The lukewarmer fallacy

From the Idiot Tracker comes this pearl of wisdom:

One of my least favorite lukewarmer fallacies is the concept of “no regrets” policies — that we should push ahead with policies that can be sold to the right wing as energy independence or job creation or whatever appeals to those in denial of the science. This is an asinine idea. Climate change is real. You don’t get to smart policy by agreeing to disagree on critical scientific facts pertaining to the future of human civilization. Here’s the truth; aggressive emissions cuts are the true no-regrets strategy. Uncertainty in climate change lies between bad and worse. The benefits range from saving trillions of dollars and millions of lives, on the low side, to averting planetary catastrophe.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. I know there’s a sizable community out there who disagrees strongly with this position. They argue the only way to make progress on the climate front is to frame the issue in terms that are palatable to the hard right. Over and over again we hear that we just have to package our case better, appeal to our opponents using language they can understand, and then we can turn this mighty ship of state.

To that I respond that we’ve been trying that for years. Those who have campaigning on the front lines, not just writing op-eds and playing armchair quarterback, know this. It doesn’t work. Just look at the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls.

Republicans with cooler heads

Barring a miraculous revival of the fortunes of Jon Huntsman, Republicans this year will, for the first time, elect a presidential nominee who does not believe that humans are responsible for global warming. How did things get this bad?

The Climate Desk team found a few of the last Republicans among the party’s leadership who break with this new orthodoxy and spliced their heresies together in this video.

Continue reading “Republicans with cooler heads”

Is Rajendra Pachauri making things worse?

Andy Revkin thinks so. In a recent Dot Earth post, he writes that the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should either stop straying from a “just the facts” communications strategy or step down.

The offense, in Revkin’s mind, is Pachauri’s participation in a not-all-that-funny attempt at a joke begun by Richard Branson at a public discussion hosted by California Gov. Jerry Brown. Following up on Branson’s joke about offering climate deniers one-way tickets to leave the planet, Pachauri said:

.. those who are becoming obstacles in implementing what is rational should be made the responsibility of Sir Richard to give this one-way ticket to outer space. Of course space would be unfortunate to get some of these fellows.

And that kind of talk, Revkin says, is beyond the pale.

One could discount this as jocular banter, of course. And it pales beside some of the extremely vicious rhetoric that has developed elsewhere in the climate debate. But the full tape, outside the joking, actually makes things worse, to my mind. It vividly illustrates the blurring that I see undercutting the credibility of the climate panel just when it is needed most — as the organization gets into high gear on its fifth assessment of climate change, which will roll out in 2013 and 2014.

Comments have ranged from “oh please” dismissals that this is making a mountain out of a molehill to “tip of the iceberg” laments from those who have nothing good at all to say about Pachauri. And for better or worse (well, for worse, really), Pachauri is a lightning rod for criticism of the IPCC in many circles.

So which is it? Should Pachauri really be forbidden from making jokes? We’re talking about a guy who has been on the receiving end of years of what Revkin calls “vicious rhetoric,” much it challenging his integrity and most of it entirely undeserved, as far as I can tell. Can he be forgiven for showing little humanity every now and then? Or is the standard of public comportment for leaders of such organizations, those charged with providing the information required to save civilization, so high that not even a hint of feet of clay is permitted?

I don’t think there’s an obvious answer here. But I would point out that Pachauri long ago abandoned any pretense that he is an entirely disinterested, objective source of scientific information to our world’s policy leaders. He has never shown any reluctance to share the stage, as a colleague and ally, of policy advocates. For example, he tends to show up at training sessions for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, alongside the likes of scientist-turned-advocate David Suzuki. For Revkin to argue that the one-way-ticket joke marks some kind of line over which Pachauri should not have wandered strikes me as bit odd.

So the question is, has Pachauri been undermining the case of climate change action for years? If so, should he have been replaced years ago?

One thing lost from the debate is the job description of IPCC chief. Is it more than just a public face for the panel? Aren’t there some other skills, beyond communicating just the facts in a dispassionate manner (which is all Revkin seems concerned about) required of the position? Given the extraordinary challenge of herding thousands of scientists through the unprecedented process of compiling the assessment reports, and then overseeing the review of those assessments by 190-some political agents, maybe there are some other criteria that we can apply to a performance review of poor embattled Pachauri.

I am not saying he deserves to keep the job, nor am I arguing he should leave. But I am arguing that judging him based solely on his ability to avoid offending those who refuse to even accept the basic science at issue is perhaps a bit naive.

Are the winds shifting?

Maybe it’s just me, desperately searching for optimistic signals in the noise that dominates the mainstream coverage of climate change, but could there be something happening out there, something attesting to a new, more mature interpretation of the challenge facing society at large?

Item 1: The Economist publishes an impassioned lament. This from a magazine that for so long seemed althogether disinterested in the subject:

A HUNDRED years from now, looking back, the only question that will appear important about the historical moment in which we now live is the question of whether or not we did anything to arrest climate change. Everything else–the financial crisis, the life or death of the euro, authoritarianism or democracy in China and Russia, the Great Stagnation or the innovation renaissance, democratisation and/or political Islam in the Arab world, Newt or Mitt or another four years of Barack–all this will fade into insignificance beside the question of whether we managed to do anything about human industrial civilisation changing the climate of Planet Earth.

And that’s just the first half of the opening paragraph. Towards the end, the gloom descends even further.

Maybe the idea that Mali and Burkina Faso were once inhabited countries rather than empty deserts will seem queer, and the immiseration of huge numbers of stateless refugees thronging against the borders of the rich northern countries will be taken for granted. The absence of the polar ice cap and the submersion of Venice will have been normalised; nobody will think of these as live issues, no one will spend their time reproaching their forefathers…

A concession that an ecological crisis dwarfs those posed by mere financial forces is not what I expected from The Economist. It was a late-comer to responsible coverage of climate change and a reluctant convert at that. But this sort of thing suggests a conversion of Damascene proportions.

Item 2: Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson, who writes despondently about Canada’s failure to address its embarrassing record on greenhouse gas emissions. Canada, you will probably already know, this week became the first, and so far only, nation to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Ibbitson is a center-right commentator in the Canadian sense, which means he is generally to the left of what passes for the center in the U.S., but tends to be more skeptical than supportive of “progressive” notions. This week, however, he made it clear he now shares at least some of the distress that has worked its way into the editorial desk at The Economist.

Canada gave its word to the world. Canada broke its word. The final confession was as shameful as it was inevitable. No one should feel anything other than ashamed. Not the Conservatives, not the Liberals, not us.

Ibbitson hits the nail on the head. Most green pundits would rather castigate Stephen Harper’s governing Conservatives for doing the bidding of their petrol-dollar associates than admit the truth, which is that Canada withdrew from Kyoto because it would have been irresponsible not to. Canada’s GHG emissions have risen dramatically instead of falling as it committed to make happen under Kyoto. So if the country didn’t withdraw before the end of this year, it would have faced the need to spend billions on offsets or face sanctions.

The real problem can be traced to Jean Chretien’s Liberals, who frittered away more than a decade of economic prosperity by doing precisely nothing to move away from fossil-fuel-dependency and toward carbon-neutral alternatives. By the time the Conservatives took over in 2005, the bed was made, and there was never any chance Canada would meets its Kyoto commitments. So the only thing left to do was save the taxpayer a few pennies by getting out when the getting was good.

By using the language of shame, Ibbitson makes it clear that this is not just another in a long list of lost opportunities for Canada to lead by example. It is cause for some serious soul-searching in the not-so-great white North. The Economist makes a similar admission from Britain,

I am not holding my breath for comparable shifts in the U.S. But it would be nice.

Two degrees of separation

Compare and contrast:

The team’s new examination of the paleo-climate record now shows that “a global warming of a couple degrees Celsius would basically create a different planet,” Hansen warned. It’s different than the one that humanity, that civilization knows about. If we look at the paleo record, the target of two degrees Celsius is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” [Source]

and

I think that we look at two degrees as an important and serious goal which ought to guide what we do … it ought to inform our sense of what needs to be done. It might well cause us or anybody else to say, jeez, we need to do more. But we don’t see it as akin to a national target. [Source]

The first comes from a report by KQED on warnings from top NASA climatologist James Hansen, speaking at this week’s annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The second are the words of U.S. Climate Envoy Todd Stern, speaking at the COP17 talks in Durban, also this week.

Is Stern just having trouble staying abreast of recent events in the field that informs his job? Well, 10 months ago, a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society had this to say about the subject:

The analysis suggests that despite high-level statements to the contrary, there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2 °C. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2 °C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2 °C now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change. Ultimately, the science of climate change allied with the emission scenarios for Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 nations suggests a radically different framing of the mitigation and adaptation challenge from that accompanying many other analyses, particularly those directly informing policy. [Source]

If you’re a sucker for this sort of thing, read David Roberts’s summary of the situation at Grist.

Canada and the Kyoto Protocol

Word is Canada will give the world a lump of coal tar for Christmas:

Canada will announce next month that it will formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, CTV News has learned.

The Harper government has tentatively planned an announcement for a few days before Christmas, CTV’s Roger Smith reported Sunday evening.

Given the Canada was never on track to come anywhere close to achieving its Kyoto target of a 6% reduction in greenhouse gases relative to 1990 levels, the only consequence of the decision will be political rather than climatological. It’s worth noting that it looks like the protocol will meet its modest goals, with or without Canada:

Even including the [non-signatory] USA, whose emissions in 2008-2010 are 11 percent more than in 1990, the industrialised countries have on average reduced greenhouse gas emissions by about 7.5 percent in the period 2008-2010, compared with 1990. Together they are well on course to achieve the [Kyoto] protocol, target of a collective average decrease in greenhouse gas emissions of 5.2 percent between 2008 and 2012 compared to the 1990 level. — PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency

Another round of (yawn) stolen emails

If this is the best they’ve got, it’s kind of sad, really.

Looks like the link to the zip file of what was left over from the 2009 release has been removed, just a few hours after the world became aware that the FOIA gang is at it again. But most of what found its way onto the web so far, tiny snippets without even a clue as to the subject matter that prompted the excerpts, doesn’t ever rise to the level of lame.

Of course, that won’t stop the denial punks from engaging in a display of juvenile histrionics. But still, after the embarrassment of the BEST study conclusions, it is beginning to look like the pseudoskeptics are beginning to get desperate.

I’m with Mike Mann:

who is quoted in the batch of released emails described the release as “truly pathetic”.

When asked if they were genuine, he said: “Well, they look like mine but I hardly see anything that appears damning at all, despite them having been taken out of context. I guess they had very little left to work with, having culled in the first round the emails that could most easily be taken out of context to try to make me look bad.”
The Guardian

Shawn Otto’s take is good, too.

Just how much heat does global warming entail?

Everyone talks about global warming, but it’s not easy to get one’s mind around just how much heat we’re talking about. Even more difficult is putting that heat energy in terms that the average layperson can grasp. Fortunately, some scientists are making an effort to do just that.

ResearchBlogging.orgIn a recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters, “Observed changes in surface atmospheric energy over land,” Thomas Peterson, of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC, Katharine M. Willett of the Met Office Hadley Centre in Exeter, UK, and and Peter W. Thorne, who works alongside Peterson at the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites, try to separate the various elements of all that energy being trapped by the greenhouse effect. There’s surface temperature, kinetic energy (wind) and latent heat (energy associated with water changes from one state to another, such as during evaporation).

All that is useful stuff from people who make their living studying climate. But what’s really interesting for our purposes is the team’s effort to express the energy being absorbed by the atmosphere. As part of the paper’s concluding section, they convert that energy into a gravitational equivalent: the energy required to lift an object:

Continue reading “Just how much heat does global warming entail?”

Fool Me Twice

My review of Shawn Otto’s new book, Fool Me Twice
Fighting the Assault on Science in America
, is up over at the relatively new sustainability-oriented blog/resource site, Planet 3.0. Here’s how I start:

Shawn Otto is a big name in the campaign to restore science to its rightful place as a major player in the public sphere. He spearheaded the first “Science Debate” effort in 2008 to get the presidential candidates to address scientific issues, and has been working, tirelessly but not entirely successfully, it would seem, since then to keep the home fires burning. The frustration that comes with failure — the best the group could do back then was elicit written responses to a list of science-oriented questions from Barack Obama and John McCain — evidently got him thinking about why Americans care so little about science. Fool Me Twice is the result.

Like the books that preceded this one (Chris Mooney’s The Republic War on Science, Al Gore’s Assault on Reason, Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America and Randy Olson’s Don’t be such a scientist!), it’s long on description and short on prescription. The subtitle, Fighting the Assault on Science in America, implies the latter…

Whole review here.