Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hoarders, Republican edition

Given recent discussions of predilection for conspiracist ideation in climate deniers, I enjoyed the ad Redstate is offering me right now:


Apparently no one told them technology and the free market will grant us the magical power of instant adaptation to food shortages.

The brain of a right-winger is a scary place these days. I don't know why. Tax rates are at a sixty-year low. Restrictions on abortion and barriers to family planning are multiplying like forest mushrooms after rain. We have a president who, except for his skin color, could easily pass for an Eisenhower Republican. Yet, in spite of all that, paranoia reigns.

Maybe it's like the obesity epidemic. Fat, sugar, and leisure have always been an easy sell, because our genetic program responses powerfully to those inducements. Combined with wealth and modern marketing, the result is overconsumption and ill health.

Similarly, the brain responds powerfully to fear. Politicians and propagandists (as well as the aforementioned marketers) have long understood this, and they sell fear like Nabisco sells cookies. It's nothing new. But perhaps the development of extensive electronic ecosystems dedicated to the far right have shifted this dynamic. Now for the first time, the audience can instantly respond to the material, enabling them to feed on one another's anger and fear.

It's now painfully evident that most people subject to the relentless marketing of easy calories and labor-eliminating conveniences will consume them until they're sick with them, and beyond. Industries with no thought except to sell their hamburgers, cookies, PopTarts and sundry are contributing to a process that is killing off their customers. In ten or twenty years, we may look back on this unhealthy diet of fear the Right feeds its customers and recognize the same process unfolding; for recognition, power, and money they have sickened their customers by the excess consumption of fear, to their detriment and the detriment of our democracy.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Poll denialism


People are starting to make some connections:
One of the odder little subplots of the 2012 election has been the growth of poll denialism among Republicans. As Mitt Romney's chances have grown ever dimmer, a cottage industry has sprung up on the right claiming that presidential polls suffer from liberal bias and Romney is really doing better than they say. "When the published poll shows Obama ahead by, say, 48-45," explains conservative pundit Dick Morris, "he's really probably losing by 52-48!"

Now, this is hardly in the same league as climate denialism or evolution denialism.
Or vaccine denialism or rape denialism or . . . well, you get the idea. Here in America, one of our major parties has responded to the revolution in personal communication that began with 24 hour cable news and progressed to smartphones and the blogosphere by developing an independent, self-reinforcing, weather-dominator-scale doomsday device of cognitive dissonance.

There is no unpleasant reality, the right has discovered, that cannot be shouted down by 128-bit quad-core sophistry. The latest fact to be dragged, gagged and bound, towards the conservative memory hole is Romney's dismal prospects in the upcoming elections:
congressworksforus posted a comment in On Polls and Polling · 2 days ago
I can guarantee you that the Romney campaign has access to far better polling than any polling organization that's posting public polls.
The fact they are NOT changing course simply tells me that Erick is wrong, and that the public polls are horrible this time around.
The fact that Obama has (if you pay attention) essentially given up on being re-elected (could he possibly make any more mistakes than he has the past couple of weeks) tells me that his campaign knows it is toast as well.
Turnout will favor Republicans. The GOP built a ground game after 2008 that was effective (but not overwhelmingly) in 2010, but was *incredibly* effective a few months ago in Scott Walker's recall election (he got more votes than when we was first elected!)
Believe me, Obama is not winning Ohio, nor is he winning Florida, and without either, he ain't winning. 
Yep, we'll just take your word for it, anonymous Restate commenter. Poll denialism is rich with the sort of useful idiots who feel that good old horse sense and five minutes on WUWT qualifies them to dismiss radiative physics. Chait's take here
This was the week that the political world discovered the burgeoning world of conservative polling denial. Just like other, better-established fields of conservative reality denial, the polling denial movement has its own levels of insanity. At the core sit the most fanatical of the denialists, like, a popular site that offers its own twist on public opinion data, which currently has Mitt Romney leading Barack Obama by 7.8 percent nationally.
The poll denialists’ argument holds that the polls — all of them, except Rasmussen, conducted by a right-wing pundit with a terrible record of accuracy — are over-sampling Democrats, finding nearly as many of them as showed up at the polls in 2008, which they consider a high-water mark for Democrats unlikely to be repeated. Pundits have patiently explained that polls do not make assumptions about the party identification of voters but merely report what voters tell them. And the most plausible explanation for the higher number of Democrats in polls is that increasing numbers of conservatives who reliably vote Republican are identifying themselves as independents to pollsters.
So poll denialism is silly, and the conspiratorial explanation undergirding it is deranged.
Steven Taylor is on the same page:
I am astonished at the degree to which many who are rooting for Romney seem to be in total denial about the polling.  For example, the following from Katrina Trinko at NRO:
But regardless of partisan breakdown, Republicans should be wary of taking any polls as completely accurate.
“Part of the reason the Democrats won in 2008 was that when it looked as if McCain was going to lose, some Republicans stayed home,” argues McLaughlin. “So if President Obama is in a dead-even race with Mitt Romney in so many swing states, if the Democrats can convince enough Republicans they’re going to lose, it could take a one-point loss for the Democrats to a one-point win.”
Emphasis mine.
The thing that is remarkable about the above is that it not only in based in an approach that privileges preference over reality, it comes with a built-in fairy tale to explain any non-preferred results!  Using the logic above the polling can be wrong whilst predicting the actual outcome and, better yet, the wrong polling (that was actually right) wasn’t just wrong, but it caused the wrong outcome to occur!
Life would be better for all of us if we were all, regardless of partisan preferences, a tad more grounded in empirics.
Can I just say I wish the pundits and national media types would be as quick and forthright in confronting climate science denial? But of course, the difference is that most reporters don't understand climate science, while the concept of calling people up and asking them who they are going to vote for is a little easier to wrap your mind around. And again, as we saw with Todd Akin's comments, the immediate and obvious connection between the ideological worldview to the facts being denied helps people see deniers for what they are. The polls are brutally discouraging to my candidate = I deny the polls; the most scrupulous practitioner of journalistic false balance has got to be able to connect the dots on that one.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Quantifying Lewandowsky madness

A few weeks ago, a bright young man by the name of Stephan Lewandowsky came into the blogospheric eye because of a study which found a correlation between climate denial and the belief in other conspiracy theories.

Now, possibly I have a warm spot in my heart for Dr Lewandowsky, having made much the same point on a number of occasions. But Lewandowsky didn't just spot the relationship, he demonstrated the association scientifically, in a tightly argued paper, now in press.

Climate deniers were upset by this.

The result has been Lewandowsky madness, a psychological disorder characterized by obsessive preoccupation with and demonization of a single, not-yet-published paper, whose crime was to provide evidence of something that anyone who has spent five minutes perusing their comment threads knows: a lot of deniers believe other silly things too.

Climate Audit

Total posts: 12 13

Low point: Accused Lewandowsky of carrying out a “pogrom” after banning an abusive troll from his blog.

(UPDATE): More Deception in the Lewandowsky Data


Watts Up With That?


Total posts: 15

Low point: Confirms the scientific community’s impression of his chops by referring to Lewandowsky as  “Lewdandorky.”

Steven Schneider’s 1992 argument against balance in science reporting

The Blackboard

Total posts: 9

Low point: In “The Five Blogs” Lucia finds out her accusations of fraud and lying are totally unfounded after Lewandowsky gets permission from his university’s ethics committee to release the information that proves he’s tell the truth. Lucia decides he should apologize to her for making her wait.


Total posts:  9

Low point: N/A. Every word out of Jo Nova’s mouth is a new low for her and us.

Bishop Hill

Total Posts: 9

Low point: In a massive failure of self-awareness, BH justifies his obsession: “The Lewandowsky story rumbles on, demonstrating an abilitity [sic] to generate new storylines that I'm sure few of us thought it ever could have.”

A total of 56 57 blog posts about one not-yet-published social sciences paper.  So far, they’ve failed to identify a single serious problem with the study. Lewandowsky himself has a PhD in clinical psychology and a resume chocked full of well-regarded research. Yet Lewandowsky madness rages on.

You might say, well, this isn't "madness," it's what the denialosphere does: they fixate on things. They fixated on the Hockey Stick, they fixated on Hansen's 1988 prediction. But this is very different. The Hockey Stick demonstrated and simultaneously provided an arresting visual image of global warming. Hansen correctly predicted the emergence of the global warming signal. This evidence is relentlessly attacked because it is important.

Lewandowsky's paper, while interesting, and as far as I can tell well done, is not in the same league. If I were a denier -- which, not to be immodest, I would be great at, given my amateur knowledge of science and significant reserves of indignation -- I would address Lewandowsky's paper like this:
"As you may know, there's a paper in publication that finds a correlation between climate skepticism and conspiracist ideation. It will be interesting to see if this holds up, but it does not surprise me. It's obvious by reading the comment threads at WUWT, Climate Audit, and elsewhere, that some of the people who are ready to challenge the IPCC narrative believe some really strange things. But this argument is about ideas and evidence, not people. Sometimes good arguments attract strange people. At the heart of the anti-slavery movement was an extremist religious sect whose members were radically pacifist, refused to swear oaths and shook like seizure victims in the middle of church services."

Maybe it's easier for people already mistrustful of society over other issues to accept the fact that, as hard as it may be to believe, a small group of climate scientist and power-hungry government officials have sold us a bill of goods. Be that as it may, it's only a distraction from the discussion we need to have; a serious discussion, like adults, about the other side's best story, not about the fringe, not the endless and pointless argument about whose loons are more loony. This interesting paper should not tempt us into that pointless shouting match."
 But what do I know, eh? I actually believe we landed on the moon.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

When not to quote yourself

Revkin gives us an example:

But I’ve long recognized the complexities in ice behavior that will probably result in some ice persisting, even in summer, through that span in some places and that also guarantee the path toward largely open Arctic waters will not be smooth. This was evident to Arctic researchers as far back as 2005, as I wrote in our “Big Melt” series at that time:
Arctic researchers caution that there is something of a paradox in Arctic trends: while the long-term fate of the region may be mostly sealed, no one should presume that the recent sharp warming and seasonal ice retreats that have caught the world’s attention will continue smoothly into the future.
“The same Arctic feedbacks that are amplifying human-induced climate changes are amplifying natural variability,” explained Asgeir Sorteberg, a climate modeler at the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen, Norway.
Indeed, experts say, there could easily be periods in the next few decades when the region cools and ice grows.
 I'm sure that cautious prediction made all sorts of sense . . . in 2005. Besides Mr. Revkin's level-headed commentary, what else did we have going for us in 2005? Fifty percent more sea ice than we have today (by area). Two hundred and fifty percent more sea ice (by volume):

August 2005, 9.2; August 2012 3.6 -- what a difference seven years makes.
 To look at it from another perspective: from 1979 to 2005 (26 years) the ice fell from 16.9 km^3 to 9.2 km^3, a decline of 46%. Andrew Revkin cautions us the road ahead may be long and winding. From 2005 to 2012, the volume of ice falls from 9.2 km^3 to 3.6 km^3: a fall, in less than one third the time of more than 60%.

The world has changed. Recycled judiciousness from half a decade ago is a bit past its sell-by date.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The permafrost carbon feedback, ctd

Field information links permafrost carbon to physical vulnerabilities of thawing

Deep soil profiles containing permafrost (Gelisols) were characterized for organic carbon (C) and total nitrogen (N) stocks to 3 m depths. Using the Community Climate System Model (CCSM4) we calculate cumulative distributions of active layer thickness (ALT) under current and future climates. The difference in cumulative ALT distributions over time was multiplied by C and N contents of soil horizons in Gelisol suborders to calculate newly thawed C and N. Thawing ranged from 147 PgC with 10 PgN by 2050 (representative concentration pathway RCP scenario 4.5) to 436 PgC with 29 PgN by 2100 (RCP 8.5). Organic horizons that thaw are vulnerable to combustion, and all horizon types are vulnerable to shifts in hydrology and decomposition. The rates and extent of such losses are unknown and can be further constrained by linking field and modelling approaches. These changes have the potential for strong additional loading to our atmosphere, water resources, and ecosystems. 
Similar general estimates as compared with this paper: 68 billion tons to 508 billion tons in 2100 versus 436 billion tons. This is estimated thawed carbon, though; it's not clear to me from the abstract if they even attempt to estimate how much of that ends up in the atmosphere. This is particularly important in the case of nitrogen, given that NO2 is a powerful greenhouse gas (with 310 times the warming potential of CO2) as well as an ozone-eating chemical.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Despite years of "auditing" science, McIntyre doesn't know what "replicate" means

Fresh off comparing blog moderating to genocide, McIntyre is back with another denialist home run:
If you find it surprising that our former minerals consultant/professional pseudoscientist has already proclaimed the failure of attempts to replicate a study that has not even been published yet, there's a catch. Mr. McIntyre doesn't know what "replicate" means.

Replicating a scientific experiment means doing it again, and seeing if you get the same results. But McIntyre, who startled observers yesterday by not knowing what a pogrom was, is equally at sea when it comes to replication. He thinks it means repeating the analysis of the results. Really:

Is Lewandowsky et al 2012 (in press) replicable? Not easily and not so far. Both Roman M and I have been working on it without success so far. Here’s a progress report (on the first part only).

Lewandowsky carried out factor analysis on three groups of questions: free markets, CO2 and conspiracy, each of which will be discussed below. He used structural equation modeling (SEM) on the other science questions (cause and consensus).
Of course people can and do question and tweak the statistical analysis of scientific results. But to call that "replication" -- that's willful ignorance. Really replication, in this case, means that you conduct your own survey and see if your results show a positive correlation between climate denial and other conspiracy theories.

But of course real replication requires you to do some actual science. You might have to get up out of your chair, do some actual work, rather than endlessly carping about the choices other people made in their research. McIntyre instead chooses to pretend that science is simply playing with the data collected by others. That is basic science illiteracy from one of the "grand old men" of climate denial. I award him three and a half Goddards.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Lewandowsky madness: Steve McIntyre equates deleting comments on your own blog to the mass murder of Jews

If you follow the link (I don't recommend it) you quickly discover that Steve McIntyre doesn't know what a "pogrom" is. He's referring to Lewandowsky deleting some comments on his blog. That is what he is calling a "pogrom." That's right: Steve McIntyre equates deleting comments on your own blog to the mass murder of Jews.

These folks are getting punch-drunk and they're getting desperate. Hysterical race-baiting -- the new denier normal?

UPDATE: He appears to have realized that "pogrom" was an incredibly stupid word to use. Without acknowledging the change or the reason for it, he's deleted "pogrom" from the blog post. His less offensive alternative? Here:

Less bad, surely, but someone should tell him that if you're going to use a dog-whistle term like "cleansing," you probably shouldn't start out with the explicit comparison to racist mass murder. Subtle hints are kind of redundant at that point.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Committed warming

Andrew Weaver, the faculty author on Nature Geosciences' new paper on the Arctic permafrost carbon feedback (not to be confused with the new paper implying the risk of a catastrophic Antarctic carbon feedback), is talking about the paper from his perch at the Huffington Post. He offers his take on the committed warming in the pipeline:
Instrumental records have clearly revealed that the world is about 0.8°C warmer than it was during pre-industrial times. Numerous studies have also indicated that as a consequence of existing levels of greenhouse gases, we have a commitment to an additional future global warming of between 0.6 and 0.7°C. Our analysis points out that the permafrost carbon feedback adds to this another 0.4 to 0.8°C warming. Taken together, the planet is committed to between 1.8 and 2.3°C of future global warming -- even if emissions reductions programs start to get implemented.
So <+2C is off the table, unless we geoengineer (Planet 3.0 is revisiting the subject now). So there's that.

The last time the Earth was two degrees warming was the mid-Pliocene. That was about three million years ago. So common sense would suggest we prepare for a world that looks similar to the mid-Pliocene. Well . . .

* Sea levels were between 15m and 25m higher.
* The WAIS repeatedly melted back (repeatedly), potentially uncovering large carbon reserves.
* The Arctic was 10C-20C hotter than the present day (suggesting that while our climate models can't fully reproduce the degree of Arctic amplification we observe today, it's likely to be a real and persistent feature of the climate system.)

It will be interesting to see how cost/benefit estimates change once this permafrost carbon feedback is "priced in" to economic models of climate change. On the one hand, damages will increase. On the other hand, the differences between BAU and intensive mitigation scenarios will decrease, because the permafrost feedback will cause less warming in a hotter world, and more warming in a cooler world. Just to give a simple illustration, consider a carbon feedback that adds 100ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere. Then overlay that atop two scenarios:

* Aggressive mitigation -- 450ppm CO2
* BAU -- 800ppm CO2

Those numbers go into this equation:
\Delta F = 5.35 \times \ln {C \over C_0}~\mathrm{W}~\mathrm{m}^{-2} \,

 Where C(0) is preindustrial CO2 (280ppm), and C is 450ppm and 800ppm, respectively. Do that and we get a forcing of 2.5W/m^2 vs 5.6W/m^2. But look what happens when we add the permafrost carbon:

* Aggressive mitigation -- (450 + 100=) 550ppm CO2 = 3.6W/m^2
* BAU -- (800 + 100=) 900ppm CO2 = 6.2W/m^2

Both forcings have increased, but the mitigation scenario has increased far more, making the difference between mitigation and carbocide somewhat smaller: 2.6W/m^2 compared to 3.1W/m^2.

It's not a huge difference, but it narrows the difference between action and inaction, and least in terms of forcing. At the same time all scenarios get more expensive and destructive. It'll be interesting to see which effect is stronger.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Permafrost carbon feedback update

There's a new paper out:

Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback

Permafrost soils contain an estimated 1,700Pg of carbon, almost twice the present atmospheric carbon pool1. As permafrost soils thaw owing to climate warming, respiration of organic matter within these soils will transfer carbon to the atmosphere, potentially leading to a positive feedback2. Models in which the carbon cycle is uncoupled from the atmosphere, together with one-dimensional models, suggest that permafrost soils could release 7–138Pg carbon by 2100 (refs 3, 4). Here, we use a coupled global climate model to quantify the magnitude of the warming generated by the feedback between permafrost carbon release and climate. According to our simulations, permafrost soils will release between 68 and 508Pg carbon by 2100. We show that the additional surface warming generated by the feedback between permafrost carbon and climate is independent of the pathway of anthropogenic emissions followed in the twenty-first century. We estimate that this feedback could result in an additional warming of 0.13–1.69°C by 2300. We further show that the upper bound for the strength of the feedback is reached under the less intensive emissions pathways. We suggest that permafrost carbon release could lead to significant warming, even under less intensive emissions trajectories.
Between 68-508 Pg, or 68-508 billion tons of carbon, or, if it all comes out as CO2 (and you'd better hope it does, more or less), 255 to 1,910 billion tons of CO2. For comparison, human emissions in 2010 amounted to 9.1 billion tons of carbon. This feedback could be thought of like continuing on with our current emissions for between seven to fifty-five years, except we don't get any choice in the matter.

This is higher than most of the previous estimates I've seen. Koven et al (2011), for example, estimated 55-69 Pg C of carbon. There are a number of other estimates from a variety of sources using a number of methods. From "Vulnerability of Permafrost Carbon to Climate Change: Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle":
Risk assessments, based on expert opinion, estimated that up to 100 Pg C could be released from thawing permafrost by 2100 (Gruber et al. 2004). On the basis of laboratory incubation experiments and estimated C stocks, Dutta and colleagues (2006) calculated a potential release of about 40 Pg C over four decades if 10% of the C stock frozen in deep soils in Siberia thawed to 5°C. Tarnocai (2006) estimated that 48 Pg C could be released from Canadian permafrost over this century if the mean annual air temperature increased by 4°C. Model predictions incorporate changes in vegetation and other disturbances, as well as C release from permafrost, to determine the net effect of climate warming. Results for Alaska and for the circumpolar region predict the addition of up to 50 to 100 Pg C to the atmosphere by the end of the century, depending on the particular model scenario (Stieglitz et al. 2003, Zhuang et al. 2006).
In other bad news from the Arctic permafrost, Vonk et al (2012) found breakdown of Siberian "Yedoma" permafrost dumping ten times as much CO2 into the Arctic ocean compared to prior estimates.

All of this has, for me, a distinct hint of the Arctic sea ice narrative, to the tune of "Oh-yes-change-will-come-we-see-it-in-the-record-a-few-thousand-years-maybe-OK-maybe-faster-OK-now-we're-getting-good-direct-measurements-could-be-an-issue-in-a-century-or-two-OK-wait-what-WHATTHEHELLISTHAT?"

The analogy is hardly even an analogy at all. The permafrost most at risk, after all, is just another species of Arctic ice. And it should be as clear as crystal that the Arctic is changing faster than experts thought possible just a few years ago. The bits of it impregnated with thousands of gigatonnes of carbon are no exception. Is it a methane bomb, a carbon bomb? It doesn't need to be. When the house is on fire, everything burns.


Note the use of "C" rather than "CO2"

This has been bugging me for a bit, because I am not a scientist -- well, mostly not -- and I get confused:

Pg = petragram = 10^15 grams = 10^12 kilograms = one billion tonnes = one gigatonne

They're all the same . . . news stories tend to say "billion tons," which is understandable, but why scientists cannot agree on either petragrams (Pg) or gigatonnes (Gt) I have no idea . . .

Tg = tetragram = 10^12 grams = 10^9 kilograms = one million tonnes = one megatonne

While we're on the subject:

There is one ton of carbon per 3.67 tons of carbon dioxide. So when we talk carbon emissions or carbon taxes, it's important to note whether we're talking the mass of the carbon alone, or the mass of the carbon dioxide.

The mass of the atmosphere is about 5.1480×1018 kg, so 1ppm (part per million) is 5.1480×1012 kg, or (using our new en-smartening conversion above), about 5 gigtonnes (Gt) of CO2. While CO2 emissions are conventionally reported by mass, CO2 in the atmosphere is reported by volume, in parts per million of the total volume of the atmosphere. One part per million (ppm) of CO2 is 7.81 billion tons. The carbon itself weighs 2.13 billion tons.

A little more than half of that goes into natural sinks (for the moment, knock on wood) so it takes about 15 Gt of human CO2 to bump atmospheric CO2 by 1ppm.

UPDATE: Thanks to anon for pointing out the error above.

Further info at Skeptical Science, the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, and CO2Now.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bottom line: Does switching from coal to shale gas slow climate change?

Keith Kloor "asks" Will Fracking Help Or Hinder the Fight Against Climate Change? Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that he has little interest in trying to answer that question, and instead uses it as an excuse to beat up on his favorite villains, those crazy environmentalists:
Gas emits much less carbon than coal (probably between 25% and 50% less), which is a net plus on the global warming ledger. And shale gas, in case you hadn’t heard, is entering a golden age; it is abundant and newly retrievable across the world, not just in the United States. It’s the bridge fuel to a clean energy future that liberal think tanks and university researchers were touting just a few years ago. Given the political stalemate on climate change, one energy expert gushed in a recent NYT op-ed: “Shale gas to the rescue.”

But a grassroots backlash to the relatively new technology (hydraulic fracturing) that unlocks shale gas has set in motion powerful forces opposed to this bridge getting built. Leading climate campaigners, citing concerns about industry practices and continued reliance on fossil fuels (even if less carbon intensive), are now a big part of the growing anti-fracking coalition. Mainstream environmentalists have also jumped on that bandwagon.
Thus the battle lines are drawn, with enviros and climate activists digging in their heels against a shale gas revolution that could pay big climate dividends.
Lest you think I'm quoting Kloor's conclusions following a careful analysis of the pros and cons of shale gas, the above is from the third, fourth, and fifth paragraphs of Kloor's essay. Really. So the title of the essay is really quite misleading. Kloor spends not a bit of virtual ink on whether fracking will "help or hinder the fight against climate change." Instead he blandly proclaims it "the bridge fuel to the clean energy future" and directs the remainder of his energies to the question of whether "enviros and climate activists" will help or hinder it.

It's a shame, and not just because it is rehash of an essay Kloor has written approximately five hundred times (Enviros crazy! Me sane and moderate!) dressed up as something new. It is a shame because the question itself is very interesting and important: is shale gas a good thing from the perspective of global warming, or not?

There are three major factors to examine in considering the relative impact of shale gas and coal on climate change:

1. CO2 produced per unit of energy.
2. Methane produced per unit of energy (conventionally referred to, with gas, as the methane leakage rate).
3. Aerosol cooling (coal more than gas, by far.)

Non-AGW factors will be left out of the equation for now. These include water pollution, direct harm from inhalation (asthma, COPD, lung cancer), and damage to the landscape. These are not unimportant, but they complicate an analysis that is already quite complicated. So we will stick with the effects on global warming.

Looking at the three factors above, we can see that the long-term factor (CO2) favors gas, while the short-term factors (methane and aerosols with their short half-lives in the atmosphere) favor coal. So we would expect, intuitively, that shale gas would do well in the long term, and less well in the short term. And this is exactly what the literature shows.

Looking at Hultman et al (2011) (4th abstract below) we see that methane leakage make shale gas worse than coal in the short term (20 years) about the same in the medium term (100 years) and better in the long term (500 years). Hultman et al does not consider the negative aerosol forcing associated with burning coal, so gas is relatively advantaged in these calculations.

When aerosols are included in the calculations, the break-even point for shale gas is even further in the future.

Here are a few of the recent papers examining this question:

We evaluate the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas obtained by high-volume hydraulic fracturing from shale formations, focusing on methane emissions. Natural gas is composed largely of methane, and 3.6% to 7.9% of the methane from shale-gas production escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the life-time of a well. These methane emissions are at least 30% more than and perhaps more than twice as great as those from conventional gas. The higher emissions from shale gas occur at the time wells are hydraulically fractured—as methane escapes from flow-back return fluids—and during drill out following the fracturing. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential that is far greater than that of carbon dioxide, particularly over the time horizon of the first few decades following emission. Methane contributes substantially to the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas on shorter time scales, dominating it on a 20-year time horizon. The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years. [Howarth et al became the focus of a debate between the authors and another group of researchers championed by Anthony Revkin. Cathles et al substituted optimistic estimates of methane leakage for Howarth's pessimistic estimates (which led to a letter, which led to a press release), and ignored the 20-year horizon, arguing that only 100 years and longer are appropriate measures of climate impact. Ignoring the 20-year time horizon is a common tactic of shale gas boosters, as we see below. Cathles goes further by ignoring the difference in aerosol forcing between present-day coal and shale gas, reasoning that we'll have to get rid of dirty coal plants someday anyway!]

"Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure"

Natural gas is seen by many as the future of American energy: a fuel that can provide energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the process. However, there has also been confusion about the climate implications of increased use of natural gas for electric power and transportation. We propose and illustrate the use of technology warming potentials as a robust and transparent way to compare the cumulative radiative forcing created by alternative technologies fueled by natural gas and oil or coal by using the best available estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from each fuel cycle (i.e., production, transportation and use). We find that a shift to compressed natural gas vehicles from gasoline or diesel vehicles leads to greater radiative forcing of the climate for 80 or 280 yr, respectively, before beginning to produce benefits. Compressed natural gas vehicles could produce climate benefits on all time frames if the well-to-wheels CH4 leakage were capped at a level 45–70% below current estimates. By contrast, using natural gas instead of coal for electric power plants can reduce radiative forcing immediately, and reducing CH4 losses from the production and transportation of natural gas would produce even greater benefits. There is a need for the natural gas industry and science community to help obtain better emissions data and for increased efforts to reduce methane leakage in order to minimize the climate footprint of natural gas. 

Recent reports show growing reserves of unconventional gas are available and that there is an appetite from policy makers, industry, and others to better understand the GHG impact of exploiting reserves such as shale gas. There is little publicly available data comparing unconventional and conventional gas production. Existing studies rely on national inventories, but it is not generally possible to separate emissions from unconventional and conventional sources within these totals. Even if unconventional and conventional sites had been listed separately, it would not be possible to eliminate site-specific factors to compare gas production methods on an equal footing. To address this difficulty, the emissions of gas production have instead been modeled. In this way, parameters common to both methods of production can be held constant, while allowing those parameters which differentiate unconventional gas and conventional gas production to vary. The results are placed into the context of power generation, to give a ″well-to-wire″ (WtW) intensity. It was estimated that shale gas typically has a WtW emissions intensity about 1.8–2.4% higher than conventional gas, arising mainly from higher methane releases in well completion. Even using extreme assumptions, it was found that WtW emissions from shale gas need be no more than 15% higher than conventional gas if flaring or recovery measures are used. In all cases considered, the WtW emissions of shale gas powergen are significantly lower than those of coal.[Note, however, that this paper, brought to you by "Shell Global Solutions," ignores the 20-year horizon completely: "Some authors have considered 20-year global warming potential
factors, but use of these is not widely accepted."]

"The greenhouse impact of unconventional gas for electricity generation" Nathan Hultman, Dylan Rebois, Michael Scholten and Christopher Ramig 2011 Environ. Res. Lett.

 New techniques to extract natural gas from unconventional resources have become economically competitive over the past several years, leading to a rapid and largely unanticipated expansion in natural gas production. The US Energy Information Administration projects that unconventional gas will supply nearly half of US gas production by 2035. In addition, by significantly expanding and diversifying the gas supply internationally, the exploitation of new unconventional gas resources has the potential to reshape energy policy at national and international levels—altering geopolitics and energy security, recasting the economics of energy technology investment decisions, and shifting trends in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In anticipation of this expansion, one of the perceived core advantages of unconventional gas—its relatively moderate GHG impact compared to coal—has recently come under scrutiny. In this paper, we compare the GHG footprints of conventional natural gas, unconventional natural gas (i.e. shale gas that has been produced using the process of hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking'), and coal in a transparent and consistent way, focusing primarily on the electricity generation sector. We show that for electricity generation the GHG impacts of shale gas are 11% higher than those of conventional gas, and only 56% that of coal for standard assumptions. [But see above.]
 Substitution of natural gas for coal is one means of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. However, natural gas and coal use also results in emissions of other radiatively active substances including methane (CH4), sulfur dioxide (SO2), a sulfate aerosolprecursor, and black carbon (BC) particles. Will switching from coal to gas reduce the net impact of fossil fuel use on global climate? Using the electric utility sector as an example, changes in emissions of CO2, CH4,SO2 and BC resulting from the replacement of coal by natural gas are evaluated, and their modeled net effect on global mean-annual temperature calculated. Coal-to-gas substitution initially produces higher temperatures relative to continued coal use. This warming is due to reduced SO2 emissionsand possible increases in CH4 emissions, and can last from 1 to 30years, depending on the sulfur controls assumed. This is followed by a net decrease in temperature relative to continued coal use, resulting from lower emissions of CO2 and BC. The length of this period and the extent of the warming or cooling expected from coal-to-gas substitution is found to depend on key uncertainties and characteristics of the substitutions, especially those related to: (1) SO2 emissions and consequentsulphate aerosol forcing; and (2) the relative efficiencies of the power plantsinvolved in the switch. [Short-term: more warming with shale gas. Longer term: gas beats coal. The exact time horizons seem to be quite sensitive to the initial assumptions, but there seems to be fairly broad agreement about the overall picture, and dissenters -- like "Shell Global Solutions" -- get around these facts by simply ignoring the short-term time frame.]

Coal to gas: the influence of methane leakage
Tom M. L. Wigley

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel combustion may be reduced by
using natural gas rather than coal to produce energy. Gas produces approximately half the amount of CO2 per unit of primary energy compared with coal. Here we consider a scenario where a fraction of coal usage is replaced by natural gas (i.e., methane, CH4) over a given time period, and where a percentage of the gas production is assumed to leak into the atmosphere. The additional CH4 from leakage adds to the radiative forcing of the climate system, offsetting the reduction in CO2 forcing that accompanies the transition from coal to gas. We also consider the effects of: methane leakage from coal mining; changes in radiative forcing due to changes in the emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbonaceous aerosols; and differences in the efficiency of electricity production between coal- and gas-fired power generation. On balance, these factors more than offset the reduction in warming due to reduced CO2 emissions. When gas replaces coal there is additional warming out to 2,050 with an assumed leakage rate of 0%, and out to 2,140 if the leakage rate is as high as 10%.
. . .
In our analyses, the temperature differences between the baseline and coal-to-gas
scenarios are small (less than 0.1°C) out to at least 2100. The most important result,
however, in accord with the above authors, is that, unless leakage rates for new
methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change.
This is contrary to claims such as that by Ridley (2011) who states (p. 5), with regard to the exploitation of shale gas, that it will “accelerate the decarbonisation of the world economy”. The key point here is that it is not decarbonisation per se that is the goal, but the attendant reduction of climate
change. Indeed, the shorter-term effects are in the opposite direction. Given the small
climate differences between the baseline and the coal-to-gas scenarios, decisions regarding further exploitation of gas reserves should be based on resource availability (both gas and water), the economics of extraction, and environmental impacts unrelated
to climate change.


So after this whirlwind tour of shale gas research, what do we know? There is no consensus about whether or not substituting shale gas for coal will slow global warming this century. This is not going to be one of those issues where all the science is lined up on one side, and all the partisan kooks are lined up on the other. The exact effect of switching from coal to shale gas depends upon a number of factors that are difficult to pin down, including:

1. The size of the aerosol forcing. After many decades of trying to pin it down, we still do not know exactly how much cooling the SO2 and other coal-burning byproducts are causing. Obviously the effects of switching from coal to gas depend on how much coal-burning byproducts temporarily cool the planet.

2. The amount of methane leakage. This is a function of not just how well we measure methane leakage, but whether we aggressively regulate methane leakage to hold it to an absolute minimum.

3. The discount rate. Not really a physical constant, but more of a philosophical question: how important is relative cooling 300 years from now compared to worsening global warming over the next twenty years (or fifty years, or hundred years)?

4. The half-life of methane in the atmosphere. As far as I know, no one has discussed this relative to the shale gas question, but the oxidization of methane to CO2 by free radicals is subject to saturation, which is the science-y way of saying that the more methane you put in the atmosphere, the longer each molecule stays in the atmosphere:

The magnitude and feedbacks of future methane release from the Arctic region are unknown. Despite limited documentation of potential future releases associated with thawing permafrost and degassing methane hydrates, the large potential for future methane releases calls for improved understanding of the interaction of a changing climate with processes in the Arctic and chemical feedbacks in the atmosphere. Here we apply a “state of the art” atmospheric chemistry transport model to show that large emissions of CH 4 would likely have an unexpectedly large impact on the chemical composition of the atmosphere and on radiative forcing (RF). The indirect contribution to RF of additional methane emission is particularly important. It is shown that if global methane emissions were to increase by factors of 2.5 and 5.2 above current emissions, the indirect contributions to RF would be about 250% and 400%, respectively, of the RF that can be attributed to directly emitted methane alone. Assuming several hypothetical scenarios of CH 4 release associated with permafrost thaw, shallow marine hydrate degassing, and submarine landslides, we find a strong positive feedback on RF through atmospheric chemistry. In particular, the impact of CH 4 is enhanced through increase of its lifetime, and of atmospheric abundances of ozone, stratospheric water vapor, and CO 2 as a result of atmospheric chemical processes. Despite uncertainties in emission scenarios, our results provide a better understanding of the feedbacks in the atmospheric chemistry that would amplify climate warming.
So depending on how widely shale gas is adopted, and on whether other sources of methane such as permafrost melting or methyl hydrates come into play, methane leaks from shale gas could have double or even quadruple the impact on the climate presently assumed.

Given these uncertainties, what can we say with at least moderate confidence?

1. Shale gas is probably worse than coal on the 20 year horizon. Apart from all the other evidence, the determination of shale gas boosters to avoid talking about the 20 year horizon suggests that this is the case.

2. There is a time horizon out there at which shale gas becomes better from a warming perspective than coal. It's just not clear yet whether it is at 25, 100, or 300 years . . . i.e., whether it is soon enough to do us any real good.

3. Shale gas is significantly worse than every other sort of energy except coal and oil. In the absence of a carbon price, cheap shale gas will tend to displace all energy sources, not just coal. Thus a realistic analysis of a Tea Partyesque policy of letting frackers "do their thing" with minimal regulation would compare shale gas to a basket of power sources that would be displaced, including hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, and nuclear, as well as discouraging investments in efficiency or decisions to conserve. Shale gas is unlikely to look good on this basis.

So, can shale gas be a "bridge fuel"? In my opinion, not in the way shale gas is happening right now. To have any hope of a real net benefit in terms of global warming this century, we need draconian limits on methane leakage and a carbon price (including both CO2 and methane) to ensure that shale gas replaces coal, not low-carbon energy sources or improvements in efficiency. The narrative of "the free market slashed CO2 emissions while the enviros weren't looking HAHAHA" has no basis in fact. The blind squirrel of the free market may stumble into an instance of profit-driven accidental mitigation once in a while (like the Russians controlling methane leakage from pipelines after the fall of the Soviet Union), but this ain't it. Similarly the idea that shale gas is an unambiguous "win" in mitigation terms, so much so that those questioning it are self-evidently trolls lurking under "the bridge to the clean energy future" is also not supported by the research.
Sea level rise to 2500. Source.

How we do shale gas is going to determine whether there is a window where there might be some net benefit. Both proponents and opponents of mitigation have tended to stress the 100-year time frame, for different reasons. If you accept that framing, even optimal shale gas substitution is probably going to show, at best, moderate benefits. If you are looking 500 years into the future, shale gas instead of coal is the best thing since sliced bread, but then, if you're looking 500 years into the future,  you can hardly help but realize that stopping all fossil fuel use as soon as possible should be our overarching priority.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Half the Arctic sea ice is gone.

Lowest daily minimum for the 1980s (average):  7,312,906 km2
September 6, 2012: 3,614,219 km2

Still falling . . . I have no words for it.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Antarctic carbon feedback: a worst case scenario

It's the single study to end all single studies:
The researchers estimate that 50 per cent of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (1 million km2) and 25 per cent of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (2.5 million km2) overlies preglacial sedimentary basins, containing about 21,000 billion tonnes of organic carbon.
If this carbon proves to be vulnerable in the way we now think the northern permafrost carbon is vulnerable, it will mean we could soon be literally incapable of stabilizing the climate without geoengineering.

The reason is very simple.  Based on the experience of the Eocene (above), at between 3 and 4 degrees above preindustrial, the Antarctica ice pack can be expected to melt completely (of the course question of exactly what temperature will lead to the deglaciation of Antarctica is a complex scientific question, while the above is an eyeballed guesstimate; see below). If these researchers are right, that will gradually release 21,000 gigatons of carbon.

So let's get down to brass tacks. The carbon is divided between the larger East Antarctic Ice Sheet and the more vulnerable West Antarctic Ice Sheet:
The researchers estimate that 50 per cent of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (1 million km2) and 25 per cent of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (2.5 million km2) overlies preglacial sedimentary basins, containing about 21,000 billion tonnes of organic carbon.
Experts place the chances of for the beginning of a total collapse of the WAIS in the next 200 years at upwards of 5%. Estimates of how long such a collapse would take to reach completion range from 300 to 1600 years. The temperature that would trigger that collapse is thought to be somewhere between +1C and +5C compared to 1990 temperatures (2).

Suppose that happened, and, since that's a fairly pessimistic assumption, let's throw in a couple of optimistic assumptions: the EAIS contributes nothing significant, and the northern permafrost and methyl hydrates contribute nothing.

The proportion of the trapped carbon under the WAIS is 4/9 of the total of 21,000 gigatons (about 9,300 gigatons) (1). If the WAIS melts, what proportion of that carbon will enter the atmosphere? Some will obviously remain locked a carbon sink that will develop as the continent warms. Suppose only 60% or so, 6,000 gigatons, ends up in the atmosphere.

A couple hundred billion tons of that will be methane; ignore it. The trapped methane has figured prominently in the news accounts about this research, but compared to the staggering amount of carbon under the ice, most of which would enter the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and the rest of which would be oxidized to carbon dioxide after a brief stint as methane, the news that we have a southern methane time bomb to go with the Arctic one is merely a footnote.

Suppose significant outgassing of the carbon under the WAIS starts in about a hundred years and takes two hundred years to run to completion. Six thousand gigatons over two hundred years is 30 gigatons of carbon per year (on average). By way of comparison, total fossil fuel emissions are running at about 7 gigatons per year:

Thirty gigatons a year is about what the human race is expected to produce at the end of the century is the world economy grows rapidly despite our making no effort to rein in our emissions:

The effect of 6,000 gigatons of carbon entering the atmosphere would be an extinction-level event. One part per million of atmospheric CO2 is equivalent to 2.13 gigatons of carbon. Assuming a 50% airborne fraction (which is incredibly optimistic) 6,000 tons of carbon entering the atmosphere would raise the CO2 concentration by about 1,400ppm. In a worst case in which the carbon sinks finally give up the ghost, the rise is 2,800ppm. Supposing we were at that point at 800ppm and +4C, that would quickly take us to +8C with the EAIS adding its share soon after.

You would be looking at centuries of further warming independent of human emissions -- leading to an increasingly inhospitable climate even if economic collapse reduced the anthropogenic contribution significantly.

There is a large distance between the publication of this one study and a solid scientific case for an Antarctic carbon bomb. The steps along that road are, roughly:

1. Are the authors correct about the scale of the buried carbon?
2. Are the authors right about the distribution of that carbon, specifically about a heavy concentration of it under the most vulnerable part of the ice sheet?
3. Will that ice sheet decay significantly over the next few centuries?
4. If the ice sheet decades, what proportion of the buried carbon will make its way into the atmosphere?
1. "Potential methane reservoirs beneath Antarctica"  J. L. Wadham, S. Arndt, S. Tulaczyk, M. Stibal,  M. Tranter, J. Telling, G. P. Lis, E. Lawson, A. Ridgwell, A. Dubnick, M. J. Sharp, A. M. Anesio & C. E. H. Butler.  Nature 488, 633–637 (30 August 2012) -- abstract.
2. "The Future of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet: Observed and Predicted Changes, Tipping Points, and Policy Considerations" -- full text.
UPDATE: Round up from around the interwebs.

 "Potential New Methane Risk in Antarctica" -- News

"Antarctica’s Hidden Carbon Stores Pose Warming Risk in Study" -- Bloomberg

“There’s a potentially large pool of methane hydrate in part of the Earth where we haven’t previously considered it,” Wadham said in a telephone interview. “Depending on where that hydrate is, and how much there is, if the ice thins in those regions, some of that hydrate could come out with a possible feedback on climate.”
"Large methane reservoirs suggested beneath Antarctic ice sheet" --

 "Antarctic Methane: A New Factor in the Climate Equation" -- Climate Central
Wadham and her co-authors took soil samples from the margins of glaciers in both Antarctica and Greenland. “We spent a couple of years chain-sawing out sediments frozen into the bottom of the ice,” she said, adding with a connoisseur’s judgment, “They were very nicely preserved.”
They hauled the samples back to the lab and allowed them to thaw under carefully controlled, oxygen-deprived conditions where oxygen-hating, methane-belching bacteria known as methanogens could do their work — assuming they were there. And sure enough, the soil began producing methane.
The same thing should presumably be happening underneath Antarctica’s ice, where heat percolating from the depths of the Earth have prevented sediments from ever having frozen.