PANELS of experts assessing scientific investigations tend to be messy affairs, particularly when their customers are governments. People with expertise in one field, such as renewable energy, may have a bias towards it. Summaries of their work are the result of political negotiations. And findings are further boiled down in an attempt to win media coverage.
Much of this can be seen in a new “special report” on renewable energy by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was released last week. Possible conflicts of interest, revealed by Steve McIntyre, a blogger, have led to another controversy about the panel—only 18 months after its embarrassment over an incorrect claim about the imminent demise of the Himalayas’ glaciers.
For a start, the press release about the report was misleading. “Close to 80% of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies, a new report shows,” it claims. In fact, the report merely discusses the assumptions needed to produce this outcome, one of the more extreme scenarios the IPCC looked at.
Continue reading “A Climate of Conflict: The World’s Climate Experts Must Work Harder to Avoid Conflicts of Interest”
The natural-gas industry, bowing to longtime pressure, will disclose more information about the chemicals it uses in the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing.
On Friday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law a bill that will require companies to make public the chemicals they use on every hydraulic fracturing job in the state. While a handful of other states have passed similar measures, Texas’s law is significant because oil and gas drilling is a key industry in the state and the industry vocally supported the measure.
Environmental groups said the law doesn’t go far enough, but they agreed it was an important step.
Until recently, much of the industry opposed providing detailed information about its chemicals, arguing that they are trade secrets. But in recent months, as drilling opponents have accused companies of secrecy, many industry leaders have come to view that position as untenable.
Continue reading “‘Fracking’ Disclosure to Rise”
LIANYUNGANG, CHINA — The six massive silos standing beside this industrial port in northeastern China hold seemingly contradictory promises: They could help improve the quality of China’s polluted air, but they might also contribute to faster global warming.
The silos, which are scheduled to start operation in July, are designed to blend cleaner-burning imported coal with China’s own high-polluting domestic coal, which is contaminated with sulfur and dust.
Coal blending will produce a mixture that will help electric utilities meet China’s steadily tightening environmental regulations. It will also increase the efficiency of coal-fired plants by slightly reducing the quantity of coal needed. Burning less coal means less greenhouse gases emitted. But critics argue there is a darker side to cleaner coal.
Continue reading “A Green Solution, or the Dark Side to Cleaner Coal?”
The increasing abundance of cheap natural gas, coupled with rising demand for the fuel from China and the fall-out from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, may have set the stage for a “golden age of gas,” the International Energy Agency said Monday.
Under a scenario set out by the IEA, global consumption of natural gas could rise by more than 50% over the next 25 years, with it accounting for more than a quarter of global energy demand by 2035, up from 21% now.
But while natural gas is more clean-burning than coal and oil, it is still a fossil fuel, and its increased use will lead to higher emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, the IEA warned. More gas will also mean less take-up for low-carbon energy sources like renewables and nuclear power. “An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change,” said Nobuo Tanaka, the IEA’s executive director.
Continue reading “Natural Gas Entering ‘Golden Age’”
A U.K. parliamentary committee said it had found no evidence that hydraulic fracturing, the much-debated process used to extract natural gas from dense shale rocks, poses any risk to water supplies and rejected calls for a moratorium on permits for shale-gas activity.
The conclusion, contained in a long-awaited report, was condemned by environmental groups but greeted by producers, in particular Cuadrilla Resources Holdings Ltd, which is trying to extract gas from shales in northwestern England.
Hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking,” is the practice of injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to free natural gas locked up in the tight pores of shale formations.
Its widespread use, coupled with horizontal drilling, has revolutionized the U.S. energy industry, allowing companies to tap vast new reserves of natural gas. In 2000, shale gas made up just 1% of U.S. natural-gas supplies. Today it is about 25%, and could increase to 50% within two decades.
Continue reading “U.K. Panel: No Water Risk From ‘Fracking’”
Signing of Stockholm Memorandum, Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)
Stockholm–With the arrival of King Carl XVI Gustaf at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and a presentation of “Only One Earth” by Andreas Carlgren, Minister for the Environment, the morning of day three at the Symposium on Global Sustainability had a high-level start. But my head was still buzzing from the conversations with Nobel laureates in the 20-minute bus ride from downtown Stockholm. Indeed, beyond the product of the Memorandum to be signed today at the Academy, the dialogues and relationships behind the scenes are unseen turning points of the event.
In one discussion with a laureate, we lamented the challenge of mapping how significant change takes place on the global and local stages. And were we to more deftly track the levers of public opinion and policy, how much more effective might we be in avoiding the downside of what is being promoted here as the “Anthropocene” period in Earth history? Humans are turning the planet and approaching 9 billion strong this century.
Continue reading “Nobel Laureates to World: Let’s Not Consume Ourselves to Death”
When the torrent of predictions about global warming got too depressing, there were Robert Socolow’s “wedges.”
The Princeton physics and engineering professor, along with his colleague, ecologist Stephen Pacala, countered the gloom and doom of climate change with a theory that offered hope. If we adopted a series of environmental steps, each taking a chunk out of the anticipated growth in greenhouse gases, we could flatline our emissions, he said. That would at least limit the global temperature rise, he said in a 2004 paper in the journal Science.
The Princeton colleagues even created a game out of it: choose your own strategies, saving a billion tons of emissions each, to compile at least seven “wedges,” pie-shaped slices that could be stacked up in a graph to erase the predicted doubling of CO2 by 2050.
It was a mistake, he now says.
Continue reading “Climate Scientist Fears His "Wedges" Made It Seem Too Easy”
Scientists like to remind us not to confuse cause and effect. But they’re not immune from making that mistake themselves. Last week, for example, a flurry of sociological headlines emanating from a conference included the claim that elderly Taiwanese people who shop every day are 27% less likely to die over 10 years than those who shop once a week; and the claim that 16-year-olds who read books at least once a month are more likely to be in managerial jobs at 33 than those who read no books at 16.
It would be tempting but rash to conclude that shopping prevents death, rather than that ill health prevents shopping; or that reading causes career success rather than that a scholarly aptitude causes both reading and career success.
The nature-nurture debate has long been bedeviled by cause-effect confusion, as exemplified by the old joke: I’m not surprised that Johnny comes from a broken home; he would be enough to break any home.
Whole districts of Freudian theory are confused about cause and effect. For example, the incest taboo, forbidding people from mating with close relatives, turned out on closer investigation to be a codified expression of, rather than a cause of, incest avoidance. As Freud’s rival Edward Westermarck argued, there’s an innate tendency to develop revulsion at the idea of sex with close childhood contemporaries (who usually are siblings). A taboo turns this into a rule.
Continue reading “When Scientists Confuse Cause and Effect”
On Thursday March 31st Richard Muller of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory gave evidence to the energy and commerce committee of America’s House of Representatives on the surface temperature record. Without having yet bothered to check, Babbage can say with some certainty that this event will be much discussed in the blogosphere—as, oddly enough, it should be.
Here’s the short version of the reason why: a new and methodologically interesting study, carried out by people some of whom might have been expected to take a somewhat sceptical view on the issue, seems essentially to have confirmed the results of earlier work on the rate at which the earth’s temperature is rising. This makes suggestions that this rise is an artefact of bad measurement, or indeed a conspiracy of climatologists, even less credible than they were before.
Now here’s the much longer version.
There are two topics which, more than any other, can be guaranteed to set off arguments between those convinced of the reality and importance of humanity’s impact on the climate and those not so convinced. One revolves around the question of how reliable, if at all, statements about average global temperatures before about 1500 AD are. This is the so-called “hockey stick” debate.
The amount of computer processing power and data storage capacity devoted to endless online discussions of the hockey stick— the subject featured in a great deal of the brouhaha over the “climategate” e-mails—must, by now, have the carbon footprint of a fair-sized Canadian city, which of course would worry one side of the argument not a whit.
Continue reading “A Record Making Effort”
In 1964, Richard Muller, a 20-year-old graduate student with neat-cropped hair, walked into Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, and joined a mass protest of unprecedented scale. The activists, a few thousand strong, demanded that the university lift a ban on free speech and ease restrictions on academic freedom, while outside on the steps a young folk-singer called Joan Baez led supporters in a chorus of We Shall Overcome. The sit-in ended two days later when police stormed the building in the early hours and arrested hundreds of students. Muller was thrown into Oakland jail. The heavy-handedness sparked further unrest and, a month later, the university administration backed down. The protest was a pivotal moment for the civil liberties movement and marked Berkeley as a haven of free thinking and fierce independence.
Today, Muller is still on the Berkeley campus, probably the only member of the free speech movement arrested that night to end up with a faculty position there – as a professor of physics. His list of publications is testament to the free rein of tenure: he worked on the first light from the big bang, proposed a new theory of ice ages, and found evidence for an upturn in impact craters on the moon. His expertise is highly sought after. For more than 30 years, he was a member of the independent Jason group that advises the US government on defence; his college lecture series, Physics for Future Presidents was voted best class on campus, went stratospheric on YouTube and, in 2009, was turned into a bestseller.
Continue reading “Can a group of scientists in California end the war on climate change?”