The Weekly Carboholic: ARGO ocean data raises climate questions

Posted on March 19, 2008

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carboholic

ArgoAccording to this story from National Public Radio, data from autonomous ocean probes have detected no aggregate ocean warming since the probes came online in 2003. The Argo system comprises 3,000 probes in all of the world’s oceans that dive as deep as 1-2000 meters every ten days and then ascend, taking continuous temperature and salinity measurements in the process. There is no sign of overall oceanic heating in the data since 2003, leading researchers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Center for Atmospheric Research to wonder where all the energy supposedly being dumped into the ocean via global heating is actually going.

The fact that NCAR scientist Kevin Trenberth says that most of that energy is most likely being re-emitted back into space would normally be a point in favor of the global heating skeptics. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple – not only is Mr. Trenberth’s suggestion an educated guess, without proof, there’s actually a few very important bits of information in the data. First, given recent El Nino events, it’s entirely reasonable for the ocean to not have heated up at all – El Nino dumps massive amounts of heat from the tropical Pacific into the air, changing weather patterns around the world in the process. Second, and more damning in most respects, is the fact that the missing energy that should have been stored in the ocean would have explained about half of the observed sea level rise over the last three to four years. Instead, the seas rose by double what they should have risen without oceanic expansion due to heating, and the Argo scientists are at a loss to explain why.

There are a number of possibilities that could explain the discrepency. The scientists could be misinterpreting the data from the probes, or there could a systemic bias in the data that needs to be removed. The heating could be occuring below the deepest point the probes dive to, or there could be a lot more water being dumped into the ocean by melting ice caps than is expected. Or there could be some entirely unknown process that is essentially sequestering that heat energy away somewhere that scientists simply haven’t discovered. It’s even possible that the probes happened to be launched in a short period of oceanic cooling in the middle of longer-term heating trends. Only time, and lots more data, will tell.

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U.S. air carriers are going to face restrictions on traveling to Europe if they don’t pay their carbon taxes. That’s what the EU Transport minister is reported as saying in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Unfortunately, the U.S. federal government has thus far refused to permit U.S. carriers from entering into carbon trading with European markets as required by the EU.

An anonymous U.S. Congressman is quoted by EU minister Jacques Barrot as saying “that attitudes are changing. Particularly with Bush and Cheney gone, there is a real hope of things moving on. The new administration will be under pressure to take new measures.”

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The opening story to last week’s Carboholic showed an image that showed a continuum of measures from cheapest to most expensive that would have the greatest impact on addressing carbon emissions. The gist of the image was that improving residential, commercial, and industrial efficiency in lighting, heating, etc. had the greatest impact on carbon emissions while simultaneously saving the economy money instead of costing money. This week, science magazine Scientific American reports more news that supports this basic conclusion – building “green” buildings and retrofitting existing buildings to be greener is likely the cheapest way to cut carbon emissions fast.

According to the story, buildings account for 35% of all carbon emissions and 2.2 billion tons of CO2 from North America alone. But if existing buildings were refitted with better insulation, better windows, and if all new construction was required to be much more energy efficient, that number could fall by 1.7 billion tons, or 77% of the total emissions from buildings. Jonathan Westeinde, chief executive of green developer Windmill Development Group, said “In Europe, they are much ahead of us on building. As North Americans we pride ourselves on smaller government and bigger activity in the marketplace. We’re not seeing the market react fast enough.”

There are times when “big government” regulatory approaches are necessary to get things done, even if the “big government” in this case is a state or even city government. Municipal governments hold the reins on housing regulations and inspections, so they already have the authority to require that homes in their jurisdictions become more green. The problem is that, without their neighbors doing the same thing, there’s a disincentive to do so – their property tax base will migrate to where construction is cheaper. With a little luck, and with three U.S. Presidential candidates who at least give global heating lip service, we’ll start to see some movement in this direction following January 20, 2009

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recyclingFinally for this week, I’d like to leave you with two interesting and related links.

The first is a New York Times Magazine article titled Recycling is Garbage. In the long article, author John Tierney discusses the nation’s cultural migration toward recycling and the fact that it might not be all it’s cracked up to be. He points out that municipal recycling programs funded by property taxes generally lose money because it’s nearly always cheaper to go with new material than it is to clean up and reprocess recycled material. He points out that some communities have created modern sanitary landfills on a small portion of their county land and reaped massive financial benefits for doing so. And he points out some of the flaws in a number of recycling “myths” like “our garbage will bury us” (it won’t) or “our garbage will poison us” (it won’t). And while he makes a few major blunders (his statement about how we could use cellular phones in the unlikely event we ever ran out of copper or sand for optical fiber illustrates a significant misunderstanding about the way that the telecommunications system actually works, and he’s too quick to suggest a “the price is the best determination of environmental efficiency” solution to the recycling/disposable dilemma), his article appears well researched and generally carefully thought out.

Ultimately, though, Tierney’s most poignant statement is this one:

Recycling does sometimes makes sense — for some materials in some places at some times.

It’s a statement that, given the economic and ecological facts of recycling as it stands today, is hard to dispute.

However, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) took serious issue with Tierney’s entire article and did some “myth” debunking themselves. In a long online response to the Times Magazine article, EDF writers Richard A. Denison, Ph.D. , and John F Ruston, Economic Analyst, start by saying the following:

Just like burying trash in landfills or burning it in incinerators, recycling is not free. Given this fact, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) supports a robust, fact-based assessment of the public interest in recycling, waste reduction and composting. Recycling is not a panacea for our environmental problems, nor should it be pursued to the point of diminished returns or at any cost. A full appraisal of the environmental and economic benefits and costs of recycling, in comparison with the one-way consumption and disposal of used products and packaging, is essential to define the appropriate role for recycling.

This sentiment is almost identical to Tierney’s in the “Recycling is Garbage” story itself, yet Dennison and Ruston takes issue with the Times Magazine article for being “gravely inaccurate.”

Unfortunately, even if they are correct, they did their cause no favors with their approach to countering Tierney’s article.

First off, they have attempted to paint Teirney as an ideologue with ties to anti-environmental groups. While this may be true (although, in a few minutes of searching, the most I was able to find on-line is an interview with Reason Magazine, a link that is circumstantial at best), the EDF offers no proof of it, preferring to use a logical fallacy to “poison the well” against Tierney.

Second, while the EDF provided data and links to papers that support their critiques(something that Tierney’s article could not), some of their conclusions are as unsupported as Tierney’s. For example, they ask “what could be more direct than substituting recovered materials for virgin materials, thereby avoiding the need to extract raw materials and intensively processing them?”, suggesting that the process of extracting materials is inherently more polluting than the process of recycling them. But the EDF writers offer no proof of this, and even if it’s true (as I suspect it is in most cases), their unwillingness to prove it weakens their argument considerably. Their claim that “[o]ne out of every five sites slated for cleanup under the nation’s Superfund program for toxic waste sites is a former municipal solid waste landfill (emphasis added)” attempts to misdirect the reader away from Tierney’s point that modern landfills are safer and generally less polluting than recycling, something that Dennison and Ruston don’t actually address, even though they try to make it appear that they do. This trend continues throughout most of Dennison and Ruston’s critiques.

Finally, even where the data appears to support Dennison and Ruston, a closer look at many of the references shows that the studies quoted are 10-15 years out of date. A lot has happened in the recycling markets since the early to mid 1990s, and the EDF would be well advised to spend some time updating their information.

Ultimately, it is my opinion that both stories make good points about recycling. All three authors have their own agendas and use carefully selected statistics to convince you that they’re right when the actual data may, or may not, support their positions at all. So, instead of taking either party’s word for it, read what they both say, do your own research, educate yourselves, and then act upon what you discover and conclude, whatever that conclusion may be. I’ve been recycling since I was a small child, and it doesn’t appear to me that recycling is a slam-dunk issue either for or against, so whatever you decide, for or against, could just as easily be wrong as right.

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