Sunday, November 02, 2014
A disagreement over climate-conflict link heats up
I agree with one of the critics below about meta-analyses. They are very susceptible to bias. See, for instance here. One good solid gold study beats any meta-analysis. My own research into various effects of a warmer climate ended up with findings of no effect
A debate among scientists over climate change and conflict has turned ugly. At issue is the question of whether the hotter temperatures and chaotic weather produced by climate change are causing higher rates of violence. A new analysis refutes earlier research that found a link, and the two lead researchers are exchanging some pointed remarks.
Last year, a team of U.S. researchers reported a robust connection between climate and violence in Science. But in a critique published online yesterday in Climatic Change, a team of mostly European researchers dismissed the connection as "inconclusive." The Science authors are hitting back, claiming that the critics are fudging the statistics and even manipulating their figures.
The new analysis "is entirely based on surprisingly bold misrepresentations of our article, the literature, basic statistics, and their own findings," says Solomon Hsiang, the lead author of the Science paper and an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Numerous past studies have found a correlation between heat waves and violence, manifesting as conflicts between individuals and between groups. Demonstrating a direct connection between climate change and violence on a global scale, however, is tricky. It requires a meta-analysis of hundreds of already published studies that have slightly different techniques and measurement scales. Hsiang's team performed just such a meta-analysis and grabbed headlines with their findings that a changing climate appeared to be amping up conflict.
The Science paper was met with some skepticism, however, and some of those skeptics have been building their case. The Climatic Change critique is authored by Halvard Buhaug, an economist at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, and co-signed by 25 of his colleagues. The problem, Buhaug wrote in an e-mail to ScienceInsider, is that the meta-analysis "blends all sorts of actors at all sorts of spatial and temporal scales. … [They] draw sweeping conclusions that, supposedly, are robust and apply across scales and types of violent conflict. Of course that doesn’t make sense. But it works if you seek attention." He also accuses Hsiang's team of "severe bias in sample selection” and says that his analysis of the same data did not support the climate-conflict link.
Why critique the research now? The study "appears to have had some influence on policy thinking," Buhaug wrote, citing a recent U.S. Department of Defense road map on addressing climate change in military planning and another report by the CNA Corporation on climate change and security. Such official statements "reinforce the impression that the climate-conflict link is considered uncontroversial in policy circles,” Buhaug wrote. “As scientists and experts on this issue, we see it as our duty to provide a more balanced message."
Hsiang in standing by his analysis. In a detailed, blow-by-blow blog post responding to the new paper, Hsiang charges Buhaug with basic mathematical errors that undermine his conclusion. In an e-mail to ScienceInsider, Hsiang also accuses Buhaug’s group of "doctoring the display of their figures." (The evidence of that alleged doctoring is laid out in Hsiang’s blog post.)
The spat has other researchers exasperated. "What is frustrating is that they can't work together," says Andrew Solow, a statistician at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who is associated with neither side. "Why can't they get together and thrash these issues out? Even if they don't come to an agreement, they could explore alternative modeling choices and their implications."
Solow adds that he is "not a big fan" of meta-analysis, in part because the technique sparks disputes like these. Rather than directly addressing the scientific question of whether climate change is causing an increase in conflict, he says, "this disagreement is over the degree to which studies of the climate-conflict link agree [with each other]."
UK: Offshore wind farms may be scrapped due to budget cap, ScottishPower warns
Several proposed offshore wind farms may be scrapped in coming months because the Government is not awarding enough subsidies, the head of energy giant ScottishPower has said.
Keith Anderson, chief corporate officer, said it was cutting the size of its planned 240-turbine East Anglia offshore wind farm because the budget for subsidies to be awarded this year was “not big enough”. The project could be scrapped altogether if it did not secure a subsidy contract this year.
Those offshore wind farms that do get built in coming years will be unnecessarily expensive because ministers are effectively forcing companies to build smaller projects, preventing them from developing economies of scale, he claimed. As a result the Government would miss its own target for cutting offshore wind’s costs by 2020, Mr Anderson, the former head of the Offshore Wind Industry Council, forecast.
Offshore wind farms are heavily subsidised through levies on consumer energy bills. Ministers are preparing to award subsidy contracts for new projects in a "reverse auction" over coming months, but the maximum available budget is barely half the size the wind industry had expected, Mr Anderson said.
About five projects are expected to compete for the subsidies, which can realistically fund just one 700MW-800MW offshore wind farm, according to industry body Renewable UK.
Mr Anderson told the Telegraph that ScottishPower was being forced to scale back its proposed 1.2 gigawatt (GW) wind farm off the coast of East Anglia in order that its total annual subsidy requirement would be less than £235m – the maximum budget being awarded this year.
Even then, it risked losing out to rival projects.
“There will be more applications than there is budget,” Mr Anderson confirmed. “I think on the back of the auction there will be a lot of companies re-examining what they do with their projects and whether they are viable any more.
“We are hopeful we can submit a competitive bid and win, but if we are sitting here in January and have not got a contract we would have to totally reschedule the project timeline. Until we had analysed all of that we wouldn’t have a clue as to whether the project would still be economically viable. We would have to totally reassess and re-examine the whole project.”
No subsidy allocation has been confirmed to be awarded next year, although ministers have indicated there is roughly £1bn to be allocated over the rest of the decade.
Mr Anderson said that by awarding such limited budgets at a time, the Government was stymieing its own aim of cutting the technology’s costs.
Offshore wind farms currently receive about £150 - roughly triple the market price of power – for every megawatt-hour of power they generate. Ministers have said that cost should be cut to £100 for projects being awarded contracts in 2020.
“You cannot build a huge big project, so you will not get the big economies of scale,” Mr Anderson said. He said the kind of projects being proposed now had originally been expected to be at least 1GW each in order to drive cost efficiencies.
“Our belief is if you drove the process to do projects of that size and scale you would drive the costs down harder and faster. If you push the projects down to smaller size and scale, we don’t think you will get the cost reduction coming through the industry as quickly as you could.
“If you wanted to hit magical £100 target by 2020, I think doing it this way pushes it out by a few years,” he said. “It’s been made more difficult and it will take longer.”
Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, said the government had no plans to increase its subsidy cap so as to ensure customers get best value for money.
“It’s very important that government has a budget and doesn’t have unconstrained spending which won’t provide the best value for consumers” said the Liberal Democrat minister.
“Having a disciplined budget will help drive competition and if it means we only get the most efficient projects coming forward ahead of others, then I celebrate that.”
Mr Davey added that he believes the government is still on target to bring down the costs of wind power by 2020.
“Green energy is part of the government’s long term economic plan and we are seeing wind generation increase in very big increases. We are ahead of our targets.”
GM food: saving lives, or lining corporate pockets?
The problems of GM are more political than scientific
Frankenfood or saviour of the starving? In the latest blow to the anti-GM movement, a consortium of European scientists has urged government to embrace GM food as the only way to feed the planet. They're not the only ones: last year, the then Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, made a major speech calling on the European Union to drop its barriers preventing genetically modified organisms being grown and sold in Europe. It could, he said, be the difference between survival and starvation for millions of people around the world.
So what's the truth? (And if what follows is familiar, it's because it's based on a piece I wrote at the time of Paterson's speech - but then, the facts about GM haven't changed in that time.)
Everyone agrees that we need to get better at feeding people. Our population reached seven billion two years ago; it is predicted to level off at nine billion in the middle of this century. GM proponents suggest that it can be an important tool in our battle to feed that ever-growing number of mouths; opponents suggest that it is a distraction, and a dangerous one.
There’s no denying that it has the power to do good, says Mark Lynas, an environmental writer and author of The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. “For example, in Missouri, they’re growing GM cassava, which is an important food crop for 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. The cassava that’s being grown in Africa is being hit by a viral infection that’s sweeping across the continent, so a major threat to food security. There’s no way a resistant strain can be made by conventional breeding – it’s a bit like vaccination, in that a tiny bit of viral DNA is put into the plant genome, and you can’t do that with selective breeding.” It could undoubtedly save lives, he says.
There is a precedent here. In the 1960s, much of the developing world faced starvation. But using agricultural technology – not GM, but older methods such as backcrossing – a man called Norman Borlaug created dwarf grains which grew faster and were more resilient, and staved off disaster. Borlaug’s inventions are credited with saving as many as a billion lives.
The GM revolution may have similarly dramatic effects: scientists have high hopes for salt-resistant crops which could grow in previously unusable coastal land; the agricultural research group Rothamsted Research has developed an aphid-resistant wheat. But activists are concerned that the companies which develop these strains will have unprecedented power over the food chain. “My main concern is the empowerment of the food corporations,” says George Monbiot, the environmentalist and author of Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. “An executive of the biotech company Monsanto said in 1996 that their aim was the ‘consolidation of the entire food chain’,” he says. “Monsanto quite overtly positioned GM as their means of achieving that goal, and it was quite a clear battle-plan that they had: an aggressive patenting regime, patenting technologies and genetic material.”
The GM organisms themselves, he says, are far less of a concern. “Primarily, it’s about power,” he says. “A huge volume of academic work has shown that how well people are fed is less to do with the actual quantity of food available in the world, and more to do with who controls the food chain, how well the food is distributed, and the degree of democracy – people don’t starve in democracies, because they are able to lobby to get access to food.” GM, and the ability to patent genomes, place far more power in the hands of major companies. He also points out that despite the grand claims that GM could feed the poor, the majority of GM crops in Europe have been used as animal feed.
Lynas agrees that aggressive patenting is a concern. “Ownership of this technology could be concentrated in too few hands; I would like to see a much more open-source approach. A lot of biotech scientists are very critical of the overuse of the patenting system.” But it’s a wider problem than GM alone. “It’s about how technology is controlled in a society. It’s not an argument against the use of that technology.”
We have to strike a balance, he says, between allowing firms to make a profit – which, after all, is how much innovation happens – and allowing the spread of these technologies in a way that allows them to get to where they are needed. There are positive steps being taken: some publicly funded researchers like Rothamsted patent their work but then make it available on public licences; the “golden rice” project, a GM crop which is designed to combat vitamin A deficiency, is being made available for free to poor subsistence farmers in Asia on similar free licences, by (among others) Monsanto. But there are still problems, analogous to those of making antiretroviral drugs affordable to poor African HIV sufferers.
The problem is that the GM debate is framed too much as a Manichaean good-and-evil thing, says Lynas (and Monbiot, who also acknowledges that new technology is vital in the fight to feed the world), who blames a lot of the opposition to it on “the naturalistic fallacy”. “Like splitting the atom, it doesn’t happen in nature, so it’s bad,” he says. “It’s a deep cultural response, almost a lizard-brain thing.” But to be for or against “GM” as a monolithic entity is irrational. “It’s just a technique. It’s like saying I’m against tractors,” he says.
Have Warmists lost the NYT?
Not entirely but the NYT no longer preaches "consensus", it appears
Few topics fuel as much reader attention as climate change. Adam Bryant recently became editor of The Times’s expanded team covering the environment. We asked him how he is approaching the position.
How did this job come about for you?
When I met with Dean Baquet, our executive editor, in August, he said he wanted to beef up The Times’s coverage of climate change and the environment, and asked me if I would be interested in overseeing an expanded team of reporters. I had just come off a long project – I was part of the team that worked on the Innovation Report – and I jumped at the opportunity.
It’s a fascinating and important topic, full of nuance and complexity (example here), and I get to work with an amazing group of reporters. It’s also a subject that touches on so many different aspects – science, politics, policy, population growth, agriculture, history. The list goes on and on.
It is a sprawling topic. What is your strategy for covering it?
There’s no simple playbook, but here are a few thoughts. Part of The Times’s role is to separate the signal from the noise. There are a lot of reports and papers and studies published every day, and Times readers rely on us to choose carefully which ones we’re going to cover.
We also want to cover this story on all fronts – including threats, causes and potential solutions. We want to focus on what’s happening now (examples here and here), as well as what may happen in the future (examples here and here). I also want to make sure we give readers guidance about the relative importance and impact of different causes and potential solutions – for example, how do emissions from coal plants compare to tailpipe emissions from cars?
One challenge about the coverage is that many people may have a sense that the story line is somewhat fixed – they believe climate change is a problem, or perhaps they don’t. So we’ll look for opportunities to connect dots in new ways, or frame stories based on “good dumb questions,” as journalists like to call them.
Is the equivalency issue dead? To what extent should we feel obligated to include the views of climate change skeptics?
Claims that the entire field of climate science is some kind of giant hoax do not hold water, and we have made a conscious decision that we are not going to take that point of view seriously. At the same time, there is a huge amount of legitimate debate and uncertainty within mainstream science. Scientists are pretty open about not being sure how bad things will get, or how quickly. These are the valid scientific issues and uncertainties that we want to cover.
A recent front-page piece by Justin Gillis — Scientists Trace Extreme Heat in Australia to Climate Change – provides a good example of providing informed second opinions on a topic. In his piece, Justin quoted an expert who has often been skeptical of claimed links between weather events and global warming in the past. But in this new study we were reporting on, he said the evidence was strong. That insight is more useful to readers than quoting someone who believes the entire field of study is built on a pillar of sand.
There’s so much bad news and warnings that have been reported in recent years. How do you keep a certain numbness from setting in on the part of readers?
The grim news can be overwhelming – droughts, fires, flooding, deforestation, etc. But there is a lot happening around the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Germany is on track to get close to 30 percent of its energy from renewables this year, for example, as we reported in a recent front-page article. The cost of wind and solar energy is dropping fast around the world.
You’ve worked as an editor on the national desk and in features, but you’ve spent most of your career as a reporter and editor covering business. Do you have a background in science?
I don’t have a background in science, though I’ve always been curious about how our world is changing, the forces at work, how big decisions are made, and the people who make them (in that regard, I’ll be continuing with my Corner Office interviews in the Sunday Business section, though I’ve dropped the Friday installment to concentrate on my new job). I’m going to have a steep learning curve, but many of the reporters on my team have breathtakingly deep knowledge on a range of subjects. My job as editor will be to help choose the topics that are most important, then to make sure the stories are told in a clear, understandable, watertight and compelling way.
The Greenies want it both ways about acidic oceans
Radio 4's Today swallows the bunkum spouted by 'warmists' such as Lord May
Profitable prophet Walport
The main qualifications for being paid £165,000-a-year to act as the government’s “chief scientific adviser” these days, it seems, are that (a) one should know nothing about climate science, and (b) that one should then appear regularly on the Today programme to terrify listeners that the threat posed by man-made global warming is “much worse than was previously thought”.
Following those “population biologists” Lord May and Sir John Beddington, and the “surface chemist” Sir David King, the latest to play this game is the immunologist Sir Mark Walport. On Friday he was invited by Jim Naughtie to pronounce gravely about yet another new study claiming that the oceans are “acidifying”, to a level not known for “65 million years”.
For every scientific paper that pushes this particular long-familiar scare story, another points out that to talk about the oceans turning to acid when their average pH level is still way above 7.0 is just scientific bunkum.
But what the warmists also overlook is the science that tells us that when the oceans grow warmer they give off more CO2 rather than the other way round. So, if the oceans are warming, as the warmists like to claim, they should contain less CO2, not more. They cannot have it both ways. But we can no more expect our immunologist to know this than we can expect Mr Naughtie to do anything but eagerly murmur assent to the great man’s every nonsensical word.
EPA Director on Environmental Laws: ‘Enforcement Really is Democracy in Action’
EPA Director Gina McCarthy has praised environmental lawyers for their work, telling them “enforcement really is democracy in action.”
“When I think about how effective we’ve been I keep coming back to the same reason for that effectiveness, it’s because our laws have teeth, it’s because EPA is empowered to enforce them,” McCarthy told attendees at the American Bar Association Fall Conference.
“And its because of your work, your hard work to uphold the integrity of those environmental statutes. Enforcement really is democracy in action.”
McCarthy was a keynote speaker for the Oct. 9th event in Miami.
“You know that America’s rule of law is only as good as the credible system that implements and enforces it. Laws talk the talk but implementation and strong enforcement is what walks the walk. It separates us from other nations,” McCarthy said.
For more postings from me, see DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC and AUSTRALIAN POLITICS. Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.
Preserving the graphics: Most graphics on this site are hotlinked from elsewhere. But hotlinked graphics sometimes have only a short life -- as little as a week in some cases. After that they no longer come up. From January 2011 on, therefore, I have posted a monthly copy of everything on this blog to a separate site where I can host text and graphics together -- which should make the graphics available even if they are no longer coming up on this site. See here or here
Posted by JR at 1:39 AM