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April 26, 2011, 3:04 pm
On Plankton, Warming and Whiplash
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Last summer, a paper published in Nature, “Global phytoplankton decline over the past century​,” caught the attention of climate campaigners and some media outlets because it concluded that warming of the seas over the last century was linked with a big and near-global decline in oceanic phytoplankton.
If that finding stood the test of time, it would indeed be momentous; the vast clouds of tiny photosynthesizing organisms in the seas are an important part of the carbon cycle and underpin the marine food chain. There had already been some work, on short time scales, pointing to a blunting of plankton productivity in warmer periods.
Now, three “brief communications,” essentially rebuttal papers, have been published in Nature pushing back strongly against the paper’s core conclusion. Links to the summaries are below. I’ve queried the authors of those papers and the original analysis and will post an update when that discussion begins.
Climate naysayers have latched onto the rebuttals just as breathlessly as climate hawks latched onto the initial, if tentative, findings.
What’s up? Science. Read more…
April 25, 2011, 6:14 pm
Two Views of Climate Cause and Effect
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
This post is for anyone wishing to dig in deeper on missteps and next steps on the climate challenge. As promised in my initial post on Matthew Nisbet’s “Climate Shift” report, here are more detailed comments from Nisbet and Joe Romm of Climateprogress​, who is one of Nisbet’s staunchest critics.
I sent them four questions “related to the overall question of influence, effort and outcomes after nearly a decade aimed at producing a comprehensive climate bill centered on carbon trading.” (The questions will look familiar if you read today’s piece): Read more…
April 25, 2011, 5:09 pm
Debating Species Law and Climate Change
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
There’s a great discussion under way at the Room for Debate blog examining whether the Endangered Species Act is the right tool for the job in limiting losses from human-driven climate change.
The discussion builds on some exploration of this issue on Dot Earth:
The Limits of Laws as a Conservation Tool
Walrus (and other species) on Endangered Species Waiting List
Are Polar Bears More than Threatened?
Here are the discussants and their summary points: Read more…
April 25, 2011, 2:18 pm
Beyond the Climate Blame Game
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
4:15 p.m. | Updated
On the tiny patch of American public discourse reserved for the global warming debate (to get an idea of how tiny, find climate, or the environment for that matter, in this news map if you can), a week of blogitation over a sprawling report examining failed efforts to pass a climate bill has started to give way to constructive discussion.
Randy Olson, the filmmaker and author of “Don’t Be Such a Scientist,” sent this message to environmentalists and climate campaigners on his blog this morning: “Bash the messenger (if you must), but hear the message​.” He illustrated his post with an image of President John F. Kennedy giving a speech, but with this word bubble added: “Never have so many accomplished so little with so much.”
The report, “​Climate Shift,” was written by Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor at American University. In nearly 100 pages, he explores who had the biggest advantage — in money and media spin — in the fight over a cap-and-trade climate bill, along with cultural issues, like the deep liberal tilt among scientists, that flavor how such battles are waged.
Among his most contested findings, Nisbet asserts that a huge influx of contributions and grants to environmental campaigners more than eliminated any advantage once enjoyed by fossil fuel industries and conservatives opposed to restrictions on greenhouse gases. [11:41 p.m. | Updated | Bryan Walsh of Time Magazine has posted a thorough analysis of Nisbet's report.]
The report also concludes that coverage of climate change in five influential text news outlets (including The Times), showed no significant signs of a tilt in descriptions of human-driven global warming in favor of those seeking to cast doubt on the problem. The Wall Street Journal editorial pages, it noted, were far from reflecting the state of climate science, but the paper’s news section was largely in sync with the science (the report didn’t examine Fox television coverage, which Nisbet asserted is mainly watched by people already dug in on the issue).
One week ago, Joe Romm, the Climateprogress blogger and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, broke a media embargo sought by Nisbet (it never had much chance of holding up) and began a string of salvos attacking Nisbet’s conclusions​. [3:52 p.m. | Correction | This paragraph has been corrected; the explanation is st the end of the post.]
Romm’s initial posts included detailed critiques by Robert Brulle, a reviewer of the report who is a sociologist at Drexel University and, among other things, studies the effectiveness and strategies of environmental campaigns.
Brulle said that he had withdrawn his name as a reviewer and returned his fee because he felt his name was being used to confer a “veneer of academic legitimacy” to the report that he felt was not merited. [5:14 p.m. | Correction | The preceding sentence has been changed to reflect Brulle's comment below.]
Media Matters joined in. Bizarrely, Nieman Watchdog, a journalism blog that says its goal is “to help the press ask penetrating questions​,” reposted Romm’s initial piece, saying it “​blisteringly dismantles an upcoming academic report,” without asking anyone to examine the merits of the report or Romm’s attack.
In the last few days, these sorts of broadsides have begun giving way to a more reasoned examination of Nisbet’s arguments and those of his critics. (Nisbet is aggregating reactions and responding to critics at the Climate Shift Project Web site; Romm’s most constructive followup posts examine why environmentalists pursued a cap-and-trade solution and what mistakes were made by climate campaigners and progressive politicians.) [I've posted a followup with more from Romm and Nisbet.]
On Friday, Meighan Speiser at ecoAmerica​, a nonprofit group involved in shaping environmental campaigns, appeared to get Randy Olson’s message well before his post, writing:
There has been a lot of criticism of Nisbet’s report, including in the Discover and Climate Progress blogs, not unlike the criticism that surrounded The Death of Environmentalism report a few years back. While there are flaws and missed opportunities in the report, the courage to shine light on the movement is well-timed.
Our tendencies are to blame external factors for the failure. The movement’s good intentions, logic, dependency on funding, science and a designed-to-win plan amplify the resistance to admitting possible errors. Climate Shift, however, can play a useful and needed role in motivating analysis and discussion on where we go from here.
Before diving into the report and a host of reactions, positive and negative — along with fresh thoughts expressed to me by both Nisbet and Romm in a group e-mail exchange over the weekend — I’d like to offer a few overarching observations about the report, the fate of the climate bill, American attitudes on energy and the influence of environmental and anti-regulatory forces in Washington.
First, Nisbet has taken a helpful initial, if imperfect, cut at stripping away some of the mythology surrounding efforts to add a cost to greenhouse gases as the means to limit climate risk. The most powerful myth can be summarized as “if only.” If only the forces of reason cut through the “money pollution​” (Bill McKibben’s phrase) obscuring the crisis, then the public would accept and embrace this task. If only the media described global warming more accurately​, then the public would accept and embrace treating carbon dioxide as pollution and raising the cost of activities that generate the gas.
The reality is that elected officials mostly care about issues that have political salience, as Brulle and other social scientists have long pointed out — meaning issues that fit in the small basket of worries that voters carry with them day to day (the economy, the health and welfare of their families, getting supper ready).
A recent post, “What if the Public Had Perfect Climate Information​,” provides some background. Climate has never been in that worry basket, and energy only rarely has come close.
Momentarily setting aside the unprecedented financial firepower that foundations and environmental groups threw at the fight over climate legislation (there’s more to come here on the debate over who wielded more or less influence), there’s one graph that — to me — utterly punctures arguments that a meaningful cap-style climate bill had a chance (at least one with any environmental integrity).
And the graph doesn’t come from Nisbet’s report. It comes from the 2009 survey for the Six Americas analysis of climate attitudes (the survey was done in the fall of 2008):
“Six Americas” Study of Climate Views
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The bubbles in the graphs above represent the size of distinct sectors of the American public with particular views on climate and energy issues, ranging from alarmed to dismissive. Even those alarmed by global warming (the ball at the left) were just barely supportive of such a bill (well before the incident called Climategate). Below you can read some relevant thoughts from Anthony Leiserowitz, the Yale researcher who co-directs the ongoing Six Americas analysis.
Add that to the hard reality of the 60-vote “supermajority” required for guaranteed passage of a bill in the Senate — a reality stressed for years by David Roberts of Grist — and you can see why such a bill was doomed.
Second​, I think Nisbet bit off more than he was able to chew. The report uses a mix of databases and sources — with various levels of possible error and completeness — to deconstruct lobbying budgets and journalism content, providing critics with enough loose threads to keep them busy tugging for a long time. (Think of how much thread tugging has occurred around another analysis combining disparate databases of varying quality.)
The unfortunate result is a lot of distraction from one of the most important lessons I derive from Nisbet’s core conclusion:
If environmental groups and their backers want to see concrete progress on limiting the risk that humans will propel dangerous global warming, they may need more than just additional money and better organization, but also a hard look at core strategies and a philosophy that has long cast climate change as primarily a conventional pollution problem, not a technology problem.
Third, another core conclusion of the new study is largely being lost in the partisan and, to a lesser extent, scholarly, debates about its methods and quality. The point is that for far too long climate campaigners have had a tendency to speak of the science pointing to rising risks from building emissions of greenhouse gases and their favored solutions in a single breath. In a way, this pulled the science into the political fray over appropriate responses. This was a reality long described by Roger A. Pielke, Jr., the University of Colorado political scientist. His reaction to the flareup over the report can be found below.
Fourth, there’s one thing I don’t see explored in the report, and certainly don’t see discussed by Matt’s critics, that I see as important: a failure on the part of the major environmental groups and their allies to compromise earlier in the legislative effort to address climate change.
The debate over the past week has been confined to actions during the end game of a decade-long process. But to my mind, the path toward failure was being carved years ago. The first failure came when Senator McCain added provisions favoring nuclear to the McCain-Lieberman climate bill and many environmental groups dropped their support for the bill. Whatever you think about the financial and environmental risks attending nuclear power, pulling out at that point seemed a classic case of rejecting the good in favor of the perfect.
The next failure to compromise came in the fight over adding a “safety valve” provision to limit unanticipated high costs from greenhouse gas restrictions, something Joe Romm and many others rejected out of hand at the time, even though Romm last year (around minute 37 in this videotaped panel discussion​) noted the need for pragmatism to get things started: “The game changer for the world isn’t between no price for carbon and a high price. It’s between no price for carbon and any price…”
Fifth, here’s a working hypothesis that I sent to Nisbet, Romm and a host of other analysts of the ugly nexus of energy policy and climate science and offer here as a starting point for further discussion:
The debate over spending and influence and climate legislation, as cast in the report and ensuing critiques, is academically valuable, perhaps, but nearly meaningless in assessing the roots of climate action or inaction for one reason: It presumes that both sides in the fight had an equivalent task in either gaining or avoiding 60 Senate votes.
In reality, those defending the status quo in energy and climate policy have always only needed the slightest bit of doubt and distracting uncertainty to maintain society’s comfortable inertia on energy. Inertia is easy. Change is momentously hard as long as humans are in their fossil-fueled comfort zone.
The scholarship squabble over Nisbet’s report will play out among those in this field, including Brulle, who told me he is in the midst of an independent review of such spending backed by a National Science Foundation grant. I hope that he and Nisbet can find a way to move forward constructively.
They are both important figures in examining the evolution of the environmental movement as it confronts a century in which mainstay messages such as “woe is me” and “shame on you” will have ever less relevance (BP drills, we consume; who’s the bad guy?) and progress will more likely come from social and technological innovations and less from top-down legislation or treaties.
A big problem for anyone on the outside, in examining this recent mini-tempest, is that this is what’s called “gray literature​” — the same kind of unrefereed material that created heated fights over portions of the 2007 report on warming impacts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Here are some relevant thoughts from a variety of scholars and practitioners involved in assessing or crafting climate policy, including several scholars who, like Brulle, reviewed the report at Nisbet’s invitation (and for a fee).
Christopher Bosso, a reviewer of the report and professor and associate dean in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University:
On the overall report, my take is:
1. Enviro groups and their allies spent a lot to push cap and trade, to no avail
2. Cap and trade was pushed as THE solution — to the exclusion of other approaches — and it was technocratic solution at that
3. We tend to view media coverage of global warming through our ideological lenses, and media coverage didn’t change that
4. Global warming became enmeshed in larger partisan and ideological struggles, and Al Gore was a focal point in some ways
5. We need to rethink how we approach a “wicked problem” like global warming.
I gave Matt feedback primarily on the parts relating to environmental group funding, which I know a little about, and cautioned him about not aggregating certain types of spending. I also pointed out to him that he was underplaying the role of the GOP as the defender of the status quo. I think he responded to that feedback reasonably well.
Overall, the report is more nuanced than the headlines. I gave him feedback to the best of my ability, and Matt represented my own views honestly. The final report, as he notes, is his. It will spark a most interesting debate, although I wonder whether it will focus on the core substantive issue of whether we are fighting the right battle on global warming. Somehow, I doubt it.
Edward Maibach​, a report reviewer and director of the Center for Climate Change Communication and communication professor at George Mason University:
I have no expertise or real insights about the parts of Matt’s report that you are exploring [the flows of money], but I think you are right about the difficulty of overcoming inertia. I often make the point that it is easier to oppose than propose (which is merely a restatement of your point). Psychologists Kahneman and Tversky showed us that people are, by nature, risk averse (i.e., we have a tendency to defend the status quo rather than risk uncertain outcomes of a new path). Sociologists have theories and data on how this risk aversion dynamic plays out in groups, communities and societies.
Advocates for change have a high bar to clear in order to get people (including policy makers) to leave their comfort zone and embrace a new direction.  I recall reading — but can’t give you citations off the top of my head — that this also plays out in the form of people systematically overestimating the costs of change, and underestimating the benefits; once change does happen (for example the congestion pricing schemes in London and Stockholm), people report that the costs are less than anticipated and the benefits greater than anticipated.
Katie Mandes​, communications director for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which is named in the report and worked to build the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP below), a coalition of business and nonprofit groups pushing for climate legislation):
Despite some problems with the underlying analysis, the fact remains that a lot of money was spent by both sides of the debate over cap and trade, and in the end little was accomplished to address our energy and climate needs.
We need to learn from that experience in order to try and not repeat past mistakes – and that’s what I believe Nisbet is attempting to do.
The financial numbers for the Pew Center used in the report are [mostly] accurate. But problems with the analysis have been identified – and some groups say the report overstates the amount they spent in support of a climate bill. (The report also presents all lobbying money spent by USCAP companies, although clearly all their lobbying dollars did not go toward supporting a climate bill.)
The report covers more than spending, and it includes insights that inform climate communications as the debate moves forward.
In regard to Nisbet’s study, we agree that:
* Business engagement is essential in our continued efforts to advance pragmatic, economically-effective energy and climate solutions. We must continue to look for opportunities to amplify the business voice.
* It will take business innovation, government policies, and consumer action to advance meaningful energy and climate solutions
* As a community of groups who want action on this issue, we must be nimble and creative in our efforts to reach diverse audiences through various means.
* Public understanding about climate change and its risks needs to improve, and the media is a key vehicle for conveying this information in an accurate way.
* Contrary to Nisbet’s finding, we believe that false balance in climate reporting persists, especially when it comes to the debate over costs and benefits of climate action. (Note that Nisbet did not specifically look at the cost aspect of climate reporting, but we question his broad finding that false balance is no longer a problem in climate reporting).
Robert Brulle, the Drexel University sociologist who withdrew as a reviewer of the report and strongly criticized Nisbet’s conclusions on Climateprogress, has stressed that a critical weakness, in his view, is that the report was in the gray literature and not a peer-reviewed journal. I tend to agree that Nisbet’s approach was almost guaranteed to result, at least initially, in tactical debates more than constructive discourse. Hopefully that’s changing, even now. Here is Brulle on the challenges involved in dissecting money flows in environmental campaigns:
There really isn’t that much peer reviewed literature out there on the funding flows in the environmental movement. The Foundation Center maintains the data on this sort of thing and does periodic reports (not peer reviewed though).
This is an enormous amount of work to really perform accurately. We have been working on a comparison of foundation funding for the environment for 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000. We have worked on this for two years, and think we finally have the data. We are going to be working (three of us, plus three grad students) this summer to write it up.
If you want to give it a try, go to guidestar.org​, get an ID, and then you can look at all of the 990s and see where each organization spends its money. Alternatively, you can go to the National Center for Charitable Statistics​. They actually have the data online. In fact, they have a nice report on the environmental movement based on the IRS data here.
So this is pretty good stuff, but our analysis just trying to count environmental organizations shows that the IRS data is partial…. This took us two years to do (funded by the NSF), and this is just counting organizations. Tracing funding flows is even tougher. You better get a big grant if you want to do this in a reliable and valid way.
I asked Brulle about the report’s evidence for a very large war chest for environmental groups. He replied:
There is a lot of money in the environmental movement. But first, there are very big restrictions and limitations on what they can spend that money on. Charitable organizations have very serious limitations on lobbying and political activities. You would have to check with a nonprofit specialist exactly what they are, but I know they are very substantial.
Second, this is total spending. So this includes groups like the Nature Conservancy, who accounts for about 20% of all spending, and basically buys land for conservation. The other big ones are groups like the Trust for Public Land, the Wildlife Conservation Society (which includes the Bronx Zoo) and World Wildlife Fund. This also includes all of the funding to maintain the Appalachian Trail, huts in the Adirondacks, running outdoor education centers, member outings, etc. etc. etc. So most of the funding goes for things like buying land for nature preservation, wildlife refuges, and to maintain open spaces, running outdoor nature education facilities, protecting and enhancing the habitat of wildlife and endangered species, building and maintaining hiking trails and outdoor recreation spaces, as well as engaging in political activities. But that is a pretty small and limited by law. So comparing operating expenses might create the idea that the environmental movement has a lot of funding, but when you get down to it, they don’t spend a lot of their funding on politics….
You can also see where foundation funding goes if you go to the Chronicle of Philanthropy Guide to Grants.
Roger Pielke, Jr., the environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado and a reviewer of the report, wrote in a blog post that debates about Nisbet’s calculations of spending for or against the bill distracted from the important core finding:
The data show quite clearly, no matter how one may try to parse it, that the debate over climate change is not David versus Goliath, but rather two Goliaths slugging it out in high stakes, big money power politics.
Anthony Leiserowitz​, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a leader of the Six Americas project, added this valuable context on the graph I posted above:
It’s also important to note that those measures of lukewarm support for cap and trade were in response to a question that provided respondents with an explanation of what the policy was and how it would work. Most Americans had never heard of cap and trade – not back in 2008 – and even more importantly, not in January of 2010 – after the greens had been lobbying for it for years, Obama had campaigned in part on it, it had passed the House of Representatives, and the Senate was beginning to debate it.
In that January study, we included a new measure, simply asking whether people had ever heard of “cap and trade”. 60% of Americans said they had heard nothing at all about the policy.
For the 40% who said they had heard of it, we subsequently asked: “what comes to mind when you think of cap and trade?” Another 15% of Americans said nothing at all came to their mind. Thus despite the fact that the Congress was considering legislation arguably as significant as the health care bill, the vast majority of Americans had never heard of it or knew nothing about it. By contrast, many Americans may not have understood what was in the health care bill, but they at least knew the Congress was debating it.
I think this is clear evidence that the proponents of the bill did little to nothing substantial (or at least effective) to inform, educate or sell cap and trade to the American people. It was always going to be hard to explain the policy (which is complicated and counter-intuitive) and the timing was certainly bad (not just the recession, but the malfeasance of Wall Street made it a bad time to be proposing a new commodity trading system), but evidently the proponents didn’t really try. I think they decided to pursue a primarily inside-the-Beltway legislative strategy and got burned — especially after the bill failed in the Senate and the conservative right began demonizing the policy and transformed it into a campaign weapon in the fall 2010 Congressional elections.
Tony Kreindler​*​, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, sent this note:
It appears that [Nisbet] conflated the environmental community’s lobbying muscle with the resources of allied companies like those in USCAP.
In short, he assumed that the environmental community had the total lobbying budget of all supportive companies at its disposal – all available lobbying funds on all issues. It’s not unlike saying that a Rotary Club member has access to all of the other members’ bank accounts. Needless to say, that was not the case. As someone at the center of USCAP’s communications effort, I can say without question that BP did not devote it’s entire lobbying budget to passing a cap and trade bill.
I trust you’ve seen the Center for Responsive Politics analysis of 2009 spending during the legislative debate, which estimates we were outspent about 8 to 1 by the oil and gas industry alone.
Chris Mooney, a critic of Republican and industry tactics in the climate fight but also a collaborator with Nisbet in the past in the past, criticized the new report. But his post prompted a valuable back-and-forth between the two men, who have known each other since college. I encourage you to read that discussion.
It’s that kind of open discussion that provides the best path toward progress, in the end. As I explained above, I’ll be posting detailed input from both Matt Nisbet and Joe Romm tonight.
Postscript​: I encourage you to read a new essay by Jonathan Foley, the director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota, which offers the perfect coda to this discussion. Here’s a keystone line:
Finally, remember that it’s more important to solve the problem than win an argument. In contentious circumstances we sometimes put more emphasis on “winning” than on finding an answer. It’s a natural human reaction, greatly amplified by the highly polarized world we live in today.
But I honestly don’t care who “wins” or “loses” the climate debate. I just want to solve the problem. Read the rest.
[3:52 p.m. | Updated The post initially said that Joe Romm had been alerted to the Nisbet report by Robert Brulle. Romm sent an e-mail saying that is not the case.]
[2:39 p.m. | Updated I'd accidentally left out Kreindler above.]
April 23, 2011, 8:00 pm
Bloggingheads: Growing Pains in Gas Country
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
8:21 p.m. | Updated
The producers of Bloggingheads.TV invited me to join Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica in a discussion of the drilling boom aimed at the vast deposits of natural gas identified in deep shale layers and other deposits around North America and, increasingly, the world. Lustgarten is a lead reporter and writer in ProPublica’s ongoing Buried Secrets project on environmental problems related to the gas boom.
We recorded the chat just one day after drillers lost control of a Pennsylvania gas well. Environmental officials did not detect significant contamination in nearby waterways, but the blowout prompted the drilling company, Chesapeake Energy, to suspend all hydraulic fracturing, or fracking​, activities around the state while the incident is evaluated.
Here’s the opening video, with links to subsequent sections: Read more…
April 23, 2011, 9:15 am
In Case of Emergency, Tap, Tap…
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
A couple of months ago I attended an art opening at the Marina Gallery in Cold Spring, N.Y., the little river town that counts as our urban center. While milling with the crowd, my ears became attuned to a regular “tap.” I found the source, a work of art consisting of a hammer banging metronome-style on the framed words, “Break Glass in Case of Emergency.”
The piece, called “Pending,” was the creation of John Allen, a sculptor who, it turns out, is a neighbor.

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At the reception, Allen explained that he had originally set the piece up in his home to test whether it could both get under one’s skin and also fade into the background.
I can’t say that I liked it, given the discomfort level attached to the work. But I liked how it related to the “slow drip” problems I write about on Dot Earth — from delayed preparations for inevitable earthquakes to the premature deaths of several million people annually from contaminated water or indoor pollution to the buildup of long-lived greenhouse-gas emissions in the atmosphere.
Here’s Allen’s description of the piece, which includes an encouraging secondary interpretation of the tapping: Read more…
April 21, 2011, 7:37 pm
Indian Point and Earth Day
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
9:19 p.m. | Updated
I spent much of Thursday inside the Indian Point nuclear power complex, which is less than 10 miles from my home in the Hudson Valley and less than 40 miles north of Times Square. Here’s a snippet of video (much more coming soon) from our stop in the thick-walled building housing the pool for spent fuel from Indian Point 3, one of the two active reactors at the plant:
I felt a mix of awe and fascination — and, yes, a tingle of fear — as I stared into the green depths and absorbed that the reactor’s entire legacy of used fuel since it began producing power in 1976 was there in that small space. One of the unbending realities for anyone fighting this energy choice is that even if Indian Point, or any other plant, were to lose its license, the reactors and fuel would be around for decades before full decommissioning ever happened.
I was strongly encouraged by what I saw today, but will be doing more reporting before weighing in more thoroughly here. What to do about existing plants, and how to chart a sustainable energy future with (or without) nuclear power are entirely separate questions.
It’s worth reflecting, on the eve of Earth Day 2011, that one year ago I was blogging about boom times for the global coal industry​.
The organizers of Earth Day celebrations this year are calling for “a billion acts of green.” There are plenty of important questions about nuclear technology going forward, but to my mind responsible operation of existing plants is one of those green acts. Read more…
April 20, 2011, 6:30 am
A Silent Bell for 11 Who are Gone
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
A description is at the end of this post.
I’m letting Dot Earth lie silent today to recall the lives of the 11 workers who died on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico one year ago. There is much to say about the full price of our existing energy menu, but also the steep price paid by the 2 billion or so people who live in parts of the world that lack any reasonable energy choices. There is much to say about mistakes of the past, culpability for the Deepwater calamity and energy imperatives for the future. But that can wait a bit.
In the focus on broader issues, as the mother in law of Roy Wyatt Kemp, one of the lost rig workers, said a few days ago, “These men are all but forgotten except by their families​.”
I’m thinking of them today.
The bell: I see the bell above almost daily on walks in the woods. It was crafted by Nancy Bauch, who makes ceramics that are as delicate as life itself, yet remarkably durable. Years ago, she strung some of her ceramic bells along a mossy path near our home — a path that follows one of the many fieldstone walls in the Hudson Valley that once demarcated cow pastures but are now surrounded by a maturing forest.
You can see from how the clapper dangles that this bell is mostly silent.
April 19, 2011, 8:46 am
When Rationalization Masquerades as Reason
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
It’s awfully hard for human beings to step outside of their predispositions and gut reactions, which may be why it’s so hard to have a rational discussion about the findings of science, which is all about sidelining such distorting biases.
But that makes it even harder to have a rational discussion about contentious issues when there is a paucity of firm data — and thus a lot of running room for advocates of one stripe or another, along with free rein for feelings.
In the latter category, at the moment, is the recent burst of assertions and press coverage over the extent of climate impacts from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — centered on a new paper on this issue by Robert Howarth, a Cornell ecologist who makes no secret of his opposition to the gas-extraction method.
The problem, as is noted in Howarth’s paper, is the huge amount of guesswork behind estimates of gas emissions from this (or any other) form of natural gas drilling and the subjectivity of interpretations of the greenhouse influence of such emissions (which are nearly all methane, a potent but short-lived heat-trapping gas). [April 19, 11:50 p.m. | Updated | Michael Levi has critiqued the paper on his Council on Foreign Relations blog on energy and climate.]
The near impossibility of having a productive public discussion on a contentious issue even when there is a lot of science is the subject of “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science​,” an article in Mother Jones by Chris Mooney, the author of The Republican War on Science and the co-author, with Sheril Kirshenbaum​, of Unscientific America​.
The piece spends quite a bit of time, appropriately on the fascinating work of Dan Kahan, the Yale law professor who is a leader of the ongoing “​Cultural Cognition​” research project and was the focus of my piece on how one can choose a Nobel Prize winner in physics to suit just about any view on human-driven climate change.
As Mooney puts it:
When we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing…. Modern science originated from an attempt to weed out such subjective lapses.
Of course that bad fit between science and what humans are seeking ends up making some people, often unconsciously, very selective about the science they embrace or ignore. I’m sure this is as true for me as anyone else. Fighting that feeling (literally) is tough, but essential, to my mind. His piece explores science “denialism” on issues ranging from global warming skepticism to vaccination phobia.
I asked Mooney a few questions on Monday. Here’s a snippet (my questions are bundled and followed by his integrated reply; I’ve cleaned up some e-mail shorthand): Read more…
April 17, 2011, 2:37 pm
From ‘Wall-E’ to Fukushima, Robots Roam
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Tokyo Electric Power Co. Robots are being used to inspect contaminated areas of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan.
There’s a profoundly odd feeling that arises while examining the latest video and images released by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, showing robots making their way into the shattered and contaminated wreckage of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. (Here’s more on these robots and others on the scene.)
Pixar Animation Studios/Walt Disney Pictures​Wall-E.
Particularly notable is the slow overhead view, above, shot by a remote-controlled miniature helicopter. It is utterly reminiscent of some of the opening scenes in “Wall-E,​” in which a solitary automaton cleans up the massive mess left after humans have evacuated a polluted planet.
Back at the Fukushima complex, there is now a nine-month plan being developed to get the reactors to the stable condition called “cold shutdown.” The robots will be busy for a long while to come.
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ABOUT DOT EARTH
By 2050 or so, the human population is expected to reach nine billion, essentially adding two Chinas to the number of people alive today. Those billions will be seeking food, water and other resources on a planet where, scientists say, humans are already shaping climate and the web of life. In Dot Earth, which recently moved from the news side of The Times to the Opinion section, Andrew C. Revkin examines efforts to balance human affairs with the planet’s limits. Conceived in part with support from a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Dot Earth tracks relevant developments from suburbia to Siberia. The blog is an interactive exploration of trends and ideas with readers and experts.
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WHAT I'M READING
CLIMATE DIPLOMACY
Climate Diplomacy
Andrew Revkin's coverage of the climate treaty talks in Cancún, Mexico.
ON THE DOT
Energy
New Options Needed
Access to cheap energy underpins modern societies. Finding enough to fuel industrialized economies and pull developing countries out of poverty without overheating the climate is a central challenge of the 21st century.
Climate
The Arctic in Transition
Enshrined in history as an untouchable frontier, the Arctic is being transformed by significant warming, a rising thirst for oil and gas, and international tussles over shipping routes and seabed resources.
Society
Slow Drips, Hard Knocks
Human advancement can be aided by curbing everyday losses like the millions of avoidable deaths from indoor smoke and tainted water, and by increasing resilience in the face of predictable calamities like earthquakes and drought.
Biology
Life, Wild and Managed
Earth’s veneer of millions of plant and animal species is a vital resource that will need careful tending as human populations and their demands for land, protein and fuels grow.
SLIDE SHOW
A Planet in Flux
Andrew C. Revkin began exploring the human impact on the environment nearly 30 years ago. An early stop was Papeete, Tahiti. This narrated slide show describes his extensive travels.
VIDEO
Dot Earth on YouTube
Many of the videos featured here can be found on Andrew Revkin’s channel on YouTube. Recent reader favorites:
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Energy and the Environment
How are climate change, scarcer resources, population growth and other challenges reshaping society? From science to business to politics to living, reporters track the high-stakes pursuit of a greener globe in a dialogue with experts and readers. Join the discussion at Green.
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