Climate Change

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.”

The tangled knot of politics, culture, and perceptions of the science behind climate change has been the topic of a series of my recent posts at The Gleaming Retort. A thoughtful but in my opinion wrong post by one of my fellow PLOS BLOGgers pushed me over into writing something I’d been thinking about for some time, and the result was “The inevitable politics of climate change (part 1)” and “The inevitable politics of climate change (part 2),” in which I tried to make the case that however much some scientists might like to try to stay out of the ugly politics around this issue when discussion climate science, there was no hope of doing so and little point in trying.

A misstatement in the first of those pieces then led me to set the record straight in a followup post, “A correction on Lomborg and Schneider’s quotation,” in which I noted that Bjorn Lomborg didn’t… you know, maybe you should just read it.

Commentary on those stories then led me to summarize several other things that have been on my mind in “The cultural challenge to climate science writing,” which concerns the powerful filter that our cultural loyalties exerts on our understanding of this subject, and the unsatisfying choices involved in trying to overcome them.

Read them for more.

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.

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

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.

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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?

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.”

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):

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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. Read Full Article

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. Read Full Article