Paul Revere was an alarmist

“The weight of evidence suggests that it is ‘very likely’ (probability greater than 90%) that the British are coming.  I am not advocating any specific mitigation or adaptation response.”  —Paul Revere, if he had been a climate scientist.

“We should refrain from asserting that the British are (or are not) coming without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon information that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts.”  —Fox News, if cable TV had existed in 1775.

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Fewer roads, fewer fires

Originally published in the Albuquerque Tribune,  August 7, 2002.

Today’s author says not building new forest roads, and limiting access on existing ones, could help prevent catastrophic forest fires – by keeping careless fire starters out of the woods.

This land is your land, this land is my land,” Woody Guthrie, 1952.

“This is our land,” Jarbridge Shovel Brigade Official Web Site, 2002.

By Mark Boslough

On Sept. 1, 1846, my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather camped in a place that is now the outskirts of Elko, Nevada.

The night was dark and quiet. There were no roads for hundreds of miles. There were no ranches, no timber companies, no towns, no subdivisions, and no vacation houses to protect from wildfire. When the forests caught fire, as they had for millennia, nobody cared. The natural cycle was in balance.

Things have changed since then. Today, only the most inaccessible fragments of our national forests are wild, unmarred by roads and other intrusions.

The wild, roadless areas are special, spectacular places, where forests tend to be healthy and fires need not be suppressed. Wildlife is protected by isolation, and people can visit for solitude and rejuvenation. This land is your land.

Without protection, however, roads and development will eventually swallow up the last remaining wild forests. Unfortunately, there is a dangerous and growing movement spawned by the timber and motorized recreation industries to grab this public treasure for their own gain.

Allowing them to do so will push these prized forests to the front burner, exposing them to the ravages of human-caused, catastrophic wildfires like those that have singed the West this summer.

One of the uglier manifestations of this movement is the “Jarbridge Shovel Brigade,” of Elko County. This vigilante group was formed to seize the control of public lands in northern Nevada, lands owned by all Americans.

In 1995, a road to the Jarbridge Wilderness Area washed out. To protect the nearby Jarbridge River and its endangered bull trout fishery from soil erosion, the U.S. Forest Service decided to keep the streamside road closed to motor vehicles. The road was blocked off with large boulders.

This did not sit well with some locals, who organized a work party to defy federal protection of our public land and take the law into their own hands. On July 4, 2000, they converged on the site, removed the boulders, and built their own unauthorized road.

The philosophy of the Shovel Brigade movement seems to be this: Anywhere vehicles have ever been driven can be maintained as a public highway by vigilantes, regardless of environmental harm or federal protective rulings to the contrary.

These groups do not limit their aggressive intrusions to public lands. They also invade lands owned by private individuals who don’t want motorized trespassers on their property. I learned this firsthand when I attempted to prevent motorized use of a creek bed on my family’s property in Boulder County, Colorado.

When the oldest parts of our property went into private ownership, the entire area was roadless. Old maps show only a single-track footpath along Balarat Creek. But to some off-road enthusiasts, a hiking trail on any property, public or private, is theirs for the taking. In helping themselves, they have caused erosion, destroyed vegetation and created new spur roads.

With 300 acres of trees that needed to be thinned to reduce the fire hazard, I hired a professional forester to draft a forest stewardship plan.

One of the primary recommendations of his report was to stop the unauthorized recreational use before undertaking forest stand improvements. If trees were cut and underbrush removed without putting up gates and fences, he reasoned, the land would be much more vulnerable to motorized trespassers.

In 1999, I posted “no motorized vehicles” signs along our creek land. That spring, a group of 15 vehicles from the Denver-based Mile-Hi Jeep Club ignored my signs and drove through. The club’s web site even reported that one vehicle dumped a crankcase load of oil into our creek.

So that summer I did what the Forest Service did in Elko County. I blocked the trail. This was unacceptable to some members of the Mile-Hi Jeep Club, who organized a “Barking Dog Shovel Brigade” to remove my boulder and work on an amateur road construction project on private land they had no right to enter.

Unlike the Forest Service, I didn’t let the matter go. I brought in a truckload of boulders. Two years later, the “road” has reverted to a hiking trail for my neighbors and the surrounding community.

The streamside wildflowers, grasses, willows, and aspen trees that were crushed under the off-road tires are growing back. The Mile-Hi Jeep Club’s oil slick is gone, and I have picked up much of the trash and vehicle parts.

More importantly, the threat of human-cause wildfire has been greatly reduced. When I blocked the trail to off-road vehicles, I removed at least a dozen unauthorized fire rings. Few illegal campfires have appeared since then. After the Shovel Brigade removed my barrier, somebody built a celebratory bonfire.

This summer has brought the worst drought the mountain West has experienced in a century, but off-road recreation has continued unabated in the tinder-dry forest near my family’s property.

In July, only a few miles to the north, two men in a Jeep CJ7 drove off a road onto toasty dry grass. It was quickly ignited by their hot catalytic converter. Before it was contained, the resulting Big Elk fire consumed 4,413 acres of forest, forced the evacuation of 250 homes, cost $2 million, and tragically claimed two lives in the crash of a slurry bomber used to fight the blaze.

“I keep wondering why it is that we can’t close off more of the backcountry roads and the places where people are coming in and being careless with fires,” observed Paul McDaniel, who had to flee when the fire threatened his neighborhood.

This seems like a no-brainer; a practical idea so obviously beneficial, it is almost beyond discussion.

Compared to roadless wild forests, fire-prone areas that are crisscrossed with roads are exposed to fire by human-borne matches, tossed cigarettes, exhaust sparks, fireworks and unattended campfires, not to mention arsonists. As you know, the worst of the fires this summer actually were physically set by people.

The Forest Service estimates that 90 percent of wildfires in national forests are human-caused. A common-sense way to prevent forest fires is to limit motorized access into the woods, especially during the fire season.

But renegade shovel brigades and Jeep clubs seem to have no respect for rules that protect forest resources or private property. When other motorists follow their example and fail to obey road closures, the results can be catastrophic.

Take the recent huge fire in Arizona. The blaze was not started by a hiker, as off-road vehicle groups have gleefully claimed. The Chediski fire broke out after a pickup truck driver got lost in a maze of forest roads on the Fort Apache Reservation and subsequently ran out of gas. In desperation, his stranded passenger set a signal fire that got out of control, merged with the Rodeo fire, burned almost half a million acres, destroyed nearly 500 homes and cabins, and forced the evacuation of 300,000 people.

Forests with open roads will always be more vulnerable than those without roads. Someone who tossed a cigarette or other burning object into a roadside ditch started the Missionary Ridge fire near Durango. That fire destroyed 56 homes and more than 70,000 acres, costing more than $40 million.

Areas with roads in our national forests require active management to reduce their unnaturally high fire hazards and help restore them to health, but thinning also makes them more vulnerable to damage from motorized intruders.

That’s one of the reasons thinning projects need a comprehensive environmental review, so that we don’t inadvertently increase the fire risk with a rushed job due to political pressure.

By reasonably limiting access in forests already criss-crossed with roads, we can reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.

In the wild and roadless areas of our national forests, nature can be left to its own devices, which will keep forests healthy, reduce wildfire hazards, and save taxpayers the expense of road construction and upkeep – not to mention the cost of fighting the resultant wildfires.

By preserving roadless areas, the federal government can protect our last remaining wild forests for all Americans.

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Wallow fire: anthropogenic?

The press is reporting that the Wallow fire has an anthropogenic cause.  The theory is that it was started by somebody who left their campfire unattended.  If people start believing this theory, then the government will start restricting our activities and taking away our freedoms.

The anthropogenic wildfire theory has already caused the government to restrict our right  to have bonfires and smoke cigarettes in the forest.  We aren’t even allowed to celebrate our nation’s birthday on our public lands with traditional Roman candles and M-80s.  What will they take away next using this unproven theory as the excuse?

Wildfires have always happened.  They are caused by lightning.  We know this because forests burned down before the first humans arrived in North America.  Wildfires took place before lighter fluid and cherry bombs were invented.  Nature, not human activity, causes forest fires.

If you add up all the heat that humans generate in the forest, it’s a tiny fraction of the size of the Wallow fire.  It is arrogant to think humans could be the cause of something so big and uncontrollable.   Forests have always burned and will continue to burn no matter what we do.

The alarmists and the liberal media just want to blame humans for everything in an attempt to control our lives.  If you believe them, you must be a communist.

Posted in Climate denialism | 10 Comments

Footnote to haters

I just returned from a month-long vacation, which included a four-day conference in Bucharest, Romania that I attended using personal leave.  I had vacation I wanted to use up, having taken very little non-work-related time off for the past several years.   I’d rather use it for this than to take a pay-out from the taxpayers when I retire.

I gave two presentations, chaired a session, sat on a discussion panel, served on the program committee, and spent every evening networking and having technical discussions with colleagues.  The hours were long.  No US taxpayer funds were spent on my travel or time.

The subject of the conference was planetary defense.  Much of the discussion centered on how to save the earth from an impending global catastrophe.  The last conference on this subject was two years ago in Granada, Spain.  I used personal time and funds to attend that one, too.

I’m not writing this to whine about lack of funding for planetary defense, but to illustrate the fact that those of us who are worried about the the future of our planet are dedicated, and are not in it for the money.   If I didn’t have a kid to support and a mortgage to pay, I’d be willing to do this work full time for nothing.   That’s not to say that I don’t think that saving our planet and insuring the future of our children and our nation is worthy of significant funding.

When I saw a footnote in a recent letter by James Hansen this morning, it resonated.

Footnote #2:  Note to the people who send me messages (SOMETIMES SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS) demanding that I stop wasting THEIR MONEY and get out of the government: When I was in New Zealand I was on vacation, using up time accumulated years ago when I seldom took vacation. By taking the New Zealand vacation I am reducing taxpayers’ costs, because I would otherwise be paid (when I retire) a lump sum for the vacation days that I did not use. Your blood pressure might come down a notch further if you saw the nature of the “vacation”: slave-driver Jeanette Fitzsimons unceremoniously routing me out of bed at 6 or 7 AM every day to get moving to the next town – not exactly a case of sipping pina colada on a beach.

BTW, do you really believe that scientists make up or exaggerate global warming to get research funds? Our salaries do not depend on how much research the government funds. Government scientists get paid for working 40 hours a week, regardless of how long they work. My wife claims it is about 90 hours a week, but I say about 80. If you succeed in getting the government to cut back on science, because you don’t like the results, the main effect will be erosion of our competiveness relative to other nations. Your hounding of scientists does not bother me, but it may discourage young people from entering the profession, contributing to a national spiral into second or third rate technical and economic status. Perhaps, instead of questioning the motives of scientists, you should turn around and check the interests (motives) of the people who have pushed you to become so agitated.

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When ideology rebuts physics

I have received some requests asking me to respond to a supposed rebuttal by a blogger, Hans Schreuder, of the ten physics facts I listed last last week in my post, “Physics trumps right-wing ideology.”  This “rebuttal” has been making the rounds on various denialist blogs, and is easy to find with your favorite search engine.  Not one to be overly modest or equivocal in his rejection of the laws of physics, Schreuder calls the law of conservation of energy (discovered by Galileo) an “old superstition” and concludes by proclaiming, “Please note that we have refuted all ten of your points, not just one…”

One repeated criticism of my physics fact list is that I did not provide references.   I can understand why those who are unfamiliar with a subject would like citations to facts they didn’t know, but it is considered superfluous by scientists to clutter up a basic tutorial with citations to information that is widely known and accepted by those in the field. Most elementary physics textbooks, for that reason, do not have extensive lists of references to Newton.

For example, I could have written:

PHYSICS FACT #6: Conservation of energy is a fundamental law of physics (Galileo, 1638; Liebniz, 1689; Mohr, 1837). When more energy comes in than goes out of a system, it warms up (Lavoisier & Laplace, 1780; Thompson, 1798; von Mayer, 1842; Helmholtz, 1847; Grove, 1874).

But these citations are not helpful to anyone who has the most basic knowledge of physics.  They are also not helpful to anyone who lacks the most basic knowledge of physics, like many denialist bloggers.   Nor are they helpful to those who reject the fundamental laws of physics, like Schreuder (who in his “rebuttal” of  “physics fact #6” calls it an “old superstition”)!  Anybody who dismisses conservation of energy as an “old superstition” is not to be taken seriously, and devoting a blog entry to a point-by-point counter-rebuttal would be counter-productive.

However, it is worth drawing attention to the fact that Shreuder’s “rebuttal” supports my contention that such anti-science denialism is ideologically-driven.   A quick search on his name reveals that he has a blog called “I love my carbon dioxide” with a logo “I (heart) CO2 — love it”.    The home page contains lots of bright colors, exclamation points, and links in ALL CAPS that shout things like “The TRUE POWER of CARBON DIOXIDE” and “THIS SITE NEEDS YOUR SUPPORT PLEASE — even just ONE dollar”.

If Schreuder wants to give the impression that he has an objective approach to the science of climate change, and wants to debate the physics community about the laws of physics, it might be a good idea not to start with the axiom that a chemical compound is something that should be loved and defended, regardless of what the science says.   Having a website that gives the appearance of snake-oil hucksterism probably doesn’t help, either.

Posted in Climate denialism | 23 Comments

Denier spam and scientific gibberish

My recent post, “Physics trumps right-wing ideology,” seemed to strike a nerve.  The main point of my essay was that global warming denial is an ideological belief system that rejects the fundamental laws of physics.  As of today, it has gotten more than 50 comments, far exceeding the total number of comments that my little backwater of a blog had gotten since its inception in January.  As a new blogger, I never even thought of having a “comment policy.”  That was a newbie mistake.

As it turns out many of the comments in response to “Physics trumps” amount to nothing more than denier spam and scientific gibberish.  One person posted more than a dozen comments within three days.  Even though the topic of my post was explicitly about physics and climate forcing, the author of those comments quickly changed the subject. He started by challenging the scientific consensus associated with water vapor feedback. Rather than citing published data, his evidence was based on personal recollection.  It quickly became apparent that he had no understanding of the difference between relative and specific humidity.  He didn’t even know that humidity is the same thing as water vapor concentration (challenging me when I used it as a synonym).   In short, he was parroting denialist talking points without having a clue about what he was talking about.

Within three days this commenter invoked many of the standard denialist myths and logical fallacies, even after other commenters provided links to articles that debunked what he was saying.   He hadn’t bothered to try to learn the fundamentals, like the difference between weather and climate, the fact that climate is not defined by data from a single year, the idea that attributes of chaotic systems can be predicted, that lead-vs-lag has a different relationship to cause-and-effect in nonlinear than in linear systems, and that the scientific burden of poof is on the party making the extraordinary claim that challenges fundamental principles.   Clearly, this person was not interested in learning or discussing valid points, but was simply spamming my blog with gibberish he had collected off the internet.  Gibberish that has been debunked by many scientists, multiple times, in many forums.

To avoid this in the future, I’m adopting a comment policy.  Rather than start from scratch, I’m simply going to implement the same policy as Greenfyre, who successfully keeps the spam level down on his blog.  Here’s Greenfyre’s statement:  “Comments that are not relevant to the post that they appear under or the evolving discussion will simply be deleted, as will links to Denier spam known to be scientific gibberish.”

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Scientific scholarship vs. pseudoscholarship

How many times have we heard the apocryphal statement about global warming that “the science is settled”?  Is the debate really over?  It depends on who is doing the debating, and what is claimed to have been settled.  There have been many climate-change debates among scientists as well as non-scientists.  First, it’s important to recognize the difference between a scientific debate and other forms of disagreement.  Science has ground rules.  Those who don’t follow the rules are entitled to their opinions, but cannot legitimately claim to be participating in a scientific debate.

One rule for scientific results to be accepted is that they must be subjected to peer review and published in a scholarly scientific journal.  This is a necessary, but insufficient, condition (nobody is compelled to accept the conclusions of a paper just because it has been refereed).  This rule is not intended to create a “high priesthood” of scientists or keep others from participating.  On the contrary, scientists welcome dissent and encourage contrarians to publish their ideas so they can be subjected to the same scrutiny that is applied to conventional thought.

Peer review is designed to screen out material that is demonstrably wrong, flawed, or illogical.  Non-specialists are not always able to spot errors quickly in a highly technical piece of work, so experts are recruited to make sure any mistakes are corrected and necessary documentation is provided, before peer-reviewed science can be published.  Think of this as a kind of standard for all scholarly papers.

Back to the topic of global warming.  In my line of work, I’m often asked to comment on various claims about climate change.  The first thing I do when I read an editorial or blog entry is to check to see if the claims have been published in the scientific literature.  If not, my response is usually along the lines: “I don’t see why I should bother to read it if the authors couldn’t be bothered to put it through scientific peer review.”  My reasoning is not that such material is necessarily wrong.  But without any scientific review I have no assurance that anyone has checked to see if the equations are right, data sources correctly cited, figures properly attributed, or other workers’ conclusions fairly represented.

Nobody claims that the global warming debate has ended among editorial writers, media pundits, bloggers, and politicians.  The calculation of the mass of CO2 produced from burning a gallon of gasoline was the subject of a vigorous debate on the Albuquerque Journal letters page a while back.  This is a question that a decent high school chemistry student should be able to answer, but the highly-opinionated letter writers were not able to resolve their differences–despite the fact that reaction stoichiometry is settled science.

Likewise, a competent high school physics student understands how the greenhouse effect works, called conservation of energy – also settled science.   It has been known for over a hundred years that adding CO2 to the atmosphere increases its infrared opacity, and when this happens, more energy from sunlight enters the Earth’s atmosphere than escapes.  The atmosphere must heat up, on average.  There is no scientific debate about this fact, and nobody has ever published a “zero-warming” theory to explain how it could be otherwise.

What is not settled is the degree of climate change, and in the peer-reviewed scientific literature there is a healthy, open, honest, and active scientific debate going on.  The best scientific estimate of the amount of warming (when CO2 levels double, which is likely to happen this century) is about 3 ºC.  There are those who disagree, and have published the basis for their disagreement.  The most useful assessments are not limited to the best estimate, but include quantification of the uncertainty, which is one of the hallmarks of honesty in science.  There is a broad range of possibility, from below 2 ºC to greater than 6 ºC.

One recent paper estimates a likelihood of about 2.5% that average temperature increases could exceed 8 ºC; a change that would probably lead to the collapse of global ecosystems, loss of civilization, and possible human extinction (nothing to lose sleep over).  There is no way to prove or disprove these quantitative estimates, other than to wait and see what happens.  That said, a scholarly paper (emphasis on scholarly) that gives longer odds for civilization than for a shuttle launch cannot be ignored.

Recently, opinion pieces have been published that masquerade as scientific literature.  Most notably is a document published by the Heartland Institute (a right-wing pressure group) for an organization called “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change” (NIPCC), a play on the name of the IPCC, which publishes summaries of mainstream peer-reviewed science.  After reading a few sections of the document, I remembered a comment from a fellow scientist and friend of mine: “Pseudoscience is like spoiled food; you don’t have to eat it all to know something is badly wrong.  Just a few bites will do.”

The authors’ use of loaded words like “fearmonger” and “hype” were the first whiff of spoilage.  Rhetorical devices are rarely if ever seen in a scholarly paper.  This suspicion was borne out by close examination of figures re-plotted by NIPCC from peer-reviewed sources.  The original data were misplotted, modified, and misrepresented.  Important information was removed, and in at least one case, a data point was fabricated.  The NIPCC report is an example of pseudoscholarship at its worst.

Just as serious a blunder was the unwillingness of the authors to concede any uncertainty in their beliefs.  As scientists, we all have a professional obligation to be honest about what we know and what we do not know.  We must err on the side of caution.  Climate change must be treated like all real but uncertain threats.  To ignore that possibility is reckless.

For any debate to be called scientific, the entire spectrum of expert opinion must be taken into account, and two questions must always be asked of us:  1) How certain are you that you are correct?  2) What is the worst thing that can happen if you are wrong?

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