Archive for January 23rd, 2010

Caveat Emptor Also Applies to Carbon

I have also recently been asked by our resident lurker to comment on dodgy providers of carbon dioxide offsets and the pursuit of those making false claims or making fraudulent deals by the consumer watchdog, the ACCC. In reading the summary’s of the cases being made by the ACCC, they seem to be of a couple varieties, including those making false or misleading claims about their offset credits, to those engaged in actual fraud by taking money from clients to buy carbon offset credits and then not doing so.

Whether or not the ACCC will prevail in its cases is uncertain, but my gut feel is that if they take a claim to court, they usually have a pretty good case. However, proving that case in court is another matter, as evidenced by the judgments against the securities watchdog (ASIC) in cases that were widely considered to be very good. One of these cases is a not-for-profit that is apparently making unsupported claims about the superior value of its credits and services. This may be difficult to prove, and more difficult to prove as malicious, given the fairly confusing landscape with regard to environmental claims. The more easy case to prove (the fraud case) is probably already moot as the company is not longer operating and a court has ordered the former directors to buy the credits it failed to previously.

Another colleague asked me a week ago about how her organisation could buy offset credits. I explained to her the process of getting an inventory of emissions certified, and also buying certified credits. She didn’t quite understand why both the emitter and the seller of the credits required independent verification, and that got me to thinking that maybe it isn’t all as simple as I think it is. So I backed up, and started over on the basis of the concept of trust. To be truly greenhouse neutral means that I have to trust what your emissions are, and I have to trust that you bought real offsets. That helped clarify it for her. The introduction of the National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS) may improve things somewhat by further clarifying what is and what is not genuine reduction in greenhouse gases that can be traded, and doing away with some types of credits that are of debatable validity. But it won’t make things crystal clear in all situations, and the purchase of credits will always require a well informed buyer.

My rule of thumb is to first see if you can tie the credits you want to buy to a clear standard (like the NCOS) with independent verification and oversight by a government accredited program. Then, do a bit more research on the company offering the credits, particularly if they are sourced internationally. A relatively simple internet search can usually tell you a lot. Reputable companies probably have a background and history in some type of environmental work. If you cannot find anything about the company, I would worry a bit. If you can find some information, and it tells you that the head of the company offering the credits was a disqualified horse trainer in Australia that now lives in PNG and once ran Philippine cockfighting ring, I would probably move on to the next one.

Exuberance and Scientific Credibility

I have been asked by one of the lurkers that is to shy to post to comment on the effects that a one-half page section of an 838 page report issued in 2007 by the IPCC will have on the credibility of all the predictions of the IPCC with regard to climate change. In reality, virtually none. In the world of spin being generated by climate change skeptics about the issue, probably also none. But they are once again attempting to use this one-half page as an attempt to discredit all of the work done by the IPCC. As in the case of the email scandal that was the subject of my November 30 posting, the skeptics are claiming that this is the smoking gun that discredits all the work of the IPCC. But does it?

First let’s list out the errors that were found by an expert on glaciers in the half-page section about glaciers in the Himalayas:
• The rate of glacier receding was stated as being faster than the rest of the world – when in fact it is the same as the rest of the world;
• The date by which the glaciers will disappear from the Himalayas was transposed from 2350 to 2035;
• The amount of shrinkage stated exceeds the total amount of glacier coverage by a factor of ten – whopper of an error that should be seen by even a casual observer;
• The section is attributed to popular science press (via the WWF) rather than a peer reviewed science journal – as the IPCC always tries to stress its scientific basis; and,
• A math error is obvious in the shrinkage rate of a particular glacier (the Pindari Glacier) – once again a simple error that could be picked up by anyone that can read and has a calculator handy.

So all up, I’d have to agree with the scientist (and IPCC glaciologist) that identified the problem for all the skeptics to crow about – the half page is doo doo, it doesn’t belong in the report, and most of the above errors could be easily found through some simple copy-editor doing their job properly before publication. But does it invalidate all of the climate change science, or even the portion on the loss of glaciers – uh no. More likely it was someone rushing to meet a publishing deadline that got sloppy in their exuberance do do some good in the world.

But it sure makes for some good controversy, and we all know that the media loves that, so it gets a lot of coverage over several days. A lot of coverage in comparison to something that came out the same day, for instance, with the GM executive Bob Lutz telling reporters at an auto show: “It [climate change] has got nothing to do with CO2, it’s got everything to do with solar activity, and when the solar flares stopped and the sun has been unusually quiet almost to the point of worrying people, then global temperatures go down.”

That’s great Bob, but see, here’s the thing. Actual scientist write shit down. Not just summary reports for public consumption, like the problematic half-page above, but things like their assumptions, data sources, methodologies , calculations and a lot of other boring crap that we can comb through, analyse endlessly and critique. On the other hand, dickheads like Bob Lutz never have to prove anything. Now, I don’t doubt that solar flares do have some effect on the earth, but where’s the proof that they are the only driver of climate change as opposed to all of the otherwise scientifically proven effects that industrialization have had since 1900? And where is the date showing that solar flare activity correlates with the land, water and air temperature variations, rather than ajust a few years of air temperatures in isolation? It isn’t anywhere is the fact. But Bob gets away with whatever he wants to say and then the journalist move on the next controversy that might actually have some legs since there is some actual factual record to debate. But Bob gets to make his point and skeptics get to point and say, “see, that proves it”, rather than be held to account as the actual scientist are. So we talk about the science for a few days or a few weeks and the public is left with the impression that maybe the science is dubious.

This report further supports my conclusion of 30 November that scientists need to remain diligent and punish bad science harshly. But in doing so, scientists should feel good about science, because in treating bad science harshly, they are further supporting the scientific method.

And the final truth is this: anyone who believes this half-page of errors invalidates climate change research in full is never going to be convinced of anything on the subject anyway. That’s why they will keep buying crappy cars from Bob Lutz as long as the government wants to keep it from going bankrupt as it would in a just world. Let’s also hope they own property near the water line.