Topic: Energy and Environment

Backyard Birds Spreading as Climate Changes

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”


In a recent Global Science Report, we posted some good news coming out of California’s Sierra Nevada, where climate change (from whatever cause), has been partially responsible for a greening of the organo state. Technically, the biomass in the montane forests has been on the increase over the past several decades.

Turns out climate change is for the birds, too. Yes, little Eastern Bluebirds (which almost went extinct because of habitat damage)—raising their young in cute houses, awakening us with their melodious songs, providing free cat food, and selectively messing only on my car. What’s not to like? And who wouldn’t like more birds? And if you live in the Eastern United States, there is a climate-related increase in cat purring because global (actually, local/regional) warming is increasing the range of songbirds.

A new study appearing in the journal Global Change Biology, authored by Karine Princé and Benjamin Zuckerberg from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, finds that:

[A] shifting winter climate has provided an opportunity for smaller, southerly distributed species to colonize new regions and promote the formation of unique winter bird assemblages throughout eastern North America.

The operative word here is “colonize.” In other words, they are spreading out from their home range, not moving north in lockstep.

How to Stop Wasting Money on Science

In Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, former Energy Secretary (and Stanford professor) Steven Chu and his colleague Thomas R. Cech penned an opinion piece entitled How to Stop Winning Nobel Prizes in Science, in which they argue for better long-term planning and consistency in the public funding of science. Cato adjunct scholar Dr. Terence Kealey agrees, suggesting the right amount would be consistently $0.

In August, 2013, Kealey wrote precisely about this in that month’s edition of Cato Unbound. Since then, he has stepped down after a long and successful tenure as vice-chancellor (the equivalent of college president in the U.S.) of the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom.

First, Kealey considers the notion that science is a “public good,” i.e., something that should rightly be funded by government because scientific developments would otherwise be underprovided from the perspective of society as a whole.  

The myth [that Science is a public good] may be the longest-surviving intellectual error in western academic thought, having started in 1605 when a corrupt English lawyer and politician, Sir Francis Bacon, published his Advancement of Learning.

Kealey went on to document that there is no evidence the public good model (as opposed to laissez faire) is more efficient at providing for the betterment of the public:

Oil Price Blues (Read: Dangers) for Some

As the price of crude oil continues its downward tumble towards $80 per barrel, I am reminded of a similar scenario from near the end of the Cold War in the 1980s. When Saudi Arabia announced in 1985 that protecting oil prices was no longer its main priority, oil production surged and prices fell off a cliff, briefly plunging below $10 per barrel, as I had correctly predicted.

Lower prices delivered a fatal blow to the Soviet economy, which ended up seeing $20 billion per year in oil revenues evaporate. The resulting fiscal shortfalls proved to be a dagger in the heart of the U.S.S.R.

On October 1st of this year, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company announced that it had abandoned a policy of price protection and would start to focus on protecting its market share. Combined with falling global demand and rising supplies elsewhere, oil prices have fallen accordingly. This has put a squeeze on eight of the world’s top oil producers. States like Iran, Venezuela, and Iraq can only balance their current budgets at oil prices ranging from $110 to $135 per barrel (so-called break-even prices).

If oil prices stay below $90 per barrel for any length of time, we will witness massive fiscal squeezes and regime changes in one or more of the following countries: Iran, Bahrain, Ecuador, Venezuela, Algeria, Nigeria, Iraq, or Libya. It will be a movie we have seen before.

You Ought to Have a Look: The Best of the Science Blogs, with an Emphasis on Climate Change

You Ought to Have a Look is a recurring feature from the Cato’s Center for the Study of Science that briefly highlights a few interesting blog posts from around the web that are comments on subject areas we are currently emphasizing. Climate change issues currently top the list. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary. This is the first installment of You Ought to Have a Look

We start off with the estimable Judith Curry, former chairwoman of the highly regarded School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology (aka “Georgia Tech”).  Her musings, published every few days on her blog “Climate Etc.” have a wide following amongst climate geeks (like us), while oftentimes her postings should be of interest to a wider, more general audience. 

Judith scored big last week with an excellent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. In her subsequent blog post “My WSJ op-ed: Global warming statistical meltdown,” she takes you through the version that appeared in print as well as some of the earlier drafts of it highlighting lessons she learned along the way. The article focuses on her recent blockbuster publication in which she and co-researcher Nic Lewis peg the earth’s climate sensitivity—how much warming will occur as a result of a doubling of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide—at a value about one-half that which is produced by the collection of “state-of-the-art” climate models used by the UN and the Obama Administration to underpin their calls to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions from the production of energy.

And nearly every Friday, she posts her “Week in Review” where she highlights things that have recently caught her eye or events that she was involved in. In the current issue, she describes her recent travels which included a trip to Ohio’s Oberlin College where she “debated” me (PJM).  As she describes it:

The debate went fine, we each had 10 minutes to make opening statements on the science, and then an additional 10 minutes to discuss broader implications. I used my time to discuss the values issues and decision making under deep uncertainties. PJM discussed the increasingly perverse incentives in academia and government funded science, see [link] for some of his recent writing on this topic. He definitely makes some valid points.

Next, you might want to check out the witty Matt Briggs (“Statistician to the Stars”) post on “Don’t Say ‘Hiatus’” in which he takes us (and virtually everyone else) to task for using the terms “pause” and/or “hiatus” to refer to the past 18 years or so of no statistically significant overall change in the earth’s average surface temperature. Briggs’ main point is that since climate change models are so bad (unskillful), there is no reason for a priori expectations of the temperature behavior one way or the other. In other words, a “pause” from what?

Be aware that Briggs is a very twisty writer, often leading the reader down a path that takes a sharp turn further down his somewhat detailed essays. But there is always some gem to find at the end!

California Greening

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

With all of the negative effects predicted to occur in response to the ongoing rise in the air’s carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration—a result of burning fossil fuels to produce energy—it is only natural to want to see what has been happening to our Earth’s many ecosystems as the atmospheric carbon dioxide load has risen. (Its atmospheric concentration has risen from around 280 parts per million to nearly 400 ppm, an increase of about 43 percent).

A new study by the University of California’s Christopher Dolanc and colleagues does just that, for the diverse Sierra Nevada forests of California. 

Dolanc and his colleagues analyzed two periods: historic measurements between 1929 and 1936, and modern data from 2001 through 2010.  And when we said “diverse,” we meant it.  They “classified 4,321 historical plots and 1,000 modern plots into nine broad groups of vegetation types that are widely used by land managers and researchers in the region.” This is what grad students are for!

They compared tree density and composition between the two periods, within and between the nine types of forest. The results shown in Figure 1 below.


Figure 1. Percent change in tree density by forest type in the Sierra Nevada Range, USA, as determined from historic (1929-1936) and modern (2001-2010) measurements. Green bars denote a statistically significant change. You might want to call this “California Greening.” Source: Dolanc et al. (2014).

Falling Oil Prices Put Producers Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Over the last few months, the price of Brent crude oil lost over 20% of its value, dropping below $90 just yesterday and hitting its lowest level in over two years. In consequence, oil producers will no longer be able to rely on oil revenues to pay their bills. The fiscal break-even price – a metric that determines the price per barrel of oil required for a nation to balance its budget at current levels of production – puts the problem into perspective.

Using data from Bloomberg and Deutsche Bank, I prepared a chart showing the break-even prices for the world’s major oil producers and the price on Brent crude. Over the past six months, Brent crude fell far below the break-even price for eleven of the top oil producers in the world; Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria, and even Saudi Arabia can no longer finance their governments’ largess through oil revenues.

The combination of oil markets flying into a perfect storm and excessive government spending puts most of the world’s oil producers between a rock and a hard place, where they will stay for some time.

Explosive Findings on Volcanoes’ Climate Influence

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

A new paper overturns old suppositions regarding volcanoes, tree-rings, and climate sensitivity.

According to a 2012 press release accompanying a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience, a research team led by Penn State’s Dr. Michael Mann concluded that the cooling influence of historical volcanic eruptions was underrepresented by tree-ring reconstructions of the earth’s temperature.

This, the press release went on to tell us, had potential implications when trying to determine the earth’s equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS)—i.e., how much the global average surface temperature will rise as a result of a doubling of the atmosphere’s pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide. While most recent studies place the ECS noticeably less than earlier studies (including those most heavily relied upon by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and thus the U.S. Obama Administration), the 2012 Mann study was an exception. It implied that many existing determinations of the ESC were underestimates.

From the press release:

“Scientists look at the past response of the climate to natural factors like volcanoes to better understand how sensitive Earth’s climate might be to the human impact of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations,” said Mann. “Our findings suggest that past studies using tree-ring data to infer this sensitivity have likely underestimated it.”

Fast forward to today.

Appearing on-line in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (and sans press release) is a paper led by Penn State’s Martin Tingley that examined how the temperature response from volcanic inferred from tree-rings compared with that of observations. Tingley’s team concluded that tree-ring based temperature proxies overestimated the temperature response caused by large volcanic eruptions. Instead of responding only to the cooler temperatures, the tree rings also included signals from reduced light availability (from the shading effect of volcanic aerosols) and the two effects together produced a signal greater than what would have been produced by cooler temperatures alone. This is basically the opposite of what Mann and colleagues concluded.