The three R’s of Paris: Rejoice, Ratify, Ratchet

It’s all too easy to carp about the Paris COP agreement. There’s no global carbon tax. It is all pledges and good intentions. The sum total of those promises falls far short of the 2 C goal and far, far short of the 1.5 C aspirational target. The agreement contains some provisions for measuring progress in transparent ways, but it is not legally binding. There is no provision for sanctioning governments that fail to deliver. As my MP, Elizabeth May, has said of environmental treaties in general: “Trade treaties have teeth, environmental treaties only gums”.

Still, there is much to celebrate.


This is what a turning point looks like. This is what a first step in the right direction looks like. We have waited for a long time for this, too long of course, but now that it has happened we should cheer this agreement. It brings together all of the governments of the world, in a diplomatic agreement focussed on the monumental problem of climate change. The French convenors deserve our thanks and praise for their stamina and patience in herding all of these cats to a common goal.

Now it’s up to the national governments to implement their promises. Continue reading

Does providing information on geoengineering reduce climate polarization?

This article was originally published at Skeptical Science on March 4, 2013.

Dan Kahan of Yale University and four colleagues have just published an article in Annals of the AAPS titled: Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization Testing a Two-Channel Model of Science Communication that investigates the effect on study participants’ attitudes to climate change after reading an article about geoengineering. In their abstract, they write:

We found that cultural polarization over the validity of climate change science is offset by making citizens aware of the potential contribution of geoengineering as a supplement to restriction of CO2 emissions.

I will argue here that this experiment achieved no such result because the premise was wrong. Specifically, the information on geoengineering that was presented to the study participants (in the form of a fictional newspaper article) bears no relation to mainstream scientific opinion on geoengineering nor, even, to the opinions of advocates of geoengineering. Geoengineering is portrayed in the fictional newspaper article as a strategy with no uncertainty about how well it might work and, it is claimed, will “spare consumers and businesses from the heavy economic costs associated with the regulations necessary to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm or lower”. This is hardly depicting geoengineering as a “potential solution” or “a supplement” to the restriction of emissions, as is claimed in the abstract of the paper.

In fact, what Kahan et al. have demonstrated is that presenting misinformation dressed up as fact can affect people’s opinions about climate change. That may be interesting as a social science experiment conducted on consenting adults, but it is not much use as a guide to effective public science communication, constrained as it is to tell the truth.
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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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Don’t Even Think About It: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change—a book review

George Marshall has written a book that is essential reading for everyone interested in communicating the science of climate change and its urgent policy implications. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change comprises 43 short and well-written chapters that explain why  strenuous efforts to spread the word and spur action on climate change have failed.

There is no question that the problem is far from licked: the Keeling Curve continues its upward rise; American conservatives remain stuck in an intellectual dead end on climate; other countries pay lip service to the threat while making only token gestures to solve it; every year there is a big international get-together at COP meetings where thousands of delegates gather to push the policy boulder up Sisyphus’ hill, only to watch it roll down again. Opinion polls, it is true, show that there is broad public acceptance of the scientific basis of climate change, but the understanding of the problem is shallow. People say they care about climate change, but when it comes time to vote, other issues loom larger.

Marshall has worked for 25 years as a campaigner in environmental movements, including Greenpeace US and the Rainforest Foundation. He is a co-founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, a UK based charity committed to ensuring that climate change and its impacts are understood and acted upon. Continue reading

John Oliver asks: Are there hats?

On his new HBO show Last Week Tonight John Oliver skewered the whole idea that there is a genuine debate on the scientific basics of man-made climate change. He also mocked the conventional media format of  pitting one “skeptic” against one “scientist” that so badly misrepresents the real world of informed opinion.

I admit that I was particularly delighted to see the paper I co-authored with John Cook and other Skeptical Science colleagues get a mention.

Paul Krugman had a recent article in the New York Times where he looked at how some conservatives not only deny that humans are causing climate change, but also that they need to deny that expert opinion overwhelmingly believes that to be true, invoking an international conspiracy of scientists. And, in a blogpost he reminded us that conservative journalist Charles Krauthammer in “no Einstein”.

It’s tragic that there is no coherent conservative response to the problem of climate change. Any solution is going to require a policy consensus among people of all political persuasions.  The longer we put off a solution, the less likely it becomes that we will be able to deal with the problem with free-market measures. The more that conservatives rail against climate science on the bogus grounds that scientists want to usher in an authoritarian world, the more that dismal political future becomes likely.

Yet, as John Oliver shows us, tragedy and comedy are never far apart.

Andrew Weaver’s support for a big bitumen refinery on the BC coast angers Greens

Andrew Weaver, the climate scientist turned Green Party politician, has raised hackles among environmental activists by lending support to a proposal to build a huge oil refinery near Kitimat in northwestern British Columbia. Despite the headlines, his support for it is qualified, seeing it as a compromise position that will keep diluted bitumen—dilbit—out of coastal waters, even if it doesn’t keep the carbon in the bitumen out of the atmosphere. Quoted in the Prince George Citizen, Weaver says:

“I like to think [of] the Green Party as a science-based, evidence-based common sense party,” he said. “It’s a party that realizes that we need gasoline in our cars but we also need to have a strategy to wean ourselves off that.”


“Rail is bad news, dilbit in the water is bad news, dilbit on land over rivers and streams is potentially very bad news,” he said. “Obviously as the Green Party [MLA], I’d prefer to keep it in the ground as much as possible and start to invest sooner than later into the low-carbon economy of tomorrow, but I’m pragmatic and I recognize at some point one may need to develop a compromise and a compromise solution is one that would actually give jobs in B.C.”

On Twitter, Adam Olsen, the leader of the BC Green Party, distanced himself and the party from Weaver’s position:

11-Feb-14 11-42-10 AM

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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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