Saturday, March 21, 2009

Holdren and Lubchenco Are Confirmed - And So is Obama's Commitment to Climate Change

On Thursday the Senate unanimously confirmed Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and John Holdren to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Lubchenco is a marine scientist whose experience and credibility goes back decades. Holdren is a Harvard University physicist and professor of environmental policy. These confirmations round out Obama’s science team.

And what a team. By selecting such a group of well-renowned scientists and administrators for his key positions - including Steven Chu as Energy Secretary, Lisa Jackson as EPA Administrator, Nancy Sutley as head of the Council of Environmental Quality, and former EPA Administrator Carol Browner in the newly created position of Climate and Energy Policy Advisor in the White House - Obama has signaled that he puts a high value on science. It also signals that he will pursue active policies to address climate change.

Lubchenco and Holdren, along with the others, could play significant roles in shaping the Obama administration’s approach to climate science and policy. Lubchenco has "built an international reputation for her scientific work on marine conservation and climate change and for her ongoing efforts to help scientists participate in public policy debates and communicate their work to the general public."

Holdren has a long history of working on climate and energy policy, clean technology and nuclear proliferation. Over a year ago he gave the prestigious John H. Chafee Memorial Lecture on Science and the Environment at the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE). Called "Meeting the Climate-Change Challenge," Holdren stated:

"We are experiencing dangerous anthropogenic interference by any reasonable definition today. The question now is whether we can avoid catastrophic human interference in the climate system."

He listed three possible policy options..."They are mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. Basically, if we do less mitigation and adaptation, we’re going to do a lot more suffering."

Holdren's full lecture at NCSE can be read here. It's worth the read.

Meanwhile, it's clear that the current administration will place more emphasis on science than his predecessor, with a specific interest in addressing climate change.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dueling Databases - Industry to Publish Global Chemicals Database

Data are power! I've said this before, and despite being a bit cumbersome as a phrase, it does highlight a growing trend. About a month ago I mentioned that the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) was looking at developing a global database of chemicals used in various products. The database is to be discussed in Geneva in May at the second session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM2), which is part of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) process.

Now leading bodies of the global chemical industry are planning to publish their own global online database of chemical substances for stakeholders, which they are calling the Global Product Strategy (GPS). The organizations include the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) and Cefic in Europe, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in the US, and Japan's JCIA. While details are still being worked out, the industry plans to present the concept of GPS at the same ICCM2 meeting.

These databases follow on the heels of many other online resources, including databases that contain the summary results of many studies over many years. The High Production Volume (HPV) Chemical databases resulting from the voluntary HPV Challenges in the US, Europe and Japan are also online. As will the data being developed as a result of the new REACH law in Europe and the new Chemical Assessment and Management Program (ChAMP) in the United States.

Online databases are not entirely new, as chemical plant release data have been available for many years as part of the Toxic Release Inventory. But the near ubiquitous accessibility of the internet, combined with improved user-friendliness of interfaces and the increase in data collection, have contributed to what amounts to a boom of information available to the public. There are drawbacks, of course, of so much data - often too complex to understand - being available to everyone. But overall having access to information will help improve everyone's decision-making capability.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Climate Change and a Novel Water Quality Case Could Have Major Impact on Decision-Making

Most of the time climate change issues don't enter into how Environmental Protection Agencies set nutrient limits in water bodies. That may change. Environmentalists are seeking to require the USEPA for the first time to consider climate change effects on water flow and activity when setting discharge limits for impaired waters.

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) is suing EPA over its approval of a phosphorus limit on Lake Champlain in Vermont. CLF wants EPA to consider climate change and its impacts on wet weather flows when setting the lake's total maximum daily load (TMDL). The TMDL is the maximum amount of a contaminant that a waterbody can accept without violating water quality limits. TMDLs take into consideration both point and non-point sources into impaired waters, and normally one would not even think about some global phenomenon like climate change. TMDLs tend to be local or regional.

Consideration of climate change impacts could sometimes result in stricter discharge limits, such as when increased precipitation could result in increased pollution runoff. But in other cases, e.g., if climate change causes more arid conditions, it could result in less runoff and fewer pollutants contributing to impairment.

Either way, the question comes down to whether EPA had sufficient information available and knowledge to consider climate change in the permit, which was issued by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation in 2002. CLF says EPA does have enough knowledge of the effects of climate change, and thus should have taken that into account in the permit. In early March a federal district court granted requests by both EPA and CLP to extend the deadline so they could enter into negotiations in hopes of finding an agreeable compromise.

If CLP wins the case, the next question would be how exactly the EPA would "consider" climate change?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Better Scientific Understanding = Better Policy Decisions

An underlying theme of this page is how science meets policy. In a recent commentary, UK scientist and Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and special adviser to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, says that "getting understandable science information to policy makers remains a great challenge." I agree. As I noted in Sunday's Dake Page, some with political or ideological motivations often try to obfuscate the science. Professor Sachs suggests "the effective flow of information from the scientific community to the public and to policy-makers, and the systematic application of that information in policy-making remains a great and growing challenge." He opines that "the Bush administration exemplified a government that ignored, distorted, and even disdained scientific information, to the enormous cost to the US and the world."

To counter this, Professor Sachs offers five areas of action "to improve the link between science and policy."

First, he says "the general public must broadly understand scientific issues such as climate change in order to be able to call for and endorse sound public action. Yet the scientific issues are inherently complex, and the public arena is filled with misinformation (by innocent error) and disinformation (by calculated misdirection) by vested interests. To overcome the confusion, it is vital to establish processes such as the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that inform the public of the boundaries of real knowledge and consensus, especially based on the peer reviewed literature. Other venerable scientific institutions and societies (such as the Royal Society or the National Academy of Sciences) can also play this role."

Second, he states that "the public must be informed of the consensus in an intelligible manner." That is something that is sometimes difficult for scientists, who Sachs says, "notoriously neglect to be intelligible, usually not in order to be intentionally obscure, but rather to avoid the imprecision of non-scientific, day to day language." He also suggests that "science journalists (with proper scientific training), the media, and scientist-statesmen are needed to play an important role in translation."

Third, Sachs says that "policy-makers need detailed and systematic inputs beyond the broad public debate." He touts the US President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) as "a vital institution." Sachs believes it is a good step that President Obama has "revitalised it by appointing world class scientific leaders."

Fourth, he emphasizes that "science needs to inform public policy systematically, not only through advising the executive and legislative branches (and indeed, often, the judicial branch), but also through a seat at the table in rule-making and public decision-making." Sachs is highly supportive of "government bodies such as environmental agencies, national laboratories, and standard setting bodies," and suggests that they need "not only their own internal experts, but also panels of independent (non-governmental) scientific experts, free from conflict of interest, and beyond the reach of politics or governmental bureaucratic control."

Sach's fifth and final recommendation is to note that "while expertise is is not enough." Ultimately, he says "we can't leave...decisions to the scientists, though we want the scientists very close to the ultimate decisions, and to express their views strongly and publicly." Rather, he suggests that the "ultimate decisions depend on democratic processes and consensus building around the scientific evidence that are needed to combine scientific knowledge with ethical guidelines, public values, and a sense of justice, fairness and social cohesion."

While he says that "this meshing of science knowledge and ultimate democratic decision-making is a never ending challenge,...the general commitment to the combination of scientific rigour, public consensus and democratic accountability should be a guidepost for action and institutional design."

In short, scientists and policy-makers must communicate, with each other and with the public.

Read the original commentary here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Global Warming Denialists - The Art of Deception

Global warming denialists are carrying on an ideologically motivated campaign to discredit real climate science. And they are doing so by willfully and repeatedly misrepresenting the state of our knowledge. They have several methods that all scientists and every citizen should be on the look out for, and these methods should be exposed for what they are - purposeful deceit of the public.

Some of the more prevalent methods to deceive the public include:

"Global warming is just a theory, and the science is still unsettled"

Denialists are fond of manipulating the public by misrepresenting the meaning of scientific theory. They do this to suggest that the science of climate change is still unsettled. But the science of climate change is clear. The scientific consensus is clear.

"The IPCC is ignoring the science"

Except that it isn't. The IPCC, and the thousands of researchers on whose studies the IPCC relies for its compilation of the state-of-the-science, examine every legitimate study that has been conducted regarding climate science. Any new valid data are also incorporated into the discussion, which is why the IPCC, for example, revises its reports every few years - they are incorporating newer data. Claims of "they are ignoring solar forcing" and others, for example, are patently false, and the denialists know this but continue with their charade.

"Many scientists disagree with the IPCC"

Some legitimate scientists legitimately disagree with parts of the consensus. And as legitimate scientists they present their real scientific data to real scientific peer-review. As yet, the legitimate disagreement has been on specific data or on specific interpretation. But these disagreements have been unpersuasive to the vast community of scientists as far as changing the consensus. It comes down to the preponderance of evidence. And the preponderance of the evidence remains clear. Most of the time these legitimate scientists actually, in the end, provide support to the consensus by helping to fine-tune specific details.

"So and so scientist says that global warming is wrong"

To scientists this is one of the most despicable and deceitful ploys used by global warming denialists. They "quote" a certain scientist to suggest that the scientist agrees with their denialist position. Except they selectively quote to misrepresent the scientist's position. Several scientists have had to issue corrections - often repeatedly - to clarify their position or even to deny that their research says what the denialists say it means. One scientist has been fighting for years to stop denialists from continuing to misquote his research, which they continue to do intentionally to claim the exact opposite of what the scientist's research actually concludes. Another had to issue a statement - and even ensure it was posted on his Wiki biography - to refute the way denialists have mischaracterized his views. A major scientific organization had to issue a press release to warn that denialists had fraudulently mimicked its journal design with the explicit goal of suggesting the organization supported their view. It does not.

"Independent organization scientists refute global warming"

One of the favorite means for denialists to deceive the public is to create a "science sounding" organization and pass it off as independent. This despite the fact that all the funding comes from industry donors, ideological foundations, and "private citizens" (who oddly enough tend to be associated with industry donors and ideological foundations). The claim of independence is farcical, as these organizations are merely front groups for the industrial and ideological firms who fund them. Even the handful of scientists they employ are shared amongst the groups to create the illusion that there are more dissenters than are there in truth. More deceit.

"A conference to present the science refuting the global warmist agenda"

Another trick of the denialists is to sponsor a conference in which will be presented "the real science that global warmists ignore." As noted above, no real science is ignored, so this in itself is deceit. But the deceit goes even further as the conference is billed as a scientific conference when in fact it is nothing but an advocacy meeting designed to confuse the public and influence politicians. The recent conference sponsored by the conservative Heartland Institute is a perfect example of the deception employed by the global warming denialist industry. Besides the ideologically oriented HI, the conference was co-sponsored by 57 other organizations, every one of which were ideological, libertarian, anti-tax, pro-business and free-market organizations. No scientific organizations participated. The handful of "science sounding" organizations (about 6 of 57) were the deceitful front groups mentioned in the last point. No new scientific data were presented, and in fact the only science presented was the same old information that has been repeated for years. Any legitimate science would be presented at legitimate scientific conferences and published in peer-reviewed journals. As such, any legitimate science is already part of the consensus and any new legitimate data will be added to the analysis. The conference was a sham designed to deceive.

"Such and such a source says..."

One common ploy is circular citation. The denialist industry creates a "press release" masquerading as scientific opinion. It then ensures that it circulates to its network of bloggers - some paid, others merely ideological lackeys - for distribution. Call it the "cut-and-paste" method of creating the impression that there is more uncertainty than there is, more disagreement than there is, and more authority than there is. Citing a blog that stole from another blog that stole from another blog that got it from the industry denialist machine is a combination of lazy and deceitful. The intent is to create an implied volume of information when it is in fact nothing more than creative plagiarism. Given that any person with a computer can publish anything they want without any kind of check on its factual integrity, no blog can be used for anything more than ascertaining the blogger's opinion, which by definition is tuned to their inherent biases. That's why you get the same sort of "conspiracy theory" stories showing up on "conspiracy theory" blogs. In short, citing a blog as a source of scientific fact is meaningless, not to mention that it and shows a lack of scientific understanding and/or a willingness to deceive.

"The science definitively says that global warming is not happening"

False. Often this comes in the form of "we know that the temperatures are cooling" or "the sun is causing global warming." These are third-grade level misunderstandings (at best) or intentional misrepresentations (most likely) of the science. But by making the statement definitively the denialists know it sounds authoritative to the public. Just like former vice-president Dick Cheney stating definitively that Saddam Hussein had WMDs (he did not) and that Iraq was involved with the 9/11 attacks (they were not). Being authoritative does not change a lie into the truth, but it does cynically take advantage of the natural tendency for people to assume forceful statements represent reality. This is deception and should be called deception.

"Global warmists are pushing a political agenda for the funding"

This is a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black. Climate scientists toiled for decades doing research, generally with very limited funding. Anyone who knows how much scientists get paid know they don't do it "for the money." In fact, for the denialist industry (funded lavishly by some of the biggest corporations on the planet) to disingenuously suggest that the science is political and their obvious political is science is, well, audacity at its most cynical.

"Al Gore's theories..."

One common ploy - called misdirection by public relations firms and professional magicians alike - is to suggest that Al Gore "invented" global warming, and thus it is a political rather than scientific consensus. Al Gore is a former politician and now businessman who also just happens to have a three decade interest in science issues. His "Inconvenient Truth" presentation is designed to communicate the long-time research of climate scientists. He didn't invent global warming, he is merely a messenger. The science itself has nothing to do with Al Gore, and the denialists know this. They merely use Gore in their sleight-of-hand attempts to misdirect attention away from the fact that there is a clear scientific consensus on global warming.


Repetition ties all the previous deceit together into a continuous stream of "information" that by shear volume and tenacity is designed to create the illusion of authority. The same handful of "points" are repeated over and over again long after they have been discredited as false, illogical, or just plain silly. The same "experts" are trotted out even though it has been shown that their scientific credibility and integrity is equivocal (to be clear, some of these are legitimate scientists who legitimately disagree, but many are being used as shills by the denialist industry and others are mere charlatans selling snake oil for the industry money). The same "science is being ignored" line is repeated even after it has been shown that the science has already been incorporated into the consensus (even, in fact, after pointing to a specific set of pages in which this point is discussed). The repetition of falsehood is part of the ploy. And it is dishonest.

"Global warmists only demean the "skeptics" because they can't discredit the science"

This is a favorite tactic. As noted above, all real science is presented to the scientific community for peer-review and discussion. Most of the "science" of the skeptics has been shown time and time again to be spurious, incorrect, or irrelevant. Much of it is deliberately misleading, misrepresented, or outright fraudulent. Many scientists and others have spent considerable time evaluating the "cut-and-pasted from blog" science of denialists, and even after their contention is shown to be false and/or completely uninformed or illogical, they continue to repeat the same untruths.

As scientists, and as human beings, we must ask ourselves whether it is "unkind" to call a liar a liar. Should we ignore dishonesty by the denialists because to point out their dishonesty might hurt their feelings? But think about this. Would one not call a murderer a murderer because it would be "unkind" to the murderer? Is it not unkind to the victims to not stand up for their rights? Is it unkind to call Bernie Madoff a swindler, when he in fact is a swindler? What of the rights of his victims? Is it unkind to refute deception?

Should we not call a deceiver a deceiver?

The denialist industry has undertaken a campaign of deception that follows the same playbook as the "smoking isn't addictive and doesn't cause cancer" playbook of the past. Even some of the players are the same. So should a scientist, or a non-scientist who also lives on this planet, stand back and allow the denialists to deceive the public for their own ideological profit?

I think the answer is clear.