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Lessons Learned From a Recent Paper on Climate Change

Actually, the lessons were learned from the media’s reporting — and the reactions to that reporting — of a recent paper on climate change. The paper I am talking about is a study by Tom Wigley, who is a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The title of the study is Coal to Gas: The Influence of Methane Leakage.

To review, the study looked at the impact of replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas-fired power plants. Natural gas emits far less carbon dioxide than coal per BTU of energy produced, and many therefore argue that natural gas is a good bridge fuel on the way to a future in which we would ideally have large-scale adoption of zero (technically “near zero”) emission sources of electricity. Natural gas has the advantage that it is firm power, and thus a realistic option for displacing coal-fired power with a much lower emissions profile.

The Wigley study weighs in by looking at the potential leaks from natural gas wells. What the study predicts is that the future temperate change is influenced by the amount of gas leaking from the well. In the worst case Wigley examined — 10% methane leakage — the long term temperature change was higher for natural gas plants than for coal plants for the next 100 years. The figure below from the report tells the tale.

Temperature Increase as a Function of Methane Leakage

The media immediately seized upon this with a heavy dose of sensationalism, declaring in headline after headline that natural gas would in fact be worse for the environment than coal. But lost in the sensationalism was: (1) Nobody believes that 10% natural gas is leaking from wells; (2) The long-term temperature change in all cases was lower than when using coal; and (3) The short-term temperature rise in each case was higher — even with zero methane leakage.

I thought the last point was significant, so I had some correspondence with the author of the study who confirmed some things for me. The predicted short-term temperature increase is due to a peculiarity of coal. Particulate emissions from coal plants of course cause air pollution, but they also reflect some sunlight away from earth. So as the air becomes cleaner due to coal plants being shut down, more sunlight reaches the surface of the earth. Now this next point is very important: That short-term temperature increase is predicted to happen no matter what replaces coal: Wind power, solar power, or even just shutting down coal plants and not replacing them. This isn’t a guess on my part, the study’s author confirmed that for me.

Of course this is not an argument against replacing coal plants. When coal plants are replaced with cleaner sources of power, the predicted temperature change in all cases begins to fall in about thirty years (again, with the exception of the unrealistic 10% methane leakage case). Plus, the elimination of particulate emissions would greatly improve the air quality in many locations.

I attempted to summarize all of this with my own sensationalistic headline — based on the media headlines about natural gas:

BOMBSHELL: Solar and Wind Power Would Speed Up, Not Reduce, Global Warming

I got quite a bit of interesting and unusual feedback on the essay. The reaction to the initial paper, as well as the reaction to my posting, provided a few lessons.

Lesson One: A Model isn’t a Fact

First is that people apparently don’t understand the difference between a model and an observation. This model is a best guess as to what will happen. If you understand models, you understand that they are subject to assumptions that may be incorrect. It’s like predicting the weather. So just as a forecast of rain doesn’t “prove” that it will rain, neither does this model “prove” that the temperature will rise under the modeled conditions. It is a prediction, not a measurement.

Lesson Two: Agendas >> Facts

I was a bit surprised at the extent of the sources that reported this story that appear to be agenda driven. An agenda-driven person will use this report to push their agenda, but won’t be interested in discussing bits that don’t fit the agenda. For example, Joe Romm at Climate Progress wrote an article on this, highlighting the “fact” that short-term warming increased in every case. Romm concluded:

If you want to have a serious chance at averting catastrophic global warming, then we need to start phasing out all fossil fuels as soon as possible.  Natural gas isn’t a bridge fuel from a climate perspective.  Carbon-free power is the bridge fuel until we can figure out how to go carbon negative on a large scale in the second half of the century.

Yes, the bridge fuel that Romm proposes to replace coal is carbon-free power. After all, we have that in abundance, right? I think I will start riding my unicorn to work just to show people that carbon-free power is here and readily available. So, Romm believes that we have to completely eliminate fossil fuels or we are going to have a disaster. But in pursuit of that agenda, he sometimes censors facts that contradict specific arguments he is making. For example, I attempted to point out on his site that the same short-term warming trend was predicted even if carbon-free sources replaced the coal plants. I commented that Dr. Wigley had confirmed this for me. While Joe saw fit to allow comments that agreed with him, or that added essentially zero to the conversation (e.g., “Climate change is exponential!” or “Phew, I smell gas!“), my comment went into moderation limbo. The next day I checked, and my comment no longer said “Your comment is awaiting moderation. It was simply gone; it was apparently an inconvenient truth that Romm would rather not have discussed.

Another poster had added a comment in which he correctly noted that a subtlety appeared to be missing from the media reports; that the sulfate effect would seem to apply to other sources as well. I commented after his post:

I contacted the author about this, and he confirmed that even if we replaced coal-fired power plants with zero emission power sources, the conclusion is the same as for his natural gas comparison: Global warming increases in the short term. So you are correct, there is a subtlety that is missing from every story on this that I have seen to this point.

Once more, my comment went into moderation limbo. That was on September 11th, and here on September 25th it is still there, and it still says that it is awaiting moderation. I guess Romm believes that censoring facts that weaken the story he is spinning are warranted due to the importance of his agenda. And quite frankly, I believe that’s why the civility completely left the climate change debate. Each side thinks their agenda is so important that it is OK to shout down, censor, and insult those with dissenting opinions.

(Romm’s agenda would appear to be entirely political, considering how strongly he argued in favor of tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That is something that is at total odds with his climate change agenda — but is a favorite agenda item of some prominent Democrats. When I challenged him on his logic on this, he didn’t let that comment stand either. It certainly seemed to me that he was simply getting marching orders from someone to go defend tapping the SPR as good policy).

I can promise you that at this site, agendas will never get in the way of civil discussion. I may disagree with you, but I am not going to censor civil discussion. Joe Romm can’t say the same. Coal-fired power plants will certainly be in his debt, because the more he trashes natural gas, the more he will ensure that we continue to use coal while we wait for carbon-free power to replace those huge (but reliable) coal plants.

Lesson Three: People Don’t Like to Read

My essay was linked to at various places like Reddit, and some of the comments were amusing. The first thing I noted is that it was down-voted so fast that it was clear that people weren’t reading it. If I had any doubt about that, the comments people left eliminated any possibility that they had read the essay. Typical responses were “This moron thinks the solution to climate change is to build more coal plants” or “Way to trash wind and solar power.” Some comments on my blog weren’t that different. Many insisted that there were no implications for wind and solar power, with some suggesting I should contact the author. Had they actually read the essay they were commenting on, they would see that I had contacted the author and he confirmed what I was saying before I published the article.

Things finally got to the point that I put a disclaimer at the top of the essay: (Note: I am amazed that I have to put such a disclaimer in here, but a note for the comprehension-impaired: This is not an article calling for more coal-fired power plants. It is an examination into how the media reported on a recent energy story).

That still didn’t stop people from coming to incorrect conclusions based on the headline. Probably the funniest comment I saw was “What a bunch of garbage” followed about an hour later by the same person writing “Oh, the headline threw me. I actually read the article and it is pretty good.”

So I guess the lesson there is that headlines are important, but people have such short attention spans that some will come to a conclusion about the article on the basis of the headline without so much as reading the article itself.

The Energy Collective, 26 September 2011