Category Archives: Climate change

Northern Gateway announcement pending

[Update] A new CBC article on the pending announcement. It is similar to the ‘political stance’ article in ¶3 below and includes several quotes from one of my UBC professors, George Hoberg. He’s very against the pipeline, so hardly an unbiased observer, but an excellent policy analyst regardless. It also includes a couple paragraphs on the First Nations position and legal standing. [End update.]

To any US readers, you’ve probably never heard of the Northern Gateway (NG) pipeline. To any Canadians, this is old hat (or toque). NG is a major pipeline from the Albertan tar/oil-sands fields to obtain tidewater access. Simply put, oil producers can get between $10 and $30 more per barrel on the international market than when constrained by existing bottlenecks. It is one of three proposed pipelines in Canada, excluding Keystone XL. Keystone is better known in the states as it crosses the border. To avoid going on a tangent of the other pipelines, here is a quick table of all four proposed projects/expansions for reference:

Project Name Length (km/mi) Existing Capacity (barrels per day) Proposed Capacity (barrels per day)
Enbridge Northern Gateway 1,177/730 0 525,000
Kinder-Morgan Trans-Mountain 1,150/715 300,000 890,000
TransCanada Energy East 4,600/2,700 0 1,100,000
TransCanada Keystone XL 1,900/1,180 590,000 830,000


But, back to the subject at hand. The Canadian federal government is widely expected to announce the approval of NG tomorrow, 17 Jun 2014. Contrary to any chants of “USA!” and “We’re Number One!,” this is probably the most controversial of all the projects. NG is neither the longest nor largest pipeline, but it goes through completely virgin territory. The others are totally (Trans-Mountain), mostly (Energy East) or partially (KXL) expansions on existing routes. Not only is the terrain extremely remote and an engineering challenge, but the pipeline will cross many, many pristine rivers and streams that are significant salmon breeding grounds. Then, the inbound and outbound tankers will have to navigate 90 km (55 mi) through Douglas Channel between Kitimat and the Hecate Strait. This is not impossible as it is currently an active shipping route, but it is not a simple as just shoving off and sailing into the big Pacific Ocean. The Globe and Mail summarizes some of these challenges.

From a pure political stance, there are big conflicts. All the pipelines originate in PM Stephen Harper’s political base of Alberta, but NG goes through the more left leaning BC province (home of Greenpeace, after all). Harper doesn’t want to alienate his base in Alberta, but BC environmental groups have vowed to electorally punish any members of Parliament or provincial legislature that back the project. The BC Liberal Party (actually a center-right party, unlike the national Liberal Party [yeah, it’s complicated]) won big in last year’s elections, so they may not be in imminent risk, but also do not want to give an easy talking point to the NDP opposition.

There are also significant First Nations concerns as several bands are adamantly against the plan and will try to leverage their sovereignty claims as much as possible. There is no simple way to explain First Nations legal rights, but to even say, “It’s complicated,” is an understatement of huge magnitude. I would love to link to something, but I don’t even know where to start.

Regardless, this will not end Tuesday. Enbridge already must comply with over 200 conditions before beginning construction. Honestly, I’m not familiar with those conditions, so I can’t really say if they’re trivial or onerous, but this is not exactly a shovel-ready project. BC Premier Christy Clark also laid out five conditions for approving the pipeline. These don’t supersede any federal decision, but may serve as her political ace-in-the-hole should she decide to gum up the works by denying or delaying local approvals and permits (unlikely, but who knows). And then there are the court battles that could rival Don Cherry for the definition of an  ugly suit.

Reactions to EPA’s Power Plant Regulations

In the week since Gina McCarthy approved the EPA’s Clean Power Plan draft regulations on state-level carbon emissions, seas of ink and gigabytes of pixels have been spilt in response and commentary. Even though I mention just a couple, this post has passed 700 words, so I’m hardly being laconic.

Glass Half Empty

“Doomed! Doomed, I say! Doomed! Doomed! Doomed!” [As best I can tell, this originated with Private James Frazer in the BBC comedy, “Dad’s Army.” But, this Rugrats YouTube clip is just too good.]

  • Ezra Klein at sort of initiated the pessimist camp with his “7 reasons America will fail on climate change.” As other writers noted, it’s not that Ezra is wrong or misrepresented the facts, it’s just that everything is cast in the worst possible light. Agree or disagree, it was a catalyst for further discussion.My one comment is that the tone is almost narcissistic (maybe that’s overstating it, but I can’t think of a better word). It’s all about how the US political system is broken. When he mentions China and other carbon polluters, it’s about how they are in one way subject to our whims and in another way capable of scuttling any substantive progress. The blog title even hints at that with “America will fail.” To cut Ezra some slack, he is the renowned Washington Wonk, so he will write about what he knows best – political dysfunction in the US capital. After a while, that has got to blacken your soul and make you want to kick puppies and pop children’s birthday balloons.
  • Brad Plumer specializes in climate change at and has multiple posts on the proposed regulations (quick link to all his posts, here). His first opinion piece is “Obama’s climate agenda is incredibly ambitious. It’s also not nearly enough.” Honestly, that title pretty well sums up the article. The US is no longer the largest carbon polluting country and represents a shrinking fraction of the total global emissions. Even significant domestic reductions will have diminishing returns overall.
  • Brad has another post on the elephant in the room, “Is China planning to put a cap on its carbon emissions?” The big news following the announcement of the draft regulations was that China might move forward on capping their carbon emissions. Brad rightly busts out a barrel of Morton’s salt on this announcement as the comment came from a “senior advisor to the Chinese government.” What little I know of China, that seems to be about the equivalent of a street preacher in downtown Chicago yelling into a bullhorn. Maybe he gets lots of attention, but the Political Machine is going to do its own thing.

Glass Half Full

“Always look on the bright side of life. [Whistling.]” Monty Python cast, “Life of Brian.”

  • Following Ezra’s post, Joe Romm at Climate Progress countered with “7 Reasons America Should Succeed On Climate Change.” Joe basically looks at each of Ezra’s points with a positive spin. Maybe he’s being a bit of a Pollyanna, but he identifies ways to break those very barriers instead of just kvetching about them.
  • Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine summarized the range of the liberal commentary in his post, “Has Obama Saved the Earth, or Doomed It?” I’ve linked to several of the same posts, plus he has a couple more. I can’t top his synthesis, so I’ll just quote him:

If you’re not sure whom to believe, the answer is that you should believe them all, because we’re all saying the same thing.

The only real difference in these putatively different assessments is the standard against which Obama is being held. Has Obama done everything within his power to protect future generations against climate change? Yes. Is everything within his power enough? No.

  • Finally, Paul Krugman has spent much of early June looking at the situation from his economist viewpoint. If you’re not doing so, just read his blog already. For the joy of ‘link-bait’ though, here are his recent op-ed pieces (2 Jun and 9 Jun 2014) and relevant blog posts (2 Jun, 7 Jun, and 10 Jun 2014). He notes that there will be some costs and job losses, but in the grand scheme of things the negatives are actually quite small, even without considering the positives.

If I can close on a cliché, my feeling is “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Edit: 17 Jun 14, corrected spelling of Brad Plumer’s name.

Cosmos on Climate Change

I haven’t watched every episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new Cosmos series, but have enjoyed a few here and there. However, this weekend’s episode will deal directly with climate change. Chris Mooney at Mother Jones has a little highlight on the show as well as a short video explaining the difference between ‘climate’ and ‘weather.’ Catch it on your local Fox station, National Geographic Channel, or online.

Polar Vortex and Global Warming

Jeff Master’s has a post regarding a recent paper connecting the polar vortex and the California drought to climate change. The discussion itself isn’t all that interesting, but it does have an extensive list of past blog posts and research papers regarding weather circulation patterns. Jeff got me interested in the the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) several years ago when Greenland was warmer than Florida. Also, the NAO is oldest known climate oscillations, described several centuries ago by (as Jeff calls them) “seafaring Scandinavians,” which is probably a polite way of saying Vikings. I would like to find more about this history, but have not found much info yet.

Also of note, the strong dipole (high pressure/low pressure pair over North America) discussed in the paper naturally occurs prior to an El Niño event. This ties in to several of my previous posts. This isn’t a cause-and-effect matter, but probably coincident expression of conditions that lead to an El Niño season.

Mitigation of Climate Change

Well, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on mitigation is out. I’ve got lots of reading to do. Joe Romm at Think Progress and Brigitte Knopf at Real Climate have done a better job of summarizing this than I. The shortest of the short summary is that the worst effects of climate change can be avoided at very minimal costs.

Paul Krugman has a related blog post about the falling cost of solar. Paul’s readership is probably orders of magnitude larger than any climate-change site, so it’s good to have the publicity.

Plummeting Cost of Solar Modules

It’s also worth noting that onshore wind and hydroelectric power are already competitive with coal and natural gas. These are the pieces of information that make me hopeful for the future.

Is X Caused by Climate Change?

Real Climate has a good post regarding the probability of climate change affecting extreme events. This is (at least in part) a response to Roger Pielke’s post at the 538 blog claiming that climate change is not increasing the cost of extreme events. Most of the statistics is above my head, but I think some of the contention is missing the forest for the trees.

As discussed by Real Climate, extreme events are by definition rare so determining a clear “cause” is difficult. The physics behind all this — higher temps, more moisture in the air, higher sea levels, etc. — is loading the dice in favor of heat waves, droughts, hurricanes, and more. But, can you really say climate change is the “cause?” Few, if any, scientists can give a definitive Yes or No. But, if the question is whether climate change is making matters worse, then the answer is more clearly, Yes.

The analogy I think of is whether speeding causes a car accident. Screaming down a country dirt road at 120 mph may cause an accident simply because you don’t have the reaction time to avoid that herd of wandering cows. But, even here you have both explicit and implicit extenuating circumstances: frakking cows on the road(!), poor traction on gravel, limited sight distance, time of day, weather, type of vehicle, and more. While speed may be the dominant factor, it is not the only one. Conversely, think about the damage to the car (much less those poor, innocent cows) at 55 mph? Or 25 mph? Maybe the accident would still happen, but the aftermath would be much less apocalyptic.

Which gets back to Pielke’s contention that costs are not increasing due to climate change. This thesis is more along the lines of my question than a cause-and-effect question. I concur with the rebuttals (see more below) that Pielke omitted a lot from his analysis. Another overlooked point is what is included in the cost calculation. Harking back to the car accident analogy, the 120-mph accident is an outlier and likely to make the news. People will mock the driver on Facebook; PETA will protest; Twitter will go aflutter. But, how often do you hear or think about the 90 or so people (pdf) that die in traffic accidents every day. Or mountain pine beetles migrating farther north and east. Or the gradual extinction of plants and animals. Or oysters that can’t form their shells.

Continue reading Is X Caused by Climate Change?

Comment to 538 on Climate Change reporting

I just posted the following comment to 538 regarding Nate Silver’s article, FiveThirtyEight to Commission Response to Disputed Climate Article. I thought I would post it here as well (slightly edited to clean up web links):

My comment is in specific regards to the following: “Roger’s article also contained an implicit policy recommendation in its closing paragraph. Whether or not the recommendation was justified by Roger’s thesis and evidence, we generally prefer to avoid these kind of recommendations, and instead allow readers to draw any policy conclusions for themselves.”

While I am okay with the valid editorial decision to separate opinion from reporting, I feel that 538 should provide a platform for just those very conclusions and recommendations. Climate change is real and caused by humans (see AAAS’ What We Know, or NAS’ Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, among myriads of documents). What we desperately need are the new policies and changes necessary to combat climate change. Where you choose to place that conversation is not important. The “prefer[ence] to avoid” the policy conclusions is not what I would hope to see from a data-driven journalism site.

Climate Risks and Costs

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) also issued a climate change report and opened an explanatory website, What We Know. Like the Climate Change Report discussed previously, this includes a brief overview of the climate science. However, it focuses on three basic statements:

  1. Climate change is happening. There is no real disagreement.
  2. There are risks to climate change, including extreme events, albeit less likely.
  3. Acting sooner is better and cheaper.

Like I opened this blog, the report begins by stating that the global scientific community agrees — climate change is real and humans are the cause. The report lists many of the common indicators: shrinking sea ice, ice sheets, and glaciers; ocean acidification; sea-level rise; etc.

This report is slightly different in that it discusses climate change in terms of risks. There is a real chance, however small, that your house will burn down. Even though it’s unlikely, you are still wise to buy insurance, have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, and make a plan of escape. Then, by looking at the potential bad outcomes, what responses need to be made to avoid them. From what I’ve read, the upcoming IPCC report also talks in terms of risks and probabilities.

One quibble of mine is that the report dabbles a bit too much with the “sky is falling” rhetoric. Topics at the high-end of impact such as ecosystem collapse, destabilized sea-floor methane, or permafrost melt are certainly possible, but probably better left to Hollywood blockbusters. Focusing on these extremes will lead to the same problem Chicken Little had … people stop listening.

The report ends on a hopeful note that American Ingenuity™ can solve all these problems. The phrasing strikes me as a bit jingoistic, but the content is reasonable. We have the technology and capability to minimize the risks and damage of climate change. We just need the will and money to act. Yeah, just that simple. <sarcasm>

Climate Change Report – Short version

So, I referenced the  Climate Change: Evidence and Causes report and noted it was pretty long. Here’s a short summary.

The report is structured as Question and Answer. Most of the questions respond to common misperceptions about causes (the sun did it, climate always changes, why are winters still cold, etc.). Useful if you’re looking to respond to your crazy uncle over Thanksgiving dinner.

The middle portion of the report discusses more of the potential impacts: Arctic and Antarctic sea ice; strength and frequency of floods, hurricanes, drought, etc.; rate of sea level rise; and, ocean acidification. Finally, the report covers some loose ends like scientific confidence and uncertainty, disaster scenarios, and level of concern. There also is an appendix on the scientific basics of climate change.

Like I said before, it is fairly easy to read and combines a broad spectrum of the discussion under one cover. It is for someone who is generally familiar with the climate change debate, but wants a little more detail. Not heavy on the science stuff, but I may be a poor judge of that.

Climate Change is real

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the discussion around climate change needs to begin by explaining that it exists. It took decades for the science behind the dangers of smoking to penetrate into the general consensus. Only then, could individual behavior and group action respond to the situation. Today, the idea that the dangers are real is taken for granted.

However, the scientific community has realized this and is actively fighting the misperceptions on climate change. Recently, the US National Academy of Sciences and the U.K.’s Royal Society published a (relatively) concise report titled, Climate Change: Evidence and Causes. At 20 pages of text, plus another dozen or so of appendices and references, it quickly falls into the TL;DR category. Regardless, it’s a whole lot easier on the eyes than most other reports.