News that no longer fits into CNN

Posted December 5th, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Ignorance of Ignorance

As a blogger on environmental science and policy who has actually worked in this field for over 20 years, I have done my share of grumbling about the quality of coverage of this complex subject, but have also come to appreciate just how time consuming it is to provide quality coverage, on a daily basis, and how much we need good journalists who are actually paid to do this full time. So it was with great sadness last night, while winding down from a very long day in which I scarcely even had time to look at the blogs, much less post anything, that I found out CNN just axed the entire science and technology team at CNN. That would be science correspondent Miles O’Brien and six executive producers, among them, Peter Dykstra, who focused on science and environment, and who I had the pleasure to know in person, before he moved to Atlanta. That was a long time ago so I suspect this team is the last of the Turner era CNN crew. 

I have watched much less of CNN ever since they followed that infamous white van. But I have been reading Peter’s excellent posts to the SciTech blog, and wonder who will be finding and reporting answers to all of the good questions he has raised, now more critical than ever in what is expected to be a post science-war reconstruction period. And, via dotearth, we are reminded of when Miles O’Brien managed to put Sen. Inhofe into context, rather than “balance” a broadly held scientific consensus with denialist rants:

CNN’s reason?

We want to integrate environmental, science and technology reporting into the general editorial structure rather than have a stand alone unit.  Now that the bulk of our environmental coverage is being offered through the Planet in Peril franchise . . . there is no need for a separate unit.

First, Anderson Cooper does a fine job of drawing attention to melting glaciers, or whatever he happens to be standing in front of. But that is not a substitute for quality in depth coverage that viewers will be looking for once they are hooked. Somehow, I can’t quite see Cooper providing the same depth of background reporting, in a way that draws more attention to the work of scientists and those affected by change, than to himself.

Second, “integration” at the expense of more specialized in depth reporting and diverse perspectives is an abuse of the concept, and is really just a way to control the narrative and eliminate news that doesn’t fit. Which is what you would be getting more of here at The Post-Normal Times, were I able to make a living at it. Exposing the sham arguments made by climate denialists always made good fodder for blogging, and was a relatively easy target. Making sense of various policy proposals for addressing rapid changes, not only in the climate, will be much more challenging, and will only increase the need for skilled science journalists. And also for scientists who can explain what we know and don’t know, and the trade-offs between different choices, in plain english.

For more coverage see: Curtis Brainard/Columbia Journalism Review, Janet Raloff/Science News, and, of course, commentary by PZ Myers


Melting pot?

Posted May 15th, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Ignorance of Ignorance

Stephen Colbert weighs in on the McCain’s “better way” of addressing human induced climate change, which may literally turn the entire world into a melting pot. It is indeed, a national, or what I would call human security issue, but, as Stephen so eloquently points out, if calling it that would bring it into McCain’s domain of expertise, lets call some more things national security issues (e.g., the economy – which he admitted to not knowing much about, and the sociology of Iraq – where he does not know the difference between Sunni and Shia).

For a more detailed analysis of McCain’s speech, see Romm’s 4 part series, in which he reminds us also that it is because of McCain and his fellow conservatives that the United States is now a bit player in the wind industry that the United States invested in heavily in the 1970s, which is presumably why McCain made his climate speech in front of Danish wind turbines:

President Reagan cut the renewable energy R&D budget 85% after he took office and eliminated the wind investment tax credit in 1986. This was pretty much the death of most of the US wind industry. While President Clinton worked to increase funding for wind, the Gingrich Congress blocked that effort beginning in 1995. President Bush is another conservative who fail to see the importance of wind power in the need for consistent support of the tax credit.

(Note to the youth climate movement: please stop blaming boomers and environmental groups. Howz about “we” work together on this…)

And that McCain’s pledge to support an adaptation strategy is at odds with his small government rhetoric. Romm also argues that his proposed offsets approach would not accomplish very much. I personally think it depends on how it is done, and think carbon credits can be an important way to generate the kind of revenue that will be needed to support a transition, and development strategies that incorporate adaptation and help to reduce poverty. Lastly, (part 4) McCain doesn’t seem to be able to bring conservatives along with him, so it is unlikely he would actually be able to do anything if elected.

Another kernel of truth

Posted April 29th, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Ignorance of Ignorance

Last night Stephen Colbert explained the “efficiency” of corn ethanol, which has presumably “solved” the climate crisis – or at least provided a good introduction. You can fly across the Atlantic and wipe out an amount of land equivalent to 30 soccer fields! What he didn’t say is that conversion of land to soccer fields also emits carbon stored in vegetation and soil. And that it isn’t just the Brits raining on the petro parade. Last week I attended the AMS seminar on Biofuels, Land Conversion and Climate Change, in which several of our own American scientists – Joseph Fargione, Timothy Searchinger, David Tilman, and Daniel Kammen, provided a good overview of this topic (powerpoints here; podcast and vidcasts expected to be up shortly). A few highlights from my notes:

Previous research findings that corn ethanol reduces emissions by 13% did not consider land use change.

Use of land to grow corn for ethanol raises crop prices, not only for corn. So it is creating pressure to take land out of the Conservation Reserve Program – the amount of acreage in the program was reduced by 2.3 million acres in 2007, and >4.5 million are set to expire in 2010, but they could leave sooner if the farm lobby is successful in getting penalties waived for breaking their contracts.

It also creates pressure to convert native prairie grass to corn fields – native prairie grass fields store 286 tons per hectare of carbon, which is 160 more tons/ha than cornfields. From 2002-2007, >500,000 acres were converted in Montana and the Dakotas. The amount of carbon released is 93 times the amount “saved” by using ethanol.

But most new corn crops come from the displacement of soybean crops. This raises the price of soybeans, which leads to deforestation in the Amazon rather than here. The Amazon stores even more carbon than prairies (927 tons/ha), which is 815 tons/ha more than a soybean field. The amount of carbon released is then 319 times the amount “saved” by using biodiesel from soy. The worst case scenarios is palm oil from peatlands….

Then there is the issue of forgone ongoing carbon sequestration services that soils and vegetation would have continued to provide, and the indirect effects, which can be even more significant (e.g., food prices, algal blooms, biodiversity loss, water consumption….), not to mention the land that will be needed to double food production to feed the expected population of 9 billion.

Land use change overall is estimated to account for 1/5th of global emissions of greenhouse gases but my guess is that that estimate has yet to include increased pressure on land from biofuels.

The good news is, that not all biofuels fuels are alike and we shouldn’t be lumping them into a single category. Obtained instead from waste biomass, from switchgrass, and from other perennial crops grown on degraded lands, use of biofuels can be efficient and even carbon negative, and can provide an economic incentive to restore those degraded lands. Prices and markets alone won’t bring about the needed transition. As Kammen said in the final presentation, “there is no peak dirty energy.”

Apparently Joe Romm was also there and blogged it here.

Exploring ignorance

Posted April 23rd, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Ignorance of Ignorance

Via Inscights – a presentation given by Jeroen Van der Sluijs on the Changing relations between Science and Society: PNS and STS 1988-2008, reflecting on 20 years of the Science Technology and Society group at Utrecht University, in which he contrasts approaches to uncertainty under the different science and policy models. In one example that involves a decisions about protecting a strategic fresh-water resource, he asks how one might act, faced with 5 different answers from 5 different consultants, who were all asked the same question:

“which parts of this area are most vulnerable to nitrate pollution and need to be protected?”

Here are some possibilities:

  • Bayesian approach: 5 priors. Average and update likelihood of each (but oooops, there is no data and we need decision now)
  • IPCC approach: Lock the 5 consultants up in a room and don’t release them before they have consensus
  • Nihilist approach: Dump the science and decide on another basis
  • ‘Rita Verdonk’ approach: open a wiki site and let the people say and vote what they feel is the truth and take that as guidance
  • Precautionary approach: protect all grid-cells
  • Precaution light: protect those grid-cells that are red according to at least one consultant
  • Academic bureaucrat approach: Weigh by citation index (or H-factor) of consultant.
  • Select the consultant you trust most
  • Real life approach: Select the consultant that best fits your policy agenda
  • Normalized post normal: weigh them by pedigree score
  • Post normal: explore the relevance of our ignorance: working deliberatively within imperfections

I wonder what we might add to the list from first hand experience? Or better yet, by elaborating on examples of the last bullet. (perhaps to be continued…)

[Reference for figure: Refsgaard, J.C., van der Sluijs J, Brown J., and ven der Keur (2006) A framework for dealing with uncertainty due to model structure error. Advances in Water Resouces 29 1586-1597 doi link]