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Journalistic whiplash

Filed under: — gavin @ 29 July 2008 - (Español)

Andy Revkin has a good article in the Science Times today on the problem of journalistic whiplash in climate change (also discussed here). This phenomena occurs with the more uncertain parts of a science that are being actively researched and where the full story is only slowly coming together. In such cases, new papers often appear in high profile journals (because they meet the ‘of general interest’ test), and are often parsed rather simplistically to see what side of the fence they fall – are they pro or anti? This leads to wide press interest, but rather shallow coverage, and leaves casual readers with ‘whiplash’ from the ‘yes it is’, ‘no it isn’t’ messages every other week.

This is a familiar pattern in health reporting (is coffee good for you/bad for you etc.), but in more recent times has started happening in climate science too. Examples picked out in the article include the hurricanes/global warming connection and the state of Greenland’s ice sheet. In both cases, many new pieces of evidence, new theories and new models are being thrown into the pot, but full syntheses of the problems remain elusive. Scientists are of course interested in knowing how it all fits together (and it usually does), but the public – unaware of what is agreed on and what is uncertain – see only the ping-pong across the media. Unlike more mature parts of the science (such as the radiative effect of greenhouse gases), there is much less context available to relate to these new pieces of science.

This spectacle of duelling and apparently contradictory science fuels the notion that scientists can’t agree on anything. Ironically, just as climate change has made it on to the front page because the weight of evidence supporting a human role in recent warming, increased coverage may actually be leading people to think that scientists are more divided on the basic questions.

Is this inevitable? Or can scientists, press officers and journal editors and journalists actually do anything about it? Your thoughts are most welcome!

287 Responses to “Journalistic whiplash”

  1. 151
    pete best says:

    Re Re #129, Gavin

    I believe that meat take up many times more water and feed than growing plants alone does and hence a lot of people see being a vegan as a good way of cutting down on land, water and food use whilst reducing methane emissions (not sure if cows do in fact emit that much methane in the grand scheme of methane release)? Trouble is that it aint going to happen. However meat needs transporting to and it goes a long way an needs refrigeration to so meat is quite energy intensive to.

    At the present time your optimism is good to know but hardly as yet on a firm scientific footing. I see no evidence of fossil fuel usage presently falling, indeed quite the opposite at the present time. Everyone seems to be pinning there hopes on CCS technology for coal which is a long way off commercially and in sufficent quantities to be effective in bringing down global carbon emissions but you know that already. Oil and gas are on the increase and our present infrastructure in terms of housing (leaky and energy hungry at the moment) and energy use in terms of getting to work, shopping requirements, flying and holidays etc (living in the suburbs)is woeful at the present time.

    It all seems a tad hopeless at the moment but I am sure that we have enough time before we hit the fateful 450 ppmv?

  2. 152
    Walter Pearce says:

    RE: 133

    Hank, it was my bad. I’ve lurked for so long and forgot I was an unknown quantity. It was presumptuous to do any tweaking. Now that I’m on the record, however…

    RE: 151

    I believe Hansen is now saying that 350ppmv is the magic number, at a minimum, and that given the right kind of reductions in fossil fuel use we can get there with reforestation and better agricultural practices. Is there a consensus that 350 is the number?

  3. 153
    Hank Roberts says:

    A look back via an other blog at one of David Brin’s relevant pieces, as quoted here:

    Some of you have read my extensive essay – written for the American Bar Association – about the underlying common traits of markets, science, courts and democracy — the “accountability arenas” that have empowered free individuals to compete and create without tumbling quickly into repression and outrage…. for the first time, ever. Alas, over the years since, I have found that people have trouble perceiving some of what the paper describes… or why today’s internet just does not yet have what it takes to empower us with a “fifth arena.”

    Here is one of the key difficult concepts. I describe how markets, science, courts and democracy each have “centripetal vs centrifugal” social phases.

    I see these opposite trends having much the same effect for accountability arenas that INHALING and EXHALING have in living mammals. You need both for the system to thrive.

    In science, markets, courts and democracy, the CENTRIFUGAL PHASE is when each individual participant may disperse, find allies/collaborators, and safely organize with others under some degree of protection, in a zone where product can be refined and readied for competitive testing.

    In science, this zone is your tenured professorship or lab etc: in markets the safe zone is the company/corporation: in courts it is attorney-client privilege and the power of coerced deposition; and democracy has parties.

    That’s the centrifugal phase and it took civilization thousands of years to realize how necessary it is, in order for these four arenas to function.

    Note that this is the phase that exists now, copiously, in the nascent “fifth arena” of the internet!

    What the cybersphere does NOT have is anything even remotely resembling the CENTRIPETAL phase that also empowers the four older, more mature “arenas.”

    What is the centripetal phase? This is where in all of the disparate and dispersed participants in an arena are summoned together by a ritual CALL TO COMBAT. What ensues is a battle – competition – that has transformed ancient human bloody-mindedness into something much more like a game. One in which rules have been laid down to ensure that the outcome of competition correlates at least somewhat with quality of product, and much less with power or influence or other means of cheating.

    In science the centripetal competition phase compels researchers to publish papers and present them for criticism. In markets the ritual battleground is retail sales – where customers compare goods and services. In democracy the role is filled by elections, and courts have trials.

    Presently, on the internet, THERE IS NO EQUIVALENT CENTRIPETAL PHASE that allows us to test ideas, opinions, arguments against each other, using competitive processes to cull wheat from the chaff.

    Pearls are said to float upward in shit. But so MUCH of the ranting online today is BS, how can anyone hope for good ideas to actually coalesce and for bad ones to finally die, as they eventually deserve?
    —-end excerpt—–

  4. 154

    Re: #112

    Robert, I only use one compact fluorescent bulb in the room that I occupy — the rest of my house is dark at night.

    I use a small, energy-efficient refrigerator that I have to manually defrost.

    I have no water heater, dishwasher, clothes washer, or dryer.

    I almost never watch TV.

    I live in the tropics and do not have an air conditioner.

    If I could afford solar panels around here, I would certainly buy them, but they are way out of reach.

    I put about 3500 miles per year on the car, but after learning that burning 1 litre of petrol emits more than 3 litres of CO2, I am trying to reduce that.

    I don’t buy useless, unnecessary stuff.

    And, I spend several hours per day playing whack a mole with the industry-paid deniers on Dot Earth, which is not something that I actually enjoy doing — I just see the need for it.

    I could do more, of course.

  5. 155
    Jess says:

    I wanted to point out something that a lot of the people who think we can go on using fossil fuels.

    I did a little calculation. I assumed we increase usage 1% per year of oil.

    I also assumed the whole planet was covered with oil to a depth of 1 km.

    The answer I got was that by the year 2113 or so there would be no more. None. (I also assumed a 100% conversion rate).

    So we will be using something else, like it or not, in the next couple of decades — maybe a little more if we are lucky. Of course, if we slowed the increase we might go longer.

    Anyhow, the thing that all the “skeptics” have to remember is that while nuclear has its merits, there’s a simpler way to harness it than building new plants. We have dozens of the things generating megawatts floating out at sea. Can’t see why we can’t bring one or two back and “plug it in” as it were.

    Point is, there’s a lot of ways to reduce CO2 emissions, but it will require some changes in lifestyle. Many are with proven technologies we already have — we just need to spend a relatively small amount of money in the scheme of things. Give me $10 billion — the cost of rehabbing the old 20th century limited line to Chicago — and I can cut the air and car traffic by enough that we save at least that much by not sending it to oil producers.

  6. 156
    David B. Benson says:

    Walter Pearce (152) — 350 ppm CO2e is a maximum, not a minimum.

    My own amateur analysis, for what its worth, is that 350 ppm is only an interim goal. Long term will have to be around 290 ppm.

    But wahtever, we need to be about it.

  7. 157
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Re:112, Robert’s question about personal behavior is fair enough, at least as far as I’m concerned. What others choose to do as individuals is their own decision. I feel I ought to put my money where my mouth is. The outcome, however, is that using compact fluorescents and mass transit actually costs less. My energy and transportation costs are down.

    I live in a large building complex and suggested a few years back that they do a feasibility study on installing solar panels( in the NY City area). A year or so ago they responded that it would take an 11 year payback period to reach the break even point, and shelved it. My reaction was ‘so what?’ If we had started years ago, we’d have some measure of independence from the local power company a few years,
    from now.

    There’s a certain oil company ( they have a hyphenated name), whose retail gas stations,I wouldn’t go near. If I ran out of gas in front of one of their stations, I’d push the car until I found another retailer. Just today they announced another obscene amount for quarterly profits. Fine!Why the hell should I contribute to it.

    It’s going to take a lot more than each of us thinking globally and acting individually though.This problem requires not just national but international cooperation.

  8. 158
    greg smith says:

    Yesterday I asked a question which appears to have neen moderated so I will ask it again in simple terms. The little Ice age and Medieval Warm Period are well documented events and there is a rough periodicity to them with a fairly rapid period of cooling/warming of about 100 years followed by a longer period of “stability” before another 100 years or so of the reversal of the process. Presumably whatever caused these events did not switch off when fossil fuels started to be used. Therefore, how do your models account for this process, and if they do not then are they inherently inaccurate?

  9. 159
    Hank Roberts says:

    Greg, can you ask a more specific question about one of the models?
    Try reading a few of these to start with:

  10. 160
    Martin Vermeer says:

    but if you go look at 20 websites that sell PV products how many of them have an option aside from batteries for a non grid tie system?

    Well that’s the problem innit? That’s where the grid comes in. So you can locate the buggers where the sun shines — and large scale storage: pumped hydro, compressed air, for solar thermal even heat storage.

    You cannot solve this problem, society can.

    BTW I did see a small-scale pumped-hydro storage solution for farms… dunno if it’s operational.

  11. 161
    Richard Patton says:

    Ray Ladbury says:
    Between 2 K/doubling and 4.5 K/doubling there just isn’t that much wiggle room, and nobody has figured out how to make a climate model work with sensitivity less than 2 K/doubling. So we know with high confidence that we are the main driver of the current warming epoch.

    Is this the primary evidence for 2-4.5 K/doubling sensitivity – that no one can figure out how to make a climate model work with more or less?

    Or is the primary evidence something else?

    [Response: No. The best evidence is from paleo-climate changes. – gavin]

  12. 162
    Joe Hunkins says:

    RE: Certainty. Just wanted to make clear that although many commenters here make the mistake of suggesting that likelihoods are certainties, I’ve seen no posts or scientist comments here at RC that do that. I find the IPCC’s language extremely appealing – they often use probability statements when talking about science.

    Ray several good points above though as I’ve commented before I’m partial to risk bounding decisions based on the growing body of economic models that suggest moderate rather than drastic mitigation.

    Soon the AGW debate will move away from the “stupid” form it takes now which has the media pitting stubborn AGW skeptics against an angry mob of overly alarmed activists and into the form it needs to take to make progress – better predictive modelling of climate and mitigation impacts and how spending will affect these factors.

  13. 163
    Patrick says:

    Perhaps the issue is not the message but the messenger(s); While some (like you Gavin) are consistently polite with your arguments the religious zeal of many “environmentalists” who have jumped on the climate change bandwagon is a real turn-off for many people and perhaps refelcts why a large portion of the public (as evidenced by a recent UK survey) are skeptical about the causes and required actions around climate change.

    For a good summary of this reaction see AA Gill’s Sunday Times review of BBC climate change drama “Burn Up”

    This is especially pertinent to people such as Ray Ladbury who in Comment 4 above states “The final issue I see is that most people don’t realize how mind-numbingly ignorant they are.” Perhaps a little less arrogance and a little more humility from the knowledgeable pastors?

    As AA Gill says in the article
    “There is a global resistance, not to the facts, but to environmentalists. It appears most of us would rather fry, drown or starve than be told what to do by a bearded git in sandals, and that’s a rather comforting and cussedly human truth. “

  14. 164

    Chris MCV writes:

    To consider solar without considering energy storage methods (most typically batteries) into the mess tells me you are misinformed. The bugbear in the works for most renewables is the storage of energy.

    Solar thermal electric plants store excess heat in molten salts, allowing them to operate at night or in bad weather. Some STE plants achieve almost 24/7 operation that way.

  15. 165
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Re Robert’s question as to what any of us is personally doing is based on two premises, only one of which is mentioned:
    1) That we accept that the phenomenon is real, man-made and serious; and
    2) that any of us owe mankind a contribution towards doing something about it.

    If I were a climatologist doing active research, I would look at how mankind has appreciated my earlier attempts at contributing, and based on that, form a judgment whether mankind is actually worth the attempt. No use helping those who don’t want to be helped. Why should scientists be more humanitarian than the rest of us? The BS up with which they have had to put was way above the call of duty. Climatology is great physics and its own reward. And there’s nothing quite like the “I told you so” experience ;-)

    If my name were James Hansen, Michael Mann or Lonnie Thompson, I expect it would be a long, hard think.

    (As for me, I am getting my driver’s licence at this rather late age. Looking forward to driving around, going places, enjoying the mobility and the hydrocarbons while they last… the “crunch” will undoubtedly come when I am dead and buried, not my problem. I can see myself sitting on my cloud looking down at things going to hell in a handbasket, mumbling “I told you so” :-) . Remember me if you’re around and I’m not.)

  16. 166
    TokyoTom says:

    “This spectacle of duelling and apparently contradictory science fuels the notion that scientists can’t agree on anything. Ironically, just as climate change has made it on to the front page because the weight of evidence supporting a human role in recent warming, increased coverage may actually be leading people to think that scientists are more divided on the basic questions.

    “Is this inevitable? Or can scientists, press officers and journal editors and journalists actually do anything about it?”

    My answer? Perhaps scientists can counterbalance the whiplash somewhat – if they act specifically through a watchdog group like a unit of the Royal Society or of the AGU that has some institutional credibility – but an ad hoc grouping of scientists such as those here is vulnerable to criticism and easily drowned out. Press officers, journal editors and journalists can try, but their personal and institutional incentives actually encourage them to contribute to the effect. These people are in the business of attracting as much attention as possible. This means that, on topics which hold a fair degree of popular interest, there are great incentives for making “news” (and thus potential whiplash) out of the latest study, happening or intriguing statistic.

    Perhaps it will help to analyze what it is that people tend to consider “the problem”. In my view, it is not so much the difficulties that we each face in adding new information to our cognitive maps of reality, as it is the incentives for interested parties to manipulate our predilections in ways that advance their private interests. In particular, given the nature of our political system and the dominant role that groups with financial interests play in shaping policy, the chief “problem” is that shifting climate “news” is fodder for the mill of those who profit from our current “do nothing” status quo, while costs and risks are shifted broadly through society. These interests, following the playbook that Luntz once kindly spelled out for the Bush administration and Republicans, like the “whiplash” as it helps them to further play the American layman (via various mechanisms including ads, blogs, and “independent” spokesmen in apparently unaffiliated thinktanks) into supporting stasis.

    This is a “problem” that various scientists, press officers, reporters and media outlets may struggle with, but it’s one that none of them individually is in a position to address (and some have incentives to exacerbate).

    I think it would be really helpful if, to counterbalance the misinformation and “uncertainty” being spread by the fossil fuel firms (and their investors, supply/demand chains and politicians), we could get a few OTHER ELITES, acting through firms and other organizations that clearly face the costs and risks that are being shifted (or who see the opportunities to be gained in moving to energy systems that pose fewer environmental risks), to step up to the plate of publicly arguing over science and policy. By this, I am not inviting a new batch of rent-seekers simply to come to the public trough, but note that it is high time that executives at our insurers and power producers (and others who are well-aware of climate risks and well-positioned to evaluate them) who care about the future to start acting like it – and stop allowing those who benefit the most from the status quo dictate the level of risks and costs that we all have to bear.

    Insurers, for example, are publishing literature about the risks posed by climate change; why can’t they or others publicly step forward and denounce alot of the nonsense? Where is the Gates Foundation? Google? Branson? Why does PEW never take any of the nonsense head-on?

    We need some people who obviously have money and reputation at risk to step forward – and hopefully people who are not asking for a handout (like Pickens is). Otherwise, we will continue to remain locked in the dynamic of “radical enviros, scientists in the employ of government and fat politicians with big carbon footprints who want to take over the world” vs. “responsible defenders of capitalism who want to make sure that our economies are not gutted, the poor are not trampled and science is not used to create bigger governments, unless we’re REALLY sure we need to act”.

    This is not the fault of scientists (regardless of what Roger Peilke Jr may say), and it is unfortunately endemic to the media. What we need are other firms to stand up to Peabody, Massey and the oil firms.

  17. 167
    Jess says:

    @ greg smith:

    The Medieval Warm Period may actually have been a local, rather than global event. You probably heard the “grapes in England” or some such. Actually grapes are pretty tough and can exist in a wide range of climates, which is why they have wineries in Newport, RI and Canada. You also proabbly heard the “why was Greenland called that” thing, but the etymology of the name isn’t as clear cut as it looks, and Greenland doesn’t look like a big ice sheet most times anymore than Iceland does. Iceland used to have trees on it, you know, and they are all gone now. Southern Greenland was probably the same. (Vegetation takes longer to re-establish itself in colder climates). In both cases the trees were simply chopped down and if you combine that with sheep raising, well…

    Anyhow, the upshot is there isn’t a whole lot of evidence for a global Medieval Warm period. Local to Europe, maybe. But the models wouldn’t have to worry about that, or rather it’s already sort of baked in, just like El Nino events and the like. Thats a big oversimplification, but it’s the current state of the science in a nutshell, as I understand it.

  18. 168
    Ellis says:

    Sometimes you don’t even need a journalist to get whiplash. Dr. Rind, I believe one of your inspirations, Gavin, has put out a very clear exposition on the state of climate modeling.

    We still can’t predict future climate responses at low and high latitudes, which constrains our ability to forecast changes in atmospheric dynamics and regional climate.

    Of course, a lot has changed between the early
    models and our current ones: now coupled dynamical
    oceans without flux corrections are being used;
    cloud liquid water routines are incorporated to calculate
    changes, not only in cloud cover but in cloud
    optical depth; the horizontal and vertical resolutions
    are noticeably finer; and the number of different
    models has increased by a factor of 5. However, the same net uncertainties still exist; their causes are
    somewhat better known, perhaps, but a solution is
    not yet in sight.

    Can we use paleoclimate data from equilibrium
    climate changes of greater magnitude, which presumably
    contain the nonlinearities, to determine
    the proper latitudinal response? Unfortunately, the
    answer is a resounding no.

    To put the model variation
    in perspective, in the coupled atmosphere–ocean
    models run for AR4, there is approximately a 50%
    probability that the tropical ocean warming will
    exceed 2°C in the last 20 yr of this century with the
    A1B trace-gas release scenario (Solomon et al. 2007)
    (i.e., a coin flip).

    Given that the primary reasons for our uncertainty
    in both low- and high-latitude sensitivity is largely
    associated with model physics, it makes the problem
    that much harder to reduce by averaging. It has been
    suggested that we can have greater confidence in
    the multimodel mean changes than in that of any
    individual model for climate change assessments,
    which seems to be the case in weather forecasting experiments
    and simulations driven by specified SSTs.
    Considerable work has been done in deriving weights
    for the different models to provide the optimum
    forecast (e.g., Krishnamurti et al. 1999). However, in
    both of those situations the response is dominated
    by atmospheric dynamics, even when the physics are
    varied (e.g., with specified SSTs, the forcing is largely
    provided). The various models are all attempting to
    solve the same basic dynamical equations, albeit in
    different forms, and it is understandable that their
    errors can be minimized when different attempts are
    averaged together. For climate-change simulations,
    given their different physical parameterizations,
    models are not solving the same equations. The formulations for low and high clouds, or snow albedo
    change with temperature, vary. It is doubtful that
    averaging different formulations together will end
    up giving the “right” result, especially because we
    have no way of knowing whether the various choices
    that have been made even circumscribe the proper
    sensitivity. As noted by Wang (2005), an individual
    model may provide results that differ from the mean
    model response because it includes either an improved
    parameterization or a missing mechanism.
    Because the cloud cover and cryospheric feedbacks
    are providing a substantial part of the net forcing, in
    effect the models are being given a different forcing
    distribution. The model responses (e.g., tropical land
    precipitation) can often be of different signs, and
    there can be little confidence that averaging them
    together will produce a better result.

    The last quote, I believe, is a direct rebutal to Gavins’ viewpoint and as such deserves a reply, of course I will understand if you want to save your response for a letter to the journal, but please at some point revisit this issue.

    CONCLUDING REMARKS. As noted in the
    introduction, over the past 25 yr we have not been
    able to quantitatively improve our understanding of low- and high-latitude (or even global) climate
    sensitivity. That does not mean we have not learned
    many things; we are more knowledgeable about why
    models are getting different responses in various
    locations, and, as the preceding discussion has
    shown, we are in a position to better understand
    the consequences of not knowing these sensitivities.
    However, at this point the uncertainties in
    latitudinal temperature gradient changes affect the
    confidence we can have in many of our projections
    of atmospheric dynamic and hydrologic responses
    to global warming.


  19. 169
    Chris MCV says:

    “You cannot solve this problem, society can”

    That statement troubles me greatly. One should strive to make society better, but the ultimate responsibility lies in each individual. We ARE society afterall.
    I know you probably mean that the answer is not each residence going off grid and such, but if enough people start doing that it improves the market demand with motivates companies to sell and improve these products. It also makes it more commonplace for the average person to see and accept as normal. Then you have paved the way for it to happen on a larger scale.
    Saying only society can solve this seems like you feel as if you are powerless and government must legislates the answer.

  20. 170
    Chris MCV says:

    Where I am is rural. There is pretty much no way I could get the current local government to consider going to a decent sized solar thermal power generation system (although I would LOVE it and will actively lobby for it).
    So I either would have to make/contract my own, which is not something most could do easily, or I have to consider other forms of generation, such as PV.
    I love things like what Sopogy and other companies are doing, but they are a bit expensive for the individual.

    There is so much talk about an “Energy manhatten project” but the fact is it needs to be something that average people can wrap their minds and wallets around. Try to buy the powerhead they use on the solar stirlings made by Solo sometime. Its not cheap nor even easy.

    There is a large gulf to cross in the areas between proven design, public acceptance, public demand and feasability. No matter how “green” a technology is, if it cannot span those gaps it is going to have a hard time being utilized.

  21. 171
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Re 163: Patrick, Might I suggest that you at least make an attempt to take quotes in context. If you look at the sentence that follows my quote about the ignorance of the common man, you will find that I attribute it not to the individual, but to the pace of increasing knowledge. But, then, I suppose that wouldn’t fit into your little stereotype of scientists as bearded gits in sandles, would it? To call attention to the ignorance of the ignorant is not arrogance, but rather a diagnosis. The fact that you choose to take it as an insult rather than as a suggestion that you go and learn something suggests that you are not only ignorant but also complacent. So, perhaps if you would like to be taken more seriously, you might consider keeping the quotes you choose in their proper context.

  22. 172
    captdallas2 says:

    160 and others,

    There are a variety of home hydrogen generation and storage systems coming on the market that work well with wind and solar power systems. Honda has one for the hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that also acts as a back-up home power system. A British company has developed low cost a PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) and manufacturing method that will reduce the overall cost of electrolizers.

    Nanosolar has a printing press manufacturing process for PV that should dramatically reduce cost and environmental impact of solar cell manufacture (they shipped their first utility scale panels this year). Their product should greatly reduce the cost solar powered electrolization of hydrogen in areas where wind power is not a viable option. Ballard Power Systems and others have fork lift battery pack replacement Hydrogen Fuel Cells that are in use and are actually selling. Actual sales for these companies will help reduce the cost of automotive FC manufacture.

    High pressure hydrogen storage tank design is greatly improved and lower pressure systems using chemical interim storage are improving.

    John Deere has a FC utility vehicle that the US navy is considering for use on its aircraft carriers.

    So rather quietly, Hydrogen as a storage and transportation fuel is starting to come of age.

    All of these projects started when gas was less than $2.00 a gallon. Research funding for the US and Canadian companies was provide in part by the Bush administration. None of these projects have generated any significant media attention.

  23. 173
    SecularAnimist says:

    Regarding storage for PV and wind generated energy, here is some very good news:

    Major Discovery From MIT Primed to Unleash Solar Revolution
    Thursday 31 July 2008
    By Anne Trafton, MIT News

    In a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative into a mainstream energy source, MIT researchers have overcome a major barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn’t shine.

    Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With today’s announcement, MIT researchers have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.

    Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. “This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said MIT’s Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. “Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”

    Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera’s lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun’s energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.

    The key component in Nocera and Kanan’s new process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity – whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source – runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced.

    Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.

    The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it’s easy to set up, Nocera said. “That’s why I know this is going to work. It’s so easy to implement,” he said.

  24. 174

    OK, I may, in my usual manner, offend some, but this has also been bothering me for some time.

    I do not believe that there would be so much confusion in the public mind if more individual scientists were to come out and take a public stand on the science.

    Hansen has been taking it on the chin for years, acting as a lightning rod for all the criticisms. But, in a way, this has permitted other scientists to carry on and do their thing.

    OK, I realize that my viewpoint of what is going on there in academia is restricted, but this is my perception of things as a member of the general public.

    Are you guys so unsure of your science and personal integrity that you can’t now come out into the light of day and tell the world of the inevitable disaster if humanity does not change its ways?

    Are you afraid of the criticism? Are you afraid of being accused of having a political agenda? So what! Why aren’t you more afraid of not having a viable planet for your children to live on?

  25. 175
    Richard says:

    These data sets seem to indicate that atmospheric methane concentrations have been leveling off since 2000. Does anyone have any idea why that sort of thing might occur??

  26. 176

    RE #112, Robert, you forgot to ask about stuff reduction.

    How many of us reduce the amount of stuff we buy — which requires energy to extract resources (like ripping up rainforests in South America to get bauxite for aluminum), process, ship to industries (like in China), manufacture, package, ship to store (from China), to driving around searching in 5 or 6 stores to buy it, for garbage trucks to haul it away once we’re finished with it.

    And don’t forget all the paper-work at each level. That’s trees, and all the energy that goes into processing and marketing paper.


    Now, to be fair, younger people establishing their households need to buy more stuff, but be sure to get long-lasting, rather than throwaway stuff.

  27. 177
    paulm says:

    Quite frankly, Climate change is very bad news and we need people and bodies in the know to step up to the plate and put their money where their mouth is… all this ‘debate’ about GW is just fizzling while were sizzling.

    Scientist, if they think that it is happening and is as bad as it is and are not seeing a positive reaction to their alarms – should be taking drastic steps like Hansen and Gore.

    Letters stating ‘we believe etc…’ are not strong enough – shouldn’t they be threating resignations, having sit-ins, demanding audiences with leaders, placing law suites …. setting themselves on fire and jumping off tall buildings?

  28. 178
    Hank Roberts says:


    “The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his.”

    George Patton

    “advances War”
    “investments Libby”

  29. 179
    Robert says:

    Re #125 – Lynn

    Thank you so much for your reasoned reply regarding the false positive and the idea that we won’t do any harm in attempting to solve AGW even if the catastrophic results do not occur as a result.

    You’re mostly correct and I commend individual and reasonable governmental efforts at conservation and responsible use of natural resources. Most reasonable individuals would agree with that statement.

    That said, I believe it is naive to write a blank check to government in the name of solving this “crisis”.

    Case in point, the global price of food, especially grains, has gone up incredibly in the past year and every indicator is that the increase in price for food stuffs in directly linked to the production of bio fuels. Why are bio fuels being produced? Obviously for a lot of different reasons, but one of the most oft given is AGW.


    [Response: Another strawman. Where has anyone suggested giving the government a blank check to deal with this issue? And there is a world of difference between someone claiming that their favorite subsidy is helping save the planet and it actually having any such effect – corn ethanol is the classic example. – gavin]

  30. 180
    Robert says:

    Re 177 – paulm said:

    “Quite frankly, Climate change is very bad news and we need people and bodies in the know to step up to the plate and put their money where their mouth is”

    Paulm, I’ve got really, really bad news for you. Climate always changes. Always has, always will. You don’t have to be in the AGW crowd or a “denialist” to understand that. That much we can agree on I think.

  31. 181
    Figen Mekik says:

    Tenney Naumer,
    But individual scientists are coming out and saying AGW is human caused and a major problem. But not all of them do it in the media. Don’t get me wrong, I have enormous amount of respect for those scientists who do reach out to the public through media. But not all scientists come with the same personality or talents. However all of them teach AGW and its causes, effects and the need to take action in their classes. I, for one, taech in an undergraduate instution and have over 1000 students go through my classes per year. So just using one of the books highlighted on RC (on sidebar) per semester as the textbook for the class has enormous impact. And there is also a lot to be said for contributing to the basic science even if those scientists may not be teaching or doing much outreach. What we know about AGW we know because of that basic research. The “consensus” among scientists about AGW, if you will, is far greater than most lay people appreciate. And though the cliche perception in modern culture of a scientist may be “one who lives in nerd paradise”, we really do reach out, a lot and in many ways.

  32. 182
    pete best says:

    The problem with the medis is the sound bites. One like:

    Cliamte catastrophe, climate chaos, climate disaster. Giving up on 2C (what does 2C really stand for?)and the reporting of infant alleged breakthroughs in renewable and sustainable technology which then are stated to be 10 years before commercial production and then another 20 years before critical mass of deployment is reached.

    Hydrogen technology is one good example. Battery breakthroughs, hybrid plugin cars etc. I just hate the way that the media portray in the headline that a given technology will somehow save us in a very short space of time.

    The last time I looked humanity was persuing: hydrogen cars, plug in cars, electric cars, more efficient cars, and algae based and cullular biofuel breakthroughs that will allow us to be carbon neutral in no time at all which is all nonsense in any meaningful timeframe for avoiding some of the early dramatic consequences of AGW.

    Then we have CCS: another potentially useful yet commercially infant technology which will cost a lot of money to deploy if it wver actually exists. Then we have the bad boys, GTL/CTL, shale and oil sands and digging up Alaska, Deep oil and eventually the Arctic. We have no strategy for carbon mitigation, only Kyoto and no one significant signed up for that and Bali and G8 meetings have been hazy and vague on strategic mitigation strategy.

    At the present time we have a who raft of infant technologies vying to be the one to resolve the issues of AGW but coal plants are still being built (with or without CCS ready consideration) and oil is still being drilled for and cars build that do little MPG. People are still flying en masse and runways still to be built.

    Fossil fools are everywhere and no one is really taking the lead on mitigation. Sure Germany has a lot of solar and denamrk a lot of wind but they are still building coal fired power stations to.

  33. 183
    dhogaza says:

    Paulm, I’ve got really, really bad news for you. Climate always changes. Always has, always will. You don’t have to be in the AGW crowd or a “denialist” to understand that. That much we can agree on I think.

    True, but your children and grandchildren aren’t going to be around long enough to see the climate change due to those natural causes, which act on timescales of tens of thousands of years.

    We’re causing change on a pace far, far faster than that caused by milankovich cycles or other known drivers of long-term climate change.

    Your position is a bit like stating that since death is inevitable, there’s nothing wrong with murder – the victim will die regardless.

  34. 184
    Robert says:

    Re 179 – Gavin and that blank check

    Recently Al Gore gave a speech to congress:

    “Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.”

    I won’t say that Mr. Gore speaks for anyone hear, but I do think it is reasonable to make the statement that he does speak for the AGW cause.

    Can anyone here make the case that in order to accomplish Mr. Gore’s goal that it won’t take a governmental (and societal) effort exceeding any in our countries history?

    [Response: What’s your point? There’s a big difference between a challenge and your previous implication. – gavin]

  35. 185

    Re: #181

    Dear Figen Mekik,

    I thank you for your response, but let me just point out that we simply do not have that kind of timeframe anymore.

    Climatologists of significant repute need to pick their phones and call their local newspapers and request to write opinion pieces for publication.

    They need to call the local radio station and see if they can be heard on the air.

    They need to phone the local TV station and see if they can present something on the news.

    They need to go to the local city council meetings and try to get their points on the next meeting’s agenda.

    They need to go have a chat with the local city planner.

    They need to take immediate actions.

  36. 186
    Jim Eager says:

    Re what people are doing personally, we
    – choose to live in a very small house in an urban area dense enough to support excellent public transit
    – use that public transit, as well as biking and walking
    – chose to purchase a hybrid to replace an aging car for those times when the above simply won’t get us where we’re going in the time available
    – I work out of my home, so no commute; I only drive to meet with a client or work site when required
    – opted not to fly since 1997 (not that we flew much before then)
    – retrofit the house with thermopane windows and added insulation & weather stripping
    – replaced furnace with high-efficiency model and used programable set-back thermostat set low in winter, and way back when we are away from home
    – use natural ventilation in all but the hottest weather–haven’t used the ac once yet this summer
    – use low-energy lighting, and, as I was taught as a child, turn off unused lighting and devices when not in use
    – replaced appliances with energy star models
    – air dry clothes, in the back yard spring, summer, fall, in the basement and bathroom in winter
    – investigated roof-top solar pv and solar hot water, but our roof is not properly oriented and will not support the needed support structure, so we get electricity from a renewable supplier instead, and pay more for it
    – try to buy locally grown staple produce when ever possible and simply don’t buy imported exotic produce
    – eat meat main courses only 3-4 times per week
    – volunteer with a local group whose mandate is to educate citizens about what they can personally do and show them how to do it, including most the things listed above

  37. 187
    Hank Roberts says:

    Robert, yes, the “no regrets” energy efficiency choices will cover much of what’s needed.
    The _problem_ is a great one. The _solution_ is to be cheap and efficient and plan ahead.

    You can look this up — use sources other than the PR sites.

  38. 188
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Given the amazing success of the Human Genome project, I would like to propose a much more modest undertaking: I propose that before this year is out that we commit to mapping the denialist Memome–all the memes that denialists trot out in place of actual thought.

    Robert supplies us with three already:

    1)That the reality-based team are starving poor people to death by making biofuel from food.

    2)That climate change has always happened and always will

    3)That the real goal of the environmental movement is massive government intervention in the economy.

    Regarding 1: This is a bit of a stretch, since biofuel production dates back decades and since the real reasons for it are largely political (e.g. employment in Brazil’s poor Northeast and buying votes from farmers and cash from agribusiness in the US). In the US especially, ethanol production from corn is a net energy consumer!

    Regarding 2: Well, yeah, except that the past 10000 years–you know, that period where human civilization developed–has been a period of remarkable climatic stability, and the fact that current rates of change are unprecedented, and …

    Regarding 3: Gee Robert, are you saying the the free market economy is not up to the task? That great Communist T. Boone Pickens doesn’t seem to agree. And if government intervention is required to avoid the collapse of civilization, wouldn’t that be a good use of taxpayer dollars?

    So, got any original material, or are you going to accuse us next of wanting to stifle growth in the developing world?

  39. 189
    Brian Dodge says:

    Re the question “what sacrifices have you made to save the environment?”

    I live in a 1250 square foot house. The lighting has been CF since they first came available at Home Depot. Ten years ago I replaced my electric water heater with a 94% efficient gas water heater that also replaced a 68% efficient oil furnace. I’m mostly vegetarian, eating chicken or fish once or twice a week, pork and beef less often. I drive a compact car that gets 30 MPG. If my wife had been driving a hummer instead of the 50+mpg diesel Golf when she was T-boned by a minivan that ran a red light, she would probably be alive today.

    I expect that the people who have been conspicuously consuming fossil fuel for the last 20 years while willfully ignoring the signs of global warming will eventually notice things getting bad(drought, wildfires, intense storms, weather extremes, Santa’s workshop sinking into the Arctic Ocean-I’m looking forward to asking Santa some tough questions at the mall this year &;>).

    I expect that they will announce “WE are all in this together, and WE ALL need to tighten our belts and make sacrifices to save the planet”.

    YOU voted for Reagan, Bush, Bush, Bush, and Darth Cheney. YOU pissed away your children’s and grandchildren’s futures by ignoring alternative energy, conservation, and the environment while Exxon/Mobil reaped billions. I don’t have any children; don’t expect me to bail YOUR children out now. YOU were playing videogames, pirating music, and watching junk on the internet instead of paying attention to YOU have screwed things up for all of us, but I have “been there, done that” for 30+ years; I’m not going to try fixing YOUR mistakes any more. If things get really bad, I may have to grab my fishing gear, walk to my sailboat, and head for better climates, but I will survive. What’s YOUR plan B?

    I dont’ expect this to happen anytime soon. For some perspective on the political debate necessary before substantive policy changes will be made, try the following google searches:
    “global warming”
    “global warming”

  40. 190
    Jim Eager says:

    Re Robert @184: “Can anyone here make the case that in order to accomplish Mr. Gore’s goal that it won’t take a governmental (and societal) effort exceeding any in our countries history?”

    No, because it will take a governmental and societal effort perhaps as large as or larger than any in our countries history, in fact any in world history, since the problem is global and in no way limited to just the US.

    As Gavin responded: Your point? The fact is we have chosen in the past to make the truly huge sacrifice necessary to accomplish a world-wide goal, namely the defeat of Germany and Japan, and we are now talking only of a financial and lifestyle commitment here, not a sacrifice of human lives, so please do not tell us that the effort is either impossible or that it will result in destroying the world economy because both are simply not true. In fact, it is impossible that making the switch from a fossil fuel-based economy will not add to GDP and result in the development of new technologies, industries and ways of doing things.

  41. 191
    Robert says:

    Re 184 – Gavin

    Although I used an expression of speech “blank check” to emphasize the point of not blindly trusting that government has societies (or the planet’s) best interest in mind when solving a particular problem, I do think it the expression applies in principle to what we would need to be done to accomplish Mr. Gore’s goal.

    I think it is a reasonable statement that meeting Mr. Gore’s goal would be a more difficult challenge than overcoming the Great Depression and World War II combined. As a child of a member of the “Greatest Generation” I’ve got some insight into exactly what that means and I think it would pale in comparison with what would have to be done in this scenario.

  42. 192
    Joe Hunkins says:

    the models wouldn’t have to worry about that, or rather it’s already sort of baked in, just like El Nino events and the like. Thats a big oversimplification, but it’s the current state of the science in a nutshell, as I understand it.

    Whoa – too much simplification leads to obfuscation, which some think is happening with respect to the MWP.

    As Gavin noted above, Paleoclimate reconstructions, rather than models, are the best evidence to support AGW. Unfortunately some of these paleo reconstructions (esp. tree rings) are not as mathematically robust as one would like to see to definitively counter those who challenge them.

    Resolving the existence and/or significance of the MWP issues is important because

    1) If it was a clear global phenomenon it is another challenge to the alarmists and the pending doom hypothesis.

    2) If it was a clear global phenomenon it raises some potentially serious questions about the methodology of studies that don’t show MWP and the many generalizations about data that suggest MWP is not of interest or significant as a sign that natural CO2 variability is much greater than generally suggested.

    [Response: Neither of these conclusions follow. There are already plenty of periods in the paleo-climate record that unambiguously exceed global present day temperatures (the Pliocene, Eocence, PETM etc.), so one more is not an issue. The actual issue is whether it can be understood, but to do this you need to have unambiguous records of solar and volcanic forcing from which you could deduce the residual intrinsic variability. Given these records are very uncertain, combined with the uncertainty in the reconstructions, and the uncertainty in climate sensitivity, it is very unlikely that the medieval period is ever going to be a significant constraint on anything relevant. The paleo-climate that is important for overall climate sensitivity is the LGM, or maybe the Pliocene – much bigger signal-to-noise ratios in both cases. – gavin]

    [Response: Actually, you would find a fair number of climate scientists who don’t necessarily agree w/ some of what Gavin has stated above. Indeed, Hegerl et al (2006) in Nature argues that you can indeed further constrain climate sensitivity based on precisely this information (well, using the past 7 centuries of paleoclimate reconstructions, anyway). That having been said, the idea of global mean warmth during the Medieval era that rivals current warmth is inconsistent with every paleoclimate reconstruction of the past decade published in the scientific literature. It is also inconsistent with every model simulation study that has been done using best estimate climate forcing. So you’re really out on a limb. And perhaps even more to the point, an MWP as warm as today (while, again, inconsistent with all of the best available observational and modeling-based evidence) would most likely indicate a climate sensitivity that is much greater that nearly all available estimates, and would portend even greater future climate change in response to anthropogenic forcing. It would certainly not be a cause for comfort. -mike]

  43. 193
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Defeatism, Robert? How unpatriotic.

  44. 194
    Robert says:

    Re 188 – Ray Ladbury

    Now the conversation is getting more interesting. Let’s clarify a couple of things, though. Ray, you’re obviously lumping me in with “denialists”. What have I denied in any of my posts, I don’t recall? It seems you’re debating a phantom and assuming motives that I have not demonstrated in any of my writings.

    Furthermore, your condescending remarks regarding the originality of my material are kinda funny considering the fact that you took the time to type out a fairly lenghty response to my posts, no?

    So, let me digress. One of the biggest obstacles, it seems to me, in this whole discussion (and by whole discussion I am referring holistically, not just this blog) is the anxiousness to do verbal combat and attempt to belittle those who you consider to be intellectually inferior. As my grandmother used to say, If you can’t say it nicely don’t say it at all. A quaint but effective tactic.

    Let’s switch topics. Ray, in terms of the free market economy taking on the task of creating an 100% emissions free electricity in 10 years, what impetus exists for the free market to make that happen? Personally, I don’t believe that impetus exists in that timeframe. Do you see evidence to the contrary?

    Just for a second, lets assume I’m correct that the impetus for the free market isn’t there within the next 10 years to hit that goal, what alternative to government intervention is there then?

    As to your question on the collapse of civilization and government intervention, that is a fair point and one I wouldn’t debate provided that irrefutable evidence exists that will happen. World War II is a great example of an appropriate government intervention.

    Regarding the 2nd issue, are you suggesting that the last 10,000 years of climate stability are a climatic anomaly?

  45. 195
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury noted a denialist theme: “That the real goal of the environmental movement is massive government intervention in the economy.”

    Ironically, the government already intervenes massively in the economy — to subsidize continued use of fossil fuels and nuclear power.

    Very little government “intervention” in the economy is needed to support the rapid transition to renewables that Al Gore proposes — and that intervention would consist mostly of tax cuts to encourage private investment in wind and solar, combined with feed-in tariffs to guarantee a fair price paid to small wind and solar energy producers, renewable portfolio standards for utilities, efficiency standards for appliances, automobiles and buildings, and a carbon tax to capture the currently externalized costs of burning fossil fuels. All of these combined would probably amount to significantly less government intervention than the business-as-usual multi-billion dollar subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear power.

    The idea that some kind of heavy-handed Soviet-style command and control government-run economy is necessary to move to a renewables based energy system is absurd. Particularly since the very nature of solar and wind technologies puts the ownership of energy “production” in the hands of individuals, households, small businesses, family farms, communities, municipal utilities, etc. From the point of view of political philosophy, libertarians are the ones who should be most avidly promoting a transition to wind and solar.

  46. 196

    [comments seem to be closed for Dr. Mekik’s 2007 post]

    Dear Dr. Mekik,

    I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciated your post “Sweatin’ in the Mediterranean Heat” because I used to live in the Cyclades in the 1970s. 1977 was the hottest year they had, I believe, until 2007. But even then, they had to import water. On any given day, in August, during the height of the tourist season, there were a good 30,000 tourists on the island with about 7,000 locals. By the mid-1990s, that number had increased to 300,000. Who knows what it is now. Food, water, and everything else has to be imported.

    This points to the fact that there has been little public discussion of the need for new thoughts on land use (yikes! shades of soc ialism!), which includes coastal lands, wet lands, forests, and what types of structures and materials should be used — people are gonna holler like stuck pigs, but it has to be brought out and discussed in public.

    And, Dr. Mekik, thank you for your description of the NOA/NAM — I had been looking for one.

  47. 197

    Re #163 Patrick

    Your point is well taken. However, I don’t think it is impolite to point out ignorance. The fact that alarms are ringing and many people are seriously concerned is not out of context with reality.

    Example: They just closed a section of Baffin Island and had to evacuate 21 tourists by helicopter. Most of Baffin is in the Arctic Circle. Their average July Temps is 12C (54F).

    This month the temp is 27C (81F). That’s 27F above normal. Arctic amplification is in full swing and is expected to accelerate warming. That will likely soon show up in the sea level rise acceleration above the current rise trend.

    So rather than be concerned with those that are frightened by the prospects, we would all be better off actually examining the expected ramifications of extreme climate change outside of natural variability, and what that really means to human civilization. maybe some better questions would be:

    How many people and species will die (and on what time scale)?

    As food scarcity increases due to multiple factors regarding energy, resource availability, capacity, distribution and climate and inflation increases rapidly, how will we cope?

    Do we have the organizational capacity and resources to take needed action knowing that every day we delay needed action pushes us deeper into increased cost and capacity to cope with the magnitude of changes needed?

    What degree of alarmism is appropriate concerning the knowledge that well known knowledge that this global warming event is human caused, and we will continue to warm for a significant period of time, and it will affect all biological systems on earth?

    In other words, how long should we keep the discussion moderate and non alarmist, which inevitably delays needed action to prevent larger problems in the near and distant future.

    The idea that most would rather “fry, drown or starve” is a very ignorant and in fact foolish statement. It is of course subjective but does indicate a severe ignorance of the reality that we now face.

    Also, I don’t know who he is referring to when he says “a bearded git in sandals” is that a particular person and why is that even important since it has little to do with the science?

    In other words, don’t shoot the messenger. It’s not his fault that global warming is human caused and will severely challenge the entire world economic and biological systems.

    So maybe people just need to be more mature about the what is known, and be reasonable. And most of all, stop making excuses to delay needed action? Or we can just let it cook and continue BAU and fulfill Mr. AA Gill’s prophetic words?

    Personally I’m for needed policy action now based on current global scientific consensus and the fact based science. Less cost, greater benefits on a risk/reward basis.

  48. 198
    SecularAnimist says:

    Robert wrote: “I think it is a reasonable statement that meeting Mr. Gore’s goal would be a more difficult challenge than overcoming the Great Depression and World War II combined.”

    One thing that happened during World War II was that the automobile manufacturers stopped building cars and started building tanks and other military equipment. Perhaps today’s automobile manufacturers who are suffering huge losses, closing factories and laying off workers, should instead consider converting those factories to the manufacture of wind turbines. It would certainly be the patriotic thing to do.

    And there are plenty of unemployed former manufacturing workers who could be profitably retrained in some sort of WPA-style program as electricians and plumbers to install rooftop photovoltaics and solar water heaters.

    A transition to a new energy economy based on harvesting clean, free, endless solar and wind energy could be the New Industrial Revolution of the 21st century, driving a new era of widespread, sustainable prosperity. The only ones for whom it would be an economic disaster are the fossil fuel corporations, whose trillion dollar profits would vanish when people stop buying their products.

  49. 199
    Hank Roberts says:

    > provided that irrefutable evidence exists
    The attempt to divert the thread to another free market discussion is transparent.

    There was no irrefutable evidence WWII was needed at the time the commitment was made to fight that enemy — while many in the US were still profiting from trading with them.

    Look it up:

    Don’t bring it back here. There are plenty of other places for arguing about that.

  50. 200
    Rod B says:

    Ray, you say, ” ….I propose that before this year is out that we commit to mapping the denialist Memome [in the vein of Human Genome project] –all the memes that denialists trot out in place of actual thought.

    Ray! You’re losing it! I hope I did not cause this uncommon goofiness :-P

    ps. sorry to take this out of context; just couldn’t resist.