Megafaunal extinction, methane and monkeying with the climate

A paper in Nature Geoscience published early this month was much derided by the usual suspects in the pseudoskeptic community. Contrary to what many critics of “Methane emissions from extinct megafauna” claim, the research does not lead to the conclusion that humans are solely responsible for a global cooling event known as the Younger Dryas, which saw a brief reversal in the warming trend that brought the last ice age to an end. But it does remind us of just how interconnected are all the elements of the planetary ecosystem, and how dangerous it is to tinker with one of them.
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Quote of the month

“Climate change is an issue that is almost designed to create apathy …”

— Linda Connor, Science Alert, 20 May 2010

The writer argues that the rise of climate change denialism in the face of growing scientific evidence of serious consequences of climate change can be explained by looking at basic human psychology. Essentially, we’re talking about extrapolating psychology to the sociological sphere.
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More reading for a hot summer

This week’s Science has a lengthy review of a long list of recent books by and about climatologists. If you’re interested in doing some not-so-light reading this summer (in a year predicted to be the warmest on record), the review, which Science has made freely available, should steer you in the right direction. The reviewer, Columbia University philosopher Philip Kitcher, covers a lot of territory. He puts it all in perspective by pointing out that while many of the books try to convince readers of the simple truth of climate change, the sad truth is that:

Even if American public opinion were reformed overnight, so that virtually all citizens were convinced that anthropogenic global warming is likely to raise the average temperature of the planet by at least 2°C, that would be only the beginning….

In countries that have long taken anthropogenic climate change as a settled question, agreeing on the expected consequences and the appropriate response has not proved easy. American discussions are likely to be haunted by the long denial, so that suspicions about alarmism linger. As psychologists have repeatedly discovered, those who are misinformed and later corrected often lapse into versions of their original error.

Still, what are you going to do? Give up?


Back in the winter of 1990-91, when I was a between-real-jobs freelancer hanging out in Vancouver with plenty of time on my hands to read, I would cycle down to Stanley Park each rainless day, find a quiet stretch of beach, and read. I went through dozens of books before returning to the working world, but the only book I remember in any detail is Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. It was the first full-length, popular-science take on climate change, and I’ve spent much of the last 20 years thinking and writing about the subject, thanks to that book. So has McKibben.

eaarth is an oddly titled sequel of sorts. Climate change is just the backstory now. What was once looming on the horizon has become a present-day crisis that threatens to undermine the very fabric of civilization. That’s the starting point of McKibben’s latest stream-of-consciousness anti-fossil-fuel polemic. And I mean that in a good way.
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The trillionth tonne meme gets some traction

The first three of the “America’s Climate Choices” reports from a U.S. National Academy of Sciences committee restate the case that there is “strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that Earth is warming” and calls for the adoption of “an economy-wide carbon pricing system.” Not really Earth-shattering news, just climate-disrupting. What is worth drawing your attention to is the embrace of something akin to the “trillionth tonne” idea.
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Climate change math made simple

What’s being billed as the U.S. Senate’s last chance to pass a bill that deals with climate change, the American Power Act, aims for a now-familiar target: a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 83% by 2050. The idea is that if the developed world can manage to reach that goal, the global goal only has to be something like a 50% cut by mid century. As has been pointed out, this will not be easy.

The authors of a recent paper in PNAS call it “a forbidding challenge.” Why? It turns out the math and underlying science are much less forbidding. Allow me to take a stab at explaining it in hopes of shedding some light into the science that’s driving all the “alarmism.” I promise it’s not that difficult.
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Vote for Climate Crock

The good news is one of the best video sources of dispassionate, accurate, science-based information about climate change, Climate Denial Crock of the Week, is in the running for a $5,000 grant, over at Brighter Planet. The bad news is, it’s an Internet poll that determines who gets the cash, so being worthy isn’t enough. You can help put CCoTW over the top (it’s currently in second place), but signing up and voting. You even get three votes! So, for once, I can say: “Vote early, vote often,” and mean it.

[UPDATE: We did it.]

The fuss over the Photoshopped polar bear …

… is actually good news for those holding down the scientific fort.

Last week, Science published a letter from 255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences pleading for “an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues” in the climatology community. The letter laid bare (not bear) the scientific basis for the theory of anthropogenic climate change, a theory the authors said belongs in the same category as the theories of evolution and the Big Bang. So far so good. It was accompanied by a collage image of polar bear isolated on a single ice floe (at right), an image described as just that. But some took umbrage at its use, and it was replaced by a non-manipulated photograph (below right). No big deal, right?
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