Sunday, December 19, 2010

Thinksee Nosebetter and Cold Snaps

As winter takes hold in the Northern Hemisphere, we can count on many of those in denial about climate change to re-emerge after a summer of ignoring hot weather extremes to cite local cold weather as supposedly evidence against climate change. It is a Thinksee Nosebetter special, fully lacking any semblance of critical thinking - if it is "cold" somewhere, how can there be global warming?

It is worth pointing out first that "cold" is a relative and inexact term and that snow does not equal "cold". In many areas increases in heavy snowfall events are an expected consequence of global warming due to increased moisture in the air. And global warming does not mean there is no more winter or that everywhere always has sweltering heat going on. There will still be winter and cold, but in general averages will creep higher and warm extremes will become increasingly more common as cold extremes become less common.

Of course the main point I have made and will continue to make is that local and even regional cool spells over the course of weeks and even a season do not at all preclude a long-term worldwide shift toward a warmer climate. It is wrong to look at the relatively strong North Dakota economy of the past couple years and assume that the national and global economy must be fine too.

If you look around you can find plenty of individuals doing quite well in this down economy. Some, like a foreclosure specialist, may be doing well exactly because the overall economy is not doing well.

Similarly some of the current news-making cold outbreaks, particularly across Europe, may very well be due to global warming. This is the point where Thinksee Nosebetter tunes out and refuses to listen further because of a desire to believe that snow in England is not just a result of an unusual atmospheric circulation pattern but justifies denial of climate science.

It should be noted that at least for this past November in the non-tropical Northern Hemisphere besides northern Europe and part of western North America most other areas had above normal temperatures, and in many areas well above normal. What those maps of November temperature illustrate is that the hemisphere was warmer than normal overall because of the prevalence of warm anomalies. But some areas were under cooler temperature regimes basically because of a redistribution of air masses from the average configuration. The noted coldness across Europe is part of the other side of the coin of the extreme warmth in many other areas in the Northern Hemisphere.

For further more thorough explanation of the science behind the theorizing of how the warming world is helping drive cold winter weather in some areas I point to RealCimate. In short, the decreasing Arctic sea ice as a result of general warming may be driving circulation anomalies sending colder weather over some areas. Where there had been more sea ice and now there is less, more warmth is coming from the ocean into the atmosphere, and that warmth leads to rather persistent changes in the flow of air masses and weather patterns across a much larger area.

More simply, it is not as cold overall, but some of the cold has been shifted around to places that usually do not experience it.

There remains much to be learned about how and to what extent some people may experience cold spells systematically because of global warming. But certainly everyone will still at least occasionally experience cold weather due to random fluctuations in weather. Only the foolish and ignorant of climate science think those instances disprove that the climate is warming.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Arsenic and New Life

Last week there was quite the hubbub (for a science story) over the reported discovery of life in a form unlike ever seen before. Specifically it was said that microbes were found that can use arsenic in place of phosphorus in its molecular structures.

I bring up this issue here because it provides a good demonstration of why one should not get carried away with some isolated, new, hyped tidbit that supposedly overturns much established understanding. Unfortunately those inclined toward disbelieving climate science do that rather frequently. Some people will trumpet whatever they think implies that global warming is not real, not driven by human activities, not really a problem, etc.

The first problem is that uninformed hype, speculation and reading only headlines can give a very false impression. This "arsenic life" report is nothing out-of-this-world, and similarly often what some people think is or is being sold as evidence against climate change is anything but.

The bigger issue is that discoveries that purport to overturn what had been considered well-understood often do not actually pan out. In the case of the "arsenic life" it looks like the evidence is actually very weak. Continually there are unwarranted bleats of, 'Look at this - it proves global warming is no worry!' Even with the information is not being misinterpreted by non-experts, the support for such foundation-shaking claims regularly falls apart.

There is nothing wrong with scientific claims that would change our thinking nor that those usually fizzle out. That is all part of how science works. For any number of reasons subsequent work, study, and research typically shows scientists with a new idea just got it wrong. It is quite rare that the many scientists working for many years are wrong and the small number reporting a new finding a right.

Though it looks unlikely, this "arsenic life" claim may hold up with time and not be shot down. For now though the prudent approach is to hold a skeptical view of the claim. The evidence has potential serious flaws, and it would be a rather shocking discovery. Likewise, the prudent view on climate change is not to think that decades of research by thousands of individuals has not been fundamentally offbase while a few naysayers have it right. That, not blanket disbelief, marks true skepticism. Science will continue to hone our knowledge. Perhaps we will find those naysayers have it right, and somehow everyone else has long been wrong. But the overwhelming weight of the current evidence gives no real reason to assume that.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Unfortunately today we got to see again the figurative blinding dollar signs in the eyes of the Herald at the prospect of even more oil in the region. Climate science denier Harold Hamm says "jump", and the Herald says, "how high? how many times? anything else we can get for you?"

An oilman (actually not just any oilman, but "the billionaire oilman from Oklahoma whose company runs more rigs in North Dakota than any other") says there is more oil in the region than the U.S. Geological Survey said a couple years ago. So suddenly we need to rush to make another reassessment. Strangely though, when climate scientists continually confirm the reality of climate change and highlight the threats we face now and over the next few generations, there is no call for action from the Herald. Hmmm, I wonder if it could be because one says, "We can all be rich, I tell ya, rich!" (yay!), and the other says that we have to face the consequence of our corner-cutting actions and be willing to pay the price of maintaining a livable climate (*yawn*).

What made news here on the climate front today was North Dakota's (or at least Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's) hope that the state would not have to spend the remaining 80% of the $500,000 set aside for suing Minnesota over their measure to include the cost of carbon pollution in its energy bills. The desire is that Minnesota move back to ignoring the cost of carbon pollution, and the belief is that perhaps the increase in Republican numbers in their state legislature will lead to that happening.

If only there was real news right now about actually dealing with climate change...

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Chamber of Commerce talks the talk, almost

For certain the Chamber of Commerce has earned the scorn directed toward it for trying to dispute climate science and reflexively opposing action to decrease greenhouse gas emissions with complaints that doing so would cripple business and destroy the economy.

Imagine then my reaction when I read a statement from the Chamber in a McClatchy Newspapers story in the Herald today.
The U.S. Chamber is encouraging the entire business community not just to calculate the cost of specific ... reduction proposals to their individual companies, but to weigh the long-term costs to our country, our economy, and future generations if we fail to act. All solutions will require shared sacrifices and we must be prepared to make them.


Except you may have noticed the ellipsis in the quote above. As much as I might like it to have been "greenhouse gas emissions", what has been removed is the word "deficit", as in the difference between budget expenditures and collections. The quote is in reaction to the deficit reduction commission chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, which in many quarters is being viewed as mostly a sop to business interests and supply-side economics supporters.

The Chamber is still not showing any genuine signs of interest in weighing long-term costs nor shared sacrifices. The Bowles-Simpson plan talks about lowering corporate tax rates, so the Chamber is interested since that may mean a relatively quick buck. There are initial costs to transitioning away from dirty energy, and the Chamber fears losing a buck. If the Chamber cared about investing in the long-term they would support efforts to build a sustainable, green energy economy. So how about it, Chamber?

Monday, November 15, 2010

The spectre of the rising seas in our own backyard

(I actually had this largely written before it came out, but the recent New York Times front page treatment of this science motivated me to wrap it up and deserves mention. Though it is not perfect, for a media article it is very good.)

One problem trying to explain the threat of climate change to residents of an area like the Red River Valley is that some may simplistically think something like, 'hey, a little warmer here sounds pretty good.' There are a wide range of counter-responses to that ranging from how that warming will adversely affect agriculture, how that is not considering changes to precipitation, that without action against it most assuredly it will not stop with merely 'a little warming', etc.

Some people may grasp the negative local effects but not appreciate impacts they would not see or feel in their backyards yet nonetheless would matter. Though there is familiarity with seasonal rises of rivers, one thing North Dakotans certainly do not have to worry about directly is rising sea levels. So one can worry that by the out-of-sight/out-of-mind principle folks around here may not give much consideration to rising sea level among the threats of climate change. The experience fighting river flooding here may even make people dismissive of that threat, thinking that the problem can be easily overcome by putting up some levees, dykes, and walls.

The rising of Devils Lake over the last couple decades gives a local illustration of what rising sea level will look like. That costly picture may help motivate people to try to avoid making the problem much worse that to what we are already committed. To be clear, I am only comparing the effects of the rising levels of the oceans and of Devils Lake. I am not comparing their causes nor saying that Devils Lake is rising because of global warming. But I am also not saying that climate change is not a factor - I am simply ignoring here the causes for the rise of Devils Lake.

A factor in dealing with any mess is having the things done in response be effective and minimizing their negative repercussions. With rising seas pumps are not going to be effective for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the lack of somewhere you could pump ocean water to "get rid" of it. Pumping water away is a response that has been used at Devils Lake, but that has issues with effectiveness (to say nothing of cost-effectiveness) and resulting water quality concerns due to the discharged water. That is just an example of how a seemingly simple answer may not actually be of much good.

The seemingly simple answer for many people on rising sea level again may be levees, dykes, and walls. After all, the Dutch are doing it. There are plenty of problems with the physical practicality of attempting that. Protecting New Orleans or the Netherlands is one thing, but doing that all across the world is another thing, or rather, like the same thing times a thousand. Though efforts may be made to protect many urban areas, not everywhere could be protected and maintained. Maybe you do not care much about Maldives, Bangladesh, or coastal wetlands like southern Louisiana. Yet the combination of what we do and what we do not do will have an extremely high monetary cost, not even mentioning other social and environmental costs.

Over the past 17 years about $700 million dollars have gone toward dealing with the rise of Devils Lake, and that problem is hardly resolved. Now imagine having to spend like that across just the US where people live near the coast. Hardly seems like what a country currently paranoid about too much spending and expensive future obligations would want to deal with.

The costs of inaction are exceedingly high. If we do not simply let Devils Lake overrun whatever in order to save money, obviously we are not going to give up on wide swaths of oceanfront property. Here is a good summary of the situation facing one area in particular, Florida. Conceding ground costs real estate and other pistons of the economic engine such as tourism and recreation in Florida. Also it makes the threat of storms much more severe. At Devils Lake it is when the wind whips up that damaging water is even more sloshed around. Yet spending on walls, sand pumping, moving infrastructure, etc is not cheap. The $7 million for a new Minnewauken school is a drop in the bucket compared to protecting and moving much of, say, Miami.

It cannot be forgotten that protection against rising seas will surely not be 100% successful all of the time, especially in the face of storms which may be packing increasing punches in our warming world. One needs only look as far as New Orleans during Katrina to see an example and the price of failure.

It is also exceedingly important to remember now long of a view we need to take. Even if the lower estimates (from which there has been much retreat) of sea level rise come to pass over the next century - like a foot or two rather than three feet - that is hardly the end of the story. Because of ocean dynamics major cities in the northeast like New York City, Washington DC, and Boston will actually face even larger rises than the global average sea level increase.

And especially critically do not be confused by all the talk of sea level rise by 2100 into thinking that the rise will not be continuing long beyond that. The year 2100 is an arbitrary point widely used to facilitate comparisons in research. Hardly stopping in 2100, this episode of sea level will very likely be going faster than ever at that time. Is being lucking and having "only" 2 feet of rise by 2100 much good if it will be 5 or 6 or ??? feet by 2200 with more to come after that? Do we close our eyes and pretend that is none of our concern?

Friday, November 12, 2010


There is nothing at all inherently political about climate science. For instance, the infrared energy absorption and emission characteristics of carbon dioxide are not affected by the political affiliation of whomever emits it. Unforunately though we seem to be entering a frightening period where one of the major political parties in this country, the Republicans, are making a litmus test out of the refusal to address the threat wrought by human activities that are altering the climate.

The Wonk Room reported during the election season on the detachment from reality of GOP candidates for the US House of Representatives, the US Senate, and governorships.

The only big tent these days in the GOP is in the variety of denial and excuses to do nothing about climate change. One can claim that there is no warming, that there is warming but it is due to some unexplained natural cycle, that there is warming but it is due to some cause that scientists have already conclusively ruled out, that climate change is simply not understood, that climate science is some sort of conspiracy to push a political agenda, etc. So there are a lot of accepted ways to get there, but the end result must be to parrot the accepted rhetoric like "cap-and-tax" and "job-killing regulations" and to oppose action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A prominent example of the devolution of the Republican party into anti-science ideology when it comes to climate is Senator John McCain. Despite claims to the contrary, the science has steadily solidified and confirmed our understanding of how human activities are altering climate. Yet in the last several years McCain has gone from "unequivocally" holding that global warming is real and pushing for cap-and-trade legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to questioning the science and dismissing serious action to maintain a livable climate.

To reiterate, climate science is not a political issue. Being a Democrat does not make one right on the issue. One need look no further than do-nothing local outgoing Representative Earl Pomeroy and West Virginia Governor and Senator-elect Joe Manchin. But the Democratic party has at least not systematically bought into and become a mouthpiece for the misinformation and contrived controversy driven by polluting industries, political thinktanks, and simply ignorant individuals and groups.

Why has the Republican party abandoned not only the environmental legacy of Theodore Roosevelt but also the more recent accomplishments on environmental issues of Richard Nixon? There is no one simple answer. But important factors from the last few decades are a growing canonization of free market ideology and demonization of government action to address societal problems. An inflection point within the last few years is likely An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary that centers on the climate science slideshow of Al Gore, a figure widely loathed by the political right.

On a general and more visceral level, there seems to be a paranoia about a 'taking away what is mine.' This permeates many other issues from taxes ("spread the wealth") to immigration (fear of illegal aliens taking jobs and benefits). When it comes to addressing climate change the protests include things like that environmentalists want to make everyone live in caves and that shifting away from fossil fuel use or putting a price on carbon pollution is only a reach into people's pocketbooks.

I plan to explore the psychology of it further in the future, but to close out for now I will restate the main point. A major political party is disregarding an entire field of science. What if various food industries challenged long-established science and refuted connection between diet and health, then politicians across the board in a major party started pushing the same misinformation? Eat, baby, eat! Gorging yourself mean more demand and thus more jobs! There may be short-term political gain in divorcing from physical reality like that, but the negative impacts will cost everyone as time goes by.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Modest Proposal - The Not-Quite-Fossil Fuel Industry

Earlier I noted how digging carbon out of the ground to sell to be burned is beloved in this region. Well, maybe we are not doing enough of it. I have an idea to produce more energy, create more jobs, and generate more wealth. We will call it the Not-Quite-Fossil Fuel industry.

The most powerful thing in the universe is, of course, the human spirit. I want to start to harvest that power to provide for our energy needs. Of course, human life is sacred so living persons are off limits (at least for now, as we can figure out later who deserves to die to supply our energy needs). But dead bodies are like an untapped gold mine. Even though they are dead, surely there is something that can still be extracted. So, of course, we should dig up the bodies and start turning them into energy rather than letting that resource sit in the ground untapped.

Some people may criticize this and question whether dead bodies can provide energy. We cannot listen to those haters of the free market. There just needs to be serious effort to make it work. Do not listen to anyone who puts down America by saying we cannot figure out how to do it.

In fact, that there are still details to work out to bring this to fruition just means more jobs. There needs to be research and a lot of high-tech work, and that means high-paying jobs. Then once the operations get up and running, of course there will be a whole lot more jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs!

This is a domestic energy source that would make us less dependent on foreign oil and thus improve national security. Quite obviously, if we do not pursue this plan then the terrorists win.

There is something that could stop this plan besides bleeding hearts who throw up road blocks to take us off track from the added jobs and prosperity as well as increased energy security. That would be high taxes and regulation. If taxes are too high this opportunity will never materialize. This new industry itself cannot be taxed at all because that would be a job-destroying energy tax. With right now no tax on using dead bodies to generate energy, putting any on there would be a tax increase, and that should be illegal with this bad economy.

Likewise we cannot allow for any job-killing regulations on this industry. There are rules that "traditional" energy sources are flogged by, like coal burning having to have limited sulfur emissions to try to avoid acid rain and oil and gas exploration having to not ruin water supplies. I am going to assume those will not be issues with turning dead bodies into energy, so the free pass on pollution like the "traditional" energy sources get to dump unlimited greenhouse gases into the atmosphere should extend to anything for this new not-quite-fossil fuel industry.

Whatever waste that might get produced must be allowed to be discarded wherever whenever. Anyone ingrate who complains can come and clean up anything they do not like. If the smell is too bad, move somewhere else - it is still a free country, at least for now.

Government better keep its hands off the not-quite-fossil-fuel industry by not taxing or regulating it, but government does need to provide handouts. After all, we never know when some fascist socialists may start taxing or regulating, and with that uncertainty about the future the industry is not going to move forward and create jobs. Thus the least government could do is provide funding and subsidies to get the ball rolling and the dead bodies burning. (By the way - burning the dead bodies may not be the ultimate best method, but it is a good place to start.) Money could be given for building facilities and the digging up and moving of dead bodies. If they really wanted to do good, government would provide any and all seed money for the industry since the faster the jobs can be started the better.

I fully expect widespread support for this plan from nearly everyone around these parts - politicians, business, media, grassroots... And why would I not? The beloved and constantly touted energy industry would gain another pillar. Jobs, jobs, jobs! Even agriculture could get a boost since more dirt would be left unoccupied and, if reached soon enough, essentially newly tilled.

It would be exceedingly hypocritical for those groups to not fully support this. They squeal about jobs in order to support "traditional" fossil fuels and on the shakiest of ground claim unsettled science to ignore negative side effects them. So they cannot possibly dismiss the new jobs the not-quite-fossil fuel industry would produce or assert that science says it cannot provide a significant new energy source.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Forum Communcations loves it some climate change denial

With the approaching election we get in the Herald the ever-so-exciting endorsements coming from on higher by parent company Forum Communications. Granted the Berg vs Pomeroy race does not provide much for those hoping to minimize climate change. And for Senate I have a sneaking suspicion John Hoeven and "North Dakota common sense" will get the call. Or maybe he already has. Forgive me for not paying much attention.

But the slap on the back for Kevin Cramer today was notable. Yet it was not so much for the picking of Cramer - in fact Crabtree was relatively praised and highlighted for not opposing fossil fuels - it was the illustration of carrying the water for the energy industry. The endorsement of Cramer highlights some instances where industry was supposedly challenged, but the examples demonstrate being penny wise and pound foolish. Will it really be so super down the line that a pipeline route changed when we are trying to deal with a massively altered climate?

Last week Cramer dismissed decoupling, which means encouraging decreasing energy use from the providers prospective rather than having profit simply go higher as energy use increases. Cramer called that idea "intellectually dishonest" because North Dakota is cold so we have to use lots of energy. Huh? So if someone lives far from their job they cannot save on fuel because the commute is long? Ever heard of energy efficiency? Maybe you trade in the Hummer or V8 for a vehicle a more fuel-efficient to save on that long commute. What is intellectually dishonest is ignoring energy efficiency. But then this is not new for Cramer.

Apparently if you like digging carbon out of the ground to sell to be burned, you must be good people around these parts. Maybe I can jump on that bandwagon!

To be continued...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A little bit goes a long way

Nearly every attempt to undermine the well-established climate science that clearly demonstrate how human activities are altering climate is based on a speck of logic either completely misapplied or drowned in errors (if not both). Perhaps the most common is in saying climate has changed naturally in the past and from that asserting that humans cannot be responsible for current changes. That is bad reasoning, just like saying arson is not possible because fires have long occurred for natural reasons.

Thinksee Nosebetter though is all about erroneously believing climate science is an easily toppled house of cards. As noted before, another one of his favorites is that CO2 makes up such a tiny amount of the atmosphere. Again, there are fundamental flaws in that thinking. But some try to build on that by saying that water vapor is a greenhouse gas that is much more abundant in the atmosphere than CO2, so if any greenhouse gas is causing warming it must be water vapor and not CO2. The short answer to that claim is that, unlike CO2 which functions as both a forcing and a feedback in climate change, water vapor only works as a feedback.

Expanding on that a bit, it means water vapor content of the atmosphere depends on the state of the climate. This is because water vapor is readily condensable from our atmosphere - e.g., it gets cold enough, and the water vapor condenses into liquid water that precipitates out of the atmosphere. If you could magically alter the water vapor content of the atmosphere, it would basically return to where it was content-wise before the change in days. If you could magically alter the CO2 content (like we are doing now, except instanteously), such a snap-back would not occur.

Recent research has further refined the quantification of the different components of the greenhouse effect such as CO2 and water vapor. The analogy used is that CO2 is the thermostat for global temperature - a small piece of the building that controls a larger piece all working to drive the climate inside. Water vapor and liquid water clouds could not maintain the climate we know by themselves. They require the smaller but essential effect of the non-condensable greenhouse gases led by CO2 to be able to do what they do.

Though not perfect, the CO2-thermostat analogy is very good. A similar analogy would be with CO2 and the accelerator pedal of an automobile. The level of the pedal determines how much gas the engine gets and thus how fast the vehicle goes. Small components of systems can drive large effects. A few generals can determine the actions of many thousands of soldiers. Hundreds of legislators can set rules for millions of citizens. And distressingly a few misleaders can warp the understanding of climate science for a great many.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Chamber of Commerce or Chamber of Pollution?

Though this is several days old now I did not want to let it pass. Cheerleading for pollution is nothing new for the Chamber of Commerce in North Dakota, but a couple of ND city Chamber executive directors, Steffanie Boeckel and Kristi Klein, demonstrated in a recent letter in the Herald that they are not averse to spewing garbage too.

The cards played are the usual - coal is super-great for the North Dakota economy, and cap-and-trade would crush the economy.

But they also go one step further, explicitly taking a stance than is generally only implied. Repeating what I have said before, cap-and-trade is a flexible market approach to addressing carbon emissions by setting a necessary limit and letting the market figure out the cheapest and most efficient way to achieve the ends. If you are the Chamber and oppose that, what are you going to favor? Certainly not command-and-control regulations laid down by the government. Basically you are going to favor no solution. And if you take off the table any solution, your only out is to deny there is a problem. And that is where the Boeckel and Klein go here.

Boeckel and Klein display their odious ignorance of (assuming not outright lies about) climate science. In little more than a dozen words they manage to pack a massive amount of misinformation. In talking about anthropogenic climate change they allude to "leaked e-mails last year (actually hacked/stolen is much more likely) that cast serious doubt (actually they do no such thing) on the scientists who have made these claims" (actually the few dozen people directly reference by the hacked materials are only a drop in the bucket of the virtual unanimity among actual climate scientists that human activities are altering the climate). As much as I despise it when climate change is simply ignored, seeing lies and misinformation repeated to try to deny it is even worse.

Another especially disgusting little throw-in at the end of the letter said, "It’s important that North Dakota has both reliable as well as renewable electricity sources." I am not surprised the Chamber sucks up to the fossil fuel industry as much as possible, but the smack to renewable energy by calling it unreliable is surprising. Why is renewable energy important if it is unreliable? Oh yeah - there is a chance to make a buck on it, but the addiction to fossil fuels makes them the only fully Chamber-approved. They criticize PSC candidate Brad Crabtree for "undying allegiance to cap and trade", but that pales in comparsion to the Chamber's worship of fossil fuel.

The Chamber apparently views the physical world as nothing more than something to be exploited in any way possible to make immediate profit. I just hope that view is, or at least very soon becomes, less common than the idea that we need to preserve the only place we and everyone who may come after us have to live. It hardly seems fair that we should have to devastate our home just because Boeckel, Klein, and their ilk think they can have a slightly cheaper energy bill or make an extra buck that way.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Disproving global warming as easy as disproving seasons

Those so-called scientists are proven wrong again. Turns out the theory of seasons and going from summer to winter is false. Look at the temperatures from this region for the first 11 days of this October versus for the preceding month of September. Supposedly we should be getting colder. What do the data say?

Grand Forks, ND
Average September high temperature = 63.7F
Average October 1-11 high temperature = 71.1F

Bismarck, ND
Average September high temperature = 67.9F
Average October 1-11 high temperature = 74.8

Pierre, SD
Average September high temperature = 73.2F
Average October 1-11 high temperature = 76.5F

Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
Average September high temperature = 68.9F
Average October 1-11 high temperature = 72.7F

Clearly October has been warmer than September, so "winter" must be over.

Just in case someone has not caught on, the above in this post is completely ironic. Well, the data are correct, but the conclusions are ridiculous. Unfortunately, the same reasoning (if you want to call it that) producing those foolish conclusions leads some people to try to claim that global warming stopped sometime recently.

There is a well-understood and verified physical mechanism by which the seasons occur on timescales from weeks to months. Yet there are also well-understood mechanisms (basically weather) by which there are variations on timescales from days to weeks so there is not a consistent rise in temperatures in the midwestern US from January to July and fall in temperature from July to January.

Likewise there is a well-understood and verified physical mechanism by which there is currently an upward trend in global temperatures on timescales of decades. Yet there are also well-understood mechanisms (including El Nino & La Nina) by which there are variations on timescales of years so there is not a consistent rise in global temperatures with every year warmer than the previous.

Anyone trying to sell that warming has stopped is either statistically and scientifically naive-to-ignorant or is willfully misleading you. Or maybe both.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lignite Council afraid of becoming the Buggy Whip Council

Several days back there was a letter in the Herald from Lee Murdock questioning the scare tactics being employed by industry groups to try to convince people that a comprehensive energy policy that includes limiting greenhouse gas emissions is a mortal threat. Most notable was the claim that the Lignite Energy Council (LEC) informed legislative candidates who signed a "comprehensive clean energy petition" that the council's financial support for them would be withdrawn.

I did not find any more about this story so I mentally just filed it away as another piece of anecdotal evidence of the gangster-like behavior exhibited so much by the fossil fuel industry when the issue of clean and sustainable energy comes up. But today we got a letter in the Herald from Sandi Tabor, one of the LEC lobbying bigwigs, trying to drum back up the same scare tactics Murdock questioned. In it we get more of the classic "your money and climate or else" attempted stick-up.

The crowbar Tabor tries to yield in her letter is "[a] study of the comprehensive climate change bill passed in 2009 by one house of Congress (the Waxman-Markey bill, H.R. 2454)". With a little digging it is not hard to find details about this one study the LEC wants to use to justify continued unfettered pollution. The "study" (and I use that term loosely) was from long-time opponents of a stable climate the American Council on Capital Formation (ACCF) and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

That ACCF link has a couple links that highlight some of the issues with the claims of this cited "study". Basically the "study" was ACCF & NAM picking some assumptions they liked and having those fed into an economic computer model. There are red flags to be raised over that alone, but I want to skip to how the report gives a distorted and incomplete picture even when ACCF & NAM put their thumb on the scales.

Tabor tries to sell that energy prices will increase such that it would "decrease the disposable household income for North Dakota citizens, somewhere between $762 to $1,252 a year." What is left unmentioned is that this decrease is not realized until 2030, and it is not a net decrease but rather just a relative decrease. By 2030 the GDP and personal income will both increase, and even their most extreme case says US GDP and average personal income would increase by "only" about 95% of what they would without a cap-and-trade system (pdf link).

Remember, that loss of about 5% of the increase is only with the effort to pump up the costs and ignoring benefits from limiting greenhouse gas emissions. With more impartial examination than by business lobbying groups like ACCF & NAM, the costs are much less and actually include many financial benefits. And of course you can never expect these groups like the LEC to note the costs of avoiding a shift to clean, sustainable energy. The LEC is another believer in the fantasy world that water supplies, agriculture, etc will not suffer from climate change.

Tabor engages in some classic concern trolling, but clearly the LEC cares only about what is good for the LEC. They take climate change only seriously enough to stick their hand out to ask for more money for carbon sequestration research. The only "catastrophic consequences for North Dakota" the LEC shows any indication of wanting to avoid are loss of stature of the coal industry. To them, someone going from working getting coal out of the ground to building wind turbines or working on sustainable biofuels is simply a lost job. Of course coal jobs lost to automation are just efficiency and making the product cheaper for consumers, but that is neither here nor there.

The LEC wants you to believe we cannot get by unless they are fat and happy, even if that means polluting the present and mortgaging the future. They fear the realization that there can be a different and better way that does not leave them fat and happy. So into the path of progress they throw whatever junk they can, which is usually threats of how costly that progress supposedly would be. The LEC way would have us cling to the past and things like manual telephone exchanges and buggy whips because we could not afford to lose what they provide.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Kevin Cramer is wrong - who will rebuke him?

At a public forum yesterday in Grand Forks, PSC member/candidate Kevin Cramer flatly denied the reality of climate change.
Cramer said there’s a "growing opinion" of climatologists that question the validity of the theory — and the notion that humans are behind global warming.

"I do question it; I’m not convinced of it," he said.

His opponent in the upcoming election, Brad Crabtree tried to set the issue straight.
Crabtree said this issue is perhaps "the most crystal-clear difference" between him and Cramer and that his opponent’s comments are "substantively wrong."

He said there have been "mistakes" in the scientific analysis of global warming trends, "but the idea that there’s a growing chorus among credentialed climatologists that we don’t have a problem is flat-out false."

It is not clear what Crabtree means by those supposed "mistakes" he references. Perhaps he feels compelled to still give some credit to such denialist propaganda since is has become so prevalent. But that is small potatoes compared to the stunning ignorance displayed by Cramer.

I very well may give too much credit to Cramer by giving him the benefit of the doubt and simply attributing his stance to ignorance. Most insidiously he could be essentially paid-off by the interests devoting so much money and effort to push the misinformation Cramer repeats. I do not believe that to be the case though. Most likely I think Cramer is just another one of those suckers for that misinformation, people whose politics compels they to glom onto anything they think disputes climate change and human influence on climate.

Really though to me it does not matter much what the exact story is on Cramer's denial of the science. The why is not necessarily as important as the simple fact that Cramer is spreading the disinformation. Why should Cramer have his unsubstantiated opinion on global warming taken as at all authoritative? Crabtree noted this point:
"I think we need to have a serious conversation about public policy to address energy security and climate stewardship, rather than having non-scientists make bold statements and debate each other about very complex climate science," he said.

I seriously doubt Cramer even has any real clue about what he is saying and that he is merely repeating political talking points. And it would be a real shame if that influenced public opinion and policy.

But my stake should not be the only one in the ground that calls out how Kevin Cramer has it wrong on climate science. Who else will stand up?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Rick and Earl, sitting in a tree...

Today gave us a cute little article the Herald headlined with "Pomeroy, Berg pledge to fight for state’s energy interests". In it we get a view of how both Rick Berg and Earl Pomeroy see the climate and environment are merely nuisance concepts that get in the way of making money.

Most people are probably familiar with the rhyme to which I allude with this post title. The picture that paints though is far from perfect. Ol' Rick & Earl would not be sitting in a tree, they would be rushing hand-in-hand to rip it out of the ground to allow easier digging for coal or drilling for oil. And obviously ol' Rick & Earl would not be K-I-S-S-I-N-G each other, but they (along with article writer Kristen Daum) are puckering up to put big wet ones on the energy industry. We see that to Berg and Pomeroy (and Daum), whatever the energy industry wants equals milk and honey, while attempts to maintain a livable climate equals unfair burdens and killing of jobs. The token support for "clean coal" is clearly not for any environmental benefit but out of the coal industry hope of gain. It is the same as the reason to support renewable energy to the extent they do - there is a buck to be made while environmental benefit is a non-issue to our esteemed candidates.

But can we really count on Berg or Pomeroy to follow through on their stance to mortgage the future to pinch some pennies today? The answer is almost certainly yes. It would though really help reassure people that ol' Rick & Earl would not go turncoat and actually care about the future if they would come out with similar stances on other issues. Healthier citizens would mean fewer high-paying jobs for doctors and other medical professionals, so Berg and Pomeroy should support cancer and heart disease, right? And considering the military presence in North Dakota it would only make sense for Berg and Pomeroy to also support a continuing, if not increasing, threat of terrorism. A peaceful world would mean a need for less troops, and that would mean less money and jobs flowing to North Dakota due to the military, so keep bringing on the wars, right? Have to fight for the state's interests!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Will Wayne Stenehjem and North Dakota sue you for becoming more energy efficient?

Earlier this year ND AG Wayne Stenehjem took a trip to St. Paul to try to rattle the cage there and intimidate Minnesota into reversing the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007, which aimed "to bolster investments in renewable power, increase energy conservation and decrease Minnesota's contribution to global warming."

Stenehjem has also decided that the North Dakota stance is that pollutors should not be regulated, and this is shown by his joining a legal challenge (pdf press release) to the EPA's endangerment finding on greenhouse gases. Stenehjem trots out the tired canards of "massive regulation" and "unelected bureaucracy". He says Congress should be in charge of such regulation, even though he is most certainly another who says that but really means that he wants no regulation at all.

The $500,000 the legislature set aside for Stenehjem to challenge Minnesota's Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 seems to be burning a hole in his pocket because now Stenehjem has his mind on a similar attack on California's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The excuse Stenehjem uses to support doing fossil fuel industry bidding is that attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions violate the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. But basically the reasoning is that clean and sustainable energy have to be fought because they are bad for coal companies.

What might be the next step? If you decrease your energy bill by increasing your energy efficiency, are you also making business too hard for those angelic coal and oil industries and need to be sued too? Would a solar panel on your house or electric car hinder pollutors abilities to make profits across state borders and necessitate hauling you into court to litigate you into buying more dirty energy?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Great Plains Energy Expo 2010, Day 1

Today marks the end of Senator Dorgan's Great Plains Energy Expo & Showcase, and in the Herald we got a taste from two of the main speakers from the first day - Clarence Cazalot Jr. (president/CEO of Marathon Oil) and Arun Majumdar (director of the DOE Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy).

Both Cazalot and Majumdar said about the best you could reasonably expect considering the venue and the mindless state energy mantra of "all of the above". Both hit on how we need to shift away from fossil fuels, find ways to use energy more efficiently and less of it, and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Of course we got reminded also how addicted we are to fossil fuels (not surprising coming from the head of a by-definition dirty fossil fuel company, though in that category Marathon is about as good as it gets) and how we need technological breakthroughs in energy (not surprising coming from someone who is basically tasked with shepherding them).

Granted I cannot say exactly what else there is at the Expo, but that at least shows it is not all "drill, baby, drill", coal-hugging, salivating over oil sands, and ignorance to denial of climate science. There is something to cheer in what Cazalot and Majumdar said, but that is not enough to shield it (or at least between the lines) from any criticism.

My concern over what Majumdar says is that it could re-enforce a vague mindset of some techno-magic that will save us if we throw a little bit of money into research. We certainly need to innovate and invent, but that does not replace mitigation efforts, which we should be undertaking now. We are not in some movie where just when we see and widely understand how bad things have gotten some scientist will walk out of the lab with a new solution that immediately reverses all the damage and returns things to "normal". The longer we basically do nothing the more very long-term damage we are doing and the more we redefine "normal" away from what we have known.

Again, obviously Cazalot is going to sing some praises of oil and gas, but saying we need a "environmentally sustainable energy future" is definitely appreciated. Yet, especially if one is thinking some techno-fix will do the hard part, it is easy for many to not want to think of weaning from fossil fuels. Besides the climate issues associated with fossil fuel usage though, there are simple supply issues that preclude indefinite dependence on fossil carbon for energy.

I am going to continue to rip on fossil fuels, but I do understand that like Cazalot says we cannot just wake up one morning and be transitioned away from them. Coal power plants and oil-fueled internal combustion engine transportation will not simple be gone one day. I understand and accept that. However, that is precisely a key reason why we need to be pushing the envelope on the transition to clean energy. That cancer treatment would take a while is not a reason to delay it. That should compel to take action aggressively as soon as possible since the problem is only going to grow the longer the wait.

Our decades of established infrastructure tell us coal, oil, and gas are here for now. Fossil fuels do not need cheerleaders. We need cheerleading, meaning energy policy and actions, geared toward the shift to clean energy.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thinksee Nosebetter - confusion over small numbers and CO2

Today I introduce someone. This is someone in general, not in particular. This is someone you can find a lot, especially on the internet. He (yes, it can be she, but I simplify with just "he") believes his knowledge and understanding surpasses that of the trained experts in a field. He thinks he knows better. Thinksee Nosebetter.

The one thing you can generally say about Thinksee Nosebetter when he shows up in discussions about climate is that he is at least trying to use logic. The logic is flawed, warped, incorrect, irrelevant... but the attempt gives one hope he can be taught reality and have that replace his misconceptions. He is actually exceedingly unlikely to accept being corrected, but it at least gives one hope.

Typically a Thinksee Nosebetter tosses out very simple things that on the surface may sound reasonable but that supposedly unravel an entire well-established field of science. He knows just enough to be dangerous and wrong. The phenomenon of people lacking skills or knowledge but believing they a much higher level of that skill or knowledge has been labelled the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it is quite common in the climate "debate".

The Thinksee Nosebetter appearance I want to highlight and correct involves what I saw in the comments of a Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune article discussing how public planners are looking at ideas for adaptation to a warming world. That is worthy of discussion, but here I focus just on the Thinksee Nosebetter who thought he was overturning climate science and proving it all a hoax at least partially by talking about how relatively little carbon dioxide (CO2) there is in the atmosphere.

Indeed, while the atmosphere is about 99% nitrogen and oxygen, current CO2 concentration is around 390 parts per million (ppm). In other words on average only about one molecule out of every 2500 in the atmosphere is CO2. Human activities have so far increased CO2 concentration by about 40%. So previously CO2 was about 1 in every 3500 molecules.

Granted, that may sound at first like a trivial change. But it is very wrong to assert that since the change looks like a very small amount that it cannot have a significant impact on climate as that Thinksee Nosebetter did. The first flaw is in assuming that small numbers necessarily mean insignificance, but there is also misunderstanding about how small the relevant numbers really are.

It is quite simple to point out the fallacy in dismissing small numbers. Arsenic is toxic at a level of only about 1 part per million by mass. For some reason I doubt that the Thinksee Nosebetter who dismisses a one part per 2500 concentration of CO2 would willingly ingest a comparable amount of arsenic (about an ounce). Likewise, I suppose he would not want 1 out of every 2500 cells in his body to be replaced by cancer cells. Small numbers do not necessarily mean small impact.

But the numbers when it comes to CO2 are not really that small. I mentioned that about 99% of the atmosphere is nitrogen and oxygen. About 90% of the remainder is inert argon. What this overwhelming majority of the atmosphere have in common is that unlike CO2, the molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, and argon have no role in the atmospheric greenhouse effect. It is not hard to find an explanation of the greenhouse effect online at the level you would like. Basically, only certain molecules including CO2 and methane can absorb the energy that warms the planet above what it would be without them - these are the greenhouse gases.

All of the non-greenhouse gases are irrelevant in this context. Suppose there are thousands of choices at the bottle shop (to those not from around here, that is a local term), but only a few that you actually purchase. If all the others stayed the same price, but the price on just that handful you purchase went up, then your bill will be higher. It would be wrong to say that almost all prices stayed the same so your cost must not change much. All those others are irrelevant to you, and so it is with the non-greenhouse gases and the greenhouse effect.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dorgan maybe not done trashing climate before handing off to Hoeven

Previously we looked at Rick Berg. He is obviously in favor of climate-devastating pollution, but we cannot tell if we would merely be about as bad Pomeroy or whether he is out on the lunatic fringe either dismissing or calling a hoax the wide and virtually unanimous scientific agreement the climate change is a real threat that we should address.

Governor and Senate candidate John Hoeven paints a somewhat similar picture to Berg. Hoeven though at least acknowledges warming is occurring. But then he takes the cowardly out of saying, "There’s different opinions of exactly what’s causing it." Of course those opinions that human activities lead by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are not the dominant driving force behind the current long-term warming trend are predominantly from people merely using some combination of political wishful thinking and scientific illiteracy. Again though it is unclear whether Hoeven actually is aware of this and that those other opinions should carry no weight and is simply playing politics with the climate or whether Hoeven is simply ignorant about the issue. Philosophical question - does it matter which it is?

Anyway, let us not forget however about Byron Dorgan who has not yet been replaced by Hoeven in the Senate. So Dorgan still has time to inflict more ecological debt and environmental damage. Dorgan made news (not that you would hear most anywhere, but still...) this week declaring again his potential willingness to continue to make excuses and postpone attempts to maintain the climate that civilization has known and loved.

Talking about the potential of amendments to appropriations bills that would block implementation of climate-protecting rules from the EPA, Dorgan said, "I'd like to see what amendments are offered, and I'll make a judgment about that. I do think that it makes sense to have some time here to have Congress make the ultimate decision rather than EPA."

Wait, 'have some time here to have Congress make the ultimate decision rather than EPA'? Where has Dorgan been the last 30 years? Oh yeah - in Congress doing approximately squat to seriously address climate change.

Another philosophical question like the one posed above - does it matter whether my Congressmen acknowledge climate change and that humans are driving it (and could avert some of the worst consequences) or whether they ignore or deny the issue if either way they do nothing?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rick Berg and climate

North Dakota GOP House of Representatives nominee Rick Berg has not (yet at least) been among the many Republicans across the country jumping off into the murky deep end of unmitigated climate change denial, ignorance, and anti-science rhetoric. See these examples from Wisconsin, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Alaska just from the latter half of August. Of course when the Democrats are countering with Earl Pomeroy, then opposing action to fight climate change would not really distinguish the Republican. By Pomeroy's logic on climate he would also oppose curing cancer because of the subsequent medical and research job losses. But where does Berg stand?

Today's Herald gives some clue. We find out that Berg supports propping up Social Security using funds from oil extraction from federal lands like Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Berg cannot get enough of energy production, but there is no indication he has a clue about climate and the danger of continued fossil fuel use. Try an internet search including 'Rick Berg' and 'climate'. You might get the impression that Berg does not even know there is any climate besides 'business climate'.

We do find that recently Berg signed a pledge (PDF) to "oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue." The pledge is being circulated by the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, which would be better labelled Americans For The Prosperity Of Koch Industries or Americans for Climate Devastation.

He gives no sign of considering, much less considering addressing, the issue, but is unclear if Berg is in the kook pool when it comes to climate change. His pledge signing at least makes it clear that he does not believe there should be any cost to polluting and that the atmosphere is a dumping ground for carbon emissions from fossil fuel use regardless of how that damages the environment and thus costs us.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mindset of decline

Today in the Herald there was a somewhat random op-ed from Aaron David Miller. For one bigger paper, the column appeared also in the LA Times. The thesis is that Obama "misread his moment" and though at the right time did the wrong things to be able to achieve greatness.

You could criticize the thesis, but I want to go in a direction more applicable for this blog. Miller is basically describing a declining, self-absorbed America that will not address serious long-term issues including climate change. Miller concludes with
Americans aren't so much looking for great presidents, big ideas or historic transformations. They want satisfaction on mundane matters such as prosperity, keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks and an end to the roller-coaster ride of partisanship, name-calling and celebrity politics that is Washington today.

Give us bread ('cut my taxes!') and circuses ('what reality show is on?'), and keep us from being too scared... then nothing else matters much?

Miller pegs America as visionless and unconcerned about anything beyond point A and right now. I wish I could say he has it wrong, but with how frequently we see the same refrains for the status quo on energy and climate, maybe he has it right. All the cries of how we have to keep using fossil fuels the same as (seemingly) we have forever, we cannot put a price on carbon pollution, etc. because it would cripple us lend support to Miller's picture of America as wallet-obsessed, even so narrowly to the point of failing to recognize how such a shake-up on energy would actually still be beneficial on that front.

Are Americans collectively as short-sighted as Miller thinks? Is there only concern for the immediate perceived needs, without even realizing that foresight and investing in the future may satisfy those concerns at least as well as the same old, same old scorched earth policy? The voices of Miller and the energy delayers and climate change deniers say we can only coast along and not face and solve big problems. I still believe America can have more gas in the tank than that. And that gas is sustainable and does not produce fossil carbon pollution - maybe it is not even gas but battery power!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Saint North Dakota of the Immaculate Energy Production

We are now a couple days into the much-hyped "Running with Oil" series resulting from collaboration among various North Dakota media outlets. So far it is looking like about what I was figuring - perfectly fine reporting (though I would not call it "investigative") on a variety of facets of the whole of oil production. There seems to be a mix between ordinary "news information" stories like you could find any given day in the newspaper and more "human interest" stories that, though still seen in your newspaper, are more what may be expected from a magazine.

What has concerned me and that I expect to hold true is that there will be an enormous error of omission - no mention of the climate-altering effects of the carbon dioxide resulting from the burning of the oil. There will apparently be considerable focus on at least the threat of more direct pollution and environmental problems like from spills and massive water usage. If there is nothing though about dealing with CO2, then it would be like a massive series on the weather of North Dakota but ignoring the topic of flooding.

We did have in the Herald this morning an op-ed from a couple UND professors that again spells out some of the scientific and economic reasons to cut carbon pollution and shift toward clean energy. I assume the op-ed page (and maybe just that single submission) will be the only counter to the glowing descriptions of the North Dakota oil boom. I noted that there will apparently be mention of "threats", but I doubt that will be given the weight to make readers think the overall best action might be anything but excavating and burning as much oil as we possibly can. Oil revenue may lower our taxes in ND, so who cares how many future generations will have to suffer as a result of carbon emissions, right?

I would love to be proven wrong, but presumably this "Running with Oil" series will be simply more fodder for the right-now, burn-baby-burn mindset as exemplified by letters in the Herald> Saturday from Wade Pearson and Sunday from Jeff Miller. Unfortunately those letters I think exemplify the ignorance and short-sightedness already so prevalent and that will only worsen around these parts if people grow to more crave a few dollars more today from burning finite and polluting resources. Pearson simply pretends there is no issue of climate change and assumes that if coal plants meet current regulations on the likes of sulfur and mercury then everything must be perfectly fine forever. Miller mentions climate change but blithely dismisses it with no reason to focus on cries of being persecuted and political attacks.

We have to start seeing beyond the end of our wallet. We can afford to pay a little more to shift cleaner, sustainable energy a whole lot more than we can afford to wreck the biosphere. Pinching pennies by remaining handcuffed to dirty energy will not make up for not being able to supply food and water to billions of people, to mention just one major threat from climate change.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Alarmist and Ignorist

Sunday the Herald republished an editorial from the past Thursday's Bismarck Tribune. The thesis of the editorial was that it was good efforts at cap-and-trade have failed but that there are still efforts to maintain the environment that need to be fought. There is a throwaway line at the end acknowledging unspecified "serious and significant environmental issues that need to be considered."

A letter in the Tribune a few days later from Wayde Schafer effectively calls out the short-sightedness, so I quote it at length:

The Tribune's stated concern is avoiding "economic havoc" for coal-fired power plants, the largest contributor of global warming pollutants.

Disappointingly, the Tribune's editorial failed to consider the "economic havoc" that will befall North Dakota and the rest of the world if we do nothing to curb the man-made pollution that is causing the Earth to heat up.

Climate change is real, and we have a very small window of opportunity to reduce CO2 emissions so that the impacts are relatively small and manageable.

Time is not on our side, and the more of it we waste trying to avoid making the tough choices between yesterday's fossil fuels and the 21st century's clean energy, the less we're going to like the consequences, economic or otherwise.

To combat usage of the term "denialist", that side with those who earned the name commonly uses the term "alarmist" to paint as Chicken Littles the people who describe the threats of climate change. The irony is that the more extreme overblowing of consequences is typically from those who say things like what that Tribune editorial did - that effective actions to control greenhouse gas emissions would mean "destroying the recovering economy."

It is disappointing seeing the media around here parroting such political statements. As Schafer's letter noted, if one is worried about economic impacts, how can he or she simply ignore environmental destruction and degradation on a massive scale?

But it all fits into the larger picture as illustrated by today's editorial in the Herald entitled "A brighter future beckons as the oil boom strengthens". Fossil fuels are the sacred cash cow for North Dakota. But even if (for example) the Herald will not even think about the idea of using less of those finite and polluting resourcing, there could at least be consideration of using some of the windfall to deal with the approaching problems.

Of course acknowledging that costs will have to be paid by someone sometime for all the greenhouse gases poured into the atmosphere would mean accepting that it would be worthwhile to make an effort sooner to make smaller the bill later. That would be contrary to the two-sided strategy, "part alarmist" and part "ignorist" we see shown by these recent editorials - scream bloody murder about a price on pollution and strictly celebrating fossil fuels for the money they put in our pockets while ignoring the broader cost their use puts on us.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why do today what you prefer not to do?

Today in the Herald we had a delayer party. My feeling from the attention I have paid is that "delayer" pretty well represents the mindset leading the Herald. They will not go denier and try to refute that there is global warming or that it poses a threat, but they will quickly accept most excuses to not do anything about it.

In the news section there was an article from AgWeek entitled "Study: Beets hit hard in carbon tax scenario". The study was noted as done "at the request of the region’s sugar industry", though the industry had the expected result already. I wish I could say that the NDSU Center for Agricultural Policy and Trade Studies (CAPTS) that performed the study was an advocate for action on climate change. However they seem to comfortably dispense with the likes of, "well, it would not be free, so..."

That is what the cited article is all about. It laments how the "very efficient" sugar beet industry would be supposedly devastated by pricing carbon. Like I said before, if your business model requires being able to dump massive amounts of climate altering greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at zero cost, then that is a serious flaw in your business model. Though the article at the end gets into a little 'if there is effort to reduce', everything else points to delay, delay, delay - the production will just move outside the US without really reducing net global GHG emissions, China has to act too, consumers will foot the bill, etc. The mouth is mumbling something like "yes", but the eyes, body language and everything else says "no". Excuses, excuses, excuses.

I think it is worth mentioning that the CAPTS Global Sugar Policy Simulation Model assumes "average weather conditions". I wonder how much they consider how the changing climate would factor into sugar and wheat production.

In the op-ed section though we true textbook delayer pablum from Ross Douthat. The thesis is summed up at the end as, "wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through."

Douthat accepts climate change is occurring but does not seem to understand that is a problem. He says that overpopulation worries from a few decades back were proven unwarranted, so that gives a pass to skepticism about dealing with climate change. Of course saying since 'not X' that means 'not Y' too is a logical flaw, but that X is not even settled as not true. Global population is still growing toward probably 9 billion around 2050, and our ability to continually increase food production is not a certainty, especially as climate change becomes more impactful. He resorts to weak appeals to supposed authorities on do-nothing, Bjorn Lomborg, Freeman Dyson, and Jim Manzi.

There is also the problem with the assumption that we will be richer going forward not doing something about climate because doing something about climate would not be really easy. You can daily find news about how climate change is already costing us collectively, and that will continue. The negative effects cannot all be assumed off in some distant future nor that it is a sure path of greater wealth to that future.

So we can wait, but we may not even be richer, and also we may very well not be able to muddle through. Ezra Klein pokes another big hole in the delayer no-plan. Basically things may get so broken we cannot fix it. The damage may be way beyond what "rich" can remedy. Even if we were richer in the future, the cost of doing something later (to adapt, maybe not even try to undo) may well exceed that greater wealth, assuming we even decide to start acting at some point.

If one is so fond of the delay strategy, why not use the 'wait until later' strategy for everything? Why not put off fighting terror until the economy improves? We will be richer and more able to afford the costs then by this logic, so why not wait? But we only try to put off things that way and not worry about them when they seem far away and readily controllable, like supposedly deepwater oil drilling had. It would be worth realizing that climate change is not as far away as many think and may not be something we can just handle when we feel like it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dorgan knows the issue is there even if he will not face it

Last time ended with a note on a powwow Senator Byron Dorgan had with high level individuals in the coal industry. Couched in a common metaphor, Dorgan told them that because they are reflexively fighting addressing carbon emissions and refusing to sit down at the table, they are going to end up on the menu.

By demonizing as "cap-and-tax" a flexible market approach to addressing carbon emissions by setting a necessary limit and letting the market figure out the cheapest and most efficient way to achieve the ends, the fossil fuel industry is facing a future of less accommodating regulations. The EPA have recognized the problem with unfettered greenhouse gas emissions and are finally declaring enough is enough.

The effort led by Lisa Murkowski to tell the EPA that in spite of being the "Environmental Protection Agency" that they are not allowed to protect the environment failed last month, but more such efforts are certain, though there is reason to believe they will not reach fruition. Even if the Jay Rockefellers of the Congress could somehow get some sort of a delay in carbon regulation, it would be a short-lived victory for them.

Senator Rockefeller's recently passed delegation partner Robert Byrd recently came to realize that. Imagine that - a Senator near the end of his tenure from a state highly dependent on coal changing his tune, at least a little. Looks like Dorgan may be doing the same. Like Byrd, Dorgan is not pushing for any movement away from coal use but rather simply saying that the ignored costs of environmental damage will finally soon have to be paid. Dorgan is still pro-coal to a fault but is saying the industry should accept reality.

It is reassuring that Dorgan recognizes coal is going to have to face the music in spite of how the Senate figures to change this year. Byrd's presumable replacement and Dorgan's sure replacement John Hoeven show no signs of Byrd's and Dorgan's recognition, instead holding a coal-can-do-no-wrong attitude. Dorgan apparently sees though that the sand these people are burying their heads in is slowly blowing away. He still mostly has his back turned to the issue of cutting emissions (carbon sequestration is very unlikely to be any sort of panacea for fossil fuels), but Dorgan has his head out of that sand. Hopefully with time more of those out of the sand, whether to begin or forced by recognition of the situation, will have the courage to do something positive. Byrd accepted that would happen, and Dorgan seems to see that too. I just hope it happens before we dig ourselves too much deeper.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Some days, the bear gets you

I suppose congratulations are in order to the deniers, delayers, and other head-in-sand-ers after the Senate capitulated to the forces of the status quo intent on having America hang on to the 1940s forever. We are for now not going to be moving forward even slightly with a comprehensive national legislative strategy to shift meaningfully toward clean energy and away from climate altering massive carbon emissions. So by postponing action we are taking a pass on the economic benefit of investing sooner in the clean energy future, and we are making the future worse climatically. It is like a tax increase for the future.

Make no mistake, we will have to confront and address the issue at some point. The choice is whether to do it earlier and avoid more of the dire consequences of our actions or to wait longer so that the situation grows catastrophic and we can only make it less awful. We are choosing for fingers-in-the-ear ignoring of the issue, which will be realized at some point as stupid.

Though not surprising, obviously this is a very disappointing situation. I think Dave Roberts at Grist pretty well captured many of my feelings. He points out that overall there is still momentum on taking action to rein in emissions, that the Senate contains many cowards, and summarizes,
It's a sad, corrupt state of affairs this country finds itself in. I wish I had some hopeful words to offer. But at this point, American government appears to be broken. And our children and grandchildren will suffer for it.

Roberts notes a very interesting conversation soon-to-retire Senator Byron Dorgan had with coal bigwigs as the current Senate process was falling apart. I want to expand on this in its own post, but Dorgan basically said that just because the Senate dropped the ball, there is still action coming down the line.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Some days, you get the bear

This past Saturday was a nice day when reading through the Herald. There were two news stories pertaining to weather, particularly specific instances of warmth, and both matter-of-factly mentioned their relationship with climate change. It was so nice to see just the facts and neither any sort of contrived controversy nor hat tips to fringe elements who do not want to believe the facts.

The first article started below the fold on page 1. It was a small, actually rather non-"newsy" piece from AP science writer Randolph Schmid. Mostly it just noted some of the observed weather extremes across the US in June. But early in the article it said,
Nationally averaged, June was warmer than normal, a pattern that has been continuing in recent years as greenhouse warming caused by industrial and other emissions increases.

Exactly! Emissions are driving warming and a hotter than average month is obviously completely consistent with this. No need to add in qualifiers or hedges as so often seen, such as 'emissions that some scientists say may contribute to possible warming', just like there is no need to mention gravity with qualifiers like 'a force that some scientists suggest may play a role in keeping people from floating off the surface of the earth'.

The other article was more in-depth. It was another AP piece, this time on the unusual warmth of Lake Superior this summer. It basically reported on researchers efforts in monitoring the Lake's temperatures. That there is global warming occurring is simply taken as a given by the researchers, which is quite sensible since all the evidence points that way.

It is noted how the researchers have found Lake Superior water temperatures have gone up at twice the rate of air temperatures over recent decades. The researchers said that it had been thought that there was no sort of "memory" in those water temperatures from the previous year, but the evidence said otherwise. The article describes the positive feedback mechanism,
They say there's a self-perpetuating correlation: The warmer the air and water, the less ice forms. The less ice, the warmer the water gets. Then less ice forms next winter.

Nice! It is a very small scale study, yet still people could accidentally learn some science if they were not careful reading that article.

Overall the media do a poor job conveying accurate information about climate change, and the Herald is quite typical in this regard. Even if there is not anything unseemingly driving purposeful poor or misleading coverage, start with perhaps poor communication from scientists and add journalists who are not knowledgeable on the subject and thus try to achieve some sort of balance that does not exist, and the result is writing that often fails to accurately portray the science.

But days like one noted give me hope the trend in the media (including in the Herald) is in the right direction. Just like the temperature trend, though continuing upward in the long-term, will have short-term slips and downswings, I know the coverage and op-ed pages (including in the Herald) will have their mealy-mouthed confusion and gibberish. Maybe though such instances will become rarer and the quality of climate information will gradually improve so that people will become better-informed, whether they like the facts or not.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Is the PSC itself in a fantasyland?

The day the most recent Herald-printed letter from PSC commissioner Brian Kalk came out the same day of news of a PSC employee who had put up anti-Obama posters in his workplace at the PSC. The next day the Herald had an editorial entitled "No place for partisanship at N.D. PSC", then today there was a letter from Dan Sylvester calling out the commissioners for their poor leadership and suggesting they resign. Plenty here in this episode on which to opine...

First, the issue of the posters. According the Herald news article there was one with a little girl giving the finger with text, "Thanks, Obama. You’ve spent my lunch money, my allowance, my inheritance, 35 years of future paychecks, and my retirement. You (expletive)." Another had a picture of Obama and text, "Peace Prize. Just like welfare and socialized medicine. You don’t have to work to get it." If that was something passed around in email or shared at the water cooler among like-minded friends in the office whose political leanings would make them enjoy it, that would be quite fine with me. Slapping the things up on the wall however gets well into, if not flies past, the gray area between conversation item and PSC philosophy.

That the Herald acted concerned about possible partisanship within the PSC a day after printing another political attack from Brian Kalk was a bit rich. I have no problem with the PSC commissioners being political like most any other officeholder. But when it comes to public statements like a letter to the editor, I would expect the partisanship to be toned down rather than, say, basically accusing the President of a "Chicago style" shakedown to get some sort of emissions-limiting legislation passed. If the Herald really want to put some pressure on the PSC leaders to not allow strong partisanship to permeate the organization, why not avoid publishing contributions like Kalk's latest? Or if they still insist on publishing, why not call them out for their rhetoric on the editorial page?

I essentially fully agree with the sentiments of the Sylvester letter. I see no point though in calling for Cramer, Kalk, and Clark to resign since that will go nowhere. But in general it seems their PSC puts very high priority on delivering profit mostly through fossil carbon while caring nothing about climate and the environment. Hopefully this episode can help nudge North Dakota more toward a PSC that leads away from rather than directly toward a dirty, hot dead-end of unabated fossil fuel dependency and that does not try to convince us that it would be too expensive to avoid wreaking havoc on the enviroment and climate.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

If only we did live in the fantasyland of Brian Kalk

Yet again Herald readers have been graced by a letter from PSC member Brian Kalk in which he pushes the mindset that the only care in the world is to maximize short-term profit, especially for the energy industry.

First and foremost in Kalk's version of the world apparently there is no such thing as global warming and there will forever be abundant fossil fuels to excavate and burn and no significant change in climate. Kalk parrots unsubstantiated claims of drastically increasing energy costs if efforts are made to decrease carbon emissions and does not even allude to the reasons that compel us, or at least some of us, to that action of producing less greenhouse gases. Today though I do not want to hammer on Kalk for his usual that nor his corporatist "balanced approach" talking point that happily condemns the future so some people make a buck in a variety of ways.

The main new point Kalk is making in his political hitjob today is that in the capitulation that is pulling legislative efforts from an economy-wide cap on carbon emissions to possibly a utility-only cap, this is even worse for North Dakota. It is difficult though to top the hyperbole when he said that the economy-wide system would destroy the fossil fuel industry, but he tries to sell utility-only as worse.

There is a lesson that can be taken - if you dig in your heels, bawling and fighting against lesser action sooner, then you risk forcing yourself into more extreme action later. Do not want to invest in flood protection? Fine - you can pay to rebuild the city when it does flood, assuming folks want to rebuild.

An economy-wide cap-and-trade system means there is price on dumping climate-altering greenhouse gases into the atmosphere rather than it being some sort of free dumping ground, and it allows market forces to determine efficient ways to scale back emissions. Personal responsibility and The Market - you might think that conservatives would love the idea. Instead we get the likes of Kalk pretending there is no problem and that the solution to this problem they ignore or even deny means the end of the world. That is helping write a prescription for even less appealing solutions, and not just command-and-control regulations. The longer we avoid action the more we will have to devote to accommodating the effects of climate change, like coastal cities gradually being inundated by rising sea levels, more extremes of weather, increased stress on freshwater and food supplies, acidifying oceans...

Hey, maybe the we of today will follow the Brian Kalks of the world but still luck out and not have to face the worst pains of climate change - maybe it will be only our children, grandchildren, and subsequent generations that face the consequences of our inaction. At least then they will never forget us! Or is that "forgive"?