Sunday, March 28, 2010

The complete Radio Ecoshock interview

The two-part interview which I did with Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock is now available. In lieu of a regular post this week, I've decided to link to that interview. Part 1 is about navigating collapse. In Part 2 I discuss the scale and rate-of-conversion problems with alternative energy and touch on climate change.

Part 1 - Navigating Collapse: Alex Smith interviews Kurt Cobb (23 minutes)

              A Lo-Fi version of Part 1 is also available.

Part 2 - Alternative Energy & Climate Change: Alex Smith interviews Kurt Cobb (27 minutes)

              A Lo-Fi version of Part 2 is also available.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Will enhanced oil recovery be an oil supply savior?

My latest column on Scitizen entitled "Will Enhanced Oil Recovery Be An Oil Supply Savior?" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:

Oil supply optimists often say that the application of enhanced oil recovery techniques to existing and future wells will vastly expand oil reserves and oil production. The trouble is these techniques aren't new, and they are already being widely applied. That means current oil reserves and production already reflect any effect they have had....Read more

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Perry Mason and the climate change deniers

The fossil fuel lobby knows that much of the public's worldview is shaped by television, and television is filled with courtroom dramas. The vast majority of those dramas, however, are about criminal cases, not civil cases. (I'll come back to this difference later.)

Climate change activist and founder Bill McKibben alluded to this in a recent piece appearing on "The Huffington Post." But America's and perhaps the world's love affair with defense attorneys whose clients seem to have no chance whatsoever of an acquittal goes back much further than the O. J. Simpson murder trial which McKibben mentions.

Perhaps the best but certainly not the earliest example of the perpetual underdog defense attorney is Perry Mason, the main character of the eponymous television drama. Mason's fictional clients almost uniformly have the means, the motive and the opportunity to commit murder. And just as uniformly, Mason would unmask the real killer, often through clever cross-examination that exonerated his client. Combine this with the number of times television audiences have heard television judges explain to television juries that in order to convict they must find a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and you get a public primed to accept that any doubt is sufficient for acquittal.

The fossil fuel lobby has used this persistent and decades-long instruction to good effect. Most fossil fuel industry propagandists no longer claim there is no climate change since this position has become untenable in the face of overwhelming evidence. Instead, like Mason they point the finger at so-called "natural" warming as the true murderer of climate stability. They do not present any evidence of their own because they have none. (All their money is spent on propaganda.) They merely cite research from bona fide climate scientists which documents previous periods of climate change unrelated to human activity. This, of course, proves nothing.

But it does set the stage for the second tactic, which is to focus on ambiguities and uncertainties in climate science. What the propagandists claim is that these ambiguities and uncertainties, which are a part of any scientific endeavor, are reason enough for an acquittal. Remember: By the standards of a criminal trial any reasonable doubt means the defendant should go free. It does not mean the defendant didn't commit the crime, only that the evidence is not sufficient to convict him or her.

This standard, however, was designed for individuals on trial for crimes. And, whatever one thinks of the actions of fossil fuel companies, their activities are not considered crimes under the law. If they were, we would all be implicated in those crimes since virtually every person on the planet uses some form of fossil fuel energy. But there is another standard upon which we make all sorts of decisions, not just legal ones, every day. That standard is called preponderance of the evidence. What it means is that evidence is weighed based on not just the amount of evidence on each side of an issue, but also the soundness of that evidence and the conclusions that can be drawn from it. It is how we ought to make public policy, and sometimes we actually do.

But the public is little aware of this standard. One reason is that television and movie dramas very rarely revolve around civil litigation for which the standard of proof is the preponderance of the evidence. This is because real civil litigation is almost always deadly dull. And, in those few dramas that do involve civil litigation such as A Civil Action and Erin Brockovitch, almost all the action takes place outside the courtroom. That's because the courtroom action behind these real-life dramas would include the endless, tedious questioning of experts painstakingly trying to explain highly complex technical and scientific information to a jury or a judge. Filmmakers and directors know that nobody would watch such a thing as entertainment.

If the climate change issue were litigated as a civil case--what a minute, it already has been! The results have been what one would actually expect in civil cases where virtually all the scientific evidence comes down on one side: namely, that climate change is real and that humans are the major cause of it. Based on that evidence the U. S. Supreme Court decided that the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrongly refused to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as pollutants when it was petitioned to do so. The EPA is now preparing to do what the Supreme Court told it to do in 2007. In a related case, the Export-Import Bank of the United States and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, two agencies of the U. S. government, were forced to begin evaluating the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions related to the projects they fund, establish an overall policy concerning climate change, and fund $500 million of renewable energy projects.

Other suits are getting started, and it is hard to say whether courts will allow individuals or groups to sue greenhouse gas emitters for damages. The questions so far have been 1) whether such litigants have standing to sue and 2) whether the court could proceed without guidance from the U. S. Congress about how to handle such cases. But where the question has been whether climate change is real and humans are responsible, government agencies have so far been forced to move ahead with new regulation and policy by the courts--courts that have been convinced by the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence presented in civil lawsuits.

So, we have a precedent for how climate change policy should be determined, not by the bogus logic that any hint of uncertainty in any of the climate science should be grounds for doing nothing, but rather that the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence demonstrating the human link to climate change should frame our actions.

Climate change activists are foolish from a rhetorical point of view to respond to every discrete piece of disinformation spread by the fossil fuel lobby and its legion of paid publicists and unpaid dupes. This just reinforces the idea that the standard for public policy ought to be one of beyond a reasonable doubt. By that standard we would never regulate anything. Instead, climate change activists need to focus on the overwhelming case for human-induced climate change and advance that as succinctly and clearly as they can. And, they need to put Perry Mason and his like back where they belong, on television and in movies and banished from the realm climate change policy.

P.S. If the climate change deniers continue to insist on using beyond a reasonable doubt as their standard, perhaps we should require that they apply this standard to the fossil fuel industry itself. The industry should be required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that greenhouse gas emissions will NOT alter the climate. If it cannot, then by that standard the industry should be forced to cease extracting and burning all fossil fuels. Standards can be a double-edged sword. Be careful what you wish for.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Regrettably, A Comments Policy

The vast majority of comments on Resource Insights come from thoughtful people trying to advance our understanding of resources, climate change and sustainability. I thank them for helping me and my readers expand our awareness of these critical issues, and I invite them to continue our journey together.

Some recent comments on this blog, however, have prompted me to institute a comments policy. Previously, the only comments which I deleted were either spam, direct attacks on individuals, or in some way clearly abusive. But now I feel compelled to respond to those who want to use this blog as a depot for disinformation generated by the fossil fuel lobby. Frankly, it is a waste of my time on this blog to refute disinformation about basic climate science. I will no longer do so. Instead, comments which in my judgment are merely designed to be conduits for disinformation about climate science or about any other topic will be deleted. I encourage other commenters to ignore such comments as well. I don't want you wasting your time either.

If you are a reader and have questions about basic climate science, there are many excellent websites and publications which can answer your questions. The single best book I've read for those who want a basic comprehensive briefing on climate science is John Houghton's (somewhat pricey) book entitled "Global Warming: The Complete Briefing." Another excellent and highly readable book is Tim Flannery's (quite affordable) "The Weather Makers." You'll find Houghton's book in many university libraries. Flannery's book is probably available in your public library. And, online I can recommend RealClimate, a blog written by bona fide climate scientists.

The Internet is a wonderful place that allows everyone to have his or her say. If you want to dispute basic climate science, I encourage you to start your own blog or website or to post on those that specialize in industry-funded propaganda.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ocean acidification: Why the climate change deniers don't want to talk about it

Most people know that the release of carbon dioxide into the air from human sources has contributed to rising global temperatures and massive increases in the rate of melting of the ice at the poles and on Greenland. One of the major consequences they may not know about is the acidification of the oceans.

The chemistry is quite straightforward. It's the same process that occurs when bottled water is carbonated. Most of the carbon dioxide simply dissolves in the water. But some of it reacts with the water to form carbonic acid. And, that's what's happening in the world's oceans as humans release more and more carbon dioxide into the air.

Climate change deniers love to dispute climate modeling, to talk about short-term weather phenomena, and to pick on minor citation errors in official reports. But, they don't like to talk about ocean acidification for three interrelated reasons. First, humans have indisputably been dumping exponentially increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the beginning of the industrial revolution, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels. Second, the oceans have absorbed about one-third of this carbon dioxide which then forms carbonic acid. This reduces the pH of the water in an acidic direction. Third, scientists have documented through direct observation the changes in ocean species, both large and microscopic, that have resulted from this increased acidity.

What the scientists are finding is troubling. First, the entire food chain of the ocean could be short-circuited. Second, ocean acidification in combination with other human impacts on the ocean could result in mass extinctions. Third, no one knows how such changes might affect life on land which is by no means isolated from the ocean.

Among those who accept the science of climate change, there are some who believe we can engineer our way out of the problem. One proposal calls for putting small reflective particles into the atmosphere to block a portion of the sunlight falling on the earth. But a recent study revealed that this would have little or no effect on the continuing acidification of the oceans.

Even though 1) the mechanism for ocean acidification is well-established, 2) the source of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and consequently in the ocean is traceable to man-made causes, and 3) the effects are already being observed--they are no mere projections--the climate change deniers will no doubt tell us that ocean acidification is nothing to worry about. Of course, we must remember that they are in the pay of or under the influence of propaganda put out by the fossil fuel interests, interests that spend millions on disinformation and zero on ocean research.

These same climate change deniers insure their houses against fire, their cars against accident and their bodies against illness. But they want us to play Russian roulette with the oceans and the climate. They cannot possibly know how the future will turn out. But even if climate change were not an issue, the peril associated with the acidification of the oceans by itself would justify immediate and drastic action to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

It is hard to imagine a case weaker than that made by the deniers against the science of human-caused global climate change. But there is one, the nonexistent case against the reality of human-caused ocean acidification. So, it's no wonder the climate change deniers don't want to talk about it.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

No post this week

I am concentrating on editing a book manuscript this week and will post again on Sunday, March 14.