Monday, September 8, 2014

DISRUPTION: A review of the climate change documentary

The video opens with the following quote:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
---Frederick Douglass

This statement and its author tell us much about the documentary that follows. The focus is on action, in keeping with the title itself, Disruption. The target of the action is, clearly in this case, the fossil fuel industry and the political machine that protects and supports it. And quoting Frederick Douglass hints at the central environmental justice theme.

As a scientist, I am nervous when the discussion moves from a consideration of the science to how to achieve political goals. So, yes, I am not thrilled with the documentary’s fuzzy use of the “tipping point” concept, and avoidance of the more accurate term, “positive or reinforcing feedback.” Yes, I am anxious when specific storm events come to characterize climate change rather than global shifts in heat content of the oceans and the atmosphere. Yes, I am concerned with the touch of exaggeration I perceived when methane was described as fifty times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (I believe twenty-five times is more like it). And I don’t understand why they left out sea level rise and long-term climate events like drought.

However, as a parent and a new grandparent I am more nervous with the risks we take doing nothing, or doing as little as we have done for the past decade to avert climate change. The risk is significant, the consequences likely to be severe, and many unknowns exist that could send us spiraling down paths to new unpleasant, perhaps catastrophic “normals” we could find difficult to avoid or change. I don’t want that for my children or their children.

The purpose of this documentary was not so much education as motivation. The clear goal was to spur individuals to take part in the upcoming climate change march in New York City, either directly or in their local community. Given the seriousness of the problem and especially our country’s negligence in taking sufficient steps to address climate change, I can live with a little rabble-rousing. I only wish it were done with more dispassionate logic, but passion is what they hope, and need, to arouse. On that point I have no dispute.

Next to large crowds on the streets, neighbor to neighbor efforts to share knowledge of the causes and consequences and solutions to climate change seem important as well. Consider participating in that type of activity in addition to marching in the streets.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rates of Change

Noah Diffenbaugh and Christopher Field offer a sobering perspective on the ecological challenges posed by climate change in the coming decades.

In their review, "Changes in Ecologically Critical Terrestrial Climate Conditions", in the August 2, 2013 issue of Science, these two Stanford scientists suggest that the magnitude of near-future climate changes will match the greatest changes seen over the past 65 million years of Earth's history.  However, it is the rate of changes the Earth will see in coming decades that causes even more alarm.  Our planet will likely proceed along the path to these greatest climate changes at a pace 10 to 100 times faster than ever before experienced.  And if that kind of unique once-in-a-planetary-history ecological and evolutionary challenge were not enough to cause concern, today's living things, and that includes you and me and our offspring, will be trying to adapt to those rapid changes in the face of natural system habitat losses and disruption as well as pollution brought about by our own unprecedented population growth and competition for resources.

But Diffenbaugh and Field offer a sliver of hope in their final paragraph:

However, the ultimate velocity of climate change is not yet determined. Although many Earth system feedbacks are uncertain, the greatest sources of uncertainty—and greatest opportunities for modifying the trajectory of change—lie in the human dimension (emphasis added). As a result, the rate and magnitude of climate change ultimately experienced by terrestrial ecosystems will be mostly determined by the human decisions, innovations, and economic developments that will determine the pathway of greenhouse gas emissions.
In other words, what we decide to do in the next few decades will either significantly slow down or speed up the climate change we and our descendents will have to adapt to.  The speed with which we make the inevitable switch to renewable energy sources such as solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, wind, tidal, and geothermal, and leave as much coal, oil, and natural gas as we can in the ground, will mean everything to our children and grandchildren.

I have three daughters, and one of them is now expecting our first granddaughter.  I think they would expect us to make our decisions based on the best available scientific evidence unclouded by the disinformation campaign we've seen so successfully waged over the past decade.  Diffenbaugh and Field represent that best available scientific evidence.  Listen to them.  And hear your children and future children ask what you did to make the right decision today.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Casualties in Industry's Assault on Science

The following review of Doubt is their product, a book by David Michaels, appears in Briar Patch Books, Linda Brinson's " latter-day version of a newspaper book-review page."  Thanks to Linda for editing it and publishing it in her blog, on which you will find many other interesting book reviews.  Take a look!
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A review by Denis DuBay

Once upon a time, seemingly in another galaxy far away, scientists received nearly universal respect for their knowledge and skills, at least in their chosen field.  How rapidly things can change.  Witness now a leading climate scientist receiving a subpoena from a state attorney general angry with his findings and being compared to a child molester by a national magazine, and other climate scientists harassed for simply doing their job.

David Michaels, a former chief safety officer for the nation’s nuclear weapon’s facilities under the Clinton administration, helps make some sense of this unbelievable turnabout in his 2008 book, Doubt Is Their Product.  The title of the book came from the blunt statement of a cigarette executive: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”

In the case of the tobacco industry, that body of fact considered cigarette smoke to cause lung cancer and heart disease.  The longer industry leaders could create at least the semblance of controversy about the hazards of tobacco, the more money they could make selling tobacco.  Here industry learned that “debating science is much easier and more effective than debating the policy.”

And the science is epidemiology, defined by Encarta World English Dictionary as “… the scientific and medical study of the causes and transmission of disease within a population.” Here is an entire field of science that arose in part because one cannot ethically conduct an experiment to test whether a substance causes cancer on real live human beings.  A gross oversimplification, but you get the idea.

In order to determine whether certain substances or practices do harm humans, scientists must either do the experiments on biologically similar animals, or conduct elaborate correlational studies that need to control for the host of extraneous variables such as age, gender and occupation that can confound any results.  Either of these two alternatives, but especially the latter one, often involves elaborate employment of, oh my, statistics.

In Chapter 6, Tricks of the Trade: How Mercenary Scientists Mislead You, Michaels describes all the ways a so-called “product defense scientist” can use the complexities of epidemiology to deceive.  A favorite technique finds the affected industry kicking into high gear when a new study comes out with unfavorable results.  The industry demands the raw data from the study, then sets its hired guns to work reanalyzing that data.  With a little massaging here and cherry-picking there to “improve” the study, voila, the unfavorable results turn out to be a mirage.  Product goldfinger is safe after all.  Of course it is.

The “product defense industry” takes its orders, and more important, its money, from companies and industries with products to sell.  Its objective, as it appeared in a 1972 letter from a Tobacco Institute staffer, “…creating doubt about the health charge without actually denying it.”  Industry does not have to win the science debate to win the policy debate.  It only has to generate a bit of confusion surrounding the science.

We see Michaels’ passion for this story beginning on page ix when he describes an especially offensive example of the model created by Big Tobacco.

In 1980, 555 cases of Reye’s syndrome were reported, and one in three children diagnosed died.  Today, thanks to a public education campaign and warning labels, nearly everyone is aware that children with a flu-like illness should not take aspirin because it increases their risk of developing Reye’s syndrome.  But in 1980, few knew about the link.

Faced with convincing evidence, aspirin manufacturers nevertheless delayed action alerting parents to the situation for several years, claiming flaws in studies, and asserting that: “We do know that no medication has been proven to cause Reye’s.”  Michaels points out that the italicized emphasis appeared in industry’s original public service announcement!

And those italics are telling.  Contrary to popular public understanding, science rarely is able to say it has “proven” something beyond the shadow of a doubt.  Michaels describes the resulting delays to regulatory action as waiting for the body count before exercising precautions, the “bodies in the morgue” form of risk assessment.

In the case of aspirin and Reye’s syndrome, it was 1986 before a lawsuit forced the Reagan Administration to act.  As a result of the education campaign and warning labels, there are few Reye’s syndrome cases today, but no one knows how many children died in the early 1980s as a result of the doubt manufactured by an industry eager to make more money selling more aspirin.

Michaels tells many tales of doubt manufactured on behalf of dangerous products whose industries followed the lead of Big Tobacco, including benzene, asbestos, lead, mercury, aromatic amines, diacetyl, beryllium, vinyl chloride, and among others, the drugs phenylpropanolamine (PPA), and Vioxx.

The value to industry of creating doubt resides in the common misperception that absolute and direct proof is the gold standard in science.  In fact, science proceeds based on the weight of the available evidence.  When that weight is balanced between two opposing viewpoints, further study is required.  However, when the preponderance of the evidence comes down on one side of the argument, science accepts the conclusion and moves ahead.  Further data will likely strengthen the case, and perhaps modify it slightly, but will not often overturn it.

Reading that someone demands “proof” of a connection between a product and potential danger should set off alarms that here stirs a product defense advocate wishing to sow confusion and inject delay into the regulatory process.

And if that industry reanalysis is criticized for not appearing in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, no problem, the product defense industry has “captured” journals ready to provide that peer-review imprimatur!  Michaels suggests viewing with some caution articles found in certain publications, for example, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, Indoor and Built Environment, and the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

What can be done about these illegitimate tactics that threaten public and environmental health?  Michaels suggests keeping an eye on the “funding effect.”  Follow the money, discover who paid for the research, and you can predict the results with amazing accuracy.

Michaels’ solution: eliminate conflicts of interest.  Today’s mantra says manage conflicts of interest, so as not to remove too many qualified experts from contributing to an important process.  Michaels would have none of it.  If it looks like a duck, eliminate it.  Managing conflicts of interest rather than eliminating them simply ensures that the funding effect will continue to work.

So what of the relative lack of respect accorded to scientists today, especially those on the front lines of well-known issues such as climate change?  How might David Michaels’ book explain this?  Consider that for over three decades the public has been treated to special interests trotting out their captured scientists every time a bottom line is threatened.  Of course one’s view of the objectivity of scientists, and even of science as a way of knowing, would tarnish.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The email came last night at 9 pm:
"SpotTheStation!" Time: Fri Nov 30 6:21 AM, Visible: 4 min, Max Height: 79 degrees, Appears: NW, Disappears: SE"

Set the alarm clock, walked out to a clearing by 6:15, used the compass app on my iPhone to get oriented, and at 6:21, looking towards the northwest, about 45 degrees above the horizon (horizon would be zero degrees, straight up 90 degrees) the International Space Station appeared, brighter than any star in the sky by far, easily visible despite some light fog and a very scattered layer of very thin cirrus clouds and a bright full moon in the same direction! It moved rather quickly up and across the sky, never blinking. Wished I'd brought my binoculars with me, bet I could have seen the giant solar panels! It took 6 minutes to traverse the sky before it faded out of sight to the southeast about 20 degrees above the horizon. Then it was time to go get Chestnut and take him for a walk!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Let’s focus on our shared values

Flag flying over Liberty Island, 2009

The following op-ed, "Let's focus on our shared values", appeared in Raleigh's News and Observer on November 27, 2012. 
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My daughter, Michaela, recently encouraged our family to keep things positive and be careful not to offend those with whom we share this great country, even if we may not share their political preferences.  I thank her for a timely reminder, and for the hope that it represents, coming from a twentysomething with strong political preferences of her own.
This great United States of America came into existence thanks in no small part to the willingness of our forefathers to compromise.  They found ways to latch on to values they shared as they struggled to reconcile their tremendous differences.  Our very form of government depends on compromise and reconciliation.
In that spirit, I suggest that each one of us takes as much time as it takes, and exerts as much effort as it requires, to find common ground with our fellow Americans.  Yes we have differences, sharp and serious.  But we may share much more than we think.
Maybe reminding ourselves of all the things we together love about the USA will help us and our leaders figure out how to work out compromises to solve our current and future problems.  It worked in 1776 (Declaration of Independence), 1787 (Constitution), and 1791 (Bill of Rights), and they were at least as passionate as we are, and I hope we are as smart as they were.
I offer below a list of items upon which to begin a search for common ground.  Consider them, change them, add to them.  Discuss them with your fellow Americans.  Talk about them with your neighbors next door and across the street, at the gym, at the game, at work, in letters to the editor.  Search long and hard for the things that both of you like and value, and focus your attention, laserlike, on those things.  Let those shared values form the basis for a civil conversation that celebrates the things we all love about our country.
  • I want my children and grandchildren (may we be so blessed), to lead happy, healthy, and safe lives enjoying the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
  • I value a strong economy where everyone is enabled and encouraged to find or even create a good job that gives them the chance to exercise their talents and abilities, provide for their well-being, and contribute productively to our common good.
  • I want our country to continue to be a model and a shining light for freedom and liberty and tolerance and diversity.
  • I hope that the USA can continue to be a force for good around the world, both by our example and by sharing our time, talent, and treasure.
  • I want America to continue to protect its neediest citizens even as it provides the foundation upon which its most talented citizens build successful lives.
  • I value a natural environment surrounding me that reflects the diversity, productivity, and resilience found in healthy ecological systems, and that provides at the least cost possible, breathable clean air, drinkable pure water, and delicious healthy food.
  • I hope that all of our communities can continue to provide the structures that support our comfortable and productive lives: fire and police protection; good roads; abundant greenways, parks and playing fields; power utilities; water and waste utilities; engineering and safety standards; objective journalism outlets; and communications networks.
  • I value an educational system that provides a common, excellent learning experience for all of us, that teaches about the things that make the USA a beacon around the world, and that shares the best understanding we have of history, language, science, society, and mathematics with all of our students.
  • I want our elected and appointed leaders to respect our history, understand this world in which we live, value our diversity, appeal to the best in each of us, and bring us together as they improve our union.
  • I hope my children and grandchildren will, as I do, feel a lump in their throat or a tear in their eye whenever they hear or sing The Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and God Bless America.

Lady Liberty on a visit in June, 2009

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Climate Change Science

 Figure 2
Bottom Left Image Source: TAO Project Office, NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Lab.
Right Image Source: University Corporation for Atmospheric Lab.
Top Left Image Source: NASA

From time to time it is helpful to refer someone to a readily available online source of reliable and objective information about climate change science.  There are many sources from which to choose, but there is one that appears to clearly take the honors when it comes to objectivity and integrity.  That source is the National Research Council (NRC).  The National Research Council was formed by the National Academies of Sciences, and regarding the National Academies, here's a brief statement from the "About Us" portion of their website.

"The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was signed into being by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1863. As mandated in its Act of Incorporation, the Academy has, since 1863, served to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art" whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government"

 The National Academies formed the National Research Council in 1916 " associate the broad community of science and technology with the Academy's purposes of furthering knowledge and advising the federal government."

So without further elaboration, here is the link to a concise summary of the best available understanding of climate change science as of the current  year, 2012.  Enjoy!

CLIMATE CHANGE: Evidence, Impacts, and Choices
Answers to common questions about the science of climate change

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A little lesson about the positive feedback effect

Sent the following to the News and Observer of Raleigh, they printed it on 11/9/12 (link to online version complete with reader comments below):
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In his letter of 11/7, William Everett reports that scientists found a case where temperatures increased before atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.  Everett claims this finding invalidates the climate change concept that increasing carbon dioxide concentrations cause temperature increases, since one would expect the carbon dioxide to increase first if it caused a temperature increase.

I believe the report Everett cites refers to climate 20 thousand years ago, and there are times in Earth's history where temperature does increase first, and a carbon dioxide increase follows.  What Everett failed to add is that oftentimes when this happens, the increase in carbon dioxide causes a further and much larger increase in temperature.  And the initial smaller temperature rise was caused by changes in Earth's orbit and orientation (Milankovitch cycles) that simply do not cause today's warming.

A study by Jeremy Shakun, published in the science journal, Nature (volume 484, April 2012), presents convincing evidence that rising carbon dioxide concentrations caused global temperatures to increase from 18 to 11 thousand years ago.  This is but one of many lines of evidence indicating that rising carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere do cause an increase in temperature and consequent climate changes.
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