Ethanol and greenhouse gas emissions: be skeptical

March 15, 2010

In the realm of science, it pays to go into things with an open mind. In the realm of human thought, an open mind is a rare event. We’re hardwired to immediately trust anything we agree with and are skeptical of anything we don’t. Because of that, we can find ourselves becoming very hypocritical, criticizing something for a perceived flaw while defending something else for the exact same flaw. If we were to do evaluate scientific research in this manner, we would be, well, exactly where we are now in the realm of global warming.

That’s why I was a bit disappointed to see this article up on Watts Up With That. Now, I don’t mean to criticize the site or its founder; they do excellent work. But he’s clearly not well versed in the realm of biofuels. So first, a brief background on this paper (pdf)and the controversy it is involved in. Back in early 2008, the idea of considering indirect land use change (ILUC) to determine greenhouse gas emissions from ethanol production was first introduced. Let’s ignore the idea of whether we should care about GHGs in the first place. The theory behind ILUC is simple and intuitive; if we grow more corn for ethanol here, we can’t make as much food. So in order to meet that demand, we’ll have to grow it somewhere else. And that means cutting down the rainforest or something to that effect. Obviously, the science is more complicated, and relies a lot on agricultural economic models. But that’s not really needed for now. This paper is an update of this concept. It claims that an increase from 2001 ethanol production (~1.7 billion gallons) to expected 2015 levels (15 billion gallons) will not reduce worldwide GHG emissions due to the added emissions from, well, cutting down the rainforest and stuff.
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One more thing to take from Climategate

November 24, 2009

Iain Murray wrote an excellent piece at Pajamas Media regarding the three things you must know about Climategate (the hacked CRU email and data). Despite being excellent, I think there’s one more to add. While the emails got a lot of attention, a file called HARRY_READ_ME.txt is finally getting some attention. And wow, is it interesting. Even CBS has taken notice: (H/T: Hot Air)

As the leaked messages, and especially the HARRY_READ_ME.txt file, found their way around technical circles, two things happened: first, programmers unaffiliated with East Anglia started taking a close look at the quality of the CRU’s code, and second, they began to feel sympathetic for anyone who had to spend three years (including working weekends) trying to make sense of code that appeared to be undocumented and buggy, while representing the core of CRU’s climate model.

The link has some good excecrpts, but The Devil’s Kitchen has more, plus commentary. Frankly, I encourage you to read the original file. Whoever this Harry person is, he at least knows how to keep an entertaining log. Some fun bits: Read the rest of this entry »

“Hide the decline”: why it’s dishonest

November 22, 2009

Needless to say, the biggest news story in the world of global warming in the past week has been the hacking of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit. When the news first broke, the big headline was an email by Phil Jones from 1999 and one damaging line:

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

This line has prompted much debate, with some on the right claiming this is fraud or that it’s proof the global warming alarmists are adding fake data or whatever. This line of thought has been attacked, with Real Climate leading the way:

The paper in question is the Mann, Bradley and Hughes (1998) Nature paper on the original multiproxy temperature reconstruction, and the ‘trick’ is just to plot the instrumental records along with reconstruction so that the context of the recent warming is clear. Scientists often use the term “trick” to refer to a “a good way to deal with a problem”, rather than something that is “secret”, and so there is nothing problematic in this at all. As for the ‘decline’, it is well known that Keith Briffa’s maximum latewood tree ring density proxy diverges from the temperature records after 1960 (this is more commonly known as the “divergence problem”–see e.g. the recent discussion in this paper) and has been discussed in the literature since Briffa et al in Nature in 1998 (Nature, 391, 678-682). Those authors have always recommend not using the post 1960 part of their reconstruction, and so while ‘hiding’ is probably a poor choice of words (since it is ‘hidden’ in plain sight), not using the data in the plot is completely appropriate, as is further research to understand why this happens.

Others have said it’s just a way to make the data look pretty, or that “trick” is just the natural jargon. Needless to say, the truth is a bit more complicated. Read the rest of this entry »

Arctic sea ice minimum has come and gone. What does it mean?

September 21, 2009

Summer is gone, and with it the annual sea ice melt. This year was, depending on your point of view, either the second straight year of increasing sea ice or the third lowest extent of sea ice known. Both are true. So which one’s more important? NSIDC obsesses over the second part of that. But I disagree.

The rebound is far more important than NSIDC’s lead of it being the third lowest extent. This is because the rebound demonstrates just how little we know of climate and how it works. Allow me to explain. Read the rest of this entry »

My tribute to Norman Borlaug

September 13, 2009

Norman Borlaug, quite possibly the most important person you’ll never hear about in school, died today at the age of 95. Why was he important? I guess he didn’t do that much, if you consider saving the lives of a billion people nothing…

He did that by being the father of the Green Revolution. While some were saying that overpopulation was at hand, and mass starvation would result due to our silly idea of reproducing. Instead of declaring doom and gloom, Borlaug introduced new strains of wheat to Mexico, India, and Pakistan, and introduced modern farming practices. The results were immediate and astounding. Grain yields exploded, and these nations’ food security grew substantially. The fact that we’re able to fit over 6 billion people on this planet today is a direct result of his work. For his work, he has recieved a well deserved Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. To say he’s the greatest person of the 20th century may not be an understatement. Read the rest of this entry »