Archive for February, 2015

No, climate models aren’t exaggerating global warming

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Weather and climate agencies around the world have been almost unanimous in declaring 2014 the hottest year on record — something that has promoted considerable chagrin among climate change doubters. That’s because these “skeptics” have long sought to cast doubt on man-made global warming by pointing to an alleged global warming “pause” or “slowdown” — going on to suggest that the computerized climate models that scientists use to project future temperatures are flawed, and overestimate carbon dioxide’s warming effect.

So, is that true? Do the models consistently overestimate the warming effects of greenhouse gases like CO2?

As a recent study suggests, the answer is no. While many models didn’t predict the relatively modest surface-warming “hiatus,” it’s not because they’re biased in favor of greenhouse-gas emissions’ warming effects. Rather, researchers report in Nature, these computer simulations just struggle to predict “chaotic” (or random) short-term changes in the climate system that can temporarily add or subtract from CO2 emissions’ warming effects.

It’s true that air temperatures have increased slower in the past 15 years or so, and climate models on average instead predicted much more warming. And scientists are slowly beginning to figure out why temperatures didn’t rise quite as much as expected.

One probable contributor is pure natural variability: Cyclical processes in the Earth’s climate and temporary changes in the amount of solar radiation that reach the Earth’s surface can introduce “blips” into the Earth’s warming trend. Right now, oceans may be temporarily sucking up more heat from the atmosphere than they normally do. Moreover, a temporary downturn in solar output and an increase in light-reflecting aerosol pollution (acting like a chemical sunblock of sorts) could also have partially masked CO2-driven warming.

But researchers Jochem Marotzke of the Max Planck Institute of Meteorology and Piers M. Forster of the University of Leeds also wanted to check whether climate models are biased, by testing how their temperature predictions stack up against reality. So the researchers tested how 114 model simulations that underpin last year’s assessment report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) performed — not just for the 15-year period from 1998-2012 but for all 15-year periods stretching back to 1900. If this analysis were to show that models consistently overestimated or underestimated the amount of warming that actually occurred, then they must have some sort of systematic bias.

As it turns out, however, the models did pretty well. In each 15-year period, the model simulations produced a range of predictions. But each 15-year interval’s actual temperature trend always fell somewhere in the models’ prediction range. Moreover, even when 15-year actual temperature trends did fall toward the edges of the corresponding predicted ranges, they weren’t consistently at the higher or lower edges. Basically, when the models were missing the mark, they weren’t doing so consistently in one direction.

So, it’s true that the IPCC model runs didn’t predict the recent warming slowdown. But as these findings show, they didn’t accurately predict certain other 15-year periods of warming accelerations or slowdowns in the past either, and it’s not because they were always overestimating warming. Indeed, in some 15-year periods, the models underestimated warming. Essentially, that means climate skeptics are cherry-picking when they point out that climate models didn’t predict the recent 15-year hiatus.

That doesn’t entirely explain why the model simulations in a given year produced varying results to begin with, though. Was it due to differences in the underlying physics coded into the models? (The models differ slightly in terms of how much light they assume hits the Earth, how “sensitive” temperatures are to changes in CO2, and how much heat the oceans suck up.) Or was it just random fluctuations in the climate system? Or a combination? The researchers did a statistical analysis to answer that question.

In the end, none of those physical reasons was a major factor. Random fluctuations had 2.5 times the impact on the model predictions’ variations as all those physical factors together did, the researchers found. Only when the researchers used longer-term intervals (of more than 60 years) did differences in sunlight amount, ocean heat trapping or climate sensitivity start to make a big difference.

So climate models may not provide the perfect picture of what will happen to temperatures in a given short-term period (on 10- or 20-year scales). But maybe they simply can’t, due to the random ways in which climate can temporarily fluctuate. That doesn’t mean that climate models aren’t valuable to us. They still give us good sense of the long-term picture, the one that is more important for us to worry about anyway: that temperatures are increasing, and that natural factors can’t explain this increase.

As the researchers argue, then, their findings ought to put to rest assertions by climate “skeptics” that climate models overestimate how much warming we’re going to get.

– to the Original:  


Red state, red power: Nebraska’s publicly-owned electricity system

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

– Here’s a story I love and it reminds me of another story I posted some time ago here.  That one is about a different kind of Bank in North Dakota – another Red state.


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Republican Nebraska’s energy is all publicly owned or cooperative, writes Thomas M. Hanna, and prices are among America’s lowest, with great service standards and a strong commitment to renewables. Decentralised and locally accountable, this could be the model that replaces inefficient, unresponsive monopolies – both nationalised and corporate.

Around the world, people often assume that in the United States, home to a no-holds-barred version of ‘free market’ capitalism, private ownership operates more or less across the board.

There is, however, a rich and robust history and experience of public ownership throughout the country – often found in the least expected of places.

For instance, there is one state where every single resident and business receives electricity from a public or community-owned institution rather than a for-profit corporation.

It is not a famously liberal state like Vermont or Massachusetts. Rather, it is conservative Nebraska, with its two Republican Senators and two (out of three) Republican members of Congress, that has embraced the complete socialization of energy distribution.

The ‘red states’ – named after the color now given to states that vote Republican in elections – are often ‘red’ in more ways than one.

Public and cooperative ownership for good service, low prices

In Nebraska, 121 publicly-owned utilities, 10 cooperatives, and 30 public power districts provide electricity to a population of around 1.8 million people. Public and cooperative ownership keeps costs low for the state’s consumers.

Nebraskans pay one of the lowest rates for electricity in the nation and revenues are reinvested in infrastructure to ensure reliable and cheap service for years to come. “There are no stockholders, and thus no profit motive”, the Nebraska Power Association proudly proclaims.

“Our electric prices do not include a profit. That means Nebraska’s utilities can focus exclusively on keeping electric rates low and customer service high. Our customers, not big investors in New York and Chicago, own Nebraska’s utilities.”

Payments (in lieu of taxes) from the state’s publicly-owned utilities exceed $30 million a year and support a variety of social services throughout the state-including the public education system.

Nebraska has a long history of publicly-owned power systems dating back to the beginnings of electrification in the late 1800s. Initially, these co-existed with small private utilities. However, in the post-World War One era, large corporate electric holding companies backed by Wall Street banks entered the market and began taking over smaller private and municipal systems.

Using their financial and political power, these corporations dramatically consolidated the power industry in Nebraska and attempted to stop new cooperatives and publicly-owned utilities from forming. During this time more than one third of the state’s municipal utilities were sold to private corporations.

Tired of abusive corporate practices, in 1930 residents and advocates of publicly-owned utilities took a revenue bond financing proposal straight to the voters, bypassing the corporate influenced legislature which had previously failed to pass similar legislation.

It was approved overwhelmingly – signaling both popular support for publicly-owned utilities in the state and also the beginnings of their resurgence. Led by powerful Nebraska Senator George W. Norris – the driving force behind the publicly-owned Tennessee Valley Authority – a series of state and federal laws were passed including:

  • the state’s Enabling Act (1933) which allowed 15% of eligible voters in an area to petition for a decision on a publicly-owned utility;
  • the Public Utility Holding Company Act (1935) which forced the breakup and restructuring of corporate electricity monopolies;
  • and the Rural Electrification Act (1936) which provided financing for rural electricity projects.

By 1949, Nebraska had solidified its status as the first and only all-public power state.

Local democracy in action

Local control and the possibility for democratic participation are defining features of Nebraska’s publicly-owned electricity system. At the ground level, public utilities and cooperatives are run by publicly elected power district boards, cooperative boards, or elected city councils (often through appointed boards).

These bodies establish budgets, establish service standards and policies, and set prices. Regularly scheduled meetings of power boards and councils are open to public involvement and comment.

Should they so wish, every Nebraskan has the opportunity to become involved in the decision making of their local electricity provider.

One such example relates to the increasing use and proliferation of renewable energy facilities. While the state remains heavily reliant on coal and nuclear sources to provide low-cost energy to consumers, interest in renewable energy – primarily wind – has taken off in recent years.

In 2003, electricity consumers, many of whom drove more than 100 miles for the event, participated in an eight-hour deliberative polling survey for the Nebraska Public Power District (NPDD) – a public corporation owned by the state of Nebraska that supplies energy to 600,000 people via local publicly-owned utilities and cooperatives.

The topic at hand was the potential addition of more than 200 MW of wind energy by 2010. 96% of the participants supported the wind project, with 50% agreeing it was the right size and 36% wanting it expanded (compared to just 3% who wanted it reduced).

In addition to its other wind power facilities, in 2005 NPDD began operating the Ainsworth Wind Energy Facility, the nation’s second largest publicly-owned wind farm consisting of 36 turbines generating up to 59.5 MW of energy.

In 2011, the state’s energy plan acknowledged both that power generation from wind had doubled every two years since 2006 and that developing just 1 percent of the potential energy from wind in Nebraska would satisfy the state’s entire peak demand.

Moreover, public ownership of electricity generation and distribution in Nebraska is complemented by another seemingly socialist idea – planning. The Nebraska Power Review Board is a state agency that oversees the publicly-owned electricity system.

In addition to its regulatory functions-such as monitoring rate increases and arbitrating conflicts-the five person Review Board (appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the legislature with party, occupational, and term limit restrictions) “oversees the preparation and filing of a coordinated long-range power supply plan”, as well as the location and construction of new electricity generation facilities.

Decentralised and locally accountable

As demonstrated by Nebraska’s nearly 100 years of experience with a completely public and community-owned electricity system, American experimentation offers an interesting alternative to how public ownership has often been implemented in other parts of the world.

Describing the post-World War Two British public-ownership program, University of Glasgow professor Andrew Cumbers writes:

“The nationalization of the electricity, gas and other utilities resulted in the centralization of many activities that had formerly been locally or municipally owned and subject to a reasonable degree of local democratic control …

“Not only did this eviscerate important traditions of municipal socialism and more democratic forms of public ownership, but it also led to an increasing number of costly and unaccountable decisions (notably the decision to invest in nuclear power) by nationalized entities.”

Such experiences often reinforce the concern that public ownership of larger scale systems can lead to inefficiency, unaccountability, and bureaucracy. But Nebraska demonstrates that this does not necessarily have to be the case.

The principles of subsidiarity and local control can, in fact, be preserved through a networked mix of publicly-owned institutions at various scales without sacrificing efficiency or service quality. Of course, public ownership alone is not a fix-all solution.

It does, however, provide an opportunity for a community, a city, or even a whole region or nation to become actively involved in economic decision making on important matters affecting their lives, their environment, and their future.

– To the Original: