Given the terrible internet connection and complete lack of power outlets in most meeting rooms, I’ve been reduced to taking paper and pencil notes, so I’m way behind in the blogging. So I’ll console myself with a quick tour of everyone else’s blogs about this AGU meeting:

First, and foremost, the AGU press office is putting together its own blog, coordinated by Mohi Kumar. It does a much better job of capturing the highlights than I do, partly because the staff writers can sample across all the sessions, and partly because they’re good at summarizing (rather than my own overly-detailed blow-by-blow accounts of talks).

There’s lots of talk here about impacts, especially on water. Water, Water Everywhere–Except There, and There, and There is a nice summary of some of the hydrology sessions, with the new results from GRACE being an obvious highlight. And the session on Climate Change in the West covered some pretty serious impacts on California.

But the biggest buzz so far at the meeting seems to be science literacy and how to deal with the rising tide of anti-science. Capitol Hill Needs Earth Scientists, reports on a workshop on communicating with Congress, and Talking about Climate: A Monday Night Town Hall Meeting tackled how to talk to the press. Both of these pick up on the idea that the science just isn’t getting through to the people who need to know it, and we have to fix this urgently. I missed both of these, but managed to attend the presentations this morning on science literacy: Can Scientists Convince the Growing Number of Global Warming Skeptics?, which included a beautifully clear and concise summary of the Six Americas study. I’ll post my own detailed notes from this session soon. The shadow of the recently leaked CRU emails has come up a lot this week, in every case as an example of how little the broader world understands about how science is done. Oh, if only more people could come to the AGU meeting and hang out with climate scientists. Anyway, the events of the last few weeks lent a slight sense of desperation to all these sessions on communicating science.

And here’s something that could do with getting across to policymakers – a new study by Davis and Caldeira on consumption-based accounting – how much of the carbon emissions of the developing world are really just outsourced emissions from the developed world, as we look for cheaper ways to feed our consumption habits.

But there are good examples of how science communication should be done. For example, the Emiliani Lecture and the Tough Task of Paleoceanographers, is a great example of explaining the scientific process, in this case an attempt to unravel a mystery about changes in ocean currents around the Indonesian straits, due to varying El Nino cycles. The point of course, is that scientists are refreshingly open about it when they discover their initial ideas are wrong.

And last, but not least, everyone agrees that Richard Alley’s lecture on CO2 in the Earth’s History was the highlight of the meeting so far, even if it was scheduled to clash with the US Climate Change Research Program report on Impacts.

Some more highlights:


  1. Hi Steve,

    “Alley offered the following analogy: credit card interest lags debt. By the denialist logic, because interest lags debt, then I never have to worry about interest and the credit card company can never get me. However, a simple numerical model demonstrates that interest is the bigger cause of debt (even though it lags!!). So, it’s basic physics. The orbits initially kick off the warming, but the release of CO2 then kicks in and drives it.”

    If I use the analogy: temperature == measure of credit card debt, and CO2 == measure of interest rate, and the simple formulas in, say, the Wikipedia, I get things like:

    At the global reference “zero” temperature (snowball earth?), CO2 levels won’t have any effect.

    Below a certain critical CO2 level, any rise in temperature results in a fall back to global “zero” temperature.

    Above a certain critical CO2 level, we flip from a fall to “zero” temperature and instead get “runaway greenhouse”. But — something stops that from happening — after a while.

    I can’t claim to speak for any denialists that may be out there, but I believe their argument is that the cause cannot temporally follow the effect. Therefore, the cause of past large global temperature swings was not CO2, water vapor, etc. So any useful analogy would have to illustrate how an effect in an earlier epoch can change into a cause in a later epoch. Many things fit that bill. For example — CO2, IMHO. But not this debt-interest analogy.


  2. George – The denialists don’t understand calculus. A cause can temporally follow an effect if the causes and effects we’re interested in are accumulations over time. Each addition of interest on your credit card occurs *after* the debt that it’s calculated on. Therefore, quite clearly, interest charges lag debt. But, when you integrate over time, you can clearly see that it’s the accumulation of interest that’s the main cause of the debt.

    There is no such thing as ‘zero’ temperature in the history of the earth, and hence no point at which CO2 has no effect. What we’re really interested in is changes in CO2 levels from one state to another.

    Imagine you’re spending money regularly on your credit card, and paying off the balance each month. You can have some months where you exceed your budget and incur an interest charge, as long as it’s not so big that you can’t bring it under control within a few months. But if one month you have a particularly big expense (Christmas, say), you can hit a threshold after which the interest grows faster than you can pay it off. And from there on you slide further and further into debt, until eventually you’re in debt counseling.

    The expensive Christmas was a trigger, but is not the *cause* of your debt, because when you add it up over many many months it’s the accumulated interest that is the primary cause of your debt.

    At the risk of pushing the analogy slightly too far, the rock weathering effect is the debt counsellor, who after a long long slide into serious debt, eventually steps in and helps bring it back under control, by making you switch to low interest borrowing.

  3. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the explanation. I guess I understand better now why it is so easy for many people to run up their credit card debt. They don’t think it’s the purchases! So maybe it is a good analogy for them after all.

    BTW, sorry about commenting in the wrong post.


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