Friday, May 5, 2017

The March for Science

 
photo by Donna Castagna-Gianelli

Saturday April 22, Earth Day, marked the global March for Science.  Scientists and non-scientists alike participated in the march in over 600 different locations around the world.  The reasons for marching were as diverse as the people participating.  For me, a college physics professor with a PhD in atmospheric science who spent sixteen years at one of the world’s major centers for climate research, it came down to the fact that we need to talk.  In a country where people with resources to spare and a vested interest in keeping people confused can send a horribly misleading book to every science teacher, we need to talk.  In a country where a series of regulations that honestly didn’t go far enough to protect our fragile planet can be undone with one stroke of a Presidential pen, we need to talk.  In a country and world where scientists can receive death threats for drawing the only conclusion the data allowed them to draw, we need to talk.  The discussion needs to be respectful and rational, of course, but scientists need to start and maintain an open dialogue with the public at large.  My fellow scientists and I cannot simply take it for granted that the results of our efforts will be accepted, understood, appreciated, and acted upon if needed.

 
 photo by Donna Castagna-Gianelli

I went to the march in New York City, with my wife and daughter.  From the onset, it was clear that this demonstration was different than most of the ones I’ve gone to in the past.  It wasn’t loud and angry, to be sure (notwithstanding a cascade of boos as we marched past Trump Tower).  In fact it was actually very friendly, with a tone akin more to a family gathering than to an angry protest.  We met scientists who’ve traveled to Antarctica to study the behavior of penguins.  We also met artists who made striking unicorn costumes, in the hope of raising awareness to the danger that some real creatures may become mythical in the not too distant future.

 
photo by Donna Castagna-Gianelli

People with a lot of experience at demonstrations might have found the atmosphere to be too polite, but it really wasn’t a bad thing.  More than anything, the march was a call for respect.  Scientists often work long hours for pay that can best be described as adequate, and the more momentum a research project has, the longer the hours become.  The results of these efforts include all the medical advances and other technology we now enjoy.  They also include greatly enhanced knowledge about the workings of the universe, including this little world on which we live.  Some of the things we’ve found out about our world are genuinely disturbing, though, and the interest of our elected government in dealing with the issue has declined even as the situation has become clearer and more urgent.

 I got my copy in my mailbox at Hofstra.  Did you get yours?

If a change in how the public views science and scientists is necessary and long overdue, scientists need to be more proactive in reaching out to the public about their work and what it means.   I felt that the March for Science was a good launching point.  It sent a simple message that we’re here, we’re human, and we’re concerned.  And above all, we need to talk.  Then, we need to keep talking.

photo by Donna Castagna-Gianelli

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Trump's Executive Order

On March 28, President Trump issued an executive order titled “Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth.”  In it, he lays out his intentions to promote the expansion of energy production from fossil fuels by removing the regulations put in place by the Obama administration to fight global warming.  While nothing in it is surprising based on the positions Trump took during the debates (which I discussed very critically in a previous post), it is worth looking at the order in detail to see what specific actions are going to be taken by our government, and what the reasons for them and actual implications really are.

The order begins by stating two premises.  The first is that “It is in the national interest to promote clean and safe development of our Nation's vast energy resources, while at the same time avoiding regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation.  Moreover, the prudent development of these natural resources is essential to ensuring the Nation's geopolitical security.”  The second premise is that “It is further in the national interest to ensure that the Nation's electricity is affordable, reliable, safe, secure, and clean, and that it can be produced from coal, natural gas, nuclear material, flowing water, and other domestic sources, including renewable sources.”  The conclusions based on these premises are that all existing regulations will be reviewed by the government agencies under the Executive Branch, with the aim of removing any that “unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources beyond the degree necessary to protect the public interest or otherwise comply with the law.”  Regulations that are perceived to disrespect laws passed by Congress and different states, or to produce more cost than benefit, are to be put under particular scrutiny.  A directive is then given to all government agencies to review all their regulations.  The agencies have 45 days to construct a plan, 120 days to submit a draft report, and 180 days to submit a final report.

Trump then goes on to revoke and rescind a number of Obama’s executive orders and actions, most notably the Climate Action Plan and its Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions and the Council on Environmental Quality’s guidance requiring federal agencies to take greenhouse gas emissions and global warming into account when evaluating proposed actions.  He also calls on EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to review the details of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, rescind any part of it that Pruitt deems inconsistent with the stated objectives of this executive order, and inform the Attorney General if any of the changes affect pending litigation.  Trump then calls for a detailed cost-benefit analysis of any regulations in place that relate to climate change, and replaces all of the Obama Administration’s guidelines for evaluating the social cost of greenhouse gases with a set of guidelines from the administration of George W. Bush.  The section from that document (called Circular A-4) that pertains to cost-benefit analysis begins with the following two sentences: “Your analysis should focus on benefits and costs that accrue to citizens and residents of the United States. Where you choose to evaluate a regulation that is likely to have effects beyond the borders of the United States, these effects should be reported separately.”  The Secretary of the Interior is ordered to lift all moratoria on coal leasing on federal lands, and to examine all the Obama-era regulations on the natural gas industry in order to eliminate those regulations which do not comply with this executive order’s objectives.

So what is is Trump’s intent with this executive order?  The best place to look for an answer to that is in the premises.  Much of the language in the document, starting with the first clause in the first premise, cannot be argued with on objective terms.  It is the difference in how people would define words like “necessary” and “prudent” that will lead to considerable objections.  The second clause suggests that regulations have caused burdens on the energy industry that have killed jobs, but is that actually true?  As I described in a previous post, coal has declined because of the surge in natural gas production, not from any regulations.  And the fact that natural gas production has surged indicates that the gas industry did quite well for itself in the years that Obama was President.  The second premise is more telling.  Trump announces his preference for certain forms of energy, with renewables qualifying as an “other.”  Why?  According to the 2017 U. S. Energy and Employment Report published by the Department of Energy, solar energy in 2016 employed more than four times as many people as coal in electricity generation (373,087 vs. 86,035); even when fuel production is added in, it was still more than twice as many (373,087 vs. 160,119).  Wind power employed an additional 101,738 people in the United Sates last year.  So when Trump says that prioritizing industries like coal and not renewables is about job creation it means one of three things: either he doesn’t know the DOE’s statistics on energy jobs in America, he doesn’t believe the DOE’s statistics on energy jobs in America, or he is not being honest. 

If Trump is not promoting conventional energy sources for the sake of creating jobs, is he instead doing it to promote cheaper energy?  Again, the available data suggests otherwise.  The financial institution Lazard annually publishes an assessment of the levelized cost of energy, and in 2016 they concluded that land based wind ($32-$62 per megawatt-hour or MWh, depending on location) and utility-scale solar ($46-$61 per MWh) had reached a cost level where they were usually cheaper to create the facilities and produce the energy than even natural gas ($48-$78 per MWh).  Even “dirty” coal ($60 per MWh on the low end) has trouble competing with those prices, before any added cost for regulations (or transportation and storage, for that matter) is even considered.  “Clean” coal (meaning incorporating a system to take carbon dioxide out of the emissions of burning coal and store it in the ground) would bring the price as high as $143 per MWh.  For clean coal to have any chance of being cost-competitive in the coming years, engineers would have to find a way of bringing its price down at least below what could be done with renewables generating excess energy at peak times and storing it in a battery.  At present, Lazard estimates the cost of utility-scale solar plus battery storage to be $92 per MWh.

So Trump’s apparent favoritism of the fossil fuel industry does not mesh with the current state of jobs or costs in the energy sector.  As I said when discussing his debate performance, he appears to be clinging to old narratives that aren’t true and that need to be countered with more vigor than they have been up to this point.  Now granted, I am for giving renewables preferential treatment.  I believe that there is overwhelming scientific justification for doing so, and that the economic conditions to begin the transition to a renewables-based energy sector are favorable.  It will be interesting to see what kind of counter-argument the Trump Administration makes, and whether any aspect of it is defensible.  Trump states his desire to make sure that regulations “achieve environmental improvements for the American people, and are developed through transparent processes that employ the best available peer-reviewed science and economics.”  Where global warming is concerned, the peer-reviewed science is clear and unequivocal in concluding that the Earth is getting warmer and human activity is the reason.  For our sake, I hope the President meant what he said.

To be fair, I can understand why Trump would like to show some sympathy to this country’s coal miners.  My grandfather was a coal miner from the town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, which thrived in the early 20th century as a hub for the transportation of coal from the mines to the power generators across the state.  Collectively we all owe a huge debt to the people who extracted the coal, often at a significant expense to their own health, which powered this country and the world.  And I get that nobody wants to hear that the planet would be better off if their job didn’t exist anymore, even if — and perhaps especially if — that happens to be the truth.  I also understand that, when your career is in danger of being taken away, an amorphous promise of “training” just seems like condescension from people who aren’t directly affected.  But coal is being phased out in a number of places, not just here.  The reasons for that are many, and are economic as well as environmental.    In Australia, for example, coal mines are closing at a steady clip despite a government that’s at least as far to the right as ours currently is, and communities are indeed being affected.  What makes these closures especially damaging, according to a recent article, is the lack of time the communities have to prepare for them.  As the article indicates, the best way to mitigate the damage is with proper planning, and by making sure that the people affected are listened to in every step of the process.  Making promises to revive the coal industry, when basic economics dictates that the promises can’t be kept, will do more harm than good over the next decade for coal workers and the cities and towns that have depended on the industry.  And for the rest of us, there is simply no good mixed in with the harm.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War

The ongoing Civil War in Syria is both an enormous tragedy and a global crisis.  Estimates have suggested that close to half a million people have died.  The United Nations has indicated that 13.5 million Syrians need some form of humanitarian aid, including approximately five million refugees.  The Islamic State has emerged as a direct result of this conflict, taking over territory in Syria and Iraq and eventually supporting terrorist activity here in the United States.  Lots of factors have contributed to the Civil War, and it has been suggested that climate change is one of them. Showing an unequivocal link between global warming and the conflict is a challenge, but there are a couple of ways to demonstrate why such a link is plausible.  First, climate change appears to have influenced conflicts in past human history.  Second, there is strong evidence from both models and observations that climate change has influenced the recent Syrian drought.  And third, there are reasons to believe that the drought aggravated the tensions that led to the Civil War.

Science can show that the beginnings of historical periods of conflict or stability often coincide with climate shifts.  A 2011 paper, for example, used several thousand tree samples to show that the era of Roman dominance in Europe coincided with a lengthy warm, wet, and stable climate.  Subsequent instability in the climate record coincided with political upheavals, along with the barbarian advances that led to the Empire’s downfall and subsequent political chaos.  A return to stability in the climate beginning around 800 AD coincided with the establishment of lasting Medieval kingdoms.  Similarly, a 2012 paper used cave deposits to confirm the long-suspected notion that the Mayan Empire thrived during a prolonged wet period, began to struggle as the climate got drier, and then collapsed completely during a period of extended drought.  And a 2007 paper showed a statistical correlation between cycles of warfare and cycles of climate variation in Europe and China between 1400 and 1900.

So climate change often at least coincides with general historical periods of prosperity and conflict.  The conflicts typically arise from a scarcity of resources, especially water.  In the case of Syria, the nation has been wracked by a very strong, prolonged drought.  In fact, an analysis of an archive of tree ring data from the Mediterranean region has shown that the drought currently afflicting Syria has been the worst in the 900-year record.  Furthermore, modeling studies indicate that the drying of Syria is consistent with a warming world.  According to the most recent IPCC report, global warming is expected to extend the belt of dry, sinking air that shapes most of the world’s deserts further to the north, potentially affecting much of the Mediterranean region.  The historic drought in Syria over the past decade is therefore consistent with our understanding of the physics affecting Syria’s climate.

A 2015 paper titled “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought” tied the political and climatic loose ends together.  Hafez al-Assad, father and predecessor of current Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad, ramped up Syrian agricultural production to an unsustainable degree.  This caused a steady decline in the nation’s supply of groundwater.  The lost groundwater increased Syria’s vulnerability to the historic drought, and aggravated an already precarious situation.  The loss of livelihood due to the drought led to the mass migration of rural Syrians to the peripheries of cities that were already teeming with Iraqi refugees.  It was in these peripheries that the unrest was kindled.

In short, there is very strong evidence that the drought was a major contributor to the conditions that made the Syrian Civil War possible.  While it is possible that the drought would have happened without climate change, science indicates that the warming world in which we live made such a drought more likely.  And the probability of disruptive long-term weather events occurring is only going to increase as the world continues to warm.  Furthermore, even though this conflict is taking place in a distant land, the consequences have spread globally.  Regardless of where the next disruptive event takes place, we will not be immune to its effects.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Stepladders and pausebusters

Last week, The Mail on Sunday published an article called “Exposed: How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data.”  In the article, author David Rose (whom I mentioned in my previous blog post) refers to a paper titled “Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus,” written in 2015 by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research team led by Thomas Karl.  Rose suggests that the paper’s re-analysis of NOAA’s temperature records, which indicated that the warming between 1998 and 2015 was larger than initially thought, was the primary reason that the 2015 Paris agreement calling for international action to combat climate change happened.  He then goes on to say that the paper exaggerated the data because another NOAA scientist, John Bates, claimed that the publication of the paper was rushed in violation of NOAA’s rules.  The article made the rounds in the media quickly — I actually found out about it when a conservative friend of mine shared an article about the article on his Facebook feed — and Karl and his NOAA colleagues now have the increased attention of the unsympathetic House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to contend with.  Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) even went so far as to accuse Karl of "playing fast and loose with the data."  So what exactly happened, and what are the implications for global warming and the research behind it?

To begin to answer this question, we need go back to the temperature record.  Last week I posted a graph showing the evolution of global temperatures (from the NASA GISS data set, using bimonthly means to coincide with NOAA’s MEI data) since 1950.  There is a lot of short-term variation in the data, due largely to the cycle of El Niño and La Niña, but the overall increase is unmistakable.  The variation makes evaluating the evolution of the trend in temperature complicated, however, and very highly dependent on where you start and end the analysis.  If I were going to calculate a ballpark estimate of how the trend has changed from decade to decade, I would restrict the data to times when the El Niño cycle was mostly neutral, or when the Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI) was between +0.2 and -0.2.  I would also rule out points that were influenced by the major volcanic eruptions of El Chichon (1982) and Mt. Pinatubo (1991).  This would leave a graph that looks like this:
 Figure 1

The trend lines come from a least-squares regression of the best fit, with straight-line relationships over each decade, constrained so that each decadal line segment begins where the previous one ends.  What this shows is that the warming looks more like a stepladder than a steadily increasing parabolic curve, with some time periods warming more rapidly than others.  Is this a surprising result?  Well no, actually.  In the 1988 paper “Global Climate Changes as Forecast by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies Three-Dimensional Model,” written by a NASA GISS research team led by Jim Hansen, alternating periods of relatively rapid warming and relatively slow warming (due to natural variations beyond the El Niño cycle) can be clearly seen in the five-year running means in the model’s forecast.  (The publication of this paper coincided with Hansen’s trip to Washington to become the first scientist to testify in front of the U. S. Senate that global warming was real and required urgent action.)

So what’s the problem?  The trends displayed in Figure 1 are dependent on where I arbitrarily chose the starting and ending points.  In my graph, the trend for the decade of the 2000s is approximately 0.05ºC.  This is small compared to the 1990s (0.20ºC) and the 2010s (0.32ºC projected for the whole decade, as of the end of 2016), but not zero.  However, if you include all the data points and start the trend from the El Niño-enhanced peak in 1998, the trend over the 2000s would naturally be lower, and may even dip below zero if you choose the right endpoint.  It should be obvious (if not, see my previous post) that there are objective reasons not to start any trend analysis with the peak of a very strong El Niño, but climate science deniers created a narrative over the last decade that global warming had in fact stopped in 1998, or that at worst there was an extended “pause” or “hiatus” in the warming.  These terms were used so aggressively that they frequently appeared in the scientific literature, including the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  (Note: if you are trying to combat false narratives, do not, ever, concede to use the other side’s language.)  It was obvious by 2015 that warming had started to accelerate again, boosted partially but not entirely by another strong El Niño.  This should have rendered moot any discussion over whether there had been a pause or not.  But this is where the Karl et al. paper comes in.

The NOAA research team led by Karl worked with the NOAA temperature record.  They found that surface temperature measurements obtained on the ocean were different depending on whether they came from boats or whether they came from buoys.  When they corrected for the difference, the trend in their temperature record between 1998 and 2014 increased.  This caused an uproar — not in the climate science community, but among the community of climate science deniers, who sensed that their long-running narrative was in jeopardy.  Lamar Smith demanded that Karl produce the data and all internal communications regarding this paper.  The data were already readily available, but NOAA refused to hand over the emails.  Earlier this year, a research team led by Berkely scientist Zeke Hausfather published their results after conducting their own analysis on the NOAA data. Not only did they draw the same conclusions about the NOAA data, but confirmed that the adjustments were consistent with data from other temperature records.

That brings us to last week.  John Bates had led a team at NOAA that devised a protocol for publishing results based on NOAA data and archiving the data and the methods of analysis.  He felt that Karl had published his results before the quality of the data could be fully confirmed (it eventually was), in order to get the results out in advance of the Paris Conference.  Bates also didn’t like the manner in which the data were archived, even though plenty of data from other locations are archived similarly.  (The manner in which the data had been first archived was nothing that a researcher looking for data would object to; if anything it's very user-friendly.)  Keep in mind also that the delegates to the Paris Conference looked at hundreds of papers, and were already aware of the rapid increase in global temperatures in 2015 that was far more significant than the updated trend in the NOAA data.  But Bates recently aired his grievances in the forum for a blog that climate science deniers look at, and soon David Rose had fodder for an article, complete with much hyperbole and a comically misleading graph.  Rose repeatedly refers to the Karl et al. paper as the “pausebuster”; I had never heard that one before, but I have to admit that it’s catchy.

To make a painfully long story short, a useful paper was given extremely exaggerated importance by certain people because it messed with their narrative.  Accusations of data manipulation ensued.  These accusations have now been greatly magnified because another NOAA scientist who designed a protocol for publication decided to publicly complain, in a place where it would do maximum damage to Karl and his research team, that his process wasn’t perfectly followed.  In the end, nothing is changed about the science.  Temperatures increase more quickly over some time intervals and less quickly over others.  We already knew that.  But scientists are being accused of dishonesty, even when their analysis has been peer-reviewed and then independently verified in other peer-reviewed publications.  The accusations are coming not just from misguided bloggers and journalists, but from powerful people in Congress.

It does not have to be this way.  I am confident that most Republicans who take a long, hard look at what is going on will not continue to allow people who promote abject ignorance, to the point of witch-hunting scientists who publish results that contradict their false narratives, to represent them.  In other news this week, an older generation of Republican statesmen proposed a plan than includes a carbon tax to fight global warming.  This is exactly the kind of debate the two parties should be having: over how to address the very real problem of global warming.  Accepting reality should not be ideological.

(If you want to read a good analysis of how the data analysis process works in the context of this past week’s events, Zeke Hausfather wrote this the other day.)

Friday, February 3, 2017

Breaking the "Icy Silence"

In December, the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology posted a link to an article published on the Breitbart News Network suggesting that a recent drop in land temperatures showed that the past three consecutive years of record warmth were just part of a natural fluctuation.  Both the House Committee and Breitbart are notorious for their climate change skepticism.  The House Committee is probably best known for a patently embarrassing exchange on global warming with President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren in 2014; the exchange was ruthlessly satirized by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, but the laughs have to be tempered by the fact that these people have been given responsibility over science policy in this country.  Breibart first came to my attention in 2009 when its founder, Andrew Breitbart, posted a tweet saying “Capital Punishment for Dr James Hansen.  Climategate is High Treason.”  Jim Hansen was the director at the time of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), a major center for climate change research where I also worked.  When somebody publicly calls for the execution of your boss, you tend to notice him a bit more.  Andrew Breitbart passed away in 2012, but his successor Stephen Bannon became an instrumental figure in Donald Trump’s successful campaign last year, and now appears to rank as the new President’s most trusted advisor.  So I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of firm substance from this particular article, written by James Delingpole and titled “Global Temperatures Plunge.  Icy Silence from Climate Alarmists.”  But while there is much about the article that is misleading, there is enough of an attempt to describe actual science in the article that I think a detailed response that goes beyond a curt dismissal is warranted.

The article begins with the statement that “Global Land temperatures have plummeted by 1°C since the middle of this year — the biggest and steepest fall on record.”  There are three problems with using land temperatures over roughly half a year (keep in mind, the article came out on November 30) to infer global trends.  The first, as was pointed out by many people, is that 70% of the Earth’s surface is ocean.  The second, as a few people pointed out, is that the ocean warms and cools less quickly than land does, so the magnitude of the drop in temperature would be reduced if oceans are included.  The third problem, which I’m surprised wasn’t brought up by more people, is that 67% of the Earth’s land is in the Northern Hemisphere.  What direction would you expect Northern Hemisphere temperatures to go between the middle of the year and the end of November?  So right away you have a number presented in such a way as to make it look far more significant than it really is, and I could understand why people wouldn’t have bothered with the article any further than here.

As far as the “icy silence” from “climate alarmists” was concerned, anybody who understands how global mean temperatures fluctuate would say that a drop in global mean temperatures from the recent peak was long expected as the strong El Niño finally faded and segued into the other side of the natural cycle, called La Niña.  But what makes is this article worth examining is that, instead of ignoring the perfectly natural explanation for the temperature variation, Delingpole actually identifies the cause correctly but then mistakenly concludes that it supports the idea that there is no warming trend.  He cites another skeptical author named David Rose, who is quoted as follows:

“Big El Ninos always have an immense impact on world weather, triggering higher than normal temperatures over huge swathes of the world. The 2015-16 El Nino was probably the strongest since accurate measurements began, with the water up to 3ºC warmer than usual. 

It has now been replaced by a La Nina event – when the water in the same Pacific region turns colder than normal.  This also has worldwide impacts, driving temperatures down rather than up.

The satellite measurements over land respond quickly to El Nino and La Nina. Temperatures over the sea are also falling, but not as fast, because the sea retains heat for longer.

This means it is possible that by some yardsticks, 2016 will be declared as hot as 2015 or even slightly hotter – because El Nino did not vanish until the middle of the year.  But it is almost certain that next year, large falls will also be measured over the oceans, and by weather station thermometers on the surface of the planet – exactly as happened after the end of the last very strong El Nino in 1998. If so, some experts will be forced to eat their words.”

I’m not actually certain what experts Rose is talking about.  Most of what he says outside of the last sentence is at least defensible, although there is room for some argument on the details.  (2016 appears to have been more than slightly warmer than 2015, for example.)  To illustrate the connection between the El Niño/La Ninã cycle (generally referred to in the scientific community as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO) and global mean temperature, I’m going to show a few graphs.

Figure 1


Figure 1 contains the bimonthly mean anomalies, measured relative to the 1951-1980 mean, of global temperatures in the GISS data set.  The temperature curve is not a smooth, steady rise, but rather a series of peaks and relative minima oscillating back and forth around a general trend.  The most pronounced peak is indeed the most recent one, reaching a bimonthly mean value of 1.33 ºC above the 1951-1980 mean in February/March 2016.  The temperature anomaly dropped over half a degree back to 0.80ºC in June/July, which is pretty steep over a short period of time, but it has actually gone up a bit since then.


Figure 2



Figure 2 shows the corresponding bimonthly mean plot of a quantity defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as the Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI).  The mathematics of calculating the MEI is complicated, but it revolves around measurements of six different weather-related quantities in the tropical Pacific, and then defining the variance in these quantities relative to median conditions (defined as an MEI of 0).  The high positive values correspond to El Niño events, while the strongly negative values correspond to La Niña events.  As you can see, many of the temperature spikes in Figure 1 coincide with El Niño events, and many of the relative minima coincide with La Niña events.  This is why scientists consider the ENSO cycle to be the dominant source of short-term, natural variations in the global temperature record.

However, while the 2015-2016 El Niño event is among the strongest on record, the MEI data suggest that it was not stronger than the one in 1998.  That particular El Niño event produced its own sharp spike in the global temperature record.  It has also produced a large amount of misunderstanding of how global mean temperatures work, as skeptics have spent much of the last decade or so declaring the 1998 peak as the point where global warming stopped.  It should be clear enough from Figure 1 that there is more at work than the cyclical El Niño variations.  The highest bimonthly mean temperature anomaly recorded in 1998, a stronger El Niño than the most recent one according to the MEI data, was 0.75ºC.  Not only is that nearly 0.6ºC cooler than the most recent peak in the temperature anomaly from last year, but the 1998 peak was cooler than the planet is right now, even after the large drop.

As for the drop, the 2015-2016 El Niño has certainly ended, but the present state is closer to neutral than to a full-blown La Niña event.  This suggests that ENSO-neutral conditions presently result in a temperature anomaly at, or maybe a little bit above, 0.80ºC.  Were this state of general neutrality to continue for the rest of the year, 2017 would wind up comfortably being the third warmest on record, but that ultimately depends on whether or not a strong La Niña ultimately happens.

So does that mean, as Delingpole concludes in his article, that “The last three years may eventually come to be seen as the final death rattle of the global warming scare”?  No, of course not.  The overall trend in the temperature anomaly data continues to be positive.  The trend may appear larger or smaller at different times due to natural fluctuations, but it is there just the same.  If ENSO were the dominant influence on global mean temperatures without any additional warming trend, then the temperature anomaly from this past year would most likely not be higher at all than the one in 1998, much less 0.6ºC higher.

(Incidentally, I told my climate-related classes in 2015 that it would only be a matter of time before the same people who insist on using the peak of the strong 1998 El Niño as the starting point in their analysis of subsequent temperature trends would start publicly dismissing the much greater peak presently in the temperature record on account of its association with a strong El Niño.  And here you go.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Learning from the debates

This past week, I examined Barack Obama's editorial in Science Magazine concerning his optimism about the future of renewable energy.  The White House has now changed hands.  As the Trump administration takes over, it is worth looking back at how Trump and his opponent Hillary Clinton addressed the issues of energy and global warming when they were asked about it in the debates.  In Trump’s case, it is useful to know what our President’s priorities are and what that means going forward.  In Clinton’s case, it is worth going back to see what she got right and what she got wrong, in order to understand what people who would challenge Trump need to know and say if they want to bring about the best possible energy future for this country and this planet.



Clinton, to her credit, introduced the subject of clean energy in the first debate during a general discourse on job creation.  She started talking about the United States’ potential role as a clean energy superpower, and then she mentioned Trump’s “Chinese hoax” quote regarding global warming.  Trump denied saying this, but the actual quote from Trump’s Twitter feed from November 6, 2012 says “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”  China remains the planet's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, but they have also just built the largest solar energy farm in the world.  They certainly take the notion of being a clean energy superpower very seriously. 

Trump responded by bringing up a government investment in a solar energy company that turned out to be “a disaster.”  The company he is referring to is called Solyndra.  Solyndra received a half billion dollar grant from the US government to develop solar panels made from copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS.  This was part of President Obama’s “all of the above” approach to developing our energy infrastructure.  CIGS was seen as a potential alternative to silicon, which is the primary material used in solar panels.  Unfortunately for Solyndra, in the two years after receiving that grant, the price of silicon dropped by a factor of five.  Solyndra went bankrupt, but what needs to be said in no uncertain terms (and what should have been said by Clinton at the debate) is that the dramatic drop in the price of silicon was wonderful news for the solar industry as a whole, and it's a big reason why utility-scale solar is now fully cost-competitive with other sources of energy generation like coal and natural gas.



In the second debate, a private citizen asked an excellent question about energy policy.  Trump responded first, declaring our energy industry to be “under absolute siege” from the Obama Administration, and stating that the EPA was “killing these energy companies.”  The EPA did announce a Climate Action Plan in 2012; it went into effect in 2015, but its full implementation has been held up in court.  What has been the impact on the fossil fuels industry? Natural gas has seen a steady surge in production over the past decade that does not appear to have been affected by policy from Washington.  US oil production did peak in 2014, but it remains far higher than it was in 2010, and the United States is currently a net exporter of oil.  Coal production has been on a downward trend for close to a decade at this point.  While that trend does appear to have accelerated in the last two years, and the Climate Action Plan might have had an effect on it, it was instigated by the surge in natural gas production.  So some energy companies have been hurt in recent years, but that has actually had more to do with economics than politics.  And other energy companies have done quite well.

Trump also mentions “clean coal,” which involves adding a process in coal plants that removes carbon dioxide from the emissions.  Ironically, a state-of-the-art clean coal plant that also received support initially from the Obama Administration has, like Solyndra, to this point been a sunk cost for the government.  The difference is that Solyndra failed for reasons that were good for the solar industry as a whole, but making clean coal cost-effective has proven to be a difficult obstacle to overcome.  Coal, even without any additional burdens imposed for environmental reasons — burdens which, for the sake of the planet’s health, honestly need to be there — is struggling to compete economically with natural gas and now with renewables as well.  It’s important to be honest about that.

Trump’s answer gave Clinton plenty of opportunity to respond, but rather than going straight to the substance, she regrettably attacked Trump for using Chinese steel in his buildings.  She did mention that the United States is now energy independent, but given Trump’s emphasis on how policy was killing energy companies, she needed to be much more forceful on that point.  Clinton makes an interesting point about the Middle East controlling the price of oil.  I don't believe that's as true now as it was in the past, given the United States’ present state of energy independence.  However, the OPEC nations have until recently maintained production of oil at a high rate even as American production has surged, and that has helped to keep oil prices down. The OPEC nations agreed in November to lower production, though, and other oil producing countries including Russia agreed to follow suit in December.  The United States has yet to commit on this issue.  Given that Rex Tillerson, the Exxon executive who Trump nominated to be Secretary of State, has had a business relationship with Vladimir Putin in the past, it seems likely that we won't aggressively undercut Russia.  On the other hand, were Trump to go along with decreasing oil production, he’d have no way of deflecting responsibility for the ensuing spike in gas prices.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Clinton concludes her answer by again emphasizing America’s potential role as a clean energy superpower, while also warning against leaving people behind if they lose their jobs as the economy changes.  What she needed to do here, which Obama did in his editorial last week, was cite the US Department of Energy’s Energy and Employment Report.  Both the 2016 and 2017 editions indicate that the solar industry in America is currently employing more people than the coal industry, and Clinton really needed to hammer that point home.

So what do the pre-election debates say about the state of American energy post-inauguration?  For starters, it’s a given that Trump will undo restrictions and regulations on the fossil fuel industry as a whole.  The natural gas industry was doing just fine anyway, and barring a breakthrough in efficiency or storage technology that would unequivocally tilt the economic scales in favor of renewables, it will continue to do so.  A general rise in the price of oil might improve the profit margins in that industry, but Trump shouldn’t expect a bump in his approval ratings from that.  Coal is struggling for economic reasons and will continue to do so.  People who would tout renewables, and particularly solar energy, need to talk about what Solyndra's failure really meant, and trumpet the job creation that the surging industry is already providing.  Clinton allowed some of Trump’s inaccurate narratives to go unchecked, and failing to respond promptly and effectively to them turned out to be a luxury she couldn’t afford.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The President's Parting Optimism

The most recent issue of Science Magazine includes an editorial from President Barack Obama entitled “The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy.”  In it, our still-current President expresses optimism that we will be able to change how we obtain our energy in ways that do not contribute ultimately to the warming of the planet. 

Obama cites four reasons why he believes the trend towards clean energy is irreversible. The first counteracts the prevailing narrative that you would need to sacrifice economic growth in order to  reduce carbon emissions.  Obama points out that carbon dioxide omissions from the energy sector fell by 9.5% from 2008 to 2015, while the economy grew by more than 10%. It’s important to keep in mind that the ultimate reason for the decline in these omissions is the redirection of our energy production away from coal and towards natural gas.  The main driver behind the switch towards natural gas is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  Fracking has a number of environmental issues associated with it, but the one most directly related to climate is the natural gas industry’s contribution to the increase in global methane omissions.  Methane is a greenhouse gas, stronger per unit mass then carbon dioxide is, so it's important to better quantify the cause of the increase in its emissions.  (This is an issue I will try to tackle in detail in a later blog entry.)  Regardless of how you feel about fracking (another issue I will try to address), it has shown that the way that this country and the world obtain energy can change, and change fairly quickly, if there's an incentive to do so.  The President goes on to talk about the costs that come with doing nothing about global warming, citing estimates that in the U. S. alone by the end of this century, combating the effects of global warming could cost between 340 and 690 billion dollars annually.  The report he cites is from the U. S. Office of Management and Budget; I haven't yet read the report and can’t comment on the specifics (perhaps another future blog entry?), but there’s no good reason to doubt that ignoring global warming will be very costly.  Obama then concludes this section by saying that the expenses that would be needed now to reduce the amount of global warming and bring about a clean energy economy will be small compared to preventing or repairing damages that global warming will cause if left unchecked. 

The second point Obama makes is that businesses, both with and without the support of the government, are starting to reduce their own emissions and carbon footprint.  On one hand, the Obama administration improved energy efficient standards for both automobiles and appliances.  But the President also points out that businesses are improving their energy efficiency for the simple reason that it saves money and allows them to spend that money in other areas, including the creation of new jobs.  Obama's third point concerns market forces in the power sector.  He points out that natural gas has gone from making up 21% of US electricity generation in 2008 to 33% today, and that the shift has come almost entirely at the expense of coal.  If the production of power from natural gas continues to be cheap relative to coal (as seems likely), I see no reason to think that demand for coal is going to increase in the coming years regardless of how the situation is portrayed by the incoming President.  Obama does address the issue of methane omissions, commenting that firms have an economic incentive to comply with standards his administration put in place.  I think he may be a little bit naïve about those standards being maintained, perhaps especially if the price of renewable energy continues to go down.  But that brings us to some very encouraging numbers for wind and solar, which Obama cites in the article.  Since 2008, wind power has dropped 41% in cost, rooftop solar has dropped 54%, and utility-scale solar has dropped 64%.  Obama doesn't mention a recent report from the financial advisory firm called Lazard’s that concluded that utility-scale solar power is now cheaper per unit energy produced, even without incentives, than either natural gas or coal.   (That important development will also get its own blog entry in the coming weeks.)  He does mention in concluding this section that a number of major American businesses, including Google and Walmart, have announced plans to get 100% of their power from renewable energy in the coming years.  Furthermore, plenty of states are going beyond federal initiatives to develop their clean power capacity.  So there is much momentum in the direction of renewable energy coming from the free market, regardless of what happens at the federal level.

Obama concludes his editorial by talking about momentum outside the United States to combat climate change by building up clean energy resources.  He notes that the most important aspect of the Paris agreement was that while previous attempts at climate agreements focused on the major industrialized nations of the world, in Paris over 110 countries agreed to do something.  He also acknowledges that the United States would abdicate its position to hold other countries responsible to their commitments should we back away from the Paris agreement.  While more reductions than have been presently agreed to need to be made across the board to keep global warming below 2°C (and hopefully below 1.5ºC), the Paris agreement puts the mechanisms in place to encourage the world's nations to continually update their commitments and encourage the development of further emission-reducing technologies.

Personally, I think the Paris agreement is a decent start that shows that the world is at least trying to get a handle on the problem of global warming.  The United States is in a position to be a leader in developing alternatives to fossil fuels and promoting clean sources of energy, and it's clear from the perspective of present-day economics that we walk away from that leadership position at a considerable amount of long-term economic and environmental peril.  While it would be nice if the federal government played an active role in developing and actively promoting clean, carbon-free energy over the next couple of years, solar and wind are in a position where they do not need the federal government’s help to survive and thrive, and I do believe that Obama's optimism in that regard is justified.  Whether the advance in clean energy happens quickly enough to prevent lasting harm to the planet, however, remains to be seen.