Temperature tantrums on the campaign trail

Temperature tantrums on the campaign trail

Originally published at Corporate Knights on March 17, 2016.

Sorry Ted Cruz. There’s no conspiracy among scientists to exaggerate global warming by fudging the numbers.

Last year was the warmest year recorded since the measurement of global surface temperatures began in the nineteenth century. The second-warmest year ever was 2014. Moreover, because of the persisting effects of the equatorial Pacific Ocean phenomenon known as El Niño, many experts are predicting that 2016 could set a new annual record. January and February have already set new monthly records, with February half a degree Celsius warmer than any February in history.

This news is deeply unsettling for those who care about the future of the planet. But it is even more upsetting for people opposed to climate mitigation, since it refutes their favourite talking point – that global warming has stalled in recent years.

U.S. Congressman Lamar Smith claims there has been a conspiracy among scientists to fudge the surface temperature records upwards and has demanded, by subpoena, to have scientists’ emails released.

Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz recently organized a Senate hearing on the temperature record in which he called upon carefully selected witnesses to testify that calculations of temperature made by satellite observations of the upper atmosphere are superior to measurements made by thermometers at the Earth’s surface.

It’s easy to cherry-pick data in order to bamboozle people. The process of making consistent temperature records from surface measurements and satellite observations is complicated and is easy to misrepresent.

But the fact remains that there are no conspiracies afoot. Here’s why. Continue reading

You can now run a MOOC at your own pace, from July 1

The Denial 101x MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was a great success, with thousands of participants and many satisfied students. I admit that I was quite touched by the mostly positive student reactions and I am thankful to John Cook for inviting me to contribute to this course in a small way. This video compilation of students’ feedback shows how people from diverse backgrounds all got something from the course.

From July 1, 2015 onwards, the course is available for anyone to follow at their own pace. It’s completely free of charge, naturally!

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The history of emissions and the Great Acceleration

One of my pastimes is downloading data and playing around with it on Excel. I’m not kidding myself that doing this means anything in terms of original research, but I do find that I learn quite a lot about the particularities of the data and about the science in general by doing some simple calculations and graphing the numbers. There’s even occasionally a small feeling of discovery, a bit like the kind that you experience when you follow a well-trodden path in the mountains for the first time:

We were not pioneers ourselves, but we journeyed over old trails that were new to us, and with hearts open. Who shall distinguish? J. Monroe Thorington

Anyway, I downloaded some historical emissions data from the CDIAC site and played around with it. To repeat, there’s nothing new to science here, but there were a few things that I found that were new to me. First, let’s look at historical emissions of CO2 from man-made sources from 1850 to 2010. Note that for all of these graphs there are no data shown for 2011-2015.

What immediately struck me—something I hadn’t fully appreciated before—was how small oil consumption was before 1950. Both world wars were carried out without huge increases in oil use, despite the massive mobilizations of armies, navies and air forces. You can make out some downward blips in coal consumption for the Great Depression (~1930) and around the end of WW2 (~1945).

It wasn’t until after 1950 that fossil-fuel consumption went nuts. Some people have taken to calling this inflection point The Great Acceleration, there’s more on this later. Continue reading

AGU Fall Meeting 2014 poster presentation

I gave a poster presentation on December 16th  at the 2014 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. The title is: Emissions of Water and Carbon Dioxide from Fossil-Fuel Combustion Contribute Directly to Ocean Mass and Volume Increases.

You can read the abstract here and I have uploaded a pdf of the poster here. There is a picture of the poster below, click on it to make it readable, although you will need to download the pdf to make out some of the fine print.


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Dreadful GSA blogpost by Canadian geologists

Geologists, especially those, like me, of a certain age, often have problems with climate science and the idea that humans may be triggering a massive and abrupt change in the climate. Global change, we were taught, occurred slowly and by commonplace mechanisms: sediment carried by water, deposited a grain at a time: erosion effected by water and wind, the hardest rocks slowly ground down crystal by crystal. The great features of the Earth—the canyons, mountains and basins—were built this way and owe their grandeur to Deep Time, geology’s greatest intellectual gift to human culture. In the face of the history of the natural world, geologists feel a certain humility at the insignificance of humans and our tiny lifespans. But we also feel some pride in the role of our subject in piecing together this history from fossils and outcrops of rock. It’s an amazing detective story: diligent scientists patiently working away and uncovering the Earth’s great secrets.


Then climate science comes along and grabs all the headlines. Suddenly, we hear, change is coming fast and the outcome could be ugly. The familiar music of natural geological change is about to be disrupted by a noisy interruption in the form of human intervention. To add insult to injury, many of the people delivering this disruptive message do not seem—at least to some geologists—to be sufficiently deferential to the extensive knowledge about the slow and cyclic changes in the geological past.

This is quite false, as I found out for myself. My initial reaction many years ago to hearing about climate change was one of disbelief, mixed with a strong suspicion that the climate forecasters had neglected to take the lessons of Earth history into account. I soon found out that I was completely wrong about this. I confess also, as I read the scientific literature, that I learned more about modern geology than I had in many years working as an industrial geoscientist. Unknown to me, immersed in my own areas of specialty, geology had moved on, especially in palaeoclimatology.

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Keystone XL: Oil Markets and Emissions

Originally posted at Skeptical Science on September 1st, 2014

  • Estimates of the incremental emission effects of individual oil sands projects like the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline are sensitive to assumptions about the response of world markets and alternative transportation options.
  • A recent Nature Climate Change paper by Erickson and Lazarus concludes that KXL may produce incremental emissions of 0-110 million tonnes of CO2per year, but the article has provoked some controversy.
  • Comments by industry leaders and the recent shelving of a new bitumen mining project suggest that the expansion of the oil sands may be more transportation constrained and more exposed to cost increases than is sometimes assumed.
  • Looking at the longer-term commitment effects of new infrastructure on cumulative emissions supports the higher-end incremental estimates.

President Obama (BBC) has made it clear that the impact of the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline on the climate will be critical in his administration’s decision on whether the pipeline will go ahead or not.  However, different estimates of the extra carbon emissions that the pipeline will cause vary wildly. For example, the consultants commissioned by the US State Department estimated that the incremental emissions would be 1.3 to 27.4 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) annually. In contrast, John Abraham, writing in the Guardian (and again more recently), estimated that the emissions would be as much as 190 MtCO2 annually, about seven times the State Department’s high estimate (calculation details here).

The variation in the estimates arises from the assumptions made. The State Department consultants assumed that the extra oil transported by the pipeline would displace oil produced elsewhere, so that we should only count the difference between the life-cycle emissions from the shut-in light oil and those of the more carbon-intensive bitumen. In addition, they estimated that not building KXL would mean that bitumen would instead be transported by rail, at slightly higher transportation costs. Abraham simply totted up all of the production, refining and consumption emissions of the 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) pipeline capacity and did not consider any effect of the extra product on world oil markets.

Neither set of assumptions is likely to be correct. Increasing the supply of any product will have an effect on a market, lowering prices and stimulating demand (consumption) growth. Lower prices will reduce supply somewhere.  The question is: by how much?

An interesting new paper in Nature Climate Change (paywalled, but there is an open copy of an earlier version available here) by Peter Erickson and Michael Lazaruares ,attempts to answer this question. The authors are based in the Seattle office of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).
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Athabasca Glacier: a tragic vanishing act

Originally published at Skeptical Science on August 26, 2014

The Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is probably the easiest glacier in the world to access by car. It’s just a few hundred metres’ stroll from the nearest parking lot on the magnificent Icefields Parkway in Alberta. The problem is, the stroll keeps getting longer by about 10 metres every year. Since 1992, the snout of the glacier has retreated about 200 metres, requiring tourists anxious to set foot on it to walk a little further. The glacier has lost about 2 km of its length since 1844 (Geovista PDF).

\The Athabasca Glacier seen from the access trail. This point is about halfway from the parking lot and the current snout of the glacier, which is about 200 metres away. In the centre background is the ice-fall from the Columbia Icefield.  The marker shows where the glacier snout was in 1992, coincidentally the year of the Rio Earth Summit. It is just possible to make out some people walking on the glacier on the left-hand side.Click for big.

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