Monday, January 12, 2015

On “Trust” and the Role of Renewable Energy Sources in “Climate Science”

Over the course of the last few weeks, my readings into the field of climate change have strayed from the technical end of the spectrum to the “discussion” end of the spectrum more than usual. Certainly, I have tried to keep apace of the blogosphere, but the surfeit of sites, and my busy family and work commitments, have limited me to reading a select number of higher impact websites. In the last few weeks I have expanded my reading based on suggestions from commenters on my blog and tweets of interest. Ironically, some of the most interesting links used to come from Dr. Mann before he blocked me for politely asking why he conflated “lukewarmers” with “deniers”. At the website of a frequent commenter, I read the following text that pretty much typifies the views of the “trust us” school in the climate change debate. The author writes:

My point is that it doesn’t really matter; I’m not going to trust a scientific result more if scientists learn to behave in a more trusting way. There’s a scientific method which requires that before we accept a result we check it and confirm it again and again. We probe and investigate in as much detail as possible. It’s only accepted when it becomes clear that the evidence is largely overwhelming. It’s the evidence itself that matters, not the behaviour of the scientists involved.

On its surface this statement sounds pretty reasonable, until you acknowledge the interdisciplinary nature of the research field known as “climate science”. As a chemist I am in a position to discuss a number of areas within the field but I am unable to effectively fact-check geologists or atmospheric physicists (to name just two of many fields). I have to “trust” that the peer review process will result in reliable and reproducible results. If I fear (based on purloined emails) that someone has a finger on the scale in the peer review process, then I am less likely to have faith in the resulting balance of articles in the peer-reviewed press. Earlier in the same post the author did acknowledge:

It really just means that you don’t simply accept something because someone tells you to. It means that you don’t simply accept something because the person presenting it is trustworthy or a high-profile scientist. It means that you check and consider what someone presents. You, or others, collect more data, do more calculations, or run more models to try and understand something in more detail and to check and confirm (or not) what others have presented before. 

But this statement once again ignores the reality of research endeavours in climate science. The global climate models are proprietary “black boxes” so there is no possibility that an outsider could repeat their runs. Meanwhile, the biggest complaint of the “show me” crowd is the current practice of not providing the data necessary to replicate studies. It is fine to tell the public that they are free to attempt to replicate work (on their own dime) when the work was carried out at the taxpayer’s expense; but then to have the taxpayer-funded scientist threaten “If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone” you are really left to wonder.  Ultimately, the trust has evaporated in the field and an effort has to be made by those scientists working on taxpayer-funded grants at taxpayer-funded universities in taxpayer-funded jobs, to provide taxpayers and decision-makers with the information necessary to evaluate the quality of the conclusions on which literally billions of taxpayer dollars will ultimately be spent.

In the discussion thread of the same posting, the blog proprietor expressed another sentiment which is surprisingly common in the field of climate science. I was discussing my interest in renewable energy technologies and got the following response:

What has that got to do with climate science? Are you suggesting that how our climate will respond to changes in anthropogenic forcings will depend on whether or not renewables are a viable alternative to fossil fuels?
 
This seems to be a common refrain amongst the “climate scientists” in the climate discussion. They are so fixated on their own little worlds that they have no understanding of the larger picture. Put another way, they are so fascinated with the bristlecones that they fail to see the forest. I suppose my response to these people would be to ask the question: What is the point of research in the field of climate science?

 If their answer is “to keep a lot of academics in grant monies and travelling to exotic locations on the government’s dime” then I suppose that renewable energy technologies really don’t matter. If the answer is: “to understand anthropogenic forcings on the planet and how humans can, if necessary, address/reduce these forcings to avoid potential mass human suffering and ensure the continuing health of the ecosphere” then renewable energy technologies, and understanding their influences, is a critical component of the field.

As I have mentioned previously, my area of thesis research was the intersection of environmental data quality and environmental decision-making. My research involved identifying the strengths and limitations of environmental datasets and providing tools to allow for the effective re-use of the data in alternative settings, including that of decision-making. Thus, understanding the fundamentals of policy development and decision-making was a component of my studies. In this I am something of an anomaly in the field. To explain, I had two supervisors (due to the interdisciplinary nature of my studies). One of my supervisors was a senior scientist who had left his active research program to dedicate that time to policy development and enhancing decision-making. My other supervisor, meanwhile, was a firm believer in ensuring that his students had well-rounded educations and early in my career we agreed that my interest in interdisciplinary studies was going to be a serious hindrance in the academic community (where hiring was done by “Departments” based of departmental needs). I’m not sure if it is still the same now, but when I was a grad student every department talked about the importance of interdisciplinary scholars but all wanted some “other” department to hire and fund them. As a consequence, my graduate education was, from its inception, aimed at a non-academic future. 
 
The one thing I have noticed in the field of climate science is that for many academics, the absence of formal training in policy development and environmental decision-making does not hinder their willingness to provide unsolicited, and often wrong-headed, advice in the field. One of the areas where the advice is often most wrong-headed is the field of renewable energy technologies. It is accepted dogma that no first-world government on the planet is willing to go into energy poverty in order to meet climate change goals. The State of Illinois is not going to accept regularly scheduled black-outs to compensate for the fact that 47% of its energy supply currently comes from coal power plants. So if you want to get Illinois off coal you are going to need an alternative to “turning off the heat in the dead of winter”. I have written previously about the Energiewende policy in Germany and how its “success” is heavily dependent on off-shoring energy supplies (and thus the Tyndall gas emissions associated with those energy supplies). In my least-read post ever, I even discussed the concepts of “energy density” and “power density” and how they influence which renewable technologies may be an appropriate option to address future energy needs in a region. One of the reasons I started to blog was that so many of the people demanding renewable energy the loudest did not seem to recognize that the wrong choice of renewable energy sources can actually result in increased Tyndall gas concentrations. As I wrote in a previous post on biofuels and bioenergy, research demonstrates that “converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food crop–based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a “biofuel carbon debt” by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels”. I also pointed to the research which indicates that corn-based ethanol, “instead of producing a 20% savings in greenhouse gases, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years”. What this means to the lay reader is that these renewable energy sources will take 167 years to be carbon neutral. If our intention is to address CO2concentrations in the atmosphere within the next 8 or 9 generations, then that is the renewable fuel for you, but for me it looks like a poor candidate to replace Illinois’ coal power plants if I am looking for improvements in a shorter time frame.
So when a “climate scientist” says “I don’t see what that [renewable energy] has to do with climate science”? I suppose the nicest response I can come up with is: renewable energy is only important if you are interested in understanding changes in sources and sinks of CO2 in the atmosphere which I see as an important component of the discussion (and rather important for modelling) don't you think?

mea culpa: as a reader has pointed out, the earlier version of this post had an issue with the CO subscript. My blogging platform doesn't have fancy fonts and a copy and paste error on my part was not caught by my copy-editing process (reading over the post late at night while drinking a glass of wine). The mistake was all mine and I apologize for any confusion this might have caused.  

10 comments:

  1. "I’m not sure if it is still the same now, but when I was a grad student every department talked about the importance of interdisciplinary scholars but all wanted some “other” department to hire and fund them."

    By and large, this is as true now as ever.

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  3. I deleted the comment above because I wanted to go beyond posting +1 to say that I agree with your point that "One of the areas where the advice is often most wrong-headed is the field of renewable energy technologies". The fact that renewables work well in some places for some applications does not mean it can be used everywhere to replace all fossil fuel use.

    Good post!

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  4. Are you familiar with the case of Drax power station in England? This must be one of the most absurd examples. It was our largest coal power station. In order to satisfy "renewable" energy targets, part of it has been converted - at great expense - to burn wood chips. Trees in the US are cut down, shredded, formed into pellets, shipped across the Atlantic and burnt at Drax.

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  5. "But this statement once again ignores the reality of research endeavours in climate science. The global climate models are proprietary “black boxes” so there is no possibility that an outsider could repeat their runs"

    This is not entirely false, but it is more false than true. If you want to run a climate model, you can. If you want to read a climate model source code, you can.

    Unfortunately it is a Royal PITA, as we Canadians say, to actually run it. I don't recommend it as a hobby.

    But more important, you can read the code and the documentation, and look at the output. It's all far more impressive than the usual naysayer crowd lets on. But insofar as I know nobody has made the attempt.

    I think it would be possible to build and run a model of the quality of the early 1990s state of the art on a desktop machine, using modern design methods and relatively "literate" (in the Knuth sense, i.e., legible) techniques. I sometimes wonder if there would be interest in doing so. My sense is that there isn't enough genuine interest outside the profession to manage it.

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  6. I have a rule of thumb. Tobis is always wrong. He wants population to decrease. Innovation never happens in the Tobis world. Just ignore him.

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    1. Since I define the whole objective as avoiding a mortality-driven population collapse, I plead innocent.

      There is a single out-of-context quotation from me floating around the interned that can be read to make me seem pro-cataclysm.

      I try to read sense into what people say, not read sense out. I'd appreciate if others would return the favor.

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