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]
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:

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 (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.


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.