Stories tagged climate change

Jan
13
2008

So fragile, so vulnerable -- so what do you do?: How would you allocate funds to protect the Earth from disaster?
So fragile, so vulnerable -- so what do you do?: How would you allocate funds to protect the Earth from disaster?Courtesy NASA

The Lifeboat Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding solutions to global challenges, has an interesting poll on its blog. Let’s say you had an extra $100 million lying around, and you could spend it to protect the Earth and all its people from the following threats:

  • Deadly diseases
  • Global warming
  • Invasion from outer space
  • Abusive governments
  • Nanotechnology run amok
  • Nuclear holocaust
  • Asteroid collision
  • Intelligent computers run amok
  • Simulation shut down
  • Other

How would you distribute the $100 million? You might think all of these issues are important, but you’ve only got so much money. How would you spend it? (You can go to the Lifeboat blog and cast your vote, and see how other people have voted.)

Actually, a similar survey has already been run by Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg. He runs the Copenhagen Consensus, a program which invites world leaders to prioritize their efforts based on what actions would produce the greatest benefits. They found that every dollar spent on health issues, such as AIDS, malnutrition and malaria, produced up to $40 worth of benefits, while money spent on other worthy causes often generated much less.

As for me, I’d also put most of my money on deadly diseases – this is something we know is real. I’d probably also put a chunk on “other” for environmental protection – pollution, deforestation, species loss.

This is not to dismiss all of the other threats. I certainly worry about some crackpot getting a hold of nuclear weapons. But full-scale nuclear holocaust seems a lot less likely now than it did back during the Cold War. Abusive governments? A local problem, to be sure, but not one likely to threaten the planet and all life on it.

The others seem rather far-fetched to me. Global warming? My skepticism over the threat this poses is well-documented elsewhere on this blog, though certainly others disagree with me. Asteroid collision? Happens once every 100 million years or so; killer germs emerge once a generation. Invasion from outer space? Get real – if interstellar travel were possible, wouldn’t the space men be here by now? Nanotechnology turning everything into gray goo? A casual familiarity with nano shows that such fears are vastly overrated. Artificial intelligence ruling the world? They’ve been promising AI since the early ‘60s – I’m still waiting.

My favorite, though, is “Simulation shut down.” Basically, this means that nothing in this world is real – you, I, and everything on Earth are just part of a massive virtual game run on a gigantic computer operated by some intelligent being in another dimension, and we need to prevent him/her/it from turning the computer off. While this would certainly explain a few anomalies I’ve noticed in the Universe (I mean, come on, penguins?), epistemologically, there is no way we could possibly know whether or not this was true. And even if it was, how could our $100 million virtual dollars have any effect on the being running the program?

What about you? How would you spend a theoretical $100 million to save the Earth? Leave a note in the comments.

Jan
07
2008

Looks like we may not need such a big thermometer after all: Despite ever-increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, global temperatures have not gone up in nine years.  What gives?
Looks like we may not need such a big thermometer after all: Despite ever-increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, global temperatures have not gone up in nine years. What gives?Courtesy arbyreed

Y’know, it’s been a while since we’ve had a good dust-up over global warming here at the Buzz. Last month, 10,000 delegates attended the UN’s climate conference in Bali (most of them traveling by jet and producing more of the carbon they’re supposed to be reducing), and there was hardly a peep. Even when 100 scientists signed a letter poking holes in the popular conception of global warming, nobody here said a word.

Oh well, what can I say? Holiday rush, end-of-the-year malaise…we had other things on our minds. But today, as the Midwest in experiencing record-shattering warmth (62° in mid-Michigan on January 7!), comes news that global warming…has stopped! It seems that global temps peaked in 1998, settled down a bit, and have been basically unchanged since 2001. So, for the past nine years, while humans continue to pump more and more carbon into the atmosphere, global temperatures have… done nothing.

How to explain this phenomenon? Well, there are a couple of wacky European scientists who argue that climate is driven by the Sun rather than by humans, but that’s obviously just crazy talk. The mystery of the missing warming continues.

Dec
01
2007

All hail to the beer fridge!: Canadian beer drinkers are destroying the planet, but having too good a time to notice.
All hail to the beer fridge!: Canadian beer drinkers are destroying the planet, but having too good a time to notice.Courtesy Brian Warren

Canadians love their beer. However, possessing only the standard number of kidneys (2), they must drink it slowly, and store it until they are ready. To keep their cold ones, er, cold, they have developed the tradition of the “beer fridge” – an old, used refrigerator, kept in the garage or the basement, and used just for beer and snacks. (Newer, nicer fridges go in the kitchen.)

But a new study by the Canadian government claims that this piece of native culture is wrecking the environment. The old refrigerators use more energy than newer models. Researchers have suggested buy-back programs, which basically amounts to taxpayers buying me a new fridge. Finally, a government subsidy we can all get behind!

There’s no reliable data on the energy consumption of the beer-launching fridge, clearly the greatest achievement in the history of civilization.

Nov
30
2007

Is the number of hurricanes rising, or are we just getting better at counting them?
Is the number of hurricanes rising, or are we just getting better at counting them?Courtesy NASA

The 2007 hurricane season ends today, and by most accounts it was fairly typical, with 14 named storms and 5 hurricanes. But Neil Frank, former director of the National Hurricane Center, thinks those numbers are inflated. He argues that several of the named storms were not, in fact, strong enough to merit special designation.

According to the article, better storm-tracking technology has allowed scientists to identify and accurately measure weather events which, in years past, might not have merited “storm” designation, or might have been missed altogether.

Some people argue that this is an example of “climate change hype” – exaggerating the number of strong storms to make climate change look more severe than it actually is. Blogger Glenn Reynolds has perhaps a more charitable explanation: people in any profession want their field to seem important. If you’re in the hurricane business, then you get more attention – and more funding – if there are more hurricanes.

Earlier Buzz discussions of the 2007 Hurricane season can be found here and here.

The next step in evolution: photo by silfverduk on flickr.com.
The next step in evolution: photo by silfverduk on flickr.com.
A new study might suggest that a drastic climate change gave human evolution a boost, some 70,000 years ago. Before this time, tropical Africa was subject to periodic “megadroughts,” which could kill off huge numbers of plants and animals, and even dry up whole lakes. Around 70,000 BPE these droughts seemed to stop, and the climate stabilized, perhaps providing the impetus for our ancestors’ populations to grow rapidly and migrate.

I hope our currently shifting climate might do the same. I believe I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve always wanted some mutant powers. Wait – that’s not how evolution works? Whatever. When I’ve got my adamantium skeleton, we’ll see who’s making the rules of evolution.

Aug
11
2007

A computer error leads to bad climate data: The sudden jump in temperatures around January 2000 was caused by a faulty formula. New calculations show many years were actually cooler than previously thought.  (Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)
A computer error leads to bad climate data: The sudden jump in temperatures around January 2000 was caused by a faulty formula. New calculations show many years were actually cooler than previously thought. (Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)

We here at Science Buzz have discussed global warming a time or two. And long-time readers know that I am The Science Museum’s resident global warming skeptic. Not a denier – I recognize that the Earth’s temperatures have been generally increasing over the last 25 to 30 years, and I’ll admit that human-produced carbon dioxide could well be a contributing factor. However, I am skeptical about claims that human activity is the sole or even primary cause of this warming; that there is a simple, direct correlation between our actions and global climate; or that the planet is headed toward some sort of ecological disaster in the next 10 years if we don’t do something drastic now.

Toward that end, I keep an eye on the various global warming threads, and try to temper the more intemperate comments made by those who hold different views. (And they do the same for me, of course.) So, in the course of a debate, if someone says “the Earth is warming,” I correct them by pointing out that the Earth has warmed: global temperatures rose in the 1980s and ‘90s, peaked in the US in 1998, and have held steady or dropped slightly since.

I have recently learned that this was wrong. As painful as it is for me to admit, I must set the record straight: temperatures in the US did not peak in 1998. They actually peaked in…

1934

In 1934, the world’s population was a fraction of what it is today. (One-sixth, more or less.) Manufacturing and industry were smaller. The number of cars and the miles traveled in them were far fewer. Commercial air travel – a huge producer of greenhouse gases – was in its infancy.

(1934 was also the year my mother was born and, in a coincidence science has thus far been unable to explain, the year Yoko Ono was born.)

And yet despite the lower levels of greenhouse gas, 1934 was warmer than any other year, before or since. And while global temperatures had been generally increasing since about 1890, they leveled off around 1940 and even took a slight dip in the 1970s. All of which indicates that record-high temperatures may not be the harbinger of doom so many assume them to be.

So, how could I have made such a drastic mistake? Well, I’m not the only one. Y’see, I was relying on a temperature chart produced by NASA scientists Reto Reudy and James Hansen. Their graph showed temperatures spiking in the late ‘90s, and staying near that peak.

Of course, other people were studying that chart, too. One of them, Steve McIntyre, thought it looked a little fishy. So he asked Hansen for the formula he used to produce his chart. Hansen, operating in the spirit of openness and transparency that is the hallmark of science and a requirement of the federal government…refused. (Other scientists have also accused some federal agencies of not sharing their data so it can be reviewed.) So McIntyre reverse-engineered the formula from the published data. And he found something interesting.

Temperature data from many reporting stations around the country suddenly jumped around the year 2000. After some digging, McIntyre found an error in the formula used to process the data. As a result, Reudy and Hansen reported many years as being warmer than they really were.

(Is this the same James Hansen who has accused the Bush administration of playing politics with science, trying to suppress views that contradict their positions and cherry-picking data that advances its agenda? Why, yes it is!)

NASA has recomputed the figures and issued a new set of corrected data. It now shows that five of the ten warmest years on record occurred before World War II, when global temps leveled off and later fell. Four of the years in our current decade which were supposed to have been near record highs were actually colder than 1900.

Minnesotans can be proud that their state played a role in uncovering this mistake. It was data at the Detroit Lakes station that first led McIntyre to believe something was amiss.

So, what lesson do we learn from all this? That I need to be more skeptical. I have to stop believing everything I read in the New York Times. I need to recognize that even rocket scientists can sometimes make mistakes.

So my promise to you, dear readers, is I will check my sources and do my best never to fall for this sort of mistake again.

Jul
16
2007

Brrrrrrr: Lewis Gordon Pugh gets help getting back into a boat near the North Pole after his 19-minute swim in 29-degree waters. He made the swim to bring attention to global warming and climate change. (Photo from www.investecnorthpolechallenge.com)
Brrrrrrr: Lewis Gordon Pugh gets help getting back into a boat near the North Pole after his 19-minute swim in 29-degree waters. He made the swim to bring attention to global warming and climate change. (Photo from www.investecnorthpolechallenge.com)
Don’t you hate it when you get into the shower and it’s a bit too cold? British adventurer Lewis Gordon Pugh has taken that feeling to a whole new level.

Sunday he swam for nearly 19 minutes in the Arctic Ocean over the North Pole. Water temperatures were 29 degrees (-1.8 Celsius) and have been verified as the coldest waters anyone has ever swum in.

Why did he do it? To bring more attention to the climate change crisis. After his Sunday swim, and warming up a bit, I imagine, he said: “I am obviously ecstatic to have succeeded but this swim is a triumph and a tragedy -- a triumph that I could swim in such ferocious conditions but a tragedy that it’s possible to swim at the North Pole.

“It was frightening,” he continued, as reported on his project’s website. “The pain was immediate and felt like my body was on fire. I was in excruciating pain from beginning to end and I nearly quit on a few occasions. It was without doubt the hardest swim of my life.

In setting the new cold-water swimming record, Pugh broke his own record, which he set in 32-degree water off the coast of Antarctica.

Jul
12
2007

Excuse me: British scientists are looking for less gassy diet options for cows to reduce their burps. Cows belch 25 to 50 gallons of methane a day, which contributes to global warming. (flickr photo courtesy of Denmar)
Excuse me: British scientists are looking for less gassy diet options for cows to reduce their burps. Cows belch 25 to 50 gallons of methane a day, which contributes to global warming. (flickr photo courtesy of Denmar)
Don’t you just hate it when cows burp?

Scientists working on global warming and climate change hate it just as much as we do and are doing something about it. They’re working on developing new diets for cows that will cut back on their burps and the amount of methane they’re expelling into the atmosphere.

The average cow belches out 25 to 50 gallons of methane each day. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to the growing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere that fuel global warming.

So what’s a polite, green-friendly cow to eat these days and reduce global warming? Scientists in Great Britain are proposing simpler digestibles like legumes – such as clover and alfalfa – could reduce cows’ belching significantly. The researchers also say that more grasses could be bred that would be easier for cows to process.

There’s good news for the very impolite cows. The scientists have also determined that methane is released into the air through cow burps, not the gas emissions they make from the other end of their body. They don’t have to strike baked beans from their diet!

Jul
10
2007

So said Yogi Berra, and science is proving him right. It turns out that making accurate predictions entails more than taking current conditions and extrapolating them into the future. It’s a specialized sub-field of mathematics, with lots of rules to ensure that predictions have a reasonable chance of being accurate.

Scott Armstrong of the University of Pennsylvania and Kesten Green of Monash University, Australia, examined the forecasts recently made by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Armstrong and Green rated the methodology used by the panel against 89 principles of good forecasting derived from years of research. They found that the panel report breached 72 of those principles. They concluded that the forecasts the weather was likely to change in many negative ways were worthless.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the Earth isn’t getting warmer—that’s a well-established fact. But, most of the predictions we’ve heard of climate catastrophe due to this warming are based on bad math.

(Freeman Dyson, physics professor at Princeton, makes a similar point in this video. He argues there’s been too much focus on building computer models of climate, and not enough emphasis on collecting actual data to see if the models hold up.)