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?

 

 

 

A surprisingly subversive look at what the coming energy transformation will look like

The Conference Board of Canada, usually described as a business-friendly think tank, has come out with a report that is refreshingly honest, and even a bit subversive — especially if you pay extra attention to some sidebars, consider what the authors deliberately left out, and are at least a little familiar with the science of power consumption and generation.

The full report, which is behind a freewall — it is downloadable for the cost of supplying your contact information — concludes that converting Canada’s economy to a carbon-free energy mix won’t actually cost all that much. But what I find more interesting is that much of the report’s details support the notion that even optimistic predictions are unnecessarily (small-c) conservative. This suggests the authors (Len Coad, Robyn Gibbard, Alicia Macdonald, and Matthew Stewart) are trying to serve two audiences: the captains of industry who are their patrons on the one hand, and the folks who will do the real heavy-lifting during the coming transition period on the other.

The report’s main thrust is calculating the economic impact of impending carbon taxes, which are scheduled to come into effect next year. You don’t need to worry about the precise numbers, which are all really not much more than barely educated guesses. The important part is even the more aggressive scenarios (like taxes rising to $200/tonne,  several times even the highest of the carbon taxes now in effect) show that the country won’t fall apart.

Overall, the economic impact of eliminating most fossil fuels from the power generation mix is significant—but not overwhelming. The total impact on GDP, at $7.2 billion, is comparable to the output of a relatively small Canadian industry.

So that’s good news.

The even-better news is how much the authors of The Cost of a Cleaner Future: Examining the Economic Impacts of Reducing GHG Emission have managed to misrepresent about the likely future, either deliberately or disingenuously.

First, there is scant mention of the role of either energy efficiency or electrification on future power demand, even though both of these factors are critical to any useful understanding of what’s to come. First, Moore’s Law is pretty much still in effect and something similar continues to hold sway over how much energy we need to do most of what passes for work these days. Not to take into account expected declines in demand thanks to more efficient technology is bizarre to say the least.

Even more puzzling is the failure to address what happens when you switch from running your economy on fossil fuels to running on electricity. The bottom line is you lose a lot less energy to waste heat. Much effort has been made by others to anticipate this effect and the outcome of those calculations. As Mark Jacobson  and Mark Delucci have demonstrated repeatedly, switching to an economy based on wind, water and solar will actually mean demand will fall, not rise, even when you take into account population and economic growth. The difference is actually about 30%. Some have taken issue with Jacobson’s numbers, but even if he’s missed something (which I doubt) and his estimates are off by a bit, the idea deserves at least some mention in a document that pretends to be running sophisticated model of future energy needs.

Instead we get lines like “To eliminate fossil fuels from the grid, over 20 gigawatts of installed generating capacity will need to be replaced.” If Jacobson is right, we’ll actually only need 14 GW. That’s significant, and if you’re a jurisdiction like Alberta or Saskatchewan, now relying on coal, oil and gas for  70-78% of your electricity, every gigawatt is going to count.

Coad et al. also seem to be stuck in old-school thinking when it comes to what generating electricity means from an industrial point of view. They write:

Acceptance of large-scale projects: Substantial investment in large-scale hydro, nuclear, wind, and transmission projects will be required in all parts of the country. Large-scale projects typically attract their share of controversy, and acceptance of these projects among environmentalists, Indigenous groups, and the public is necessary.

Yes, some large-scale projects will be built. Cities are hungry beasts. The controversial Site C hydro dam in northern B.C. will almost certainly overcome the opposition it now faces because there’s just to much potential energy sitting there for it not to be used — mostly by Alberta, which will need something to replace all the coal it’s now burning.  But nuclear? Doubtful, unless we can come up with economical options for fancy  new thorium reactors. The more problematic aspect of this vision is the idea that centralized electricity generation has a major role to play in the future. It probably does, but only to an extent. Decentralized, small-scale generation in the form of wind, solar, run-of-river hydro and geothermal are widely understood to be more likely candidates.

All of this means things will probably be even less disruptive, create even more jobs, and cost even less to the economy, than the report foresees. And what they foresee isn’t that dark to begin with. There are hints that the authors know this. Sprinkled throughout are references and asides that cast doubt on the conventional thinking they ostensibly embrace. For example, there’s a sidebar devoted to debunking (politely) the idea that closing the coal-fired power plants in Ontario is responsible for the recent hikes in electricity bills in the province. In reality, the causes are many and the situation is much more complicated than that. For one thing, “the province has ended up with far more generation capacity than it needs.”

There’s also a fair bit of speculation about the bigger picture, especially when the more dramatic scenarios are explored:

The fact that the GDP hit is so small relative to the lost investment in this pathway provides an interesting insight. It suggests that the investments being given up in this pathway were contributing relatively little to GDP in Canada, as most of the forgone investment would have been spent on imported goods and services.

…if we broaden the scope beyond just looking at the required investments and assess how behavioural and policy changes can impact the results, it is evident that deep emissions reductions are possible at a much smaller cost.

Indeed. Even the Conference Board of Canada is telling you to stop worrying so much about giving up fossil fuels. How about that?

The grid is smarter than you think

The most charitable comment I can come up with for the just-released Department of Energy Staff Report to the Secretary on Electricity Markets and Reliability is the refusal of the authors to use what is surely a candidate for Most Overused Term of the Year: resilience. Not that resilience isn’t important, but it’s to their credit that the staffers responsible for telling Secretary Rick Perry sort-of what he wanted to hear understand that reliability is really what it’s all about.

After all, if there’s one thing that defenders of fossil fuels and nuclear power like to remind us more than anything else, it’s that the sun only shines during the day and the wind only blows some of the time. It’s a mantra meant to sear into our brains the idea that renewable electricity isn’t reliable. And as much as the Staff Report tries to skirt the issue by eliminating the findings contained in a leaked earlier draft, it still manages to conclude that the nation’s grid is more reliable now than ever:

Overall, at the end of 2016, the system had more dispatchable capacity capable of operating at high utilization rates than it did in 2002.

The New York Times put it this way:

The Energy Department report concedes that the nation’s electricity system remains reliable today, even with a sharp rise in intermittent wind and solar power, in part because natural gas generators and existing hydropower can easily fill any gaps in renewable generation.

Joe Romm has a good summary of how the authors “botched” their task of spinning the report in favor of fossil fuels, and how Perry manages to misrepresent the findings by recommending subsidies for coal and nuclear plants.

But none of this should come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the evolution of grid management. The fact is that computational capacity to anticipate minute-by-minute power-load shifts has increased dramatically in recent years. Add to that relatively modest growth in demand and the move away from large, centralized sources of electricity in favor of smaller, distributed, local sources, and you have a grid that can easily handle whatever nature and humankind can throw at it. And this is all going to continue to be the case in the case in the future, only more so. Even during this week’s total eclipse, the grid was easily able to accommodate the large drops in solar’s contribution to the network by drawing on gas and hydro.

Technology has a way of creeping up on you if you’re not paying attention. One day you’re trying to unfold a road map, the next the car is driving itself across the state.

An Inconvenient Review


ILLUSTRATION:
THE CLIMATE PROJECT

Eleven years ago David Guggenheim and Laurie David managed to turn a documentary about a most unlikely subject — a slide show by a man famous for being too dull to be elected president — into an Oscar-winning international hit. The reaction to An Inconvenient Truth convinced the film’s star to assemble and train an army of climate-crisis presenters now known as The Climate Reality Project.

Guggenheim and David are gone, replaced by a new editorial team, but the star is back with An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Most of the reviews so far are less than complimentary, and for good reason. But I’m going to go out on a limb and recommend the film anyway, largely because it’s a more honest portrayal of Al Gore the human being — and his approach to addressing the biggest public policy challenge of our time — than was the 2006 vehicle.

First, though, let’s address the problems with the film, beginning with its raison d’être. It’s really not a sequel at all, more like An Inconvenient Remake. Just as Gore’s Keynote slide show has managed to stay current without actually evolving much over the past decade (not necessarily a bad thing), so the film preserves many key elements, swapping out each pivotal moment for a modern analog, and sticking close to the guiding philosophy of balancing tales of desperation with testimonials of hope.

Gone is the graph in which the trendline of rising greenhouse-gas emissions goes so high that Gore needs a cherry-picker to reach the end point. But the 2017 replacement, a column chart of the annual contributions of new solar power to Chile’s electricity mix, gets effectively the same treatment. Flood videos from 2015 replace flood videos from 2005. And there is still the requisite example of Gore getting all verklempt in front of his trainees as he describes the rising death tolls from extreme weather. So even with a new director and production crew, Gore is firmly in charge of the both the theatrical and cinematic formulas.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But do we really need an updated version of something we’ve already seen? One can argue that, yes, we do. Just as Hollywood seems to have a inexhaustable supply of Spiderman remakes because it knows that there’s always a younger audience who will prefer the latest version, so Gore understands the need to keep it fresh. The scientific underpinnings of the story notwithstanding, this is popular culture we are talking about here.

To be fair, there are significant differences between the two docs. The first one managed to sear certain images into viewers’ brains. The cherry-picker scene or the one where New York City gets inundated by sea-level rise are perfect examples. In fact, despite the emphasis on Gore’s personal odyssey, I submit that what people remember most about AIT is the evidence for the urgency of doing something about global warming, which is, after all, the whole point of the film.

By contrast (I could be wrong here, but all I can do is reflect my own reactions, and those of the folks sitting near me in the cinema), what most viewers will likely take away from AIS is images of Gore himself. Gore the frustrated presidential candidate, Gore the jet-setting volunteer diplomat, Gore the dear leader, Gore the high-stakes interlocutor, Gore the tired crusader. This is more problematic.

The film hadn’t even been officially released and the same old misleading complaints from the science-denial crowd about his Tennessee home’s electrical bills started flooding the far-right echo chambers. Gore is still hated by much of the country, although for no readily explainable reason, as far as I can tell. Putting him even more front and center is probably not the best way to make friends and influence people.

I am sure many will be surprised by the relatively short shrift given to the presenters, who are, after all, a direct consequence of the original film and a big part of Gore’s legacy. Surely a sequel would pay some attention to them. Yet the only presenter who gets any screen time is a Filipino who is still traumatized by the devastation caused by a typhoon that tore through his island. And even here, Gore gets the last word.

Maybe, though, this is exactly the point. Both Gore’s strengths and flaws are laid bare in the film. Sure, we get far more of him than we probably want. There was no need to rehash his reaction to the Supreme Court ruling that handed the presidency to George W. Bush. That was well explored the first time around. Plus, it’s hard to believe that Gore is responsible for the success of the 2015 Paris Agreement, even though the film makes his critical role as a broker in getting India on board a fundament part of the narrative.

But we get the bad with the good. At times Gore looks like he’s seen better days. Some of the shots feature his less-than-trim physique. There’s the embarrassingly brief encounter in Paris with the newly elected Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who dismisses Gore’s words of appreciation for bringing Canada back from the dark side by humbly quipping that “it was the Canadian people, not me,” before running off to whatever important appointment he was trying to keep. The film even wraps up with a self-righteous declaration of certainty of purpose.

This level of honesty make AIS worth the 98 minutes it asks of your time. We see both the impact one human being can have, and the limits of such power. Gore could have chosen to close with an admission of the latter, something along the lines of “Maybe I’m just titling at windmills (so to speak), but what else can one man do?” But he didn’t. For better or worse, that’s not who he is. And as carefully scripted as this documentary is, it succeeds much better than its predecessor at revealing the personality that has driven so much of the public conversation around climate change.

By the way, I’m one of the thousands Gore has trained to deliver his presentation, a task I still do from time to time. (As I was finishing off this review, in a public library, someone who had seen one of talks a few years ago walked up and asked me if I’d be doing another one thanks to the attention AIS is getting.) Like all my colleagues, I still care more about the message than about the messenger. But why a decade spreading a brilliantly crafted and compelling message has changed so few minds is a vital question, to which no convincing answer has yet been supplied. If nothing else, this new look at Gore and his methods gets us little closer to one.

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.

 

 

If kids are responsible for climate change …

How many kids should you have? Used to be the answer was “none of anyone’s damn business.” But that’s not the approach a pair of sustainability experts took in a new paper that concludes the single-most powerful thing anyone can do about climate change is having fewer offspring.

In “The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions” (Environmental Research Letters, 12 July 2017) Seth Wynes of Sweden’s Lund University the University of British Columbia and Kimerbley Nicholas of UBC find that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with introducing a human to the planet are far larger than any other single action, especially the ones that governments and corporations keep reminding us we should be doing.

You can also live car-free, avoid airplanes, and give up meat, which are second, third and fourth on their list. “These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household light bulbs (eight times less),” they write. But nothing comes close to smaller families.

Here’s a easy-to-consume infographic, where the right-most column is the “climate savings” that come with forgoing one child:

There’s plenty of argument to be had over their calculations of “quantified future emissions of descendants” but the basic idea shouldn’t surprise anyone. Adding another one or two copies of yourself is obviously going to have a larger effect than just trimming a few hundred kilos of methane from your annual budget. Still, reaction has been rather strong. Apparently, people don’t take kindly to being told families are a problem, not a blessing. Google it and you’ll see. I’ll just point you to Vox‘s David Roberts, who points out that it all depends on where the parents live. Here’s money quote:

By averaging out the impact of a developed-world child into one single figure, the study obscures the single most salient fact about individual carbon emissions, namely that wealthy people produce way more. That’s true not only between countries but within them as well.

I called it a money quote for a reason. Rich kids are a bigger burden. But again, no surprise there. Indeed, there’s really not a lot new here at all.  Way back in the 1970s, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren came up with a nifty little equation to measure environmental impacts of civilization:

I = P x A x T

Where Impact is the product of the size of the Population, the Affluence of the population and the resource intensity of the Technologies involved in maintaining the population. This new paper is really just a reminder that we have to think about all three if we want to change our global-warming trajectory.

So sure, have fewer kids. There’s no doubt that that will make a difference. But so will buying less stuff, which is something that rich folks may find is hard to do. And so will not burning fossil fuels.

There is one important message in Wynes and Nicholas’ paper that hasn’t got much attention, though. “National policies and major energy transformations often take decades to change locked-in infrastructure and institutions, but behavioural shifts have the potential to be more rapid and widespread.” Meaning less time behind the wheel can occur right away, while electrical power plant designs take decades to change.

And so:

It is especially important that adolescents are prepared for this shift. They still have the freedom to make large behavioural choices that will structure the rest of their lives, and must grow up accustomed to a lifestyle that approaches the 2.1 tonnes per person annual emissions budget necessary by 2050 to meet the 2 °C climate target.

The typical carbon footprint of an American is approximately 10 times the target Wynes and Nicholas mention. So that’s a lot of behavioral shifting. But if you do have kids, and you instill in them (preferably by example) the need to cut their A and T factors, then perhaps your contribution to P won’t be quite as problematic.

Hyper-local climate impact forecast, finally

A study published in Science at the end of June should have found its way onto the front pages and screens of every community newspaper and local news program in the country. But it didn’t. At least, not around these parts. Which is a shame, because it’s precisely the kind of story we’ve been waiting for all these years. (Apologies to the spirit of Douglas Adams). I’ll do my best to rectify the oversight.

In “Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States,” a team of researchers led by Solomon Hsiang, who specializes in public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, applied the latest datasets on expected damages we can expect because of what we’re doing to the planet to the economy. On average, they calculated that the U.S. would lose about 1.2% of its GDP for each degree centigrade (1.8 °F) the Earth warms. But we already knew that level of damage -— lost crops, coastal erosion, heat deaths and so forth — was in the pipeline. What’s interesting is that the team also produced specific forecasts for each county.

For the first time, we’ve been offered at least a rough idea of what fossil-fueled business as usual will cost us, at home. We’re not just talking about polar bears anymore. It’s now about jobs, wages, infrastructure, crime. Any news outlet that’s paying attention should have jumped on this. There’s even a handy-dandy interactive map:

You can zoom in on any county (even Hawai’i and Alaska). For example, Polk County, NC, where I live, is expected to lose about 7% of its economy due to the various effects of climate change. Of course, it’s a very coarse estimate, and one that’s based on the assumption that we make no significant policy changes to mitigate the anticipated effects. No one really believes that particular outcome is likely — just look at how fast the costs of solar panels and wind turbines are falling, or how rapidly Elon Musk’s little car company has become more valuable than GM. But the exercise is valuable because business as usual is the only baseline we have for which the elements are known precisely. And then there’s Donald Trump, so …

There are two other points worth thinking about. First, there’s this depressing observation:

Combining impacts across sectors reveals that warming causes a net transfer of value from Southern, Central, and Mid-Atlantic regions toward the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes region, and New England (Fig. 2I). In some counties, median losses exceed 20% of gross county product (GCP), while median gains sometimes exceed 10% of GCP. Because losses are largest in regions that are already poorer on average, climate change tends to increase preexisting inequality in the United States.

Once again, the South and the poor get the short end of the stick. This is mostly because the harm associated with hotter summers in the South will be more deeply felt than the benefits of slightly warmer winters up North.

Second, although the data are only presented by county, you can actually extract even more localized information by giving the map a close look and considering the surrounding geography. In the case of Polk County, the low-elevation foothills of the the county’s eastern parts will almost certainly be responsible for most of the anticipated decline in gross county product, because it’s where most economic activity and the lion’s share of the population are concentrated, and also because the higher-elevation western side is next door to even higher-elevation counties (Henderson and Buncombe), where the predicted impact is negligible. Which means my home town of Saluda, which is geographically more connected with the mountains than the foothills, will probably do better than the rest of the county.

Speaking of avoiding the really bad stuff, it’s almost poetic justice that, as employees of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, the seat of Buncombe county, many of the scientists responsible for cranking out the climate data on which this study relies happen to live in a part of the world that is not expected to suffer too much. At least not in the next few decades. Sooner or later, of course, everything will go sideways.

NY Times kills environment desk

Inside Climate News reports that “The New York Times will close its environment desk in the next few weeks and assign its seven reporters and two editors to other departments. The positions of environment editor and deputy environment editor are being eliminated.” Is this a good thing or bad?

The conventional response would be that it represents a loss of commitment to the subject. Dean Baquet, the paper’s managing editor for news, says not all:

… environmental stories are “partly business, economic, national or local, among other subjects,” Baquet said. “They are more complex. We need to have people working on the different desks that can cover different parts of the story.”

OK. fair enough. It would, in theory, be great to see environmental issues find their way into other stories. Climate change has an effect on just about everything, after all. But let’s follow the logic. Surely no one would challenge the reality that business stories are party environmental, national or local among other subjects. They are more complex and so require people working on different desks that cover different parts of the story. And yet, find me a major metropolitan daily editor who would last more then two news cycles after dismantling a paper’s business section and redistributing the staff among the general reporting staff.

No, the reality is that some subjects require reporters — and editors — who specialize. Without an unwavering focus and dedication to understanding a subject rooted in sometimes-counterintuitive science, it is impossible to do justice to the field. This is one of the primary lessons of the last few decades of science and environment reportage. It is not the same as chasing ambulances.

Back in the pre-Internet days, dedicated science sections seemed like a wonderful idea — to science journalists. But publishers who have to worry about ad revenue tended to come to a different conclusion and few let their science section survive into the 21st century. Now the bells tolls for environment coverage at the Gray Lady. Plus ça change.

Teasing out the signal from the noise

The pseudoskeptical argument goes something like this: the last decade hasn’t been significantly warmer than the previous decade, so global warming has stopped. And because the causes of anthropogenic climate change have not stopped, the link between fossil fuel combustion and global warming is therefore broken. This is, of course, complete nonsense.

The video above from the good people at Skeptical Science should be widely disseminated. I have little to add, other than to emphasize we always have to take the long and truly global view, one that takes into account that most of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, and stop going down the up escalator:

Guns, climate and growing up

Every now and then someone who ordinarily makes a fair amount of sense writes something that serves only to remind us that even the extraordinarily smart can be extraordinarily wrong. So it was with Sam Harris‘s defense of gun rights, The Riddle of the Gun.

First, Harris insists that “the correlation between guns and violence in the United States is far from straightforward.” He doesn’t really attempt to bolster that argument with relevant facts, though, and there there’s little point in an all-too-easy exercise in debunking. In fact, that’s not even his central thesis. No, that would be good old-fashioned defeatism, which seems to me to be more and more a defining characteristic of American culture.

For Harris, because there are so many guns in the United States (300 million is the most widely quoted figure), it just doesn’t make sense to try to do much beyond making sure everyone who has one knows how to use it responsibly.

Guns are everywhere, and the only people who will be deterred by stricter laws are precisely those law-abiding citizens who should be able to possess guns for their own protection and who now constitute one of the primary deterrents to violent crime. This is, of course, a familiar “gun nut” talking point. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

No, it’s wrong because it doesn’t hold up to even cursory scrutiny. Sean Faircloth, a former assistant state attorney general, offers one of a near infinite number of possible counterarguments here and Greg Laden offers some valuable historical context here.

Harris, a philosopher and neuroscientist, admits to a penchant for target shooting, and he suffers from the same stubborn, child-like refusal to accept the fact that life is sometimes hard. And just because something is hard is no reason for not trying. I am reminded of my six-year-old son, whose response to challenging tasks is often “But I can’t!” As his father, I often know he can, but convincing him not to give up is among the most challenging tasks either of us face these days.

Yes, a handgun buyback program isn’t likely to be effective in the short term. But such programs have worked elsewhere (Australia being the most recent example), so it’s just not rational to give up without even trying. And yes, doing something about the hopelessly ambiguous and atavistic Second Amendment won’t be easy, but the Constitution has been amended before, against comparable opposition. So again, don’t try telling us there’s no point in organizing what may be a decades long-campaign.

The whole affairs brings to mind one of the common arguments against doing something about global warming. The world is hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels. True. There’s enough easily accessible volumes of the stuff in the ground to tip the climate into some new equilibrium much less hospitable to civilization as we know it for the next 100,000 years. Also true. And all of the alternatives are more expensive. Yes, and yes and yes. But does any of that mean we shouldn’t even try to make the switch to clean renewables?

“It’s too hard, Daddy!”

When did America come to embrace defeatism? Somewhere between the last moon shot and Ronald Reagan’s first term, is my guess. Of course, it’s no coincidence that defeatism in the face of an overwhelming need for change always seems to bolster the profit margins of the secure and wealthy. Still, I suspect there’s something else at work here.

Chris Mooney has written about the evidence for a physiological basis for conservatism, which is now intimately associated with defeatism. Dan Kaheman makes the case of two types of thinking, one adapted for surviving on the Paleolithic plains of Africa, and one for civilization (although he doesn’t put it that way). But all of this dances around the essential fact that civilization is all about overcoming our ancient programming. We may not be designed to take the long view, and walk the hard path, and set aside our gut instincts in the face of carefully reasoned argument, but that’s what mature and responsible people – and societies – do.

Nothing give fills me with more pride than seeing my son try again, even when he isn’t sure he’s going to succeed. Even when he’s almost sure he won’t. It’s called growing up.