Our Media Fails Us, at Fast and Slow Pace, on Climate

On Black Friday, the federal government (reluctantly, it seems worth noting under the Trump administration) released the Fourth National Climate Assessment. The report was released a few weeks early from its initial planned release at the fall 2018 meeting of the American Geophysical Union, a major scientific society focusing on the Earth sciences. This has been rightfully spotlighted as perhaps one of the most glaring examples of a Friday news dump in the Trump administration, given President Trump’s hostility to most climate and environmental policy. Then again, August 25, 2017 was also considered an egregious dump  – as Politico, The Atlantic, Washington Post, and many others reported at the time – so there’s a lot to put in perspective.

While I think it is right to point out this is a Friday news dump, a lot of the comments I see from both media figures and advocates rankles me here. The comments aren’t that the NCA is going to get lost in the news cycle; the concern is that it won’t receive adequate coverage at all to the broader public. But I don’t really see a developed point about WHY that should be true. Sure, people don’t read much news on holiday weekends – but they pick up the news again within a day or two. If someone sees a hypothetical article about the NCA on Monday morning or watches a news clip on it at lunch, it will be new to them if they haven’t read/watched/heard news all weekend. Fresh coverage of the NCA during this week would literally be the opposite of the common sense of “news fatigue” in politics, especially when following everything Trump does or doesn’t do (or trying not to follow it). (Or you can just black out the world.)

To me, this reads as our political and media classes just admitting failure in trying to adequately cover things that don’t fit into an instant 24 hour news cycle. (A news cycle that barely anyone but politics junkies follow in detail.) The NCA isn’t a singular event or press conference. The release happens once, but the contents of the assessment are the culmination of work and study going back to the Obama administration and have literally epochal consequences for our species. Can our media seriously not think of a way to make this have news relevance beyond the first 48 hours the document was released? If they can’t, I don’t think they take climate change or the environment much more seriously than our federal politicians do.

The NCA represents thousands of labor-hours of work (over 1000 people worked on it across a dozen agencies) on a pressing issue and it deserves thorough coverage, regardless of when it is released. Which is to say, that yeah, I get that it can seem kind of boring and so it can be hard to reach people. As I’m writing in another draft post, the combination of “large government bureaucracy” and “science” is not the dream topic most people will rush to learn more about. But that’s not an excuse to skip out on the work, especially when the point of news is to educate and inform the public.

This sort of reminds me of the criticism that Last Word on Nothing (a collaborative science writing blog) received when several of its contributors gave pretty stereotypical answers for why they hated writing about physics. I saw a revival of that dust-up a year ago when a science writer on Twitter said they appreciated that gravitational waves won the Nobel in physics because they hated having to explain topics from nuclear or materials physics to people. But gravitational waves only recently became a thing with good explanations for the general public. I remember when I was interested in astronomy in high school, you could barely find anything that went in detail in a non-technical way. Heck, check out a 2010 version of the Wikipedia page on gravitational waves and see how different it is from the current one. Gravitational waves becoming an “easy” physics concept to explain took years of work by scientists and science journalists and communicators to figure out better ways of describing it to broader audiences. It also required dedication to build up on previous explanations until it hit some critical level of pop cultural diffusion where you could expect enough people to remember what gravitational waves are or why they’re studied. And scientists, journalists, and communicators spent that time because they knew the topic of gravitational waves would be important to the public one day. If we’re not willing to make that commitment and spend that kind of time on something as important as helping the public understand climate change, that worries me. And it also makes me think of Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s recent tweet on the treatment of science in many political publications. We won’t be able to envision better futures and talk about how to achieve them if we can barely make space to talk about the one we’re de facto choosing by our inaction.

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Another Way to Frame Climate Change

A few weekends ago, a local group I volunteer with had a “Science Pub Night” with Dr. Deborah Lawrence, a UVA professor of environmental science, about climate change. Dr. Lawrence studies the effects of deforestation on climate and has also worked extensively in the policy aspects of forest and climate science, and her talk was (mostly) about the importance of forests and land use to climate change. If you want to see more, I livetweeted it.

One thing I especially liked was a way she mentions she tries to better frame climate change to make it more relatable to people. It is (rightly) acknowledged that the Earth has seen larger temperature variations, but it is equally right to point out that those generally happen on longer time scales than we see now, or at least they do if they’re not also accompanied by mass extinction events. So Dr. Lawrence had a very human timescale to relate this change to. One of the most optimistic climate goals is to keep global warming to an average global temperature rise (compared to “preindustrial” temperatures, often early 1900s before extensive fossil fuel burning) of only 1 degree Celsius by 2100. 200 years for one degree might not sound bad to our scale, but Dr. Lawrence points out prior to the 20th century, ALL OF CIVILIZATION (e.g. let’s go with recorded history, so about 5000 years) had only seen the average global temperature only vary within a window of half a degree C*. So even our most hopeful plan essentially means adapting to a doubling of whatever variance any human society with large infrastructure has seen, and doing that in a time frame shorter than the building of some temples and cathedrals during the Middle Ages.

Another way she framed it was to more directly relate climate to weather, since most people don’t think in terms of average temperatures. (To prove this, Dr. Lawrence asked if anyone in the bar could say the average temperature for Charlottesville or wherever they were from off the top of their head, and no one could.) So instead, she has looked at models to see how a warming climate changes how often certain temperature thresholds are reached in different places. Dr. Lawrence has studied forests in Kenya, and one concern there is days of “debilitating heat”. This is when the temperature goes above 39 degrees C (102 degrees F!), and for people who generally live without air conditioning, the point where your body can basically only regulate your temperature if you don’t do much physical activity. Currently, Kenya has about 20 days of debilitating heat in a year, but in a world of 1 deg C warming, that goes to over 100 days per year! That would drastically change their lives. Even if you assume air conditioning becomes common, having AC and the electrical grid deal with over 100 degree temperatures for almost a third of the year becomes a great drain on infrastructure and communities will need to plan for that if they want to make sure their systems don’t overload.

*Edit to add: I may have misunderstood Dr. Lawrence or she may have mispoke in giving her value of “average temperature variance” across history, but I do want to point out that some temperature reconstructions of the Little Ice Age suggest that temperature went down more than 0.5 C from the pre-industrial norm, maybe up to 0.7-0.9 C. (The graph there compares temperatures to the 1950-1980s average.) Dr. Lawrence may also think those reconstructions are less reliable, but that was way outside the focus of her talk, so I don’t know why and didn’t get a chance to ask her. Those very deep decreases also quickly oscillate back to less extreme values, so the average may still work out to 0.5 C if you exclude short-term climate cycles.

Making Fuel Out of Seawater Is Only One Part of An Energy Solution

So I recently saw this post about a recent breakthrough the Navy made in producing fuel from water make a small round on Facebook from questionable “alternative news” site Addicting Info and it kind of set off my BS detector. First, because this story is a few months old. It actually turned out the article was from April, so part of my skepticism was unfounded. But the opening claim that this wasn’t being reported much in mainstream outlets is wrong, as several sites beat them to the punch (even FOX NEWS! Which would probably make Addicting Info’s head explode.). The other thing that struck me as odd was how the Addicting Info piece seemed to think this technology is practically ready to use right now.  That surprised me, because for nearly the last two years, my graduate research at UVA has been focused on developing materials that could help produce fuel from CO2.

This Vice article does a pretty good job of debunking the overzealous claims made by the Addicting Info piece and others like it. As Vice points out, you need electricity to make hydrogen from water. Water is pretty chemically stable in most of our everyday lives. The only way the average person ends up splitting water is if they have metal rusting, which would be a really slow way to generate hydrogen, or by putting a larger battery in water for one of those home electrolysis experiments.

The Naval Research Lab seems kind of unique among the groups looking at making fuel from CO2 in that they’re extracting hydrogen and CO2 from water as separate processes from the step where they are combined into hydrocarbons. Most of the other research in this area looks at having metal electrodes help this reaction in water (nearly any metal from the middle of the periodic table can split CO2 with enough of a negative charge) . Because of water’s previously mentioned stability, they often add a chemical that can more easily give up hydrogen. A lot of groups use potassium bicarbonate, a close relative of baking soda that has potassium instead of sodium, to help improve the conductivity of the water and because the bicarbonate ion really easily gives up hydrogen. In these set-ups, the goal is for the electricity to help the metal break off an oxygen from a CO2 to make CO, and when you get enough CO, start adding hydrogen to the molecules and linking them together.

A chemical diagram shows a CO2 molecule losing a carbon atom on a copper surface to make CO. When another CO is nearby, the two carbon atoms link together.

Carbon atoms are initially removed from CO2 molecules on a copper surface, forming CO. When CO get close to each other, they can bond together. From Gattrell, Gupta, and Co.

But basically, no matter what reaction you do, if you want to make a hydrocarbon from CO2, you need to use electricity, either to isolate hydrogen or cause the CO2 to become chemically active. As the Vice article points out, this is still perfectly useful for the Navy, because ships with nuclear reactors continually generate large amounts of electricity, but fuel for aircraft must be replenished. If you’re on land, unless you’re part of the 30% of the US that gets electricity from renewable sources or nuclear plants, you’re kind of defeating the point. Chemical reactions and industrial processes always waste some energy, so burning a fossil fuel, which emits CO2, to make electricity that would then be used to turn CO2 back into fuel would always end up with you emitting more CO2 than you started with.

However, this process (or one like it) could actually be useful in a solar or wind-based electricity grid. Wind and solar power can be sporadic; obviously, any solar grid must somehow deal with the fact that night exists, and both wind and solar power can be interrupted by the weather. (Nuclear power doesn’t have this issue, so this set-up would be irrelevant.) However, it’s also possible for solar and wind to temporarily generate more electricity than customers are using at the time. The extra electricity can be used to power this CO2-to-fuel reaction, and the fuel can be burned to provide extra power when the solar or wind plants can’t generate enough electricity on their own. This is also where the Vice article misses something important. Jet fuel can’t have methane, but methane is basically the main component of natural gas, which is burned to provide about another 30% of electricity generated in the US today. And because methane is a small molecule (one carbon atom, four hydrogen atoms) it can be easier to make than the long hydrocarbons needed for jet fuel.

Also, one thing I’m surprised I never see come up when talking about this is using this for long-term human space exploration as a way to prevent to maintain a breathable atmosphere for astronauts and to build materials. If you can build-up the carbon chains for jet fuel, you could also make the precursors to lots of plastics. The International Space Station is entirely powered by solar panels, and solar panels are typically envisioned as being part of space colonies. Generally, electricity generation shouldn’t be a major problem in any of the manned missions we’re looking at for the near future and this could be a major way to help future astronauts or space colonists generate the raw materials they need and maintain their environment.

If you want to read more about the Naval Research Lab’s processes, here are some of the journal articles they have published lately:

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ie301006y?prevSearch=%255BContrib%253A%2BWillauer%252C%2BH%2BD%255D&searchHistoryKey= http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ie2008136?prevSearch=%255BContrib%253A%2BWillauer%252C%2BH%2BD%255D&searchHistoryKey= http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ef4011115 http://www.nrl.navy.mil/media/news-releases/2014/scale-model-wwii-craft-takes-flight-with-fuel-from-the-sea-concept

Cosmos Tackled Climate Change in a Wonderfully Satisfying Way

So I worked out while watching this week’s episode of Cosmos. I’m several weeks “behind”, if it’s possible to be behind for a documentary series (though I’ve DVRed them all for future marathon sessions). But this was a wonderful episode to come back to. It was a really good primer on contemporary understanding of climate change, especially addressing rebuttals from skeptics that have become more common over the last 20 years or so. In particular, I liked these points

  • Tyson pointed out that the greenhouse effect is “beneficial” in that Earth would be like 30 degrees cooler without it. But he also points out how little CO2 it takes to get that much of a shift, and how little CO2 we need to add to make temperature change too much.
  • It’s not that climate is changing that’s bad, it’s that climate change that is too fast can destroy ecosystems. Tyson pointed out the speed of anthropogenic CO2 emissions isn’t close to anything previously seen in Earth’s history aside from the previous mass extinction believed to be caused by climate change.
  • We can in fact figure out the difference between CO2 we’re emitting and CO2 from many natural sources, and that evidence points out most of the new CO2 is from our fossil fuels. How? The CO2 from fossil fuels is made up of carbon atoms that are different weights from what we would otherwise expect in the atmosphere.
  • The Sun hasn’t really appreciably changed to cause the temperature increases we see.
  • The ocean is warming up. Actually, I’m not sure the show mentioned the “greenhouse pause” people talk about, but what is important to note is that so-called “stop” in air temperatures doesn’t really tell the whole story. The Spaceship of the Imagination gave us an infrared view of the Earth to look at the planet’s heat emissions. We’re finding out that while the atmosphere may not have heated up over this last decade, the ocean definitely has. I’m also surprised the show didn’t mention the potential danger of ocean acidification.

I also loved the presentation of climate as better understood by large scale driving forces and not “just” the average of weather. I don’t know any climatologists, but I’m sure such a simplifying definition of their field has always bugged them. One major factor is energy conservation, and since I took a simple engineering class that tried to stress how much of understanding technical systems is based on just applying various conservation laws, I try to emphasize that more. Those space satellites let us measure how much heat Earth radiates away, and given that the sun’s input is relatively constant, if the atmosphere traps more heat in, then we must be heating up. (This is also the source of my very basic understanding as to why severe weather gets worse under climate change. We’re trapping in more energy, and so storm systems basically get stronger because it goes somewhere.) And I also loved that they tied in how our knowledge of other planets has helped inform our understanding of Earth. (And even gave a shout out to Carl Sagan’s research!) I do have one major peeve, though, and I want to point out that they did commit the cardinal sin of data presentation and not include any scale for the color representing temperature increases on their maps.

I had never heard of Frank Shuman before and now I want to look him up. It amazes me how similar his pointing out a small region of solar power generators could power civilization is to Rick Smalley’s idea, minus the nanotubes. If there’s anything I’ve learned the last two years in grad school while doing literature research for my own project, it’s how freakishly non-linear and coincidental energy research can be. To a more philosophically minded friend, I joked that learning about energy technologies has destroyed the last shreds of my old belief in logical positivism, the idea that human history is generally a linear progression towards more good. But I’ll be darned and say I’m still an optimist and had slight chills hearing JFK’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech with scenes of that (super utopian) city of sustainable energy and green spaces. 

When Your Home Starts to Dissolve You

Last weekmonth, a new study was published looking at ocean acidification, a (I think under-publicized) side effect of increasing CO2 concentrations.  A decent summary can be found at The Atlantic (in their health section, of all places).  The researchers (from a wide array of institutions in the US and Europe) focused on Arctic sea snails.  While that may sound incredibly boring, there are two main reasons they’re important to study.  First, their shells are calcium carbonate, which you’re probably more familiar with as limestone (or perhaps as the active ingredient in most over-the-counter heartburn medications).  Calcium carbonate makes up the shells of a lot of sea creatures.

Via The Atlantic

Happy snail

Via The Atlantic

Sad snail

And while we mention antacids, let’s bring up their counterpart, acids.  So carbon dioxide naturally dissolves in water to form a somewhat weak acid (you also see this idea come up with discussions of soda sometime – the CO2 from carbonation also dissolves in the soda and makes it acidic).  Although that’s a slight simplification because it actually turns out sea water is slightly basic (think the opposite of acidic) and has a pH somewhere around 8.15 , presumably because of the several thousand minerals that are dissolved from the coasts.  So if the ocean’s slightly basic, we’re fine, right?  Well, the term “acidification” is still accurate because the pH is lower (i.e. more acidic) than it used to be.  The process of sea creatures building up the calcium carbonate structures is sensitive to environmental conditions.  The carbonate dissolves more in solution with more carbon dioxide and/or lower pH (more acidic).  While that may initially sound like a good thing for any critters needing it (there’s more calcium carbonate in the water, right?), chemical equilibrium is a two way street; if it’s easier for something to dissolve, it’s harder to precipitate it back into a solid that might go into a shell.  Studies have shown that coral grows slower in acidic water because of this.

So what made this study important?  It looked at how acidification affects marine snails (also known more whimsically as “sea butterflies”) in the Antarctic, which are a very important part of the food chain (some marine biologists call them “potato chips of the oceans”).  The snails already showed significant signs of their shells dissolving.  While this isn’t a death sentence, it does make it easier for them to be eaten or catch diseases, and en masse, that could throw off population.

Of course, it’s important to note the researchers say the blame isn’t all on ocean acidification.  Part of the reason the seawater was so acidic was because of upswelling, an phenomena in which deeper water is pushed up to the ocean surface.  Deeper water tends to be more acidic (I can’t find why), so these upswells make the surface water abnormally acidic.  But upswelling is expected to increase with climate change.