Wednesday, August 31, 2011

All the rope he wants

Based on the entries here it is obvious that I often read something in the Herald that angers, frustrates, exasperates, etc and motivates a response. Today there was a letter to the editor that simply generated a sedate "whoa." It was so overwhelmingly out there that it could not even provoke an emotional response. It was beyond that. You could think it was satirical, but the history of writer Brent McCarthy rules that out.

McCarthy is trying to dispute characterization of the tea party, of which he apparently considers himself a part, as "radical". He does this by running through a list of declarations that run the gamut from having a whisp of reasonableness to specious to irrelevant because so divorced from reality to absolutely unsubstantied opinion to delusion. He seems to consider all these truisms that demonstrate how mainstream he (and the tea party) is. I justify my entry here because one of his brain droppings is the utterly ignornant nonsense that "[g]lobal warming is a politically motivated hoax." He concludes, "[t]he real radicals are those in Washington who disagree with the American people, and they are a shrinking minority."

I would not bet the house, but with the title "Who are America’s real radicals?" atop the letter I have a feeling that the publication of the letter was motivated to some extent to give McCarthy enough metaphorical rope to metaphorical hang himself. There is much less time spent in the simplistic but tame ("Our borders need to be secured") and more spent in the paranoid, victimized, blinkered, and ignorant delusions.

Compare the global-warming-is-a-hoax claim and the perplexing "our health care system is the best in the world because it’s private." There is plenty wrong with that statement on health care starting with that neither the former nor the latter are true. Most distressing though is that there is no indication McCarthy believes that statement needs a 'because X, Y, and Z.' Declaring the system private seemingly defines it as best. Similarly there is apparently no need to dispute climate science because McCarthy cannot accept something contrasting with his ideology.

That defines so many in denial and/or willful ignorance about climate change - virtually no knowledge beyond the spoonfed bites of misinformation that have been gobbled down because they bolster a worldview that refuses to accept that we are damaging our environment and that fossil fuels have a considerable downside. McCarthy represents not a majority like he thinks he does but a driven, loud, and relatively influential minority. The problem is not so much that McCarthy's radical views get directly adopted by the public overall but that they warp the range of public views that more and more ridiculousness is accepted, like a major party president becoming a pariah for accepting the near unanimous expert view on a field of science.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Grab that big-screen TV!

On Saturday the Herald reported on the State Department's Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline (link to article in Houston Chronicle at other end of pipeline).

There is plenty to criticize about the project. What I want to hit on here is the mindset so locked into status quo fossil fuel addiction. Below is a snippet from the above-linked article:
In its analysis, the State Department dismissed concerns from environmental groups that the pipeline would increase emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. Canada's oil sands are likely to be developed with or without the pipeline, the report said, making concerns about climate change moot.

"There are alternatives to the pipeline to move that potential fuel around" to other locations, [assistant secretary of state Kerri-Ann] Jones said, including barges, railways and tanker ships.

So the way it works is that it is simply accepted that since the tar sands can be burned they will be, so the good ol' US-of-A better grease, erm, wet its beak in the process.

If there is going to be looting, we better make sure we are at the front of the mob to make sure we get first pickings. Get that fancy (in this metaphor, climate disrupting) HDTV for us before the Chinese do!

Why is world leader America not trying harder to build a 21st century (and beyond) clean energy infrastructure and economy rather that deciding there is going to be slaughter so we ought to get our hands as bloody as it takes to get us a short term fix for our fossil fuel addiction?

Monday, August 22, 2011

No ban on political posturing

Today the Herald published another of those "dueling viewpoints" pairs of op-ed columns taking pro and con sides on a particular issue. I know it is the op-ed page where publishing of varying views is to be expected, but this still feels like a continuing degradation of journalism down to mere transcription of things people say rather than a hunt for accurate information.

In this case the premise is horrible - "Should Congress ban incandescent light bulbs?" The problem is that the question does not well describe the issue at hand. In 2007 legislation was passed that over time phases out manufacture and import of light bulbs not meeting efficiency levels. This phase out include most of the extremely cheap standard incandescent bulbs that only devote about 10% of their energy usage to generating light. Lately many have made it a mission to repeal the not-really "ban" on incandescents. So the most recent Congressional rumblings have been about dropping the not-really ban as opposed to about banning. But anyway...

The pro case by Matthew Auer does a decent enough job explaining the not-really ban and noting the political fever that is the drive behind attacking the existing legislation. It notes benefits from energy efficiency, but could have discussed more as the last link in the paragraph above does.

The con by Amy Ridenour touches on some issues that are worth exploring (e.g., sure, there is mercury in CFLs, but it is in amounts less that would be spewed into the atmosphere from coal plants to produce the energy wasted by old incandescents), but the conclusion of "Who knows the needs of your household better: You, or Congress?" demonstrates how the foundation of this case is stirring up fears about government instrusion in people's lives.

What really annoyed me about Ridenour's case is that in all the hodgepodge of supposed reasons to overturn the not-really ban, she explicitly says at the beginning, "[i]gnore claims about global warming." In other words, do not consider one of the key reasons to push for energy efficiency, to decrease fossil fuel use and their CO2 emissions that drive climate change. But we need to stick with 19th century lighting technology because, e.g., "CFL and LED lighting aren't romantic."

I wonder, where is all the outrage about government taking away freedom, and where are the declarations that the market will cure all when it comes to the 1987 legislation signed by President Reagan mandating efficiency standards on appliances? Could that actually be good policy? Or will these same guardians of freedom fight to overturn that law and others like the ban on leaded gasoline?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Swinging back at the anti-science

Recently I lamented the Republican presidential candidates tilting from merely bad on climate science to crazy wrong. Since then bad Tim Pawlenty dropped out, and newly-in crazy wrong Rick Perry has gotten a lot of press.

Today Perry spoke on climate change, and he indeed showed off his crazy wrong credentials. In one quote block Perry went on a Gish Gallop of rapid-fire ignorance typical of the dime-a-dozen-million commentors you can find online. In one stretch of less than 75 words he touched on the supposed massive number of scientists disputing climate change, gave past natural changes as reason to dismiss humans could cause changes, and cited supposed manipulation of data by scientists.

Like so many others who spout off such non-factual reasons to doubt anthropogenic climate, he demonstrates his most fundamental reason for opposition is because he thinks addressing climate change will eat his wallet because, e.g., "the cost...of implementing these anticarbon programs is in the billions if not trillions of dollars".

That Perry dismisses science that he does not think fits with this ideology is not the news from the Washington Post item linked above. What was pleasantly surprising was that the Huntsman campaign fired at Perry for his hostility toward science. Huntsman's lack of backbone on addressing the issue is still bad, but his not completely dismissing the issue and attacking someone who does is a bit refreshing.

Maybe the no-longer-candidate former Minnesota governor can step back from his Tim Polluty incarnation and instead of trying to claim that the scientific jury remains out start advocating again for solutions to anthropogenic climate change. Like Romney, it is not clear what he actually believes since his view seems dictated by chasing votes as opposed to trying to be accurate. Here's to hoping those panderers can squash their inner denialists.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Assessing the Arctic-toc of the countdown clock for northern sea ice

I stumbled upon another media mangling the reporting of the results of a study involving climate science. It happens regularly and is not surprising, but it still earns an eye-rolling sigh.

In this case the issue is the decline in Arctic sea ice and how the decline will not necessarily be continual and steady. But in some corners of the interwebs we get left with only the idea of "more arctic sea ice in the next decade", which is merely cited as a possibility, while the firm conclusion that "there’s no escaping the loss of ice in the summer" slips out of sight.

Let us start with the paper itself, an entry in Geophysical Research Letters, Kay, J. E., M. M. Holland, and A. Jahn (2011), Inter-annual to multi-decadal Arctic sea ice extent trends in a warming world, Geophys. Res. Lett., 38, L15708, doi:10.1029/2011GL048008.. Right there in the abstract we find the conclusions (1) that the Arctic melt of recent decades (through 2005, thus not inlcuding subsequent low years like current extrema leader 2007) is about half internal variability and (2) that in their modelling results the natural variability even "[i]n a warming world" can "until the middle of the 21st century" produce periods of 2-20 years with increases in Arctic sea ice.

Now let us jump to the NSF (National Science Foundation is the sponsor of the scientists employer the National Center for Atmospheric Research) press release, which includes quotes from the authors. A press release can easily be a first step in muddling the message of what research concludes. The release is significant because it may serve as basically the only source for media reports.

Here is the first paragraph and a chunk in the middle (emphasis mine):
Despite the rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice in recent years, the ice may temporarily stabilize or somewhat expand at times over the next few decades, new research indicates.
the NCAR research team found that Arctic ice under current climate conditions is as likely to expand as it is to contract for periods of up to about a decade.

"One of the results that surprised us all was the number of computer simulations that indicated a temporary halt to the loss of the ice," says NCAR scientist Jennifer Kay, the lead researcher.

"The computer simulations suggest that we could see a 10-year period of stable ice or even a slight increase in the extent of the ice.

"Even though the observed ice loss has accelerated over the last decade, the fate of sea ice over the next decade depends not only on human activity but also on climate variability that cannot be predicted."

Kay explains that variations in atmospheric conditions such as wind patterns could, for example, temporarily halt the sea ice loss. Still, the ultimate fate of the ice in a warming world is clear, she says.

"When you start looking at longer-term trends, 50 or 60 years, there's no escaping the loss of ice in the summer."

Again, the very start and very end of the above summarizes the results - shorter periods may show Arctic sea ice not declining, but over the long term the trend is clearing downward. In general that is absolutely unsurprising, but the unexpected result encountered by the authors is the quantity of instances in their simulations with temporary halts in the ice decrease. There is note of a generic 10-year such halt, but the bolded bit that says "next decade" invites the misinterpretation that the authors are particularly emphasizing that ice loss may well halt over literally the next decade from now rather than the following decade from any arbitrary time in coming years.

Next let us move on to some items found by the Google and its news aggregator. I will post the source and headline (with link). Remember with headlines that they may not come from the article/post writer and that whoever writes them the idea is to draw eyes and not necessarily provide a fully accurate summary.

For the most part when you actually read them these articles do a good job of matching what was in the press release, often using much content directly. But look at the range of impressions provided going down the list, from the idea of a slowdown or pause in Arctic melting to a stop of melting or even that more ice is imminent. The press release page itself would probably fall in the middle of that range with its headline, "Arctic Ice Melt Could Pause in Coming Decades".

And this is all from people (presumably) trying to get the story right! It is quite easy to find denialist commentors using this result to push their same empty nonsense, like that this shows climate is only driven by natural cycles, that climate scientists are grant whores trying to have it both ways so they cannot be proven wrong, etc. But then those people will use anything or even nothing to spout that.

To conclude, let us summarize the situation. The Kay et al. paper (this research, not all, as some contends we may not go much longer before seeing a summer-ice-free Arctic) says that any particular stretch of 10 years or so through the middle of this century, like say 2024-2034, has a good chance of not having a negative trend in Arctic sea ice due to natural variability in the system. There remains no question that as the world continues to warm, the trend is for less Arctic sea ice across the whole of this century.

Friday, August 12, 2011

GOP race of Extreme vs EXXTREEEMMME!!!

Texas governor Rick Perry is now all but officially in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Weighting individuals by chance of winning, I believe that solidly pushes the GOP field into the insane/it's-a-hoax/conspiracy-minded climate change denial as opposed to the I-don't-believe-it-now/it-isn't-because-of-humans/we-can't-know flavor of denial. I covered similar ground not long ago, but it is worth reiterating how a major political party in a world-leading (they would tell you most exceptional ever) country can completely divorce itself from reality.

From the bottom of the heap there is not much weight because of little chance to win. Picking out "here is no such thing as global warming" Rick Santorum, "it's a scam" Herman Cain, and from doubtful to "the greatest hoax" Ron Paul, you have the crazy to balance out the scrambling to rebrand as a denier Newt Gingrich and the maybe not even denier but still opposed to doing anything about it Gary Johnson and Jon Huntsman.

I have not been high on the chances of the Minnesotans, Congresswomen Michele Bachmann and former governor Tim Pawlenty, though they have at times been pegged as the leading alternative to nominal front-runner Mitt Romney. You can call them a wash with Bachmann covering the crazy denial and Pawlenty doing the craven backtracking from taking the issue seriously to calling for inaction because of made up uncertainty. If anything, the extremeness (relative to the science; it is common within her party) of Bachmann's radical views and Pawlenty's campaign fizzling tilts the scale toward crazy.

That takes us up to Mitt Romney. He is widely known (or, depending on your view, notorius) for his flip flops on issues. Yet his shifts in stance for 2008 were an effort to push to the right of that year's field, while holding basically the same spot for 2012 has him on the left side of this GOP field. He now holds a non-denialist stance on the science but tries to have it both ways by opposing action.

The entrance of Perry puts what I consider to be the most serious challenger to Romney in the race, and Perry brings into the race a much "cleaner" scorched Earth stance on climate. Unlike Gingrich, Pawlenty, and Romney, there was never a period of sanity to dog Perry with the Republican side of the electorate.

The whole of the Republican party has not jumped off the cliff into the denial abyss. But might it collectively be far enough gone and the rest of the political spectrum too stagnant to even make minimal effort to have America not be left behind in the 20th century? If the GOP takes the presidency with an ardent denier like Perry it certainly will not bode well.