2009 Oct 17: Poverty and climate change

Stephen Scharper is a powerful speaker who helped send us off on the Sunshine Walk for Climate Justice last year.  I’m looking forward to this talk in our neighbourhood.

A Time to Speak of Poverty and Climate Change:
A Conversation with Professor Stephen Bede Scharper
Saturday, 2009 October 17, 9 am – noon
Danforth Baptist Church, 60 Bowden St

(corner of Danforth and Bowden, west of Chester station)

Presented by Toronto East KAIROS Committee.
Free admission, info 416-466-0566.

4 responses to “Poverty and climate change”

  1. Geoff W writes:

    Adriana came by my house and we chatted for a little bit. It wasn’t until she left that I read her postcard.

    Eliminate Poverty with a guaranteed minimum income? That would necessarily cause prices to go up, including for those recipients receiving the guaranteed minimum income. So not only will money be taken from me to give to others, who are already candidates for existing social assistance, but I will be forced to pay more. In this economic environment, taking even more money from me seems unjust: I live paycheck to paycheck.

    I also find it interesting that she bantered around ‘climate change’ when very recently it was ‘global warming’. Seems Green Party Science isn’t so robust after all. Thankfully, physics Professor Hayden has helped me see clearer:


  2. Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu writes:

    On a guaranteed annual income…

    The short answer is that your taxes should, if anything, go down.

    The guaranteed annual income is supported by people of both the right and the left. Perhaps the most famous proponent was Milton Friedman, who was rather famous for limiting the amount of money paid out in social services.

    The GAI would be a way to integrate existing income support programs into one efficient system with a very limited bureaucratic load. Furthermore, it would eliminate the huge disincentive for taking on part-time or temporary jobs that plagues many of the existing programs. With a GAI, everyone would always have an incentive to work to build on their basic income.

    Of course, there are reasons why the left likes this program as well. It promises a more robust and fair system, with income support for people like nursing mothers and those caring for sick or elderly relatives, artists with variable incomes and seasonal workers not captured by the current hodge-podge system. And finally, it provides basic dignity to all Canadians.

    I stand behind my support for a guaranteed annual income.

  3. Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu writes:

    On Prof Hayden’s denial of human-caused climate change…

    Physics Professor Howard Hayden

    When we speak about now retired physics Professor Hayden, we must understand first of all that physicists don’t necessarily know anything about climate change and are in no position to speak authoritatively on it.  A review of Professor Hayden’s published literature in 22,000 academic journals shows that he has no published peer-reviewed papers on the topic.

    We must also understand his biases.  He is the editor of Energy Advocate — a pro-energy, pro-technology monthly newsletter.  He sits on the board of “Academic and Scientific Advisors” of an oil-funded US think tank called “Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow” (CFACT) along with other prominent climate change deniers.  The committee appears to exist to lobby for fewer government regulations, arguing against regulations on toxic waste, mercury emissions, pesticide use and other harmful practices.

    Mr. Hayden is also listed as an “Allied Expert” for the “Natural Resource Stewardship Project”, a well-funded PR firm that exists to deny climate science.  While the NRSP refuses to disclose its funding sources, its executive director, Tim Ball, has close ties to the oil industry.

    In addition, Mr. Hayden has given speeches funded by the Heartland Institute, another think-tank that denies climate science.  The Heartland Institute has a history of dishonest tactics, such as circulating a list of 500 scientists purported to deny climate science.  Many of these scientists later denied these charges and slammed the Heartland Institute for misrepresenting them.  The Heartland Institute promotes the deregulation of health care insurance and the privatization of public services.  It continues to this day to deny the links between tobacco and cancer and heart disease.  While in recent years, the Heartland Institute has refused to reveal its funding sources, until recently it was heavily funded by the oil and tobacco industries.

    In addition, I am concerned that Mr. Hayden authored an article that doubted the existence of the ozone hole.  Denying more than one scientifically accepted fact puts him in the small but powerful camp of scientists who make their living as professional skeptics of divergent fields and often attract industry funding, support and exposure to media.  People like this spent decades supporting a disinformation campaign around the links between tobacco and cancer.

    If you google Howard Hayden, you will find no hits on the first few pages about his contributions to physics, either.  In his own field, he is not particularly well known.

    In other words, Mr. Hayden, having failed to make much of an impact in physics, has gotten the bulk of his wealth and reputation by allying himself with the oil industry and with a close group of climate change deniers.  He uses his credentials in physics to make money denying an area science in which he is not an expert.

    Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that what he writes is wrong.  I was afraid that a letter written by a professor of physics might be beyond my knowledge to judge.  However, the letter he wrote is simple to read and simply wrong from beginning to end.

    Climate models

    He begins with what he thinks is a slam-dunk argument — the fact that there are different models for climate change rather than just one.  He contends that “If the science were settled, there would be precisely one model, and it would be in agreement with measurements.”

    When engineers model traffic flow, they can build models based on number of vehicles or based on population or based on distances and relative sizes of cities served or based on tasks at different destinations.  Every model can be useful for deciding how many traffic lanes to build.  No model will ever perfectly predict outcomes because all are approximations.

    The global climate is vastly more complex than the traffic flow on a stretch of highway.  So in the same way, the 23 models used by the IPCC each use different parameters to divide up the component parts of the world.  And still the results depend on factors that remain uncertain.  Uncertainties are introduced by uncontrollable things such as economic development and population growth   They are also affected by inputs that scientists don’t yet fully understand.  While the overall effect of climate warming may be known there are a lot of such details that are imperfectly understood, such as the role of cloud cover, the potential effects on ocean currents, the rate of absorption of carbon dioxide by the oceans at higher temperatures, the rate of methane release from permafrost and clathrates as temperatures rise and so on.

    The IPCCs use of multiple models is a responsible reaction to uncertainty that produces a more comprehensive range of possible data.

    Mr. Hayden says that not a single model predicted the current cooling period.  The problem here is that there is no cooling period that scientists and statisticians can see.  This is a red herring thrown around by the climate denial industry.  Only this last week, some statisticians once again reviewed the records of the last ten years.  There is no cooling.  Keep in mind that the hottest 11 years on record have all occurred within the last 13 years.  It takes some skill to imagine this represents cooling.

    Historical carbon dioxide levels

    Next, Professor Hayden claims that the Earth has seen atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations of 8,000 ppm and has not crossed a tipping point.  This is quite an extraordinary claim that I don’t know what to make of.  There is a strong link between carbon dioxide levels and temperatures which Professor Hayden does not deny, as we can see in the later part of his letter.  This claim of 8,000 ppm of carbon dioxide would seem to contradict his assertions elsewhere.  The figure is circulated widely around climate denial sites but I have never seen it attributed to any reliable source at all.  It appears to be a popular myth that Professor Hayden trots out authoritatively even though it contradicts the statements he makes afterwards.

    To my knowledge, no climatologists have ever been able to find evidence of carbon dioxide levels as high as 8,000 ppm.  The majority of work on carbon dioxide measurement has been taken from ice cores for the last 800,000 years and the record for this period is well known.  Today’s concentrations of carbon dioxide are higher than at any time during this period.

    More recently, ocean drilling has taken the carbon dioxide record back 20 million years.  Throughout this entire period, carbon dioxide levels have never been higher than about 400 ppm, which is almost the point where we find ourselves today.  When carbon dioxide levels were this high, the oceans were 75-120 feet higher than they are today, global temperatures were between 5 and 10 degrees hotter and there was no permanent ice cap over the Arctic.

    Sources of CO2 in the atmosphere

    Next, Mr. Hayden claims that the current rise in carbon dioxide levels is not anthropogenic in nature.  This is another extraordinary claim.  What does Mr. Hayden propose happens to the carefully calculated amount of fossil carbon mankind emits each year?  Even most climate deniers don’t doubt that it accumulates.  They may deny that it causes warming, but they accept that it contributes to the atmospheric levels.  While no climate scientist will claim that natural forces don’t have an impact on carbon dioxide levels, the relentless and predictable effect of human emissions on atmospheric levels is well documented and rarely disputed.

    Instead, Mr. Hayden makes an extraordinary leap of logic and suggests that the oceans are emitting carbon dioxide as they warm.  While climatologists anticipate that with warming the oceans will eventually slow and stop absorbing carbon dioxide, and even begin to release it, they carefully track the sum total of carbon and assume an overall balance.  If Mr. Hayden is to be believed, on the other hand, the carbon dioxide humans emit just disappears but that emitted by the oceans miraculously remains.  Mr. Hayden does not explain how it is then that levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans are also increasing steadily.  Climatologists will say this is because the ocean is slowly absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  Mr. Hayden seems unaware of this fact.

    Next Mr. Hayden points out that historically global warming has preceded increases in carbon dioxide, rather than the other way around.  And yet in his very next statement he says that nobody doubts that carbon dioxide has a global warming effect and that its levels are rising.

    Positive effects of global warming

    Finally Mr. Hayden suggests that a warming world would be no problem at all.  This is a sign of someone who is not a rigorous scientist, when the arguments he advances are self-contradictory so long as they lead to the conclusion he is seeking, like a defence lawyer who claims that his client is innocent and besides, the victim deserved it.  If climate change is not happening, he wouldn’t be arguing that it’s a good thing.

    To support the idea that a warming world is desirable, first he suggests that fewer people die in summer so warmer temperatures would be better.  Next, he states that carbon dioxide concentrations encourage plant growth and warmer temperatures increase precipitation.

    These three assertions at least have the benefit of being more or less true.  Climate change on a grand scale can change the first two, though and make the third a huge problem rather than a benefit.

    Families of the 70,000 Europeans who died from the summer heat wave of 2003 would not be soothed by the suggestion that more heat is better, and heatwaves are expected to increase.  In addition, climate change brings deaths not just from heat but from tropical diseases that make their way into new areas and from more persistent smog that leads to respiratory illnesses.  A report from the Global Humanitarian Forum estimates deaths from climate change now stand at about 315,000 annually and is projected to rise to half a million each year within the next 2 decades.

    Carbon dioxide does encourage plant growth within a limited range.  What Mr. Hayden forgets, though, is that he is supposed to be arguing not for higher carbon dioxide levels, but higher temperature levels, and at least at one point in his letter, he denied a relationship.  There’s an important difference between the two for the issue of plants, because our food crops were all developed to tolerate a narrow temperature range.  Raise the global temperature more than a degree or two and agricultural productivity plummets.  It will be of absolutely no use to us if the Earth is once again able to support giant ferns, or even dinosaurs for that matter, if our grains wilt from the heat.

    The fact that a warmer world delivers more precipitation is a double-edged sword.  Mr. Hayden seems to envision more rainfall for plants uniformly across the globe.  He doesn’t question where this water will come from.  The hydrologic cycle includes evaporation at the other side.  In reality, what we’ll see is a highly erratic rainfall pattern with generally negative consequences for water delivery.  Global warming will cause more water to evaporate, which will in turn cause more precipitation when that water falls.

    Climate models show that generally, areas of low rainfall will tend to drought as more water from the soil evaporates while areas of prodigious rainfall will get slammed with more rain, to the point of extreme excess.  We see this pattern emerging today with Australia going through the longest drought it has ever experienced and long droughts emerging in Africa as well.  The fact that extreme monsoons are washing away land in Bangladesh is not much comfort to the people suffering through these droughts.

    On the subject of water delivery, another thing that Mr. Hayden fails to consider is that a large part of humanity actually depends on river water rather than rainfall for their water needs.  Many of the rivers that people depend on are fed by glaciers, including the 2 billion people that depend on waters from the Tibetan plateau and the people of Edmonton, who rely on the Columbia icefields.  When these glaciers melt, over a third of humanity will be left without adequate drinking water in spite of increased global precipitation.

    Mr. Hayden also simply asserts that carbon dioxide is not pollution with absolutely nothing to support this claim.  In attempting to make sense of this unsupported statement, I would assume he is suggesting that carbon dioxide is necessary to life.  And if this is what he’s saying, he would be correct of course.  However, mercury, arsenic, copper and lead are also essential to humans, and yet no one denies that too much of a good thing can kill you.

    Next, Mr. Hayden asserts that the smaller temperature gradient between the tropics and the poles will reduce violent storms.  I won’t comment on predictions for the future because storm prediction has never been easy and climatologists are somewhat divided about the prospects.  However, I will point out that Mr. Hayden’s predictions appear to defy patterns established so far, with the recent rises in temperature being associated with a dramatic increase in severe tropical storms.

    Finally, he asserts that a few degrees of warming won’t melt Antarctica, so we needn’t fear.  One problem with this is that Mr. Hayden ignores his own previous point made directly above this one, where he himself pointed out that the temperature gradient between the poles and the tropics will be reduced.  This gradient will be reduced because the effect of warming is most pronounced at the poles.  So a 2 degree centigrade warming level globally will translate to a higher level of warming at the poles.  That’s one reason to worry about Antarctica.

    The second reason to worry about Antarctica is the dynamics of ice in the real world.  Yes, it’s true that in a laboratory, ambient conditions of sub-zero temperatures will cause water to become ice.  In the real world of sunlight, ice is always melting and its states are dynamic.  We see this in Toronto.  On days when the temperature remains below freezing all day and our cheeks burn with cold, the snow heaped up on the sides of the road keeps shrinking, partly from evaporation into the dry air and partly from melting which can clearly be seen from the rivulets that form from the snow piles and slowly eat away at the undersides of the snow banks.  It requires new snowfall to reverse the trend of ice loss, even in sub-zero temperatures.

    The Arctic and Antarctic have always been melting.  Even when polar ice grows overall with the formation of new ice, some ice is always melting, evaporating, moving and shifting.  The question is only whether the rate will change.  And the answer, very clearly, is that not only will it change, it’s indisputably changing already.  Mr. Hayden may talk about the melting point of ice, but empirical evidence shows that the Antarctic is already losing ice nearly as quickly as Greenland.  Large ice sheets like the Larsen B have already been lost.  Furthermore the rate of ice loss is increasing.

    The final reason to worry doesn’t have to do with Antarctica.  Let’s assume that Antarctica somehow escapes the effects of global warming.  The ice contained in Greenland alone could eventually raise sea levels by 7 metres or 23 feet.  The International Institute for Environment and Development points out that 634 million people live in coastal areas within 10 metres of the current sea level.  The loss of Greenland and terrestrial glaciers alone would spell unspeakable tragedy to humanity.

    Climate models or real data?

    Mr. Hayden ends his letter with a statement that we shouldn’t put our trust in computer models over real data.  This is a truly bizarre statement.  If Mr. Hayden is a time traveller and has real data about the climate in 2020 or 2050 or 2100, I urge him to immediately divulge it.  Otherwise, I expect him to recognize that models are the best we’ve got.  Furthermore, the models developed by climatologists are supported by real data.  They have been used to account for past climate and since 2000, they have been used by the Met Office to predict climate trends every year.  As a result, we have an established record of success with the models to predict climate.  The Met Office has a track record of coming within 0.07 degrees each year of predicting the climate trend.

    Hope this helps,

  4. Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu writes:

    On the question of which term to use…

    I personally actually prefer global warming, but I use the terms interchangeably. Most of the people I speak to use “climate change”, and I often follow along.

    Climatologists recognize that within a global warming trend, microclimate variations mean that some areas might actually experience cooling, for example if ocean currents fail to deliver the same amount of heat from the tropics. The warming globe, for example, is considered to be an ironic contributor to events like the freak snowfall in Baghdad in January 2008. And global warming will mean droughts for some areas and floods for others. A number of years ago, climatologists felt that “global warming” sounded too uniform and began to adopt “climate change” to more accurately reflect the variation that a warming planet will bring.

    Part of the reason why I prefer “global warming” over climate change is just that it’s simpler to understand. Part of the reason is also that President Bush’s PR man, Frank Luntz, actually did polling to find out which term people responded to better, and recommended that President Bush use the term climate change because it was easier to persuade people that climate is always changing so it’s no problem. In other words, “climate change” is the preferred term for deniers because it has been statistically demonstrated to elicit less concern.

    Luntz’s memo to the Bush administration about the best way to make the Republicans sound more interested in environmental issues than they actually are is available from the Environmental Working Group here.

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