Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Google Wades into Climate Debate

By John Brandon Published April 05, 2011 Google is diving headfirst into the climate-change debate with a "21 Club" of hand-picked experts that the search engine giant hopes will drive the conversation -- and guide investments -- in climate change. But it's a discussion that even the club's members say is meant to be one-sided. “If Google included people who challenged that debate, they would be wrong to do so,” said Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor for the School of Communication at American University and one of the 21 Google Science Communication Fellows. “As to whether climate change is happening, humans are a cause and it is a problem -- there is no scientific debate over that," Nisbet told A review of the 21 Club confirms Nisbet's comment. The group includes meteorologists, communication specialists, and even weather forecasters, as well as few scientists who research climate change for a living. None argue that the planet isn't in imminent danger. Simon Donner, with the University of British Columbia, recently wrote that unless coral reefs learn to adapt, climate change may rapidly bring on their demise. Noah Diffenbaugh of Stanford University recently concluded that "global warming exacerbates poverty vulnerability in many nations," arguing that the cost of food staples in Bangladesh, Mexico, Indonesia and other countries will jump with the temperature. "There is consensus amongst scientists that humans are changing the Earth's climate," reads the mission statement on the Helmuth Lab website, headed up by Brian Helmuth of the 21 Club. From food to rocks to plants to sea life, the 21 Club believes climate change to be a dramatic problem -- one that requires dramatic action. Eugene Cordero with San Jose University even created the Green Ninja, a climate-action superhero who fights global warming. “Our goal is to foster an open dialogue and provide the tools,” argued Amy Luers, the senior environment program manager at, the non-profit funded by Google, speaking to Depending on what the scientists learn, they may develop a system that shows where climate change is occurring on the globe. Or, using technology such as Google Earth, they might map out detailed models showing the effects of climate change. In other words, some day you might be able to find out that the water near Costa Rica is 1 percentage point warmer since 1980, or that Alaska's glaciers have melted … slightly. Google's position toward climate change should not come as a surprise; the company has historically shown a penchant for Democratic causes. As reported last October, Google gives more to Democratic politicians than to Republicans, for example. Follow the money So what's Google up to, anyway? Part of the motivation seems to be funding new climate change research. Jack Gold, a research analyst, told that promoting new research often ends up generating new product ideas. He said having good models for climate change can also feed into the company's own data visualization efforts. The company likely sees the search term “climate change” popping up in search results, too. “They are probably reacting to what people are interested in,” Gold said. Jon Peddie, a consumer analyst with Jon Peddie Research, told that Google may have other motives in mind. “They are pursuing offshore wind farms along the East Coast of the U.S. and probably want to build a solid case for the need to get off oil,” said Peddie. Whatever the reason for the project, Google has big ambitions: has already doled out about $100 million in grants, mostly to green tech start-ups and alternative energy consortiums. Google to the rescue? Climate studies also involve enormous data sets from many sources and massive computing requirements for data collection. Google has the computing muscle to help analyze that data and make sense of it. “It includes conventional weather data collected by the meteorological services of the world, at the surface of the Earth and in the atmosphere from balloon-borne instruments and satellites," said Richard C. J. Somerville, a research professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the primary sources of climate-change data. "It also includes satellite and ship and buoy data to give ocean temperatures. It includes measurements of glaciers and ice sheets and sea ice, made from satellites and on the ice itself.” Another key purpose is to make climate-change data more “accessible,” to use the parlance of Google's mission statement -- and more discoverable, of course. The company likely has pure motives, tech analyst Roger Kay told But Google is also interested in important issues that make the company look good. “This promotes Google’s overall brand, to be associated with problems and perhaps solutions.” And finally, don't forget that it may all come down to business consideration. Remember all those people searching for "climate change"? “Google won’t be able to sell ads if we wipe ourselves out by not mitigating the effects of climate change,” joked Kay.

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