The Satellite that Could Save the World

The media missed the real story about the so-called “climate-gate” scandal.

After thousands of emails were mysteriously stolen from the University of East Anglia and distributed just before the climate conference in Copenhagen, many news outlets seemed content to report the story as it was presented to them rather than bothering to read the emails in the context they were written.

A closer look at these candid messages reveals a very different problem than the supposed scientific conspiracy theory that’s been in high rotation in the media. This previously unreported story also shows why launching the long-mothballed Deep Space Climate Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is more urgent now than ever.

Lets start with perhaps the most widely distributed and misunderstood of the stolen emails, of October 12, 2009 from Dr. Keith Trenberth to Michael Mann, which reads:

The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't.

Out of more than a thousand emails dating back 13 years, this single sentence was seized on by some commentators as evidence that decades of climate research by hundreds of scientists is instead a global conspiracy.

If you are going to put that much weight on a single email, you may as well finish reading it. Here’s what Trenberth says in the following sentence:

The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.

Allow me to translate this dense jargon into English. CERES stands for Clouds and the Earth s Radiant Energy System – a five-satellite network launched by NASA dating back to 1997 to monitor heat flow in the upper atmosphere.

The story you haven’t heard is that scientists can’t get the numbers to add up using existing climate satellites. After billions of research dollars spent and over a decade of trying, the energy budget of planet as measured by CERES and other low- Earth orbit satellite systems is out of whack by about 6 watts per square meter.

That stubborn error in the satellite data is about six times larger than what is scientifically possible, and several times larger than the effect scientists are trying to see, namely planetary warming caused by continued massive emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

While this is a very big deal, it does NOT remotely suggest that climate change is a hoax. For evidence of that, you don’t need a satellite, you can look out your kitchen window.

Sea ice is disappearing from the arctic so fast it could be gone forever in as little as 30 years. The Met Office predicts 2010 may be the hottest year on record and that this decade was the hottest ever “by far”. Australia is currently enduring the hottest six months since record keeping began in the 1800’s.

What Trenberth is saying in this now infamous email is that it is a “travesty” that scientists cannot accurately measure from space what is plainly obvious here on Earth. More than that, he is lamenting that our “observing system” is inadequate to be able to accurately balance the planet’s energy budget.

Dr. Trenberth is one of the world’s most respected climate researchers. To hear him directly explain this problem himself, have a look at this video. If you happen to have a PhD in atmospheric physics (or just have trouble sleeping) you may also want to read his thorough research paper on the topic.

It’s not that the CERES experiment is a bad project or staffed by incompetent people. But the fact of the matter is that our satellite systems have failed to provide coherent data to explain the defining issue of the 21st century. This important but esoteric problem is largely unknown to the public, but widely acknowledged within the scientific community.

So what’s the problem with the data? In science, such unexplained phenomena are not a “problem” – they are the most interesting things to look at. They reveal clues about things we don’t yet fully understand, or hint that long-accepted methods of measurement need to be reassessed.

Which brings us back to the limitations of CERES and other low Earth orbit instruments. These satellites are traveling at more than seven kilometers a second and see our planet in thin strips as narrow as ten kilometers wide. Most take about 24 hours to get back where they started.
From this vantage it is like trying to map an elephant using a microscope. By the time you look at the same spot twice, the Earth (and the elephant) is doing something else.

There are far better instruments for observing elephants: Binoculars.

The long-mothballed DSCOVR spacecraft, still languishing in clean storage here on Earth, is just such an instrument. Rather than seeing the planet from hundreds of kilometers away, DSCOVR was designed to track our orbit around the Sun from 1.5 million kilometers away.

From a unique gravitational dimple called “L1”, the spacecraft would continuously monitor the entire sunlit disc of our planet, providing an entirely new way of collecting data on the Earth’s energy budget. This coincident data would compliment and calibrate more detailed measurements from CERES and other satellites that observe the Earth from much closer.

Yet of the $160 billion given to NASA from the US taxpayer since DSCOVR was built in 2000, they have stubbornly maintained that launching this already fully completed spacecraft is either too expensive or simply not important. 

For the record, the most inflated estimate to launch and operate DSCOVR of $250 million would represent 0.15% of that public largesse. In fact, the true cost to NASA to operate DSCOVR for seven years is likely less than $50 million due to cost sharing opportunities with other agencies, and use of cheaper launch vehicles such as a SpaceX rocket.

The reasons for NASA's apparent resistance to exploring new methods of Earth observation probably have more to do with internal bureaucratic inertia than anything else. As they say, old dogs have a hard time learning new tricks and NASA has being doing low Earth orbit for more than forty years. 

They recently committed a further $1 billion on a low Earth orbit replacement to CERES called CLARREO that won't be launched until at least 2016. Whether or not this experiment will finally make the numbers add up remains to be seen, and the results will not be known for another six years at the earliest.

In the meantime, climate change proceeds apace, "skeptics" make specious arguments using glaring errors in the satellite data, and DSCOVR dozes in its storage box here on Earth waiting for 1/20th of the money required for a re-do the failed CERES experiment.

If there is a bright side to the sinister theft of thousands of emails just before the Copenhagen Conference, it is that we can now start to have a more intelligent conversation on the glaring discrepancies in our Earth observation instruments.

And lets not be too hard on NASA. After eight years of George Bush in the Whitehouse and billions diverted from worthwhile science towards inter-planetary photo ops like the manned mission to Mars, the space agency is understandably just now picking up the pieces.

The fabulously expensive (and scientifically useless) International Space Station will also have funneled off $140 billion in scarce research dollars when it finally plunges into the ocean in 2016. 

These outside political pressures forced NASA to drop so many Earth-observing missions that by 2006 leading scientists were warning our climate monitoring system was “at risk of collapse”. Four years later, the public was granted a rare glimpse of the frustration within the scientific community in Trenberth’s now famously misinterpreted message.

What about the stolen emails and global conspiracy theories? I suggest a more plausible alternative: 
 The next time the media encounters a such an obvious stick being thrown for them, maybe they should instead chase the mysterious person doing the throwing.
As for DSCOVR, it is interesting that an experiment that could help resolve glaring uncertainties abound this century’s defining issue has somehow never been launched.

For some powerful interests far beyond NASA, continued uncertainty can be a very valuable commodity. To quote a notorious leaked strategy document from Big Tobacco when they were seeking to delay costly regulation of their dangerous industry in the 1960’s: “doubt is our product.”

Why Are Oddballs Like This Guy Winning?

News flash! Climate change is not only a fraud and a hoax, but it is a sinister conspiracy of the "left" to create an unelected eco-dictatorship that spans the globe. Millions of the world’s poorest will die, and civilization as we know it will perish unless we stop this plot before it is too late.

That remarkable message was delivered this week by the flamboyantly pompous Lord Christopher Walter, the Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, at a lunch time talk hosted by the Fraser Institute, and sponsored by the so-called "Friends" of Science.

I have long followed the media coverage of high-profile climate change deniers such as Lord Monckton and was guiltily anticipating seeing the performance in person. I was also hoping that by 2009 such fringe views were finally dropping out of the media and being seen as more hilarious than serious.

Not so. A startling poll was released this year showing that more Americans were skeptical of climate science now than at any time in the last eleven years. It is also reflected in Canada's continuing pathetic record on climate change -- an issue that has become political plutonium in a once proudly progressive nation.

At the very time that the normally staid scientific community is becoming increasingly frantic about what they know about climate change, the general public seems to be more misinformed and confused than ever before. Since political will flows directly from public opinion, this is not merely a curiosity, it is a catastrophe.

Quite simply, we are losing the battle for the future of planet because scientists and environmentalists are failing to win the messaging war. Watching Lord Monckton hold forth before a friendly crowd of more than 200, I realized more clearly how soundly the truth is seemingly being pummeled by a motley collection of audacious charlatans.

Let's start by pointing out that Lord Monckton is not a "lord" at all if by his title you assumed he is a member of the British Parliament's House of Lords. In fact, he received no votes in 2007 House of Lords Conservative Hereditary Peers' byelection. Then again, very little of what he said was true.

Much of his talk ironically was devoted to labeling a legion of reputable scientists as "liars," a term he threw around with reckless generosity, apparently not remotely concerned with either liability or nuance.

"If the threat is real, why do those who advocate the global warming scare need to lie about it again and again and again?" asked Monckton.

He ran through a series of slides which in succession accused Al Gore, the IPCC, the scientific community and several prominent researchers of being liars, fraudsters and, worst of all: "bed-wetters."

Among his high profile targets:

Sir John Houghton, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), lead author of three IPCC assessments, and a "liar."

Dr. Stephen Schneider, author of over 450 peer-reviewed scientific papers, mostly related to climate science. According to Monckton: both a liar and "bed-wetter."

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore is, declared Monckton, a liar about sea level rise, the hockey stick graph, polar bears, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and apparently almost everything else in his film.

"They're testing us all the time with new lies to see whether we simply swallow them or not. And if we swallow them, they go onto the next one," Monckton taunted.

Monckton's claims prove worthless

It is interesting to take a closer look at some of the bold claims Monckton makes to the chuckling crowd about the "sheer depth and elaboration with which these lies are told."

For instance, he disparages Gore for the "polar bear lie" in An Inconvenient Truth, in which Gore claims that "a scientific study shows for the first time they’re finding polar bears that are drowned swimming long distances up to 60 miles to find the ice."

Like a TV detective solving the crime, Monckton announces: "Here is study that he was referring to, Monnett and Gleason, 2006 and it does show four dead polar bears. And why did they die? Does it say anything in the paper about global warming? No, not a word. . ."

I took the trouble to look up that paper, and here is what the authors say verbatim: "We speculate that mortalities due to offshore swimming during late-ice (or mild ice) years may be an important and unaccounted source of natural mortality given energetic demands placed on individual bears engaged in long-distance swimming. We further suggest that drowning-related deaths of polar bears may increase in the future if the observed trend of regression of pack ice and/or longer open water periods continues."

Monckton went on to brag that he had "checked a bit further to find out whether in fact the sea ice extent in the Beaufort Sea. . . has diminished for the last thirty years and. . . in fact it has increased very slightly if anything. . . So there was no basis whatsoever for Gore’s lie."

True? Not quite, according to this image from the Nation Snow and Ice Data Center.

An article in Nature published just last week said: "Arctic sea ice has declined slightly less dramatically this year than in the past couple of years. But the seasonal minimum, reached this week, is still the third-lowest on record since satellite radar measurements began in 1979, reinforcing a marked 30-year downward trend in summertime ice extent."

You get the idea. People like Monckton don't have to tell the truth, the public just has to keep listening to them. A decent deceit, told with wit and conviction, seemingly trumps the truth most days in the arena of public opinion.

After 90 minutes, Monckton intimated the real reason that global warming lies were being shoved down our collective throats by the "left." He claimed to have in his briefcase a copy of the draft Copenhagen agreement that may be signed this December that will result in nothing less than a world government of unelected eco-bureaucrats, a green global dictatorship that will happen "unless you stop them."

It was an impressive performance and the friendly crowd ate it up. I am sure many of the fired-up faithful responded with fat cheques to the Fraser Institute, The Friends of Science and Stephen Harper. Monckton took no verbal questions from the floor and was whisked away for pre-arranged media interviews by the slick staffers at the Fraser Institute.

Admittedly, some of the local press coverage of the event was scathing, but it did leave me wondering about how effectively the so-called agents of truth are fairing in comparison.

Later that day, I went to an eco-gathering of earnest and well-meaning people attending a climate film premier. Aside from the obvious political whiplash, I was most struck by the pervasive petty infighting within the room. Many people seemed fixated more on nitpicking their allies than outwardly raging at the smiling shysters winning the messaging war.

Likewise, the scientific community seems to ignore the likes of Monckton, leaving the field wide open for him to say whatever he wants, and boldly claim that no one wants to debate him because they are scared of him. It is like watching your big brother in high school get his ass kicked by a nine-year-old.

If we can't even get beyond our sanctimony to dialogue effectively within peer group, what hope do we have to effectively reach out to those we have less in common with? Unless the "left" can realize quickly that the real battle for public opinion is being waged, and lost, outside our own small political bubble, I fear the planet is in big trouble.

This piece was published on the Tyee on October 29, 2009

Global Warming's New Scopes Monkey Trial

Corporate giants like Nike and Johnson & Johnson must be wondering today why they are still members of the increasingly crazy U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber last week filed legal papers seeking to put climate science on trial by challenging the largest peer review exercise in scientific history in the US Federal Court.

Chamber officials say it would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century" -- complete with witnesses, cross-examinations and a judge who would rule, essentially, on whether humans are warming the planet to dangerous effect.

"It would be evolution versus creationism," crowed William Kovacs, the chamber's senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs. "It would be the science of climate change on trial."

Just when you think the climate denier crowd could get any loopier -- they do.

For those who weren't alive during the infamous "Scopes Monkey Trail" of 1925, Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes was put on trail for the "crime" of teaching the theory of evolution to his students in violation of a state law called the Butler Act.

In what is now recognized as the low water mark in American intellectual history, the prosecution harangued the scientific community for teaching that humans descended "not even from American monkeys, but from old world monkeys".

The world was astounded that an enlightened country like the United States seemed to be slipping back into the Dark Ages. Many Americans were mortified at a spectacle the New York Times described as "the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war."

The Baltimore Sun derided the local population as "babbits", "morons", "peasants", "hill-billies", and "yaps" (whatever they are). Their editors railed against the "degraded nonsense which country preachers are ramming and hammering into yokel skulls."

As with all forms of state-sponsored censorship, the concept of truth was irrelevant. The judge instructed the jury to ignore the merit of the law, and because the defense was prevented from submitting evidence, they did not even ask the jury to find their client not guilty.

The Tennessee court of appeal dropped this fiasco like a hot potato, stating, "We see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case. On the contrary, we think that the peace and dignity of the state, which all criminal prosecutions are brought to redress, will be the better conserved by the entry of a nolle prosequi herein."

This remarkable historical embarrassment is what the U.S. chamber of Commerce wants to recreate in the 21st Century on behalf of their membership.

This cynical maneuver is in response to the long overdue finding by the US EPA that ballooning emissions are a threat to human health. This will open the door to CO2 being regulated as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act -- something some elements in the business community will clearly stop at nothing to prevent.

Personally, I believe it would be useful to see some of well known pseudo-scientists who make a lucrative living denying climate change dragged out their media bubble and grilled on the stand.

It might be illuminating to see them defend their shoddy credentials, dubious funding sources, and the strange coincidence that virtually everyone at odds with the vast scientific consensus of climate change is receiving dirty carbon money.

This bizarre move from the Chamber of Commerce also exposes the growing rifts amongst their membership. Earlier this year, Johnson & Johnson sent a letter demanding that the Chamber refrain from making comments on climate change unless they "reflect the full range of views, especially those of Chamber members advocating for congressional action."

Nike has also been vocal with the Chamber's leaders "about wanting them to take a more progressive stance on the issue of climate change."

Other prominent and progressive companies like Levi Strauss, Starbucks, Sun Microsystems, Timberland, eBay, Gap Inc., Seventh Generation, PNM Resources, and Symantec are likely wondering whether they want to continue to be associated with an organization that seems to hold the protection of the environment in such contempt.

As Obama moves the U.S. towards long-overdue policies to prevent the atmosphere from being used a free dumping ground for dangerous levels of CO2, it is fascinating to watch the political theatre that ensues. Groups like the Chamber of Commerce appear more concerned with preventing carbon pricing than protecting their own credibility -- or the planet.

Big Coal Impersonating Charities?

The most sinister PR campaign in history just hit a new ethical low when it was revealed that forged letters appearing to be from charities were sent to lawmakers urging them to vote against the Waxman Markey climate bill.

Congressman Tom Perriello was shocked to find that anti climate letters claiming to be from the NAACP and a local Latino non-profit were instead sent by DC lobby firm Bonner & Associates – a company apparently subcontracted by Big Coal astroturf group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE).

In total, twelve phony letters have surfaced so far, sent to three freshmen Congress members – all representing coal producing districts. Other charities apparently impersonated by Big Coal include the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, and the American Association of University Women.

You wonder how they sleep at night… Apparently unencumbered by ethics or morals, the fossil fuel lobby seems prepared to do anything, including fraudulently impersonating charities to avoid progress on climate change.

Of course Big Coal denies everything. Although Bonner and Associates was subcontracted by ACCCE, they are now claiming that it was all the doing of "temporary employee who worked for us for 7 days [who] acted alone." Ah huh.

The ACCCE admitted they were long aware of at least 12 forged letters but of course they would never be involved in something as slimy as this, would they? While claiming “outrage” about the scam, it is strange that they sat on this explosive knowledge since June 24th, two days before the House vote on Waxman Markey, and of course until it was otherwise revealed in the press.

The middleman between the ACCCE and Bonner was another PR firm called the Hawthorn Group that takes a “grassroots, campaign oriented approach to corporate public relations”. Their chief operating officer said that Bonner & Associates "failed to reach the congressional offices to properly advise them" of the forgeries. Now try to imagine a DC-based lobbying firm that does not know how to “reach” congressional offices…

Ed Markey, the co-sponsor of the current climate bill wants some answers. "The deliberate inaction prior to the House vote and the extended silence after the vote - some 40 days after ACCCE knew what had happened - raises serious concerns," Markey wrote in a letter to the ACCCE on Wednesday.
Markey also wants to know exactly the relationship between ACCCE and the Bonner, how much they were paid, what congressional districts they were targeting and who the mysterious and supposed ex-employee is.

"This fraud on Congress distorts the legislative process and disserves the American people. It represents a serious breach that needs to be fully understood as to the extent and scope of these wrongful acts,” Markey said in the letter.
As for the charities impersonated by the fossil fuel lobby, they are understandably more than a little pissed.

The American Association of University Women released this blistering statement:
“This incident constitutes outright deceit and demonstrates a breathtaking lack of ethics. AAUW greatly resents having been portrayed in false lights, and sympathizes with the other organizations that have been victims of this outrageous act. We also fully support Rep. Edward J. Markey's investigation into this matter. When members of Congress receive a letter from AAUW and its members, they should feel confident that they are being contacted by real people committed to the principles of our great democracy and the mission of AAUW. Cynical and premeditated lies have no place in public policy debates.”

The NAACP was also not pleased:
“The NAACP is appalled that an organization like Bonner and Associates would stoop to these depths to deceive Congress In this case Bonner and Associates are exploiting the African-American Community to achieve their misdirected goal.These tactics illustrate that discriminatory tactics normally used to deceive voters are now being used to deceive the Congress,” stated Hilary O. Shelton, Director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and Senior Vice President for Advocacy.

This story is not over and we will keep you posted as more details on this scam are dragged into the light of day.