Category Archives: Climate


Debunking the Notion That Climate Scientists Are Just in it for the Money

Banner Image - Money on Earth

The principle of American democracy is rooted in the “marketplace of ideas,” a notion that public policies are best developed through the honest and open deliberation of a wide variety of ideas. But the “marketplace” has strained of late. Our national challenges have grown more complex and the voices opining on them more numerous. From health care to energy policy to net neutrality, resolving modern problems requires more than an application of philosophy – it demands scientific literacy and an understanding of our national scientific apparatus.

Unfortunately, instead of facilitating discourse there are many who are content to muddy the waters. One of the worst offenders is conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. During his June 22, 2011 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show he spoke once again on one of his “pet peeve issues,” climate change. Limbaugh, who has long rejected the consensus scientific conclusion that that Earth’s climate is changing and that human beings are responsible, was offering a new explanation for climate scientists’ behavior.

“They’ve been paid,” Limbaugh argued. “Their entire lifestyles, their standard of living depends on their grants that they get to conduct the studies, and they only get the money if they come up with the right result.”

One might be willing to dismiss such an inflammatory statement as isolated bloviation from one of media’s biggest loudmouths, if only it were an isolated incident. It is far from that. Similar statements have been made by authors, pundits, politicians, and even a handful of disgruntled scientists. In a speech to New Hampshire businessmen, former Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry echoed Limbaugh’s remarks referencing “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects.”

Statements such as these are not only slanderous, they are dangerous. Climate change is one of the greatest global challenges of our generation. It promises to deliver a warmer climate, droughts, floods, food and water scarcity, rising sea levels, and the death of 25-50% of Earth’s species (just to name a few) if not properly mitigated.

It is for these reasons that the profoundly misleading assaults on scientists’ basic integrity are so worrisome. The need to restore public faith in our scientific institutions warrants a substantive clarification about both the roles scientists play in society and the actual manner in which their research is funded.

In general, there are two classes of scientist – public and private. Public climate scientists are employed by government institutions like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NASA’s premiere climatologist, Dr. James Hansen, explains how public scientists are compensated saying, “Our salaries do not depend on how much research the government funds. Government scientists get paid for working 40 hours week, regardless of how long they work.”

Furthermore, to prevent against politically motivated terminations public scientists receive considerable protection from being fired. In such an environment scientists have little to fear from publishing results that cut across the grain since neither their compensation nor their job security depends on it.

Private climate scientists, on the other hand, are often employed by universities and must actively seek their own research funding.  One common source is America’s collection of federal science agencies. There are many, but one of the most prominent is the National Science Foundation, an agency which supports about 20% of all federally funded basic research conducted in US universities.  Its funding process is typical of agencies of this kind, so it is worth examining its appropriations process in greater detail.

Scientists apply for research grants by first submitting a research proposal.  According to NSF criteria, successful proposals must demonstrate that their prospective research be of high academic quality, have high and hopefully broad significance, and preferably be transformative.  Proposals are merit-reviewed by a panel of independent experts in the field and the top submissions receive grants to continue their work.  This process is highly competitive.  Of the approximately 45,000 proposals received each year, the NSF only funds about 11,500.

One noteworthy observation is that a plausible alternative to the theory to human-driven climate change satisfies all of these criteria.  According to the National Academy of Sciences, between 97% and 98% of climate scientists actively publishing in the field currently agree with the conclusion that global climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity. Clearly, a plausible alternative would constitute a great scientific advancement, one which would likely have ramifications beyond climate science itself.  So not only are “climate skeptics” not penalized in the grant process, if their proposals demonstrate legitimate scientific merit they might actually receive preferential treatment.

There are other factors that weigh in a climate skeptic’s favor. First, any scientist who can debunk a scientific paradigm (as Einstein did with his general theory of relativity) in favor of a better theory will earn prestige and a likely place for his name in science textbooks.  This is a huge incentive to challenge the status quo.  Second, if a professor has tenure, then he needn’t fear reprisal from his employer for conducting controversial research.  Third, because review panels are comprised of a broad selection of experts, one can expect a representative plurality of opinions to be held by appropriators, which mitigates consensus groupthink.  Fourth, scientists are skeptical by nature.  They assume their knowledge is incomplete and are always acting to refine it. Scientists will tell you that one of the most exciting events for them is when an experimental result completely defies theoretical expectation.  It is in these moments that new truths are often revealed.  Scientists yearn for these moments. They do not penalize the search for them.

The final point I’ll make about the public grant process is simple common sense.  It’s functionally impossible for allocators to only fund “pro-climate change” research when the results of that research are unknown until it is conducted.  And even if you suspect incoming research proposals must tacitly accept anthropogenic global climate change a priori, meta-publication data gathered by Skeptical Scientist, an organization dedicated to explaining peer reviewed climate change research, reveals that approximately half of climate research papers do not explicitly endorse the consensus opinion, but rather function primarily as fact-finding missions.  Those missions in total have created the consensus opinion, but scientists did not have to assume it before receiving their funding.

The other method by which private scientists obtain research support is by courting private donors and corporations who have a vested interest in it.  For lots of basic research, this process of pitching for funds is a huge hassle.  As the Microsoft computer scientist and Turing Award winner Jim Gray once put it, “Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs before one turns into a prince.”

Except in certain cases the prince comes to you. Mitigating climate change requires a reorganization of large sectors of our economy. Consequently, corporations that stand to suffer financially in the transition have a strong incentive to spread disinformation themselves or fund others willing to do so.

In such cases, the exact opposite of Limbaugh’s argument is proven true. Scientists willing to research alternatives to anthropogenic climate change often receive funding because they reject the consensus opinion. In fact, research from the Global Warming Policy Foundation has found that in an analysis of 900 papers supporting climate change skepticism, 90% of the authors were linked to ExxonMobil.

As Dr. Hansen argues, “Perhaps, instead of questioning the motives of scientists, you should turn around and check the interests (motives) of the people who have pushed you to become so agitated.”

Once the public understands the true manner in which climate science is funded, it will ultimately need to ask itself which is more likely – that A) 97% of all active climate scientists have independently come together to collectively pull the wool over the world’s eyes and perpetrate the greatest scientific hoax of all time for unclear motives or B) moneyed interests like oil and coal companies who stand to lose profit in a world that addresses climate change are spreading doubt and disinformation as a means to forestall action.

Given the current state of media in the United States, the condition in which we find ourselves is not altogether surprising. Thinner margins have driven many newspapers and other news outlets to lay off dedicated science reporters. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, ratings reign supreme and viewers are more likely to tune into conflict and controversy than a nuanced discussion of the facts. Even when climate science is given the coverage it deserves, the media will often mistake journalistic balance with “hearing all sides of an issue.” Granting climate skeptics equal air time with members of the 97% majority is akin to presenting the opinions of an Auschwitz survivor alongside someone who argues the Holocaust never happened.

Ultimately, it will fall upon scientists to lift the haze of misunderstanding that surrounds their work. They will need to be more vocal in communicating not just the science, but the process of practicing science. Only when the public gains an understanding of the scientific process will the baseless claim of Limbaugh and his sympathizers be exposed be exposed as the myth that it is.


Featured image: “Dollar Sign in Space – Illustration” by DonkeyHotey, used under CC BY 2.0 / slightly modified and black borders added to original


FOIA – We Are Making Progress

This is final part of a 5 part series on the government’s silence of silence and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Parts 1 through 4 can and should be read first:

Part 1: The Kingston Disaster
Part 2: The Government’s Silence of Science
Part 3: Freedom of Information Act to the Rescue?
Part 4: The Obama Failure

In brief, these articles describe how scientific research gathered by the United States government is often withheld from the general public, a type of action that can quite literally put lives at risk.  The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed to allow public access to these records, but both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have so far failed to live up to the promise of the act.

But while there have been substantial challenges with gaining access to important public information, it’s not all doom and gloom.  The fact that we actually have a Freedom of Information Act with an appeals process and judicial review is significant.  The Act continues to have strong support in the NGO community.  A FOIAonline portal has been built with the goal of eventually becoming a one-stop shop for public information.  The Obama administration has taken a strong positive step at to “increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.”  This initiative has already saved on infrastructure costs.

And we have had disclosure successes.  In 2008 the United States improved the Consumer Product Safety Act and created a searchable database for consumer information.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center and EPA have done an admirable job of reporting on historical climate variables like temperature, precipitation and drought.  The US Embassy in Beijing has made electronic reports of air quality public when the Chinese government refused to do so.  The federal ENERGY STAR program labels the energy footprint of appliances to aid consumers in making more energy efficient purchases.

Inside federal agencies, it would appear that some progress is being made.  In 2013 UCS released a report entitled Grading Government Transparency in which they examined the ability of scientists at federal agencies to speak freely about their work.  They found that many agencies’ media policies “have shown significant improvement since 2008.”  In particular they note that scientists can now more easily apply their right to express personal views provided they make clear that they are not speaking for their agency.

This right was made considerably easier to exercise when on November 13, 2012, after an arduous 14 year journey, Congress unanimously passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.  This act, for the first time, provides specific legal protection to scientists and other federal employees who expose censorship or suppression of federal research.  According to Celia Wexler of the Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS), “We hope that this law will begin a process to change the culture of federal agencies when it comes to whistleblowers. People who protect the public from unsafe drugs, tainted food, defective products, and environmental hazards should not fear for their jobs when they speak up for safety and scientific integrity.”

Since then, other steps have been taken to make it easier for the public to obtain government information.  On May 9, 2013 President Obama issued an executive order making open and machine readable data the new default for government information.  Citing examples like weather data and the Global Positioning System (GPS), the president argued that making federal data freely available “can help fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery – all of which improve Americans’ lives.”

Then, on February 25, 2014 the US House of Representatives unanimously passed the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act.  This amendment to the Freedom of Information Act would create a single, free website from which all FOIA requests could be made.  When requests are granted, federal agencies would have to release the information in an electronic and publicly accessible format.  When requests are denied, the appeals process would be streamlined.  The amendment also forces federal agencies to take greater responsibility for their FOIA obligations.

As we see, the system can work.  But there will always be disagreements between the public and federal agencies regarding which information should be disclosed through FOIA and which should be withheld for security reasons.  When public actors feel their claims have been rejected unjustly, they can always consider seeking subpoenas.

Absent that, there are other options at their disposal to extract greater value out of the information that is public.  Private technology companies can offer tools for the sharing and analysis of data.  Librarians can play a more prominent role in gathering and organizing documents.

When the information being disseminated is incorrect, knowledgeable scientists should take action.  They can start issue blogs and connect with members of the media.  Local groups like city councils rarely hear from scientists, so researchers can have an outsized impact in regional issues.  As members of one of the most respected professions, scientists would do well to build relationships with congressional representatives or their science staffers.  Failure to act means allowing dissembling voices fill the vacuum.

With respect to government disclosure, as with most things, the situation is neither entirely good nor bad.  But it is hard to deny that at times we Americans live in a perverse, ironic ecosystem – one in which taxpayers fund government research designed to inform and protect, only to have that same government deny us the results and claim it’s for our protection.  We must continue to hold our government accountable, push for transparency where appropriate and never yield to private interests who would use our ignorance against us.


My Baltimore Sun Op-Ed Has Been Published

I encourage everyone to check it out by clicking here. According to the Baltimore Sun’s publishing rules, they maintain 30-day exclusivity rights over the piece, so I won’t be able to post it on my website until mid-January.

This opinion piece, which was months in the making, highlights the extreme lack of scientific expertise in the halls of Congress. It gives examples, lists negative impacts and demonstrates how having at least some scientists in charge would be beneficial for the entire country. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that climate change takes center stage in my argument.

Now here’s a little inside baseball. I’ve actually been pretty successful in getting my opinion pieces published in newspapers. I had my two previous letters to the editor (one on offshore drilling and the other on Keystone XL) published in the Baltimore Sun and one of those also in the NJ Star Ledger. Basically I was batting a thousand until this article.

So then a few weeks ago I submit a version through the Baltimore Sun website and hear nothing for like two weeks. Of course I’m thinking that they chose not to run it. So one morning I just decide to rewrite the entire thing. I kept certain phrases, but it was a total reorganization and shifting of the thesis. After bouncing it off some people, I resubmitted.

About three days later I get an email from the Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. She thought my first submission was interesting and well put together, but my contact info was cut off and she couldn’t respond! When I sent the second article, she recognized it as a variation of the first, got my phone number and email and we went ahead. In the end, the version you see here is a marriage of those two drafts.

I plan to extend this into a longer form article in the near future. After all, there’s a lot more than 750 words to say about this topic. I’m still trying to figure out where I can get it published (Science? Scientific American? American Physical Society News?). I’ve never done this before, so I welcome any advice.


Johns Hopkins Feels the Power with Its Cogeneration Plant

Tucked away at the bottom of a small hill in a distant corner of Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus is a large brick building.  Metal pipes protrude horizontally from its side before diving perpendicularly into the ground.  Its tall, curved top windows, rooftop smokestack and mysterious purpose are vaguely reminiscent of the factory from the classic 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  And much like the Wonka factory, no student ever goes in and no student ever comes out.

This building is the Homewood Power Plant, the facility responsible for providing electricity, heating, and cooling to the Homewood campus in central Baltimore City.  As part of Earth Week @ Johns Hopkins, the university’s Department of Facilities Management granted me a walkthrough to learn exactly what happens within.

The JHU Power Plant plays the same role as an electric utility’s generation station.  Fuel goes in and electricity comes out.  BGE, Maryland’s electricity provider, achieves 35% efficiency in this process.  What this means is that for every 100 units of fuel energy that goes in, 35 units of electricity comes out.  The remaining 65 units are expelled as waste heat through the Chesapeake Bay Cooling Tower.

Principles of thermodynamics and engineering limitations make it difficult to achieve higher efficiencies.  This is unless, of course, you manage to reclaim that waste heat for something useful.  This is where Homewood’s Cogeneration Facility comes into play.  Cogeneration (which stands for Combined Heat and Power System) is a process in which both electricity and useful heat (steam) are simultaneously produced.  The 65 units of waste heat, which would otherwise be discarded, are diverted to a waste heat recovery system.



Here are the basics.  Waste heat in the form of steam exits the primary generator at temperatures around 1000 °F.  The recovery system takes that steam and pumps it around the campus, eventually taking the form of building heat, hot water, and energy to feed Homewood campus’s four chilling plants.  All in all, the waste heat recovery system is able to wring about 45 extra units of steam energy from the 65 units of waste leading to an overall plant efficiency of 75-85%, approximately double what BGE could provide.  (For you wonks out there, the total electric capacity of the system is 3.8\times10^{7} kWh/year and total steam capacity is 210\times10^{6} pounds per year.)




“Cogen uses less energy to make electricity and heat and our process produces less greenhouse gases,” said Ed Kirk, a university energy engineer.  “Cogen reduces our energy use in one big chunk.”

The 4.2MW Power Plant, which opened in June 2010, is part of JHU’s plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% in the next 12 years.  “Our approach has us looking at energy efficiency, energy conservation, more sustainable energy choices and renewable energy,” added Mr. Kirk.


If this system seems like a no-brainer, then why doesn’t BGE do it itself?  The problem is that piping steam over long distances is an incredibly inefficient operation.  Much of the steam’s heat will be lost in the process.  That’s not to say utilities don’t do it.  It’s just that circumstances have to be right.  For example, Con Edison, New York City’s utility provider, uses a collection of cogeneration plants to heat around 100,000 densely packed buildings in Manhattan.  This explains the familiar image of steam rising through city sewer grates.  It also explains why cogeneration plants must be closely located to end-users.

Closer proximity also lessens transmission and distribution losses over power lines and provides greater security in unstable energy markets.   The high energy requirements and dense arrangements of college campuses, hospitals, military bases, etc. make them attractive candidates for this type of technology.

The Homewood cogeneration unit joins a small handful of others in the region.  Two have been installed at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a couple others are at the University of Maryland at College Park and Mercy Medical in central Baltimore.

The limiting factor prohibiting everyone from installing cogen plants is cost.  The Homewood campus was fortunate in that it had a large, unused space directly above one of its on-site combustion turbines.  The facility cost $7.5 million to install and will pay for itself in energy savings in about seven years.


Despite the plant’s net energy savings, this project was not always economically viable.  It was Maryland’s deregulation of electric utilities in 1999 that turned the tide.

“When electricity was deregulated, electricity prices rose,” said Craig Macomber, Chief Engineer at the Power Plant.  “At the same time, natural gas prices were falling.  These two conditions made our project feasible.”



The Homewood campus remains reliant on electricity purchased from BGE.  According to Mr. Macomber, when all things are considered the total amount of Homewood’s energy generated by the power plant is 20% in the summer and 30% in the winter.

Increased energy efficiency will lower the university’s carbon footprint by 8,650 metric tons per year, important for mitigating global climate change.  This falls in line with the goals of the JHU Office of Sustainability, whose stated mission is “to make Johns Hopkins University a showpiece of environmental leadership by demonstrating smart, sensible, and creative actions that promote the vision of sustainability.”



Climate and Energy Primary Sources

There are tons of organizations that have done research related to energy, climate and policy.  Over the years I’ve aggregated a (non-comprehensive) list of those agencies.  If you would like to suggest additions, either post them in the comments or tweet them to me @mspecian and I’ll update the list.

Advanced Energy Economy

Alliance for Climate Protection

American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy

American Energy Innovation Council

American Security Project

American Wind Energy Association

Better Buildings Neighborhood Program from DOE


Bloomberg New Energy Finance

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Carbon Tracker Initiative

Center for American Progress

Center for Climate Strategies

Center for Investigative Reporting

Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association

Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM)

Climate Nexus

Clinton Foundation


Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research – Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security

Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites

E3G – Change Elements for Sustainable Development

Economics and Equity for the Environment (E3)

Economic Outlook Group

Energy Information Administration

Energy Self Reliant States

Environmental Defense Fund
Environmental Protection Agency

Environmental Research Letters

Environment American


European Wind Energy Association

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Forecast the Facts

Friends of the Earth UK

German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW)

Global CCS Institute

Global Warming Policy Foundation

Google Earth Engine

Green Scissors Project


GTM Research (and energy consultancy)

The Guardian

Hart Research

Institute for Local Self Reliance

Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (in Beijing)

Insurance Information Institute

International Council on Clean Transportation

International Research Institute for Climate and Society

InVEST – Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services & Tradeoffs


Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory

League of Conservation Voters

Major Economies Forum

MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research


National Center for Atmospheric Research

National Drought Mitigation Center

National Latino Coalition on Climate Change

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) – National Climatic Data Center

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy

National Wildlife Federation

Natural Resources Defense Council

The Nature Conservancy
North American Reliability Corporation

Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership

Pecan Street – R&D on advanced technologies, advanced energy systems, and human interactions with them


Rocky Mountain Institute

Safe Climate Campaign

Scott Polar research Institute at Cambridge University

Sierra Club

Solar Energy Industries Association

Southwest Climate Change Network

Surface Ocean Lower Atmosphere Study (SOLAS)

Union of Concerned Scientists

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

US Climate Change Science Program

US Defense Department

US Energy Information Administration

US Global Change Research Program

US Historical Climate Network (USHCN)

US Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC)

US Transportation Department – Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

Visual Carbon

World Climate Research Programme

World Resources and Environmental Law

World Resources Institute

Zero Emissions Platform





Environmental Research Letters

Journal of Climate

Journal of Geophysics Research

Geophysical Research Letters

Nature Geoscience


Articles Archive Added

I recognize that my website is sorta oddball. “Serious” articles on topics like green development in Africa, sustainability and climate are interspersed with professional wrestling results, games and personal photography. This motley assortment of content precludes this site from being a pure issues blog. While I have considered going in that direction, I built to be a reflection of me along multiple dimensions. So for now I intend to keep it as is.

With one exception. I have added a link entitled Articles to my main menu. This is will be the one-stop-shop for everything I have written and will continue to write on topics such as climate, energy, politics and science in general. Thank you all for reading!


My Silver Bullet for Solving the Energy Crisis

In the course of traveling through life, I occasionally intersect with others as passionate as I am about our world’s climate and energy crisis.  I love to pick people’s brains and most of the time I can’t stop myself from asking them, “If you had one silver bullet policy in your pocket that you could implement today, what would it be?”

I have received responses ranging from “sign the Kyoto Protocol” (which I perceive as small beer) to “remove corporate money from politics” (which, while probably the correct answer, is wholly unrealistic).

Through these discussions, I believe I have settled (at least for today) on an answer of my own: “promote international development through green growth.”  At a time when economic concerns drown out calls for foreign aid, I’m reminded of the saying, “The cleanest power plant is the one you never have to build.”  And nowhere is the need for new power as acute as in the developing world.

For some, a Third World green intervention seems like a misallocation of limited resources.  Why not just let them build a bunch of coal plants?  For others (me included), this need provides real opportunity.  In locations where firewood is the the primary sustainable resource, intelligent green investment can be sustainable in its own way – through profitability.

But with hundreds of international initiatives underway to support green growth, it’s easy to suffer from paralysis of too many options.  What are the key strategies?  Who’s doing what well?  Where is there room for improvement?

In the United States, we look to Silicon Valley as the model of an innovation ecosystem.  It is there that raw talent, research capability, and venture capital’s business-building power converge to create the planet’s premier environment for the generation of new products and wealth.  While Silicon Valley itself has shown little interest in the developing world, their model remains a gold standard and its strategies are easily transferable.

Nurturing talent must start with education.  The status quo of having one professor teaching standard courses to 1000 students will not get the job done.  Training students in the basics is key, but education needs to become less abstract and more vocational.  Let brewing beer be a study in chemistry.  Let cows be a study in biology.  If HP cannot offer copying equipment to parts of Africa due to a lack of qualified technicians, as was recently the case, teach technology to match the need.

Then, for research to be effective the world must work together.  China and the United States are behemoths, and science agencies like the US’s National Science Foundation offer much in the way of support.  Africa, however, is challenged by having 45 separate, smaller science foundations.  Regional agencies must be formed to bring these groups together.  If Rwanda relies solely upon its own scientists, it’s going to miss 99% of knowledge generated elsewhere.

Consider General Electric’s ecoimagination, an enterprise they describe on their website as “GE’s commitment to imagine and build innovative solutions to today’s environmental challenges while driving economic growth.”  Thus far, their research has proven capable of meeting global needs like lowering carbon emissions, increasing energy efficiency, developing/deploying wind and solar, and maximizing water conservation.  GE possesses massive resources, benefits from economies of scale and has a global presence.  There’s still plenty of room for improvement, from geothermal investments in Indonesia to new public transport systems in Central America and Asia.

But while technology is the glue between green and growth, solving the R&D problem alone doesn’t mean you have a competitive product.  It certainly doesn’t guarantee a valid business model, nor is it necessarily scalable.  For instance, a company the size of GE is not optimized to sell solar panels to villages one at a time.

So while nations like Burundi will seldom outperform the science team of a company like GE, that shouldn’t be their role.  Developing nations are much better positioned to understand their own needs, constraints and goals.  Perhaps they can host franchises that spin-off First World tech to deploy on village-sized scales.  Then, the smaller region’s needs can spur local innovations of First World “big box” technologies.

For example, to process coffee, beans must be washed, hulled, polished, sorted, etc.  A developing nation relying on its own technology will be priced out of the market by big box technology that scales.  But since the final coffee product depends keenly on the details of the processing method, innovations of big tech at local sites can provide an end product neither the First nor Third Worlds could have achieved entirely on their own.

However, research and business can only do so much.  If conditions on the ground are not fertile for green growth, roots won’t take hold.  Electricity cannot be transported if the government fails to maintain electrical wires.  If the state heavily subsidizes coal or oil, green technologies competitive in a free market won’t survive in a rigged one.  Without patent protection and sharing of intellectual property, tech transfer will not occur.  Agencies like the World Bank can be coaxed into giving their assistance, but they rarely lead.  The bed must first be set by gathering global support for investment, e.g. by connecting principle investigators in neighboring countries or by getting the World Bank to fund distributed solar (perhaps by crowdsourcing) in developing markets.

Many of these issues will be discussed in June at the Rio+20 Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  If representatives can figure out how to link regional science foundations, introduce researchers to businesses (venture capital-style) and direct First World technology to Third World innovations, this might be the silver bullet most worth firing.


Why It Is So Difficult to Convince People That You Are Right

One of the biggest reasons it is difficult to convince someone of your argument is that, far too often, facts and rationality are irrelevant.

I participated for many years as a parliamentary debater in the American Parliamentary Debate Association. We won rounds based on our ability to establish multiple, strong arguments in favor of our case, then eliminating, one-by-one, the arguments of our opposition. It was a tit-for-tat battle. If my opponent failed to account for one of my arguments, I could triumphantly claim that he “dropped’ my point and win it by forfeit.

This is NOT how the real world works.

In 2010 I attended a climate change education workshop in Washington DC run by the National Academy of Sciences. The question was how climate change skepticism was so widespread despite the fact that 97-98% of actively publishing climate scientists agree with the conclusion that climate change is happening and that humans are primarily responsible. The parliamentary debater in me firmly believed that if only people were more educated to the facts, they would surely change their opinions.

And yet psychological research, including that from Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, does not support this conclusion. In one study, cognitive scientists found that many of those most alarmed about climate change don’t even understand the science. A recent poll from Brookings has shown that while 78% of Democrats acknowledge global warming is happening, Republicans are split down the middle. Both examples illustrate a disconnect between facts and what people believe.

This occurs because humans develop, as a natural defense mechanism, a model for the world in which they live. Adherence to the model gives an individual his identity. That identity is often woven into his relationships with larger communities, like family, friends, church, or political party. To turn his back on a foundational tenant means to ostracize himself from a group, and admit to a personal fault.

The most effective way, therefore, to convince someone of your argument is to first understand their cultural commitments. People (political conservatives especially) tend to prefer the established order. Failure to understand their bedrock principles can lead to arguments that rub against the grain, creating backlash and ironically, an entrenchment of previously held beliefs. A compelling debater understands cultural commitments and plays to them.

Every approach will be different. If you want to convince a fisherman of climate change, take him to his favorite river and highlight the changes he’s already observed, like a shortening of the winter season. For the very religious, work through a church authority. For politicians, find a way that allows them to accept an argument that coexists with their principles, e.g. using a carbon price to address greenhouse gas emissions rather than a complicated collection of regulations, requirements and government agencies.

Instead of directly introducing the argument you want your listener to believe, take a three-step approach. First, ask him to name a quality about himself that he considers a strength. While this may seem silly, this helps him assume a position of strength. This mindset increases the likelihood that he will accept new ideas.

Second, instead of directly stating your point, begin by introducing uncontroversial facts. Try to avoid bringing incorrect conclusions, as doing so can reinforce them. If you must, though, be sure to first issue a big disclaimer. For example, you might say to a global warming skeptic, “You will often hear people report incorrectly, and I stress ‘incorrectly’, that global temperatures are decreasing. The way scientists know for sure is by taking temperature measurements all over the globe over a period of many years.”

Third, instead of explicitly saying the argument you want to convince him of, show him data that allows him to draw his own conclusion. You might say, “Here’s a plot of the average planetary temperature as measured by 5 different groups over the last 100 years. You can probably see why so many scientists have concluded what they have.”

Approaching the argument from this direction permits the listener to make up his own mind. He needn’t concede that he was wrong and you were right. Instead, given the freedom to make up his own mind, he takes control of the information as his own. Research has shown this three-step approach to be quite effective.

There are other tips one should follow:

  • Make arguments personally meaningful and attempt to trigger empathy.
  • People often use poor word choice. Use clever alliteration to aid retention of information, and then repeat, repeat, repeat.
  • Tell good stories if you can.
  • Never overwhelm with facts. Use three facts at most. Going overboard has been shown to be counterproductive.
  • Never dispel an incorrect argument without replacing it with a correct one.

Our Planet’s Carbon Budget: How Much Does Each Source Produce, How High Can We Go, and What Would Be the Impact of Keystone XL

The fate of our planet’s climate and its people depends largely on the total amount of carbon we emit into the atmosphere. It doesn’t matter how fast we emit it or where on the planet it spews from, like flood water into a valley, as it fills up we have to fend off the subsequent catastrophes.

In this post, I will briefly summarize the sizes of Earth’s fossil fuel carbon deposits and how much each will contribute to the deterioration of our planet’s climate system.

First, we ask, “how much warming is ‘safe’”? There’s no clear answer, of course, but a generally accepted benchmark is to limit global warming to 2^{\circ}C = 3.5^{\circ}F, which requires emitting no more than 5\times10^{14} kg of carbon (or approximately 1,400 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide) for the next thousands years or so. Here’s a table of major carbon sources and the percentage of the way they get to this total:


Fossil Fuel Type

Carbon Content (kg)

% towards 2^{\circ} C

Proven oil reserves 1.39\times10^{14}


Proven gas reserves 1\times10^{14}


Economically recoverable coal 8.46\times10^{14}


Tar Sands economically recoverable 0.23\times10^{14}


Tar Sands total 2.3\times10^{14}



It’s obvious that coal, which can get us above 2^{\circ}C all by itself, is the elephant in the room. Its massive time-bomb potential begs for the rapid deployment of carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS), a plea which is unlikely to be answered given the preliminary and unsettled nature of the technology.

Proven oil and gas reserves are also large contributors, with gas being preferable to oil, though not by much. Note that all of these percentages could increase if A) new reserves are found or B) new technology or C) increases in fuel prices (through increased demand perhaps) makes extraction of these fuels less expensive.

Right now, the Alberta tar sands and the associated Keystone XL pipeline remains a hot-button political issue in Washington with environmentalists and residents of the Midwest, particularly Nebraska, staunchly against the pipeline.

Advocates of the pipeline who acknowledge its climate impacts argue that they are negligible in comparison to other sources of carbon and therefore deserve to be ignored. They further argue the pipeline will only ship 500,000-800,000 barrels a day, which is approximately 20 times less than the amount of crude oil the US imports every day.

However, two key points need to be remembered. First, the rate at which carbon is emitted is irrelevant. The total amount is what matters. So even if it were to take hundreds of years to drain the tar sands, the effect would be the same. Second, once the pipeline starts flowing, new technologies and fluctuations in fuel prices could quickly make larger amounts of the tar sands viable. If all were developed, which presently remains unrealistic, then this would be enough to get to 2^{\circ}C even if coal was removed from the equation.

From this perspective, we have an opportunity to cut off 5% of the remaining pie to 2^{\circ}C just by saying no to this pipeline, an option we lack with oil, coal, and gas. Getting 5% back for free would be a huge step in the right direction.