Worrying about the near term

Much is being made of a new paper in Nature Geoscience in which the authors recalculate “Emission budgets and pathways consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 °C.” Whether the authors are justified in their marginally optimistic conclusions — and there’s plenty of debate about that — there really isn’t much in the way of policy guidance here. Just look at this money quote in Nature:

“The Paris goal of 1.5 °C is not impossible — it’s just very, very difficult,” says lead author Richard Millar, a climate researcher at the University of Oxford, UK.

Or as Millar and his colleagues put in in their abstract:

Hence, limiting warming to 1.5°C is not yet a geophysical impossibility, but is likely to require delivery on strengthened pledges for 2030 followed by challengingly deep and rapid mitigation.

Yes, well. Ahem. “Challengingly deep” isn’t exactly cause for breaking out the champagne, now, is it? But there is a policy lesson hiding elsewhere in this paper, regardless of just how mind-bendingly difficult it will be to keep temperatures and sea-level rise to manageable levels.  What Millar et al. did was delve into the tricky world of short-term climate projections, which rely a heck of a lot on economic and technology factors.

The Nature story addresses the problem at the end.

Uncertainty about the details of humanity’s carbon budget don’t matter so much when scientists are modelling the cumulative effect of greenhouse gases over the course of centuries. But fine details matter a great deal when researchers are looking at what level of greenhouse-gas emissions would bump warming to 1.5 °C, because, in that case, scientists’ goal is to tease out the precise effects of heat-trapping gases over a few decades.

“When we start thinking about really ambitious mitigation goals in the really near term, everything starts to matter,” Millar says.

Consider that last line for a second. “Everything starts to matter.” That would include factors like short-lived radiative forcing elements such as fugitive methane emissions. Plenty of climatologists who focus on long-term modeling tend to pooh-pooh the influence of the methane that escapes into the atmosphere before it’s turned into CO2 in gas-fired power plants. And that makes sense because methane turns into CO2 in a matter of a few decades, so why worry about it? It’s how countries like the US and the UK can claim to have reduced carbon footprints by converting from coal to natural gas.

But in the near-term, say 20 years, methane is 86 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2, so it has a massive potential impact, if only briefly, and even if only a small fraction of the natural gas leaks out from the wells and pipes. Indeed, those lower emission rates from switching to natural gas, while reducing CO2 levels, may actually increase total carbon emissions, in the near-term.

So if what you care about is what happens in the near-term, then natural gas and everything else really does matter. And what happens if the climate forcing resulting from briefly elevated methane emissions is enough to trigger positive feedback loop of carbon release from the permafrost or ocean depths? What are the implications for the expected need for carbon-drawdown technologies once we’ve peaked emissions, but end up with atmospheric carbon levels that are way too high? These are not esoteric questions.

Besides, from a political point of view, near-term effects are far more powerful motivators of policy-making than is the specter of a miserable world 100 years from now. Why not take advantage of this new understanding that “everything matters” and run with it?




The data gap problem

“The monitoring of the atmosphere, of the surface of the Earth, of what’s going on in the ocean and under the ice — all of that is overwhelmingly funded by the federal government.”

— Former Obama science adviser John Holdren

The other day a friend of mine who works in Beijing as a foreign correspondent suggested that of all the acts of stupidity committed by Donald Trump since assuming office, the thing that bothers him the least is the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement. Haven’t we actually moved beyond relying on government to reduce carbon emissions? he asked. Isn’t the private sector basically doing that for us?

This is a common observation. And he wasn’t just speaking from the position of someone who’s paid to pay attention to what China is doing. A few months ago, you could read all sorts of exhortations about the apparent, or at least impending, decoupling of carbon emissions and economic growth rates. Such predictions are practically a growth industry themselves. And it’s true so far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. Yes, wind and solar power are rapidly becoming economic options. But we haven’t been able to record a significant global decoupling, and nothing like that for any meaningful length of time. Even if it does come about, we still have to worry about the climate madness that’s already been baked into the system by the last 200 years of emissions.

The more troubling part of this idea is that it leads to complacency about the public sector’s role in dealing with climate disruption. To do that we need data. Lots of it. And this is why we should be worried about Trump and his allies, Paris or not.

The New York Times‘ Jon Gertner explores what might happen if and when some of the current crop of Earth-0bservation satellites fall out of the sky and aren’t replaced. His magazine piece, “What Could We Lose if a NASA Climate Mission Goes Dark?,” focuses on a pair of aging satellites that are the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE. At the beginning of this month, they were falling 250 feet a day. And when they burn up, as they will within months, there goes a massive amount of important data that climate analysts — including the people who are building Climate City here in Asheville, N.C. — need to be able to tell their clients how to anticipate the ecological changes that warming the world is already bringing.

… if Grace goes dark or perishes before then, there will be a break in NASA’s continuous observation of Earth’s gravity field and water dynamics. Climate researchers will be confronted with what’s known as a “data gap,” which can leave them at a loss for drawing scientific conclusions about environmental trends.

Replacements are getting ready, but they won’t be launched until sometime next year. Hence the data gap. And if the Trumpistas get their way, this sort of thing is going to become a new normal. As Gertner points out, “the recent Trump budget proposal … made the unusual request of turning off the Earth sensors on an orbiting spacecraft, Dscovr, to save $1.2 million.”

This kind of data-gathering is exactly what the private sector can’t do, nor should it. Elon Musk, for all his accomplishments and his desire to save the planet, isn’t interested in doing science experiments. He just wants to help governments carrying out that part of the plan. For one thing, scientists are terrible at predicting how useful their data will turn out to be, and how it will be applied. Corporations are loathe to take stabs in the dark. And then there’s the cost. Satellites are expensive and by their very nature, operate in a global context. Only governments — and international collaborations of governments — can afford to engage in these types of ventures. And there are other incompatibilities, as Gertner describes:

Private-sector satellite companies have in recent years been expanding the business of collecting and selling Earth observational data, but it’s very unlikely that such firms (or a group of tech philanthropists) could adequately replace NASA’s work. “These are projects that are too expensive or require a large and diverse group of collaborators that can only be assembled as an international project,” said Rush Holt, a former Democratic congressman who is now the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Or this is work that has to be sustained for a longer period of time than any board of directors from a private company would consider, because it’s not clear enough that it would produce a return on investment in anyone’s lifetime.”

Another problem that occurs to me is the potential conflict between private and public interests. What happens if a firm that gathered some very useful datasets decides, for whatever reason, not to share them with the scientific community? Some things should never be kept secret.

So the next time you hear the claim that the free market will take care of climate change, the best response might be: Yeah, it’s great that business is finally getting on board. But business can’t do it alone, and in fact, without the active and aggressive participation of government, we’re not going to be able to handle existing climate trends, let alone what’s coming down the pipeline if we don’t get those same businesses to stop burning fossil fuels.

Scare tactics: merits and lack thereof

In what New York Magazine is calling the most-read article in the publication’s history,   writes about what will happen if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels soon. In a nutshell: the climate “will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us.”

This has made more than a few climatologists rather cross. The argument is that because “The Uninhabitable Earth” focuses on an unlikely worst-case scenario, and therefore might needless scare the public into inaction.

There are a few questionable statements regarding the science of climate change. You can see them in the annotated version, to which I’ve linked above, and in commentaries by the likes of Michael Mann, whose credentials are impeccable on these matters. But not that many mistakes. Indeed, if you look at a Climate Feedback‘s comprehensive scientific review of the whole thing (which is thousands of words long), Wallace-Wells does rather well for someone who hasn’t written much about climate change until now. So the real question about the wisdom of running the piece isn’t “Does it fairly describe the science?” but “Should we really be telling people how bad things might get?”

First, it helps to know that Wallace-Wells bent over backward to ensure readers were under no illusions about what the feature is all about:

What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.

The emphasis is mine, because it’s important. Wallace-Wells knows we’re not going to do nothing about global warming. But he and his editors at New York agreed that is fair to talk about the consequences of business as usual, even if that business is evolving rapidly (though probably not fast enough).

David Roberts of Vox comes down on the side of those who believe we shouldn’t be hiding the truth, even if it is scary. “Did that New York magazine climate story freak you out? Good” is his response to the responses.

Over my 407 years in the climate-o-sphere, I’ve cycled through just about every school of thought on the right way to communicate climate change. What I’ve come to believe is that on this, as on most matters, nobody really knows anything. Even if there are accurate statements about how people in general respond to messages in general, they won’t tell you much about how you ought to communicate with the people you want to reach.

Here’s the thing about science communication theory: it’s complicated. I’ve been writing about greenhouse gas emissions and sinks for 30 calendar years now (longer even than Roberts’ hyperbolic 407) and the one thing everyone in this field can agree on is that we really have no clue about best practices.

For a while back in the early days of blogging, “framing” was the buzzword. But it turned out that that means either a) unethically spinning your message to make it more palatable to a given reader/listener/viewer or b) just using conventional hooks that journalists have been using all along. Then Al Gore came along with his famous/notorious Keynote presentations (as an Apple board member he wasn’t going to use PowerPoint), and talked about a “hope budget” so his army of presenters didn’t depress their audiences.

Do scare tactics spur populations to action, or do they paralyze? Obviously, it depends on the issue. Fear about overbearing government regulators seems to work pretty well in mobilizing gun owners to get out and vote, if recent history is any guide. And did all those pictures of mushroom clouds not lead to citizen movements that in turn led to nuclear disarmament treaties? And Wallace-Wells has another ally from an surprising source: Tech writer Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times points out that all the craziness about the Y2K bug 17 years ago was probably warranted, because it actually led to solutions for what would have been a nightmare scenario for anyone who uses a computer.

On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine situations in which, if you just tell people how bad things are but don’t give them the tools to do something about the threat, you’re probably only going to make matters worse. Cyncism is not a good thing for civilization to embrace.

The problem is climate change is a threat without precedent. Although some of the damage can already be seen — just ask residents of Vanuatu and other island states that are losing significant land mass to sea level rise at this moment — most of the really bad stuff is a generation or two removed from our here-and-now brains. We’ve never really faced this kind of challenge before, and so have no way to know what will and won’t work when it comes to getting people to care enough to change not just a few lightbulbs, but their choice of candidates for public office. Maybe fear will do the trick. Maybe we should emphasize the fact that just about every other facet of life will benefit from a low-carbon economy.

Every strategy is well represented in the climate communications business today. It’s no longer the purview of volunteer and semi-pro bloggers, but involves Pulitzer-winning websites and well-rounded teams at established national newspapers. The industry exists because everyone knows that most scientists aren’t very good at communicating their work themselves, and (with rare exceptions like Michael Mann) need the help of professionals dedicated and trained in the subject, which just happens to be the biggest public policy challenge of our time.

So when you read about scientists taking umbrage at the notion of discussing in public what business as usual means for the planet, first ask yourself one question. If even professional communicators can’t agree on whether scare tactics are wise, how likely is it that introverted lab rats with no communications background will have a deeper insight into a fundamental question about human cognition and behavior?

I still wish Wallace-Wells had treated a couple of items differently. This is why I think magazines like New York should not assign climate change stories to those without a science background. But I don’t think he was wrong to write “no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.” My experience working alongside scientists who study things like climate change and other environmental problems makes it clear to me that they are by and large a conservative sort who loathe to be saddled with the label of alarmist, as the deniers are wont to call them. They prefer to couch their published predictions in cautious, moderate language. It’s only when you get them alone and off the record that they’ll admit how bleak things really are.

Maybe that’s the way science should be. But every now and then we need to hear the unvarnished truth.



Making the A.I.-Climate connection

Anyone asked to identify the two biggest forces for change in the world today could do worse than choose artificial intelligence and climate change. Both are products of technology whose effects are only beginning to be felt, and the ultimate consequences of both will almost certainly be transformative in every sense of the word. Other than that, there hasn’t been much tying them together. Until now.

Welcome to Climate City, a label that a group of current and former data analysts and entrepreneurs has applied to Asheville, N.C. It might seem an unlikely spot for revolutionary thinking on such matters. We are, after all, nestled in Appalachia’s Blue Ridge Mountains in a state that seems hell-bent on taking the prize for most backward in the nation.

But Asheville is home to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the primary clearing house and analysis lab for the country’s — and increasingly much of the rest of the planet’s — climate data. It’s part of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and until a couple of years ago had the less obfuscatory name of National Climatic Data Center. (Although the name was changed a couple of years ago, before Trump took office, I’m guessing NOAA brass realized that a less inviting target made sense given the science-denying, research-defunding druthers of the party that was and still is ostensiby running Congress.) A few hundred climate scientists work at the NCEI and a handful of other local university and government agencies that are still allowed to care about the climate.

James McMahon
James McMahon

So, to one familiar with the scientific culture of Asheville, it only makes sense that it would be the right coop to hatch the idea of marrying AI and climatology. And hatched it has been, by James McMahon, who for the last year has been the CEO of a unlikely non-profit called The Collider. The year-old organization offers physical space and social networking links to anyone who wants to be part of what is known as the embryonic “climate services” community. Friday morning meet-and-greets over coffee and pastries supplied by local bakeries are becoming a popular networking opportunity. This past week it played host to the annual meeting of the American Association of State Climatologists. (Who knew?)

Collider logoA proper definition of “climate services” is still a work in progress, but basically it refers to the provision of scientific advice and number-crunching for the benefit of private and public entities that need to worry about the effects of a changing climate. Think the city of Miami Beach, which is facing serious threats from sea-level rise. Think of any large corporation with physical assets. Think most of all about insurance companies. They all need people to tell them what to expect and when to expect it. What we have here is an emerging industry that, instead of just figuring how to forestall climate change, is using its expertise to profit from it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even climate scientists are entitled for make a buck.

McMahon, a former atmospheric chemist who worked on ozone depletion back in the day, has spent the last year watching, and helping, some of the smartest people navigate the high-tech consultancy start-up maze. More than a couple of senior scientists at NCEI have taken early retirement to pursue this path, and he’s decided to follow suit, after only a year as Collider chief.

His new company will draw on Silicon Valley brainpower and target Wall Street money in an effort to apply artificially intelligent systems to the problems posed by climate change. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and just waiting for the market to be ready,” he told the Collider gang on his last day at the office. “It’s not, but I am.”

Kudos. I’m no expert in the subject, and have no idea if the plan merits investment. But anticipating what to expect and when to expect it is exactly what AI is all about. And humans haven’t exactly been doing all that great when it comes to solving the climate crisis. Maybe AI will be our salvation? “It will if I have anything to do about it,” McMahon told me while enjoying a slice of the cake served in his honor.

One could argue that humans have already come up with perfectly good solutions. The price of solar and wind power continues to plummet. Economic growth has mostly been decoupled from carbon emissions. And check out those Teslas. Isn’t the real obstacle political and corporate inertia? Yes. But maybe AI could help there, too. Indeed, maybe one of the hallmarks of genuine AI is how well it can be applied to socio-economic challenges.

Walking and chewing gum at the same time

Nature Climate Change has wandered into political science with a study from Stanford University. Seth Werfel’s examination of the “crowding-out” effect — the idea that humans have a tough time pursuing more than one strategy to solve a problem — is worth considering, even if its finding aren’t exactly earth-shattering.

The problem is laid out right off the top and requires no further explanation:

Household actions and government policies are both necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, household behaviour may crowd out public support for government action by creating the perception of sufficient progress. … Further evidence suggests that the crowding-out effect may have been driven by an increase in the perceived importance of individual actions relative to government regulation and a decrease in the perceived issue importance of energy and environmental sustainability.

The results of the study’s survey, which involved 14,000 Japanese living in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, show only a “marginal” effect, and some of the confidence intervals are pretty wide. But the conclusion is yes, people do tend to ease up on making political demands after they’ve taken a few steps to address the problem at home. No surprise there.

It may seem a bit trite. Activists are forever bemoaning the apparent inability of the citizenry to walk and chew gum at the same time. “You want me to buy new light bulbs (again!) AND call my congressman?” As Werfel summed up existing thinking among social theorists:

When people consider progress on a single sub-goal, additional actions toward achieving a superordinate goal are less likely to be pursued unless prior actions establish commitmentoward that goal.

But a couple of days after I came across the study, a piece in Slate magazine on a seemingly unrelated subject but with a similar theme got me thinking. In “Swim Lessons Won’t Keep Your Toddler From Drowning,” Melinda Wenner Moyer argues that too many parents treat swim lessons as sufficient when it comes to their responsibility for making sure their kids don’t drown. Instead of choosing supervision and lessons, they choose the latter alone and then return to their Instagram accounts. This despite the fact that drowning remains the leading cause of death from injuries among children between 1 and 4 years old.

The American Red Cross states that “the best thing you can do to help your family stay safe is to enroll in age-appropriate swim lessons,” which it starts offering at the tender age of 6 months. Yet the statistics are clear: Swim skills are simply not enough. Two-thirds of kids who drown, believe it or not, are excellent swimmers.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. Also playing a role is the tendency of many swim instructors to focus on technique and comfort levels instead of survival. The classes I took four decades ago were all big on staying alive (and I am happy to report that my offspring’s instructors this summer are still big on it), but apparently it’s not as top-of-mind as it used to be in all corners of the pool. It is another example, and one with even better stats to support it,  of a mindset that doesn’t allow for complexity. There’s no doubt that the crowding-out effect is real.

So what do we do about this latest addition to the long list of psychological obstacles (motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, plain old laziness, etc.) to getting people to care enough about anthropogenic climate trends? For me, it all goes back to the same place: People have to be taught to be critical thinkers in a democratic society. I know, I know. We don’t have time for pedagogical reform. Not when we have to get our carbon emissions down to zero two or three decades. But there’s no reason not to harp away at the idea that it is possible to act on parallel strategies simultaneously.

Meanwhile, if people are going to be intellectually lazy, then we can at least try to ease their stress by being more selective about what we ask them to worry about. We need to pay more attention to those things that pose real risks and stop fretting about every imagined catastrophe. When it comes to our kids,

When it comes to our kids, unsupervised play about the water’s edge is relatively hazardous. Unsupervised fort-building in the woods, not so much. We can apply the same thinking to environmental messaging. We all need to be responsible for our carbon footprints and we need to keep our members of Congress aware that we know how much of their campaign war chests is sourced from the fossil-fuel lobby. But maybe we don’t need to worry so much about nuclear reactors.

Peter Gleick’s alleged crime

Another day, another distraction from the real issue at hand. Yes, a hitherto respectable member of the climate science community, MacArthur fellow, and all-round good guy has admitted appropriating someone’s identity to obtain private records of a climate-denial think tank. Was this wrong? Yes, although no more so than was the ostensible betrayal of trust on the part of a long list of whistleblowers. Daniel Ellsberg comes to mind. And he is now remembered as “an icon of truth-telling.”

As much as I hate to admit it, the most cogent commentary on the matter so far arrived in the form of a tweet, from Naomi Klein:

And what about the fact the Heartland Institute impersonates a scientific organization every day?

Does this matter have anything at all to do with the science of our changing climate? No. And I can’t think of any else of use I can contribute to the discussion. Plenty of others have more thoughtful things to say. Greg Laden is a good place to start.

The Heart(land) of the Denial Campaign

Someone has leaked a treasure trove of insider documents from the Heartland Institute, which until now has been a major source of climate change obfuscation in the U.S. There’s plenty of illuminating information to chew on, including detailed budgets and an IRS 990 form. Shades of “climategate” reversed?

Much is being made of one line from a strategy document, a line that could easily be the result of sloppy editing, or at perhaps a Freudian slip. Or maybe not. Here’s the entire paragraph, with the offending phrase in bold:

Development of our “Global Warming Curriculum for K-12 Classrooms” project.

Principals and teachers are heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective. To counter this we are considering launching an effort to develop alternative materials for K-12 classrooms. We are pursuing a proposal from Dr. David Wojick to produce a global warming curriculum for K-12 schools. Dr. Wojick is a consultant with the Office of Scientific and Technical Information at the U.S. Department of Energy in the area of information and communication science. His effort will focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science. We tentatively plan to pay Dr. Wojick $100,000 for 20 modules in 2012, with funding pledged by the Anonymous Donor.

It is possible, in my opinion, that the author meant to write “dissuading teachers from teaching climate science” or something similar. That would make sense from the point of view of those of us who believe our students should actually know something about science.

On the other hand, the context is critical here and it could very well be that the phrase means exactly what it says. Again:

His effort will focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.

This could mean that the author recognizes that teachers, especially of younger students, are wary of teaching any scientific subject that comes with political baggage. The obvious examples are evolution and climatology. So the plan is for the Heartland curriculum to draw attention to the controversial nature of climate science in hopes that teachers would then give it a miss, not to actually dissuade teachers from teaching science in general.

This is still a disingenuous, dishonest and an entirely despicable thing to do. But I, for one, do not want to be accused of taking anything out of context. That’s more the Heartland Institute’s style.

UPDATE: Heartland claims that “at least” one of the leaked documents is false. But considering that there is nothing in any of the documents that is inconsistent with what we already knew about the Institute, it seems reasonable to remain skeptical about the denial. After all, denying is what the Heartland folks do best.

If you’re reading the Wall Street Journal, you’re part of the problem

For reasons that can only reflect poorly on the paper, the Wall Street Journal recently decided it was a good idea to publish an op-ed that recycled some the of the most soundly discredited notions associated with the climate change denial movement. The piece was signed by 16 ostensible “scientists,” though only four have any experience with climatology, and even they work on the extreme fringes of respectable research.

The same editors refused to publish a letter from a longer list of actual climatologists, a letter that does reflect the science of the day and one that the journal Science did see fit to publish.

The WSJ’s “travesty” of an editorial decision continues to reverberate around the blogosphere almost two weeks later. Here’s a roundup of the response, which has been summarized thusly:

… flaring anti-science syndrome suffering climate denier and delayer inanities often divert people from valuable and productive activities. Prominent eruptions of this malady, however, drive white-cell like effort to respond and dampen the damage…

Calling it like it is

Two examples of why blogs are better than mainstream news coverage, when it comes to confronting reality and doing something about it, one from the climate wars, one from the front lines of women’s health.

First, Andy Revkin, a former New York Times journalist who still blogs there. He calls out a coal-industry-backed attempt to silence one of the world’s leading climatologists as the “Shameful Attack on Free Speech” that it is. By launching a Facebook campaign to convince Pennsylvania State University to cancel a scheduled talk by Michael Mann, the coal interests have indeed shamed themselves.

Andy adds:

Antidemocratic, hateful, and coal-backed smear campaign against a scientist I’ve sometimes disagreed with but who has every right to state his case at Penn State or anywhere else.

A few hours after Andy’s post, the Fb page disappeared. Penn State is sticking to its guns, too. Score one for the good guys.

Continue reading “Calling it like it is”

Tea Party shenanigans

As if you needed another reason to lament the state of American politics:

Across the country, activists with ties to the Tea Party are railing against all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities. (New York Times, Feb 3, 2012)

The story ends on what would be a humorous note:

“The Tea Party people say they want nonpolluted air and clean water and everything we promote and support, but they also say it’s a communist movement,” said Charlotte Moore, a supervisor who voted yes. “I really don’t understand what they want.”