Tag Archives: global warming

What the 2014 US Midterm Elections Do and Don’t Mean for Climate


 


 

 


Almost everything you read about what the 2014 midterm elections results “mean” will be wrong.


The results are being over-interpreted

This was always going to be true. It has been the case for every election in recent memory, with pundits careening from pronouncements of permanent Democratic supermajorities, to the the triumphant ascendancy of the Tea Party and back again. Not coincidentally, Presidential election years are typically oversold in terms of Democratic ideas’ strength, while mid-term elections are oversold in terms of support for Republicans.

Regardless of the specific details of the election, the fundamental composition of the electorate was always going to make for a bloodbath for the Democrats. Midterm election demographics favor Republicans. Midterm elections almost always significantly “punish” the party that holds the White House. The Senate seats that happened to be up this year were the most heavily-GOP favoring since WWII.

the Democrats under-performed relative to the polls (but not as badly as people will claim)

They did so by about 4 points. Which sounds like a huge percentage given the relatively tight races, but keep in mind the median “skew” for midterm elections is 3 points. Democrats were hoping for the polls to be wrong, and they were, just not in the way that they hoped. The Republicans did well, but not nearly to the degree that the talking heads will assert over the next few months.

People are soured on government generally, but aren’t embracing conservative policies.

When it comes to generalities- i.e. how is Obama doing, how is the country doing, how is government doing- this election could be seen as a triumph for conservatism. But when you actually look at the support for policy specifics, Democratic positions do about as well or even better than expected.

On immigration, abortion, marijuana legalization, gay marriage, etc. the ostensible refutation of Democratic policies is nowhere to be found. On climate change, a sizable majority say it’s a serious problem:

The exit polls show just over half of voters think the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals, a Republican mantra. About two-thirds feel the nation is seriously off on the wrong track — slightly more than thought that when Republicans won control of the House in 2010.

But on some issues, most voters took positions that align more with the Democratic Party.

A majority favor offering immigrants who are in the country illegally a way to stay. A little more than half think abortion ought to be legal in most cases, and most of the voters consider climate change a serious problem.

Nearly two-thirds think the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy, a common theme among Democratic candidates.

Health care complaints came from both sides. People who said health care is their top issue were about as likely to say Obama’s overhaul didn’t go far enough as to say it went too far. Overall, those people tended to vote Democratic.

People who said either immigration or foreign policy was their top issue tended to vote Republican.

That healthy majority might be surprising given the composition of midterms voters and the unabated partisan divide on the issue:

Obama will almost assuredly approve Keystone XL

I think Obama was always going to approve the controversial pipeline. The question was how he was going to do it while selling it as something other than a big “fuck you” to the Democratic base. Like privatizing education, blaming minorities for the consequences of decades of institutionalized racism, and confusing airstrikes with some sort of imagined “toughness”, there is a strong anti-hippie streak among the Very Serious People who inhabit Washington, DC, and this includes a lot of people in Obama’s orbit (and perhaps Obama himself). The 2014 election will probably give him the political cover he needs, especially with the deluge of pro-Keystone op-eds that will inevitably follow last nights results.

The wrong lessons will be learned

More than anything else, this election was about the economy. Not the top-line GDP figures, but how voters perceived their own economic situation. The US thankfully passed some measure of stimulus rather than following much of Europe into economically-ignorant austerity, but it was too small. While the Obama administration has revised history to say that no one could have known it was too small at the time, in fact there were knowledgeable experts who made their concerns clear as events were unfolding. We have an economy in recovery, but it’s happening achingly slowly. Moreover, the gains are being concentrated among the wealthiest, while the middle and lower classes still feel left out in the cold. And they voted accordingly.

At a time when more stimulus is needed, we will see calls for more austerity. At a time when the only national action on climate is happening through federal agencies, we will see those efforts undermined and those agencies strangled. At a time when income inequality is rampant, we will see calls for tax cuts for the wealthiest and deregulation of the financial institutions that caused the economic crisis in the first place. At a time of strong Latino support for a comprehensive path to legal immigration, we will see calls for token “reforms” at best.

People will blame Obama for things that happened under Bush, and will credit the new Republican Congress for the continuation of positive trends initiated by Obama.

Climate action will happen between the US and China, if it happens at all

For quite a while, the Obama administration has been seeking to achieve bilateral agreements on climate issues with China, side-stepping the UNFCCC process and domestic legislation in the US. This election won’t change that. US pundits have been quick to say that climate will be the big loser in this election, but there was never any real chance of comprehensive climate legislation being passed by the next Congress, even in the unlikely event that the Democrats had maintained their majority. What progress will be made- if any- towards emissions stabilization will take place through direct negotiations between the Obama administration and the big emitters in the developing world like China.

Here are some puppies yawning, for those in despair

Stolen from r/aww_gifs

Credit Where Credit Is Due: Jon Huntsman Edition

Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman has been earning some praise and concern for sending this reality-based tweet yesterday. Praise from those of us who wish desperately that science will not become a victim of the GOP’s identity politics. Concern from many who believe it already is, and that this effectively has ended Huntsman’s campaign.

While the beltway press seems to be obsessing over the antics of Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman, Huntsman has been flying more or less under the radar. For those who wish to know a little more about Huntsman, you could do worse than this recent Vogue profile.

As I said over at Kloor’s, it’s a sad day when politicians have to be applauded for mild acceptance of mainstream science, but applauded they should be.

Rumors of cap and trade’s demise have been greatly exaggerated

Image courtesy of Flickr user Bernt Rostad

The world’s 8th largest economy is going to enact a cap and trade program to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Apparently they didn’t get the memo that cap and trade is “dead”.

Fox “News” demands employees spread disinformation about warming

Media Matters has the story.

Long story short, after someone at Fox made the mistake of reporting the reality that we’re in a warming trend, a memo was sent out that betrays both Fox’s scientific illiteracy (calling the instrumental record “theories”, really?) and its dedication to ensuring conservatives remain deluded about what’s going on in the world around them:

From: Sammon, Bill
To: 169 -SPECIAL REPORT; 036 -FOX.WHU; 054 -FNSunday; 030 -Root (FoxNews.Com); 050 -Senior Producers; 051 -Producers; 069 -Politics; 005 -Washington
Cc: Clemente, Michael; Stack, John; Wallace, Jay; Smith, Sean
Sent: Tue Dec 08 12:49:51 2009
Subject: Given the controversy over the veracity of climate change data…

…we should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.

For a different- intelligent- perspective on what it means to be a journalist covering scientific issues and the idea of “choosing sides”, see Ed Yong’s articulate and inspiring call to arms:

Science journalism is a fundamentally different beast to, say, political reporting. Here, there is an objective truth. The MMR vaccine either causes autism or it doesn’t (it doesn’t). The world was either fashioned by a Creator or it wasn’t (it wasn’t).

… [T]his is about taking sides with truth. It’s about being knowledgeable enough to make a decent stab at uncovering the truth and presenting the outcomes of that quest to one’s readers, even if that outcome lies firmly on one side of a “debate”.

And obviously, the planet is either warming or it isn’t (it is). It’s not irresponsible to report facts as facts. What Fox demands of its employees is the opposite- to cast doubt on things that aren’t even in question in the scientific community due to the organization’s function as a Republican political propaganda organ.

“Cool It” yourselves

Since it looks like it’s going to be wall-to-wall Lomborg in the press for a while, it’s probably worth reviewing why he is not only not taken seriously by many people actually concerned about climate change, but why a great many people actively dislike him. It’s not that he proposes “alternatives” to mitigation efforts like cap-and-trade, although he would certainly love for people to believe that.

It’s because he presents himself as someone credible, someone who isn’t a climate denialist- i.e. he proclaims to accept the reality of anthropogenic warming and to consider it a serious threat. But as anyone who has dealt with denialism knows, few if any people in the grips of denialism actually consider themselves to be denialists. There are plenty of “intelligent design” proponents who claim not to reject biology but rather believe that key aspects of evolution are overstated (e.g. irreducible complexity). Many anti-vax denialists claim to support vaccines but only want to “make them safer/greener”.

It’s not so much what someone professes to believe that determines whether or not they’re engaging in denialism, but the way they misrepresent evidence.

And Lomborg has quite a history of doing just that. Let’s take a look at just three such cases:

On polar bears:

Lomborg has frequently and grossly misrepresented scientific data and literature on polar bears and other aspects of climate change.

He has claimed that the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment says polar bears have nothing to worry about, they’ll just devolve into brown bears:

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment finds it likely that disappearing ice will make polar bears take up “a terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.”

The implication is that polar bears aren’t actually threatened by (anthropogenic warming-induced) sea ice decline, because they can just go back to acting like brown bears and everything will be fine. It sounds ludicrous, so much so that an an interviewer for Salon.com asked Lomborg if that is actually what he was claiming. Lomborg made it crystal clear that it was, and that it was his genuine understanding of the Impact Assessment report:

Salon: Are you saying that polar bears will be OK, that the species will survive if they evolve backward?

Lomborg: Yes, that’s certainly how I read it.

But the Impact Assessment said no such thing. Sea ice decline presents a dire, possibly fatal threat to polar bears. In a summer ice-free Arctic, there is no “okay” scenario. Polar bears face demise or might eke out a grim survival among threats from other species of bears and humans. The Impact Assessment states:

It is difficult to envisage the survival of polar bears as a species given a zero summer sea-ice scenario. Their only option would be a terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved. In such a case, competition, risk of hybridization with brown bears and grizzly bears, and increased interactions with people would then number among the threats to polar bears.

Far from representing a scenario in which polar bears are “okay” living like brown bears, the Impact Assessment presented it as a last hope, fraught with major threats of its own.

In good company with many other climate denialists, Lomborg has also tried to give the impression that polar bears aren’t really in danger from anthropogenic warming because their populations are increasing, not decreasing.

He does by citing historic population levels at 5,000 in the 1960s and present numbers at 25,000. He conveniently omits population estimates that put historic numbers at 18,000-20,000 and the present numbers as low as 20,000. In other words, given the spread of the estimates, it’s possible to cherry-pick numbers that give you anything from no increase whatsoever, to a modest increase, to a monstrous increase of 20,000 bears. Lomborg chooses the latter, without justification for doing so or informing his audience of the full range of estimates.

But suppose we ignore this blatant cherry picking. According to Lomborg’s numbers, had polar bears been recovering from a low brought about by unregulated hunting? Yes. Does this recovery mean that they aren’t threatened by global warming? No.

Or, characterized this way by UCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group Chair, Andrew Derocher:

The various presentations of biased reporting ignore, or are ignorant of, the different reasons for changes in populations. If I thought that there were more bears now than 50 years ago and a reasonable basis to assume this would not change, then no worries. This is not the case.

The bottom line here is that it is an apples and oranges issue. The early estimates of polar bear abundance are a guess. There is no data at all for the 1950-60s. Nothing but guesses. We are sure the populations were being negatively affected by excess harvest (e.g., aircraft hunting, ship hunting,self-killing guns, traps, and no harvest limits). The harvest levels were huge and growing. The resulting low numbers of bears were due only to excess harvest but, again, it was simply a guess as to the number of bears….

Comparing declines caused by harvest followed by recovery from harvest controls to declines from loss of habitat and climate warming are apples and oranges. Ignorant people write ignorant things.

Derocher is saying that such claims (even granting their numbers) are at heart a combination of two forms of fallacious reasoning, the cherry pick (polar bear populations are increasing during a certain interval) and the non sequitur (therefore they are not threatened by anthropogenic warming). The claim that polar bear populations are rising only holds true because the period is selected to begin at a low point brought about by unregulated hunting. Once hunting restrictions were put in place, populations had begun returning to their historic norms.

However, that does not mean that polar bear populations are increasing across the board. The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group found in 2005 (well before the 2007 publication of “Cool It!”) that of the 19 polar bear subpopulations, only 2 were increasing, while 5 were flat and 5 more were actually in decline (there were insufficient data for the remaining 7). Relative to their historic levels, only 6 subpopulations were believed to be “not reduced” while 6 were “reduced” or “severely reduced” (there were insufficient data for the remaining 7).

(In case anyone is curious, in 2009 the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group found that only “1 of 19 subpopulations is currently increasing” while “3 are stable and 8 are declining” with insufficient data for the remaining 7.)

Lomborg does not appear to have corrected or retracted his claims.

[Edited to add: this of course doesn't even get into the discrepancies between Lomborg's "don't worry" attitude and the scientific literature on projected polar bear population trends as sea ice declines. I may add that in later.]

On sea level rise:

Lomborg also has a nasty habit of claiming that sea level isn’t rising as fast (or at all!) as mainstream climate science believes. To do so, he picks whichever start and end points he can to get the smallest trend in sea level rise.

Writing in the Guardian in March 2009, Stefan Rahmstorf exposed Lomborg’s cherry-picking as the dishonest misrepresentation that it was:

Why does Lomborg cite the trend [2005-2008 1.6mm/year]? Last October, he cited that of the previous two years. Why now four years? Because the trend of the past two years (2007-2008) is now + 3.7 mm/year? It is even worse. The trend since the beginning of any year of the data series varies between 1.6 mm/year and 9.0 mm/year, depending on the start year chosen. Using 2005, Lomborg cherry-picked the by far lowest.

Sound familiar? This kind of dishonesty is all the more reprehensible because Lomborg is (was?) an associate professor of statistics! This isn’t the naive error of someone acting in good faith, it’s entirely, despicably deliberate.

On Global Temperatures:

In much the same way that Lomborg is fond of misrepresenting polar population dynamics and sea level rise, he also enjoys misleading the public about global warming’s most well-known symptom: rising temperatures. It’s occasionally claimed that while there is political disagreement about what to do about global warming, no credible scientist or policy wonk actually doubts that the planet is warming. Judging by surveys of scientists and statements by various governmental organizations, that’s probably broadly true.

And then, there’s Lomborg:

It is hard to keep up the climate panic as reality diverges from the alarmist predictions more than ever before: the global temperature has not risen over the past ten years, it has declined precipitously in the last year and a half, and studies show that it might not rise again before the middle of the next decade.

This was Lomborg writing about cooling back in 2008, as we were experiencing a fairly strong La Niña. Cooling! No warming since 1998! Claims at home in the comments section of the most ignorant and paranoid of climate denialist blogs (or George Will columns).

Most people relatively conversant with major features of the climate system, let alone “climate experts” holding international conferences and writing books on the subject, are aware that La Niñas don’t equal global cooling. In case there was some confusion about the La Niña and the appearance of a lack of warming among the general public, climate institutions like Met Hadley and others had handy pages explaining that, no we weren’t cooling several months prior to Lomborg’s claim.

Lomborg (like other denialists) was simply taking one slice of time (1998-2008) out of a much larger data set- without any attempt at justification- to get the results he wanted- results in complete opposition to what a serious examination of the data would show, requiring an ignorance of basic physics, meteorology, and statistics to believe.

A Question for Journalists:

What is it about Lomborg that allows you to engage in collective amnesia about his dishonesty? Have you forgotten that people like Kåre Fog and Howard Friel (not to mention the blogosphere) have exposed him for what he is?

And here we go

According to Science Insider:

Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX) has staked his claim to the chairmanship of the House Science and Technology Committee

Hall announced his intention to run the Committee while saying:

We must also conduct strong oversight over this Administration in key areas including climate change, scientific integrity, energy research and development (R&D), cybersecurity, and science education. Over the past few years the unprecedented growth of the Federal government and the creation of multiple new and duplicative programs occurred without having first assessed the effectiveness and success of existing programs.

Let the show trials begin!

Hall’s current position on climate change is utterly predictable:

I am alarmed that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Obama Administration are forging ahead before Congress has finalized any legislation, and are taking further steps to promote Federal regulations of carbon dioxide. There is growing concern and evidence that scientific data, from which global warming theories emerged, has been manipulated, enhanced or deleted. The IPCC data was used by the EPA as part of the data that went into their endangerment finding. This is especially problematic since the endangerment finding will most likely be used as the basis for a regulatory regime in the U.S.

Recent events have uncovered extensive evidence from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in England, which involved many researchers across the globe discussing the destruction, alteration and suppression of data that did not support global warming claims. Leaked email exchanges detail attempts to alter data that is the basis of climate modeling. These exchanges reveal actions that constitute a serious breach of scientific ethics.

Regulations based on the EPA’s endangerment finding could undermine economic growth and destroy American jobs. It is irresponsible for the Federal government to tax energy consumption and put more Americans out of work.

According to OpenCongress, Hall was “one of the largest recipients of oil money” during 2000-2008, and “voted in favor of big oil companies on 82% of important oil-related bills from 2005-2007″. He received a score of 0 during each of the last three Congressional sessions from the League of Conservation Voters.

Bonus Trivia Fact [Via Wiki]: Hall “is the oldest serving member of the House of Representatives and the oldest member of either House of Congress.”

Pre-emptively debunking the coming “La Niña equals ‘global cooling’” meme

Back in early August, I noticed a rather curious claim from Roger Pielke Sr. [insertions and emphases mine]:

We are, also, of course, at the time of the year in Russia with the warmest temperatures at these levels. [ed. note: i.e. "summer"] However, the absolute temperatures will soon start to fall both in Russia [ed. note: i.e. "winter"] and globally (i.e. we will have global cooling for the next 6 months or so) . If global warming (as diagnosed by an annual global average) was a more-or-less linear accumulation of heat, than the heat accumulated (as a positive temperature anomaly) in the lower troposphere must remain in the coming months. The regional anomaly in Russia, of course, can be displaced to other locations.

We will  follow this analysis in the coming months, as we have a valuable test as to whether global warming in the annual average is progressively continuing or if natural (or human) climate forcings and feedbacks provides higher than average cooling in the coming months.

Let me set the stage.

At the time, Moscow’s environs looked like a holocaust, Pakistan was flooding, we were experiencing record temperatures globally, and people finally seemed to be recognizing that leaked emails and some IPCC errors didn’t mean that global warming was a hoax.

The 12 month record global temperatures were reached in no small part due to an El Niño boost atop the underlying anthropogenic warming signal. But already, we had transitioned to La Niña conditions and forecasts we being made for the La Niña to prevail for at least several months . And just as El Niños bump the globally averaged temp up, La Niñas bring them down.

ENSO is the one of the dominant drivers of interannual temperature variance. This has been and remains true even as anthropogenic warming marches on (though ENSO’s relative importance might somewhat decrease as unchecked warming progresses). We should expect a significantly strong La Niña to not only temporarily counterbalance, but even overwhelm underlying the anthropogenic warming signal. This in no way means that the planet will not continue to warm to a higher equilibrium due to the build up of GHGs in the atmosphere.

Clearly, a La Niña could push global temps down from their record highs, and if strong enough, would even push them temporarily below average. It happened in 2008, after all, and yet here we were in August 2010 with record temperatures. Pielke hadn’t claimed that 2008 represented a falsification of global warming (to the best of my knowledge). Yet in August he was saying something suspiciously like that. Was I misreading him? It was such a blatant cherry-picking excercise I thought I must have somehow misunderstood him. I sent a few emails noting his post [one saying: “The developing La Niña is almost sure to cause ‘higher than average cooling in the coming months.’ Who [knew] how easy it was to falsify this silly “global warming” nonsense?”] and more or less forgot about it.

Then I’m pointed to this post, in which Pielke not only reiterates his intent to cherry-pick the La Niña as evidence against warming, but adds the twist that it will somehow be positive evidence for some as-of-yet-undiscovered negative feedback in the climate system:

What is very interesting in this latest analysis is that almost the entire globe has above average lower tropospheric temperatures. If this persists while we are in a La Niña pattern (when we expect cooling) it will provide strong support for those who expect a long term warming to occur as a result of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. On the other hand, if the temperatures cool to average or below average over large portions of the globe, this would indicate that the climate has a self regulation which mutes temperature excursions.

I couldn’t believe it. ENSO will continue to drive short term variation atop the underlying anthropogenic warming signal. The multivariate ENSO index is showing this current La Niña to be stronger than the one from 2008.

If it persists (currently forecast to do so at least until Spring 2011), we can and should expect a drop to average or possibly even below average lower troposphere temps for a little while. And if/when we do, that is hardly a falsification of enhanced greenhouse warming or positive evidence of some sort of self-stabilizing climatic negative feedback. If we don’t (although it might be unexpected) that isn’t in and of itself “proof” of anthropogenic warming. (Were it actually true, by Pielke’s own standards we’d already have “proven” global warming, as La Niña conditions first developed in May-June and global temperatures have remained above average for the interim five months.)

I’m open to the possibility that I’m simply reading Pielke wrong. It’s certainly possible. But I’m also a little hesitant to unduly extend the benefit of the doubt to someone who claimed that Arctic sea ice conditions over the past several years show there has been no recent decline. So rather than wait until a neutral or below average UAH lower troposphere temperature reading, I thought I might as well get out in front of this one.

UPDATE: Like clockwork.