Monthly Archives: December 2014

That doctor’s analogy again

During a web search I came across this page: Climate Change Communication: Taking the Temperature (Part 11) with Dr. Katharine Hayhoe. It seems to be part of a series consisting of interviews with 12 different climate scientists about climate communication. The answer on the second question was really interesting, I recognized immediately the often used, but flawed, doctor analogy:

2. How do you view your role in communicating science?

I see the role of a climate scientist as similar, in some ways, to that of a physician. We might suspect something is wrong with our bodies; but until we go to the doctor, take the tests, and wait for the evidence, we don’t know what is going on for sure. In the same way, we might see something changing in our climate; but until scientists collect the observations, analyze the evidence, and draw conclusions, we don’t know for sure what is happening. As climate scientists, we are the “physicians of the planet.”

With that role comes responsibility: to tell people about what we find. Imagine if you went to the doctor and they found something wrong, but didn’t want to tell you about it – because they were afraid you might react badly to hearing the news, or it would be against your religion or your politics to receive treatment. That scenario may seem far-fetched to us. In the same way, though, I feel that as climate scientists we have a responsibility to tell people: what is happening, why it’s happening, and what the outcome of our choices as a society will be.

In a way I could understand that both doctors and climate scientists are studying complex systems. But even then there are differences that prevent the analogy to fly.

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Multiple lines of solid evidence…

Last November John Holdren, the science czar of Obama, took questions about climate change in “Open for Questions” via social media and answered some on video. After the subject of last post, I found question number 3 a particularly interesting one:

Are people truly affecting the climate, or is this a natural phenomenon that is part of Earth’s climate cycle? What evidence points to a human role, besides the vague explanation that humans have been polluting the atmosphere?

– Chance Salway via Facebook

This is how it got answered:

We know beyond any reasonable doubt that humans are the main cause of the warming of earth’s climate that has been measured over the past few decades. The warming is unequivocal. It is based on thermometer measurements at thousands of locations across the face of the Earth,

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Observational science versus Experimental science

We often hear the claim that the debate is over, that human activity (CO2) is responsible for changing the climate, that there is overwhelming evidence to prove this. But can this level of certainty in attribution really be achieved in climate science? As far as I know climate science is an “observational” science. This kind of science is being done through the observation of nature just taking its course and recording the findings over time. As opposed to the “experimental” sciences that advance via controlled experiments.

There are other observational sciences like geology, social sciences, epidemiology and so on. All those sciences can not perform controlled experiments because it would not be ethical or it would be impossible to do. For example, in astronomy it would not be possible to manipulate stars or galaxies in order to observe what happens when the researcher changes something. Or in medical observational science it would not be ethical to administer one group with a medicine, while another group gets only a placebo.

In climate science there is only one test subject: Earth. We don’t have the luxury of three similar planets in which we extract CO2 from one, add CO2 to the other and compare that to our Earth. Therefor there is no other option than to observe what is happening and record the findings.

Observational sciences have their limitations. Observing nature taking its course means there are many variables involved and in the research only one (or a few) are accounted for. To pinpoint one cause, and only one, it is necessary to isolate that factor and change that while keeping other factors the same. Then if there is a change in output, one could be sure that this is because of this one factor that was changed. That is what experimental science does and that is the difference with observational science.

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Wind breaking all records … for as long as it takes

Today we got cheering in the Belgian media about a new record of wind energy production. It goes like this: energy production from wind energy reached a new record last Monday. There was a production of 38,8 GWh that day, enough electricity for about 4 million families and about 15% of the total energy demand. The previous record was from December 11.

One of them even said that thanks that thanks to the good production of wind energy and the re-opening of nuclear reactor Doel 4, there is no threat of a blackout at this moment.

Yeah right.

As far as I know the risk of a blackout is when the temperature is around -6 °C and during peak at working days. There are no freezing temperatures at the moment and we are at the beginning of a holiday week. Very small risk of a blackout, with or without wind energy. The risk will rise again beginning of January until March-April or so.

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That colossal beam in the left’s eye

Centrale Doel

A couple days ago our government made the decision to keep our two oldest nuclear reactors (Doel 1 and 2) open for the next ten years. Those reactors were planned to be closed in 2015, but will now close in 2025. The government took this decision in order to secure our energy needs in the next years. The decision is not final. First Electrabel and FANC (Federal Agency for Nuclear Control) have to agree.

As expected, the opposition parties, sp.a (Flemish Socialist Party) and the Greens, were not amused. Neither was Bond Beter Leefmilieu (“Federation Better Environment”) and Greenpeace. They accused the government of being the slave of Electrabel (an electricity provider), helping them to reach monopoly again. They also claimed that the solution is inefficient, dangerous, that nuclear is a energy source is a “energy source of the past” anyway and this move would discourage the investors in alternative energy sources? There was also the claim that huge investments will be needed for the check-up additional security costs of the reactors in the wake of Fukushima and the question “who will have to pay for this?”.

What I missed in their objections was some sense of reality or at least an alternative. The fact is that the previous (left wing) governments neglected our power security and only focused on wind and solar, which are now part of the problem because they don’t contribute to our energy security.

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Arctic sea ice and “balance” in the media

Caption VTM news of December 15, 2014

Screenshot VTM news of December 15, 2014

It was really surprising to watch on Flemish television the “news” that there is more Arctic sea ice. For skeptics this isn’t really news. This fact is known since 2013. In the meanwhile it was staggering to watch the media keep on regurgitating the 2012 Arctic data. Nice they are catching up, it took them a while.

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Energy from an island

Yesterday I read about “new” plans of a pumped storage installation in Belgium in the hard copy of the newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws. The plans concern building an energy island before the coast of De Haan. It is also called an energy atoll. It would consist of a huge reservoir that will be emptied by pumps when demand is low and filled via turbines when demand is high. Therefor balancing the load on the grid.

“New” between parentheses because I heard about similar plans beginning of 2013. Different politicians, the same location and the same resistance from the people of the village. In The Netherlands there were also similar projects born and later put to rest.

In a way I think it has some merits. If one want to build upon an intermittent energy source, one need a way to “store” the energy that is produced but can’t be used right away, for example at high production and/or at low consumption. In Belgium we currently have such a installation in Coo. It was build as a buffer for the nuclear power plant of Tihange. At night when there was an excess of energy, it is used to pump water to higher elevation and in the morning/evening peak the water flows back through the turbine to generate electricity.

The new plans are brought as a project that could avoid 80% of our electricity shortage, so I was thinking that the island would have a huge capacity. I was a bit disappointed to learn that the pumps have a capacity of only 550 MW, only half that of the Coo installation. The journalists putting it a bit different: they write it has the capacity of a small nuclear power plant. Everybody is comparing power plants with small nuclear plants nowadays. While it is technically true that the turbine has a capacity of a small nuclear power plant, there is of course a big difference here. The pumped storage will only produce this power on the condition that:

  1. the reservoir is empty
  2. only for a maximum of 4 hours

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