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The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

Filtering by Category: Climate Change

Shooting down future airships

John Rennie

hybridairship

Who among us with even a wisp of steampunk in our soul does not love the idea of an airship renaissance? Airships are beautiful and majestic, and modern hybrid airship designs are extraordinarily capable. They far transcend inappropriate fears of Hindenberg-like disaster. No wonder some enthusiasts foresee a coming day when airships will again fly in great numbers as replacements for some fixed-wing aircraft, as new vehicles for air cargo transport, and as floating luxury liners. Unfortunately, for reasons I explored in a series of posts back in 2011, I'm skeptical of this glorious airship resurgence. Hybrid airships work but to triumph on those terms, they need to make practical, economic sense and be better than the transportation alternatives. I'm not convinced that's true for most of the listed applications. (The important exception is for luxury cruising: any business that's built on rich people's willingness to pay top dollar for great experiences can defy some of the usual constraints.)

Start with my Txchnologist story "Lead Zeppelin: Can Airships Overcome Past Disasters and Rise Again?", then continue with my Gleaming Retort posts "Does Global Warming Help the Case for Airships?" and "Zeppelin Disappointments, Airship Woes."

Scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere

John Rennie

atmosphere_from_iss

Everyone who has thought about industrially driven climate change has at some point, however briefly, wondered why we can’t solve the problem by pulling the unwanted carbon dioxide back out of the air. Surely, if burning fossil fuels can blast so much extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some other act of chemistry on an equally gargantuan scale ought to be able to recapture the gas. That's the possibility I explore in a pair of columns for SmartPlanet. "Why not scrub CO2 from the sky?" reviews several ideas for using innovative materials to recapture carbon dioxide released by industrial processes and then safely cache it where it can't contribute to climate change—in theory. "Throwing rocks at CO2" looks at the related concept of using naturally occurring minerals to accelerate the removal of CO2 from the air.

Pakistan's Floods, Global Warming & Global Security

John Rennie

Next time someone seems skeptical of the idea that anthropogenic climate change represents not just an environmental threat, or a threat to economies, or even a human catastrophe, but an actual threat to global security and political security... point to this on Pakistan's horrific floods by Robert Reich at Salon.com:

Flooding there has already stranded 20 million people, more than 10 percent of the population. A fifth of the nation is underwater. More than 3.5 million children are in imminent danger of contracting cholera and acute diarrhea; millions more are in danger of starving if they don’t get help soon. More than 1,500 have already been killed by the floods.

This is a human disaster.

It’s also a frightening opening for the Taliban.

<...>

If you’re not moved by the scale of the disaster and its aftermath, consider that our future security is inextricably bound up with the future for Pakistan. Of 175 million Pakistanis, some 100 million are under age 25. In the years ahead they’ll either opt for gainful employment or, in its absence, may choose Islamic extremism.

We are already in a war for their hearts and minds, as well as those of young people throughout the Muslim world.

Right now, Islamic insurgents are using the chaos as an opportunity, attacking police posts in Pakistan’s northwest while police have been occupied in rescue and relief work. Meanwhile, lacking help and losing hope, many Pakistanis are becoming increasingly hostile toward President Asif Ali Zardari.

And, of course, Pakistan has the bomb.

Oh, yes, I know, scientists can't pin Pakistan's floods definitively to global warming. But global warming increases the odds of such disruptive events in Pakistan and elsewhere, and the dangers only multiply as the warming increases. If climate change only makes such disasters a little more probable, consider the repercussions. And consider how the unwillingness of the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world to curb their greenhouse emissions significantly will sit with people in the countries most likely to bear the brunt of the climate effects.

Update (added 9 a.m.): For a more domestic, constructive and cogent post on a similar theme, go read JR Minkel's "Addressing climate change is about preserving freedom." JR is of course ignoring America's most important freedoms: to drive massive gashogs and leave the garage lights on all night. But maybe he has some kind of crazy hippie point.

Once Again, False Balance on Climate at the N.Y. Times

John Rennie

balance2-1

By rights, I should have seen and commented on this article in the New York Times days ago, and perhaps a better blogger would now shrug it off as a lost opportunity. But even if it is only a fairly trivial example of the chronic problem with false balance that dogs reporting on the climate policy debates, this particular instance of it still annoys me so much that I need to vent it out of my system anyway. Tom Zeller, Jr., writes:

In any debate over climate change, conventional wisdom holds that there is no reflex more absurd than invoking the local weather.

And yet this year’s wild weather fluctuations seem to have motivated people on both sides of the issue to stick a finger in the air and declare the matter resolved — in their favor.

...

Last February, for example, as a freak winter storm paralyzed much of the East Coast, relatives of Senator James M. Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who is a skeptic of climate change, came to Washington and erected an igloo.

They topped it with a cheeky sign asking passers-by to “Honk if you ♥ global warming.” Another sign, added later, christened the ice dome “Al Gore’s new home.”

...

Now, with record heat searing much of the planet from Minnesota to Moscow, people long concerned with global warming seem to be pointing out the window themselves.

“As Washington, D.C., wilts in the global heat wave gripping the planet, the Democratic leadership in the Senate has abandoned the effort to cap global warming pollution for the foreseeable future,” wrote Brad Johnson at the progressive Wonk Room blog, part of the Center for American Progress.

Must it be necessary to point out that the climate deniers and the environmentalists are "invoking the local weather" in completely different, nonequivalent ways?

Inhofe and the sign makers were implying that the cold weather disproved claims of global warming and showed they were ridiculous. The scientific fraudulence of that argument is precisely why using isolated weather incidents to argue about climate is absurd.

In contrast, even though the Times titled this story, "Is It Hot in Here? Must Be Global Warming," no one in the story makes that argument. Johnson did not say the heat wave proved global warming was real. Instead, he highlighted the irony of lawmakers forsaking a sound response to the problem while the world was suffering from extreme heat—a kind of heat that will only become more commonplace and extreme as global warming continues.

One side illegitimately used weather as evidence. The other used weather as an example. Were Zeller and his editors too foolish to recognize the difference or was the thrill of getting to say both sides are doing it just too sweet to ignore?

Unsolicited Advice for Patrick J. Michaels

John Rennie

As an editor, I have this suggestion for Patrick J. Michaels of the Cato Institute. It might help his public communication skills. Patrick, in the future if a reporter asks you, "Did you mean to imply that undercutting the credibility of the field [of climate research] in toto is a good thing?" and your answer is, "No," followed by this:

I think that most environmental policies (or non-policies) require some type of “event”. Consider “Waldenstrube” (acid rain), the mis-named “Ozone Hole” (more accurately known as the early-spring Antarctic depletion) and the Montreal Protocol, or Bob Watson’s completely fabricated Northern Hemisphere ozone hole (did you ever write about that?) prompting a complete phaseout by the senate, 99-0. I think our science has always been fraught with uncertainty. Look at the history of Methane concentrations in the last two decades. “Consensus” science (including myself in this one) was dead wrong about the second most-important human-related greenhouse-gas emission! That’s a pretty big flop that the public is completely unaware of. So if they don’t trust us as they used to, that’s a good thing…at least it is the right thing!

I don’t have a problem with the public not trusting scientists. The way we do science today ( Kuhn + large programmatic funding = stasis + shenanigans) certainly doesn’t inspire my trust.

Then it would be faster and clearer if you just said, "Yes."

So... Benjamin Santer was asking for it?

John Rennie

Pity, if you will, Andy Revkin. As a reporter who worked the environment beat for The New York Times for many years, and who now continues as the author of the Dot Earth blog for that paper, Andy has the mixed blessing of being one of the most prominent journalists covering climate change, which means that he is a prominent target for arrows from all sides. Those who doubt, deny or otherwise resist efforts to stop anthropogenic global warming—whom Andy calls stasists and whom I'm usually comfortable calling deniers or denialists—attack him for pushing "climate alarmism." Meanwhile, proponents of climate policy reform paint Andy as frustratingly, deliberately centrist: too willing to echo the talking points of seemingly respectable opponents; too willing to discount the efforts of the disinformation campaign that maintains the energy/climate status quo. Of course, anyone who knows Andy and is familiar with his body of work can have no doubt that he recognizes the reality of climate change and the importance of trying to prevent it. I know his heart is in the right place. I know he isn't namby-pamby on the subject.

But it's easy to see why so many climate scientists throw up their hands at Andy's work when, in a post about the wild goose chase that was Climategate, he writes things like this (emphasis added):

The press, including me, was excoriated for devoting too much ink (and electrons) to the disclosed files in the first place. Some coverage was indeed far too focused on the sense of conflict, which is not surprising given that — as my screenwriter friends always say — conflict is story.

But what such critics forget is that many of the e-mail messages enabled the allegations that were then propounded by folks like Anthony Watts and amplified by professional anti-climate-policy campaigners like Marc Morano.

I would have had no need, in my initial print story on the affair last December, to seek a comment from Patrick J. Michaels — a climatologist who speaks and writes on energy and climate policy for the Cato Institute, which fights most regulatory solutions to environmental problems — if Benjamin Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, using his government e-mail account, had not vented to colleagues on October 9, 2009, in this way:

I’m really sorry that you have to go through all this stuff, Phil. Next 
time I see Pat Michaels at a scientific meeting, I’ll be tempted to beat 
the [expletive]  out of him. Very tempted.

I want to give Andy the benefit of the doubt on this, but how is writing that the stolen (or whatever) personal messages "enabled the allegations" not tantamount to blaming the victims of the theft? What exactly is the implicit standard here? That no one should say anything intemperate even in a presumably private conversation because, if it somehow becomes public knowledge, reporters will have no choice but to investigate every rhetorical flourish?

If that is the idea, then Andy really fell down on the job. Because although he sought out Patrick J. Michaels for comment, I don't see any evidence that he tried to contact the organizers of the scientific meeting to find out whether they would have beefed up security to head off Santer's berserker assault.

Please, Andy. We get it. The e-mails contained some juicy, gossipy slurs, and asking the subject of them what he thought was irresistible. Anybody in journalism might have done as much—TMZ and Perez Hilton surely would. It was certainly helpful to your efforts that Santer said something so colorful, because let's face it, for your purposes it would have been enough for him to say, "Patrick Michaels sure makes me mad! I sure wish someone would make him shut up!" Even that would have shown evidence of some emotional bias against the man and you would then have had to seek comment about it, no? Michaels would certainly have thought so, true? And you wouldn't want to make him unhappy.

It was a completely justified way to go with the story. Noted. I can swallow that. But please, don't be low enough to imply that the climate researchers brought it on themselves by failing to anticipate someone would make them publicly answerable for expressing personal opinions that fall short of an unstated, never-to-be-reached standard of decorum.

My apologies if anyone thinks I'm out of line for upbraiding Andy like this. But what such critics forget is that Andy's ill-considered comments enabled my allegations, much as Santer's did. The difference is that Andy intentionally put his words on a blog of The New York Times, whereas Santer just found his there.

“Stasists”? No. “Deniers”? Yes.

John Rennie

My previous post about the polar bear photo embarrassment, which Andy Revkin wrote about, gives me occasion to comment on Andy’s use of “stasists” for the people in opposition to the climate warming arguments. He favors that term, I gather, because it is more neutral than names like “denier,” and because he thinks it speaks to the goal common to the diverse camps of people on that side of the argument: to keep on doing things as we have been. Much though I appreciate Andy’s ongoing good-faith journalistic efforts to keep an even keel in these contentious discussions, after some consideration, I still disagree about the appropriateness of that label. (But then again, I’m no fan of the “pro-life” label for people who are objectively anti-choice, either.) First, let’s acknowledge that the terminology for both sides stinks. James Hansen, Stephen Schneider, Rajendra Pachauri, Al Gore and others warning about the evidence for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) are obviously not “warmists” in the sense of wanting more warming any more than Marc Morano and Bjorn Lomborg are "coolists" who want more cooling.

The problem is compounded by the range of nonexclusive reasons why (ostensibly) people are in the stasist/denier camp. First, there are the many who may start off with no particular opposition to the idea of AGW but who sincerely do not know or do not understand the evidence for it (I would like to think they constitute much of the U.S. public). Then there are the ones who outright deny the climate is changing; the ones who do not think human activity could affect the climate; the ones who recognize changes in the climate but insist it must be natural; the ones who concede the possibility of human influence but doubt the warming will continue; the ones who accept the fact of significant warming but doubt it will be disruptive; the ones who grant AGW could be bad but say responding to it in the future makes more sense than trying to prevent it; and the ones who simply argue that More Research Is Needed and refuse to act until their agnosticism is satisfied. And of course within each of those segments, one could split out still smaller shadings of opinion. (Baskin-Robbins doesn’t have as many flavors of ice cream as Andy’s stasists have flavors of opposition.)

Finding one name that honestly and accurately reflects all those points of view is difficult. Yet with the exception of those who can plead genuine ignorance (and who are almost never the ones publicly arguing against climate science or policy), pretty much all of those other positions involves some level of active denial or disagreement with copious scientific evidence or risk-management precedent. So at a purely existential level, they define themselves to my mind as the “uninformed” and the “deniers.”

(I suppose the latter could also be called “resisters,” but frankly, the dishonesty many of them exhibit in repeatedly using debunked arguments persuades me that the overtones of “denier” are more accurate. Moreover, since I suspect that many of them are simply committed a priori to rejection of the climate science and its consequences out of their own beliefs, the term “denialist,” with its creedlike associations, also makes considerable sense.)

But here is the crux of my argument: I think it’s a mistake when characterizing these people as deniers to try to homogenize what they think about AGW or climate science because they are all over the place on those. Rather, what they all deny is any need for a pro-active response to AGW.

Isn’t that essentially Andy’s argument for calling them stasists? It’s close but here is where I fault his terminology. First, these critics are not all calling for stasis in policies: those like Bjorn Lomborg are happy to see any number of policy responses but only after the damage of climate change is more evident. They simply don’t want anti-AGW activism to rock the boat now. Second, I think “stasist” is Orwellianly misleading as a label for a position synonymous with acceptance of massive change. Put it this way: would you consider someone a “biodiversity stasist” if he advocated continuing to cut down rainforests only at the current rate?

As so many climate scientists and others have already said, the time for action on global warming is already upon us. Let’s be clear, then, that the division in the arguments is between those committed either to climate action activism or to climate action denial (or resistance or opposition). Forget trying to find some neutral, anodyne term in the interest of reconciliation. The weight of evidence runs against most of the deniers' positions, so don’t hesitate to use a term that puts them on the defensive.

Polar Bear Pic was Bad... But So What?

John Rennie

Andy Revkin, on his Dot Earth blog, has already done a fine job of summarizing the self-defeating gaffe of Science publishing the new letter from 255 National Academy of Sciences members, which rebukes the misleading political assaults on climate research and its investigators, with a Photoshopped image of a polar bear on an ice block. Because of this frustrating error, the attention that the authoritative scientific statement deserves is instead diverting to the flawed rhetoric of its presentation (a mistake introduced by the publication, not by the NAS). The incident has become a perfect cameo of the larger climate-change issue: scientists speak out on the state of the research with facts and substantive arguments, and opponents jump on any small defects in what’s said to argue, honestly or otherwise, that the climate science is wrong, corrupt or both. Of course, the irony of us criticizing Science’s use of the polar bear artwork is we forget that in the eyes of the people most incensed by it, literally no effective image would have been acceptable. I’m not arguing that the polar bear picture wasn’t a particularly bad choice: it was, because it made the critics’ job much too easy. But what images would have been above reproach? Photos of shorelines racked by hurricanes or floods? Icebergs calving off polar glaciers? As individual incidents, none of those can be pinned definitively to global warming, so the critics will always call the images sensationalizing. How about a photo of a polar bear on a larger ice sheet? The critics don’t think polar bears are endangered, wouldn’t really care if they were, and don’t accept that global warming is the real reason for their problems. Ditto for any other climate-endangered species. Care to show photos of people whose livelihoods are jeopardized by climate change? Surely then you are ignoring the flexibility and ingenuity of human economies.

How about just a presentation of the scientific data, then? Maybe, say, a nice hockey-stick graph of rising temperatures over the past millennium? Hmm, apparently that’s not acceptable either, no matter how well vindicated its conclusions might be. Or maybe something showing the rapidly rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere? But surely then you’ll be ignoring the fact that CO2 levels were higher during the Carboniferous, and if it was good enough for Apatosaurus, it will be good enough for us, too.

No, none of those is beyond controversy. Here’s what you need to show to keep the critics happy: Big, empty photos of the sun. Photos of scientists pulling ice cores out of the ground or otherwise engaged in bland, unintelligible, wonkish busywork. Maybe a big group photo of those 255 NAS members standing on the steps of a building in Washington. Photos of the IPCC reports (riveting!). Maybe some artwork of a thermometer creeping into the 90s with a big question mark beside it (awesome!).

Face it: to the people committed to rejecting your message, no image that helps you sell your message persuasively will ever be acceptable—because accepting it would be tantamount to conceding some point in your favor. And if the climate deniers have proven anything, it’s that they are willing to oppose the global warming issue at every possible level, from denying the fact or possibility of global warming right up through dismissing the possibility or desirability of responding to it proactively.

By the way, just as an experiment, consider if the shoe were on the other foot. Suppose 255 scientists released an official statement dismissing global warming as a sham. Are there any images they could use to illustrate that argument forcefully that would elicit an equal sense of outrage and disappointment from others on their own side? Somehow, I doubt it; these are people who have embraced “Al Gore is fat!” as a rallying cry.