Monthly Archives: January 2012

Climate BS (Bad Science) Awards for 2011

You can probably guess the top few people or organizations cited for doing the most to undermine the scientific basis of climate change last year, but perhaps not who did the most damage. Was it the Koch brothers for funding a massive disinformation campaign, Rush Limbaugh for relentlessly ridiculing anyone who takes climate change seriously, or Newt Gingrich for killing a chapter that acknowledged the serious problem of human-caused climate change, which was scheduled for a book of environmental essays he is coauthoring (due out after the election)? According to a panel of climate scientists and journalists (“climate communicators”) the winner is . . . all the Republican candidates, says Peter H. Gleick of Planet 3.0. Fox News and Murdoch’s News Corporation shared second place, while the Koch brothers ranked number 4 for lavishly “funding the promotion of bad climate science,” outspending even ExxonMobil in this regard.  Reading the details of dishonesty and hypocrisy on the part of journalists and scientists, even misleading information offered by an “expert” testifying at a  Congressional hearing, makes it clearer why leaders and policymakers have felt little pressure to solve what some have called the biggest problem the world has ever faced.

In his introduction to the list with its substantive supporting evidence, Gleick cogently explains the failure of our leaders to act, either to slow the harmful emissions or prepare for inevitable consequences of climate change. Why this inertia in the face of overwhelming evidence from scientists?

In part [it is] because climate change is a truly difficult challenge. But in part [it is] because of a concerted, well-funded, and aggressive anti-science campaign by climate change deniers and contrarians. These are mostly groups focused on protecting narrow financial interests, ideologues fearful of any government regulation, or scientific contrarians who cling to outdated, long-refuted interpretations of science. While much of the opposition to addressing the issue of climate change is political, it often hides behind pseudo-scientific claims, with persistent efforts to intentionally mislead the public and policymakers with bad science about climate change. Much of this effort is based on intentional falsehoods, misrepresentations, inflated uncertainties, or pure and utter B.S. – the same tactics that delayed efforts to tackle tobacco’s health risks long after the science was understood (as documented in Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s book, Merchants of Doubt).

Read all of it here; prepare to be disturbed. More about climate skeptics and who is likely to be one in a later post.

 

Don’t let good news on one climate-change front cause neglect of the main chance

It’s probably human nature to seize on stories that provide even a glimmer of hope to counter the relentless warnings about the short time we have to act on prevent irreversible climate change. No wonder news accounts of a new study in Science suggesting how to cut warming in the near term buoyed our spirits with rosy headlines like “Climate Proposal Puts Practicality ahead of Sacrifice” in the Times (January 17) and  “Groundbreaking New Study Shows How to Reduce Near-Term Global Warming” over a post by Andrew Freedman on Climate Change (January 12). Besides, in the journal scientists, led by NASA researcher Drew Shindell, not policymakers, told us how to seize the moment by cutting the amount of methane and black carbon (aka “soot”) spewed into the atmosphere. Both are short-lived pollutants, and it is estimated that they account for about half of the warming the earth has experienced so far. The good news is clear. According to Freedman, “Shindell and his colleagues found that the 14 emissions reduction actions they zeroed in on would be relatively cheap, and can be implemented with existing technologies.”

There is a potential downside to the report, however, or rather to seizing on its good news as an answer to our problems. It sounds like we can buy some time, but that’s not the case, according to Lou Grinzo on Planet 3.0; it’s telling that the headline to his post ends in a question mark: “A shortcut to restraining climate change?” Grinzo cautions that the Times news story put too optimistic a face on the study and that although Freedman’s headline sounds pie-in-the sky as well, his post emphasizes the need to do both: reduce CO2 and the shorter-lived gases. (Burning soot-producing fuels such as wood and dung in developing countries causes many health problems, providing another incentive to  eliminate that contribution to warming.) For example, Freedman quotes the lead researcher as saying, “It would be a bad thing if this were a substitute for action on CO2.”

Grinzo notes that even though the solutions to methane and black carbon seem practical, they will not be put into place without resistance,  political and economic as well as practical. While we can tackle the leaks from natural gas lines, mines, and landfills, what about the significant  amounts of methane emitted by the agriculture industry? As he says, “Enteric fermentation (i.e., farm animal belches and flatulence), manure management, and wastewater treatment all present challenging scenarios, to put it mildly.”

Still, I’ll end on a glass-half-full note, with Freedman’s last paragraph and a couple of links: “Given the seemingly endless stream of depressing climate change news, some confidence-building measures, such as the ones analyzed in the study, could be exactly what we need.” If you want to help, visit The Partnership for Clean Indoor Air (PCIA) media page to read feature stories about their work to improve efficiency of cookstoves used by billions of people worldwide and donate if you are convinced. Also, see Berkeley researcher Daniel M. Kammen’s paper  on the various stove models that have been tested (with illustrations).

Update (Jan. 29): The Feb. 3 issue of The Week summarized an Agence France-Pressestory in 200 words, with a sunny headline and a photo caption reading “Should we fight soot instead of CO2?”

                        A new strategy to slow climate change


The world could make a big dent in global warming without reducing fossil fuel emissions, says an international team of scientists. Given the strong resistance to curbing fossil fuels, they say, policymakers could buy some time by shifting their focus to reducing emissions of soot and methane. “In the short term, dealing with these pollutants is more doable, and it brings fast benefits,” Drew Shindell, a researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, tells Agence France-Presse. Soot, or black carbon, is produced by unfiltered diesel engines, inefficient boilers, and, in the developing world, cookstoves and kilns. Particularly when it falls on snowpack and ice, soot helps heat the planet by absorbing radiation from the sun. Methane, which traps heat in the atmosphere far more effectively than carbon dioxide does, leaks in great quantities from oil- and gas-producing facilities, coal mines, pipelines, sewage plants, and farm ponds. Using existing technologies, we could capture much of this methane and soot before it reaches the atmosphere, and reduce projected warming by more than a third. As a result, the amount of warming expected by 2050 would be lower by about one degree Fahrenheit. Reducing soot and methane are “things we know how to do and have done,” Shindell says. “We just haven’t done them worldwide.”

This blog would be easier to write if I just linked to sunny digests like this, but it wouldn’t be the whole story, and we should be realistic about what we face.

There’s No Reason to Build the Keystone XL Pipeline–and Many Reasons Not To

There are many reasons to oppose building the Keystone XL pipeline to get oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries, such as likely environmental damage from spills, the energy required to get the oil out, and the threat to aquifers along the route, but the biggest threat the Keystone pipeline poses is the catastrophic amounts of carbon that will be released if this oil is extracted and burned. As Bill McKibben of 350.org has said frequently, citing NASA’s Jim Hansen, if the world’s second largest deposit of oil is tapped, the amount of carbon released will essentially doom all mitigation efforts: it will be “game over” for the climate. Given the lack of political will to act on other than short-term interest, even this warning is not likely to stop the project at a time of high oil prices and growing demand. Indeed, NPR reported on Morning Edition on January 18 that extraction of the tar sands oil continues, with much of it traveling on huge tankers and existing pipelines to the American West Coast and with plans to expand pipelines to the East Coast.

But Republicans’ and the oil industry’s claim that the project would provide jobs has been thoroughly debunked, at least on the blogs, which is the only place you are likely to find the story. On January 11 Danielle Droitsch of the National Resources Defense Council punctured claims that the pipeline will provide thousands of jobs. She showed that linking Keystone XL to job creation is a scam–a pretense to get the oil to international customers, for the US is already reducing its oil imports and the tar sands extracted oil would glut the market, lowering the price and thus oil companies’ profits. A subhead neatly sums up her contentions:  The Oil Goes to China, the Permanent Jobs Go to Canada, We Get the Spills, and the World Gets Warmer. (Note: I’m linking to the January 13 repost on Climate Progress because of the number of substantive comments it received there. Also, a video from CNN posted there has an interview with an executive of  TransCanada conceding that permanent jobs created will number only in the hundreds; some thousands would be hired, but only on a temporary basis, to construct the pipeline.)

Droitsch argues that not only would few jobs be created (under 100 permanent ones); building the pipeline would hinder the creation of  jobs in the  renewable energy sector, which is where they are growing exponentially. She asserts, “The evidence shows the future of job creation is in global clean energy markets,” and  “approving Keystone will set that task back decades.” On January 18, with news outlets reporting that Obama was set to reject the pipeline, Sarah Laskow confirmed Droitsch’s claim on Grist.org. Although mainstream media continue to report Republican claims that rejecting the pipeline makes Obama a job-killer, they ought to cite the evidence provided by Laskow that proves clean energy policies create more jobs than Keystone. Her figures, borrowed from Think Progress, derive from an independent study of job creation caused by programs such as the Energy Department’s loan guarantees and the EPA’s new mercury emissions rule.

This won’t stop the extraction of tar sands oil. But there are a couple of ways to slow it: decrease demand for gasoline and increase production of energy from alternative sources. As the Morning Edition reporter said, “by raising fuel efficiency standards, as the Obama administration recently did, . . . you stand a much better chance of slowing production in the oil sands.” Opponents of Keystone  will take heart from today’s decision, for building one pipeline opens the gate to many more, and stopping this big one for now buys time for activists to work on the other front: reducing consumption of fossil fuels in as many ways as we can think of.

Captain Moore warns of peril from plastic in new book

Visit the website of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to order a signed copy of Plastic Ocean, the new book by Captain Charles Moore, who discovered the North Pacific Garbage Patch. If you’re on Oahu,  Moore will be kicking off a semester of sustainability on the UH Manoa campus center on January 17 at noon. He’ll be talking about his research into the growing amount of plastic marine pollution in the Garbage Patch and the world’s oceans. For Moore’s excellent description of the looming plastic peril he says is a bigger threat to the Earth’s future than climate change, go to Captain Moore on marine plastic pollution, a 7-minute interview that appeared on WGBH Boston in November 2011.

The Algalita Marine Research Foundation is one of two nonprofit groups inviting members of the public to join them on a research trip into the Japanese tsunami debris field in May and June 2012. For details, see “Tracking the Debris from Japan’s Tsunami” on the NYT Green blog. Scientists on the expedition will analyze how fast the debris is breaking down and measure its toxicity and how much is being ingested by marine life. They also hope to be able to predict how much of the debris will reach the west coast of North America, whether Hawai’i will bear the brunt, or whether most will end up in the Garbage Patch. For more on the eventual destination see the December post Japanese Tsunami Debris Headed Our Way.

In 2012 vote every day–with your wallet

If you feel like your power as a citizen is insignificant because you  choose your representatives every two years and the president every four, remember that going to the polls is just one way to vote. As the folks at the Better World Shopper remind us, “Every dollar you spend is a vote for the world you want to live in.”

One way to vote every day or at least every week:  become a socially and environmentally responsible consumer. To find out which companies are ranked higher because they are aim for sustainability, protect animals, support family farms and local businesses, and/or follow the best human rights and social justice practices, order The Better World Shopping Guide, by Ellis Jones. It’s just $10 and small enough to carry around until you have memorized the best and worst companies in the categories you buy most often–from pet food and chocolate to cosmetics and coffee. Or use the website betterworldshopper.com, starting with the Best 20 Companies. Chances are you already buy products from some of these, like Tom’s of Maine, Method, Organic Valley, Clif Bar, Patagonia, Kettle Foods, Ben & Jerry’s. This will make you feel good, which will sustain you as you realize how hard it is to avoid supporting the worst companies: Proctor & Gamble, Nestle, Kraft, Archer Daniels Midland, GM, GE, and Tyson Foods, all among the worst.

The rankings of best and worst, from A to F (yes, it’s a kind of report card on businesses), are based on  a myriad of reliable sources of information on corporate behavior, such as a company’s environmental record, contribution to climate change, donations made, fair trade sources, and ethical business practices. If you spend $18,000 a year on consumer goods and services (the American average), think of it as 18,000 votes for a better world.