Posts Tagged ‘ Brendan Carter

Heading home…

I’ll be heading home in a couple hours since that is when the science ends and the political firestorm takes off. I don’t totally regret that I’m going home for the really interesting part though since I wouldn’t be able to see it if I were here anyway.  Denmark seems to have underestimated the number of delegates that this conference would draw while overestimating the size of their facility. The Bella center, as beautiful as it is, has a capacity of 15,000. With 5,000 members of the press and an influx of many thousands of party delegates inbound in the coming days, there is very little room for the ~20,000 NGO delegates. Each delegation is being given a small handful of secondary badges that will be needed from today on. Connie Hedegaard met with all of the NGO delegates yesterday and first asked us to not let up on the pressure, and then qualified that in response to a question with the apology that it’ll be so much harder to do that once the NGO delegate allotment vanishes in response. Again, a question answered so tactfully that I forgot the main reason people are grumpy is that we’ve been put in too small of a facility.

That said, I do wish there were a way I could sit in on the 16th of December speeches. They’ll go from noon to roughly 2 a.m. on the 17th… but how awesome would it be to hear a litany of speeches on climate change from some of the most powerful and controversial people of our era.  The speaker list seems to change every day, but right now it includes Hugo Chavez, Jose Manuel Barroso, Saad Harriri, Felipe Calderon, Kevin Rudd, Wen Jiabao, Hosny Mubarak, Prince Albert II of Monaco (winner of the Roger Revelle Prize at Scripps and advocate of ocean acidification research), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Luiz da Silva, Myung-bak Lee, Zapatero, Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi, Hsien Loong Lee, and Gloria Arroyo. The number of other heads of state speaking are really too numerous to count… these are just the names that I recognize from listening to NPR too much… I’m not sure if Berlusconi is on the list still and I didn’t check yesterday.

Yesterday saw the walkout of the G77 and a bizarre hoax played on Canada.

Also I was lucky enough to be present when two people from countries that don’t officially exist had a conversation over lunch. A girl from the British Virgin Islands was talking to me, Grant, and another girl from Taiwan about how her country was in a tough spot… as part of Britain they are an “Annex 1,” or rich, country, but as a developing island region they hardly have the resources to battle sea level rise much less reduce their own emissions. The assumption under Kyoto was that Britain would help, but, if I understood correctly, her region has so far seen 20,000 pounds from the mainland on this issue.  The girl from Taiwan then pointed out that she was in the equal and opposite situation… as a developed region that was lumped officially into China under Kyoto her region had no emission reduction responsibility under Kyoto.

Ok, I’m headed home now.  Good luck Copenhagen!

–Brendan Carter, Scripps Oceanography graduate student

Ocean Acidification

Ocean Acidification is one of the three things that our delegation wanted to spread the word about at this conference. It has turned out to be a major theme among the scientists at the conference since the handful of other ocean science groups also realized that there was a need for outreach on this topic.

Ocean Acidification is also known as the “other CO2 problem.” It refers to the chemical reaction between water and carbon dioxide to form a weak acid. This is not quite the same thing as “acid rain” since that term generally refers to the creation of much stronger acids being formed in un-buffered rain water interacting with sulfur and nitrogen based compounds. The ocean is reasonably well buffered against (resistant to) changes in its pH from the addition of acids, but it is not immune to the effects.

There are layers of complexity, but the simplest picture is still fundamentally correct: more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more carbon dioxide in the oceans, more carbon dioxide in the oceans means more acid formation in the ocean, more acid formation means a lower ocean pH a.k.a. a more acidic ocean.

The extra CO2 that we’ve added to the atmosphere has made its way into the oceans already, and the pH has dropped by about 0.1 units already in response to our emissions. The pH scale is a little strange, so a drop of 0.1 units means that the water is actually about 30% more acidic. The ocean is slightly on the basic end of the scale on average (a bit over 8 at the surface, a bit over 7.5 at the bottom), so becoming a little more acidic isn’t going to melt the casual swimmer’s eyes or anything bizarre like that. However, as you might expect, life in the ocean has evolved to thrive in these higher pH conditions.

The main cause for concern comes from the reaction of this water-and-carbon-dioxide acid with a molecule in seawater called “carbonate” to form another common molecule in seawater called “bicarbonate.” This decreases the concentration of carbonate floating around. This is the same carbonate that could otherwise be used to form calcium carbonate, or the stuff found in chalk. Chalk and limestone are actually the calcium carbonate shells of tremendous numbers of dead microscopic plankton. Several very common varieties of modern plankton also make their shells out of calcium carbonate. When you consider that some of these plankton types are key components of the base of the food web in the ocean, the potential problem becomes apparent. Experimentation suggests that these organisms are increasingly going to make shells at a slower rate and with greater difficulty as carbonate becomes more scarce. Experiments using the carbon dioxide concentrations expected by the end of the century suggest that these shells will eventually dissolve in some surface seawater. Any ocean life that relies on a shell is also likely to have similar problems, and I understand that some oysters and clams show greatly reduced shell thicknesses already in modern conditions. Coral polyps also make their homes in calcium carbonate structures (the coral), and the reduced calcification rates are a likely additional threat to these species (along with warming induced bleaching, nutrient runoff, turbidity, dynamite fishing, and over fishing higher up in the food chain leading to over-predation…corals have it rough these days). Collectively acidification has a very real potential to rearrange the base of most ocean ecosystems. Ecosystems are known to adapt when change comes gradually but, as with global warming, this pH change is happening faster than any dramatic past ocean pH change we have record of. Naturally, past more-gradual acidification events also marked widespread mass-extinctions. It’s not definite that this will be large problem for humanity, but it is clear that it could be an enormous problem for the oceans and the ~50% of humanity that relies on the sea for its primary source of protein. We really need to take a closer look at how ocean ecosystems respond to the plight of it’s shell-formers. In the mean time, it is one heck of another big reason to stop dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

As I alluded to in a past entry there was an interesting exchange regarding ocean acidification at an early meeting…sadly my notes are nigh-illegible so the italicized text from here on out is paraphrases of my tattered memories. First the IPCC scientists presented acidification in their briefing as something that is almost definitely going to be in the next IPCC report (AR5). Two scientists in the audience then asked whether any mention of ocean acidification has been made to the decision makers formally and, if not, why not. They responded that no, the mandate of the IPCC is to release the reports on a preset time table after the standard multi-year review process and that to go beyond that would be to overstep their bounds.

At the same Q and A the question was asked how can you claim to not be involved in advocacy and still say ‘urgent action is needed (with respect to climate change).’ Rajendra Pachauri (I think) then responded that the full sentence that the reporter was quoting was urgent action is needed if the temperature increase is to be limited to 2 degrees C and that that is one of several exact questions of science which the IPCC is charged with answering. I appreciate this guy for his ability to competently deal with attacks…this is the same guy that pointed out that the UAE scientist’s enemy’s work made it into the IPCC. My favorite bit from him came when asked if he is concerned that Saudi Arabia has been making such a big deal of the UAE leak…I would be concerned if they hadn’t! It is said that politics and oil mix well, but I’m not sure that oil and science mix so well. Yes, I’ll leave it at that.

–Brendan Carter, Scripps Oceanography graduate student

University of East Anglia

Since this is a highly politicized topic, it’s important to note that any opinions you can pick out from my diction in this entry are my own and do not reflect an official stance by my apolitical scientific graduate institution.

I’ve always wanted to start something with a disclaimer!

Yesterday several of the heads of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had a cross between a press briefing and a scientific lecture. It began with a public response to the topic of the day among science skeptics…the stolen e-mails from the University of East Anglia. These are a number of personal e-mails stolen from the computers of climate researchers at this British University that were selectively published out of context in the recent weeks. These e-mails painted a picture of an author locked in a bitter battle with another scientist. At one point the author stated to the recipient that he was going to prevent his rival’s work from getting into the IPCC reports. He also called the rival hurtful names. Naturally, pundits have used this to attempt to call all of climate change research and, indeed, all of peer reviewed science into question.

However, truly peer reviewed science is, by its very definition, resistant to being called into question. Were it not, it probably wouldn’t have survived the peer-review gauntlet. I think I can speak for Scripps on this account.

The IPCC response began by discussing the sheer numbers of people involved in any peer review process and the (much larger) numbers involved in peer review for the IPCC AR4 assessment. The numbers I jotted down were 400 lead authors, 800 contributing authors, and 2,500 review authors for the assessment report. The speaker talked about how no one author has the kind of power implied by the researcher in the e-mails, and called the review process “objective, robust, and open.” The most striking point that he made was that the rival’s research (that the e-mails’ author was so vehemently opposing) was, after the peer review process, actually included in the IPCC’s Fourth Assesment Report (Working Group 1, chapter 6, look for “divergence”). The speaker then paused for questions briefly before having the heads of each of the Working Groups (sections) of the IPCC report give an update on any findings that have emerged since AR4, but that have yet to be compiled to form AR5.  Sadly one of the research topics that Scripps is present at COP-15 to call attention to, ocean acidification, falls between these particular cracks. There was some discussion of ocean acidification during the second part’s Q&A, but I’ll save that for the blog entry on that topic.

–Brendan Carter, Scripps Oceanography graduate student


This city has been transformed by NGOs and interest groups in preparation for COP-15. Public squares, billboards, subways, and even a local small college have been remade with artwork, exhibits, and forums. Many of these pieces are simple messages of hope or pleas to the people in power to “seal the deal.” Others are clearly part of a city/nation-wide PR campaign. Still others are heavy-handed symbolism: a polar bear ice sculpture left by the World Wildlife Foundation to slowly melt in a just-above freezing courtyard. One photographic exhibition with a clear message displayed in a plaza was entitled “Top 100 places to remember before they disappear.”

Naturally, interspersed with all of these are advertisements for the latest green industries. The city hall plaza hosts a giant ball about 3 stories tall made to look like the rotating Earth using projected light. The base of this globe was also the site of a Euro-rock show last night, though they skipped the cover band in lieu of speeches by UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo De Boer and some local politicians.

Copenhagen is an interesting and, in some ways, ideal choice to host this 15th “Conference of Parties.” The city is several steps ahead of any other modern city I’ve been to with respect to green practices. I’m certain that some of this is a result of pre-COP-15 preparations (such as the corn-husk disposable plates), but most of the meaningful differences are reflected in the actions of the residents and the existing infrastructure. Windmills are everywhere… including a giant one that dwarfs the rather large conference center we’re in. I’ve also heard the statistic that 50% of the population here takes their bikes to work. I believe it too. They have much larger bike lanes on every downtown road complete with lights and curbs. Weirder still, they’re occupied! I mention this partially as a warning… as a San Diegan, I generally feel free to drift into the middle of bike lanes with semi-impunity secure that, if I get run over there, it’ll probably be by a car that drifted out of the road. Here though, pedestrian incursions are met with fiercely tingling bells and clumps of passing cyclists. It’s exciting how efficient the bikes are at getting around once they have a little infrastructure and room to move. Traffic is also essentially a non-issue… even with the extra 15,000-20,000 people in town for the meeting. It’s not just bikes though… the people of this town seem especially engaged in these issues. Our group had an offsite event yesterday evening, and a large number of the attendees were just people from town who were curious about ocean acidification.

Also curious about ocean acidification?  More entries to come! Unfortunately my ability to write about what’s going on is being outpaced by seeing neat things to ramble about…

–Brendan Carter, Scripps Oceanography graduate student

Getting Ready…

The Scripps delegation is traveling over in waves.  My advisor and I leave tomorrow morning and we will arrive at almost the same hour (after some time zone hijinx) the next day. Right now we’re saying goodbyes and getting ready.  Of course, readying oneself suggests preparing to meet an expectation, and at the moment I’m entirely unsure of what to expect.

As a graduate student my role is simple: staff a booth, get out Scripps’ press materials, stay out from underfoot, and direct as many people as possible to speak with the senior scientists in our delegation. Thankfully, this meshes well with my duty as a concerned earthling.  I can imagine a number of ways we can respond as individuals/cities/states/nations/a species to the climate issue, but the only viable ways begin by focusing on the science.

So far getting ready has mostly just entailed reading and downloading recent climate research outside of my immediate discipline.  For anyone wanting a read-able summary of this body of research (as of 2007) I suggest the 4th IPCC report for policymakers or, if you’re feeling more ambitious, the report for scientists (available piecemeal here)

Perhaps the most daunting preparation for a graduate student raised on Scripps formality though…finding that pair of dress socks.

–Brendan Carter, Scripps Oceanography graduate student

scripps oceanography uc san diego