George Will and Journalistic Malpractice

Caught in a series of factual errors, or what many are calling outright lies about climate science, Washington Post columnist George Will has upped the ante for himself and his employer with his latest column on global warming.

Rather than issue a retraction and simply move on, today he reiterated his baseless claims that sea ice coverage is similar to 1979. His source? An electronics gadget blog that has a very dubious record on climate science.

Actual researchers have pointed out exactly the opposite: that arctic ice is disappearing at a frightening rate. "The pace of change is starting to outstrip our ability to keep up with it," said Mark Serreze, senior scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado - a co-author of a recent Arctic amplification study.

Describing the phenomenon as clear proof that global climate change in underway, the centre says on its website that “analysts at the Canadian Ice Service and the U.S. National Ice Center confirm that the Northwest passage is almost completely clear and that the region is more open than it has ever been since the advent of routine monitoring in 1972.”

"It's not getting better; it's continuing to show strong signs of warming and amplification," added NASA ice scientist Jay Zwally. "There's no reversal taking place."

You get the idea.

Perhaps more interesting than refuting baseless claims that global warming all a big mistake, the reaction from George Will’s boss gets much more to the root of the problem.

When confronted with a tidal wave of complaints from his readership that his star columnist was spreading misinformation about climate change, Washington Post editor Fred Hiatt had the following lame response:

“It may well be that he is drawing inferences from data that most scientists reject — so, you know, fine, I welcome anyone to make that point. But don’t make it by suggesting that George Will shouldn’t be allowed to make the contrary point. Debate him.”

Here’s the rub: the media treats climate change as if it were a mere political debate. Within this frame, opinions matter as much as facts and it is somehow important to tell both sides of the story, even if there is no other side.

Scientists resolved the veracity of climate change about ten years ago. Climate change is instead a scientific consensus – the result of the largest peer-review exercise in human history. It is of course important to debate the science, but that happens within the scientific community, not in the popular press by lay people.

Think of the analogy with tobacco. Would it be ethical in the 21st century for a newspaper editor or TV producer to provide equal time to industry-funded “experts” asserting there is no link between cigarettes and cancer? Such industry funded media mischief went on for decades. Many millions of dollars of advertising were sold as a result of this “provocative” debate. Many people died during this period of industry-funded “controversy” questioning the obvious link between lung disease and cigarettes. Thankfully we have finally moved beyond providing equal time to lung cancer skeptics.

Must we also endure decades of so-called debate about climate science? Such journalistic malpractice has created a situation where the voting public remains dangerously ill-informed on what many researchers will believe will be the defining issue of this century. The decisions we make (or not) in the next five years will determine nothing less than the fate of the planet.

Hyperbole? Hardly.

While Al Gore might be derided for drawing the connection between climate change and extreme weather events, many climate scientists are already there.

In other words: if you want to see climate change, look out the window.

The devastating wildfires that swept through Australia this month were the worst in the nation’s history – and were directly linked to climate change. "Climate change, weather and drought are altering the nature, ferocity and duration of bushfires," said Gary Morgan, head of the government-backed Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre.

Climatologist Professor David Karoly said the hot temperatures in southeastern Australia were "unprecedented. The records were broken by a large amount and you cannot explain that just by natural variability," he said. "What we are seeing now is that the chances of these sorts of extreme fire weather situations are occurring much more rapidly in the last ten years due to climate change.”

The Australian Firefighters Union tasked with the grim job of dealing with these unprecedented infernos came away with a first-hand realization about our changing climate that might be lost on Mr. Will in the comfort of his Washington digs:

“The firefighters union has now joined Green politicians and environmental activists in arguing that the deadly infernos are a climate change wake-up call to Australia.

Closer to home, New York City is planning infrastructure upgrades to cope with a warming world and increased incidence of extreme weather.

Meanwhile in California, the state is dealing with unprecedented drought. "We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history," said Water Resources Director Lester Snow last month."

Need more?

How about the grim prediction this week from the world’s leading climate scientists that global warming could lay waste to large parts of the US and make even northern cities uninhabitable due to scorching temperatures.

"With severe drought from California to Oklahoma, a broad swath of the south-west is basically robbed of having a sustainable lifestyle," warned Christopher Field, of the Carnegie Institution for Science when testifying this week before the US Congress.

None of this really matters. It remains all too easy for pundits like George Will to poo-poo the entire scientific community for their shoddy work. Perhaps the editors of the Washington Post even enjoying the controversy because it bumps up their circulation.

But maybe journalism is not entirely about selling ad space. Maybe we should instead consider that it might be a good idea, in the face of truly apocalyptic consequences, to err on the side of caution.

Or even accuracy…

George Will's Big Adventure

This week Andrew Revkin of the New York Times lumped Al Gore in with George Will in an article on the dangers of climate change hyperbole.

Fair enough, if it were true.

Instead his article seems yet another example of how those trying to educate the public about global warming are held to a different standard in the media than so called “skeptics” – who often regurgitate long-discredited myths about climate science with apparent impunity.

Mr. Will’s article is an excellent case in point, containing a smorgasbord of the usual climate falsehoods that seem to crop up in the mainstream media like mushrooms. George Monbiot slams the claims in Will’s piece, pointing out the myths about global cooling, sea ice and global temperatures are not only at odds with the latest science, they are so ludicrous they almost deserve a laugh track.

Yet Mr. Will, like many so called “skeptics”, does not typically have to defend his claims. His job as a columnist is to be “provocative”. The individual errors can be discredited but like mushrooms, they will crop up again in the media for years to come.

Gore on the other hand, has devoted his life of late to raising awareness of climate change and arguably knows his material as well as many researchers. He also knows that his famous powerpoint presentation is constantly examined under a microscope for potential inaccuracies by the climate denial industry.

How these two reacted to the latest criticism is also telling. Gore pulled the slide in question linking extreme weather events to climate change and instead substituted data from the insurance industry - which seems utterly convinced of the link between climate change and expensive weather disasters.

George Will was not so responsive. According to the prestigious journal Nature, the Washington Post “repeatedly swatted away calls to issue a correction” on the many errors in Mr. Will’s piece.

Must be nice to never have to say you’re sorry.

Instead Mr. Will has published a new column that is even more erroneous than the first one. Will asserts again that arctic ice cover is about the same as in 1979. His source? Tech Daily – an electronic gadget blog that also seems to devote a strange amount of time to questioning climate science.

Here are some of the recent titles from their climate denying hit parade:

* Climate Report Downgrades Ice Loss; Media Reports Opposite

* Princeton Physicist Calls Global Warming Science "Mistaken"

* Defying Predictions, Sea Level Rise Begins to Slow

* Glaciers in Norway Growing Again

* Electric Car Sales in Freefall; Industry Risks Collapse

* How to Reduce Pollution by Drilling for Oil

* Study Finds Health Problems from Wind Farms

* Oxygen Depletion: The Next Great Environmental Scare

Desmog Blog readers will recall a critique we did last month on the Tech Daily’s baseless claims about sea ice. Yet George Will seems to put more faith in them, than the scientists who produced the ice data in the first place.

From the horse’s mouth, here is a statement from University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center on the sea ice “controversy”:

“We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.”

Mr. Will should refrain from writing about things he obviously knows nothing about. The Washington Post should not allow their credibility to be dragged through the mud by such shoddy research and writing.

And Andrew Revkin? The events of the last few days have well illustrated the stark difference between Al Gore and George Will.


DSCOVR Finally to Fly?

Long-time readers know how much cyber-ink I have spilled trying to save the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). This work may finally be over.

The Omnibus Appropriations Bill 1105, just passed yesterday by the US Congress contains the following fateful statement on page 141:

"The bill provides $9,000,000 for NASA to refurbish and ensure flight and operational readiness of DSCOVR earth science instruments.”

Holy crap.

Details remain sketchy but it seems that the loony idea to strip the spacecraft of all Earth observing instruments has gone by the wayside.

More importantly, the passage of this bill means that DSCOVR may finally be on its way into space where it will return vital data about our warming world.

To recap, this fully completed $100 million climate observing spacecraft has so far sat in a box in Maryland for the last eight years. Dr Robert Park summed up the feeling of many in the scientific community when he described DSCOVR as “the most important thing we could be doing in space right now”.

Why? DSCOVR would gaze back towards Earth from the unique vantage of one million miles towards the sun – an entirely new way doing space-based research.

While much remarkable science continues to be done from low Earth orbit, it is like trying to map an elephant using a microscope. Being so close to our planet means most satellites only see the Earth in thin strips, and vital numbers relating to climate change still do not add up.

After spending billions of dollars, researchers remain unable to close Earth’s outgoing radiation budget closer than 6 watts per square meter – that "noise" in the data is almost six times larger than the effect of climate change we are trying to see.

DSCOVR would instead see Earth from almost 1,000 times farther away with a continuous view of the entire sunlit side of our planet. This would provide DSCOVR much more accurate data on our planet’s changing albedo - a vital measurement to resolve the energy budget of our planet. DSCOVR would also better calibrate billions of dollars of space hardware now in low Earth orbit.

More importantly, DSCOVR would for the first time allow us to directly measure global warming - something that is routinely questioned by so-called "skeptics". One would think resovling such weighty issues would be a scientific priority but this mission has been mired in politics from day one.

First there was the partisan political reaction to Al Gore’s promotion of the project in the 1990’s. Then perhaps some office politics within NASA. Let’s not forget Bush’s meddling in the mandate of NASA.

Yet the mission was so important to the scientific community that both Russia and France offered to launch the spacecraft themselves. The answer from NASA? No thanks.

Another US agency wanted the mission transferred to them. The answer from NASA? No Thanks.

I filed numerous Freedom of Information requests to NASA, NOAA, and the Whitehouse to try and get to the bottom of this mystery. These dragged on months beyond legal timelines and virtually all internal documents were withheld.

NASA brass may also have misled the media about the true costs of launching DSCOVR.

Meanwhile the scientific community rallied support for the mission, outraged that such a vital experiment could be built and then discarded for political reasons. Some of these researchers have seemingly made it their life's work to see this mission completed, working tirelessly behind the scenes to overcome political and funding roadblocks.

Progress was slow and fitful.

Last year, Congress ordered NASA to come up with a plan to deal with DSCOVR with 180 days (deadline is this April).

Then came word of a bizarre plan where NASA would give the spacecraft to Air Force, after stripping it of all Earth observing instruments. This might have provided a convenient way to satisfy the legal requirement to Congress, while ensuring that the spacecraft would be useless for what it was designed to do: measuring the energy budget of our warming world.

Last year, I shared some remarkable revelations from a NASA insider, including that the project may have been killed by Dick Cheney personally.

I was also contacted by the prestigious journal Nature, which later ran a story on the mired mission.

Why has there been such resistance to launching DSCOVR - a spacecraft fully completed at a cost of more that $100 million? In the absence of documents (which so far have been denied through freedom of information), we can only speculate but the politics of oil cannot be far from this bizarre story. Rest assured, I will keep digging.

Thankfully, the drama seems to be drawing to a close. The nation is under new management and we are hopefully entering a political landscape that is not as pathologically hostile to climate science.

The many dedicated scientists that never gave up on this vital experiment must be heartened by this week's events. DSCOVR is still a long way from flying into space – the $9 million is only to refurbish the Earth observing instruments, not to launch or operate the mission. The bill must also pass the Senate.

That said, what just happened in Washington might finally be the turning point in a long fight to save the spacecraft that could save the world.

To see all my DSCOVR posts, they are available here.


Clean Energy Dialogue or Carbon Capture Shellgame?

Obama-mania hit Canada’s capital hard today but there was much more at play than photo ops during the President’s five-hour visit.

Harper and Obama announced a “clean energy dialogue” focusing on “carbon capture and storage” technology (CCS) – a stash-the-emissions pipe-dream that remains unproven on an commercial scale anywhere in the world.

Just three months ago, a secret government memo came to light showing that significant carbon capture in the Alberta tar sands remains virtually impossible. Scientists asked to evaluate the potential of applying this unproven concept to the tar sands were not optimistic.

"Only a small percentage of emitted CO2 is 'capturable' since most emissions aren't pure enough," the notes say. "Only limited near-term opportunities exist in the oilsands and they largely relate to upgrader facilities."

That of course has not stopped the Harper government and the oil lobby from trotting out this dubious technical fix as a rationale for the continued development of the dirtiest oil on Earth.

Last year Harper proclaimed "This new technology, carbon capture and storage, when fully commercialized ... will collect carbon dioxide emissions from oilsands operations and coal-fired electrical plants and seal them deep underground."

Strange. Mr. Harper was surely in possession of the memo in question when he made that bold statement. Perhaps he has expertise in geology and engineering surpassing those of the scientists in his employ.

This spin strategy goes far beyond mere words. The federal and Alberta government are shoveling $2.5 billion in tax dollars towards developing this supposed petroleum panacea – and the tar sands remains the number-one rationale for doing so.

Why the disconnect between science and policy? Harper and the oil industry have been sweating bullets that the incoming Obama Administration will begin to shift away from using filthy oil from Alberta.

The stakes are enormous since the tar sands lack any infrastructure to deliver oil anywhere but the US.

This is also the largest capital project on the planet - and in Harper’s home province. More than $200 billion has been invested so far. Another $2.5 billion in public money towards a baseless technical solution is small potatoes if it will provide a rationale to keep the gravy train rolling a little while longer.

Bare in mind that CCS at the tar sands - even if it worked - would only deal with the emissions from extraction. The downstream emissions – predominantly from tailpipes – are four times as large. Unless drivers begin dragging very long hoses behind their vehicles, CCS will do nothing to deal with this much larger problem.

It is also useful to compare the $2.5 billion “investment” Harper and Alberta have made in CCS, to how much money the Canadian government is putting towards developing carbon-free technologies such as wind and solar: less than $1.5 billion.

In other words we are spending over one and a half times as much taxpayers dollars towards an unproven technology that will directly benefit the fossil fuel industry as we are developing truly carbon-neutral energy for the 21st century.

And then there is money. Since there are no commerical examples of CSS anywhere in the world, the costs remain highly uncertain. However the best estimates so far are that CSS would increase production costs by 30-60%. Who is going to pay for that? Given the plummeting economics of the tar sands, the likelihood of CCS being embraced by industry are becoming vanishingly small.

Back to Harper and Obama. The US president has his own dirty energy sector to placate: Big Coal. They have thrown $30 million towards a “clean coal” PR campaign in 2008 alone - much of it targeted directly at federal decision makers. If this is such a great idea, why do they need that much money to sell it?

The reason - bluntly put - is that is that “clean coal” is crap.

A Study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that: “"the first commercial CCS plant won't be on stream until 2030 at the earliest." Even Oil-giant Shell "doesn't foresee CCS being in widespread use until 2050."

Unresolved challenges around geology, engineering and economics put this potential “solution” decades away – if ever. In the meantime, the tar sands and US coal plants may keep churning away towards atmospheric tipping points that scientists have been warning us about for years.

Details of the agreement today remain sketchy but a strong public endorsement of carbon capture by Obama and Harper - backed of course with more public money - would be a victory for the fossil fuel lobby and an setback on our road towards a green economy.


Former Astronaut in Bed with Big Oil?

Don’t be too surprised that former Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt publicly denounced the entire scientific community around climate science.

Schmitt provided Fox News another climate denier moment this week when he said, “I don't think the human effect [of climate change] is significant compared to the natural effect."

Schmitt is also speaking at a climate denier conference next month sponsored by none other than the notorious Heartland Institute.

Readers of Desmog Blog will recall the hilariously unethical stunt pulled by the Heartland Instituteastroturf group that has so far received almost $800,000 from Exxon. last year when they produced a list of 500 scientists who apparently disputed climate change.

The problem was that most of these individuals no idea that their reputations were being dragged through the mud by an astroturf group that has so far received almost $800,000 from Exxon.

Enter Harrison Schmitt. Most media coverage of this story has rather lazily reported Schmitt only as a former astronaut and one of the last people to walk on the moon.

A lot has happened since 1972. It turns out that Schmitt was the Chairman and President of the Annapolis Center For Science-Based Public Policy between 1994 and 1998, and remains “Chairman Emeritus”.

This may be a lucrative gig given that the Annapolis Centre has received more than $860,000 in funding from ExxonMobil since 1998. But what does money have to do with anything?

Schmitt has also been keeping some very dubious company.

Sallie Baliunas is listed as a member of the Science and Economic Advisory Council of the Annapolis Center. She is described by ExxonSecrets as a “darling of the anti-climate movement, Baliunas has been a central scientist in the fight against action on climate change. She is used by virtually all of the Exxon-funded front groups as their scientific expert.

Baliunas is associated with a veritable constellation of industry-funded groups opposing carbon regulation including: the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the American Petroleum Institute, and of course the Heartland Institute.

The Annapolis Center also honored none other that Senator James Inhofe for “his work in promoting science-based public policy” – a distinction so absurd it almost deserves a laugh track.

Lastly, the Annapolis Center has also spent considerable effort calling into question the well-known link between air pollution and asthma, the impacts of mercury pollution, and the dangers of pesticide residue on food.

Why Schmitt has chosen to associate himself with such an organization since 1994 is of course for you to judge.

One thing is certain: the media coverage of his supposed revelation around climate science seems now much more like a PR stunt in advance of the industry-funded denier conference.

If only the media had access to the Internet…


California Drownin'

The denial machine regularly recycles phony findings that climate change won’t be all that bad, or is all a big mistake. Meanwhile in the real world, the scientific implications of global warming just keep getting worse.

The latest is a paper published in the prestigious journal Science showing that melting ice caps in Antarctica will unevenly flood the planet – leading to much higher sea level rise in heavily populated areas of the northern hemisphere than previously believed.

According to these latest figures, Washington, New York and California could see the ocean rise by more than 21 feet - up to 25% higher than previously projected. Southern Florida could disappear entirely beneath the waves.sea level rise map

For years researchers assumed that the world’s oceans would behave like a bathtub in a warming world – any additional water from melting ice would spread evenly around the globe. Not true according to the researchers at Oregon State University, and the reasons illustrate the enormous forces being unleashed by our continued addiction to fossil fuels.

So colossal is the Antarctic ice mass that it exerts a powerful gravitational pull on surrounding waters, raising local sea levels. As this melting mass pours into the ocean, this effect will dissipate, redistributing waters elsewhere in the world.

“When an ice sheet melts, sea level does not change uniformly,” says Jerry Mitrovica, a geophysicist at the University of Toronto. “You get this whopping amplification of sea-level rise in North America.”

Scientists had also not considered what would happen to the underlying landmass when the incredible weight of Antarctic ice is released in a warming world. Researchers now believe that the Antarctic bedrock that currently sits under the ice sheet will slowly rebound upwards, pushing huge amounts of water out into the ocean.

Lastly, the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet will cause the Earth's rotation axis to shift, moving water northward.

"The net effect of all of these processes is that if the West Antarctic ice sheet collapses, the rise in sea levels around many coastal regions will be as much as 25 per cent more than expected," said Mitrovica.

Don’t sell your waterfront just yet. These changes will take a long time but this research illustrates just how little we know about the dangerous and complex consequences of playing with the thermostat of the planet.

You can also check out this video of the researchers discussing their frightening findings. As an amusing aside, you can usually tell real scientists from store-bought variety because they dress worse, have less media training and look like they are appearing in a home movie. All of that is to their credit because they are rather preoccupied with unraveling the secrets of creation instead of prepping for spin session on Fox News.

As for the denial machine, expect them to ignore this research - and every other emerging scientific finding about climate change.

As a well-funded PR campaign rather than an honest intellectual exercise, such political theatre remains blissfully isolated from the real world. Expect more gooblygook about sunspots.

Australian Wildfires Blamed on Climate Change

The tragic and deadly Australian wildfires are due in part to climate change. That was the message delivered this week by several prominent researchers as Australians reel from their worst natural disaster in more than a century.

Unprecedented heat, high winds and drought contributed to the deadly conditions that have so far claimed more than 160 lives.

"It's very clear, both globally and in Australia, there has been a warming trend since about 1950," said leading Australian climate scientist Kevin Hennessy.

"In a nutshell we can say the heatwaves and the fires we've seen in Victoria recently maybe partly due to climate change through the contribution of increased temperature.

"Going forward, we anticipate there will be continued increases in greenhouse gases and that locks in a certain amount of warming, and in the case of southern Australia further drying, and this will increase the fire weather risk."

Gary Morgan, head of the government-backed Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre agrees. "Climate change, weather and drought are altering the nature, ferocity and duration of bushfires," he said.

University of Sydney bushfire expert Mark Adams added there was evidence the deadly situation it was becoming even more volatile.

"I have never seen weather and other conditions as extreme as they were on Saturday, the fire weather was unprecedented," Adams said. "We don't have all the evidence yet to fully explain this day in terms of climate change, however all the science to date shows that we can expect more extreme weather in the years to come. That includes hotter days and drier landscapes across southern Australia."

The terrible tragedies in Australia this weekend illustrate that climate change is not merely lines on a graph or mathematical models, but people’s lives.

Brian Fisher, a leading climate policy analyst and economist, said it was crucial for Australia to try to influence the world's top emitters to rein in greenhouse gas pollution.

"The key issue is what we can persuade others to do in concert with Australia. That determines what will happen to the world's climate," said Fisher, an author for the UN Climate Panel's Second, Third and Fourth Assessment Reports.

Australia’s extreme weather is not just limited to the deadly wildfires.

Elsewhere in the country, Queensland is facing the worst flooding in 30 years that has caused 60% of the state to be declared a disaster area. More than 700mm of rain has fallen so far and more is feared on the way. So severe was the flooding that crocodiles were washed into the streets and one boy is now feared dead after being eaten by one of giant reptiles.

Roger Stone, a climate expert at the University of Southern Queensland, said of the flooding: "It certainly fits the climate change models, but I have to add the proviso that it's very difficult, even with extreme conditions like this, to always attribute it to climate change."

Dr. Stone is of course correct. It is impossible to attribute any one weather event to climate change. But scientists agree that unless we get a handle on carbon emissions, and quickly, we can expect to live in a world where such terrible tragedies as the world witnessed this weekend become far more likely.


Storm Chaser Blames Early Tornados on Climate Change

Buckle up Dorothy, looks like we’re in for nasty weather. A veteran storm chaser believes that climate change is driving more early-season tornados like the one that devastated Oklahoma yesterday killing eight, injuring 48 and leaving 6,500 without power.

For 22 years Martin Lisius has been chasing these tempests across the Midwest. He believes that climate change is making tornados arrive earlier.

“Over the past several years, I've seen an earlier arrival of spring, particularly in North Texas and Oklahoma," Lisius said. "March used to be what we considered the start of tornado season here, but February is looking more like March did.”

Lisius believes global warming is responsible for warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico, the fuel that drives severe weather in Tornado Alley each spring.

Weather experts agree that yesterday’s twister was a weird one. “It is rare in February, at least for this far north and west,” said David Andra, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla. The last fatal February tornado in the state occurred in 1975, with three deaths, he said – adding that freaky weather contributed to the deadly storm.

“The conditions we had yesterday were more like conditions you might find in April,” Mr. Andra explained. “We had a very warm and moist air mass in place, along with strong vertical wind shear.”

Translated into English: “It was almost 80 degrees here yesterday. I guess it was just ripe for the picking,” said one local resident.

Besides coming early, the terrible storm that descended on Oklahoma yesterday was a monster – almost half a mile wide.

Such devastation is tragically consistent with what researchers have been predicting for our warming world. NASA researchers have found that climate change will produce larger and more violent storms, including tornados. These tempests already pack a punch right out of the Old Testament – with some wind speeds topping 300 miles per hour.

Last year was the second most active tornado season in the US since record keeping began in 1950. Only 2004 had more twisters.

While it is impossible to pin any one weather event on climate change, the early and deadly start to the 2009 tornado season is worth taking note of.

It could well be that if you want to see climate change in action, all you need to do is look out the window.


Skeptic Theory Swallowed by Giant Snake

A favorite theory of prominent climate change “skeptic” Dr. Richard Lindzen just had a fatal encounter with a 60 million old snake.

Researchers from the University of Toronto discovered the bones of this massive bus-sized reptile in a coal mine in Columbia and published their findings in the prestigious journal Nature. How big was this monster? About 42 feet long, it weighed as much a small car. It would have had trouble slithering through a standard doorway. Its girth would come up to your belly button.

The size of this massive snake also shows the tropics were much warmer than previously believed. Snake size depends on temperature - the hotter the bigger. For this beast that snacked on crocodiles to thrive, temperatures in the tropics must have averaged 30 to 34 degrees Celsius – three to four degrees hotter than the present. That throws cold water on the “thermostat” theory championed by Lindzen that in a warming world, the poles will warm much more than the equator, sparing the tropics from the worst of climate change.

This finding "refutes the idea of the thermostat", says lead researcher Jason Head at the University of Toronto, and tells us "what equatorial temperatures will be as we continue to warm the planet: very hot."

Climate scientist Matthew Huber of Purdue University agrees. He says that if Head is right about this massive serpents' toasty climate, "that's…bad news for us for the future. It says there's no magical thermostat that keeps the tropics at a reasonable temperature, that they will warm, too, in a global warming world"

While nature lovers can take comfort in the knowledge that snakes and rainforests can apparently survive much hotter conditions than previously believed, these findings are not good news for humans.

Researchers at the University of Washington published a paper in the prestigious journal Science just last month showing that half the world’s population could face food shortages by the end of century due to tropical warming.

"The stress on global food production from temperatures alone is going to be huge, and that doesn't take into account water supplies stressed by the higher temperatures," said David Battisti, at the University of Washington, who led the study.

The researchers combined direct observations with data from 23 global climate models and determined there is greater than a 90 percent probability that by 2100 the lowest growing-season temperatures in the tropics and subtropics will be higher than any temperatures recorded there to date.

Currently 3 billion people live in the tropics and subtropics, and their number is expected to nearly double by the end of the century. The scientists said that many who now live in these areas subsist on less than $2 a day and depend largely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

"When all the signs point in the same direction, and in this case it's a bad direction, you pretty much know what's going to happen," said Battisti. "You are talking about hundreds of millions of additional people looking for food because they won't be able to find it where they find it now."

That finding is perhaps made worse by the fact the researchers at the University of Washington did not have the benefit of knowing about our massive reptilian friend.

The bottom line is this: whatever wishful thinking existed that the tropics will somehow be able to “blow off steam” in a warming world just got swallowed by a giant snake.


Killing Nemo

Scientists this week published a paper showing that ocean acidification due to climate change is killing clown fish made famous by the Disney film “Finding Nemo”.

Larvae of this lovely tropical fish will be severely affected by rising ocean acidity from climate change. Clown fish use their nose to navigate to safe habitat and are becoming lost as oceans soak up more CO2 from burning fossil fuels.

"What our study is showing is that animal behavior is affected by the acidification of the oceans," said lead researcher Dr Philip Munday of the of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. "It's opening our eyes to another issue of acidification that we need to be aware of."

Ocean acidity is increasing 100 times faster than any time in the last 650,000 years because of the enormous amount of carbon building up in the Earth’s atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.

Scientists put the juvenile fish in water with a pH projected by the end of the century if climate change proceeds apace. The young clown fish were unable to distinguish between familiar smells or find suitable habitat – a finding that does not bode well for tropical fish in general.

"If acidification continues unabated, the impairment of sensory ability will reduce population sustainability of many marine species, with potentially profound consequences for marine diversity," wrote researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Nor do scientists hold high hopes that species like the clown fish will be able to adapt to the unprecedented rapid change in ocean chemistry.

"Ocean pH has changed little over the past 650,000 years," wrote the researchers. "It is unlikely that genetic adaptation by most marine organisms will be able to ... keep pace with such a rapid rate of change."

Acidification is only part of the laundry list of impacts our continued burning of fossil fuels is having on world’s oceans. Lets not forget about dead zones, the decreasing ability of oceans to soak up CO2, or the terrifying prospect of ancient frozen methane burbling to the surface.

All of which is to say that Nemo would drive a Prius.

Australia Government Blames Deadly Heat Wave on Climate Change

The worst heat wave to strike Australia in a century is due to climate change. That was the blunt message from their government this week as the country struggled to cope with the heat-related chaos, including buckling rail lines, numerous heat related deaths and sweeping power blackouts.

"Eleven of the hottest years in history have been in the last twelve, and we also note, particularly in the southern part of Australia, we're seeing less rainfall," said Climate Change Minister Penny Wong. "All of this is consistent with climate change, and all of this is consistent with what scientists told us would happen."

The searing heat has topped 43 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) in Melbourne for the third straight day – and the first time in recorded history.

Over 500,000 homes and businesses were left without power as the demands from air conditioners overwhelmed the electrical grid and exploded an electrical substation in the city. The blackout shut down the entire train service in Melbourne, trapping people in elevators, blocking roads as traffic lights failed, and forcing hospitals to turn away patients.

The Australian Open Tennis match had to suspend games due to heat. The government was passing out water bottles of commuters and urging the elderly to stay indoors. Over 20 heat related deaths have occurred in the country so far. Residents at one nursing home started putting their clothes in the freezer to cope with the scorching temperatures.

All of this is a sign of things to come according to scientists. Most of the south of the country is gripped by unprecedented 12-year drought. The Australian Alps have had their driest three years ever, and the water from the vast Murray-Darling river system now fails to reach the sea 40 per cent of the time. Harvests have fallen sharply.

It will get worse as global warming increases. Even modest temperature rises, now seen as unavoidable, are expected to increase drought by 70 per cent in New South Wales, cut Melbourne's water supplies by more than a third, and dry up the Murray-Darling system by another 25 per cent.

Professor David Karoly of the University of Melbourne said last week: "The heat is unusual, but it will become much more like the normal experience in 10 to 20 years."

"It is clear that the current public transport system is not able to cope and it is also clear that the water supply system is stretched," said Karoly. “The health services and the road system are also obviously stretched to their limits. The system can't cope now, and it is just going to get much worse."

The weird weather is not limited to Australia. California is facing the worst drought in its history. Over a million were left without power in US due the worst ice storm in Kentucky’s history. Millions face food shortages in Africa due to climate change-related drought.

Looks like we're in for nasty weather...


12 Trillion Reasons to Get Off Oil

Want to save $12 trillion? Get off the oil economy. That was the blunt message from a recent report showing that the worst of climate change could be contained by investing 1% of global GDP into energy efficiency, green power and preventing deforestation by 2030.

The do-nothing alternative is somewhat less of a wise investment. Nicolas Stern, the former Chief Economist for the World Bank found that ignoring climate change would cost the world economy up to 20% of global GDP due to lost productivity, extreme weather and water shortages.

This latest report was conducted by the international consulting firm McKinsey & Company on behalf of a number of disparate groups concerned about climate change including Shell Oil, Honeywell and the World Wildlife Fund.

Global GDP is now about $65 trillion. Doing the math on potential savings works out to a tidy $12 trillion and change. For those unaccustomed to such astronomical sums, that would be a stack of $1,000 bills about 750 miles high.

Beyond the mountain of cash, there are a number of other benefits getting that oily monkey off our back. Over 3 million people worldwide perish each year from air pollution – three times as many as die in traffic accidents. Asthma costs the US economy over $10 billion annually.

The war in Iraq – which many attribute to our addiction to oil – may cost the US economy a staggering $3 trillion. Over 4,200 US service personnel have lost their lives and almost 44,000 have been wounded. The Lancet estimated in 2004 that more than 650,000 Iraqis had lost their lives due to the invasion.

The report from McKinsey also stresses the need the preserve tropical forests to conserve carbon emissions. Saving these areas from the saw would also protect natural biodiversity that is disappearing at startling rate.

Tropical forests contain 170,000 of the world's 250,000 known plant species. One study in Brazil found that a single hectare of forest contained 487 species of tree. In contrast, all of Canada and the US contain only 700 tree species.

Rainforest habitat is a cornucopia of biological diversity representing millions of years of years of evolution. While 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, less than 1% of these tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists.

Last year researchers in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment stated grimly that we are already squarely in the midst of a tropical biodiversity tragedy and on a trajectory toward disaster."

The laundry list of important reasons to ditch the oil economy just got a little longer. Preserving hundreds of millions of years of biodiversity, reducing deadly and expensive air pollution, eliminating the need for costly and tragic military operations.

Oh yeah, then there’s that stack of thousand dollar bills 750 miles high…


Another Climate Change Bonus - Ocean Dead Zones

It has been a particularly nasty week for climate news.

First came word that Antarctica was warming with potentially catastrophic consequences. Then a study that climate change was killing off forests in North America. The latest grim finding is that global warming will lead to massive ocean dead-zones that may persist for 100,000 years.

This latest horseman of the apocalypse trotted out in the form of a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience by researchers from the University of Copenhagen. They found that warmer ocean temperatures from climate change will lead to enormous areas depleted in oxygen and unable to support marine life.

"We conclude that substantial reductions in fossil-fuel use over the next few generations are needed if extensive ocean oxygen depletion for thousands of years is to be avoided," the study says.

While it seems likely that we will continue this uncontrolled experiment with the planet’s biosphere and see what happens, researchers are suggesting this might not be such a hot idea.

"What mankind does for the next several decades will play a large role in climate on Earth over the next tens of thousands of years," said geochemist Gary Shaffer of the University of Copenhagen.

Why so long? The reasons have to do with the enormous inertia of the world’s oceans. Scientists estimate that it would take literally centuries for natural processes to remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to bring dead-zones back to life.

The term “dead-zone” obviously does not bode well for the world's seafood industry. According to researchers, "it would affect the ability of the ocean to produce fish, shellfish, the types of things that people eat. It's not just oxygen: it's a switch in ecosystem structure, " said Shaffer.

These areas already exist off many developed coastlines and have doubled in area every decade since 1960.

This latest research does not include the frightening implications of the world’s oceans becoming more acidic – also due to burning fossil fuels. The marine environment has already become 30% more acid since the industrial revolution, and is on track to hit 150% by the end of the century. This sea change in ocean chemistry will have devastating implications for marine life such as coral and plankton that form the foundation of the ocean ecosystem.

Nor does this latest research consider the possibility of the massive amount methane ice buried in the ocean sediments burbling to the surface in a warming world.

If that happens, there will a couple more Old Testament ponies going for a little ride.

Some of the freed methane would combine with dissolved ocean oxygen making the dead zone issue worse.

The rest would be released into the atmosphere, greatly compounding our climate change problems. Methane is 21 times as strong a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.

To recap: dead-zones, acidification and methane are all a direct result of the continued burning fossil fuels. According to Shaffer, “You put those together and you have a potent mix."

Several more reasons to kick the oil habit as fast as possible.


Climate Change Killing Forests

There is yet another chance to see climate change in action by simply looking out the window. Scientists report that trees in North America are dying off at a stunning rate due to global warming.

Researchers are worried this situation will only grow worse with rising temperatures and that the forests themselves will release massive quantities of carbon as the die-off continues.

"In the future, forests might store less carbon than they do at present, and it also introduces the possibility that western forests could become net sources of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, further speeding up the pace of global warming," said study co-author Dr. Phillip van Mantgem of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Not good.

"That may be our biggest concern," said Nathan Stephenson, a study coauthor and USGS research ecologist. "Is the trend we're seeing a prelude to bigger, more abrupt changes to our forests? Society needs to discuss policies that will help adapt to the changes that are well underway."

The study published in the prestigious journal Science found that tree mortality throughout western North America has doubled in the last few decades, regardless of forest type, location or elevation. The pace of the die-off is also accelerating.

Since 1995, mortality has doubled every 17 years in the Pacific Northwest and every 29 years in the US interior. Worse yet, trees were perishing in stands considered healthy – not just in areas affected by the mountain pine beetle.

Warmer temperatures mean that more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, it evaporates more quickly, the snowpack is shrinking and summers are longer. Forest pests like the mountain pine beetle that would normally be killed off during the winter are thriving this these new conditions.

So far the pine beetle has devastated more than $50 billion worth of timber in British Columbia alone.

The changes we are seeing now are a result of the fairly small changes in temperature. The researchers blamed the die-off we have seen on warming of less than 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade – an increase that will greatly accelerate in the coming years.

All of this is an excellent example of just how finely tuned individual ecosystems are - and just how dumb it is to continue playing with the thermostat of the planet.

Antarctic Warming Like the Rest of the World

A paper published this week in the prestigious journal Nature shows that in fact Antarctica is getting warmer, consistent with an overall trend of global temperature rise.

For years, industry-funded “skeptics” have been harping on in the mainstream media that Antarctica was getting colder instead of warmer. This apparently was evidence that global warming was all a big mistake.

Stating the obvious, the authors of this latest study said that warming temperatures in Antarctica are “difficult to explain” without linking them to carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

Misinformation about Antarctic cooling has been frustrating for researchers trying to communicate the seriousness of climate change to the public.

"The thing you hear all the time is that Antarctica is cooling and that's not the case," said Eric Steig of the University of Washington in Seattle, lead author of the study in Thursday's edition of the journal Nature.

“This has put the last pieces of the jigsaw in place,” said Gareth Marshall, a British Antarctic Survey climatologist in Cambridge “If you consider Antarctica as a whole, it shows a significant warming of similar levels to the rest of the Southern Hemisphere.”

While this new research is good news for our understanding about climate change, the implications for coastal areas of the world are hair-raising.

West Antarctica "will eventually melt if warming like this continues," said Drew Shindell, of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who was one of the authors. A 3 Celsius (5.4 F) rise could trigger a wide melt of West Antarctica, he said. Greenland is also vulnerable. Together, Greenland and West Antarctica hold enough ice to raise sea levels by 14 meters.

"Even losing a fraction of both would cause a few meters this century, with disastrous consequences," said Barry Brook, director of climate change research at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

As if on queue, reports emerged last week showing that the massive Wilkins ice shelf is on the verge of breaking off into the ocean.

Scientists do not expect this 15,000 square kilometer chunk of ice to immediately raise sea levels since it is already floating. However, it is yet another dramatic example of the pace of climate-related change around the world.

The collapse of the ice shelf could also lead to future sea level changes from increased flow of land-based ice sheets into the warming Southern Ocean.

The myth of Antarctic cooling was largely popularized by the hilariously inaccurate novel, “State of Fear” by Michael Crichton. The premise of this potboiler was that an all-powerful and hyper-violent group of environmentalists were staging a series of fake climate catastrophes as a way of raising money.

I'm not kidding.

Proving that all politics really is theatre, the science fiction author was invited to testify as a “climate expert” at a US government hearing on climate change by the famously ignorant Senator Inhofe.

Strangely, Inhofe has also received over $1.1 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas sector.

With the Antarctic warming myth dead and gone, climate skeptics will now have to rely on other red herrings to confuse the public in the popular press.

Sun spots anyone?


Are Canada's Tar Sands in Peril?

Stephen Harper could be in for rude awakening. For years, he has been dealing with likeminded climate change deniers in the Bush Administration who were only too happy to buy as much oil from the filthy Alberta tar sands as they could get their hands on.

The times they are a changing.

In the last week, key appointments in Obama’s cabinet have all made a point of detailing the perils of climate change.

At his confirmation hearing today, Dr. Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate physicist and incoming head of the Energy Department, warned of the dire consequences of unchecked global warming. In her confirmation hearing, Senator Hillary Clinton said that climate change is an "unambiguous security threat" and pledged an energy policy to reduce our carbon emissions.

Obama himself has detailed a cap and trade carbon system for the US that will rely on absolute rather than so-called “intensity” targets championed by Harper’s friends in the Alberta oil patch.

In contrast, Harper’s own credibility on climate change is almost laughable:

Many suspect that Harper is now lobbying Obama for a continental energy policy that would give a “pass” to Alberta tar sands.

Given the enormous expectations on Obama to bring in real and green change, it is unlikely that he will want to be associated with this tarry mess.

To say that the tar sands project has a credibility problem is an understatement:

There is also no legal requirement for tar sands producers to invest in the highly touted and dubious carbon capture and storage technologies. A recent leaked government memo showed that not even the Alberta government believes this is viable solution the massive carbon emissions from the tar sands.

The laundry list of reasons why Obama will not want to hitch the US energy wagon to the tar sands only grows longer.

A variety of prominent environmental groups in Canada and the US today co-signed a letter to the incoming president and his cabinet urging him to reject any overtures from Harper to exempt the oil sands from meaningful regulation of carbon.

Today there was an article in the New York Times detailing the declining economics of the tar sands, and the glaring policy inconsistencies with Obama’s stated energy, environmental, and security goals.

Much of the tar sands oil is simply uneconomic to extract if oil prices stay low - something that is bound to continue given the protracted global economic slump. Beyond the obvious environmental issues, long-term production of tar sands oil depends on the whims of world oil prices, adding to the uncertainty of long term supplies.

It is little wonder why Harper is lobbying the US so strongly to keep this bitumen boondoggle going. After billions of dollars of investment, this project remains almost entirely dependent on the US market. The NYT article detailed how tar sands producers lack the pipeline infrastructure to send their oil elsewhere if the Obama Administration decides it is too unethical to buy it.

It seems increasingly doubtful that Obama would be inclined to compromise his substantial green credibility so early in his presidency by climbing into a tarry bed with Stephen Harper.