Thursday, March 31, 2011

HSBC: Less than 50 Years of OIl Left

Karen Ward, Senior Global Economist for HSBC, announced an HSBC report claiming that there is less than 50 years of conventional oil left in the world. Fifty years of oil left at the current rates of consumption. The enormous growth of automobile use in China, India and other developing countries, estimated to be over one billion new cars, will put severe strains on those declining supplies.

What I find baffling is that this story is posted in the "Environment" section of the New York Times when it is clearly an economic story of a report released by the second-largest commercial bank in the world.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Physicist Richard Muller on Climate Change

Richard Muller, Prof. of Physics at UC Berkeley, who teaches the famous “Physics for Future Presidents,” is leading an independent group of researchers at Berkeley, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study, to review and analyze climate change data. How “independent” is questionable, considering his group is receiving funding from the Charles G. Koch Foundation. His group is analyzing global temperature data and will present its findings at the end of this year. The group is computing all global temperature data, not a subset, and will make this data available on the web for anyone to view and analyze.

Muller contends that IPCC global temperature data is generally reliable, and its overall conclusions are correct: the average global temperature is rising and a continued rising temperature could have devastating consequences for human life. He states that the global average temperature increased 2 degrees Celsius since the mid 1800s, and has increased an additional 1 degree Celsius since 1957; furthermore, the one degree rise since 1957 is caused in part by human activity.

Mulller contends that many of the assertions in the 2007 IPCC report on climate change is anecdotal or conjecture—except for the temperature data. He claims that the only reliable indicator of global warming is global temperature data. The data and conclusions that are questionable are claims that there has been an increase in glacial melt (such as the Himalayan glaciers), Arctic and Antarctic polar melt, melt of permafrost in Alaska, forest fires, hurricanes (both frequency and severity), and tornadoes. He asserts these are not reliable indicators of global warming. Muller does not mention anything about increased rainfall or extreme rain events. However, more significantly, he argues that increased warming has caused increased evaporation of moisture from the earth’s surface and increased vapour in the atmosphere, which may—or may not—cause increased cloud cover. The greatest uncertainty with regard to predicting climate change is that it cannot be determined as yet whether global warming caused by increased C02 will or will not cause increased cloud cover. Muller asserts that if in fact cloud cover is increased by 2 percent, there will be no global warming, and he says that the IPCC report also states that.

Muller’s presentation shows that all the growth in emissions from this point on will be generated by developing nations, particularly China and India, and primarily because of coal-burning power plants. He states without reservation that if developing nations are allowed to continue their current rate of growth of carbon emissions that global warming will happen and that the effects will be disastrous.

Muller states that the IPCC Report and other climate change studies “cherry pick” the data they want to present and suppress other data. However, if you watch the video to the end of the question period, you will hear Muller admit that he failed to present graphs showing that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 36% and that the increase is “due to humans.”

Most tellingly, he states that climate change remedies must be “profitable to be sustainable.” He avoids the challenge by an audience member to define what “profitable” is or why climate measures must be profitable. He fails to qualify that “profitability” is a political objective, not an objective of scientific research.

Despite my reservations about Muller's nod to capitalism (profitability) and funding by the Koch Foundation, I believe that Muller's critique of climate change science is a valuable perspective. Furthermore, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study's analysis of global temperature data could be an important contribution to the science.

When did the Anthropocene begin?

Humans have a long history, going back well before the beginning of agriculture, of making substantial modification to the planet. The standard view, however, has been that such changes were comparatively modest in scale, affecting regions at most and not having planetary consequences significant enough to modify the operation of the global system. Global scale consequences, those tied to the emergence of conjoined social-ecological systems and significant enough to indicate the dawning of a new geological era (the Anthropocene) have been viewed as comparatively recent -- as a product of the industrial revolution.

The March 25 issue of Nature News, however, reports in The 8000 Year Old Climate Puzzle:
Scientists have come up with new evidence in support of the controversial idea that humanity's influence on climate began not during the industrial revolution, but thousands of years ago. Proposed by palaeoclimatologist William Ruddiman in 2003, the theory says that human influences offset the imminent plunge into another ice age and helped create the relatively stable climate that we are familiar with today. It has been repeatedly panned as implausible by palaeoclimate researchers, but eight years on, Ruddiman and others say that they have the data to support early anthropogenic climate change.

The argument centres on a curious trend in atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane levels since the last ice age ended about 11,000 years ago and the current Holocene epoch began. In previous interglacial periods, CO2 levels spiked early and then gradually declined until the globe went into another ice age. The Holocene began by following this trend, but then CO2 levels changed course and began to rise around 8,000 years ago. The same thing happened with methane levels around 5,000 years ago. These trends align with the expansion of human agriculture, and Ruddiman, of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, argues that it is no coincidence — the clearing of land and expansion of irrigation released huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Critics say that human populations were probably too small to support such a hypothesis, and recent studies have raised serious questions about early anthropogenic carbon and methane emissions.

The article goes on to discuss preliminary findings from several studies and to note that supporting evidence is scheduled for publication in a special issue of The Holocene later this year.

For a popular treatments of the Anthropocene, see National Geographic's Enter the Anthropocene: The Age of Man and the Walrus's Age of Breathing Underwater.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Yann Arthus-Bertrand is the French (and, perhaps, more populist) version of Canada's Edward Burtynsky -- a photographer who uses the camera to describe the impact of humans on the planet.

In contrast to Burtynsky, who uses the monumental size of his photographic prints to memorialize the scale of human impact, Arthus-Bertrand is best known for his book and the associated UNESCO sponsored traveling exhibition, The Earth from Above.

Taken from the air, Arthus-Bertrand's images tend to be more abstracted and more traditionally beautiful than Burtynsky's. His aim appears to be to show the beauty of the planet, and thereby to promote love for it where Burtynsky tends to focus, albeit in ways that are visually stunning, on the impact of humans more than the beauty of the planet. Indeed, much of the environmental punch of both the Arthus-Bertrand's book and the exhibition come from the substantial amount of associated text that accompanies each image rather than the image itself. Arthus-Bertrand now has a film, Home, with much the feel of an IMAX film depicting the earth from above and available here on YouTube.

The Guardian recently posted an interesting article about him, Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Looking down on creation.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

James Gleick's The Information

James Gleick, best known as the author who spelled out the details of chaos theory in Chaos, has a new book exploring the implications of another area of mathematics -- information theory: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.

A substantial excerpt from Chapter 11, Into the Meme Pool (You Parasitize My Brain), covering the nature and spread of ideas and the parallels between genes and memes as carriers of information is available online.

Freeman Dyson has a written a nice review as has Geoffrey Nunberg.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A new trend in environmental reporting?

There is little doubt that environmental issues have become more politicized over the past few years. Take climate change as an example. Faced with the claim that there is scientific consensus about climate change, deniers have responded by attacking science -- effectively making climate science the issue in the Climategate matter. While numerous investigations have largely cleared the scientists of any wrongdoing, the scientific community has been ineffective in communicating that point, and, as a result, the longstanding divisions between the scientific community and the public on matters of science have gotten worse.

Now, if the articles described below are any indication, the politicization of environmental matters has taken a new twist. Call it "everything good is bad for you reporting." This is reporting that takes conventional wisdom about environmental matters -- energy efficiency is good, recycling is good -- and turns it on its head by drawing attention to unexpected and unintended consequences. Here are two examples.

1) Over at the BBC, Nick Higham reports Recycled Cardboard poses a Risk

2) John Tierney reports on When Energy Efficiency Sullies the Environment

I'm not being a pollyanna here. I have no doubt that the problems the articles identify are real. We live in a complex world and should expect the unexpected. But I'm not sure these same matters would have been reported in this way a few years ago. So, how does one explain it? On the one hand, it could just be a random occurrence that several articles of this type appeared at the same time. But my sense is that the appearance of multiple articles of this type at this time more likely indicates a change in attitudes and, in particular, a shift in the type of findings that science journalists attend to.