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Archive for September, 2011

Putting Candidates and Others on the Spot About Global Warming

by September 29, 2011

This opinion piece, written in response to a recent Star Tribune op-ed, was published on Yale’s Forum for Climate Change and the Media on September 29, 2011.

The presence, or perhaps more so the absence, of serious climate change dialogue in the run-up to the presidential elections could make the issue a volatile unknown: Few politicians in the national spotlight want to be caught holding strong opinions in favor of aggressive policies to slow, curb, or reverse anticipated climate change.

James Lenfestey, a former Star Tribune editorial writer on climate and education, recently argued in Minneapolis Star Tribune (op-ed 9/17) that journalists should drill presidential candidates on six questions related to climate change, presumably to highlight those who are silent, or openly hostile, toward taking action in the face of this global threat.

Commentary

The media clearly can do a better job in raising serious issues like global warming with those leading, or aspiring to lead, our country. BUT putting candidates on the spot is unlikely to yield what our country desperately needs: a serious, ongoing dialogue about this global issue, which has connections to nearly every aspect of our society. Such a dialogue MUST be built on a foundation of trust and respect for political and ideological differences, as well as different scientific backgrounds.

Lenfestey’s six questions can be boiled down to these two: Do you believe global warming is occurring? And, do you believe we should have aggressive policies to counter this threat?

Lumping together opinions about how persuaded one is by the underlying science with questions about the appropriateness of a policy response is a recipe for an unproductive dialogue. Having spent a number of years working with experts drawn from across society to describe the condition and use of our ecosystems, I learned that it is essential to separate these aspects of the conversation—especially for the more contentious issues. In other words, we collectively need to find some common ground before arguing about appropriate policy responses.

We need to build an initiative that is viewed as trustworthy to all of us, no matter our ideological and political positions, or our understanding of science. WE can do that. We can run a transparent process—open to full scrutiny and input from anyone—that develops a series of questions and broadly accepted answers relevant to the issue of climate change. Not 100 questions, but rather more like 10. Each answer would be endorsed by experts drawn from across society and viewed as trustworthy by citizens and politicians from across the spectrum, both politically and ideologically.

As an example, these answers would undoubtedly include:

  • Carbon dioxide, a colorless gas present in tiny concentrations in the atmosphere, can trap radiation from the Earth that would otherwise dissipate into space.
  • There is strong evidence of a marked increase in carbon dioxide directly linked with the growth of industrialized societies across the globe.
  • Our “fingerprints” are detectable in the altered chemical nature of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  • Long-term temperature trends indicate significant increases in recent decades.

These would be the first building blocks to a serious national dialogue.

Let’s take on this challenge. Let’s develop a robust, multimedia Web presence that brings to life the science behind the questions-and-answers for general audiences. Ideally, this effort would have its foundation on a public Q&A site, like Quora (http://quora.com).

Circling back to Lenfestey’s questions, let’s ask each candidate if he or she would support such an open, transparent process to create robust common ground across society. Global warming, which has the potential to irreversibly alter our world, demands a serious dialogue, and now is the time for to initiate it. Time is short, and there is a lot to do. Let’s make it happen.

Kent Cavender-Bares is an environmental scientist and the founder of Dialogue Earth, a nonprofit media project that has received major seed funding from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the Foundation for Environmental Research. The views represented are his alone and do not represent those of the University of Minnesota.

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Capturing Mood About Daily Weather From Twitter Posts

by September 29, 2011

After considerable preparation, we’ve just launched a version of our interactive tool, Pulse. Using Pulse, users can explore feelings about the weather as expressed on Twitter.

We began the process by choosing a topic that would yield a substantial volume of discussion on Twitter as well as be of general interest. Once we settled on weather, we wrote a survey designed to gauge Twitter users’ sentiments about the topic. With the help of workers from the “crowd” accessed through CrowdFlower, we had tens of thousands of relevant tweets coded as to the expressed emotion about the weather. These results were then used to create an “instance” of the Pulse tool, which manifests as a map of the United States that at a glance reveals Twitter users’ sentiments about the weather in their region on a given day. (You can read more about the coding process here and our choice of weather as a topic here.)

For our launch of Pulse for weather, we chose to feature tweets published over a month beginning in late April, 2011, a period in which many extreme weather events occurred—the devastating tornado in Joplin, MO; widespread drought throughout the South; and flooding of the Mississippi River, among others. The image below is from May 25, three days following the Joplin tornado (jump to the interactive map here).

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We gathered tweets from all 50 states as well as for about 50 metro areas. Here you can see a zoom up on several states centered on Missouri.

zoom-may-25-pulse

The interactive map tells part of the story, namely a state’s or city’s overall sentiment about the weather, while the content under the “Analysis” and “Events” tabs reveal some of the “why” behind this sentiment: what were some of the most notable weather events occurring on a given day? [Note: our "events" feature has a bug in it and is currently turned off. In the future, icons will show up on the map to highlight out-of-the-ordinary weather events, like outbreaks of tornadoes, persistent flooding or drought, etc.] To what extent did the weather deviate from normal conditions? Why were tweets from, say, the South, uniformly negative during a certain time? What was happening when we saw a single positive state amidst a region that was otherwise negative?

We hope that weather is just the beginning. We envision using the Pulse tool to visualize nationwide sentiments about more complex, nuanced topics in the future—a sample of emotions about gas prices is just around the corner, and see our preliminary work on opinions about global warming. For now, you can explore the Pulse tool here, and let us know what you think!

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Message From the Bubble: A Concept for Periodic Videos About the Environment From A Roving Earth Bubble

by September 23, 2011

Brace yourselves, this is not high-production value material. Rather, this is a video that I produced in about 15 minutes, start-of-script-to-exporting-video-from-iMovie. It is the product of a brainstorming session during a great workshop put on by Liz Neeley of the COMPASS team at the U of MN’s Institute on the Environment.

Here’s the concept. I build an “Earth Bubble” that would be a moveable “studio.” Each week, or so, I plan and shoot a new video of the flavor of the one below. Aside from hopefully being a fun and engaging style, the final bit would be to zoom out and show where the Bubble is this week. Hanging from a tree, by a river… You get it.

Thoughts?

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Could A Social Q&A Site Like Quora Serve As Home On the Web for Information About Global Warming?

by September 21, 2011

quora-picture Over the past few weeks, I have been giving a good bit of thought to this question. Quora, began as a vibrant Q&A site for the start-up community in Silicon Valley. Its creators, who were key technologists with Facebook, know how to build a good interface. Their goal is not modest:

“Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.”

Some months back, I posed a still-unanswered question: Should Quora be used to gather and distill expert answers on polarizing topics? It is not at all clear if the answer should be “yes” or “no.” Perhaps, as a Quora admin put it in a response to another question of mine, the right strategy is to follow Wikipedia’s “be bold” policy, which is summed up in three words “Just do it.” In other words, it may be necessary just to start doing it and figure out a way to make it work. (more…)

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What’s Going To Happen To Your Vehicle’s Lithium Battery At the End Of Its Life?

by September 12, 2011

Energy consumed in transportation has been the focus of a number of recent posts here, including one contemplating the use of smiley faces to help drivers understand the impact of their behavioral choices, and one exploring why the cost-benefit balance is tipped against the purchase of a hybrid car based on fuel savings alone. Another big issue to consider with either a hybrid or an all-electric vehicle is the battery, which necessarily needs to pack a lot of charge, both by being large and, increasingly, by using metals like lithium.

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How a lithium-ion battery works: This illustration shows the inner workings of a lithium-ion battery. When delivering energy to a device, the lithium ion moves from the anode to the cathode. The ion moves in reverse when recharging. Compared to other rechargeable batteries, lithium-ion batteries can store more energy in smaller, lighter packages. This unsurpassed energy-to-weight ratio make them the battery of choice for consumer electronics like cell phones and laptops, but also a great fit for electrified vehicles. Illustration and text courtesy Argonne National Laboratory and was accessed on Flickr.

A recent post about the prevalence of rare earth metals highlighted how much there is to know about the components used to make current vehicles based on new technologies, like hybrid drive trains. Massive supplies of elements like lithium are going to be key to permit scale-up of hybrid and all-electric vehicles requiring lithium batteries. Supply can come from mining operations, as well as recycling. An article a few days ago in the NY Times Business section highlighted the reality that there is no consensus on how electric car batteries should be recycled or reused. (more…)

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