Category Archives: Climate Politics

More floods, fires and heat waves if we don’t act nów

The same old story. When reading the newspaper Het Nieuwsblad on September 1, I bumped on an article with the headline (translated from Dutch): “More floods, forest fires and heatwaves” and with an even bigger font type: “if we don’t act nów”. With emphasis on “now”. I lost count how many times I heard that before, yet it apparently can get recycled time and time again. Now a full page was devoted on it.

There was no source, but it seemed to be based on an article in the Guardian published two days before, combined with a statement about the July data from the NASA dataset. The article was build on the statements of Gavin Schmidt (NASA GISS) who seems to go well beyond what the data tells us.

The print version of Het Nieuwsblad was even more over the top than the Guardian article. This is how the case is built:

  1. Schmidt is presented as the “indisputable climate expert of NASA”
  2. More floods, fires and heat waves if we don’t act now
  3. The earth is warming at an alarming rate
  4. Never seen in thousand years
  5. We don’t have to step it up one notch, but 10 notches, to keep it below 2 degreesC
  6. We came close to the 1.5 degree this year
  7. The problem is immediate: if we keep emitting like we do now during the next 5 months [sic] we can not reach the 1.5 degrees goal
  8. Rapid and significant measures are needed
  9. Optimists think wrongly that there are fluctuation and lows will cancel out highs, but this is not the case
  10. Temperature increases faster in the last 30 years than in the last 1000 years. Reconstruction at NASA show that global temperatures over the last 5000 years increased gradually, but only in the last century the temperature increase was already 0.7 degrees (10 tiems faster)
  11. In the last decades even faster
  12. Schmidt is not a doom monger, but a realist. Proof: since October last year every month broke a record, the highest temperature was 54 [°C], the most aggressive forest fires in California and the first anthrax case in Siberia due to the melting permafrost
  13. 2014 was a record, as was 2015 and 99% sure also 2016
  14. The measurements started in 1800 [sic]
  15. On the short term: further decrease of Arctic ice, increase of heat waves, floods and forest fires
  16. Island states will be the first victims of sea level rise
  17. Sea level could rise by 10 meter
  18. Mass destruction of animal species will increase.

I am not surprised. This is how climate change is portrayed in the media. What is wrong with this picture? In my believer’s years I probably would have agreed with it without []. Luckily I learned to speak climatese in the last few years.

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Green energy: a source of prosperity in Germany and of misery in Flanders?

After a string of 18 posts on energy, or more specifically on the neglected side of communication on the Energiewende, I had the intention to write about a different subject. Then I encounter this opinion piece (Dutch) in which two politicians from the Flemish Green Party ask themselves “why green energy is a source of prosperity in Germany and a source of misery in Flanders?”. That is an interesting question. Most of the arguments were recognizable, I think they came from the same source that I was looking in during those 18 previous posts.

The authors came to the conclusion that two factors are involved in the success of the German energy transition: economic and public support. They explained that the government is responsible for both factors, doing a good job in Germany and a lousy job in Flanders. But no worry, according to them, the German success story is also possible here… Where did I heard that again?

Starting with the economic support: the authors say that “Politicians must provide economic support by making a stable renewable energy policy” and this is where our politicians went wrong. I reckon that they mean subsidies or some other financial support. I certainly agree that there wasn’t much of an energy strategy in the past (still not) and that the message was not always consistent. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem to prevent giving “economic support” for alternative energy during that time. As far as I know, Belgium only invested in wind, solar and biomass in the last decade or so. There were and still are subsidies for alternative sources, billions are still being poured into it. Proof of this is our current hefty energy tax and everybody knows that it is necessary to finance alternative energy.

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A wood or not a wood, that is the question

On the Twitter account of Groen (the Flemish Green Party), I found this message:

twitter groen boswijzer

Translated from Dutch:

More woods are disappearing in Flandres every year

The new wood barometer is available. In Flanders, more woods are being cleared than planted. Contrary to what Minister of Nature Schauvlieghe keeps claiming. Retweet this image if you want more woods and green in your neighborhood →

I recognize the controversy. I already had a post on this subject in the first year of this blog. Just to summarize: the Minister of Environment, Nature and Agriculture had a new tool for counting the wooded area using high resolution images taken from the air. In 2013 they published the first numbers after the base line measurement of 2011 and claimed an increase of 8,262 hectares. Bos+ (a NGO) has a competing measurement system based on the information of “official” licenses & subsidies and claimed that there was not much of a difference. Groen claimed that there was a decrease. In the end they all had it right, they just used different definitions and therefor came with different numbers.

The counting method of the Minister was a very objective one. It specifically defined a wood as:

  • a collection of trees
  • trees are higher than 3 meters
  • in an area of at least 0.5 hectares
  • a length to width ratio of at least 2.5
  • a cover of at least 50%.
  • .

Although this is the most accurate tool available, it was strongly criticized by green organizations. For example it also took into account trees in fallow land or trees along roads, railways,… Every collection of 3 meter high trees on any area of at least 0.5 hectares is counted. Whether it was officially subsidized or not, whether it was officially licensed or not. On the other hand, the Minister (not rightfully) claimed that this increase was indicative for a better forest policy and forgot to communicate the margin of error (it was bigger than the measured increase). If you want to read the complete story, just follow the link above.

The tweet also linked to De Afspraak (a talk show on the Flemish television) and when looking for more information about that episode, I found that they also recently made a quiz called “Wood or not”, based on this measuring tool of the Minister. In this quiz they compiled 8 images of landscapes and challenged people to guess whether the tool of the Minister would recognize these landscapes as being woods or not. Although I expected the most extreme examples, I couldn’t resist to take the quiz…

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Talk is cheap: strong climate action is good for the economy

It always surprises me when someone is claiming that a transition to intermittent energy sources is “good for the economy”. This evening I was watching the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space & Technology hearing of last Tuesday titled: “Paris climate promise: a bad deal for America” and yes, again there was someone praising such transition and how good it all would be.

US House Committee Science Space  & Technology hearing Feb 2, 2016

The praise came from Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, who had the dubious task of defending the outcome of the Paris climate conference last December. Although I liked his enthusiasm, I had the impression that he wasn’t alway very honest, for example when describing the commitments of China and India. I think he greatly oversold the outcome of the climate conference. His story was overly rosy and he seemed to be completely unaware of any issues with intermittent, low density energy sources. If this is how he frames it, I fear for the rest.

Just a few of the many claims he made in his oral statement (my emphasis):

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Certainties and risk perception (2)

Continuing with the opening statement of Senator Peters. In previous post I had the impression that his risk perception was seriously influenced by his (unwarranted) certainty of the understanding of the climate system, his specific definition of “global warming” and the very strong simplification of what is in fact a very complex system. This have led him to believe that the science is clear that there are huge risks involved. The rest of the opening statement also builds on this and politics enters the mix.

But first he reflected on the disagreement he was expecting in this panel:

We going to hear today that there is some disagreement, some disagreement, in the scientific community of the magnitude of that risk. As a matter of fact, we going to hear from three scientists and a political commentator and blogger, who disagree with various aspects of the scientific consensus as well as to argue that the science is not settled.

Interesting are the repeated of “some disagreement”, as to underline that there is only a little bit of disagreement. That “some disagreement” seems to be only on the magnitude of the risk. We already know what he thinks the magnitude is of that risk. Just two sentences earlier, he said that “the possible consequences of all these areas range from the bad to the catastrophic”. Which he probably thinks is the consensus position.

That the science is not settled is I think a given. Anyone who claims that a science (studying a complex, coupled, chaotic system with sparse, constantly changing historical data, pointing to one specific parameter amongst thousands) is settled, is not really honest in my opinion.

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Certainties and risk perception

Back to the “Data or Dogma?” hearing of the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. In two previous posts (here and here) I gave my thoughts on why the only-few-skeptics-versus-the-rest is not a very good argument. This post will focus on the view point of those who rely on the consensus. At the beginning of the hearing, Senator Peters gave an opening statement in which he explained his viewpoint on the science and how this effects policies. To me it was interesting because it showed where the risk perception came from.

data or dogma? Peters

Peters started with explaining that, when thinking about global warming, there are risks and certainties. He first started with the certainties:

By burning fossil fuels, humans are releasing carbon into the atmosphere that would have otherwise remained locked away. This process creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, that traps heat that otherwise would have radiated off into spaces. We know that by the law of conservation of energy that additional heat can’t just magically disappear. In stead it causes our planet to get warmer.

What else is certain? We already see the symptoms of a warming planet. Not just in the temperature records, but in the rising sea, shrinking ice levels, in toxic algae blooms that are flourishing in the great lakes that were made worse by increased precipitation, runoff and warmer water temperatures, tainting drinking water for 2.8 million people in recent years. All of that is certain.

The first paragraph is not controversial. Skeptics also agree that burning fossil fuels releases CO2 in the atmosphere, that this is a greenhouse gas, that it therefor has the ability to trap heat and that, all other things being equal, it would be warmer than without that extra CO2. But he stops where it really gets interesting. The theory indeed suggests that humans are the cause of the warming because they are adding CO2 in the atmosphere. However, reality is much more nuanced. In a simple system that would be straight forward, but how does it work in the complex, coupled, chaotic system that is our climate? Anthropogenic CO2 is not the only factor in the equation, there are thousands, maybe millions others and they could all influence each other. How much do we know of this system, knowing that there is only a couple decades or less of reliable historical data? The climate changed in the past without us, so how do we currently differentiate between warming by natural and anthropogenic CO2?

Some other interesting questions would be: how much of that uncertainty is communicated to the policy makers? How politicized is the science? How can we avoid bias? How much can we rely on the mathematical models to project x years into the future? And so on.

The examples he gave in the second paragraph are indeed symptoms of a warming world, but it doesn’t say anything about the cause. That warming could well be natural as anthropogenic or, more likely, a mix of both. It also depends on ones definition of “Global Warming”, some of those effects seems local to me. That aside, So none of these examples accurately helps to advance his case. They don’t suggest that humans are the cause. This would also be true even if that warming was 100% natural (which I don’t think it is).

To me, the stated certainties are not relevant to what he want to do with this knowledge. The first paragraph didn’t take into account the reality of a complex system and therefor over-estimated the certainty. The second paragraph had nothing to do with the anthropogenic aspect of global warming.

Then Peters continued with the risks:

Managing risk is all about looking at a range of possible outcomes and consequences. Looking at the likelihood of each of those consequences and then looking to see if there is anything you can do to reduce the likelihood of those consequences or both.

In can agree with this, but the question arises how that will work out in the complex system that is climate.

From our models and from our understanding of the science we see a range of potential outcomes, a range of possible warming trends, a range of consequences based on those trends. There are implications for our national security, for the economic health of our country, for our food supply and agriculture and for the health and safety of Michiganians, Americans as well as people around the planet.

So here we have it. It is indeed possible to see a range of potential outcomes from mathematical models and the understanding of the science. But how meaningful this potential outcome is, depends on the accuracy of those models or the certainty of the science. A science that is studying a complex, coupled and chaotic system over a long time-frame with only some decades of reliable data. There should be quite some uncertainties there.

As described in the written testimony of Dr. Christy, the models over-estimate the warming at a rate three times that of the real world. This over the past 37 years, in a period with the highest concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, therefor the effect of the additional CO2 should be large. They don’t do a good job in telling us what should have happened until now, why should we expect them to accurately projecting what will happen in the future? As Dr. Christy worded it at the hearing:

Being off by a factor of three does not qualify in my book as settled science

To me it looks like the science is being oversold to the policy makers. How sure can we be if the warming is overstated three times what is observed in reality and huge uncertainties are not communicated to the policy makers? That brings us to Peters’ following remark:

The possible consequences of all these areas range from the bad to the catastrophic.

Well, of course. If policy makers only hear how good the science is and don’t hear how the models diverge from reality, don’t hear that uncertainties are inherent when working with a complex system with few data to begin with, then I could understand where that comes from. This put a different light on what he said next:

Even our best scientific judgment of our risk posture of the consequences that we face as a civilization and the likelihood of those consequences occurring, we must do what we can to mitigate these risks.

In a science with less uncertainties, with mathematical models that more or less match reality and with plenty of reliable historical data, I would not have any problem with such a statement. But that is not exactly the system we live in.

Pledging to decrease emissions (by increasing them)

It was not my intention to look deeper into the COP21 conference, but I couldn’t resist. The thing that got this started was an info graphic I saw in a news paper. It depicted the pledges of the largest emitters and amongst them the pledge of Russia. To me, that pledge stood out like a sore thumb. My initial reaction at that time was:

No way!

25-30% emission reduction, that is incredibly nice of Mr. Putin, but I thought there was something fishy with this message. Russia is not exactly the country that bought into the global warming scare. They have been very skeptical and probably will have more advantages than disadvantages from a warming climate. They also clearly said that they wouldn’t sacrifice their economy in order to cut emissions. So reading that they are actually willing to cut their emissions by 25 to 30% by 2030 sounds unbelievable to me.

As with so many things concerning climate policies reporting, the devil is in the detail. The detail here is “compared to what”. That “what” being the emissions in 1990:

Emissions Pledge Russia

Aha! Now it makes a lot more sense. I know where that comes from, I have seen such construction before. When I looked at the emission reductions of the developing countries, emission data showed that Russia and Ukraine were responsible for 95% of the (relatively small) decrease in emissions of the developing countries. So the increasing share of alternative power sources couldn’t be the cause of that decrease, because that share was/is almost non-existing in both countries.

The reason why the Russia’s emissions of Russia dropped from 1989 was the collapse of the Soviet Union and many energy inefficient factories and heavy industry that closed their doors. Taking the emissions of 1990 as a base would have rather interesting results.

I had still some recent data of emissions on my hard drive, so I went for a very quick back-on-the-envelop look. This is how the emissions trend is for Russia, just look at the quickly dropping numbers starting from 1989 and its slow recovery at the end of last century:


Source of the data:

A rough look learns us that a 25% reduction from 1990 would mean that they are already almost at their target, so that reduction by 2030 turns out to be quite meaningless. By the way, 25-30% of 1990 levels was exactly what they also agreed to do by 2020.

It didn’t stop there. There still was that intriguing statement that “Russia’s massive forests absorb around 500m tonnes of CO2 each year”. Was this included in the pledge? When looking for more information I found the Russian INDC submission (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution). This explains that they want the contribution of the Russian forests taken fully into account in their pledge. This indeed seemed to be estimated to 500 Mt CO2 per year (since 2000). So let me add to the graph above what the Russians think their emissions actually are and how that relates to their target:


Source of the data:

Also look at the direction of the current emissions:


Source of the data:

That trend is upwards and only interrupted by the 2008 financial crisis. They were serious when saying they don’t want to sacrifice their economy.

Just continuing looking at it on a rough scale, they dropped about 500 Mt in the 14 years from 1990 until 2013, being already more or less on their target right now. But because of their creative accounting, they still have a spare 500 Mt (from absorption of CO2 by their forests), which means that they can continue as they do now without even missing their target.

25-30% emission reduction sounds really nice, but the contrary seems to be true. In stead of willing to decrease their emissions by 25%, they actually have even room for a INcrease of 25% to get their “target” by 2030. Even if they continue to increase their emissions at the same rate as it is increasing since 1999, they would probably still reach their target. Clever guys, these Russians.

I was surprised that this was only skin-deep. Just scratching at the surface will show it. If the pledge of Russia looks so very promising from the outside, but worthless when you look deeper, what about the submissions of the other countries? Just look at what India pledged: a decrease of 33-35% reduction in emission, ahem, “intensity”…

This act of creative accounting by the Russians could well be the tip of the iceberg.

Found in the meanwhile some more of those creative accounting techniques (Dutch). Beside the Russian plan, there are also:

  • South Korea and Mexico promised to decrease their emissions against their “expected emissions” for the next 15 years (South Korea plans to emit 35% “less extra”)
  • China and India likewise “decrease” their emissions by using their fossil fuels more efficiently to produce the same (that is the reduction in “emission intensity” seen above)
  • The USA promise to limit their emissions “by 26%” compared to 2005. Meaning already 10 year in progress and that 26% is in fact 15%
  • Europe promises to decrease emissions “by 40%” against base year 1990. Meaning already halfway and that impressive 40% is in fact 20%.

I didn’t check these numbers, just put them here as I found it.
Those countries seem to do their very best to impress/fool each other and the public with their numbers.