The Weekly Carboholic: Project releases principles of climate science literacy

Posted on March 25, 2009




Ask yourself the following question: “What do I know about climate change?”

If you answered “very little” or “not enough,” then the new guide Climate Literacy – The Essential Principles of Climate Sciences might be a good starting point. It lays out seven principles that every person should know about climate science:

  1. The Sun is the primary source of energy for Earths climate system.Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system.
  2. Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system.
  3. Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate.
  4. Climate varies over space and time through both natural and man-made processes.
  5. Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling.
  6. Human activities are impacting the climate system.
  7. Climate change will have consequences for the Earth system and human lives.

It’s not appropriate to know these seven principles and believe them as a Christian believes the Ten Commandments. These principles are based on information that someone who is climate literate has to know. For example, to understand that “life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate,” a climate literate person also needs to have a basic understanding of ecology, the physics of greenhouse gases, that extinctions have happened because of climate change, that human civilization occurred in a period of relative climactic stability, and that we have proof that life has, and continues, to change the composition of the atmosphere. In other words, a climate literate person is pretty scientifically literate as well.

The information supporting the principles is mostly generic, but some of it is downright disturbing when you understand the ramifications. For example, one of the consequences described is this:

Climate plays an important role in the global distribution of freshwater resources. Changing precipitation patterns and temperature conditions will alter the distribution and availability of freshwater resources, reducing reliable access to water for many people and their crops. Winter snowpack and mountain glaciers that provide water for human use are declining as a result of global warming.

In other words, permanent droughts, dust bowl-like conditions, and dried up rivers around the world are likely as as consequence of climate disruption. Not a pleasant thing to think about, really, which is probably why the authors of this guide described it so carefully using neutral language.

Perhaps the largest challenge to making this guide available and improving climate literacy is in the introduction, before the guide officially starts. It says, in part:

A climate literate person:

  • understands the essential principles of Earth’s climate system,
  • knows how to assess scientifically credible information about climate,
  • communicates about climate and climate change in a meaningful way, and
  • is able to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate.

(emphasis added)

“Scientific credibility” is probably the most difficult thing for a non-scientist to evaluate, especially given the state of anti-intellectualism and the media in the U.S. But given the large number of voices claiming to know the truth, it’s arguably the most important skill that the guide’s authors could hope to teach a climate-illiterate public.

And those authors? Here’s the list to date:

  • 13 U.S. agencies: Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, Department of State, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, National Science Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, USAID
  • Other government groups: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The National Center for Atmospheric Research, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service
  • Other groups: American Association for the Advancement of Science Project 2061, American Meterological Society, Association of Science-Technology Centers, Bowman Global Change, Challenger Center for Space Science Education, Climate Literacy Network, College of Exploration, Federation of Earth Science Information Parters, Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California-Berkeley, National Environmental Education Foundation, National Geographic Education Programs, National Science Teachers Association, North American Association for Environmental Education, Sally Ride Science, TERC, Inc., The GLOBE Program

In my opinion, that list forms a pretty credible foundation upon which to build a program of climate literacy.


Synchronized chaos and natural climate variability

A new paper by two mathematicians from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee titled “Has the climate recently shifted?” was released a couple of weeks ago. It asks whether there has been a climate “shift” in recent years and if so, how did it occur. The authors, Kyle L. Swanson and Anastasios A. Tsonis, propose that the climate has in fact shifted recently and historically over the 20th century and they propose a mechanism for this shift known as “synchronized chaos.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “synchronized chaos,” you’re not alone. In the Earth’s climate, there are any number of short and long term cycles going on at the same time, ranging from several different types of orbital variations (Milankovic cycles) to the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) to the 11 and 22 years solar cycles to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and more. Over the Earth’s recent geologic past, ice ages have been driven largely by the Milankovic cycles. However, not all of these variations are cycles with a nearly constant period like the solar cycle. If you look at the ENSO image below, you’ll see that it varies pretty widely in the time between cold and hot cycles and how hot and cold each side gets. Synchronized chaos is the idea that, when certain of these chaotic variations come together in a certain way and begin to couple to one another, the climate changes from one relatively stable mode to another – it “changes gears,” so to speak.


Swanson and Tsonis propose in their paper that the variations they’ve been analyzing synchronized four times in the 20th century, specifically in 1910-1920, 1938-1945, 1956-1960, and 1976-1981. In three of those periods there was also coupling, and the climate appears to have changed gears in those periods. The climate transitioned from cooling to heating around 1910, back to cooling around 1940, and then back to heating again around 1975. The authors explain the difference between synchronized variations and coupled variations as follows:

Think of a bicycle team engaged in a team time trial. The riders are all synchronized, with their motions carefully planned to maximize the teams overall speed. However, if those riders were coupled together, for example by attaching their bikes together with a rope, the slightest misstep among one of the bikers would be communicated immediately through the team and would lead to a group crash.

Of more immediate interest, however, is the fact that the authors have uncovered a new point of coupling in 2001/2002. As the media has been reporting since about the middle of 2008, this decade has been pretty much flat as far as global heating goes, and Swanson and Tsonis suggest that this may be because the climate changed gears again eight years ago, and that the change was driven by internal shifts in how the climate functions rather than by an external source such as anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2). Swanson and Tsonis suggest that this change in function could be an unusually large amount of oceanic heat absorption or a change in how clouds are affecting the Earth’s albedo.

While anthropogenic climate disruption skeptics and deniers are likely going to latch onto this paper as proof that the climate changes without the help of human industry, the authors specifically addressed this in their conclusion:

It is straightforward to argue that a climate with significant internal variability is a climate that is very sensitive to applied anthropogenic radiative anomalies (c.f. Roe [2009]). If the role of internal variability in the climate system is as large as this analysis would seem to suggest, warming over the 21st century may well be larger than that predicted by the current generation of models, given the propensity of those models to underestimate climate internal variability [Kravtsov and Spannagle 2008].

Put another way, if the climate truly is borderline stable under normal circumstances, it won’t take much to throw it completely out of whack.


First federal loan guarantee for solar energy issued

Last week, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the Department of Energy (DoE) issued the first ever federal loan guarantee to a solar panel manufacturer. Solyndra Inc., makers of cylindrical solar cells, was granted $535 million in order to cover 73% of the construction costs for a new panel manufacturing facility in California. This was the first loan granted in a program that was passed four years ago and that has $38.5 billion dollars remaining that the Bush administration never spent. The recently passed stimulus package has another $60 billion in loan guarantees that are yet to be distributed.

According to the Washington Post article, Secretary Chu hopes to cut down the time to process an application from years to several months, and in the process use the loan guarantees to create a large number of energy-related jobs. The Solyndra guarantees are expected to employ 3000 construction workers, an additional 500 at the factory once it’s operational, and another 500 employees at the companies that supply Solyndra with their raw materials and critical componets.


codrillrigStop drilling, baby! STOP!

“Drill, baby! Drill!” That was the refrain pushed by the GOP last summer during the run-up to the election. And it was a powerful phrase, driven by frustration at the price of oil, rising electricity and natural gas prices around the country, and the irrational hope that new oil drilled today would make prices fall tomorrow. But the NYTimes now reports that there’s a new refrain being heard at drilling fields around the country as the price for oil and natural gas falls dramatically off it’s 2008 highs: Stop!

With the price of gasoline 1/3 to 1/2 what it was last year, the lower prices are good for consumers hurt by the general state of the economy. But with lower prices comes less pressure on oil and gas companies to produce more. This in turn means that there’s less reason for those companies to drill for relatively expensive U.S. oil and natural gas, especially when there’s other places around the world where oil and gas are cheaper due to fewer and lower regulatory hurdles. In addition, the NYTimes reports that the companies are also pumping less oil and gas from the wells that they’ve already drilled.

The sudden drop in drilling has energy experts worried about what will happen when the recession turns around. Not only are the drilling crews disbanding or moving overseas, the newly drilled wells will see drops in oil and gas productions by as early as 2010, likely leading to yet another spike in oil and/or gas prices nationwide.

And if the economy recovers into another energy price spike, it’s a pretty safe bet that the recovery will stall out or even reverse again. And this is likely to be the case so long as the U.S. remains dependent on fossil fuels.

Image credits:
NOAA Climate Data Center

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