Friday, December 23, 2011

Climate Change Talking Points for Holiday Gatherings

'Tis the season for uncomfortable conversations! 

For the last several days, Climate Literacy Network (CLN) listserv has had an engaging discussion on how to handle holiday conversations that turn to climate change. This post will draw some suggestions from that exchange and bring in additional ideas of my own.

There are a number of different ideas that follow -- hopefully readers will find a few that are useful. I don't suggest applying the full suite in one dinner conversation. I've written a fair amount, but tried to make it skimmable by highlighting key ideas.

In my own family everyone accepts the scientific consensus that climate change is real and primarily human-caused. A family of science geeks, our arguments are more likely to be about which of siblings has the greater surface-area to volume ratio, as I noted in last year's seasonal post. Last year's post describes how to use your Christmas tree in discussions of, and reflections on, carbon. This post will offer up some other discussion ideas.

I'm lucky that my family all gets along and treats each other with kindness and respect. And I consider myself lucky that we're all pretty amusing science geeks. I know that not everyone is so lucky. Civility should be your starting point. If the conversation can't stay civil, figure out how to end it or change the subject. They are family, after all. And, you won't change anyone's mind and they won't change yours if things become too heated. A bit of disagreement is par for the course, and even kind of fun for some of us, but if people start yelling, well, ick. That's not a good way to spend your family time.

Where to Begin?
Well, beyond being civil, where to begin?

Four simple points can open the door for deeper discussions. A study by Ding et al which draws from work by Kosnick et al suggests four key beliefs about climate change are predictors of support for policy grounded in climate science. Those four points can also make for good cocktail party discussion. They are that climate change is:

  1. real
  2. human caused
  3. serious, and, 
  4. solvable
Friend, climate educator, and CLN colleague, LuAnn Dahlman, has tried it out (stating these four points) at a few holiday parties and finds that people tend to pick up on one of those four points and dig deeper.

After opening the discussion with those four points, let others in the conversation point you to what's next. The rest of the post should be helpful in the follow up. If it's a dinner party conversation where you might not know the folks very well, this can help you to know your audience. If it's your family, then hopefully you already know them. Keep in mind what you know.

Avoid stating misconceptions -- even if it is to refute them. There is compelling research to indicate that just hearing misconceptions reinforces them. See The Debunking Handbook for more information on the discussion of myth or misconceptions (also referenced below).

These suggestions are not hard and fast rules, so I'm going to break the one above immediately, sort of. The atmosphere operates pretty differently from a greenhouse. While this may not be exactly a misconception, analogies always have limitations, and describing the atmosphere as being like a greenhouse is no exception. Like a greenhouse, the atmosphere allows visible light to pass through it and warm up the surface beneath or inside. Like a greenhouse, those warmed surfaces inside [the greenhouse or the atmosphere] radiate heat to the surroundings and warm the air inside. But a greenhouse warms up largely because the glass stops hot air from rising. The atmosphere doesn't have a glass ceiling and it doesn't shut down convection. When the heat is radiated from Earth's surface, the atmosphere is acting more like a heat-trapping blanket than a pane of glass, and some climate communicators prefer the heat-trapping blanket analogy. You can see it's getting complicated. Know your audience well enough to figure out if you want to slice and dice analogies. If that's too complicated, then...

State the scientific case as simply as you can. At the beginning of the year, I wrote a post laying out just two simple facts along with a tiny bit of grade school vocabulary to make the case that climate change is real and human caused. Those points hold up well and you should know them as background for any discussion on climate change. The post itself is brief, but I'll reiterate the key points even more briefly here:
  1. Know the difference between weather and climate. Weather tells you what clothes to wear today. Climate tells you what clothes you should own.
  2. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases absorb heat and make the atmosphere warm up. It's very simple to demonstrate, and the post includes a short, sweet video.
  3. Each and every "normal" middle class or wealthy American is putting tons and tons and tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Where do you think the gasoline in your car goes when you burn it?
Energy use is central to the human contribution to climate change. We need energy to make things and to move people, products and information. Almost all of our energy use comes from burning stuff which puts a lot of carbon dioxide (and other stuff) into the air. Reducing energy use not only reduces climate impact, but also saves money, reduces our dependency on foreign countries, and helps keep our air and water cleaner. Aspects of it -- like living closer to where you work and therefore shortening your commute, or telecommuting can also give you more time. 

The Joel Pett cartoon below captures this set of issues very, very well.

Let people feel safe in disagreeing with you. Evidence alone is generally not sufficient to change a tightly held belief. Most scientific issues are not just scientific issues. Scientific issues with serious implications about the nature of our economy and our society are never just scientific issues. They also are issues of identity and community. Even the bluntest evidence may not be sufficient for the most deeply committed to their beliefs. But I still favor sharing blunt evidence.

The scientific understandings of climate change have become tightly connected with politics. Perhaps that not a strong enough statement -- for some, what they believe about humanity's role in climate change is a central part of their worldview. That tight connection is problematic as it makes people believe that if they change their position on climate change, then they are also undergoing a conversion experience that separates them from their identity and their community. Seen this way, it's akin to a religious conversion. But it doesn't need to be that big a shift -- one can be of any political persuasion and accept the scientific consensus on climate change. As Kathryn Schulz notes in the excellent book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, people are not shunned by their community when they adopt a belief the community scorns, but rather when they abandon a belief the community cherishes. 

Adopting climate friendly policies means adopting policies that reduce government waste and take our troops out of harms way. These policies not only reduce our emissions but also reduce or eliminate the need to be in places that provide fossil fuels. Furthermore, resupply convoys are often military targets and the lion's share of what is being resupplied is typically fuel. See Operation Free, a coalition of veterans and national security organizations that recognize the role of climate change and energy dependency in national security.

It's worth stating that the tight connection between climate change and politics is problematic for the reason stated above, but that tight connection is also essential as politics should deal with things that matter. And, as noted above, climate change is serious.

Relevance Helps
Draw on the local and familiar. Polar bears, penguins, and glaciers matter a great deal, but most of the people I know have very limited experience with any of them. 

As a native Buffalonian, though, I find it odd that Buffalo had no measurable snow in November for only the fourth time in 140 years of record keeping. Of course, one weird month doesn't equate to climate change. Even though it's now over a month -- the lowest snow totals for a winter on record as of December 23, 2011.  However, the fact that the third snowless November on record was 2009, and one begins to wonder. 

As the husband of a long-time avid gardner, I know too that the length of the growing season has been creeping longer and longer over the last couple of decades. These kinds of changes were predicted by climate models and when predictions regularly hold up, people should give more credence to the predictors.

Stories are helpful. It's a story that I've got a brand new snowblower and have had no excuse to use it. The story may change as Lake Erie is 40° F in late December. That means lake effect snow will be possible for sometime to come. Lake effect snow has increased over the past century as a result of warmer lakes in winter.

What about the weather where you are? Or where you're from? Chances are fairly good it was a very unusual year -- 56% of the U.S. experienced an unusually dry year (top 10% historically) or unusually wet year (again, top 10% historically). That link includes a list of some cities that have broken precipitation records so far this year. Note that Binghamton didn't merely break its record -- the record was washed away in a deluge. 

Climate models predict that climate change will make wet places wetter and dry places drier. While climate science does make this sort of general prediction, how fast these changes will take place is tricky, especially on local and regional scales. 

It matters that climate pattens are changing because successful farming (and therefore a dependable food supply) is much easier when the climate is stable. It's a lot easier to do a range of business activities in a stable climate than in an unpredictable one, and climate change brings climate destabilization. And public safety is easier to protect when things are stable.

Resources for Going Further
There are many great resources for deepening understandings. Here are two that include specific attention to how to talk to climate change contrarians:
  • Earth: The Operators' Manual -- a PBS series with an accompanying website.
  • The Debunking Handbook -- this short publications offers valuable insights into how to avoid your advocacy backfiring. You may be familiar with the feeling more entrenched in your beliefs after a debate. Chances are fairly good that the person you debated also feels his or her beliefs more strongly.
What suggestions do you have? Please use the comments for sharing ideas.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Marcellus Shale 101: The Science Beneath the Surface

The second post in a series of two.

The heart of this post is the Prezi used in a session of the same title (as this post) at this week’s Science Teachers’ Association of New York State’s (STANYS) Annual Meeting in Rochester, NY. This is one of two presentations related to the Marcellus Shale done by PRI staff at the STANYS meeting. The other is posted here. The two sessions had some overlapping content, but emphases differ.

This session began with a Google Earth file that includes several Marcellus Shale-related elements. Download that here: . The kmz file includes an overlay showing where the Marcellus is exposed in New York State, images of outcrops of the Marcellus Formation, overlays that allow the comparison of paleogeography with the distribution of the Marcellus Shale, and the locations of the thousands of existing gas wells (not generally Marcellus wells) in Chautauqua County. And more.
See the Prezi below or here:

There's No Such Thing as a Free Megawatt: the Marcellus Shale, energy and the environment

The first in a series of two.

The heart of this post is the Prezi used in a session of the same title (as this post) at this week's Science Teachers' Association of New York State's Annual Meeting in Rochester, NY. This is one of two presentations related to the Marcellus Shale done by PRI staff at the STANYS meeting. The other will be posted separately. The two sessions had some overlapping content, but emphases differ.

This is also cross-posted on our Marcellus Shale blog: The Science Beneath the Surface.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A follow up to Musings on Mowing

A four second follow up to Musings of a Manual Mower.

Untitled from Don Duggan-Haas on Vimeo.

Watch it full screen (or you won't be able to tell the grass is actually being cut). The idea of sharing this is to simply show that it works in much the same way as many of us have long mowed our lawns. You walk back and forth pushing the thing. And I find time lapse kind of amusing.

Don Duggan-Haas

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Musings of a Manual Mower

Today, Memorial Day, I mowed my yard with a power mower for the first time since we bought our house almost four years ago. The incessant rain of the last several weeks had turned my yard into a jungle and I just didn't have the extra hours this added thickness of grass would add to the work my Great States reel type mower and I have done routinely handled together over our tenure in this house.

My Great States reel-type mower. Other name plates are made by the same manufacturer.

So I borrowed my neighbor Joe's 22 inch mulching power mower. He assured me the Earth would forgive me. Joe's is not a fancy mower -- not self-propelled or bagging or any such fancy stuff, but it seems reliable and started easily on the first pull.

Cutting grass with such a mower for the first time in a few years allows for a fresh comparison. If you're thinking about getting that polluter out of your garage, here's my take on it.

How much of a polluter your lawn mower is depends on its vintage and how well it's running. Since 1995, regulations have reduced mower emissions substantially, and those regulations have been phased in over time. While mowers, of course, contribute far less emissions in total than do cars and trucks, an average mower (in 2008) pollutes 11 times as much per hour according to the EPA.

Today's mowing took a little less time, made a lot more noise, and sprayed grass clippings about in ways I'm not accustomed to. Given the height of the grass, it was also a lot less effort. And, I really, really appreciated the mower and Joe's generosity in lending it. But I hope I can go at least another four years before I feel the need to use a power mower again.

I still had to walk about the same distance, pushing a thingy around that had sharp spinning blades, move things in the yard out of the way (and back), and sweat a bunch. I couldn't listen to podcasts whilst I mowed as I've become accustomed to doing. There are grass clippings strewn about my driveway and up my picket fence (but I figure the incessant rain will take care of that before too long).

I burned up more gas (than the none that I typically burn), and burned off at least a few fewer calories than standard. And I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as my typical quiet little walk about the yard.

It also struck me as being only slightly easier than my typical mowing job, and I've got things slightly out of adjustment on my mower that cost less than $100 new several years ago. I actually inherited it from Dad and I'm not sure quite how old it is. (Click the link to see other reflections on what I inherited from Dad).

I need to work on fine tuning the space between the blades and the cutting bar and stop fantasizing about the new models of reel type mowers that are now available. (Note that the placement of that link doesn't represent an endorsement of the company selling the different models available -- it's only intended to point you to a source of information on what's available).

Looking at what's newly available shows some models that can be raised to a 4" cutting height. Maybe if I had one of those, I'd not have felt the need to use non-human power on the lawn today.

Bottom line: This wet weather let my lawn become more than me and my reel-type mower were willing to handle, but I hope and expect to go at least four more years before using a mower powered by anything but me again. If you're mowing with a walk-behind gasoline-powered mower, consider changing to human-powered mowing.

Don Duggan-Haas

Friday, May 20, 2011

Searching for a deeper understanding of the climate change debate.

Although the effects of climate change are becoming more evident, action and concern over climate change seem to be waning.  Just recently, a Gallup poll reported that only 53 percent of Americans think that global warming is a serious threat to themselves or their family, down from 63 percent in 2007.

Climate Shift, a new report released this spring by American University professor, Matthew Nisbet, aims to find out why climate change policy and understanding has stalled.  The report is part of a larger research effort by a network of social scientists, media analysts, and other scholars to tackle the complex issue from a broad point of view, looking at the climate change threat from an economic, social, and even philosophical perspective.

The report is huge in scope and Nisbet tries to tackle many dimensions of the climate change debate, focusing mainly on flaws within the environmental movement and ultimately calling for a shift in strategy. In the report, he reviewed the funding sources and expenditures for the major national environmental groups and compared them to conservative think tanks and their industry allies, the latter of which lobbied against the 2009 cap and trade climate change legislation.  He looked at patterns in media portrayals of climate change and the amount of attention this issue receives in the media.  He also examined factors that influence how both the general public and scientists/ environmentalists interpret and view climate change politics.

Overall, he argues that the reason science communication over climate change has failed is because it has been communicated in a political context, framed within specific policy solutions that are polarized across the liberal/ conservative spectrum.  He points that out that as the Democratically introduced cap and trade legislation became more politically viable in 2009-2010, there was a simultaneous increase in climate skepticism among Republicans.  Similarly, Nisbet contends that while Al Gore has been instrumental in bringing the climate change issue to the forefront, he has had a polarizing influence in the climate change debate by pairing the message of climate change with strong criticism of Republicans.

Nisbet calls for the need to present climate change as an issue, similar to public health and poverty, that requires addressing on many levels, not just in the context of single policy solutions.  He argues that rather than spending money and resources on countering claims of Republicans and conservatives, environmental groups should invest in a broader range of policies, smaller in scope, and across several levels of government, including towns and counties, to engage people directly.  He also proposes the climate change be framed as an opportunity for technological innovation in terms of moving away from an oil-based economy, rather than as a pollution issue.    

The report has garnered mixed reactions from the environmental community and the blogosphere.  Some find Nisbet's criticism of the environmental movement offensive and accuse him of blaming environmentalists for the death of cap and trade.  Others are praising the report for raising valid questions and proposing a fresh take on how to approach climate change communication.  Either way, the report has spawned much discussion and is bound to be influential in shaping the future of climate change policy.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Agulhas system may play a key role in ocean circulation and climate change.

Off the coast of East Africa, the Agulhas current sweeps downward towards the continent's tip and, for the most part, swings back east into the Indian Ocean.  Some of it, however, "leaks" out around the cape and into the Atlantic ocean.  New research, published recently in Nature, suggests that this "Agulhas leakage" may have a huge impact on climate variability.
The Agulhas system.   Credit: Erik van Sebille, RSMAS

While is it not known exactly how much water is leaked into the Atlantic, the salty waters of the Agulhas form giant rings and eddies that ultimately join the Atlantic's main current system, the Atlantic Meridonal Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which includes the more familiar Gulf Stream current.  The AMOC carries warm water northwards, keeping parts of North America and Europe several degrees warmer than they otherwise would be.

Under the current climate change prediction models, ice melt from the Arctic and a weakening of the AMOC due to the buildup of greenhouse gases will result in cooling of the North Atlantic.  But authors of the Nature article say that the Agulhas leakage could compensate for these changes, helping to keep the North Atlantic warm, in contrast to these current prediction models .

In addition, geologic and modern data provide evidence that the Agulhas leakage increases under a warming climate, thus further suggesting that it could play a leading role in climate variability, as our climate continues to warm.

Researchers looked at the abundance of tropical plankton (Agulhas fauna) preserved in marine sediments corresponding to the late Pleistocene epoch, a period of repeated glaciations during the past 500,000 years.  They found less Agulhas fauna in sediments corresponding to glacial periods and more Agulhas fauna in sediments corresponding to periods of a warming climate, thus indicating that the leakage had increased during periods of warming.

Modern data, gathered from satellites, oceanographic instruments, and computer simulations show shifts in wind patterns, a southward expansion of Indian Ocean currents, and a warming of the waters in the Agulhas system that all favor an increase in the Agulhas leakage.

The authors of this study point out that more research into the role of the Agulhas leakage in climate change is sorely needed.  Questions such as whether the Agulhas leakage is a potential climate trigger or whether there is a feedback mechanism involved in its variability still remain to be answered.  Hopefully, research into the Agulhas will shed a new light on an often overlooked piece of the climate puzzle.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Catch these PBS programs on climate & energy

Today's post is primarily to draw your attention to other stuff -- two fine programs aired on PBS last month (and now available on the web) about climate and energy. Earth: The Operators' Manual aired April 10 on many PBS stations (but not on mine!). NOVA's Power Surge aired on April 20. You don't even need to go off to the program's pages -- they are available for viewing on this very page!

As a plus, unlike many programs about climate and energy, both of these programs are hopeful in their tone and conclusions.

You can watch Earth: The Operators' Manual by clicking below. This program features Penn State climatologist Richard Alley describing the science of climate change in a clear and easy to understand way. Energy use, on various scales, is compared to the number of 100 watt lightbulbs that energy would illuminate. We humans collectively use 15.7 terawatts of energy - 15,700,000,000,000 watts or 157 billion 100 watt bulbs.

The program also draws thoughtful attention to how and why the US military is reducing its use of fossil fuels, the military implications of climate change, and how China is working to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels. It also notes that the city of Houston, TX is the United States' largest municipal purchaser of green energy.

NOVA's Power Surge investigates the way we use energy, how that's changing, where energy comes from, how we can use less of it, and how we can use energy more cleanly. This quote from the opening is good food for thought as you settle in for the program:
Everyone wants it [energy development] somewhere other than their own backyard. Guess what? If you don't solve the problem, your backyard isn't going to look the same anyway.
Central to the program is the discussion of climate wedges -- Stephen Pacala's idea that we need to reduce emissions by7 billion tons of carbon and we can divide that 7 billion into wedges of 1 billion tons each. Wedges include efficiency and solar, for example. We might use multiple efficiency wedges to reach stabilization. A range of technologies and societal changes are explored.

Also included is an interesting way to visualize your carbon footprint -- using tons of compost as a visual aid.

The program raises many interesting points of consideration, one near it's closing, strikes me as especially important as we move ahead in making energy decisions:
One big nuclear plant is the same thing as 3000 big wind turbines and is the same as about 50 square miles of photovoltaics. 
The quote then goes onto end with the one cited above from the beginning of the program. All of these approaches have substantial environmental impacts. Determining which is the worst of the lot makes me like efficiency even more. (Not mentioned here, though, is the idea that those solar panels can go on existing roofs).

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA.

There's overlap between the programs. Both of them substantial attention to efficiency and note that efficiency initiatives are money savers as well as emissions reduction strategies. Both of programs also note that China leads the world in the production of solar panels and at least hint at what that movement means from a political perspective. But the programs have substantial difference as well. And the approaches are different enough that you'll benefit from watching both of them.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Are we in the middle of a sixth mass extinction?

Throughout Earth's history, there have been five great mass extinctions.  In each one, over 75% of all species disappeared within a million years.  New research, recently published in Nature, suggests that we may be in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, caused and/ or exacerbated by a variety of human activities, including:  hunting, overfishing, deforestation, the introduction of non-native species, the spreading of pathogens, and of course, global warming.

To determine whether a mass extinction is indeed in progress, scientists compared current rate of extinctions to historical, background extinction rates.  They determined that the current extinction rates for mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles, if calculated conservatlvely over the last 500 years, are well above normal.  They estimated that current rates of extinction are faster than, or as fast as, all of the rates that would have produced the past "Big Five" extinctions.

The researchers mention a variety of methods to estimate extinction rates and compare them.  One of the most commonly used ways to make this comparison is to estimate the number of extinctions per million species years (E/ MSY).  Background rates are estimated from fossil extinctions that took place in million-year time intervals.  For current rates of extinction, the proportion of species extinct in a short time interval (a couple of centuries) is extrapolated to predict what the rate would be over a million years.

The authors are quick to point out that measuring mass extinction is not an easy task.  There are a number of biases with both fossil data and modern species data that can make comparison difficult and oftentimes, uncertain.  However, they point out that even the most conservative analyses still provide evidence that a sixth mass extinction, is indeed, taking place.

Sharinne Sukhnanand

These briefs are part of a weekly series of updates to the publication: Climate Change - Past, Present, and Future: A Very Short Guide.  The entire series can be found here.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Typewriters are to computers as cars are to: ___________________

We often write Climate Change 101 blog posts about efficiency, and I think that's great. Today's post takes a different tack, and instead raises questions about doing something else instead of doing something more efficiently. What does that mean?

Consider why someone might want to buy a Hummer, for example. Sure, it will get you from Point A to Point B. In the eyes of some, it gets you there in style. I suspect it's relatively comfortable too. There are certain conveniences provided by having any vehicle -- you don't have to travel on someone else's schedule. You don't have to worry about if a bus or subway stops near your starting and ending points. It gets you there faster than walking or biking and in a climate controlled environment.

There are certain inconveniences too. You have to pay for the thing, to insure it, to fill it with fuel, to maintain it, and to fix it when something breaks. You also have to park it. And it's got emissions, of course, and we know those change the chemical composition of the atmosphere which in turn changes the dynamics of the atmosphere.

Indeed, the climate-controlled environment that it provides for its passengers while en route contributes, just a little on the individual level, to the destabilization of the global climate (which is why I'm writing about it here). Scale it up to the hundreds of millions of vehicle owners the world around, and it's no longer just a little. (See previous posts: Making the Case as Simply as I Can,  How can the CO2 released weigh more than the gasoline I started with?, and Interesting Conversations Happen on Facebook for more on how emissions scale up to major problems).

Many of us, myself included, think we want a car. I'm suggesting that we step back from that and consider what services it is we want from cars, and think about if we can get equal or superior benefits in another way at a comparable or lower economic cost while lowering environmental costs.

I don't really want a car. I want to get from Point A to Point B with reasonable convenience, in comfort, and, I admit, I want to get there in some sort of style. Aspects of my family's style are conveyed by our ten year old Prius with its environmentally themed bumper stickers. I also don't want my transportation to cost too much -- for either me or for the environment.

Where I'm going with this might be summarized by an SAT-style analogy question:
Typewriters are to computers as cars are to: ___________*
Making cars more efficient is clearly important, and I'm really glad smart people are working on it. But what I'm wondering is: Can we make something more efficient than (and just as desirable as) cars? Sometimes fundamentally new technologies push away the old. A jet is not a re-engineered canal boat or train.

And, it's not always about more efficient ways of doing the same thing. Trains, planes and automobiles are all instruments for transporting people and goods from Point A to Point B. Part of the idea is also developing ways of meeting the needs and wants achieved by travel without the travel.

I mostly Skype to work. And it allows me to work all over the country and the world without doing nearly as much travel as this sentence implies (though I still do way more travel then I'm comfortable with from an environmental perspective). But it's a step in the right direction, and the technologies are improving at a blazing pace.

It's not just about changing technologies, either. I hope my next car is a rental. Or a car-share. Or improved mass-transit. None of those changes require new technologies, they just require people (my family) to do things differently. I'm part of a two-car family, but at least one of those cars is almost always parked in the driveway. If it was just a little more convenient for me to access a car sharing program or rental car, we'd be able to move to being a one-car family with the primary change in lifestyle being more money in our bank account.

Recognizing that we need a much longer blank line, how will you complete the analogy?

Don Duggan-Haas

*Some of you may recognize this as a favorite question stem of mine. Change "cars" to something else, like "schools" and you can push your brain in interesting directions. And I think you should.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Should we believe the scientists?

My friend, English teacher, and inspirer of blog entries, Dina, recently asked me if I'd seen a couple of articles about problems of scientific studies. The articles in question are The Truth Wears Off Is there something wrong with the scientific method? by Jonah Lehrer, which appeared in The New Yorker and Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science by David H. Freedman, which appeared in The Atlantic.

A bit of background, and a plug to join our group:
She raised the question in context to an ongoing discussion about teaching climate change that I facilitate for a small group of educators. We meet monthly and share resources and try and work through ways to improve our approach to instruction around issues of climate change. Our meetings are online, via Skype and our next meeting is April 14 at 8:15 pm EDT.

For this coming call, we'll be talking about Greg Craven's book, What's the Worst That Could Happen?  The book holds an important message, but Craven's writing style is that of a goofy science teacher. That's off-putting to some, but it happens to resonate with me. And, again, the central message of the book is really important. Through the book, Craven also develops a pair of nice conceptual tools for looking at the question of the title. One of those is a "credibility spectrum" that helps you rate different sources of information.

I talked about some of this at last month's National Science Teachers' Association Annual Meeting, and you can download handouts including the credibility spectrum. It's in two parts -- here and here. You can also see the presentation slides here, but it's not needed to understand the rest of this post.

That context is important for understanding Dina's question.

And, if you're interested in joining in our conversation on 4/14, drop me a note. It's a small part of a larger project called Climate Lifelines. The target population is high school teachers, but anyone teaching about climate change is welcome to join.

Now, back to Dina's questions
Here's what she said after sharing the article links:
They make me question Craven's credibility scale. As does the increasing prevalence of science that is being funded by corporations with investment in a certain answer. 
I am not to the point yet where I am a climate change denier. But I do wonder about the intensity of the predictions involved. 
For example. (This is not terribly scientific, but anyway). The incredible ability of ecosystems to repair themselves is well documented. So let us say we do run out of fossil fuel before we reach some kind of climatic tipping point (which as far as I know, is a distinct possibility)-- to the point where it becomes a de facto worldwide carbon-zero reduction program. I don't hear much, if anything, about the possible *positive* impact this may have on climate change.

Here's what I wrote back:
They don't do much to sway me away from thinking that global warming is human caused and I was already leery of putting too much stock in individual studies. I've spent enough time with academics to know that they're human and the process reduces errors but doesn't eliminate them. 
I also think the examples used in the two papers are of a different sort than the things that make the general conclusions related to human-induced climate change durable. They're both simpler than the big picture and more complex than the fundamental physics and chemistry. 
It's been observed probably thousands of times in the lab that if you add carbon dioxide to air and shine light through it to warm up materials within the contained system that it will heat up more than a similar apparatus with less carbon dioxide in it. That's simple and it would be pretty stunning if it started working differently. The examples used in the paper all deal with stuff more complicated than that. So, that's where the climate change bit is simpler than these examples.
It's more complex in the huge range of observations, studies and predictions based on the idea that changing atmospheric chemistry in the way we're doing seem to fit together so very well. I guess that's both complex (at the level of all the different aspects of the Earth system) and simple (in that the outcomes seem to match (or exceed) the predictions). 
I think even if it raises questions about Craven's credibility spectrum, it mostly just makes more room at the top. I don't see what's more reliable than the scientific consensus. 
And, it is true that, if you don't cross certain tipping points (like extinction) ecosystems can bounce back pretty impressively. Of course, there's no bouncing back from extinction.
As for running out of fossil fuel before reaching climate tipping points, I'm personally worried that we're awfully close to the tipping point if we've not reached it already, and we're not on the cusp of running out of fossil fuels. They are, however, running out of the low hanging fruit of fossil fuels. Technologies, like horizontal drilling coupled with hydraulic fracturing, however effectively lower that fossil fuel fruit pretty regularly.
Hmmm... Did I just write most of an overdue blog post? What do you think?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Natural gas development could worsen global warming.


A natural gas drilling rig
in the Marcellus shale region.
Last week, three Cornell University researchers, Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro, and Tony Ingraffea, gave a seminar about natural gas development and its potential contribution to climate change.  Overall, they found that the natural gas industry's carbon footprint plus methane footprint was greater than that of the coal and oil based industries, thus increasing the likelihood that global warming will exacerbated by further implementation of natural gas production.  Their findings will be published in the upcoming April edition of Climatic Change Letters, as an addendum to the main journal, Climate Change.

Natural gas has long been touted as a "cleaner" fuel than oil, simply because less carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere upon burning.  However, the principal component of natural gas is methane, which is a much more potent global warming gas than carbon dioxide.  During natural gas production a small percentage of methane is released into the atmosphere, either intentionally through venting, or inadvertently through leaks in the pipeline.  While methane does not last nearly as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, over the short term (20 years as opposed to 100 years), its global warming potential is estimated to be 72 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

The researchers looked at the overall life-cycle of natural gas production and compared methane emissions at each stage of production using industry reported data.  They also compared emissions between shale gas production and conventional gas.  They found that 3.6% to 7.9% of methane from shale-gas production escaped into the atmosphere during venting and leaks, almost two times greater than the emissions from conventional gas.  These increased emissions in shale-gas production occured during the hydraulic fracturing of a well and during the drill out following fracturing.  Their findings are in conjunction with a November 2010 Environmental Protection Agency report that found that emissions, particularly for shale gas, are larger than previously believed.

As many countries consider the adoption of shale-gas production as an alternative to oil-based energy sources, more research, similar to this study, will become gravely important to asess the true consequences to climate change.

Sharinne Sukhnanand

These briefs are part of a weekly series of updates to the publication: Climate Change: Past, Present, and Future.  The entire series can be found here.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Get out your tissue box: researchers find that global warming extends the pollen season in northern latitudes.


Credit: Sue Sweeney/ Wikimedia Commons
Researchers studying ragweed (Ambrosia spp.), one of the worst allergy-causing plants, particularly for the summer and fall season, have found that its pollen season has been extended, due to warming temperatures in the upper latitudes.  In northern states, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, the ragweed pollen season has been extended by roughly two weeks (13-16 days).  Further north, in areas of Canada, such as Winnipeg and Saskatoon, the ragweed season has been stretched by almost one month (25-27 days)!

Their findings are consistent with the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment that current and projected increases in global warming are not uniform and depend, rather, on latitude and elevation.  The researchers looked at pollen counts and weather data from 10 locations across the North American continent, from as far south as Georgetown, Teaxs to as far north as Saskatoon, Canada over a 15 year period (1995-2009).  As latitude increased, they observed an increase in the usual length of the growing season (increase in the frost-free period), as well an a change in the number of days to first frost.  Upper latitudes are warming faster than mid-latitudes and the researchers found that changes in the length of the ragweed pollen season were in proportion to these warming differences.

The impact of study goes beyond a couple of sniffles and sneezes.  The authors cite that ragweed may cause more seasonal allergic reactions than all other plants combined.  And for those who suffer from asthma, allergies can oftentimes trigger asthma or make it worse.   With a now longer pollen season and increased pollen counts, the number of people affected by allergic reactions to ragweed could increase dramatically.

Sharinne Sukhnanand

These briefs are part of a weekly series of updates to the publication: Climate Change: Past, Present, and Future.  The entire series can be found here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How dry can the Earth's climate get? Researchers discover an ancient mega-drought.


Credit: Tomas Castelazo, Wikimedia Commons
Scientists have discovered one of the most intense and far-reaching droughts in the history of early modern humans, according to a new study recently published in Science magazine.  The drought, also referred to as the H1 Megadrought, affected large areas of Africa and Southern Asia, shrinking lakes, rivers, and vital freshwater supplies.  Lake Victoria, currently the world's largest tropical lake, dried up completely, as did Lake Tana, in Ethiopia.  Both lakes are primary water sources for the Nile River, suggesting that the mega-drought had severe ecological impacts on ecosystems and communities from East Africa to the Mediterranean coast.  

In addition, the study showed that the regular monsoon rains for these regions didn't just migrate south during the drought, as previously thought.  The rains weakened significantly as well, thus revealing that the mega-drought had a much greater geographical impact and was more catastrophic than previously believed.

Interestingly, an analysis of sediment cores revealed that the mega-drought took place roughly 16,000 to 17,000 years ago, which coincided with another major climate change event: the peak of the Heinrich Stadial 1, a massive surge of icebergs and meltwater into the North Atlantic at the end of the last ice age.  While it is still unknown whether the massive ice melt contributed or even caused the mega-drought, the study discusses possible ways that the Heinrich event may have influenced atmospheric and rainfall systems in favor of a drought.

The authors mention that the mechanisms that drive rainfall systems in the African-Asian region, which affect more than half of all humanity, are poorly understood and difficult to model. However, as the Arctic continues to melt at an unprecedented rate, the study raises valid questions about whether the current ice melt could, in theory, contribute to a similar drought.   

Sharinne Sukhnanand

These briefs are part of a weekly series of updates to the publication: Climate Change: Past, Present, and Future.  The entire series can be found here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Insurance companies gear up for more extreme weather.

IBHS research facility

This past year, the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), the research arm of the insurance industry, unveiled a new research center dedicated to learning how homes survive under weather-related stress.  The massive facility, located in rural South Carolina amid dairy farms, can fit up to nine mid-sized houses, and has the ability to simulate torrential rain, hurricane force winds, and even wildfires.

The motivation behind research at the new IBHS center is to learn more about construction, maintenance, and building codes that are conducive towards disaster preparedness.

The research is part of a larger initiative by the insurance industry to respond to the multi-faceted challenge of climate change.  As climate change increases the occurrence and severity of extreme weather events, insurance companies will have to cover unprecedented losses.  Last year, severe weather events caused $37 billion in insured losses, the sixth-highest total for insurers since 1980, according to reinsurer, Munich Re.  In addition, the United Nations reported that natural disasters caused $109 billion in total economic damage last year, three times more than in 2009.

Changes in climate are also compounded by changes in the "built" environment.  High-risk areas for extreme weather-related events, such as Florida's coast and most "beachfront" property, can be hotspots for real estate development, oftentimes resulting in a landscape of high-density, high-value properties.  Most of these properties are not built with the potential of withstanding natural disasters, such as flooding or a hurricane, in mind.

Insurance companies recognize that raising premiums will not be enough to cover losses.  With the research at the new IBHS center, the insurance industry ultimately plans to incentivize ways of putting building codes and construction materials designed to withstand extreme weather, into practice.

Sharinne Sukhnanand

These briefs are part of a weekly series of updates to the publication: Climate Change: Past, Present, and Future.  The entire series can be found here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Look at your fish! Look at the world!

"The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself."
- Henry Miller
Today's entry has to do with looking, really looking, at the natural and human world. I hope it will bring a bit of attention to beauty and intrigue too many of us are missing. I'm tempted to say we're doing that less because of the pressures of this modern world, but I that may be jumping to an unfounded conclusion. We pay attention to what's relevant to us, or what we perceive as relevant to us, and I expect that has always been true. Certainly industrial workers confined to industrial cities have been missing connection to the natural world for generations.

Before going further, I should point to why paying attention to the world around us is relevant to understanding climate. The primary connection is that you don't recognize change if you don't know what a place, a thing, a person, or a climate is like at some earlier time. I've written before about getting to know what your climate is like in a visceral way. As we spend more and more time in climate conditioned spaces we lose touch with our environment and our climate. This is another prod to keep or rebuild that connection.

This modern world allows us to move from climate-conditioned space to climate-conditioned space by way of moving climate-condition spaces. Your GPS allows you to get from point A to point B without paying a whole lot of attention to where you are and what's around you. Attention to landmarks has suddenly become unnecessary as we move about in vehicles that create uniform climates around us. It's great, of course, but it also has its costs. You can use your GPS as a mentor for learning the lay of the land. Or you can use it to ignore the lay of the land.

What do you do to give more attention to your environment? First, remember to do it. That might lead you to walking and biking more and driving less. That's got pluses besides bringing you more in touch with your environment of course. Then, stop and smell the roses. And draw the roses.

Hæmulon elegans, NOAA, Drawing by H. L. Todd

One of my favorite essays describes Louis Agassiz's approach to teaching. Agassiz was the first to present a scientific case for an ice age (and a direct opponent to much of Darwin's work). In the Laboratory with Agassiz, also known as Look at Your Fish! by Samuel H. Scudder, tells the tale of Scudder's first encounter with his mentor Agassiz. And, of Scudder looking at his fish long and hard:
Half an hour passes—an hour—another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. ...
...At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the Professor returned.
"That is right," said he; "a pencil is one of the best of eyes. I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet, and your bottle corked."
With these encouraging words, he added, "Well, what is it like?"
Scudder gave his reply in terms of what he had seen in his first hours with the fish. Agassiz listened and replied:
"You have not looked very carefully; why," he continued more earnestly, "you haven't even seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is a plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!" and he left me to my misery.
The tale continues, unearthing how Scudder learned to see more and more about the fish. And about looking.

Of course, I'm partly urging you to go and look with your pencil, but more importantly, I'm just asking you to really, really look. There is so much awe-inspiring stuff in this world that we miss as we rush through it. And, unfortunately, we think much of that beautiful stuff is being flushed away, so we should enjoy it while we can.

And, if you went right past the first link above, it's a powerful example of how we blow by beauty in our rush from point A to point B. Here's virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell playing his Stradivarius in a Washington, DC Metro station and essentially being completely ignored:

Go forth and pay attention!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

New York University implements a new "green" power plant as part of its own climate action plan.


Last month, New York University (NYU) unveiled its new state-of-the-art cogeneration (CoGen) power plant, designed to simultaneously provide heat and electricity to NYU's campus while helping to reduce its carbon footprint.
The upgrade was a central part of NYU's own climate action plan, spurred on by both the New York City Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC Climate Challenge, a directive for all city colleges and universities to cut carbon emissions voluntarily by 30% by 2017, and the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, a larger initiative across many institutions of higher learning to work towards climate neutrality.
The new plant is a marked improvement over NYU's previous oil-fired power plant.  It is 90% efficient as opposed to a typical boiler plant, which is only 50-60% efficient, and it produces 13.4 megawatts of electricity, twice the output of the previous system.  The new plant helps NYU reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 20%, cutting up to 5,000 metric tons of carbon per year.
Here is a great diagram of how it works.  Briefly, natural gas powers two high-tech turbines, which are similar to jet engine turbines.  The rotation from turbines generates electricity while the heat exhaust from the turbines is recovered and used to make steam.  The steam is then shunted off for a variety of purposes.  Some steam is used for heating and hot water, additional steam is used to drive another turbine for electricity generation, and in the summer, steam is shunted off to chiller to create cold water for air conditioning.
While the project was not cheap (price tag of $125 million), the university is expected to save $5-8 million in energy related costs per year.

Sharinne Sukhnanand

These briefs are part of a weekly series of updates to the publication: Climate Change: Past, Present, and Future.  The entire series can be found here.     

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gaining Hope

This week's events in Egypt give us hope. I have hope for the end of repression both within Egypt and throughout the region. And I have regained some hope for the power of the people. No one knows where it will end, but these events clearly show that if enough people get excited enough and angry enough and connected enough, they can make a difference.

Sometimes I/we lose sight of that fact. 

And, I for one, didn't see it coming.


What lessons can take from the last three weeks with Egypt on the world stage? Well, I'm no political scientist, but that won't stop me from speculating. And I welcome corrections and clarifications.

  1. It seemingly happened overnight, but it really didn't. The issues have been simmering for decades. Somehow, a tipping point was reached. 
  2. Communication technologies helped. Twitter, Facebook, youtube and Al Jazeera all clearly mattered and none of them alone were likely sufficient.
  3. People got off their butts and into the streets. And onto Facebook, Twitter, Al Jazeera and such. Simmering anger alone doesn't do much. Communicating alone does a bit more. 
  4. Most of the participants didn't do a lot of planning. But my guess is that a few people did more than we have a sense of.
How does that translate to understanding climate? From the Essential Principles of Climate Science:
Guiding Principle for Informed Climate Decision: Humans can take actions to reduce climate change and its impacts.
What are those actions? They surely vary tremendously in their nature, but it does seem like we ought to be able from Egypt. What do you think?

And, please: Keep hope alive.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Where to focus climate change education efforts?

I virtually sat in on a bit of the Climate Change Education Roundtable Committee Meeting #2 this afternoon. There was some fascinating discussion that I caught only the tale end of, then it moved into discussions of what to focus the next workshop upon.

There was a resounding endorsement of focusing that upcoming workshop on climate change education at the K-12, or K-16 level. That simultaneously cheered and depressed me.

It cheered me because it's a profoundly important audience -- an audience where the understandings (or misunderstandings) built will have the longest-lasting effect. There's also the possibility of education that trickles up. Kids really do teach their parents important things some of the time.

But I'm also concerned for the very simple reason that K-12 or K-16 education has never worked very well for getting a lot of people to understand important ideas. I want you to pay attention to this point, so I'll inset it and make it bold.
There are no examples of creating a thick description of what everyone should understand about any topic that has led to wide swaths of the population understanding the target content, in spite of countless attempts to do just that throughout human history.

Pretty bold, huh?

Not a single example.

That begs for us to do something different. Pleads for it. Cries for it. Screams for it. 

I did raise the issue and it was politely received. Then the next several speakers talked about their agreement of the need to focus on K-12 education. 

Yes, this next workshop should focus on the young, as the last one focused upon a variety of adult audiences. But, and this is a really big but, we need to attend to the fact that we've just not been successful in teaching much more than basic literacy to a majority through schooling (or any other approach, really). 

Ok, that's a bit of a simplification. Most folks do know some important things and they learned it somewhere. Hygiene, for example. And, most people understand that smoking is bad for you. But only a minority have good understandings of things like the workings of our constitutional democracy, or evolution, or trigonometry, or, well, I could go on and on about the things that almost everyone has been taught that only a slim minority of the population understands. 

Wow, does that sound elitist. 

How would you do on the 

But really, how would you do on the NAEP test? Or, if you're understandably not a fan of standardized tests, how would you demonstrate your understandings across the traditional high school content areas? To make myself sound less elitist, I'll note that I was too chicken to try any areas outside of science. Or, I mean, I haven't had time yet.

And now back to our message:

As we work on the agenda of educating young people about climate change, we need to constantly ask ourselves:
 What is it that makes this approach more likely to succeed than what we've done before?
If we can't answer that question, we need to pull back and take a different tack. 

Our in the box thinking leaves us sitting in the same old box. How are you stepping out of the box? What should we do to make K-12 climate change education effective?

The views expressed herein are those of the author, Don Duggan-Haas, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paleontological Research Institution.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Making the Case as Simply as I Can

In the last several months, I've thought a lot about the need to complexify the seemingly simple. Obviously, I think that's too often overlooked, but I don't want to forget the need to cut to the chase. That's what this entry is about.

What is the simplest scientific case that can be made for the fact that humans are changing the climate?

Understanding two indisputable facts and knowing some grade school-level vocabulary makes a very compelling case. That's just three simple things.

Simple Thing #1:
I'll start with the grade school vocabulary. You need to know the difference between weather and climate. Weather is about the state of the atmosphere with regards to temperature, moisture and wind at a given time in a given place. Climate is the weather over a long period of time; typically on a scale that is at least decades long. Knowing what the weather is tells you what clothes to wear today. Knowing what the climate is tells you what clothes you should own.

Oh, and you should understand the meaning of the word "global."

It may be cold in Washington this winter. That's the weather. And it's not global.

Simple Thing #2 (a.k.a., Simple Fact #1):
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases absorb heat in the atmosphere and make it warm up. We can demonstrate that very, very easily in the laboratory.

Get yourself a seltzer bottle and try it at home. It really is that simple. I'd be more inclined to put the jars in a sunny spot than to use the lights, but it will work either way. 

Of course, you'd be right to note that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the jar is considerably more than that of the atmosphere. Indeed. But, hello! The atmosphere is miles thick -- it's a heck of a lot bigger than that jar. And Earth is blanketed by all those miles of atmosphere that trap heat in.

Simple Thing #3 (a.k.a., Simple Fact #2):
Each and everyone of us (assuming that us means folks who are sitting in comfortable homes or offices while the chill of winter is outside our walls and that we've been in some sort of vehicle in the last few days) is adding ton after ton after ton of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. 

Really. Tons and tons. If you burned 10 gallons of gas in the last week or two, the stuff didn't just go away. You turned about 60 pounds of gasoline into about 180 pounds of carbon dioxide. Add to that the fuel to heat your house, to make and transport the things you own and have consumed, build your roads and other infrastructure, and to move your military about and have them do their (our?) business and pretty soon it adds up to lots and lots of carbon dioxide. 

And there are hundreds of millions of us living this lifestyle and billions more who aspire to it.

(To refresh your memory on how burning stuff creates more weight of carbon dioxide than the weight of the stuff you started with, take a look back to this post with its nifty animations.) 

There's more to it...
Of course you can get complicated pretty quickly, and to really understand climate change you need to read and understand more than the few paragraphs I've put together here. But the above really is beyond dispute. And understanding the above makes it very, very difficult to dispute that the stuff we humans are (and have been) up to is changing how the atmosphere works in ways that are making the planet heat up. 

That's it: two little facts and a bit of grade school vocabulary. Is it simple enough for you? 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Up close and personal with extreme snowstorms in Oswego, NY.

The Doppler-on-Wheels in action.
 Credit: CSWR
In early January, the National Science Foundation highlighted research that aims to learn more about lake effect snowstorms and how they are formed.  Researchers in Oswego, NY are utilizing a new radar tool, the Doppler-on-Wheels (DOW), to take measurements literally inside a lake-effect snowstorm as it forms and travels across the lake.

Oswego, NY and the nearby Tug Hill Plateau region are known as some of the "snowiest" regions in the United States.  An average of 300 inches (25 ft!) of snow falls here each year, the largest average snowfall of any non-mountainous region in the United States.

The region's notoriety for snow is due to its proximity to the Great Lakes.  As cold Arctic air sweeps down over the warm lake water, water vapor is formed.  The water vapor condenses to form clouds that continue to move across the lake and dump enormous amounts of "lake-effect snow" on nearby communities.

The DOW, a portable Doppler radar dish mounted on the back of a flatbed truck, is a blizzard chaser's dream come true.  The DOW can reveal information about the inner workings of snowstorm that normally can't be seen with distant radars.  In addition to measuring wind and snow intensity, the DOW can analyze fine-scale properties such as the density of the snow, whether it forms pellets, and its snow crystal type.  These fine-scale properties can have a huge influence on the severity of a storm, often determining whether it will snow a few inches or a few feet.

Researchers hope that insight into how lake effect snowstorms are formed will help to better predict snowy outcomes in both the short and long term.

Sharinne Sukhnanand

These briefs are part of a weekly series of updates to the PRI publication: Climate Change: Past, Present, and Future.  The entire series can be found here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A sampling of things I listen to on my morning commute

As a telecommuter, I have a loop-shaped morning commute.  I take a walk to wake me up, keep me from becoming even tubbier, see the world and listen to podcasts.  What podcasts?  They vary across a range of topics that my brain sees as connected to the social and natural world and how people learn about that stuff.  That's nice and narrow, isn't it?

Sometimes I end up listening to just one particular episode from a series as I'm looking for a particular author talking about her or his book, but most of the time I listen to regularly podcasted programs.  In this post, I'll give attention to both categories -- the ones I listen to regularly and one "special" episode.  And I'll give you a sentence or two about why I like them. 

I'd thought about listing a bunch, but today I'll just do a few with the intention of coming back to the topic with additions when the mood strikes.  

None of these are focused exclusively on climate change, though many have the occasional (or, in the case of the first and third, frequent) program dedicated to it.  The links typically will take you to the show's homepage.  You can generally find a link to subscribe there, or type or paste the name into iTunes search box.
The Long Now Foundation's monthly Seminars were started in 02003 to build a compelling body of ideas about long-term thinking; to help nudge civilization toward our goal of making long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare.

  • Ideas: How to Think About Science (from CBC Radio) This series gives a good overview of thinkers in the nature of science.  It's a few years old now, and it's been a while since I listened to it, but it's a good course to stick in your pocket.  How to Think About Science is really a subset of their Ideas program, which is also quite good.
The Canadian Broadcasting Company has perhaps as rich an array of good podcasts as NPR, and I live within broadcast range to catch some of it over the air.  In fact, as I looked at CBC's podcast page (the previous link), I saw a new one which I'll just go ahead and add a new bullet for:

  • The Bottom Line, with David Suzuki (from CBC Radio)  As noted above, I just stumbled across this (it's new!), but I've never been disappointed with David Suzuki's work.  He's the pre-eminent Canadian environmental journalist.  Wouldn't it be nice if the US had one of those?  Or a few that you had to choose amongst?  Ah well, at least we can listen to Suzuki's fine work more easily in this digital age.  
Here's an episode description to whet your appetite: "David Suzuki goes camping in Haida Gwaai with former Minister Jim Prentice. They discuss the root of the word economics and climate change. David also interviews the former chief economist of the World Bank about the cost of climate change."  There's my morning commute for tomorrow.

  • Radiolab (from WNYC) Radiolab is just a delight.  The way the hosts play with ideas and bring life to science is hard to top.  Here's a blurb from a show a couple of years ago, Stochasticity, that I really liked:
"Stochasticity (a wonderfully slippery and smarty-pants word for randomness), may be at the very foundation of our lives. To understand how big a role it plays, we look at chance and patterns in sports, lottery tickets, and even the cells in our own body. Along the way, we talk to a woman suddenly consumed by a frenzied gambling addiction, meet two friends whose meeting seems to defy pure chance, and take a close look at some very noisy bacteria."

And, of course:

  • TED  My guess is you already know about this, but if not, follow the link and be prepared to surrender some time to some great talks.   I'll also note that I'm pleased that TEDx Buffalo is coming April 7, 2011.  TEDx are locally organized TED Conferences.  I'm kind of excited about it...

Click on the episode name to get to the identified special episode.  Clicking on the podcast name will take you to the series site.
  • This American Life: Kid Politics (from Chicago Public Media)  This episode of one of the most popular podcasts that there is includes a segment on climate change understanding and the resistance to changing one's mind.  It's fascinating.  And it's got a dash of extra coolness because I know Roberta Johnson a little.