Archive for the 'climate change' Category

Can someone translate Joseph Romm for me?

July 3, 2009


Blogger-activist-PhD Joseph Romm clearly knows a ton about climate science, renewable energy and the policies of both. I understand none of these things. I would like to understand them more, but for the time being all I can do is read stuff I don’t understand until parts of it begin to stick.

For example, I understand the technical point he and Real Climate are making about Roger Pielke, Sr., who is viewed as an obstructionist climate scientist, and it sounds totally valid. Actually, it sounds like Pielke used to have a point but doesn’t anymore, and in order to maintain his “hard-nosed skeptic” identity he has to torture the empirics, because more facts have come in and they undercut his meta-position.

I’m less sure what to do with Romm’s post, Tom Friedman: Obama “is going to have to mobilize the whole country to pressure the Senate — by educating Americans, with speech after speech, about the opportunities and necessities of a serious climate/energy bill….”

Things I don’t get:

1. He’s seconding something Tom Friedman said. Is this a case of a stopped clock (Friedman) being right twice a day?

2. This bit:

I believe Obama does understand that he will be tarnished forever if this bill goes down.

He’s of course referring to ACES, the cap and trade bill.

Future historians will inevitably judge all 21st-century presidents on just two issues:  global warming and the clean energy transition. If the world doesn’t stop catastrophic climate change — Hell and High Water — then all Presidents, indeed, all of us, will be seen as failures and rightfully so.

Er, okay. What?

Is this translation accurate?

There’s a strong chance under current global climate models that we could see intense changes in local climates and sea level such that many millions / billions of people would have to uproot their lives to attempt to cope, which (a) they can’t afford and (b) given that some predictions of climate models are coming true faster than we expected, we have to assume the worst and act based on that or else we run too high a risk of being totally effed w/r/t modern life.

3. Immediately after (2) comes this: 

How else could future generations judge us if the U.S. and the world stay anywhere near our current emissions path, warm most of the inland United States 10 to 15°F by century’s end, with sea levels 3 to 7 feet higher, rising perhaps an inch or two a year, with the Southwest from Kansas to California a permanent Dust Bowl, and much of the ocean a hot, acidic dead zone — impacts that could be irreversible for 1,000 years if we don’t reverse emissions soon and sharply.  This will require an unbroken — and indeed escalating — response by our political leadership throughout this century.

Is this what he means?: “Here is a worst case scenario. There is too high a probability based on climate models of this scenario coming to pass.”

4. Oh wait, maybe he answered (2) and (3) for me:

Also this is a dynamic messaging environment, so if our side downplays climate impacts, it essentially gives the deniers free reign to shape half of the debate, which they do with a vengeance, indeed with a disdain for both science and scientists — see “Why do deniers like Pielke shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?

5. Which I guess (4) is why he’s making bold claims for what the public understands and desires. (Emphasis his.)

In short, a strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action,” as Mellman writes.

This leads to the key strategic point.  Most of the public gets this — and in particular they understand things are going to get much worse on our current emissions path.  That’s why it is so crucial we keep messaging on climate science and impacts, and keep warning people about what is to come.

Personally — and I admit I’m probably in the minority of science writers, if not the larger public — all I really know is that the words “climate change” make some otherwise calm hairless apes I know want to fling their shit at a wall, and because I respect these particular apes, I want to know the score.

Hence this post.


The climate bill you’ve maybe heard about

June 28, 2009

Now’s as good a time as any to begin a bittersweet game of catch-up on affairs of the climate. On Friday, the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES), by a vote of 219 – 212.

What is ACES?

At the heart of the legislation is a cap-and-trade system that sets a limit on overall emissions of heat-trapping gases while allowing utilities, manufacturers and other emitters to trade pollution permits, or allowances, among themselves. The cap would grow tighter over the years, pushing up the price of emissions and presumably driving industry to find cleaner ways of making energy. [The New York Times]

"grumble grumble"

"grumble grumble"

Bullet points!:

  • “The final bill has a goal of reducing greenhouse gases in the United States to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by midcentury.”
  • “When the program is scheduled to begin, in 2012, the estimated price of a permit to emit a ton of carbon dioxide will be about $13.”
  • “The bill would grant a majority of the permits free in the early years of the program, to keep costs low.”
  • Next up: it goes to the Senate.
  • But first, these words from Climate Progress:

    For climate-politics realists, the vote today is a staggering achievement.  Today was the first time the U.S. House of Representatives has ever voted on climate legislation.  This country hasn’t enacted a major economy-wide clean air bill since the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.  And that bill had a cap-and-trade system where 97% of the permits were given to polluters.  And it focused on direct, obvious, short-term health threats to Americans. And that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, when the entire Republican establishment wasn’t dead set against any government led effort to reduce pollution.

    Yet Waxman-Markey did get 8 Republican votes, which is 8 more than the stimulus bill got!  This bill needed Republican votes, which will also be true in the Senate.  The closeness of the House vote — with 44 Dems voting No — makes clear that the really hard work is yet to come.

    Apparently Democrats from coal-producing states don’t like to support measures that could disrupt (or be spun as disrupting) their constituent’s livelihoods, which means the bill could face a tough fight in the Senate.

    The main point I take from Emily Gertz is that although ACES isn’t particularly ambitious compared with EU policy, the U.S. has to pass something like it to have credibility going into U.N. climate change talks in December.

    Without concerted action, you can’t do much to mitigate climate change; it’s too deeply connected to global economic development. Here’s Andrew Revkin on his Dot Earth blog:

    The bottom line remains, as the International Energy Agency warned in its  2008 World Energy Outlook, that 97 percent of projected growth in emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use through 2030 (without aggressive action) will come in developing countries, with three-fourths of that growth in China, India and the Middle East.

    The pace of emissions and long-term warming largely will be determined by how the Obama administration and other leaders of industrialized powers handle that reality.

    Was it dangerous to give Freeman Dyson a soapbox?

    April 28, 2009

    In a reunion of sorts, fellow traveler Christoper Mims sparked a lively exchange this Monday evening between him, myself and our colleague Nikhil Swaminathan on whether the New York Review of Books erred dangerously in giving Nobel-deprived physics genius Freeman Dyson room to vent his thoughts in an infamous 2008 piece on climate change and whether we can engineer our way out of it.

    Dyson’s NYRB piece must have been the inspiration for a fascinating profile of Dyson in the New York Times magazine. The author, Nicholas Dawidoff, quoted Dyson extensively on his contrarian views. By all credible accounts, Dyson overestimates his grasp of the data. See also this piece on geoengineering as the new climate denialism.

    So, did NYRB open a Pandora’s box of climate bullsh-t? Chris and Nikhil have given me permission to reproduce our exchange here. I hope the discussion will continue in comments.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Freeman Dyson proves that children should be given the vote

    March 30, 2009

    So you may have seen this f*cking awesome profile of Freeman Dyson in the Times magazine, about which much ballyhoo in some popular regions of the blogosphere. Dyson, if you don’t know, is an old guy who sort of looks like Spock or maybe like that nasty orc from LOTR but a cuter, more English version.

    He also thinks it would be cool if airplanes spaceplanes rode on nuclear explosions, and I can’t argue with him there, especially if by “cool” he means effing sweet.

    But apparently Dyson doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to climate science, which sort of complicates the premise of the article, to wit, “hey here’s a really smart guy who’s skeptical of climate change harms – we know climate change is bad, but what this article presumes is, maybe it isn’t?”

    I thought it my duty to report all this to you, my readers. (Hi, Sue.) The over-achievers among you will want to check out some of the other, more obscure regions of the blogosphere dealing with Dyson’s climate crack-pottery, including his claim that Merry and Pippin know some dudes who might be able to help with the climate thing. Thank you, commenters.

    I commend the Times for flushing the fox of Dyson’s ignorance into a clearing so the hounds of expertise might chase it down. It’s the same strategy as one of my favorite blogs.

    So anyway: give kids the vote.

    Freeman Dyson gives us permission to think

    March 29, 2009

    If this profile of Freeman Dyson in the Times magazine doesn’t make it into both science writing anthologies, there is no justice in the world. I can’t recommend it enough. The hook is that Dyson doesn’t think climate change is a big deal. But it touches on everything: life, beauty, genius, science, masculinity, war, string theory, expertise, libertarianism, Greek mythology, polar bears, the Obamas.

    I once claimed that journalists don’t play favorites. I’m forced to eat my words: Freeman Dyson is officially my favorite scientist. Bar none.

    Some immediate reactions:

    • Science is a weapon. 
    • Reasonable people – read: sides of JR’s brain – can disagree about how to frame the potential threats of climate change; or in other words, how shrill to be. (The fact that I always find myself referring to them as “potential threats” says something – to myself, if to noone else.).
    • I think the point for everyone – and by everyone, I mean “me” – is don’t let your commitment to your personal identity blind you to how you’re using “facts” against other people. Translation: I’m sorry, Patrick.

    More textually:

    On why we could have flying cars if we wanted to:

    “I don’t think of myself predicting things,” he says. “I’m expressing possibilities. Things that could happen. To a large extent it’s a question of how badly people want them to. The purpose of thinking about the future is not to predict it but to raise people’s hopes.” 

    On specialists vs. informed outsiders:

    Experts are, he thinks, too often crippled by the conventional wisdom they create, leading to the belief that “they know it all.” 

    On how to disagree with someone:

    “I don’t think it’s time to panic,” [expert says] but contends that, because of global warming, “more sea-level rise is inevitable and will displace millions; melting high-altitude glaciers will threaten the food supplies for perhaps a billion or more; and ocean acidification could undermine the food supply of another billion or so.” Dyson strongly disagrees with each of these points, and there follows, as you move back and forth between the two positions, claims and counterclaims, a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility. 

    On facts vs. values:

    Beyond the specific points of factual dispute, Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil,” and “humanists,” like himself, who contend that protecting the existing biosphere is not as important as fighting more repugnant evils like war, poverty and unemployment.

    On coal – well scrubbed, of course:

    Dyson has great affection for [it] and for one big reason: It is so inexpensive that most of the world can afford it. “There’s a lot of truth to the statement Greens are people who never had to worry about their grocery bills,” he says.

    On how not to become speaker for the dead:

    Dyson writes in “Weapons and Hope,” he became an expert on “how to murder most economically another hundred thousand people.” This work, Dyson told the writer Kenneth Brower, created an “emptiness of the soul.”

    On funny and less funny:

    Like many physicists, Dyson has always loved explosions, and, of course, uncovering the secrets of nature is the first motivation of science. […] “I felt it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist.”

    And finally, on being Michelle Obama:

    Other physicists quietly express disappointment that Dyson didn’t do more to advance the field, that he wasted his promise. […] “I’ve always enjoyed what I was doing quite independently of whether it was important or not,” he says.

    How Malcolm Gladwell ruined climate discourse

    March 28, 2009

    Threatdown: Andrew Revkin, the climate guru for the New York Times, catches me up on the rhetoric and epistemology of the tipping point in climate change.

    You know tipping points – small change, bit effect. It’s a perfectly valid concept in complex systems. In the case of the climate it’s used to refer to scenarios in which an incremental increase in emissions might produce a huge change such as the total melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

    Revkin informs me that there are two camps of climate scientists, and one of them believes the tipping point meme has wrongly become the centerpiece of activists’ calls for reduced emissions, when in fact we have little idea whether, when and in what ways we would tip. This group – the “others,” as opposed to the “some” – “worry that the use of the term ‘tipping point’ can be misleading and could backfire, fueling criticism of alarmism and threatening public support for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

    Both camps agree climate change is a serious potential threat. One camp is just worried about giving the forces of climate inaction more fodder for making scientists and activists sound like a cult that keeps pushing back the date the world will end – no, for real this time.

    I’m actually not in a position to judge whether activists have overused the idea. I definitely picked up some fear of a big jump in sea levels from An Inconvenient Truth – on which see Prometheus science policy blog – and from reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe. Here are five tipping points from Nat Geo. I don’t know where they fall in Revkin’s rubric. (Side note for wonks: Where’s Roger Pielke, Jr., on all this?)

    I am certainly aware of the phenomenon of finding a trick rhetorical pony and riding it into the ground. As a journalist trying to meet daily deadlines, it’s soooo much easier to rely on boilerplate than to pick through the subtleties of an issue and try to convey the bottom line precisely and accurately. 

    Revkin says we’re now back to the old way of thinking about climate harms, which is that, given the complexities of the system, emissions business as usual amounts to a “smooth curve” of risk – no big jumps we can be sure of. Anticipating my friend Patrick’s objections that we don’t have “credible scenarios” for climate change harms, be they gradual or sudden, I’m not in a position to provide lots of specific links.

    I will say that if we have climate modeling that is deemed credible by the relevant community of experts and in which the range of possible outcomes includes those that would be hard for a lot of the world to adapt to, then to say we have to wait for perfect knowledge before we take action reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Homer lets Groundskeeper Willie take the rap for a grift he and Bart committed. Instead of fessing up, Homer lets Wille go berserk on the stand, while he keeps repeating “let’s see how this plays out” as Willie gets himself into more and more trouble on the witness stand.

    Big boo yahs on working the Simpsons in to this post. +10 points for Gryffindor.