A Disappointment from e360 Egregiously Spun

I refer you to the disappointing e360 piece “Is Extreme Weather Linked to Global Warming?” and the revealing gloss on it by Michael Cote that is brazenly repackaged as “Is the Heat Wave Caused by Climate Change?”

Cote’s title doesn’t summarize the question and his calculation doesn’t summarize the answers. But the fact that he found Curry the clearest and most reliable is a revelation to me. Those of us in the field tend to find Curry confusing and inconsistent. That is, she is giving answers that are easy for novices to understand in preference to answers that summarize the state of knowledge.

The question Cole asks is akin to “did the loaded dice cause me to roll a 12?” and the only serious answer is “they contributed to its likelihood”.

Even if we encounter weather events that would have been impossible absent anthropogenic climate change (“rolling a 13” type events, a candidate at least being last year’s Russian heat wave and Pakistani flood) there is still, generally, an element of chance involved. We have to go to phenomena not generally considered weather-like to be able to give a more coherent answer. (The Japanese earthquake has nothing to do with climate change; the melting ice cap is caused by it.)

But this is not the question raised in the article Cote pretends to summarize. That question is whether climate change is “linked” to recent extremes. To say “no” in this case is flatly absurd. Not even Curry, who has been dedicating the last few years to cultivating an audience among skeptical nonspecialists, nor Pielke, who is himself a nonspecialist, has been beating this drum forever, is willing to hazard a clear no.

All in all this is a disappointing performance from the normally reliable Yale e360 site. One commenter justly summarizes:

“E360 has ‘balanced’ the opinion of several experts with ‘celebrity contrarians’.

Roger Pielke is not a climate scientist and is notoriously unreliable and frequently wrong. Curry has been excoriated for her anti-science ranting and is now more accurately described as a political blogger than climate scientist.

It’s clearly not a coincidence these two were picked from thousands of possible experts – someone knew they could be relied on to ‘spice up’ the story with contrarian views.

This is just more of the never-ending false balance from a media that is more concerned with drawing traffic than informing the public with good science.”

This is true enough and bad enough. But Cote adds some additional filtering and now has a false package of insouciance he can peddle to his customers.


Rural North America

A couple of days in the British Columbia interior have been something of an eye-opener for me.

When you see two distinct cultures, you can parse out what they have in common as well as where they differ.

The rural South and rural BC have many superficial differences. The mostly bad food is different. The peculiar speech patterns are different. The TV is different. The magazines and newspapers are different. But both are areas of recent settlement and the patterns of twenty-first century life are set by the environment of the late twentieth century commercial environment more than the nineteenth century constraints of the natural environment, which amount to more of a decorative motif than a reality.

First of all, though rich people are everywhere, they live in a coccoon of suburban life. The great majority of the people think themselves “independent” and “private”, but their “freedom” and “independence” is actually massively more social, interdependent, and even communal than urban people, who actually are much more private and aloof. The skills needed to survive can more easily be rented in a city. In the country, they have to be borrowed or bartered. The solitary life is actually an endless parade of unhurried negotiations over chickens and goats, firewood and eggs, tires and furnaces. But the illusion of independence and privacy is immensely valued. This is the reverse of the city pattern, alienated and isolated and cherishing an illusion of a vibrant and tight-knit community!

What a strange continent we inhabit!

The problem is this: the city can decarbonize. The city will happily decarbonize; the air will be cleaner and the effete and fussy foods and beverages will taste even better as a result. Our lungs and our consciences will be cleaner.

The countryside developed as an adjunct to the automobile. In many areas there is vanishingly little pre-automotive skill or community to draw upon. People’s closest connections can live more miles away than horse could ride. The urban postcarbon transportation network cannot scale. Our building “real estate” in at the core of our economic structure ties people to the absurdly sprawled infrastructure. People should live in strings of beads, towns spread along roads. Instead they are everywhere, and it is more or less unaffordable to leave your isolated plot unless you can convince a greater fool to move in.

The fact is that decarbonization really is, like it or not, an attack on the already stressed rural lifestyle. The addiction to huge energy expenditures is inscribed in the settlement patterns. Even in places that are sufficiently forested and unpopulated to draw on wood for energy, wood-burning vehicles are hard to come by, and hundreds of miles of driving every week cannot be avoided. Even garbage disposal, in many places, requires a drive of some miles for each rural household on each occasion.

In many parts of the US, the genuine spirit of sharing doesn’t usually cross racial lines, which is a great shame, and only serves to make matters even more delicate, but the spirit of community is genuine and is something cities desperately need to reimport. But that community is dependent on real estate value and therefore on mobility and therefore on energy. North America does not have any idea how to readjust its rural lifestyles. In this matter the US and Canada are alike. I know little about Australia but I’d guess matters are similar there.

The much higher population densities of the northeastern states, like Europe, may be able to find low energy adaptations. I am thoroughly enjoying Vancouver’s bus system this week, which is almost as effective as the Paris Metro in magically transporting a person from anywhere to anywhere in a short enough time as not to matter. Without the absurd pseudo-poverty of Republicanism, Austin, or any US city could easily do as well. Austin would have to double the number of routes and triple the frequency of service; I’d happily abandon my car in a heartbeat if it did. But this cannot be done in Paris, Texas, or rural British Columbia for that matter. The suburbs, contrary to what Bill Kunstler says, will only be somewhat stressed when energy costs what it is worth.

But the North American countryside is in for a lot of pain. It’s important to remember that when considering their hostility to decarbonization.

Marshall McLuhan, What’re Ya Doin?

I learn in today’s Toronto Globe and Mail that this is the centennial of the birth, in frigid Edmonton AB, of U of Toronto professor and media maven Marshall McLuhan, coiner of the catchphrase “The Medium is the Message”, collagist of the unclassifiable book “The Medium is the Massage”, and author of the scholarly tome “The Gutenberg Galaxy”.

The Globe also summarizes McLuhan’s numerous insights in a sentence which I will take the liberty of paraphrasing and improving as:

The visible or audible content delivered through any medium is less important than the implicit messages the medium itself introduces into human affairs.

(Original: “the visible content delivered through any media, such as the television, is less important than the invisible effects the vehicle that conveys it introduces into human affairs”.)

This key observation is why Wired called Prof. McLuhan the “Prophet of the Internet” even though, as far as I know, he never envisioned anything like it. From a McLuhanistic perspective, the internet is every bit as big a revolution in human consciousness as the printing press; its effects will evolve over the next century or two, but those of us privileged to be on the scene in its early days will have much to say about the long future of human civilization (presuming civilization sufficient to support the internet survives our other present turmoils).

McLuhan, (like Norbert Wiener,) was prominent in my teenage reading list and influential in my own subsequent thinking.

Recent McLuhan stories in the Globe and Mail:

A Catholic Cassandra’s Faith
McLuhan: From tweedy academic to household name
The return of Marshall McLuhan

Speaking of Media

If I were a billionaire I would purchase a subscription to the Toronto Globe and Mail for every journalist working in the US.

Unlike American journalism which is so desperate to be inoffensive that it becomes uniformly empty, the Globe is eager to give people things to think about and talk about. If today’s issue is an indication, the Globe is almost as deficient as the US press in its focus on sustainability issues. So it’s not as if I had no complaints. But the stupefying and mystifying feeling of reading the US press, even the Times these days, is blissfully absent.

Today’s headline: Failed State Gives Rise to Famine

Today’s feature photo: Born to Run?

other interesting items in addition to the previously mentioned McLuhan piece:

As Leopard Habitat Dwindles in India, Humans Become Prey

Gang Violence: Why We Need a CeaseFire (opinion by Sheema Khan)

Heartbreak Charm and Betrayal (review of movie Project Nim)

Oddly, most of the headlines of the articles (all except the opinion piece) I picked are different on the web. Apparently the Globe has not escaped the peculiar journalistic confusion about article titles.

As I contemplate moving from writing about writing about sustainability to actually just writing about sustainability, I take inspiration from the fact that competent journalism still survives in North America; that I’m not just imagining the possibility. (But the belief that the author of a journalistic article ought to choose the title still seems like an innovation for some reason!)

Image: Globe and Mail columnist Sheema Khan

The South Will Rise Again

The quotation below is from “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood”, by Janisse Ray (1999), an imperfect book but moving and smart and highly recommended nonetheless.

You can’t understand the world today without understanding the American South: it is a keystone. And you can’t understand the South by trivializing and villainizing it. These words from Janisse Ray may strike many, from North and South alike, as strange, but perhaps they carry the seeds of some deeper understanding:

When we consider what is happening to our forests – and to the birds, reptiles and insects that live there – we must also think of ourselves. Culture springs from the actions of people in a landscape, and what we, especially Southerners, are watching is a daily erosion of unique folkways as our native ecosystems and all their inhabitants disappear. Our culture is tied to the longleaf forest that produced us, that has sheltered us, that we occupy. The forest keeps disappearing, disappearing, sold off, stolen.

We don’t mind growing trees in the South; it’s a good place for silviculture, sunny and watery, with a growing season to make a Yankee gardener weep. What we mind is that all our trees are being taken. We want more than 1 per cent natural stands of longleaf. We know a pine plantation is not a forest, and the wholesale conversion to monocultures is unacceptable to us.

We Southerners are a people fighting again for our country, defending the last remaining stands of real forest. Although we love to frolic, the time has come to fight. We must fight.

In new rebellion we stand together, black and white, urbanite and farmer, workers all, in keeping Dixie. We are a patient peopple who for generations have not been ousted from this land and we are willing to fight for the birthright of our children’s children, and their children’s children, to be of a place, in all ways, for all time. What is left is not enough. When we say the South will rise again we can mean that we will allow the cutover forests to return to their former grandeur and pine plantations to grow wild.

The whippoorwill is calling from the edge.

Fracking Question

Q: What is the picture for long-term methane leakage from tapped out fracking operations? Pondering it spooks me. Any science on it?

Social media postscript: asked here, on Twitter, on Google+, and on Quora. Apologies if you see it more than once. (Not bothering with Facebook.)

Toward Competent Reporting

The Beeb:

Although a normal monsoon has been forecast for South Asia this year, and rains have begun normally in many parts of the region, people are still anxious about the rainy season that lasts for four months.

Their anxiety has to do with the uncertainties surrounding the timing of the monsoon in recent years.

While the debate continues over the role of climate change, scientists have also been looking at the possible role of soot and urban smog pollution in disrupting this weather system.

Emphasis added. Paraphrase: “Scientists have been debating the respective roles of certain climate forcings and climate change in this instance of climate change.”

OK, everybody. These things have different meanings:

anthropogenic climate change
anthropogenic climate forcing
anthropogenic global warming
carbon cycle
carbon dioxide
climate change
global climate change
global change
global warming
greenhouse effect

The best name for “the problem” is “climate disruption“, which is shorthand for “dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system“.

I am not sure I know how to reframe the offending sentence. Admittedly (if I understand their meaning) it is awkward. Perhaps:

“While climate change on the global scale may play a role, scientists have also been looking at the role of local mechanisms such as soot and urban smog in disrupting the monsoon.”

The use of the word “debate” was presumably unnecessary and feeds right into denialist tropes.

Another howler:

Ramanathan’s result suggested a large reduction of solar radiation at the Earth’s surface simultaneous with the warming of the lower atmosphere increases atmospheric “stability”. It also slows down the hydrological cycle and reduces rainfall during the monsoon.

“Also”? What does “stability” mean in this context? Oh, I have no idea so I’ll put it in quotes.

This is the worst of it though:

“The consequence of these contrasting processes needs to be understood before arriving at conclusions on the aerosol impact on a regional climate system,” the INCCA said in its statement.

But one of the experts in the recent UNEP/WMO report, Chien Wang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said there was no confusion on the issue.

“I have to indicate that the basic conclusion that black carbon aerosol forcing over South Asia is large enough to perturb the monsoon system is reached by all the studies so far, therefore there is no different opinion here,” he told BBC News.

The basic mechanism is agreed, and there is work to be done on quantifying it. There is nothing here resembling what a journalist would call a “debate” which is Wang’s point. Such debate is rare in research meteorology. This is not because meteorologist march in lock step on pain of excommunication. It is because meteorology is actually a mature science.

The point about monsoons and aerosols is interesting, but WTF?

Increasingly I think journalism is too important to leave in the hands of journalists.