Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Review - The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won't Tell You About Global Warming, by Roger Pielke, Jr.

Since the Pielke's (father and son) are often in the climate discussion news, I figured this would be a good book review to post here.  That said, the book is primarily for policy wonks and not so much for the general public. Pielke, Jr. is a well known political science professor and blogger who often blogs on climate change issues. His father, Roger Pielke, Sr., is a renowned climate scientist, so while Pielke, Jr. is not a climate scientist per se, he does bring considerable insight garnered from years of interaction with his father and his own career that includes working as a student assistant at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, the title is a misnomer since the book doesn't actually offer a "fix" to man-made climate change. If it were that easy there would be no need for his book. The publisher's subtitle "What scientists and politicians won't tell you about global warming" is unfortunate, because it attempts to create a controversy where there really is none.  Publishers do that to sell books.  Beyond that distraction, the book is generally well-written and focuses in on the real problem - what policy options do we have to deal with climate change. This point in itself is important as Pielke, Jr. acknowledges up front the scientific consensus that climate change is happening, that human activity is the primary reason, and that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are major factors in the warming of the planet. That scientific point put aside, he focuses the majority of the book on policy.

The author spends a lot of time talking about decarbonization policies around the world, what has worked and what has not worked, and his views as to why. Pielke discusses the concept of an "iron law of climate policy," which essentially acknowledges that any policy that might be construed to cause short-term adverse economic impact cannot be implemented. Needless to say, this creates a significant barrier to policy action. Here also, in my opinion, is revealed one weakness of the book, as he tends not to discuss how certain protectors of the status quo take advantage of this "iron law" to create false understanding of the potential for such adverse economic impact. This follows along with the few places where Pielke digresses from policy to find fault with scientists' not being perfect but overlooks the intentional disinformation campaigns of the denialist community.

But those are minor quibbles in what I would consider a very worthwhile book. Pielke explores in great detail the trials and tribulations of various economic policy options, and addresses the limitations of geoengineering as a long-term adaptation alternative. He also discusses his view of "how climate policy went off course." Some of what he says I do not agree with, and some of what he says I agree with wholeheartedly, but in both cases he addresses the issues thoughtfully and honestly (though not without his own bias). Perhaps the most important contribution of this book is how he communicates the difficulties that stand in the way of taking much needed policy action. While he clearly doesn't offer a "climate fix," anyone interested in finding a policy path forward, and is wonkish enough to get into the details, will find Pielke's book an informative view of the issues. For scientists and the general public, I would recommend Pielke's earlier book, The Honest Broker.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Even Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are Affected by Climate Change

I have spoken about the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in the past.  The Convention is an international effort to reduce emissions of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).  But now a new report of the UNEP/AMAP expert group,‘’Climate change and POPs: Predicting the Impacts,’’"provides a comprehensive view of the complex inter-linkages between climate and POPs."

The report suggests that rising temperatures could result in increased emissions from both primary and secondary sources of POPs.  This would have the effect of offsetting some of the efforts undertaken to reduce emissions under the convention.  In other words, take away all the gains made to eliminate POPs in the environment.  Because one of the major factors important in classifying POPs is their ability to transport long ranges, e.g., emissions in Italy end up in polar bears in the Arctic, changes to the overall climate could impact atmospheric and oceanic transport of these very persistent and often bioaccumulative environmental pollutants. Melting of both land and sea ice could further impact distribution.  And since many POPs build up in the fat reserves of Arctic animals like bears, whales and fish, disruptions in normal feeding patterns could result in re-mobilizing the chemicals into metabolic pathways, with toxic effects.

The report concludes that there is the potential for significant climate-induced changes in relation to future releases of POPs into the environment, their long-range transport and environmental fate, and human and environmental exposure, and "subsequently leading to higher health risks for both human populations and the environment."

The report can be downloaded by chapter or as a full report in PDF format:

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

US Chemical Makers to Seek Authorization for Continued European Use of Phthalates Under REACH Regulation

As noted previously the European Commission has announced that "six substances of very high concern will be banned within the next three to five years unless an authorisation has been granted to individual companies for their use." Three of these substances (DBP, BBP, and DEHP) fall into a general category called phthalates and now a major US trade association has indicated that phthalate manufacturers they represent will file applications for authorization to continued use in "important medical applications."  According to Steve Risotto, Phthalate Esters Panel, quoted in the American Chemical Council (ACC) statement:
"There is a large body of scientific information and a number of government safety assessments in the U.S. and abroad that give the manufacturers of these three phthalates confidence that their products are being used safely. In fact, phthalates are one of the most extensively studied groups of chemical compounds in the world." 
US manufacturers "will work with European regulatory authorities" (primarily the European Chemicals Agency, ECHA, in Finland) to "submit all the necessary data and seek approval for the continued use of these substances."  Without authorization, use of all six of the substances of very high concern (SVHC) will cease at their sunset dates in either 2014 or 2015. According to ECHA, these SVHCs are "are carcinogenic, toxic for reproduction or persist in the environment and accumulate in living organisms."

More information on phthalates can be found on the Phthalates Wikipedia page or ACC's Phthalate Esters Panel web page.  For contrasting information from an NGO activist organization, the Environmental Working Group also has a Phthalate web page.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

ECHA Says - Time to Start Preparing Chemical Authorization Applications Under REACH

I mentioned last week that the European Commission had formally published the first six chemical substances onto Annex XIV of REACH, the Registration Evaluation and Authorization (and Restriction) of CHemicals regulation in Europe.  Now ECHA, the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki, Finland, is telling companies that manufacture those six chemicals that the time is now to start preparing their authorization applications if they want to save some uses of those chemicals for a period of time beyond the assigned "sunset" dates.  Authorization would only be for specific uses and for specific periods of time, though renewals are possible.

Applications can be pretty comprehensive.  They require a full Chemical Safety Report, which summarizes the health and safety hazard data, the exposure potential for all uses, and demonstrates how the risk will be controlled for specific uses.  In addition, companies have to provide a "alternatives analysis," i.e, an analysis of existing or potential chemicals of lower risk that can be substituted for the Annex XIV listed "substances of very high concern (SVHC)."  For chemicals in which no alternative appears to be available, the companies requesting authorization must describe a plan for how they (or someone else) might develop an alternative. Companies can also provide a socioeconomic assessment (SEA) in which they quantify the societal benefit of the chemical substance, or the loss of such benefit should it be removed from the market with no suitable alternative.

Since it is likely that a particular chemical substance would have more than one manufacturer, authorization applications may be made both by individual companies and by groups of companies.  An authorization fee would be charged to cover the costs of the ECHA review. 

To facilitate the preparation of the application ECHA has recently published two new guidance documents.  The first "explains how to prepare an application for authorisation, the analysis of alternatives and the substitution plan."  The second "shows how to prepare a socio-economic analysis if the risks of the continued use of the substance cannot be adequately controlled."  Both documents can be downloaded here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

House Republicans Vote to Repeal Climate Science Funding

In a vote held just before 2 am ET, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted Saturday to eliminate the United States' contribution to funding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  The final vote on the amendment was 244-179 on an essentially party line split.  The vote is disturbing to scientists because the basis for it, as presented by its sponsor, Republican Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer (MO-9) was contrary to established fact and science.

Rep. Luetkemeyer argued that the IPCC is "fraught with waste and fraud, and engaged in dubious science," though these arguments have largely been shown to be both false and specious.  Luetkemeyer also cited a list of "more than 700 acclaimed international scientists have challenged the claims made by the IPCC, in this comprehensive 740-page report."  The report is the list of quotes and abstracts compiled by Marc Morano (a lobbyist funded non-scientist) when he worked for James Inhofe during Inhofe's previous chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  While some of the scientists listed are in fact acclaimed, mostly they are in completely separate fields of study and have never done any climate research.  Others are not scientists at all.  And many of the quotes and abstracts have been edited to suggest positions many of the scientists say they do not hold.  Rep. Luetkemeyer also cites an opinion by "famed Princeton University physicist Dr. Robert Austin, who has published 170 scientific papers and was elected a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences."  It's unclear why Luetkemeyer believes Dr. Austin's opinion holds more sway than active climate researchers that are also members of the National Academy of Sciences and have similar publication records, given that Dr. Austin works in a completely different field of science and has never done any climate science research.  Meanwhile, actual climate scientists with thousands of scientific papers in climate science are dismissed by Luetkemeyer as less capable and/or trustworthy.

Luetemeyer also cited the 2009 "climategate" emails in which more than 1000 emails dating back 13 years were stolen from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit in the UK. Again, Rep. Luetemeyer suggests that the emails indicate foul play on the part of scientists, despite the fact that at least five separate investigations have debunked that contention as utterly false.  In fact, the investigations showed that climate scientists had worked with great diligence and that the anti-science accusers had cherry picked and intentionally misinterpreted selected passages out of context to misrepresent what was said.

While Luetemeyer and his fellow House Republicans vote to defund our portion of the IPCC commitment (note that he also misrepresents the actual funding amount), the US National Academy of Sciences has recently said that:
"...the compelling case that climate change is occurring and is caused in large part by human activities is based on a strong, credible body of evidence."
NASA, NOAA and the World Meteorological Organization, along with all the major Academies of Sciences around the world and all major relevant scientific organizations, all concur that the climate is changing and that human activity is the cause.  The science that led to this conclusion is robust and voluminous. 

But apparently the Republican Congress thinks they know better than climate scientists and can overrule basic atmospheric physics going back through more than 200 years of understanding.  Ironically, a group of scientists recently wrote a letter to Congress asking it to avoid inserting politics into science.  The letter "emphasizes the importance of truly understanding the science of climate change, and stresses the need to prevent political ideology from clouding our scientific understanding of how climate change is impacting our way of life." 

It remains to be seen whether the Senate will follow suit in denying scientific funding, or whether any such amendment would survive the conference committee reconciliation of the separate House and Senate appropriations bills.