and not win over conservatives to climate change action. Not win over conservatives! The article doesn’t place ALL the blame on faulty environmentalist tactics. It pauses to include what may be the most understated disclaimer in history: “Other factors contributed. Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming.” Some! Really???

At what point will people realize that if we nullify conservative’s work against climate action, then the very thing Toles and others claim to care about so deeply will finally happen: widespread and robust climate action?!  No, Tom is right.  We should continue the same strategies that failed for 30+ years, because one day, gosh darn it, they’ll magically work.  It’s quite simple really: identify and work via values and tactics that resonate with conservatives to achieve the same goal that working via different values and tactics that resonate with liberals.  This is where tribalism rears its ugly head big time.  Instead of recognizing inherent worldview differences and expending effort to talk to conservatives differently than liberals, it is much easier to shut your brain down and scream about how conservatives are “others” and should therefore be banned from all decision-making.  What a wonderful strategy!  Obviously it’s worked since so many conservatives are voting for carbon taxes and setting up subsidies for renewable energy and … that’s right, none of that is happening, is it?

N&S pointed out that many environmentalists work against their stated goals by purposefully shutting out 1/3 of the population.  That doesn’t sit well with Toles or Romm or many others.

Here is the second thing Toles writes that irks me:

If environmentalists aren’t careful, it says, sufficient support for an adequate policy response might go away. Go away! As though it was ever even close to being there in the first place. They cite Al Gore’s 2006 ‘Inconvenient Truth’ as contributing to backlash and division. Do they think no one has any memory whatsoever? Let me remind those who don’t. Before “Inconvenient Truth’ there was close to ZERO widespread public concern about climate change.

How close to ZERO was there, Tom?  Let’s check the first thing that comes up when I Google search ‘global warming polling 1980’:

 photo GlobalWarmingPollingGallup1989-2013_zpsf586fd1f.gif

Well, would you look at that – somebody polled Americans for decades now – who would have thought?  It turns out that 50-72% of Americans worrying a great deal or a fair amount is close to ZERO in Tom’s world.  That’s enlightening.  Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth” in early 2006.  In Gallup polling, worry jumped from 51% in 2004 to 62% in 2006 and 66% in 2008.  So yes, Truth likely brought American’s attention back to the issue in a way that other efforts did not.  Note however a couple of things this time series shows us: support was higher in 1999 and 2000 than 2008.  So Truth wasn’t the most effective strategy.  Also, worry post-2008 fell back to 2004 levels: 51%.  Worry was falling in 2009 – when Waxman and Markey were writing their cap-and-trade legislation – through 2010 – when the legislation failed to pass Congress.  That was despite having a Democratic President and a Democratic-led House and Senate.  That combination will not repeat itself any time soon.  So what should liberals do?  Find alternate tactics to motivate conservatives instead of denigrating and alienating them?  That sounds crazy to me.

Gallup’s page has plenty of other interesting results to chew over.  I will include one more in this post for illustrative purposes because it gets at the heart of what N&S really wrote about.  Gallup started asking in 1997 whether people thought global warming was a threat in their lifetime.  Guess what the majority answer was.  That’s right: most people said “no”.  Most people (50%-69%) hold this belief at the same time they believe that global warming is real, that human activities cause it, and that news reports on it are correct, if not underestimated.

What does that mean?  It means that people view the problem as a distant threat that will impact others before Americans.  There is scientific truth behind this belief.  The first reports of impacts were on Asians and Africans.  Those same populations will continue to be disproportionately affected in the coming decades, as the IPCC AR5 reported this year.

N&S’s post was an attempt to change this perception.  If scientists employ “communications approaches that take account of individuals’ personal points of reference (e.g., based on an understanding and appreciation of their values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences) are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals with climate change,” more people are likely to view climate change as a direct threat to their own lives.  If that happens, support for climate action will break through traditional barriers.  But I guess Toles, Romm, and others aren’t really interested in that.  They’re interested in this topic on ideological grounds: so long as liberals beat conservatives and people with slightly different worldviews, they’re happy.

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On hit pieces and legions of destroyed strawmen

There is an ongoing case of intensifying tribalism in a part of the climate activist population.  There are prolific bloggers and twitter users that spend time attacking anyone – and I mean anyone – who doesn’t agree with them 100% of the time on every aspect of climate change activism.  Unfortunately, this leads to them making narrow interpretations, setting up and destroying strawmen, and writing obscenely character assassinations. Their works are becoming competitive: who can write the most damaging screed, or use the biggest set of words, etc.  They moved away in some respects from attacks on what they label ‘denier’s’ to people that actually agree with them on the seriousness of future climate change effects but offer differing prescriptions about what to do.  In their zeal to knock someone else down and establish themselves as the sole and ultimate arbiters of not only physical scientific truth, but also social scientific truth, they seem to forget about their core mission: motivate an apathetic public to apply political pressure to mitigate future climate change.

In the newest example, Climate Progress’ Joe Romm entitled this piece, The Brutally Dishonest Attacks On Showtime’s Landmark Series On Climate Change, which starts out with:

For instance, the piece [Global Warming Scare Tactics] repeats the tired and baseless claim that Al Gore’s 2006 movie “An Inconvenient Truth” polarized the climate debate.

For a piece with “Brutally Dishonest” in its lede, you might expect honestly within.  Unfortunately, this piece, like so many others, is prejudiced by Romm’s vitriol for the authors.  Here is what the piece actually says about “An Inconvenient Truth”:

For instance, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” popularized the idea that today’s natural disasters are increasing in severity and frequency because of human-caused global warming.

See the subtle difference?  Nordhaus & Shellenberger actually wrote that Truth popularized the misconception that global warming has already increased the severity and frequency of natural disasters.  They did not write about the larger climate debate.  This argument is one Romm (and many others) is particularly fond of, but isn’t supported by their ultimate arbiter of climate information, the IPCC, which wrote about the lack of such a signal in the recently released Working Group II report: “Economic growth, including greater concentrations of people and wealth in periled areas and rising insurance penetration, is the most important driver of increasing losses… loss trends have not been conclusively attributed to anthropogenic climate change (AR5 10.7.3)” and in a report dedicated to extreme weather: “Most studies of long-term disaster loss records attribute these increases in losses to increasing exposure of people and assets in at-risk areas (Miller et al., 2008; Bouwer, 2011), and to underlying societal trends – demographic, economic, political, and social – that shape vulnerability to impacts (Pielke Jr. et al., 2005; Bouwer et al., 2007). Some authors suggest that a (natural or anthropogenic) climate change signal can be found in the records of disaster losses (e.g., Mills, 2005; Höppe and Grimm, 2009), but their work is in the nature of reviews and commentary rather than empirical research.”

Moreover, the authors continued to write that there were other influences beyond “Inconvenient Truth” including two other favorite targets of Romm’s: “Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming.”

Probably the most critical aspect of missing climate action within the past decade went untreated by Romm: the Great Recession.  As a direct result of millions of Americans losing their jobs and houses, the depth of their concern for the environment understandably fell.  Millions more Americans knew somebody (or many somebodies) who lost their jobs and/or houses through no fault of their own.  That phenomenon had a chilling effect on American’s willingness to stick their necks out for an issue that is not impacting them to the same degree: climate change.  The 2009 Waxman and Markey could not have introduced their climate legislation at a worse time in contemporary history.  Congress provided 1/3 to 1/2 the stimulus that experts on the Great Depression said was required to restore America to full employment again.  With little hope of robust economic recovery, climate change was very much a background issue.  We’re still dealing with the short-sightedness of a paltry stimulus plan that agencies executed haphazardly.

Romm also dismisses the next part of the article – the part that he and other activists should really spend some time digesting: how to talk about climate change.  Again, activists fill blog posts and tweets with disaster porn language: apocalypse, catastrophe, end of civilization, end of the world!!!  Given the evangelical bent of many Americans, they view climate change as an act of God, not mankind.  That fundamental shift in perception turns anything else activists have to say about the topic into rubbish for many Americans.

There is a 2009 study entitled, “Fear Won’t Do It” by Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia in the UK – the same institution that was the target of an illegal email hack some years back.  The study concluded:

Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern, they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.

Well, look at that.  Denial is a natural response to disaster language and imagery that climate activists routinely employ in their communication attempts.  They go on to recommend more personally meaningful imagery and language:

The results demonstrate that communications approaches that take account of individuals’ personal points of reference (e.g., based on an understanding and appreciation of their values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences) are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals with climate change.

This kind of communication inherently requires more effort, which might very well be part of the reason why it isn’t employed more often by activists.  We’re all searching for paths of least resistance and quick returns on our efforts.  But if activists really believe that global warming is the penultimate problem of our species, they should be as interested in social science results as physical science results.  Pressing the latter while ignoring the former hasn’t achieved goals on the time-frame activists say is required to “avert catastrophe”.


State of Polar Sea Ice – March 2014: Arctic Sea Ice Maximum and Antarctic Sea Minimum

Global polar sea ice area in March 2014 remained at or near climatological normal conditions (1979-2008).  This represents early 2013 conditions continuing to present when sea ice area was at or above the average daily value.  Global sea ice area values consist of two components: Arctic and Antarctic sea ice.  Conditions are quite different between these two regions: Antarctic sea ice continues to exist abundantly while Arctic sea ice remained well below normal again during the past five months.

The NSIDC made a very important change to its dataset in June.  With more than 30 years’ worth of satellite-era data, they recalculated climatological normals to agree with World Meteorological Organization standards.  The new climatological era runs from 1981-2010 (see Figure 6 below).  What impacts did this have on their data?  The means and standard deviations now encompass the time period of fastest Arctic melt.  As a consequence, the 1981-2010 values are much lower than the 1979-2000 values.  This is often one of the most challenging conditions to explain to the public.  “Normal”, scientifically defined, is often different from “normal” as most people refer to it.  U.S. temperature anomalies reported in the past couple of years refer to a similar 1981-2010 “normal period”.  Those anomalies are smaller in value than if we compared them to the previous 1971-2000 “normal period”.  Thus, temperature anomalies don’t seem to increase as much as they would if scientists referred to the same reference period.

Arctic Sea Ice

According to the NSIDC, March 2014′s average extent was 14.80 million sq. km., a 730,000 sq. km. difference from normal conditions.  This value is the maximum for 2014 as more sunlight and warmer spring temperatures now allow for melting ice.  March 2014 sea ice extent continued a nearly two-year long trend of below normal values.  The deficit from normal was different each month during that time due to weather conditions overlaying longer term climate signals.  Arctic sea ice extent could increase during the next month or so depending on specific wind conditions, but as I wrote above, we likely witnessed 2014’s maximum Arctic sea ice extent 10 or so days ago.

Sea ice anomalies at the edge of the pack are of interest.  There is slightly more ice than normal in the St. Lawrence and Newfounland Seas on the Atlantic side of the pack.  Barents sea ice area, meanwhile, is slightly below normal.  Bering Sea ice recently returned to normal from below normal, while Sea of Okhotsk sea ice remains below normal.  The ice in these seas will melt first since they are on the edge of the ice pack and are the thinnest since they just formed in the last month.

March average sea ice extent for 2014 was the fifth lowest in the satellite record.  The March linear rate of decline is 2.6% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2012 average, as Figure 1 shows (compared to 13.7% per decade decline for September: summer ice is more affected from climate change than winter ice).  Figure 1 also shows that March 2014′s mean extent ranked fifth lowest on record.

 photo Arctic_monthly_sea_ice_extent_201403_zpsf13de46a.png

Figure 1 – Mean Sea Ice Extent for March: 1979-2014 [NSIDC].

Arctic Pictures and Graphs

The following graphic is a satellite representation of Arctic ice as of October 1st, 2013:

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Figure 2UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20131001.

The following graphic is a satellite representation of Arctic ice as of January 15th, 2014:

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Figure 3UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20140115.

The following graphic is a satellite representation of Arctic ice as of April 1st, 2014:

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Figure 4 UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20140401.

I captured Figure 2 right after 2013’s date of minimum ice extent occurrence.  I wasn’t able to put together a post in January on polar sea ice, but captured Figure 3 for future reference.  You can see the rapid growth of ice area and extent in three month’s time.  Since January, additional sea ice formed, but not nearly as much as during the previous three months.  Figure 4 shows conditions just after the annual maximum sea ice area occurred.  From this point through late September, the overall trend will be melting ice – from the edge inward.

The following graph of Arctic ice volume from the end of January (PIOMAS updates are not available from the end of February or March) demonstrates the relative decline in ice health with time:

 photo SeaIceVolumeAnomaly_20140131_zpse02b6133.png

Figure 5PIOMAS Arctic sea ice volume time series through January 2014.

The blue line is the linear trend, identified as -3,000 km^3 (+/- 1,000 km^3) per decade.  In 1980, there was a +5,000 km^3 anomaly compared to 2013’s -6,000 km^3 anomaly – a difference of 11,000 km^3.  How much ice is that?  That volume of ice is equivalent to the volume in Lake Superior!

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

Take a look at March’s areal extent time series data:

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Figure 6NSIDC Arctic sea ice extent time series through early April 2014 (light blue line) compared with four recent years’ data, climatological norm (dark gray line) and +/-2 standard deviation envelope (light gray).

This figure puts winter 2013-14 into context against other recent winters.  As you can see, Arctic sea ice extent was at or below the bottom of the negative 2nd standard deviation from the 1981-2012 mean.  The 2nd standard deviation envelope covers 95% of all observations.  That means the past five winters were extremely low compared to climatology.  With the maximum ice extent in mid-March, 2014’s extent now hovers near record lows for the date.  Previous winters saw a late-season ice formation surge caused by specific weather patterns.  Those patterns are not likely to increase sea ice extent this boreal spring.  This doesn’t mean much at all for projections of minimum sea ice extent values, as the NSIDC discusses in this month’s report.

Antarctic Pictures and Graphs

Here is a satellite representation of Antarctic sea ice conditions from October 1, 2013:

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Figure 7UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20131001.

And here is the corresponding graphic from January 15th, 2014:

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Figure 8UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20140115.

The following graphic is a satellite representation of Antarctic ice as of April 2nd, 2014:

 photo Antarctic_sea_ice_20140401_zpsd15f0ddf.png

Figure 9UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20140402.

Antarctic sea ice clearly hit its minimum between mid-January and early April.  In fact, that date was likely six weeks ago.  Antarctic sea ice is forming again as austral fall is underway.  As in recent austral summers, the lack of sea ice around some locations in Figure 8 is related to melting land-based ice.  Likewise,  sea ice presence around other locations is a good indication that there is less land-based ice melt.  Figure 8 looks different from other January’s prior to 2012 and 2013.  Additionally, Antarctic weather in recent summers differed from previous years in that winds blew land-based ice onto the sea, especially east of the Antarctic Peninsula (jutting up towards South America), which replenished the sea ice that did melt.  The net effect of the these and other processes kept Antarctic sea ice at or above the 1979-2008 climatology’s positive 2nd standard deviation, as Figure 10 below shows.

Finally, here is the Antarctic sea ice extent time series through early April:

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Figure 10NSIDC Antarctic sea ice extent time series through early April 2014.

The fact that Arctic ice extent continues well below average while Antarctic ice extent continues well above average for the past couple of years works against climate activists who claim climate change is nothing but disaster and catastrophe.  A reasonable person without polar expertise likely looks at Figures 6 and 10 and says, “I don’t see evidence of catastrophe here.   I see something bad in one place and something good in another place.”  For people without the time or inclination to invest in the layered nuances of climate, most activists come off sounding out of touch.  If climate change really were as clearly devastating as activists screamed it was, wouldn’t it be obvious in all these pictures and plots?  Or, as I’ve commented at other places recently, do you really think people who are insecure about their jobs and savings even have the time for this kind of information?  I don’t have one family member or friend that regularly questions me about the state of the climate, despite knowing that’s what I research and keep tabs on.  Well actually, I do have one family member, but he is also a researcher and works in supercomputing.  Neither he nor I are what most people would consider “average Joes” on this topic.


Given the lack of climate policy development at a national or international level to date, Arctic conditions will likely continue to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.  This is especially true when you consider that climate effects today are largely due to greenhouse gas concentrations from 30 years ago.  It takes a long time for the additional radiative forcing to make its way through the entire climate system.  The Arctic Ocean will soak up additional energy (heat) from the Sun due to lack of reflective sea ice each summer.  Additional energy in the climate system creates cascading and nonlinear effects throughout the system.  For instance, excess energy pushes the Arctic Oscillation to a more negative phase, which allows anomalously cold air to pour south over Northern Hemisphere land masses while warm air moves over the Arctic during the winter.  This in turn impacts weather patterns throughout the year (witness winter 2013-14 weather stories) across the mid-latitudes and prevents rapid ice growth where we want it.

More worrisome for the long-term is the heat that impacts land-based ice.  As glaciers and ice sheets melt, sea-level rise occurs.  Beyond the increasing rate of sea-level rise due to thermal expansion (excess energy, see above), storms have more water to push onshore as they move along coastlines.  We can continue to react to these developments as we’ve mostly done so far and allocate billions of dollars in relief funds because of all the human infrastructure lining our coasts.  Or we can be proactive, minimize future global effects, and reduce societal costs.  The choice remains ours.


Here are my State of Polar Sea Ice posts from October and July 2013. For further comparison, here is my State of Polar Sea Ice post from late March 2013.