Archive for February, 2008

Carbon Emissions Success Stories

February 15th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Andy Revkin has an interesting post up about per capita emissions in various countries around the world. What countries have a per capita emissions level consistent with an 80 percent reduction from the world’s current total emissions?

hypothetical emissions.png

The answer, as can be seen above in an image that I use in lectures (data from US EIA), is Haiti and Somalia. If everyone in the world lived as they do in these two countries, we’d have the emissions challenge licked.

What about the eco-sensitive UK? Sorry, if everyone lived as they do in the UK global carbon emissions would be more than twice the current world total. What about everyone lived as they do in eco-friendly Sweden? Sorry, emissions would be about one and a half times the current world total. United States? Don’t even ask. China? just slightly below the current world total (and growing fast).

Bottom line? No country, save Haiti and Somalia, is currently producing emissions at a level even remotely consistent with levels consistent with an 80% reduction in the world’s totals. Hence, all of the finger pointing and debates in political negotiations are based on relative hypocrisy (“We’re doing relatively less bad that you are!”) or faith-based assumptions in the efficacy of future policies (“Our targets are more aggressive than yours!”).

There remains huge hurdles to achieving emissions reductions of the sort called for in current political debate. Until we see evidence of it actually occurring, somewhere, we should be very cautious about picking what policies will ultimately achieve results. Instead, we should try a diversity of approaches and see what works.

Seasonal Forecasts and the Colorado Winter

February 14th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.


The figure above shows the snowpack in the state of Colorado for the past few years. The current level is higher than its been for a while. This is great news for just about everyone in Colorado — except seasonal climate forecasters, who had predicted a dry, warm winter, and were sticking to that forecast as recently as a month ago.

In today’s Denver Post our excellent local science reporter Katy Human takes a look at the forecasts and why forecasters have given in to the reality of massive snowfall totals here in Colorado:

Dry-winter forecasts were flat wrong this year for much of Colorado and the Southwest, and weather experts say they’re struggling to understand why the snow just keeps falling.

Some forecasters blame climate change, and others point to the simple vicissitudes of weather. Regardless, almost everyone called for a dry-to-normal winter in Colorado and the Southwest — but today, the state’s mountains are piled so thick with snow that state reservoirs could fill and floods could be widespread this spring.

“The polar jet stream has been on steroids. We don’t understand this. It’s pushing our limits, and it’s humbling,” said Klaus Wolter, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Wolter and NOAA both forecast a drier-than-average winter in most of Colorado. AccuWeather Inc. did the same, citing similar reasons: A La Niña weather system of cool, equatorial Pacific water had set up in the tropics last fall.

I have a lot of respect for Klaus, who is brave enough to put out forecasts in the public on time scales that will allow verification, and hence newspaper articles on his performance. Forecasting is not for the thin-skinned. But forecasts have other effects as well:

La Niña winters have almost always brought droughtlike conditions to the Southwest, as the jet stream ferries storms farther north.

But Arizona has been hit with record snowfall this winter, said Mark Hubble, a senior hydrologist with the Salt River Project in Arizona, the largest provider of water and power in Phoenix.

Dry forecasts last fall convinced Salt River Project managers to purchase about 20,000 acre-feet of water from the Central Arizona Project as a backup, Hubble said. An acre- foot of water is about enough for a family of four for one year.

“As it turns out, we didn’t need it — at all,” Hubble said. He could not estimate the financial losses to Salt River, because some payments are made in-kind, with water trades and offsets in the future.

So why did the forecasts bust this year? No one really knows.

Wolter said he’s troubled that his and other long-range forecasts have been off two years in a row now.

Last year, experts predicted a wet year from Southern California across to Arizona and southern Colorado, because of an El Niño weather system of warmer Pacific water.

Instead, drought worsened in the Southwest, capped by a huge fire season in Southern California.

“So we have two years in a row here where the atmosphere does not behave as we expect,” Wolter said. “Maybe global changes are pulling the rug out from underneath us. We may not know the answer for 10 years, . . . but one pet answer is that you should get more variability with global change.”

So I suppose we should add busted seasonal forecasts to our growing lists of things consistent with predictions of climate change. Making long term, unverifiable forecasts is sure a lot safer territory than predicting seasonal snowpack!

For further reading:

Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2000: Policy Responses to the 1997/1998 El Niño: Implications for Forecast Value and the Future of Climate Services. Chapter 7 in S. Changnon (ed.), The 1997/1998 El Niño in the United States. Oxford University Press: New York. 172-196. (PDF)

The Consistent-With Game: On Climate Models and the Scientific Method

February 13th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I have been intrigued by the frequent postings over at Real Climate in defense of the predictive ability of climate models. The subtext of course is political – specifically that criticisms of climate models are an unwarranted basis for criticizing climate policies that are justified or defended in terms of the results of climate models. But this defensive stance risks turning climate modeling from a scientific endeavor to a pseudo-scientific exercise in the politics of climate change.


Technocracy versus Democratic Control

February 11th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In a recent commentary (PDF) NASA’s James Hansen has called for reform in how the government treats scientists, and the creation of special rules for how government scientists communicate with Congress and the public. Hansen’s commentary raises important general questions about democratic governance and the role of scientists in government. Should government scientists somehow be exempt from democratic accountability? Especially on a subject as important as climate change, where (in the words of Jim Hansen) the future of the planet is at stake?


Science Debate 2008: an incoherent idea at best

February 7th, 2008

Posted by: admin

A blogosphere movement/proposal for a “Science Debate” among presidential candidates has picked up considerable steam, gathering the support of institutions and individuals throughout the science community, and spilling onto the pages of Science (here) and Nature (here and here) this week. It’s worth looking at just what this group is calling for:

“Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.”


Guest Comment: Sharon Friedman, USDA Forest Service – Change Changes Everything

February 1st, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

It is true that the calculus of environmental tradeoffs will be inevitably and irretrievably changed due to consideration of climate change. Ideas that were convenient (convenient untruths) like “the world worked fine without humans, if we remove their influence it will go back to what it should be” have continued to provide the implicit underpinning for much scientific effort. In short, people gravitated to the concept that “if we studied how things used to be” (pre- European settlement) we would know how they “should” be, with no need for discussions of values or involving non-scientists. This despite excellent work such as the book Discordant Harmonies by Dan Botkin, that displayed the scientific flaws in this reasoning (in 1992).

What’s interesting to me in the recent article, “The Preservation Predicament”, by Cornelia Dean in The New York Times
is the implicit assumption that conservationists and biologists will be the ones who determine whether investing in conservation in the Everglades compared to somewhere else, given climate change, is a good idea – perhaps implying that sciences like decision science or economics have little to contribute to the dialog. Not to speak of communities and their elected officials.

I like to quote the IUCN (The World Conservation Union) governance principles:

Indigenous and local communities are rightful primary partners in the development and implementation of conservation strategies that affect their lands, waters, and other resources, and in particular in the establishment and management of protected areas.

Is it more important for scientists to “devise theoretical frameworks for deciding when, how or whether to act” (sounds like decision science) or for folks in a given community, or interested in a given species, to talk about what they think needs to be done and why? There are implicit assumptions about what sciences are the relevant ones and the relationship between science and democracy, which in my opinion need to be debated in the light of day rather than assumed.

Sharon Friedman
Director, Strategic Planning
Rocky Mountain Region
USDA Forest Service