Thursday, December 31, 2015

Climate Change Year in Review - 2015

Paris, Denial, Climate. Things heated up in climate science in 2015, and they are about to get even hotter. As The Dake Page predicted a year ago, 2015 was going to be a critical year in man-made climate change. It exceeded even those expectations.

Let's begin with the climate itself. The hottest year on record was set just last year (i.e., 2014). In 2015 that record was not just broken; it was shattered. While the December temperatures are not quite in yet, it was clear many months ago that 2015 was on a pace that would blow past 2014 easily. In short, 2015 is the new hottest year on record when it comes to global temperatures. Temperatures were helped along by a massive El Nino, which tends to pump up an already increasingly warmer climate system. With that El Nino expected to stay strong for several months more it means that 2016 could surpass 2015 to set yet another new record.

Action to deal with man-made climate change also heated up. With strong leadership by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, the United States joined 196 nations around the world in coming to a substantive agreement this December in Paris. The Paris agreement is a start, even a very big start, but there is a lot of work still to be done. Even with that caveat in mind, though, the agreement is one of the most important events in history because it started the world on a path toward greater sustainability. It might, at least in some people's minds, even be the beginning of the end of fossil fuels. That seems unlikely given our fossil fuel-based infrastructure and the prevalence of petrochemical-based plastics, but it does signal a change in mindset that will lead to greater innovation and development of renewable energy sources.

Of course, climate denialism also heated up in 2015, a not unexpected reaction to finding themselves in a corner left behind by the world. American politicians are heavy into campaigning for next year's presidential elections and man-made climate change is set to play a significant role. The lines are clear - all Republican candidates deny the science; all Democratic candidates acknowledge the science. Republican politicians can't help demonstrate their dishonesty on the subject, even staging "hearings" to boost their denialism with their base rather than to inform on policy options. We'll see more of this in 2016.

The year 2015 also saw a report revealing what most scientists already knew - ExxonMobil Corporation was well aware of the role of fossil fuels in causing man-made climate change. They knew it, and then they spent millions trying to obfuscate it. And it wasn't just Exxon; all the major oil companies knew that their business model was warming the planet's climate system, and they knew this decades ago. The fossil fuel industry did the same thing that the tobacco industry did, they understood the harm they were causing but continued to deny it and misrepresent it and actively try to block policy action on it for decades, all to protect their huge profit margins.

So where do we go from here? While 2015 was a critical year in defining action, 2016 will be a critical year in defining how sustained that action will be. Not the least of the concerns is the U.S. presidential election, where the ultimate selection of the new president could have life-changing impacts on the future of both the United States and the World. More on that in the next post.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas 2015 - The Hottest Climate Year on Record

It is altogether fitting and proper, so it seems, that much of the United States and Europe is experiencing ridiculously balmy weather for Christmastime in 2015. After all, 2015 will be the hottest year on record when it comes to global climate.

Every climate research scientific organization has confirmed that last month was the hottest November on record, following on the heals of the hottest year to date on record. With December on its way to a likely record itself, 2015 is guaranteed to be the hottest year ever experienced in the global climate record. Lest anyone forget, the previous record hot year was 2014. Given the continuing presence of El Nino conditions (a record-setter in its own right), the prospects of 2016 becoming the third record-breaking year in a row are significant.

This is why deniers look so silly when they claim "there has been no warming in 18 years." The statement is so patently false it's buffoonish. In fact, even the "charts" used by deniers prove they are lying.

Meanwhile, the climate warms.

The eastern United States epitomizes on a grand scale the warming. "In many places in the East, temperatures will run some 30-40 degrees above normal." It's so warm that in some cities the low temperatures may exceed the record high temperatures for that spot.



Excess heat isn't limited to the eastern United States; Europe is seeing it too. Record temperatures are being seen in Helsinki, Sweden, Estonia, London, and even Moscow. Ice rinks in Moscow are ponds. "In the Italian Alps, ski stations have had to resort to artificial snow, cherry blossoms have been spotted in Dresden in Germany, and daffodils are flowering in England."

Of course, a Christmas heat wave in one part (or two parts) of the world is not the entire world, so what do the full data for 2015 worldwide tell us? As already noted in the second paragraph above, it tells us that 2015 is guaranteed to be the hottest year ever recorded on a global basis. In late November the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) confirmed that 2015 was well on its way to setting a new global heat record, as well as the warmest 5-year period. Yesterday the WMO confirmed that Europe would experience the second hottest year ever, just barely below the hottest year set last year. WMO noted that:

Globally, 2015 remains on track to the hottest year on record, according to WMO's provisional statement on the status of the climate in 2015. Final figures will be released in early 2016.
In short, 2015 will be the hottest year ever, passing 2014. And 2016 will start off on a fast pace in its attempt to set yet another record. You can get a feel of what that means in the following graphs from NASA (yellows to oranges to reds to dark reds show increasing mean surface temperatures above the baseline). More NASA charts of global temperature can be found here.



So will we never see snow again? Of course we'll see snow (as Denver and other spots in western U.S. will attest); the fact that the planet is getting warmer doesn't mean winter disappears. We may even see loops of Arctic vortex drop down into lower latitudes periodically and heavy snowfalls like we saw last winter in the northeastern U.S. and elsewhere. But global warming does mean we'll have to deal with all the ramifications of a warming climate, and those ramifications are both significant and impact virtually all of the world's 7 billion and growing population. That is why the recent Paris climate agreement is so important for our future.

Merry Christmas, and all that jazz.
In the Italian Alps, ski stations have had to resort to artificial snow, cherry blossoms have been spotted in Dresden in Germany, and daffodils are flowering in England.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2015-12-climate-grinch-stole-europe-christmas.html#jCp

Thursday, December 17, 2015

4 Things to Know About the Paris Climate Agreement

December 2015 will go down in history as one of the most important beginnings in history. This was when 196 nations came together to alter the course of our energy future. To channel the vernacular of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, this was a big F***n deal.

It won't save the planet. At least not in the short term.

But then, no one expected it to. The agreement is historic, but it's just the first - albeit rather large - step toward more sustainable energy systems. Not only do the countries each need to live up to their commitments, but even more steps need to be taken to reduce and eventually eliminate carbon emissions that are causing the warming of our climate.

Here are 4 things you need to know about the agreement:

1) It went even further than expected: There was a lot of confidence going into the meetings that they would result in a substantive agreement. This confidence was based both on American leadership to bring parties to the table and the overwhelming scientific consensus that action was necessary and long overdue. Expectations were that the resulting agreement would set a goal of keeping temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels through the end of this century. The final agreement went even further, stating that we should "pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius." This more stringent standard is good news for small island nations that are already facing the prospects of disappearing due to sea level rise and other factors. It also reflects the growing scientific belief that a 2 degree rise is way too dangerous. Of course, meeting that level is probably impossible for a lot of reasons, but setting the goal will increase the urgency of taking substantive action sooner, rather than minor action later.

2) It gets started quickly (in a relative sense): While the agreement officially doesn't go into effect until 2020 (which, after all, is only 4 years away), it stipulates an interim review of progress as early as 2018 and further reviews every five years thereafter. This ensures that countries will immediately engage in actions designed to reduce their carbon emissions. Of course, many nations, including the U.S., China, those in Europe, and elsewhere, have already taken steps to reduce carbon and expand renewable energy development. For some (e.g., the U.S.), meeting our early goals will be easy, while others (e.g., China) will have much greater challenges to keep the pace.

3) This is the end of fossil fuels (well, sort of): The agreement makes it clear that fossil fuels are on their way out, even so far as to set a goal for a "global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible." In truth, this was happening anyway because of market factors, but the agreement commits countries to expanding renewable resources like wind, solar, hydroelectric, and others. Does it mean fossil fuels will disappear overnight, or even ever? Of course not. Not only will we still be using gasoline and diesel for fuel and heating for some time, but we rely on plastics for so many products. Plastics are mostly petrochemical based, so clearly there is need for expanded innovation. We also need to shift jobs from coal and oil to solar and wind; that must happen transitionally as workers are trained, new innovative companies are set up, and current fossil fuel companies shift to broader energy investments. But coal in particular will continue to be a bad investment, something that has been true for a long time.

4) Not everyone is happy: As with any negotiated agreement between such disparate interests, no one got everything they wanted. Fossil fuel companies (e.g., ExxonMobil) and oil-based nations (e.g., Saudi Arabia) are obvious candidates for the "we're being treated unfairly" complaints, but then they have enjoyed massive profits for decades while foisting the environmental, health, economic, and national security costs onto the public. At the other end of the spectrum are environmental and health advocates who believe the agreement doesn't go far enough. Included in this category is James Hansen, former Director of NASA's Goddard Institute, author of hundreds of scientific papers on climate change, and now outspoken advocate for action. Hansen thinks the agreement is [expletive deleted], largely because he thinks nuclear energy (which is cleaner, though has obvious issues with radioactive waste disposal and the occasional meltdown potential) should play a larger role.

Still, the agreement sets the world on a path toward sustainability. It's a first step - some may argue it's a very tiny baby step - but it's a step in the right direction. There is much more to do over and above making sure countries follow through on commitments, not the least of which is the potential problem of one political party in the United States denying the science that all the world accepts. But as one advocacy group extols, this is a turning point.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Yes, Some Scientists....and Politicians...Are Dishonest

But very few, and that is the biggest fact here to remember.

The "oversight hearing" held by Senator Ted Cruz on Tuesday, December 8th, is a good example of dishonesty. More on that in a second.

First, let me define dishonesty for the purposes of this essay. While there may be legitimate differences of interpretation when evaluating any particular data set, what I'm talking about here is the intentional disregard of data that demonstrate your interpretation to be unsupportable. That is, when you continue to argue you are right and all the rest of the world is wrong despite overwhelming, unequivocal, and incontrovertible evidence of your wrongness. This is not to say that if your data shows something different you should just shut up and accept the consensus. Science is built on investigating results that were counter to expectations. But those data must be scientifically valid and presented through the peer-review process; and those data (and resulting interpretations) must stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Okay, now that we have a baseline, let's use the Cruz hearing as a microcosm of how the denial lobbying industry works.

First, the false premise. The title of the hearing is "Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth's Climate." This is right out of the denier lobbyist talking point memo. Deniers, who rarely if ever do actual scientific research (and rarely are climate scientists at all), like to claim that "alternative" science is somehow suppressed. The reality is that deniers don't attempt to publish much in peer-reviewed journals, preferring instead to publish opinion pieces in newspapers, online websites, and blogs. So here we have Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, who was elected predominantly because of support from the billionaire Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry, and who receives significant funding from fossil fuel lobbyists, abusing his position as Senator to harass scientists and science at the behest of those lobbyists.

Second, the stacked deck. As is common for Republican-chaired hearings in the House and Senate, the witnesses called tend to be from the small handful of "scientists for hire" and, well, non-scientists. This hearing was actually a significant departure from the norm in that the Republican majority actually did have actual scientists as witnesses. But the choice of scientists - and the non-scientist - is revealing.

The scientists were Judith Curry, John Christy, William Happer, and David Titley. 

Curry and Christy are actual climate scientists but clearly in the "contrarian" viewpoint. The irony is that the actual published scientific work by both Curry and Christy absolutely support the unequivocal fact that humans are significantly warming the climate system. The reason they were called as witnesses is because their blog posts and previous testimonies argues that all the world's climate scientists (and their own published work) is somehow wrong. When someone claims the opposite in their non-peer-reviewed blogs than what their actual peer-reviewed papers say, well, you can draw your own conclusions about whether their associations with denier lobbyist associations influence their positions.

Christy, by the way, is most famous as being the colleague of Roy Spencer at the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH). It is the UAH satellite record that deniers solely rely on for the false graphics Senator Cruz displayed during his hearing. This is ironic given that other scientists had long ago documented the major Christy/Spencer satellite data errors that invalidated their most famous work). The UAH data set is the most uncertain and inappropriate of any data set (and hidden, since Christy/Spencer won't reveal their "adjustment" methods), but deniers use it because it tells them what they want to hear. Deniers have to deny the existence of all the other data sets and empirical data that overwhelmingly demonstrate the failure of the UAH data in order to make claims based on UAH. This is dishonesty. Spencer is a Board member of the George C. Marshall Institute, an infamous lobbyist group at the front of every science denial lobbying activity for decades and profiled in the book Merchants of Doubt. Spencer is also a creationist, which is only relevant because it demonstrates his ability to ignore scientific evidence he finds inconvenient. Again, it's easy to draw conclusions about the influence of those lobbyists when everything presented is so easily shown to be specious.

Which gets us to William Happer. Why was Happer invited by Republicans as a witness, as he has been invited before? Happer has zero climate expertise and has done no climate change research. His specialty is atomic physics and nuclear arms. He is on the Board, and former Chair, of the aforementioned George C. Marshall Institute lobbying organization. He is associated with a variety of anti-science lobbying groups who pay him considerable sums to misrepresent the science. His credibility on climate science is zero, which would convince any honest Senator not to have him highlight your climate hearing. In fact, just this week the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace revealed a sting operation it had conducted in which William Happer and another scientist-for-hire agreed to provide "reports" supporting the anti-science views of what they thought were fossil fuel lobbyists. This is, unfortunately, relatively routine practice for these lobbyist-associated "scientists."

The final scientist on the witness list was David Titley, a PhD in meteorological sciences and retired Admiral in the U.S. Navy. Titley was invited by the Democratic minority of the committee (the only witness the minority was allowed to invite). When he was in charge of the Navy's assessment of climate change, Titley found that man-made climate change was both a real scientific issue and a significant national security issue. As we move toward ice-free Arctic summers we are exposed to greater dangers from foreign forces. Unlike Curry and Christy, Titley's presentation was consistent with actual scientific data. Once again, he was the sole witness allowed to be called by the Democratic minority. [To put this in context, Democrats generally call scientists to climate hearings while Republicans have called fiction writer Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park); the fake Lord, politician, and right wing speaker-for-hire, Christopher Monckley; and a variety of other non-scientists and lobbyists.]

To put the emphasis on the charade of Senator Ted Cruz's hearing, the other witness was a guy by the name of Mark Steyn. Steyn is a Canadian shock jock, i.e., a right wing zealot akin to Rush Limbaugh. The fact that a bloviating right wing radio talk show host from Canada was a "witness" in a U.S. Senate hearing on climate change tells you all you need to know about the farce (and dishonesty) of Cruz's side show. A nice discussion of Steyn's involvement is given here by scientist Greg Laden.

To end, let's circle back around to the first sentence of this piece. Yes, there are some scientists and politicians who are dishonest. But this is a rarity. Virtually all scientists are honest and diligently work without fanfare trying to discover the truth about scientific issues. More than 100,000 scientific research papers have been published in thousands of peer-reviewed journals in the more than 100 years of scientific research related to climate change. When questions and conflicts in the data arise, scientists delve into them voraciously to determine what is what. That is how science works. Scientists are driven by the need to understand. Mostly you never hear about scientists because their work is published in scientific journals.

There are a very small number of scientists-for-hire. Most famous are people like Fred Singer, who has in turn been paid to be an "expert" in everything from smoking to acid rain to climate change, none of which he has any significant research expertise in. For decades Singer has carried the water for whatever lobbying organization was paying him, as the climate denial lobbying industry continues to do today. There are a few others who are paid to write reports that say what lobbyists want them to say (e.g., see the linked sting piece about William Happer above). And then there are a few who just like the notoriety (and financial gain) of being "contrarian." Again, this is a tiny number of scientists.

Hearings such as the one held by Ted Cruz this week are designed not to provide oversight or fact-finding; they are designed to showcase people like Cruz to keep his base energized with false indignation. Cruz is abusing the public trust and hurting his own constituents in Texas, all because he is running for president and wants his most zealous followers to vote for him. The fact that he knows he is being blatantly dishonest is immaterial to him, as is his violation of his oath of office. In this age of cynicism we've almost come to accept such dishonesty from certain politicians. That is a shame but a topic for another post.

The scientists who participate in the charade, on the other hand, must remind themselves they have an ethical obligation to seek the scientific truth. As mentioned before, there can be legitimate differences in interpretation of data. In fact, legitimate data that seem to contradict other data are always a source of excitement among scientists because it gives them something cool to study (which, by the way, completely invalidates the premise of Cruz's hearing). But knowingly ignoring 99% of the data and relying on the 1% of already debunked data to push a viewpoint you know to be specious is another matter altogether. Those rare scientists who do this need some soul searching.

Meanwhile, science moves on. Hundreds of new scientific papers are published each week that further our knowledge of man-made climate change. Those papers, and millions of empirical data points, overwhelmingly, unequivocally, and undeniably tell us that human activity is warming the climate and that substantive action is necessary to deal with that reality. And that is why every country in the world has been in Paris these two weeks - to find a solution.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

What You Need to Know About the Paris Climate Change Conference

Paris has been in the news a lot lately, but right now the big event is the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) presented by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Yes, it's a mouthful, so let's just call it the Paris Climate Change Conference (though COP21 works too).

This year's meeting is critical. Human activity has been significantly warming the climate of our planet. Action is necessary to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the carbon emissions causing this warming. The COP21 meeting of world leaders and their representatives is designed to reach a substantive agreement on how to do that.

It's not an easy task. The United States has created the majority of the global problem and remains the highest per capita emitter of carbon. Europe is also a historical high contributor. China was slower to catch up to our wasteful ways but in the last couple of years has surpassed the U.S. with annual emissions. Meanwhile, there are many developing and underdeveloped countries that had little to do with causing the problem (so far) but who could become net contributors if they "modernize" to our resource use levels. In any case, these non-contributor countries face much, if not most, of the impact. That means finding a solution has to take into consideration historical AND current AND future contributions to carbon emissions PLUS the disproportionate impacts on people who may not have received the benefits they are paying for in impact.

The need for a substantive agreement has become even more overt in recent years. We continue to see increasing global temperatures. All of the hottest years on record have come in the last 2 decades. 2015 is almost certainly going to blow past the heat record just set in 2014 (and with El Nino likely to hang around a while, 2016 may do the same). Mass migrations of refugees continue to result from climatic stress and the wars that are so often tied to fossil fuel acquisition. Sea levels continue to rise and the oceans continue to acidify. Arctic sea ice continues to shrink and the West Antarctic Ice Shelf has reached a point of no return on its breakup. As the climate continues to warm we can expect more severe extreme events, more droughts in some places and floods in others, and more mass migrations of refugees.

On a positive note, if there can be such a thing, the United States, China, India, Europe, and most of the world's other nations seem intent on reaching a workable and substantive agreement in Paris. There are huge challenges to be sure, but the will is there.

Exceptions, of course, include the Republican party in the United States who have actively worked against U.S. interests to a level bordering treason. The Republicans are seen as childish and buffoonish and backward by most of the world, which is ironic given how Republicans view themselves as "holier than thou" most of the time. It does appear, however, that the world is ignoring Republicans as they marginalize themselves and following the leadership of President Obama, who has managed to get commitments from previously slow-to-act parties such as China, industry, and the semi-developed states that are struggling to grow their economies but faced with the fact they can't do it the wasteful way the US, Europe and China has done.

Most heads of state have already made an appearance in Paris but the work of COP21 is still going on in earnest. There are several places you can follow the status of negotiations, including the UNFCCC website, the COP21 Information Hub, the Sustainable Innovation Forum website, and many news information articles

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Discussing Climate Change Over the Thanksgiving Turkey



Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving, along with Christmas, are a time for families and good cheer. And football. But they can also be a time of stress, especially if members of your family arriving from out of town hold divergent beliefs on politics, or religion, or climate change.

Unlike politics and religion, where differing opinions can each have validity, one can't have different opinions on the science of climate change. The science is based on, well, scientific study, published research that must go through peer-review to ensure basic validity and long-term scrutiny and testing by other scientists. Only the sum total of all of the scientific study defines the science. In many cases there isn't a clear-cut conclusion that can be drawn, which is why scientists are always doing more research and trying to identify yet another piece of the puzzle.

So when scientists finally do reach a consensus such as they have on climate change, that means the scientific data so overwhelmingly demonstrate "warming of the climate system is unequivocal" and humans are "the dominant cause of that warming" that the picture on the puzzle becomes undeniably clear, even if there are a still a few tiny pieces to put together.

There aren't two sides of this. There is the science, and there is the denial of the science.

Of course, people do choose to believe one thing or another, claiming that their lack of understanding, or something they read on a blog, is somehow equivalent to the entire body of science published by climate scientists. So how do you have that "science" conversation with a climate denier?

In short, I recommend you don't.

There is no value in a group of people who aren't scientists "discussing" science when understanding of the science is dwarfed by predefined conclusions and misinformation. It just isn't worth it.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and every other family get-together, should be about family. The time should be focused on catching up on the distant lives of visiting relatives, playing with the niece or nephew or grandchild you haven't seen before (or since last Thanksgiving).

That is what Thanksgiving is for. Be there for your family.

Happy Thanksgiving!

P.S. For those who desperately feel the need to ignore this advice, check out this article.


[Reposted from 2014 so we can enjoy the holiday with our families.]

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Book Review – Earth: The Operators’ Manual by Richard B. Alley



Richard Alley is a climate scientist.  While many may not have heard of him before, some will have seen him give a demonstration of the Earth’s tilt (and its relationship to climate change) in a House hearing last year.  Using his head, with his bald spot representing the North Pole, Alley schooled Republican Rep. Rohrabacher on historical climate science.  Alley uses the same humor and adroitness of analogy in Earth: The Operators’ Manual to give us an engaging look at our planet, the changes that are occurring, and options for moving forward.

The book is a companion to a PBS documentary, which I haven’t seen but plan to do so after reading this book. The book is divided in to three parts totaling 24 chapters.  The first part gives us a glimpse at how we have used energy over the millennia, how we have impacted the planet, and how we have moved from “peak trees” to “peak whale oil” to eventually (or even already), “peak fossil fuels.”  The second part gives us a dozen chapters that make it clear that human activity is changing our climate.  The third part focuses on options for non-fossil fuel energy sources.

Throughout, Alley’s whimsical side shows through, as does the ease at which he can communicate the science with apt analogies that all of us can understand. Who knew that climate was a bit like watching a kindergarten soccer game?  With climate, many factors appear to be kicking around randomly but then, eventually, there seems to be an order to the chaos.  As Alley takes us through the science it becomes undeniably clear that we are warming our planet.

While the first two sections may be the most entertaining, the final section is probably the most important part of the book.  Alley examines “the road to ten billion smiling people,” that is, the options we have to providing energy for our ever-growing global population.  Starting with toilets (I kid you not), he discusses the smart grid, solar and wind solutions, and pretty much everything else from hydroelectric to nuclear to geo-engineering.  Some seem more promising than others, and Alley largely believes that some combination of renewable energy sources are the likely future. 

Overall, I found the book interesting and definitely informative.  It’s a worthy read for anyone interested in the topic.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Book Review - Fire in the Turtle House: The Green Sea Turtle and the Fate of the Ocean by Osha Gray Davidson

Climate change has already shown impacts not only on the world's temperatures but on ocean acidification, sea level rise, and effects on plant and animal migration behaviors, among others. The Dake Page periodically reviews science-related books.It isn't clear whether the impacts noted in Fire in the Turtle House are related to climate change or some other cause, but it reflects how quickly disruptions can result in catastrophic impacts on wildlife. What follows is a short review of Fire in the Turtle House: The Green Sea Turtle and the Fate of the Ocean by Osha Gray Davidson.

The Turtle House is an area in the narrow channel separating Maui from the neighboring island of Moloka'i. Not surprisingly it is a haven for sea turtles, especially the green sea turtle that the locals call honu. And the honu are dying.

The book follows the search for the cause of rampant spread of the disease called FP, most notably characterized by the growth of tumors on the soft tissues of turtles. First noticed in the 1960s, proliferating in the 70s, and clearly epidemic by the 80s, FP has decimated green turtle populations in Hawai'i as well as in Florida. Davidson visits with the key researchers, examines the different investigations into the cause, and personalizes the scientific struggle to understand. In the end the answers are still uncertain, though viruses are clearly implicated, and dinoflagellate biotoxins, human-caused stresses from pollution and nutrient enrichment, and other factors also may be part of the complex genesis that spreads the disease.

Overall this book is well written. It does seem to veer off on tangents, such as stories about Stellar sea cows from a century before, Pfeisteria-based fish diseases, and other sidetracks that eventually are laced back into the turtle narrative with varying success. On a personal note, it was interesting to see mention of names like Archie Carr and Joanne Burkholder and others familiar to my own marine biology days.

One drawback to the book is that it was published in 2001 and thus is somewhat dated. It would be nice to know where the status of the investigation, and hopefully treatment, of FP stands now. Still, I would recommend this book for those who are interested in learning how science works in the complex real world, and how human factors can surreptitiously drive what appear to be nature impacts.

More science-related book reviews can be read here.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

How Climate Deniers Take Advantage of Science to Lie About Science

It's a recurring practice. A new climate study comes out and suddenly the internet is saturated with "reinterpretations" by climate deniers of what the study says. This is how climate denier lobbyists misrepresent, aka lie, about the science. The most recent is how they have lied about a new study released by NASA regarding mass gains in Antarctica.

Keep in mind that science is incremental. One study generally isn't meaningful by itself. Science is the compendium of all related studies. For example, one study may suggest that (under the conditions of the study) Antarctica is gaining more ice than it is losing while other studies show that West Antarctica may have gone into a state of irreversible retreat. That doesn't make any one study right or wrong, merely additional data points in the total understanding of the science. It's how science works.

A summary of this particular study being misrepresented can be found in NASA's press release. You can download the full study as a PDF file from this journal site. I highly recommend anyone wanting to understand the study read the actual paper because press releases often do a lousy job of communicating the science. Yes, I know, communicating the science is what press releases are designed to do, but my experience tells me that they  introduce confusion as often as they inform, in part because they report single studies and not the total science. I'll tackle that topic in another post.

The inadequacy of press releases for studies and the very nature of how science works results in opportunities for climate denier lobbyists to exploit uncertainties. And that is exactly what they do.

In this case we have information that may (or may not) contradict other information and the lobbyists pounced on it. As is their standard tactic, deniers take one point from the paper, fabricate an entire story line that fits their narrative, and put the false story line out on their paid lobbyist blog and media outlets. These lobbyists know that their false story will be plagiarized and repeated on every conspiracy and political blog by ideologues until the blogosphere is saturated with the false interpretation. That's how climate denial lobbyists work.

Greg Laden, a scientist who writes on Science Blogs, explains how the NASA study has been "misunderstood." [I think Greg is giving the blogosphere too much benefit of the doubt by using the term "misunderstood;" as the recent revelations about Exxon's knowledge decades ago that fossil fuels were causing climate change show, climate denial lobbyists know they are misrepresenting (i.e., lying about) the science. It's intentional.] That said, Greg notes that to begin with, the study may not be correct. While touted as "recent data" the data set used actually ended in 2008 so would miss the rapid ice loss of the last seven years. As Greg notes:

The last decade of research on Antarctica have shown, in many studies using a variety of techniques, that Antarctica is contributing to sea level rise. They have also shown that the rate of melting in Antarctic is probably increasing. Even more importantly, they have indicated that certain areas of Antarctic are current in a state of instability, suggesting that the rate of contribution of the southern continent’s ice mass to sea level rise may increase abruptly in the near future.


So the study, like all studies, needs to be placed into context with the state of the science. Deniers never do that; they cherry pick what they like and make believe all the rest of the science doesn't exist. This tactic is so prevalent in climate denial that the lead scientist of the study even predicted that climate deniers would misrepresent his work, which is exactly what they did, as reported in the above linked article:
"I know some of the climate deniers will jump on this," but "it should not take away from the concern about climate warming."

The first lesson here is that it isn't appropriate to take one study and assume it represents the total state of the science. Science is the sum total of all the relevant studies. The second lesson is that the climate denial lobbyists knowingly and willfully misrepresent single studies and then draw global "state of the science" conclusions that are inconsistent with the sum total of all the science.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Role of Climate Change in the 2016 Elections


As the 2016 presidential election in the United States gathers steam, the candidate debates show that climate change can play a significant role. Well, depending on which debates you watch.

The sole Democratic debate so far included a brief, but substantive, discussion on climate change. Each of the Democratic candidates noted that they will actively address the problem when elected. Not surprisingly, climate change has been largely ignored in the three Republican debates. Why? Because the entire Republican party has made a decision to deny the science, largely because any honest discussion of policy action could impact their corporate benefactors. Republicans are actively trying to sabotage American interests. In last night's "undercard" debate (called by some the Junior Varsity or Baby debate), the subject of climate change only came up because Lindsey Graham was asked to defend his contrary (to the party) position, i.e., why is he the only Republican willing to admit what scientists have demonstrated unequivocally...that man-made climate change is a significant issue that needs to be addressed.

Much has been said in recent days about another Republican who has more or less admitted the science. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire, says she will back the President's Clean Power Plan, a set of EPA rules aimed at reducing carbon emissions from power plants. Environmentalists and "No Labels" types are bending over backwards to encourage her and others. Which is a good thing.

It's also a bad thing. Ayotte bills herself as a staunch conservative and would not be coming out in support of the CPP except for the fact that she faces a stiff challenge for reelection from current New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan. While it's nice to get a Republican to voice their support for anything, we have to acknowledge that had she not done polling that shows she would lose her seat, she would be just as adamantly and dishonestly against the CPP as every other Republican. The Republican Senate leadership has given her permission to "support" CPP only because they don't want to lose her seat. Should she retain it, she will ditch any pretense of support and vote against the CPP just as she is told by Republican leaders. 

So she isn't really supporting it at all; she's miming the words to get reelected. 

Unfortunately, this is how Washington works. Congress knows that people have infamously short memories. This is why politicians can say things one day that contradict what they said the other day without fear the voting populace will even notice. A good sound bite is better than an actual set of principles. That sounds cynical, but it's reality.

What Ayotte's lip service does show, however, is that climate change can play an important role in the 2016 election. The fact that a Republican has to "go against" her party to admit even the most basic scientific reality says a lot about the Republican party, and the power of the climate change issue to encourage dealing with that reality. As mentioned above, this isn't real support by Ayotte, merely a politically expedient maneuver to trick New Hampshire citizens, but if enough of the populace requires all of their representatives to engage in honest discussion of policy options to address the reality of climate change, well, public opinion can move mountains.

The discrepancies between the parties should also play a much more important role once the nominees are selected. In the party vs. party debates, the Democratic nominee will present their view of how to deal with the science, while the Republican nominee will be forced to either defend the denial of science or explain the incredulous flipflop of "accepting" the science and proposing a solution.

We already have seen this in action. Soon after President Obama took office there was a discussion of climate change policy. Democrats offered a carbon tax proposal, Republicans offered a market-based "cap-and-trade" proposal. Democrats were convinced the only way to get a viable bill was to adopt the Republican "cap-and-trade" proposal. Once accepted, the Republicans then turned on their own market-based proposal. They vehemently argued their own proposal was some sort of socialist takeover. Yes, their own proposal, put forth as a market-based solution, was now being attacked by themselves as "cap-and-tax." Their own market-based proposal. And the Republican voting populace seemed not to notice. [See "infamously short memory" above]

So we see how powerful this issue can become in 2016. Republicans will not only have to defend their denial of science, they will have to defend their attacks on their own market-based plan. Meanwhile, the Democratic candidate can 1) showcase the dishonesty of the Republican history on the issue, and 2) offer up additional policy options that expand on the actions already achieved under President Obama. Most of the world's nations have already issued their commitments for the upcoming agreement to be signed in Paris in December. That will be in place prior to the next President taking the oath of office. It will be hard for a Republican to defend reneging on our commitments to ourselves and world, no matter how much money the Koch's and fossil fuel companies spend on candidates.

And that's why climate change is so important in this election.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Book Review – Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels

Given the recent revelations that Exxon knew how fossil fuels caused man-made climate change decades ago, then hid it, the following review of Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, by David Michaels, is timely.

"Doubt is our product” is how a tobacco company executive once described the industry’s attempt to hide the fact that smoking cigarettes caused lung cancer and related diseases. And that is the theme that David Michaels uses throughout his book. He argues rather persuasively that the tactic of denying the science first perfected by the tobacco companies has been used over and over again by other industries. The goal – to protect profits and avoid litigation liability from exposing people to dangerous chemicals and other practices.

The book is replete with case studies and examples, many from his personal experience as an epidemiologist and a former Assistant Secretary of Energy responsible for protecting the health and safety of workers, neighboring communities, and the environment surrounding the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities. He talks about problems with lead and children, workplace cancers from beryllium, “popcorn lung” destruction from diacetyl, secondhand smoke, asbestos, chromium, vinyl chloride in plastics, diet drugs fen-phen, Vioxx, and nuclear radiation, among others. In each case the responsible industry delayed action and avoided taking responsibility while the regulators were hamstrung by a combination of insufficient authority, political unwillingness, and nearly always deficient resources.

Throughout the case studies Michaels also discusses some of the tactics and strategies used by industry to keep from being regulated. While he only gives a passing mention of climate change, the tactics he describes in this 2008 book are clearly evident in this new opportunity for delay. I’m familiar with most of the cases he mentions, some quite intimately and others less so, but I learned quite a bit more about the behind the scenes high jinks that frankly I found a bit startling. As the title suggests, the primary tactic is “create doubt,” otherwise known as “highlight the uncertainty.” Science can never be fully certain because there is always another question that can be asked. Industry has exploited this by emphasizing any uncertainty so that no regulatory decision can be made. One common method is to employ “reanalysis.” That is, get the raw data from a study that is adverse to your position, then reanalyze it over and over, changing assumptions and conditions, enough to get a different conclusion, which then can be used to cast doubt. If reanalysis doesn’t do it, then conduct a new study, often designed specifically to create conflicting data, so again there is uncertainty. Call whatever industry does “sound science” (a term invented by the lobbying firm Hill and Knowlton for the tobacco industry) and call whatever regulators do “junk science” (a term made famous by long-time industry propagandist Steven Milloy, who of course got his start from the tobacco industry).

There is much more, of course. The book is extremely well documented, with many pages of end notes. Michaels is himself a former regulator and so experienced many of his case studies first hand. For those who are not familiar with the history of industry-created doubt, the book will be a real eye-opener. Unfortunately, I found it all too familiar.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Climate Change at the Democratic Debate

Well, at least it was mentioned. That's my take on the level of discussion of man-made climate change in the most recent Democratic debate held the other night. It's also more than can be said for the two Republican debates so far (and likely, ever).

Reaction to the "climate portion" of the Democratic debate has been mixed. One blog's headlline screams breathlessly, "Climate change features heavily in the Democratic debate."

"a major focus was how to respond to climate change, with acceptance that it's actually happening shared by all the debaters. Four of the candidates—Lincoln Chafee, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley—all made acting on climate change part of their opening statements. Sanders and O'Malley both named it as one of the leading national security threats. And, when asked which group he was most proud of angering, Chaffee responded with, "I guess the coal lobby.""

Other outlets also tout the inclusion of the topic in the debate. Andrew Winston in the Huffington Post noted that "CNN let a voter ask the question, 'What would you do about climate change?'" and concluded "the range of answers was telling." I'm not sure how "telling" it was beyond acknowledging they all agree that man-made climate change is a real issue that must be addressed.

More telling was how CNN seemed to only grudgingly include the topic at all. David Roberts on Vox observed:
"Who finally got to ask the question? Just as CNN had a Latino anchor ask about immigration, a woman anchor ask about paid leave, and an African-American kid as whether black lives matter, it gave the climate question over to Anna, a young white woman who looked every bit the liberal arts student. That, you see, is a 'climate person.'"
And herein lies the problem. Unlike Fox News, which makes no pretense about being the communication/lobbying arm of the Republican Party, CNN likes to think of itself as an honest broker. Clearly they are better than the more openly partisan networks, but by choosing to limit the opportunity for climate discussion, and by the thinly-veiled stereotyping of all of their questioning, they are being just as biased in their reporting.

It's within these confines that the candidates who spoke about climate deserve major credit for inserting it into the debate despite CNN. With the exception of former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, all of the candidates made it clear they consider man-made climate change a "big f***ng deal" (who paraphrase Vice-President Joe Biden, who was not at the debate). This is a good thing because it provides a clear differentiation between Democrats and Republicans (one of many). Republicans deny climate change to avoid making hard decisions; Democrats acknowledge it and prepare to make hard decisions.

I've argued before for separate debates on specific issues, or at least keeping to a single issue for 30 minutes or so (and limited a 90-minute debate to a maximum 2-3 issues). ScienceDebate.org has worked hard to have a science-specific debate to include not only climate change but other science-based issues and misconceptions like vaccines, GMOs, and others. Clearly there is a need for candidates for the highest political office to both acknowledge and have a basic understanding of the scientific and technological challenges that impact national security, the economy, civil rights, education and every other facet of modern life. The public wants it. And we all need it.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

American Public Wants Science Debates, With a Caveat

A new poll out concludes that "an overwhelming majority of Americans (87%) say it is important that candidates for President and Congress have a basic understanding of the science informing public policy issues." This belief is bipartisan, with both Democratic and Republican voters (as well as Independents) agreeing that in our modern age science has a large and necessary role in making policy. But there are some caveats.

The poll was commissioned by ResearchAmerica (a polling organization) and ScienceDebate.org (a non-profit organization). Analysis of the data collected from over 1000 U.S. adults was done by Zogby Analytics.

Results show a clear desire by the American public for presidential candidates and members of Congress to include science in their decision-making. You can see a PDF of the summary slides at this URL. (Be sure to scroll down to see all the graphs and tables.) There are a few take-away lessons from the poll.

First, a vast majority of the public believe that public policy must be based on the best available science.






The public also believes that candidates should be required to have a basic understanding of the science necessary to govern:




And that majority is (somewhat) non-partisan, with Democrats, Republicans, and even Independents agreeing that basic science understanding is important.





As the graph above shows, Democrats are somewhat more likely to believe science understanding is necessary (92% [very + somewhat important]) than Republicans (90%) and Independents (79%). These trends are reflected in most of the other graphs in the study. (see PDF for full results).

What does this all mean?

The main messages from the poll are that Americans believe science is important, that it should inform policy decisions, and that the presidential and congressional candidates have an obligation to have at least a basic understanding of the relevant science needed for decision-making. These beliefs are held across all Americans no matter what their party affiliation.

At least that is what they say.

The reality is much more revealing. While the vast majority of the public proclaims that public policies should be based on the best available science (77%), less than half of that same public (45%) believe they are even somewhat informed about the positions of the candidates on science.

Furthermore, what people are saying in response to poll questions doesn't appear to accurately reflect their voting habits. In the poll, strong majorities of both Republicans and Democrats say they believe in science and that candidates should too, but that clearly isn't the case in real life. For example, all the Republican candidates for President have repeatedly and aggressively touted their disdain for climate science, offering up various forms of denial as a matter of course. Even those who previously supported action and whose home states are most at risk (e.g., Florida, Louisiana, New York, California) have denied the science. And yet they lead the polls. Clearly Republican voters answer questions differently than they demand from their candidates.

One note about the "Independents." In many of the bar graphs splitting out responses by party, Independents often show less support for science than Republicans. At first this would appear counter-intuitive, but it reflects a change in how people identify themselves. In the past, "Independents" were generally the more moderate voters who didn't wholesale identify with either the Democratic or Republican parties, and may vote either way depending on the candidates. Today the number of voters who fit this description is shrinking. In our hyperpartisan era, a growing percentage of self-identified "Independents" are actually the more extreme wings of the two parties. They may be "tea partiers" and libertarians who believe the Republican party is too moderate (yes, you read that correctly). The mainstream party to these people are RINO (Republican in Name Only), and so they identify themselves as "Independent" even though the chances of them ever voting for Democratic candidates are close to nil. To a much lesser extent, "Independents" may also include the more extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party (who disdain DINOs), or the anti-science folks such as anti-vaxxers. While those on the extreme wing represent a small percentage of the Democratic party and their wackier views are generally not incorporated into the Democratic platform, the extreme wing of the Republican party now IS the Republican party, with its most egregiously extreme anti-science views driving the entire platform and actions of the party. [For a good review of the political state of affairs, check out Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein's book It's Even Worse Than it Looks.]

What should we do about it?

While in the responses to the poll questions Americans say they want science, they also admit to not really understanding science; continue to be misinformed about climate science, GMOs, vaccines, and other science important for decision-making; and about half the country overwhelmingly supports candidates who fundamentally deny even basic scientific principles. Some of this can be attributed to the extreme partisanship evident in today's politics, as evidenced by Republicans viciously attacking their own policy proposals as soon as President Obama and the Democrats agree to them. But some of it is because the majority of Americans don't even know the candidates views on science-based policy initiatives.



Americans strongly agree that presidential candidates should be required to participate in a science-based debate. At least 86% of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed with this proposal. ScienceDebate.org (one of the organizations that commissioned the independent poll) has worked hard to have candidates participate (see here for more information of past participation). Candidates would have a chance to present their proposals for addressing policy needs presented by such issues as climate change that are inherently based on science. The public would then be able to make informed choices.



Finally, as the above graph shows, Americans overwhelmingly believe that scientists should engage directly with the public and inform elected officials about scientific research that impacts decision-making. This has been a theme for The Dake Page for a long time.

It's time for a Science Debate.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Flight Behavior - Communicating Science Through Fiction

Periodically I review books that have a science or science communication flavor. As might be expected, these normally are non-fiction books. This week I'm reviewing a fiction book called Flight Behavior, which touches not only on the science but on communication of science, especially when local beliefs are predisposed to deny that science.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

I can relate to Ovid Byron. He is the scientist in Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, which I can say is one of the most extraordinary books I've read in a long time.

Byron isn't the main character. That would be Dellarobia Turnbow, a farmer's wife trying to make ends meet at the Tennessee end of Appalachia. Kingsolver successfully integrates valuable insights into marriage, country life, sheep-raising, and religion with the extraordinary ecology of Monarch butterflies thrust into potential extinction by the changing forces of climate. All in a storyline that keeps you devouring one page after another.

As an ecological scientist myself, I was fascinated by the interweaving of real scientific study with the evolving lives of the people simply trying to raise their kids and put food on the table. This interweaving is what makes the book so valuable.

And valuable it is as an example of science communication. That isn't necessarily Kingsolver's goal, but she succeeds in communicating the science of the butterflies in language most scientists rarely achieve, and much more effectively. She captures the thought processes and priorities that influence how people take in new information, especially information they find uncomfortable or disruptive to their lifestyle. 

At one point late in the book Kingsolver has a character relate the problems of communicating information when that informaiton comes from "outsiders." This is best summed up in one quote:

"The key thing is, once you're talking identity, you can't just lecture that out of people. The condescension of outsiders won't diminish it. That just galvanizes it."

Scientists would do well to read and understand the writing in this book as they strive to communicate man-made climate change and other scientific issues to the public. 

While my review above is biased toward the scientific element, the book also works incredibly well as a relationship story...and a family story...and a community story. 

I most highly recommend the book for all readers.