Archive for the 'Climate Change' Category

Mar 09 2013

Climate Change: Remember That?

Published by under Climate Change

Lately, it seems like the climate change discussion prompted by Sandy has slowed down. But a new report has shown that global temperatures are now the highest they’ve been in 4,000 years and I think it’s an appropriate time to remind everyone that climate change is very real and a very important issue. To that end, this new infographic from was brought to my attention that I think is a great reminder of what we face if we do nothing. Continue Reading »

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Aug 27 2012

Sea Ice Melt Should Turn Up the Heat on the Climate Change Debate

Published by under Climate Change

Romney on the campaign trail

This summer has been marked by a lot of record-breaking, and not just at the Olympics. In addition to Michael Phelp’s medals, America has experienced record high temperatures, record depletion of pastureland, and a record number of wildfires. Today, the Earth hit a new record:  record sea ice melt.

Thought the consequences of this newest record are far less immediate than wildfires or droughts, for long-term effects, sea ice cover is an important indicator of what’s in store for the future. One of the major challenges in stopping climate change is that scientists are unsure when we reach a “point of no return” where the ecological momentum towards a drastically changed planet is too strong to stop or even slow by reducing the human contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.  Sea ice melt is one of the drivers of that momentum.

Here’s The Guardian on the significance of sea ice:

The consequences of losing the Arctic’s ice coverage for the summer months are expected to be immense. If the white sea ice no longer reflects sunlight back into space, the region can be expected to heat up even more than at present. This could lead to an increase in ocean temperatures with unknown effects on weather systems in northern latitudes.

So record low sea ice is a serious milestone. But as climate change gets more serious, the discourse about it gets less so. Just last week, presumptive Presidential candidate Mitt Romney released his energy plan announcing that he would achieve North American energy independence by 2020. How would Romney achieve such an ambitious (to say the least) goal? No one should be surprised that his answer is to open more drilling and remove credits for wind power. Though Obama is better on policy, even he has been studiously avoiding any mention of climate change on the campaign trail.

Despite the very real and immediate problems we are experiencing because of climate change, our politicians seem content to pretend it doesn’t exist and, in Romney’s case, attempt to move us backwards from what meager advances we’ve made toward sustainable energy production. Meanwhile, the planet continues to warm, approaching the point of no return. This new record has only highlighted how close that point is, if we’re haven’t crossed it already, and makes it more imperative than ever that climate change not disappear from the political discourse.

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Oct 17 2011

CERN Study Raises Possibility that Cosmic Rays are Responsible for Fluctuations in the Earth’s Temperature, Emphasis on Possibility

Published by under Air,Climate Change

Glaciers and Icebergs at Cape York, via wikimedia


A recent paper from the Europe-based CERN laboratory has suggested a potential link between variations in solar activity and Earth’s climate. CERN, best known for smashing atoms, is currently running an experiment to better understand the effect of galactic cosmic rays on cloud formation in the atmosphere. The first findings from this experiment, termed CLOUD (Cosmics Leaving Outdoor Droplets), were published in August in the journal Nature (full article behind a paywall- sorry to all the non-students that likely won’t be able to access it).

The experiment consisted of filling a 26.1 m3 stainless steel tube with various gases found in the atmosphere and bombarding the mixture with cosmic rays. The CLOUD team found that the cosmic rays ionized sulfuric acid particles, yielding nucleated sulfur aerosols. These aerosols are akin (but not quite identical) to particles that act as cloud condensation nuclei– particles that atmospheric water vapor typically must coalesce around in order to form clouds.

The study suggests that cosmic rays striking earth may produce cloud condensation nuclei and, therefore, more clouds. Clouds reflect incoming solar radiation, which could potentially cool the planet. It is important to note that clouds also reflect infrared radiation from the earth’s surface back down to it, warming it. The net effect of cloud cover on global temperature is not well established.

Additionally, the sun plays a role in regulating the relative amount of cosmic rays that reach earth’s atmosphere. In times of heavy solar activity, the sun’s energy is so strong that it essentially forms a bubble or barrier around the solar system, which tends to stop galactic cosmic rays (cosmic rays that originate in other parts of the Milky Way Galaxy). In times of weak solar activity, this barrier is less effective, allowing more galactic cosmic rays into the solar system.

Climate skeptics have seized upon this study to assert that fluctuations in global climate are controlled by cyclical variations in solar activity. The main claim is that recent increased solar activity has led to fewer cosmic rays and diminished cloud cover. Thus, more solar radiation is striking the earth’s surface, yielding higher global temperatures. This runs contrary to the more mainstream belief that anthropogenically-induced increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases are causing global warming.

Does this result mean that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have nothing to do with increases in global temperature? Not quite. The authors from CERN are careful to point out the limitations of the study and never make an assertion that solar activity is directly responsible for fluctuations in global temperatures (the skeptics might have noticed this if they actually read the paper). The paper does not attempt to compare historical solar activity to global temperatures either.

The study merely found that cosmic rays are capable of ionizing certain atmospheric particles to produce nucleated aerosols inside a chamber in a laboratory. The aerosols that the CLOUD team found are similar in structure to cloud condensation nuclei, but were too small to actually act as condensation nuclei. They did not directly determine that cosmic rays influence cloud formation and are not sure about these processes on an atmospheric scale.

The most reasonable thing to take away from this study is that cosmic rays may exert a noteworthy influence on particles in the atmosphere. Additional research will have to determine whether or not these rays impact the formation of cloud condensation nuclei and clouds. Any future knowledge of atmosphere-cosmic ray interactions, whether or not they render the traditional theory of anthropogenic global warming incorrect, are likely to be useful in helping produce more reliable climate and weather models, so further research into this matter is valuable.

This finding serves as a reminder that the processes controlling the Earth’s atmosphere and climate are very complex but it falls short of disproving anthropogenic global warming entirely. For now, the notions of climate change that I grew up with still pass muster.

The Central dogma of Anthropogenic Global Warming:

Central principles of the greenhouse gas effect, via wikimedia


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Oct 03 2011

Inspector General Criticizes EPA’s GHG Endangerment Finding, Climate Deniers Celebrate

Published by under Climate Change

Projected thickness of Arctic Ice over 100 year timespan.


Last week, the Inspector General for the EPA published its investigation into the procedure that the EPA used in evaluating climate science.  The IG’s report first addressed whether the “Technical Support Document” underpinning the greenhouse gas endangerment finding was a “scientific assessment” according to their definition of the term and if so, whether the EPA followed the proper steps for such an assessment.  It found that the TSD did involve a scientific assessment and that the EPA should have engaged in another round of peer review to assess the underlying science and also should have relied on a wider selection of scientific studies.  The TSD mostly focuses on the findings of the IPCC and the NRC.

Many environmental groups (such as the NRDC) argue that the IPCC and NRC documents themselves are scientific assessments and therefore what the EPA did was not.  It was therefore not necessary to conduct another, deeper peer review as that review had already been conducted within the documents themselves.  The Office of Management and Budget, which sets procedures for such documents, also agreed that this TSD was not governed by the scientific assessment criteria since it was just a compilation of outside science.

Nevertheless, climate skeptics and deniers are claiming that this report not only casts doubt on the procedure, but also on the reliability of climate change science itself.  The IG’s review was requested by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), an outspoken climate skeptic who is now touting the results as a condemnation of climate science in general.

The endangerment finding, which was completed in December 2009, provides the basis for the agency’s new and forthcoming regulations for greenhouse gas emissions, regulations which have been incredibly controversial.  Several states are involved in an ongoing court challenge to the endangerment finding, claiming that the climate science used is not reliable enough for the conclusion reached in the finding and its unclear what effect this report might have on that lawsuit. Continue Reading »

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Sep 21 2011

You’re On Your Own: Virginia Court Rules that Insurance Company has No Duty to Defend in Climate Change Claim

Aerial view of Kivalina, Alaska, USA, via wikimedia


Since the Supreme Court struck down the states’ climate change related nuisance claims in AEP v. Connecticut, all eyes have been on a similar case in the 9th Circuit: Kivalina v. Exxon Mobil Corp. et. al.  There, an Eskimo community in Alaska has sued some of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters under nuisance law.  The community claim that greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for the destruction of their home, Kivalina, Alaska, a town situated on a barrier reef off the coast of Alaska that has been slowly swallowed by rising sea levels due to climate change.

While that main case has stalled while the 9th Circuit considers it in light of the new Supreme Court ruling, the Virginia Supreme Court has given the final ruling in a related case.  One of the defendants in Kivalina, AES, sued their insurance company, Steadfast, claiming that the insurance company had a duty to defend AES under their policy, which covered claims for damage to people or property by “occurrence or accident.”  Since Steadfast is a Virginian company, the case was heard in Virginia.  The Virginia Supreme Court focused on the “accident” language and ruled that since Kivalina was claiming that AES intentionally emitted greenhouse gases, knowing the harm they would cause by contributing to climate change, that did not count as an accident under Virginia law.  Though the ruling only applies to Virginia and is on a rather narrow issue, it is still interesting to see the variety of cases in which climate change can play a factor.

Full Opinion (pdf) Continue Reading »

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Sep 12 2011

Poll on Climate Change Shows Tea Party Members Most Confident, Uninformed

Published by under Climate Change

Tea Party Protest, Washington D.C. September 12, 2009, via wikimedia


A new poll from Yale testing opinions on climate change is the first one to include the Tea Party as a category.  Respondents were asked to first choose a political affiliation (Democrat, Republican, Independent, or No Interest) and then were asked whether they considered themselves to be members of the Tea Party movement.  Any respondent who answered yes to the second question was identified as a Tea Party member for the purposes of the poll, regardless of what political affiliation they marked.

The study produced some very interesting, but not particularly surprising, results:

Majorities of Democrats (78%), Independents (71%) and Republicans (53%) believe that global warming is happening. By contrast, only 34 percent of Tea Party members believe global warming is happening, while 53 percent say it is not happening

A majority of Democrats (55%) say that most scientists think global warming is happening, while majorities of Republicans (56%) and Tea Party members (69%) say that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening…

Nearly half of Democrats (45%) say that global warming is already harming people in the United States, while 33 percent of Republicans and 51 percent of Tea Party members say it will never harm people in the United States

Tea Party members are much more likely to say that they are “very well informed” about global warming than the other groups. Likewise, they are also much more likely to say they “do not need any more information” about global warming to make up their mind. (emphasis added)

The most interesting twist in this study is not that Tea Party members hold wrong ideas about climate change and the scientific agreement surrounding it, but rather that Tea Party members are more likely than any of the other groups to say that they’re “very well informed” and don’t need more information to make up their minds.  A great post by Blake Hudson at the Environmental Law Prof Blog discusses whether this is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect at work, but I’d like to talk about the echo chamber effect.

There are only a few places left that are willing to reinforce the idea that global warming is not occurring (or reversing).  Those who are consuming such news sources voraciously but not reaching out to other sources with an open mind are going to both have their views reinforced and believe that they are well-informed on those views.  The echo chamber can trap anyone of any political persuasion, but it is especially dangerous when that echo chamber is not just reinforcing opinions but actually disseminating wrong information.  This segment on Fox News, a favorite of the Tea Party, demonstrates that danger.  The “scientist” in that segment completely distorts the First Law of Thermodynamics while the anchors nod in agreement and wonder if Al Gore will be shocked by this information.  The Green Grok has an excellent debunking of the segment, explaining the actual science behind what was said.

It is hardly surprising that anyone who listens to this information on a constant basis would believe what they’re hearing.  It’s probably a wasted effort to even attempt to shift the views of those who believe they don’t need any further information, but this poll shows that we could still do a better job on educating the other parties.  Even Democrats and Independents underestimate the amount of scientific consensus around climate change. Despite this, there is consensus among the parties on funding renewable energy, making houses more energy efficient, and providing more public transportation.  If we can focus on the common sense benefits of such efforts (while increasing efforts to educate people on climate science), we might end up reducing emissions that contribute to climate change, whether the public believes in it or not.

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