Blue Marble - February 2010

Fixing the IPCC

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 6:00 PM EST

Criticizing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been a favorite pasttime of climate skeptics since it was first formed more than two decades ago. But the panel and its leader have been under seige in recent weeks among even some mainstream scientists, especially after it became clear that the last assessment report contained some sloppy errors on the Himalayan glaciers. Participants in the IPCC process are now calling for a major makeover of the panel—or for it to be scrapped altogether.

The new issue of the journal Nature features a section of opinion pieces from scientists on the future of the panel, "IPCC: cherish it, tweak it or scrap it?" Recommendations range from doing away with panel's current system of using volunteer authors and instead hiring a full-time, paid staff, to establishing a Wikipedia-style forum where scientists can exchange ideas and information. "The IPCC needs a complete overhaul. The structure and process are past their sell-by dates," writes Mike Hulme, a professor at Britain’s University of East Anglia and lead author of IPCC reports.

Hulme writes that it is irrational to expect a single panel to create an exhaustive, integrated report on all the relevent climate-change knowledge. Instead, he suggests getting rid of the IPCC after the next assessment, expected in 2014, and replacing it with new and more focused groups of experts. One group would have members selected by national academies of science that look at the physical science, and then there would be five to ten regional groups that look at the local fallout from warming temperatures, and so on.

 

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Hump Smarter: Endangered Species are Watching

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 8:00 AM EST

Just in time for Valentine's Day, the Center for Biological Diversity on Thursday launched a new Endangered Species Condom campaign, to encourage safe sex while raising awareness about overpopulation and the toll humans take on other species. "Extinction is Forever: Wear a Condom," read the boxes, which contain otherwise unexciting Lifestyles condoms.

I'm not sure if the imminent destruction of a species is what one wants to be thinking of while getting in the mood for love, but hey, they're educational. In addition to highlighting how funny the term "jimmy hat" is, they also provide a reminder of some oft-overlooked endangered critters, like the snail darter and the coquí guajón rock frog. Some instantly classic slogans:

"Wear a jimmy hat, save the big cat."
"Cover your tweedle, save the burying beetle."
"Wear a condom now, save the spotted owl."
"Hump smarter, save the snail darter."
"Use a stopper, save the hopper."
"Wrap with care, save the polar bear."

Even with funny slogans, the campaign has a serious goal. CBD explains:

At 6.8 billion people, the human race is not only the most populous large mammal on Earth but the most populous large mammal that has ever existed. Providing for the needs and wants of this many people — especially those in high-consumption, first-world nations — has pushed homo sapiens to absorb 50 percent of the planet’s freshwater and develop 50 percent of its landmass. As a result, other species are running out of places to live.

CBD says they will have 3,000 volunteers handing out 100,000 condoms in all 50 states for the holiday. I hope they send some to Washington, DC, where apparently our snowpacalypse has caused a shortage.

Eco-News Roundup: Thursday February 11

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 1:55 PM EST

Enhancement or Insanity?: From boob jobs to sex pills, the lengths we'll go for physical perfection.

Red Bull Gives You Crazy: Can the energy drink trigger pathological mood swings?

"I drank a bottle of shampoo!" : Outrageous excuses given by athletes accused of steroid use.

Snowboxalypse Now: Hey, GOP—Just because it snows, doesn't mean there's no climate change.

Do you know what "nutritious" means?: Kraft's "wholesome and nutritious" lunches are chock-full of sugar and preservatives.

Salt Attack: The war on sodium.

Reading Tea Leaves: The latest health care reform poll reveals hope for the bill's passage...and consequences if it doesn't.

Health Care Poker: Is the bipartisan health care reform summit an Obama bluff?

The Economist's Bizarre Claim: An unsupported assertion about health care reform.

Climate Bill Snowed Under?

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 12:51 PM EST

The blizzard on the East Coast has dumped several feet of silliness on D.C., as Republicans rush to exploit the record snowfall as evidence that global warming doesn't exist.

The Virginia GOP is running ads taunting Democratic Reps. Rick Boucher and Tom Periello because they "think global warming is a serious problem for Virginia." South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint declared via Twitter that "It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries 'uncle.'" And the family of Jim Inhofe, the Republican Senator from Oklahoma famed for declaring global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," built a giant igloo on Capitol Hill with a sign reading "Al Gore's New Home."

And the silliness isn't limited to Republicans: The news media has lent credibility to these attacks. Check out this New York Times piece which presents the squabbling over the snowstorm as a he-said-she-said debate between climate change denialist Sen. Jim Inhofe on the one hand and, well, actual climate scientists on the other. 

Eco Double Speak in Brazil

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 12:50 PM EST

To meet its lofty 2020 goals for biofuel production, Brazil will need to make some difficult choices that pit conservation against biomass. But Brazil denies that it will have to make such a choice, arguing that the uptick in biofuels will have a minimal impact on deforestation.

Not so fast, says a new paper in Proceedings in the Natural Academy of Sciences, which argues that Brazil understates the impact a biofuel increase will have on the country that is already responsible for twenty percent of the world's deforestation.

This is exactly consistent with the conservation methods promoted by the Brazilian government so far. Brazil preserves 50,000 acres in the Atlantic forest against deforestation, but displaces indigenous people in the process. Brazil promotes a hydro-electric dam saying that no indigenous people will be directly displaced. Tell that to the 12,000 people indirectly affected. And in this most recent move, Brazil will endanger the Amazon in order to meet its 2020 biofuel quota.

pHarmony: Dating for Polluters

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 10:30 AM EST

Greenpeace's PolluterWatch imagines a match-making service for legislators and lobbyists, mocking the help that Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) received from from dirty-energy lobbyists in her efforts to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases.

"Lisa's profile really jumped out at me: willing to ravage the environment, desperate for cash, able to justify her actions with ease," says an actor portraying lobbyist and former Bush-administration official Jeff Holmstead. "And I thought to myself, 'Perfect for me.'"

pHarmony: Just in time for Valentine's Day.

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A Climate Pact in 2010? Eh, Maybe.

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 6:42 PM EST

It's been two months since the climate summit at Copenhagen sputtered to a finish without producing a binding treaty to tackle global warming. Now, United States climate envoy Todd Stern is downplaying hopes that this year's summit in Mexico will produce a treaty, either.

Stern avoided stating outright that a legally binding agreement on climate change is possible this year. "I hope that we can get to a full legal treaty in December, but I'm not going to make any predictions one way or the other," he said at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday. "I'm also not going to fall into the trap of saying if it's not that, we've got a failure."

Instead, Stern said, it's important that "strong progress be made" and "pragmatic steps" taken. He added that the public expectations before the Copenhagen summit "were quite elevated beyond what was going on on the ground," and warned against raising expectations too high for the next summit.

As we reported in December, the future of the last-minute accord at Copenhagen is not yet clear. Leaders of a small group of countries—the US, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa—negotiated a political deal outside the normal protocols of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was not formally adopted by member states; instead, countries can voluntarily "associate" with the accord. The deadline for doing so was Jan. 31, though that deadline wasn't really enforced. So far 95 countries out of 192 have associated with the agreement.

Stern expressed hope that other nations would sign on eventually. "I do believe that they will sign on to the accord because the consequences of not doing so are so serious," he said. But he also observed that the commitments from some countries remain "ambiguous," and that China, India, and some other countries are trying to "limit the impact" of the deal. Yet it's hard to see how commitments could be construed as much more ambiguous than those of the US, which has pledged to cut emissions "in the range of 17%, in conformity with anticipated U.S. energy and climate legislation, recognizing that the final target will be reported to the Secretariat in light of enacted legislation."

Stern also dismissed the suggestion that the US Congress' failure to pass a domestic climate law played a major role in the outcome of the summit. "I don't think that our situation was a core problem, if you will, last year," he said. Still, the chances of a bill passing the Senate this year seem to grow bleaker by the day. And if there was one lesson that Copenhagen made clear, it was the absence of trust among the most important players in the negotiations that the US and other major emitters will actually make good on their promises.

Fingerprinting Arctic Mercury

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 6:36 PM EST

A paper in Nature Geoscience offers new insight into what happens to mercury deposited on Arctic snow from the atmosphere.

About 2,000 tons of mercury enter the environment each year from coal-burning power plants, incinerators and chlorine-producing plants. As a gas, mercury isn't that reactive and can float in the atmosphere for a year or more. But once oxidized, via sunlight and (usually) bromine, it becomes highly reactive. Deposited onto land or water, converted by microorganisms into highly-toxic methylmercury, it's then biomagnified through higher trophic levels of the foodweb.

The new research reveals the pathways in the Arctic. Mercury remains gaseous through the dark winter, since there's no sunlight to oxidize it and not much bromine to catalyze it. But in the spring, sea ice breaks apart and allows water vapor carrying bromine from the sea to rise as clouds. Bromine in the atmosphere interacts with sunlight to convert gaseous mercury into reactive mercury. The activated mercury then sticks to snowflakes and ice crystals in the air and falls to the surface as snow.

This causes a seasonal mercury depletion event. Normally steady atmospheric mercury levels quickly drop to nearly nothing. Meanwhile mercury concentrations on the snow's surface rise to extremely high levels. Joel Blum, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Geological Sciences, told U Michigan:

"When we first started observing these events, we didn't know how much of that mercury returned back to the atmosphere, so the high level of mercury in snow was a great concern. But the more we learned, the more we realized that the sunlight shining on the snow typically will cause much of the oxidized mercury to become reduced and return to the atmosphere as a gas. And it turns out that its re-release to the atmosphere has a striking "fingerprint' that we can use to study the progress of this reaction through time."

Using isotopic fractionation, the researchers can identify and estimate how much mercury is lost from the snowpack and how much remains with the snowpack, to potentially enter Arctic ecosystems. Any mercury not re-emitted to the air is likely to retain the unique fingerprint, aiding future researchers in tracking mercury through the polar north.

 

Exxon Still Sponsoring Deniers

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 2:37 PM EST

ExxonMobil is still funding groups that deny climate change, despite claiming last year that it had stopped doing so.

Reports the Independent:

Free-market, anti-climate change think-tanks such as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in the US and the International Policy Network in the UK have received grants totalling hundreds of thousands of pounds from the multinational energy company ExxonMobil. Both organisations have funded international seminars pulling together climate change deniers from across the globe.

Josh Harkinson reported on Atlas's role in the international climate change denier web in December, and Exxon topped our list of climate deniers in December. In fact, they've been the top source of climate-change-denier funding for some time, as  Chris Mooney reported for Mother Jones in 2005. Exxon gave Atlas $100,000 in 2008, according to the oil company's reports, and Atlas has in turn supported at least 30 other foreign think-tanks that spread climate change misinformation. A number of these groups have been at the forefront of efforts to flog the so-called ClimateGate issue, and are now leading assaults on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

ExxonMobil's response? "We have the same concerns as people everywhere—and that is how to provide the world with the energy it needs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions," the company said in a statement to the Independent. Yes, ExxonMobil, the fossil fuel-giant, is just like "people everywhere."

 

NYT's Skeptic Embrace

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 1:30 PM EST

"Skeptics Find Fault With U.N. Climate Panel," read the headline of a story on the front page of Tuesday's New York Times. The article was supposedly about criticism of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from "mainstream scientists." But the content of the article didn't provide evidence of such criticisms at all.

In fact, the article debunked one of the leading attacks on the head of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: that he's personally profiting from overhyping the threat of global warming. Way down in the 14th paragraph of the piece, the Times discloses that IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri had provided the paper with his tax return, which reveals that his work for the IPCC is not bringing in big bucks:

Dr. Pachauri, 69, said the only work income he received was a salary from the Energy and Resources Institute: about $49,000, according to his 2009 Indian tax return, which he provided to The New York Times. The return also lists $16,000 in other income, most of it interest on accounts in Indian banks.
Dr. Pachauri acknowledged his role as an adviser and consultant to businesses, but he said that it was his responsibility as the panel’s chairman to disseminate its findings to industry.

There's more later in the piece:

In response to the recent criticisms, Dr. Pachauri provided an accounting of some of his outside consulting fees paid to the Energy and Resources Institute. Those include about $140,000 from Deutsche Bank, $25,000 from Credit Suisse, $80,000 from Toyota and $48,750 from Yale. He has recently begun work as a strategic adviser for Pegasus, the investment firm, but has not yet attended a meeting, and no money has yet been paid to the Energy and Resources Institute. He has also provided advice free of charge to groups like the Chicago Climate Exchange.

The Times goes on to quote a number of well-known climate skeptics—not "mainstream scientists"—making baseless allegations about Pachauri personally profitting from his role, or that there are "willful" misrepresenations of science in the IPCC reports. There's Christopher Monckton, who lacks any shred of credibility, despite his continued appearances in the media. The story also describes Roger Pielke Jr. as a "mainstream" scientist. Pielke—by his own admission—is "not a climate scientist" (his doctorate is in political science.)

In fact, as Joe Romm points out, the piece never actually quotes a single climate scientist. The story doesn't actually deal with any new criticisms of the IPCC's science. Here's the real nugget of the story:

The panel, in reviewing complaints about possible errors in its report, has so far found that one was justified and another was "baseless." The general consensus among mainstream scientists is that the errors are in any case minor and do not undermine the report’s conclusions.

As I noted earlier this week, there are certainly fair criticisms to be made of the IPCC's sloppy work. And some critics have made reasonable suggestions of steps the organization could take to recover. But this New York Times piece doesn't deal with any of that.