(Un)Scientific American – Fatuous Nonsense on Climate Change & Social Unrest in Iran

Iran protest

The attribution of virtually any significant weather event to climate change is a particularly grating and ill-informed habit of climate evangelists. It is not supportable by the science, even blithe suggestions that climate change “contributed” to the severity of an event or to the frequency of particular event types are not verifiable. Making such statements is no less ridiculous than saying during a cold snap, “so what happened to global warming?”

To claim that climate change is a major driver of the current social unrest in Iran takes climate change attribution to a whole other level of bullshit. But, that’s where Scientific American went when it posted an article by Scott Waldman on January 8, Climate Change May Have Helped Spark Iran’s Protests.

According to Waldman, “The impacts of climate change are among the environmental challenges facing Iran that helped spark protests in dozens of cities across the Islamic republic.” He then says, “Rising temperatures are seen by some experts as an underlying condition for the economic hardships that led to the unrest.”

One such expert, Barbara Slavin, from the Atlantic Council, claims, “the role of climate change on the protests is “massive” and underreported by the media. The protests have largely sprung from provincial cities that climate refugees now call home, instead of the capital, Tehran.” Slavin maintains these “climate refugees” have moved from their farms into urban centres because 14 years of drought have made farming impossible.

Waldman throws in some alarmist projections – rainfall is expected to fall by 20% in the Middle East by the year 2100 and temperature to rise by 5⁰C – which are poor substitutes for observational data. Actual weather data covering 114 years from 1901 to 2015 highlight the obvious; Iran is a hot, arid country. Looking at both precipitation and temperature data over this period, a couple of things are quite striking. First, temperature has risen by about 1⁰C, consistent with global trends but hardly catastrophic. Second, precipitation has fluctuated quite dramatically, month-by-month and year-by-year but the monthly linear trend is nearly flat.[1]

Over the most recent 14-year period in the data (2002-15) the precipitation trendline for January shows a fairly steep decline but in July it shows an increase. Given that January is a wetter month in Iran than July, it is not surprising that the annual trend over this limited time frame is negative. But 14 years in terms of climate is almost nothing, using this limited data to prove climate change effects when the century-plus trend tells a markedly different story is just cherry-picking data to support your narrative.

Waldman also suggests that the worst effects of climate change in Iran, “could be curtailed with a drop in emissions from fossil fuels, a large percentage of which come from fossil fuels derived from the Middle East.” He then cites Kaveh Ehsani, an expert in Iranian politics at DePaul University, who claims, “there is a growing sense of environmentalism in Iran, in response to the drought and deadly heat waves.” But just to make sure he nails all the villains in the piece he also asserts that, “the Trump administration’s retreat from the Paris climate agreement and its larger rejection of climate policy mean that Iranian citizens are increasingly blaming environmental problems on the United States.”

Well, that’s neat and tidy. Western use of fossil fuels, the resultant changing climate, plus climate change denialism are the cause of civil unrest in Iran. The solution: stop using fossil fuels.

Waldman makes only passing reference to poor water management practices. In the abstract of a research paper, Water management in Iran: what is causing the looming crisis?, author Kaveh Madani states: “The government blames the current crisis on the changing climate, frequent droughts, and international sanctions, believing that water shortages are periodic. However, the dramatic water security issues of Iran are rooted in decades of disintegrated planning and managerial myopia.”[2]

The paper identifies three major causes of Iran’s growing water crisis: “(1) rapid population growth and inappropriate spatial population distribution; (2) inefficient agriculture sector; and (3) mismanagement and thirst for development.” Madani also posits that if Iran fails to change its water management policies and practices it risks losing, “its international reputation for significant success in water resources management over thousands of years in an arid area of the world.” In other words, the current regime in Iran has failed to adapt well to changing circumstances, certainly less well than its predecessors.

Waldman’s failure to mention population growth is a glaring omission. Iran experienced more than a fourfold increase in population over the past 60-plus years from about 19 million in 1955 to 82 million currently.[3] Half the population is under 30; it’s hardly a stretch to suggest a correlation between youth and civil unrest, particularly when those young people live under the iron rule of a despotic theocracy that limits their personal and political freedoms as well as economic opportunities.

Scientific American describes itself as “the award-winning authoritative source for the science discoveries and technology innovations that matter.” Let’s hope that the fatuous nonsense that is Waldman’s article was just a misstep into a pile of activist ordure rather than evidence of a more troubling malaise undermining the journal’s scientific authority.

 

[1] All climate data from the World Bank Group, Climate Knowledge Portal

[2] Water management in Iran: what is causing the looming crisis?, Kaveh Madani, August 2014, Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences

[3] Population data from Worldometers.info, 2018

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March Madness

March Madness
March Madness
On successive weekends, the March for Science and the People’s Climate March, neatly timed to coincide with the conclusion of President Trump’s first 100 days in office, were perceived by many people as beacons warning of the environmental disaster that is sure to happen if Trump’s “anti-science” and “anti-environment” agenda is allowed to proceed unchecked. From a slightly more sanguine perspective, they reinforce that progressives appear to have lost their collective minds and hysteria will be the new normal for the foreseeable future, or at least until they get their way again.

Being pro-science and pro-environment are cornerstones of progressive dogma. As they are wont to do, progressives presume ownership in these areas. They believe that science is truth and that science can be “settled” such that no further discussion is necessary or should even be allowed. Increasingly, they are demanding radical changes on multiple policy fronts, particularly economic and energy policy, to avoid the cataclysmic events that, according to their understanding and interpretation of science, are otherwise unavoidable.

Inflexible, strident, intolerant and self-righteous, too many progressives live in a binary world where theirs is the good side and the non-aligned are so “off” that it is not impolitic to loudly and publicly vilify them for their intellectual intransigence or outright stupidity. Life must be simple in a world where doubt has been banished and refuting the arguments of those who disagree is more an exercise in naming and shaming – logic, reason and substantive argument having become passé.

Progressives’ self-proclaimed love of science and wholesale support for the environment (which today principally means stopping climate change) is vigorously propagated by much of the mainstream media and with unbridled zeal by new media. As Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty pointed out in their recent (May/June 2017) study for Politico, The Media Bubble is Worse Than You Think, most working journalists in old or new media in the U.S. are liberal, urban and geographically concentrated in a handful of major cities on the east and west coasts of the country. Shafer and Doherty note that since 2015 internet publishing jobs started to outnumber print media jobs. They report that 73% of internet publishing jobs are in the Boston to Richmond, or Seattle to San Diego corridors and that most of these people live in “blue counties.” They further note that when, “…conservative(s) use “media” as a synonym for “coastal” and “liberal,” they’re not far off the mark.”

The relationship between the pro-science, pro-environment movement and the media is perhaps a little too cozy and the parties are a little too willing to overlook one another’s faults. One consequence is that volume and repetition often override carefully curated facts and argument, i.e., it seems that providing unwavering support for the overarching narrative is more important than verifiable truths and cogent analysis of the available facts.

Just a few days before the March for Science a piece entitled, The Other Poison Gas Killing Syrians: Carbon Dioxide Emissions, was posted by the online journal, The Nation. Author Juan Cole, a professor of History at The University of Michigan, was clearly agitated that President Trump had ordered a retaliatory airstrike against Syria over its alleged deployment of Sarin gas against civilians with deadly effect, while he and his party do nothing about reducing, but, in fact, “…are committed to increasing the daily release of hundreds of thousands of tons of a far more deadly gas—carbon dioxide.” This preposterous statement, never mind the headline, speaks volumes about both Cole and his editors’ understanding of the threat to the environment posed by CO2. Cole goes on to describe CO2 as, “the most noxious gas of all.”

According to Adip Said, in a science primer written for Biology Cabinet, Research and Advisory on Biology, “carbon dioxide is an organic compound formed by one atom of Carbon and two atoms of Oxygen (O=C=O).” The primer further notes that, “carbon dioxide is by far the most important (organic compound) for the sustainability of the biosphere (the whole of life on Earth).” Any child paying attention in elementary school science class must surely be aware of these simple, basic scientific truths but they are apparently news to Cole and The Nation who are convinced CO2 is the vilest of poisonous gases. This must rank among the most elemental misapprehensions of science ever.

The same article trucks out the variously discredited notion that climate change was a key driver of a major drought in Syria between 2007 and 2010 which displaced thousands of farm workers and their families, contributing to the conflict, loss of life, and refugee crisis in Syria. That’s a heavy burden for a simple molecule.

To be sure, this article is extremist and rooted in flights of fancy rather than fact. But there are other signs that the progressive platform suffers from more than surface rot. In a piece for The New Republic, Emily Atkin posits that Bill Nye is not the appropriate person to lead the climate fight. Known to his juvenile television audience as “The Science Guy,” Nye is not, and never has been a practising scientist. He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering but hasn’t worked in the field for thirty-odd years. He has drawn attention lately for his climate change activism. In public appearances and YouTube videos he has become increasingly intolerant of skeptic viewpoints, makes frequent references to the climate science “consensus,” and declares the science to be settled.

Nye was front and centre in Washington during the March for Science, and was photographed behind a barricade with prominent and controversial climate scientist Michael Mann. He was also a guest on CNN just prior to the March for Science along with Princeton Physicist, William Happer, who himself is the object of some controversy as he has met with Donald Trump and is apparently under consideration for the role of chief science advisor to the president.

Happer is on record as disagreeing with the classification of CO2 as a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during Obama’s tenure in the Oval Office. He has also suggested that the gas is essentially benign and that the increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have benefitted plant growth and the planet has been greening as a consequence. His position is that, as a trace gas in the atmosphere, increased levels of CO2 do not condemn the planet to a catastrophic outcome.

As a physicist with a long and distinguished career in science, Happer’s thoughts on the issue should not be readily dismissed, but that is exactly what Bill Nye, the putative “Science Guy” did on the CNN panel. In response to Happer’s comments that humans exhale around two pounds of CO2 daily and that the planet has lately been greening, Nye went into attack mode and, as Atkin pointed out in her piece, “…scolded CNN for allowing a climate-change denier to speak with the same authority as mainstream climate scientist(s).”

Atkin then asserts that, “Nye isn’t wrong, exactly, to criticize CNN for giving Happer a platform, but he also knows better than anyone that this is how cable news conducts climate change debates.” Atkin’s concern is that Nye has become prickly and no longer uses reason to contest the positions of the other side but instead tries to shut them down. “The old Nye would have played along. He would have challenged Happer’s ignorance, and educated CNN viewers on the harms of greenhouse gases.”

Atkin’s credibility with respect to this skirmish suffers on two fronts. The first is her interpretation of Happer’s comments where she distills two points into one and in doing so misunderstands and misrepresents what the physicist said. Atkin seems to believe Happer is saying that human exhalation of CO2 has contributed to the greening of the planet. She suggests he doesn’t understand that human respiration returning carbon to the atmosphere completes a closed loop process begun when plants fix carbon from the air which is subsequently ingested by humans.

Happer’s comment about human respiration is merely intended to highlight the absurdity of calling CO2 a pollutant when it is integral to all life, including human life. His second point about the greening of the planet is substantiated by numerous studies and photographically documented by NASA satellites. A paper published in April 2016, in the journal Nature Climate Change delivered by 32 researchers from 24 institutions in eight countries reported that more available CO2 in the atmosphere was the principal driver of recent planetary greening, accounting for 70% of the increased plant growth followed by nitrogen deposition (9%), climate change (8%) and land cover change (LCC) (4%). According to NASA, “The greening represents an increase in leaves on plants and trees equivalent in area to two times the continental United States.”

Climate advocates Atkin and Nye are either ignorant of this finding or chose wilfully to ignore it. The greening is a positive externality arising from the consumption of fossil fuels and, given its scale, for advocates is an unwelcome counterpoint to their usual doom and gloom narrative. It does not, of course, represent a solution to the climate problem but it does provide mitigation. In trying to tie Happer’s two points together, Atkin asserts, “There is no such “closed loop” for the some 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide that fossil fuel combustion adds to the atmosphere every year, which is why the planet is warming.” She completely glides by the fact that the greening is net new carbon sequestration by plants on a massive scale that provides a brake for CO2-induced warming.

Nye’s response was to try and deny the legitimacy of Happer’s participation in the discussion rather than discuss the relative merits of the points he raised. This is the all too typical response from advocates; reassert the certainty of your beliefs and denigrate your opponent. While Atkin believes Nye should have argued her faulty point about a “closed loop” she is more concerned that Nye has lost his cool and no longer uses logic, fact and reason to shut down opponents.

“The problem is not Nye’s understanding of the science. It’s that he’s become unable to explain it, in simple and clear terms, to a skeptical audience. Maybe he’s been defending science for too long now, and has grown tired of debating conservative cranks whose very job is to reject everything he says. Or maybe he’s become enamored with his celebrity, and has discovered that—like the cable-news pundits and hosts he tussles with—being performative is a more lucrative path than honest inquiry and factual rigor. But so long as a partisan performance artist is the national face of the climate change fight, conservatives will continue to have a case that the left’s championing of science is all about politics.”

The second blow to Atkin’s credibility is her willingness, despite recognizing that Nye is, “…a partisan performance artist,” to grant him scientific authority over an accomplished actual scientist, in this case Happer. Presumably, the latter is just another “conservative crank.” Sensibly, of the two, which is really a “science guy,” the distinguished career physicist or the children’s entertainer? Atkin is right that Nye is ill-suited to leading the climate fight, not just because of his current state of distemper but because too many of the placard-waving marchers who follow him and the people who report on these events have a demonstrable deficit with respect to their own scientific literacy.

It’s possible Nye takes cues for the sort of behaviour he exhibited on CNN from well-known climate scientist, Michael Mann. Mann gained prominence many years ago with his “hockey stick” graph that purported to show contemporary warming proceeding at an historically unprecedented pace. Al Gore featured it in highly theatrical fashion in his hyperbolic film, An Inconvenient Truth. Mann’s findings were challenged by a number of scientists and statisticians and, depending on which side of the great climate divide you sit, you either believe he was totally exonerated or that his science is a little dodgy, or worse.

Mann interpreted the questioning of his work as a personal attack and in his book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches From the Front Lines, he rolls out his “Serengeti Strategy,” a rather clumsy analogy that seeks to position Mann as the target of predatory deniers funded by fossil fuel interests. In the book, he is critical of anyone who disagrees, friend and foe alike. Mann is serially litigious and makes a habit of denouncing other climate scientists who see things differently.

He was his usual prickly self during a recent U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing on Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method. During Mann’s testimony he criticized the work of fellow panelists John Christy, Judith Curry and Roger Pielke Jr., all, like Mann, tenured PhDs who have worked in the field for most or all of their careers. He chirped that Pielke is no longer working in the field and called Curry a “climate science denier.” It seems that, in Mann’s estimation, none can hold a candle to him as a scientist; they are all just wrong. This disrespect is unseemly but probably travels well in this age of social media where publicly naming and shaming is a surer path to “owning” your opponent than engaging in civil, reasoned debate. So armed, the “Science Guy” goes forth and talks smack.

What was the expected outcome of these marches and what, actually, did they achieve? Physician Jeremy Faust in a piece in Slate on April 24, The Problem With the March for Science, provides a succinct appraisal of the value of these events.

“Being “pro-science” has become a bizarre cultural phenomenon in which liberals (and other members of the cultural elite) engage in public displays of self-reckoned intelligence as a kind of performance art, while demonstrating zero evidence to justify it. On any given day, many of my most “woke” friends are quick to post and retweet viral content about the latest on what Science (and I’m capitalizing this on purpose) “says,” or what some studies “prove.” But on closer look, much of what gets shared and bandied about is sheer bullshit and is diagnostic of one thing only: The state of science (and science literacy) in this country, and most of the planet for that matter, is woefully bad.”

The March for Science and the People’s Climate March were little more than feel-good exercises where participants could publicly parade their virtue and push back against the “cranks” whose views are perhaps a little more circumspect and therefore less readily captured in a clever slogan or raucous chant. The science/climate issue has been fraught for some time. It is now another erosive agent wearing away at the thin tissue of our public discourse. As impressive as it is that so many were moved to gather and link arms in support of “science” and “climate” it would be a major step forward if the people leading the conga line and their media allies worked a little harder to understand what others are saying, were less intolerant, and could more convincingly demonstrate a legitimate claim to their assumed certainty.

Up in Smoke – Burning Taxpayers’ Money Chasing a Dream

Burnin turbine

Anyone planning to cast a ballot on October 19th should take a careful look at progressive promises to invest in green energy technologies. The return on such investments will likely be very poor as Ontario, the United Kingdom, and Germany have already demonstrated. To date, the leaders’ debates and mainstream media coverage of the election have left some key questions unanswered by the Liberals and NDP (the Green Party, too, but they have no hope of forming a government).

In December 2013 an ice storm swept up from the Great Plains of the U.S. into southern Ontario and moved eastward across the province knocking out electric power for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Toronto was particularly hard hit, some residents waited a week or more for power to be restored.

My family was without power for about a day; an inconvenience, far from catastrophic, and even somewhat enlightening. You very quickly comprehend how reliant we are on an uninterrupted supply of electricity when it is suddenly unavailable.

As a ratepayer concerned about the rising cost of electricity in Ontario and the provincial government’s headlong rush into renewables, I thought it might be interesting to see how the green energy plant was performing during the crisis. Viewing the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) website a day or two after the storm revealed that both wind and solar were effectively contributing nothing to meeting the power needs of Ontarians.

Wind turbines cannot be operated in icy weather conditions. Accumulated ice unbalances the rotor blades which may lead to a very expensive failure. Latitude and seasonality affect the amount and intensity of sunlight received by a particular patch of real estate, so photovoltaic panels in Ontario would have been at their least productive when the ice storm struck. Being capped with layers of ice and snow can’t have helped much either.

When service was restored it was electricity from Ontario’s nuclear, hydro, and gas-fired generating plants that flowed to customers. Ontario’s nuclear plants supply more than 60% of the electricity used in the province annually. During the ice storm and its aftermath they were humming along reliably while the renewables were stopped dead in their tracks.

Solar and wind are both plagued with a major, as yet unaddressed, problem – intermittency. Solar and wind are often at peak output when there is no concurrent demand for that output, and produce nothing when demand is at its highest. Unlike zero-emissions nuclear power plants, they are largely unfit for purpose.

Capacity utilization in Ontario is about 83% for nuclear plants and around 26% for wind. A simple analysis using IESO and other publicly available data suggests that replacing the fleet of nuclear power plants in Ontario would require more than 20,000 wind turbines at a conservatively estimated cost of more than eighty billion dollars. To provide gas-fired back-up capacity or some form of energy storage system to meet demand when the wind isn’t blowing would add billions more to that estimate – all for a net gain of zero in terms of reduced emissions.

Like many environmentalists, the signatories to the recently unveiled ‘Leap Manifesto’, believe that we must decarbonize immediately to save the planet and that we can meet all of our energy needs with wind and solar power. The manifesto is just one more indicator of how hopelessly optimistic and misguided these green enthusiasts are. Even without the damage to the distribution network during the ice storm, thousands of residents would still have been freezing in the dark if the province had to rely entirely on wind and solar to supply its electricity.

I also checked the IESO website this past July 28, when southern Ontario was experiencing a heat wave. In the middle of the afternoon, there was no wind and virtually no electricity being generated by the scores of wind turbines standing motionless in the countryside. Demand for electricity was peaking as homes and businesses cranked up their air conditioning. Once again, nuclear, hydro, and gas-fired generators fed the grid and kept everyone cool. Solar contributed less than one half of one per cent of generated output during the day, and of course nothing once the sun had set.

A key actor in the Ontario Liberal government’s decision to adopt renewables as the way forward was Gerald Butts. He had then-premier Dalton McGuinty’s ear just as he now has Justin Trudeau’s in his role as Trudeau’s principal advisor. Butts is a fervent environmentalist who used to head up WWF Canada. He’s on record saying, “…100 per cent sustainable, renewable energy is possible and economical by 2050 if we start the transition today.” For the record, WWF Canada opposes nuclear power generation so it’s probably reasonable to assume this is Mr. Butts’ and Mr. Trudeau’s position also.

While campaigning in Trois Rivières on September 2, Trudeau declared, “Ensuring that our infrastructure is able to adapt to new challenges – like climate change and threats to our water and land – is essential to our future prosperity.” He then laid out his party’s plans to address this perceived deficiency through (presumably deficit-financed) infrastructure “investments”. These investments will include the establishment of a “…Canada Infrastructure Bank to provide low-cost financing for infrastructure projects, and Green Bonds to support renewable energy projects.” The Liberals promise to “…use new financing instruments to stimulate investment in retrofits and distributed energy systems.”

In short, the federal Liberals will adopt the ruinous policy that Gerald Butts sold to their provincial counterparts in Ontario. It’s extraordinary that these radical and economically unsound positions are part of a major party’s platform, particularly a platform founded on the belief that public investment is what is needed to kick-start the national economy. The return ratepayers in Ontario have seen from the McGuinty/Wynne “investments” in green energy is worse than the output of a solar panel at midnight – less than zero. We don’t need to borrow money to repeat those mistakes nationally.

The NDP are no less committed than the Liberals to this fanciful line of thought. Tom Mulcair, presumably to reinforce his credibility on this file, frequently reminds us that he held the Environment portfolio as an MNA in Québec. In a 2013 speech to the Economic Club of Canada Mulcair said in order to ensure Canada’s long-term prosperity an NDP government would, “…invest in modern, clean energy technology that will keep Canada on the cutting edge of energy development and ensure affordable energy rates into the future.” The NDP has always opposed nuclear power so we can be pretty sure the range of investment options Mr. Mulcair is considering is pretty limited.

Mulcair also told the Economic Club audience that, “We will rise to meet our international climate change obligations by creating a cap-and-trade system that puts a clear market price on carbon.” Mr. Trudeau also talks about putting a price on carbon. The revenues generated will presumably be directed to “clean technology” investments so favoured by both leaders, and both are practically champing at the bit for a chance to commit Canada to massive emissions reductions at the Paris COP in December.

As an informed, concerned member of Canada’s electorate I think Mulcair and Trudeau owe voters explicit details about how their vague plans to limit emissions, price carbon, and “invest” in renewables will deliver the low-, or no-carbon robust economy they each promise. I believe that the positions of Liberal advisor Gerald Butts and Leap Manifesto author Naomi Klein are extreme, unaffordable and ultimately counter to the national interest.

So, Mr. Mulcair, Mr. Trudeau, please tell us how much do we need to reduce emissions by, and what will the effect on the global climate be if we make these cuts, bearing in mind that Canada is responsible for less than 2% of world emissions? If the solution is renewables, what is the target proportion of our energy mix for these technologies and what will it cost to achieve? Most forecasts suggest that renewables, including biofuels, will be only 10-20% of the global energy mix by 2050. How will we ensure the global competitiveness of our industries and the financial security of Canadians if they must shoulder additional tax burdens, higher costs for carbon-based fuels, and ongoing subsidies for renewables? We need substantive answers to these questions, and more. Asking voters to take a leap of faith just doesn’t cut it.

Access to affordable, reliable energy delivered the prosperity Canadians enjoy today. How we will maintain that foundation, or at least avoid materially damaging it, is the most important conversation we haven’t had in this election to date. The progressive parties, with their ill-defined plans to “invest in green technology” have provided plenty of reasons for Canadians to be very wary of the future they promise.

Played by the Great Crusader

Canada is now in the midst of a protracted, unusually long federal election. There is hope among many people that this will be prime minister Stephen Harper’s last hurrah, not least the country’s progressives whose animosity toward the Conservative leader has been identified by some pundits as ‘Harper derangement syndrome’ because of the tendency of those afflicted to lay the blame for any problem or issue confronting Canada at Harper’s feet.

In the initial McLean’s leaders’ debate all three of the aspirants hoping to unseat Mr. Harper referenced energy and environmental policy and, more specifically, how dismal, in their view, the Conservative record is in these areas. In today’s world, more often than not, when concern is expressed for the environment it is a proxy for concern over catastrophic anthropogenic global warming – climate change – caused by the burning of carbon-based fuels. Proposed solutions inevitably hinge on a massive reduction, or the outright elimination, of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – something that is now referred to as ‘carbon pollution’ despite carbon dioxide being a colourless, odourless gas essential to virtually all forms of life.

From a policy perspective then, energy and the environment are inextricably bound to one another. We cannot make progress on either front without due consideration of the impacts any proposed policy will have on the corollary issue. It is now commonplace to hear that the world’s, and Canada’s, core objective must be a shift to a low-carbon economy and the solution is to move firmly and rapidly to ‘renewables’.

Renewables today typically means wind, solar and biofuels. Hard-core environmentalists also dislike zero-carbon energy sources such as nuclear and hydro because of the potential contamination risks and waste issues associated with the former, and the impact on local ecosystems implied by the latter. This leaves a pretty limited set of alternatives with which to effect the desired shift away from carbon-based energy sources.

It should be noted that self-described environmentalists have done a great job propagating their views among politicians and the media so that today, what a rational, pragmatic person might consider to be, at a minimum, an outrageously ambitious and likely unachievable solution is now considered to be the way forward.

Faith in renewables has long been a core element of any self-respecting progressive’s thinking on energy and the environment. The icing on the cake is the increasingly espoused idea that shifting to renewables is also the path to a robust and vibrant economy. This notion is almost Orwellian in that it implies that the wealth we enjoy and largely take for granted has been generated despite, rather than because of, carbon-based fuel use.

For Canadian environmental and energy policy this line of thinking has profound implications. The Conservative government under Harper’s direction is accused of having put all of the economy’s eggs in a single basket – oil exploitation. They are further accused of gutting environmental regulation in their haste to turn Canada into an energy superpower. The sitting government is apparently all about fast-tracking risky pipeline projects, permitting waterways to be used as open sewers and allowing oil companies to ride roughshod over Canadian laws and values.

In the debate and in their daily campaign pronouncements, Ms. May, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau toss words like ‘climate’, ‘responsible’, ‘sustainable’, ‘renewable’ and ‘technology’ around like confetti. These are code words intended to convey to voters that these leaders’ thinking is aligned with the widespread progressive view on energy and the environment. Factual data are, however, conspicuously absent.

As with so many aspects of Canadian political, cultural, and economic life, the influence of the United States in this sphere is palpable. U.S. president Barack Obama has clearly made solving the climate problem a legacy project. He has delivered much overheated rhetoric on the subject and taken some deliberate, but arguably symbolic actions. These include signing a ‘landmark’ carbon emissions agreement with China, subsidizing the solar power industry, bringing in tough new regulations for coal-fired power generation and, most critically for Canada, blocking the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline which is intended to move Canadian (and American) oil south to U.S. refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.

Keystone XL is a project of energy giant Trans Canada Corporation and is not fundamentally different from any other pipeline project in North America other than it has been demonized by environmental groups in the U.S. and Canada and become the focal point for the anti-oil movement. The environmental movement in the U.S. has been an important constituency for president Obama and he has quite willingly pandered to their positions on energy and the environment. Doing so has allowed these groups to propagate the idea that oil from Canada’s oil sands is ‘dirty’ and that stopping development of the oil sands is critical to the planet’s survival. The environmental lobby in the U.S. has effectively positioned blocking Keystone XL as a test of Obama’s credibility as a climate crusader and Obama appears to have swallowed not only the bait, but the hook, the line, and the sinker as well.

As a consequence of Obama’s inaction, Canadian oil production has been prevented from getting to market easily and has been forced to sell at a discount. Rail transport has been used as a much riskier and more costly alternative. The obstruction of Keystone XL has also put wind in the sails of opponents of other proposed pipelines, notably Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain projects in B.C., and Enbridge’s Energy East project that will reverse the flow of an existing pipeline and move western oil through Ontario and Quebec to New Brunswick where it will be refined.

Even before the election campaign started in Canada the leaders of the opposition parties made pretty clear that they were much enamoured of Mr. Obama’s positions. Mr. Mulcair opposes the Northern Gateway and Keystone, wants a more rigorous approval process for Trans Mountain, and has waffled furiously trying to appease competing constituencies on Energy East. He likes the idea of “sustainably” refining oil in New Brunswick but has a thorny problem trying to square the need for a pipeline with provincial sentiments to facilitate that. Many people in Quebec, a province critical to the NDP’s electoral hopes, are anti-oil and strongly opposed to reversing the flow of an existing pipeline that runs through the province.

Mr. Trudeau is all over the map but appears to be opposed to Northern Gateway, lukewarm toward Kinder Morgan, supportive of Keystone XL and fuzzy on Energy East, while Ms. May is fundamentally opposed to oil and pipelines, and the oil sands in particular. Mr. Trudeau’s position might be seen as a little cynical; it’s relatively safe to support Keystone XL when you enjoy the comfort of knowing your confrere in the White House is never going to permit it.

These three use concern over the approval process for pipeline projects to bolster their positions on the various proposals in play. According to this trio, the fourteen-year process that the proponents of Northern Gateway have had to navigate is insufficient. For the record, the Joint Review Panel that evaluated the submission determined that the project was in Canada’s best interest and gave conditional approval for the project in December 2013. The National Energy Board (NEB) has said the project can only proceed if all 209 of the conditions catalogued by the Joint Review Panel are met.

That process is ongoing but apparently is not robust enough for progressives. It is hard to fathom what would constitute a sufficiently robust process to satisfy the concerns of these people. It is probably reasonable to suspect they don’t know either, as their objections appear to be based more on emotion than how to resolve particular engineering, safety or social/economic issues. Never mind though, complaining about a gutted environmental regulatory process is sure to be a vote winner among like-minded progressives.

Having been a leading actor in the blocking of Canadian pipeline development, Obama adopted the role of climate change emissary and signed an agreement with China, much heralded by progressives. Under the agreement, Chinese carbon emissions will continue to rise for the next fifteen years until they peak in 2030, when, it is promised, they will begin to decline. For its part, the U.S. must reduce its emissions 28% from 2005 levels by 2025. Due to the substitution of gas for coal in electricity generation and a reduction in energy demand because of the Great Recession, the U.S. has already seen a 10% reduction in its CO2 emissions.

Chinese CO2 emissions are forecast to increase by about 40% over this time frame and, as China is already responsible for around 25% of global emissions, but the U.S. only 15%, the impact of this ‘historic’ agreement will be negligible. Meanwhile, Canada accounts for barely 2% of global emissions, and its oil sands production only 0.12%, but suffers the unchallenged criticism of the great crusader.

U.S. emissions have gone down over the past few years primarily because of abundant natural gas from fracked shale deposits displacing coal for electricity generation, not because of any policy action on the part of the Obama administration. Concurrent with the increase in gas production, oil production in the U.S. has increased by more than 40% during his presidency. Over the same time frame, Canada’s oil production has only increased about 25% and total Canadian production is less than half that of the U.S. Turning a vast area of the lower 48 states into a pin cushion through a massive fracking program that will make the U.S. the world’s largest oil producer gets scant attention, while a dubious agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is lauded as some sort of climate change breakthrough.

The “dirty oil” tag attached to Canadian oil sands product refers to two aspects of its production: the energy intensity and related CO2 emissions of the extraction process and; the physical degradation of local environments as a consequence of mining-type operations. The industry has invested heavily and successfully in technology to reduce energy intensity, and significant effort is put into land reclamation following extraction. The industry also operates under a robust regulatory regime, as do all resource extraction and other heavy industries in Canada.

An interesting analysis by a branch of the International Energy Agency found that emissions related to oil sands production were equivalent to those for extra heavy oil, around 9.3-15.8 gCO2/MJ (grams per megajoule), while for oil shale (fracked oil) the emissions range between 13.0 and 50.0 gCO2/MJ. Fracked wells typically release significant amounts of methane during the well completion process and often flare off large quantities of natural gas (methane) during production because there is no facility to capture, store and transport it. Flaring is preferable to releasing the gas in its raw state from an emissions perspective because methane as a greenhouse gas traps about 25 times the amount of heat that CO2 does. Without even taking into account the strain fracking places on water resources, it’s evident that fracking is a pretty “dirty” undertaking in its own right. Perhaps president Obama might have looked in his own backyard before describing Canadian oil sands production as “extraordinarily dirty”.

The southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, long since approved, built, and put into service, now transports U.S. oil from fracking projects to refineries in Texas. At the same time, pipeline projects to transport fracked gas in the U.S., which will likely displace Canadian natural gas from eastern Canadian and U.S. markets, are moving ahead. The latest move by the president has been to approve exploratory drilling off the coast of Alaska which upsets environmentalists but which Obama defends in terms of balancing economic and environmental interests. Apparently, Canadians are to be discouraged from seeking a similar balance and encouraged to castigate those who advocate such plans.

The president’s other climate initiatives have not exactly produced stellar results. The Obama administration’s $80 billion clean technology program was tarnished when flagship solar panel maker Solyndra, the recipient of a $500 million federal loan guarantee, went bankrupt. An electric-car battery plant that received $250 million also filed for bankruptcy.

In 2014, renewables accounted for 9.8% of U.S. energy consumption but much of that energy was supplied by hydro-electricity generation, and the burning of wood and waste, as well as liquid biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, rather than from wind and solar generation. That’s up from around 6.23% of total consumption since 2005, an increase of 54% but, at the same time, overall energy use has declined 2% so the gain is less than it appears. Carbon-based fuel consumption has declined about 6% but overall energy use from all sources has only declined 2%. Energy consumption fell dramatically in 2009 because of the recession and has been slowly rebounding since. Liquid biofuels are also questionable in terms of net benefits as they are energy intensive to produce and remove agricultural resources from food production.

So, does this represent a dramatic shift away from carbon-based fuels and toward renewables, to a low-carbon economy? In a word, no. Solar and wind projects in the U.S., as in jurisdictions like Ontario, Germany, or other European countries, are directly subsidized by government. Without those subsidies investment in these wholly inadequate technologies would disappear. Unlike the ‘subsidies’ that progressives believe are enjoyed by the carbon-based fuel industry, these are real cash transfers, not imputed social and environmental costs based on scenarios of cataclysmic events that progressives are convinced will happen if we don’t stop using carbon based fuels forthwith. And nor are they capital cost allowances that all businesses receive when they invest in new equipment or other means of production. One wonders, when they do their math, do they ever look at the other side of the balance sheet and consider the almost inestimable contribution carbon fuels have made to the developed world’s health, wealth and general quality of life? When your outlook is as gloomy as most progressives’, probably not. The world will be run on carbon-based fuels for decades to come. As Mr. Harper has noted, switching to a low-carbon economy is a long-term endeavour and will require “serious technological transformation” – carpeting the planet with solar panels or creating forests of windmills won’t cut it.

The progressive trio of Mulcair, Trudeau, and May have all publicly expressed a wish to leap aboard the climate change bandwagon in Paris at the upcoming 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) in December and commit Canada to an agreement that will align its environmental and energy policies with those of the ‘enlightened’ countries of the world, including the U.S. under Obama. Much of their motivation seems to come from a desire to rid Canada of its shame at having been such an unwilling, uncommitted participant at past COPs. This eagerness betrays the frightening reality that these three, and their legions of progressive followers, have been played.

Masquerading as an environmental crusader, Obama has effectively pursued a protectionist policy that has negatively impacted the Canadian economy and severely strained a long-standing and valuable relationship. His obstructionist behaviour goes against the grain of fair-trading and probably violates NAFTA. He has subtly, but also openly, maligned the Canadian government over its handling of the environment portfolio yet there is little in his own record to crow about. But, that’s Obama, if overheated rhetoric, verbal contortions, and hubris were the principal measures of national leadership, rather than material accomplishments, his two-term presidency would be the yardstick against which the records of past and future presidents would be measured.

Let’s check the scorecard. Under Obama, the U.S. has massively increased its oil production through fracking, a “dirty” process if we accept progressive nomenclature. In addition it has entered into an agreement with the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China, that gives license to unfettered Chinese emissions for at least fifteen years. One leg of a single pipeline project, Keystone XL, has been obstructed preventing Canadian oil from getting to market easily. Approval may be granted, according to Obama, if Canada tightens up its management of its oil sands and makes its “dirty oil” cleaner, even though Canadian oil sands emissions are but 1/10th of 1% of the world total while Chinese and U.S. emissions are 40+%. U.S. CO2 emissions have declined modestly, largely due to cheap fracked gas substituting for coal in electricity generation and because of the lingering impacts of the Great Recession on demand for energy. Shell has been given a green light to start exploratory drilling off the Alaskan coast and renewables, through cash subsidies, have managed to deliver a small, insignificant share of overall energy consumption.

Canada, meanwhile, has had to trade its oil at a discount, has seen rising opposition to new pipeline and energy projects in part because of the influence of opinion makers like Obama, has had to ship much of its oil by rail, a riskier, more energy-, and emissions-intensive means of transport, and has seen its reputation tarred by progressive activists both within and without its borders. Through all of this, Canada’s federal government has pushed for fair treatment of its energy industry by its largest trading partner and principal international ally, waited patiently for the regulatory process to finally deliver approval for energy projects, eased out of the hopeless Kyoto accord that the U.S. never signed on to, and tried to defend its positions against a rising cacophony from agitated and largely irrational, or at least unthinking and poorly informed, progressives.

The teaching moment that Obama provides for progressives in Canada is that enlightened self-interest is more important than heart-felt but unrealizable dreams about a buzzword-laden, oil and pipeline-free future. Stephen Harper has managed the environment and energy files masterfully. His singular failing has been his inability to articulate and explain his actions; something not easily done when you are swimming against an absolute torrent of adverse opinion. He is almost the polar opposite of Obama, whose ability to gain traction arguing that black is white, or up is down, is nothing, if not remarkable. It is a sad prospect that the leadership alternatives in this country can be so easily played and cannot readily identify what is in the national interest.

Small Beer – Climate Change Alarm Hits a New Low Over a ‘Record High’

After months of anticipation the global warming alarmist community dolefully (gleefully?) reported that a new record high annual average surface temperature for the globe was observed in 2014. According to the believers, this new milestone in global average temperature was a record in the modern period, i.e., since 1880, and more evidence, as if any were needed, of the inexorable rise of the earth’s temperature due to human activity.

Whenever some hapless doubter, after a cool summer or a frigid winter, dares to query the legitimacy of the whole anthropogenic climate change theory, they are immediately advised that such variation is “just weather.” For example, in the winter of 2013-14 ice cover in the Great Lakes at 88.3% was the fourth highest it has been since 1973 and not far off the record of 94.7% set in 1979, according to Environment Canada. That agency was quick to note that:

A season of unusually cold weather in the Great Lakes basin is not a sign that the century long trend of rising temperatures has reversed. In fact, while Canada and the eastern U.S. froze at times this winter, many locations including Alaska and Europe, were experiencing unseasonably warm temperatures.

Fair enough, and great to see the scientists at Environment Canada were able to slip the muzzle long enough to get that comment published on their website.

With this perspective in mind, we must surely be able to assume that the new record global average temperature is not merely some variation due to weather, but a troubling shift in an already unsettling trend. The new record was announced by both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in the US.

According to the NOAA website the global average surface temperature (land areas and oceans combined) was 0.02ºC above the previous high recorded in 2005 and 2010. That’s right, 2/100ths of a degree warmer. Their error bounds are multiples of that value which means this result is not statistically significant, i.e., 2014 was not meaningfully different from 2005 or 2010 and the change could simply be due to accumulated errors in the reporting and calculation of the value. But, it’s a new record, and it supports the scary narrative so, hey, let’s get it out there.

NASA, on its website, noted:

The 10 warmest years in the instrumental record, with the exception of 1998, have now occurred since 2000. This trend continues a long-term warming of the planet, according to an analysis of surface temperature measurements by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) in New York.

That statement, while factually correct, is a little misleading. Depending on your start and end points, you may get a long-term warming trend, or no trend at all. As NASA observes, the ten warmest years in the modern temperature record, with the exception of 1998, have occurred since 2000. But since at least 2000 there has been no trend, as this latest result confirms. Global average temperature has not risen for over a decade, no matter the spin put on the observational record by these agencies.

Meanwhile, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere since 2007 has risen from an average of about 370 parts per million (ppm) to around 400 ppm, an increase of approximately 8% and still rising. The climate change models, which give dimension to the ‘threat’ posed by the ever-increasing level of CO2 and are critical to the narrative, all over-estimate the temperature response to that rise. This probably explains in part, the eagerness with which this new ‘record’ was released. Without a meaningful increase in temperature soon, support for the entire enterprise might begin to wane as the discrepancy between actual temperatures and forecast temperatures increases. Already, the gap raises serious questions about the validity and usefulness of the models and that introduces a lot of uncertainty about what an appropriate policy response looks like.

To its credit, NOAA also reports that while the surface temperature observations remain high (a 2/100ths of a degree record, let’s not forget) the satellite measurements of atmospheric temperature did not deliver a similar result. There are two main analytical datasets used to assess satellite measurements, one produced by the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and another produced by Remote Sensing Systems (RSS). They use slightly different methods and so UAH found that 2014 was the third warmest year for the lower- and mid-troposphere and RSS found it was the sixth warmest for the same atmospheric zones. UAH measurements extend from 1979 forward and RSS’s extend from 1981. Both found that 2014 average temperature in the stratosphere was the 13th warmest since satellite measurement began.

According to NOAA:

The stratospheric temperature is decreasing on average while the lower and middle troposphere temperatures are increasing on average, consistent with expectations in a greenhouse-warmed world.

Well, maybe, but what is missing from that statement is NOAA’s own uncertainty with respect to temperature changes in the stratosphere. NOAA is a participant in an ongoing study of stratospheric temperature that hopes to resolve unexpected results from the analysis of satellite temperature observations. On their website they reference an article, “The mystery of recent stratospheric temperature trends”, published in Nature in 2012, the abstract of which reads as follows:

A new data set of middle- and upper-stratospheric temperatures based on reprocessing of satellite radiances provides a view of stratospheric climate change during the period 1979–2005 that is strikingly different from that provided by earlier data sets. The new data call into question our understanding of observed stratospheric temperature trends and our ability to test simulations of the stratospheric response to emissions of greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting substances. Here we highlight the important issues raised by the new data and suggest how the climate science community can resolve them.

The “mystery” referenced in the title of the Nature article is that from about 1995 forward there is no trend – not up or down, just flat and strangely similar to surface temperature results over roughly the same period. Not so cut and dried then, but certainly something worth exploring. Perhaps someone at NOAA should brief the PR team.

Finally, it’s also interesting to consider NOAA’s comments on sea ice extent. Rapidly melting polar sea ice is a much-vaunted marker of a warming planet.

Recent polar sea ice extent trends continued in 2014. The average annual sea ice extent in the Arctic was 10.99 million square miles, the sixth smallest annual value of the 36-year period of record. The annual Antarctic sea ice extent was record large for the second consecutive year, at 13.08 million square miles.

Seems odd that you’d lead with the “sixth smallest” and wind up with “record large” considering that the record Antarctic sea ice extent in 2014 was more than two standard deviations from the mean – statistically very significant – while a 2/100ths of a degree change in surface temperature – which most assuredly is not statistically significant – is worthy of a global press release.

The 2014 temperature ‘record’ is pretty small beer, but sufficient it seems to keep the whole climate change juggernaut rolling.