Archive for the ‘climate’ category

Profiles In Courage

August 17, 2014

Republicans and global warming:

In stark contrast to their party’s public stance on Capitol Hill, many Republicans privately acknowledge the scientific consensus that human activity is at least partially responsible for climate change and recognize the need to address the problem.

However, they see little political benefit to speaking out on the issue…

Anthony Adragna, writing in Bloomberg BNA, points out that it’s not simply the lack of benefit that constains his sources.  Rather,

Most say the reluctance to publicly support efforts to address climate change has grown discernibly since the 2010 congressional elections, when Tea Party-backed candidates helped the Republican Party win control of the House, in part by targeting vulnerable Democrats for their support of legislation establishing a national emissions cap-and-trade system.

Ah, Brave Sir Robin GOP!

To give themselves cover, as Adragna notes, those who spoke to him came up with all kinds of alternative explanations for their reticence:

…the devastating impacts of the economic crisis, the low priority Americans place on addressing climate change and what Republicans say is overheated rhetoric from Democrats. Also playing a role in the reluctance to speak out is skepticism among Republican voters about federal government intervention and the increasing role of special interest money in elections.

That last one is sweet, isn’t it — that nasty “special interest” money.  I believe that special interest is spelled K.O.C.H. et al., but never mind.

And as for overheated rhetoric — well, I’m gearing up to do some separate posts about how all the climate news lately is worse than we thought, so for now, let me just leave you with this reminder of how badly, f**ked we may already be.

Bertin,_Nicolas_-_Phaéton_on_the_Chariot_of_Apollo_-_c._1720

Of course, no discussion of Republican failure to lead — or even engage — an issue would be complete without laying the blame where it clearly belongs:

“I do believe there is some resistance to come out publicly and say what’s happening here,” Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), who served in Congress from 1993 through 2011 and is now a partner at the law firm DLA Piper, told Bloomberg BNA. “One thing that would be helpful would be having a president who could articulate the issue well and who the Republicans have some confidence in.”

Yes, if only Barack Obama would stop presidenting while Black/Democrat, the Republican Party would leap into the breach.

To Adragna’s credit, he doesn’t let that claim go unchallenged — that Republicans who hold actual power, as opposed to those who are all ex- or former- somebodies, would actually be willing to take global warming seriously as soon as there’s a change at the White House:

[NRDC Action Fund spokesman David] Goldston said the Tea Party movement has swept many more deniers of climate change into Congress than ever before, and it has pushed Republicans away from basic environmental principles. He disagreed with others who said many Republicans privately acknowledge the risks of climate change, even if they don’t say so publicly.

“It’s very comforting for people to think that these people are pretending,” Goldston said. “It’s not true. The problem would be in many ways easier to solve if it was true.”

Read the whole thing.  Adragna tries to present the notion that Republicans as a party, as opposed to a handful of dissidents, actually do take this most serious of issues at all seriously.  He lets his sources make their best case…and the take-away is of a party that is in the hands of anti-science crackpots whom those who do know better are powerless to control  Which seems about right.

Oh, and when Mitch McConnel says that:

he [does] not believe in human-caused climate change.

“For everybody who thinks [the planet] is warming, I can find somebody who thinks it isn’t,” McConnell told the newspaper.

I say “shut your festering gob” you hopeless git.  For everyone who says you are any kind of a public servant, I can find someone who swears you enjoy the carnal knowledge of barnyard animals.

Image: Nicholas Bertin, Phaéton on the Chariot of Apollo, c. 1720.

The Fugue Playing Behind Obama’s Climate Speech — Or Swampland in Florida…

June 25, 2013

…is looking to be an even worse investment than legend would have it.

The Republican Party may not believe in global warming, but those realists with money on the line clearly do.  As reported by Alistair Gray and Pilita Clark in the Financial Times blog, Alphaville, it’s getting harder — and may soon become impossible — to insure areas vulnerable to sea level rise:

Parts of the UK and the US state of Florida were already facing “a risk environment that is uninsurable”, said the global insurance industry trade body, the Geneva Association.

That’s close to all I can quote from the piece under the FT’s copyright/use policies, but you get the idea.  This is at least part of the backdrop to President Obama’s (to me) very significant speech today.  Digging a little deeper into the report the FT cites [PDF], you can see why:

Recently, improved observational records and the increased length of reliable time series have provided new evidence of the degree of global ocean warming and the distribution of energy within the ocean (e.g. Levitus et al., 2012). A positive temperature trend in the ocean is now detectable and has already changed selected but relevant metrics for extreme events away from what we have observed in the past (e.g. Elsner, 2008)…

There is a significant upward trend in the insured losses caused by the extreme weather events discussed in Chapter 2. [Tropical cylones.; extra-tropical cyclones; convective storms]…This is true for primary insurance, which is impacted by an increasing attritional loss burden caused by severe local weather events, as well as for reinsurance losses caused by large scale catastrophic extreme events.*

Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_082

And the money quote:

The interplay between the potential of rising risk levels and insurance demand, but decreasing self-protection, could create a risk environment that is uninsurable in some regions (Herweijer et al., 2009). Examples for markets with this potential are U.K. flood or Florida wind storm insurance.

So, to sum up:  those with actual money on the line agree that (a) global warming is real; (b) that significant human and environmental  consequences are already in train; and that the way we live now — especially on the coasts — is not sustainable.

The report goes on to advocate coupling the ongoing provision of insurance to climate-risk-prone property be conditional on real climate-change mitigation efforts, which is to say, building the new infrastructure needed to protect coasts from the new normal.  In that vein. check out this look at what that might entail in a short film made by three of my students a little over a year ago:

So, GOP, et al.  Here’s the deal:  Don’t ask if you believe in climate change.  Wonder instead, does climate change believe in you?
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*This passage in the report goes on to say that “There is broad agreement among experts that this global trend in economic as well as insured losses from natural disasters is primarily driven by socio-economic factors…”  Translated, that seems to be making the argument I’ve heard (and advanced) since working on my book on climate change way back in the late 1980s.  That is:  there are natural events (like a hurricane) and human disasters, the losses incurred by what natural events do to the physical infrastructure and populations we’ve built up in the path of extreme natural processes.  Simpler: the cost and risk of climate change comes not simply from stronger or more frequent storms (or whatever) but because we’ve got so much more to lose along, say, the Florida coast than we did 50 or even 10 years ago.
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Image:  J. W. M. Turner, Snowstorm off the Harbor Entrance, 1842.

For a Good Time on the Intertubes — Today!

May 22, 2013

It’s that time of the month again — the third (usually) Wednesday, when I do my Virtually Speaking Science gig.

This afternoon at 6 p.m. eastern time I’ll be talking again to Naomi Oreskes, historian of science and co-author of Merchants of Doubt,an account of how a small(ish) cadre of cold-war scientists became hired guns for Big Tobacco and the anti-climate change brigade.

Naomi and I spoke in 2011 about the threats posed by the spread of “scientistic” argument — the use of a science-like language, couched in the rhetoric of disinterested skepticism, to obscure critical knowledge for public audiences.

Well, flash forward a year and a half, and we come to an America in which we have experienced years of devastating drought, superstorm Sandy, this week’s tornado, and the breaching of the 400 ppm atmospheric carbon threshold, and it’s time to talk again about the cost of denialism and the misuse of perceived authority by our still-thriving doubt peddlars.

Brueghel,_Pieter_I_-_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Sea_of_Galilee_-_1596

The tornado provides a great touchstone in fact — as Naomi and I have been emailing back and forth on the question.  What’s happening is that there is a growing body of increasingly firm research on the impact of climate change on all kinds of circumstances.  Changing and possibly deepening patterns of drought are pretty clearly on the table.  A boost in the number of severe hurricanes too.  Significant ice melt and sea level rise too. But what will happen to tornado patterns as climate change proceeds is still unclear.  So what to make of that lacuna?

Here’s my take (not to put any words in Naomi’s mouth):  If you are a rational person, you say we need more research on that particular concern, but the broad pattern is clear:  human-driven climate change is in progress and it is causing a host of changes that directly conflict with the way we’ve rely on our built environment and on all the things we do (grow cereals in the midwest, e.g.) needed to keep our societies going.  And we’ll get back to you on the twisters, asking you to bear this thought in mind:  if you are a betting person, how much do you want to wager on the possibility that increasing the amount of heat trapped in the lower atmosphere won’t kick up some extra nasty storms?

We won’t confine ourselves to climate and the weather, by the way.  Merchants of Doubt has given me a frame for looking at a lot of news, and I see the same desire to conceal useful knowledge the doubtists serve in the somewhat different technique of simply blocking research that might be used to produce inconvenient truths.  See, e.g. the NRA – led ban on research on gun violence and the  the recent Republican proposal to forbid the US Census from doing anything but a decennial count, thus eliminating, among other things, our ability to measure unemployment.

So come on down.  Listen live or later here.  Y’all can head over to the Exploratorium’s Second Life stage as well if you do that virtual world thing.

Image:  Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, c. 1596.

For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes Boing Boing Edition/Self Aggrandizement Alert

September 19, 2012

Late in getting this note up, but at 5 p.m. EDT this afternoon — less than an hour from now — I’ll be talking with Maggie Koerth-Baker on my monthly gig at Virtually Speaking Science.  That link takes you to the audio stream (and later the podcast, also available on iTunes) and this one will bring you to the spot in Second Life where you can heckle us in the “live”(ish) studio audience.

Maggie, as many of you may know, is the science editor at Boing Boing, and hence the ringleader and major producer of much that is wonderful in web-based science news, analysis and the odd oddity as well. She’s also just started a gig as a monthly technology-and-its-culture columnist for the New York Times Magazine. Her first column picked up on a subject near and dear to this blog’s community — what makes it possible for facts to matter in a political conversation.

We’ll spend part of the hour talking about her next column, on the concept of technological momentum, or why some seemingly great ideas do or don’t make it in the real world.  We may also get to some of the issues in science writing on the web raised by some of the troubling events of the last few months — think Jonah Lehrer, for one example, and the hype that overwhelmed much of the real science in the ENCODE story for another.  But the major topic will be energy, drawing on Maggie’s  wonderful book from earlier this year, Before the Lights Go Out — which is simply the sanest popular work on energy and paths to a non-disastrous future that  I’ve seen in many months of Sundays.

I’ll leave it there to give this post a chance to catch eyeballs before we go live.  Stop by if you’ve inclination and a moment.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, Vegetable gardens and the Moulin de Blute-Fin on Montmartre, 1887.

May 16, 2012

Picture the scene:  two elderly Jewish men on a bench, in early ’30s Berlin. One is staring, astonished, at the other, who has just unfolded a copy of Julius Streicher‘s Der Stürmer — the notorious, viciously anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper.

“Why are you reading that trash?” asked the first man.

“It makes me feel good!” answered his old friend.

“Good? — That rag! All it says is how terrible the Jews are.”

“Exactly! Whenever I have a bad day, when I can’t sleep, when I’m unsure…I just pick up my newspaper,” the second man said.  “I reach for my newspaper and read  how the Jews  control the banks, the press, everything!”

He added, “I never knew we had such power!”

Now imagine we’re talking climate scientists, and think of the sustained attack on the individuals  in and the intellectual apparatus of the study of anthropogenic global warming from the organized right, the GOP, and the vast wealth of the herd of  Kochs and Scaifes and all their ilk.

We learn in the climate denialist community how climate scientists have somehow managed to organize a vast international, multi-decade conspiracy to foist the fraud of climate change on an unsuspecting public and their governments.

They’ve done so with no defections from the ranks, and for rewards that are either   corrupt  — all those vast stacks of ducats that accrue to those who count tree-rings — or mere religious delusion, that dolatrous worship of Mother Earth.

Who knew?  Who could have guessed that mild-mannered atmospheric physicists, ice dynamicists, solar physicists and all the rest were so well organized, and had such power as to be able to perpetrate a deception unprecedented in the history of human knowledge.

All of which is to say that in less than an hour, at 5 p.m. EDT, you can listen to a conversation* I’m going to have with Michael E. Mann, lead author on the now famous “hockey stick” papers, about what we know, what we need to investigate, and what it’s like to face the full career-and-reputation threatening wrath of the anti-science forces in our polity.  We’ll also discuss what we can do to shift the balance of the debate, and perhaps the policy with which the US confronts climate change.  Michael is more optimistic than I am, and I’m going to try to find out why.

*That’s the link for the podcast later, too.

Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Conspiracy of the Batavians, 1661-1662

 

Further to the recent Dog Bites Man Headlines on AGW

October 27, 2011

Via Christopher Mims at Grist, Gavin Schmidt does a victory dance on the heads of those who thought a “real” scientist would sort out all that climate change nonsense:

Anybody expecting earthshaking news from Berkeley, now that the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature group being led by Richard Muller has released its results, had to be content with a barely perceptible quiver. As far as the basic science goes, the results could not have been less surprising if the press release had said “Man Finds Sun Rises At Dawn.” This must have been something of a disappointment for anyone hoping for something else.

For those not familiar with it, the purpose of Berkeley Earth was to create a new, independent compilation and assessment of global land surface temperature trends using new statistical methods and a wider range of source data. Expectations that the work would put teeth in accusations against CRU and GISTEMP led to a lot of early press, and an invitation to Muller to testify before Congress. However, the big news this week (e.g. this article by the BBC’s Richard Black) is that there is no discernible difference between the new results and those of CRU.

Of course, there was no real surprise about any of this — especially not for those who’ve been paying attention to climate science for the last several decades.  It was most notable, perhaps, for the  commendable bluntness with which Muller acknowledged the error of his own prior belief, that mainstream climate scientists may have fallen prey to unexamined bias, perhaps, or maybe much worse.

Instead, he found every major study got the basic picture of anthropogenic global warming correct.  He said so, and acknowledged the need to correct his prior belief.

That said, it is worth noting that Schmidt does not give Muller a complete pass.  He points out, fairly IMHO, the bumptious hubris with which Muller launched into his project — and then he pointed out what is to my mind the key idea in all of this.  Global warming is a focus of concern not because of any one set of temperature measurements or another, but because the underlying theory provides the framework with which to interpret the data that so many have labored so long to acquire:

In a talk at AGU last Fall, Naomi Oreskes criticized the climate science community for being reluctant to take credit for their many successful predictions, so here we are shouting it from the rooftops: The warming trend is something that climate physicists saw coming many decades before it was observed. The reason for interest in the details of the observed trend is to get a better idea of the things we don’t know the magnitude of (e.g. cloud feedbacks), not as a test of the basic theory. If we didn’t know about the CO2-climate connection from physics, then no observation of a warming trend, however accurate, would by itself tell us that anthropogenic global warming is “real,” or (more importantly) that it is going to persist and probably increase.

Give Schmidt and the broad community of climate researchers their due:  it must be unbelievably galling to see “last honest man” praise heaped on some bumptious newcomer who’s signal contribution to the field is to discover that perhaps the objects of his suspicion actually knew what they were doing.  At the same time, such high profile crow fressing is itself praise, deserved and, I hope, gratifying.

The predictable footnote to this clear success of scientific practice (a good result, even if, as Schmidt correctly points out, one that’s much less significant scientifically than politically) is that it seems to have made not a dent in the professional denialist’s carapace.  Again, no surprise here, just a reminder of how much work is to be done to get the US (and elsewhere) back into the business of taking expert knowledge seriously.

Image: Gioachino Assereto, Isaac Blessing Jacob, c. 1640.

Hot Stuff

June 16, 2011

Over in Australia, where the plague of special interest enmeshed AGW “truthers” has been just as bad, if not worse than the miserable corps we have here,* an impressive cross section of the Oz scientific community is actually making some noise.

At a new website (still in beta) called The Conversation, set up to be a unfiltered source of news and analysis from the Australian academic community, a group of Australian climate scientists are trying to do to climate “skeptics” (aka buffoons and/or grifters) what Bruins forward Brad Marchand did to  Daniel Sedin’s chin in Game Six.  In an open letter announcing the start of two weeks worth of demonstration that climate change is real, due to human activity, and amenable to certain kinds of action within our power if not our grasp.  They write:

The overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that human greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in climate changes that cannot be explained by natural causes.

Climate change is real, we are causing it, and it is happening right now.

 

Bam! Short, simple, clear and true.

They name and shame:

…Understandable economic insecurity and fear of radical change have been exploited by ideologues and vested interests to whip up ill-informed, populist rage, and climate scientists have become the punching bag of shock jocks and tabloid scribes.

Aided by a pervasive media culture that often considers peer-reviewed scientific evidence to be in need of “balance” by internet bloggers, this has enabled so-called “sceptics” to find a captive audience while largely escaping scrutiny.

Australians have been exposed to a phony public debate which is not remotely reflected in the scientific literature and community of experts.

And they make a promise:

For the next two weeks, our series of daily analyses will show how they can side-step the scientific literature and how they subvert normal peer review. They invariably ignore clear refutations of their arguments and continue to promote demonstrably false critiques.

We will show that “sceptics” often show little regard for truth and the critical procedures of the ethical conduct of science on which real skepticism is based.

And they’ve begun.  You can check out the series here.

Now, while I was born at night, it wasn’t last night, so I know that even sharply argued rational discourse won’t make a difference to the professional skeptics.  They’re in it for the money, and for the warm and fuzzies that come with comforting the comfortable.

The real targets of this kind of effort are the media, and through them, the mushy middle currently being persuaded by false information disseminated within a fake debate.

Anne Laurie wrote yesterday on the problem with that ambition:  that too many, in the US at least, have now crossed the line into territory where belief in the great secular-scientific conspiracy on AGW has entered the realm of religious commitment, of identity.  That’s territory in which argument has little or no pull; once it becomes a condition of one’s world view to affirm something false…counterarguments aren’t even heard.

She (and Tom Junod, who wrote the inciting essay at Esquire) may well be right.  But the triumph of (bad) faith over works in this field is recent, and not yet universal.

The long road back begins with both hard fact and sound reasoning, relayed over and over again — and the repetition, just as loud, just as often, of the counter meme, that those lying about global warming are doing so to line their own and their patrons pockets.

“Follow the money” ain’t dignified (or original).  But everyone, including true believers, understand what it means.

So, good on ya, my Aussie kin.  Let’s have more of this, and over here.

*For more on that point, let me puff a book I’ve touted before, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.  They document how telling the “science can’t be sure/it’s just a theory” meme is a profitable business of long standing — if you have the conscience of a goat with IBS

Image:  J. M. W. Turner, The Angel, Standing in the Sun, 1846.