Category Archives: sustainability

Climate Change Communication – The Up Goer Five Edition

Image courtesy of Flickr user “njtrout_2000”, used under Creative Commons.

Reddit has a sub-reddit called Explain Like I’m Five, where people are attempt to explain often complex topics in simple, easy to understand language. The “like I’m five” part is often unsuccessful, but the idea is great.

Via Chris Rowan, people in the geosciences on Twitter have been talking about xkcd doing something similar, with the Up Goer Five. Basically, the challenge was to explain a spacecraft in relatively good detail in only the thousand most commonly used words in the English language.

This is a site that lets you try the concept out. Here is my first attempt at an explanation of the climate and energy challenge:

What is Going On?
Our home is changing because of some things we do, like burning stuff from the ground for power. One of the big changes is that we are warming up. What happens as we warm up is important! Some changes might be good: time for food growing may be longer. But lots of changes will be hard: where and how much or little rain we get, how hot and cold it gets, how much stuff is under water, how bad the air is to breathe, and a lot more things will all change. How we live, how we eat, and how we plan for things very much are tied to how things are around us. Big changes are hard to go through.

How Can We Know What Will Happen?
We can try to figure out what stuff might happen as we keep burning more and more stuff for power, and warm up. We can use computers to look forward. We can look at small changes from now and over the past couple hundred years, and think forward in time. We can even look way back into the very long ago past, at times when things warmed up or cooled down a lot, and learn from that!

Is It Too Late?
The important thing to know is this: what we do going forward matters very much to how things will change. Making very big changes to our home, or changing it less, is something we can decide. We need to think very carefully about how much we want to make our home change, and think about all of things that might happen as we change it. There is a lot we don’t know about what will change, and that makes it hard to plan for change. It may be safer to make little change, especially as we learn more about the bad stuff that happens with big changes.

What Can We Do?
There are a lot of new great things we can use for clean power that changes our home less. We can use the sun. We can use the wind. We can use water in many different ways. We can even use the same power the sun uses for its own power! All of these new ways of making clean power will keep our home more like it is now, and make it change a lot less than burning stuff for power. We can also use less stuff and power, and use the stuff and power we do use for doing more things. That will let us use less power to do the same stuff we do now.

How Do I Help?
What kind of home do you want? What kind of home do you want for your kids and their kids? Keep that in mind as you decide what to do. If you want to help, you can use less stuff and power, and tell people you want to use more of the things that use new clean power. You can also ask people who decide things to think about our home when they decide stuff, and to help us move to new ways of making clean power.


This is an interesting exercise, and it might help if your intent is to de-technobabble a talk, or use wording that is friendly to translation software. As a communications tool, though, I don’t think it’s all that great. What makes ideas and concepts meme-like depends somewhat on simplicity, sure. But all of the other things that make ideas sticky are hamstrung by this. It’s really hard to use imagery, analogy, expectation-confounding, and all of the tools that make memorable ideas with such a limited vocabulary.

What do you think?

Matt Ridley and the Wall Street Journal misrepresent paper cited in Ridley column

Equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) evaluated from paleoclimatic data (PALAEOSENS group, Rohling et al., 2012).

There’s more to say about the latest attempt to deny the mainstream estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity (e.g. NRC, 1979; Annan and Hargreaves, 2006; Knutti and Hegerl, 2008; Rohling et al., 2012) by Matt Ridley (remember him?) at the Wall Street Journal later. But I just wanted to point out something rather troubling about one of Ridley’s and Nic Lewis’s (the source of Ridley’s claims) citations.

Ridley claimed:

Some of the best recent observationally based research also points to climate sensitivity being about 1.6°C for a doubling of CO2. An impressive study published this year by Magne Aldrin of the Norwegian Computing Center and colleagues gives a most-likely estimate of 1.6°C.

I recalled the Aldrin et al. paper from the last time it made the rounds in the “skeptic” blogosphere, when Chip Knappenberger cited it as finding a “low” climate sensitivity.

The funny thing about the Aldrin et al. paper is that it really doesn’t find a “low” ECS at all. Their main result is an ECS of 2.0°C, which is completely consistent with the IPCC AR4 range. Moreover, they caution that their main result is incomplete, because it explicitly does not account for the effect of clouds:

When cloud behavior is included as another term, the ECS increases significantly, from ~2.5°C to 3.3°C depending on the values used:

Surely this wasn’t the Aldrin et al. paper Riddley and Lewis were citing as finding an ECS of 1.6°C.

The 1.6°C value literally never appears in the text of the paper.

Of course, it was entirely possible that Aldrin had published another paper on ECS this year finding 1.6°C that I was simply unable to find. I reached out to Bishop Hill and Matt Ridley for some clarification:

  1. thingsbreak
    @aDissentient Which Aldrin 2012 paper was Lewis citing on your blog?
  2. thingsbreak
    @mattwridley Can you provide either the title or the DOI for the Aldrin paper you cited in your WSJ piece? Thanks!
  3. aDissentient
    @thingsbreak Environmetrics 2012; 23: 253–271 Panel A of Fig 6.
  4. thingsbreak
    @aDissentient The one that finds an ECS of 2.5-3.3K when it bothers to account for clouds (4.8)? LOL.
  5. mattwridley
    @thingsbreak… Aldrin, M., et al., 2012. Bayesian estimation of climate sensitiv… Environmetrics, doi:10.1002/env.2140.
  6. thingsbreak
    @mattwridley Did you personally read the paper? Where does the 1.6 number come from? Did you read section 4.8?
  7. aDissentient
    @thingsbreak Most likely values still only 2 ish. If we are to include cloud lifetime effect shld we include other highly uncertain effects?
  8. thingsbreak
    @aDissentient If you’re making a comparison to IPCC values, should use most apples-to-apples comparison, which Aldrin et al. discuss in 4.8.
  9. thingsbreak
    @aDissentient Where does the 1.6 value come from anyway? Literally doesn’t exist in paper.
  10. aDissentient
    @thingsbreak He got it by measuring the graph (It’s actually slightly lower I believe).
  11. mattwridley
    @thingsbreak lewis calculated it from aldrin’s paper’s data/charts and aldrin agreed it is correct
  12. thingsbreak
    @mattwridley Aldrin agreed that apples to apples comparison with IPCC ECS estimates is 1.6K? Doubtful. Directly contradicts paper itself.

I posted the following to Nic Lewis at Bishop Hill’s blog:

I think that some readers, and probably the authors of a paper themselves, might find it at least slightly misleading for you to claim findings on their behalf that the paper itself does not actually state.

The main result from Aldrin et al., as reported by Aldrin et al., is an ECS of 2.0°C. The authors caution that this result probably isn’t an apples to apples comparison to other ECS estimates due to the unaccounted for cloud term, and find that the value increases to ~2.5-3.3°C with clouds.

Rather than report either of these values, you simply claim Aldrin et al. “an impressively thorough study, gives a most likely estimate for ECS of 1.6°C…”.

Ridley likewse claims, “An impressive study published this year by Magne Aldrin of the Norwegian Computing Center and colleagues gives a most-likely estimate of 1.6°C.”

It would be easy for me to lob accusations of bad faith, as we don’t know each other and this is just the internet. Instead, I would encourage you, if your goal is to reach as wide an audience as possible, and try to make an impact beyond the “skeptic” and conservative blogospheres, to be more upfront about the scientific literature about ECS.

Ignoring the two main findings of a paper for values that you’re either estimating from a curve or are creating yourself based on data not used by the paper will be seen by at least some people to be misleading. Claiming that ECS cannot be estimated by paleo data is absurd, especially when so many are aware of efforts like the PALAEOSENS project and various paleoclimatic intercomparison groups.

I won’t attempt to read minds or divine motivations. I will simply suggest that what you have been doing thus far will cause some people to dismiss what you’re trying to say due to perceived dishonesty.

I hope you take this criticism in the constructive context in which it is being offered. There will be plenty of time for name-calling and insults later.


  • Aldrin, M., M. Holden, P. Guttorp, R. B. Skeie, G. Myhre, and T. K. Berntsen (2012), Bayesian estimation of climate sensitivity based on a simple climate model fitted to observations of hemispheric temperatures and global ocean heat content, Environmetrics, 23(3), 253–271, doi:10.1002/env.2140.
  • Annan, J. D., and J. C. Hargreaves (2006), Using multiple observationally-based constraints to estimate climate sensitivity, Geophys. Res. Lett., 33, 4 PP., doi:200610.1029/2005GL025259.
  • Knutti, R., and G. C. Hegerl (2008), The equilibrium sensitivity of the Earth’s temperature to radiation changes, Nature Geoscience, 1(11), 735–743, doi:10.1038/ngeo337.
  • National Research Council (1979),  Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  • Rohling, E.J., et al. (2012), Making sense of palaeoclimate sensitivity, Nature, 491(7426), 683–691, doi:10.1038/nature11574.

No one could have predicted

Remember how a few years back, supporters of aggressive climate mitigation legislation were castigated for being shrill, tribal, hippies? And how if only we tried a “third way” of making incremental progress with opponents of greenhouse gas limits, a bipartisan tide would lift us all to new clean energy heights?

Good times.


An upper limit to growth? Population vs. consumption

Image courtesy of Flickr user Digital Dreams

I have an online acquaintance who has sort of abruptly switched tacks several times on the issue of climate.

Previously, he had professed a deep hostility to the field, and was one of those people who believed that climate science as a whole was little more than toying around with computer models of dubious skill. I did my best to break through these misconceptions from any and all angles- illustrating that there was far more going on than modeling, pointing at paleoclimatic and observational evidence, and how these dovetailed nicely with a lot of that “suspect” modeling he so distrusted. There was a bit of a breakthrough when we were able to civilly discuss the possible drivers of the Americas’ medieval megadroughts. I think he finally began to understand that climate science was “real science” at that point, and although he occasionally would sneer at imagined inconsistencies in media reports of potential impacts, he seemed to largely accept that there was good evidence underlying the attribution of current warming and the general shape of what could come absent some sort of limit on GHG emissions.

Predictably, his attitude shifted from “we can’t say we’re causing it or that it might be bad” to “we can’t change our energy infrastructure, so we’re hosed and might as well not rock the fossil energy boat with carbon pricing”. I introduced him to the conceptual framework of stabilization wedges, demonstrating that we indeed possessed the technological capability to address the issue in time to minimize the magnitude of the change we’ll have to ride out. After initially dismissing it out of hand, he eventually seemed to accept this as well.

He then seemed to grow fixated on the issue of population growth as the main problem and thus potential solution to climatic change, as well as other environmental problems like overfishing, habitat destruction, etc. He demanded to know why the IPCC and other organizations weren’t aggressively pushing population control as the silver bullet fix for climate change.

Needless to say, I was more than a little shocked at this turn of events. This acquaintance’s politics had always seemed more of the libertarian bent than anything else, probably the last sort of person I could imagine pushing for sweeping, UN-led population control. I explained that while my own personal interests in social justice led me to advocate for increased female education and autonomy in reproductive health, which demonstrably reduces the childbirth rate in developing and lower income areas, I didn’t see population growth as quite the overwhelming threat that he seemed to.

I explained that most credible projections showed global population levels peaking around mid-century even without a massive international effort to reduce its growth. I explained that while an additional 2-4 billion people would no doubt significantly increase the environmental problems we’re facing, I was more  concerned with existing billions of people becoming increasingly American in their waste and consumption habits.

We went back and forth on this issue for some time, and during the course of many conversations, it became clear that his anti-population growth position was just a fig leaf for anti-immigration sentiments that had little to do with climatic concerns and a great deal more to do with a set of prejudices that are commonly found among American males of European descent residing in the American southwest.

I appreciated the debate with him (up to that point) however, because it really divested me of the last residual concerns I had about a ticking “population bomb”, as opposed to an “over-consumption bomb.” Discussions about the delusion of neoclassical economics on a finite planet tend to conflate these two issues as a single problem, perhaps in seriousness or because it works to good rhetorical effect. Humans as an exponentially growing plague of ravaging locusts destroying the fruits of the biosphere is undeniably evocative imagery regardless of whether one finds it to be  an accurate depiction of our actions on this planet.

Unchecked economic growth, at least as the term is used in current politico-economic discussions, seems self-evidently impossible to people such as myself. The idea that we can- let alone should- pretend that it represents a viable forward plan seems to be incredibly reckless, even dangerous. The “limitless growth as suicide pact” notion has been addressed at this blog previously here and here, as well as at MT’s blog.

In previous discussions here and elsewhere, I’ve never really attempted to articulate why this should be so, as it hardly seems necessary to explain. Fortunately, a recent paper has been published that illustrates the problem in rough strokes. Brown et al. in BioScience attempt to demonstrate through macroecological tools that energetic constraints apply to human economies, just as organisms’ energy usage constrains their body size.

Their “money” graphic is Figure 4:

This seems to bear out my concerns as argued to my crypto-anti-immigration acquaintance. We can, in theory, sustain a growing and peak population under current global trends in consumption. This is obviously not an ideal outcome, as it would mean billions living in destitute poverty.  But even if we freeze population at 2006 levels, we cannot support a human population consuming like Americans. This is why the consumption part of the equation seems to deserve the lion’s share of attention, even if one does not accept that population growth will peak around mid-century of its own accord.

From a social justice standpoint, I would like to see everyone pulled out of poverty and able to enjoy the health and safety enjoyed by those living in developed nations. But in order to do that and not run up against the biogeophysical limits of the planet (of which climate change seems to be but one incarnation), we have to ensure that we don’t all become (or remain as the case may be) wasteful Americans.

Reference: Brown, J.H., et al. (2011): Energetic Limits to Economic Growth. BioScience, 61, 1, 19-26, doi:10.1525/bio.2011.61.1.7.

Game changer, or hot air?

Image courtesy of Flickr user

The Times of India reports:

In a dramatic move that will alter India’s climate change policy irrevocably, Jairam Ramesh, speaking at the ministerial summit at Cancun, said India was willing to commit to legally binding commitments as part of an international climate deal.

But that’s not really the meat of it, though it might make better headlines. Ramesh explicitly rejects that such an agreement will come at Cancun. But, further down:

US has talked of binding agreement in the past. Brazil and China, I can tell you clearly, in a Basic [Brazil-South Africa-India-China] meeting expressed support for a legally binding agreement. South Africa has consistently talked of of a legally binding agreement. So have the Chinese and and they are willing to live with it. This is the reality.

The human cost of coal continues to mount

Grieving family members leave after a Sunday briefing from Pike River Coal management on the 29 miners and contractors trapped underground at the Pike River mine, Greymouth, New Zealand. (Ross Setford, NZPA/Associated Press; CBC)

Last Friday an explosion trapped 29 men in New Zealand’s Pike River coal mine, including a 17-year-old.

At 01:37 GMT Wednesday, a second explosion ripped through the collapsed mine, leaving all 29 presumed dead.

This terrible news will likely overshadow the successful rescue of 29 other coal workers from a flooded mine in Sichuan Province, China.

The world remains heavily reliant on coal power, with increases in coal use in developing countries creating higher than expected GHG emissions in 2009. The future role of coal in global energy production remains uncertain due to conflicting estimates of remaining reserves and a lack of carbon pricing and/or subsidized clean energy alternatives.

On the James Fallows Atlantic coal article

Image courtesy of Flickr user ralphrepo

[Responding to Keith Kloor’s post about this James Fallows piece on coal and our global energy future and Dave Roberts’s criticisms]

Roberts made some good and bad points. I think that Roberts rightly objected to Fallows conflating politico-economic “realities” (i.e. status quo) with technological ones.

I agree that coal isn’t going anywhere any time soon. But I don’t believe that Fallows has made the case that it is technologically impossible to meet global energy needs without it.

He writes that as-of-yet-unrealized cleaner coal is “the only way to meet the world’s energy needs, and to arrest climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm” and “there is no plausible other way [than coal] to meet what will be, absent an economic or social cataclysm, the world’s unavoidable energy demands. ”

But he does basically nothing to back this up. Yes, the current infrastructure is heavily tilted towards coal dependence. That’s not alone sufficient to support the claims that he’s making (which I acknowledge from the outset may in fact turn out to be true).

If coal is literally the only way forward, Fallows should have done a better job demonstrating this rather than asserting it. I realize that this might be beyond his expertise, but that’s no reason to let the assertions pass unchallenged. I didn’t see a single line dedicated to IFR nukes, for example. I didn’t see a word about solar thermal.

Being resigned to something because changing is perceived to be hard is not the same as saying that an alternative is literally impossible. Fallows has made a case for the former but in no way has done so for the latter.