Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Idiot post of the week

Normally I ignore Anthony Watt's whiny alternate universe, but this particular post is a gem of the genre:

Bizarre: NYT follows AAAS lead on “FOIA requests equate to death threats”

I'll say this for Anthony; he doesn't bury the lede. The two major lies are included in the title itself:

1. He uses quotation marks around this statement: “FOIA requests equate to death threats.” So he is claiming someone said exactly those words. That's what the quotation marks mean. If that's not so, he's lying (I know -- who woulda thought?) Did the American Association for the Advancement of Science say “FOIA requests equate to death threats”? Of course not. The press release Watts cites mentions the FOIA exactly once, to wit:

The sharing of research data is vastly different from unreasonable, excessive Freedom of Information Act requests for personal information and voluminous data that are then used to harass and intimidate scientists. The latter serve only as a distraction and make no constructive contribution to the public discourse.

Anthony's quote is fake. First lie.

Did the New York Times write “FOIA requests equate to death threats”? Of course not. It speaks to the bottomless gullibility of deniers that anyone would think that.

2. Did the New York Times "follow[] AAAS lead"(1) in criticizing the use of FOIA requests to harass scientists? Watts claims they did. It's ostensibly the subject of the post. So where's the quote from the New York Times endorsing the AAAS's criticism. There isn't one, because it never happened. Lie number two.

How did the New York Times get into the story? Watts relates a story told to him by Chris Horner (2):

Naturally this caught the eye of the New York Times, which had a young lady contact us for comment. Right off the bat it was clear she, too, had been rattled by the horrors of our outrageous efforts to …see certain records the taxpayer has paid for and which are expressly covered by transparency laws.

Her stance was sympathetic to AAS’s to the point of temper.

So what we have for evidence that "NYT follows AAAS lead on 'FOIA requests equate to death threats'" is a secondhand conversation in which a denier felt like a reporter didn't sympathize with his perspective and asked him questions that made him uncomfortable. The number of ways in which that fiction fails the test of reality is mind-boggling. It's heresay from an unreliable source; it's based on the fact that a reporter asked an uncomfortable question (presumably, that's her job); it equates the (speculated) views of one reporter with the entire New York Times organization despite the fact that nothing has been printed in the New York Times related to the press release by the AAAS.

So in summary, Watts uses a fake quote, based on a secondhand conversation as related by a sketchy right-wing extremist, in which he takes offense at questions asked by a reporter, to attribute to the New York Times an equivalence between FOIA requests and death threats, which he false attributes to an AAAS press release, even though his own link shows that to be another lie.

Just another day in the denier fantasyland, which more and more resembles a sweatshop of assembly-line lies, churning out fictional accounts of victimhood.

1. Note the brackets. Brackets inside quotation marks denote a minor change in a quote that should not change the meaning -- in this case, the omission of the "s" at the end of "follows," in order to make the grammar of the sentence correct. The brackets, like an ellipsis [. . .], alert the reader that a quote has been altered, even in a minor way, and if there is any question as the the meaning, you should refer to the original source. These are the rigid rules of direct quotations observed by people who are not lying sacks of shit.

2. The denier responsible for such sparkling analysis as "for decades, environmentalism has been the Left's best excuse for increasing government control over our actions in ways both large and small. It's for Mother Earth! It's for the children! It's for the whales! But until now, the doomsday-scenario environmental scares they've trumped up haven't been large enough to justify the lifestyle restrictions they want to impose. With global warming, however, greenhouse gasbags can argue that auto emissions in Ohio threaten people in Paris, and that only 'global governance' (Jacques Chirac's words) can tackle such problems."

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Gay marriage is legal in New York

I never want to be one of those people who sees everything through the prism of their own pet issue, but I have one thing to say about this, in the moment we find ourselves in today: the inevitable in politics has a half-life measured in months to years, not decades and certainly not forever. Twenty years ago gay marriage was an issue most people had never heard of, it was so far on the fringe. Ten years ago the issue was electoral poison. In 2008 gay marriage was decisively rejected in California, and it seemed nothing much had changed.

Today sixty million Americans have a legal right to marry anyone they want. And whether you love that, or hate it, or don't much care, the indisputable conclusion is that politics change.

Fight for what you believe in. The politics of today, massive and immovable as they seem, are ephemeral as a mirage in the face of determined idealism coupled with a passionate, disciplined activism.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The big-minimum solar discussion in one graph

Depending on your level of obsession with climate change, you may or may not know that there is some new solar modeling that suggests we could be entering an usually quiet period for solar activity (what deniers regard as the ignorant and corrupt practice of using mathematical models to predict the climate has received a papal dispensation for this one occasion(*)).

What you need to know: could happen. Some solar physicists say "probably" and some say "probably not." If it were to come to pass, this graph shows the projected effect:

Skeptical Science has more.

* As well as any other occasion in which a model says something they want to hear.

Tighter vehicle emissions standards can slow warming, improve food production, and save hundreds of thousands of lives per year

Simply by bringing the rest of the world up to North American standards, we can reap both short-term and long-term benefits:

"The adoption of aggressive standards by 2015 would set the world on a course to prevent the deaths of 200,000 people, save 13 million tons of cereal grains from ozone damage, and save $1.5 trillion in health damages each year after 2030," Shindell said.

We all share one atmosphere, and that means international treaties are the only way forward, not just in the effort to contain CO2, but for other types of emissions as well:

While reductions in particulate matter tend to produce local health benefits, the scientists found health and agricultural benefits from reduced ozone disperse more widely. That means for some countries — India, for example — changes in emissions from neighboring countries could have as much impact as local emission changes.

The climate benefit is short-term but significant:

Shindell's modeling shows that stringent emissions standards would reduce 0.20°C (0.36°F) of warming in the Northern Hemisphere from 2040 to 2070. That's largely because more stringent standards would reduce emissions of black carbon, a constituent of soot, and carbon monoxide, a precursor of ozone.

Other recent results have highlighted the benefits of methane emissions reduction, similarly a cheap intervention with secondary benefits and significant short-term impacts on warming, up to 0.4C.

None of this buys us time in the sense that we can put off dealing with CO2 emissions. What it might do, if coupled with the most aggressive CO2 reductions imaginable, is slow down some of the now-not-so-long-term feedbacks, like permafrost melting and forest dieback and wetland losses and breakdown of methyl hydrates and degassing of CO2 from the oceans and the soil. We don't really know, but based on the way those feedbacks are ramping up given 0.8C of warming, it's not hard to imagine how sensitive they are likely to be to twice that much warming.

The article linked to above ("Losing time, not buying time") argues that focusing on these short-term feedbacks could be a fatal distraction:

While we are "buying" (or frittering away) time dealing with methane, fossil-fuel CO2 emission rate, and hence cumulative emissions, continue rising at the rate of 3% per year, as they have done since 1900. By 2040, we have put another 573 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, bringing the cumulative fossil fuel total up to 965 gigatonnes. By controlling methane you have indeed kept the warming in 2040 from broaching the 2C limit, but what happens then? In order to keep the cumulative emissions below the 1 trillion tonne limit, you are faced with the daunting task of bringing the emissions rate (which by 2040 has grown to 22 gigatonnes per year) all the way to zero almost immediately. That wasn’t very helpful, was it? At that point, you’d probably like to return the time you bought and get a refund (but sorry, no refunds on sale items). More realistically, by the time you managed to halt emissions growth and bring it down to nearly zero, another half trillion tonnes or so would have accumulated in the atmosphere, committing the Earth to a yet higher level of long-term warming.

His point is well taken, but I have a different possible scenario that I worry about:

We intensively reduce CO2. This has little effect on temperatures for the next several decades -- they rise by about 0.2C/decade until 2050. Despite forty years without a demonstrable benefit, the people of the world persevere, and keep the anthropogenic carbon added to the system below 1,000 gigatonnes.

Unfortunately, by this point the world is 1.6C warmer than the one we started with. The permafrost alone is releasing 50 gigatonnes of carbon per year. The oceans, half that. At this point the biosphere starts to saturate and becomes a net emitter of CO2, rather than absorbing half of our emissions, as is the case today. The world has done the right thing, too late, and is now condemned to centuries of continued CO2 rises and continued warming.

If the author is right (and I think he is) and I am right (and I'm afraid I might be) the choice is not either/or: we need controls on CO2 to avert disaster by primary CO2 release, and controls on short-term gases and aerosols to give us a chance of averting disaster by secondary releases of carbon from natural sinks.

We need both, but right now we do not have the political strength to get either, even with the evidence that the early stages of mitigation would pay for themselves. Some days it's hard to see a path forward.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The New York Times is watching the food

Yes, it has already begun:

Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — has outstripped production for much of the past decade, drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels. The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost.

Those price jumps, though felt only moderately in the West, have worsened hunger for tens of millions of poor people, destabilizing politics in scores of countries, from Mexico to Uzbekistan to Yemen. The Haitian government was ousted in 2008 amid food riots, and anger over high prices has played a role in the recent Arab uprisings.

Now, the latest scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor is helping to destabilize the food system: climate change.

Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters, like floods in the United States, drought in Australia and blistering heat waves in Europe and Russia. Scientists believe some, though not all, of those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming.

Temperatures are rising rapidly during the growing season in some of the most important agricultural countries, and a paper published several weeks ago found that this had shaved several percentage points off potential yields, adding to the price gyrations.

More tomorrow on this.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Watch the food, ctd

As global food prices rise and exporters reduce shipments of commodities, countries that rely on imported grain are panicking. Affluent countries like Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China and India have descended on fertile plains across the African continent, acquiring huge tracts of land to produce wheat, rice and corn for consumption back home.

Some of these land acquisitions are enormous. South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, has acquired 1.7 million acres in Sudan to grow wheat — an area twice the size of Rhode Island. In Ethiopia, a Saudi firm has leased 25,000 acres to grow rice, with the option of expanding. India has leased several hundred thousand acres there to grow corn, rice and other crops. And in countries like Congo and Zambia, China is acquiring land for biofuel production.

Full story here. These purchases will help the buyers in relatively good times, but if famine comes (and the decision to buy agricultural land so far afield suggests that they think famine is coming) will any independent state send food overseas while its own citizens starve?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A simple way to think about uncertainty

Lukewarmers like to complain about the state of our scientific knowledge; they like to complain about uncertainty, especially in impacts, where there is in fact a lot of uncertainty.

Is there a way to make good policy despite this very real uncertainty? Can it be true the uncertainty reinforces the case for action, or is that a contradiction?

We have been enjoying a very stable climate over the past 8,000 years. The entirety of recorded history has taken place within a narrow range of long-term average temperature, +/- 0.5C. Now we are increasing the temperature far outside that range, to a level not seen on Earth for millions of years. Is that safe?

Forget about sea levels, extreme weather, drought, food production and all the rest of it for a moment. There is, indeed, significant uncertainty about how much of the above will happen and how fast, even if, in truth, the uncertainty is more between "expensive and destructive" versus "catastrophic" rather than between "good" or "bad." Forget about the specifics, and imagine a spaceship.

This ship includes the entire population of humanity -- one billion people, say (never mind what happened to the old Earth -- Death Star got it, or something). And it is going to travel to one and only one planet. That planet will now be humanity's new home. And you know literally nothing about it (scenario one).

Suppose the ship's computer informs the crew that the climate on New Earth is changing, and unless you expend significant resources to prevent it (deploying solar mirrors in advance of your arrival, or what have you) the temperature will be 3C warmer when you arrive.

What is your response? Clearly, you don't care. The planet may be just three degrees to cold to support life now. Or it might be an uninhabitable volcanic hell, and 3C more will be nothing. Warming could make things better, or worse, or make no difference. With no way to know, you aren't going to spend resources to try and control the climate.

This is the circumstance some pseudoskeptics and "lukewarmers" feel we are in. We don't know what the effects of warming will be, they could be good or bad, so it would be folly to decarbonize our economy on that basis.

But scenario one is unrealistic; we don't know nothing about this warming planet. We know a large number of us are living on it and have been for some time. So change the scenario a little bit. Suppose we know exactly one thing about New Earth; we know that it will support one billion human lives. Now, same question. Three degrees warmer, or expend the resources to prevent it.

This is a totally different calculation. You know the planet's climate will support human civilization, that the people on the spaceship can live there; you do not know if a new, warmer climate would. If you have a climate that will support human civilization on the one and only planet on which humans can live, you would be uncommonly stupid to do anything to significantly alter that climate. And the less you knew or could predict about the response of that climate, the more stupid it would be.

We know one important thing about the earth's climate system; we know that the temperatures of the last 8,000 years will allow billions of humans and complex industrial civilization to thrive. We do not know that about a world that is warmer than has existed since humans came down from the trees. Scientists are doing their useful work to increase our understand of the climate and to predict the effects of warming. But as citizens evaluating policy, we do not need to know what will happen to the sea level or the rainfall, to the methyl hydrate deposits or the thermohaline circulation. This climate allows our civilization to survive; a new climate may or may not. That's what you need to know.