400PPM: A Brilliant Documentary From a Brilliant Young Lady

I’m very impressed with Maya Burhanpurkar. She is a teenager who lives in my home town of Barrie and is currently my old high school: Barrie North Collegiate (Go Vikings!). And she’s an impressive young scientist: she represented Canada as a finalist at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and was selected one of 90 finalists for the 2013 Google International Science Fair out of over 50,000 other entries. At the tender age of 12, Maya developed an intelligent-antibiotic which selectively kills pathogenic bacteria such as E-coli but preserves the body’s helpful intestinal microbiota bacteria for which she received the S.M. Blair Foundation award for innovation at the Canada-Wide Science Fair. (And these are only a handful of her accomplishments. You can check out her Wikipedia page if you’d like to see more.)

So Maya has applied her impressive skill sets to an issue she care deeply about: climate change. “400PPM” is the name of her new documentary produced through STAMx Youth Inc, a non-profit organization she founded dedicated to inspiring, educating, and empowering youth around the world to leverage Science, Technology, Arts, and Math to create a better society for all. All parties involved in the production of 400PPM were unpaid volunteers.

Maya became passionate about the plight of the Inuit people as perhaps the first victims of ethnocide-by-climate-change. She traveled to the Arctic as part of an expedition to witness the unfolding crisis for herself. She was so impacted by what she saw that she decided to bring her experience to the rest of the world by producing this documentary. In it she collaborates with such personalities as astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield, novelist Margaret Atwood, explorer Dr. Wade Davis, and environmentalist Nobel Laureate, Dr. Brad Bass. 400PPM tells an important story in a little more than 30 minutes and I encourage you to watch it.

97 Percent: What's the Truth About the Consensus?

Often skeptics and deniers will criticize the so-called 97 percent consensus that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is real, and predominantly related to our own activities such as increased greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. I decided to look into this 97 percent a little deeper and find the truth. So here it is:

In May 2013, Cook, Nuccitelli et al published an article in Environmental Research Letters entitled “Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature.” They reviewed only peer-reviewed scientific literature, examining a whopping 11,944 climate abstracts that pertained to global warming that were published between 1991 and 2011. They found that 66.4 percent of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6 percent endorsed it, 0.7 percent rejected it and 0.3 percent were uncertain about it. Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1 percent endorsed it with about two percent rejecting it and one percent expressing uncertainty.

As I’ve mentioned to my patients many times, if 97 cardiologists recommended cholesterol-lowering medications as a way to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and death, and two cardiologists said don’t bother, and one said “I’m not sure,” I think most people would embrace the vast majority of expert opinion and consider lowering their cholesterol.

This all has to do with a concept in science called convergence of evidence, that many pieces from different sources converge toward the same conclusion. When it comes to AGW, we have many sources of evidence: pollen, tree rings, ice cores, corals, glacial and polar ice-cap melt, sea-level rise, ecological shifts, carbon dioxide increases, and the unprecedented rate of temperature increase. All of these sources of evidence converge toward the conclusion that our planet is warming and it’s primarily because of us.

Occasionally deniers will point out some anomaly in some particular data set, suggesting that’s enough reason to ignore all of the other lines of evidence as well. But if skeptics and deniers really want to turn the tables on the 97 percent consensus, they need to find flaws in all lines of supporting evidence, and also show a consistent convergence of evidence toward some different theory that explains the data even better.

So let’s look at the three percent who aren’t on board a bit more. Is there any suggestion of a contrary convergence of evidence on their part? In a paper published earlier this year in Theoretical and Applied Climatologysome of those same authors who published on the 97 percent consensus along with Rasmus Benestad and Katharine Hayhoe found that the three percent who didn’t embrace what the other 97 percent did had made “a number of methodological flaws and a pattern of common mistakes.” What’s more, these three percent didn’t have any convergence of evidence whatsoever. As Dana Nuccitelli put it in a commentary in the Guardian:

There is no cohesive, consistent alternative theory to human-caused global warming. Some blame global warming on the sun, others on orbital cycles of other planets, others on ocean cycles, and so on. There is a 97% expert consensus on a cohesive theory that’s overwhelmingly supported by the scientific evidence, but the 2–3% of papers that reject that consensus are all over the map, even contradicting each other. The one thing they seem to have in common is methodological flaws like cherry picking, curve fitting, ignoring inconvenient data, and disregarding known physics.

Most people who like to criticize the 97 percent consensus aren’t aware of these facts. Truth is, most deniers don’t even know where these numbers came from. But it’s easy to try to misdirect people from the truth by spewing out such rhetoric. For me, I’ll choose the 97 percent over those who can’t even agree among themselves about what they believe the alternative answer to be.

Even Albert Einstein faced such skepticism, and yet a century later both special and general relativity have survived. There was even a book published in 1931 entitled “100 Authors against Einstein.” When asked what he thought about the skepticism, Einstein said “Why 100? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.”

Canada: Finally Taking Climate Change Seriously

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

From time to time, the Canadian Prime Minister meets with the provincial and territorial premiers all at the same time in one large gathering called a First Ministers meeting. Normally this happens at least every few years but in fact it hasn’t happened since January 16, 2009. That’s more than 2,500 days since the last First Ministers meeting.

Until today. All of them are gathering in Ottawa today and all I can say is it’s about time. And what’s so important for the Prime Minister to bring them all together? Climate change. The last such meeting in 2009 was to discuss the economy, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasn’t very keen on group meetings like this so he never held another after that. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hopes to change that, encouraging more cooperation between the federal government and the provinces and territories.

Since the United Nations conference on climate change starts in Paris next week, Trudeau wants to go fully armed with information about how our country feels about the subject. But what Trudeau himself thinks about it has already been made clear:

I was glad to highlight that not only is Canada here to do its part but our part includes putting pressure and encouraging other countries to step up in their commitments so we can ensure that the outcome of Paris is as ambitious and as optimistic as we need it to be.

Trudeau plans to make the environment a priority for his government in stark contrast to Harper, something Obama is pleased about. Because Canada is sending representatives to Paris from all levels of government—federal, provincial, and municipal—Trudeau wants today’s meeting to set the ground work so that Canada’s message will be heard loud and clear on the world stage. Today’s agenda includes a briefing by top climate scientists this afternoon followed by a working dinner and finally a news conference this evening.

Ultimately Trudeau hopes that everyone today will be able to reach a national consensus so that Canada will be able to deliver a strong and cohesive message in Paris. Kathleen Wynne, the premier from Ontario and a political ally of the Prime Minister is optimistic about today’s meeting:

It’s very exciting for the country that we’re going to have an opportunity as premiers to sit down with the Prime Minister and work to forge some national positions and some agreement across the country on how we’re going to present ourselves to the world—particularly on this issue of climate change.

Ontario and Québec have both entered into a cap-and-trade system, putting a price on carbon and creating an economic incentive to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Given that British Columbia already has a carbon tax in place, that means Canada’s three most populated provinces are already tackling the problem in some way. A full 70 percent of Canadians will be living within a jurisdiction that has put a price on carbon.

And that’s something the world needs to hear.

October Was Hot!

“Heat cannot be separated from fire, or beauty from The Eternal.”
Dante Alighieri

Sorry to sound like a broken record with all these broken records but October was one hot month globally. How hot was it? Try these facts on for size:

  • It was the hottest October ever in the 135-year temperature record of NASA
  • It was the hottest October ever in the 125-year temperature record of the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA)
  • It was the highest deviation from the mean temperature for any month ever recorded in the 1,600-month temperature record of NASA
  • It contributed to breaking the record yet again for the hottest consecutive twelve months ever recorded

These facts help put the final nails in the coffin for anyone still clinging to the hope that global warming stopped back in 1998. And why is it so hot lately? Because a) there’s an underlying long-term global warming trend as a result of our own greenhouse gas emissions with no other plausible scientific explanation for that gradual trend, and b) it’s being potentiated by an additional short-term warming caused by a particularly strong El Niño this year. The last big El Niño was the 1997-1998 season. That’s what made 1998 such an outlier year above the gradual trend back then. When the next few years didn’t continue to warm from there but rather fell back to the overall gradual trend, many people, particularly those who didn’t want to believe global warming was happening—like industries dependent on fossil fuels and politicians who are funded by those industries—claimed the warming had stopped. This El Niño may well be even bigger than the one back in 1997-1998, in which case we’re about to see some records shattered. This marked deviation form October’s normal average temperature may just be a glimpse of things to come.

These last twelve months have been the hottest consecutive twelve months in recorded history, and this record keeps breaking month-to-month. Say what you want to the contrary (I’m talking to you Ted Cruz), but the facts speak for themselves. There’s only about a one percent chance that 2015 won’t be the hottest calendar year ever recorded, and something extremely dramatic and unpredictable would have to happen for that to occur. (Like a once-in-a-century volcanic eruption; we’re less likely to be struck by an asteroid but I suppose it’s always possible.)

And because of the added heat contribution from El Niño, 2016 has a very good chance of being hotter still.

So Just What is COP21?

In twelve days’ time representatives from nations all over the world will collect in Paris to discuss a new binding global agreement on climate change. Given the severity of the problem, some argue this will be the most important meeting in history, one that might set us on the right track to save our planet from ourselves.

If you read my blog with any regularity, you probably know what COP21 is. But not everybody does. (“What’s COP?” “It’s the Conference of Parties.” “Why 21?” “Because it’s the 21st such meeting.”) If you know people who are unclear about wha this meeting is all about, or simply want to refresh some of the perspective, this short video is helpful. It provides the basic facts and illustrates why COP21 is so important to our future. Check it out.