Friday, March 21, 2014

Maribo has moved!

Check out the new home of Maribo!!

Recent stories include:

What do you get when you cross art history and climate change?

Changing tides, by more (or less) than you might think
More heat is going into the ocean. Really.


Monday, December 02, 2013

On the move: Reflections on seven years of blogging

Maribo has set sail for new waters! The new site will continue to talk about climate change and other issues at the science-policy interface. We'll also experiment with dispatches from the field, interviews with experts about new research, and contributions from students. Please update your urls!

In 2006, a naïve young climate scientist realized he had become a climatic Kevin Bacon to friends and family. None of them studied or worked in the areas of physical science, environmental science or environmental issues. Yet they were all interested in news about climate change simply because there was one person in their community who studied climate change for a living. Maribo was his attempt to further engage and expand that community.

I remember the uncertainty. I deliberated about starting the blog for months. Was it worth the effort? Would it engage new people, or appeal only to those already thinking about climate and global change issues? Would comments or jokes about policy compromise my scientific career?

The final decision to launch Maribo was made less by an answer to those questions, than by an incident at U.S. Customs in the Toronto Airport. I had a story I wanted to share. Here's an excerpt:

[agent] “What do you study?”

Be calm, remember one wrong word, a customs agent may decide I look a bit Sephardic have me deported to Syria because my ancestors lived there 2000 years ago.

[me] “I’m a climate scientist but I work at the public policy department”

Did I just say that? Way too confusing. What happened to keep it simple, stupid?

[me] “Climate research is important for policy these days.”

Great, now I look too political.


The agent scanned my passport. He looked me in the eye.

Oy. Here we go.

He launched into a tirade about the Bush Administration’s repression of science and failure to address climate change.

With that, Maribo was launched.

In passing along the "Woody Guthrie" award, Michael Tobis out-ed me as a cautious decision-maker, a trait that works well in science and certainly in remote field work, though one that will, on occasion, drive my wife crazy.

This blog is one case where I do not regret the hand-wringing over a decision. In fact, I wish I had done more. If asked to give one, and only one, piece of advice to young scientists interested in public engagement, it would be this: Be extremely harsh with yourself about why you are getting engaged beyond the scientific world.

From a post on the subject:

What values are motivating your engagement, and how are those values affecting the public statements you plan to make? It is perfectly acceptable to advocate. We are citizens, we have every right to express our views. However, if we are not clear with people about when you are making a scientific or "objective" judgement (i.e. our analysis shows climate change will lead to an increase in coral bleaching) versus a value judgement or a "should" statement  (i.e. we "should" reduce greenhouse gas emissions), then we are only doing harm to the overall scientific enterprise...

... think very carefully about who you are representing when you deal with the public or policymakers, be it in a public seminar, a policy hearing or a blog post. Are you speaking on behalf of your specific new research? Your greater body of work? Your field? Or "science"? Always keep in mind that while you may think you are speaking on behalf of your own research, the audience may think you are speaking on behalf of "science". Sometimes highlighting an anomalous result, like a resilient coral reef that is an exception to the global rule, can end up misleading the public.

I've made plenty of mistakes with Maribo over the years. Ill-considered posts or positions, neglected links, bad analogies, typos, you name it. In fact, you have named them.

That statement encapsulates the good - and the bad - of blogging. Writing a post is easy and fast. The immediacy of the internet means mistakes large and small are instantly broadcast to the world. The good is that mistakes large and small are noted by readers and can be corrected; the system of wiki-checks and balances leads to real conversation, and really is the highlight of blogging. The bad is that people often remember that quick-and-easy original story, not the correction, retraction or discussion that follows.

Quite often the "mistake" is the choice of subject, rather than the choice of words. There is only so much time to devote to blogging, so it's important to use the time well. More than anything, the Maribo experience has taught me that it is important not just to get the story right, but also to choose the right story.  Too often, myself and other science bloggers get buried in the noise - petty debates and minutiae - at the cost of the signal of global change.

I hope to carry that lesson to a new url. The past holders of the informal Woody Guthrie award, John Neilsen Gammon and Michael Tobis, argued the award should recognize earth science bloggers who:

 "think critically and hope for a better world through better education and an honest media" and

"honor the memory of Woody Guthrie by connecting the larger trends in the world with due respect and empathy to the experience of the nonscientists who make up most of the world"

Their words roughly describe the goals of the new iteration of Maribo. We will try to choose stories that bring different, ideally forward-looking views on global challenges like climate change, and to tell those stories in a way that engages a broader audience of non-scientists. We'll also try to provide opportunities for students and young scientists to try their hand at this informal mode of science communication.

It is wonderful to see the scientific world increasingly recognize the value of public engagement. I highly recommend attending some of the many available trainings, workshops and conference sessions on science communication. But that is not enough. I have learned more about "public engagement" on climate change from talking to people from different cultures and backgrounds than from talking to other science communicators. With that in mind, the new Maribo will try to get outside the tribe as much as possible.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

What does Typhoon Haiyan tell us about adapting to climate change?

The Toronto Star asked "how much of the tragedy [of Typhoon Haiyan] was caused by nature, and how much was caused by human actions?"

Here was my answer:

Canada and other developed countries are good at disaster relief. When news of Typhoon Haiyan reached our shores, the Canadian government and the Canadian people opened their wallets and their hearts. Disaster relief, however, is a band-aid, not a cure. If we want to adapt to a climate with higher storm surges, more intense rainfall and stronger winds, we need to be proactive, not reactive. We need to provide the resources to build the knowledge, institutions and infrastructure to help make countries like the Philippines more resilient to future storms. That project requires consistent, long-term technical, political and financial support.

At the UN climate talks two years ago, the developed countries promised to mobilize $100 billion/yr by the year 2020 to help the developing world respond to climate change. Right now, we are nowhere near that target. The devastation of Typhoon Haiyan should serve as an example to the negotiators at this year’s climate talks in Warsaw of that consistent, long-term support for adaptation in the developing world is so necessary.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Guthrie: think critically and hope for a better world

Michael Tobis of Planet3.0 has kindly handed me the Woody Guthrie Award for "thinking" earth science bloggers. In the process, he's said many nice things, all of which I wish were true.

On the spectrum of awards, the coveted Guthrie lies somewhere between Darwin "award" and the Nobel Prize. I will allow the reader to judge precisely where on that spectrum it lies.

Over the next twelve months, I will try my best to "think critically and hope for a better world through better education and an honest media", as former recipient John Nielsen-Gammon wrote.

With the award also comes the burden honour of choosing next year's recipient. Let the grovelling begin!


Monday, October 21, 2013

Coral reefs and "Extreme Adaptations" at UBC's Beaty Biodiversity Museum

If you're looking to escape the dreary weather, head to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum on UBC's campus to learn about our field work on the coral reefs of Kiribati.

As part of the Extreme Adaptations program, the museum is featuring two interactive tables about different work led by UBC researchers, Jedediah Brodie and myself, to understand organisms adapted to "extreme" environments.

Hurry up, the equipment goes back to my lab in November!


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Creating a supportive environment for female scientists and science communicators

The article Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama? by Brysse et al. published earlier this year presents evidence that assessments of climate change science have leaned towards caution because of the dynamics of the scientific community.

The core argument raised predictable hackles in the blogosphere, despite the fact that several of the examples in the paper, such as estimates of sea level rise in the 2007 IPCC report and Arctic ozone depletion, are widely-known cases of scientists avoiding alarmism.

The news flooding my inbox about some of the largely male blogosphere coming to the defense of an influential male blogger who harassed a female science blogger brings to mind what I think is the most striking and important conclusion of Brysse et al: the gender implications of "erring on the side of least drama".

The risk of being accused of being overly dramatic, even hysterical, raises an additional (and worrisome) aspect of this issue: its gender dimension. Feminist scholars including Margaret Rossiter, Sandra Harding, and Donna Haraway have long discussed the strong association of science with supposedly male characteristics, such that ‘proper’ science is perceived to be “tough, rigorous, rational, impersonal, masculine, competitive, and unemotional” (Rossiter, 1982, p. xv; see also Harding, 1986 and Haraway, 1989). Scientists who come across as ‘too emotional’ or ‘too personal’ may thus be taken to be ‘unscientific’ by their peers, and a woman who exhibits these characteristics may be that much more rapidly dismissed. If this is so, then we may find either that women scientists publicizing the dangers of climate change may be more harshly judged for doing so than their male colleagues, or that women scientists may be particularly reticent to do so—to return to Hansen's phrase—for fear of losing hard-won scientific credibility. This poses another question for future research.

I don't claim to know enough about this particular case of harassment to add anything intelligent to that conversation. I do hope it gets more people thinking about women in science being exposed to overt sexual and subtle psychological harassment.

Most of my students have been women. I watch how here and elsewhere, despite some good intentions and good regulations, the atmospheres in our majority-male institutions, and many of the actual individuals in those institutions, can be unsupportive and at times threatening to female students. The same can be true of the science blogosphere. It is worth thinking about why the blogosphere  reacts so strongly and so paternalistically to the few outspoken female researchers, whether the uber-rational Tamsin Edwards, the lead authors of the Brysse et al. paper, both female science historians, or Judith Curry.

By now, I imagine some of you readers are preparing angry rebuttals. That's fine. We need to talk about these things. I ask only that you think a bit about your own gender before you write. The conversations here are, to my great dismay, largely among men. And men may not be best at judging whether men are being fair.

Brysse, K., Oreskes, N., O’Reilly, J., Oppenheimer, M. (2013). Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama? Global Environmental Change. 23(1): 327–337.


Monday, October 07, 2013

Has the flood of interest in the IPCC and climate change already dissipated?

The release of the IPCC report caused a short surge in public interest about climate change, according the Google Trends search data. Like a river after a flood, the waters have receded. Ten days later, the flood wave has dissipated, and search volume is back to baseline levels for the past year, or what hydrologists would call baseflow levels.


A longer view shows that this IPCC flood was much smaller than the last one. After the 2007 report was released, search activity for "IPCC" and "climate change" spiked. The report also left a legacy; searches remained at a higher level than before the 2007 report for several years, no doubt accentuated in late 2009 by the media coverage of and web obsession with "Climategate".


This comparison, however, may be misleading. The long-term trend smooths out the dips between the release of the reports from the different IPCC working groups. There are still two more IPCC reports to be released over the next year, starting with Working Group II's report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability in January. One thing that appears to have changed since 2007 is the preferred language. Global warming used to be a far more common search term than climate change; that gap has narrowed in recent years.

What has not changed is the relative public interest in the sister problem of ocean acidification. Search volume for ocean acidification has increased from essentially zero in the mid-2000s, but still pales in comparison to the volume for climate change and global warming. The search volume is too low, even today, to register on the same graph as climate change and global warming:


Thursday, October 03, 2013

Sea level rise demonstrates continued global warming

One of the most telling little figures that I've come across in the new IPCC report is this Chapter 3 comparison (Fig. 3.21) of changes in human-derived carbon dioxide in the oceans, global mean sea level and global mean upper ocean heat content since 1950. From the report:

The consistency between the patterns of change in a number of independent ocean parameters enhances confidence in the assessment that the physical and biogeochemical state of the oceans has changed.... High agreement among multiple lines of evidence based on independent data and different methods provides high confidence in the observed increase in these global metrics of ocean change

The oceans show that global warming has continued apace. The lack of a slowdown in the rate of sea level change is of particular interest given the media coverage devoted to the perceived slowdown in the rate of surface temperature change. Since >90% of the excess heat in the climate system goes into the ocean, and a warmer ocean should expand, sea level rise is a good metric for tracking changes in the overall heat in the climate system. From a great summary by G. Bala:

Sea level rise is probably a powerful metric that integrates both the ocean heat content as well as the melt in the cryosphere as sea level rise is due to both the thermal expansion of the oceans from heating and the melt waters from glaciers and ice sheets... It is time for IPCC to recommend and encourage climate change discussions that are centred on integrated measures of climate change such as ocean heat content and sea level rise to avoid confusion.  Alternatively, if we want to continue our discussions centred on surface temperature changes, it makes scientific sense to focus on 30-yr trends.


Monday, September 30, 2013

The oceans, on acid. And bacon.

The new IPCC report reminds that through the fits and starts of climate warming, we continue to steadily carbonate the ocean. From the Summary for Policymakers:

Measurements of CO2 partial pressure and pH from three stations
...atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification...
Ocean acidification is quantified by decreases in pH. The pH of ocean surface water has decreased by 0.1 since the beginning of the industrial era (high confidence), corresponding to a 26% increase in hydrogen ion concentration.

The chemical conditions are unlike anything that the vast majority of organisms living in the surface of the ocean have ever regularly experienced. The changes are predicted to continue:

Ensemble mean surface pH from suite of earth system models
Climate change will affect carbon cycle processes in a way that will exacerbate the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere (high confidence). Further uptake of carbon by the ocean will increase ocean acidification... Earth System Models project a global increase in ocean acidification for all RCP scenarios. The corresponding decrease in surface ocean pH by the end of 21st century is in the range of 0.06 to 0.07 for RCP2.6, 0.14 to 0.15 for RCP4.5, 0.20 to 0.21 for RCP6.0 and 0.30 to 0.32 for RCP8.5

The RCP2.6 scenario, one in which the world rapidly moves to limit carbon emissions, would likely avoid some of the worst damage to coral reefs and other marine ecosystems.

The RCP8.5 scenario, the current "business as usual", could be considered the "few corals" scenario. To use IPCC parlance, this would be stated with medium or high confidence.  Perhaps we should add bacon to this scenario. They say everything tastes better with bacon.

(with thanks to research assistant Matthew Wagstaff)


Thursday, September 26, 2013

The pause in public understanding of climate change

The Fifth IPCC assessment report on the physical science of climate change will be released tomorrow. It is probably the largest, most comprehensive scientific assessment in history.  Not just of climate change, but of any scientific subject. Really. Try to think of any scientific report with more contributors, more citations, more reviewers, more pages, and more preparation time.

Unfortunately, the report is being overshadowed by confusion about a perceived slowdown in the rate of global warming. The graph at right, is based on the GISS estimates of global average surface temperatures since the early 1970s. There is a clear signal of rising temperatures amidst the noise of natural variability.

The slowdown in surface temperature change is part of that natural variability.  The planet is still gaining extra heat due to human enhancement of the natural greenhouse effect. As Stephan Rahmstorf summarized nicely on RealClimate, the difference is that over the past decade or so, a larger proportion of that heat than normal has gone into the deep ocean. In a few years, the yin of deep ocean heating will give way to the yang of surface temperature warming. When conditions in the Pacific Ocean again allow the development of a strong, traditional El Nino event - a la 1997/8, or 1982/3 - we'll see new global surface temperature records. We should not mistake a landing for the top of the stairwell, as Richard Muller wisely analogized at the end of an article that otherwise is so obtuse I'm reluctant to give it mention here.

The media noise surrounding the perceived slowdown is part of the  natural variability of public understanding of climate change. Our research has shown that public attitudes about climate change in the United States ebb and flow with the climate. After a cool period, people tend to be less convinced and less concerned about climate change.

It's worth imagining different labels on the axes of the temperature graph. The public conversation about climate warming follows a similarly noisy trajectory. There is a long-term trend towards greater public understanding, better reporting, and better informed discussion at the political level. There is also variability, due to the natural ups and downs of the climate, current events, etc.

This is the natural process of knowledge acquisition. We're learning more about more about how the planet works over time. The path, however, is not smooth. There are also periods when the knowledge in the scientific community or the public barely changes, or even goes in the wrong direction before jumping back onto an upward trajectory. There is plenty of evidence for brief periods of  "negative learning" in the recent history, including scientific understanding of the causes of ozone destruction.

Years from now, we'll look back at this temporary slowdown in the rate of surface temperature warming and shake our heads. This is a temporary landing in the middle of the stairwell of rising air temperatures and rising public acceptance of the magnitude of the human role in climate change.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Did climate scientists make a mistake in predicting the decline of Arctic sea ice?

Each spring, the ice on the lake near the family cottage meets its demise.

As the days lengthen and warm, the ice gets thinner and thinner. No one ventures onto the lake for fear of breaking through. One sunny day, usually in early April, the ice disappears.

This death spiral of lake ice each spring is familiar to people across Canada and the northern United States. From above, the lakes look completely frozen during most of the melt process. The real sign of ice melt is the rapid drop in thickness or volume.

Thanks to climate change, the Arctic sea ice is in the throes of its own death spiral. The volume of sea ice in the Arctic, the key measure of ice change, has been declining rapidly for decades. There is now roughly 75% less summer ice in the Arctic than three decades ago.

Yet you don't hear about the volume of ice in the news. Journalists, activists and scientists normally highlight the very visible decline in area of ice during the summer.

There's a valid argument for talking on the more immediately relevant area of ice. Last September, area of ice cover dropped to only 3.4 million km2, less than half that in the 1980s. This dramatic melt was visible in satellite images. It was visible to the many boats transiting the once-forbidden Northwest Passage.

As with our small lake, the area of ice is not the best measure of the ice pack. Last summer's open water froze over the winter, forming a layer of ice thinner than what you'd find on our small lake during the height of winter. Due to natural variability in the weather, much of that thin Arctic ice survived the summer. Though the area of ice is still far lower than that of decades past, it is roughly 30% greater than last year.

This year's ice area has been manna for ardent climate change contrarians. Bold claims about the rebound of Arctic sea ice proving climate scientists wrong now abound on the internet.

In some cases, the claims about data are technically correct. In all cases, they miss the big picture.

The death spiral of Arctic ice continues. According to the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington, the volume of summer sea ice has declined by roughly 75% in the past few decades. The monthly ice volume figure (right) from their Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) actually looks like a spiral, with the ice volume for each month of the year declining over time.

Scientists' only mistake was not talking more about ice thickness or volume. This long-term change in ice volume, rather than the annual summer ice area, is the best harbinger of the future. Those boasting about the Arctic "rebound" this year should heed caution. They are standing on very thin ice.


Monday, September 16, 2013

False claims by contrarians, not scientists, caused Matt Gurney's cynicism about climate change

On Friday, Matt Gurney in the National Post blasted climate scientists, arguing that "repeated false claims have had the effect of turning a lot of people, including my fellow agnostics and I, into climate change cynics, if not yet outright skeptics".

He's right about the false claims. He's wrong about the source.

The false claims that are making Gurney and others "skeptics" come from contrarians, not the scientists.

Gurney's source material is not any actual science, it is an error-filled piece by Daily Mail columnist David Rose that has been torn to shreds by scientists.

In that column, Rose not only misinterpreted the findings in a leaked IPCC report, he flat out made up numbers. For one, the estimated rate of warming since 1950 dropped from 0.13 deg C/decade in the last report to 0.12 deg C /decade in the upcoming report -- not from 0.2 to 0.12, as claimed by Rose. Apparently there are no fact checkers at the Daily Mail, nor many people good at math, because Rose's easily debunked claim garnered the headline "Global warming is just half of what we said".

I'm sympathetic to Gurney's argument that alarmism, on any subject, can alienate the public and impede progress on solutions. We can make up legitimate arguments for and against different climate policies. We can't make up facts.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Drought was beyond Syria's "capacity as a country"

Another assessment of the role of drought in the Syrian conflict from long-time foreign policy expert William Polk:

The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population.  Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq.  Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers. And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.

Survival was the key issue.  The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation “a perfect storm,” in November 2008, he warned  that Syria faced “social destruction.” He noted that the Syrian Minister of Agriculture had “stated publicly that [the]  economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’”  But, his appeal fell on deaf ears:  the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time.”  (reported on November 26, 2008 in cable 08DAMASCUS847_a to Washington and “leaked” to Wikileaks )

Whether or not this was a wise decision, we now know that the Syrian government made the situation much worse by its next action. Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year.  The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive.

So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire.  The spark was struck on March 15, 2011  when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them.  Instead of meeting with the protestors and at least hearing their complaints, the government cracked down on them as subversives.


Thanks to Heidi Cullen of Climate Central for bringing this to our attention.


Monday, September 09, 2013

Flying flags of convenience in climate change debates

This is an updated post from two years ago:

One of the perverse thrills of paddling in Vancouver is cozying up to the massive container ships parked out in English Bay. A little while back, I paddled past one rusting behemoth with the word "Monrovia" painted in white on the red hull. Each letter was about the size of my little kayak.

Monrovia is the capital of Liberia, the country where that vessel is registered. There is no thriving trade between Liberia and western Canada. Merchant ships merely register in Liberia in order to avoid regulations and to reduce costs. Liberia is the flag of convenience.

As a scientist, I sometimes find the challenge of communicating about climate change similar to that of operating a ship according to the rules of your native country while the "competitors" take advantage of the lawless wilds of other nations.

People opposing the basic science of climate change in the public sphere need not adhere to the slow, rigorous method of hypothesis testing or building coherent arguments over time based on the balance of published evidence. That provides contrarians or "deniers" the rhetorical advantage of adopting whatever "flag" or argument is convenient that week, whether about sunspots, a one sentence error in a 900+ page IPCC report, or year-to-year variability in the area of Arctic sea ice. If the argument is proven false in the court of public opinion, you adopt another flag. The sequence of arguments does not have to be logically consistent. The goal of the organized sceptic movement* is simply to keep the ship sailing.

The temptation for scientists to adopt the practices of the opponents in the debate is what the late Steve Schneider described as "double ethical bind" in a famously mis-used quote:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both

The response to that honest, clear assessment of the communications challenge says enough. For years, that one line about offering up "scary scenarios" was itself a Liberia to many of Schneider's opponents.

It can be challenging to stay level-headed about communication in the face of often unscrupulous opposition. That's why I find that the keys to communication about climate change are not the usual suspects of understanding the audience, technical expertise, passion, ability to drop jargon, etc. etc. In my experience, successfully communicating about climate change takes, more than anything else, patience and humility.

* Note: It's important to separate the funded movement from individual people's doubts about the science of climate change, which can be grounded in science, culture, religion, politics, moral values, you name it. And there are vocal sceptics who rely on a consistent line of argumentation; perhaps Richard Lindzen's earlier arguments about the water vapour feedback could fall in this category, though it's fair to say that ship has since migrated to other shores.


Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Has climate change played a role in the Syrian conflict?

The Syrian conflict has become a humanitarian tragedy incomparable to others in recent history. Over 2 million people, 10% of the country, have fled during the ongoing conflict according to the UN.

While the proximate drivers of the Syrian conflict are a reaction to an oppressive government, the wave of Arab Spring protests, and other political, social and economic factors, a number of experts have argued that climate change, or at least climate, has served as a "multiplier".

Links between climate change and the Arab Spring have been suggested for the past couple of years. High wheat prices in 2010-11, driven by droughts in Russia and China, may have contributed to the unrest in Egypt and the overall timing of the Arab Spring protests. In Syria, add on the fact that a severe drought over the past decade has devastated farmers.

From a UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction report:

Poor and erratic rainfall since October 2007 has caused the worst drought to strike Syria in four decades. Approximately one million people are severely affected and food insecure, particularly in rainfed areas of the northeast – home to Syria’s most
vulnerable, agriculture-dependant families.

Since the 2007/2008 agriculture season, nearly 75 percent of these households suffered total crop failure. Depleted vegetation in pastures and the exhaustion of feed reserves have forced many herders to sell their livestock at between 60 and 70 percent below cost. Syria’s drought break point was the season 07/08 which extended for two more seasons, affecting farming regions in the Middle north, Southwestern and Northeastern of the country, especially the northeastern governorate of Al Hassakeh. 

The drought drove internal migration to the cities, depopulating some rural areas:

The drought is causing a high drop-out rate, families left in the area who cannot afford, or do not want, to move are suffering. Some figures estimated the people lifted their villages to be more than one million people. Thousands of Syrian farming families have been forced to move to cities in search of alternative work after two years of drought and failed crops followed a number of unproductive years. The field survey that conducted by ACSAD/MoLA/UNDP in January 2011 showed that most of the houses on villages are left empty and less than 10% are occupied by old people and children, The younger generations left for thousands of kilometers seeking work.

While the Syrian drought, like any individual event, cannot be definitively attributed to climate change, the Middle East and the Mediterranean region is one place where climate models agree that drought is becoming or will become more frequent due to human-induced climate change. From Hoerling et al. (2012):

The amplitude of the externally forced [ED-meaning "human-caused"], area-averaged Mediterranean drying signal (estimated from the ensemble mean of CMIP3 simulations) is roughly one-half the magnitude of the observed drying, indicating that other processes likely also contributed to the observed drying.
Naturally, these connections need to be viewed with caution. Climate change is not solely responsible for the Syrian drought, as natural climate variability and ill-conceived land use and agricultural policy clearly also contributed. And the drought itself is only one of many stressors that led to the crisis in Syria. The fact is we will never be able to precisely calculate the contribution of climate change to a geopolitical event or a humanitarian crisis.

Does the inability to provide a precise answer - 44% due to climate change - matter?

Inability to attribute events to climate change may make adaptation seem impossible. A solution is to not view adaptation as separate from other development activities. For example, the large aid institutions  recommend marrying climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. In other words, when working on a program or system to reduce future droughts, consider how climate change may alter the likelihood and nature of future disasters.

Right now, any of that would be a luxury in Syria. Dealing with the everyday humanitarian crisis is paramount. Hopefully, in time the crisis will abate enough to work on rebuilding people's lives and improving the capacity to deal with future droughts.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Climate change, not a carbon tax, is a war on the poor

Gas prices in BC, home to N America's only carbon tax (CP)
An op-ed by Elizabeth Nickson in Friday's Vancouver Sun relied on confused and un-factual "facts" to claim that a carbon tax, like we have here in British Columbia, is an attack on the poor. As I tweeted Friday, every single paragraph of the column was ridiculous.

I'll leave the correction of all Nickson's mistakes to colleagues, one of whom now has a response in the Sun (also see Andy Skuce), and focus on the backwards premise.

The fundamental objective of carbon controls is to reduce the emission of gases that contribute to climate change. A primary reason to combat climate change is to protect those most vulnerable to its effects. Pretty much every analysis, not to mention every extreme weather event, shows that the most vulnerable are and will continue to be the poor and disenfranchised. Politics certainly influence the design of the carbon policy,more than many people would like. Nevertheless, at the most base level, carbon taxes are being proposed and enacted to help the poor, not to hurt the poor.

There is evidence that the BC carbon tax is influencing the consumption of carbon-based fuels. At the same time, the system is not perfect, nor should anyone expect it to be. As we develop policies and programs to deal with climate change, there will inevitably be missteps, like the loopholes in the UN's Clean Development Mechanism, the number of carbon credits distributed in a cap-and-trade system, or the level of low income carbon tax credit (in BC). That happens with any policy, from climate to education to health care. The design is never perfect at first.

A sensible solution is to learn from and correct the missteps - close the loopholes, buy credits from the system, increase the tax credit, compensate those hurt - rather to throw the whole concept out the window.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Does temperature really cause depression? Correlation vs. Causation in "big data"

Image by Olimpia Zagnoli, New York Times
Back in Mr. Wardle's high school economics class, we were once asked to look for a correlation between any two datasets. I searched through the small school library and stumbled across historical data on marijuana use in Canada.

So, for fun, I compared it to unemployment data and found a strong negative correlation. More marijuana use, less unemployment.

Mr. Wardle liked my assignment. Granted, his sense of humour was famous; on the weekly ten point quizzes, we got a bonus mark for adding a caption to a Far Side cartoon, and he announced the funniest caption the following class.

When he handed back the assignment, he reminded me of one key rule of research:

Correlation does not imply causation.

Which brings us to an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economist interning at Google, presented evidence from Google searches for possible causes of depression in the United States. After unemployment, what was the best predictor of searches for depression?

I tested dozens of variables in many different categories. The strongest predictor by far: an area’s average temperature in January. Colder places have higher rates of depression, with the correlation concentrated in the colder months. The relationship between weather and mental health has been debated, but those debates have generally relied on “small” data. Google searches, the biggest data source we currently have, are unambiguous: when it comes to our happiness, climate matters a great deal. 

Paging Mr. Wardle, wherever you are.

What else happens in January in cold places?

It is dark. You don't need to be a mental health expert to know about 'seasonal affectiveed disorder', a common condition in places where the winter days are short. Yet Stephens-Davidowitz misses this critically relevant correlate to temperature and goes on to provide temperature-based advice:
The striking correlation between temperature and depression suggests they should consider moving to a more temperate location. Of course, people at risk for depression should hesitate to abandon a job in a cold-winter location for no job in a warm-winter clime, and they should think twice about moving away from family and friends.

The advice may be good, even though the op-ed is probably mistakenly attributing many cases of northern depression to lower temperatures rather than less sunlight. If colder places are also darker in winter, does it matter which variable you use? 
Yes, it matters, because we are talking about a correlation, not a perfect relationship. There are cold, northern cities with glorious sunny winters as well as mild, northern cities with depressing grey winter. 

For example, if you suffer from winter depression, should you move from Montreal, with its notoriously frigid winters, to more temperate Vancouver? Probably not, because in Vancouver you're likely to experience weeks on end without seeing the sun. I counted 22 days of non-stop rain a few Novembers back.
The availability of internet search data allows researchers to probe questions previously answered only with high effort, limited sample-size opinion polls. There can be real value to analyses with Google Trends or other storehouses or search data. The Centers for Disease Control, for example, works with Google because the number of people in an area searching for information on the flu turned out to be the best available indicator of a flu outbreak. On a simpler note, want to know whether people are more likely to use the term "climate change" or the term "global warming"? Try Google Trends, and you'll see the answer is clearly "global warming".

So by all means, examine data with Google Trends. Just remember Mr. Wardle's lesson; correlation does not imply causation. Even Stephens-Davidowitz seemed to understand this, at least in the case of one variable:

More Hispanic-Americans meant fewer searches (though this might have been a result of language factors).

Might have. You think?