Friday, September 30, 2011

The tragedy of the commons, illustrated

By the inestimably great xkcd:

Markets do works -- if they didn't, we wouldn't be living in an age of almost unimaginable prosperity, relative to what came before. But when people use a resource they do not own, things get more complicated. As in the case of Black Hat guy, unowned resources allow us to privatize the benefits of a destructive act while socializing the losses, spreading them out over many people. Ownership prevents this from happening by providing someone in control of a resource who has a natural incentive to maximize its value, which includes not letting it be ruined by overuse or misuse.

What if you have something no one can own, like the ocean, or the atmosphere? Well, then you need collective political action to create a pseudo-ownership, either through regulation or a Pigovian tax that creates a "price" for damaging the resource, correcting the market incentives to account for the unowned resource without otherwise distorting the market. In the case of climate change, what we need is a carbon tax.

This is not a leftist/Marxist/back-to-nature/anticapitalist idea. Even that beloved saint of blog-libertarian crackpots, Hayek, is on board:

Nor can certain harmful effects of deforestation, or of some methods of farming, or of the smoke and noise of factories, be confined to the owner of the property in question or to those who are willing to submit to the damage for an agreed compensation.  In such instances we must find some substitute for the regulation by the price mechanism.  But the fact that we have to resort to the substitution of direct regulation by authority where the conditions for the proper working of competition cannot be created, does not prove that we should suppress competition where it can be made to function.”  (Hayek, 1944)
 H/t Dan Kearny, who has a sentence by sentence analysis of the passage.  Pielke (Junior not Senior) is with us. At low levels, a carbon tax would likely pay for itself in terms of reduced lung disease alone.

We ought to get serious about this. We can't feast forever on invisible meat.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Food prices hockey stick, and the folly of climate isolationism

H/t Climate Progress. When we talk about starvation and climate change, the image that is invoked is one of an apocalyptic future in which absolute scarcity brings hunger to rich and poor alike.That may be in our future, but that's not the way it starts.

We know global warming is already depressing yields of rice, wheat, and corn. This raises the price of these staples -- which, along with soya, ultimately account for three-quarters of the calories we eat. Among those already at the edge of starvation -- the 1.1 billion people living on less than a dollar a day -- sharply higher food prices will push some of them over the edge. Among the 925 million people who are undernourished, some will starve outright (some six million children a year) and many more will have their lives stunted or cut short by ill health. When you double food prices, as has happened over the last ten years, more of those people will go under.

Global warming is not the major driver of the current price rise -- food prices have also spiked due to increasing population and increasing consumption among the wealthy and middle class in the developing world. But they are contributing (and that contribution will only grow), and those that do not have the resources to fight for calories are among the first fatalities from climate change.

There will be some who say, and more who feel, that we can ignore these victims because they are poor, that better governments and better markets could have saved them, and that greenhouse gases and the warming therefrom can be just another export to the developing world from the rich world, that we can live with climate change in which they starve, and we cope with a big hurricane now and then. But that view is willfully blind to the facts. Yes, global warming will hit the poor first and hardest, but it won't stop there.

Eventually, if we do not act, those with the best governments and the best markets will be overcome too. Because of our institutions and our wealth, we have a much greater capacity to adapt, but not a limitless one. The poor, if I may be forgiven a cruel analogy, are canaries in a coal mine. And not just that. We are more connected to each other now than we were in the 20th century. People and their diseases move more freely. Nuclear weapons have spread more widely. Global terrorists have shown their reach. Climate isolationism is no more practical than the traditional sort.

There are those who say, "Let us ignore the continent of Europe. Let us leave it with its hatreds and its armaments, to stew in its own juice, to fight out its own quarrels, and decree its own doom. Let us turn our backs to this melancholy and alarmist view. Let us fix our gaze across the ocean and see our own life in our own dominions and empires." 

There would be very much to this plan if only we could unfasten the British islands from their rock foundations, and could tow them three thousand miles across the Atlantic Ocean, and anchor them safely upon the smiling coasts of Canada; but I have not yet heard of any way in which this could be done. No engineer has come forth with a plan. It would, in any case, take a long time. Have we got a long time?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Watching the rice

A new study finds global warming is already depressing rice yields:

Climate change, the monsoon, and rice yield in India – Auffhammer et al. (2011) “Recent research indicates that monsoon rainfall became less frequent but more intense in India during the latter half of the Twentieth Century, thus increasing the risk of drought and flood damage to the country’s wet-season (kharif) rice crop. Our statistical analysis of state-level Indian data confirms that drought and extreme rainfall negatively affected rice yield (harvest per hectare) in predominantly rainfed areas during 1966–2002, with drought having a much greater impact than extreme rainfall. Using Monte Carlo simulation, we find that yield would have been 1.7% higher on average if monsoon characteristics, especially drought frequency, had not changed since 1960. Yield would have received an additional boost of nearly 4% if two other meteorological changes (warmer nights and lower rainfall at the end of the growing season) had not occurred. In combination, these changes would have increased cumulative harvest during 1966–2002 by an amount equivalent to about a fifth of the increase caused by improvements in farming technology. Climate change has evidently already negatively affected India’s hundreds of millions of rice producers and consumers.” Maximilian Auffhammer, V. Ramanathan and Jeffrey R. Vincent, Climatic Change, DOI: 10.1007/s10584-011-0208-4.

H/t AGWObserver. Milo Hamilton, a "global corporate rice buyer for Uncle Ben's," consultant, and president of, brings the knowledge:

If you have come to hear my short-term price outlook, well here it is: The loss since June of large portions of world wheat and coarse grain production has left us with much higher and more volatile prices for alternatives for farmers to plant in the next year. Even rice may be affected in some areas at the margin by the high prices of corn, wheat and soybeans in particular. Rice as well has suffered some losses in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, China, Cambodia and Thailand as well as in the Western Hemisphere, last year in South America, this year in the United States due to record setting night time temperatures. We may have lost upwards of half a million MT of US paddy rice versus the September estimate from the US Department of Agriculture.
 Increased nighttime warming relative to the average temperature is, of course, one of the telltale features of anthropogenic warming and will be an increasing problem in the years to come.

Hamilton also note the uniquely thirsty nature of rice as a crop:

Water is a particularly difficult issue for all countries with large populations and low levels of ground water per capita. In particular, because rice takes two or three times as much ground water as other rain fed crops, the cost of water can lead to radical changes in how and where rice is grown. A good example is Egypt that is trying to face in to a future where its major River the Nile is projected to stop flowing into the sea within a decade. Notice that Egyptian experts estimate that it takes about six billion cubic meters of water to grow one million acres of Egyptian rice. If folks start charging for water, the price of rice could go to very high levels.
The loss of reliable glacier runoff, worsening droughts, and the salinization of the water table that can be expected with rising seas will all exacerbate a problem of water scarcity created by overpopulation, subsidy and waste.

The long-term outlook for rice is grim:

South Asia is home to nearly 22% of the world’s population, including 40% of the world’s poor. Agriculture plays a critical role in terms of employment and livelihood security for a large majority of people in all countries of the region. The region is prone to climatic extremes, which regularly impact agricultural production and farmers’ livelihood. Himalayan glaciers, a major source of water for the rivers in the Indo-Gangetic plains, are projected to significantly recede in future that could affect food and livelihood security of millions of people in Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh. Climate change is further projected to cause a 10–40% loss in crop production in the region by the end of the century.
 Accompanied by a 50% increase in population. Remember the number -- 14.5 trillion calories a day. It's non-negotiable. And it's under threat.

Pielke Jr: Greens hate innovation

The lesser Pielke has a new post reiterating his dislike of of the "climate wedge" analysis, which says, somewhat incontestably one might presume, that stablizing greenhouse gas emissions will require a number of different tactics, which some people like to group together in terms of "wedges" of reduced emissions.

It takes a while for Pielke to get to the point of what he has against wedges, but he does give us this sweet graphic:
Apparently if you disagree with Pielke after he has already said you are wrong, you are a zombie. With ice cream. So what is the wedge analysts' terrible mistake?
The focus on deployment, often to derision if not the exclusion of the need for innovation, is still central to environmental messaging, even as the math of emissions reductions would seem obvious and the policy centerpiece of DTW -- cap-and-trade -- has failed comprehensively.
I'm sorry, what? Environmentalists don't like innovation? That's ridiculous. Environmentalists, like the rest of the public, love the idea of green tech, love to highlight the next newest best solar panel/wind turbine/tidal energy station. And what does that have to do with climate wedges?

One might think that the modern environmental movement is adept enough at simple math to accept this message and thus proceed to advocate policies consistent with our lack of technological capabilities, such as calling for a much greater commitment to innovation. While some have, of course, the loudest, most well funded and arguably most influential parts of the movement have strenuously resisted the notion that we do not have the technology needed to rapidly decarbonize our economy, preferring to hold on to the myth that -- in the words of the original "wedges" paper -- "Humanity can solve the carbon and climate problem in the first half of this century simply by scaling up what we already know how to do."
 So what Pielke is really mad about is the notion that we can start to decarbonize now, today, as opposed to his preferred approach -- waiting and waiting on a magical technological fix whose sheer low-cost high-yield awesomeness will cause it to literally vanish from the Popular Mechanics cover struggling to contain it and materialize in the world.

The climate "wedge" approach gets caught in the crossfire here for no other reason than the fact that by breaking the problem into eight or ten or twenty "wedges," you pre-refute the common "skeptic" counterargument that "Well, that won't be enough [by itself] to solve the problem." Wedge analysis highlights what we can do today by combining the tools and technology we have rather than waiting for a single technological "silver bullet" (which, if we find one at some point, will be a more than welcome development.)

What makes Pielke just furious is the notion that we have the tools to start solving this problem right now, if we chose to use them. That if France get 75% of its energy from nuclear power, nuclear power could provide more of the world's energy. That if Japan gets twice as much economic output from a unit of energy as the US, that a Japan-like commitment to energy efficiency could cut emissions. That solar and wind power costs are falling and while not "competitive" with coal or natural gas, are already cheap enough for widespread deployment without bankrupting ourselves. And so on.

The beauty of a carbon tax is that you never have to chose between a dollar for research and innovation and a dollar to implement the solution you already have. You price the negative externality of carbon correctly, and you let the market make that call. Regardless, Pielke is not being honest with himself here. When he says he has a problem with greens' attitude towards new technology, real issue is their rejection of his rationalization for procrastination -- some day the technology will save us, but not yet, Lord, not yet.

A little Philip Larkin for your Tuesday, Dr. Pielke:

Next, Please 
Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead wit golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

'Nuff said

OTTAWA — Canada’s Arctic ice shelves, formations that date back thousands of years, have been almost halved in size over the last six years, Canadian researchers said on Tuesday.
Researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa, who regularly analyze satellite images from the region, also found that a major portion of the ice shelves split in half this summer and other pieces covering an area roughly one and a half times that of Manhattan have broken off since the end of July.
Consistently higher temperatures in Canada’s Arctic, the researchers said, were the main cause of the dramatic decline.
“It’s fascinating to bear witness to this as a scientist but it also saddens me as a general citizen of the planet to see this happen,” said Derek Mueller, a professor at the university’s school of geography and environmental studies. “We’ve seen this on timescale of six years yet these ice shelves are thought to have been in place for thousands of years.”
H/t Nytimes Green blog.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Berezow cherry-picked in "Who is antiscience?" smacktown

"I don't care who you voted for."

The whole left-antiscience vs right-antiscience dust-up has left me strangely cold. Should be right up our alley here at ITracker ("IT support" when we're at home). Climate denial is anti-science. Climate denial is associated with the far right, and especially prevalent among Tea Partiers. And while it doesn't make them very happy, we've argued on this blog that emphasizing the ideological roots of so-called skeptics is constructive.

So you might say that this is a debate the whole corpus of IT has helped set the stage for. So why the diffidence?

For me I guess the reason why you are antiscience on a given issue is less important than the fact that you are. If it matters what the political, social, and religious motivations of that denial are, it matters because by recognizing the motive, by elucidating the bias, antiscience is less likely to be confused with a legitimate critique of particular science.

Further, this debate seems destined to shed more heat than light. If Nate Silver has taught us anything, it's that when talking heads start debating a point like this, you need to fall back on some sort of objective numeric assessment, with reasonable caveats. Otherwise this is the kind of nonsense you end up debating (from the Alex Berezow blog post at USAToday that started the recent dust-up):
Unfortunately for Democrats, their progressive political allies often hold blatantly anti-science beliefs themselves. And in some cases, progressives actively undermine technological progress.  
Federal health data suggest that anti-vaccine sentiment is more common in progressive areas.
The "left" has been conflated with Democrats, so you would think we are about to hear about the beliefs and activities of Democrats. No such luck: the blogger holds them guilty by association with their "progressive allies." Who are they? How are they defined as progressive? How are you determining them to be the Democrats "allies"?

Guilt by association is all very well -- "Tell me what company you keep and I'll tell you who you are" -- but you need to show the association somehow! And Alex's evidence is, to put it mildly, underwhelming:
Federal health data suggest that anti-vaccine sentiment is more common in progressive areas.  With the exception of Alaska, the states with the highest rates of vaccine refusal for kindergarteners are Washington, Vermont and Oregon — three of the most progressive states in the country.
Unlike denying evolution, refusing vaccinations can be deadly.
Whoa. That's some ironclad reasoning there (*).

So Berezow is calling these states "progressive" and blaming that for their low rates of vaccination. Wouldn't it be more straightforward to poll progressives on their attitudes towards vaccines (maybe because what polling there is shows no connection between progressive politics and vaccine denial)? Other commentators pointed out that the conservative, rural eastern regions of Oregon and Washington had vaccine refusal rates just as high as the liberal west edges. Berezow glosses over the fact that Alaska, one of the most conservative states in the nation, is a top refuser.

So by Berezow's own calculation, he has an n = 4, and of that 4, one state is very conservative while the others are a mix of urban progressive/rural conservative where progressives (or at least Democrats) dominate statewide elections.

Not exactly persuasive. What if you took a slightly larger sample -- the top ten -- and used their votes in a tight national election, like Bush/Gore 2000, to gauge how progressive they are?

Wyoming did not even report its data last year, and no wonder: until 2010, they didn't even require children over the age of nine to be vaccinated. An effort to strengthen the law met with fierce resistance. So let's include Wyoming -- the unreported number is likely high. The top ten:

1. Washington (6.2%) (Gore)
2. Vermont (5.8%)      (Gore)
3. Alaska (5.5%)         (Bush)
4. Oregon (5.4%)        (Gore)
5. Michigan (4.4%)     (Gore)
6. Illinois (4.3%)         (Gore)
7. Utah (3.8%)            (Bush)
8. Nebraska (3.8%)     (Bush)
9. Idaho (3.8%)           (Bush)
10. Wyoming (?)         (Bush)

Five for Bush, five for Gore. "Progressive states are anti-vaccine" turns out to be a massive cherry pick; total nonsense. Seven out of the ten states are western states, both the Gore and the Bush states. That's kind of interesting. Really, all we learn from this is that vaccination rates depend on the strength of the mandatory vaccination law, and laws vary from state to state and region to region for any number of reasons.

I may have more on this anon, but in the meantime: beware of talking heads bearing cherries.


* It's a bit of a side issue, but I should point out that if doctors and biologists ever came to doubt the theory of evolution, the evolved resistance of bacteria to antibiotics would quickly kill a great many people. And by encouraging their children to see their biology teacher as the enemy of their faith, who knows how many potentially great scientists and physicians never got started on the path to realizing their talent, to the determent of us all.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Roy Spencer: the unacknowledged legislator of the world

This quote has been making the rounds, but for anyone who missed it:

Roy Spencer: “I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.”

Seriously. He said that. He doesn't even deny saying it. And is apparently deaf to the irony.
This the guy who raged:

Politicians formed the IPCC over 20 years ago with an endgame in mind: to regulate CO2 emissions. I know, because I witnessed some of the behind-the-scenes planning. It is not a scientific organization. It was organized to use the government-funded scientific research establishment to achieve policy goals.
Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But when they are portrayed as representing unbiased science, that IS a bad thing.

The most vocal climate scientists defending the IPCC have lost their objectivity. . . .
ClimateGate doesn’t prove their science is wrong…but it does reveal their bias.
 This is a classic terrorist/freedom fighter cognitive blind spot. Spencer sees his mission in science as defeating the campaign for certain policy choices . . . specifically emissions cuts. Yet he does not see his own explicit political goals as making him "biased." They did it first! You are hysterical, he is passionate! Roy destroyed scientific objectivity in order to save it!

"I don't have the votes. Time for a filibuster!"

It's a common cognitive glitch, but it is still surprising to see it developed to the point at which he would be denouncing scientists for (supposedly) trying to "achieve policy goals" and then be calling himself "a little like a legislator."

"Seriously, dude, you went too far."
Nothing says scientists can't or shouldn't participate in the public debate. They are citizens, and the democratic ethos, since Athens, has held that whatever your day job, you have the right, and sometimes the responsibility, to be part of the discussion. But you shouldn't see that as your job, "supported by the taxpayer." The only people paid by the taxpayer to be policy advocates are politicians. Roy Spencer is paid by the taxpayer to do science. One wishes he would work a little harder at that, even at the expense of his legislative ambitions.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Roger A. Pielke -- has had -- enough -- of lukewarmers

Roger A. Pielke, senior,  has rather blithely dismissed the lukewarmers' raison de arte. Skeptical Science has the story:

We believe Dr. Pielke framed the prudent path forward with regards to addressing the risks posed by climate change very well (emphasis added):
"The emission of CO2 into the atmosphere, and its continued accumulation in the atmosphere is changing the climate. We do not need to agree on the magnitude of its global average radiative forcing to see a need to limit this accumulation. The biogeochemical effect of added CO2 by itself is a concern as we do not know its consequences. At the very least, ecosystem function will change resulting in biodiversity changes as different species react differently to higher CO2. The prudent path, therefore, is to limit how much we change our atmosphere."
Dr. Pielke further clarified his position in a later comment:
"I am very much in favor of energy sources which minimize the input [of] gases and aerosols into the atmosphere. Much of my career has been involved with reducing air pollution (both in research and in policy). What we should move towards is an economy with as small a footprint on the natural environment as possible."
We strongly agree with Dr. Pielke on this issue, as we have previously written, and we hope climate "skeptics" heed his sage words.
Dr. Piekle, without mentioning lukewarmers by name, gets to the heart of why their position -- climate sensitivity may be lower than estimated (which Piekle believes to be true) -- therefore we should not act to reduce emissions -- makes no logical sense. We've been there before:

Most estimates of climate sensitivity, regardless of how they are derived (and there are several lines of evidence including comparisons with paleoclimate, response to modern forcings like the Mount Pinatubo eruption, and climate modeling) include in their 95% confidence interval sensitivities between 1-2C. In some cases, the central estimate is between 1.2-1.5C for a doubling of CO2. So favoring a low number for climate sensitivity is not, by itself, enough to put you at odds with the "consensus." You need the other piece – the it's-not-a-big-deal piece. And that's where the trouble starts. . . .
Scientists estimate a warming of 2C as the upper limit of what our civilization can adapt to, and not suffer disaster on a planetary scale. This is probably an optimistic number . . .

The hard lower limit of climate sensitivity -- the lowest it can possibly be and account for our direct observations – is about 1.1C (the real number is very likely to be in that range of 2.6C-4.1C – but we are following the "lukewarmist" argument to see where it leads). The change in forcings expected from a "business as usual" 21st century are +8.5W/m^2 – about 2 1/3 doublings of CO2.

Hence with the lowball number – the number Steven Fuller attributes not to lukewarmers but to out-and-out deniers – put us on course for 2.5C of warming this century. In other words, the lukewarmers' own numbers belie their causal attitude to reducing greenhouse emissions.

Perhaps I could insert a joke here about how maybe Pielke reads the blog, but this misses the point. This isn't my idea: it's just the iron grip of logic and common sense. Could climate sensitivity be lower than we think? Sure. Would that mean it was safe to radically alter the Earth's climate? No. In fact -- and Pielke echoes this part of my argument, as well -- the very fact that we can't predict the consequences with certainty implies the need for greater caution and "as small a footprint on the natural environment as possible."

"[A]s small a footprint on the natural environment as possible." What warmist-alarmist leftist-secular-socialist ecomarxist rent-seeking climate scientist could say it better?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Xkcd on how to make science denial work for you

Xkcd has a modest proposal:

Unfortunately finding a climate denier to put their money where their mouth is is not so easy. If the world isn't getting warmer, the chance that 2012 will be the warmest year in the instrumental record should be less than 1%. All the people predicting global cooling -- or claiming that global cooling has already started, or that there's been no warming since 2000 -- ought to be willing to give ten to one or twenty to one odds against a new record. No such luck:

Average Global Temperature for 2012 to be the warmest on record: 42%


They won't even give us three to one, when by the logic of "no warming" they should give us a hundred to one. Sigh. Can't quit my day job just yet. I guess they're more careful what they do with their money than what they do with their mouths.

La Nina forecast to reemerge. Again?

No sooner had we bid farewell to La Nina, with two three-month averages pegging in at 0.0C anomaly, than we started the current abrupt turn back to La Nina conditions in the Pacific. NOAA seems pretty confident now about where this is going:

La Niña conditions have returned and are expected to gradually strengthen and continue into the Northern Hemisphere winter 2011-12.
Usually the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO to its friends) alternates between warm and cool phases. We got a pretty stiff shot of La Nina; we would normally expect El Nino, the warm phase, to be next on our agenda. So how atypical is it for the oscillation to return to baseline and then oscillate right back into the same phase?

It's fairly atypical, but not unheard of.

I hope you can read that, if not, check out a larger color-coded chart in the NOAA's weekly ENSO update. But here's the gist: when using NOAA's definition of an episode strictly, 24 episodes are followed by the opposite phase, while seven (22.5%) are followed by another episode of the same phase. One chance in five: somewhat unusual, but not rare.

However, if you loosen the definition of an event a little bit, our current circumstances look more atypical than that.

This is the strict definition used by NOAA:

Historical Pacific warm (red) and cold (blue) episodes based on a threshold of +/- 0.5 oC for the Oceanic Nino Index (ONI) [3 month running mean of ERSST.v3b SST anomalies in the Nino 3.4 region (5N-5S, 120-170W)], calculated with respect to the 1971-2000 base period. For historical purposes El Niño and La Niña episodes are defined when the threshold is met for a minimum of 5 consecutive over-lapping seasons.

If you scan the chart, you find two La Nina-ish episodes that just missed the overlapping season cutoff:

1981 from January: -0.3, -0.5, -0.5, -0.4, -0.3, -0.3, -0.4, -0.4, -0.3
2005 from October: -0.4, -0.7, -0.7, -0.6, -0.4

If we count those, we lose two double-Ninos and add four opposite-phase transitions.

We can perform a similar trick with events that counted double after briefly losing their mojo before strengthening again:

1969 from May: 0.7, 0.6, 0.5, 0.4, 0.4, 0.6, 0.7, 0.8
2000 from April: -0.6, -0.5, -0.4, -0.4, -0.4, -0.5, -0.6

Both of those count as back-to-backs because of their brief flirtation with 0.4/-0.4. But the current conditions got to 0.0:

2011: -0.6, -0.2,  0.0,  0.0

If you ask the question of how many times the same phase repeated after making it all the way back to baseline (reaching or crossing 0.0C from either direction), and didn't have a weak alternate-phase episode that missed counting as such because it was not quite long enough or not quite intense enough, and then went back into the same phase, the answer is: it's only happened twice in sixty years, out of thirty-five transitions. So what they're projecting will happen would be pretty atypical.

Two caveats: when we mess around with the definitions in looking at a particular present-day event, we are flirting with the Texas Sharpshooters Fallacy. So except for the entertainment value, we should probably stick with the estimate that this happens about one time in five. Also, while another La Nina episode is forecast, it hasn't happened yet. If it turns out to be too weak to meet the five-seasons cutoff, then goes into an El Nino, then there will have been nothing odd about it at all

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Jared Diamond dismantles Lynas: How to politely devastate a "skeptic" loon

Passersby were astonished by the unusually large amount of blood. Diamond sets right to work:

 Among Hunt’s and Lipo’s main conclusions, they say that Easter Island was deforested by rats, not by Polynesian settlers; that settlement was not until AD 1200 rather than earlier as widely assumed; that the tall stone statues of up to 90 tons were not transported horizontally, but were “walked” upright; that the collapse of Easter society was due to European impact, rather than to impacts of the settlers themselves before European arrival; and that the view of Easter society’s collapse as a self-inflicted ecological catastrophe is flawed. Unfortunately, the web postings don’t recognize the compelling reasons why Hunt’s and Lipo’s conclusions are considered transparently wrong by essentially all other archaeologists with active programs on Easter Island.
A "skeptic" with no experience of a given area of scholarship uncritically embracing a single source that claims to overturn all that went before, despite being regarded as  "transparently wrong" by the vast majority of qualified experts? Come on, that would never happen.

The initial reason for positing a role of rats in Easter’s deforestation was that some preserved seeds of Easter’s extinct palm tree, found in caves, show marks of gnawing by rats; and that a study of Hawaii attributed deforestation there to rats. However, evidence that rats played no significant role in Easter’s deforestation includes the following.  Rats occur not only on Easter but also on every other one of the hundreds of other Polynesian islands, most of which nevertheless did not end up deforested.  Over 90% of preserved palm seeds outside caves were not gnawed by rats.  Easter’s forest consisted not only of the palm but also of at least two dozen other species of trees and other plants, all of which also became extinct on Easter although most of them are not known to suffer seed predation by rats and continue to exist in the presence of rats on other Polynesian islands.
So we have "skeptics" who spin an entire narrative out of a single fact: there are some seeds in some caves, some of which were gnawed by rats. They then ignore the larger body of evidence and neglect the basic obligation of any scientist presenting a hypothesis to account for all the facts. Have we seen something like this somewhere before?

How could tall 90-ton statues have been dragged over unpaved hilly terrain?  The only reasonable solution, to avoid their tipping and breaking during transport, is to transport them horizontally and then lever them into an upright position.  Jo Anne Van Tilburg, the leading scholar of Easter statues, who has spent decades cataloging the hundreds of statues, carried out an experiment in which Easter Islanders demonstrated for her their horizontal transport and levering-up of a model statue.  But Hunt and Lipo claim that statues were transported vertically.  This seems an implausible recipe for disaster.  Imagine it yourself: if you were told to transport a 90-ton statue 33 feet high over a dirt road, why would you risk tipping and breaking it by transporting it vertically with all its weight concentrated on its small base, rather than avoiding the risk of tipping by laying it flat and distributing its weight over its entire length?
 Hunt and Lipo think that these statues "waddled" -- in all their 33-foot-tall glory -- up and down unpaved hills. As Diamond says, imagine it. But the problem here is not Hunt and Lipo having dumb ideas -- it's people like Lynas and Curry who spread this stuff to their many devoted fans, without any effort to assess critically the claims of the "skeptics."

This underscores that lukewarmism is not and never has been about a particular stance in relation to the science of global warming. Unfortunately, just like its cousin, denialism, it's about a particular attitude and approach to a given field. It's not primarily a set of erroneous conclusions, but an erroneous method motivated by partisanship.

Postscript on Peiser, Lynas' other crappy source: In a statement against interest by Lynas, a statement I don't know whether to praise for its honesty or condemn for its bald admission of indifference to the use of scholarly garbage, Lynas in his own comments basically admits Benny Peiser is a hack:

Actually Peiser’s paper was published in a special edition of E&E which was specifically devoted to taking apart Diamond’s ‘Collapse’ book, so fitted well into that. (I haven’t read any of the rest of it because Oxford University doesn’t subscribe to E&E!) [Memo to Lynas: Oxford is a thousand-year-old world-famous university with tens of thousands of journal subscriptions -- if they don't even carry the journal you are using to form the tentpole of your argument, that is a red flag.] I think the edition was guest edited by Julian Morris and Kendra Okonski – both very much anti-environment activists, latterly with the ‘International Policy Network’ (now defunct I think) and very much in the ‘climate denial’ line. So not great credentials…[No, really?] but that still doesn’t make the paper wrong – it should be judged on its own merits. Plus, I wouldn’t have given it so much weight except for the Hunt and Lipo book – which does seem very solid in terms of the fieldwork, and has also seen material published in the ‘right’ (specialist) journals. [Well, we know how that turned out for you.]
 Not a great day for Mark and his Curry-endorsed "opening mind," but here's hoping he learned from the experience.

Mark Lynas gets Jared Diamond wrong.

Mark Lynas joins the cottage industry of hating on Jared Diamond as he spins a myth of "The myth of Easter Island's ecocide:"

 Few historical tales of ecological collapse have achieved the cultural resonance of that of Easter Island. In the conventional account, best popularised by Jared Diamond in his 2005 book ‘Collapse’, the islanders brought doom upon themselves by over-exploiting their limited environment, thereby providing a compelling analogy for modern times. Yet recent archaeological work suggests that the eco-collapse hypothesis is almost certainly wrong – and that the truth is far more shocking.
As we will see, the most "shocking" thing Lynas brings to bear is evidence of his own incompetence and/or malice in misrepresenting Diamond's argument in the measured, carefully argued Collapse.

Judith Curry spreads the meme, and extends the faulty argument:
[C]omplex coupled social-ecological-environmental systems, simple theories are almost certain to be too simple.  The complexity of such coupled systems precludes simple cause-effect analyses.   If we are arguing about such a system on the scale of Easter Island, what hope do we have of understanding and managing such interactions on  continental or even global scales?  Ecosystems eventually adapt to climate change and insults from humans. 

From arguing that Diamond got Easter Island's tragedy wrong, Curry somehow gets to the point that all of Diamond's thinking is wrong, because it is "too simple," and by the way, climate science is impossible, because it is too simple too. Also, ecological devastation is nothing to worry about because "Ecosystems eventually adapt to climate change and insults from humans." (That single sentence is wrong in so many dimensions -- the moral, the practical, and the scientific -- not just Pollyannish but horribly pantheist and anti-humanist -- that it deserves its own post.)

Judith Curry was once a respected climate scientist. Now she poses for photos like this.

But we should really start with patient zero, Lynas himself. The reality he is describing -- one historian has one idea about how something happened, supported by pieces of evidence, and other historians highlight new evidence that challenges that account -- is really not punchy enough for the kind of "gotcha" post Lynas is writing (those evil environmentalists are trying to scare you!). So he sexes up the allegations with a small army of straw men:
Diamond’s thesis is that the island’s original lush tree-cover was destroyed by the Polynesian colonists, whose cult of making massive statues (for which the island is now famous) required prodigious amounts of wood to transport these huge rock idols. He suggests that as the ecological crisis brought on by deforestation worsened, the islanders tried to appease their apparently angry gods by making and transporting yet more statues, creating a vicious circle of human stupidity.
Anybody who has spent five minutes paying attention to Jared Diamond would know that he would be highly unlikely refer to an entire culture's spiritual practices as a "cult."  The only use of the word "cult" in the entire book refers to a post-disaster religious practice which Diamond regards positively: "The survivors adapted as best they could, both in their subsistence and in religion . . . the new religion developed its own art styles . . ." (141).

 What about the vivid (and given Curry's reaction, unintentionally self-referential) phrase "a vicious circle of human stupidity"? Did Diamond say anything like that?

Actually, if you search Collapse for the word "stupid," you find the opposite -- Diamond stressing the intelligent and cultured native civilizations, whose behavior we unfairly judge, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been unintelligent:

Page 24: "The societies that ended up collapsing were (like the Maya) among the most creative and (for a time) advanced and successful of their times, rather than stupid and primitive."

Page 513: "With the gift of hindsight, we now view it as incredibly stupid that colonists would release into Australia two alien mammals . . . But it's still difficult for professional ecologists to predict which introductions . . . will prove disastrous. . . . Hence, we really shouldn't be surprised."

Page 518: "We unconsciously imagine . . . just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredible self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in the forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable . . ."

Whenever Diamond mentions stupidity (and there's one more reference, on page 624, but it's just the same) it is always to defend societies (and not just native societies; he sticks up for the Australian colonists too) from our harsh judgements, with the benefit of hindsight, that they behaved stupidly.

This is incredibly obvious to anyone that has read any of Diamond's books, including his most famous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (and if you haven't read it, do). The theme that runs through all of Diamond's writing is that people are people and in the long-term make a similar proportion of good and bad decisions, decisions which however are usually based in a fairly deep understanding of the conditions in which the people at the time lived, decisions that are often smarter and more flexible than we tend to attribute to societies other than our own.

That is Diamond's big idea, and Lynas gets him entirely backwards. So how does he sell this straw man Diamond to the reader? Check out this epic bait and switch:

Diamond was not the first to draw this specific analogy: over a decade earlier, in a 1992 book entitled ‘Easter Island, Earth Island’, Paul Bahn and John Flenley (both palaeoecologists) wrote:
“…the person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree. But he (or she) still felled it. This is what is so worrying. Humankind’s covetousness is boundless. Its selfishness appears to be genetically inborn. Selfishness leads to survival. Altruism leads to death. The selfish gene wins. But in a limited ecosystem, selfishness leads to increasing population imbalance, population crash, and ultimately extinction.”
Lynas suggest that Diamond's thesis builds on this one, but as we now know, Diamond's conclusion was precisely the opposite:

“…the person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree. But he (or she) still felled it."

Page 518: "We unconsciously imagine . . . just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredible self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in the forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable . . ."

Lynas depicts Diamond as extending the argument of Bahn and Flenley (doubtless the most extreme and unsupportable conclusion he could find) despite the fact that Diamond specifically addresses this theory and categorically refutes it. That's not just a poor argument: it's dishonest to attribute to Diamond a thesis he specifically entertained and vehemently rejected.

There's more here, much more, but after we've caught Lynas using Collapse to attribute beliefs to Diamond which are exactly the opposite of what he wrote in Collapse, that's sort of the end, isn't it? He's committed credibility suicide as that point. As so often with such as Lynas, we are left with the eternal question: is he a liar or just a sloppy incompetent?

UPDATE: Yes, I know I said that catching Lynas in a 180 degree misrepresentation of Diamond was enough to call it right there, but here's one more fun fact about his fallacy-laden screed.

Lynas casually introduces the following reference:

As Benny Peiser points out in this 2005 paper, fish supplies were abundant, and reports from early European explorers that the islanders were thin and miserable-looking are highly contradictory (others report that they lived in comparative luxury). Certainly Diamond’s reading of this seems highly partisan. As Peiser puts it:
“Together with abundant and virtually unlimited sources of seafood, the cultivation of the island’s fertile soil could easily sustain many thousands of inhabitants interminably. In view of the profusion of broadly unlimited food supplies (which also included abundant chickens, their eggs and the islands innumerable rats, a culinary ‘delicacy’ that were always available in abundance), Diamond’s notion that the natives resorted to cannibalism as a result of catastrophic mass starvation is palpably absurd. In fact, there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever for either starvation or cannibalism.”

Sounds bad for Diamond. I'll just do a quick check, as I always do, to make sure this paper is good science by a respected author in a reputable peer-reviewed journal . . .

B. Peiser (2005) From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui Energy & Environment volume 16 No. 3&4 2005
 Energy and Environment. Your source for all your archaeological and archaeometrical needs, without the stress and hassle of peer review. So, Mr. Peiser, how did you come to be publishing in such as illustrious pillar of the historical sciences?

Of course there's a Sourcewatch page:

Benny Peiser is a UK social anthropologist on the Heartland Institute "Global warming experts" list. He runs CCNet (network) and is frequently quoted in Local Transport Today, a transport journal that frequently features the views of climate change skeptics. He is director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.[1] He is co-editor of the skeptic journal Energy and Environment[2] and is on the editorial board of the Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development.
 An expert in climate change and historical instances of Polynesian cannibalism. Talk about your double threats.

His educational background is not given . . . I'm sure we can all come to a reasonable inference about that. But he is (or was) an academic, to be sure:

Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology & Sport Sociology, Liverpool John Moores University
 So far Mark Lynas has promoted this clown, and Judith Curry repeats the quote, whilst praising Lynas' "opening mind." Who will be next to join them in embarrassing themselves with lavish praise for psuedoscience? This threatens to become the Jonestown of credibility suicides.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

More methane madness


From "arctictransport":

Something strange

Commercial shipping through the Northeast Passage over the last couple weeks has reported the seas bubbling as if they were boiling.  Their observations have been reported to the science ministry who have sent scientists to investigate.
H/t Steve Bloom.

The image above is from "Strong atmospheric chemistry feedback to climate warming from Arctic methane emissions" (Isaksen et al 2011). Although it sounds specialized, the paper, which is available in full, answers a number of basic beginner's questions about methane release (I needed to look those up . . . for a friend. Or for you, the reader. Yeah, that's it. For you the reader.)

1. How much methane is in the atmosphere now?

"The atmospheric concentrations in 2005 correspond to an atmospheric burden of 4,900 Tg CH4 (1 Tg = 1012 g)."

2. How long does it reside in the atmosphere?

"Atmospheric CH4 has a global average atmospheric lifetime of approximately 8 to 10 years [Denman et al., 2007]."

3. Why so brief, compared to CO2?

"Atmospheric CH4 is removed through oxidation by the hydroxyl radical (OH), mainly in the troposphere: R1    CH4 + OH --> H2O + CH3"

4. What is its ultimate fate?

Mostly to decay to CO2 (and ozone). So the best case scenario when you lose a ton of methane into the atmosphere is that it quickly oxidizes into a ton of CO2. Which, since it hangs around a lot longer and is the stuff that got us into this mess, is not so great.

5. There are only so many the hydroxyl radicals (OH) in the atmosphere. What happens if you release a bunch of it all at once?

It hangs around longer -- much longer -- leading to the amplified warming effect that gives the paper its title.

6. How much methane is in methyl hydrate deposits, compared to the atmosphere?

"The most recent review of the numerous published estimates of the amount of methane sequestered in global gas hydrate deposits converges on a range of 3 to 40 × 1015 m3 of methane [Boswell and Collett, 2011], which converts to a range of ∼1,600 to 21,000 Pg C."

1Pg = 1,000 Tg. So the amount of methane in the deposits is estimated to be between 300 times as much and 42,000 times as much as the total amount of methane in the atmosphere today.

7. Fuck me.

If any significant fraction of it escaped into the atmosphere on a human timescale, yes, that would be the general idea.

8. Could that happen? Really?

"Shakhova et al. [2008] speculate that 50 Pg CH4 could be released abruptly at any time from gas hydrates associated with subsea permafrost. Although there is no basis for estimating the rate of such a release, this value is used as a worst case scenario for the numerical model studies."

 9. Do they think such a release is likely?

No. "Although the high‐emission scenarios are unlikely to occur, they are compatible with the current knowledge of the cumulative magnitude of CH4 that might be emitted from permafrost thawing and from CH4 hydrate destabilization."

10. But worse case?

It's hard to call this the worst case, since what they are postulating is the release of less than 1% of the total reserves. But for the estimate they chose as a plausible worst case, 50 Pg, the short-term effect would be a global increase in radiative forcing of about 4W/m^2 (although, confusingly, they say 50 Pg could be released in one year, and then they model it as released over thirty years, significantly blunting the effect.)

The effect would be similar to doubling CO2 concentrations overnight. Temperatures would immediately rise, probably by 1-2C, with further rises in the following decades, depending on just what the actual climate sensitivity turns out to be.

Final thoughts from Iksaksen:

Fossil fuel CO2 emissions have increased substantially over the last decade and is now 40% higher than in 1990 [Le Quéré et al., 2009; Myhre et al., 2009]. The continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions toward the end of this century has the potential to produce significant warming at high northern latitudes well beyond what has been observed during the last decades [Hansen et al., 2007; IPCC, 2007]. There is a possibility that the Arctic temperature increases could be followed by extensive permafrost thawing, with enhanced CH4 emission from thermokarst lakes [Walter et al., 2006], with later release of CH4 from gas hydrates that would eventually be affected by warming temperatures. Considering the large, nonlinear atmospheric chemistry feedbacks discussed here, future CH4 emissions from permafrost deposits could be a larger concern for climate warming than previously thought.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

4 reasons voters don't demand climate change action: How to frame the debate

Daniel Gilbert

In this classic article in the LA times analyzing public opinion on global warming ("If only gay sex caused global warming") Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, gives four reasons why the threat of global warming -- which 83% of the public knows is happening -- hasn't motivated the public to insist on decisive action to combat the threat.

He finds four critical problems that make the dangers of unchecked global warming a poor fit with our laboriously evolved sensitivity to risk: it's not an intentional action, it doesn't provoke moral outrage, it is a long-term rather than a short-term threat, and it is gradually worsening, making it hard for people to see the new conditions are as different as they are.

Gilbert just lays these problems on the table: he doesn't suggest solutions. But he defines the problem in such a way that solutions suggest themselves. In general, it's safe to presume that Gilbert would agree with the indomitable Michael Tobis, who reminds us that "We must make the invisible visible. We must make the vastness perceptible. We must make the alien familiar. We must make implausible truths obvious."

How do we do that in the context of Gilbert's four points?

1. It's not an intentional action. Except it is.

Understanding what others are up to — what they know and want, what they are doing and planning — has been so crucial to the survival of our species that our brains have developed an obsession with all things human. We think about people and their intentions; talk about them; look for and remember them.

That's why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn't. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn't trying to kill us, and that's a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation's top priority.
 How we fight back: We get personal.

Stress the intentional distortion of the science, by people, the delay, procrastination, and denial, by people, to protect profits and the status quo. Emphasize our agency as it regards to the climate: we are choosing to shove millions of tons of fossil fuel carbon into the air. It wasn't an intentional act when it started, but the world has changed. People are doing this to us -- and while in a sense we're all doing it to each other, we're not all equally responsible. Fossil fuel companies -- led by people -- are both producing the bulk of the emissions and large amounts of money to distort the science, dishonestly sow doubt and confusion, and maintain their ability to damage our climate unchecked. It's intentional. It's personal.

2. It doesn't violate our moral sensibilities. Except it does.

 It doesn't cause our blood to boil (at least not figuratively) because it doesn't force us to entertain thoughts that we find indecent, impious or repulsive. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do something about it, such as whacking each other over the head, or voting. Moral emotions are the brain's call to action.

Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry. And so we are outraged about every breach of protocol except Kyoto. Yes, global warming is bad, but it doesn't make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced, and thus we don't feel compelled to rail against it as we do against other momentous threats to our species, such as flag burning. The fact is that if climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets
 How we fight back: We put the spotlight on the morally outrageous behavior of deniers.

This goes hand in hand with stressing intentionality, and it is uncomfortable to responsible people for the same reason -- we're taught to focus on arguments, not people, and use evidence, not ad homs. And I'm not arguing against that. Throughout, I take it as a given that those supporting action will use sound science, will eschew hysteria and unnecessary personal attacks. But as I've argued elsewhere, that doesn't mean given up our moral outrage at people who lie, cheat, distort and manipulate.

People engaged in this debate have a healthy sense of moral outrage at climate deniers. That's what this blog is founded on. Gilbert's analysis says we need to share that outrage with the public: it's a part of communicating effectively on global warming. CO2 may not be trying to kill us, but people who fake resumes, plagarize scientific papers, lie, cherry-pick and spin the media are recklessly endangering human life by means of manipulation and outright dishonesty to further either their right-wing ideological views and/or their personal profits.

That's part of the message. It's not enough to show that deniers keep getting it wrong; it's time to say why.

3. It's a long-term rather than a short-term threat. Until it's not.
The third reason why global warming doesn't trigger our concern is that we see it as a threat to our futures — not our afternoons. Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes.

The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get. That's what brains did for several hundred million years — and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain learned a new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they actually happened.
How we fight back: we show people the short-term disasters they fear are part of the long-term crisis

This one is simple: we need to show the link -- where it is demonstrated with solid science, without overreaching -- between global warming and extreme weather, global warming and famine, global warming and natural disasters. The right standard for a connection, as I've argued, is increased risk:

The linkage that is meaningful here is one of risk. If you smoke you may not get cancer. If you do not smoke you may still get cancer. Cancer and smoking are still strongly linked, even if a particular case of cancer can never be attributed to any one factor.

Climate models say Texas is going to burn. Texas is burning. That burning is linked to climate change. Climate change made it more likely to happen, it's happening and it will probably happen again. Complex events always have multiple influencing factors that muddy their pedigree. Focus on what counts -- risk.
Programs like ACE (Attribution of Climate Events) will help with this. Once there is a connection -- a connection of risk, not a bullshit, monofactorial, 100% dependent cause-and-effect relationship, which you will never by able to demonstrate for any complex phenomenon in the real world -- once you can say with confidence that an event is either more likely to happen because of global warming, or more likely to be more severe or otherwise atypical, then you can, and should, relentlessly link it to global warming.

When sudden, extreme weather events and natural disasters are linked to climate change -- and science strongly supports such a link in many cases -- climate change becomes a real, perceptible, short-term threat, because people can clearly see how it can change the course of their lives at any moment.

It's been ten years since September 11th. Yet Al Queda is still seen as an immediate, short-term threat, because it's clear that absence our actions, a similar, deadly act of terror could strike anywhere, at any time. When people understand the strong relationship between global warming and escalating extreme weather and natural disasters, it will have the same effect: a long-term threat becomes vivid and striking because of its explosive potential to become an immediate emergency.

4. It is gradually worsening, making it hard for people to see the new conditions are as different as they are. Except it's not gradual where it counts.

The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to changes in light, sound, temperature, pressure, size, weight and just about everything else. But if the rate of change is slow enough, the change will go undetected. If the low hum of a refrigerator were to increase in pitch over the course of several weeks, the appliance could be singing soprano by the end of the month and no one would be the wiser.

Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly. The density of Los Angeles traffic has increased dramatically in the last few decades, and citizens have tolerated it with only the obligatory grumbling. Had that change happened on a single day last summer, Angelenos would have shut down the city, called in the National Guard and lynched every politician they could get their hands on.

Environmentalists despair that global warming is happening so fast. In fact, it isn't happening fast enough. If President Bush could jump in a time machine and experience a single day in 2056, he'd return to the present shocked and awed, prepared to do anything it took to solve the problem.
How we fight back: Radical changes happening now need to be framed as a taste of the future

No doubt a time machine to 2056 would be the best solution. We have something very like a time machine, however: we have areas of the world that are changing at breakneck speed. The Arctic. Greenland and Antarctica. East Africa. Texas. A hurricaine barreling down on New York and New Jersey. When these things happen, we should not only point out the link to climate change, but stress these events as prologue to the new normal.  We don't need to exaggerate the changes, we don't need to weep and beat our breasts, we just need to communicate that radical changes happening now are a small taste of what's coming within our lifetimes.

So to turn a theoretical risk into something more real and immediate to people, do these four things:

1. Stress our human agency. Carbon polluters -- and especially the leaders of the fossil fuel industry -- are consciously, deliberately, and intentionally injecting millions of tons of CO2 into the air and transforming the climate, at terrible risk to human welfare.

2. Share your moral outrage at those that lie, dissemble, manipulate, and sow confusion.

3. Relentlessly emphasize the proven connection between short-term emergencies -- extreme weather and natural disasters -- and the long-term threat.

4. Underline the radical and destructive changes to bellwether environments as the face of the new normal if we fail to act.

We can make this a threat that the public sees and feels, the way people who really have dug into the science can see it and feel it. To do so we need to be accurate, we need to be right, but that alone is not enough. Without any compromise in integrity, we need to find the language and the images that make the invisible visible to the broader mass of voters who will allocate very little attention to the problem and none to solutions until they perceive (on their own terms) the threat.

UPDATE: Daniel Gilbert lays out his ideas more fully in this presentation -- the guy is an awesome speaker, check it out. H/t Jules in the comments. Thanks Jules!

Nathan Eagle: Global mobile workforce from PopTech on Vimeo.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Is there still a clathrate gun pointed at our heads?

"The ice that burns" -- frozen methane

Two hundred and fifty million years ago, massive seafloor deposits of frozen methane destabilized, leading to the release of of thousands of gigatons of stored carbon and a global temperature spike of over +6C. Ninty-six percent of marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates were wiped out. The trigger for this massive release of methyl hydrates was a more gradual global warming of a few degrees.

Extinction events -- intensity

Like any event 250 million years ago, details are hard to come by. But there is at least one reason to implicate methyl hydrate release in the Permian-Triassic extinction event: a hundred and ninety million years later, the same thing happened again. Gradual global warming, followed by a rapid release of massive amounts of carbon with a distinct isotope signature, followed by rapid global warming that ended with tropical fish swimming at the North Pole.

But don't worry. That definitely probably maybe couldn't happen again on a human timescale. As 
McGuire noted for the Royal Society in 2010:
While rising ocean temperatures will tend towards destabilizing hydrates, increasing load pressures as a result of rising sea levels will act in the opposite sense. Maslin et al. (2010) note that, even if marine hydrate dissociation is triggered on a large scale, it may be that all or much of the methane released will not reach the atmosphere because either (i) thermal penetration of marine sediments to the gas-hydrate interface could be sufficiently tardy as to allow a new equilibrium to become established without significant gas release or (ii) a fraction of any gas released may be oxidized in the ocean.
 The paper McGuire alludes too, "Gas hydrates: past and future geohazard?" has been discussed here before. It is linked to on the right. It typifies the cautiously optimistic attitude of climate scientists towards the possibility of a rapid, catastrophic release of methyl hydrates, aka methyl clathrates, the "clathrate gun hypothesis."
It is still unknown whether future ocean warming could lead to significant methane release, as thermal penetration of marine sediments to the clathrate–gas interface could be slow enough to allow a new equilibrium to occur without any gas escaping. Even if methane gas does escape, it is still unclear how much of this could be oxidized in the overlying ocean. Models of the global inventory of hydrates and trapped methane bubbles suggest that a global 3°C warming could release between 35 and 940 GtC, which could add up to an additional 0.5°C to global warming. The destabilization of gas hydrate reserves in permafrost areas is more certain as climate models predict that high-latitude regions will be disproportionately affected by global warming with temperature increases of over 12°C predicted for much of North America and Northern Asia. Our current estimates of gas hydrate storage in the Arctic region are, however, extremely poor and non-existent for Antarctica. The shrinking of both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets in response to regional warming may also lead to destabilization of gas hydrates. As ice sheets shrink, the weight removed allows the coastal region and adjacent continental slope to rise through isostacy. This removal of hydrostatic pressure could destabilize gas hydrates, leading to massive slope failure, and may increase the risk of tsunamis.
Hmmm. I have to say, even that article is not as reassuring as I remembered it being. But there has certainly been a period in recent years in which scientists have thrown cold water on some of the more lurid disaster scenarios. Take this very recent paper, focusing on the Arctic, where, Maslin notes, destabilization of methyl hydrates is "more certain":
Vast amounts of methane hydrates are potentially stored in sediments along the continental margins, owing their stability to low temperature - high pressure conditions. Global warming could destabilize these hydrates and cause a release of methane (CH4) into the water column and possibly the atmosphere. Since the Arctic has and will be warmed considerably, Arctic bottom water temperatures and their future evolution projected by a climate model were analyzed. The resulting warming is spatially inhomogeneous, with the strongest impact on shallow regions affected by Atlantic inflow. Within the next 100 years, the warming affects 25% of shallow and mid-depth regions containing methane hydrates. Release of methane from melting hydrates in these areas could enhance ocean acidification and oxygen depletion in the water column. The impact of methane release on global warming, however, would not be significant within the considered time span. 
There may be reasons for concern outside the Arctic as well. The best recent review article on the subject and the inspiration for my revisiting the issue is (full text): "Methane release from gas hydrate systems during the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum and other past hyperthermal events: setting appropriate parameters for discussion" (Biastoch et al, GRL, 2011). He cites Zeebe (2009) (which I can't access) for the following: "the Atlantic reservoir . . . is the most likely location of an oceanic carbon release."

And in another of those funny little quirks of the actual vs the model climate, the Atlantic Ocean is warming far faster than expected,  likely due to the "leaking" of warm water from the Indian Ocean caused by the weakening of the mighty Agulhas Current.

Weakening of the Agulhas Current means more of the hot subtropical water you see in the figure above remains behind in the cold Atlantic.

Skeptical Science has more on the disturbing implications of Biastoch (2011):
Carozza et al (2011) find that natural global warming occurred in 2 stages:  First, global warming of 3° to 9° C accompanied by a large bolus of organic carbon released to the atmosphere through the burning of terrestrial biomass (Kurtz et al, 2003) over approximately a 50-year period; second,  a catastrophic release of methane hydrate from sediment, followed by the oxidation of a part of this methane gas in the water column and the escape of the remaining CH4 to the atmosphere over a 50-year period.
The description of Stage 2:  Very rapid and massive release of carbon deficient in ∂13C, does put one in mind of the Methane Gun hypothesis.  It postulates that methane clathrate at shallow depth begins melting and through the feed-back process accelerate atmospheric and oceanic warming, melting even larger and deeper clathrate deposits.  The result:  A relatively sudden massive venting of methane - the firing of the Methane Gun.  Recent discovery by Davy et al (2010) of kilometer-wide (ten 8-11 kilometer and about 1,000 1-kilometer-wide features) eruption craters on the Chatham Rise seafloor off New Zealand adds further ammunition to the Methane Gun hypothesis.
Remember, this is not the methyl hydrate release that wiped out 96% of marine life and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates. That was 250 million years ago. This one was 60 million years ago -- relatively mild by comparison.

Just like we used to with ice loss, we comfort ourselves with the notion that warm air takes a long time to melt anything:
Significant methane release can occur when on-shore permafrost is thawed by a warmer atmosphere (unlikely to occur in significance on less than a century timescale) and undersea clathrate at relatively shallow depths is melted by warming water.  This is now occurring.  In both cases, methane gas bubbles to the surface with little or no oxidation, entering the atmosphere as CH4 – a powerful greenhouse gas which increases local, then Arctic atmospheric and ocean temperature, resulting in progressively deeper and larger deposits of clathrate melting.
However you have the same problem with that projection as befell the reassuring forecasts for ice mass loss: these deposits are surrounded by water. Warm water carries heat far more efficiently than warm air. Increased rainfall and changes in groundwater, ocean currents, and freshwater streams already shows some indications of accelerating permafrost melting, and water dynamics may, by implication, affect shallow methyl hydrates as well.

Skeptical Science continues with these heavily qualified reassurances:
Methane released from deeper deposits such as those found off Svalbard has to pass through a much higher water column (>300 meters) before reaching the surface.  As it does so, it oxidises to CO2, dissolving in seawater or reaching the atmosphere as CO2 which causes far slower warming, but can nevertheless contribute to ocean acidification.
Since the carbon mass of methyl hydrates dwarfs known fossil fuel reserves, the prospect of their release as CO2 is cold comfort. But consider how (again, just like our old, falsely reassuring, ice models) this scenario presumes a gradual, linear process. What if methyl hydrates disassociate rapidly, and produce a local anoxic event? No oxygen in the water, no oxidation of methane. What isf the methane starts to escape in discreet events, producing a column of gas, like this:

Would a large plume of gas shield the methane at the center from oxidization? Would a column of bubbles reduce friction on the individual bubbles, allowing them to rise faster and have less time to oxidize? Stupid questions, maybe. I hope smarter people than me have considered such possibilities and found them unlikely.

Is there a clathrate gun pointed at our heads? Scientists are conservative. They don't like to paint doomsday scenarios. We've all seen interviews with journalists that flounder on the shoals of their rightful, sound reticence:

Worst-Case Scenario

So let's give the last word to somebody determined to be as conservative as possible, titling their article "'Arctic Armageddon' Needs More Science, Less Hype":
 Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and the ongoing global warming driven by carbon dioxide will inevitably force it out of its frozen reservoirs and into the atmosphere to amplify the warming. Such an amplifying feedback may have operated in the past, with devastating effects. If the modern version is anything like past episodes, two scientists warned earlier this year, it could mean that "far from the Arctic, crops could fail and nations crumble." Yet, with bubbles of methane streaming from the warming Arctic sea floor and deteriorating permafrost, many scientists are trying to send a more balanced message. The threat of global warming amplifying itself by triggering massive methane releases is real and may already be under way, providing plenty of fodder for scary headlines. But what researchers understand about the threat points to a less malevolent, more protracted process.
I love how reassuring and level-headed the author is trying to be while still being honest about the not-very-reassuring facts. Well, yes, he says, release of methyl hydrates is going to happen. And yes, in the past, when this happened, the results have been "devastating." Yes, this could rapidly accelerate global warming: we know that because there's evidence it's already happening. But there's no reason to panic. Everyone should remain calm. If you don't remain calm you will waste our precious shotgun shells as your trembling hands cause you to miss the looters.

There seems to be cause for concern. No hype needed.

UPDATE: This morning Ari Jokimäki at AGW Observer posted his usual weekly climate news roundup, and, low and behold, there's a methyl hydrates study. Ari's a phlegmatic fellow who highlights middle-of-the-road, non-sensationalist, workaday climate research. Surely this study will talk me down from the clathrate-gun ledge.

Methane release from hydrates may already be occurring
Shit, Ari. What are you doing to me here? I guess we need to read on. After all "'Arctic Armageddon' Needs More Science, Less Hype" turned out to be fairly scary; maybe this one, with a scary headline, will turn out to be soothing. Let's see:

Contribution of Oceanic Gas Hydrate Dissociation to the Formation of Arctic Ocean Methane Plumes – Reagan et al. (2011) “Vast quantities of methane are trapped in oceanic hydrate deposits, and there is concern that a rise in the ocean temperature will induce dissociation of these hydrate accumulations, potentially releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, such a release could have dramatic climatic consequences. The recent discovery of active methane gas venting along the landward limit of the gas hydrate stability zone (GHSZ) on the shallow continental slope (150 m – 400 m) west of Svalbard suggests that this process may already have begun, but the source of the methane has not yet been determined. This study performs 2-D simulations of hydrate dissociation in conditions representative of the Arctic Ocean margin to assess whether such hydrates could contribute to the observed gas release. The results show that shallow, low-saturation hydrate deposits, if subjected to recently observed or future predicted temperature changes at the seafloor, can release quantities of methane at the magnitudes similar to what has been observed, and that the releases will be localized near the landward limit of the GHSZ. Both gradual and rapid warming is simulated, along with a parametric sensitivity analysis, and localized gas release is observed for most of the cases. These results resemble the recently published observations and strongly suggest that hydrate dissociation and methane release as a result of climate change may be a real phenomenon, that it could occur on decadal timescales, and that it already may be occurring.Reagan, M. T., G. J. Moridis, S. Elliott, and M. E. Maltrud (2011), J. Geophys. Res., doi:10.1029/2011JC007189, in press.