Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

Local conditions and personal reflections

By: RickyRood, 11:09 PM GMT on May 31, 2013

Local Conditions and Personal Reflections

I have disappeared for a while because of technological failures. Honestly, I embraced them for a couple of days, but it's hard for me to remain in denial for more than a day or two. So I have sought out the computer at the public library and remembered my WU login. Here is a personal reflection on how local weather conditions might impact how one thinks about climate change.

I am currently residing in Boulder, Colo., where I try to grow a pretty large garden. Last year, 2012, was exceedingly hot in the spring and very dry. The dryness continued into the winter of 2013.

Water is in short supply in the West. This is not news. In fact, when John Wesley Powell explored the West he was pessimistic about its habitability because of scarcity of water (an old NPR story). He laid out a vision of a West of small settlements anchored in reliable water sources. Earlier, when Stephen Long explored the Midwest and the Front Range of the Rockies, he labeled the area the "Great Desert." (some cool maps from University of Tulsa).

Of course, the Great Plains and the West have now been populated with large cities. Water is managed in a fragmented way on an enormous spatial scale. There is huge contention for water between cities, agricultural and conservation management, and energy production. This is one area of the country where there is concern shared amongst the governors about drought and climate change.

In March 2013 as the local drought persisted, I was downright depressed about the coming spring and summer. The snowpack in the mountains was low. In the previous year, the spring had been so warm that much of the snow melted well before the normal spring runoff. I remember in June 2012 putting pumpkins into soil that was well over 110 degrees F and dry down to the underlying clay bed. With the low humidity and heat, I could not water most of them enough to keep them alive. In March 2013, we seemed to be looking at even less water.

Spring 2013 was just plain odd in the U.S. Largely, it was cold, with many record cold temperatures. The cold waves were interspersed with sometimes record heat. The variability was enormous. In my part of Colorado during April, at just about exactly seven-day intervals, there was one record snow a week. On the flat lands east of the mountains, these snows were followed by extraordinary seasonal cold, then a rapid melt. Virtually all blossoming trees did not blossom; the bees are not happy. In the mountains, the snowpack built up to be higher than average. Some ski resorts reopened for Memorial Day because of fresh May snow.

Here at the end of May, I look at the mountains and there is a lot of snow. The farm irrigation ditches run full of water. The cities are reconsidering the water restrictions they imposed in February and March. The hay fields are green and tall. I look around, and I feel pretty good about the summer.

Those mountains that I see to the West supply the Platte River and the Colorado River. I look up to them and naively think of the Colorado River full of water. However, the truth is quite the contrary. 2013 is yet another year of the Colorado River being in extreme drought. Despite my seeing all of that snow in my little world 2013 is an intensification of the Southwest drought.

I remember when I was quite young there was a drought in my home state of North Carolina. I was only a bit more naive then, perhaps more prone to the mystical, and I worried about the weather being broken in some way. At that age, weather was itself a mystery. I had no idea how to describe the motion of air and how to turn humidity into rain. I imagined that there had been a divine intervention into how the weather worked--it was the opposite of the biblical flood. I was a young boy with a narrow view of the world, so I assumed the whole world was in drought. I am sure that a few hundred miles away, however, the weather was still working; it was raining. I probably even checked to make sure that was the case. As I now sit in a world with what looks like enough snow for a good season in the garden, that childhood comfort of the weather working comes back.

This little vision I have into the world, that my weather has been beneficent, really has little relevance to whether or not the climate is changing. My little vision is no different than that of all of the people who have looked at the cold U.S. spring of 2013 and stated that as evidence or proof that the Earth was not warming. You have to look at all of the Earth and look at what is happening in the oceans and look at all that is melting.

One of our best resources on drought and water is the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). NIDIS followed from The 1998 National Drought Policy Act and The Western Governors' Association (some good policy history). This is climate policy; this is climate service. It is based on known vulnerabilities, ones that are expected to get worse because there is really nothing that suggests the vulnerabilities will lessen on their own. There is no looking at the facts and saying it will all be all right.

Rather than looking out your window and saying that the weather is working and that our climate is like it has always been, better to take a broader look--a global perspective. For a national perspective on drought, here is the outlook from NIDIS on May 15, 2013.

Hope to get my computer and files back early next week. Don't forget me.

r

Climate Change

Updated: 3:21 PM GMT on June 10, 2013

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Magical Mystery Tour: Unicorns, Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster

By: RickyRood, 5:55 AM GMT on May 16, 2013

Magical Mystery Tour: Unicorns, Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster

I am taking a hiatus from my “What Can I Do Series.” This blog will focus on three stories in the press in the past few months that have been flaring up. They have been smoldering for years and I expect they will smolder for a few more years.

As background, more than a year ago I wrote a piece entitled Form of Argument: Adventures in Rhetoric. In that blog, I named a number of items to look for in politically motivated articles on climate change. One of the most common forms of argument is to look at one item of information and to ignore other information. Once this information is put at the center of the argument, it is followed by a set of yes or no questions or statements that suggest contradictory knowledge follow it. This form of argument produces doubt, amplifies uncertainty and effectively disrupts a societal or governmental response to climate change. Also in that original blog, I warned of emotional appeals that suggested dishonesty and disreputable behavior. In the following examples, these elements of argument appear (see also Changing the Media Discussion and Lemos and Rood on the Uncertainty Fallacy).

All of the items that I discuss below are items that have been addressed in this blog previously. A reason that I am writing about them this week is that recently other writers have put together excellent discussions of the scientific knowledge and the communication of that knowledge. Also I refer to the web site Skeptical Science which has an ongoing collection of arguments against climate change science and their counters.

The pause in warming: An article appeared in The Economist on whether or not the Earth was warming as fast as predicted. This is an argument that has been especially prevalent since about 2005. This particular emergence of the warming pause follows from an article in the Daily Mail that I wrote about in October, 2012. The Daily Mail article was obviously written with the goal of disruption.

From a scientist-citizen’s perspective, the Economist article is a good article and it demonstrates some of the perils of communication and science driven by public dialogue. For example, the global surface-temperature plots were highly touted in the 1990s as a communication tool to provide the story to policy makers and the public. However, it is known to be too simplistic, and the models were never built as predictive models.

From a scientist’s perspective, the global surface temperature record is not a singular or robust measure of planetary warming. There is heat going into oceans and melting sea ice and melting ice sheets and melting permafrost. I think an interesting tension is that there is a growing literature that the Earth is heating faster than predicted, when all of these other measures of heating are considered.

Judith Curry has a recent post on the warming pause in which she summarizes David Appell’s article W[h]ither Global Warming: Has it slowed down?, which in great detail lists the reasons why the surface temperature record is not a singular measure of planetary warming are discussed. As we search for the heat and find it, largely in the ocean, all observations suggest that the planet is warming, and that the dominant cause is human-generated greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.

It has been a cold spring in the U.S.: The 2013 spring has been one of the most peculiar in my life. This follows 2012, which was just stunningly hot. 2013 has had a lot of record cold in the U.S. There has also been a lot of variability, record cold followed by record warm. Marshall Shepherd brought the article Cooler Spring Weather Does Not Equal a Cooling Climate to my attention. This article makes reference to a video from Climate.gov entitled Pockets of Cold on a Warming Planet. All I have to say here is that the U.S. is not the world: Globally, March 2013 was the tenth warmest ever and for the past 337 months the global temperature has been higher than the twentieth century average. April will be number 338. Here is one of my old links on this subject Warm Cold Warm Cold.

Carbon Dioxide Increase is Good for the Plants and not Correlated with Temperature: There was an article in the Wall Street Journal, Defending Carbon Dioxide. I note that it was an opinion piece. It was full of opining with no cohesive basis in fact and isolated misrepresentation of fragments of knowledge. It misrepresents both climate knowledge and ecological knowledge. It was released to coincide with the atmospheric carbon dioxide crossing 400 parts per million. All I have to say about this is that carbon dioxide is a waste product and I can name numerous waste products that are good for plants. We choose to manage our sewage.

r

A note or two: I am glad to see in the various articles I refer to here that scientists are becoming more circumspect about how we communicate about climate change. Sometimes our attempts to make communication simple contributes to the perpetuation of disruptive political arguments by presenting an isolated piece of information that falls prey to the yes-no questions that generate doubt.

And as for 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide – “never before experienced by humans.” That was true for 399, 398, 397 … and it will be true for 401, 402, 403 ... Silly.



From Skeptical Science which has an on going collection of arguments against climate change science and their counters.



Moderation of comments: I have been getting more and more complaints about what is going on in the comments. WU and I will be addressing this. To start, here is a modified version of Dr. Master’s Blog Contents Rules.

Rood's Rules of the Road

1. Please do not carry on personal disputes.
2. Keep it civil. Personal attacks, bickering, flaming and general trollish behavior will not be tolerated. Disagreements are fine, but keep them civil.
3. No spam.
4. Stay on the topic of climate change or the entry topic.
5. Foul language is not allowed.
6. Please avoid topics that would be considered adults only. Many children come to this site looking for information.
7. Threats and intimidation, especially that which extends into the real world will be dealt with accordingly.
8. Do not circumvent a ban. Most bans last 24 hours or less; please accept the ban. If you create a new username to circumvent a ban, you will be blocked from the site completely.

Climate Change Politics Climate Change

Updated: 3:31 PM GMT on February 21, 2014

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How Much Does It Cost: What Can I Do? (6)

By: RickyRood, 5:18 AM GMT on May 09, 2013

How Much Does It Cost: What Can I Do? (6)

This is the continuation of a series in response to the question, “What can I do about climate change?” Links to the previous entries are listed at the end.

Last week rather than taking the conventional view of looking at greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, I presented an accounting of the emissions associated with agriculture. My primary points were that agriculture was a major emitter of greenhouse gases, and, therefore, the choices we make individually and collectively about what we eat have large environmental consequences.

I want to explore more the impact of agriculture, particularly livestock. First, however, I want to remind folks of the series on calculating budgets. Last summer I did a series where I compared the basic methods of climate science to keeping a budget – just like a checking and savings accounts. One of the entries in that series looked specifically at complexity. The idea being that despite the fact that maintaining a budget is a relatively simple matter of addition and subtraction, if you consider all of the ways we get and spend money, then it can become remarkably complex.

I implied the complexity of accounting for the greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture in the previous entry. The amount of emissions from the direct use of fossil fuels is relatively small. Big sources of emissions come from removing trees and changing forests to agricultural lands and soil management. Many aspects of soil management influence how much carbon and nitrogen is stored in the soil. There is also the need to consider greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide: for example, methane associated with ruminates and solid waste from livestock and nitrous oxide associated with fertilizer. Emissions also depend on:

- what crops are grown and what animals are raised

- agricultural practice, for example, whether the land is plowed or no-till methods are used

- policy, for example, renewable energy policy provides incentives and disincentives on what to grow

- biological processes that are different from field to field, region to region, year to year, and that are not highly quantified

The calculation of the budget of emissions from agriculture is a difficult problem. We can say with certainty the emissions are large and they change based on many factors. We can also say that the impact of agriculture on the environment is more far reaching than climate change. Anecdotally, most people think of the impacts of pesticides and herbicides, the issues of genetically modified organisms, soil erosion and water quality before they think of how agriculture and climate change play together. Agriculture is also a major focus of those who think about sustainability.

I ended the previous entry with a relatively weak statement that what we chose to eat or not eat does make a difference. I stated that at the top of the list, perhaps, the easiest decision is to eat less meat. The issue of eating meat, of course, steps into a set of the more controversial subjects of our society. For example, there are the issues of personal choice and intrusion into individual's lives. Also, there are those who place high value on the ethics of raising and slaughtering animals. There is no doubt, however, that livestock production uses immense resources.

The source of much of the material in my previous entry was Livestock’s Long Shadow a 2006 publication of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In that report they conclude:

“Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency. Major reduction in impact could be achieved at reasonable cost.”

As strong as this statement is, there is a school of thought that Livestock’s Long Shadow is a significant underestimation of the emissions due to livestock. Most notably is an analysis by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, Livestock and Climate Change, which does a different accounting of the budget of emissions of greenhouse gases. In Livestock and Climate Change it is maintained that there is significant undercounting and misallocation in the United Nations budget calculation. A point that is particularly important is that the proliferation of livestock production is human-made just as much as any building, road or power plant. Therefore, for example, the carbon dioxide of respiration of the animals needs to be considered in the budget calculation. Taking all of the budget changes in Livestock and Climate Change, the conclusion is that livestock is responsible for 51 percent of the total emissions. With this number, a far larger intervention is needed than “eat less meat.”

In December 2009, I took a group of students to the 15th Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen. When I got off the subway at the conference center, there were two loud groups of advocates. One was People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who had gone around Copenhagen and placed markers on utility poles and in trees where sea level would be if the Greenland ice sheet melted. Another group claimed that if we were all vegetarian, then we could reduce global warming by 70 percent.

The numbers in Livestock and Climate Change follow from a well-reasoned argument in the calculation of the budget of the emissions due to livestock. However, they are not without controversy. This controversy can be found in a number of places on the web: Columbia Journalism Review and Lifting Livestock's Long Shadow, Nature Climate Change and Measuring Livestock's Long Shadow, NYTimes. At the center of the controversy is another accounting of the impact of livestock, Cleaning the Air: Livestock's Contribution to Climate Change by Maurice Pitesky and others. This paper takes a vastly different accounting and concludes that impact of livestock is much smaller than in the United Nations Report, Livestock’s Long Shadow. An interesting aspect of its argument is that “The fact that land-use changes associated with livestock (i.e., forested land converted to pasture or cropland used for feed production) are a significant source of anthropogenic GHGs in Latin America and other parts of the developing world is apparent. However, it is likely that any kind of land-use change from the original forestland will lead to great increases in global warming.” The argument being that development in countries with growing population will lead to deforestation. Their argument is carried further “The United States and most other developed countries have not experienced significant land-use change practices around livestock production within the last few decades. Instead, over the last 25 years forestland has increased by approximately 25 percent in the United States and livestock production has been intensified (concentrated geographically), thus reducing its geographical footprint.”

The line of reasoning in Cleaning the Air: Livestock's Contribution to Climate Change contributes to the argument that concentration into highly efficient, mass producing farms is a more practical way forward than reducing consumption (Livestock production and the global environment: Consume less or produce better?, by Henning Steinfeld and Pierre Gerber).

In this food niche of strategies to mitigate climate change, we see the same arguments emerge as in the discussion of fossil fuels. We could be more efficient in our use of resources. With efficiency, however, in the face of a growing population and growing consumption, we are still faced with a growth of emissions of greenhouse gases. Therefore, if climate-change and broader environmental issues are given priority, then we must consume less of those products that are responsible for our largest greenhouse emissions. We can conceive of sources of renewable energy that are free of carbon dioxide emissions. However, it is more difficult to imagine how we raise livestock without the methane and nitrous oxide emissions, and these greenhouse gases cannot be dismissed.

My original list topper on diet was eat less meat. If we take the high emissions scenario as correct, then a climate priority calls for an intervention into our dietary practices that is comparable to the intervention required for reducing fossil fuels. This is a change in diet that I assert will be more difficult than the change in our energy system. Therefore, back to the original question, “What can I do about climate change?” – eat (a lot) less meat. Vegetarianism is good for the planet. This from a man who does eat a lot less meat than he used to, but has been, I maintain, overidentified with BBQ.

r

Some dietary resources: I have not checked these out too closely!

Environmental Working Group: Meat Eaters Guide (I do like this group’s approach to things.)

Climate Diet

Human Media: The Diet-Climate Connection


Previous Entries in the Series

Setting Up the Discussion Deciding to do something, definition of mitigation and adaptation, and a cost-benefit anchored framework for thinking about mitigation

Smoking, Marriage and Climate Behavioral changes and peer pressure

Organizing and Growing Individual Efforts A little detail on efficiency and thinking about how individuals can have more impact than just that of a single person

The Complete List Eight categories of things we can do to reduce greenhouse gases

We Are What We Eat Counting agriculture and its emissions of greenhouse gases


Moderation of comments: I have been getting more and more complaints about what is going on in the comments. WU and I will be addressing this. To start, here is a modified version of Dr. Master’s Blog Contents Rules.

Rood's Rules of the Road

1. Please do not carry on personal disputes.
2. Keep it civil. Personal attacks, bickering, flaming and general trollish behavior will not be tolerated. Disagreements are fine, but keep them civil.
3. No spam.
4. Stay on the topic of climate change or the entry topic.
5. Foul language is not allowed.
6. Please avoid topics that would be considered adults only. Many children come to this site looking for information.
7. Threats and intimidation, especially that which extends into the real world will be dealt with accordingly.
8. Do not circumvent a ban. Most bans last 24 hours or less; please accept the ban. If you create a new username to circumvent a ban, you will be blocked from the site completely.

Climate Change

Updated: 6:29 PM GMT on May 13, 2013

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About RickyRood

I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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Clouds in the lee of the Rockies at sunset.
Clouds in the lee of the Rockies at sunset.
Clouds in the lee of the Rockies at sunset.
Clouds in the lee of the Rockies at sunset.