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Posts Tagged ‘Climate Change’

Climate scientists plan campaign against global-warming skeptics [via The Los Angeles Times]

Some 700 members of the American Geophysical Union have agreed to form a rapid-response team to speak out about the realities of climate change, a topic with virtually universal support in scientific circles but with a growing number of skeptics in and out of politics. The move is in no small part due to Republicans’ takeover of the House Tuesday and subsequent vows to investigate the EPA and climate change researchers. “This group feels strongly that science and politics can’t be divorced and that we need to take bold measures to not only communicate science but also to aggressively engage the denialists and politicians who attack climate science and its scientists,” said Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in New York.

Pompeii ruin collapses amid claims site mismanaged [via The Daily Telegraph]

A house once used by gladiators before fights almost 2,000 years ago in Pompeii collapsed Saturday morning, realizing fears of mismanagement and creeping decrepitude of the UNESCO World Heritage site. Culture Minister Sandro Bondi said the cause appeared to be “rain water that had infiltrated the House of the Gladiators when it was restored with cement at the end of the Second World War after suffering bomb damage.” Funding for conserving Pompeii, which is visited annually by more than 2 million people, has been slashed in recent years, and archaeologists are concerned about continuing degradation if preventive measures are not enacted quickly.

The Queen joins Facebook [via The Guardian]

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II joined Facebook today, Buckingham Palace announced this weekend, but there’s no way to friend or poke her. Technically, the monarchy now has a fan page where news and photos about the Queen and the royal family will be posted. “Facebook is probably the last bastion of social media the Royal Household had not yet entered, and the Queen is keen to be fully signed up to the 21st century,” an anonymous royal aid said. “All plans for the Facebook page have been sent to the top, and the Queen has very much taken the lead on this.” A Royal Twitter account was launched in 2009.

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A new study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication gives more than half of Americans a failing grade on the specifics of climate change. When questioned about the greenhouse effect, the difference between weather and climate, fossil fuels, carbon dioxide, skeptic arguments and solutions, fully 52 percent of respondents received a failing grade. A mere one percent received an A; 7 percent, a B; 15 percent, a C; 25 percent, a D.

“These misconceptions lead some people to doubt that climate change is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the causes and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks. Thus many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making about this issue in a democratic society,” the report’s authors, Anthony Leiserowitz and Nicholas Smith of Yale and Jennifer R. Marlon of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, wrote.

Some of the results:

  • 63 percent understand global warming is happening; 19 percent say it is not
  • 13 percent have not heard of the greenhouse effect
  • 83 percent know weather often changes from year to year; 74 percent knew “climate” refers to average weather conditions in a region
  • 55 percent incorrectly believe Earth’s climate is warmer than ever
  • Given the current surface temperature of 58 degrees, respondants were asked about the average temperature during the last ice age. The correct response is between 46 and 51 degrees; the median response was 32 degrees, the freezing point of water. Many responded 0 degrees.
  • 80 percent identified coal as a fossil fuel; 76 percent identified oil as a fossil fuel; 60 percent identified natural gas as a fossil fuel; 28 percent said wood (not a fossil fuel)
  • 47 percent incorrectly said fossil fuels are the fossilized remains of dinosaurs
  • 49 percent incorrectly believe the space program contributes to global warming
  • 42 percent said that, because weather cannot be predicted more than a few days in advance, long-term climate forecasts are unreliable
  • 35 percent said that, because Earth’s climate has changed before, the current change is not related to human activity
  • 18 percent believe the record snowstorms last year disprove global warming (climate change models actually predict such storms as more water from the poles melts and is dispersed in the atmosphere)
  • 21 percent know most of the glaciers on Earth are melting
  • 43 percent incorrectly believe that stopping rocket launches from punching holes in the ozone layer will reduce global warming
  • 27 percent said climate change is extremely or very important to them personally
  • 75 percent said schools should teach the causes, effects and possible solutions to children

The report’s authors caution against reading too much into the grades, however. Some questions were more difficult to answer than others, they note, and perhaps even more importantly few Americans have taken any formal course on climate change, instead getting their information from the mass media.

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America’s energy policy is often dictated by short-term requirements: increasing need, lags in the development of alternative energy sources, the discovery and exploitation of new sources of fossil fuels. Environmentalists have typically cautioned in the past that such short-term thinking is progressively more detrimental to the global ecosystem and responsible energy policy will account for long-term considerations.

Okay, said George F. Will. Let’s look ahead a few hundred thousand years. What we’re doing now, he concludes in this recent Newsweek column, has no effect on the earth in the long term. His column is based on (read: largely a rewrite and oversimplification of) a recent American Scholar article by Nobel-winning physicist Robert Laughlin.

What humans do to, and ostensibly for, the earth does not matter in the long run, and the long run is what matters to the earth. We must, Laughlin says, think about the earth’s past in terms of geologic time.

Will doesn’t seem to have the greatest grasp on science or its deeper policy implications.

For example: The world’s total precipitation in a year is about one meter—“the height of a golden retriever.” About 200 meters—the height of the Hoover Dam—have fallen on earth since the Industrial Revolution. Since the Ice Age ended, enough rain has fallen to fill all the oceans four times; since the dinosaurs died, rainfall has been sufficient to fill the oceans 20,000 times. Yet the amount of water on earth probably hasn’t changed significantly over geologic time.

Will is correct that there is approximately the same amount of water on earth as there ever has been. That’s because of something called the water cycle (or the hydrologic cycle if you want to get all science-y), which unless I’m mistaken is taught to every second grader in America.

Since, according to Will, the ocean levels have stayed roughly the same despite significant rainfall in the last few billion years, the earth will be just fine in the long run.

Someday, all the fossil fuels that used to be in the ground will be burned. After that, in about a millennium, the earth will dissolve most of the resulting carbon dioxide into the oceans. (The oceans have dissolved in them “40 times more carbon than the atmosphere contains, a total of 30 trillion tons, or 30 times the world’s coal reserves.”) The dissolving will leave the concentration in the atmosphere only slightly higher than today’s. Then “over tens of millennia, or perhaps hundreds” the earth will transfer the excess carbon dioxide into its rocks, “eventually returning levels in the sea and air to what they were before humans arrived on the scene.” This will take an eternity as humans reckon, but a blink in geologic time.

Again, Will is right only technically. But energy policy cannot be dictated by geologic time scales — a stretch of time useful only in academic research.

In his original piece, Laughlin, whose work has been in theoretical physics, does indeed reframe clime change in geologic time.

On the scales of time relevant to itself, the earth doesn’t care about any of these governments or their legislation. It doesn’t care whether you turn off your air conditioner, refrigerator, and television set. It doesn’t notice when you turn down your thermostat and drive a hybrid car. These actions simply spread the pain over a few centuries, the bat of an eyelash as far as the earth is concerned, and leave the end result exactly the same: all the fossil fuel that used to be in the ground is now in the air, and none is left to burn.

In the short term, Laughlin says, of more immediate importance is the human population, which has been growing exponentially for some time. Humans are taxing earth’s resources to the limit and have already initiated what scientists call the sixth great extinction (the previous five being less serious extinctions, including the dinosaurs at the hands of a massive asteroid).

However, carbon dioxide, per se, is not responsible for most of this extinction stress. There are a handful of counterexamples, notably corals, which may be especially sensitive to acidification of the ocean surface, and amphibians, which are declining noticeably for unknown reasons. But, except in these few isolated cases, keeping carbon-based fuels in the ground a while longer won’t make much difference in mitigating the loss of biodiversity. The real problem is human population pressure generally—overharvesting, habitat destruction, pesticide abuse, species invasion, and so forth. Slowing man-made extinctions in a meaningful way would require drastically reducing the world’s human population. That is unlikely to happen.

Laughlin’s article is really quite academic in its scope, not useful to policymakers and politicians.

Energy procurement is a matter of engineering and keeping the lights on under circumstances that are likely to get more difficult as time progresses. Climate change, by contrast, is a matter of geologic time, something that the earth routinely does on its own without asking anyone’s permission or explaining itself. … The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.

Will posits that Laughlin is telling us to simply give up on preventing climate change, something he is absolutely not promulgating. Laughlin is simply reframing climate change in geologic time, something that reveals some of the silliness around arguing to “halt” climate change. Extreme climate change not caused by man is going to happen, eventually — but not for any of us, or even our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren to see. That’s why Will has to shift from a short-term outlook to a geologic timescale; climate change is relevant largely in between those extremes, in the next century to millennium. Planning for less time than that would be disastrous; planning for more would be pointless.

The earth will be around in a few million years, Laughlin says — but will humans? Will hijacks Laughlin’s article (which, admittedly, presents climate change as a constantly changing and not-at-all-certain field, which it is) for his own anti-climate change purposes, and it borders on hubris.

Ultimately, Will’s argument is semantic. But “Save the planet” is not a literal mantra; instead, it advocates protecting the current environment from change so drastic and swift humans do not have time to adapt.

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Ken Cuccinelli certainly is busy these days. The Virginia attorney general took office just seven months ago and has already distinguished himself as a real go-getter. So far he has:

Cuccinelli lately had his eye on former University of Virginia professor Michael Mann, whose publicly-funded research on climate change Cuccinelli said defrauded taxpayers (Mann now teaches at Penn State). A judge on the Albemarle County Circuit Court Monday rejected Cuccinelli’s request for Mann’s documents and records. The judge found that Cuccinelli had no reasonable basis for believing Mann had defrauded taxpayers and therefore for requesting the documents. The ruling left open the possibility for Cuccinelli to refile civil motions if he can provide more proof for his allegations.

It’s worth noting that an independent investigation of Mann’s work at Penn State found no misconduct in his research.

Reactions from the legal (“Virginia State Judge Screws the Cooch,” says Above the Law), academic (“Win for Researcher Rights,” screams Inside Higher Ed) and scientific (“Virginia Judge Sets Aside Climate Subpoena,” the more reserved ScienceBlogs states) communities has been generally critical of Cuccinelli.

“The Cooch is tripping,” Above the Law said simply.

Writing for Discover, Phil Plait sums up the situation:

In the end, I don’t think Cuccinelli is going to get any traction with this case, except perhaps politically. He has been – haha – feeling the heat about this recently. No fewer than four science/free speech advocacy groups filed an amicus brief against Cuccinelli, there have been numerous press releases by the Union of Concerned Scientists (a group I am hit or miss with, but on this they’ve nailed it), and – while it was unrelated to this case specifically – the EPA has chimed in, rejecting anti-global warming claims.

Cuccinelli is a climate change denier, plain and simple. His attack against Mann was ill-advised and based on nothing but noise. After all the overwhelming evidence against his claims, if Cuccinelli continues to pursue this case I hope people come to realize who is really wasting taxpayers’ money.

Don’t worry, there’s certainly been reaction from the right. Chris Horner at BigGovernment.com seriously questioned the judge’s decision because he failed to disclose that his wife used to work for U.Va.’s Department of Environmental Sciences. Even still, Horner said he thought Cuccinelli would prevail. “I attended the hearing a week ago Friday at which the parties argued the University’s motion to dismiss,” he writes. “The Deputy AG Wesley Russell’s arguments dominated, so badly I almost felt sorry for the University [sic].”

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