The Weekly Carboholic: Pew poll says climate lowest priority, but results are curious

Posted on February 4, 2009

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carboholic

pewpriority

A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in early January says that, of the priorities listed in the poll, “dealing with global warming” was dead last, with only 30% of respondents declaring it a “top priority.” This was below other issues such as the economy, jobs, fixing Medicare, crime, and the environment. But as is so often the case with polls, the devil is in the details and the methodology. For example, climate disruption is certainly an environmental issue, yet the issues are polled separately. And when you broaden the poll results beyond just the “top priority” category to include “important but lower priority,” global warming attracts support of 67% of the poll’s respondents.

The poll asks respondents to rank whether a certain topic should be “a top priority,” “important but lower priority,” “not too important,” or “should not be done.” In addition, it asks the respondent to rank each of the following phrases in one of the four areas of importance:

  • strengthening the nation’s economy
  • improving the job situation
  • defending the country from future terrorist attacks
  • taking steps to make the Social Security system financially sound
  • improving the educational system
  • dealing with the nation’s energy problem
  • taking steps to make the Medicare system financially sound
  • reducing health care costs
  • reducing the budget deficit
  • providing health insurance to the uninsured
  • dealing with the problems of poor and needy people
  • reducing crime
  • dealing with the moral breakdown of the country
  • strengthening the U.S. military
  • reducing federal income taxes for the middle class
  • protecting the environment
  • dealing with the issue of illegal immigration
  • reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups in Washington
  • dealing with global trade issues
  • dealing with global warming

The first thing to notice is that the different levels of importance are not exclusive – respondents are permitted to answer “a top priority” to every one of the above listed issues if he or she so desired. The second thing to notice is that the issues respondents are asked to rank vary widely in scope, and some overlap each other significantly.

“Strengthening the nation’s economy” is a very broad issue as compared to “reducing federal income taxes for the middle class.” In addition, “strengthening the nation’s economy” also overlaps (and includes) “improving the job situation,” “reducing health care costs,” and possibly both “reducing federal income taxes for the middle class” and “dealing with global trade issues.” Similarly, “providing health insurance to the uninsured” overlaps with “dealing with the problems of poor and needy people.”

In the same way, “protecting the environment” overlaps significantly with “dealing with global warming.” The latter also includes aspects of “dealing with the nation’s energy problems,” “strengthening the nation’s economy,” “defending the country from future terrorist attacks,” “dealing with the problems of poor and needy people,” and “dealing with global trade issues.” Which makes the last place priority of global warming more than a little curious. It speaks poorly to the general public’s understanding of the wider issues surrounding climate disruption and how it will affect nearly every aspect of every person’s life over the coming decades and maybe even centuries.

The table below (click on the image for the entire table in .pdf format) is part of a larger table that has been adapted from the detailed trend data published by Pew, and it shows that, since they started including the global warming question in 2007, global warming has never been higher than #18 out of all 20 issues discussed when sorted by what the respondents named “a top priority,” and global warming has never been higher than #19 out of 20 issues when sorted by what respondents considered “a top priority” or “important but lower priority.”

pewpoll09tp

In other words, addressing climate disruption has never registered on this poll as being even in the top ten national priorities. And given the large variation in scope and significant overlap in the various issues polled by Pew, it’s difficult to know exactly where all these issues really fall on the scale of importance. If anything, this poll should be used as a jumping-off point for other polls that ask more detailed questions. Questions in a similar vein as “dealing with global warming would also make the U.S. less reliant on foreign sources of energy. Does this knowledge make you more likely, just as likely, or less likely to support initiatives to deal with global warming?”

A poll constructed so that its questions are of similar scope and non-overlapping with regard to all the issues raised in the Pew poll would be a great thing to see.

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Talking heads continue to confuse weather for climate

Courtesy of Media Matters, we have a list of recent examples of climate disruption deniers in the media confusing weather for climate:

Introducing the December 18, 2008, edition of his CNN show, Lou Dobbs said: “And tonight, unusual winter storms are dumping snow in unusual places across Western states, and a huge snowstorm is headed toward the Northeast. This is global warming?”

On the January 22 edition of Fox News’ America’s Newsroom, on-screen text read, “Global What?” while Kelly teased an upcoming segment by saying: “[F]reezing temperatures in the Deep South, an arctic blast covering much of the nation. So if the world is getting warmer, then why is it so darn cold? Some answers next.”

On January 26, moments after describing proposals to deal with global warming as “a new way to pick your pockets,” Fox News host Sean Hannity said: “By the way, did you hear that, for only the second time in history, it snowed in the United Arab Emirates this weekend? Global warming?”

And others have continued to do the same. Here’s a number more I found myself with a simple Google search:

Not much has changed –- in the weather or Gore’s message. This time around, it might not be so bone-shatteringly cold, but it certainly has been a chilly winter.

ABC’s weatherman Sam Champion told viewers this season’s weather “feels like the coldest winter in years.” He added, “and a report from NASA climate scientists says 2008 was the coolest year since 2000.” (source

Nearly 4 inches of snow blanketed the United Arab Emirates’ Jebel Jais region for just the second time in recorded history on January 24. Citizens were speechless. The local dialect has no word for snowfall.

Dutchmen on ice skates sped past windmills as canals in Holland froze in mid-January for the first time since 1997. Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop, who inhabits a renovated 17th Century windmill, stumbled on the ice and fractured his wrist.

January saw northern Minnesota’s temperatures plunge to 38 below zero, forcing ski-resort closures. A Frazee, Minn., dog-sled race was canceled, due to excessive snow. Snow whitened Surf City, North Carolina’s beaches. Days ago, ice glazed Florida’s citrus groves.

As Earth faces global cooling, both troglodyte Right-wingers and lachrymose Left-wingers find Albert Gore’s simmering-planet hypothesis increasingly hilarious. (source)

Ironically, to a populace once confused by the mass media’s heat hyping, clarity came not from scientific debate, nor CO2 concentration, nor bad data nor even ice and sea levels — but rather from cold reality.

Record low temperatures and snowfall have caused misery everywhere from Slovenia (-49°C) to Sioux City (-20°F), and that’s real change real people can believe in. (source)

Sen. James Inhofe piled on, mocking Gore as well. “They almost had to cancel it because of freezing weather, and last year they did cancel it because of cold weather,” Inhofe said. (source)

As a lifelong resident of the weather wonderland known as New England, I’m inclined to view snow as evidence of something other than warming temperatures — namely, freezing cold. And while I’m not a climate scientist, I’m fairly certain that bracing chill precedes snowflakes everywhere in the world. (source)

Yesterday, for only the second time in recorded history, it snowed in the Arabian Peninsula. Last month, while the United Nations was conducting its annual Chicken Little fright fest over the global warming menace, snow was blanketing Houston and New Orleans. Did this year’s record-cold and the growing body evidence that the Earth is actually cooling rather than warming deter the UN from proclaiming man-made global warming an incontrovertible fact? Of course not; because global warming has nothing to do with concern over the environment. It is a backdoor way of attacking the capitalist economic system in general and the United States in particular – what writer Eric Englund has termed “socialism’s Trojan horse.” (source)

Talk about a bunch of people who need to read up on the difference between weather and climate. They won’t, of course, since either they’re ignorant and don’t want to appear as such or they’re trying to manipulate their viewers and readers.

I’m sorry, was I getting cynical again?

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pnassolofig1Study says climate changes cannot be reversed

A study published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported at the NOAA website claims that the latest climate models have shown that some aspects of climate change are irreversible over the next 1000 years.

As the Carboholic has reported previously, , the lifetime of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is 50-100x longer than is generally reported in the media. This means that a significant amount of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere will remain there for thousands of years until such time as chemical processes that operate on a geologic timescale (tens to hundreds of thousands of years, or longer than all of recorded civilization to date) remove the excess CO2. For this reason, approximately 20% of all CO2 added to the atmosphere via human activity will remain in the air after 1000 years, resulting in a total increase in CO2 in the atmosphere of about 40% over pre-industrial levels, as show in top graph of the image at right.

As a result, however, the study says that “[g]lobal average temperatures increase while CO2 is increasing and then remain approximately constant (within +/-0.5 °C) until the end of the millennium.” This is shown in the middle graph of the image at right. The graph also illustrates that the more CO2 is added to the atmosphere, the less stable the average global temperature is expected to be. This is because higher temperatures are more likely to interfere with the ocean currents that presently move heat from the tropics to the poles and turn the ocean over every thousand years or so.

Also as a result of the permanently higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere, the thermal expansion of the ocean (how much the ocean will expand as a result absorbing heat from the atmosphere) and resulting higher sea levels will also be irreversible, as shown in the lower graph. As water heats up, it expands, and so long as the atmosphere heats up and stays hot, the ocean will slowly heat up and the sea level will rise as well. The reason that the lower graph shows the expansion continuing to the year 3000 is because of how long it takes for the ocean to heat up – it’s so massive that it takes a long time to heat up, but once it starts heating it also takes a long time to stop heating and start cooling again.

It’s worth noting that sea level rise resulting from the thermal expansion of the ocean doesn’t even include the possible worst-case scenarios from the collapse of terrestrial ice caps on Greenland or either the West or East Antarctica. The authors of the study intentionally left this out of the sea level rise models even though ice loss would have likely been irreversible over 1000 years because “it is evident that the contribution from the ice sheets could be large in the future, but the dependence upon carbon dioxide levels is extremely uncertain not only over the coming century but also in the millennial time scale.”

The third irreversible result of the increased CO2 is changes in precipitation, shown in the image below. While the study says that there remains large areas where the model uncertainties are too large to make meaningful predictions over the next 1000 years (all the white areas in the image below), the areas where predictions can be made show that “there are some subtropical locations on every inhabited continent where dry seasons are expected to become drier in the decadal average by up to 10% per degree of warming.” These regions are presently home to billions of people, and if they are home to as many in the future, all those people could face starvation as widespread severe droughts become the new regional climate. For example, the study shows that the southwestern region of North America could see perpetual drought with as little as 425 ppm CO2 peak level and ongoing Dustbowl-like conditions with as little as 600 ppm peak CO2. Most scientists expect that we’ll have a difficult time keeping the atmosphere’s peak CO2 emissions below 600 ppm, and the Global Carbon Project estimate in 2007 that we’re running above the worst-case emissions scenario and slated to boost atmospheric CO2 over 4,000 ppm by 2100 without dramatic cuts in CO2 emissions.

The study finishes with a quick policy recommendation that is worth quoting in part here:

It is sometimes imagined that slow processes such as climate changes pose small risks, on the basis of the assumption that a choice can always be made to quickly reduce emissions and thereby reverse any harm within a few years or decades. We have shown that this assumption is incorrect for carbon dioxide emissions, because of the longevity of the atmospheric CO2 perturbation and ocean warming. Irreversible climate changes due to carbon dioxide emissions have already taken place, and future carbon dioxide emissions would imply further irreversible effects on the planet, with attendant long legacies for choices made by contemporary society. Discount rates used in some estimates of economic trade-offs assume that more efficient climate mitigation can occur in a future richer world, but neglect the irreversibility shown here. Similarly, understanding of irreversibility reveals limitations in trading of greenhouse gases on the basis of 100-year estimated climate changes (global warming potentials, GWPs), because this metric neglects carbon dioxide’s unique long-term effects.

Thanks to Mike Pecaut who helped me get a copy of this paper

pnassolofig3

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NOAA research jet measures greenhouse gases around the Pacific

A former corporate Gulfstream jet has been converted by NOAA scientists into a flying laboratory designed to measure the concentrations of hundreds of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in real time at multiple altitudes along the jet’s flight pattern. This will give atmospheric scientists direct data about all the GHGs – at what altitudes do they concentrate, are they more common close to the poles or the equator, are there any “dead spots” where something is preventing the GHGs from concentrating – or washing them out of the atmosphere? And in the process, the scientists hope to gather enough data to dramatically improve existing climate models in the near future.

According to this Daily Climate story, the scientists have already found “‘wonderful jewels’ in the raw data that challenge current thinking and assumptions.” According to the story, they’ve already found that ozone is present in the northern hemisphere at 3x the rate of the southern hemisphere, that the Arctic has a large cloud of industrial pollutants sitting over it, and that there is a large patch of oxygen over the Southern Ocean (the ocean surrounding Antarctica).
As additional data is gathered and analyzed, and then fed into climate models, the result of this science will be dramatically improved climate modeling. And that’s part of the point – Steven Wolfsy of Harvard University had this to say in the article:

“Some modeling approaches will simply fail,” Wofsy said. “They won’t be able to do this. That’s what we’re after here: We’re confronting these global models with data.”

———-

oregondeadzoneStudy says oceans to dissolve much less oxygen

According to a new study, the oceans will be hold much less dissolved oxygen as a result of anthopogenic CO2 emissions. And less oxygen dissolved in the water means more dead zones like that at the mouth of the Mississippi River, fewer fish, more marine die-offs, and possibly even major changes in the overall marine ecosystem as lack of oxygen changes the abundance of different kinds of plankton. And these changes could be just as irreversible as those described above.

As people burn fossil fuels, they consume oxygen and produce CO2, resulting in a decrease in the amount of oxygen and a corresponding increase in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. As a result, the ocean will release some of its dissolved oxygen until it reaches a quasi-equilibrium value. Similarly, the ocean will absorb atmospheric CO2 until it too reaches a quasi-equilibrium state. This directly lowers the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. The mineralization of dissolved CO2 (converting CO2 into rock and clay at the ocean bottom) also pulls some amount of oxygen out of the water. But the study says that the largest change is the result of a hotter ocean being able to hold a lower amount of dissolved gases, much in the same way as a hot beer goes flat faster than a cold beer, only substituting oxygen for CO2 carbonation.

While the models used in the study produce an average reduction that is no worse than 30% (from 180 to 120 micromol of dissolved oxygen per kg of seawater), that’s a number that is averaged over all the oceans at all depths. When the authors researched how much oxygen could be removed by depth and location, they found that near-dead zones in the ocean could increase by 3-7 times the area of existing zones and that the volume of the ocean affected would increase by 5-20 fold. These estimates were not the worst-case that was analyzed, however, because the model that produced them ignored the possibility that ocean currents would slow down as a result of climate disruption.

If currents slow down by 75%, 61% of the entire ocean could turn up hypoxic (too little dissolved oxygen for most marine species), an increase from 9.1% in today’s ocean.

And while the worst effects wouldn’t necessarily strike until 1000-3000 years from now, the models project that the ocean would not have fully recovered even after 100,000 years.

Whether we should worry about such a far distant future is a fair question, given our short lifespans. But given the effects we’re already seeing in the oceans – acidification, sea level rise, overfishing, and so on – this paper should give us pause about our long-term impact on the health of the oceans.

Thanks to the author, Dr. Gary Shaffer, who provided me with a copy of his paper for reference.

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Waste heat to eventually overwhelm greenhouse gases

Assume for a moment that humanity successfully transitions away from carbon-based energy sources. No more natural gas, no more coal, no more oil, not even any more biofuels. Picture everything powered by electricity from wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, tidal, and any other completely carbon-free supplies. Assume too that we’ve successfully pulled a significant percentage of the carbon we injected into the air and oceans out again and buried it underground. Idyllic – except, if Tufts University astrophysicist Eric J. Chaisson is right, we’re still having to deal with rising temperatures. But this time, it’s not because of greenhouse gases causing climate disruption. This time it’s because of our own waste heat.

Waste heat is the heat our light bulbs, our computers, our radios, our cars lose through inefficiency. The Second Law of Thermodynamics demands that nothing can be perfectly efficient, and thus the heat you feel radiating off the back of your computer monitor is the energy that you’re wasting because you have an inefficient computer monitor. Right now waste heat is insignificant compared to the heat added to the earth via the greenhouse effect. But in several hundred years, assuming that population growth goes as the UN expects (up to about 9 billion and then leveling off) and that consumption goes up, all the energy we use and waste will be adding to the heat of the atmosphere just about what we’re adding to it now with GHGs.

According the the Boston Globe article, Chaisson believes that the only way to not add heat to the atmosphere is to ultimately rely exclusively on the energy that the sun irradiates the earth with or that the earth-moon system already accounts for – solar, wind, oceanic currents, and tidal. No nuclear – nuclear reactions dramatically speed up the release of decay energy from the earth’s interior. No geothermal for a similar reason to nuclear. No fusion, even if scientists can get it working – hydrogen fusion energy adds a massive amount of energy to the biosphere. And no orbital power stations beaming energy down to massive receivers in the desert either.

Think of it as the urban heat island effect on the scale of entire continents.

The solution is two-fold. First, invest massively in highly efficient forms of energy, manufacturing, transportation, and so on. Remove the gasoline engine and replace it with a high efficiency copper core motor, coat the car with ultra-low friction paint to reduce wind resistance. Or better yet, do away with the automobile altogether. Similarly, develop green, water-based chemistry that doesn’t require high energy reactions to create the chemicals and products our civilization needs. Eliminate sprawl so nearly everyone works physically very close to where they live.

Second, focus the most research and development money into energy sources that are both very efficient, completely renewable, and 100% sun- and moon-powered. That’s high efficiency solar, perhaps starting with combined cycle solar and then moving on to technologies based on photosynthesis. That’s wind turbines placed as high into the air as possible, where the winds never stop blowing and where the wind velocity is much higher. That’s tidal and wave power along the coasts, and tethered submarine turbines sitting in ocean currents, harvesting the high density energy flow they represent.

And given that waste heat becomes a problem at higher populations and wider industrialization, a smaller population or smaller industrial base will have more than just the 300 years presently envisioned by Chaisson.

Given the fact that waste heat will become a problem only after climate disruption causes all sorts of problems, we presently have the luxury of time with regard to solving it. It certainly doesn’t hurt that many of the solutions to waste heat are also the same solutions as to climate disruption – radically increase energy efficiency and widely deploy renewable energy sources. So while we should keep the problem of waste heat in the back of our collective mind while we work to stave off climate disruption, it’s fair to say that it’s not the highest priority right now.

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New magnets may replace HFC refrigerants

Some things are so cool that I wish I’d stumbled across them first. This article in the NYTimes blog Green, Inc. on magnetocaloric materials is one of them.

A magnetocaloric material heats up when a magnetic field is applied to it and then cools down dramatically when the magnetic field is removed. Put something like this into a refrigerator and you get a cooling element that doesn’t require a compressor or ozone-destroying/greenhouse gas refrigerants. And in the process, one of the least efficient appliances in a standard home could be made significantly more energy efficient and quieter.

While the Green Inc article points out that magnetocaloric materials have been used for industrial application since the 1930s, the toxicity and high cost of the materials kept them out of general use. However, new materials that are being developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that are cheaper, much less toxic, and that should equal or exceed gas refrigerants in terms of energy efficiency.

Image credits:
Pew Research Center
Scholars & Rogues
PNAS
NASA
NREL

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