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Recycling Carbon?

Filed under: — stefan @ 9 May 2016

Guest commentary by Tony Patt, ETH Zürich

This morning I was doing my standard reading of the New York Times, which is generally on the good side with climate reporting, and saw the same old thing: an article about a potential solution, which just got the story wrong, at least incomplete. The particular article was about new technologies for converting CO2 into liquid fuels. These could be important if they are coupled with air capture of CO2, and if the energy that fuels them is renewable: this could be the only realistic way of producing large quantities of liquid fuel with no net CO2 emissions, large enough (for example) to supply the aviation sector. But the article suggested that this technology could make coal-fired power plants sustainable, because it would recycle the carbon. Of course that is wrong: to achieve the 2°C target we need to reduce the carbon intensity of the energy system by 100% in about 50 years, and yet the absolute best that a one-time recycling of carbon can do is to reduce the carbon intensity of the associated systems by 50%.

The fact is, there is a huge amount of uncritical, often misleading media coverage of the technological pathways and government policies for climate mitigation. As with the above story, the most common are those suggesting that approaches that result in a marginal reduction of emissions will solve the problem, and fail to ask whether those approaches also help us on the pathway towards 100% emissions reduction, or whether they take us down a dead-end that stops well short of 100%. There are also countless articles suggesting that the one key policy instrument that we need to solve the problem is a carbon tax or cap-and-trade market. We know, from two decades of social-science research, that these instruments do work to bring about marginal reductions in emissions, largely by stimulating improvements in efficiency. We also know that, at least so far, they have done virtually nothing to stimulate investment in the more sweeping changes in energy infrastructure that are needed to eliminate reliance on fossil fuels as the backbone of our system, and hence reduce emissions by 100%. We also know that other policy instruments have worked to stimulate these kinds of changes, at least to a limited extent. One thing we don’t know is what combination of policies could work to bring about the changes fast enough in the future. That is why this is an area of vigorous social science research. Just as there are large uncertainties in the climate system, there are large uncertainties in the climate solution system, and misreporting on these uncertainties can easily mislead us.

It’s fantastic that web sites like Real Climate and Climate Feedback re out there to clear some of the popular misconceptions about how the climate system functions. But if we care about actually solving the problem of climate change, then we also need to work continuously to clear the misconceptions, arising every day, about the strategies to take us there.

Anthony Patt is professor at the ETH in Zurich; his research focuses on climate policy

The Volcano Gambit

Anyone reading pundits and politicians pontificating profusely about climate or environmental science will, at some point, have come across the “volcano gambit”. During the discussion they will make a claim that volcanoes (or even a single volcano) produce many times more pollutant emissions than human activities. Often the factor is extremely precise to help give an illusion of science-iness and, remarkably, almost any pollutant can be referenced. This “volcano gambit” is an infallible sign that indicates the author is clueless about climate science, but few are aware of its long and interesting history…

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Filed under: — rasmus @ 9 February 2016

Ross McKitrick was so upset about a paper ‘Learning from mistakes in climate research(Benestad et al., 2015) that he has written a letter of complaint and asked for immediate retraction of the pages discussing his work.

This is an unusual step in science, as most disagreements and debate involve a comment or a response to the original article. The exchange of views, then, provides perspectives from different angles and may enhance the understanding of the problem. This is part of a learning process.

Responding to McKitrick’s letter, however, is a new opportunity to explain some basic statistics, and it’s excellent to have some real and clear-cut examples for this purpose.

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  1. R.E. Benestad, D. Nuccitelli, S. Lewandowsky, K. Hayhoe, H.O. Hygen, R. van Dorland, and J. Cook, "Learning from mistakes in climate research", Theoretical and Applied Climatology, vol. 126, pp. 699-703, 2015.

Marvel et al (2015) Part 2: Media responses

Filed under: — gavin @ 4 January 2016

This is a second post related to the new Marvel et al (2015) paper. The first post dealing with the substantive content is here.

What with #AGU15 going on, and a little bit of overlap in content with Shindell (2014), NASA wasn’t particularly keen to put out a press release for the paper, but we did get a ‘web special‘ put out on Friday Dec 18th, the last day of AGU and a few days after the paper appeared online. I’ve been involved with many similar releases for papers and it is always a struggle to concisely say why a paper is interesting while not overselling it or being too technical (which is why only a small fraction of papers get press releases at all).

As we’ve previously remarked about other people’s press releases (eg. Stainforth et al or Willerslev et al), properly calibrating the aspect of a release that will get picked up by the media can be tricky, and so it proved in this case.

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  1. K. Marvel, G.A. Schmidt, R.L. Miller, and L.S. Nazarenko, "Implications for climate sensitivity from the response to individual forcings", Nature Climate Change, vol. 6, pp. 386-389, 2015.


Filed under: — gavin @ 13 December 2015

So this week it’s the biggest Earth Science meeting on the planet

There is a lot of great science that will be freely streamed via AGU On-Demand (registration required), and there’ll be a lot of commentary using the hashtag #AGU15. Many posters will be available online too. A few highlights have already been discussed by Victor Venema related to the surface temperature station datasets, but there’ll be much more on offer if you dig deeper.

As the week goes on, we’ll link to anything good we see, and we’ll be happy to host any commentaries that anyone has on specific climate sessions or talks.

Happy conferencing!

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