Andy Revkin

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Argument from incredulity

A few days back one of my favorite writers, David Roberts at Grist posted an article titled We can solve climate change, but it won’t be cheap or easy. This was based on an article in WIREs Climate Change, A critical review of global decarbonization scenarios: what do they tell us about feasibility? by a group of authors including Jesse Jenkins, a young energy analyst I've also been following for a while. Andy Revkin at dot Earth picked up on Roberts' post as a positive sign, while Joe Romm at Climate Progress had a rather pointed critique.

I don't want to get into the details of the report or most of these arguments here; there was just one point that I thought was very odd when highlighted in Roberts' post, and exemplified by the following figure from the report:

Roberts quotes the authors as follows on this:

These studies also envision a normalized build-out of generating capacity in the range of 5-23 GW/year/$T of GDP, or 1.4-15 times faster than historical experience. These unprecedented rates are a consequence of both the relatively low-capacity factors of wind and solar as well as increased demand due to the assumed widespread electrification of the economy.

What struck me was this measure of "build-out of generating capacity" in GW/year/$T of GDP. The graph suggests past experience on this measure should be a guide to the future, and therefore the Jacobson, WWF, etc. scenarios are unlikely to be feasible. But why did the authors pick this measure?

The nothing that was Climategate

Joe Romm has an excellent perspective on the last year, since "Climategate" - focusing on the developments in the science of climate that make our situation only that much more alarming. The real story of "Climategate" is not the frank discussions between climate scientists revealed in stolen emails, and at least so far not the Watergate-like computer break-in whose perpetrators and sponsors have still not been revealed (though I am sure one day that will prove a very interesting story). As Romm emphasizes, the real tragedy of "Climategate" is the media circus that chased this shiny new conflict-driven nothing of a story when there were far, far more momentous issues regarding the reality of climate at hand. If even one of the 9 scientific claims of the past year reviewed by Romm holds up under further research - and in my judgment very likely at least 4 or 5 of these, possibly 7 or 8, are real - the future for my children will be a far less happy place than I had anticipated even just a year ago.

Andy Revkin's coverage of the climate email hack at the NY Times, for example this early Dot Earth post, was an unfortunate example of the herd mentality among journalists on the subject - I've gone back and forth myself on whether Revkin was to some extent responsible for leading the herd. It was around that time I decided his "Dot Earth" blog, which largely launched my interest in climate science, was just not worth my time any more. But even the usually science-friendly George Monbiot thought what was revealed by the emails was serious. Other than the possibly illegal freedom-of-information suppression request by a flustered Phil Jones (who I'd never heard of before), it was not, as Monbiot later confessed.

The strongest lingering widespread meme raised by "Climategate" seems to be along the line of climate scientists being cliquish and "mean", saying nasty things about their critics. But all of science is like that "under the covers" - science is a relentlessly tough intellectual endeavor, and scientists don't waste their time being polite to people who they see as wrong. I work for research journals and see communications between scientists criticizing one another on their science day after day; a lot of this seems very harsh, some hardly the dispassionate image we have of the objective scientist. I looked through a random sample of such commentary recently, selecting a few relatively generic comments (i.e. leaving out the criticisms that were very specific to a particular piece of scientific work) and have posted them below - if the climategate emails seem overly harsh, well, we get just as bad day in, day out, around here!

Character assassination in climate science: the Michael Tobis story

Climate scientists and those who understand the threat from global warming have long been puzzled by the apparently limited concern among average members of the public for the issue. That has started to improve in the last few years, particularly in response to Al Gore's efforts. Oil and coal companies have long funded efforts to confuse the issue, but recently claimed to have reformed. The media has frequently been inadequate to the job, we know that. But the most important reason for public confusion on global warming seems to trace not so much to the influence of money, corruption, or incompetence, but ideology.

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