Weekly Mulch: ‘Global Weirding’ and Climate Skeptics’ Slushy Logic

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

Climate skeptics found plenty of reasons to dig out their dreary critiques this week, between the continuing controversy over erroneous reports from the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and the record-breaking snowfall on the East Coast. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and his family built an igloo which Inhofe then dubbed “Al Gore’s house” in the streets of Washington, D.C. The Virginia GOP ran ads attacking the state’s Democratic representatives for their support of cap-and-trade and urged voters to “tell them how much global warming you get this weekend.” And skeptics across the world claimed that the smaller mistakes in IPCC reports undermined the organization’s broad conclusions on climate change science.

Let’s plow through this slushy thinking before it piles up too high.

Snow still happens in a warming world

In the winter, it snows, and one snowstorm does not overthrow all of climate science. “Perhaps it’s time for a refresher,” wrote Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones. “’Weather’ and ‘climate’ are not the same thing. Weather is what happened yesterday or may happen tomorrow; climate patterns occur over decades.”

“We can absolutely expect climate change to bring blizzards in places that don’t normally see a lot of blizzards, like Washington, D.C.,” chimes in Jonathan Hiskes at Grist. “Climatologists expect just this sort of ‘global weirding’: less predictable, more extreme, more damaging.”

Cold temperatures, even record lows, do not contradict the extensive body of evidence that global temperatures are rising. As Hiskes points out, erratic weather patterns support climate change theories, and the coming seasons will feature more newsworthy weather events. Chalk up the snowfall that shut down the federal government for almost a week as a bad sign, akin to harsh storms like Hurricane Katrina.

Climate science stands despite IPCC errors…

The IPCC messed up. The international organization is meant to gather and review the body of climate change science and produce definitive reports on that field. But in past reports, the organization included a few facts unsupported by real scientific research. Mother Jones’ Sheppard runs down these mistakes: the IPCC cannot back up its claims about the rising sea-level in Holland, crop failure in Africa, and the melting of Himalayan glaciers.

The bottom line, though, is that these errors do not affect the reports’ main conclusions. As Sheppard explains, “The controversies over the IPCC’s data haven’t challenged the fundamental agreement among the vast majority of scientific bodies that climate change is happening and caused in large part by human activity.”

…but that does not excuse the IPCC’s behavior

The IPCC cannot use that broad consensus as a defense, however. The organization needs to maintain both an impeccable reputation as a scientific body and its independence from political pressures. At The Nation, Maria Margaronis argues that in the climate arena, science and politics have been wedged too closely together.

“On a subject as politicized as this, it’s not surprising that scientists have been found guilty of hoarding data, smoothing a graph or two, shutting each other’s work out of peer-reviewed journals,” she writes. “The same goes on in far less controversial fields, where what’s at stake is only money and careers. … Every research paper and data set produced by climate scientists or cited by the IPCC is now fair game for the fine-toothed comb, whether it’s wielded honestly or with malicious intent. Nit-picking takes the place of conversation.”

Margaronis suggests that scientists admit to uncertainties and open up their data, while the rest of us stop looking to them as unimpeachable oracles on climate change. But as long as skeptics jump on a researcher’s every doubt as a refutation of all climate science, that’s not likely to happen.

Brace for impact

Negative attitudes about the IPCC and the snow are not idle threats to climate reform. As Steve Benen writes at The Washington Monthly, “It seems mind-numbing, but Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) said snowfall in D.C. has had an effect on policymakers’ attitudes.”

As cheap as they are, stunts like Inhofe’s seem to dampen lawmakers’ political will to pass real climate change legislation. Apparently, the Senate, already tip-toeing away from the cap-and-trade provisions passed in the House, can’t talk about global warming when there’s snow on the ground.

Foot-dragging like this costs the United States money and credibility. Administration officials are already downplaying expectations for the next international conference on climate change, to be held next winter in Mexico. And if the Senate gives up on a comprehensive climate bill and passes a weaker provision, the country will ultimately pay the price in higher deficits.

At Grist, David Roberts declares, “Good climate policy is responsible fiscal policy.” His evidence? Reports from the Congressional Budget Office. The Senate’s comprehensive climate legislation (known as the Kerry-Boxer bill) knocks $21 billion a year off the deficit, according to the CBO. The watered-down alternative increases the deficit by $13 billion a year.

Encounters with the arch-skeptic

Citing snowfall as an argument against global warming—and against passing climate change legislation!—is not the only half-baked idea climate skeptics throw around. As Joshua Frank notes for AlterNet, “There are usually a range of issues these skeptics raise in an attempt to cast doubt on climate change evidence.” Frank offers a primer of responses to common complaints—i.e. humans don’t contribute to global warming, that carbon emissions aren’t to blame, either, that climate science cannot accurately measure global warming.

Keep this resources handy. It only takes one event, like this week’s snow storm, for those misguided arguments to surface.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: What's Missing from the New Clean Energy Agenda?

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

Nuclear power, biofuels, clean coal: These are the Obama administration’s answers to climate change. The 2011 budget, released this week, promised new loans for the construction of nuclear power plants, and on Wednesday the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), White House, and other departments detailed steps to encourage ethanol and clean coal production.

These initiatives may garner support from conservatives, but their ascendancy comes at a price. Support for renewable fuel sources, like wind and solar, has dwindled. President Barack Obama did encourage Senate Democrats to pass a climate change bill, but some moderates are bucking the cap-and-trade provisions that could tamp down carbon emissions. Those moderates are pushing for legislation that leaves carbon caps out entirely.

It hasn’t been a good week for climate advocates. On top of the Obama administration’s overtures to crusty, old energy industries, Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has had to fend off pressure to resign. The IPCC published a report with a badly sourced fact about the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are melting, and when scientists pointed out the error, Pachauri would not cop to the mistake. (If you missed the beginning of this to-do, Mother Jones‘ Kate Sheppard covered the controversy back in January.)

Given this country’s weak efforts to tamp down carbon emissions, though, perhaps the IPCC’s prediction that those glaciers likely will disappeared by 2035 will turn out to be accurate.

New nuclear plants—but at what cost?

Obama’s budget, as Sheppard reports at Mother Jones, is upping funding for nuclear plant development, even though previous nuclear projects have run wildly over budget. The president has always supported increased nuclear production. As an Illinois Senator, Obama had Exelon Corporation, the country’s largest nuclear operator, in his constituency. The company continued to support him as a presidential candidate. The proposed funding runs in the neighborhood of $54.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear projects. That’s good news for an industry that’s in need of cash. As Sheppard explains, without governmental backing, these plants would have little chance of being built.

Even as public opinion toward nuclear power has warmed, projected construction costs for new plants have soared, with a single reactor now estimated to cost as much as $12 billion,” she writes. “In fact, the outlook for nuclear plants looks so dire that even Wall Street banks have balked at financing them unless the government underwrites the deal.”

The Obama administration is also backing research into nuclear waste disposal, a prerequisite for nuclear expansion. No matter how “green” nuclear energy production might be, so far there’s no safe, sustainable way to deal with its by-products. Finding a long-term solution for nuclear waste disposal will not come cheaply.

Biofuels move us backwards

The administration’s support for biofuels was bigger slap in the face to environmentalists, though. Just a few years ago, ethanol made from corn or switchgrass ranked high on the list of renewable fuels that could spring America from its Middle East oil addiction. In practice, however, biofuels have proven more environmentally destructive and less efficient than advocates had hoped. With farmers in the Midwest knee-deep in corn marked for ethanol production, though, backing away from biofuels is politically dicey.

The consequences are more than political, however. At Grist, Tom Philpott argues that support for biofuels will ultimately drive global carbon emission up, rather than down.

“As ethanol factories continue sucking in more and more corn, plantation owners in places like Brazil and Argentina will put more grassland and even rainforest under the plow to make up for the shortfall, resulting in huge carbon emissions,” Philpott writes. “That dire effect of our ethanol program, known as indirect land-use change, likely nullifies any scant climate benefits from ethanol.”

It’s not just corn and switchgrass that pose a problem, either. As Gina Marie Cheeseman reports at Care2, algae farms, another potential source of biofuel, face their own challenges. Algae demands high energy input and could release more carbon dioxide emissions that it would save, according to a new report from the University of Virginia.

There’s more research to be done before writing algae energy production off, however. In January, the Department of Energy said it would sink $44 million into work on algae pools. Industry players like ExxonMobile are also underwriting research on the subject, Cheeseman writes.

No room for innovation

Moving towards energy sources like nuclear power and ethanol does take the country a step closer to responsible energy production. But right now, the Obama administration is not leaving room for new or ambitious ideas that could do more. Wind and solar, which would form the best foundation for a sustainable energy future, have few advocates in Congress. They also seem to have no role in the near-term energy plan.

Ethanol was the Midwest’s first green industry, for instance, but there are other possibilities for juicing up the region’s clean energy production. In The Nation, Lisa Margonelli lays out the case for “gray power,” which is recycled energy produced by the old, dirty smokestacks that ring cities like Cleveland.

In this vision, twentieth century industry can produce twenty-first century energy. Waste energy, Margonelli argues,  “can be profitably “recycled” onto the grid to create power as clean as that from solar and wind but far cheaper.”

“In fact, energy now lost as steam and gases by the region’s manufacturing plants, as well as municipal and agricultural waste, could create as much energy as sixty-nine nuclear power plants, according to figures commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency,” she says. “This power could strengthen the region’s electrical grid and preserve jobs by making local manufacturing plants more economically stable, while making the region a leader in greener technology.”

A project like Margonelli imagines, however, would require significant commitment and vision from the federal government, both of which are lacking right now.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

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