Thursday, April 28, 2016

175 Nations Sign Paris Climate Agreement on Earth Day - What It Means

"We are in a race against time. The era of consumption without consequences is over. The poor and most vulnerable must not suffer further from a problem they did not create." 
So said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Earth Day at UN headquarters in New York City. Ban was joined by 175 nations in a ceremony to sign the Paris Climate Agreement worked out last December. This is by far the largest number of countries to sign an international agreement on any single day.



Secretary of State John Kerry signed the agreement for the United States while holding his granddaughter, one of 197 children at the event representing each of the nations that had adopted the agreement. The action being taken by the world to deal with a global problem is unprecedented.

But it doesn't stop here. Everyone agrees that the agreement is only the first of many big steps needed to achieve the goal of carbon emission reduction in an effort to stem the tide of man-made climate change. Sophie Yeo at Climate Brief has put together an "Explainer" to describe what is happening, and more importantly, what must happen next.

Now that the agreement has been signed, it needs to be ratified. Here is where the parties, in particular US President Obama and Secretary Kerry, showed their political acumen. The legal text of the agreement allows three different forms of "ratification:" acceptance, approval, or accession. The agreement also specifies that it goes into force when it has been ratified "at least 55 countries representing 55% of total global emissions." Already 15 countries have ratified (though, admittedly, they represent 0% of carbon emissions). Sophie Yeo explains that despite the assumed Congressional intransigence (because Republicans currently control both the House and Senate), the flexibility written into the agreement will likely still allow the US to "ratify."

Of course, if the Democratic party regains the Senate (and perhaps the House), along with retaining the presidency, in November's elections, this process becomes much easier.

Signing, and even ratifying, the agreement is only the beginning. The US and China in 2014 put into place a bilateral agreement to reduce our respective carbon emissions - a big deal given that we represent the two largest sources of carbon. Both countries have also instituted individual actions domestically, as have many other countries and the European Union. These steps must be joined by even more dramatic actions. Carbon Brief put together a list of tasks that have to happen next to keep the process moving forward.

And the process must maintain that forward movement if we have any chance of slowing the rate of warming our climate is experiencing. Already we have seen major impacts such as ice loss, sea level rise, increasing extreme events (drought and flood), human and animal migration, and ecological changes. These impacts are likely to get worse long before they get better because we've already built into the climate system additional warming and ocean acidification. Significantly shifting to a renewable energy future is already long overdue and must occur at a more rapid pace to limit impacts as we move forward.

There is a lot of work to do.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Surreal Case of Sarah Palin vs. Bill Nye the Science Guy

Among the many interesting climate-related activities this past week was one that qualifies as surreal. Former half-term Governor and 2008 Republican Vice Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin claimed that, somehow, 100+ years of published climate change research doesn't exist because Bill Nye is "as much a scientist as I am."

Let that idea settle in for a second. Okay, now let's take a quick look at facts.

Bill Nye studied engineering and received his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University in 1977, where he remains an occasional guest-lecturer of astronomy and human ecology. He worked as an engineer at Boeing and other companies for many years before beginning his "Bill Nye the Science Guy" persona to communicate science to the public.

Sarah Palin hopped around five colleges before getting a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Idaho in 1987. She worked briefly as a sports reporter in Alaska before beginning a career in politics, and most recently, conservative political commentator.

So, factually, Sarah Palin is outright lying.

But the fact that Bill Nye actually has a science background and Sarah Palin doesn't isn't all that relevant. The fact that someone like Sarah Palin is even in the same paragraph as someone like Bill Nye talking about "science" is the important point here. It shows how lobbyists use the media to try to misrepresent and delegitimize the science. After all, if one "side" is political, the other "side" must also be political, right?

No. This is what is called false equivalence. It's a tendency for media to try to pit one side against another: Democrats vs Republicans, Liberals vs Conservatives, One Dog vs The Other Dog. It's the adversarial horse race mentality that permeates our media because it drives ratings and enhances profit of the media companies. News isn't news unless it creates strong emotion in the viewer/reader, and that emotion increases viewership (which increases ad rates and profit margins).

Those who want to discredit the science of climate change, for example, use that corporate media reality to pit political hacks against 100+ years of peer-reviewed published science as if the two "sides" are equivalent. They aren't, but the public often can't distinguish this false equivalency, so the illusion of "debate" is what lobbyists are going for.

Getting back to Sarah Palin and Bill Nye. The media was all abuzz about reports that Palin would debate Nye about climate science. Not true. That was a lie put out by the lobbyists supporting Marc Morano's anti-science propaganda; the goal was, well, to create a buzz for the propaganda. This is how PR firms work. What really happened was that Palin mentioned Nye in her monologue at the promotional event. Nye wasn't even there. The whole thing was a ruse adeptly playing into the media foibles these lobbyists know they can manipulate.

One further word about Bill Nye. As mentioned above, Nye is a trained mechanical engineer, not a climate scientist. Why then is it important to listen to him? The answer is simple, as science journalist and author Chris Mooney notes in the Washington Post:

 Nye is a persuasive entertainer who states climate science accurately and stands up for it.
That's right, Bill Nye (The Science Guy) is an entertainer. More importantly, Bill Nye is a science communicator that gets the science right. He sits down with the scientists, reads the scientific literature, understands the scientific basis, and reports it both accurately and in a way that is accessible to the general public. Bill Nye is a science educator. He makes science fun. And real. And accurate. We need more people like Bill Nye who can communicate the science to the wider populace.

Do we need Sarah Palin? Not so much.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Consensus on Consensus

"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal." "Anthropogenic drivers...are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." 

These are the top line conclusions of the most recent IPCC Assessment Report 5, commonly known as AR5. The term "unequivocal" is defined as "leaving no doubt, unambiguous" (i.e., undeniably occurring). The term "extremely likely" is defined as "95-100% probability" of occurrence. Keep in mind that scientific conclusions are generally conservative (i.e., it's probably even worse).

There is a scientific consensus that the climate is warming. It's unequivocal. Humans are the dominant cause. These findings are undeniable.

Contrary to what deniers suggest, scientific consensus isn't some sort of hands-raised vote that goes on in some boardroom; it's the result of more than 100 years of scientific research published in peer-reviewed science journals. The nature of science is to always try to falsify assumptions, so when the data are so overwhelming that no doubt remains as to the overall conclusion, then that conclusion is seen to have reached consensus. Scientists are a skeptical bunch, so when the data demonstrate something this unequivocal it's considered a consensus. There is no denying it.

This scientific consensus has been demonstrated by several papers using a variety of metrics. And now a new paper, Consensus on consensus: A synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming (PDF), brings together the authors of seven of those earlier papers to demonstrate the scientific robustness of that consensus.

A good summary of the issue is presented by Dana Nuccitelli, a co-author of the paper, in The Guardian. This new study concludes:
1) Depending on exactly how you measure the expert consensus, it’s somewhere between 90% and 100% that agree humans are responsible for climate change, with most of our studies finding 97% consensus among publishing climate scientists.
2) The greater the climate expertise among those surveyed, the higher the consensus on human-caused global warming.



The previous papers all used different methods to assess consensus. This paper shows that despite the method used the results are all similar; the vast majority of climate scientists agree that more than 100 years of peer-reviewed science demonstrates that humans are warming the climate system. The details of the study can be found in the PDF above or online here.

Nuccitelli, and the paper itself, also delves into the work of Richard Tol, an economist associated with the UK policy lobbying firm, Global Warming Policy Foundation. While not a climate scientist, Tol has admitted that the scientific consensus is "indeed correct." This hasn't stopped him from vigorously pursuing his role with the lobbying firm to block policy action, spending substantial amounts of time trying to discredit the consensus he has already acknowledged. The current paper builds on previous critiques of Tol's work, identifies further fatal errors in his analysis, and unequivocally debunks his misrepresentations. Based on previous experience, no one should be surprised that denier attempts to deny the scientific consensus are error-filled (some so egregious it's difficult to accept they weren't intentional) and fail to stand up to scrutiny.

The scientific consensus, on the other hand, has stood up to intense scrutiny. As this new paper documents, no matter what method is used to determine consensus, the results always show something approaching unanimity. Climate change is happening and humans are the dominant cause.

Nuccitelli ends his Guardian article with the following, which seems an appropriate way to end this piece as well:

While the consensus may be an inconvenient truth for those who seek to obstruct and delay the implementation of global warming solutions, it's nevertheless an indisputable reality; one we'd be better off if people learned to accept.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Science Communication - How to Deal with Trolls on Facebook

While all science is done via peer-reviewed research papers, scientific conferences, and active communication with other scientists, there is the illusion of scientific "debate" on social media like Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere. Blogs can be used to help communicate the science to others, including the general public, but blogs are only an extension of the science, not the science itself, largely because anyone at any time can say whatever they want on blogs, and too often do.

After observing some of the "debates" that occur on Facebook, it was refreshing to see an article on the blog Science Communication Media called "Constructively dealing with trolls in science communication." As I've been saying for a long time, the short answer is - don't.
Ignore: As with bullies, the best way to respond to a troll is to ignore them. It tells the troll they have no power or influence over their target and most of them will quickly move back under their bridge.
This is especially on sites like Facebook. Why? Because Facebook has designed their algorithm to keep "active" posts at the top of the feed for any given page. The same goes for any comment in the discussion thread.

And guess what is "active." Yup, commenting and "Liking" (and now, other "reactions"), the very thing that trolls desperately want you to do. Every time you comment, whether it be to refute or insult the troll, the more their post or comment gets shown to more people, who comment or "react," which goes on ad infinitum.

That is the entire goal of the troll. To feed their constant need for attention and obviate their mental insecurities. This all may be good for assuaging a troll's ego, but it's a waste of time for any honest person interested in discussion of science because the troll has no interest in learning, just trolling.

I've advocated blocking trolls (which, by the way, includes every climate denier who constantly floods Facebook climate pages with the same falsehoods over and over). The author of the "Constructively dealing with trolls" piece agrees.
Block buttons exist for a reason: The other simple response to trolls is to block them. No, seriously, block them. Blocking isn’t censorship or an admission of defeat – it’s simply a filter, in the same way we install ad blockers on browsers or choose not to tune into shows we don’t like. It’s so disappointing when I see scientists and other reasonable professionals waste their time responding to trolls.

Recently an otherwise well-meaning commenter on Facebook argued that blocking trolls merely blocks you from seeing them but those trolls can "converse" with anyone else who comes to the comment string. While that's true, the reason for blocking them goes well beyond that limited thinking. First, when you block them, you stop wasting your time with people whose entire purpose is to get you to engage so that their post or comment will stay at the top and be seen. That means you can spend all your valuable Facebook time posting and supporting posts that accurately communicate the science rather than unintentionally promoting misinformation. That's a win right there. Second, if all honest commenters block the troll then the troll will only be seen by random people who happen to catch the post as soon as it is posted. Those people will either 1) roll their eyes and move on, thus causing the post to immediately disappear in the thread (especially if new, accurate, posts are added by honest people), or 2) comment but quickly identify the person as a troll and block them too.

This is best summed up by one of my favorite paragraphs in the article:
Minimize responses Arguing with a troll is like mud wrestling with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig enjoys it. Trolls thrive off provoking people, so ignoring them is usually the best way to get them to move on.

Indeed, as I've said before, engaging with trolls creates the illusion of debate, of discussion, of disagreement. What it does is misinform and disinform the reader. By engaging with trolls (e.g., climate deniers) we are doing a disservice to readers who honestly want to understand the state-of-the-science. We are violating the implied essence of the Hippocratic oath - first do no harm. We do harm if we contribute to misinforming the populace.

The article is well worth reading in its entirety and contains many other helpful gems of wisdom. It's called "Constructively dealing with trolls in science communication."


And yes, the pig wrestling picture comes off the blog (though I don't know if that is the original source).



Thursday, March 31, 2016

Antarctica is Melting and Attorneys General are Going After ExxonMobil

Two major stories rise to the surface this week in climate news. A new study warns that melting in Antarctica could raise sea levels substantially more and faster than previously thought. And the Attorneys General from several states band together to investigate "what Exxon knew" about climate change...and when.

Antarctica

Antarctica (i.e., the South Pole) is a favorite of climate deniers because it serves as a convenient counterpoint whenever the Arctic (i.e., the North Pole) sea ice extent is reaching another record low. The denier position, like all denier positions, is both wrong and intentionally fraudulent for a variety of reasons. And now it's getting even worse.

A new study published in the scientific journal Nature suggests that previous sea level rise estimates could be vast underestimated. The last IPCC report in late 2013 estimated a mean sea level rise of between about 1.5 to over 3 feet by the end of the this century. The new study suggests the reality might be more like 5 feet in that time, double or even triple the previous estimates.

This new study comes is independent of another recent study published by James Hansen and 18 co-authors also warning of catastrophic sea level rise due to melting of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.

It actually gets worse, so read up on this issue here, and here, here, and here. The full peer-reviewed paper in Nature can be downloaded for free here.

ExxonMobil

It came as no shock to most insiders when it was recently made public Exxon knew that fossil fuel consumption was warming the climate. They've known it for decades and their own internal scientists were the ones telling them. Like most big corporations, Exxon (and the combined ExxonMobil, as well as all the other big fossil fuel companies) has many scientists on staff. Some focus on resource development (e.g., finding new oil, gas, and coal reserves) while others focus on a wide range of testing, both to develop new products and to comply with health and safety regulations. Scientists at these companies are often the cream of the crop, that is, they are very good scientists. It is these scientists who long ago informed Exxon (and other companies through the American Petroleum Institute, the primary trade association/lobbying firm for the fossil fuel industry) that the vastly increased carbon emissions from their products were causing dramatic and dangerous warming the climate system.

The problem is what Exxon and others did with this knowledge and the best comparison is to the actions of the tobacco industry. In both cases the industry dealt with the knowledge of harm by suppressing it. On top of this they funded front groups and consultants to create doubt about the science.

After this "revelation" of suppression of knowledge became public recently, public pressure helped initiate investigations by a now growing body of state Attorneys General. A federal Justice Department investigation is also either underway or contemplated. Support for investigations has reached at least 15 Attorneys General, with more likely in the future.

While independent, these two issues are helping to push man-made climate change to the forefront again. A recent poll showed the highest public concern about climate change in a long time. In addition, the Arctic has just set the lowest annual maximum on record, not a good start to the annual meltdown that threatens to produce an ice-free Arctic Ocean for periods of the summer sometime in the future.

As noted previously, 2016 could surpass 2015 as the hottest year ever, continuing a trend of a warming climate. This could very well be a critical year in climate policy action.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

James Hansen and Catastrophic Ice Melting - What it Means

Unless you've been living under a rock (or perhaps the ocean) this week you've noticed a new paper by climate scientist James Hansen. He and 18 other scientists published a study called "Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 ◦C global warming could be dangerous." As the overly long title suggests, the results are absolutely terrifying.

Let's take a quick look at this complicated paper, a PDF of which you can download for free here. Watch this short video abstract from Hansen (full transcript of video is here):



A brief note about James Hansen so you can access reliability. Hansen is the recently retired head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, where for more than three decades he focused on climate science research. He has published over 300 (perhaps 400) peer-reviewed scientific papers in scientific journals. Hansen was one of the first scientists to give Congressional testimony highlighting the dangers of man-made climate change. In short, when James Hansen and colleagues publish papers, those papers have preeminent credibility.

Now, the study. I'll link to several places to read about it at the end of this post, and you should spend some time reading it. The paper is highly technical, so unless you're a science geek you probably don't care for all the details; in that case, check out the links for less technical discussions and highlights.

The most critical take away point is this: climate sensitivity may be way higher than the current estimate, which will mean we could see sea levels rise way beyond current predictions and way faster than assumed.

Hansen is talking about a rise of 2 to 5 meters (that's 6 to 15 feet, folks) by the end of this century. That's 5 to 10 times faster than current projections.

Among the arguments the paper makes is that in addition to the feedbacks we're aware of, there are slow feedbacks (changes in ice sheet size and increases in atmospheric CO2) that will "amplify the total Earth system sensitivity." In English, that means we'll see faster global warming and its effects. Melting of permafrost and ocean acidification also enhance warming dramatically.

By the way, "climate sensitivity" basically means the amount of increased temperature for every doubling of atmospheric CO2. We are well on our way to doubling that level and without significant worldwide reductions in carbon emissions we could see tripling or quadrupling. All of this warming causes greater melting of land-based ice sheets, which destabilizes oceanic temperature and current balance, which causes all sorts of changes and feedbacks that make the ice melt even more.

All of that is bad. Hansen and team note that if we burned all the fossil fuels remaining the climate would be uninhabitable, at least by humans. Even without that extreme we could be faced with catastrophic levels of warming.

So is Hansen right? It's obviously too soon to tell. Climate scientists are reviewing the study and it will be incorporated, along with other new studies and data, into the complete scientific body of work. Many climate scientists feel Hansen's work is persuasive, and his history of exceptional scholarship and collaboration with many of his former colleagues at NASA certainly gives weight to his findings. Some scientists may find that Hansen is overestimating the problem, but others are likely to find he is underestimating.

As the scientific analysis and further studies progress, we'll find out whether things are as bad as he says - or even worse. One thing is absolutely certain, however, even if he's overestimated we're still in a position where we desperately need to reduce carbon emissions, and we need to do it a decade ago. Based on the current data and analysis, things are incredibly bad. If Hansen is right, things are catastrophic.

More background on the study:

James Hansen's Bombshell Climate Warning is Now Part of the Scientific Canon

All Star Science Panel Drops Bombshell Climate Paper

Hansen Study: Climate Sensitivity is High, Burning All Fossil Fuels Would Make Most of the Planet 'Uninhabitable'

Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Journal main article page (with links to discussions, etc.)

James Hansen's Facebook page

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Happy St. Patrick's Day - Climate Change in Ireland

"Top o'the morning to you!" Or since that is never actually said in Ireland, "Lá Shona Fhéile Pádraig!" (Happy St. Patrick's Day!) On this annual day of drinking green beer and remembering our Irish roots (even if we don't have any Irish roots), it's a good time to think about what man-made climate change means for Ireland.

Ireland's status as an island and its location in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean presents difficulties as well as moderation. Often cold and wet (and dreary), Ireland also gets some warming influence from the Gulf Stream. It's classified as having an "oceanic climate." In general you can expect a moderate climate with a lot of rainfall and relatively stable temperatures.

But climate change will un-moderate Ireland to some extent. The Irish EPA says that temperatures will continue to increase:

The clearest trend is evident in the temperature records which show a mean temperature increase of 0.7o C between 1890 and 2008, i.e. an increase of 0.06o C per decade. The increase was 0.4o C during the period 1980-2008, i.e. equivalent to 0.14o C per decade.

They also note that six of the ten warmest years have been since 1990, the rate of temperature increase has sped up in recent decades, and there has been a reduction of frost days combined with a shortening of the length of the frost season. Even more worrisome is the increase in annual rainfall in northern and western areas, which will increase river and coastal flooding likelihood and magnitude.

The Irish Met Office also notes that temperatures could increase 3 to 4 degrees C by the end of the century, that sea levels around Ireland could rise on average about 3.5 cm (1.4 inches) per decade, that there are likely increases in storm events and increased risk of flooding in winter.

Add in the adverse impacts on local animal and plant species due to warming temperatures and increased ocean acidification, and the effects on temperature-sensitive fisheries, and man-made climate change is an important issue for Ireland. A new study by Professor John Sweeney suggests these problems could be severe:

“Climate change will produce significant changes in habitats and ecosystems by changing the viability of species,” Sweeney explains. “New entrants are likely to appear and some ecological niches will no longer exist.”

And then there is peat. The historic and current importance of the vast peat bogs comes into question as the warming temperatures increase the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, from the peat.

In short, Ireland has enjoyed (in a manner of speaking) a more moderate and stable climate for thousands of year, but it is not immune to the impacts of climate change. The already challenging conditions will become even more challenging, especially as rising sea levels, ocean temperatures, and acidification have greater and greater impact on the seagoing resources of this island country.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Arctic Sea Ice Continues to Decline at Record Pace

The decline of Arctic sea ice extent continues to decline at a record pace. As noted here two weeks ago, January sea ice extent was the lowest in the modern satellite record. Well guess what - February 2016 sea ice extent was the lowest February on record.


Larger here.

As the graph above shows, sea ice extent in February has been declining for many years, with the linear rate of decline at 3% per decade. [The previous post explains how to read the graphs] NASA and NOAA also note that February continued the trend of ten straight months of record-breaking high global surface temperatures, with the Arctic being especially hot (more than 4 degrees Celsius above the baseline).

It could have been even worse. Most of the month had almost no ice growth, in a time of year where it should be growing substantially (sea ice extent grows in winter, falls in summer). Only a late month burst of growth got it to where it was - and it was still a record low for the month. That's how bad it is.

Let's take a closer look:



The chart above is kind of busy even though I've only selected the most recent years. You can go here and use the interactive chart to include whatever years you want.  I highly encourage looking at all the years going back. The previous post explains what the lines and shading mean.

As you can see, sea ice extent grows in winter and shrinks in summer. This happens every year, so what you want to look for is how much it grows and shrinks compared to previous years. Keep in mind that the baseline mean (the black line and gray shaded area) was lowered recently to reflect the continuing declines. [This means if we had kept the old baseline the current sea ice extent would be even worse]

The current year is the burnt red line in the upper left corner, right at the bottom of the other lines shown. Right now it's about the same as where last year was at this time (darkish blue), but only because of that late-February bump up. We're right about the maximum now, though we won't know officially until we get a little further along. That doesn't bode well as last year was only barely above the second worst minimum extent years (see where the lines reach their most downward loop around September).

Starting the melt season in such a bad maximum doesn't mean we'll set a new record minimum. You can see that at this time in 2012 the maximum in late March (dashed green line) was higher than it was in ensuing years, yet 2012 smashed the previous record minimum year of 2007 (light blue line). Because sea ice extent is highly sensitive to local weather conditions (especially wind), we simply won't know how bad the minimum will be this year until we reach it in September. But we do know that it will be a bad year because every recent year has been a bad year. All you have to do is look at where all the lines fall compared to the baseline mean - they are all below. That means the baseline mean will again have to be lowered at some point, once again tracking the race to the bottom. At some point we're likely to see an ice-free Arctic for part of the summer.

And that is not a good thing. Not a good thing at all.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Spotting Climate Deniers on the Internet

More than 100 years of peer-reviewed published climate science has demonstrated that human activity is warming our climate system. And yet a tiny handful of people remain climate deniers. The internet makes this tiny number seem bigger because of self-selection bias and sheer obnoxiousness and persistence of climate deniers.

As I've written before in Climate Denial on the Internet - Who are the Deniers?, it's important to be able to spot climate deniers so we don't waste too much time with them. While scientists are about the most skeptical folks around,

Climate deniers, on the other hand, are a particularly unskeptical crowd, accepting every non-science blogger's diatribe (and defending it even after it is summarily debunked) while simply denying all the actual science from actual scientists because it is inconvenient.


There are two broad groups of climate deniers: the professional deniers who are paid to intentionally misrepresent the science in order to protect the profits of their corporate funders, and amateur deniers who may be ideologues or simply desperate for attention.

The professionals are those who are paid to deny climate science. The names most associated with climate denial are the Heartland Institute, the George C. Marshall Institute (as documented in the book, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway), a series of lobbying organizations associated with the billionaire Koch brothers, and a variety of other front groups whose names keep changing while their staff and paid spokespeople tend to overlapped considerably (denial organizations get a lot of mileage out of a very few people).

The amateur deniers come in a variety of flavors, as I previously discussed in Scientific Debate of Climate Change on Social Network Sites:

The truth is there is no real scientific debate on the issue of climate change on social networking sites. On the other hand, there is a lot of noise about the issue.

Amateur deniers can be cut-and-pasters, focused irrelevants, and posers. Often there is overlap. They engage in Gish Gallops, self-contradiction, and various other tactics that are sometimes intentional and sometimes just cluelessness. There is also the confidence of the dumb.

One brand of climate denier that may fall into either the professional or amateur denier category is the internet troll. As science writer Chris Mooney notes in his review of a scientific study:

...people who engage in trolling are characterized by personality traits that fall in the so-called Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).

In short, trolls troll out of a desperate need to make themselves feel consequential. Ironically, it just makes them even more inconsequential.

In either case, whether the denier is a professional disinformer or an amateur troll, it's important to be able to recognize the traits of climate deniers. More on that in the future.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

What is Happening to the Arctic? How to Read the Graphs

As 2016 starts off even hotter than the record-breaking heat of 2015 because of man-made climate change, one of the fastest warming areas of the planet is the Arctic. This year one of the key measures of Arctic "health" - sea ice extent - is showing signs of even more severe impact than normal. This fact has scientists fearful of a major speed up in climate change effects. It also has fossil fuel lobbyists scrambling to find new ways to deny the science.

So how do normal people (that is, us) know what's going on in the Arctic and elsewhere? This post gives a basic primer on how to read the graphs put out by the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC). The NSIDC collects data from a variety of sources and provides a monthly update. For this post I'll focus on Arctic sea ice extent as reported in NSIDC's Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis page. As I write this the last update was in early February covering the status through the end of January. The next update will be in early March covering up through February.

One of the first things visitors to the see will be the "Daily Image Update" in the top right corner. As of today it shows:


See it larger here.

The graphic is fairly simple but shows a lot of important information. The bottom scale shows the months from November to March, so this represents the winter period where Arctic sea ice extent is expected to grow, which it does every year. [In the summer months it shrinks every year] The left scale shows extent in millions of square kilometers, but for now you don't need to worry about that; focus on the graph lines themselves.

See that thick black line running through the gray area? That represents the baseline sea ice extent from 1981 to 2010. It's essentially an average. One important point - that average was recently recalculated because all of the years after the end of the old averaging period were much lower than average. Therefore, the baseline has been lowered. What that means is that we should roughly see as many years over the average line as below. That hasn't been happening, even after lowering the bar. That's a bad thin. But let's not forget the gray area. That represents a range around the average. It gives you some idea of where the current year levels stand compared to the baseline years.

Which gets us to the solid blue (2015-2016) and dashed green (2011-2012), which represent the current year and the year with the record low ice extent. As you can see, the current year (blue line) is tracking well below the record low year. That's not a good thing, but we need more information so NSIDC also gives us the following graph, a bigger version of which can be seen here:


As you can see, this graph is the same as the previous one but shows several more recent years to provide context (note they changed the color of the 2011-2012 record year to purple instead of green, but it's still the only dashed line). You can see that the ice extent lines wiggle along; that's because short-term weather systems can either increase or decrease sea ice extent for any given time period, while man-made climate change is the reason for the longer trends. More on that shortly.

Want even more data? You can pick the years you want to plot on the graph with this handy Chartic Interactive Sea Ice Graph, which is also on the NSIDC page in the right hand column.

The graphs for 2015-2016 (the current winter) show that sea ice extent is dramatically lower than any other year. January was a record low and it looks like February will be too. Scientists are worried that we may have already seen the yearly maximum, which would be very early and dramatically lower than normal. It's from this point that the sea ice extent decreases until it reaches its yearly minimum (usually in September).

That doesn't necessarily mean we'll see a record low sea ice extent minimum this year. If you look at the Charctic Interactive graph you'll see that even though last year started out much lower in winter, it managed to reach only the fourth lowest minimum on record. That's not good at all, but it could have been worse. We won't know how bad this year will be until we reach the minimum, but based on where we're starting and the historic trend, we're pretty much assured it will be bad.

That gets us to the last graph I'll talk about today (larger):


This graph is for January but you can pick any other month and it will reflect exactly the same trend.
What the graph shows is the trend for that month over the years, that is, what the sea ice extent is in January each year from 1978 to 2016. Because of those short-term factors that make the lines in the first graphs wiggle, you see some years where the January extent is higher and some years lower. But look at the trend. The blue line shows how the sea ice extent has been decreasing for decades. The end of the black (and blue) line to the right of the graph is this year, the lowest ever recorded. You can see that this isn't a one-off problem, it's the continuation of a long-term decline in sea ice extent. Again, this graph shows January but every other month shows the same downward trend.

Bottom line: We're losing ice. Big time.

There are more graphics and information on the Arctic Sea Ice and Analysis page, plus information on Antarctica, Greenland, glaciers, and other snow and ice-related topics on the National Snow & Ice Data Center website. These are accurate, scientific sources of information that readers should save for future reference.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

January is Hot, And the Supreme Court Just Got Interesting

January 2016 set the record for being the hottest January recorded. It follows on the heals of the hottest year ever recorded (2015), which itself blew away the previous record holder set just one year before in 2014. See a trend, anyone? With the climate clearly heating up, so too is the Supreme Court battle over President Obama's attempt to deal with climate change heating up.



The January heat wasn't just hot, it was a bigger hot than any previous hot. At 1.13 degrees C above the norm it exceeds the previous record increase set a month before. This sets the stage for 2016 to possibly set yet another record, the third year in a row to break the previous record. Worse yet, the biggest increase in heat is in the Arctic, where it's so hot that the annual maximum sea ice extent is trending the lowest it has ever been. Bottom line = the rate of warming is higher than it has been in a decade, which will speed up the impacts we are already noticing and move closer impacts we hoped wouldn't be seen until the end of the century.

Which makes the sudden passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia so important. Last week I reported on what the February 9th stay on implementation of the President's Clean Power Plan meant for climate. In the blink of an eye the entire calculus changes. The Constitution requires President Obama to nominate a successor to fill Justice Scalia's now vacant position on the bench. That same Constitution requires the Senate to review and vote on the nominee. Despite Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's bloviating about not even considering a nominee, the Constitution requires them to act. With nearly a year left in President Obama's term, there is plenty of time for all to conform to their Constitutional responsibilities.

Given the far right "conservative" leanings of Justice Scalia, it's likely that any Obama nominee will be more judicially, well, judicial rather than overtly political. That obviously puts the Republican majority Senate in a position they would prefer not to be in - hence the bloviating - but they have an obligation to move forward. Assuming some Obama-appointed justice is confirmed, that justice is likely to have a different view on the Clean Power Plan than did Scalia. The same is true for several other pending and possible future issues before the Court.

So what happens next? As Obama decides who he will nominate, the Court is essentially (or at least presumably) deadlocked on key cases; those cases are remanded to the appeal court decisions, which in general favors Obama's positions. For the Clean Power Plan it likely means it will be allowed to move forward. That isn't a given, but the probabilities increase for it to happen.

As a reminder, the Clean Power Plan is simply a set of EPA rules that would help reduce carbon emissions from power plants. It is by no means the "answer" to climate change, merely the first small step within the limitations of Executive Branch authority while we all wait for Congress to take more substantive action. Given the Republican-led Congress's denial of the science, it seems likely that Congress won't take any action until Democrats can retake the majority. That's possible in the Senate this year (though by no means a given), but won't happen in the House until gerrymandering reform makes House seats honestly competitive (something that won't happen at least until after the 2020 elections).

Which is why the Clean Power Plan is so important. It's a small step, but it's a step in the right direction.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Supreme Court Temporarily Stays Clean Power Plan - What it Means

President Obama and the EPA released the Clean Power Plan in August 2015. On February 9, 2016 the Supreme Court issued a stay on implementation of the plan. Not surprisingly, the usual five conservative judges outvoted the other four. So what does this stay mean?

As a reminder, the Clean Power Plan is a set of EPA rules designed to curtail coal-based power plant emissions in an effort to combat man-made climate change. You can read more about the Plan here.

The stay isn't any kind of decision about the veracity of the Plan; it simply puts on hold implementation of the Plan until an appeals court rules on challenges to the regulations. Again not surprisingly, those challenges are being led largely by Republican states acting on the behest of the fossil fuel industry. Their main argument is that the EPA doesn't have the authority to regulate carbon emissions in power plants, this despite the fact that the EPA mandate clearly does give that authority and past Supreme Court decisions have ordered EPA to follow through on that authority.


The impact of this particular stay is mostly on timing, but that timing could be critical to successfully meeting our commitments to reduce carbon emissions to combat climate change. Given how long court cases take, including appeals back up to the Supreme Court, this could delay implementation for many months or even years. That's bad for the climate, and bad for the economy.

This is how lobbyists work - delay, delay, delay. The fact that they know they are wrong is irrelevant; their goal is to delay action as long as possible. Not coincidentally, delays mean continuation of massive fossil fuel profits just as decades of delaying tactics by tobacco companies allowed them to reap billions in ongoing profits while killing millions of people via smoking-induced cancers.

Beyond the delayed implementation, the bigger issue is that the Clean Power Plan in itself is woefully insufficient to meet our commitments anyway. It's one step, and one step only. It was an effort by the Obama administration to do what could be done to deal with climate change within the limits of the Executive branch of government. More substantive effort requires Congressional action.

And therein lies the rub. Republicans in Congress have made it clear they will deny reality and deny science and be blatantly dishonest in doing so in service to both their fossil fuel benefactors and their stated goal of denying any success to the President. Republicans have made it clear that they are more than willing to sacrifice the economy, health, environment, national security, and climate of the American people solely to maintain the profits of corporations. Ironically, Republicans are severely damaging future profits of those corporations - and all Americans - by holding back American innovation and handing development of future technology over to the Chinese and others.

In the long run, action to stem climate change will happen, if for no other reason that people who have moved out of places like Florida and the eastern coast of the US because of rising sea levels will force action. But why wait until after that happens to act? Why wait until the tub overflows and fills the bathroom before simply pulling out the plug or turning off the tap?

To not act now is irresponsible and counter to all things American.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future by Donald R. Prothero

Periodically we review books relevant to science communication and climate change. Today is the book "Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future" by Donald R. Prothero published by Indiana University Press in 2013.

An author of over 30 books on science, Donald R. Prothero compiles a series of case studies involving denial of science and discusses how they endanger our future. Written in a conversational, colloquial style and a somewhat folksy, often condescending tone, the book lays out each chapter with the denier misinformation and contrasts these with the reality. 

The book could have used much tighter editing - he's often repetitive and overtly belittling of deniers - but provides exceptional arguments drawn from his own experience and previous books to demonstrate the utter ridiculousness of the anti-science views.

Topics covered include acid rain, ozone hole, global warming, creationism/intelligent design, anti-vaxxers (anti-vaccination), AIDS denialism, medical quacks, astrology, peak oil deniers, and overpopulation. In early chapters and in a final chapter he discusses the basis of science and why some groups more than others are prone to science denial.

Overall, the book does an excellent job of showing the lack of veracity in all science denial arguments. Anyone interested in science, and the denial of science, should put it high on their reading list.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

El Nino and the Hottest Year on Record - Trend vs Variation

The announcement that 2015 was the hottest year on record came as the mid-Atlantic region of the United States began digging itself out of over two feet of snow. Climate deniers immediately screamed "See, climate change is a hoax because it snowed today...in winter." As always, deniers confuse weather with climate change.

Astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson (and his dog) addressed this in a simple stroll down the beach.



In short, weather is what happens on any given day; climate is the mean of what happens over time. The climate of Florida, for example, is generally warm and humid, even during the winter. The weather at any given time in Florida may be sunny or rainy or cloudy or cooler or hotter (sometimes within a few minutes). The weather in New England may be sunny or rainy or colder or warmer at any given time as well, but it's a sure bet that on average it will be much colder in New England during the winter than in Florida. The former is weather, the latter is climate.

Another way to think about this is as the difference between trend and variation. The Tyson video above was inspired by an earlier animated video demonstrating the two terms.




In both videos the dog represents the ups and downs of yearly climate variation while the human's walking path is the trend. The trend is the average over time (more or less); the variation is the noisy short-term departure from that trend.

Which gets us to El Nino. There has been a lot of talk about the strong El Nino we've been experiencing. Climate deniers paid by lobbying groups have argued (falsely) that we wouldn't have set a new record without it. But actual climate scientists at NASA and NOAA have shown that 2015 would have set a new record anyway; the El Nino merely increased the magnitude of the record-breaking.

“2015 was remarkable even in the context of the ongoing El Niño,” said GISS Director Gavin Schmidt. “Last year’s temperatures had an assist from El Niño, but it is the cumulative effect of the long-term trend that has resulted in the record warming that we are seeing.”


El Nino, and its opposite counterpart La Nina, influence variation. As we've seen above, short-term phenomena have short-term affects on the year to year ups and downs in measurements like the global mean surface temperature (the most reported metric of climate change). Just like some days are sunny and others rainy, some years are warmer and others not as warm. That's the variation. That's the dog in the videos.

Trend is what happens over time. For the first 18 years of our lives the general trend is toward increasing height. For the last several decades, the general trend in climate has been toward increasing temperature.


That increasing trend is caused by increasing concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This CO2 comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which take carbon that has not been part of the natural cycle for millions of years and within a short period of time dumps it into the atmosphere and oceans. Since CO2 and other greenhouse gases control the temperature of the planet - keeping us about 30 degrees C more than it would be without them - adding more CO2 means more warming. Human activity has now added 40% more CO2 to the atmosphere (with even more in the oceans) than have been present in millions of years. The effects of this rise in CO2 and temperature are significant and a danger to humanity as we know it.

The bottom line is that there is the trend (CO2 and temperatures are rising over time) and variation (some years are warmer, some years are less warm). Deniers like to cherry pick "less warm" dates and create false narratives that ignore all the rest of the data. Actual climate scientists always look at the trends over time. The variations are important as well, mainly because they teach us how short-term phenomena like El Nino and La Nina influence the long-term trend. What we've learned from these variations is that CO2 is the primary driver of man-made global warming and the changes we've observed in our climate trends.