Archive for January, 2010

African American History Project

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

When I taught science, I learned that some students believe scientists are white men.

Many are, of course, but there are a large number of exceptions, many quite prominent. Shirley Jackson, past president of American Association for the Advancement of Science, physicist, etc, etc.
Shirley Jackson

David Blackwell, mathematician, etc (check out video interviews, including his experience in elementary school, Howard, and Berkeley).
David Blackwell

And many, many more.

From the new National Academies African American History Program site, a partial list of African Americans who have made significant contributions to science, engineering, and medicine.

Ready for REDD?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

REDD, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, has been described as one of the few accomplishments at Copenhagen, an agreement by the rich world to pay people in the forested world to care for the land.

Scientists don’t find this a slam-dunk solution—problems include reversibility (land owners changing their mind, or forest fire), additionality (is another forest being cut down?), etc.

Now a new report, Will the $3.5 billion forest fund work?, asks whether it makes sense in the absence of very clear rules to throw $3.5 billion at parts of the world that haven’t done so well with these problems and this kind of money in the past.

Two examples from the report:
The Surui have been involved in a dispute over land ownership. Here teens show off the solar panels.

India forest rights laws
India forest rights laws: do they protect the poor and the forests? Many don’t feel that these are the actual government objectives.

More warming in the Arctic

Monday, January 25th, 2010

From a study at UC, Berkeley: Trees invading warming Arctic will cause warming over entire region, study shows:

As the Arctic warms, shrubs and other plants are moving in, making the area more amenable to trees. One way they do this is through local warming: snow, and the bare ground replacing the snow, both have higher albedo, that is they reflect more sunlight, than do the darker plants moving in. Now another cause of Arctic warming has been found. Trees add water vapor to the Arctic air.

“Broad-leaved deciduous trees are not as dark as evergreen trees and so are generally assumed to be less important. But broad-leaved trees transpire a lot more water through their leaves and are actually able to change the water vapor content and increase the greenhouse effect. As the air warms, it can hold more water vapor, and the greenhouse effect increases further,” [UC Berkeley graduate student Abigail L.] Swann said. “So, broad-leaved trees end up warming the entire Arctic.”

More importantly, the researchers’ model predicts that the increased water vapor would melt more sea ice, resulting in more absorption of sunlight by the open ocean and dumping more water vapor into the atmosphere. This positive feedback will warm the land even more and encourage faster, more efficient tree growth and perhaps a faster expansion of trees into the Arctic.

All told, the model predicts an additional 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature over the Arctic as a result of this effect. Global warming already is predicted to increase temperatures in the Arctic between 5 and 7 degrees Celsius within the next 100 years.

What if?/Gotta die sometime

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Dr. Robert DuPont got a phone call one day to ask him about nuclear power. His specialty is phobias, people whose behavior is restricted by all the what ifs in their lives. A journalist persuaded him to watch 11 years of media coverage on US nuclear power, coverage dominated by what ifs. From a PBS interview:

[F]ear is very important, because danger is around the corner. And fear is a way of signaling that there might be a problem ahead. It’s a reaction to the possibility of a predator lurking behind that bush when you’re out walking. So I think being able to anticipate dangers is very important.

Yet nuclear power’s safety record is excellent. So what accounts for public perception? After all, fear of what ifs doesn’t do us much good.

Well, there are a number of factors. One is that the threat is concentrated. It’s the fear like Three Mile Island. A reporter said off the record that if the public only knew, the East Coast of the United States was almost destroyed. Well, of course, nothing like that happened, but that was in his mind. And he thought about that. So it’s a cataclysmic event that really gets people going. It’s a risk people don’t control. People accept tremendous risk if they control it. But if it’s controlled by somebody else, they can’t accept it. If it’s perceived as needed, people will accepted it; whereas if it’s not perceived as needed, they will dismiss it. The problem of familiarity is probably the most important. And that is when we’re familiar with something, we don’t fear it. But when it’s alien, when it’s unfamiliar, we fear it more.

And on all four counts, nuclear power generates fear. It’s a cataclysmic accident that people are concerned about, some desperate kind of thing. It’s controlled by “them”, the utilities or the government, the scientists, or whoever it is, that is perceived as being the bad guys. It’s unfamiliar to most people. And most people feel they don’t really need nuclear power; that they can get their power from coal or oil or windmills or some other basis. They don’t really need the nuclear power.

photo credit

driving while texting
photo credit DuPont’s work antedates driving while texting.

In contrast to the what ifs toward nuclear power, often our reaction to fear is insufficient. I hear this frequently as, “Well, we have to die of something” when people talk about cigarettes, alcohol, and coal use (direct pollution from coal still kills more people yearly than climate change). DuPont says,

The capacity of human fear to be eroded by repetition, by familiarity, is unlimited. It is just an amazing thing, that no matter what the risk is, if the thing is repeated over and over again, there’s no fear. There’s no protection from the fear. People will continue to do something over and over again, even if it has a terrible probability of a disaster.

And the single best example of that is cigarette smoking. Everybody knows cigarette smoking is lethal. There is no question about that. It’s not debated. It’s known that it’s lethal. And we have 55 million people who not only voluntarily smoke, but who pay billions of dollars, $40 billion a year, for the privilege of killing themselves with this known lethal agent. Now, if fear were really protecting us, you couldn’t have any smokers. It would be impossible. So you realize that fear is a very imperfect shield against health risks….

So simply getting rid of fear is not a health-promoting goal. What’s important in both cases is to have the fear be realistic; that the fear fits the facts of the risk. And from my point of view, the contrast is very clear. With respect to drug abuse, we want more fear; and with respect to nuclear power, we want less fear in terms of a public health or the public interest goals.

So what can we do?

It’s quite remarkable to me, the number of Americans who hold anti-nuclear views. For them it’s like motherhood and apple pie. I mean, they don’t even get to the point of asking a question of what it is that’s going on. It’s just taken for granted.

Perhaps the first step for anti-nuclear power people is to ask a question. “What about nuclear waste?” is a statement, what are your questions?

Nuclear phobia–phobic thinking about nuclear power: A discussion with Robert L. DuPont was published in 1980, and is now out of print.

Chinese coal pollution
image credit. China is more dangerous than the US, where National Academy of Science estimates 10,000 die from coal power pollution each year. Chernobyl (pdf) has killed 50 – 60 so far, with up to 4,000 more deaths possible over the next 6 decades from that initial exposure.

nuclear power plants
scary? image showing water vapor, from an anti-nuclear site

Sometimes people tell me that they are also opposed to people dying from coal power. But nationwide, is there is much fascination with the sins of coal power? Texting while driving gets surprisingly little attention among the public compared to concerns about brain cancer from cell phone radiation, even though brain cancer rates have declined since 1987.

I’m interested in how people challenge this tendency in ourselves and others to apply worry disproportionate to actual risk.

Braasch’s photos

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Gary Braasch’s site now has a new feature: Climate Photo of the Week.

New photos posted on Mondays.

Planning for Plan B

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Nature Reports Climate Change takes a look at the need for regulations for geoengineering, and their complexity, in Planning for plan B.

There is strong concern about rapidly increasing temperatures, perhaps as much as 4°C within 5 decades, and the paths are mitigation, geoengineering, or catastrophe. Re the 2nd path (which is likely to include overlap with the 3rd):

the legislative situation — hazy and full of holes — means that any nation or company, or even an individual with the will and financial means to do so, could start to interfere with the climate.

There are concerns about commercial interests:

the possibility of profit from carbon credits has led to fears that the cash incentive could push geoengineering ahead too fast, or in the wrong directions. Already, evidence exists that the profit motive can lure unscrupulous companies into the market. In November, the US Securities and Exchange Commission charged a Pennsylvania-based company, the Mantria Corporation, with operating what regulators called “a $30 million dollar Ponzi scheme”, saying it used exaggerated claims and aggressive marketing to con people into investing in biochar sequestration.

And governments:

Suppose, says [Granger] Morgan, [an engineer and director of Carnegie Mellon’s Climate Decision Making Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania], “a major state finds that because of climate change it can’t feed its people and starts doing [geoengineering], or decides it’s a lot cheaper than mitigation”. Then the world could face tough decisions about whether to condone geoengineering or try to stop it. “If we haven’t done the research,” Morgan says, “the international community has to fall back on a moral argument, as opposed to a science-based argument.”

While most climatologists feel mitigation is less risky and cheaper, now there is “real concern that mitigation is simply not going to be effective enough to halt catastrophic effects of climate change”, according to Phil Willis, chair of the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

Simulating volcanos
Simulating volcanos can create other problems. And it isn’t cheap.

Mitigation is better. Perhaps our governments will see that. Perhaps people who elect the governments (in countries where that is an option) will make clear to legislators that we want a strong mitigation response to climate change. But the widespread belief in the climate community is that geoengineering will look increasingly attractive as governments and the world’s population fail.

“Geoengineering is the most serious governance concern that we’re going to be facing in the next couple of decades,” argues Maria Ivanova, director of Yale University’s Global Environmental Governance Project. “It’s really about planetary survival.”