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Risk and Responsibility

Awhile back, GG speculated that the closest historical analog to the present situation in regards to global warming was what transpired in the Sierra Nevada in the last half of the nineteenth century. As a reminder, hydraulic mining in the Auriferous Gravels of the Sierra was flooding downstream properties, and for many years the farmers losing their fields to floods of mud and debris felt powerless. The farmers took all the risk, though they felt the miners were responsible. And then a court case got some traction, and the entire hydraulic mining business was shut down in the Sawyer decision that found the mines responsible for all the debris covering fields. In doing this, the court effectively stranded millions of dollars of assets owned by the mines.

The question has been, if (and when) something similar might come through in regards to climate change. And this past week has seen a lot of legal action suggesting that global legal and economic balances are shifting against the oil and gas titans. Between a Netherlands court case demanding that Shell accelerate its shift into a carbon-neutral company, a skeptical hedge fund group getting a couple of people on Exxon’s board, and a host of smaller actions around the globe, the perception is growing that the days of “drill, baby, drill” are about over. And something similar had happened in the Sierra in the run up to the Sawyer decision. Miners working at the hydraulic mines, seeing the writing on the wall as things progressed, stopped contributing to the mines’ legal funds and started to move on to other places or other careers well before the Sawyer decision was handed down.

After roughly a half century of dismissal of climate change in the halls of government and corporate board rooms, it seems that tables are turning. And probably the most encouraging part of this is those economic forces coming into play: investors, including large institutional investors, are feeling that their money is threatened by a head-in-the-sand approach to climate change. Investors had already forced companies to downgrade the value of their known reserves under the logic that those reserves might remain in the ground. How fast might the turnaround in oil and gas occur? While inertia of the massive infrastructure society is built on guarantee these companies a few more good years, when the economics turn south, change is in the wind.

We are still a long, long way from turning the corner and having a sustainable energy mix. But the prospects are improving, from the low price for new solar and wind power to a massive shift in the auto industry to electric cars. It can’t come fast enough, as residents of the Arctic are witnessing, but come it will.

War on Science: “Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out” Edition

Honestly, you’d think with just over a week left to the Trump administration, and with a few other distractions in the air, that the years of denying science might have already ended. No such luck.

Perhaps the most desperate move was to take a number of climate-denier essays and plop them on official letterhead of a part of the government that didn’t actually review these documents. These weren’t even posted on a government site. Ars Technica has more details, which includes that the postings might be illegal and that it is unlikely that they can be considered official government documents. Terms like “laughable” and “fifth-grade-level” show the kind of respect these documents are attracting.

The more dangerous move was the establishment of a rule essentially codifying the HONEST act of Lamar Smith from several years ago. While some earlier rules put forth made it harder to prove that certain chemicals were harming humans, this rule actually can prevent the use of more direct scientific evidence simply because there are privacy issues that prevent satisfying the terms of the rule. While this particular rule might well be rescinded by Congress, saving the Biden administration from formal efforts to repeal it, other rules will continue to be challenged in court or require new administrative efforts to change the rules. The New York Times compiled a list of climate and environment related rules the Trump administration made that will bedevil the new administration for some time. While many of these are more political footballs than science policy issues, there are several that reflect both a willingness to ignore settled science and a desire to prevent scientific research from influencing policy decisions.

So as we bid adieu to an administration that arguably was more at war with science than almost any other part of American society, we can expect that repairing the damage will take some time. What is less obvious is the longterm impact of the Trump administrations approach for future GOP administrations: will they adopt “science as enemy” or return to a more mainstream approach when they return to power?

Climate v COVID: Personal Choice?

Previously GG pointed out how it seems that the closer coronavirus gets to a community, the more they are willing to double down on dangerous behavior. And this behavior suggests that fighting climate change may well run into the same mindset, where a shifting perception of “normal” combined with partisan messaging would lead the U.S. to stall out on any climate mitigation. While GG feels there is some merit to this pessimistic view, there is another side to this that might just make a fight against climate change easier.

There are two parts: economics and the role of personal behavior. Let’s take the second first. In a pandemic, if you decide you are going to go out, get sick, and spread the disease, you yourself might not pay much of a price, but your actions extend the pandemic farther forward. At this point in the U.S., slowing the virus is entirely on the backs of individual Americans.

In contrast, personal choice has far less of an impact on climate change mitigation. You really have very little choice in where your electricity comes from; if a state has mandated that some fraction will be from renewables, you can’t exactly opt out. If auto fuel efficiency standards are tightened, your new car might get better mileage even if you’d rather it didn’t. Sure, you can find some old beater car or refuse to put solar panels on your roof, but derailing the entire country isn’t really possible. This is, ironically, the flip side of how powerless individuals are in stopping climate change.

The second side is economics. There is little doubt that a lot of the avoidance of complying with public health rules is driven by fear of economic disaster. Even as many economists argue that we really need to shut down the pandemic to have a healthy economy, the immediate threat to a personal business has created political pressure that results is ridiculous rules contrary to evidence-based regulations. For instance, the most dangerous place in this pandemic is indoors in a restaurant. The very first thing that should be shut down are restaurants and bars, yet they are often staying open even as less dangerous targets like schools shut down. Politically driven demands to reopen the economy reached receptive ears of those being hurt financially.

But for climate change, at least at this point in the battle, economics is increasingly on the side of shedding carbon-based businesses. This is most obvious in the electrical power industry, where renewables are now as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuel power sources. Utilities are finding that becoming more nimble in storing power and using distributed power sources makes their bottom line look better. And when the government puts in place incentives for electric cars or carbon-storing farming practices, lots of folks will change their behavior; the laggards won’t prevent progress.

The top-down nature of the energy economy makes it more likely to overcome minority resistance to change; this is different than the pandemic, where the bottom-up nature of transmission empowers individuals to scuttle progress made by a majority. Of course, if a majority decides to prevent progress, then indeed progress will be difficult–but we’ve already seen an attempt to bring back coal as a source for electrical power, and it failed to gain any traction.

If the coronavirus pandemic does, in the end, increase trust in scientific evaluation of risks, and this in turn strengthens the majority that favors addressing climate change, then failures in keeping people alive and free of infection won’t necessarily doom us to an ice-free and drowned coastal future.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

11/17 update. Seems either Paul Krugman reads this blog, or GG is clairvoyant or this is just really obvious…

Many (including GG) have pointed out the parallels between coronavirus and global warming, suggesting that being forced to see science as useful in confronting a previously marginalized hazard will pave the way for the public to embrace fighting an even less immediate threat. And, well, could happen. But it is worth considering what is going on right now with the coronavirus in large parts of the U.S. As documented in a New York Times article, plenty of people encountering the virus at fairly close range are shrugging it off. God’s will, or “most people recover” seem the most common refrains. Of course others lean the other way, becoming more careful and protective. What does this bode for fighting climate change?

In general, the public is in favor of doing something about climate change. But the thing about human beings is that we kind of adopt as “normal” the climate from some point in our personal past. Since we all have finite lifetimes, the cultural “normal” will slide forward in time. This has the effect of reducing the emotional impact of a changing climate. So when we see folks shrugging off a fatal disease kicking around the neighborhood, it seems even more plausible that folks might start to accept drowned cities, frequent hurricanes, floods and droughts as just part of “normal.”

We have already crossed many red lines. We’ve been partially rescued from the very worst that could have happened by the fruition of seed money planted years ago in wind and solar power but also by the technological advancement that brought forth sufficient natural gas that coal plants are quickly vanishing. If the public pushes to lighten our impact on the planet–or even if they are just willing to go along with it–there is hope for preventing more dire outcomes. But get complacent, say “eh, no big deal” as some are to the coronavirus, and we’ll enter a world we aren’t really prepared for, and one likely to be far less diverse in fauna and flora than today. Being jaded and stoic in the face of these crises is perhaps as much an obstacle as industries being shunted to the side.

Oil wells that end well

We crossed a major divide last night. An American Presidential candidate with a substantial lead in the polls finally spoke the truth that none had dared to say out loud. The fossil fuel industry will have to go away. This from a politician who pointedly does not look to end fracking (which is in a real sense more a means of limiting or ending oil and gas production than of adjusting oil and gas development practices). Whether it will hurt him in the polls remains to be seen, but the emergence of climate change as a significant issue instead of a niche item is most welcome to the earth science community at large, a community that started making noise about this more than 30 years ago.

[Of course, immediately after the debate Biden walked back his statement, claiming we’ll have fossil fuels for a long time–we’d better not!–and that he is just talking about ending subsidies for the industry. So they have decided this was not a wise statement. Too bad; would have been interesting to see it embraced.]

Social media has been awash in statements like “how can you not believe in climate change” in the myriad threads including “fire” in the hashtag. Communities that used to simply say “we will rebuild” are modifying the pledge, adding “smarter” or even “elsewhere” as the long-term impacts of rising sea level and stronger storms become more evident. Skiers encounter programs asking visitors to help “save our winter” as slopes in some places are staying bare further into the winter season.

Really, there shouldn’t be anything controversial about Biden’s statement. Shareholders have pressed oil companies into downgrading the value of their assets, arguing that of course some of these will be stranded as the global economy tries to reduce carbon emissions. Some of those companies are acquiring green energy assets in an attempt to remain relevant as the global power mix changes. The writing has been on the wall for awhile; the only possible way to continue to burn oil and gas long term would be if carbon sequestration at an unprecedented level emerged now. And while we will certainly need carbon sequestration to get to where we want to be, it isn’t ready for prime time yet. Wind and solar? Well yes, they are ready, they are economic, and the necessary storage and distribution changes needed to make these the dominant sources of energy are increasingly feasible.

Of course the proof will be in the doing–and that depends on the election coming up rapidly. Few recall that the House actually passed a climate action bill back in 2009 that died in the Senate. Even now, Democrats from oil and gas districts are running away from Biden’s statement even though Biden tried to emphasize this would happen “over time”. So concrete action may still recede into the future.

Yesterday too President Trump noted that we are “learning to live with” coronavirus; one suspects he’d also allow that we are learning to live with climate change. Whether we feel we are living with climate change or, as Biden responded to Trump, tired of dying with it will determine whether the U.S. can meet this challenge or simply submit to it.

Coaling Down

There is a lot of news bouncing around, even if you ignore conoravirus stuff. The Trump administration has been ditching environmental regulations right and left of late, and their love of coal has been stated time and again. Thus the news that coal is now trailing renewables in supplying electricity is rather stunning. Under a government seemingly dedicated towards bring coal back from the dead and pushing fantasies like “windmills cause cancer,” this is a remarkable chart:

Energy Information Agency short-term energy outlook, May 2020.

Renewables are crossing the 20% line and, having passed coal, appear set to continue to exceed coal as an energy source going forward. Given the fixed costs associated with coal-fired power plants, it is quite possible that the COVID-19 economic stresses might just put a lot of those coal plants out of business for good.

Even more amazing is this chart:

Read More…

Does COVID Presage Climate Change? (Update 4/11/20)

Note 4/11. Kind of amazing to see, but the response of people to requests for social distancing appears to be highly correlated with acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change: “In fact, attitudes toward climate change are one of the strongest and most robust predictors of social distancing behavior.” from Vox, 4/11/20. One has to wonder if COVID-19 races through these communities in the coming weeks if there will be any cognitive dissonance setting in that might change thinking on climate change…Also worth pointing out the 3/28 column by Paul Krugman in the New York Times more or less making the same observations as GG made here…

It is amazing to look at what has happened this year and contrast it with the history of climate change.

Coronavirus was initially a distant curiosity that maybe somebody else had to worry about, but not us Americans. Then some called it a threat, but that was easily shrugged off as this was really just a different cold–the stock market has done great, unemployment is low, and that is what matters. In fact we saw an administration figure say this would be good for America–would drive production back into the States. Then it began to kill people in this country, but it was all contained…nothing to see here folks, under control, move along. And then…the dam broke. Stuff most Americans really cared about was suddenly gone.  No March Madness.  No NBA. No NASCAR. No baseball. No golf. No skiing. Maybe even no Tom Hanks. Students suddenly cast out of classes.  Events like SxSW and Coachella cancelled. GG thinks the Girl Scouts even stopped selling cookies…

How do we react? Well, being Americans, we buy damn near everything in the grocery store for no rational reason (“you know, I bet cans of fried onions are going to be really rare! We’re so lucky we got the last 12 cans…”). But you know what, suddenly government action looks useful. Keep us safe!  Tell us what we need to do! (well, ok, so some folks go out and buy guns because…well, that is in like every collapse of civilization movie ever, so it must be wise). Schools close and the outcry is pretty minimal. Large group events banned with nary a whimper. Here in Colorado, the governor just closed all the ski resorts, which is probably as close to blasphemy as we get here, and no torches and pitchforks are in sight.

So what does this have to do with climate change?  Well, initially it was a far off problem that others worried about. Then, though it was increasingly clearly a potential threat that might require some change in behavior, it was ridiculed by legislators bringing snowballs into the halls of Congress: we don’t need to do anything, we’re fine, the economy matters way more. Hell, it would increase crop yields and so be good for America. Now it is king tides that cover roads along the eastern seaboard and coastal villages in the Arctic falling into the sea, it is stronger hurricanes and more intense droughts. It is COVID-19 except in slow motion. If you want to see the end game for global warming, wait a couple of months. Spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty.

If, somehow, we come through this without reproducing Italy’s problems or worse because the government recovers from lapses so egregious that there should be a pile of wrongful death suits pointed at it, will people decide that we should also unleash the government on this other problem that also threatens us all? Maybe there really is a God, one who likes to use biblical crises as parables….Will we take the hint?

Firing Line

When we’ve had large fires in the western U.S., a number of voices have been raised to say “this is because we’ve suppressed natural fires for so long.” But now, in Australia, we have large fires and the clamor is “climate change.”

Both are misleading when taken as the whole explanation. That lack of subtlety risks having people talking past one another.

In the western U.S., large swaths of territory were burned by Native Americans on a regular basis. These fires were regular and small and low-intensity. This practice existed for at least six hundred years in the Sierra Nevada and were prominently remarked upon by early European interlopers. Many environments were shaped by this practice to the point where we aren’t really sure what a fully “natural” landscape might look like.  But as the Gold Rush swept across the landscape, demolishing centuries-old Native practices, forests changed. Odds are good that a lot of the large forest fires in California owe their size to suppression of Native American fires more than suppression of natural fires.

Australia is, like California, prone to wildfire (and home to the wildly flammable eucalyptus). Fire is part of the native ecosystem. (Although there were suggestions that ecosystem-altering fires only came with the first humans to the continent, recent work seems to disprove that notion, showing that Australian fires accompanied global climate changes in the Late Pleistocene). In either case, over the 50,000 years of human occupation, Aboriginals dealt with a burnable landscape and, not too surprisingly, had a habit of setting low intensity burns to manage their environment. Abandonment of this practice probably contributes to the current set of large fires.

Does this mean climate change is irrelevant? Hardly. There is ample evidence that the hotter climate (Australia saw its hottest year on record in 2019) has led to longer and more intense fire seasons. Would this have overwhelmed native burning practices? Hard to know, but the window for setting low intensity ground fires seems to be smaller each year.  The same can be said for California, where “routine” drought has been intensified by hotter and drier summers.

What can be said fairly confidently is that human behavior is responsible for the modern fire regimes in both places. Thus reversing this trend will require changes in human activity, from fire suppression techniques to changes in the carbon emissions in the atmosphere. As with so many other impacts of climate change, other factors will exacerbate or ameliorate the climate signal; in this case, those other factors exacerbate the impact of the warming climate. Thus wildfire is something like the canary in the coal mine, a leading indicator of ill fate ahead. Gases are accumulating, the canary is on its back, feet in the air. What are you going to do?

The Pessimists Have It

Story in the New York Times on how climate scientists blew it–that climate change is already much worse than expected.

This was inevitable for a couple of reasons.  First, it was obvious almost from the very start that the biggest effects were going to be in the high latitudes (when GG taught historical geology, this point was made by looking at paleotemperature in the Cretaceous, which were much higher at high latitudes while perhaps only slightly higher in the tropics). Most of the IPCC reports did not attempt to include increased melting of ice or releases from permafrost, in large part because efforts to include these elements were viewed as too speculative.  And this then points to the main reason why thing seem to be unravelling fast: there was (and is) tremendous pressure to focus on the minimal impacts of climate change, which we discussed once before.

So what were these forces for moderation? Start with the science itself. Science is astonishingly conservative. If you are showing that something will occur, you have to show that the low-end assumptions will yield a significant change compared to the status quo. So the focus is not on the worst case, it is on the best case.

Then there is science building on science. This is the same problem: if you are working on, say, glacial melting, you are taking results from some other studies (which, as noted above, are likely already conservative) and again, you are looking to show what the minimum impact might be. So if we were working at, say, the 95% limit in the first study, we could be at the 99.75% level if the second study.

Now, the scientists working on this were well aware that the published literature was decidedly focused on the most conservative possibilities; there was plenty of concern that things could be a lot worse than those papers were showing.  After all, forecasting has large uncertainties–if the conservative results were showing melting glaciers and acidifying oceans, the most radical results were daunting in the extreme.

This leads to the next pressure to minimize impacts: wanting to appear reasonable to policy makers. These scientists were very sensitive to assaults on them as being alarmists. The result was that the already conservative published literature was then presented as more likely than it probably was. This is especially true for the more derivative impacts of climate change: the amount of warming hasn’t been horribly misanticipated, but ice melting has.

Finally, of course, we have “both-side-ism,” which was rather cleverly attacked by John Oliver a few years back. Because media managers decided that this was something that was controversial, they would bring on “pro” and “con” speakers, disregarding expertise in the field. The result is that there remains a steady stream of op-eds and editorial cartoons that question whether the globe is warming–a stance that is clearly, uncontrovertibly wrong.

So, you might think, things like that NY Times piece mean this is all behind us, right? Wrong.  As the story mentions, we’ve discovered that there are some unanticipatedly large feedbacks. Surface melting on glaciers can accelerate their flow into the ocean. The Antarctic ice sheet has proven vulnerable in ways unanticipated two decades ago. Loss of sea ice might also reduce clouds, enhancing the albedo problems that the loss of sea ice alone represents. Marine clathrates are still not on the agenda for IPCC but could be a huge problem later in the century. And, of course, we have the most anti-science administration probably ever in the U.S. There are few encouraging signs: some species are proving somewhat more resilient than expected, for instance, but on balance the pessimists are proving to be more prescient.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered; the report at the time claimed that more than 30 New Yorkers failed to call the police. The line that stood out in the story was from one witness who said “I didn’t want to get involved”. For decades this story was used to encourage people to act instead of turn away when witnessing .

Today it is the planet itself under attack. We are all part of the attack, and we are all witnesses who can try to prevent it from being fatal. The victims are those young enough to bear the full brunt of our inaction. When we die, will we be apologizing to our heirs by uttering the line “I didn’t want to get involved?”

Nature, Nurture and the Anthropocene

Kind of a few thoughts bouncing about the internet about land and how it should managed and how that relates to the challenged term of the Anthropocene epoch.  Collected, they indicate how confused we are about nature and humanity’s impacts on nature. Let’s work our way backwards through time in pondering this.

First up, a story about a transfer of management from the federal government to a Native American tribe. High Country News covers this transfer in Oregon, where the Cow Creek band of the Umpqua Tribe took over control of land just in time for a considerable fraction to burn in a forest fire. They had yet to implement a management plan, but they know the path they want to follow:

[Michael] Rondeau explained that the management of Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians reservation lands would reflect Indigenous values: an example separate from either industry or conservation groups. “We don’t believe in locking up the forests and allowing them to ‘remain natural,’ because it never was,’” Rondeau said. “For thousands of years, our ancestors used fire as a tool of keeping underbrush down, so that the vegetation remains healthy and productive.”

As the article points out, this places the tribe at odds with many environmentalists, a conflict that actually goes pretty far back–though maybe not quite as far as some would have it:

“The conservation movement began as a way for settlers to justify the seizure of Indigenous lands under the pretext that Native peoples didn’t know how to manage them,” says Shawn Fleek, Northern Arapaho, who is director of narrative strategy for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon. “If modern conservation groups don’t begin their analysis in this history and struggle to address these harms, it becomes more likely they will repeat them.”

This is an interesting take on frontier justice, for while conservationists were indeed complicit in accepting the status quo that followed removal of Native peoples, given the opposition from locals to withdrawal of lands from private use, it seems a reach to imagine gold miners triggering armed conflict under the banner of conservation.

At the heart of this dispute is the question of what exactly do we mean by “nature”? Read More…