How much gas do we pass?

A Silicon Valley success story: Greenhouse gas detection meters. Plus: A Chinese weather station mystery

Published February 3, 2010 10:34PM (EST)

Todd Woody's best-in-show coverage of the clean energy scene (which now appears at his Fortune-based blog Green Wombat, Grist, and The New York Times) continues today with an intriguing story reporting how California has begun installing high tech greenhouse gas detection meters across the state.

The purpose is to give regulators an improved handle on the precise source of emissions. As we grapple with climate change, the problem of measuring and locating emissions is an increasingly critical issue. As Woody points out in a companion piece, China's unwillingness to agree to emissions verification standards requested by the United States was a key reason why the Copenhagen climate talks broke down.

In the course of his story, Woody introduces Picarro, a Silicon Valley startup that manufactures the "analyzers" used to detect gas concentrations. Based in Sunnyvale, Picarro sells the analyzers for $50,000 a pop. If all goes well -- which for Picarro means, essentially, that the world takes seriously the challenge of climate change, and institutes some kind of cap-and-trade or carbon-tax mechanism that requires detailed analysis of exactly who is pumping what into the atmosphere -- then Picarro is looking at a solidly growing market. Imagine how many detectors China, now the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, might need? Picarro is displaying exactly the kind of entrepreneurial spirit necessary to prosper on a hot planet.

Of course, if you pay attention to the climate skeptic blogosphere, you will currently find it more convinced than ever that global warming is a crock. Their latest cause celebre: New revelations in The Guardian that the director of the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Center, Phil Jones, may be in hot water over the accusations of scientific fraud having to do with Chinese weather station data.

A somewhat confused overview of the story is here. A detailed and fascinating breakdown of what actually happened is here. Of all the stories generated by the hacked climate change e-mail controversy this one has by far the most meat.

The key question, how much did urbanization contribute to rising temperatures in eastern China? If temperatures rose because previously rural weather stations were swallowed up by expanding megalopolises then some doubt is cast on whether that data supports theories of human-caused global warming. In an influential paper published in Nature in 1990, Jones argued urbanization was a minor, basically irrelevant factor. However, it has turned out very difficult to verify critical information about the Chinese weather stations -- including, for example, the question of whether those stations were physically moved over time, thus invalidating their readings. Jones's handling of the data, and his refusal of Freedom of Information act requests aimed at getting access to the data, doesn't look good.

HTWW is in full agreement with Jones correspondent Michael Mann when he refers to the skeptics as a "crowd of charlatans ... [who] look for one little thing they can say is wrong, and thus generalize that the science is entirely compromised. " But the more clarity we get about how Jones ran the Climate Research Unit the less it looks like how we'd like to see scientists conducting their business.

But I found the end of Fred Pearce's Guardian article recounting this story is particularly fascinating: Jones's most recent research at least partially invalidates his own earlier findings!

In 2008, Jones prepared a paper for the Journal of Geophysical Research re-examining temperatures in eastern China. It found that, far from being negligible, the urban heat phenomenon was responsible for 40 percent of the warming seen in eastern China between 1951 and 2004.

This does not flatly contradict Jones's 1990 paper. The timeframe for the new analysis is different. But it raises serious new questions about one of the most widely referenced papers on global warming, and about the IPCC's reliance on its conclusions.

It is important to keep this in perspective, however. This dramatic revision of the estimated impact of urbanization on temperatures in China does not change the global picture of temperature trends. There is plenty of evidence of global warming, not least from oceans far from urban influences. A review of recent studies published online in December by David Parker of the Met Office concludes that, even allowing for Jones's new data, "global near-surface temperature trends have not been greatly affected by urban warming trends."

Although I am pretty sure that Phil Jones's career as a scientist will suffer permanent damage as a result of the hacked e-mail revelations, I am heartened by the fact that his own research reexamining the data came to a different conclusion 18 years after the original study. Because that's how science should work. You keep crunching the data, you keep reexamining your assumptions, you expose it to mercilessl criticism. You improve the state-of-the-art.

And of course it always helps to have more data. So let a thousand Picarros bloom! Let a thousand weather stations contend! Let the skeptics wail away on the emerging scientific consensus with all their might. My suspicion is that their efforts will only end up making the case for global warming air-tight.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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