Please Help Me Understand: What’s Weaver DOING!?

February 24, 2012
in Category: Blog
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Please Help Me Understand: What’s Weaver DOING!?

Climate scientist Andrew Weaver is fond of (rightly) lambasting the media for generally poor coverage of climate science. For the coverage of his most recent report about the oil sands, though, he has only himself to blame. I had to spend two hours studying and engaging in a back and forth with his co-author Neil Swart to figure out the real facts behind Weaver’s own sensationalist and misleading public claims about his findings.

Let’s get one thing straight, first: Climate change is clearly occurring, and Andrew Weaver is a better climate scientist than I am. He’s also a lot more famous. However, Weaver keeps wading with his opinions into areas of communications, media and politics where, in my estimation, he’s consistently doing a bad job. This latest media storm he’s caused is a perfect example.

Here’s the headline from Weaver’s own February 21, 2012 article on Huffington post: “My New Study: Coal is 1500 Times Worse for the Environment than Oil Sands“. I probably don’t need to tell very many people how much international airplay this has gotten. ‘Gosh, if that’s true, the oil sands suddenly seem squeaky clean!’ Guess who’s loving and promoting that message?

Just a few problems with Weaver’s “science” and “facts” here.

The report he wrote with student Neil Swart, which Swart was kind enough to forward to me in its entirety along with supplemental analyses they’d done, actually only focuses on carbon emissions, not “environment” impacts — they admit that themselves right up front in the report. “It is important to recognize that our estimates do not include greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide and do not address other potentially deleterious environmental, health and social side effects of oil-sand production.” So that means, Weaver has included that word “environment” in his Huffington blog headline merely for sensationalist effect. Okay, maybe skewing the facts in the headline and then clarifying further down is sometimes understandable for a scrappy journalist trying to draw attention to some obscure, little local issue; but when you’re one of the world’s most prominent scientists writing about one of the most important scientific issues of our time?

Second, it turns out the only reason coal is “1500 times worse” in terms of emissions is because, well, there’s somewhere approaching 1500 times as much coal on the whole planet as there is oil in Canada’s oil sands. Again, Weaver and Swart admit this right in their commentary: Yes, coal produces slightly more carbon emissions than tar sands oil, but “Coal’s significance is due to the large tonnage available,” they write. During my exchange about it with Swart yesterday, he confirmed their number came from multiplying a slightly higher per-unit emissions rate from coal times the earth’s much vaster stores of coal: “The 1500 number would be a combination of these two things, the large tonnage being the dominant factor.”

As for those slightly higher per-unit carbon emissions from coal, even that number is dubious. The way Weaver and Swart calculated it, they subtract the carbon emissions generated by the coal being burned to help extract and process tar sands bitumen into usable oil. Weaver writes in his blog that they did that because the coal “shouldn’t be double-counted.” In this context, though, following this logic, we would then also have to say that a coal-fired electrical plant generates zero carbon emissions, because we “shoudn’t double-count” the coal.

And by the way Weaver frames his whole argument, in the end, he’s explaining that tar sands oil will increase global temperatures 0.36C — an amount he would normally be crying holy catastrophe about, but in this context he seems to be suggesting is so minimal compared to what all the coal in the world could do that we scarcely need to be concerned about it or about the tar sands.

I’m sure that’s not exactly what Weaver wants the public “takeaway” to be, and he does try to talk his way out of it, but by that point the damage is done.

Whether he’s shilling for the environmentally toxic BC Liberal party, or pumping nuclear energy, or claiming tar sands oil is ‘better for the environment’, this seems to be a persistent problem for Weaver. He’s just not very politically or media-savvy, and he often even undermines his own scientific credibility when he wades into battles in these arenas.

A message to Andrew Weaver, then: The next time you have something to say in public, get a good communications advisor and political strategist to help you. Out of respect for your climate science work, I’m sure many would do it pro-bono. So please, just do it; for the good of the planet.

14 comments on “Please Help Me Understand: What’s Weaver DOING!?”

  1. CanSpeccy says:

    Weaver’s “study” with Swart seems to amount to this. Take the total carbon content of various fossil fuel resources and multiply each by a factor to estimate the global warming that would result from burning all of each resource.

    This is not climate science. It is just rubbish.

    The calculation of global warming appears to assume that successive equal increments in atmospheric CO2 concentration will produce successive increments in temperature, which is false.

    Carbon dioxide absorbs infra-red radiation in only a narrow band of wavelengths. Once absorption in those wavebands reaches saturation, i.e., when the atmosphere becomes opaque to radiation in those wavebands, further increases in CO2 concentration will add nothing to the “greenhouse” effect.

    With a doubling in the pre-industrial atmospheric concentration of CO2 the “greenhouse” effect of CO2 reaches a maximum. Further large increases in CO2 will have all sorts of effects, particularly on plants and, at high enough concentrations, on human physiology too. But it will not, on any generally accepted model, produce the massive climate warming the Weaver talks about.

    When you advise Dr. Weaver that “the next time you have something to say in public, get a good communications adviser and political strategist to help you” you do both him and science a disservice.

    Politics is about appearances without regard for truth, science is about truth without regard for appearances. Science cuts no ice in politics, but politics corrodes and corrupts science without limit. If Dr. Weaver wishes to be a politician, he should run for office. If he wishes to retain his publicly funded position as a scientist, he should get on with the science and stay out of the political arena.

  2. Rob Wipond says:

    Hi CanSpeccy,

    I’ve seen lots of challenges to your suggestion that a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere will bring a “saturation” and stabilizing to the greenhouse effect. And in fact it’s not a topic Weaver picks up in this article under discussion, anyway, so it seems specious, from a scientific point of view, to attempt to attack it from that flank. Besides, the central premise of the article is absurd enough on its own.

    But I disagree with you wholeheartedly on the way you attempt to define science and politics. First off, you’re taking the most abjectly cynical point of view of what politics is. Then, you’re taking the most recondite and abstract ideal for what science should be. Neither, in my opinion, is even close to reality, nor to the way reality works. Gene manipulation, nuclear weaponry, drug development, environmental impact analyses… Science is inherently political, and politics, when it’s functioning well, can be intelligently informed by rationality and scientific understandings. I’d suggest we need to improve the communication lines and understanding between the two sectors, and then work as a society on where we want the balance between them to be.

    Rob

  3. CanSpeccy says:

    Rob,

    That Professor Weaver does not explain why he apparently assumes a linear relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and infra-red absorption when as a matter of simple fact the relationship is non-linear, reaching near saturation at atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations of less than 0.1%, does not validate his argument!

    As to my view that science has to do with reality without regard for appearances, that I would say, is an incontrovertible statement of the obvious. To call it a “recondite and abstract” idealization of what science should be, seems very odd.

    When political or economic interests impinge on science, the result is usually much the worse for science. One has only to think of Soviet genetics, Nazi, eugenics, tobacco science, thalidomide, or the multiple political cover ups of nuclear accidents and leaks to appreciate this fact. The IPCC’s mendacious claims about Himalayan glaciers and Al Gore’s many absurd statements, including his assertion that climate warming skepticism should be equated with racism, are only the latest examples of the corrupting influence of politics on science.

    so I stick with my position, that as a taxpayer, the last thing I want is to see University science professors engaging in politics. If they wish to go into politics, they should run for public office, then we will judge them for what they are, politicians, not the perfectly objective scientists that as academics they may claim to be.

    Academics should, obviously, be free to communicate their knowledge to the public at large. But the more politically charged the issue, the more important it is that they maintain an objective non-political stance. Making senseless comparisons of the effects of burning all the coal in the world and all the oil, without any discussion of time-scales, dynamics or basic physics does nothing to increase the public understanding of science.

  4. Rob Wipond says:

    Your complaint, actually, is not with Weaver’s science in this example we are discussing. His science is fine, just not particularly incisive or well thought out in terms of its broader implications, resident at maybe a grade 9 level of critical approach, but science nonetheless. Your complaint is actually the same as mine: You do not like the huge public relations spin that emerged from the relatively minor and uninteresting scientific exercise that Weaver engaged in.

    And connected with that, you seem to not understand why I say that science is inherently political, yet then you proceed to list a swath of examples to add to mine of situations where science was thoroughly infested with politics. I would, indeed, challenge you to provide even one example of what constitutes “pure and objective” science WITHOUT any of those types of influences.

    Science just doesn’t work that way, and never has. Science has always, like anything else in human society, been driven by the motives of the scientists, by the economic and political circumstances that provide fertile soil for some types of investigations and not others, and by the political will to publicize, promote or propagate results etc etc.

    Science itself, in its very frames of reference, is inherently political. You might wish to investigate as a starting point for such a discussion the wikipedia introduction to the philosophy of science:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_science

    After that, I would return to my previous statement: That we need to begin to examine, as a society, where we want to position science in terms of our politics. And to do that well, we need to understand both, and their relationships to each other, better.

  5. CanSpeccy says:

    Wow!

    “Your complaint…. His science is fine.”

    I was not aware that there was any science in Weaver’s article, which I have read twice. He simply asserts: “Coal is 1500 Times Worse for the Environment than Oil Sands,” and elaborates thereon, without a single scientific argument.

    “you seem to not understand …”

    I understand, as I illustrated with examples, that science has frequently been politicized, much the worse for science. But you are mistaken if you believe that science is “inherently political.” It would be more accurate to say that when science is politicized it becomes unproductive and often socially destructive.

    You ask for examples of science that is not “inherently political,” which I am happy to provide, though I wonder why you need to ask. Newton’s law of gravity, his laws of motion, basically the whole framework of modern science, had no political basis whatever. Einstein’s reflections on what it would be like to travel with a ray of light, which led quite directly to the atom bomb, were equally devoid of political interest. Darwin was so unworldly that he failed to publish his work until Wallace forced his hand. Gregor Mendel’s work, conducted within the walls of a monastery, which provided the explanation of the hereditary mechanism upon which Darwin’s “natural selection” worked, was not likely much affected by politics either.

    However, the application of the work of Newton, Einstein, Darwin and Mendel has all been powerfully affected by political pressures that have constrained and limited the advancement of science. Terence Kealey, Vice-Chancellor (i.e., President) of the University of Buckingham has studied this effect and assembled compelling statistical evidence that economic and political pressures on scientists diminish not only their scientific productivity but the economic value of the work their work.

    Your notion that “as a society” we should be positioning science in terms of anything, let alone politics, would be anathema to virtually all of the great scientists and severely toxic to the scientific enterprise. The last thing any creative scientist wants is some egomaniacal politician like Al Gore telling them what to do or how to go about doing it.

    A scientist of any ability is obsessed by the desire to find out more about whatever deep questions have excited their curiosity. As H.L. Mencken explained:

    “The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves one of the most useful men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigator. What actually urges him on is not some brummagem idea of Service, but a boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.”

    CS

  6. Rob Wipond says:

    Multiplying the amount of coal detected by a number extrapolated from a certain logic is mathematics and science at work. In this case, pretty elementary science and math, skewed somewhat by a values-based agenda along the way, but science and math nevertheless.

    I think you’re idealizing science, and reifying it right out of its real world context. You’re imagining that it has and is done by people who have absolutely no motive, no influences, and exist within no culture at all. These Scientists you imagine want nothing but Truth and Understanding, and are guided by nothing but a curiosity which springs forth from absolute vacuum.

    Yet again, you’re providing better examples to prove my point than I am providing: “a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes”. If there’s a better example of how “insatiable curiosity” itself is fundamentally politicized in its very act and direction of movement than this, a dog caught in its unrelenting pursuit of its sensory-based hunger for satisfactory stimulation, I don’t know one.

    Have a look into the philosophy of science, it will really open up the framework of discussion for us here.

    p.s. e.g. I’ll just add one example: Some would argue that Newtonian mechanics was built on, and helped build, a fundamentally narrow-minded and limited view of reality which extricated too much the observer away from the observed. Since Einstein, we’ve seen growing concern within physics with relative position of the observer as an increasingly important component of how we understand reality. Newton’s views, in that sense, some would argue, were political in their nature.

  7. CanSpeccy says:

    Hey, Rob,

    I’m glad you liked the Mencken quote.

    Our views of what politics is appear irreconcilable.

    I don’t think I can add anything to that, although if I may, I will include a link to my blogpost “When science and politics mix.”

    PS, I like your coverage of the use and abuse of anti-psychotics in the care of the elderly. Keep up the good work.

    Cheers.

  8. Rob Wipond says:

    Thanks. And re this discussion, yes, we’re partly speaking from two fundamentally different angles because, from my perspective, you’re making a political argument for what you believe science SHOULD be. And I’m attempting to give a rational description of what I think science actually IS.

    I like to use religion as a comparison. In many religions, there is this ideal espoused that the purpose of the religion is to understand and abide in truth and love. In reality, of course, we see that most religions are not actually practised that way by most people. Similarly, I don’t see that science is any more “pure” and “righteous” in its intent than a nice religion, despite scientists’ frequent claims to holier-than-thou status. So science, much like religion, needs to be tempered by greater wisdom, one rooted in true self-questioning.

  9. CanSpeccy says:

    “you’re making a political argument for what you believe science SHOULD be”

    Not really. Science just is what it is when it is real science.

    Newton described very well the mentality of the creative scientist when explaining how he resolved scientific problems:

    “By always thinking unto them. I keep the subject constantly before me and wait till the first dawnings open little by little into the full light.”

    Nothing political about that. It is science driven by personal obsession (most great scientists are obsessive, or Aspergerish).

    Sure, scientists like to be rewarded and applauded, which is why going with the power is such a temptation to scientists in an age of massive government and corporate investment in research. But going with the power means being guided in one’s research by economic or political interests, not what Mencken described as near pathological curiosity, which drove a Newton or an Einstein. For this reason, the results of applied science tend to be narrow, the best that can be achieved by dull and narrow minds.

    But you should hear Terence Kealey (video link above). He cites good evidence of an inverse relationship between scientific productivity and external (i.e., political or economic) direction of research. My own observation based on 50 years involvement with science is consistent with Kealey’s view.

    Canadian Nobel Laureate John Polanyi has also made the same point:

    “It is folly to use as one’s guide in the selection of fundamental science the criterion of utility. Not because (scientists)… despise utility. But because. .. useful outcomes are best identified after the making of discoveries, rather than before.”

    and

    “Faced with the admitted difficulty of managing the creative process, we are doubling our efforts to do so. Is this because science has failed to deliver, having given us nothing more than nuclear power, penicillin, space travel, genetic engineering, transistors, and superconductors? Or is it because governments everywhere regard as a reproach activities they cannot advantageously control? They felt that way about the marketplace for goods, but trillions of wasted dollars later, they have come to recognize the efficiency of this self-regulating system. Not so, however, with the marketplace for ideas.”

  10. Rob Wipond says:

    I hear you making a political argument in support of relative personal freedom for scientists in their scientific explorations. I may agree with you, but it’s a political argument nonetheless.

    It’s an even more political argument to make at a time when most cutting edge science has become so profoundly complex and incredibly expensive to conduct, right? For example, how could you argue that anything at all happening with the CERN Large Hadron Collider is not fundamentally political from start to finish? Where, if anywhere, does this utterly independent, uninfluenced, uncorrupted agent you’re describing enter into it?

    Einstein, in fact, was one of the most prominently, openly political scientists of this century. He also deeply embraced the importance of understanding the philosophy of science, which is what I am also calling the inherent politics of science, as one of the precursors or essential foundations for practising science. Is science, even in its purest forms, free of the influence of conventional thinking, cultural frames of reference, ethnocentrically controlled prejudice, and political assumptions? You can see, for example, a little discussion of Einstein’s own questioning of some of the inherent biases or prejudices embedded in the Newtonian mechanics and worldview here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/einstein-philscience/ and it is more thoroughly elaborated upon here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_time_and_space

    So as long as we disagree on the nature of the problem, we’ll of course disagree on what the appropriate solution is. For me, I don’t think we should be pretending in the first place that science is ‘better’ or ‘purer’ than politics. Both can be bad; both can be good, both intertwine with each other.

  11. mono says:

    It is pretty oblivious what Weaver is trying to do, prioritize.

    Reducing CO2 emissions from transport fuels is an order of magnitude harder problem than reducing CO2 emissions from electrical generation. He is making the argument that the highest utility course of action is to focus our attention on reducing the burning of coal with regards to reducing green house gas emissions.

    The passive accusation of Weaver shilling because he supports nuclear power is cute and also myopic.

    P.S. Your example of Newtonian mechanics being a product of the politics of its time is weak. The limitations of Newtonian mechanics came about from the lack of observable phenomena that contradicted it. It was not until the 19th century, after the formalization of electromagnetism, that the limitations of Newtonian mechanics started becoming apparent.

  12. Rob Wipond says:

    Mono:

    In his article under discussion, actually, Weaver was not comparing coal to electrical generation; he was comparing coal emissions to oil emissions.

    Re Weaver shilling: Actually, I was one of hundreds or thousands of people in the Victoria area who received an automated message from Andrew Weaver asking us to vote for the BC Liberal Party last provincial election – if that’s not shilling for a party, I don’t know what is. And his shilling for them was, as far as I know, unrelated to his position on nuclear power, because BC has no nuclear power plants and the Liberal Party had no policy or plans that I know of on nuclear power.

    I didn’t say Newtonian mechanics was a product of the “politics” of the time. It was arguably a product of the dominant worldview of the time, but my real point was that Newtonian mechanics IS a worldview. Newtonian mechanics seemed objectively, purely scientific at the time, but now it’s quite definitively clear that, in fact, Newtonian mechanics was a particular perspective on reality which is not exactly coincident with reality as we perceive it today.

  13. mono says:

    The vast majority of coal is used for electrical generation. Coal to liquid fuels production is limited, a few plants in Germany and France. The vast majority of oil from the oil sand is used as transport fuels. The only electric generation from oil in Canada is limited to diesel generators in remote communities. A comparison coal emission to oil sands emission is a comparison of transport emission via oil versus electric generation via coal by default.

    In may not be articulated in the article explicitly, but the message is that he believes a pragmatic course would be to reduce emissions by focusing on coal powerplants. This is not an issue for B.C. since 85%+ of electricity comes from Hydro. It however is a an issue for Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario where coal is a significant part of electricity generation. To replace coal as a means for electrical generation is feasible both technologically and economically in Canada at present. To replace oil as a transport fuel is not feasible today (yes I realize that this one is debatable, but this another discussion). The magnitude of replacing all of the Coal power plants in Canada would cut almost twice as many emission as shutting down the entirety of the oil sands (~93 Mt CO2e vs ~48 Mt CO2e). This is what I believe his trying to get across, that replacing coal is much lower hanging fruit than replacing/displacing oil sands production. This contrary to efforts of the majority enviro NGOs in Canada, where focusing on the oil sands is the higher priority because of the optics.

    I knew nothing of the Weaver’s calling for the BC Liberal Party. Though with regard to his support of Nuclear, it most likely because replacing the 20 GW (capacity, not name plate) of coal in Canada will require the building of new Nuclear in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.

    ” It was arguably a product of the dominant worldview of the time, but my real point was that Newtonian mechanics IS a worldview.”

    I agree it is a world view, but I do not believe that Newtonian mechanics was a product of the then dominant worldview. I would argue Science shapes world view than world view shapes science. Copernicus views predated the acceptance of heliocentric model, Newton predated 18th century materialism, Maxwell predated modernism, the Copenhagen interpretation predated post modernism. Today scientists are taught that their knowledge is only an approximation to reality, that theories have regimes in which they are valid, ect. I would think this is more a result from the advent of quantum mechanics, chaos theory, the limitations of Newtonian mechanics, and the irreconcilability of relativity with quantum mechanics than from the influence of the current worldview (?post-modernism, cynicism, individualism).

  14. Rob Wipond says:

    Mono:

    “The magnitude of replacing all of the Coal power plants in Canada would cut almost twice as many emission as shutting down the entirety of the oil sands (~93 Mt CO2e vs ~48 Mt CO2e). This is what I believe his trying to get across, that replacing coal is much lower hanging fruit than replacing/displacing oil sands production.”

    That is an interesting approach to this issue and would be worthy of providing more evidentiary analysis to the general population about (I can’t comment on your numbers without more numbers around them, but for the sake of discussion I’m willing to go with them). However, as you know, Weaver did not in any way, shape or form make that particular argument in the article we’re discussing. Even your suggestion that he meant to but did not “explicitly” make that argument is open for debate and undermined by the misleading way he tried to form his argument, but let’s not waste our breath on that. Indeed, at this point, I imagine that you would be agreeing with my main argument, that Weaver’s “messaging” here is once again poorly developed, poorly thought out and even counter-productive with regard to the politics of climate change, and he’d do well to have someone like, say, you or me review and provide editorial and communications feedback on his public statements sometimes first! 🙂

    With regard to the Newtonian topic then, again, on the main point we seem to be in agreement, that we should not lapse into believing religiously that science produces some uniquely objective point of view on reality. Re worldview/scientific-view, there’s of course no shortage of people who would argue with you about whether the chicken or egg came first. Mcluhan might say the main mediums of communication had more dominant influence on people’s worldviews, many argue the dominant experiential spiritualism or religious beliefs of the time/culture were most influential, Tarnas would even put together a case that it was the astrological alignments! etc!

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