The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Ninety-Seven Percent Pure

When I was kid, a popular soap brand advertised itself with a slogan similar to the title of this post. I’ve just done an internet search on the subject, and learned that the brand was Ivory, the claimed percentage was 99.44%, and there are multiple stories on where the number comes from. In most versions, the figure comes from a chemical analysis of the product’s ingredients and the .66% remainder is not necessarily an “impurity” in the negative sense (rat droppings, for example), but simply material that does not, strictly speaking, count as soap–fragrance, perhaps.

Anyway, it was an iconic, and, I’m sure, very successful ad campaign, but whenever I saw it I was always distracted by the thought of that .66%. Did I really want to wash with a bar that contained .66% impurities? Why are they boasting about a product that isn’t really completely pure?

Whatever. I have no actual opinion on the brand. It was just an ad campaign.

The point is that the scientific consensus is commonly presented as being even less pure than Ivory Soap: 97% of climate scientists reportedly agree that global warming is caused by humans. Obviously, I need no persuading that anthropogenic climate change is real, but the figure bothers me. It leaves itself too open to well-placed questions–above all, scientists don’t vote on the truth by majority rule, so why is the percent who agree even relevant?

So, let’s take a little time and look at this: where does 97% come from, why isn’t it 100%, and who are those 3% who disagree?

Before we go further, though, I want to point out that, contrary to the posts of certain trolls, climate dissidents do not live in fear of bullying by the establishment majority. I’m sure those people aren’t popular at departmental parties, but it is the scientists who do support the consensus who see their work maligned and ignored, who are personally harassed, and who occasionally receive death threats. Researchers who want the easy way out get out of this field, not into it.

So.

Um, 97% of What?

The figure, 97%, comes from several suitably scientific analyses of science. That is, it’s not a result of a public opinion survey, but rather a series of literature reviews and reviews of reviews conducted by climate scientists themselves. These reviews, conducted over a period of years, present various figures, but most place scientific agreement at somewhere between 90 and 100%. The figures vary because the methods vary–and this is important, because while different questions can yield the same answer, the answers mean different things.

Percent of Papers?

The public statements generally refer to the number of scientists who agree, but in many of these reviews, it wasn’t the scientists who were questioned–it was their papers. The distinction is important for two reasons. Most obviously, the same scientist can write multiple papers. The fact that most papers agree with a certain proposition tells us very little about how many humans agree. It’s simply a separate question.

A more subtle point is that while the number of scientists who agree on something is arguably irrelevant, the number of studies that agree matters very much. Science works on the principle of repeated observation. If I claim that an opossum has gotten into my basement, you might well ask whether anyone else who has gone down there has seen it. We’re not going to vote on the existence of the opossum–it’s either down there or it isn’t, whether the majority agrees or not–but we both know a single observation could be wrong. The light’s bad down there, after all. Maybe I just saw my cat, or some old stuffed animal. But if most people who check my basement also see an opossum (or opossum scat, or opossum hair, or other sign), that is harder to dismiss.

97% of visits to our planet’s basement have involved sightings of the global warming opossum.

Percent of Experts?

Several of the studies did survey individuals, but varied in how they defined the pool of respondents. On one end of the continuum were surveys limited to those who regularly publish peer-reviewed papers on climate. On the other were surveys open to people who work in any science at any educational level. A field tech in geology is a scientist, but does not necessarily know any more about climate than anyone else. Not surprisingly, the percent of respondents who agree with the consensus is higher if the survey is limited to people with the most relevant expertise.

Agree With What? And What is Agreement?

The wording of the surveys varied a lot. Some asked if the respondent believed at least some climate change is caused by humans, others if most is caused by humans. Clearly, for some people, the answers to these questions could be different.

A related issue is that many climatology papers do not state whether anthropogenic climate change is real. An even larger number do not make such a statement in their abstracts. Some studies have counted these as denying climate change, others have simply excluded them from analysis. Arguably, most of these should be counted as supportive of the reality of climate change, since the reason they don’t address the question is that the authors regarded the answer as accepted and obvious. Chemistry papers don’t take the time to note that water is wet, after all. Physicists don’t bother to express a professional opinion on whether gravity is real.

In case it’s not obvious, all of the above came from the two sites I linked to above. Both are worth a read.

So, Who Are the 3%?

I originally set out to write a piece about that three percent–who are they, why do they believe what they do, and are they genuine examples of free disagreement, or are they paid shills?

Unfortunately, I haven’t found an answer, yet. It may be that no one knows the answer–if quantifying the consensus was complicated, qualifying the dissent must be more so. How do you define your sample without including at least some people who aren’t legitimate scientists, and without excluding at least some people who are legitimate but maybe don’t act that way anymore because they disagree with the current consensus and go rogue?

How do you get someone to respond to your survey if doing so could expose them as a paid shill?

I suspect that at least some dissenters are exactly that–paid shills. Others are likely artifacts of the analysis. That is, dissenters who don’t really exist, but only seem to because of how a survey was worded or how papers were coded for analysis. Some may well be both real and genuine. But how many fall into each group and who they are and why they believe thus may be one of those questions science has trouble answering.

 

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Dam Problems

So, California is at serious risk of flooding.

As readers may be aware, the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway came very near to failing a few days ago, triggering massive evacuations for people who live downstream. The situation has been stabilized, and people may now return home, but more storms are due in tomorrow, and so everything is very precarious.

Before I get to my point (climate change), I offer a brief synopsis of the situation and of the dam.

The Dam Situation

The Oroville Dam* blocks the Feather River, a tributary of the Sacramento River, and thus creates Oroville Lake, near Oroville, California. The dam was first proposed in 1951 and was finally completed in 1968 (and dedicated by then-governor, Ronald Reagan).  It is the tallest dam in the United States. Its primary purpose purpose is flood control, though it also collects water for both municipal use and for irrigating the San Joaquin Valley, and generates hydroelectric power.

Under normal circumstances, water released by the dam flows out through pipes at its base, to rejoin the Feather River. During floods, a spillway off to the right of the dam (that is the dam’s right, river-right) can be opened. Since the spillway gate is high up, close to the level of the top of the dam, water must flow from the gate down a long, concrete-lined path, to get back to the Feather River. So far so good. But on February 7th, a week ago today, the rushing water eroded a hole in the floor of the spillway. The concern was that if the hole grew large enough, it could undermine the spillway gate and cause it to fail–so the gate was partially closed. And the water started to rise.

Fortunately, there was a plan B in place. The earthen embankment to the right of the spillway is topped by a secondary dam that is lower than the primary dam. If the spillway system fails, water will spill over this secondary dam–called the emergency spillway–instead of over-topping the main dam (and possibly damaging it). On February 11th, for the first time in the facility’s history, water did flow over the emergency spillway–and began eroding the embankment.

Had the erosion gone on long enough, it would have undercut the secondary dam, washing it away, and sending a giant wall of water down over the homes of almost 190,000 people. Hence the evacuations.

Officials were able to drop the lake level enough to stop the flow over the emergency spillway and to make emergency repairs, but California’s rainy season still has at least two more months to run. A catastrophic failure at Oroville is still not out of the question.

Dam Climate Change

The Oroville Dam, like much of the rest of California’s water infrastructure, suffers from several problems.

American infrastructure generally is in poor shape, largely because it is politically much easier to fund new construction than to fund repair (I wonder, too, whether changes in the tax structure have starved public works–much of our infrastructure dates back to a time when America was much more civics-minded than it is today). So many dams are past due for maintenance. Oroville specifically might have gotten a concrete lining for its emergency spillway–as was suggested and rejected in 2005–had more funding been available. In that case, erosion would not have been a threat.

But Oroville was also designed for much smaller flood volumes than are now considered likely. Part of that is simply that the modeling is more accurate now, but part of it is that floods are bigger. There is more impermeable surface, preventing water from seeping into the ground before it reaches a river, and there are more extreme weather events, thanks to climate change. Droughts, like the one California just came out of, are deeper and longer, while rainy periods are wetter than ever before, too. The state is currently having its wettest year on record–2017 has topped the region’s typical annual rainfall already. The system just wasn’t designed for this.

Scientific American (as seems to be its usual) cautions that it’s too soon to tell whether there’s any link between Oroville’s dam problem and climate change, but acknowledges that problems like this will occur more frequently because of climate change. However, a study published six years ago explains that storms associated with “atmospheric rivers” do hit California more intensely in certain climate change scenarios–specifically, while average atmospheric river (AR) activity stays the same, the extremes become more so, with more storms, more intense storms, and warmer storms in some years. The recent storms have been AR storms, and at least some have been notably warm. That seems like a pretty clear link to me.

Variation in precipitation is not the only factor, either.

Snowmelt in California’s mountains has been getting earlier and earlier since the 1940’s. Regional, and possibly natural patterns are involved, and back in 1994, when this paper was published, researchers weren’t sure anthropogenic climate change was a factor. But that was 23 years ago. I bet they’re sure, now, I just haven’t tracked down a more recent paper on the subject, yet. Earlier snowmelt and warmer winters (in which more moisture falls as rain rather than snow) together mean that more water runs off the land without having time to soak into the ground–or be used by agriculture. That means both more trouble with flooding and with California’s aging dams and more serious droughts, potentially in the same year.

In fact, parts of California (though not Oroville or, as far as I can tell, the watershed that feeds Oroville Lake) are still in a drought, according to the US Drought Monitor (unfortunately, you won’t be able to find this week’s report is you visit the monitor after it next updates).

What does all of this mean for Californians? It means they need us to stop causing climate change, obviously. But the state will also need to make decisions about its infrastructure, its water-use plans, and its development patterns that are more in keeping with the climate change we’ve already locked in–and those decisions depend on accurate and up-to-date data and analysis.

Next time anyone asks you if it’s really important for state and Federal governments to have access to accurate climate science, you can talk about the thousands of people who might drown this winter if the Oroville dam fails after all.

We already know that the evacuation clogged the highways. Had the spillway failed, some people could have been overtaken by water in their cars.

*Yes, I linked to Wikipedia, even though I generally consider it an unreliable source. In this case, the details of the Wikipedia article are consistent with, and largely seconded by, what I’ve read elsewhere, but I’d have to cite a half-dozen other articles at once if I wanted to avoid Wikipedia in this case.-C.


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On Losing My Wallet

Ok, spoiler alert; I found my wallet after all. It was in the back yard, under some leaves, having fallen out of my pocket. But it had been missing for almost 24 hours, and as I’d last seen it while out doing errands, I was more or less panicking over the thought that it could have been stolen.

Yes, this does have to do with climate change.

See, there is something that feels so unfair about losing a wallet (which I seem to do about once per decade)–a momentary oversight, and suddenly I’m looking at weeks of difficulty and expense. I mean, yes, I know, it’s my fault, it’s my mistake that causes the problem, but the consequences seem so disproportionate.  And since there are so many times I almost lose my wallet, and then it unexpectedly turns up, that when I really, truly, do lose it, the loss is hard to believe.

I keep looking in places I already looked, hoping that it will turn up, that I will somehow be rescued from the situation.

These two elements, the sense of injustice and the semi-rational denial, should be familiar to a lot of people. There is a sense that the presidency of an odious and ridiculous climate denier just should not be allowed. There is a sense that we’ve worked so hard, we deserve to have some success–not to have to double down and work harder.

I don’t mean to imply the the presidential election turned out the way it did because of a simple moment of thoughtlessness. I don’t mean to imply that there are no relevant questions of blame, credit, or justice. The metaphor could be carried too far.

The important thing I want to emphasize is that the universe is not fair–nor is it unfair. A moment’s inattention or the turn of political will, these things have whatever consequences they have. And then we deal with them, for better or worse.

We have no time to denial. We have no time for insisting we don’t deserve this. We have no time for assuming that somebody will get us out of this fix. It’s time to get busy.

As I did when I called the bank and cancelled my debit cards. About twenty minutes later, I found my wallet. Sometimes the disaster doesn’t happen. Sometimes the miracle plays out. But those happy endings aren’t earned any more than the unhappy endings are. It’s just what happens. And we have to respond to what happens–with the limited information we have at the time–and keep working until the job is done.


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A Climate for Dragons

An original climate-fiction piece, for your reading pleasure.

Diana Minakshi Cartwright lay at the bottom of the bowl of the sky and could not rise. Since the hang-gliding accident 15 years earlier, nothing much below her armpits had worked properly. The air, for so long her friend and playmate, had suddenly—and quite literally—let her down. Humanity was in the same boat, in a way, though she didn’t blame the atmosphere for climate change, of course. And she had long since forgiven the sky about her legs. She still loved to lie in the grass and look up at it.

But she could not lie there forever. Today was the big day and she had to get up and be an adult in it. She propped herself up on her elbows and looked around for her assistant.

“Dashawn?”

Dashawn Harris called himself her grad student. The phrase was a complete misnomer, first because he knew more than she did about his work, and second because grad schools, as such, hadn’t existed in twenty-five years. Civilization had fallen when a global pandemic terminally disrupted the distribution of both food and oil. A new civilization, of sorts, was growing up in its place, one without fossil fuel and without many of the institutions Diana had taken for granted back when she was young and could still wriggle her toes.

But the new society had its own institutions and rules, and one of these stipulated that professionals in certain fields had to go through an apprenticeship process in order to be taken seriously by their colleagues. Dashawn was a self-taught roboticist, one of the best in the country, but could not make the new rules bend. He had offered Diana his services in exchange for professional legitimacy. On paper, therefor, he was her apprentice, something like a grad student, yes. In reality, he was her business partner, her friend, her aid, and, on bad days, her nurse.

“Dashawn?”

He appeared, gently scooped her up out of the grass, and carried her over to an equipment tent where he undressed her and helped her put on her robotic exoskeleton. She hated to wear the thing, but thanks to a neural access plug on her spine and the exo’s own microprocessors, it put her in command of her own body again. She put her clothes and her dignity back on and joined Dashawn at his field control center. He handed her a cup of coffee substitute and consulted a series of screens, frowning.

“How’s it looking?” she asked.

“Oh, fucked up as usual,” he began, then rolled his eyes and amended himself. “Ok, it’s not completely fucked up. Sections E and F aren’t logging on to the cell towers, but it’s probably just a relay being retarded or some shit. We’ve still got 27 minutes before the media fucktards start crawling around. Plenty of time.”

Dashawn was habitually irreverent to the point of genuine offensiveness. He would not be talking to said media.

“The, um, ‘media fucktards’ are here already,” said a woman’s voice. Diana jumped and the servos in her exo whined as they moved her legs and recovered her balance.

“Elzy, why don’t you knock?” she said, and turned around to face her publicist.

“Because you don’t have a door,” the younger woman replied.

“Hey, you’re a cop,” put in Dashawn, still attending to his computers. “Arrest the reporters for trespassing. Fuck ‘em up.”

“I only fuck up badguys,” Elzy Rodriguez explained, lightly. “Anyway, I left my badge at home. I’m wearing my environmental education hat today. Why don’t you just buzz them with your toy birds?”

Dashawn tensed, then stood up slowly. He was a big man, bushy as a pirate, and he did not seem quite sane. A lesser woman than Elzy might have been intimidated. But when he turned around he was grinning like a friendly retriever.

“I don’t build toys,” he said. “I fly dragons.

“Children, children,” Diana chided, playfully. But her accent was coming out, as it always did when she was stressed. It made all her words sound musical and precise. “Elzy, we’re having an issue with the relays, just keep the reporters busy for the moment, ok?”

“But they want you.”

“Tell them I’ll be out when I am ready!”

“Yes, Dr. Cartwright.” Elzy left the tent as soundlessly as she’d entered it.

“I’ve actually got things covered in here,” Dashawn told her, “if you want to go out and act all famous and shit.”

“I’m just not looking forward to explaining the difference between climatology and meteorology 42 times in a row.”

“So don’t bother. Who gives a shit if they think you’re the weather-lady? Give ‘em a couple a’ sound-bites, talk about the science, yada yada yada, you’ll be fabulous.”

“Of course I’ll be fabulous,” snapped Diana. She finished her fake coffee, clipped on an earpiece so Dashawn could call her if he needed to, and walked out into the busy sunshine.

These days, the green floor of Carter Notch, in New Hampshire, was a dairy farm, but it still had wide, flat open areas where the tourist parking lots used to be. The place made a good launch site. Today, the cows were sequestered in their barns and in the pastures rested rows upon rows of blue and white aerial drones. Each was about the size and shape of a turkey vulture, pale beneath and covered with dark solar cells above. Retractable props provided thrust when the machine was not soaring and a dozen tiny cameras and sensors peered out from ports and windows in the head and belly. Each sat on its own portable launch ramp and dozens of techs moved among the rows, making last minute adjustments and consulting tablet computers all keyed in to Dashawn and his electronic nerve center.

Above, the sky warmed towards noon and real, flesh-and-blood vultures soared upwards in huge circles. A pair of ravens gamboled in thin air, tumbling together for thousands of feet and then rising to wrestle and flirt all over again.

Diana knew each of the three hundred flyers was coming awake around her, flexing and testing various flaps. She could visualize them trying out their robotic senses, tasting the air for wind speed, direction, temperature, and trace atmospheric gas composition. She could also visualize a sixth of the machines steadfastly refusing to communicate with the cell tower network. Without that network, the drones not only wouldn’t be able to report their data and accept new commands, they would be unable to correct any navigation errors. The last of the GPS satellites had stopped working years ago, just like the communications and research satellites before them. It was all just so much space-junk, now.

Those satellites could not be replaced. Without fossil fuel, technology could still be blisteringly intelligent, but it lacked the brute force necessary to hurl a rocket into space. Without satellites, much of climatology and meteorology were essentially flying blind. That was the central problem today was meant to solve. If the launch went off well, other launches would follow in other parts of the country. Over a thousand drones, flying continuous transects within set altitude ranges, would collectively replace the satellites, at least in American airspace. But if sections E and F would not or could not communicate, ten years of work and the best of her legacy would stay grounded with them.

Diana reminded herself that, in all likelihood, the problem would be fixed soon, in minutes or hours, or a few days at most. Last-minute technical glitches were pretty run-of-the-mill. The trouble was that Elzy, quite sensibly, had encouraged the project’s major funders to use the launch as a publicity opportunity. A delay now would embarrass the very people whose money and good will Diana could not do without.

Representatives of the major project partners, the colleges and meteorological societies funding the program, plus the firm that built the drones, were due in about two hours for the press conference and the equivalent of a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but half a dozen reporters had jumped the fence and wanted soundbites now. If she could keep them happy without letting on that there was a problem, it was possible Dashawn would get the drones launched on schedule after all.

Techs were still assembling the low stage for the ceremony, but Elzy had improvised and was holding court from the tailgate of one of the ox-carts that had transported the drones. She looked incredibly comfortable inside the knot of insistent reporters–she actually had them all laughing now–which was part of why she made a good publicist. But she was right; it was Diana these people wanted to talk to.

With as much grace as modern technology could offer, Diana climbed up onto the cart. Elzy clasped her hand for a moment like a 20th century biker (the gesture had recently become popular among cops) and hopped down.

Diana gave the reporters an abbreviated version of the statement she’d prepared for the event later. In a few quick sentences she explained what the drones were and why they were necessary and what parts of the country these 300 would fly over. She graciously acknowledged the expertise of Dashawn Harris in designing and flying the drones and of Elzy Rodriguez for so much of the funding and public goodwill the project required. She thanked all her institutional partners by name and then reiterated the importance of accurate climatological assessment or crafting public policy. “With these data, we will no longer have to rely on guesswork and anecdote to understand the pace of climate change,” she finished. Then she asked if anyone had any questions.

“Dr. Cartwright?” said a very young man with a reddish Afro and a lot of orange freckles. “Did you say ‘climate change’? What climate change are you referring to? Fossil fuel use stopped 25 years ago.” The other reporters looked at him, some with disdain for asking a stupid question, some with gratitude because now they did not have to ask. Diana fought the urge to roll her eyes. Hadn’t these people attended high school?

“Fossil fuel use stopped, yes,” she explained, “but there are other emissions types—natural gas leaks, chlorofluorocarbons from broken refrigeration units, deforestation—these things do not stop simply because one civilization falls.” She felt bad for the man-boy with the Afro; he’d probably never seen a working air conditioner in his life, but he still had to live with the environmental cost of the machines.

A middle-aged woman asked whether the drones were meant to monitor the recovery from climate change. She seemed to be having trouble with the concept that no, climate change wasn’t over. Diana reiterated as gently as she could.

“But haven’t CO2 levels been falling?” the woman asked.

“Yes, carbon dioxide levels have been falling, as have methane levels and some of the shorter-lived chlorinated gasses,” Diana explained. “But average global temperature has not. In fact, global temperature is still rising because there is a lag in the climate system of several decades. The problem is that this additional heat could be enough to trigger positive feedback loops, such as self-maintaining forest dieback in the Amazon, or the release of the remaining methane trapped in frozen tundra in the extreme Arctic. If that happens, we will see carbon dioxide and methane levels start to rise again. That is why it is so critical that we have access to accurate atmospheric data as soon as possible.”

“What will you do if those feedback loops happen?” asked the boy with the Afro, sounding desolate, as well he might.

“We don’t know,” Diana told him. “We hope it never comes to that. But we don’t have to wait for feedback loops to start to take some action. These drones can identify localized methane or CFC release plumes, such as from leaking fossil fuel extraction sites or from landfills or industrial ruins. With that information we may be able to go in and cap those leaks. We may also be able to identify areas where planting programs or soil or wetland restoration can speed up natural reforestation. All these steps can lower emissions or enhance carbon reuptake and may be able to buy us more time.”

There were other questions, all of them intelligent and well-thought-out, but most of them at least sixty or seventy years out of date scientifically. Why was Diana having to do basic science education for issues that should have become common knowledge a generation or two ago? The thought depressed her terribly. Worse, no one asked what should have been the obvious question; how could drones flying over the United States shed much light on what was going on in the Arctic or the Amazon? The answer was they couldn’t—but the new Federal government still had not opened up diplomatic relations with any foreign countries and explicitly discouraged both international travel and the repair of international computer networks. The problem was that America still had no army, and the newly elected suits in Washington were quietly hoping the rest of the world would not notice. So if there were scientists in Brazil or Ecuador, in Canada, or the Republic of Alaska—or even back home in India–they had no way to talk to Diana Cartwright.

Finally the reporters ran dry for the time being and wandered off to edit their dispatches. Diana sat down on the tailgate and closed her eyes. The top of her exo pinched and rubbed against her ribs and beneath her breasts. She could feel that, and the constant discomfort dragged at her. She’d elected not to wear her ugly circulation boots today and knew her moment of vanity had been a mistake. Her feet were probably swelling. She wished cacao trees grew in North America because she could really use a chocolate bar right now, but she’d happily settle for whisky if anyone offered her some.

The cart shifted on its shocks as someone else sat down on the tailgate. Knuckles rapped on the wood—Elzy was knocking, as requested. Diana smiled.

“Nobody likes a smart-ass, Elzy.”

“Good thing I don’t care,” Elzy replied, amiably. “How’s it going?”

“If I have to tell one more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed reporter that we’re all doomed I am going to have to take up drinking.”

Are we doomed?”

“No, but when I describe climatology to the public it always sounds like we are. Elzy, I am tired.”

Elzy shrugged. She was too pragmatic to get upset about things she could not help.

“I don’t think they really look like dragons,” she said, changing the subject. “I still think the drones look like toy birds.”

“How do you know what dragons look like?” asked Diana, opening her eyes.

“I don’t,” Elzy confessed. “But there was this man—you know when you’ve known somebody about fifteen minutes and you think you’re in love?”

“At my age, we don’t call that love.”

“I didn’t really, either, but I’d gone all oogly inside. Anyway, we stayed up all night watching the stars and telling stories. He was a professional story-teller and he told me about dragons. European dragons, Chinese dragons, Indian dragons, Mexican dragons, even, maybe, an Australian dragon. He said that dragons embody the fertility and wealth of the land—that’s why they hoard gold–but also the land’s fierceness, its danger. So dragons should look, I don’t know, like a hailstorm, not all blue and rounded like these.”

“I wish I were a dragon,” said Diana. “I wish I could breathe fire and protect the world. I wish I could fly.”

Elzy was about to reply when Diana’s earpiece came to life.

“Hey, boss-lady,” said Dashawn. “I’ve got good news and bad news.”

“Go ahead.”

“E and F signed on, but I’ll be damned if I know why they were off in the first place and until I know we can’t launch. If they cut out again before they gain altitude we could lose the batch.” The drones could navigate visually, but only if they were high enough up to see major landforms. Until then they depended on the cell networks to stay oriented.

“If they don’t get airborne soon, we’ll have to reschedule anyway,” Diana warned. “I don’t want the night glide to begin at less than ten thousand feet.”

“I know, I know, I’m working on it.”

“Do you need me to come over?”

“Not unless you’ve learned how to read relay code.”

“Not in the last 45 minutes, no. Ok, I’ll stay here, then. Let me know when you have a launch time.”

“Will do. Later, gator.” A slight click and the connection shut down again.

“Keep an eye out for the media, will you please?” Diana asked Elzy.

“Do you want me to get you out of your exo?”

“No, it’s too much of a hassle to get back in again. But my feet are swelling.”

“Let me fetch one of the packing crates. You can put your feet up.”

“That sounds good.” Diana never said thank you for such assistance. Long ago she had realized that only two groups of people get to move through this life waited on by others: cripples and royalty. She had decided to be one of the latter.

She dozed for a few minutes, sitting in the ox-cart with her feet up, until a fly bit her neck and woke her. It was just as well, since the hum of distant voices and the occasional snort or nicker of a horse told her the VIPs, the rest of the reporters, and who knows how many curious locals, were arriving. She checked her cell; one o’clock, right on time. Except, would the drones actually work?

Diana and Elzy greeted and schmoozed and stalled for as long as they could, but eventually they’d have to either begin the press conference or explain why not. Diana chose the former, hoping Dashawn would get the glitch worked out in time. But no voice came to her through her ear-piece.

She stepped on to the stage, recited her statement, and answered questions. She waited, wondering if she was doing the right thing, while the President of Appalachian Mountain College and the Directors of the White Mountain Weather Research Bureau and the Portland Manufacturing Alliance all gave professionally self-aggrandizing speeches. She wondered whether all of this effort would turn out to be for nothing.

Then, from her seat on the low stage she saw, beyond the dignitaries and behind the crowd, every one of Dashawn’s techs simultaneously stop what they were doing and put a hand to an ear. Then they were off, moving again, swarming around the drones in one corner of the field, adjusting things. Her heart leaped.

“Good news, boss-lady,” said Dashawn’s voice in her ear. “We’ve got it covered. Nothing wrong with the relay code after all—those units have an older model security card than the others and it doesn’t play nice with the new cell protocols. We’re switching them out with spares. Launch in fifteen minutes, if you’re ready.”

“We might be,” Diana replied, in a whisper. “Keep me patched in, I’ll let you know.”

“Okay-dokay, artichokey.”

The VIP sitting next to Diana looked at her sharply, as though she were passing notes in class or something.

Twenty minutes later, Diana and the VIPs stood on the edge of the launch field. The rest of the crowd had turned in place to watch. Two press-drones hovered above, taking video and staying out of the way.

“Now,” said Diana. Her whole career turned on this moment.

“Launching Section A,” said Dashawn, and fifty propellers started to spin, every second drone in the nearest third of the field. In seconds, the light-weight machines were all airborne.

“Banking left,” said Dashawn, and they all did, turning obediently in a large circle thirty feet above the spectators’ heads.

“Banking right….And testing autonomous execution and crash avoidance.” One of the drones broke formation and cut across the gyre and the others neatly avoided it, turning and climbing and diving, each as its own processors suggested. The whole flock danced and spun through a series of tests and then began their climb to the heights. Some in the crowd cried out in wonder, others applauded. The press drones, small quad-copters without much independence, climbed and turned under instructions from their handlers, looking for the best shots. And Dashawn launched and tested Section B.

One after another, each of the sections took to the sky, banking and dancing. The first group were up in the thermals, now, propellers retracted, turning and turning and turning on the rising air, just like the real vultures. When they reached ten thousand feet they’d each glide out, heading to their separate transects. And still flocks of drones launched.

Diana walked out among them and Dashawn, hidden in his equipment tent but watching nonetheless, directed the newly airborne drones to swoop down around her, curving and banking like dragonflies within a foot or two of her hips and shoulders. She threw her arms up to the sky and a drone flew right between her outstretched hands. She laughed, giggling like a child, and spun, dancing as if she might fly herself.


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The Story of Global Cooling

I’ve been hearing climate deniers talking about a global cooling scare in the nineteen seventies for a while now, and I finally got curious about where this narrative had come from–I didn’t think it had been made up whole cloth, but I hadn’t heard word one about it from any credible source, either. You’d think that if climate scientists had thought an ice age was imminent as recently as the seventies, at least some of the scientists I know would mention it occasionally?

So, I looked into it. And I found not one but two explanations.

In one story, Peter Gwynne, a science writer for Newsweek, wrote a short article on an idea some scientists were kicking around at the time–that a thirty-year cooling trend might continue and develop into a real ice age. The article was published on April 28, 1975, and attracted enough attention that other publications picked up the story with their own articles. Books and TV shows followed.

Scientific American, my source for this particular story, explains that the cooling trend is

now believed to be a consequence of soot and aerosols that offered a partial shield to the earth as well as the gradual retreat of an abnormally warm interlude.

And that

there also was a small but growing counter-theory that carbon dioxide and other pollutants accompanying the Industrial Age were creating a warming belt in the atmosphere, and by about 1980 it was clear that the earth’s average temperature was headed upward.

Scientific American acknowledges that the global cooling thing has no legitimate place in the climate discussion today, and reports that Mr. Gwynne himself is somewhat embarrassed by the anti-scientific uses to which his writing is being put. He does stand by what he wrote, given the limits of available knowledge at the time.

Ok, but there are a couple of problems with that story, starting with the fact that the greenhouse effect was not a “small but growing counter-theory” in the 1970’s–the effect of carbon dioxide on the climate has been known since 1859. The first calculations of the human role in climate change were made in 1896.

And it’s not like global warming was some far-out thing nobody was paying attention to back in the 1970’s, either. No less a person than the fiction writer, Ursula K. LeGuin had started making oblique references to climate change as early as 1969 (her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, includes a flawless description of the natural greenhouse effect, as well as a reference to an alien planet that is hot because “an exploitive civilization wrecked its natural balances, burned up the forests for kindling, as it were.” Several of her later books also refer to the Earth itself getting warmer, too). Perhaps more starkly, the 1970’s were when Exxon was busy figuring out what it was going to do about global warming, of which its internal documents prove it was well aware.

Beyond all that, there wasn’t a 30-year cooling trend, except perhaps in a mathematical sense. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the period from the mid-1940’s to the mid-1970’s was cooler than previous years had been, but there was a lot of minor temperature fluctuation, not a consistent cooling. A cool period of relative stability is not the same thing as an oncoming ice age.

So, I did some more poking and found the second story.

Apparently, in the 1970’s, the greenhouse effect was well-known, but the cooling effect of sulfate emissions (“aerosols”) had just been discovered and it wasn’t clear yet which would prove dominant. A few climate scientists thought the aerosols might win out–between 1965 and 1979, 10% of the scientific papers on the subject predicted cooling, but 28% could make no prediction and 62% predicted warming. In other words, the coming ice age was a legitimate scientific idea for a while, but only a small minority of studies ever supported it.

I’m not actually sure, based on what I’ve read, whether anybody ever proved that sulfate emissions couldn’t have counteracted carbon emissions under some scenarios that were plausible back then. As history has actually played out, sulfate emissions have been dramatically reduced (they also cause acid rain), while carbon emissions have continued to climb. Aerosols still complicate climate predictions, but no one thinks they’re going to cause an ice age anymore.

There’s no cooling trend mentioned in there.

The way I see these two stories blending, I suspect that what really happened was that the end of the warming trend of the first third of the 20th century was taken (maybe correctly) as evidence of the cooling power of aerosols. Some climate scientists thought the aerosols could go on to trigger a cooling trend, but most did not. Peter Gwynne, being a writer who cared about science and about getting his writing published, chose to focus on the minority opinion, since that seemed more sensational at the time. He has admitted that the story “pushed the envelope a little bit,” in deference to Newsweek’s penchant for what Scientific American called an “over-ventilated style.”

The ventilation would have seemed harmless at the time, if the article was fundamentally accurate, as I’m willing to buy that it was. Nobody can represent the entire breadth of the scientific conversation on any one topic in just nine paragraphs. You have to choose which of all possible stories you’re going to tell, in order to tell any story at all.

That deniers have since pounced on his article for political and anti-scientific purposes is not Mr. Gwynne’s doing. Being co-opted is a risk all published writers run–it’s the Scylla to the charybdis of being utterly ignored.

Curiously, the one detail I thought would enter the discussion apparently didn’t, except as a note of context written long after the fact by one or another of my sources–astronomically speaking, we’re supposed to be in an ice age already.

The primary factor that dictated the glacial/interglacial cycle through recent geological history was the Milankovitch Cycle, an interaction between three separate variations in Earth’s orbit that together dramatically how much solar radiation we get at different times of the year. We’re at a point in the cycle where we should be heading into a new ice age, but aren’t because our carbon dioxide levels are too high.

The connection between that cycle and climate was confirmed in 1976, so it may be another thread of the “global cooling” story that none of my sources happened to tease out–but if not, there may have been good reason to ignore it.

The onset of ice ages is very slow. I have to cite one of my grad school classes here (Tom Wessels was the teacher–I’ve cited him as a source here before) as I haven’t been able to lay my hands on an appropriate link, but ice ages melt quickly (as in many hundreds of years) and grow slowly (as in many thousands of years). In fact, the warmest point of our current interglacial (before now, anyway) was thousands of years ago. No, the cooling was never enough to initiate continental glaciation on North America or Asia, but cooling was in progress.There is an excellent illustration of this cooling, and how long and consistent it was, here (yes, that is a web comic, but this one’s not a joke).

Sliding towards an ice age doesn’t look like anything special, it turns out. More or less, it looks like all of human history.

 


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The Climate of Congress 2: The US House of Representatives

The conventional wisdom this year is that the US House of Representatives is unassailably Republican because there are too few Republican seats with a reasonable likelihood of flipping. That sounds like bad news for us because, while this blog is strictly non-partisan, Republicans collectively have built a very bad record on climate in recent years.

But not all Republicans are climate-hostile. In fact, there are Republican members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus. So, even if the House stays in Republican hands, if enough of those Republicans are willing to cross the aisle to support the planet, we should be in good shape.

So, how likely is a climate-sane House of Representatives? What districts need support?

Currently, there are 248 Republican Representatives and 192 Democrats (one seat is vacant, or at least was as of June). According to the Cook Report, 56 are competitive, meaning vulnerable to being flipped. 45 of these are currently Republican, 11 currently Democrat. So, the Democrats are likely to pick up seats, maybe a lot of seats, but are unlikely to gain the majority. Of those 45 competitive Republican seats, almost half are considered “leaning” towards or “likely” to stay Republican. A modestly optimistic scenario is therefore that the Democrats see a net gain of 24 seats. Still not a majority.

But if all House Democrats are climate-sane, the Democrats do gain those 24 seats, and the Republican majority after November includes at least 23 climate-sane people, we will be able to pass real climate legislation at last.

Now, of those 45 competitive Republican seats, just 13 are currently held by avowed climate deniers who are running for re-election (several races have no incumbent this year). Nine of the seats have no incumbent. That leaves 22 Republicans running for re-election who are either climate sane or have not seen fit to announce publicly that they’re not (which probably means they’re convertible). Following so far?

Of the 13 races with denier incumbents, one is actually leaning Democrat. Four more are considered toss-ups, by the Cook Report, and four lean Republican. That means it’s not out of the question that seven climate deniers could lose their seats to Democrats this year.

If the Democrats pick up 24 seats including those of the seven vulnerable deniers and the nine with no incumbent, then only eight other House Republicans have to be climate-sane for the planet to win.

Are they?

Seven Republicans who hold non-competitive seats are members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus. Surely there is one more in there somewhere?

So, make sure to vote in November. If your Representative is currently a Republican running for re-election, be sure to vote Democrat. And if that incumbent Rep is a climate denier, do whatever you can to flip that seat.

The seven vulnerable climate deniers are:

Jeff Denham, CA-10

Scott Tipton, CO-03

Scott Garrett, MN-03

Mike Coffman, CO-06

David Young, IA-03

Bruce Poliquin, ME-02

Frank Guinta, NH-01

Rod Blum, IA-01

Much depends on these people getting their pink slips from the American People in November.


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Who Picks Up the Tab?

Some time ago, my mother and I were talking about whether to get behind a certain environmental organization, and she said “they seem to be heavily committed to carbons fees and I don’t know very much about that.”

I decided I needed a refresher on the concept, too, so here are the results of my inquiries.

Carbon fees are one version of a whole family of ideas called carbon pricing, which is itself part of a much larger effort to make the environment economically visible.

It’s important to understand here that “the economy” as described by traditional economics, is really just a model for how energy, material goods, and value move through society. It isn’t the only possible model, and it isn’t even a very good model because it leaves a lot of important things out.

Remember Ralph Nader? I saw him speak once and he had a great line; “privatizing the profits and publicizing the costs.” He wasn’t talking about climate change specifically but about pollution in general—how when a company creates pollution in the course of doing business, we consider that the money the raise belongs to them but the pollution—and its associated costs–doesn’t. This little economic slight-of-hand happens because our economic model ignores the existence of that which cannot be bought and sold. Natural resources that have not yet been extracted, natural processes, “the environment” generally, is thus invisible to economics, even though these are the ultimate source of all wealth. And, in the eyes of many, the priceless is simply valueless.

Hence the push to put a price on the priceless.

Carbon pricing aims to create a situation where everyone, from consumers to corporations to nations, will actively pursue climate sanity because it is the economically sensible thing to do. There are two main versions.

Carbon fees, or carbon taxes, put a price on carbon emissions. The idea is that since we have to pay money in order to emit, we’ll figure out how not to emit so we can save money. There are different types of carbon fee systems that vary in terms of who pays the fee, where the money goes, and how the price changes over time.

One version, carbon-fee-and-dividend, assesses the fee at the point where the fossil fuel enters the economy—at the mine, well, or port—and then distributes the fee to the public. Under this system, energy companies that use fossil fuel will pass the cost of the fees on to consumers, but since consumers will be receiving dividend payments, the increased costs won’t matter. Functionally, the cost of fossil fuel use will remain the same. But since alternative energy providers will not be paying the fee, their services will be effectively cheaper, giving them an advantage in the market place.

There are a couple of obvious potential pitfalls.

I do not know whether the system includes greenhouse gas emitters other than energy companies—cement is a huge source of greenhouse gas, as is refrigeration, agriculture, and, to a lesser extent, other industries. Agriculture particularly would be very difficult to assess fees for. Also, the system does not directly mandate emissions reductions, so it’s hard to say how far the economic nudge would really go.

But carbon-fee-and-dividend is simple to implement, can use the established tax system instead of requiring a new infrastructure, and has been used to good effect in Sweden already.

Cap-and-trade, or ETS, is the other main carbon pricing tool. Here, there is a legally enforceable cap on how much participants can emit—structured as a limited number of permits per participant. Those who need more than that number can buy them from those who use less than that number of permits.

Versions of cap-and-trade vary in how the permits are given out, who is participating, what the cap is, and how the cap changes over time. The system has the advantage of providing extra funding to those who reduce their emissions, and cap-and-trade has been used to good effect, both to fight climate change and to fight acid rain. The system can be difficult to set up and monitor, though.

Both types of carbon pricing can even be used together.

But if carbon pricing is such a good idea, why isn’t it being used on a national or international scale to fight climate change?

I got online and searched for “why is a carbon tax bad” and “why is cap-and-trade bad.” And, wouldn’t you know it, most of the hits on the first page were from energy companies or the Heartland Institute, which is funded largely by energy companies. The bulk of the remainder were from newspapers apparently reporting on the controversy. One pro-climate article explained that carbon pricing alone wouldn’t solve the problem, but the author did not object to carbon pricing being one of the options tried. Another pro-climate article ended up being a formal refutation of criticism of carbon feeds—in order words, actually pro-carbon pricing.

No major, credible environmental organization seems to have come out against carbon pricing—and some have come out very much for it. If you have vague, negative associations with carbon pricing, chances seem good that you have been exposed to propaganda paid for by the fossil fuel industry.

The fact of the matter is any effective form of climate action, including, quite definitely, carbon pricing (either form) is going to require that fossil fuel companies eventually find a different line of work or go out of business.

They don’t want to do that.

But the important thing to understand is that carbon pricing does not create a cost that doesn’t otherwise exist. Instead, these schemes make existing costs visible to the economy so we can think clearly about who should bear the costs and how. The other important thing to think about is that maintaining the economic status quo is not an option. Climate change itself will eventually dramatically alter our way of life if we don’t alter ourselves first. The wealthy will likely continue to be able to insulate themselves from those changes for a long time, while the poor and disenfranchised have begun bearing the costs of climate destabilization already.

In other words, somebody is going to pay either way.