Consensus Matters

The publication of the paper that I co-authored, Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature,  in May 2013 caused quite a splash. The paper received a lot of positive coverage, including Tweets from Barack ObamaAl Gore and Elon Musk.  (They didn’t always get the details quite right: our survey was of the literature, not of scientists’ opinions and we had nothing to say about how dangerous climate change would be.) The paper has been downloaded, as of June 2nd 2014, 183,335 times, which is a record for any Institute of Physics paper. The editorial board of the journal, Environmental Research Letters, awarded the paper the “Best article of 2013” prize.  The research for the paper was done by a team of unpaid non-specialist volunteers of students and industrial and academic scientists, along with other enthusiasts and the funding for its publication was raised by donations from Skeptical Science readers. No taxpayers were harmed during the making of this article.

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Not everybody was pleased to see our work in print. In particular, many people who are unconvinced of the urgency to act on mitigating climate change have been claiming that our study is flawed and biased. Even somebody like economist Richard Tol—who accepts that global warming is real and caused by humans and who acknowledges that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus—has made extraordinary efforts over the past year to get a critique published. He finally succeeded, with the paper Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the literature: A re-analysis published in the journal Energy Policy,. The journal editors somehow came to believe that this article fell within its scope of  being “an international peer-reviewed journal addressing the policy implications of energy supply and use from their economic, social, planning and environmental aspects“.

Energy Policy was good enough to give us a chance to respond, which we did with this short paper, which has now (June 21, 2014) been  published. We were only allowed 1000 words, however, so we wrote a much longer article, published on the Skeptical Science website, detailing the 24 errors that Professor  Tol made. Continue reading

The Carbon Bubble – Unburnable Fossil Fuels – Seminar and Discussion

Originally published at Skeptical Science on March 26th, 2014

The British Columbia Sustainable Energy Association (BCSEA) organizes a series of free seminars on climate change and sustainability issues. BCSEA was founded by Guy Dauncey. On February 11th, 2014 BCSEA held a webinar on the recent work done by the Carbon Tracker Initative. Guy has written a detailed summary of their recent work on the BCSEA webpage.

The seminar starts at 8:30 minutes and a very good Q&A session begins at 39 minutes. The slides that accompany the seminar can be downloaded here.

The presenter is Mark Campanale, the founder and executive director of the Carbon Tracker Initiative. Continue reading

The Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine is wrong to endorse Keystone XL

Originally published at Skeptical Science on March 3rd, 2014

An editorial by the Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine, Marcia McNutt, conditionally endorses the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline. Her argument is that:

  • the absence of the pipeline has not stopped oil sands development and the building of the pipeline will not accelerate oil sands development;
  • President Obama can extract concessions from the Canadians to reduce emissions and upgrade the bitumen in Canada.

Both of these arguments are wrong; let me explain why.

Pipelines promote production

The Mildred Lake oil-sands plant in Alberta. Note the tailings pond behind the huge yellow piles of sulphur, a by-product of bitumen upgrading. The sulphur may come in handy later for use in solar radiation management. Photo Wikipedia

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Hans Rosling: 200 years of global change

Originally posted at Skeptical Science on 31 October 2013

We think we have done more than we have done and we haven’t understood how much we have to do. Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling is a Swedish medical doctor and statistician who is determined (in his own words) “to fight devastating ignorance with a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand”.

Here is a video of him giving a talk on September 28th, 2013 at a public forum that introduced the latest IPCC report. The meeting was hosted by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme in Stockholm.

During the talk he asks a couple of questions, one on how many more children there will be in the year 2100 compared to today and another on what percentage of world energy is produced by solar and wind. I was in the minority that got the first one correct, but only because I had already seen one of Rosling’s earlier talks. On the second question, I was among the majority that got the answer wrong. How will you do?

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The effect of cross-border shopping on BC fuel consumption estimates

  • Since the introduction of the carbon tax in 2008, BC has achieved reductions in fuel use of 17.4% per capita and even greater reductions (18.8%) relative to the rest of Canada.
  • During this period there has been a large increase in the number of Canadian vehicles crossing the BC border into the United States , especially for day trips. It is likely that the main purpose of many of these trips was shopping.
  • The current rate of Canadians visiting the US is not unprecedented. Larger numbers of Canadians crossed the border in the 1990s.
  • Although high gasoline prices are a factor in motivating the border crossings, there were many other incentives, for example, the strong Canadian dollar, as well as cheaper dairy products, clothing and electronic goods.
  • On average, a Canadian vehicle crossed the border an additional 1.3 times per year in 2012 compared to the rate  before the introduction of the carbon tax.
  • It is estimated that 1-2% of the refined petroleum product fuel consumed in BC was purchased in the United States as a consequence of the additional cross-border travel. This amount of fuel does not therefore show up in Canadian fuel sales figures, which requires us to make small adjustments to the provincial fuel-use estimates. Nevertheless, the adjusted reduction in BC fuel use over the past four years still exceeds 15% per person per year.
  • The BC carbon tax is an effective policy that has likely substantially reduced emissions, but has not harmed the economy. It is increasingly politically popular within the province.

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Update on BC’s Effective and Popular Carbon Tax

Originally posted at Skeptical Science on July 25th, 2013

Stewart Elgie and Jessica McClay of the University of Ottawa have a peer-reviewed article in press in a special issue of the journal Canadian Public Policy. The article is summarized in the report BC’s Carbon Tax shift after five years: Results. An environmental (and economic) success story. The report can be downloaded here and is summarized here.
The results are similar to a previous report that I wrote about in the article BC’s revenue-neutral carbon tax experiment, four years on: It’s working, but updated, with one more year of data.  The new data show that the carbon tax is working even better than reported previously.

A Miss by Myles: Why Professor Allen is wrong to think carbon capture and storage will solve the climate crisis

Originally posted at Skeptical Science on 11 June 2013, written by Andy Skuce and rustneversleeps

A recent opinion piece in the British newspaper Mail on Sunday by University of Oxford climatescientist Myles Allen argues that the best way to combat climate change is to pass laws requiring fossil fuel producers to capture and sequester a rising proportion of the carbon dioxide emissions that the fuels produce. We argue here that such a policy, with its emphasis on carbonsequestration, would not be successful in achieving the carbon emission reductions that Allen himself advocates—for a variety of political, economic, technological and logistical reasons. A more recent article by Allen in The Guardian covers the same ground.

Nevertheless, Allen’s prescription does succeed in focussing the mind on the scale of the problem that we face in mitigating climate change.

Summary/Index

This is a very long post, so here is a clickable summary.

A good starting framework, then… Allen’s diagnosis is clear and his framing of targets in terms of cumulative emissions is unabiguous. But his prescription is flawed.

Politics There is no reason to assume a fixed emissions cap schedule would be easier to sell to the public than a carbon tax. Caps would produce greater certainty of longer-term emission reductions at the cost of uncertain economic consequences.

Economics (i): Efficiency Imposing emissions caps without allowing trading through brokers would be very inefficient. It is not clear whether Allen supports or opposes trading.

Economics (ii) Innovation by fiat? Prescribing one form of technology as the principle solution is risky. Nobody can predict how technology will evolve and what problems may emerge in future.

Economics (iii): The information conveyed by prices The cost of one technology should not be used as a basis for carbon pricing. There is a wide range of mitigation options, with highly variable prices, all with variable and uncertain potential to contribute to solutions. Experience in British Columbia shows that even a modest carbon tax can reduce emissions significantly without harming the economy.

Scaling it up to climate relevance Even promoters of aggressive deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) do not envision it as more than a partial contribution to mitigating climate change by 2050.

Timing and feasibility The mass of the CO2 to be sequestered is about double the mass of the fossil fuels themselves. To develop a new industry, from scratch, to capture, transport and dispose of these quantities will involve vast amounts of capital and many decades, even if it were technically possible.

Hazards The magnitude of the CO2 to be sequestered in the subsurface is such that environmental risks from leakage, aquifer contamination and induced earthquakes are likely to be much larger than those from the already contentious shale gas industry. Getting  public licence for CCS projects in inhabited areas is likely to be very difficult and time consuming.

Summing up The climate crisis is so vast that we need to throw everything we have at it. Claiming that any single technology will solve the problem can lead to complacency that the fix is simple. It isn’t.

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Living in Denial in Canada

Originally posted at Skeptical Science.

In an earlier article, I reviewed sociologist Kari Norgaard’s book Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life in which she records the response of rural Norwegians to climate change. She analyzes the contradictory feelings Norwegians experience in reconciling their life in a wealthy country that is at once a major producer and consumer of fossil fuels and, at the same time, has a reputation of being a world leader in its concern for the environment, human development, and international peace.

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Living in Denial in Norway

Originally published at Skeptical Science.

Norway is one of the most wealthy countries on Earth, with the very highest levels of human development, it is among the most generous donors of foreign aid and, for a country of its size, makes enormous efforts to promote peace. A former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, has done as much as anyone to promote global sustainable development and public health. The world would surely be a better place if everyone on Earth behaved like Norwegians.

Norway, on the other hand, is also the largest per capita oil producer outside of the Middle East, producing more oil per capita even than Saudi Arabia, about 150 barrels per person per year from its fields in the North Sea. Five million Norwegians also emit 11 tonnes of greenhouse gasses each per year, a little higher than the European mean and twice as high as the global average. The world would surely become uninhabitable if everyone on Earth behaved like Norwegians.

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