Monday, October 13, 2014

Science, Well sort of…fracking redux

I've been really agonizing over this one.  In fact a draft of this piece in various forms has been on my computer for several months, as I seem unable or unwilling to finish it.  For background, it’s been about a year since I completed my series on fracking (for the truly nerdy and bored, see 6 most recent posts here) where I came to the conclusion that, on balance, the result of fracking and the increased use of natural gas would be a net positive as it relates to climate change by leading to reduced GHG emissions.  I admitted that I came to the conclusion by filtering the evidence available through my own set of biases, no matter how hard I tried to not do so. I also noted that this conclusion was of course subject to change on the basis of new evidence.  Over this time new evidence has indeed come forward, as ever more studies are completed.   Several are around the issue of methane release and so called life cycle greenhouse gas emissions (here, here and here.) Others take a more holistic look at the issue (here).  But I double dare you to read them and interpret the conclusions as anything other than providing data the can be used to support either side of the fracking debate….and of course, they all finish with “more research is needed”.  So the evidence has not swayed me.

Beyond pure data, climate activists continue to make a full throated case that fracking is bad for a variety of interrelated reasons, such as in this Mother Jones article. But their case is one muddled by ideology and is not made on the basis of the science.

So while neither the new evidence, nor the thrum of anti-fracking activism, has persuaded me to change my conclusion,  I have to admit that I have indeed changed my view. BAM, there, I said it.

What I am forced to admit  is that I made a fundamental error in my previous approach to this issue, and one that we can all fall prey to when dealing with inherently complex issues...I asked the wrong question.  I posed “Is fracking, and the resulting increase in the availability and use of natural gas, on balance a ‘good thing’ as it relates to climate change. In other words, will fracking result in a meaningful reduction in GHG’s, and will the associated risks/costs be worth that reduction?” By narrowly and carefully framing my question in this manner, I created a construct that would easily allow for a “yes” answer, but at the same time I lost sight of the bigger implications of both the question and the answer.

First I erred by relying on the underlying assumption that we actually have the time to take advantage of a so-called bridge or ramp energy source such as natural gas, and still achieve “sustainable outcomes”…translation, hold global warming to a manageable level.  Sadly, nearly all the trends in the data suggest that we simply do not have that time. (Here)

Another factor that has altered my thinking is a change in my belief that we need such a bridge fuel in the first place.  This was predicated on the assumption that renewable or zero carbon sources could not be scaled at a sufficient pace to meet real world demands.  Again, it looks like I was wrong, and the evidence comes from none other than my fatherland, Germany.  My wacky relatives got me all exercised  when they announced that they were phasing out their nuclear program in a transition to solar and wind.  I felt certain this was wrongheaded, knee jerk anti-nuclear nihilism that would only result in more reliance on coal.  Well son of a gun, wrong again.  It looks like Germany is indeed on track to transition to renewables such and wind and solar. (Here)

Finally, I think the biggest factor in my re-evaluation springs from the simple observation made by my friend Dan Miller when he says “ you can’t reduce CO2 in the atmosphere by adding more CO2 to the atmosphere”, through the use of natural gas.

So based on all of the above, I withdraw my original conclusion, but with a caveat. I don’t think it will be constructive to be “anti-fracking” any more than I think it is useful to be “anti-nuclear”. Where I think we all need to put all of our energies is to be “pro-zero carbon.”  Let’s focus on being for something rather than against something.  It tends to work out better that way.

So, what do you believe?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Science, well sort of… what happens when you take a break from blogging

Writing this blog over the last three years has yielded many unexpected pleasures.  At the top of the list is the fact that some folks actually read it…stunning.  This was brought home to me recently when at least three of you seemed to notice that I hadn’t written one in several months.  A few disconnected reasons that don’t warrant explanation contrived to make it so.  But, hey, I’m back.

The time off has given me the opportunity to reflect on both the process and purpose of this effort.  My original purpose was to change the world, or at least how we see it. I’m letting go of that one, for the most part.  I think my greatest insight on change is that it simply takes exponentially more time than we would like or that is nominally required for desired outcomes.   We can rail against this, and are unlikely to change it, but that doesn’t mean we give up all together, hence back to the blog.

I’m actually pretty satisfied with the process.  The best part is when you weigh in and challenge my half-baked conclusions…Makes us all better.  I thought I’d take the opportunity of this reboot to briefly revisit some previous topics and outline a few things I’ve been thinking about, just to get back into the groove.

Fracking…gotta love it
Not going to re-litigate this one…the series is found (here).  But there has been some interesting new research that is noteworthy, largely in that it aligns with my biases.  This one from Stanford  and this NY Times article tend to support my general conclusion that on balance, fracking and the production of natural gas, will be of benefit in fighting climate change.  As I’ve said repeatedly, this is vexingly complex, but to date I have yet to see any serious research to change my view in the way I have framed it.

Why I’m glad Bill Nye debated “He who shall not be named”
Bill took a lot of grief from certain pious corners for debating the creationist Ken Hamm (whoops, named him).  The criticism was that doing so somehow either legitimized or gave attention to a point of view that deserved neither.  I get the argument, but simply disagree with it.  The debate itself was OK, but did little other than to lay out the science on one hand, and on the other, the tortuous convulsions sophisticated creationists put themselves through to appear sciencey.  But the real payoff was at the end, when the moderator asked Bill and Hamm if there was anything that would get them to change their views.  Hamm said no, Bill said, sure, evidence. Bam! The whole 155 year debate since Darwin boiled down to that one short interchange, which made it worth it.

A really interesting media trend
I’ve written often on the role of the media in shaping how and what we believe (here).  And while I argue they are a too easy target for our disdain, there is an emerging trend that I find quite hopeful.  I’m not sure if it even has an official name or meme yet, so we’ll just call it “Data Driven Stuff”.  In just the last few weeks Nate Silver’s (FiveThirtyEight), Ezra Klein’s (Vox), NYT’s (The Upshot) joined the Atlantic’s (Quartz) as examples of this trend. WARNING…if you are anything like me you will spend way too much time on these sites. Lots of wonky stuff covering everything from sports to politics and yes, even science.  What they seek to do is use data and statistics as the basis for their articles and arguments.  Smart stuff, but for me the really interesting part is the comment sections.  They are for the most part from equally smart people finding one fault or another with the data analysis.  It might be the size of the study group, the methodologies employed, sampling errors etc. The delicious irony is that they highlight the dirty little secret about “data”…while it can be instructive, it is rarely if ever determinative, and therefore not all that useful in other than a very narrow set of circumstances…more on this at another time.

I’m goofing around with a scientific formula
Those of you who know me well recognize this could get dicey.  This formula thing came to me almost in full form one day while taking a hike with the dog.  It goes as follows:  Proximity to Y, where Y= the scientific question, amplifies Z, where Z = the complexity of the answer to the scientific question, by a factor of G, where G= the number of people who care about the answer.  So the basic idea is that the closer you are to the question, likely because you have some expertise, the more complex the answer.  And the complexity of that answer is then amplified by the number of people who care about or are impacted by the answer.  Still working this one out…if I get my brain around it there may be more to come…so, what do you believe?