Can We Fix The Air?

12 January, 2020

A slightly different version of this article I wrote first appeared in Nautilus on November 28, 2019.


Water rushes into Venice’s city council chamber just minutes after the local government rejects measures to combat climate change. Wildfires consume eastern Australia as fire danger soars past “severe” and “extreme” to “catastrophic” in parts of New South Wales. Ice levels in the Chukchi Sea, north of Alaska, hit record lows. England sees floods all across the country. And that’s just this week, as I write this.

Human-caused climate change, and the disasters it brings, are here. In fact, they’re just getting started. What will things be like in another decade, or century?

It depends on what we do. If our goal is to stop global warming, the best way is to cut carbon emissions now—to zero. The United Kingdom, Denmark, and Norway have passed laws requiring net zero emissions by 2050. Sweden is aiming at 2045. But the biggest emitters—China, the United States, and India—are dragging their heels. So to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by 2100, it’s becoming more and more likely that we’ll need negative carbon emissions:

That is, we’ll need to fix the air. We’ll need to suck more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than we put in.

This may seem like a laughably ambitious goal. Can we actually do it? Or is it just a fantasy? I want to give you a sense of what it would take. But first, here’s one reason this matters. Most people don’t realize that large negative carbon emissions are assumed in many of the more optimistic climate scenarios. Even some policymakers tasked with dealing with climate change don’t know this.

In 2016, climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters published a paper on this topic, called “The trouble with negative emissions.” The title is a bit misleading, since they are not against negative emissions. They are against lulling ourselves into complacency by making plans that rely on negative emissions—because we don’t really know how to achieve them at the necessary scale. We could be caught in a serious bind, with the poorest among us taking the biggest hit.

So, how much negative carbon emissions do we need to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, and how people are hoping to achieve them? Let’s dive in!

In 2018, humans put about 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air. A “tonne” is a metric ton, a bit larger than a US ton. Since the oxygen is not the problem—carbon dioxide consisting of one atom of carbon and two of oxygen—it might make more sense to count tonnes of carbon. But it’s customary to keep track of carbon by its carbon dioxide equivalent, so I’ll do that here. The National Academy of Sciences says that to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by the century’s end, we will probably need to be removing about 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air each year by 2050, and double that by 2100. How could we do this?

Whenever I talk about this, I get suggestions. Many ignore the sheer scale of the problem. For example, a company called Climeworks is building machines that suck carbon dioxide out of the air using a chemical process. They’re hoping to use these gadgets to make carbonated water for soft drinks—or create greenhouses that have lots of carbon dioxide in the air, for tastier vegetables. This sounds very exciting…until you learn that currently their method of getting carbon dioxide costs about $500 per ton. It’s much cheaper to make the stuff in other ways; beverage-grade carbon dioxide costs about a fifth as much. But even if they bring down the price and become competitive in their chosen markets, greenhouses and carbonation use only 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. This is puny compared to the amount we need to remove.

Thus, the right way to think of Climeworks is as a tentative first step toward a technology that might someday be useful for fighting global warming—but only if it can be dramatically scaled up and made much cheaper. The idea of finding commercial uses for carbon dioxide as a stepping-stone, a way to start developing technologies and bringing prices down, is attractive. But it’s different from finding commercial uses that could make a serious dent in our carbon emissions problem.

Here’s another example: using carbon dioxide from the air to make plastics. There’s a company called RenewCO2 that wants to do this. But even ignoring the cost, it’s clear that such a scheme could remove 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air each year only if we drastically ramped up our production of plastics. In 2018, we made about 360 million tonnes of plastic. So, we’d have to boost plastic production almost ten-fold. Furthermore, we’d have to make all this plastic without massively increasing our use of fossil fuels. And that’s a general issue with schemes to fix the air. If we could generate a huge abundance of power in a carbon-free way—say from nuclear, solar, or wind—we could use some of that power to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But for the short term, a better use of that power is to retire carbon-burning power plants. Thus, while we can dream about energy-intensive methods of fixing the air, they will only come into their own—if ever—later in the century.

If plastics aren’t big enough to eat up 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, what comes closer? Agriculture. I’m having trouble finding the latest data, but in 2004 the world created roughly 5 billion tonnes of “crop residue”: stems, leaves, and such left over from growing food. If we could dispose of most of this residue in a way that would sequester the carbon, that would count as serious progress. Indeed, environmental engineer Stuart Strand and physicist Gregory Benford—also a noted science fiction writer—have teamed up to study what would happen if we dumped bales of crop residue on the ocean floor. Even though this stuff would rot, it seems that the gases produced will take hundreds of years to resurface. And there’s plenty of room on the ocean floor.

Short of a massive operation to sink crop residues to the bottom of the sea, there are still many other ways to improve agriculture so that the soil accumulates more carbon. For example, tilling the land less reduces the rate at which organic matter decays and carbon goes back into the air. You can actually fertilize the land with half-burnt plant material full of carbon, called “biochar.” Planting crops with bigger roots, or switching from annual crops to perennials, also helps. These are just a few of the good ideas people have had. While agriculture and soil science are complex, and you probably don’t want to get into the weeds on this, the National Academy of Sciences estimates that we could draw down 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from improved agriculture. That’s huge.

Having mentioned agriculture, it’s time to talk about forests. Everyone loves trees. However, it’s worth noting that a mature forest doesn’t keep on pulling down carbon at a substantial rate forever. Yes, carbon from the air goes to form wood and organic material in the soil. But decaying wood and organic material releases carbon back into the air. A climax forest is close to a steady state: the rate at which it removes carbon from the air is roughly equal to the rate at which it releases this carbon. So, the time when a forest pulls down the most carbon is when it’s first growing.

In July 2019, a paper in Science argued that the Earth has room for almost 4 million square miles of new forests. The authors claimed that as these new trees grow, they could pull down about 730 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

At first this sounds great. But remember, we are putting out 37 billion tonnes a year. So, the claim is that if we plant new forests over an area somewhat larger than the US, they will absorb the equivalent of roughly 20 years of carbon emissions. In short, this heroic endeavor would buy us time, but it wouldn’t be a permanent solution. Worse, many other authors have argued that the Science paper was overly optimistic. One rebuttal points out that it mistakenly assumed treeless areas have no organic carbon in the soil already. It also counted on a large increase of forests in regions that are now grassland or savanna. With such corrections made, it’s possible that new forests could only pull down at most 150 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

That’s still a lot. But getting people to plant vast new forests will be hard. Working with more realistic assumptions, the National Academy of Sciences says that in the short term we could draw down 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by planting new forests and better managing existing ones. In short: If we push really hard, better agriculture and forestry could pull 5.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air each year. One great advantage of both these methods is that they harness the marvelous ability of plants to turn carbon dioxide into complex organic compounds in a solar-powered way—much better than any technology humans have devised so far. If we ever invent new technologies that do better, it’ll probably be because we’ve learned some tricks from our green friends.

And here’s another way plants can help: biofuels. If we burn fuels that come from plants, we’re taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it right back in: net zero carbon emissions, roughly speaking. That’s better than fossil fuels, where we dig carbon up from the ground and burn it. But it would be even better if we could burn plants as fuels but then capture the carbon dioxide, compress it, and pump it underground into depleted oil and gas fields, unmineable coal seams, and the like.

To do this, we probably shouldn’t cut down forests to clear space for crops that we burn. Turning corn into ethanol is also rather inefficient, though the corn lobby in the U.S. has persuaded the government to spend lots of money on this, and about 40 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. now gets used this way. Suppose we just took all available agricultural, forestry, and municipal waste, like lawn trimmings, food waste, and such, to facilities able to burn it and pump the carbon dioxide underground. All this stuff ultimately comes from plants sucking carbon from the air. So, how much carbon dioxide could we pull out of the atmosphere this way? The National Academy of Sciences says up to 5.2 billion tonnes per year.

Of course, we can’t do this and also sink all agricultural waste into the ocean—that’s just another way of dealing with the same stuff. Furthermore, this high-end figure would require immensely better organization than we’ve been able to achieve so far. And there are risks involved in pumping lots of carbon dioxide underground.

What other activities could draw down lots of carbon? It pays to look at the biggest human industries: biggest, that is, in terms of sheer mass being processed. For example, we make lots of cement. Global cement production in 2017 was about 4.5 billion tons, with China making more than the rest of the world combined, and a large uncertainty in how much they made. As far as I know, only digging up and burning carbon is bigger: for example, 7.7 billion tons of coal is being mined per year.

Right now cement is part of the problem: To make the most commonly used kind we heat limestone until it releases carbon dioxide and becomes “quicklime.” Only about 7 percent of the total carbon we emit worldwide comes from this process—but that still counts for more than the entire aviation industry. Some scientists have invented cement that absorbs carbon dioxide as it dries. It has not yet caught on commercially, but the pressure on the industry is increasing. If we could somehow replace cement with a substance made mostly of carbon pulled from the atmosphere, and do it in an economically viable way, that would be huge. But this takes us into the realm of technologies that haven’t been invented yet.

New technologies may in fact hold the key to the problem. In the second half of the century we should be doing things that we can’t even dream of yet. In the next century, even more so. But it takes time to perfect and scale up new technologies. So it makes sense to barrel ahead with what we can do now, then shift gears as other methods become practical. Merely waiting and hoping is not wise.

Totaling up some of the options I’ve listed, we could draw down 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by planting trees, 1.5 billion by better forest management, 3 billion by better agricultural practices, and up to 5.2 billion by biofuels with carbon capture. This adds up to over 10 billion tonnes per year. It’s not nearly enough to cancel the 37 billion tonnes we’re dumping into the air each year now. But combined with strenuous efforts to cut emissions, we might squeak by, and keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

Even if we try, we are far from guaranteed to succeed—Anderson and Peters are right to warn about this. But will we even try? This is more a matter of politics and economics than of science and technology. The engineer Saul Griffith said that dealing with global warming is not like the Manhattan Project—it’s like the whole of World War II but with everyone on the same side. He was half right: We are not all on the same side. Not yet, anyway. Getting leaders who are inspired by these huge challenges, rather than burying their heads in the sand, would be a big step in the right direction.


Climate Technology Primer (Part 1)

5 October, 2019

Here’s the first of a series of blog articles on how technology can help address climate change:

• Adam Marblestone, Climate technology primer (1/3): basics.

Adam Marblestone is a research scientist at Google DeepMind studying connections between neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Previously, he was Chief Strategy Officer of the brain-computer interface company Kernel, and a research scientist in Ed Boyden’s Synthetic Neurobiology Group at MIT working to develop new technologies for brain circuit mapping. He also helped to start companies like BioBright, and advised foundations such as the Open Philanthropy Project.

Now, like many of us, he’s thinking about climate change, and what to do about it. He writes:

In this first of three posts, I attempt an outsider’s summary of the basic physics/chemistry/biology of the climate system, focused on back of the envelope calculations where possible. At the end, I comment a bit about technological approaches for emissions reductions. Future posts will include a review of the science behind negative emissions technologies, as well as the science (with plenty of caveats, don’t worry) behind more controversial potential solar radiation management approaches. This first post should be very basic for anyone “in the know” about energy, but I wanted to cover the basics before jumping into carbon sequestration technologies.

Check it out! I like the focus on “back of the envelope” calculations because they serve as useful sanity checks for more complicated models… and also provide a useful vaccination against the common denialist argument “all the predictions rely on complicated computer models that could be completely wrong, so why should I believe them?” It’s a sad fact that one of the things we need to do is make sure most technically literate people have a basic understanding of climate science, to help provide ‘herd immunity’ to everyone else.

The ultimate goal here, though, is to think about “what can technology do about climate change?”


Klein on the Green New Deal

14 September, 2019

I’m going to try to post more short news items. For example, here’s a new book I haven’t read yet:

• Naomi Klein, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

I think she’s right when she says this:

I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.

Nonetheless Robert Jensen argues that the book is too “inspiring”, in the sense of unrealistic optimism:

• Robert Jensen, The danger of inspiration: a review of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, Resilience, 10 September 2019.

Let me quote him:

On Fire focuses primarily on the climate crisis and the Green New Deal’s vision, which is widely assailed as too radical by the two different kinds of climate-change deniers in the United States today—one that denies the conclusions of climate science and another that denies the implications of that science. The first, based in the Republican Party, is committed to a full-throated defense of our pathological economic system. The second, articulated by the few remaining moderate Republicans and most mainstream Democrats, imagines that market-based tinkering to mitigate the pathology is adequate.

Thankfully, other approaches exist. The most prominent in the United States is the Green New Deal’s call for legislation that recognizes the severity of the ecological crises while advocating for economic equality and social justice. Supporters come from varied backgrounds, but all are happy to critique and modify, or even scrap, capitalism. Avoiding dogmatic slogans or revolutionary rhetoric, Klein writes realistically about moving toward a socialist (or, perhaps, socialist-like) future, using available tools involving “public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption, and taxation” to steer out of the existing debacle.

One of the strengths of Klein’s blunt talk about the social and ecological problems in the context of real-world policy proposals is that she speaks of motion forward in a long struggle rather than pretending the Green New Deal is the solution for all our problems. On Fire makes it clear that there are no magic wands to wave, no magic bullets to fire.

The problem is that the Green New Deal does rely on one bit of magical thinking—the techno-optimism that emerges from the modern world’s underlying technological fundamentalism, defined as the faith that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing. Extreme technological fundamentalists argue that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. (If anyone thinks this definition a caricature, read “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”)

Klein does not advocate such fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire. Written by U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (the most prominent legislator advancing the Green New Deal) and Avi Lewis (Klein’s husband and collaborator), the seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals. But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have all technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail.

Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about this claim. (For example, “The science is in,” proclaims the Nature Conservancy, and we can have a “future in which catastrophic climate change is kept at bay while we still power our developing world” and “feed 10 billion people.”) But even accepting overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies, we have to face that we don’t have the means to maintain the lifestyle that “A Message from the Future” promises for the United States, let alone the entire world. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion.

I don’t know what Klein actually thinks about this, but she does think drastic changes are coming, one way or another.  She writes:

Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair.

Jensen adds:

The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family also defines the modern world’s destructive relationship to the larger living world. Throughout the book, Klein presses the importance of telling a new story about all those relationships. Scientific data and policy proposals matter, but they don’t get us far without a story for people to embrace. Klein is right, and On Fire helps us imagine a new story for a human future.

I offer a friendly amendment to the story she is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

One story I would tell is of the growing gatherings of people, admittedly small in number today, who take comfort in saying forthrightly what they believe, no matter how painful—people who do not want to suppress their grief, yet do not let their grief overwhelm them.

 


UN Climate Action Summit

4 September, 2019

Christian Williams

Hello, I’m Christian Williams. I study category theory with John Baez at UC Riverside. I’ve written two posts on Azimuth about promising distributed computing endeavors. I believe in the power of applied theory – that’s why I left my life in Texas just to work with John. But lately I’ve begun to wonder if these great ideas will help the world quickly enough.

I want to discuss the big picture, and John has kindly granted me this platform with such a diverse, intelligent, and caring audience. This will be a learning process. All thoughts are welcome. Thanks for reading.

(Greta Thunberg, coming to help us wake up.)

…..
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

It’s important to be positive. Humanity now has a global organization called the United Nations. Just a few years ago, members signed an amazing treaty called The Paris Agreement. The parties and signatories:

… basically everyone.

By ratifying this document, the nations of the world agreed to act to keep global warming below 2C above pre-industrial levels – an unparalleled environmental consensus. (On Azimuth, in 2015.) It’s not mandatory, and to me that’s not the point. Together we formally recognize the crisis and express the intent to turn it around.

Except… we really don’t have much time.

We are consistently finding that the ecological crisis is of a greater magnitude and urgency than we thought. The report that finally slapped me awake is the IPCC 2018, which explains the difference between 2C and 1.5C in terms of total devastation and lives, and states definitively:

We must reduce global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and by 100% by 2050 to keep within 1.5C. We must have strong negative emissions into the next century. We must go well beyond our agreement, now.

(Blue is essentially, “we might still have a stable society”.)

So… how is our progress on the agreement? That is complicated, and a whole analysis is yet to be done. Here is the UN progress tracker. Here is an NRDC summary. Some countries are taking significant action, but most are not yet doing enough. Let that sink in.

However, the picture is much deeper than only national. Reform sparks at all levels of society: a US politician wanting to leave the agreement emboldened us to form the vast coalition We Are Still In. There are many initiatives like this, hundreds of millions of people rising to the challenge. A small selection:

City and State Levels
Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, U.S. Climate Alliance
Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy
International Levels
Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD)

RE100, Under2 Coalition (The Climate Group)
Everyone Levels
Fridays for Future, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion
350.org, Climate Reality

Each of us must face this challenge, in their own way.

…..

Responding to the findings of the IPCC, the UN is meeting in New York on September 23, with even higher ambitions and higher stakes: UN Climate Action Summit 2019. The leaders will not sit around and give pep talks. They are developing plans which will describe how to transform society.

On the national level, we must make concrete, compulsory commitments. If they do not soon then we must demand louder, or take their place. The same week as the summit, there will be a global climate strike. It is crucial that all generations join the youth in these demonstrations.

We must change how the world works. We have reached global awareness, and we have reached an ethical imperative.

Please listen to an inspiring activist share her lucid thoughts.

Civilizational Collapse (Part 4)

26 August, 2019

This is part 4 of an intermittent yet always enjoyable series:

Part 1: the rise of the ancient Puebloan civilization in the American Southwest from 10,000 BC to 750 AD.

Part 2: the rise and collapse of the ancient Puebloan civilization from 750 AD to 1350 AD.

Part 3: a simplified model of civilizational collapse.

This time let’s look at the collapse of Greek science and resulting loss of knowledge!

The Antikythera mechanism, found undersea in the Mediterranean, dates to somewhere between 200 and 60 BC. It’s a full-fledged analogue computer! It had at least 30 gears and could predict eclipses, even modelling changes in the Moon’s speed as it orbits the Earth.

What Greek knowledge was lost during the Roman takeover? We’ll never really know.

They killed Archimedes and plundered Syracuse in 212 BC. Ptolemy the Fat—”Physcon” —put an end to science in Alexandria in 154 BC with brutal persecutions.


Contrary to myth, Library of Alexandria was not destroyed once and for all in a single huge fire. The sixth head librarian, Aristarchus of Samothrace, fled when Physcon took over. The library was indeed set on fire in the civil war of 48 BC. But it seems to have lasted until 260 AD, when it basically lost its funding.



When the Romans took over, they dumbed things down. In his marvelous book The Forgotten Revolution, quoted below, Lucio Russo explains the evil effects.


Another example: we have the first four books by Apollonius on conic sections—the more elementary ones—but the other three have been lost.

Archimedes figured out the volume and surface area of a sphere, and the area under a parabola, in a letter to Eratosthenes. He used modern ideas like ‘infinitesimals’! The letter was repeatedly copied and made its way into a 10th-century Byzantine parchment manuscript. But this parchment was written over by Christian monks in the 13th century, and only rediscovered in 1906.


There’s no way to tell how much has been permanently lost. So we’ll never know the full heights of Greek science and mathematics. If we hadn’t found one example of an analogue computer in a shipwreck in 1902, we wouldn’t have guessed they could make those!

And we shouldn’t count on our current knowledge lasting forever, either.

Here are some more things to read. Most of all I recommend this book:

• Lucio Rosso, The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born In 300 BC And Why It Had To Be Reborn, Springer, Berlin, 2013. (First chapter.)

Check out the review by Sandro Graffi (who taught me analysis when I was an undergrad at Princeton):

• Sandro Graffi, La Rivoluzione Dimenticata (The Forgotten Revolution), AMS Notices (May 1998), 601–605.

Only in 1998 did scholars get serious about recovering information from the Archimedes palimpsest using ultraviolet, infrared and other imaging techniques! You can now access it online:

The Archimedes Palimpsest Project.

Here’s a good book on the rediscovery and deciphering of the Archimedes palimpsest, and its mathematical meaning:

• Reviel Netz and William Noel, The Archimedes Codex: Revealing the
Secrets of the World’s Greatest Palimpsest
, Hachette, UK, 2011.

Here’s a video:

• William Noel, Revealing the lost codex of Archimedes, TED, May 29, 2012.

Here are 9 videos on recreating the Antikythera mechanism:

Machining the Antikythera mechanism, Clickspring.

The Wikipedia articles are good too:

• Wikipedia, Antikythera mechanism.

• Wikipedia, Archimedes palimpsest.

• Wikipedia, Library of Alexandria.


The Mathematics of the 21st Century

13 January, 2019

 

Check out the video of my talk, the first in the Applied Category Theory Seminar here at U. C. Riverside. It was nicely edited by Paola Fernandez and uploaded by Joe Moeller.

Abstract. The global warming crisis is part of a bigger transformation in which humanity realizes that the Earth is a finite system and that our population, energy usage, and the like cannot continue to grow exponentially. If civilization survives this transformation, it will affect mathematics—and be affected by it—just as dramatically as the agricultural revolution or industrial revolution. We should get ready!

The slides are rather hard to see in the video, but you can read them here while you watch the talk. Click on links in green for more information!


Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment

28 November, 2018

I have predicted for a while that as the issue of climate change becomes ever more urgent, the public attitude regarding geoengineering will at some point undergo a phase transition. For a long time it seems the general attitude has been that deliberately interfering with the Earth’s climate on a large scale is “unthinkable”: beyond the pale. I predict that at some point this will flip and the general attitude will become: “how soon can we do it?”

The danger then is that we rush headlong into something untested that we’ll regret.

For a while I’ve been advocating research in geoengineering, to prevent a big mistake like this. Those who consider it “unthinkable” often object to such research, but I think preventing research is not a good long-term policy. I think it actually makes it more likely that at some point, when enough people become really desperate about climate change, we will do something rash without enough information about the possible effects.

Anyway, one can argue about this all day: I can see the arguments for both sides. But here is some news: scientists will soon study how calcium carbonate disperses when you dump a little into the atmosphere:

First sun-dimming experiment will test a way to cool Earth, Nature, 27 November 2018.

It’s a good article—read it! Here’s the key idea:

If all goes as planned, the Harvard team will be the first in the world to move solar geoengineering out of the lab and into the stratosphere, with a project called the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx). The first phase — a US$3-million test involving two flights of a steerable balloon 20 kilometres above the southwest United States — could launch as early as the first half of 2019. Once in place, the experiment would release small plumes of calcium carbonate, each of around 100 grams, roughly equivalent to the amount found in an average bottle of off-the-shelf antacid. The balloon would then turn around to observe how the particles disperse.

The test itself is extremely modest. Dai, whose doctoral work over the past four years has involved building a tabletop device to simulate and measure chemical reactions in the stratosphere in advance of the experiment, does not stress about concerns over such research. “I’m studying a chemical substance,” she says. “It’s not like it’s a nuclear bomb.”

Nevertheless, the experiment will be the first to fly under the banner of solar geoengineering. And so it is under intense scrutiny, including from some environmental groups, who say such efforts are a dangerous distraction from addressing the only permanent solution to climate change: reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The scientific outcome of SCoPEx doesn’t really matter, says Jim Thomas, co-executive director of the ETC Group, an environmental advocacy organization in Val-David, near Montreal, Canada, that opposes geoengineering: “This is as much an experiment in changing social norms and crossing a line as it is a science experiment.”

Aware of this attention, the team is moving slowly and is working to set up clear oversight for the experiment, in the form of an external advisory committee to review the project. Some say that such a framework, which could pave the way for future experiments, is even more important than the results of this one test. “SCoPEx is the first out of the gate, and it is triggering an important conversation about what independent guidance, advice and oversight should look like,” says Peter Frumhoff, chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a member of an independent panel that has been charged with selecting the head of the advisory committee. “Getting it done right is far more important than getting it done quickly.”

For more on SCoPEx, including a FAQ, go here:

Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), Keutsch Group, Harvard.


Insect Population Crash

25 February, 2018

Scary news from Australia:

• Marc Rigby, Insect population decline leaves Australian scientists scratching for solutions, ABC Far North, 23 February 2018.

I’ll quote the start:

A global crash in insect populations has found its way to Australia, with entomologists across the country reporting lower than average numbers of wild insects.

University of Sydney entomologist Dr. Cameron Webb said researchers around the world widely acknowledge that insect populations are in decline, but are at a loss to determine the cause.

“On one hand it might be the widespread use of insecticides, on the other hand it might be urbanisation and the fact that we’re eliminating some of the plants where it’s really critical that these insects complete their development,” Dr Webb said.

“Add in to the mix climate change and sea level rise and it’s incredibly difficult to predict exactly what it is. It’s left me dumbfounded.”

Entomologist and owner of the Australian Insect Farm, near Innisfail in far north Queensland, Jack Hasenpusch is usually able to collect swarms of wild insects at this time of year.

“I’ve been wondering for the last few years why some of the insects have been dropping off and put it down to lack of rainfall,” Mr. Hasenpusch said.

“This year has really taken the cake with the lack of insects, it’s left me dumbfounded, I can’t figure out what’s going on.”

Mr Hasenpusch said entomologists he had spoken to from Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and even as far away as New Caledonia and Italy all had similar stories.

The Australian Butterfly Sanctuary in Kuranda, west of Cairns, has had difficulty breeding the far north’s iconic Ulysses butterfly for more than two years.

“We’ve had [the problem] checked by scientists, the University of Queensland was involved, Biosecurity Queensland was involved but so far we haven’t found anything unusual in the bodies [of caterpillars] that didn’t survive,” said breeding laboratory supervisor Tina Kupke.

“We’ve had some short successes but always failed in the second generation.”

Ms. Lupke said the problem was not confined to far north Queensland, or even Australia. “Some of our pupae go overseas from some of our breeders here and they’ve all had the same problem,” she said. “And the Melbourne Zoo has been trying for quite a while with the same problems.”

Limited lifecycle prefaces population plummet

Dr. Webb, who primarily researches mosquitoes, said numbers were also in decline across New South Wales this year, which was indicative of the situation in other insect populations.

“We’ve had a really strange summer; it’s been very dry, sometimes it’s been brutally hot but sometimes it’s been cooler than average,” he said.

“Mosquito populations, much like a lot of other insects, rely on the combination of water, humidity and temperature to complete their lifecycle. When you mix around any one of those three components you can really change the local population dynamics.”

All this reminds me of a much more detailed study showing a dramatic insect population decline in Germany over a much longer time period:

• Gretchen Vogel, Where have all the insects gone?, Science, 10 May 2017.

I’ll just quote a bit of this article:

Now, a new set of long-term data is coming to light, this time from a dedicated group of mostly amateur entomologists who have tracked insect abundance at more than 100 nature reserves in western Europe since the 1980s.

Over that time the group, the Krefeld Entomological Society, has seen the yearly insect catches fluctuate, as expected. But in 2013 they spotted something alarming. When they returned to one of their earliest trapping sites from 1989, the total mass of their catch had fallen by nearly 80%. Perhaps it was a particularly bad year, they thought, so they set up the traps again in 2014. The numbers were just as low. Through more direct comparisons, the group—which had preserved thousands of samples over 3 decades—found dramatic declines across more than a dozen other sites.

It also mentions a similar phenomenon in Scotland:

Since 1968, scientists at Rothamsted Research, an agricultural research center in Harpenden, U.K., have operated a system of suction traps—12-meter-long suction tubes pointing skyward. Set up in fields to monitor agricultural pests, the traps capture all manner of insects that happen to fly over them; they are “effectively upside-down Hoovers running 24/7, continually sampling the air for migrating insects,” says James Bell, who heads the Rothamsted Insect Survey.

Between 1970 and 2002, the biomass caught in the traps in southern England did not decline significantly. Catches in southern Scotland, however, declined by more than two-thirds during the same period. Bell notes that overall numbers in Scotland were much higher at the start of the study. “It might be that much of the [insect] abundance in southern England had already been lost” by 1970, he says, after the dramatic postwar changes in agriculture and land use.

Here’s the actual research paper:

• Caspar A. Hallmann, Martin Sorg, Eelke Jongejans, Henk Siepel, Nick Hofland, Heinz Schwan, Werner Stenmans, Andreas Müller, Hubert Sumser, Thomas Hörren, Dave Goulson and Hans de Kroon, More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas, PLOS One, 18 October 2017.

Abstract. Global declines in insects have sparked wide interest among scientists, politicians, and the general public. Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services. Our understanding of the extent and underlying causes of this decline is based on the abundance of single species or taxonomic groups only, rather than changes in insect biomass which is more relevant for ecological functioning. Here, we used a standardized protocol to measure total insect biomass using Malaise traps, deployed over 27 years in 63 nature protection areas in Germany (96 unique location-year combinations) to infer on the status and trend of local entomofauna. Our analysis estimates a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82% in flying insect biomass over the 27 years of study. We show that this decline is apparent regardless of habitat type, while changes in weather, land use, and habitat characteristics cannot explain this overall decline. This yet unrecognized loss of insect biomass must be taken into account in evaluating declines in abundance of species depending on insects as a food source, and ecosystem functioning in the European landscape.

It seems we are heading into strange times.


Liars and Hypocrites

26 July, 2017

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Who do you trust: the liar or the hypocrite?

Some people like to accuse those are worried about climate change of being “hypocrites”. Why? Because we still fly around in planes, drive cars and so on.

What’s the argument? Could it be this?

“If even those folks who claim there’s a problem aren’t willing to do anything about it, it must not really be a problem.”

That argument is invalid. Say we have a married couple who both smoke. The husband says “we should quit smoking.” But he keeps smoking. Does this mean that it’s okay to smoke?

Or suppose he says “you should quit smoking”, but keeps on smoking himself. That’s would be infuriating. But it doesn’t make the statement less true.

Indeed, our civilization is addicted to burning carbon. It’s a lot like being addicted to nicotine. Addiction leads people to say one thing and do another. You know you should change your behavior—but you don’t have the will power. Or you do for a while… but then you lapse.

I see this in myself. I try to stop taking airplane flights, but like most successful scientists I get lots of invitations to conferences, with free flights to fun places. It’s hard to resist. It’s like offering cigarettes to someone who is trying to quit. I can resist nine times and cave in on the tenth! I can “relapse” for months and then come to my senses.

In fact the accusation of hypocrisy is not about the facts of climate change. It’s about choosing a social group:

“The people who want you to take climate change seriously are hypocrites. Don’t be a sucker. Don’t let them boss you around. Join us instead.”

This takes advantage of a psychological fact: most of us prefer liars to hypocrites. A lie is forgivable. But hypocrisy—someone publicly saying you should do something when they don’t themselves—is not.

There are studies about this:

• Association for Psychological Science, We dislike hypocrites because they deceive us, 30 January 2017.

The title of this article is wrong. Liars also deceive us. We hate hypocrites for other reasons.

We’re averse to hypocrites because their disavowal of bad behavior sends a false signal, misleading us into thinking they’re virtuous when they’re not, according to new findings in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The research shows that people dislike hypocrites more than those who openly admit to engaging in a behavior that they disapprove of.

“People dislike hypocrites because they unfairly use condemnation to gain reputational benefits and appear virtuous at the expense of those who they are condemning–when these reputational benefits are in fact undeserved,” explains psychological scientist Jillian Jordan of Yale University, first author on the research.

Intuitively, it seems that we might dislike hypocrites because their word is inconsistent with their behavior, because they lack the self-control to behave according to their own morals, or because they deliberately engage in behaviors that they know to be morally wrong. All of these explanations seem plausible, but the new findings suggest that it’s the misrepresentation of their moral character that really raises our ire.

In an online study with 619 participants, Jordan and Yale colleagues Roseanna Sommers, Paul Bloom, and David G. Rand presented each participant with four scenarios about characters engaging in possible moral transgressions: a member of a track team using performance-enhancing drugs, a student cheating on a take-home chemistry exam, an employee failing to meet a deadline on a team project, and a member of a hiking club who engaged in infidelity.

In each scenario, participants read about a conversation involving moral condemnation of a transgression. The researchers varied whether the condemnation came from a “target character” (who subjects would later evaluate) or somebody else, as well as whether the scenario provided direct information about the target character’s own moral behavior. Participants then evaluated how trustworthy and likeable the target character was, as well as the likelihood that the target character would engage in the transgression.

The results showed that participants viewed the target more positively when he or she condemned the bad behavior in the scenario, but only when they had no information about how the character actually behaved. This suggests that we tend to interpret condemnation as a signal of moral behavior in the absence of direct information.

A second online study showed that condemning bad behavior conveyed a greater reputational boost for the character than directly stating that he or she didn’t engage in the behavior.

“Condemnation can act as a stronger signal of one’s own moral goodness than a direct statement of moral behavior,” the researchers write.

And additional data suggest that people dislike hypocrites even more than they dislike liars. In a third online study, participants had a lower opinion of a character who illegally downloaded music when he or she condemned the behavior than when he or she directly denied engaging in it.

I believe the accusation of hypocrisy is trying to set up a binary choice:

“Whose side are you on? Those hypocrites who say climate change is a problem and try to get you to make sacrifices, while they don’t? Or us liars, who say there’s no problem and your behavior is fine?”

Of course, being liars, they leave out the word “liars”.

One way out is to realize it’s not a binary choice.

There’s a third position: the honest hypocrite.

Perhaps the most critical piece of evidence for the theory of hypocrisy as false signaling is that people disliked hypocrites more than so-called “honest hypocrites.” In a fourth online study, the researchers tested perceptions of “honest hypocrites,” who—like traditional hypocrites—condemn behaviors that they engage in, but who also admit that they sometimes commit those behaviors.

“The extent to which people forgive honest hypocrites was striking to us,” says Jordan. “These honest hypocrites are seen as no worse than people who commit the same transgressions but keep their mouths shut and refrain from judging others for doing the same — suggesting that the entirety of our dislike for hypocrites can be attributed to the fact that they falsely signal their virtue.”

There’s also a fourth position: the non-liar, non-hypocrite. That’s even better. But sometimes, when we need to take collective action, we should listen to the honest hypocrite, who tells us that we should all take action, but admits he’s not doing it yet.

And now, here’s a great example of someone trying take advantage of our hatred of hypocrites. Pay careful attention to how she cleverly tries to manipulate you! By the end you’ll feel different than when you started. If she were trying to get you to smoke, by the end you’d light up a cigarette and feel proud of yourself.

An example

The Hypocrisy of Climate Change Advocates
Julie Kelly

So according to all the hysterical people, President-elect Donald Trump has appointed the most climate denier cabinet ever. As cabinet confirmation hearings get underway, expect to hear the charge “climate denier!” a lot.

For those of you who don’t know what a climate denier is, it means you either challenge, question or flat-out reject the idea that the planet is warming due to human activity. In the scientific world and in the world of international liberal groupthink (but I repeat myself), this is blasphemy. Should you remotely doubt the dubious models, unrealized dire predictions, changing goal posts or flawed data related to climate science, you are not just stupid according to these folks, but you are on par with those who deny the Holocaust.

Even people who believe in manmade climate change (or AGW, anthropogenic global warming) have been excommunicated from the climate tribe for raising any concern about climate science. Last month, Roger Pielke, Jr. wrote a revealing op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about how he became a target of the climate junta for saying there was no connection between weather disasters and climate change. Although Pielke believes in AGW and even supports a carbon tax to mitigate its impact, his scrutiny made him a target of powerful folks in Congress, the media and even the White House.

The first time I was called a climate denier was a few years ago, after I started writing about agricultural biotechnology or GMOs. The charge was an attempt to undermine my credibility on supporting genetic engineering: the line of attack was, if you don’t believe the science and consensus about man-made global warming, you are a scientific illiterate who has no business speaking in defense of other scientific issues like biotechnology. This was often dished out by climate change pushers who also oppose GMOs because they are anti-capitalist, anti-corporate ideologues (Bernie Sanders could be the poster child for this).

As I did more research on climate change, I learned one important thing: being a climate change believer means never having to say you’re sorry, or at least never making any major sacrifice to your lifestyle that would mitigate the pending doom you are so preoccupied with (but, sea ice!). You can go along with climate change dogma and do virtually nothing about it except recycle your newspapers while self-righteously calling the other side names. From the Pope to the president to the smug suburban mom, climate adherents live in glass houses that function thanks to evil stuff like oil and gas while throwing rocks at us so-called deniers.

So who are the real deniers: those who are reasonably skeptical about climate change or those who give lots of lip service to it while living a lifestyle totally inimical to every tenet of the climate change creed?

To that end, you might be a climate change denier if:

You are the Holy Father of the largest denomination of the Christian faith who calls climate change “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” and that coal, oil and gas must be replaced “without delay” yet lives a palatial lifestyle powered by fossil fuels.

You are the president of the United States who tried to ban fracking on public land because it emits greenhouse gases but then takes credit for cutting “dependence on foreign oil by more than half” thanks to fracking.

You are a presidential candidate whose primary message is blasting big corporations from Exxon to Monsanto for destroying the planet but then demands a private jet to make meaningless campaign appearances on behalf of the woman who beat you so you can keep getting attention for yourself.

You are a movie star who works in one of the most energy-intensive and frivolous industries but now earns fame by leading protests against fracking and demands the country live on 100 percent renewables by 2050 then jets your family off from Manhattan to Australia on a jumbo jet to take pictures of the Great Barrier Reef.

You are Robert Kennedy, Jr.

You drive a Tesla but don’t know the electricity comes from a grid supported by fossil fuels.

You are a legislator who pushes solar panels and wind turbines without having the slightest clue how much energy and materials — like steel, concrete, diesel fuel, fiberglass and plastic — are needed to manufacture them.

You are Leonardo DiCaprio.

You are a suburban mom who looks down at other moms who don’t care/know/believe in climate change but you spend the day driving your privileged kids around in a pricy SUV and have two air-conditioners in your 6,000 square-foot house,

You oppose nuclear energy and/or genetically engineered crops.

You eat meat because meat production allegedly emits about 14.5 percent of greenhouse gases or some made-up number according to the United Nations.

You eat any sort of food because agriculture uses all kinds of climate polluting energy not to mention the big carbon footprint to process, package, ship and deliver that food to your local Whole Foods.

You are John Kerry.

So if you live off the grid, never fly in an airplane and don’t eat, then you can call me a denier. For the rest of you, please zip it. You deny climate change by your actions because you contribute daily to the very greenhouse gases you contend are destroying the planet. I’d rather be a denier than a hypocrite any day.


Saving Climate Data (Part 6)

23 February, 2017

Scott Pruitt, who filed legal challenges against Environmental Protection Agency rules fourteen times, working hand in hand with oil and gas companies, is now head of that agency. What does that mean about the safety of climate data on the EPA’s websites? Here is an inside report:

• Dawn Reeves, EPA preserves Obama-Era website but climate change data doubts remain, InsideEPA.com, 21 February 2017.

For those of us who are backing up climate data, the really important stuff is in red near the bottom.

The EPA has posted a link to an archived version of its website from Jan. 19, the day before President Donald Trump was inaugurated and the agency began removing climate change-related information from its official site, saying the move comes in response to concerns that it would permanently scrub such data.

However, the archived version notes that links to climate and other environmental databases will go to current versions of them—continuing the fears that the Trump EPA will remove or destroy crucial greenhouse gas and other data.

The archived version was put in place and linked to the main page in response to “numerous [Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)] requests regarding historic versions of the EPA website,” says an email to agency staff shared by the press office. “The Agency is making its best reasonable effort to 1) preserve agency records that are the subject of a request; 2) produce requested agency records in the format requested; and 3) post frequently requested agency records in electronic format for public inspection. To meet these goals, EPA has re-posted a snapshot of the EPA website as it existed on January 19, 2017.”

The email adds that the action is similar to the snapshot taken of the Obama White House website.

The archived version of EPA’s website includes a “more information” link that offers more explanation.

For example, it says the page is “not the current EPA website” and that the archive includes “static content, such as webpages and reports in Portable Document Format (PDF), as that content appeared on EPA’s website as of January 19, 2017.”

It cites technical limits for the database exclusions. “For example, many of the links contained on EPA’s website are to databases that are updated with the new information on a regular basis. These databases are not part of the static content that comprises the Web Snapshot.” Searches of the databases from the archive “will take you to the current version of the database,” the agency says.

“In addition, links may have been broken in the website as it appeared” on Jan. 19 and those will remain broken on the snapshot. Links that are no longer active will also appear as broken in the snapshot.

“Finally, certain extremely large collections of content… were not included in the Snapshot due to their size” such as AirNow images, radiation network graphs, historic air technology transfer network information, and EPA’s searchable news releases.”

‘Smart’ Move

One source urging the preservation of the data says the snapshot appears to be a “smart” move on EPA’s behalf, given the FOIA requests it has received, and notes that even though other groups like NextGen Climate and scientists have been working to capture EPA’s online information, having it on EPA’s site makes it official.

But it could also be a signal that big changes are coming to the official Trump EPA site, and it is unclear how long the agency will maintain the archived version.

The source says while it is disappointing that the archive may signal the imminent removal of EPA’s climate site, “at least they are trying to accommodate public concerns” to preserve the information.

A second source adds that while it is good that EPA is seeking “to address the widespread concern” that the information will be removed by an administration that does not believe in human-caused climate change, “on the other hand, it doesn’t address the primary concern of the data. It is snapshots of the web text.” Also, information “not included,” such as climate databases, is what is difficult to capture by outside groups and is what really must be preserved.

“If they take [information] down” that groups have been trying to preserve, then the underlying concern about access to data remains. “Web crawlers and programs can do things that are easy,” such as taking snapshots of text, “but getting the data inside the database is much more challenging,” the source says.

The first source notes that EPA’s searchable databases, such as those maintained by its Clean Air Markets Division, are used by the public “all the time.”

The agency’s Office of General Counsel (OGC) Jan. 25 began a review of the implications of taking down the climate page—a planned wholesale removal that was temporarily suspended to allow for the OGC review.

But EPA did remove some specific climate information, including links to the Clean Power Plan and references to President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Inside EPA captured this screenshot of the “What EPA Is Doing” page regarding climate change. Those links are missing on the Trump EPA site. The archive includes the same version of the page as captured by our screenshot.

Inside EPA first reported the plans to take down the climate information on Jan. 17.

After the OGC investigation began, a source close to the Trump administration said Jan. 31 that climate “propaganda” would be taken down from the EPA site, but that the agency is not expected to remove databases on GHG emissions or climate science. “Eventually… the propaganda will get removed…. Most of what is there is not data. Most of what is there is interpretation.”

The Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund both filed FOIA requests asking the agency to preserve its climate data, while attorneys representing youth plaintiffs in a federal climate change lawsuit against the government have also asked the Department of Justice to ensure the data related to its claims is preserved.

The Azimuth Climate Data Backup Project and other groups are making copies of actual databases, not just the visible portions of websites.