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Oct. 12th, 2007

Judge rules "An Inconvenient Truth" has "factual errors," but the Nobel Committee seems to like it!

A British court recently ruled that Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, contained "nine factual errors" when deciding whether it should be allowed to be shown in public schools. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, given that I've seen the film, taught it as part of a physical geography course, and never heard my graduate advisor (a paleoclimatologist) or any other climate scientists I've worked with mention anything about the film's factual integrity.

A closer examination of the ruling reveals that what the judge considers a "factual error" is actually his interpretation of the political nature of the science. He calls Gore's statements about sea-level rise (which were taken from the IPCC, a United Nations body) "clearly alarmist." In another case, he cites the uncertainty of whether Kilimanjaro's glaciers are melting because of anthropogenic warming or not. If glacial melting on one mountaintop was an isolated incident, perhaps he'd have a point; however, warmer temperatures, which are clearly linked to increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, have been correlated with glacial melting all over the world, with alpine glaciers shrinking the most dramatically. Clearly this judge is drawing at straws here.

In the end, what will get cited by the news and by climate skeptics will be the quick soundbite version - "nine factual errors." Ultimately, however, this ruling may be balanced out by the good news: Gore and the IPCC are sharing the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, for their efforts in educating the world about global warming, and working to address it.

Gore “is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted,” according to the Nobel citation.  The IPCC, a network of 2,000 scientists and a body of the United Nations, has issued state-of-the-science reports for over twenty years and “created an ever-broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming.” Gore will be donating his half of the ~$1.5 million prize to the Alliance for Climate Protection, a non-profit of which he is the chair.

Climate change has had a surprisingly strong staying power in the global mindset, given the shelf-life of many environmental issues in particular. The Gore/IPCC peace prize represents a partnership between science and politics that encapsulates the delicate balance this issue often holds in the public mind, swinging between being a partisan issue and a scientific one. A respected, neutral, and international body like the Nobel Prize gives a legitimacy to the climate change cause beyond what Oscars or the testimony of senior scientists could accomplish. This may well mark a major sea change the public acceptance of climate as a very real and pressing issue.
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Sep. 19th, 2007

jesse jackson/the onion

New posts coming soon!

The climate blogger would like to take a moment to let everyone know that theclimateblog is not defunct! The climate blogger is currently in the process of finishing and defending her masters thesis, which means that in a few weeks, she'll be bringing you fascinating climate-related topics such as:

Hurricanes & Global Warming: Why what we think we know may be wrong.

Biofuels: Not a magic bullet for carbon emissions!

Snowball Earth: Could the globe really have completely frozen over millions of years ago?

Ice cores: How scientists know what past atmospheres were like

Forecasting weather vs. climate: How weather forecasting works, and why meteorology is different than climatology

New and disappearing regional climates: How will ecosystems cope?

Keep your eye out for these and other posts, including a weekly climate news update. Also, feel free to take this opportunity to request a post on a particular topic! In the meantime, wish me luck with my thesis!

Jul. 4th, 2007

Global Warming Guide to the 2008 Presidential Candidates

Today is Independence Day in the United States, and as Americans celebrate the 232nd birthday of the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the Climate Blog would like to honor the occasion by thinking forward to the 2008 election, which could potentially be a turning point in American energy and climate policy. To that end, I bring you the Global Warming Guide to the 2008 Presidential Candidates! I've taken the top three candidates for the Democrats and Republicans (to be realistic), outlined their policies on energy and climate, and given each candidate their own Climate Blog Grade.

Obviously, voters will consider a wide range of issues when assessing presidential candidates, and global warming is just one of many. When I began this exercise, I didn't know very much about the platforms of the individual candidates, and was in fact surprised that the one with the highest grade was not the one that I had been supporting.

Jun. 14th, 2007

Carbon footprints: keeping up with the Joneses.

Yesterday was a Clean Air Action Day here in Madison, which means that conditions were favorable for the formation of ground-level ozone in high enough volumes to cause a health risk for children, the elderly, adults active outside, and people with asthma or other respiratory ailments. The city of Madison asks residents to minimize their use of electricity (our power is generated by several coal plants), to take city buses, avoid gassing up their cars, and other steps to reduce the risk on these days. We like ozone in the stratosphere, but on hot days with little wind, the sun heats up nitrous oxide (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC's), creating ozone on the ground. One of the health risks associated with global warming is an increase in the number of such days, and the problem is compounded not only by heat, but by fossil fuel-emitting activities.

I mentioned this to someone, and they said "well, riding a bike or carpooling isn't practical for me. But I drive a little Toyota, not an SUV, so that's ok." At first glance, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with this perspective; SUV's get most of the blame in the popular press as the source of carbon emissions. But there's a fundamental flaw in this reasoning. Carbon emissions aren't a game of keeping up with the Joneses - it's all about what you can do to lower your own footprint. If your neighbors own an Expedition, and you're driving a Taurus, your carbon footprint isn't necessarily smaller than theirs. You could be driving more often, running your air conditioning when you're not at home, leaving power adapters plugged in unnecessarily, and using inefficient light bulbs. Again, however, don't judge your carbon footprint based on your friends, family, next door neighbors, or co-workers. Compete with yourself to get your own emissions down.

First, calculate your own carbon footprint. There are a lot of places you can do this, with more or less precision, but Safe Climate has a good calculator here (the only information you'll need is your power bill). Make this a game - you can even do it with your kids, if you're a parent - try to see what you can do to lower your emissions, in a way that's balanced by your own values. Many of the things you can change won't even cause a noticeable difference in your quality of life, except perhaps by lowering your electricity bill (use the money you've saved for a vacation fund, or to take the family out to dinner and a movie to celebrate your annual carbon reduction).

For the things you're unwilling or unable to reduce, consider carbon offsets like Terra Pass or Native Energy. Terra Pass lets you offset specific aspects of your carbon-generating life, like owning a car, or taking an airplane flight. Native Energy allows you to support green power in areas where it's available, keeping dirty energy off the grid even if you can't use it yourself. Challenge yourself to have a smaller carbon footprint by this time next year than you do today. Know how many tons of carbon you put into the atmosphere, and start including that in your mental calculations of the costs and benefits of new purchases and lifestyle choices. Try using "Hey, baby, what's your carbon footprint?" as a pickup line. Drop this figure at backyard barbecues in the same way that you'd brag about little Timmy's report card - the Joneses are listening, after all!

Jun. 5th, 2007

Debunking skeptics: pulling threads out of blanet statements.

I got into an argument in the blogosphere yesterday about the climate change consensus, and the skeptic finally conceded that even if there was agreement, the scientists themselves are just doing bad science. One particular argument that really floored me was the assertion that climate scientists "ignore geology and orbital changes." Once I got over my initial shock, I realized that I've heard this argument before, though it's never been thrown at me personally. It's becoming increasingly common, especially amongst those who like to cite higher levels of carbon dioxide or warmer temperatures in the past (the inspiration behind my recent post on the Cretaceous). But: there's a big difference between asking a legitimate question about why past climates and atmospheres are any different than present systems and making blanket statements about climate science and scientists that honestly have no basis in reality.

If you look at the literature, you'll realize this is a tactic the climate skeptics use all the time; make a bold, authoritative statement, and someone without the proper background will take that as gospel truth. I hear them all the time. "Climate scientists ignore geology and earth's orbital changes through time."  This statement is the equivalent of saying "The person who baked this chocolate cake has no knowledge that eggs and butter and flour exist, and doesn't know about ovens!" Climate scientists are able to make statements about current warming and predictions about future change based on what we know about the past, which includes a thorough education on the mechanisms of climate change over the last few million years. You wouldn't accuse a doctor of not taking classes in anatomy and physiology, so why is it any more realistic to assume that it would never, ever occur to a climatologist to study the mechanisms of ice ages, atmospheric chemistry, or geology?

I had the pleasure of seeing a talk by Naomi Oreskes, geologist-turned-historian of science, a couple of months ago here at the University of Wisconsin. She's the author of the 2004 essay in Science, Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Cimate Change, which was a study of the recent climate change literature and the source of the much-debated consensus (and I know an historian of science; they are dangerously strict about their sources, so I trust them implicitly!). Her talk dealt with the Cold War origins of modern climate skepticism, and followed the changes in "official" science since the 1950's. Most of the big skeptics, according to Oreskes, are coming out of conservative, neoliberal, free trade think tanks, where any kind of environmental regulation is seen as a barrier to trade and worse: veiled socialism (You know what a watermelon is? Green on the outside, red inside).

The line of evidence is fascinating, and I sincerely hope Dr. Oreskes publishes this work soon. Almost more telling, however, was the obvious; Oreskes really hit home the fact that climate skeptics aren't working within the scientific sphere; they don't research, they don't write grants, they don't publish in peer-reviewed journals. At most, they come up with their own "data" or their own figures, but they aren't engaging scientists in the field of science. Rather, they bring their arguments to the public sphere, in interviews, blogs, magazine articles, and on television. They make bold statements and don't cite sources, circumventing the scientific community to spread confusion and misinformation amongst the public. And then they have the nerve to accuse climate scientists ("alarmists") of politicizing climate change, when they are the ones who only engage the topic in the public sphere.

So, what can you do? Ask questions. Be adamant about seeing references when someone makes a definitive statement. Always wonder where data comes from, and the source of funding (in peer-reviewed publications, those things are always reported). Be wary of blanket statements, especially if they seem a little too obvious (remember the chocolate cake). Use Google; check out the "Institutes" that people are affiliated with, and following the lines of connectivity back to the sources (is the research funded by your taxes, or an oil lobby?). Call people out on absurd blanket statements.

And remember: just because someone says something with authority doesn't make it true. Climate skeptics should know better than to think that they can get away with these sorts of tactics for long. We're on to you. 

May. 31st, 2007

Greenpeace builds replica of Noah's Ark on Mt. Ararat to raise global warming awareness

(Image courtesy of the Associated Press)

Greenpeace is known for its high-profile ecological shenanigans, often using symbolic tactics to convey its message of environmental justice and sustainability. In what is perhaps its most over-the-top project yet, today the non-profit unveiled a model of Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat, the legendary resting place of the biblical boat. Two hundred doves were released from the ark as part of a plea for world leaders to take serious action on global warming, in a ceremony carefully timed to take place just before the G-8 Summit begins on June sixth in Germany. The ark (built by German and Turkish volunteers) is 32'x13'x13', and was hauled in pieces to its 8,200 ft. resting place by a caravan of forty horses. Greenpeace is planning to leave the structure behind as a shelter for mountaineers.

Greenpeace is evoking a biblical catastrophe to raise awareness of the scope and universality of the effects of global warming, and sea level has been one of symptoms that's gotten the most press. Personally, I don't think it's a very fit metaphor. Am I the only one who finds building a global warming icon out of wood a little ridiculous (Was the wood sustainable? Is it carbon-offset?) I'm a little uncomfortable with comparing modern-day warming with the discipline of a wrathful deity, even if indirectly; it redirects responsibility away from the individual. Also, given the fact that creationists cite the Noachian flood as the source of almost all geological phenomenon (from the Grand Canyon to the extinction of the dinosaurs), I don't want to make their job any easier.

Rhetoric aside, the bottom line is that Greenpeace's ark just feels inappropriate. It's flashy, invasive (how do locals feel about it?), wasteful, and remote. The G-8 summit is in Germany, not Turkey, and certainly Mount Ararat will not be under water any time in the near future, given even the most extreme global warming predictions. In this way, the ark is almost misleading; Greenpeace would have done better to choose a low-elevation Pacific Island or a coastal Indian city to make their statement - some place where peoples' lives will actually be affected by rising sea levels. Skeptics have embraced the term "alarmist" to describe anyone who believes we should take action to reduce emissions and prevent anthropogenic warming, and the ark is just the sort of symbol they like to latch on to as proof of our alarmism.

Ultimately, I fear that tactics like this one are simply ineffectual, if not downright harmful. The upcoming G-8 summit could potentially be a turning point in the future of climate change policy, and we need real global awareness, on the ground, in peoples' homes, in the ballot boxes, and in corporate boardrooms. If we can't, we'll have no lifeboat big enough to bring all the animals on, two by two, when the real flood comes.

May. 25th, 2007

2006 sees lower emissions.

According to preliminary data from the Energy Department, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States were down 1.3 percent in 2006, following an all-time high in 2005.

The good news: Less carbon dioxide emissions is always good news. The cock-eyed optimist in me would like to think that popular outreach media like An Inconvenient Truth, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, and The Weather Makers inspired individual citizens to take steps to lower our emissions (buying hybrid cars, taking energy-efficient measures in the home, etc.). The government cites the cause as being moderate weather and high prices of fossil fuels.

The bad news: The United States is still the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and even with the decline our emissions are up 17.9% from 1990. The Bush administration is hailing the 1.3% decline in 2006 as being proof that voluntary efforts to lower emissions are effective without legislation, so why change our energy policy?

May. 16th, 2007

True or False: It was warmer during the Age of the Dinosaurs.

One of the most common "climate skeptic" arguments has to do with the magnitude of warmth compared with other periods in the past. "It was a lot warmer when the dinosaurs were around!" "There was more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the past - this is a natural cycle!"

These statements betray a fundamental ignorance about how the earth system works, and has worked in the past. They are true to a point; yes, the earth was warmer during the age of the dinosaurs, and there was most certainly more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So why is the current warming anything different than a part of the Earth's natural cycle?

Consider the Cretaceous Period, about 145-65 million years ago. The dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, and were about to bite the dust in the extinction that geologists use to label the break between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras (we live in the Cenozoic). By this time, the earth's continents were finally separating from Pangaea, the supercontinent centered over the equator. Europe and North America were still attached, and Gondwana (composed of South America, Africa, Australia, India, and Antarctica) hadn't yet drifted apart. At the beginning of the Cretaceus, the Rockies, Andes, Himalayas, and Sierra Nevada Mountains hadn't formed (though there were some mountains in the American West - thanks to tectonite  for the correction!). The Rockies, Andes, and Himalays would begin their uplift at the end of the Cretaceous, and the Sierra Nevadas would begin forming in the Jurassic. A shallow inland sea covered most of inland North America, from the Appalachian Mountains to the east (believed to then be as high as the Andes, or even the Himalayas), and the rolling foothills where the Rockies would eventually uplift in the west. Sea levels were much higher because there was no polar ice yet; as much as a third of the Earth's land mass was under water (see some nice maps of Cretaceous landmasses here.

The climate was most certainly much warmer than today, with tropical oceans being 9-12 degrees (C) warmer than present, and deep oceans as much as 15-20 degrees warmer. The Tethys Sea, which separated the diverging Laurasian (North American and Asia) and Gondwana supercontinents, connected the tropical oceans. Land masses hadn't drifted as far north as they are today, and the extensive oceans mediated the climate. Tropical vegetation prevailed in most regions, and fossils of palm trees have been found in modern-day Alaska. Even as North America moved close to its present-day position by the end of the Cretaceous, the poles remained warm; the Edmontosaurus lived so far north it would have to have migrated with seasonal darkness in the northern hemisphere!

We're currently living in the Quaternary Period; for the last two and a half million years, we've seen regular cycles of ice ages (100,000 years of ice, and 10,000 of interglacial warmth in between). Even though the continents were close to their present position during the late Cretaceous, the climate was significantly warmer. We know ice ages are caused by a combination of cycles in the Earth's tilt and orbit over tens of thousands of years, but these certainly haven't changed during Earth's history. So why, then, do we have ice ages today, but not during the Cretaceous?

The position of the continents certainly helped mediate the climate, but it took more than that to cool the earth enough for permanent ice to form at the poles. Several important changes in the millions of years following the Cretaceous are responsible for this shift:

1. Mountain uplift. The Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau in particular had a major impact on global cooling after the Cretaceous, forming as a result of the Indian subcontinent colliding into Asia. High mountains change prevailing wind and Jet Stream patterns, blocking warm and moist ocean air from reaching the interior of the continents.

2. Mountain-building and atmospheric carbon. When mountains uplift, they expose more rock to the air, allowing for greater rates of weathering. Carbon dioxide dissolved in rainwater reacts with minerals in rock, forming carbonates. These carbonates get washed to sea, where they settle to the sea-floor and are "trapped" from the atmosphere. The formation of mountains after the Cretaceous actually helped sequester carbon, lowering the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere!

3. The closing of the Isthmus of Panama. When North and South American were connected during the Great American Interchange, the tropical sea currents that connected the widening Atlantic with the Pacific were closed off. The Atlantic in particular cooled significantly, now that ocean currents were diverted from tropical warmth.

4. The opening of the Drake Passage. When South America and Antarctica finally broke apart, this allowed oceans to circulate the South Pole and created a new zone where cold oceanic deepwater is formed (deepwater is cold surface water that sinks to the deep ocean and helps drive oceanic conveyor belts).

The dinosaurs weren't the only part of our planet to disappear during the Cretaceous; temperatures were warmer, and carbon dioxide levels were greater than present, but these were due to a distinct set of characteristics that no longer exist on planet Earth. It took tens of millions of years for the current Earth system to evolve, and the system that has existed for the last 2.4 million years is dramatically different than the past. To compare the age of the dinosaurs to the modern climate system is ludicrous, but it betrays a common misunderstanding of the changing Earth system.

Mar. 31st, 2007


Plows, Plagues, & Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate

When we talk about anthropogenic global warming, we tend to be referring to the dramatic rise in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide since the beginning of the Industrial era, some two hundred years ago. Scientists often refer to this apparent change in the atmosphere as the "Anthropocene," the beginning of significant human impact on the earth.

But what if the Anthropocene started not with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, but some eight thousand years ago?

William Ruddiman, a senior climatologist at the University of Virginia, makes that very argument in his book Plows, Plagues, & Petroleum. Looking back at past paleoclimate data and computer models, Ruddiman noticed that at around 8,000 years ago, carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere should have gone down in association with changes in the Earth's orbital patterns known as Milankovitch Cycles. Instead, he noticed that concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane actually increase, albeit slightly and gradually. Finding no plausible hypothesis for this in his knowledge of earth science, Ruddiman turned to archaeology for clues, and found that the rises in carbon dioxide and methane corresponded with the beginnings of deforestation and landscape burning for agriculture, and the formation of Asia's first rice paddies. Even this relatively small change in human land use (compared to today's scale) was enough to start a long-term trend in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, and possibly contributed to the prevention of the next ice age, which he argues is overdue.

It's a compelling argument, and one that Ruddiman describes in an accessible format without being thin on the scientific details. But Ruddiman doesn't stop there; he continues to examine the seemingly anomalous blips in the carbon dioxide record up through the modern age, in an attempt to explain the unusual (but slight) drops in the record that have taken place in the last thousand years or so. Some such blips, Ruddiman argues, follow major pandemics in human history, such as the Bubonic Plague. Following major decreases in human population, large areas of farmland would return to forested conditions and less wood and other fuels would have been burned, which may have accounted for the decrease in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Ruddiman proposes that this drop may have been responsible for the Little Ice Age.

These thought exercises, backed up with computer models and ice core records, are extremely compelling. Ruddiman of course acknowledges that correlation is not causation; that is, simply because two things happen at the same time, doesn't mean that one caused the other to happen. My only significant criticism is with the title; "control" implies a deliberate attempt on the part of humans to forestall the next ice age, which certainly wasn't the case. Otherwise, the book is concise and well-written, and has an excellent reference list (a feature often neglected by popular science writers).

Ruddiman's ideas have caused a lot of healthy debate and inquiry among climate scientists, and have caused a number of people to rethink the assumption that human impact was negligible until the Industrial era. Researchers will continue to test these hypotheses (Ruddiman and colleagues continue to work on the problem, and are now also looking at the impact of the domestication of livestock animals), and while the jury is out on the "Early Anthropocene" hypothesis, in the meantime the ideas (and the book) make for  good thinking and great conversation.

Cross-posted to antarcticlust, thelunarsociety, and literal_libris

Feb. 3rd, 2007

The day the question mark was removed?

Wisconsin is in the eye of what has been a bitterly cold US this week, and I've been hearing quite a few "so much for global warming, eh?" comments in the last few days. I'm sure the people in Seattle and Georgia are saying the same thing. My landscape ecology professor, David Mladenoff, summed it up quite nicely last Wednesday- what we've been experiencing in the last few weeks is weather, not climate. Unusually cold temperatures, even record-breaking ones, are no more an indication of long-term climate change than the unusually warm temperatures we felt in January. What matters is the global average over time, not the weather we're experiencing. As Mark Twain said, "Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get."

After the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and increased public awareness of global warming, it became increasingly apparant that the "what we expect" bit of Twain's adage is going to change in ways we can't predict with any certainty. Following the controversy over the Mann et al. "hockey stick" (which the 2001 report relied strongly upon) the 2007 report has been strongly anticipated. The wait is over: the IPCC released the summary for policy makers yesterday (The Guardian has a succinct Q&A summary here). While the official report isn't due unti March, the summary effectively translates the science for politicians, NGO's, and others. To summarize:

  • The panel found "unequivocal" warming of the climate system, noting new evidence for changes in Arctic temperatures, sea ice, ocean salinity (related to ocean current circulation), droughts, and tropical cyclones.
  • They estimated that continued greenhouse gas emisions (at present-day levels) would likely result in global temperature increases between 3.2 and 7.2° Fahrenheit (1.8 and 4°C) by 2100, and that 5.5°F (3°C) was the most likely estimate. Melting glacial and polar ice and thermal expansion of water (where water expands because it's warmer) would cause the sea level to rise 7-23 inches (18-59cm). These temperature estimates don't include positive feedbacks, such as those associated with lowering the earth's reflectivity (albedo) when polar ice melts, or diebacks of rainforest trees and reduced ability to take up carbon dioxide.
  • They concluded that  "most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations."
As for the response so far:
From an editorial arcticle in The Telegraph:

Achim Steiner, director general of the UN Environment Programme, said the report was a "critical milestone" and Feb 2 2007 would be remembered as "the day the question mark was removed" from the question of whether mankind was warming the planet.

But meanwhile, from piece in the Canada Free Press:

"Washington, DC – Sen. James Inhofe, (R-Okla.), Ranking Member of the Environment & Public Works Committee, today commented on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Summary for Policymakers."This is a political document, not a scientific report, and it is a shining example of the corruption of science for political gain. The media has failed to report that the IPCC Summary for Policymakers was not approved by scientists but by UN political delegates and bureaucrats."

Already there's an awful lot of name-calling, arm-waving, and smoke-screenging going on; the findings of this report aren't likely to change the mind of anyone who was already a "skeptic," especially someone like Inhofe who thinks that the IPCC is politicizing the issue. Never mind the fact that Inhofe and others have never stated what an intergovernmental body like the IPCC stands to gain from that.

Rather than rolling up my sleeves and reaching for the nearest mud puddle, I offer this article in rebuttal, which made the cover of yesterday's Guardian:

"Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world's largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.

Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)."

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