Monday, November 30, 2009

Hacked CRU Emails: Smoking Gun or a Shot in the Dark?

Computer Code, via The Matrix

In case you haven't heard by now, a week ago the world's leading institutions of climate research, the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in the UK, was infiltrated by computer hackers.

Soon information from the hacked emails leaked its way onto the internet (first on The Air Vent, a blog devoted to climate skepticism) and ignited the blogosphere. Since then climate skeptics have had a field day, using certain information from the hacked correspondence between premier climate scientists as proof that climate change is an international conspiracy. This incident may have finally unleashed the tension that has been building for months as the UN Climate Change Conference approaches (it begins a week from today, on December 7th in Copenhagen, Denmark).

Opponents to climate legislation have pointed to a few key phrases and to support their claims of climate conspiracy. Juliet Eilperin identified contentious content in this Washington Post article:

In one e-mail from 1999, the center's [CRU] director, Phil Jones, alludes to one of [Michael E.] Mann's articles in the journal Nature and writes, "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e., from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."

The words "trick" and "hide the decline" are particularly troublesome. But Andrew Revkin of the New York Times reports further:

Dr. Mann, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, confirmed in an interview that the e-mail message was real. He said the choice of words by his colleague was poor but noted that scientists often used the word “trick” to refer to a good way to solve a problem, “and not something secret.”

The folks over at RealClimate, a blog produced by climate scientists and perhaps one of the most interesting and professional climate blogs out there, also responded to the CRU hack (excerpts below, but I highly recommend you read the full post):

More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords. The truly paranoid will put this down to the hackers also being in on the plot though.

Instead, there is a peek into how scientists actually interact and the conflicts show that the community is a far cry from the monolith that is sometimes imagined. People working constructively to improve joint publications; scientists who are friendly and agree on many of the big picture issues, disagreeing at times about details and engaging in ‘robust’ discussions; Scientists expressing frustration at the misrepresentation of their work in politicized arenas and complaining when media reports get it wrong; Scientists resenting the time they have to take out of their research to deal with over-hyped nonsense. None of this should be shocking.

Despite these explanations, it is easy to see why these comments have sparked controversy, especially for those who have been hunting for cracks in the climate edifice for years...

At a time when Climate Skeptic in Chief, Senator James Inhofe (R - OK), dubbed 2009 "The Year of the Skeptic" because of Congress's inability to pass comprehensive climate legislation and the subsequent decline in the expectation for what can be realistically achieved in Copenhagen next week (This is a separate issue entirely, profiled here), the CRU hack comes as another blow to the climate movement. Watch Inhofe's personal message to Senator Barbara Boxer (D - CA) below (Inhofe is the senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Boxer the senior Democrat):

Inhofe has since called for an investigation into what he calls a manipulation of climate research, saying, "The stakes in this controversy are significant, as it appears that the basis of federal programs, pending E.P.A. rulemakings, and cap-and-trade legislation was contrived and fabricated."

Finally, in this eloquent and provocative article, Mark Lynas of The Guardian explains why this incident represents a "dangerous shift in climate denial strategy" and his colleague George Marshall describes how public trust in scientists as unbiased and objective communicators has been tarnished.

Oh, and just how heated has the discussion gotten? Watch actor-environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. spar with Fox News host Stuart Varney:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Michael Pollan's Secret Remedy

In the video above, Michael Pollan makes the connection between the energy crisis, health care reform, and climate change (although he presents them as separate issues, I would argue that energy and climate can be considered two symptoms of the same problem). What is the thread that ties these issues - some of the most significant challenges of our time - together? The answer is deceptively simple: Food.

Pollan, author of the award-winning book The Omnivore's Dilemma, has made quite a name for himself investigating the complexities, hypocrisy, and corruption of the corporate food system in the United States (Click here for David Kamp's brilliant synopsis of the book from the New York Times Book Review). As the way we produce food in this country becomes more industrialized, Pollan writes, the distance our meal travels from farm to dinner plate becomes longer and more convoluted. And when we lose sight of where our food comes from, we also lose sight of the value of what we use to fuel our bodies (leading to cultural, nutritional, and environmental problems).

In light of this basic explanation of Pollan's work, I pose the following questions: Is it possible to kill three birds with one stone? Is it possible to solve the energy crisis, alleviate the burden on our health care system, and mitigate the effects of climate change by reforming the way we produce, distribute, and consume food in this country?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Complexity is No Excuse for Complacency

We've screwed up. Big time. If this Guardian article is correct, and US lawmakers have really given up hope of going to Copenhagen ready to commit to strict, binding climate change legislation, we've made a very grave mistake.

According to the article, Todd Stern, the State Department's Special Envoy for Climate Change, said, "It doesn't look like [a treaty is] on the cards for December." He offered instead that negotiators were intent on producing a blueprint in Copenhagen that would lead to a binding legal agreement "perhaps next year or as soon as possible."

I'm sorry Mr. Stern, but that is simply not good enough.

US participation at Copenhagen is the keystone of the success of the climate treaty - without bold US support, negotiations will surely fall apart. As is the case in most international negotiations, world leaders look to the United States to set the precedent for action (see how countries compare on their climate positions here). As troubling as this reality may be, it makes perfect sense. Why should other nations commit to emissions standards when the richest country, which also happens to be the world's second-largest producer of greenhouse gasses, refuses to? And as we have already witnessed during the preliminary climate meetings in Barcelona last week, leaders of developing nations are prepared to oppose any negotiations in which developed countries do not promote strict emissions standards.

Given the current US attitude, whatever comes out of Copenhagen this December will at best become another Kyoto Protocol: an international climate treaty (December 1997) that the US refused to ratify and it was thus rendered largely ineffective. Below is the map of countries who ratified the Kyoto treaty (green) and the only one who didn't (red):

To put it bluntly (from the Guardian):

The US shift resets expectations for what will be accomplished at Copenhagen, once billed by the UN as a last chance to avoid catastrophic global warming.

We're the game changers. We're the movers and the shakers. We're the country all other countries look to for guidance and direction, and through our indecision and delay we've let down the international community (not to mention slapped all of these people in the face).

Speaking in Barcelona, Artur Runge-Metzger, the European Commission's chief negotiator, said: "It is a Catch-22 situation. People are waiting for each other so it is difficult to blame anyone. [But] the US position is significant. Clearly the US has been slowing things down." It's as if world leaders are all standing around looking at one another to take the first, definitive step forward. Not only has the US demonstrated an unwillingness to step forward: we've taken a step back.

For Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's Minister for Climate and Energy and COP15 President, failure is not an option:

“If the whole world comes to Copenhagen and leaves without making the needed political agreement, then I think it’s a failure that is not just about climate. Then it’s the whole global democratic system not being able to deliver results in one of the defining challenges of our century. And that is and should not be a possibility. It’s not an option."

She eloquently and accurately frames what is at stake in the video below:

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) said the reduced role for Copenhagen could work out to the world's advantage by giving America, China, and the international community more time to co-ordinate their efforts. But as Hedegaard says, complexity is no excuse for complacency. Just because climate change is a terrifyingly complicated issue, that doesn't mean it's okay to postpone negotiations. In some ways the damage has already been done - we may very well have sacrificed a unique opportunity to form a global pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by failing to work on this issue domestically in the past year. Of course it is possible for other countries to pick up the banner and propose tough emissions standards in December, but without US support the treaty will fail to mark considerable progress.