Saturday, April 13, 2013

The better question is what should the global average temperature revert to after stabilizing

An argument I've seen more than once from climate inactivists sometimes comes in the form of a question, "what is the ideal average global temperature," as if the question has a deep implication. In mid-gallop from "there's no warming; the warming is all natural; humans have little contribution," this is the step, "the warming gets us to a better temperature anyway," before they move on to "the overall negative effect isn't that bad; it's too soon to take action; it's too late to take action."

The first naive thought would be that places like Alaska should welcome some warmth, and a lot of the world's land mass is polar. What they miss is how melting permafrost results in sinking roads and buildings, forests die because insect pests survive mild winters more easily, and coastlines disappear with the loss of sea-ice protection from waves. If you put Hawaii's climate in Alaska, then Alaska would suffer. Both the biological and human environments are adapted for the climates they have.

So here's my hypothetical alternative:  assume, very optimistically, that in the year 2050, gross CO2 and equivalent emissions have been reduced 95% from present through a variety of technological and behavioral changes, and that carbon-negative technologies like biochar and biomass-plus-sequestration balance out the remaining 5%. What do you do next year and the following years?

Simplest answer is do even better, if you can. The rule that when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging, hasn't yet been satisfied. The oceans will be transferring back latent heat for decades after 2050, so even zeroing out emissions won't be enough to stop further warming. If you can get an increase in carbon-negative activities so that effect, plus annual ocean absorption of CO2, means the reduced atmospheric CO2 warming balances out the latent heat release from oceans, then at that point we'll have stopped digging deeper. And then, what next?

A further increase in carbon-negative actions will mean anthropogenic forcing is slightly net negative compared to the previous year. Continuing that year after year would start to raise the question, when do we stop? What average temperature are we aiming for? I don't think it's the 1850 average - neither we humans nor many ecosystems will function most naturally at that level.

I don't really have the answer; I just think it's an interesting question. Maybe more of a science fiction question, but our children will (hopefully) have to deal with it someday. As a policy question, the most recent, highest temperature will not be the one that people or ecologies are most adapted to, and neither will a temperature from a century or two earlier. People probably adapt faster than ecosystems, so if we choose a human-biased priority then the aimed-for cooling will be less pronounced than one prioritizing ecosystem recovery. Different societies and different ecosystems will have different ideal stabilizing temperatures, but unless they're really good with geo-engineering, then we only get one level of net forcing.

Maybe there won't still be millions of subsistence farmers on the edge of malnutrition 50 years from now, but I wouldn't count on that. Stabilizing their precipitation patterns probably should rank in the highest priority, but we'll have to see how much political pull they'll have to make that happen.

UPDATE:  Good comments, esp from Tom Curtis who says it's not correct to call the heat transfer back from oceans "latent heat". I'm not sure I agree though that the optimal temperature for humans or nature would be a pre-industrial temperature, either the 1850 temp I discuss above or Tom's reference to typical (warmer) Holocene temps. Natural ecosystems will have spent the previous 150 years moving in response to climate change - trying to get them to move again when 9 billion people are in the way could be a recipe for even further losses. Humans will be even more adapted to the existing climate.

A chosen temperature would eventually have to be low enough to stabilize the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, although I assume we've got many additional decades or longer to do that.

I think in the very long term we would want to return to something like Tom's preferred temperature level.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

I now get why Europeans are disgusted with the European Parliament

The European Parliament last week rejected a fix to their cap-and-trade system that would have set a bottom floor to the price of carbon, a floor that likely helped keep California's system functioning through a tentative start to a better shape (so far).

Among other things that are annoying is that European fossil fuel-dependent industries say that a floor will put them at a competitive disadvantage to Americans, an ironic repetition of what the same American industries say about Indian and Chinese competitors. In Europe's case it also happens to be a lie as far as California's concerned, and dubious in the case of New England (has an existing-if-low price for carbon, and plans to restrict allocations further).

So you've got a system that can work if you make it work. Demanding that the sausage making of government work as well as one's ideal proposal (like a carbon tax that would supposedly emerge unscathed from a political process) is unrealistic, but then the failure to improve the solution is just stupid. The only good aspect is that it's not over - the Parliament left open the door to reconsider their action.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

A bad rep for solar tax credit and LEED

Some news and rumors still seem to spread more by word of mouth than online. One of them for me is the issue of potential misuse of solar tax credits in the US, as opposed to feed-in tariffs done elsewhere. Solar tax credits are transferable and cost-based - the higher the cost of the system, then the greater the tax credit that can be sold to other businesses. That's an obvious disincentive to lowering solar costs, but less obviously it incentivizes leasing companies to inflate their cost estimates. When the IRS starts getting involved, that can really damage the political momentum we want to keep in place just as solar becomes increasingly competitive.

The solution is to play clean, folks, and maybe tighter IRS supervision. And maybe a feed-in tariff instead. Same word of mouth tells me the feed-in that's been tried at local levels in California is too small to get business support - we need a state or federal solution.

Similar issue for LEED, an environmental rating system for building design. Word of mouth that I hear is that it's way too easy to game the point system, especially because it's based on design standards instead of actual performance. Additional complication in California is that our state-mandated building design standards do a lot that LEED does, raising the question of what value LEED adds.

I've heard less about the Green Building Council standards, other than that they're supposed to be somewhat more lenient.

Yglesias discusses the issue here. As for his "price carbon" solution, good luck with that, at least on a national level (we're getting somewhere with California's cap-and-trade). Short of that solution, we need to have some performance standards incorporated into the rating system.

Monday, April 08, 2013

California Democratic state convention and Grover Norquist

My two activities this weekend were to listen to the podcast of Grover Norquist speaking to the Commonwealth Club and attending the annual California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento. Norquist played up the libertarian angle, probably a smart move when a conservative addresses a liberal crowd. He definitely threw the Bushies under the bus on Iraq and claimed to oppose occupying nations (something contrary to his position back when it counted). He also claimed the Democrats drive up the size of government to increase the number of people dependent on government and therefore supportive of Democratic positions, making opposition to government spending a partisan issue on purely partisan grounds. A lot of it was either disingenuous or vague, like supporting tort action as a substitute for environmental regulation, when torts are incredibly inefficient and often limited by the Republican Party.

The best part of the Democratic state convention was a panel on strengthening partnerships to communities of color. The really interesting thing these independent organizations are doing is targeting intermittent, low-frequency voters and get them to turn out on issues (not for specific candidates). I can attest from my own campaign that those voters are not campaign primary targets - when you have limited money, you put your effort into reaching someone who votes 80-100% of the time, not 20%. While California is majority-minority, the stats they showed had a majority of voters being white and disproportionately wealthy, and until the electorate reflects the population, they argued that governmental priorities won't reflect popular needs - quite the opposite of the problem Norquist sees of a too-big government.

For myself, I'm not sure whether growing inequality is caused by unfair governmental processes biased against the poor, or by the nature of our current economy, but either reason to me justifies countervailing action. I'm not buying Norquist's argument that we just need government to leave us alone. That doesn't mean he's always wrong though - finding the areas where government doesn't work well or should be less intrusive could be an area of agreement. A cap-and-trade or carbon tax is a good example, as opposed to typical regulation. Just waiting for the Republicans to pick that one up.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

A temporary end to bliss

With a rare exception or two, I've been blissfully ignoring Roger Pielke Jr's recent stuff for the last year or so as he slid into irrelevance. As long as I didn't read his stuff, I could keep open the possibility that he was doing something useful.

Or not, regarding the Marcott paper. The Oglaf comic is great though, but highly inappropriate.

Others have handled it, (Eli shows up in the comments at the link), but I'll just add the parallel I see between this and how James Annan spotted the Pielkean confusion between detection and estimation of climate change effect on disasters, way back when in 2006.* Back then, people were trying to estimate what aspect of disasters were climate change-related, which Pielke denounced as failing to scientifically detect climate change in disasters. They weren't doing detection until more recently, as the science improved and disaster dice started rolling 13s.


RPJr: You say X (percent of disaster damages) proves Y (climate change)
Rest of humanity:  No, I said assuming Y, here's our estimate of X.
RPJr.: You're wrong to say X proves Y!

(paraphrasing, not actual quotes)

It's the same issue or even less valid with RPJr and the post-1850 hockey stick/wheelchair component in Marcott. The paper is very clear in that they're not attempting to prove the current rise in temps via proxies. They even warn you not to consider their estimate robust, and they indicate the modern record they add is not theirs.

I agree that the press release could be clearer, but also agree with Stoat that it doesn't matter. It's like a paper examining Mars' orbit around the sun, where a press release might confuse a reader to think it also was about the fact that earth orbits the sun. There's no controversy about whether the earth orbits the sun. And the paper's clear.

So, just more of the same from RPJr.

*I think I spotted it too but could never find where I wrote it, thus reducing my own claim to a bitter, bitter footnote.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Meta-analysis in the middle

My general view both in general and as a policymaker in my small local-office pond is that a widely held (few expert dissenters) and strongly held (high confidence) consensus position might as well be a fact as far as the policymaking is concerned. A contradictory study is just that, a study. If it turns out to be accurate, then the consensus will eventually fracture soon enough and create problems for policymakers, but there's no need or even a rational way for policymaking to jump the gun.

In the gray zone between just one study and a consensus is the meta-analysis, and I'm still trying to figure out what policymakers should do with them. If the meta-analysis reinforces the consensus position - say, Oreskes' review of scientific abstracts on climate change - then it's just a helpful tool in examining the consensus. OTOH, if the meta-analysis seems to point in a different direction - say, Choi et al. on adverse neurological effects of high-fluoride exposure in China and Iran - that presents a bit of a problem.

My assumption, generally, is that the consensus should be handling this. The main Canadian health research arm, Health Canada, looked at a lot of the same studies and reached a different conclusion:
These studies were included in the review conducted by the Expert Panel on fluoride convened by Health Canada in 2007. Despite the consistency in the results from these studies, the panel agreed that the weight of evidence does not support a link between fluoride and IQ deficit. There are significant concerns regarding the available studies, including quality, credibility, and methodological weaknesses, such as the lack of control for confounding factors, the small number of subjects, and the dose of exposure (Health Canada, 2008). Most of these studies performed in China were also included in the reviews conducted by other organizations and/or committees, which also mentioned that the significance of these studies is uncertain (IPCS, 2002; ATSDR, 2003; NRC, 2006).
I think Health Canada is probably closer to showing what the fluoride consensus is than Choi, although I think there's reason to believe the consensus, that therapeutic levels of fluoridated water are generally safe, isn't as solid as the climate consensus. Worth noting one difference between meta-analysis and consensus is the meta-analysis is only as good as the meta-analyst, while consensus hopefully has a broader base.

Maybe the consensus will change, but this is what we've got.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Hoping history rhymes

Before Heartland Institute made real trouble, and maybe taking a more prominent role than the US Chamber in fighting climate action, the Global Climate Coalition once united a wide range of big corporations to fight the legislative bad fight in Washington. Wiki says, wrongly, that it died in 2002 because:
A major scientific report on the severity of global warming by the IPCC in 2001 led to large-scale membership loss.
I don't think that's right - instead of beautiful science, it was a realistic alternative that killed the beast. GCC had been around since 1989, and the 1991 and 1996 IPCC reports had plenty of science sufficient to kill its mission if GCC had been open to science.  What was new and different instead was Pew Foundation's establishment in 1998 of the Business Environmental Leadership Council to engage businesses in real solutions to climate problems. BELC succeeded despite its acronym in providing a forum for climate realist companies to get involved in legislation, and then gradually peeled off members from GCC:
Some of the exiting companies, such as BP Amoco, Shell, and Dupont, joined a progressive new group, the Business Environmental Leadership Council, now an organization of some 21 corporations. This new outfit, founded by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, says, “We accept the views of most scientists that enough is known about the science and environmental impacts of climate change for us to take actions to address its consequences.”
I'm sure that there was a lot more going on behind the scenes that eased companies out of GCC and into BELC. Having something like BELC around meant there were people who did this easing as their job. And now everything is perfect! Okay, it's not, but denialism at the corporate level has to hide itself quite a bit more.

The US Chamber continues to be a problem, but here's hoping that history will rhyme.