Monday, August 31, 2015

Lessons learned from the BC Wind Storm

Like many of my readers I spent much of the weekend dealing with the consequences of the big windstorm that hit the west coast on the weekend. For those of you not aware, what was supposed to be a pretty typical rainstorm ended up being massive wind storm which, at its peak, knocked out power to over 500,000 people in Metro Vancouver. Given our population (about 2.5 million) that means about 1 in 5 households was affected by the power outage. Our house was one of the 500,000 and, unfortunately, we were one of the last of the big substations to be energized so many individual houses in our area still don’t have power 48 hours after the end of the storm. This post is a bit of a post-mortem or as we say in my field a “post-incident analysis” where I will share some of the things I learned from this storm to help prepare our household for “the Big One” (the predicted earthquake that we all know is coming on the west coast). It also ends with some unsolicited advice for our friends at BC Hydro about their communications strategy for the storm.
In my work the way we improve our safety performance is through post-incident safety assessments. Every negative safety incident is accompanied by a post-incident analysis. This involves looking at the incident and asking the question: “what is the worst thing that could have happened”. We then do a root-cause analysis in order to establish and address the root cause of the incident. Ideally in doing this, similar incidents can be avoided in the future. In addition to incidents we also track and investigate every “near miss”. A near miss is an event that could have resulted in an incident but did not. Usually the difference between a near miss and an incident is simply good luck (i.e. a trip that caused a bump but didn’t break a bone). In our industry a near miss is seen as a “free learning”: an opportunity to catch a problem before someone gets hurt.
Without belittling the cost this windstorm had in human hardship and financial losses it pretty much represents a near miss when compared to the Big One. In this case only 1 in 5 households was hit, in daytime, on a weekend, in summer and only power was affected. We have been warned that in the event of the Big One, we have to be in a position to take care of ourselves without outside help for a minimum of 72 hours. That means assuming that the entire lower mainland is affected; that power, water and natural gas supplies will be offline; and we can expect no help of any kind (except from our neighbours) for at least three days.

Looking at our how our family emergency plan held up during the power outage it was clear that while we did a lot of things right, we have some serious holes to address. We have a reasonable store of water and dried goods and while we would be uncomfortable we would not starve nor lack for water for three-to-five days. Now for the biggest holes.
My plan for cooking during an emergency involves using the bar-b-que. However, it being the end of summer instead of having a lot of fuel, I have been working on the bottom half of my one tank. For emergency preparedness I should have taken my father-in-law’s advice to have at least one full tank in reserve at all times. Since the roads to Langley City (which had power) were open (as was Costco) I was able to rectify that problem on Sunday morning. Had I waited much longer though, I would have been out of luck. When I showed up at the Husky (the only place in our area that had power and sold propane) I discovered that they had about an hour’s supply of propane left in their tank (at the rate they were selling it) and they had already sold out of both gas and diesel.
Talking gasoline, we have a four-tiered plan for shelter depending on what happens to our house in a big earthquake. Tier two is to shelter in the minivan. Once again I failed to take my father-in-law’s advice. He never lets his fuel tank get to less than half-full so he has a reserve in case of an emergency. I, meanwhile, had let my tank get to almost empty as I was waiting for a chance to visit my in-laws in Aldergrove (where I can buy cheaper gas). Fortunately, I was able to get $20 of gas from the local Chevron (apparently the only gas station in Walnut Grove with an emergency back-up generator). I was later able to fill up in Aldergrove but, as I mentioned, the gas station with propane in Langley City had long run out of gas and diesel so in the case of the Big One finding an operating gas station may not have been an option for me.
As for paying for the gasoline, I only got $20 of gas from the local Chevron because I didn’t have much cash on hand. My wife never carries cash (she likes debit) and it is only by habit that I make sure to have a few actual bills in my wallet. Except during the power outage Interac was down (no power) so everyone was accepting cash-only. When the BC preparedness people say to keep a couple hundred dollars in small bills on hand it is for that reason. Our area has power but the phone lines are still down so it looks like could be back to a cash-only society for a few days still. 
Part of my plan for time without power is having a supply of ice available. But we learned another lesson and this one I want to share with the folks at BC Hydro. We were lucky that we were able to get enough ice to save many of our perishables from the fridge (by putting them in coolers) and our deep freeze was okay but due to the communication policy of BC Hydro we lost a lot of food we did not need to lose. As most locals know BC Hydo (our government-owned utility) had an almost complete collapse of its public communication system during the storm. Their web site crashed, their phone lines were jammed and it took quite a while for even their Twitter feed to come to life. Once up the Twitter feed (and the good old fashioned AM radio) were what we used to make our plans and this is where my issue with BC Hydro comes to play.
My one big complaint about BC Hydro (whose employees have worked incredibly hard this weekend to restore power) is that they did not come close to giving us any reliable information for most of the time we were without power. We lost power just after noon on Saturday. By late Saturday BC Hydro got their Twitter feed running and was reassuring us that we would get power back by midnight. Using that as our guide we decided to leave the fridge freezer and fridge unopened, counting on insulation and retained cold to keep everything okay until the power came back that night. Waking up Sunday morning we were shocked that the power was not yet on. We went back online and were informed on Sunday morning that power in our area would be back by noon. Come noon we still had no power and had not had power for 24 hours which I was taught is the cut-off for trusting your fridge without power. If BC Hydro had been honest with us at the onset we could have triaged our fridge/freezer and saved a lot of good food by moving the more expensive meat etc...from the fridge freezer to the deep freeze and being more aggressive with our use of ice and coolers. The problem with triaging is that it means opening the freezer and losing a lot of the less expensive stuff which we thought we might be able to save by simply being prudent about fridge use (and would have happened if the power had only been off for 6-to-12 hours).
I know, I know BC Hydro was not in a position to give exact estimates but surely they must have known pretty early into Saturday afternoon that this was not a problem they were going to be able to address in 6 hours. All they would have had to do is simply announce: “this is too big to handle right away expect to be without power for at least 24 + hours” and we could have acted accordingly. Instead we trusted BC Hydro’s unrelentingly optimistic estimates and lost many hundreds of dollars worth of groceries, much of which could have been saved with better information.
As an outsider I have no sense on how BC Hydro comes up with their repair estimates, but I am informed that until the local power sub-station has been energized they are not going to know all the problems down-line from the local sub-station. I only learned at around 4 pm Sunday that the sub-station that powers our entire area had been de-energized and was not going to be energized until Sunday at 5 pm. In our case it was a further 10 hours after the sub-station was energized before we got power. I know the organization wanted to put a good spin on the situation but they must have known that if a sub-station is de-energized then telling me at 6 pm that power from a de-energized sub-station will be up at midnight is simply not going to happen.
This situation reminds me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (yes I am a nerd) where Commander Scott (Scotty) guest-starred. In the episode Scotty pointed out to Geordie (the Head Engineer of the Enterprise) that Scotty always over-estimated how long it would take to fix a problem. His logic was that  if something went wrong he still had time to meet his original estimate but if he got everything done right he would be done early and he would get praise as a “miracle-worker”. By giving us overly optimistic predictions did the exact opposite, instead they made us resent them. In effect BC Hydro wasn’t helping us and In doing so was actually hurting their brand. Throughout the weekend they repeatedly gave cheery predictions which they, time-after-time, failed to meet. Each time they did so it got us more and more angry. Had they told us a less optimistic (more realistic?) estimate right up front (and they must have known pretty early that  it was going to be more than 24 hours) we might have grumbled but then we could have planned accordingly.
I have a client who gave me some words of advice early in my career that I remember to this day.  She said:
never lie to me or try to say something is clean when it is not. This is my job and I know you didn’t make the mess and that you are just the guy figuring out how to clean it up. I won’t hold bad news against you as long as you tell me the truth no matter how hard it may be for me to hear. With the truth I can make plans, allocate budgets and make promises to my bosses. I will, however, definitely hold it against you if you mislead me or don’t tell me the truth because then I can’t make good decisions, I will mis-spend my budget and I am likely to make promises to my bosses that I cannot meet. If I do that because you misled me then I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.
If BC Hydro learns only one thing from this event it should be that people will be disappointed with bad news but will be furious if they think (even wrongly) that they have been knowingly misled.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

On the misleading use of toxicology in discussions about fracking chemicals?

Last night I was forwarded a tweet that absolutely demanded a response. It was from that friend of science Robert F Kennedy Jr. and said “New Study: CA frak chemicals are linked to cancer, mutations and hormone disruption”. The study in question provides a case-study for science communicators and journalists alike on how activist scientists can misconstrue and miscommunicate scientific risks in order to achieve political aims. The report is titled California’s Fracking Fluids: The Chemical Recipe and the report was prepared by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). I invite readers who are unwilling to wade through the entire torrid text to browse the Executive Summary at the EWG web site. Having done so I welcome you to come back and join me as I look into the claims in a much more nuanced manner and consider the actual information provided in context.

While the others are away reading that stupefying Executive Summary I will remind the rest of you that I have spent a reasonable amount of time blogging about the investigation and communication of risk. Unfortunately, due to the nature of my blogging platform (read free and simple since I am a chemist and not a web designer) it is not terribly easy to figure out what I have written in the past so I will summarize here. I prepared a series of posts to help me out in situations like this. You see talking about how the authors have messed up the science is very hard if my audience doesn’t understand the language of the field. The posts started with “How Big and Small Numbers Influence Science Communication Part 2: Understanding de minimis risk” which explained how the science of risk assessment establishes whether a compound is “toxic” and explained the importance of understanding dose/response relationships. It explained the concept of a de minimis risk. That is a risk that is negligible and too small to be of societal concern (ref). The series continued with “How Big and Small Numbers Influence Science Communication Part 3: Understanding "Acceptable" Risk” which, as the title suggests, explained how to determine whether a risk is “acceptable”. I then went on to explain how a risk assessment is actually carried out in “Big and Small Numbers in Science Communication Part 4: the Risk Assessment Process. I finished off the series by pointing out the danger of relying on anecdotes in a post titled: Risk Assessment Epilogue: Have a bad case of Anecdotes? Better call an Epidemiologist.  Now anyone who has read all those previous posts can probably figure out what I am going to write next but that would be less fun for me so I will continue here.

Let’s get something straight right away. Fracking fluids are generally not good for human consumption. The reason for this is simple: fracking fluids are industrial mixtures intended to be used under controlled conditions. No one wakes up in the morning and asks themselves: “what shall I have for breakfast this morning: a nice chia smoothie or a glass of fracking fluid?” That being said sometimes fracking fluid can be released into the environment and so it is useful to understand its toxicity. Based on this (and political considerations) California sought to identify what was in the fracking mixtures through their law SB 4. Well the EWG report takes this disclosure and ramps up the hype (quite impressively) in order to frighten readers and sway public opinion.

The EWG report looks at the entire list of 197 chemicals that have been reported in California fracking fluids and highlights those that appear the most often. The Appendices present the entire list and some of the compounds on the list are pretty clearly not stuff you want to encounter in high concentrations: compounds like #76 toluene. A couple points should be made clear here. Fracking fluid is intended to be forcefully blown into geological formations rich in petroleum hydrocarbons. If the target geology is rich in hydrocarbons, then using hydrocarbons shouldn’t be a big deal right? It would be like complaining when someone used a hose to blast water into the ocean. The ocean is not likely to get much wetter. Moreover, toluene is reported as being used in only 3.6% of the fluid mixes and is likely used in very low concentrations, kind of like it is used in things we use everyday like glues. Thus, while it might represent a risk, it would appear to pose an exceedingly low risk. For the purposes of this blog post we will ignore these trace compounds and stick to the top 40 fracking chemicals which the EWG report highlights in Table 2. Table 2 of the EWG report presents:

The top 40 fracking chemicals used in California, Dec. 2013-Feb. 2015, compared to national data from U.S. EPA’s March 2015 report, “Analysis of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Data from the FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry 1.0.

This is the list that the authors intend to use to frighten readers and maybe if you were a non-chemist you might be frightened by the list. As a chemist I look at the list and want to yawn. It is filled with a bunch of innocuous compounds, some pretty common household-type chemicals and a handful of petroleum hydrocarbons. The actual red meat of the report is Appendix 2 which details “The environmental and human health effects of fracking chemicals used in California (2014 to February 2015)”. Clearly this is the part of the report used to cover any number of sins from the earlier text by comparing the various compounds to various regulations and health effects. 

In the report they place a particular emphasis on the California Proposition 65 List of “chemicals known as causes of cancer or reproductive harm”. To demonstrate why I have so little respect for the report let’s compare the top 40 list from Table 2 with the California Proposition 65 list. Of the 40 compounds, 5 appear on the California Proposition 65 list. You would imagine that this frightening five must be chemicals so problematic as to make you want to attend a protest and lie down in front of a fracking rig, so let’s look at these terrifying carcinogens:
#1 crystalline silica quartz (SiO2)

#2 diatomaceous earth, calcined 
#7 crystalline silica, cristobalite
#23 methanol
#27 hydrated magnesium silicate (talc) 

 As a chemist looking at this list, I can’t help but wonder what the EWG author’s are actually worried about? Admittedly, each one of these compounds has a scary technical name (scary enough that someone may want to call the Food Babe) and each has been linked with cancers (often only tangentially) but certainly not in the manner and form encountered when used as a fracking fluid. This is one of the points I have tried to pound into my readers in my earlier post: a compound’s toxicity is based on mechanism of exposure and dose. In the case of each of the compounds above, the mechanism of toxicity is incompatible with any concern about exposure or even dose. Let’s look at the chemicals a bit more closely to help understand.

Chemical #1 and #7 are two types of silicon dioxide which you might know better as “sand”. Chemical #1 is the type of sand preferred for use in children’s sand boxes. Chemical #2 is a slightly more exotic version of sand that has been exposed to high temperatures and crystallized in a more fancy manner, but it is still just sand. To be clear, very finely ground sand, when inhaled, can raise your risk to cancer so the authors of the EWG report aren’t technically lying, but they are massively exaggerating the risks. As 100’s of generations of desert Bedouin will tell you, it is possible to live a lifetime exposed to sand (including sand blown in the air) without your entire population being felled with cancer. Were sand really a worrisome cancer risk then we might be less likely to use it in children’s sandboxes? To make it more misleading, with respect to fracking, the sand is encountered as part of a liquid solution/suspension. Having spent many happy days at the beach I can attest to the fact that wet sand is not easily inhaled. Anyone who looks at an inhaled carcinogen risk and compares it to fracking solution exposure either has no understanding of toxicology or is trying to mislead you.

Chemical #2 is diatomaceous earth, calcined. That is the crushed shells of diatoms that have been heat-treated to make them more crystalline. Diatomaceous earth, like sand, is a possible carcinogen when inhaled in a fine dust. It is used in industrial purposes as an organic pesticide (it is used against slugs as slugs don’t like to crawl across broken glass) in water treatment systems and interestingly enough as a toxicologically safe source of gritty material in toothpaste. So once again the EWG scientists are trying to convince the public that a chemical that we, as consumers, feel is safe enough to stick in our mouths on a daily basis, may be a danger when in a fracking solution?

Chemical #23 is methanol. Yes methanol, that ubiquitous chemical used in so many products as to be hard to know where to start. If you drink high methanol you will indeed get very ill but since we aren’t about to drink fracking fluid…I prefer the chia smoothies myself, it can also be discounted from the list.

Finally we come to #27 hydrated magnesium silicate (talc). This is a classic case of "the Food Babe effect" where a chemical sounds terrifying using its scientific name but less so by its common name. You probably have heard hydrated magnesium silicate's common name: talcum powder, used by generations of mothers and fathers to keep their newborn babies’ bottoms dry. Yes that is what the EWG scientists are trying to make you fear. An innocuous, familiar compound that most every family in America has bought and used. However, in this report it represents one of the California Proposition 65 cancer risks?

I think you get my point by now. The authors of the EWG report have taken a list of chemicals, which when used in a very different manner, have been linked (or associated) with cancer. They have then tried to use that link/association to make these chemical sound frightening when discussed in the context of fracking. I really find it hard to take a report like this seriously. The work is so clumsily done as to almost not be worth discussing except that I have already seen this report cited a half-dozen times on my twitter feed. As discussed, the people tweeting it aren’t exactly known for their scientific smarts. The first person was that tangentially famous son of a famous father who refuses to accept the toxicological research that demonstrates that Thimerosal is not a cause of autism. The second was one of my favourite science-blind progressives. I could go on, but the problem is that these people have a lot of followers most of whom also have no serious science background either and are likely to continue the stream of re-tweets. As communicators of science we have to keep shooting this bad science as soon as it appears because to do otherwise would leave the public policy morass dominated by credulous discussions of reports like this one.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

On Linda McQuaig's comments, Carbon budgets, and keeping oil sands “in the ground”

NDP candidate Linda McQuaig has been taking a lot of flack in the last couple days for a quotation on CBC’s Power and Politics where she suggested that "a lot of the oil sands oil may have to stay in the ground." To justify her statement she has directed critics to some recent scientific literature as well as the outputs from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a well-respected international organization. The IPCC has stated that in order to meet their mandate (more on that below) the full extent of the oil sands cannot be exploited and Ms. McQuaig has correctly cited the IPCC. The problem is that a number of conclusions derived from the IPCC reports move away from the scientific and into the socio-economic and the political. In doing so they ignore many of the complexities of the topic. In particular, a number of activists have been claiming that 85% of the oil sands must remain in the ground as unburnable. As I will demonstrate below, this claim is not a scientific fact, but rather a political one. The rest of this post will hopefully provide a bit of clarity on this topic and maybe help eliminate some of the painful nattering we have heard so far.
Let’s start at with a bit of background. As I discussed in a previous post (on RCP8.5 and "the Business as Usual" Scenario - Different beasts not to be confused), the IPCC derived a number of potential scenarios called Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) to help model a future earth based on how we, as a planet, develop in the next several decades. As part of the modelling exercise the IPCC Working Group III on Mitigation of Climate Change (WGIII) took the step of trying to establish what level of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions would be likely to result in exceeding the global 2oC goal in the 21st Century. For those of you familiar with my writings you will remember that I wrote a previous post describing the 2oC goal titled What is so Special about 2 degrees C in the Climate Change Debate? where I pointed out that the IPCC’s goal of trying to keep climate change below 2oC is a relatively arbitrary one with little actual scientific foundation. That being said 2oC is the number that the IPCC was tasked to consider and they are nothing if not consistent in that respect.
To return to the point, the IPCC ran the RCPs and came up with a big table (Table SPM.1) that provided a range of carbon dioxide concentrations and resultant likelihoods that they would result in our exceeding the 2oC goal. Now to be clear, the RCPs represent complex models that include conditions of population, levels of development, rates of deforestation etc... in addition to carbon dioxide emission characteristics. As a consequence, predicted carbon dioxide concentrations have pretty wide ranges and in some RCPs a lower carbon dioxide range will result in a larger temperature change due to features completely unrelated to carbon dioxide concentration (typically having to do with deforestation etc...). Out of this massive jumble of numbers the IPCC managed to come up with a nice round number: 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2). If you are like me then you are inherently suspicious of any complex modelling exercise that generates a nice big round number, but that is a story for another day.
The 1000 Gt CO2 value represents the amount of carbon dioxide the IPCC scientists felt we could afford to put into the atmosphere while still retaining a high likelihood (over 75%) of not overshooting the 2oC goal. This 1000 Gt CO2 target thus represents our planetary “carbon budget”. Since the IPCC report came out a number of authors have worked further on the topic and one of the more reasonable estimates of our “remaining emissions quotas” (also called our carbon diet) was presented in the journal Nature Geosciences in a paper titled “Persistent growth of CO2 emissions and implications for reaching climate targets”. The problem with the IPCC carbon budget is that, as suggested, it is a bit of a fudge. As discussed, the 1000 Gt CO2 carbon budget appears to be very much a conservative estimate and the 2oC goal might be too conservative as well. More problematically, from a science perspective the IPCC models are well-known to run hot, that is they use climate sensitivity estimates that are relatively high. For details on the topic of climate sensitivity see my post: Why I think Climate Sensitivity is Essential for Developing Effective Climate Change Policy. Suffice it to say that the IPCC was limited in the literature it could use (it could only use literature published before a fixed date) and since the most recent IPCC report came out the consensus estimate for climate sensitivity has decreased markedly. For those of you unwilling to read my earlier piece essentially this means that it may take more carbon dioxide than originally envisioned to generate a commensurate temperature increase. What this means is that theoretically our carbon budget could be closer to 1900 Gt CO2 than 1000 Gt CO2. To be clear, I’m not saying we don’t need to be put on a carbon diet, I just mean that we may be able to ingest more calories (emit more carbon) on the new diet than was previously believed under the old diet.
Now since it is generally accepted in the climate field that we need to stay within our carbon budget (whether the higher or lower figure) the next question we need answered is what does that mean in a global sense with respect to our fossil fuel reserves? Well coincidental to the work of the IPCC, the International Energy Agency (IEA) produced a World Energy Outlook in 2012. The IEA World Energy Outlook provides a best scientific projection of energy trends through to 2035 and includes a detailed assessment of global energy reserves. Based on the numbers in the IEA report, the current global fossil fuel reserves, if all burned, would represent approximately 2860 Gt CO2. So if we are to meet the IPCC goal of 1000 Gt CO2, approximately 1860 Gt CO2 of our fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground unburned. At this point I could stop, but this is where the debate really gets interesting.
Having established that some large percentage of our fossil fuel reserves must remain unburnable to meet our (admittedly conservative) IPCC carbon budget of 1000 Gt CO2 the question unaddressed is how do we allocate those 1000 Gt CO2? This is where the politics comes into play. Ever since the IPCC report came out different groups of activists and politicians have argued about topics such as whether we should stop using coal (due to its high CO2 content to energy density) and move to natural gas and whether developed nations should be allocated less of the remaining carbon budget because developed countries had already contributed to existing levels. Most of the battles in the upcoming conference in Paris will center on these topics. In preparation for Paris a number of academics have got into the mix. The first serious attempt to describe the carbon diet necessary to stay within our carbon budget came out in 2009 (before the most recent IPCC report) in the journal Nature: in a paper titled Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C authored by Meinshausen (et al.) Not so coincidentally (want to guess who was on the IPCC authors list) this article written several years before the most recent IPCC report was released also came up with a proposed carbon budget of 1000 Gt CO2. The paper pointed out that the vast majority of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves consist of coal, which most policy folks accept must be quickly moved out of our primary energy mix.  Meinshausen et al. concluded that less than half of the proven, economically recoverable oil, gas and coal reserves could be emitted to reach a carbon budget of 1000 Gt CO2.
Since 2009 more research papers have been published and the paper currently all the rage in the environmental community is actually a “Letter” (essentially a short paper) that was published in January, also in Nature, titled “The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C” and authored by McGlade and Ekins. The McGlade and Ekins paper presents a detailed carbon diet to keep global warming less than 2oC. The authors, two professors from the University College of London, Institute for Sustainable Resources, have gone several steps further than Meinhausen et al. by looking at an “economically-optimal” solution for the distribution of the carbon budget. In doing so they discount unconventional fuels (like oil sands) and show strong preference for existing producers. Under their model 85% of the oil sands become unburnable and only 60% of the Middle Eastern Oil becomes unburnable. So to be entirely clear here for any reporters reading this article: the IPCC does not say that 85% of our oil sands have to be left in the ground to meet the 2oC goal. Two mid-level academics from the University College of London are making that demand. So when an activist says that the 85% number is from the IPCC, the correct response is (in keeping with the origin of the two authors): “bullocks”.
As a Canadian, I look at this paper with a good deal of skepticism. As discussed earlier, I believe that our carbon budget to avoid 2oC is likely closer to 1500 Gt CO2 than 1000 Gt CO2. In this I am not alone as I get that number from the Nature Geosciences paper (a peer-reviewed piece by non-conflicted scientists). I also don’t necessarily believe that 2oC is a reasonable number because the current literature doesn’t appear to support the 2oC goal (please read my older post on the topic). But even if I did accept the 1000 Gt CO2 budget I would not accept the carbon diet presented by McGlade and Ekins. Instead, I would look to identify how much of the budget is available to Canada and ensure that 100% of that budget was made up using Canadian oil. I know that the concept of “Ethical Oil” has become something of a hot potato because of issues surrounding the origins of the term, but I do believe in the concept behind the tem. I want my personal gasoline purchases to go towards subsidizing Medicare and not subsidizing a despot or paying for a tyrant to build another palace. I want to know that the oil used in my car was not generated using slave labour in a country without a free press and where environmental regulations are noted by their absence rather than their application. I want my oil being produced by well-paid Canadians, in a country with a demonstrably free press, strong government oversight and a strong tradition of NGOs to watch over the regulator’s shoulder.
So to answer the critical questions about this entire piece:
1)     Was Linda McQuaig correct that some of our oil sands will need to be left in the ground to meet our climate change commitments? Yes, if we are to meet our goal of limiting our greenhouse gas emissions then there are some coal and oil sand resources that will have to stay in the ground.

2)     Is that number 85% of the resource as suggested by some activists and trumpeted on television and radio? Absolutely not. The amount left in the ground should be based on the economics of the resource and a desire to optimize Canadian content and minimize our use of non-ethical fossil fuel sources.

3)     Do I know what percentage of our oil sands will have to stay in the ground to meet our climate change commitments? No I do not. I also don’t know how much of our oil sands resource can be extracted in an environmentally sound manner. What I do know is that Canadian oil helps support Canadian jobs, Canadian institutions and provides the funds to pay for our education and medical systems while subsidizing transfer payments. As such, in my mind, it is preferable to oil from virtually every other source world-wide for Canadian use.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

More on "Professionalism" in the Climate Change debate

I am back from a brief blogging hiatus as I took some time off-line to have a holiday with my family. During my holiday I was mostly out of electronic contact except for a brief period last week, when I had Wi-Fi and got into another one of the typical climate change arguments. The discussion included one of my most ardent foils, a gentleman well-known to this blog: the blogger known as andthentheresphysics (ATTP). He is reportedly Dr. Ken Rice, a Reader of Astronomy and Public Relations Director at the Institute for Astronomy, within the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh (UK). I was responding to another well-known blogger “Sou from Bundanga” the proprietor of a blog called HotWhopper. Sou, reportedly Miriam O’Brien a management consultant in Australia, was berating another blogger about using “stolen” emails from the now-famous “hack” at Skeptical Science. 

The basis for the disagreement was my taking on the role of the Devil’s Advocate in the discussion. I, personally, think that it is rather rich when a group that was willing to broadcast material taken under false pretense from the Heartland Institute by Dr. Gleick (now known colloquially as “Fakegate”) would complain bitterly when the shoe was on the other foot. Dr. Gleick has publicly admitted to having misrepresented himself and used illegal methods (one might even use the word “stolen” if one was so inclined) to access and then distribute the Heartland documents. The distribution included the addition of at least one critical document that Heartland claims was composed entirely of deliberate misinformation…source unknown but presumed. Sou’s outrage was a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black and my discussion with Sou demonstrated that she was entirely satisfied with doing just that. 

ATTP interposed himself into the conversation to complain, once again, about a previous post of mine: The implication of "Professionalism" in Climate Change discussions which he feels impugned his professionalism and misrepresented him. This has been an ongoing discussion about which we continue to disagree. As anyone who has read the cited blog post can see, I quoted ATTP directly; I did not edit any of his comments and included our entire exchange. I’m not sure how quoting someone correctly, completely and in context represents a misrepresentation but hey that’s just me?  Admittedly, I also included a discussion of my personal interpretation of his comments with specific relationship to the concept of professionalism in the field of climate change. My concern at the time was the absence of any significant repercussions for the authors of Climategate and Dr. Gleick following their respective revelations. That an academic could do what Dr. Gleick admitted to having done with no professional repercussions continues to amaze me. ATTP’s insistence that university ethics oversight programs are sufficient to address ethical shortcomings of senior academics is laughable in light of the Fakegate and Climategate affairs. ATTP may have intended to get one point across, and to a certain population (his fellow academics) he may have; but to me his words were explicit and clear. While I added my own commentary, ATTP’s own words spoke for themselves quite eloquently.
This discussion reminded me of similar conversations I have had over the last years. As many of you know, my wife is a teacher and I spend a lot of time socializing with teachers. For those of you not familiar with British Columbia politics, the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation (the BCTF our version of a teacher’s union) has spent the last decade engaged in an all-out war with our current right-of-center government. As part of the battle, the BCTF has been arguing quite strenuously about how hard they work with respect to other employees in British Columbia. Now I have seen the classes my wife has taught and agree that teachers can have ridiculously bad classes with way too many students and way too few resources. I also recognize that teaching can be an incredibly tough job and most teachers go above and beyond to help their students succeed. Where I disagree with the BCTF is when they complain about their long hours of work. In a moment of bad judgment, I actually calculated and presented the numbers which demonstrated that an average teacher’s work year is substantially shorter than virtually all other public employees and well below those of private sector employees. This placed me firmly in the familial doghouse and so let’s pretend I didn’t bring that topic up.

What I have come to recognize from my discussion with teachers is that most teachers are not really in a position to have a reasonable conversation on this topic. This is not because they are irrational; it is just that most teachers have never left the education system and so have little understanding how the rest of us live and work. Most teachers went to elementary school, then high school, then university, then teacher’s college and finally to a position teaching. Certainly many of them worked after-school and summer jobs but most have never actually worked 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year, for year after year after year. During the 10 months of the year they work, they do work very hard but for their entire lives they have been given a spring break, at least two weeks off at Christmas and almost two months off as a summer break. As such, they have no basis for understanding how the rest of us live with only 10 statutory holidays (in Canada) and two-three weeks of paid holidays a year.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the climate change debate but in talking to ATTP I had a moment of clarity where I began to understand the division between the academic activists in the climate change world and the rest of us. What I had missed in my “professionals” post (and its sequel post On Appeals to Authority, “Climategate” and the Wizard of Oz: a Personal Journey from "Trust Me" to "Show Me") was an additional feature of the people from the “trust me” crowd. They are mostly senior and career academics and as such have lived their entire lives in an entirely different world than the rest of us. The old expression about working in “ivory towers” didn’t just fall from the sky but is based on a basic recognition that their work lives differ markedly from the rest of us.

During their early school days most current academics were likely the smarter kids in their classes and got exceptional grades. To have succeeded in the academic sphere they had to have studied hard in university typically being in the top percentiles of their classes. This allowed them to get into grad school where once again their current status is likely the result of them being in the top percentiles of their grad school classes. They have thus lived their entire lives as the crème de la crème in their academic disciplines and peer groups. Even the lowliest “second-rate academic” did better in school than 90% of their peers and ranks amongst some of the most academically gifted members of our society. Finally, to succeed they had to put in a lot of individual work, often with little requirement for teamwork but rather a lot of time working with individual mentors and individual supervisors. Derived from all this is the fact that they are used to thinking of themselves as the smartest person in the room and have come to believe that this means that their opinions (even on topics outside of their area of expertise) mean more than those from the rest of us.

Given the nature of the academic enterprise they have also flourished in an inherently hierarchical system where they now sit at the top of that hierarchy. Having spent their entire careers in this hierarchy they seem to find it hard to hear their opinions challenged by people who do not fit within that hierarchy. When they speak of the “show me crowd” as being full of “engineers” and “other professionals”, it is not necessarily meant as an insult but rather shows a lack of understanding about how the other half of the professional world works. Every one of those engineers has experienced the “university experience”. These engineers have had an opportunity to see, albeit very briefly, how the other side lives but now live and work in a world where they are required to work in teams and accept criticism from their peers and from their clients on an almost daily basis. Most importantly they have worked in an environment where their actions are overseen by ethics boards and their success is dependent on the stressors of the private sector.

As for the hardships of being an academic, I have to laugh when I read them complain about facing the dilemma of “publish or perish”. Every private sector worker I know lives under the same cloud. Ask a plumber what happens if they can’t consistently find work? Show me a thriving consultant who consistently fails to achieve results for their clients or who fails to meet the standards of their profession. The big difference between private sector workers and tenured academics is that we don’t have tenure so if we screw up we can’t fall back on a comfortable teaching position. In the private sector if you were caught fiddling with the process, like the scientists fiddling with peer-review in the Climategate files, you would be summarily fired. Were he subject to a professional ethics board the actions admitted to by Dr. Gleick in his Huffington Post blog would have resulted in him being censored and possibly stripped of his professional designation and unable to work in his chosen field.

As I pointed out in my post Type I and Type II Error Avoidance and its Possible Role in the Climate Change Debate and further discussed in my post Does the Climate Change Debate Come Down to Trust Me versus Show Me? - Further thoughts on Error Avoidance these academics live in a world where the emphasis is Type I error avoidance and where review by a limited number of peers is the norm. What I missed in those posts is that the academic’s career trajectory will necessarily have limited their interactions with professionals in other fields. It is in light of this fact that we should reconsider how the two “sides” in the Show me versus Trust me debate should interact. I admit to having failed to sufficiently recognize and acknowledge how fundamental the differences are between the two groups...and I spent over a decade working for team “Trust me”. Now that I have worked on the other side of the fence I accept the inherent value of the “Show me” approach. In my previous comments I may have failed to recognize how this fundamental difference in views colours our daily actions and reactions. I must learn not to feel insulted when an academic talks down to me. It is not intended as an insult but rather is simply a “feature” of their upbringing. That being said, I will not kowtow to, nor show the deference that academics, like ATTP, feel are their due. That being said, I can acknowledge the difference and like the ambassadors to the Chinese Royal Courts of the 1800’s I will endeavour to work out mechanisms to not unnecessarily damage their pride while insisting that they recognize legitimate differences in our worldviews.