Arquivo mensal: julho 2011

Biased but Brilliant (N.Y. Times)

GRAY MATTER
Biased but Brilliant

By CORDELIA FINE
Published: July 30, 2011

Cordelia Fine, a senior research associate at the Melbourne Business School, is the author of “A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives.”

HOW’S this for a cynical view of science? “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Scientific truth, according to this view, is established less by the noble use of reason than by the stubborn exertion of will. One hopes that the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck, the author of the quotation above, was writing in an unusually dark moment.

And yet a large body of psychological data supports Planck’s view: we humans quickly develop an irrational loyalty to our beliefs, and work hard to find evidence that supports those opinions and to discredit, discount or avoid information that does not. In a classic psychology experiment, people for and against the death penalty were asked to evaluate the different research designs of two studies of its deterrent effect on crime. One study showed that the death penalty was an effective deterrent; the other showed that it was not. Which of the two research designs the participants deemed the most scientifically valid depended mostly on whether the study supported their views on the death penalty.

In the laboratory, this is labeled confirmation bias; observed in the real world, it’s known as pigheadedness.

Scientists are not immune. In another experiment, psychologists were asked to review a paper submitted for journal publication in their field. They rated the paper’s methodology, data presentation and scientific contribution significantly more favorably when the paper happened to offer results consistent with their own theoretical stance. Identical research methods prompted a very different response in those whose scientific opinion was challenged.

This is a worry. Doesn’t the ideal of scientific reasoning call for pure, dispassionate curiosity? Doesn’t it positively shun the ego-driven desire to prevail over our critics and the prejudicial urge to support our social values (like opposition to the death penalty)?

Perhaps not. Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Let’s take pigheadedness first. In a much discussed article this year in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that our reasoning skills are really not as dismal as they seem. They don’t deny that irrationalities like the confirmation bias are common. Instead, they suggest that we stop thinking of the primary function of reasoning as being to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Reasoning, they claim, is for winning arguments. And an irrational tendency like pigheadedness can be quite an asset in an argumentative context. A engages with B and proposes X. B disagrees and counters with Y. Reverse roles, repeat as desired — and what in the old days we might have mistaken for an exercise in stubbornness turns out instead to be a highly efficient “division of cognitive labor” with A specializing in the pros, B in the cons.

It’s salvation of a kind: our apparently irrational quirks start to make sense when we think of reasoning as serving the purpose of persuading others to accept our point of view. And by way of positive side effect, these heated social interactions, when they occur within a scientific community, can lead to the discovery of the truth.

And what about scientists’ prejudices? Clearly, social values should never count as evidence for or against a particular hypothesis — abhorrence of the death penalty does not count as data against its crime-deterrent effects. However, the philosopher of science Heather Douglas has argued that social values can safely play an indirect role in scientific reasoning. Consider: The greater we judge the social costs of a potential scientific error, the higher the standard of evidence we will demand. Professor A, for example, may be troubled by the thought of an incorrect discovery that current levels of a carcinogen in the water are safe, fearing the “discovery” will cost lives. But Professor B may be more anxious about the possibility of an erroneous conclusion that levels are unsafe, which would lead to public panic and expensive and unnecessary regulation.

Both professors may scrutinize a research paper with these different costs of error implicitly in mind. If the paper looked at cancer rates in rats, did the criteria it used to identify the presence of cancer favor over- or under-diagnosis? Did the paper assume a threshold of exposure below which there is no cause for concern, or did it assume that any level of exposure increases risk? Deciding which are the “better” criteria or the “better” background assumptions is not, Ms. Douglas argues, solely a scientific issue. It also depends on the social values you bring to bear on the research. So when Professor A concludes that a research study is excellent, while Professor B declares it seriously mistaken, it may be that neither is irrationally inflating or discounting the strength of the evidence; rather, each is tending to a different social concern.

Science often makes important contributions to debates that involve clashes of social values, like the protection of public health versus the protection of private industry from overregulation. Yet Ms. Douglas suggests that, with social values denied any legitimate role in scientific reasoning, “debates often dance around these issues, attempting to hide them behind debates about the interpretation of data.” Professors A and B are left with no other option but to conclude that the other is a stubborn, pigheaded excuse for a scientist.

For all its imperfections, science continues to be a stunning success. Yet maybe progress would be even faster and smoother if scientists would admit, and even embrace, their humanity.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 31, 2011, on page SR12 of the New York edition with the headline: Biased But Brilliant.

Anúncios

Elite brasileira mostra sua cara (Brasil de Fato)

Essa burguesia nos mostra que as necessidades históricas do povo brasileiro somente serão conquistadas com luta, mobilização e unidade

27/07/2011 – Editorial da ed. 439 do Brasil de Fato

“Há casos folclóricos nos hangares do Campo de Marte. Como o da milionária que mandou o cão para o veterinário de helicóptero. Dona da aeronave, ela estava em Maresias (litoral norte) e viu o cãozinho comer a marmita de seu segurança. Ela mandou o piloto voltar imediatamente a São Paulo para fazer exames no pet”, relata um piloto, que pede para não ser identificado.

Acredite. O trecho acima foi extraída da coluna de Eliane Trindade, publicado na Folha de S. Paulo, sob o título: “Helicóptero é usado para ir à balada e ao pet shop”.

Esse fato mostra a absoluta falta de escrúpulos dos poucos privilegiados do nosso país e demonstra mais uma vez o caráter e a natureza da elite brasileira. “Pensei que a história da dona Vera Loyola, há uns quatro anos, ter enviado seu cãozinho para o cabeleireiro de helicóptero e, em seguida, explicado aos jornalistas que o fez “porque o Rio é uma cidade muito violenta” fosse o ‘top de linha’ do escárnio”, diz o jornalista Alipio Freire. No entanto, segundo ele, a cada dia, a elite brasileira – a burguesia no Brasil – mostra sua face de absoluto desprezo e de humilhação contra aqueles aos quais passou a se referir como PPPs (Pretos, Pobres e da Periferia).

Essa notícia só reforça uma característica de parte do Brasil e uma herança maldita: uma burguesia com a cabeça colonizada, saudosa dos tempos da nobreza, realeza. Nossa memória não precisa ser muito estimulada para recordarmos do cão com coleira de diamantes de uma tal socialite, seguido de afirmações de que tal animal era provido de tanta doçura que o feito era pouco. Essa elite, consumista, não se importa de passar o ridículo por algo desta natureza. É a reafirmação de que é uma elite ignorante, colonizada, subserviente, babona, que sonha com o dia em que o Brasil será uma mistura dos paraísos europeus e estadunidense. Dizem que essa mamãe do cão pediu ajuda gritando “help”. E uma coincidência: a opulência sempre combinada com segurança, mal pagos, mal tratados, a ponto de ter uma quentinha que poderia fazer mal para o pobre cão.

SOS burguesia

A segurança é o principal problema do pais, dirá essa “nobreza” deslocada no tempo e espaço. E claro, clamam por polícia, mais investimento em segurança, mais leis, mais rigor, repressão. Afinal, querem copiar o país que tem mais de 1% da sua população encarcerada (EUA). E claro, entre eles há quem bem explore esse clamor. A título de exemplo, a cidade de São Paulo é uma das três maiores consumidoras de carro blindado, a frente de países com guerra civil e conflitos abertos. Se somarmos o crescimento da frota de helicópteros, que na mesma comparação a capital paulista fica entre as cinco metrópoles do mundo em tamanho de frota e volume de voos diários, chegando ao absurdo de ter um bairro – Moema – com mais heliportos do que pontos de ônibus. Patrão por cima, empregados por baixo e filhos no cofre motorizado (blindados). Eis o Brasil desenhado por eles.

Outra imagem simbólica disso são as casas fortificadas, condomínios parecidos com fortalezas da idade média. E o resultado? Segue a insegurança. Propõem com seus meios de comunicação, parlamentares, prefeitos, etc. o aumento dos orçamentos para segurança. Querem o exército nas ruas, tropas, tropas! Recrutam milhares de jovens para trabalhar como seguranças privados, num trabalho de tamanho risco que um dos “benefícios” oferecidos por algumas empresas é auxilio funeral. Um atestado de crueldade. Trabalhadores mal remunerados, obrigados a ter outros bicos, com estímulos econômicos para o uso da “valentia” para evitar assaltos não raras vezes resultando em mortes ou ferimentos graves. Mas se sobrevive, ganha prêmio. Alguns bancos chegam a pagar extra para o segurança que reage e consegue conter um assalto.

Essa mesma elite, em pânico e bradando por mais segurança e mais rigor nas leis, é a mesma que luta contra qualquer mudança que garanta e amplie direitos sociais, mudanças que alterem a concentração de renda, que o povo tenha acesso a programas de combate à pobreza e à miséria, dentre outros. Sempre com um discurso pronto para qualquer intervenção do Estado (quando em benefício do povo): “dar o peixe não resolve”. Cínica, prefere a cadeia à moradia, o trabalho informal, e sempre usando o argumento de que chegou onde chegou por mérito, muito esforço e toda essa velha história do empreendedor. Só esquece de dizer que cresceu e se fez pagando injustamente, com mais da metade dos trabalhadores sem direitos e na informalidade, não aceitando sequer a igualdade de direitos dos trabalhadores domésticos com os demais trabalhadores.

Contradição ou coerência?

Nem mesmo os poucos avanços obtidos com a Constituição Federal depois de muita luta são respeitados, como demonstramos em edições anteriores do Brasil de Fato. As bandeiras do povo, tais como a redução da jornada de trabalho sem redução de salários, o fim do fator previdenciário, resgatar o direito de greve, são bandeiras que essa elite reage com veemência.

Portanto, conhecer melhor os inimigos do povo é um desafio para compreender que essa burguesia só se submete com luta, se forçada pela pressão das massas e do povo organizado. Nada virá de negociações ou concessão.

Essa postura das elites brasileiras, que gasta mais com a alimentação de um cão do que de um trabalhador, que usurpa os recursos públicos, que exige mais recursos do Estado para a (sua) segurança, é a mesma de sempre na defesa de seus privilégios. E, assim, age coerente na recusa dos direitos sociais, contrária à distribuição de renda, aos programas sociais, às políticas públicas e tudo o que pode democratizar o acesso à habitação para todos, como terra para quem trabalha, apoio aos pequenos (campo e cidade), o acesso à educação superior, dentre outros.

Essa é uma característica dessa burguesia. Que prefere integrar -se de forma subordinada à burguesia mundial a ter projeto próprio de nação. Por lucro, passam por cima de tudo, inclusive de qualquer democracia. Essa burguesia nos mostra que as necessidades históricas do povo brasileiro somente serão conquistadas com luta, mobilização e unidade. Assim, quiçá, avancemos rumo à construção de um projeto popular para o Brasil.

Noruega ensina que racismo não pode ser visto como folclore (Terra Magazine)

Marcelo Semer
De São Paulo
QUARTA, 27 DE JULHO DE 2011, 08H13

Se existe algo que o massacre na Noruega pode nos ensinar é que racismo, machismo e xenofobia não devem ser tratados como mero folclore.

Entre as palavras e as ações há um longo caminho, mas sempre pode existir alguém disposto a percorrê-lo.

Sarah Palin, candidata republicana a vice-presidente e musa do ultra-conservador Tea Party, dizia que a deputada democrata Gabrielle Giffords era um dos “alvos a serem abatidos” na política norte-americana.

Tratava-se de uma metáfora, mas um atirador em Arizona, a levou ao pé da letra. A tentativa de abater o alvo, uma das vozes contra a política hostil aos imigrantes, resultou em seis mortes em janeiro último, na cidade de Tucson.

Não há hoje quem não tema as possíveis consequências políticas de uma Europa economicamente em frangalhos -a lembrança da mistura depressão-fascismo do século XX ainda é suficientemente viva para suscitar este temor. Mas parece não ser o bastante para afastar a xenofobia, agora focada na repulsa ao Islã e a imigrantes que vem da África e Ásia.

A recente era da globalização só funcionou enquanto serviu como uma segunda colonização.

Os países periféricos foram instados a abrir seus mercados, homogeneizar suas normas, privatizar e internacionalizar suas empresas estratégicas, criando mercados alternativos ao já saturados no hemisfério norte.

Mas o mundo tornou-se global apenas em uma direção, pois as fronteiras voltaram a se fechar de forma ainda mais vigorosa, com a construção de grandes muros e o recrudescimento das leis de imigração – imigração esta que em outros tempos supriu com mão de obra barata, serviços que nacionais se recusavam a cumprir.

Pouco se pode fazer, é verdade, para impedir de todo ações repentinas de vingadores que se sentem representantes de uma nova cruzada, propondo salvar o mundo com toscas visões.

Mas estimular o discurso do ódio certamente não é uma delas.

O alarmismo com a fé diversa, o maltrato com o forasteiro e o diferente, o apego extremado a valores moralistas, são o caldo de cultura próprio para gerar ações excludentes, que tanto podem reverter em atentados quanto desembocar em políticas de Estado. Afinal, o que pode ser mais terrorista que o Holocausto?

Se a história se repete, como profetizava Marx, o receio é que nos abata mais uma vez como tragédia. Parafraseando Martin Luther King, parece ser o caso de nos preocuparmos tanto com o silêncio dos bons, quanto com o grito dos maus, este cada vez mais ensurdecedor.

O Brasil não vive o momento depressivo que se espalha pela Europa e Estados Unidos, fruto dos desvarios neoliberais, que maximizaram os mercados e o lucro e minimizaram as regulações.

Ao revés, vive anos de crescimento que resultaram em inesperada mobilidade social, mas isto também é motivo para cautela.

À incorporação de direitos civis a grupos minoritários, como homossexuais, instaurou-se uma brigada da moral, com forte apelo religioso. À incorporação ao mercado consumidor de uma classe emergente, recém-saída da linha de pobreza, levantou-se reação de quem se sente invadido em espaços até então exclusivos, entre faixas de automóveis e assentos de aviões. Ao pujante crescimento do Nordeste, esboça-se uma xenofobia de cunho separatista.

Aqui, como na Europa, devemos temer, sobretudo, aos que se propõe a nos higienizar ou recuperar valores tradicionais, que apenas remontam a mais exclusão.

O antídoto ao fascismo é o exercício da democracia e a preservação da dignidade humana como vetor de políticas sociais.

Só se abate o preconceito acreditando na igualdade.

Marcelo Semer é Juiz de Direito em São Paulo. Foi presidente da Associação Juízes para a Democracia. Coordenador de “Direitos Humanos: essência do Direito do Trabalho” (LTr) e autor de “Crime Impossível” (Malheiros) e do romance “Certas Canções” (7 Letras). Responsável pelo Blog Sem Juízo

Climate Chaos (Against the Grain)

Tues 6.28.11| Climate Chaos

Christian Parenti speaking at a KPFA benefit on July 14th, on Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, Nation Books, 2011

Listen to this Program here.

Download program audio (mp3, 49.82 Mbytes)

Residents of the Global North may be justly wringing their hands about flooding, droughts, and freak weather, but the most worrying effects of climate change are expected to hit the countries of the Global South, especially those in the broad regions on either side of the equator. Christian Parenti has reported from that vast area and discusses the shape that climate-related social dislocation is already taking, as well as the militarized plans of the rich countries to keep poor climate refugees out.

© Against the Grain, a program of KPFA Radio, 94.1fm Berkeley CA and online at KPFA.org.

I am, therefore I’m right (Christian Science Monitor)

By Jim Sollisch / July 29, 2011

If you’ve ever been on a jury, you might have noticed that a funny thing happens the minute you get behind closed doors. Everybody starts talking about themselves. They say what they would have done if they had been the plaintiff or the defendant. They bring up anecdote after anecdote. It can take hours to get back to the points of law that the judge has instructed you to consider.

Being on a jury (I recently served on my fourth) reminds me why I can’t stomach talk radio. We Americans seem to have lost the ability to talk about anything but our own experiences. We can’t seem to generalize without stereotyping or to consider evidence that goes against our own experience.

I heard a doctor on a radio show the other day talking about a study that found that exercise reduces the incidence of Alzheimer’s. And caller after caller couldn’t wait to make essentially the opposite point: “Well, my grandmother never exercised and she lived to 95, sharp as a tack.” We are in an age summed up by the aphorism: “I experience, therefore I’m right.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon, except by degree. Historically, the hallmarks of an uneducated person were the lack of ability to think critically, to use deductive reasoning, to distinguish the personal from the universal. Now that seems an apt description of many Americans. The culture of “I” is everywhere you look, from the iPod/iPhone/iPad to the fact that memoir is the fastest growing literary genre.

How’d we get here? The same way we seem to get everywhere today: the Internet. The Internet has allowed us to segregate ourselves based on our interests. All cat lovers over here. All people who believe President Obama wasn’t born in the United States over there. For many of us, what we believe has become the most important organizing element in our lives. Once we all had common media experiences: Walter Cronkite, Ed Sullivan, a large daily newspaper. Now each of us can create a personal media network – call it the iNetwork – fed by the RSS feeds of our choosing.

But the Internet doesn’t just cordon us off in our own little pods. It also makes us dumber, as Nicholas Carr points out in his excellent book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.” He argues that the way we consume media changes our brains, not just our behaviors. The Internet rewards shallow thinking: One search leads to thousands of results that skim over the surface of a subject.

Of course, we could dive deeply into any one of the listings, but we don’t. Studies show that people skim on line, they don’t read. The experience has been designed to reward speed and variety, not depth. And there is tangible evidence, based on studies of brain scans, that the medium is changing our physical brains, strengthening the synapses and areas used for referential thinking while weakening the areas used for critical thinking.

And when we diminish our ability to think critically, we, in essence, become less educated. Less capable of reflection and meaningful conversation. Our experience, reinforced by a web of other gut instincts and experiences that match our own, becomes evidence. Case in point: the polarization of our politics. Exhibit A: the debt ceiling impasse.

Ironically, the same medium that helped mobilize people in the Arab world this spring is helping create a more rigid, dysfunctional democracy here: one that’s increasingly polarized, where each side is isolated and capable only of sound bites that skim the surface, a culture where deep reasoning and critical thinking aren’t rewarded.

The challenge for most of us isn’t to go backwards: We can’t disconnect from the Internet. Nor would we want to. But we can work harder to make “search” the metaphor it once was: to discover, not just to skim. The Internet lets us find facts in an instant. But it doesn’t stop us from finding insight, if we’re willing to really search.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

She’s Alive… Beautiful… Finite… Hurting… Worth Dying for.

This is a non-commercial attempt to highlight the fact that world leaders, irresponsible corporates and mindless ‘consumers’ are combining to destroy life on earth. It is dedicated to all who died fighting for the planet and those whose lives are on the line today. The cut was put together by Vivek Chauhan, a young film maker, together with naturalists working with the Sanctuary Asia network (www.sanctuaryasia.com).

Dancing, Climate Change, and Human Perseverence

Posted by Douglas Joseph La Rose at the EANTH list. 23/07/2011 12:20

“This Wednesday, I had one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I went to a small village in the Upper West Region of Ghana named Bakbamba to help conduct research on climate change and social-cultural adaptations to a changing environment. I have been doing this work for a few weeks now, beginning in coastal eastern Ghana and moving north. But what I experienced today was a life-changing experience. I will do my best to convey my feelings here, but no words would ever be ample to describe the emotion, compassion, and appreciation I felt in this community.

The Upper West Region of Ghana is the poorest region in the country. Outside of the regional capital, Wa, there is really nothing else but vast savanna covered with Shea and baobab trees. The people are primarily subsistence farmers and fishers. The farmers plant guinea corn, maize, yams, beans, bambara beans, millet, groundnuts, and some other crops. Fishers set traps and mobilize nets in the black Volta river that separates Ghana from Burkina Faso. Women also gather Shea nuts and sell them to foreign buyers who process them into cosmetics and edibles. Over the past ten years, rainfall has become sporadic, inconsistent, unpredictable, and unreliable. In these Wala, Fulani, and Lobi communities that have been surviving for centuries, people are beginning to give up and move out. They are suffering from observable climate change and often becoming climate change refugees.

In the course of doing interviews with rural farmers, fishers, and gatherers I heard many stories about failed crops, declining catches in fish, and even lack of fruits from Shea trees, which have been a productive alternative economic resource for decades. Their story is a bleak one. Most crops fail and the only foods Wala and Lobi people can depend on are fish and maize, which takes three months to grow and can be opportunistically planted. Though they plant other crops, many of them are failing because rains are becoming increasingly unpredictable and deluges and floods more common. There is no source of potable water, so people in the village drink from stagnant, muddy ponds. Guinea worm is still a widespread problem. There is no other option. Most of the people we were able to interview were only in their 30s and 40s – because that is about as old as they live. In this village of 300 people, 20 have already died this year. One particular woman I interviewed was 30 years old, but she looked like she was 60. Poor nutrition, hard work, and no access to clean water are taking their toll.

At the end of the day, the women in the town gathered in a circle and began a traditional dance. The women around the circle were clapping poly-rhythmically and singing with beautifully sculpted, angelic voices. I watched as, one by one, the women would enter the circle and do an energetic, stomping dance. At the end of the dance they would throw themselves into the surrounding circle and be caught by the other women. This went on for almost 45 minutes. I asked one of our local research assistants what they were singing and he explained that the dance was about a fighting couple, and they were saying that if the husband no longer loved the wife he should leave her. The women who were catching each other represented the community. “We should support each other,” a woman told me. I sat down and watched the dance, how the women were moving around in passionate whirls, heaving themselves into the boundaries of the circle to be caught by other community members. In this poor village of hunger, desperation, and confusion about a changing environment they were finding the energy to remember and celebrate the perseverance of the human spirit. It was an overwhelming experience to watch frustration and unity translated into cultural performance.

Throughout our interviews and participation in the community, I felt both alarmed and reassured. Alarmed that the situation in this part of upper Ghana is much worse than I expected, and reassured that people are forging ways to adapt.”

Why Global Warming Slowed in the 2000’s: Another Possible Explanation (Climate Central)

Published: July 21st, 2011
By Michael D. Lemonick

The world is getting progressively warmer, and the vast majority of evidence points to greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere by humans — carbon dioxide (CO2), especially — as the main culprit. But while the buildup of greenhouse gases has been steadily increasing, the warming goes in fits and starts. From one year to the next it might get a little warmer or a lot warmer, or even cooler.

That’s because greenhouse gases aren’t the whole story. Natural variations in sunlight and ocean currents; concentrations of particles in the air, manmade and otherwise; and even plain old weather variations can speed the warming up or slow it down, even as the underlying temperature trend continues upward. And while none of those factors is likely to change that trend over the long haul, scientists really want to understand how they affect projections of where our climate is heading.

The latest attempt to do so just appeared in Science Express, the online counterpart of the journal Science, where a team of climate scientists is reporting on their investigations of airborne particles, or aerosols, in the stratosphere. It’s well known, says co-author John Daniel, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., that these particles have a cooling effect, since they reflect sunlight that would otherwise warm the planet.

Mt. Pinatubo’s erruption in the Philippines, in 1991. Credit: USGS.

It’s also well known that major volcanic eruptions, like Mt. Pinatubo’s in the Philippines in 1991, can pump lots of aerosols into the stratosphere — and indeed, Pinatubo alone temporarily cooled the planet for about two years. The explosion of Mt. Tambora in 1815 had even more catastrophic effects, which you can imagine given that 1816 came to be known as “the year without a summer.” But what lots of people thought, says Daniel, “is that since there haven’t been any eruptions on that scale recently, aerosols have become relatively unimportant for climate.”

That, says the study, is not true: even without major eruptions, aerosols in the stratosphere increased by about 7 percent per year from 2000 to 2010. Plug that figure into climate models, and they predict a reduction in the warming you’d otherwise expect from the rise in greenhouse gases by up to 20 percent.

In the real world, as it happens, the rise in temperature slowed during that same decade. “That,” says Daniel, “was the motivation for doing this research. It could have just been natural climate variability, but we wondered if it could be something else.” Some climate scientists attribute the slowdown to heat being temporarily stored in the deep oceans, but stratospheric aerosols could clearly be part of the answer as well.

Whether these aerosols are natural or manmade, however, is something the scientists didn’t address. Just last week, a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggested the cause was a construction boom of coal-fired power plants in China over the same decade. The new study doesn’t necessarily contradict that. “Human emissions could play a role,” says Daniel, although the PNAS study was talking about aerosols in the lower atmosphere, not the stratosphere. “But even in the absences of colossal volcanic eruptions,” he says, “smaller eruptions could still add up.”

The other difference between the two studies is that the one from last week looked at the relatively slow temperature rise over the most recent decade and tried to tease out what might have changed since the previous decades, when the warming was faster. The new one took actual observations of aerosols and tried to predict what the temperature rise should be. That sort of approach tends to produce more credible results, since an incorrect prediction would stick out like a sore thumb.

Where the two studies emphatically agree is that if the level of aerosols goes down — due to a lull in eruptions, or a reduction in coal-plant pollution, or both — the pace of warming would likely pick up. That would mean that current projections for up to a 4.5°C increase in global average surface temperatures by the end of the century might turn out to be an underestimate. And if aerosol levels increase, the temperature in 2100 could be lower than everyone expects.

80 Percent of World Climate Data Are Not Computerized and Readily Available (Science Daily)

Science News

ScienceDaily (July 20, 2011) — In order to gain a better knowledge of climate variations, such as those caused by global warming, and be able to tackle them, we need to understand what happened in the recent past. This is the conclusion of a research study led by the Rovira i Virgili University (URV), which shows that the scientific community today is only able to access and analyse 20% of the recorded climate information held. The remaining data are not accessible in digital format.

Some climate data in Europe go back to the 17th Century, but “not even 20% of the information recorded in the past is available to the scientific community,” Manola Brunet, lead author of the study and a researcher at the URV’s Centre for Climate Change, said.

This situation is even worse in continents such as Africa and South America, where weather observations did not begin until the middle of the 19th Century. These are the results of a study published in Climate Research, which highlights the need to urgently recover all the information recorded in perishable formats.

“Failure to decipher the messages in the climate records of the past will result in socioeconomic problems, because we will be unable to deal with the current and future impacts of climate change and a hotter world,” says Brunet.

Spain, along with the USA, Canada, Holland and Norway, is one of a small number of countries which allows partial access to its historic climate data. The rest of the world does not make these data available to the scientific community or the general public, despite recommendations to this effect by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

In order to overcome the political and legal hurdles posed by this currently poor access, “governments should adopt a resolution within the United Nations on opening up their historical climate data,” the researcher suggests.

Predicting heat waves

Weather services in all countries are faced with the overwhelming job of converting all their paper-based historical climate information, which is stored in archives, libraries and research centres, into digital format. The wide range of forms in which the information is held makes access harder, as do the purposes for which the meteorological service itself was actually created.

“The main objective is to provide a weather service to public, who want to know what the weather will be like the next day,” explains Brunet. This has led to climate science (which studies the range of atmospheric conditions characterising a region rather than focusing on weather forecasting) becoming the great ‘victim’, receiving fewer funds with which to digitise, develop and standardise data.

However, climate services do play a significant role in some European countries, the United States and Canada. It was these services that were able to explain last summer’s heat wave in Eastern Europe and put it into context, as well as the high temperatures recorded on the Old Continent in 2003.

“If we had access to all the historical data recorded, we would be able to evaluate the frequency with which these phenomena are likely to occur in the future with a higher degree of certainty,” the expert explains.

This kind of information is of scientific, social and economic interest, with insurance companies setting their premiums according to expected climate changes, for example. City councils and governments also “want to understand climate conditions and how these will change in future in order to improve land zoning and prevent urban development from taking place in areas likely to be affected by flooding,” concludes Brunet.

Science and truth have been cast aside by our desire for controversy (Guardian)

Last week’s report into media science coverage highlighted an over-reliance on pointless dispute

Robin McKie
The Observer, Sunday 24 July 2011

Thomas Huxley, the British biologist who so vociferously, and effectively, defended Darwin’s theory of natural selection in the 19th century, had a basic view of science. “It is simply common sense at its best – rigidly accurate in observation and merciless to fallacy in logic.”

It is as neat a description as you can get and well worth remembering when considering how science is treated by the UK media and by the BBC in particular. Last week, a study, written by geneticist Steve Jones, warned that far too often the corporation had failed to appreciate the nature of science and to make a distinction “between well-established fact and opinion”. In doing so, the corporation had given free publicity to marginal belief, he said.

Jones was referring to climate change deniers, anti-MMR activists, GM crop opponents and other fringe groups who have benefited from wide coverage despite the paucity of evidence that supports their beliefs. By contrast, scientists, as purveyors of common sense, have found themselves sidelined because producers wanted to create controversy and so skewed discussions to hide researchers’ near unanimity of views in these fields. In this way, the British public has been misled into thinking there is a basic division among scientists over global warming or MMR.

It is a problem that can be blamed on the media that believe, with some justification, that adversarial dispute is the best way to cover democracy in action. It serves us well with politics and legal affairs, but falls down badly when it comes to science because its basic processes, which rely heavily on internal criticism and disproof, are so widely misunderstood.

Yet there is nothing complicated about the business, says Robert May, the former UK government science adviser. “In the early stages of research, ideas are like hillocks on a landscape. So you design experiments to discriminate among them. Most hillocks shrink and disappear until, in the end, you are left with a single towering pinnacle of virtual certitude.”

The case of manmade climate change is a good example, adds May. “A hundred years ago, scientists realised carbon dioxide emissions could affect climate. Twenty years ago, we thought they were now having an impact. Today, after taking more and more measurements, we can see there is no other explanation for the behaviour of the climate. Humans are changing it. Of course, deniers disagree, but that’s because they hold fixed positions that have nothing to do with science.”

It is the scientist, not the denier, who is the real sceptic, adds Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society. “When you carry out research, you cannot afford to cherry-pick data or ignore inconvenient facts. You have to be brutal. You also have to be sceptical about your own ideas and attack them. If you don’t, others will.”

When an idea reaches the stage where it’s almost ready to become a paper, it has therefore been subjected to savage scrutiny by its own authors and by their colleagues – and that is before writing has started. Afterwards, the paper goes to peer review where there is a further round of critical appraisal by a separate group of researchers. What emerges is a piece of work that has already been robustly tested – a point that is again lost in the media.

Over the centuries, this process has been honed to near perfection. By proposing and then attacking ideas and by making observations to test them, humanity has built up a remarkable understanding of the universe. The accuracy of Einstein’s theories of relativity, Crick and Watson’s double helix structure of DNA and plate tectonics were all revealed this way, though no scientist would admit these discoveries are the last word, as the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out: “In science, ‘fact’ can only mean ‘confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent’,” he admitted.

Certainly, things can go wrong, as Huxley acknowledged. Science may be organised common sense but all too often a beautiful theory created this way has been skewered by “a single ugly fact”, as he put it. Think of Fred Hoyle’s elegant concept of a steady state universe that is gently expanding and eternal. The idea was at one time considered to be philosophically superior to its rival, the big bang theory that proposed the cosmos erupted into existence billions of years ago. The latter idea explained the expansion of the universe by recourse to a vast explosion. The former accounted for this expansion in more delicate, intriguing terms.

The steady state theory continued to hold its own until, in 1964, radio-astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson noted interference on their radio telescope at the Bell Labs in New Jersey and tried to eliminate it. The pair went as far as shovelling out the pigeon droppings in the telescope and had the guilty pigeons shot (each blamed the other for giving the order). Yet the noise persisted. Only later did the two scientists realise what they were observing. The static hiss they were picking up was caused by a microwave radiation echo that had been set off when the universe erupted into existence after its big bang birth.

That very ugly fact certainly ruined Hoyle’s beautiful theory and, no doubt, his breakfast when he read about it in his newspaper. But then the pursuit of truth has always been a tricky and cruel business. “It is true that some things come along like that to throw scientists into a tizz but it doesn’t happen very often,” adds Jones. “The trouble is, the BBC thinks it happens every day.”

And this takes us to the nub of the issue: how should science be reported and recorded? How can you take a topic such as climate change, about which there is virtual unanimity of views among scientists, and keep it in the public’s eye. The dangers of rising greenhouse gas emissions have dramatic implications after all. But simply reporting every tiny shrinkage in polar ice sheets or rise in sea levels will only alienate readers or viewers, a point acknowledged by May. “Newspapers, radio and TV have a duty to engage and there is no point in doing a lot of excellent reporting on a scientific issue if it is boring or trivial. The alternative is to trivialise or distort, thus subordinating substance in the name of attraction. It is a paradox for which I can see no answer.”

Jones agrees. “What we don’t want to do is go back to the days when fawning reporters asked great figures to declaim on scientific issues – or political ones, for that matter. On the other hand, we cannot continue to distort views in the name balance,” It is a tricky business, but as former Times editor Charlie Wilson once told a member of staff upset at a task’s complexity: “Of course, it’s hard. If it was easy we would get an orang-utan to do it.”

Jones, in highlighting a specific problem for the BBC, has opened up a far wider, far more important issue – the need to find ways to understand how science works and to appreciate its insights and complexities. It certainly won’t be easy.

Mato Grosso do Sul tem mais de 600 índios nas universidades e cursos de pós-graduação (Midiamax News)

24/07/2011 13:38

Jucyllene Castilho, com informações da UCDB

Atualmente, há mais de 600 índios nas universidades de Mato Grosso do Sul, segundo estimativa do Projeto Rede de Saberes. Esse número vem crescendo junto ao de pós-graduandos índios, que fazem mestrado é até doutorado dentro ou fora do estado. Na sexta-feira (22), eles se reúnem na UCDB (Universidade Católica Dom Bosco) para pensar a criação de um fórum ou uma rede de pesquisadores indígenas.

Os professores perceberam que a universidade precisa estar preparada para recebê-los e criar formas de reconhecer os conhecimentos que eles já trazem de suas comunidades, ou seja, os conhecimentos tradicionais, que por muito tempo foram subestimados pela academia. A idéia desses professores é mostrar que os saberes destes povos são tão importantes quanto o da universidade, então a academia não deve tentar “engessá-los” em métodos científicos, mas ouvi-los e dialogar com eles.

Desde 1995, professores da UCDB têm trabalhado em projetos com populações indígenas de MS. Eles se articulam à professores de outras universidades do estado para ampliar essas ações e melhor entender quais são as necessidades destas comunidades.

Graduação

A UCDB tem 40 índios na graduação e seis cursando Mestrado em Educação ou Desenvolvimento Local. O número é maior nas universidades do interior do estado, que ficam mais próximas das reservas indígenas. Estes índios são das etnias Guarani, Terena, Kadiwéu, Ofaié e Kinikinau.

O projeto que trabalha especificamente com os universitários indígenas no MS é o Rede de Saberes. Os outros trabalhos de pesquisa e extensão junto aos índios estão articulados ao Programa Kaiowá Guarani, coordenado pelo Antonio Brand e desenvolvido pelo Neppi (Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas das Populações Indígenas), que é coordenado pelo padre George Lachnitt.

Rede de Saberes conta com a parceria entre a UCDB, UFMS (Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso do Sul), UFGD (Universidade Federal da Grande Dourados) e UEMS (Universidade Estadual do Mato Grosso do Sul), realizaram no último dia 17, em Dourados, o III Encontro de Acadêmicos Índios e Política Partidária, que reúne índios, professores e representantes de instituições convidadas, além de oito vereadores indígenas.

Durante o evento foi realizada uma discussão entre os parlamentares, estudantes e lideranças, a respeito de estratégias que fortaleçam a presença de índios no segundo maior estado com população indígena do País. Junto com o III Encontro, o Rede de Saberes realiza também nesses dois dias, o 1° Encontro Temático Saberes Tradicionais e Científicos – Direito.

O evento, que conta com a presença do Neppi da UCDB e de acadêmicos do curso de Direito da Católica, busca abrir discussão entre os estudantes sobre os saberes tradicionais e científicos, a fim de articular os dois conhecimentos. Mais informações sobre o Rede de Saberes podem ser obtidas pelo telefone 3312-3351.

Bob Stein vem ao Brasil para congresso em que analisa uma mudança nas narrativas a partir da revolução digital (O Globo, JC)

JC e-mail 4307, de 25 de Julho de 2011.

Formas completamente novas de narrativa surgirão a partir da revolução tecnológica. A previsão é de Bob Stein, editor de 65 anos que desde os anos 1980, bem antes do advento da internet, dedica-se à produção de conteúdo eletrônico.

Foi pioneiro ao lançar uma enciclopédia para computadores pessoais e como criador de CD-ROMs interativos e multimídias. Fundador do Institute for the Future of the Book, com pesquisadores sediados em Nova York e Londres, Stein promete abalar as convicções da plateia de editores do 2º Congresso Internacional do Livro Digital da Câmara Brasileira do Livro, que acontece amanhã e quarta-feira em São Paulo.

O futuro do livro, prevê o especialista, é se tornar uma praça pública virtual, um mundo no qual leitores se reúnem e criam suas próprias histórias, uma forma de contar histórias bem parecida com a dos games. A leitura como uma experiência solitária e silenciosa está com os dias contados, assim como o livro impresso, cujo futuro é sobreviver apenas como objeto de arte para consumo dos mais afortunados.

Como surgiu e qual foi a função do Institute for the Future of the Book?
BOB STEIN: Há sete anos, fui convidado pela MacArthur Foundation a voltar a ser editor. Mas naquela época, com a internet, eu acreditava que já não havia mais lugar para um editor, não entendia qual seria sua função. Relutei em aceitar o convite. Tive então a ideia de propor à fundação que financiasse uma pesquisa sobre o papel do editor nesta nova era. Eles foram extremamente generosos, doaram US$ 1 milhão para a criação do instituto. O instituto foi criado em 2004. A princípio, era um projeto de cinco anos de duração cujo objetivo era entender como as narrativas, o discurso, mudam ao deixar as páginas impressas rumo às mídias eletrônicas e à internet. Acredito que conseguimos entender como o mercado editorial vai evoluir. O livro será uma praça, um ponto de encontro e reunião de leitores. Não é algo que acontecerá da noite para o dia, mas chegaremos lá. Fundei recentemente uma nova empresa, a Social Books, e estamos criando plataformas para publicações eletrônicas e sociais.

A geração digital será capaz de ler um livro impresso como fazemos, sozinhos, concentrados, em silêncio por horas a fio ou ela não terá mais as habilidades cognitivas para tanto?
Ler da maneira que você descreveu é algo recente, não é uma prática tão tradicional e arraigada assim. No século XIX, o normal era as pessoas lerem em voz alta, em grupo. Uma biblioteca pessoal com estantes cheias de livros era raríssimo, privilégio dos ricos até depois da Segunda Guerra Mundial. Os comportamentos que envolvem a leitura solitária são recentes. Temos medo de perder algo se estes hábitos mudarem. Mas a Humanidade evoluiu durante muito tempo sem isso. As novas gerações encontrarão algo novo que será tão valioso quanto este tipo de leitura foi para nós.

Como a revolução digital está transformando o mercado editorial?
O mercado editorial sabia há muito tempo da iminência dos livros digitais. Mas, em vez de investir, permitiu que Amazon e Apple pilotassem o navio. Foi um erro grave. As editoras perderam a dianteira e agora têm de correr atrás do prejuízo. O problema é que estão acostumadas e se agarram a um modelo de negócios no qual vendem objetos impressos por uma quantidade justa de dinheiro. Agora todas estão convertendo e lançando seus livros em formatos eletrônicos e acreditam que assim será possível manter a mesma margem de lucro. Isto nunca vai acontecer. A verdadeira energia de transformação vem de fora do mercado editorial, principalmente do mundo dos games. As editoras terão de seguir este exemplo para aprender como integrar diferentes formas de mídia – não apenas adicionar fotos, vídeos e áudios aos textos -, e como lidar com comunidades de leitores. A indústria dos games já sabe muito bem como fazer isso. Um exemplo é “World of warcraft”, espécie de role-playing game on-line, com mais de 12 milhões de assinaturas por mês. É um conceito a ser estudado. Talvez o futuro da literatura esteja em autores que criam um mundo a ser habitado pelos leitores, que dentro deste universo escrevem suas próprias histórias. Não me surpreenderá se uma empresa de game comprar uma grande editora em algum momento dos próximos dez anos.

O mercado editorial vai passar pela mesma crise da indústria fonográfica?
Sim, é bem parecido. As editoras acreditam que o que aconteceu com as gravadoras e a indústria do cinema não acontecerá com elas. Infelizmente não é verdade. No Pirate Bay é possível encontrar milhares de livros, muito mais do que seremos capazes de ler a vida inteira.

Houve um momento em que o futuro parecia estar nos enhanced books (o primeiro foi uma adaptação interativa, com áudio e vídeo de “Alice no País das Maravilhas, lançada em 2010 como um aplicativo para iPad). Este formato já está ultrapassado?
Sim. Embora muito do meu trabalho seja aprimorar livros, filmes ou músicas adicionando conteúdo para que eles sejam mais bem compreendidos e apreciados, no fim do dia isto jamais será tão importante quanto criar uma maneira completamente nova de se consumir conteúdo. A revolução tecnológica propicia a criação de novas formas de narrativas. Algo como a invenção de um novo gênero literário, adequado aos novos tempos, a exemplo do que aconteceu quando Miguel de Cervantes inventou, com “Dom Quixote” o romance moderno.

Livros impressos vão sobreviver?
Sim. Mas irão se tornar uma espécie de objeto de arte. Só quem é muito rico será capaz de comprá-los. Algo como os livros para mesas de centro que compramos hoje em dia porque são bonitos, decorativos. No futuro, o livro como uma forma de transmitir ideias será eletrônico.

Boom brasileiro opõe classes médias tradicional e emergente, diz ‘FT’ (BBC)

Atualizado em 21 de julho, 2011 – 08:22 (Brasília) 11:22 GMT

Para jornal, classe média tradicional sofre com aumento de preços e infraestrutura congestionada

O sucesso das políticas do governo brasileiro para tirar milhões de pessoas da pobreza na última década vem provocando a criação de dois tipos opostos de classe média, afirma reportagem publicada nesta quinta-feira pelo diário econômico britânico Financial Times.

O jornal observa que os 33 milhões de brasileiros que deixaram a pobreza para integrar a nova classe média emergente foram os grandes beneficiados pelas políticas oficiais, enquanto a classe média tradicional considera que a situação no período ficou mais difícil.

“Os preços da carne e da gasolina dobraram, pedágios nas estradas subiram e comer fora ou comprar imóveis ficou proibitivamente caro”, lista a reportagem.

O jornal comenta que 105,5 milhões dos 190 milhões de brasileiros são considerados hoje de classe média, mas que os 20 milhões da classe média tradicional, com renda mensal maior que R$ 5.174, estão “no lado perdedor”.

“Diferentemente da Índia, onde a antiga classe média se beneficiou com a criação de novas indústrias, como o fornecimento de serviços terceirizados de tecnologia da informação, muitos na classe média brasileira reclamam de aumentos de preços, impostos, infraestrutura congestionada e mais competição por empregos”, diz a reportagem.

Perda de renda

O jornal cita o economista da Fundação Getúlio Vargas Marcelo Neri, que se dedica a estudar a classe média, segundo o qual a renda dos 50% mais pobres cresceu 68% em termos reais nos últimos dez anos, enquanto os 10% mais ricos viram sua renda crescer somente 10% no período.

Ele destaca ainda outro dado ainda mais revelador, que mostra que a renda média dos analfabetos brasileiros cresceu 37% entre 2003 e 2009, enquanto aqueles com estudo universitário tiveram uma perda de 17% na renda no mesmo período.

Na avaliação de Neri ao jornal, as mudanças representam um reordenamento da riqueza no país que estava pendente desde a abolição da escravatura, em 1888.

A reportagem afirma que “o processo tem sido em parte impulsionado pelo maior acesso à educação”, com o aumento da oferta de cursos universitários privados à nova classe média, que passou a competir com a classe média tradicional por empregos.

Efeito político

Dilma Rousseff lançou recentemente plano para tirar mais 16 milhões de pessoas da pobreza

O jornal observa que o efeito político da redução da pobreza levou a presidente Dilma Rousseff a lançar recentemente um programa para retirar outros 16 milhões de brasileiros da pobreza, mas afirma que isso não garantirá a ela os votos da classe média tradicional, concentrada nos Estados industrializados do sul do país, especialmente em São Paulo.

“Alguns reclamam que o governo ajuda os pobres por meio de benefícios e aumentos salariais e os ricos por meio de empréstimos subsidiados para suas empresas”, diz a reportagem.

“Isso inunda a economia com dinheiro, levando à inflação, a qual o Banco Central tenta então combater com aumentos de juros, penalizando a classe média”, continua o Financial Times.

A reportagem conclui afirmando que “enquanto muitos nas classes médias tradicionais do Brasil concordam com a distribuição de renda, eles estão temerosos sobre o quanto isso está lhes custando”

Articulista é condenado à prisão por crime de racismo contra indígenas (MPF)

Do MPF

por Sue Lizzie Viana Coitinho
14/07/2011 14:56

Condenação é inédita em MS e rara no país. Justiça considera que liberdade de expressão não pode ser usada para propagar racismo.

A Justiça aceitou os argumentos do Ministério Público Federal em Mato Grosso do Sul (MPF/MS) e condenou o advogado e articulista Isaac Duarte de Barros Júnior a dois anos de reclusão pelo crime de racismo contra etnia indígena. A sentença, de 6 de julho, é inédita em Mato Grosso do Sul, estado com a 2ª maior população indígena do país.

Ele escreveu um artigo, publicado no jornal O Progresso, de Dourados, com termos ofensivos aos indígenas da região. O MPF ajuizou duas ações na Justiça Federal contra o articulista, uma penal e outra por danos morais, em que é exigida reparação que pode passar de R$ 30 milhões. Com a presente decisão judicial, a ação por danos morais, que estava suspensa, deve voltar a tramitar.

Isaac foi condenado com base no artigo 20 da Lei 7.716/89, que define os crimes de preconceito de raça ou cor. Na sentença, o juiz afirma que a liberdade de expressão não é uma garantia absoluta. “A dignidade da pessoa humana, base do estado democrático de direito, prevalece sobre qualquer manifestação de pensamento que incite ao preconceito ou à discriminação racial, étnica e cultural”

Cultura indígena deve acabar

O artigo foi publicado em 27 e 28 de dezembro de 2008, sob o título “Índios e o Retrocesso”. Nele, o articulista utilizou os termos “bugrada” e “malandros e vadios” para referir-se aos indígenas. Afirmou, ainda, que eles “se assenhoram das terras como verdadeiros vândalos, cobrando nelas os pedágios e matando passantes”.

Em outro trecho, critica a cultura indígena: “A preservação de costumes que contrariem a modernidade são retrocessos e devem acabar. Quanto a uma civilização indígena que não deu certo e em detrimento disso foi conquistada pela inteligência cultural dos brancos, também é retrógrada a atitude de querer preservá-la”.

Também é contrário ao respeito à organização social, a cultura, crenças e tradições indígenas, mandamento constitucional confirmado como cláusula pétrea: “Em nome da razão e dos avanços culturais modernos civilizados, os palacianos parlamentares brasileiros deveriam retirar imediatamente a tutela constitucional exercida comodamente sobre os costumes ultrapassados dos índios aculturados”.

O articulista também se insurgiu contra o processo de demarcação de terras indígenas em Mato Grosso do Sul: “O que necessitamos, com maturidade responsável, é dar urgente finalidade social e produtiva a todos os quinhões brasileiros, inclusive aqueles ocupados por índios malandros e vadios”.

A culpa é da TV

Chamado a explicar-se perante a 1ª Vara da Justiça Federal de Dourados, o articulista negou o que havia escrito e atribuiu suas ideias a um avô e a programas de TV, afirmando que “os donos da terra são os silvícolas e deve haver uma distribuição de terras aos indígenas(…) que ao seu ver bugre é bandido, índio não”. As alegações não foram aceitas pela Justiça: “Observa-se a tentativa do acusado em ludibriar esse juízo (…) Como pode uma pessoa com formação intelectual, escrever sobre questões indígenas e desconhecer o real significado dos termos por ele próprio utilizados?”.

Referência processual na Justiça Federal de Dourados:

Processo penal: 2009.60.02.000481-5

Processo cível (indenização): 2009.60.02.004327-4

[Publicado no blog de Luis Nassif em 20/07/2011 – ver aqui]

Can a Candid Climate Modeler Convince Contrarians? (Scientific American)

Intrepid British climate scientist sets out to win over global warming doubters

By Jeremy Lovell and ClimateWire | July 19, 2011

CONVINCING CONTRARIANS: Scientists attempt to win over climate change doubters. Image: Courtesy of NOAA

LONDON — David Stainforth is a brave man. His mission is to try to remove some of the confusion over the climate debate by explaining why uncertainty has to be a part of the computerized climate models that scientists use to forecast the expected impacts of climate change, including more violent storms as well as more flooding and droughts.

Stainforth, a climate modeler and senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, hopes that by coming clean on the degree of difficulty in making such predictions, he and his fellow climate scientists will find it easier to make — and win — the argument that prompt action now is not only necessary but the far cheaper alternative to inaction.

“Governments and people want certainty about what will happen with climate change, so scientists tend to turn to climate modeling. But the models are wrong in so many ways because there are so many uncertainties and unknowns built into them,” Stainforth told ClimateWire here at the Royal Academy’s recent annual Summer Science Exhibition.

“The reason is that they are just that, models, not reality. The bottom line is that they give a quite useful message from science to the adaptation community. But it is all relative and hedged about with qualifications. They give likelihoods not certainties, ranges of probabilities, not absolutes. That is where the discussion then must start, not end,” he added.

It is a bold step to take at a time when the climate skeptics appear to be making the most of the continuing public confusion and denial over the issues shown in repeated polls in the United States and United Kingdom. Skeptics have taken advantage of the revelations of scientific infighting with the leaked emails from the United Kingdom’s University of East Anglia in late 2009. They have also pointed to evidence of some sloppy science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assert that the feared results of climate change may be more fiction than science.

Take that, add the diplomatic bickering and backsliding in international climate change talks, then fold in the news of the continuing global economic crisis and reports that renewable energy will drive up energy costs. You will get a sense that what Stainforth is attempting is a very hard sell.

The ‘trouble’ with climate models

“You can explain in five or 10 minutes why we need to do something about climate change — and do it without using climate models. But it is far harder to persuade people of the degree and speed of what needs to be done without the models, and that is where the trouble starts,” said Stainforth.

“Governments and the media demand certainty. They don’t want uncertainties and probabilities. For example, all our models predict wetter winters and warmer summers, but they are far less certain about wetter or drier summers, and that has major implications for the siting and size of flood defenses,” he explained, referring to dams and levees.

“Climate scientists have moved a long way beyond discussing whether climate change is a threat to our societies and economies. That is settled. But that is not to say they do not still disagree about a lot of things like the design of the models and the degree of change,” he added.

He remains hopeful that the non-scientific public will understand the strong consensus among climate scientists that makes the remaining bickering look small. “There is uncertainty, but there is also probability. By showing and discussing the degree of each in public and with the public, we hope to involve them and therefore get out of the loop and move forward.”

Stainforth’s mission is backed by an array of groups including the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy as well as the London School of Economics. There is also the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment — headed by Lord Nicholas Stern, whose report on the economics of climate change in 2006 electrified governments worldwide on the issue.

Trying some interactive games

Using literature and interactive games at the Confidence in Climate website, the project sets out to show how probabilities work and why different models may come up with quite widely differing predictions. It then applies this to a composite of theories and observations on the climate conundrum.

“When you make a decision about the future — whether it is based on theory or observation — it is a sort of gamble. You can never know what is going to happen. When we make decisions about how to tackle climate change it is no different,” the website says.

“Because of the uncertainty we can’t be sure exactly what degree of challenge we will face. None the less, some things are clear — uncertainty doesn’t mean ignorance. … We also know that bigger increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are likely to lead to much bigger impacts; the impact of a 4 degree warming is likely to be more than twice the impact of a 2 degree warming,” it adds.

As for Stainforth, he thinks the debate urgently needs to be widened considerably from the rather restricted inner core of scientists, modelers, meteorologists and statisticians who have monopolized it to date.

“We need ecologists, farmers, doctors, anthropologists, sociologists, engineers, psychologists, hydrologists, social scientists. The climate change problem involves everyone and should therefore include everyone,” he said.

“We have to grasp the nettle here and communicate openly the uncertainty, to explain what is uncertain, where, why and to what degree. We don’t want it split into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’; we want people to understand.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. http://www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

On Experts and Global Warming (N.Y. Times)

July 12, 2011, 4:01 PM
By GARY GUTTING

Experts have always posed a problem for democracies. Plato scorned democracy, rating it the worst form of government short of tyranny, largely because it gave power to the ignorant many rather than to knowledgeable experts (philosophers, as he saw it). But, if, as we insist, the people must ultimately decide, the question remains: How can we, nonexperts, take account of expert opinion when it is relevant to decisions about public policy?

Once we accept the expert authority of climate science, we have no basis for supporting the minority position.

To answer this question, we need to reflect on the logic of appeals to the authority of experts. First of all, such appeals require a decision about who the experts on a given topic are. Until there is agreement about this, expert opinion can have no persuasive role in our discussions. Another requirement is that there be a consensus among the experts about points relevant to our discussion. Precisely because we are not experts, we are in no position to adjudicate disputes among those who are. Finally, given a consensus on a claim among recognized experts, we nonexperts have no basis for rejecting the truth of the claim.

These requirements may seem trivially obvious, but they have serious consequences. Consider, for example, current discussions about climate change, specifically about whether there is long-term global warming caused primarily by human activities (anthropogenic global warming or A.G.W.). All creditable parties to this debate recognize a group of experts designated as “climate scientists,” whom they cite in either support or opposition to their claims about global warming. In contrast to enterprises such as astrology or homeopathy, there is no serious objection to the very project of climate science. The only questions are about the conclusions this project supports about global warming.

There is, moreover, no denying that there is a strong consensus among climate scientists on the existence of A.G.W. — in their view, human activities are warming the planet. There are climate scientists who doubt or deny this claim, but even they show a clear sense of opposing a view that is dominant in their discipline. Nonexpert opponents of A.G.W. usually base their case on various criticisms that a small minority of climate scientists have raised against the consensus view. But nonexperts are in no position to argue against the consensus of scientific experts. As long as they accept the expert authority of the discipline of climate science, they have no basis for supporting the minority position. Critics within the community of climate scientists may have a cogent case against A.G.W., but, given the overall consensus of that community, we nonexperts have no basis for concluding that this is so. It does no good to say that we find the consensus conclusions poorly supported. Since we are not experts on the subject, our judgment has no standing.

It follows that a nonexpert who wants to reject A.G.W. can do so only by arguing that climate science lacks the scientific status needed be taken seriously in our debates about public policy. There may well be areas of inquiry (e.g., various sub-disciplines of the social sciences) open to this sort of critique. But there does not seem to be a promising case against the scientific authority of climate science. As noted, opponents of the consensus on global warming themselves argue from results of the discipline, and there is no reason to think that they would have had any problem accepting a consensus of climate scientists against global warming, had this emerged.

Some nonexpert opponents of global warming have made much of a number of e-mails written and circulated among a handful of climate scientists that they see as evidence of bias toward global warming. But unless this group is willing to argue from this small (and questionable) sample to the general unreliability of climate science as a discipline, they have no alternative but to accept the consensus view of climate scientists that these e-mails do not undermine the core result of global warming.

I am not arguing the absolute authority of scientific conclusions in democratic debates. It is not a matter of replacing Plato’s philosopher-kings with scientist-kings in our polis. We the people still need to decide (perhaps through our elected representatives) which groups we accept as having cognitive authority in our policy deliberations. Nor am I denying that there may be a logical gap between established scientific results and specific policy decisions. The fact that there is significant global warming due to human activity does not of itself imply any particular response to this fact. There remain pressing questions, for example, about the likely long-term effects of various plans for limiting CO2 emissions, the more immediate economic effects of such plans, and, especially, the proper balance between actual present sacrifices and probable long-term gains. Here we still require the input of experts, but we must also make fundamental value judgments, a task that, pace Plato, we cannot turn over to experts.

The essential point, however, is that once we have accepted the authority of a particular scientific discipline, we cannot consistently reject its conclusions. To adapt Schopenhauer’s famous remark about causality, science is not a taxi-cab that we can get in and out of whenever we like. Once we board the train of climate science, there is no alternative to taking it wherever it may go.

New York Times Publishes a Searing Drought Story, But Completely Misses the Climate Change Angle (Climate Central)

Published: July 12th, 2011, Last Updated: July 13th, 2011
By Andrew Freedman

In Monday’s New York Times, Kim Severson and Kirk Johnson wrote an eloquent story on the intense drought that is maintaining a tight grip on a broad swath of America’s southern tier, from Arizona to Florida. Reporting from Georgia, Severson and Johnson detailed the plight of farmers struggling to make ends meet as the parched soil makes it nearly impossible for them to grow crops and feed livestock.

Monday’s story from the New York Times on drought.

The piece is a great example of how emotionally moving storytelling from a local perspective can convey the consequences of broad issues and trends, in this case, a major drought that has enveloped 14 states. In that sense, it served Times readers extraordinarily well.

However, when it came to providing readers with a thorough understanding of the drought’s causes and aggravating factors, Severson and Johnson left out any mention of the elephant in the room — global climate change, and pinned the entire drought on one factor, La Niña. For this, it was overly simplistic, and even just downright inaccurate.

Here’s how the story framed the drought’s causes:

From a meteorological standpoint, the answer is fairly simple. “A strong La Niña shut off the southern pipeline of moisture,” said David Miskus, who monitors drought for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The La Niña “lone gunman” theory is problematic from a scientific standpoint. Just last week, Marty Hoerling, the federal government’s top researcher tasked with examining how climate change may be influencing extreme weather and climate events, told reporters that “we cannot reconcile it [the drought] with just the La Niña impact alone, at least not at this time.”

Instead, the causal factors are more nuanced than that, and they do include global warming, since it is changing the background conditions in which such extreme events occur.

During a press conference last week from a drought management meeting in the parched city of Austin, Texas, Hoerling made clear that climate change is already increasing average temperatures across the drought region, and is expected to lead to more frequent and intense droughts in the Southwest. Other research indicates the trend towards a drier Southwest is already taking place. “There are recent regional tendencies toward more severe droughts in the southwestern United States, parts of Canada and Alaska, and Mexico,” stated a 2008 report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

As is the case with any extreme weather or climate event now, one cannot truly separate climate change from the mix, considering that droughts, floods, and other extreme events now occur in an environment that has been profoundly altered by human emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. This doesn’t mean that climate change is causing all of these extreme events, but it does mean that climate change may be increasing the likelihood that some types of events will occur, and may be changing the characteristics of some extreme events, such as by making heat waves more intense.

The fact that the Times story detailed both the drought and the record heat accompanying it, yet left out any mention of climate change, was a particularly puzzling error of omission. Hoerling, for one, pointed to the extreme heat seen during this drought as a possible sign of things to come, as climate change helps produce dangerous combinations of heat and drought.

“We haven’t necessarily dealt with drought and heat at the same time in such a persistent way, and that’s a new condition,” Hoerling said, noting that higher temperatures only hasten the drying of soils.

Many ponds in Texas, such as this one in Rusk County, were nearly dry by late June 2011. Credit: agrilifetoday/flickr.

Texas had its warmest June on record, for example, and on June 26th, Amarillo, Texas recorded its warmest temperature on record for any month, at 111°F. According to the Weather Channel, parts of Oklahoma and Texas have already exceeded their yearly average number of days at or above 100 degrees, including Oklahoma City, Dallas, and Austin. The heat is related to the drought, because when soil moisture is so low, more of the sun’s energy goes towards heating the air directly.

It’s unfortunate that the Times story, which was a searing portrayal of how a drought can impact communities that are already down on their luck due to economic troubles, did not include at least some discussion on climate change. As I’ve shown here, and climate blogger Joe Romm has also pointed out, there was sufficient evidence to justify raising the climate change topic in that story, and many others like it. After all, if the media doesn’t make an effort to evaluate the evidence on the links between extreme weather and climate change, then how can we expect the public to understand how global warming may affect their lives?

At Climate Central, our scientists are working to better understand whether and how climate change is increasing the likelihood of certain extreme weather events, such as heat waves, while at the same time, our journalists are covering the Southern drought and wildfire situation with the goal of making sure our readers understand what scientific studies show about global warming and extreme events.

This is not an easy task, but it need not be such a lonely one.

Update, July 13: The Times published an editorial on the drought today, which also blames the drought squarely on La Niña-related weather patterns, and makes no mention of climate change impacts or projections.

* * *

EDITORIAL (New York Times)
Suffering in the Parched South
Published: July 12, 2011

Right now, the official drought map of the United States looks as if it has been set on fire and scorched at the bottom edge. Scorched is how much of the Southeast and Southwest feel, in the midst of a drought that is the most extreme since the 1950s and possibly since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The government has classified much of this drought as D4, which means exceptional. The outlook through late September shows possible improvement in some places, but in most of Texas, Oklahoma, southern Arkansas, and northern Louisiana and Mississippi the drought is expected to worsen.

Dry conditions began last year and have only intensified as temperatures rose above 100 in many areas. Rain gauges have been empty for months, causing a region-wide search for new underground sources of water as streams and lakes dry up. The drought is produced by a pattern of cooling in the Pacific called La Niña. A cooler ocean means less moisture in the atmosphere, which shuts down the storms shuttling east across the region.

Droughts are measured in dollars as well as degrees. The prospects for cattle and wheat, corn and cotton crops across the South are dire. There is no way yet to estimate the ultimate cost of this drought because there is no realistic estimate of when it will end. Farmers have been using crop insurance payments, and federal relief is available in disaster areas, including much of Texas. But the only real relief will be the end of the dry, hot winds and the beginning of long, settled rains.

* * *

Drought Spreads Pain From Florida to Arizona

Grant Blankenship for The New York Times. Buster Haddock, an agricultural scientist at the University of Georgia, in a field where cotton never had the chance to grow.

By KIM SEVERSON and KIRK JOHNSON
Published: July 11, 2011

COLQUITT, Ga. — The heat and the drought are so bad in this southwest corner of Georgia that hogs can barely eat. Corn, a lucrative crop with a notorious thirst, is burning up in fields. Cotton plants are too weak to punch through soil so dry it might as well be pavement.

Waiting for Rain

Dangerously Dry – Nearly a fifth of the contiguous United States has been faced with the worst drought in recent years.

The Dry Season

OKLAHOMA A simple, if plaintive, message from the residents of Hough, in the panhandle, late last month. Shawn Yorks/The Guymon Daily Herald, via Associated Press

Farmers with the money and equipment to irrigate are running wells dry in the unseasonably early and particularly brutal national drought that some say could rival the Dust Bowl days.

“It’s horrible so far,” said Mike Newberry, a Georgia farmer who is trying grow cotton, corn and peanuts on a thousand acres. “There is no description for what we’ve been through since we started planting corn in March.”

The pain has spread across 14 states, from Florida, where severe water restrictions are in place, to Arizona, where ranchers could be forced to sell off entire herds of cattle because they simply cannot feed them.

In Texas, where the drought is the worst, virtually no part of the state has been untouched. City dwellers and ranchers have been tormented by excessive heat and high winds. In the Southwest, wildfires are chewing through millions of acres.

Last month, the United States Department of Agriculture designated all 254 counties in Texas natural disaster areas, qualifying them for varying levels of federal relief. More than 30 percent of the state’s wheat fields might be lost, adding pressure to a crop in short supply globally.

Even if weather patterns shift and relief-giving rain comes, losses will surely head past $3 billion in Texas alone, state agricultural officials said.

Most troubling is that the drought, which could go down as one of the nation’s worst, has come on extra hot and extra early. It has its roots in 2010 and continued through the winter. The five months from this February to June, for example, were so dry that they shattered a Texas record set in 1917, said Don Conlee, the acting state climatologist.

Oklahoma has had only 28 percent of its normal summer rainfall, and the heat has blasted past 90 degrees for a month.

“We’ve had a two- or three-week start on what is likely to be a disastrous summer,” said Kevin Kloesel, director of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.

The question, of course, becomes why. In a spring and summer in which weather news has been dominated by epic floods and tornadoes, it is hard to imagine that more than a quarter of the country is facing an equally daunting but very different kind of natural disaster.

From a meteorological standpoint, the answer is fairly simple. “A strong La Niña shut off the southern pipeline of moisture,” said David Miskus, who monitors drought for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The weather pattern called La Niña is an abnormal cooling of Pacific waters. It usually follows El Niño, which is an abnormal warming of those same waters.

Although a new forecast from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center suggests that this dangerous weather pattern could revive in the fall, many in the parched regions find themselves in the unlikely position of hoping for a season of heavy tropical storms in the Southeast and drenching monsoons in the Southwest.

Climatologists say the great drought of 2011 is starting to look a lot like the one that hit the nation in the early to mid-1950s. That, too, dried a broad part of the southern tier of states into leather and remains a record breaker.

But this time, things are different in the drought belt. With states and towns short on cash and unemployment still high, the stress on the land and the people who rely on it for a living is being amplified by political and economic forces, state and local officials say. As a result, this drought is likely to have the cultural impact of the great 1930s drought, which hammered an already weakened nation.

“In the ’30s, you had the Depression and everything that happened with that, and drought on top,” said Donald A. Wilhite, director of the school of natural resources at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and former director of the National Drought Mitigation Center. “The combination of those two things was devastating.”

Although today’s economy is not as bad, many Americans ground down by prolonged economic insecurity have little wiggle room to handle the effects of a prolonged drought. Government agencies are in the same boat.

“Because we overspent, the Legislature overspent, we’ve been cut back and then the drought comes along and we don’t have the resources and federal government doesn’t, and so we just tighten our belt and go on,” said Donald Butler, the director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

The drought is having some odd effects, economically and otherwise.

“One of the biggest impacts of the drought is going to be the shrinking of the cattle herd in the United States,” said Bruce A. Babcock, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University in Ames. And that will have a paradoxical but profound impact on the price of a steak.

Ranchers whose grass was killed by drought cannot afford to sustain cattle with hay or other feed, which is also climbing in price. Their response will most likely be to send animals to slaughter early. That glut of beef would lower prices temporarily.

But America’s cattle supply will ultimately be lower at a time when the global supply is already low, potentially resulting in much higher prices in the future.

There are other problems. Fishing tournaments have been canceled in Florida and Mississippi, just two of the states where low water levels have kept recreational users from lakes and rivers. In Texas, some cities are experiencing blackouts because airborne deposits of salt and chemicals are building up on power lines, triggering surges that shut down the system. In times of normal weather, rain usually washes away the environmental buildup. Instead, power company crews in cities like Houston are being dispatched to spray electrical lines.

In this corner of Georgia, where temperatures have been over 100 and rainfall has been off by more than half, fish and wildlife officials are worried over the health of the shinyrayed pocketbook and the oval pigtoe mussels, both freshwater species on the endangered species list.

The mussels live in Spring Creek, which is dangerously low and borders Terry Pickle’s 2,000-acre farm here. He pulls his irrigation from wells that tie into the water system of which Spring Creek is a part.

Whether nature or agriculture is to blame remains a debate in a state that for 20 years has been embroiled in a water war with Alabama and Florida. Meanwhile, Colquitt has allowed the state to drill a special well to pump water back into the creek to save the mussels from extinction.

Most farmers here are much more worried about the crops than the mussels. With cotton and corn prices high, they had high hopes for the season. But many have had to replant fields several times to get even one crop to survive. Others, like Mr. Pickle, have relied on irrigation so expensive that it threatens to eat into any profits.

The water is free, but the system used to get it from the ground runs on diesel fuel. His bill for May and June was an unheard of $88,442.

Thousands of small stories like that will all contribute to the ultimate financial impact of the drought, which will not be known until it is over. And no one knows when that will be.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency has already provided over $75 million in assistance to ranchers nationwide, with most of it going to Florida, New Mexico and Texas. An additional $62 million in crop insurance indemnities have already been provided to help other producers.

Economists say that adding up the effects of drought is far more complicated than, say, those of a hurricane or tornado, which destroy structures that have set values. With drought, a shattered wheat or corn crop is a loss to one farmer, and it has a specific price tag. But all those individual losses punch a hole in the food supply and drive prices up. That is good news for a farmer who manages to get a crop in. The final net costs down the line are thus dispersed, and mostly passed along.

That means grocery shoppers will feel the effects of the drought at the dinner table, where the cost of staples like meat and bread will most likely rise, said Michael J. Roberts, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. “The biggest losers are consumers,” he said.

Kim Severson reported from Colquitt, Ga., and Kirk Johnson from Denver. Dan Frosch contributed reporting from Denver.

Our Extreme Future: Predicting and Coping with the Effects of a Changing Climate (Scientific American)

Adapting to extreme weather calls for a combination of restoring wetland and building drains and sewers that can handle the water. But leaders and the public are slow to catch on. Final part of a three-part series

By John Carey | Thursday, June 30, 2011 | 97

Image: Fikret Onal/Flickr

Editor’s note: This article is the last of a three-part series by John Carey. Part 1, “Storm Warning: Extreme Weather Is a Product of Climate Change,” was posted on June 28. Part 2, “Global Warming and the Science of Extreme Weather,” was posted on June 29.

Extreme weather events have become both more common and more intense. And increasingly, scientists have been able to pin at least part of the blame on humankind’s alteration of the climate. What’s more, the growing success of this nascent science of climate attribution (finding the telltale fingerprints of climate change in extreme events) means that researchers have more confidence in their climate models—which predict that the future will be even more extreme.

Are we prepared for this future? Not yet. Indeed, the trend is in the other direction, especially in Washington, D.C., where a number of members of Congress even argue that climate change itself is a hoax.

Scientists hope that rigorously identifying climate change’s contribution to individual extreme events can indeed wake people up to the threat. As the research advances, it should be possible to say that two extra inches (five centimeters) of rain poured down in a Midwestern storm because of greenhouse gases, or that a California heat wave was 10 times more likely to occur thanks to humans’ impacts on climate. So researchers have set up rapid response teams to assess climate change’s contribution to extreme events while the events are still fresh in people’s minds. In addition, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is preparing a special report on extreme events and disasters, due out by the end of 2011. “It is important for us emphasize that climate change and its impacts are not off in the future, but are here and now,” explained Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, during a briefing at United Nations climate talks in Cancún last December.

The message is beginning to sink in. The Russian government, for instance, used to doubt the existence of climate change, or argue that it might be beneficial for Russia. But now, government officials have realized that global warming will not bring a gradual and benign increase in temperatures. Instead, they’re likely to see more crippling heat waves. As Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told the Security Council of the Russian Federation last summer: “Everyone is talking about climate change now. Unfortunately, what is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions.”

Doubts persist despite evidence

Among the U.S. public, the feeling is different. Opinion pollsand anecdotal reports show that most Americans do not perceive a threat from climate change. And a sizable number of Americans, including many newly elected members of Congress, do not even believe that climate change exists. Extreme weather? Just part of nature, they say. After all, disastrous floods and droughts go back to the days of Noah and Moses. Why should today’s disasters be any different? Was the July 23, 2010, storm that spawned Les Scott’s record hailstone evidence of a changing climate, for instance? “Not really,” Scott says. “It was just another thunderstorm. We get awful bad blizzards that are a lot worse.”

And yes, 22 of Maryland’s 23 counties were declared natural disaster areas after record-setting heat and drought in 2010. “It was the worst corn crop I ever had,” says fourth-generation farmer Earl “Buddy” Hance. But was it a harbinger of a more worrisome future? Probably not, says Hance, the state’s secretary of agriculture. “As farmers we are skeptical, and we need to see a little more. And if it does turn out to be climate change, farmers would adapt.” By then, adaptation could be really difficult, frets Minnesota organic farmer Jack Hedin, whose efforts to raise the alarm are “falling on deaf ears,” he laments.

Many scientists share Hedin’s worry. “The real honest message is that while there is debate about how much extreme weather climate change is inducing now, there is very little debate about its effect in the future,” says Michael Wehner, staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and member of the lead author teams of the interagency U.S. Climate Change Science Program’s Synthesis and Assessment reports on climate extremes. For instance, climate models predict that by 2050 Russia will have warmed up so much that every summer will be as warm as the disastrous heat wave it just experienced, says Richard Seager of Columbia University’s Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory. In other words, many of today’s extremes will become tomorrow’s everyday reality. “Climate change will throw some significant hardballs at us,” says Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. “There will be a lot of surprises that we are not adapted to.”

A dusty future

One of the clearest pictures of this future is emerging for the U.S. Southwest and a similar meteorological zone that stretches across Italy, Greece and Turkey. Work by Tim Barnett of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Seager and others predicts that these regions will get hotter and drier—and, perhaps more important, shows that the change has already begun. “The signal of a human influence on climate pops up in 1985, then marches on getting strong and stronger,” Barnett says. By the middle of the 21st century, the models predict, the climate will be as dry as the seven-year long Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s or the damaging 1950s drought centered in California and Mexico, Seager says: “In the future the drought won’t last just seven years. It will be the new norm.”

That spells trouble. In the Southwest the main worry is water—water that makes cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas possible and that irrigates the enormously productive farms of California’s Central Valley. Supplies are already tight. During the current 11-year dry spell, the demand for water from the vast Colorado River system, which provides water to 30 million people and irrigates four million acres (1.6 million hectares) of cropland, has exceeded the supply. The result: water levels in the giant Lake Mead reservoir dropped to a record low in October (before climbing one foot, or 30 centimeters, after torrential winter rains in California reduced the demand for Colorado River water). Climate change will just make the problem worse. “The challenge will be great,” says Terry Fulp, deputy regional director of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region. “I rank climate change as probably my largest concern. When I’m out on my boat on Lake Mead, it’s on my mind all the time.”

The Southwest is just a snapshot of the challenges ahead. Imagine the potential peril to regions around the world, scientists say. “Our civilization is based on a stable base climate—it doesn’t take very much change to raise hell,” Scripps’s Barnett says. And given the lag in the planet’s response to the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, many of these changes are coming whether we like them or not. “It’s sort of like that Kung Fu guy who said, ‘I’m going to kick your head off now, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it,'” Barnett says.

Grassroots action

Although efforts to fight climate change are now stalled in Washington, many regions do see the threat and are taking action both to adapt to the future changes and to try to limit the amount of global warming itself. The Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region office, for instance, has developed a plan to make “manageable” cuts in the amounts of water that the river system supplies, which Fulp hopes will be enough to get the region through the next 15 years. In Canada, after experiencing eight extreme storms (of more than one-in-25-year intensity) between 1986 and 2006, Toronto has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade its sewer and storm water system for handling deluges. “Improved storm drains are the cornerstone of our climate adaptation policy,” explains Michael D’Andrea, Toronto’s director of water infrastructure management.

In Iowa, even without admitting that climate change is real, farmers are acting as if it is, spending millions of dollars to alter their practices. They are adding tile drainage to their fields to cope with increased floods, buying bigger machinery to move more quickly because their planting window has become shorter, planting a month earlier than they did 50 years ago, and sowing twice as many corn plants per acre to exploit the additional moisture, says Gene Takle, professor of meteorology at Iowa State University in Ames. “Iowa’s floods are in your face—and in your basement—evidence that the climate has changed, and the farmers are adapting,” he says.

Local officials have seen the connection, too. After the huge floods of 2008, the Iowa town of Cedar Falls passed an ordinance requiring that anyone who lives in the 500-year flood plain must have flood insurance—up from the previous 200-year flood requirement. State Sen. Robert Hogg wants to make the policy statewide. He also is pushing to restore wetlands that can help soak up floodwaters before they devastate cities. “Wetland restoration costs money, but it’s cheaper than rebuilding Cedar Rapids,” he says. “I like to say that dealing with climate change is not going to require the greatest sacrifices, but it is going to require the greatest foresight Americans have ever had.”

Right now, that foresight is more myopia, many scientists worry. So when and how will people finally understand that far more is needed? It may require more flooded basements, more searing heat waves, more water shortages or crop failures, more devastating hurricanes or other examples of the increases in extreme weather that climate change will bring. “I don’t want to root for bad things to happen, but that’s what it will take,” says one government scientist who asked not to be identified. Or as Nashville resident Rich Hays says about his own experience with the May 2010 deluge: “The flood was definitely a wake-up call. The question is: How many wake-up calls do we need?”

Reporting for this story was funded by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Global Warming and the Science of Extreme Weather (Scientific American)

How rising temperatures change weather and produce fiercer, more frequent storms. Second of a three-part series

By John Carey | Wednesday, June 29, 2011 | 46

HURRICANE KATRINA battered New Orleans in 2005. Image: NOAA

Editor’s note: This article is the second of a three-part series by John Carey. Part 1, posted on June 28, is “Storm Warning: Extreme Weather Is a Product of Climate Change”.

Extreme floods, prolonged droughts, searing heat waves, massive rainstorms and the like don’t just seem like they’ve become the new normal in the last few years—they have become more common, according to data collected by reinsurance company Munich Re (see Part 1 of this series). But has this increase resulted from human-caused climate change or just from natural climatic variations? After all, recorded floods and droughts go back to the earliest days of mankind, before coal, oil and natural gas made the modern industrial world possible.

Until recently scientists had only been able to say that more extreme weather is “consistent” with climate change caused by greenhouse gases that humans are emitting into the atmosphere. Now, however, they can begin to say that the odds of having extreme weather have increased because of human-caused atmospheric changes—and that many individual events would not have happened in the same way without global warming. The reason: The signal of climate change is finally emerging from the “noise”—the huge amount of natural variability in weather.

Scientists compare the normal variation in weather with rolls of the dice. Adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere loads the dice, increasing odds of such extreme weather events. It’s not just that the weather dice are altered, however. As Steve Sherwood, co-director of the Climate Change Research Center at the University of New South Wales in Australia, puts it, “it is more like painting an extra spot on each face of one of the dice, so that it goes from 2 to 7 instead of 1 to 6. This increases the odds of rolling 11 or 12, but also makes it possible to roll 13.”

Why? Basic physics is at work: The planet has already warmed roughly 1 degree Celsius since preindustrial times, thanks to CO2and other greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. And for every 1-degree C (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) rise in temperature, the amount of moisture that the atmosphere can contain rises by 7 percent, explains Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the U.K. Met Office’s Hadley Center for Climate Change. “That’s quite dramatic,” he says. In some places, the increase has been much larger. Data gathered by Gene Takle, professor of meteorology at Iowa State University in Ames, show a 13 percent rise in summer moisture over the past 50 years in the state capital, Des Moines.

The physics of too much rain

The increased moisture in the atmosphere inevitably means more rain. That’s obvious. But not just any kind of rain, the climate models predict. Because of the large-scale energy balance of the planet, “the upshot is that overall rainfall increases only 2 to 3 percent per degree of warming, whereas extreme rainfall increases 6 to 7 percent,” Stott says. The reason again comes from physics. Rain happens when the atmosphere cools enough for water vapor to condense into liquid. “However, because of the increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the troposphere, the radiative cooling is less efficient, as less radiation can escape to space,” Stott explains. “Therefore the global precipitation increases less, at about 2 to 3 percent per degree of warming.” But because of the extra moisture, when precipitation does occur (in both rain and snow), it’s more likely to be in bigger events.

Iowa is one of many places that fits the pattern. Takle documented a three- to seven-fold increase in high rainfall events in the state, including the 500-year Mississippi River flood in 1993, the 2008 Cedar Rapids flood as well as the 500-year event in 2010 in Ames, which inundated the Hilton Coliseum basketball court in eight feet (2.5 meters) of water . “We can’t say with confidence that the 2010 Ames flood was caused by climate change, but we can say that the dice are loaded to bring more of these events,” Takle says.

And more events seem to be in the news every month, from unprecedented floods in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to massive snowstorms that crippled the U.S. Northeast in early 2011, to the November 2010 to January 2011 torrents in Australia that flooded an area the size of Germany and France . This “disaster of biblical proportions,” as local Australian officials called it, even caused global economic shock waves: The flooding of the country’s enormously productive coal mines sent world coal prices soaring.

More stormy weather

More moisture and energy in the atmosphere, along with warmer ocean temperatures also mean more intense hurricanes, many scientists say. In fact, 2010 was the first year in decades in which two simultaneous category 4 hurricanes, Igor and Julia, formed in the Atlantic Ocean. In addition, the changed conditions bring an increased likelihood of more powerful thunderstorms with violent updrafts, like a July 23, 2010, tempest in Vivian, S.D., that produced hailstones that punched softball-size holes through roofs—and created a behemoth ball of ice measured at a U.S. record 8 inches (20 centimeters) in diameter even after it had partially melted. “I’ve never seen a storm like that before—and hope I’ll never go through anything like it,” says Les Scott, the Vivian farmer and rancher who found the hailstone .

Warming the planet alters large-scale circulation patterns as well. Scientists know that the sun heats moist air at the equator, causing the air to rise. As it rises, the air cools and sheds most of its moisture as tropical rain. Once six to 10 miles (9.5 to 16 kilometers) aloft, the now dry air travels toward the poles, descending when it reaches the subtropics, normally at the latitude of the Baja California peninsula. This circulation pattern, known as a Hadley cell, contributes to desertification, trade winds and the jet stream.

On a warmer planet, however, the dry air will travel farther north and south from the equator before it descends, climate models predict, making areas like the U.S. Southwest and the Mediterranean even drier. Such an expanded Hadley cell would also divert storms farther north. Are the models right? Richard Seager of Columbia University’s Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory has been looking for a climate change–induced drying trend in the Southwest, “and there seems to be some tentative evidence that it is beginning to happen,” he says. “It gives us confidence in the models.” In fact, other studies show that the Hadley cells have not only expanded, they’ve expanded more than the models predicted.

Such a change in atmospheric circulation could explain both the current 11-year drought in the Southwest and Minnesota’s status as the number one U.S. state for tornadoes last year. On October 26, 2010, the Minneapolis area even experienced record low pressure in what Paul Douglas, founder and CEO of WeatherNation in Minnesota, dubbed a “landicane”—a hurricanelike storm that swept across the country. “I thought the windows of my home would blow in,” Douglas recalls. “I’ve chased tornados and flown into hurricanes but never experienced anything like this before.” Yet it makes sense in the context of climate change, he adds. “Every day, every week, another piece of the puzzle falls into place,” he says. “More extreme weather seems to have become the rule, not just in the U.S. but in Europe and Asia.”

The rise of climate attribution

Is humankind really responsible? That’s where the burgeoning field of climate attribution, pioneered by Hadley’s Peter Stott and other scientists, comes in. The idea is to look for trends in the temperature or precipitation data that provide evidence of overall changes in climate. When those trends exist, it then becomes possible to calculate how much climate change has contributed to extreme events. Or in more technical terms, the probability of a particular temperature or rainfall amount is shaped roughly like a bell curve. A change in climate shifts the whole curve. That, in turn, increases the likelihood of experiencing the more extreme weather at the tail end of the bell curve. Whereas day-to-day weather remains enormously variable, the underlying human-caused shift in climate increases the power and number of the events at the extreme. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Deke Arndt puts it more colorfully: “Weather throws the punches, but climate trains the boxer,” he says. By charting the overall shift, then, it’s possible to calculate the increased chances of extreme events due to global warming.

This idea was already in the air in 2003 when Stott traveled though the worst heat wave in recorded European history on a wedding anniversary trip to Italy and Switzerland. One of the striking consequences he noticed was that the Swiss mountains were missing their usual melodious tinkling of cowbells. “There was no water in the mountains, and the farmers had to take all their cows down in the valley,” he says. He decided to see if he could pin part of the blame on climate change after he returned to his office in Exeter, England. “I didn’t expect to get a positive result,” he says

But he did. In fact, the signal of a warming climate was quite clear in Europe, even using data up to only 2000. In a landmark paper in Nature Stott and colleagues concluded that the chances of a heat wave like the 2003 event have more than doubled because of climate change. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) Data collected since then show that the odds are at least four times higher compared with pre-industrial days. “We are very aware of the risks of misattribution,” Stott says. “We don’t want to point to specific events and say that they are part of climate change when they really are due to natural variability. But for some events, like the 2003 heat wave, we have the robust evidence to back it up.”

Case in point: Hurricane Katrina

Another event with a clear global warming component, says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., was Hurricane Katrina. Trenberth calculated that the combination of overall planetary warming, elevated moisture in the atmosphere, and higher sea-surface temperatures meant that “4 to 6 percent of the precipitation—an extra inch [2.5 centimeters] of rain—in Katrina was due to global warming,” he says. “That may not sound like much, but it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back or causes a levee to fail.” It was also a very conservative estimate. “The extra heat produced as moisture condenses can invigorate a storm, and at a certain point, the storm just takes off,” he says. “That would certainly apply to Nashville.” So climate change’s contribution to Katrina could have been twice as high as his calculations show, he says. Add in higher winds to the extra energy, and it is easy to see how storms can become more damaging.

This science of attribution is not without controversies. Another case in point: the 2010 Russian heat wave, which wiped out one quarter of the nation’s wheat crop and darkened the skies of Moscow with smoke from fires. The actual meteorological cause is not in doubt. “There was a blocking of the atmospheric circulation,” explains Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist at the NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, also in Boulder. “The jet stream shifted north, bringing a longer period of high pressure and stagnant weather conditions.” But what caused the blocking? Hoerling looked for an underlying long-term temperature trend in western Russia that might have increased the odds of a heat wave, as Stott had done for the 2003 European event. He found nothing. “The best explanation is a rogue black swan—something that came out of the blue,” he says.

Wrong, retorts NCAR’s Trenberth. He sees a clear expansion of the hot, dry Mediterranean climate into western Russia that is consistent with climate change predictions—and that also intensified the Pakistan monsoon. “I completely repudiate Marty—and it doesn’t help to have him saying you can’t attribute the heat wave to climate change,” he says. “What we can say is that, as with Katrina, this would not have happened the same way without global warming.”

Yet even this dispute is smaller than it first appears. What is not in doubt is that the Russian heat wave is a portent—a glimpse of the future predicted by climate models. Even Hoerling sees it as a preview of coming natural disasters. By 2080, such events are expected to happen, on average, once every five years, he says: “It’s a good wake-up call. This type of phenomenon will become radically more common.”

Storm Warnings: Extreme Weather Is a Product of Climate Change (Scientific American)

More violent and frequent storms, once merely a prediction of climate models, are now a matter of observation. Part 1 of a three-part series

By John Carey | Tuesday, June 28, 2011 | 130

DROWNING: The Souris River overflowed levees in Minot, N.D., as seen here on June 23. Image: Patrick Moes/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In North Dakota the waters kept rising. Swollen by more than a month of record rains in Saskatchewan, the Souris River topped its all time record high, set back in 1881. The floodwaters poured into Minot, North Dakota’s fourth-largest city, and spread across thousands of acres of farms and forests. More than 12,000 people were forced to evacuate. Many lost their homes to the floodwaters.

Yet the disaster unfolding in North Dakota might be bringing even bigger headlines if such extreme events hadn’t suddenly seemed more common. In this year alone massive blizzards have struck the U.S. Northeast, tornadoes have ripped through the nation, mighty rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri have flowed over their banks, and floodwaters have covered huge swaths of Australia as well as displaced more than five million people in China and devastated Colombia. And this year’s natural disasters follow on the heels of a staggering litany of extreme weather in 2010, from record floods in Nashville, Tenn., and Pakistan, to Russia’s crippling heat wave.

These patterns have caught the attention of scientists at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They’ve been following the recent deluges’ stunning radar pictures and growing rainfall totals with concern and intense interest. Normally, floods of the magnitude now being seen in North Dakota and elsewhere around the world are expected to happen only once in 100 years. But one of the predictions of climate change models is that extreme weather—floods, heat waves, droughts, even blizzards—will become far more common. “Big rain events and higher overnight lows are two things we would expect with [a] warming world,” says Deke Arndt, chief of the center’s Climate Monitoring Branch. Arndt’s group had already documented a stunning rise in overnight low temperatures across the U.S. So are the floods and spate of other recent extreme events also examples of predictions turned into cold, hard reality?

Increasingly, the answer is yes. Scientists used to say, cautiously, that extreme weather events were “consistent” with the predictions of climate change. No more. “Now we can make the statement that particular events would not have happened the same way without global warming,” says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.

That’s a profound change—the difference between predicting something and actually seeing it happen. The reason is simple: The signal of climate change is emerging from the “noise”—the huge amount of natural variability in weather.

Extreme signals

There are two key lines of evidence. First, it’s not just that we’ve become more aware of disasters like North Dakota or last year’s Nashville flood, which caused $13 billion in damage, or the massive 2010 summer monsoon in Pakistan that killed 1,500 people and left 20 million more homeless. The data show that the number of such events is rising. Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies, has compiled the world’s most comprehensive database of natural disasters, reaching all the way back to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Researchers at the company, which obviously has a keen financial interest in trends that increase insurance risks, add 700 to 1,000 natural catastrophes to the database each year, explains Mark Bove, senior research meteorologist in Munich Re’s catastrophe risk management office in Princeton, N.J. The data indicate a small increase in geologic events like earthquakes since 1980 because of better reporting. But the increase in the number of climate disasters is far larger. “Our figures indicate a trend towards an increase in extreme weather events that can only be fully explained by climate change,” says Peter Höppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research/Corporate Climate Center: “It’s as if the weather machine had changed up a gear.

The second line of evidence comes from a nascent branch of science called climate attribution. The idea is to examine individual events like a detective investigating a crime, searching for telltale fingerprints of climate change. Those fingerprints are showing up—in the autumn floods of 2000 in England and Wales that were the worst on record, in the 2003 European heat wave that caused 14,000 deaths in France, in Hurricane Katrina—and, yes, probably even in Nashville. This doesn’t mean that the storms or hot spells wouldn’t have happened at all without climate change, but as scientists like Trenberth say, they wouldn’t have been as severe if humankind hadn’t already altered the planet’s climate.This new science is still controversial. There’s an active debate among researchers about whether the Russian heat wave bears the characteristic signature of climate change or whether it was just natural variability, for instance. Some scientists worry that trying to attribute individual events to climate change is counterproductive in the larger political debate, because it’s so easy to dismiss the claim by saying that the planet has always experienced extreme weather. And some researchers who privately are convinced of the link are reluctant to say so publicly, because global warming has become such a target of many in Congress.

But the evidence is growing for a link between the emissions of modern civilization and extreme weather events. And that has the potential to profoundly alter the perception of the threats posed by climate change. No longer is global warming an abstract concept, affecting faraway species, distant lands or generations far in the future. Instead, climate change becomes personal. Its hand can be seen in the corn crop of a Maryland farmer ruined when soaring temperatures shut down pollination or the $13 billion in damage in Nashville, with the Grand Ole Opry flooded and sodden homes reeking of rot. “All of a sudden we’re not talking about polar bears or the Maldives any more,” says Nashville-based author and environmental journalist Amanda Little. “Climate change translates into mold on my baby’s crib. We’re talking about homes and schools and churches and all the places that got hit.”

Drenched in Nashville

Indeed, the record floods in Nashville in May 2010 shows how quickly extreme weather can turn ordinary life into a nightmare. The weekend began innocuously. The forecast was a 50 percent chance of rain. Musician Eric Normand and his wife Kelly were grateful that the weather event they feared, a tornado, wasn’t anticipated. Eric’s Saturday concert in a town south of Nashville should go off without a hitch, he figured.

He was wrong. On Saturday, it rained—and rained. “It was a different kind of rain than any I had experienced in my whole life,” says Nashville resident Rich Hays. Imagine the torrent from an intense summer thunderstorm, the sort of deluge that prompts you to duck under an underpass for a few minutes until the rain stops and it’s safe to go on, Little says. It was like that, she recalls—except that on this weekend in May 2010 it didn’t stop. Riding in the bus with his fellow musicians, Normand “looked through a window at a rain-soaked canopy of green and gray,” he wrote later. Scores of cars were underwater on the roads they had just traveled. A short 14-hour bus gig turned out to be “one of the most stressful and terrifying we had ever experienced,” Normand says.

And still it rained—more than 13 inches (33 centimeters) that weekend. The water rose in Little’s basement—one foot, two feet, three feet (one meter) deep. “You get this panicky feeling that things are out of control,” she says. Over at Hays’s home, fissures appeared in the basement floor, and streams of water turned into a “full-on river,” Hays recalls. Then in the middle of night, “I heard this massive crack, almost like an explosion,” he says. The force of the water had fractured the house’s concrete foundation. He and his wife spent the rest of the night in fear that the house might collapse.

Sunday morning, Normand went out in the deluge to ask his neighbor if he knew when the power might go back on—it was then he realized that his normal world had vanished. A small creek at the bottom of the hill was now a lake one-half mile (0.8 kilometer) wide, submerging homes almost up to their second stories. “My first reaction was disbelief,” Normand says. He and his family were trapped, without power and surrounded by flooded roads. “We were just freaked out,” he recalls.

And all across the flooded city the scenes were surreal, almost hallucinatory, Little says. “There were absurdities heaped upon absurdities. Churches lifted off foundations and floating down streets. Cars floating in a herd down highways.” In her own basement her family’s belongings bobbed like debris in a pond.

By time the deluge ended, more than 13 inches (33 centimeters) of rain had fallen, as recorded at Nashville’s airport. The toll: 31 people dead, more than $3 billion in damage—and an end to the cherished perception that Nashville was safe from major weather disasters. “A community that had never been vulnerable to this incredible force of nature was literally taken by storm,” Little says.

But can the Nashville deluge, the North Dakota floods and the many other extreme weather events around the world be connected with the greenhouse gases that humans have spewed into the atmosphere? Increasingly the answer seems to be yes. Whereas it will never be possible to say that any particular event was caused by climate change, new science is teasing out both the contributions that it makes to individual events—and the increase in the odds of extreme weather occurring as a result of climate change.

Reviewing the Nisbet ‘Climate Shift’ Report and Controversial Claims of Media Progress (Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media)

by John Wihbey | July 11, 2011

Matt Nisbet’s ‘Climate Shift’ research report raised headline-grabbing points on fundraising successes by those advocating action on climate change. But it’s what lies behind those headlines — and relating specifically to media coverage — that also warrants further review and analysis.

Few pieces of recent academic research on climate change have stirred up as much controversy as American University professor Matthew Nisbet’s April 2011 report “Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate.”

The report’s biggest headline-grabbing finding — that the environmental lobby is now holding its own in the money race with industry groups opposing carbon regulations — doubtless will generate further analysis, and one can imagine more such annual scorecards assessing this power struggle. And the questions “Climate Shift” raises about the relative political wisdom — or lack of same — in pushing the failed cap-and-trade bill in Congress may well be debated by historians for years to come.

Perhaps the most underappreciated facet of the scholarship that Nisbet put forth, however, involves his analysis of media coverage in the years 2009-2010, contained in his provocatively titled chapter 3, “The Death of a Norm: Evaluating False Balance in News Coverage.”

According to Nisbet’s story-by-story analysis that covers the vertiginous period involving Copenhagen, the so-called “climategate” hacked e-mails, and federal cap-and-trade, the mainstream media — represented in his analysis by The New York Times, CNN.com, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, and The Washington Post — basically moved past the oft-criticized journalistic mode of “he said, she said,” or “false balance.” In its place, those media generally reflected the “consensus science” as backed by organizations such as the U.N.’s IPCC and the National Academy of Sciences and most of its international counterparts. (The opinion pages of the Journal are bracketed as an exception, and Nisbet’s analysis shows that its editorials do indeed continue to cast doubt on climate science.)

Nisbet’s assertion is a profound one, with significant implications. His stated goal with “Climate Shift” is to help reorient the priorities of groups trying to combat global change through the promotion of science and smart messaging to the public. (See companion posting based on author’s extensive e-mail interview with Nisbet.)
“[I]f trend-setting national media have overwhelmingly portrayed the consensus views on the fundamentals of climate science (as the report’s findings indicate),” Nisbet wrote in a recent e-mail interview with The Yale Forum, “then we should be turning to other types of media organizations in our engagement efforts and focusing on other dimensions of coverage, including … subsidizing the ability of local and regional media to cover climate change and energy insecurity as these challenges relate to their region and communities.” These are ideas Nisbet has raised also in previous reports.

Lines of Criticism

Bloggers at Media Matters do criticize how Nisbet interprets his data around the “climategate” period — one of the few on-the-numbers critiques. Nisbet responds that changes in coverage since then are either not “statistically significant” or “not meaningful.”

Other than that, few have questioned the particulars of Nisbet’s labor-intensive analysis of how those five outlets performed. Their selection — and the exclusion of others — though, is the subject of debate.

Nisbet says he chose those specific news outlets because they set the news agenda and have high-volume traffic, as reflected in Nielsen-tabulated figures. CNN.com, the Post and the Times ranked numbers 4, 5 and 9, respectively, in terms of web traffic in 2009. But given that news aggregators such as Yahoo, AOL, and Google ranked 1, 3, and 6, respectively, one might think that Nisbet’s universe of analysis did not capture the true flow of public news information.

The combined traffic of the aggregators is nearly twice that of the news sites Nisbet focused on. Admittedly, though, these aggregators would be a moving target — and an empirical analysis of the quality of news linked to would be difficult — but that’s where some huge portion of the public gets its news and information, and therefore its impressions and opinions.

(One other quibble, about the selection of Politico: Nisbet calls it “the paper ‘the White House wakes up to,’ as memorably headlined in a profile at The New York Times.” In fact, the article he cites is really just a profile of Politico reporter Mike Allen and his important day calendar “Playbook” blog. Though Politico is powerful and prolific, what constitutes “the paper of record for members of Congress,” as Nisbet puts it, may be an issue of reasonable disagreement among media watchers.)

Climate communications expert and University of Colorado-Boulder professor Max Boykoff was one of the formal reviewers for the “Climate Shift” report. He told The Yale Forum in an e-mail interview, “Overall, I found [Nisbet’s] work in Chapter 3 to be good. As he assembled it I spoke with Matt multiple times. (Chapter 3 was the part of the report I most focused on). We discussed how to replicate the methods and approaches that I undertook in my work on empirically testing the accuracy of coverage about human contributions to climate change (aka, the ‘balance as bias’ thesis). His methods and findings (re: WSJ op-ed divergence etc.) appeared valid and reliable.”

Still, Boykoff stated a potentially striking limitation of this type of analysis in his reviewer comments submitted back to Nisbet: Such analysis “still isn’t equipped to gauge how one particular carefully/prominently/well- or ill-timed article or commentary could have a much greater influence on public perceptions and views than consistently inaccurate treatment. In other words, the sometimes haphazard nature of media consumption — from skimming articles to just hearing/watching portions of a segment — isn’t accounted for through this approach. At the end of the day, these studies … struggle to account for ‘selective listening’ or ‘selective reading’ that we actually engage in during our daily lives.”

Boykoff also said he told Nisbet that his (Nisbet’s) research had not provided sufficient support for the “Climate Shift” report’s contention that “even in a world of blogs and fragmented audiences, the coverage appearing at these outlets strongly shapes the news decisions made at the broadcast and cable networks and informs the decisions of policymakers.”

The Fox News Question

Other notable criticisms of Nisbet’s approach in Chapter 3 of his report have focused on his exclusion of television sources, particularly Fox News. Prolific blogger and energy/climate expert Joseph Romm, who leveled ferocious criticism of Nisbet on his “Climate Progress” blog, makes much of this point. This dispute is a tricky one, resting on a difficult-to-resolve social science debate about how “persuade-able” the Fox News audience is, and just how best to measure the impacts of its huge ratings and online readership as part of American political consciousness.

In his comments to The Yale Forum, Nisbet replied, “As I discuss in the report, the audience for Fox News and political talk radio tend to be strongly self-selecting with consumption of these media tending to reinforce the views of those already doubtful or dismissive of climate change (approximately 25 percent of Americans).” Moreover, he says it “is not clear how these unsurprising findings would help us to move forward since any level of engagement with Fox News producers or talk radio hosts is unlikely to lead to changes in their coverage patterns. We can complain about and criticize these outlets, but much of the criticism and anger, I would argue, often ends up distracting us from initiatives where we can make a difference with journalists, editors, and with different publics.”

This latter point, of course, highlights an important facet of Nisbet’s project, namely that it has a particular goal, an “agenda” even, that puts an emphasis on both utility, or making a “difference,” and on truth as criteria for inquiry. (It’s possible this is where he opens the door for controversy, as it leaves him open to criticisms that he is downplaying conservative media and thereby painting an unduly positive picture of the U.S. media as a whole on climate issues.)

Columbia Journalism Review science editor Curtis Brainard told The Yale Forum recently that he thinks the spirit of Nisbet’s report is basically right in Chapter 3, at least as it relates to “news reporters and news articles.” For Nisbet and Brainard both, broad accusations that public ignorance is the media’s “fault” are no longer well-founded.

“There is this conventional wisdom floating around out there that journalists are inept, rarely able to get their facts straight or explain or deliver an accurate account of events,” Brainard wrote in an e-mail. “They’re not. But it’s much easier for activists and other policy or program stakeholders to blame the media when things don’t go their way than to analyze the much more complicated interplay of multiple factors.”

(As an aside, Brainard notes that he wrote about precisely this dynamic in his recent article, “Tornadoes and Climate Change,” which pushes back against such charges leveled by environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben. Brainard says McKibben is too quick to condemn the media as a whole for not making connections between various extreme weather events.)

We’re past those earlier days, Brainard told The Yale Forum, when the basic questions about climate science are portrayed in most mainstream news media as being unsettled: “The coverage has become so much more sophisticated since then, delving into the specific consequences of climate change, from sea level rise, to changing precipitation and drought patterns, to consequences for flora and fauna. Many reporters struggle to accurately explain the highly uncertain and nuanced science underlying these phenomena, but the flaws in the coverage are quite different from the false balance that was on exhibit before, say, 2006. First of all, there is nowhere near as much scientific consensus about these finer points of climate science as there is about the fundamentals (i.e., the Earth is warming, and humans are most likely to blame), so today’s stories are really apples compared with yesterday’s oranges.”

Work Ahead for Media, Scholars

If Nisbet’s report has an underlying flaw, perhaps, it may be in its packaging, particularly in its “Move On”-style message and ambition to deliver a definitive verdict. Its real virtue is that it has just very effectively — whether or not one buys it all — started a different kind of conversation. And given that just five outlets were analyzed in the report, there is certainly much more conversation to be had.

As mentioned, Nisbet has said he is already carrying out new research and further study on local and regional media. (See his latest thoughts on this issue as they relate to Chicago.) It’s a cause on which all academics and media professionals and critics might agree, as the business model for such outlets continues to erode. Local information ecosystems are changing, shifting, and in many cases decaying. But many observers point out how essential they remain.

“It would also be good to look at the practically countless number of local TV network affiliates across the country since, collectively, they are where most Americans still get their news,” Brainard also noted.

“Local newspapers, as Pew has documented, remain at the center of the local media ecosystem, with the overwhelming number of regional/local issues covered by local TV news and at local blogs originating from local newspaper coverage,” Nisbet said. “In this sense, on climate change and energy, we should think about local and regional newspapers as being part of the central communication infrastructure that regions and communities need to learn, connect, plan and make collective choices on the issue.”

Perhaps, through further studies by Nisbet and others, this important work on local and regional media — their shortcomings and needs — can shed additional light.

John Wihbey is a regular contributor to the Yale Forum. He is a journalist and researcher, and he can be reached at jpwihb@yahoo.com.