Thursday, June 23, 2016

Obama Signs Chemical Safety into Law - This is how Bipartisan Works

President Obama on June 22, 2016 signed into law the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century law into force. It's been a long time coming, but it reflects the kind of action that can be accomplished when both parties focus on the reaching the goal rather than thwarting each other. Yes, the bill was bipartisan.



Let me emphasize that. The bill was bipartisan. And not bipartisan in the sense that one party rammed it through and got one or two members of the other party to sign on to it (which is how most "bipartisan" bills are passed). This was truly bipartisan. After both houses of Congress passed their own bills, and after the committee set up to do so reached agreement on a combined bill, the final bill was passed. And not just passed.

House: 403-12
Senate: Unanimous voice consent

Even the name of the law shows bipartisanship: the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century. Frank Lautenberg was a Democratic Senator from New Jersey who first introduced a bill to update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA, pronounced TOSCA) in 2005. Lautenberg introduced bill after bill during the next 10 years in an effort to update TSCA, a law passed in 1976 and horrendously inadequate for protecting the public from chemicals. Every Lautenberg bill died in committee without a vote. Literally in the final months of his life, Lautenberg agreed to lend his name to a compromise bill industry helped write for David Vitter, the Republican Senator from Louisiana to introduce. After Lautenberg's death, Tom Udall, Democratic Senator from New Mexico, stepped in to work with Vitter, the chemicals industry, the health and environmental advocacy representatives, the states, the EPA, and dozens of other stakeholders to fine tune the bill into the version signed into law by President Obama. 

Yes, the bill is very much industry friendly and nothing like the original bills Lautenberg introduced (which more resembled Europe's REACH law and had zero chance of passing in the United States). And no, the new law won't instantly make Americans any safer. But it does provide a way for EPA to assess the over 62,000 chemicals that were grandfathered onto the TSCA Inventory back in the 1970s without any health and safety assessment at all, and for which the EPA had very limited ability to evaluate. The new law also creates a new way of assessing new chemicals, one that requires a "yes" or "no" conclusion on every chemical (the old system allowed chemicals to default to "yes" if EPA hadn't explicitly said "no" within 90 days. And there are more benefits.

For those not aware of what the new law or the old TSCA does, you can read everything you need to know here. You can read President Obama's comments at the signing here, or watch the whole thing on C-SPAN here.

As the President noted in his remarks:

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century will make it easier for the EPA to review chemicals already on the market, as well as the new chemicals our scientists and our businesses design.  It will do away with an outdated bureaucratic formula to evaluate safety, and instead focus solely on the risks to our health.  And it will finally grant our scientists and our public servants at the EPA the funding they need to get the job done and keep us safe.

There is a lot more that needs to be done, mostly by the EPA to come up with the regulations to implement the law, but it shows what can be accomplished when both parties work for the people that elected them and not for their party gains itself. It took a dozen years and a lot of hard work.

Let me emphasize that last part. It took a dozen years. And it took a lot of hard work. A lot of that hard work was done by lobbyists. Yes, lobbyists. This page hasn't been shy about standing up to lobbyists who abuse their power by dishonestly attacking scientists or the EPA or politicians. But lobbying is not always evil (perhaps, at least in some cases, it is a necessary evil).

This law came about not just because of the work of lawmakers and their staffs (who worked very hard), but also because of the hard work of people outside of government who lobbied those lawmakers and staffs. The American Chemistry Council, led by Cal Dooley (a former Congressman himself), was the primary advocate for chemical companies, though there were many other chemical lobbyists who contributed. The Environmental Defense Fund, led by Richard Denison, advocated tirelessly for human and environmental health provisions to protect the public. Again, many other environmental and health advocacy groups lobbied on the public's behalf. The end result is not perfect, and not everyone is perfectly happy with it, but it provides a much better system for evaluating chemicals - new and old - that should in the long run be better at protecting the health and safety of the public.

Finally, this new law is a reminder to the public that our elected representatives can actually do their jobs when they want to. As the President noted:

You don’t get all these people in the same room without a few late nights on Capitol Hill.  I know there were times when folks questioned whether or not all the parties involved would be able to reach this agreement....But that’s what public service is about –- pushing through disagreements, forging compromise, especially when it’s hard, and especially when it’s about something as important as the health and safety of our kids and our families.

It's up to us, the public, to pay attention, learn the facts, and press our elected officials to act. They won't do it without us pressing them to do it. That's true for chemical safety, rational gun laws, climate change, and every other issue that affects our every day lives. For Congress to act, we, the people, must act.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Climate Denial and Climate Fraud

We've known it for a long time, but a recent analysis of court documents has provided further proof that fossil fuel corporations and trade associations (aka, lobbyists) have intentionally worked to mislead the public about man-made climate change. From the Guardian:
Analysis of Peabody Energy court documents show company backed trade groups, lobbyists and think tanks dubbed ‘heart and soul of climate denial.’ The company has funded at least two dozen groups that cast doubt on manmade climate change and oppose environment regulations.

Peabody Energy is the euphemistically deceptive name for the biggest coal mining company in the United States (but hey, Peabody Coal sounds dirty, so voila, it's Peabody Energy). On April 11, 2016 the firm declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which meant in order to avoid paying their debts they had to file substantial financial records with the courts. Those records, like other bankruptcy filings for other companies before them, have documented how Peabody and other fossil fuel companies and their lobbyists have funded the denial of climate science for decades.

Among the deniers being funded by Peabody Energy are:
  • Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change (aka, CO2 Science), who routinely promotes the benefits of CO2 to plants while dismissing the warming impacts.
  • American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the infamous conservative legislation-writing lobbying firm responsible for blocking renewable energy and blocking emissions control efforts.
  • Americans for Prosperity chapters, which is a Koch lobbying firm and conservative lobbyist.
  • George C. Marshall Institute, the lobbying group started by Reagan appointees and involved in every instance of science denial since the 1980s.
Individual denier scientists were also funded by Peabody (and others), including:
  • Richard Lindzen, formerly of MIT but now paid by the Cato Institute, a libertarian lobbyist.
  • Willie Soon, the infamous provider of "deliverables" to ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute
  • Roy Spencer, whose recent work, like Lindzen's, seems to have difficulty standing up to scientific scrutiny. Spencer, of course, is also on the Board of the aforementioned George C. Marshall Institute.
And these are not the only ones. Bankruptcy filings by Alpha Natural Resources (another euphemism for one of the country's largest coal companies) revealed that Chris Horner, an attorney with the Competitive Enterprise Institute (itself a lobbying firm), was being paid to protect coal interests (hence his constant misrepresentation of the science). In addition, records show another climate denier and lobbyist, Patrick Moore, has been paid by coal interests to speak on their behalf.

Peabody's reach was extensive:
“The breadth of the groups with financial ties to Peabody is extraordinary. Thinktanks, litigation groups, climate scientists, political organisations, dozens of organisations blocking action on climate all receiving funding from the coal industry,” said Nick Surgey, director of research for the Center for Media and Democracy. 

Peabody Energy and Alpha Natural Resources are not alone in funding climate denial. Records show that Exxon was well aware that fossil fuel burning was causing man-made global warming as far back as the 1960s. They initially undertook an extensive scientific program to determine the cause and effect, but after determining that the ramifications to their profit margins were significant, they shut down the program and instead invested in denying the science and funding climate denial and a broad network of lobbyists, front groups, and malleable scientists like Fred Singer and others. Collusion among the various lobbyists, key spokespeople, and media outlets also recently came to light.

The prior knowledge and then suppression of that knowledge by Exxon follows the playbook of the tobacco industry to deny smoking causes cancer. In both cases, corporate denial and subterfuge results in huge human health and environmental costs to society. The similarity to the tactics used by the tobacco industry is why once again many state attorneys general have banded together to launch investigations into Exxon's (now ExxonMobil) deceit. As a public company, stockholders have raised the questions to corporate executives of whether their knowledge and obfuscation endangers their stock holdings.

So once again fossil fuel interests have been caught paying for climate deniers to mislead the public and misrepresent the science, all to protect the profit margins of fossil fuel corporations. As these bankruptcies show, however, fossil fuels have peaked and businesses are failing due to a combination of mismanagement, fraud, and the higher and higher costs of trying to extract fossil fuels from ever more difficult locations. Still, these companies aren't going to give up their remaining profits without a fight, no matter how much deceit and collusion needed to do so.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Yes, CO2 is Warming the Climate (And no, Exhaling is Not the Cause)

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere is the primary driver of man-made climate change (often called global warming). This has been demonstrated by multiple lines of evidence and is undeniable.

"But we exhale CO2 when we breathe, right? So CO2 can't be harmful, right?"

Wrong, and let me explain.*

Those new to climate science may be confused by intentionally deceptive graphs like the following, which was recently making the rounds on Facebook and denier lobbyist blogs. Often, especially on Facebook, the graph is given with no further explanation (insinuation and innuendo are common tactics of climate deniers). People who post it claim "it comes from a reliable source," but then refuse to actually cite and/or link to that source. It's because the source is the denier lobbyist industry. The goal of the graph is to mislead the public. Here's the deceptive graph:


Let's assume the values given are at roughly accurate. The green highlighted level of 400 ppm (parts per million) is approximately the current level in the atmosphere. You wouldn't know it from the graph, but 400 ppm in the atmosphere is exceptionally high; we'll get back to that in a minute. The graph is deceptive for two reasons: 1) it suggests levels in the atmosphere aren't high because levels in other situations are okay, and 2) it assumes the toxicity level of CO2 is somehow relevant to the physical warming capacity of CO2.

Both of these points are absolutely and grossly false. It's akin to saying that because we drink, swim, bath, and are composed largely of water, we can't drown in it.

CO2, like water, has multiple properties. At very high levels it is toxic. A very low levels it is necessary for plant growth. All well known and understood.

But CO2 also acts as a greenhouse gas. CO2 in the atmosphere keeps the Earth at a relatively stable temperature. Without the CO2, Earth's surface temperature would be about 30 degrees Celsius colder and, well, none of us would be here. Adding more CO2 to the atmosphere warms the Earth. This is just basic, well-understood, physics. CO2 keeps us warm; more CO2 = more warming.


While not intended by its creator, the graph actually shows how important CO2 is to warming. According to the values given, much of the northern hemisphere was just coming out of glaciers at 190 ppm but was comfy for us at 275 ppm, only about a 45% increase in CO2 levels. We're now at 400 ppm (and growing), which is roughly another 45% increase in CO2 levels.

So we've added as much CO2 since the beginning of industrialization as was the difference between glaciers and comfortable climate. As Vice President Biden might say, that's a Big F'n Deal.

To use slightly more technical language, the fact that CO2 acts as a greenhouse gas is basic physics known for more than a century. Sunlight passes through the atmosphere and heat gets radiated back to space, but a lot of that heat gets trapped by CO2 and other greenhouse gases and sent back to the surface. This process is continuous and keeps our Earth warm. We've been in a narrow balance for hundreds of thousands of years, but since we started burning fossil fuels we've added a lot more CO2 to the atmosphere (about 45%). More CO2 means more warming. Basic physics (and math). All demonstrated over and over again.

So don't be confused by intentional acts of deception like the first graph given above. The reality is that whether CO2 is toxic at 400 ppm or not is irrelevant to CO2's warming properties in the atmosphere.

A more relevant graph is the one below from NASA (see on this page), which shows that our current CO2 levels (arrow, top right) in the atmosphere are unprecedented in the modern age (i.e., during the time us humans have made a home here):


And a result, we've caused warming of the atmosphere, as the graph below clearly shows (source here). The red dot is February 2016. New heat records were set in 2014, then broken in 2015, and are on track to be broken again in 2016. Year to year fluctuations occur because of short-term events like El Nino and La Nina, but the overall trend is absolutely clear.



Bottom Line: CO2 is warming the climate, and humans are the dominant cause of that warming.

Now that is a big deal.

*A note about the exhaling of CO2. Yes, we exhale CO2. No, breathing isn't contributing to man-made climate change. The CO2 we exhale is the same CO2 that has been cycling around for thousands of years, moving from plants to soils to air to humans to everything else and back again, just as it has always been. The amount of CO2 has been stable within a relatively narrow range (second graph above) because it cycles in and out of things but is always somewhere. But here's the kicker - CO2 from fossil fuels is not part of that cycle. It has been buried in the ground for millions of years getting turned into coal and oil and natural gas, completely out of the carbon cycle. During the last century we've dug up a lot of that "out-of-the-loop" carbon and emitted it into the atmosphere in humongous amounts where it hasn't been during human civilization. More carbon = more CO2 = more warming.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Climate Wars - Arctic vs Antarctic Ice Melt

Arctic sea ice is melting. This is one of the most common points made whenever climate change is discussed (in addition to the obvious point that the climate is heating up). But Antarctic sea ice is growing, so it's a wash, right?

No. No. No.

This time of year climate scientists (and the informed public) spend a lot of time tracking the annual melting of sea ice in the Arctic. Climate deniers counter by exclaiming: "but the ice is growing in Antarctica." Deniers cry that the overall global sea ice total is the most important number and that Antarctica makes up for the ice lost in the Arctic.

Again. Emphatically. No. No. No.

This idea is akin to saying that a person making a billion dollars a year and a person making minimum wage (about $15,000/year) are equitable because the average income between the two is over $500 million.

In other words, it's silly.

To begin with, over the last 40 years the Arctic has lost about 21,000 square miles of sea ice per year. During that same time the Antarctic has gained only about 7,300 square miles per year. So even if "total global sea ice" was a valid measurement (which it isn't), it would show a net loss of nearly 14,000 square miles per year. That's hardly a winning argument.

The fact is that the Arctic and Antarctic are completely different systems and not directly comparable in any way. To help people understand the difference between the two poles, let's take a look at the main processes of both. 


The most obvious difference is that the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land and the Antarctic is continental land surrounded by ocean. This difference has a profound affect on how and when ice is formed, not to mention what happens when it melts.

Arctic

Every summer sea ice shrinks in the Arctic, and every winter it grows. To track these patterns we rely on several measurements, one of which is sea ice extent (others are ice volume and ice age). Sea ice extent is defined as an area of ocean covered by at least 15% sea ice.* Two key numbers are the maximum ice extent (the greatest ice extent of any given year, usually in February) and the minimum ice extent (the least ice extent of any given year, usually in September). Generally the melting in the summer is not complete, that is, there is still sea ice even at the minimum. This, however, could change as various feedback effects tend to increase melting (e.g,. more open water means more warming, which means faster and greater melting). It is expected that at some point we'll see an ice free Arctic for some period of time during the summer. For a variety of reasons, that's not a good thing at all.

Both the minimum and maximum indicators have been showing an overall decrease in sea ice extent in the Arctic. For example, the following chart shows ice extent for March 1979-2016. As can be seen, some years are worse than others, but the general trend is clearly loss of ice over time. The same pattern applies to every single month. Feel free to look at other examples on the National Snow & Ice Data Center website.


Because of short-term variations in weather, the year to year values vary, but the trend is clear - the Arctic is losing ice. [See here for a video explanation of trend and variation] By the way, when deniers claim "Arctic ice has recovered," they are falsely cherry picking one of those little peaks and dishonestly ignoring the clear overall trend to fabricate their entirely - and obviously - false conclusions. [This intentional deception is why we know that deniers are being dishonest, not merely ignorant]

Antarctic

While the Arctic is frozen ocean, the Antarctic is frozen land. While the sea ice in the Arctic grows out into the ocean and is constrained by the land, the sea ice in the Antarctic grows out from the land, basically surrounding the continent and expanding without much resistance as far as the cold water and winds can take it. Remember that sea ice extent is defined as "at least 15% coverage of a unit area," so it doesn't necessarily mean the entire area is covered with ice, but with that much unhindered space to grow, it can go a long way.

Scientists have a very good understanding of the processes driving ice gain and loss in the Arctic; for the Antarctic there is greater uncertainty. What we do know from measurements is that, like the Arctic, the sea ice in the Antarctic grows in the winter and shrinks in the summer. Unlike the Arctic, the sea ice shrinks almost completely away each year in the Antarctic. In recent years there has been a pattern of increasing sea ice extent in the Antarctic, the opposite pattern of what we're seeing in the Arctic. The reasons for this are still a point of discussion, but new data have helped clarify the reasons for the trend.


One important factor is that greater melting of land-based glaciers and ice sheets has put more freshwater into the ocean surrounding Antarctica. Since the water is so cold, and because the freshwater tends to float on top of the denser saltwater of the ocean, you see rapid freezing of this new surface water. Another factor is the wind. Unlike the land-constrained Arctic, the winds have virtually limitless ability to push any forming sea ice floes further out to sea, where the cold temperatures tend to fill in the spaces and increase sea ice extent. Studies have also shown greater and faster movement of Antarctic glaciers toward the coasts, which helps push more ice offshore. In addition, the west Antarctic ice shelf** has been collapsing, and will continue to do so irreversibly.



The graphic above comes from NASA's GRACE satellite. It shows that despite the annual winter increase (and annual summer loss) of sea ice in the Antarctic, the overall ice mass of the continent itself has been dropping. Ice mass on Greenland shows the same pattern, only worse.

All of this information tells us that while we may see short-term increases in the Antarctic annual sea ice extent, continued warming of the climate will inevitably result in a much rapider overall ice loss as the glaciers continue to move to the coast and the west Antarctic ice shelves disappear.

So we can see that the two poles are completely different in every aspect, which makes any adding of their ice masses meaningless. All the factors in the Arctic point to continued and rapid ice losses by every measurement (sea ice extent, ice mass, ice age, ice thickness, ice volume). The increased open water results in even faster warming and melting, with these effects getting worse as additional feedback mechanisms kick in. Antarctica is showing a very different pattern but one no less of concern. Sure, the sea ice extent is increasing, but the reasons for it all point to major long term problems in Antarctica that will eventually have global ramifications even coming from such a remote continent. Continued overall ice loss from the land will contribute, along with ice melting on Greenland, to rapid sea level rise. Some recent studies have suggested that we could reach a  threshold that would cause a catastrophic melting of the two ice sheets, thus resulting in huge increases in sea level in a matter of decades rather than centuries. That may not happen, but then again, it might.

As mentioned earlier, climate deniers like to talk about the Antarctic whenever the discussion is about the Arctic (especially given it is the winter growth period in the south while we're watching the summer melting in the north). But adding the two together to get some sort of "total sea ice" value is both meaningless and dishonest. The two areas work independently, both in how they are impacted by man-made climate change and how they contribute to it.

By no honest analysis can anyone say the trends are good.


Notes from text:

*The 15% threshold is a bit confusing because it doesn't mean the entire area is covered with ice or that any given area is exactly 15% - the area could have anywhere from 15% to 100% sea ice. Obviously, an area that is 100% packed with ice would have more ice than an area only 15% covered by ice, yet they would both be counted as being the same sea ice extent. This is why we also look at ice volume, ice age, and thickness.

** Ice shelves are floating ice still connected to the land. Sea ice is that which has broken off and is floating. Ice sheets are the massive layers of ice that cover huge areas of land - Greenland and Antarctica carry the two remaining large ice sheets. Glaciers can be thought of as mini ice sheets flowing down mountains.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Hot Climate Trend Continues in April and the Arctic is Melting

2014 set a record for the hottest year on record. 2015 beat that to become the new hottest year. And 2016 is well on its way to becoming the third year straight setting a new record for hottest year in global climate.

So much for the non-"pause."

NOAA released its April 2016 data this week and reported that April is the 12th straight month of heat records. It wasn't just the hottest April ever recorded, it was the biggest heat gain for April since global records began in 1880. The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces was 0.10 degress C (1.98 degrees F) above the 20th century average. That's huge.



In the graphic above (larger here), all the pink and red are warmer than normal, with the darker reds showing the greatest warming. The blues and whites are areas where it was cooler in April. Not surprisingly, climate denial lobbyists like to talk about the small areas of blue and ignore the rest of the red planet.

This isn't just warming, it's staggeringly increased warming. And this is even though 2015 already showed a huge jump from the normal range of warming. In short, it's getting hot. Really hot.

NASA released its data a few days prior to NOAA and it also shows a record April and continuation of a long trend of record heating. There really is no way to deny the heating that has been taking place. Nor the cause, which is primarily human combustion of fossil fuels that is putting huge amounts of excess CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans.

The Arctic is melting

All of this heat is having a horrific effect on sea ice extent in the Arctic. We've seen a continuing trend towards reduced ice extent during the summer in the Arctic. This year it's been even worse. As noted many times, Arctic sea ice grows in the winter and melts in the summer (though not completely). This winter had the worst sea ice extent growth on record. Not only is that bad but it starts off the melt season with a lot less ice than normal, which is reflected in the current sea ice extent as of mid-May that is well below this time during the record season of 2012. (Larger here)



The annual minimum won't be until September and conditions could change, but with such a bad start it's entirely possible we could hit a record low ice amount this summer.

Alaska is baking

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, it does. At 320 miles above the Arctic Circle, Barrow, Alaska is the last place you would expect to lose snow cover. It's already melting. Alaska has experienced record heat and May 13th set the earliest snowmelt date ever recorded. It smashed the previous record.

The early melting follows a record-setting winter that saw temperatures average more than 11 degrees above normal...shattering the previous record set in 2015.

Worse, "an ominous series of openings, known as leads, extending deep into the Arctic" have opened up as sea ice is already showing signs of massive breakup. It's not pretty.

All of this doesn't bode well for the summer. This year (2016) is currently on track to break the global heat record set in 2015 (which broke the previous record of 2014), and we're on pace to have the worse Arctic melt year on record to boot.

While climate denier lobbyists desperately search for a "pause" in warming, the climate just keeps on getting hotter.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Long Road to Reforming America's Chemical Law May Soon Be Over

Earlier this week it was announced that Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and James Inhofe (R-OK) had reached an agreement on the long awaited update to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA was originally passed in 1976 and signed into law by President Gerald Ford. To say that it is outdated would be the understatement of two centuries. Reform has been a long road with many twists and turns, not the least of which is the first sentence in this paragraph.

Yes, the news was that Boxer and Inhofe had agreed on the TSCA reform law. The fact that Boxer and Inhofe have agreed on anything is news in itself, but the fact that the two of them are even mentioned in the same breath as this new law is amazing given that neither really had much to do with its development.

A quick recap. Late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) first introduced a formal bill to reform TSCA back in 2005. It never even got a discussion in committee. Neither did his re-try in 2009. His re-try in 2013 was introduced not long before he died at the age of 89. In the intervening weeks, a bed-ridden Lautenberg joined with Senator David Vitter (R-LA) to introduce a TSCA reform bill that was light-years away from the bill Lautenberg had just reintroducd. You read that right. A Republican from the petrochemical state of Louisiana introduced a chemical control bill with the man who had been fighting to reform chemical control for a decade.

After Lautenberg's passing, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) took over and actually worked very hard with Vitter to refine and improve the bill. After a few iterations (most of which were virulently opposed by Senator Boxer), they came out with a bill they named the "Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act." A completely different bill was introduced in the House, but that bill was considered a joke by everyone in the know, a fact that was obvious by its unanimous passing by both parties in a House where bipartisanship is considered an act of war. The House bill was merely to have something they passed so that the committee that reconciles the Senate and House versions into a law had something to sign off on. Given that Boxer and Inhofe, the two political powerhouses in the Senate, had the final say indicates what everyone knew - that the final version is essentially the Senate version with a few more assurances that states aren't completely blocked from dealing with chemicals that EPA has yet to rule on.

Which gets us to now. The conference committee has come up with a "reconciled" version that is expected to be passed by both houses of Congress shortly. The President has indicated he will sign it, perhaps with a big ceremony at the White House. Most people are happy - Republicans, Democrats, health and safety advocacy groups, chemical trade associations, and the consultants and lawyers who will make tons of money helping their clients comply with the law.

Now here is the slap in the face. The new TSCA law won't make us safer. As the article at the link notes:

The law itself won't make us safer, but the fact that we'll be focused on identifying and prioritizing chemicals to take a closer look rather than waving our hands in the air doing nothing...well, that focus will make us safer.

So congratulations to industry for getting a law that favors them passed. Congratulations for health and safety advocacy groups for getting a law passed that at least gets us beyond the distractions of doing nothing while debating a new law. Congratulations to Congress for wasting taxpayers money and time "debating" for 10 years something that is only getting passed now because industry thinks Republicans will lose control of at least part of Congress in the fall. Sure, that sounds cynical, but not as much as thinking Republicans in Congress are doing something for the public good.

The long road to reforming TSCA is not over. Now the work begins. The EPA will have to develop a way to implement a law while continuing to lose senior staff, having their budget cut frequently, and being harassed by Republican lawmakers/lobbyists on a daily basis. It will be EPA who will figure out how to improve the health and safety evaluation process for chemicals. May they survive the success of reforming TSCA.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer R. Weart



Spencer Weart takes us on a journey into the past. In The Discovery of Global Warming, Weart provides a history of the science that has now come to be known as Anthropomorphic Global Warming (AGW), or more simply, man-made climate change. In doing so he demonstrates just how robust and voluminous is the scientific case for human induced climate change.

He begins by recounting the early discoveries by such well-known names as Joseph Fourier, Guy Stewart Callendar, John Tyndall, and Svante Arrhenius. Lesser known scientists who also provided significant contributions to the developing science include James Croll, Vladimir Verdansky, Charles Greeley Abbot, Milutin Milankovitch, Gilbert Plass, Hans Suess, David Keeling, and many others.  As he takes us through the years in come names such as Roger Revelle, Wally Broecker, J. Murray Mitchell, Ed Lorenz, and on to names more familiar to us in the modern day like Stephen Schneider, James Hansen, Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann. In all, Weart reviewed a thousand studies and says that each study has 10 more like it and 10 more beyond that.  

Weart’s narrative gives us a sense of the trials and tribulations of early scientists trying to make sense of myriad observations as they tested hypothesis after hypothesis. Was the Earth warming or cooling? What were the influences of sunspots, volcanoes, aerosols, and particulates? How does one deal with uncertainties and feedback mechanisms? As he describes the process we see how the science developed piece by piece in fits and starts as scientists first worked on the periphery of fields tangential to their own, then eventually grew to understand how the study of climate was inter- and multidisciplinary. All of these questions were addressed as technology advanced from simple hand calculations through early computers to the supercomputers used today. From simple measurements using thermometers to satellites that scan the globe day and night.

As the case for man-made climate change grew there became a need for a way to synthesis the thousands of studies into a cohesive summary of the state-of-the-science. Thus, the IPCC was born. As more data came in and was compiled the conclusions grew more concrete, from “discernible effects” to “unequivocal warming” and “very likely” (90-99% certainty) that warming was being caused by humans. Data since the last report have made the case for a human cause not even more certain, but the rate and magnitude of change is even greater than previously thought.

Anyone interested in global warming/climate change would do well to read this book.  It provides a valuable history of the development of the science, and demonstrates without a doubt the robustness of the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and that human activity is the main contributor.  As Weart himself says:


“the few who contest these facts are either ignorant or so committed to their viewpoint that they will seize on any excuse to deny the risk.” 


The science is unequivocal; whether we act is our choice.  A choice that has major ramifications for our future and the futures of our children and grandchildren.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Will Thinking in Collective Terms Lead to More Climate Action? Meh.

Man-made climate change is real. So how do we encourage people to do something about it? One new paper suggests people are more willing to donate money toward action when thinking about the problem in collective terms. And yet, one wonders if this is really true. Worse, does it even matter?

The study was conducted by Nick Obradovich and Scott Guenther, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and published this week in the journal Climatic Change. Both political scientists (not climate scientists), their focus was on, as their title suggests, how "Collective responsibility amplifies mitigation behaviors." In short, they found that people were more likely to donate more money to environmental causes when they thought about the problem in collective terms rather than when the appeal was to personal responsibility.

I won't go into the details of the study because others have done that already. There is a great discussion of the study on the blog ClimateProgress. I encourage you to read it, and if you have access to the journal Climatic Change (it's behind a subscription firewall), please read the original paper.

I also am not going to question the veracity of the methods or conclusions of the paper; that I'll leave to others. The goal of my piece is to wonder how much the study even matters.

To begin with, the study group consisted of Audubon Society members, who, not surprisingly, are more likely to acknowledge the reality of man-made climate change and be willing to do something about it. They were also "giving" money that had been handed to them, so weren't even donating out of their own pocket. Nothing wrong with these experimental methods for the purposes of the study, but they don't reflect the realities of where climate action is needed.

So let's jump to the crux of the problem. Yes, environmentally aware citizens are more likely to support taking action about climate change. But the issue here is how to get less environmentally aware, and even more importantly, environmentally antagonistic, citizens to take action. Can the results of the study inform that question?

Okay, maybe. The study does say that framing the problem in collective terms may be more effective than framing it in personal responsibility terms, so maybe if we somehow focus on how we can all play a collective role in changing our behaviors we might be more successful with climate deniers than finger-pointing. At least in general terms this is consistent with the views of a well-known climate communication expert with whom I recently had a conversation. He felt that finger-pointing merely triggered human defense mechanisms: telling someone they personally have to change (or are wrong) causes them to dig trenches and protect their position, reality be damned.

The problem is, how exactly do we frame the need for climate change action in collective terms that is different from how we're doing it now? It's not like the only message out there is "It's your fault, you must take personal responsibility to fix it." Sure, there is an element of that but mostly it's a matter of we, the United States and the world, collectively, need to, and actually do, take action to reduce carbon emissions and shift to more renewable energy resources. We, the United States and the world, just signed a major commitment with the Paris climate agreement. We are already taking action.

So the problem isn't that we aren't already acting collectively, it's that we could be acting much faster and more definitively if there wasn't an organized denial of the science that, collectively, encourages us to act.

As this page has noted often, there are lobbying groups whose purpose on Earth is to block policy actions that might bring the costs of doing business back onto the corporations who profit from pushing those costs onto society, i.e., us, the collective taxpayers. Collectively we all pay for what fossil fuel combustion is doing to our climate (we also pay for vast amounts of other corporate pollution that is "externalized" from the "free market" system). These professional lobbyists know that their corporate sponsors are causing the climate to warm and don't care; their job is to protect corporate profits and pay various lobbying organizations and their front groups to use any means necessary to block regulatory action.

Action is also held back by amateur deniers who refuse any information that conflicts with their ideological, political, or egotistical pre-conceptions. These folks include both those generally ignorant of the facts and those who are just straight out intellectually dishonest. The latter deniers tend not only to rely on lobbyist and political sources for their "science," they also actively choose to be dishonest in their interactions with anyone who challenges their mental insecurities.

Where all this gets us is to the realization that in communicating science to the public, and getting the public to act - collectively and/or personally - isn't a once-size-fits-all solution. Different methods of communicating with the public will be needed. As the study discussed above suggests, framing in collective terms may be successful with those who are already environmentally sensitive, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, with some groups of more antagonist citizens. Such framing may be a waste of time on lobbyists and individuals whose professional jobs require them to ignore reality in favor of profits, or with amateur deniers whose intellectual insecurities cause them to engage in patently dishonest behaviors.

On the other hand, those citizens who have merely been misled by professional and amateur denier networks will likely be quicker to shift to action once they perceive their self-selected "group" is ready to take action.

And that is where science communicators and advocates for action need to focus their attention.

[Image courtesy of http://www.buildingclimatesolutions.org/images/279806/350x0/scale/communicating_climate.jpg]
the study finds that people are willing to donate up to 50 percent more cash to the cause when thinking about the problem in collective terms.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-05-climate-people.html#jCp

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.