Monday, April 30, 2012

Addicted to oil

George W Bush famously declared in his 2006 State of the Union speech that "America is addicted to oil."

But either he didn't know much about addiction, or he didn't recognise his own addiction because he did nothing to help wean the U.S. off its oil addiction.  A few weeks after the speech, the budget he sent to Congress cut $100 million from federal energy conservation programs.

The addiction analogy is compelling and widely used. Andrew Sims uses it in this Guardian article that discusses our deep dependence on oil and our unpreparedness for necessary change. Carol Linnitt uses the addiction analogy in this Desmogblog article about the tactics used by Canadian governments to keep pumping oil regardless of the environmental damage.

In his article about Bikeshares, Adam Jones says says America is addicted to oil and that coming up with feasible alternatives to treat that addiction hasn’t been easy. Sticking to the analogy, Jones recommends Bikeshares as the "methadone of transportation".

Brigadier General Steve Anderson calls on Americans to wean themselves off their oil addiction. He says this should be a top priority for all politicians, regardless of party and says it starts with dealing in facts—not fiction—about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and its nonexistent role in lowering gas prices.

Australian academic Samuel Alexander describes the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as testament to the world’s addiction to oil, because it suggests that the world would sooner go out on a limb and risk great injury,  rather than rethink consumption.

Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), lashes governments once more for their inaction.
Our addiction to fossil fuels grows stronger each year. Many clean energy technologies are available but they are not being deployed quickly enough to avert potentially disastrous consequences.

To meet the carbon cuts that scientists calculate are needed, the IEA says the world needs to generate 28% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and 47% by 2035. Yet renewables now make up just 16% of global electricity supply.

Van der Hoeven puts the blame squarely on policymakers, and she challenges ministers to step up to the task of weaning the world off its addiction to oil.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Serengeti Strategy

Lions hunting on the Serengeti stand at the edge of a herd and pick out a single individual, then they hunt as a group to separate the individual and bring it down.

In his book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, Michael E. Mann says that climate change deniers use the same tactic. There are thousands of climate scientists working in a range of fields including meteorology, atmospheric physics, oceanography, geobiology, cryospherics, paleoclimate, geology, etc, etc. It's impossible to attack the whole herd, there are too many of them and they are too strong. So deniers have focused on a handful of scientists and thrown everything at them.

Michael Mann and James Hansen are two prominent climate scientists who have been targeted by climate change deniers in attacks ranging from political enquiries and media scorn through to death threats to their families.

Luckily for us, they don't take it lying down. They continue to conduct research and communicate their findings. Fortunately, the wider science community is beginning to recognise the Serengeti Strategy and it is gathering forces to protect individual scientists who are singled out by the denier camp.  Two of these initiatives are the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and the Climate Science Rapid Response Team.

The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund helps cover the legal costs incurred in defending mischievous legal attacks.

The Climate Science Rapid Response Team locates relevant climate science specialists to answer questions or give informed interviews. This initiative puts journalists, politicians and citizens in touch with hundreds of credible scientists who know their stuff and can give timely responses.

The Serengeti Strategy doesn't work when it is recognised for what it is and when the herd acts decisively to protect those who are singled out for attack.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A grand symphony weaves complex patterns

While Mark Twain said “Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get,” Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist for Climate Central, describes climate as an orchestra.
I think of climate as being like an orchestra. It has so many elements, the way an orchestra has many sounds. 

If you have listened deeply to complex orchestral compositions from different composers, you'll see that the analogy fits well. From mild, balmy climates to the freezing arctic or windy mountains, there's music to match.

Orchestral music can mimic the rhythms of climatic variation, the oscillating repetitions of El Nino or the Arctic Oscillation Index, as well as unexpected variations on a theme.

Cullen notes that climate change has added a new element to the music played by the climate orchestra— a steady drumbeat of warming in our climate system, caused by us.

What should you listen for when you listen to the climate orchestra? While you enjoy the seasonal riffs, the musical motifs and embellishments, the highs and lows, and the transitions, don't lose track of the rising tempo of the kettle drums up the back.

They are counting the increasing number of extreme weather events. Last year, 2011 set the record for the most billion-dollar weather disasters—14 of them, in one year.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Into combat!

Click to enlarge. Source: Brian McFadden in NYT

The differences between those who accept the mainstream science on climate change versus those who don't is most often characterised as a battle or war.

Michael Mann's latest book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Despatches from the Front Lines gives a clear outline of the opposition he has met. The force of opposition, the dirty tricks and personal attacks certainly fit the metaphor of war.

A 2010 editorial in Nature famously acknowledged the 'no holds barred' nature of the attacks on scientists.
The integrity of climate research has taken a very public battering in recent months. Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.
Both sides attack and defend as though their lives depended on it. And of course, they do.

The difference is that one side thinks everyone's life depends on it, while the other side seems to be looking after itself at the expense of others.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Jigsaw puzzle

You open your new 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and tip the pieces onto the table making a messy pile of colours and shapes. One by one, you fit them together and the picture begins to emerge. Way before the end, you can see the big picture, but it is not until the last piece goes in that all the details are evident.

Scientists describe climate change as a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces.

Climate scientist Michael Mann says:
... the evidence for human-caused climate change is more like a vast puzzle, a few pieces of which come from paleoclimate data like what my colleagues and I studied in our hockey-stick paper.

Meteorologist Paul Douglas says:
The changes we’re seeing, far more than I can list here, seem like an accumulation of coincidences. Pieced together, reveal the full puzzle: There’s more heat and moisture in the atmosphere, and our emissions are largely responsible for keeping it there.
 Paul Douglas in Bloomberg News

Climate Bites  contrasts the jig saw approach with the house of cards approach to science. House-of-cardists busily attack a single element believing it will bring the whole house down. Jig-sawists point out that climate science is not like that. 

In testimony before Congress in 2010, Nobel-lauriate Mario Molina described his jigsaw analogy this way (via Dot Earth, Andy Revkin). 
There appears to be a gross misunderstanding of the nature of climate change science among those that have attempted to discredit it. They convey the idea that the science in question behaves like a house of cards: if you remove just one of them, the whole structure falls apart.

However, this is certainly not the way the science of complex systems has evolved. A much better analogy is a jigsaw puzzle: many pieces are missing, and some might even be in the wrong place, but there is little doubt that the overall image is clear, namely that climate change is a serious threat that needs to be urgently addressed.

It is also clear that modest amounts of warming will have both positive and negative impacts, but above about 4 or 5 degrees Fahrenheit most impacts turn negative for many ecological systems, and for most nations.

Climate change deniers like to pretend that the climate science rests on one or two pieces of evidence and they keep attacking the same one or two things. They're looking at a kindergarten puzzle with only two or three pieces, but the vast complexity of atmospheric physics and planetary climate systems are more like those 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles with no straight edges.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Connect the dots

A good Connect the Dots puzzle is one where you don't see the picture until you have done the work of joining the dots. If you don't do the work, you don't see the picture.

Climate scientists connected the dots on changing weather patterns decades ago. They warned that the planet was warming and the consequences would be catastrophic. Many governments paid attention and began to implement policies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Then vested industry groups began campaigns of misinformation and doubt that obscured the picture and prevented many from connecting the dots. 

Right now, the extreme weather events of the past 12 months are causing more people to connect the dots between record-breaking weather events and the long term trend of climate change. For many, the picture is emerging more clearly.

This new awareness will be leveraged by's Connect the Dots campaign that encourages grassroots events on 5 May 2012 around the world.
Climate Impacts Day is a global day of action taking place on May 5, 2012. On that day, we will issue a wake-up call, and connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather. We will educate, protest, create, document, and volunteer along with thousands of people around the world.

You can use their event finder to locate an event near you, or to start your own event.

See Bill McKibben's articulate 'Connect the Dots' piece in the Washington Post

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Triage in the planetary ER

In the planetary ER, the walking wounded and stretcher cases are trickling in. The trickle is likely to turn into a flood as the planet continues to warm. Which problems need our immediate attention? Let's ask the triage nurse.

Here are the coral reefs damaged by the increasing PH of oceans as they absorb more CO2. And here are the small island states that are affected by rising sea levels. Coming through the door are the millions affected by extreme weather events (12 extreme weather events in the US in 2010 had an estimated $57bn damage while 70,000 people died in the 2003 heatwave in Europe). Here are the threatened species and here is the compromised maple syrup industry. And here is the thawing permafrost that is releasing methane into the atmosphere making matters worse.

The ER nurse would probably ask the maple syrup industry to take a seat while the doctors attend to poor old permafrost who needs to lie down in a cool dark room, or extreme events who is having a temper fit and needs restraint. 

Given limited resources, we are going to have to decide which problems are important and absolutely MUST be addressed immediately, which problems can be handled a bit later, and which problems will never be addressed, instead they'll be accepted as collateral damage.

It's likely that maple syrup producers in zones that become too warm will be collateral damage. Maybe they can close up shop and then sue the government for damages for failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions decades ago.

Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a senior analyst in the Climate & Energy program at UCS, used the triage metaphor in this blog post.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Like a baseball player on steroids

Steroids won't guarantee that a baseball player hits a home run every time, but the drugs increase the chances of hitting more home runs across the whole playing season.

The greenhouse gases that are warming the atmosphere and oceans won't guarantee that we will get more extreme weather events EVERY year, but they will increase the chances of more extreme weather events over longer periods. It's already happening.

NCAR/UCAR has a great resource page framed around the baseball on steroids metaphor. Among the goodies, they offer this two minute cartoon video explanation.

Jeff Masters, a meteorologist and cofounder of the Weather Underground, describes global warming as like putting the atmosphere on steroids.

He uses this analogy in this PBS interview in the broadcast  “How 2011 Became a ‘Mind-Boggling’ Year of Extreme Weather” that aired on on 28 December 2011.

And for those who think climate change has nothing to do with baseball, take a look at this graph of globabl temperatures and home run rates. Correlation is not causation, but...  The graph is discussed in this Washington Post article where climatologist Michael Mann is quoted as saying that the carbon emissions behind climate change may lower home runs. “If anything, anthropogenic carbon emissions and global warming should make the atmosphere slightly heavier, because we’re taking carbon that was trapped in the solid earth and releasing to the atmosphere (in the form of CO2), and a warmer atmosphere will hold more water vapor. Both CO2 and water vapor contribute (slightly) to the mass of the atmosphere.”

Temperatures compared to a 1951-1980 baseline since 1880 and the average home runs per team per game since 1880. (Temperature data from NASA GISS; home run data from ) [Click to enlarge]

We need to start taking the steroids out of the system by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Safe driving

It is difficult to know whether the car in front of you is going to slam on its brakes. Once it does, you are in crisis mode and your options are limited.

It is far better to practise safe driving and pay attention to what's up ahead. That way you can take evasive action in time to avoid it altogether, or to minimise the damage.

All the best scientists agree that there is a big problem ahead – the planet is warming and the consequences will be catastrophic for human society.

James Hansen, NASA climatologist, warns us, here,  of the dangers of exploiting Canada's tar sands.
Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.

Matthew Huber, a Purdue climatologist, says that a 10°C temperature rise is definitely too hot for humans. He also thinks that 2°C  is a lost cause.

What happens if we ignore the problem that lies ahead and we're forced to cope in crisis mode? How can humans and animals adapt to catastrophic high temperatures? 
Burrow. Be active at night. Stay near bodies of water. Reduce activities to a minimum. Lower birth weight.
 Matthew Huber

Matthew Huber used this analogy in this interview.
Image is of a Volvo XC60 with sensor system to prevent rear impact collisions at city speeds.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Good news story

What's the good news story about climate change? For me, it is the exciting transition to a low-carbon economy.

The new low-carbon world will benefit billions of people by:
  • Reducing prices/costs – reducing the cost of energy as fossil fuel prices soar. California wind and solar generators have signed contracts to deliver electricity for less than the cost of gas generators. Solar PV is cheaper than diesel in places as sunny as Spain.
  • Security – homegrown renewable energy gives certainty of supply that can't be provided by importing fossil fuels.
And of course the switch to a low carbon economy will prevent the worst excesses of 'business as usual' climate change.

Right now I can add to my rooftop solar PV for about $4,000 and eliminate electricity bills. Forever. It will take four years to recoup the $4,000 investment, after that I get free electricity.

I look forward to the first plug-in hybrid cars. They will eliminate my petrol bills except for occasional long trips. My current Prius saves me $1,000 a year in fuel bills, compared with my previous car.

I also want to see solar and wind power in the poorest countries – funded by carbon offset programs. A quarter of the world's population does not have electricity at all. I want them to get clean power.

What's YOUR good news story?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Who is winning the race?

Right now, nations are racing towards the new low-carbon future.

Fossil fuels can only get more expensive because the cheapest reserves have already been tapped and new reserves are more expensive. When industrialised economies were developing, oil was the equivalent of $13 a barrel, but now countries must pay $120 to $130, according to Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency.

Another factor making fossil fuels more expensive is the increasing recognition of the damage caused by greenhouse gases and the impact of global warming. More countries are imposing carbon taxes/prices which will add to the cost of fossil fuels.

The race is on – 2011 was the first year that global investments in renewable energy surpassed investments in fossil fuels. 

European countries are ahead in the race because they started running years ago, while others watched from the sidelines. Now more countries are also running hard.

Some runners have been slowed down by fossil fuel interests that have undermined public confidence in the science behind climate change.  These countries are hobbled by their misinformed electorates.

Who are the winners? Anyone who is ahead of the pack will be a winner because they will avoid the worst impact of rising fossil fuel costs. Eventually, everyone will get there, but the laggards will pay a high price. Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, says that for every $1 that countries do not spend on cleaner fuel, they will have to spend $4.3 within the next two decades to make up for their reliance on fossil fuels.

Rich countries have a moral obligation to help poor countries keep up with the main pack.

Scott Mandia, a professor of meteorology at Suffolk County Community College in New York uses this analogy.  He is the founder of The Climate Science Rapid Response Team and The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.  He is a leading US voice in engaging the public, media and his students about the serious threat of climate change.

Source: Be Green

Bloomberg New Energy Finance produces a ranking of the Top 20 Green Banks which it bills as The Race for Clean Energy.

Monday, April 2, 2012

It's like your health – bad habits make it worse

Climate change is making difficult situations even worse, just as poor habits will make your health worse.

We know that poor diet affects health, and we know lack of exercise affects health, and when you put them both together, it REALLY affects our health.

We are using our natural resources at the edge of their capacity, or beyond it. For example, agriculture in West Texas relies on extracting water from the aquifers in winter. They are already extracting more water than is being replenished, so they will run out of water in a few decades.

The added impact of climate change makes the situation worse, and farmers in West Texas are likely to run out of water sooner.

The natural variability of the climate system puts stress on human activity through droughts, floods, severe winters, heatwaves, storms, etc. Climate change is making this natural variability more severe. 

The health analogy was used by Katharine Hayhoe, Research Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas Tech University, in this interview.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

House of bricks

You can think of the ecosystem as a very big house composed of 40 million bricks. Every brick represents a unique species. And every day, around 120 bricks are removed from somewhere in the building as species become extinct. 

"As more bricks are removed, cracks would develop in the walls, the roof would sag, and leaks would appear. At some point that we cannot predict, the entire structure would collapse and the house would turn to rubble."
 Source:  Clemson University

H/T Char Grainger

The clothes dryer effect

Just as a clothes dryer uses warm air to evaporate more easily, so our warming planet is drawing more moisture into the atmosphere. This moisure is leading to more extreme weather.

A report released in March 2012 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that a strong body of evidence links global warming to an increase in heat waves, a rise in episodes of heavy rainfall and other precipitation, and more frequent coastal flooding. 

We're lurching from one weather extreme to another. The United States saw a February freeze followed by record breaking warm Spring weather where farmers are planting six weeks early.  Across Europe, people died by the hundreds during a severe cold wave in the first half of February, but a week later revelers in Paris were strolling down the Champs-Élysées in their shirt-sleeves. Australia has gone from a 10 year drought to record breaking floods.

Scientists say that the loss of Arctic ice is part of the story.
The question really is not whether the loss of the sea ice can be affecting the atmospheric circulation on a large scale, the question is, how can it not be, and what are the mechanisms?
Jennifer A. Francis, a Rutgers University climate researcher

Thomas C. Peterson, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, used the clothes dryer analogy in this NYT article.