Monday, August 25, 2008

Known unknowns on ice

This time last week I was at Los Alamos National Laboratory for a meeting that discussed building a Community Ice Sheet Model, inspired by the success of the Community Climate System Model. (Eventually CISM will be part of CCSM).

Ice sheets are getting a lot of attention because that's where one of the biggest potential impacts of climate disruption, sea level rise, comes from. The mechanics of ice sheets have some big known unknowns. The biggest is what is happening at the bottom of the ice sheet--at the ice-land interface. Is it sticky or slippery? What can change it? We only have a few observations and some guesses at theory. Another group of "known unknowns" are the processes that control ice sheet calving. Calving is when chunks of the ice sheet edge break off and form icebergs, a very photogenic process whose exact physics are poorly understood. There's lots of theories, but only trial and error in simulations and more observations will help weed out the good from the bad. Both of these processes affect how fast ice sheets can shed mass to the ocean. Its these mechanical processes, rather then simple melting alone, that has the potential to lead to rapid sea level rise. As you might guess from the immaturity of the field, none of this was considered in the last IPCC report. With efforts like CISM, we will hopefully be able to say a little more in the next report, due out in 2013.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Words Matter: call it "climate disruption" says John P. Holdren

(mt started the John P. Holdren bandwagon before I could write this post but I'm going to pile on..)

I first saw John P. Holdren speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival last year. I was very impressed by his savvy, big-picture take on the whole climate-energy problem. In particular, I like the phrase he is advocating: "climate disruption".

I'm not sure of the origins of "Global Warming" but it was in common usage among scientists when I entered the field in the early 90's. As Holdren said, "warming" sounds almost benign; like a balmy day on the beach. The big problem with this phrase is that it implies that it's all about temperature. Precipitation is actually a bigger thing to worry about. It also implies that its uniform ("global") when there will be large regional differences in response and only a warming in the global-average sense. The global average temperature is a good index for scientists to talk about with each other but not much good for policy planning.

(this paragraph corrected as suggested by the comments.)
"Climate change" is a phrase popularized by Republican pollster Frank Luntz who advised the Bush administration and Republicans everywhere to use it instead of "global warming". This phrase is incredibly wishy-washy: Its "change": Maybe up, maybe down, maybe no big deal! Personally, I've managed to make it an exact simile for "global warming" and so will sometimes use it but it should really be avoided by scientists when talking to the public.

Now "climate disruption" is much better. The general pattern of climate where you live, the extremes and patterns of precipitation, clouds, snowfall, storms and temperature, are going to be disrupted from their normal patterns. "Disruption" is an edgy, angry word that gets your attention. Its probably not benign. Let's all try to use it.

Another good phrasing that Holdren uses is our three options for dealing with climate disruption: adaptation, mitigation and suffering. We are already doing some of each and what's up for grabs is the future mix.

You can find video of Holdren's talk at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum and a pdf of his slides here.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Krugman: GOP is "Party of Stupid"

I don't mean to turn this in to a Paul Krugman fanboy site but in today's column he both writes about energy and uses stupid as a noun!
...the debate on energy policy has helped me find the words for something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Republicans, once hailed as the “party of ideas,” have become the party of stupid.
What does he mean by this?
What I mean, instead, is that know-nothingism — the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise — has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: “Real men don’t think things through.”
The effect on the energy "debate" is sobering:
Sad to say, the current drill-and-burn campaign is getting some political traction. According to one recent poll, 69 percent of Americans now favor expanded offshore drilling — and 51 percent of them believe that removing restrictions on drilling would reduce gas prices within a year.
More on recent polls and a call to arms for Progressives on this issue from WattHead.

Krugman concludes:
...remember this the next time someone calls for an end to partisanship, for working together to solve the country’s problems. It’s not going to happen — not as long as one of America’s two great parties believes that when it comes to politics, stupidity is the best policy.
This is obviously directed at Obama and his "rise above partisanship" rhetoric. Indeed, can you really negotiate with a party that stands against reason? Should you?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Tank full of Stupid

I don't know who started this trend of using "stupid" as a noun but it cracks me up almost every time. Consider this recent Tom Toles cartoon (above). My absolute favorite joke is from Atrios who said of the internet in general, paraphrasing a line from "2001: A Space Odyssey": "My God, Its full of stupid..."

Speaking of full of stupid, consider the call for off-shore drilling as a way to lower gas prices. There are a couple of ways this is dumb. First, its not like there's a switch ready to be thrown and the gas starts flowing. Those off-shore sites need to be developed which means someone needs to build a rig, start drilling, etc. It will take years for that oil to reach the market. Second, our current U.S. oil producing fields are continuing to decline. By the time those off-shore sites come online, they won't even make up the lost production between then and now. Finally, the total amount available is just a blip on the world production and world production is what sets the price. You need to discover a Saudi Arabia-size oil reserve to lower prices and there aren't any of those left.

In his column last week, Paul Krugman made this observation about off-shore drilling boosterism from John McCain and the lies around it:
Mr. McCain’s claim that opponents of offshore drilling are responsible for high gas prices is ridiculous — and to their credit, major news organizations have pointed this out. Yet Mr. McCain’s gambit seems nonetheless to be working: public support for ending restrictions on drilling has risen sharply, with roughly half of voters saying that increased offshore drilling would reduce gas prices within a year.

Hence my concern: if a completely bogus claim that environmental protection is raising energy prices can get this much political traction, what are the chances of getting serious action against global warming? After all, a cap-and-trade system would in effect be a tax on carbon (though Mr. McCain apparently doesn’t know that), and really would raise energy prices.
I offer this anecdote to corroborate Krugman's observation: a co-worker of mine who has a somewhat conservative family told me some of them believe the recent fall in gas prices is because Bush signed an executive order lifting the ban on offshore-drilling. Sigh. That EO just reversed a previous EO and did nothing. Congress has to authorize the drilling for it to happen. Gas prices have declined because demand has declined. It turns out Americans will indeed drive less if gas gets too high.

What I take away from this is in addition to trying to educate the public about the climate system, we also need to educate them about where all their energy currently comes from. High prices may help with that. Soon everyone will understand the difference between "light, sweet" and "heavy" crude oil.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Obama's Energy Plan: Really good

Obama came out with his energy plan yesterday. I agree with Joe over at Climate Progress that its pretty darn good from a major-party candidate (I don't recall if its better then Gore's 2000 plan. Anyone?)

Here are some good points:

  • cap-and-trade program with all credits auctioned
  • Reduce emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.
  • Raise CAFE by 4% a year
  • Increase building, appliance and power generation efficiency (still the easiest "win")

And tucked way at the bottom was this nice part about building more sustainable and livable communities: "Obama is committed to reforming the federal transportation funding and leveling employer incentives for driving and public transit." Yeah!

I didn't like the mention of exploiting oil shales in Montana and clean coal but, overall, this is great. Too bad energy, except for gas prices, and climate has fallen off the radar in the campaign or this might get more attention.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Krugman points out the "fat tails"

First in his blog and then a few days later in a column, NYT columnist Paul Krugman uses his influtential position to point out the interesting work being done by Harvard economist Martin Weitzman on the economics of climate change. Finally!

To much economic comment on climate change is focused on cost-benefit analysis, as if we can just count up the cost of losing ecosystems etc. Dr. Weitzman points out that the economic question isn't about accounting and discount rates, its about uncertainty. We don't know exactly what's going to happen and we need to mitigate that risk. If you consider a probability distribution of temperature increases, it looks like a typical "bell" curve, with 2-4 degrees being most probable and cases on either side being lower and lower the further you get away from that center. The problem is that the probabilities for the really bad cases don't fall off fast enough, the tails of the bell curve are "fat". From Krugman's column:
It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist who has been driving much of the recent high-level debate, offers some sobering numbers. Surveying a wide range of climate models, he argues that, over all, they suggest about a 5 percent chance that world temperatures will eventually rise by more than 10 degrees Celsius (that is, world temperatures will rise by 18 degrees Fahrenheit). As Mr. Weitzman points out, that’s enough to “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.” It’s sheer irresponsibility not to do whatever we can to eliminate that threat.

This mention was actually part of a larger, and good, point about the recent lying about off-shore drilling which is subject for another post.