The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Doorway is Not Very Wide and Gets Narrower Every Day

It's important for the public and the policy sector to understand how very quickly our goals and aspirations slip away under the accumulating tide of CO2.

It's gratifying to see David Roberts, whom I've already frankly admitted is the best writer on our beat (I strive for second place) getting a platform on the increasingly visible and important and generally excellent Vox commentary site. But, though I basically agree with it, it's hard to be actually happy about David's recent piece on that site, and similar arguments elsewhere including a couple that David links to, by Brad Plumer and Oliver Geden.

To summarize, the actual realization of a 2 C peak warming is increasingly looking infeasible, and yet there is a reluctance to face this fact.

A couple of salient quotes from David's piece:
We recently passed 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere; the status quo will take us up to 1,000 ppm, raising global average temperature (from a pre-industrial baseline) between 3.2 and 5.4 degrees Celsius. That will mean, according to a 2012 World Bank report, "extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise," the effects of which will be "tilted against many of the world's poorest regions," stalling or reversing decades of development work. "A 4°C warmer world can, and must be, avoided," said the World Bank president.
But that's where we're headed. It will take enormous effort just to avoid that fate. Holding temperature down under 2°C — the widely agreed upon target — would require an utterly unprecedented level of global mobilization and coordination, sustained over decades. There's no sign of that happening, or reason to think it's plausible anytime soon. And so, awful shit it is.
There is not a politician on earth wants to tell his or her constituents, "We've probably already blown our chance to avoid substantial suffering, but if we work really hard and devote our lives to the cause, we can somewhat reduce the even worse suffering that awaits our grandchildren." [crowd roars]
Climate scientists, Geden says, feel pressure to provide the good news. They're worried that if they don't, if they come off as "alarmist" or hectoring, they will simply be ignored, boxed out of the debate. And so they construct models showing that it is possible to hit the 2°C target. The message is always, "We're running out of time; we've only got five or 10 years to turn things around, but we can do it if we put our minds to it."
That was the message in 1990, in 2000, in 2010. How can we still have five or 10 years left? The answer, Geden says, is that scientists are baking increasingly unrealistic assumptions into their models.
imagine the scientists want to blame the policy advisors and the politicians — after all, they didn't hide the unrealistic assumptions, they are right there in Appendix 17 for anyone interested.
And yes, theoretically, the policy advisers surrounding politicians should make clear to them exactly the assumptions required to produce the 2°C outcome. And politicians should be straight with their constituents about those assumptions.
However, as the kids say these days, politicians gonna politic. They all have enormous incentive to try to thread the needle, to accept the 2°C target on one hand while maintaining that current policy commitments are adequate, or might some day be adequate, on the other. To do that, they need evidence that success is still within reach.
It's the last two bits, I think, that struck a nerve with Mike Mann. After all, who can blame him for being a bit touchy about climate scientists being falsely accused of stuff. I think part of this problem, though, originates in the definition of "climate scientists". To those of us who have pitched in more or less in the practice of physical climatology, climate scientists "R" us. The people who show up at AGU. The people who contribute to WG I.

But to the world, "climate scientists" refers to the contributing disciplines to the other two working groups as well. It's the economic working group that is at issue here, and that's a group that includes a lot more people, including, if perhaps not Mr. Lomborg, at least Dr. Tol. Whatever the motivations and justifications for climatological defensiveness, the guns have come out a little early here. This isn't even talking about us, it's about the folk who run the emissions scenarios.

What's harder to understand is Joe Romm's high dudgeon. I think that what he's saying isn't even a disagreement, which makes it especially peculiar.

What are Joe's main points?
No, the really awful truth about climate change is that while climate scientists, the International Energy Agency, and many others have been increasingly blunt about how dire our situation is — and what needs to be done ASAP to avoid catastrophe — much of the so-called intelligentsia keep ignoring them.

The most recent example comes in a report out earlier this month from 70 leading climate experts (click here). The parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (aka the world’s leading nations) set up a “structured expert dialogue” from 2013 to 2015 to review the adequacy of the 2°C target. Early this month, the experts reported back. Thoughtfully, they simplified their key conclusions into 10 core messages. Among them:
  • Message 1: “Parties to the Convention agreed on an upper limit for global warming of 2°C, and science has provided a wealth of information to support the use of that goal.” Incorporating concerns about ocean acidification and sea level rise, “only reinforces the basic finding emerging from the analysis of the temperature limit, namely that we need to take urgent and strong action to reduce GHG emissions” (emphasis in original).
  • Message 2 (again, original emphasis): “Limiting global warming to below 2°C necessitates a radical transition (deep decarbonization now and going forward), not merely a fine tuning of current trends.” 
    Yeah, scientists just love to spread false optimism.
  • Message 4: “Significant climate impacts are already occurring at the current level of global warming” (which is about 0.85°C) and so additional “warming will only increase the risk of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts. Therefore, the ‘guardrail’ concept, which implies a warming limit that guarantees full protection from dangerous anthropogenic interference, no longer works.
  • Message 5: “The 2°C limit should be seen as a defence line … that needs to be stringently defended, while less warming would be preferable.”
  • Message 6 (from the 2014 IPCC mitigation report): “Limiting global warming to below 2 °C is still feasible and will bring about many co-benefits, but poses substantial technological, economic and institutional challenges.”
But, but...

See, I don't see where David (or Dr. Gedden) has disagreed with any of that!

I think it's important for the public and the policy sector to understand how very quickly our goals and aspirations slip away under the accumulating tide of CO2.

Too much happy talk about possibility hides how quickly the feasibility of any particular goal recedes. It's all about the last ton - the amount of net CO2 that will have been emitted at the moment that emissions actually attain to net zero.

At some point the curve becomes too steep to be realistic. Have we reached that point? If we don't rely on a net carbon negative future, probably.  Without a huge anthropogenic sink (which is a huge unfair burden on the future at best, assuming it's possible) it's all about the last ton. Everything else is quibbling. And to this day most people of influence do not understand the importance and urgency of the path to net zero.

I just yesterday had a long lunch with a college friend who has been very successful in the finance sector with a focus on environmentally friendly low-carbon energy projects, especially in the electric power sector. And of course progress in that direction is very much a good thing.

But there are reasons that it is far from enough for the marketplace to produce enough momentum to displace all that fossil fuel fast enough. And I had some trouble conveying the top-down view of gloom in the face of all the bottom-up optimism that a successful wind and solar finance guy could and should and does muster.

After being thoroughly depressed by the big picture as Roberts sketched it out (which basically expresses conclusions I had already reached on my own) it was difficult to convey this big picture to him. Nobody wants the bad news, but the fact is that, intractable as the political picture is, nothing will happen without a very rigorous international agreement that the main players are really committed to, and that such an agreement will not arrive this year in Paris, if only because the US is not capable of making a real commitment.

Indeed, winning over Republican voters in the US seems to be a sine qua non of a tolerable outcome, and the association of this issue with left/right and even civil war animosity has moved this outcome further from plausible.

So although there's still a tiny bit of light between us and 2 C, that path is caving in fast, and probably too fast for us to get there in our currently hobbled state. In the end, in the unlikely event that I live long enough to see the political situation improve, I will be happy if we manage a 3 C target.

I doubt we'll avoid 4 C without a treaty. Like it or not, burning coal is cheap. So cheap that without a global mechanism somebody will find a way to burn a whole lot more of it.

Our reach should exceed our grasp, of course. But we need some correction from reality too.

Let me repeat my recommendation of this picture book (the usual expression "comic book" seems especially inappropriate), Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni.

Squarzoni's conclusions:
But if I’m being honest with myself, I believe three things.
  • One: There’s a doorway we need to pass through. Technically it’s still possible to avoid the worst consequences of climate change and to take the necessary measures to manage the upheavals that are already inevitable.
  • Two: The doorway is not very wide. It closes a little more each day. And we have only a little time to pass through it.
  • Three: I don’t think we will pick that door.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Use Your Words

Guest posting.

Received in email via Richard Pauli with request to redistribute. I completely agree. -mt

After the Associated Press Stylebook mistakenly proclaimed,  "Global warming and climate change can be used interchangeably."  I had to protest.

Feel free to send it again, or edit and send to your newspaper.   It really irks me to see this confusion hanging on.   And it's more bothersome that AP is promoting the mistaken usage.   I usually avoid shaming campaigns, but here they deserve to be called out on their language.      

I sent this to AP via their contact page:
just want this confusion corrected.  Please forward as you like.  Cut and copy and even add your name:

An open message to the Associated Press,  

I write concerning your illogical conclusion that global warming and climate change are equivalent phrases.   They are not and it makes the Associated Press seem misinformed.   You have an awesome responsibility to differentiate these two meanings and you should rise to that challenge now - before it becomes even more embarrassing for you to correct.

Global warming is the average of what is happening to the entire globe, the global average temperature is rising.  The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research says that over all land and ocean surfaces, averaged temperatures warmed roughly 1.53°F in the last century (

Some scientists prefer the term 'global heating.'   But global warming is typically measured in degrees change to the global average temperature of the earth.

Global warming is not the same as climate change.

Climate is usually a regional reference to a series of weather events for that region.  Weather is one event, climate the aggregate of many weather events.   No matter how strange or extreme is a weather event,  when measured and recorded, then it becomes part of the defined climate for that region.  Climate change is often discussed as destabilizing trends in weather events. 

Climate change is not the same as global warming.

Climate change is a way of saying the data set that defines climate is moving outside of the statistical norms of what it used to be.   As such, meteorologists and climatologists might regard climate as a few decades of weather - sometimes 35 years.  If weather is in the region and date range of the defined climate, then we cannot exclude any weather event from the definition of that climate.   The climate of the Mediterranean differs from the climate of Iceland.   Both may be changing, but in their own ways.  

Climate does not cause weather.   Numerous weather events define a climate. 

No weather events can exist outside of the data set that will define the climate for that region.  If we have many weather events that are anomalous then soon we can say the climate has changed - all because the average of all the weather data has changed.    

We cannot say that climate influences a weather event.  It's just like the stock market where past performance is no indication of future performance.  Climate is made up of weather experiences in the past, not the future.  

  Over the last few years, or few months or few decades,  there have been noticeable statistical changes that allow us to say the climate for the region has changed.  "Florida's climate has changed a little since the 1960's... it's a little bit hotter."   Or "The Midwest climate has changed a little in the last decade, a little more stormy." 

Climate change is different than global warming.  The globe is made up of many different regional climates.   "New England's climate differs from California's".

They should not be called equivalent.  It is a mistake to say, "global warming is the same as climate change".    I have to echo the objections to using terms like "warming"  which connotes comfort.  It isn't.  It's heating.    And climate is not changing like it always did,  it is destabilizing like it never did before. 

Climate change and global warming share only the attribute of change.  A journalist for a regional news outlet may write about a specific local climate.   That should not be confused with talking about changes to global warming average temperatures across the whole planet.

I think it's vitally important for the Associated Press to demonstrate understanding of these two terms.

Thanks for your attention to this matter,

Richard Pauli

The choice

The anthropocene must be either well-managed or brief.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Why I am not a Paid Scientist

Why I quit being what I called a "senior junior" scientist. Specifically, samples of the sheer awfulness of the job of the staff scientist in a high performance software capacity appear at:

This documents some of my struggles trying to get some results out of climate models. The intellectual aspect is essentially nil - neither the scientist nor the programmer impulse is satisfied in any way by this nonsense. Basically I am dealing with a poorly documented code on a poorly documented platform with obscure error messages. The spawning of distributed memory jobs on a unique collection of processors with what amounts to a homebrew filesystem and a homebrew operating system which changes under your feet.

Once I had compiled code and tried to make a small change. It failed. I undid the change. IT STILL FAILED. I had a copy of the old executable and the old source. The old source and current source matched. The old executable and the current executable did not.

All of this is perfectly orthogonal to whether climate models are good models. But (if NCAR is any example) they are lousy software in terms of results per unit human effort.

My belief is that atmosphere models are excellent models for many purposes, ocean models are excellent models for some purposes, and coupled models are perhaps less fully tested than one might like but are absolutely necessary for our current state of knowledge.

But the experience of working with them is hellish, and being a single person trying to get them to do anything outside the environment in which they were developed is a lonely and demoralizing task. Frankly it (along with some other stresses outside the lab to be sure) almost killed me, and I am glad I am out of there and somewhat recovered.

Kate a.k.a. ClimateSight refers to this problem in a recent and interesting posting and has some comparable kvetching here; I promise you getting this stuff running at scale on an unsupported non-NCAR supercomputer facility is much harder than getting it to do a few timesteps on a commercial box.

Being a tenure-track scientist is tough, but settling for a staff scientist career (which I thought would be less stressful) really didn't turn out to be any picnic. There is much to say about this, some of which projects onto climateball obsessions and much of which doesn't. In general, climate folk don't complain much, partly for fear of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and partly because there's a ludicrous geek cred in solving absurd and arbitrary problems - it doesn't do to whine too much.

But the problem is among those endemic to computational science. Brown. Knepley and Smith have a very cogent article on the subject "Run-Time Extensibility and Librarization of Simulation Software" whose abstract reads:
Build-time configuration and environment assumptions are hampering progress and usability in scientific software. This situation, which would be utterly unacceptable in nonscientific software, somehow passes for the norm in scientific packages. The scientific software community needs reusable, easy-to-use software packages that are flexible enough to accommodate next-generation simulation and analysis demands.
It is not only an important and excellent piece, but it also has quite an amusing opening section, though perhaps only to those who have suffered through the problem.

And that, friends, is the story of how I pissed away several years of my life.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Simultaneous Defection from Civilization and Abdication of Power

I asked the following question on Twitter:

"Do you think a stabilized climate is possible without a globally binding emissions treaty? How?"

I specifically directed the question to @drvox (David Roberts, formerly @drgrist) as well as to @Tokyo_Tom (about the most cogent self-described libertarian I have encountered on the net) and was gratified to kick off some conversation. What I am discovering is a widespread tendency among some to treat the UNFCCC process as laughable and beside the point, and a widespread tendency among others to treat it as the whole ball of wax.

I am in the latter category.

I asked the question to investigate my suspicion: that the dismissal of the UN process is common across the political spectrum in the US, while relatively rare elsewhere.

I am interested in more data points. I would like to know if this point of view actually dominates among left, right, and center in America.

It would seems to me especially ironic if it turns out that the Americans have a rare social consensus in actively torpedoing the process. At present the US as a sovereign entity in the negotiations happens to have an extremely powerful negotiating position, one which will gradually slip away.

For those interested in projecting US power, this stubborn failure to even contemplate closing a deal seems like an amazing abdication of an opportunity.

For those interested in living in peace with the world, America's failing to engage in the formalities of a carbon treaty, which have been set up with great cost and difficulty, just seems uncivilized.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Problem With Ecomodernism

From my perspective on the climate issue, which some call “alarmist”, the principal issue is to get to carbon neutral or carbon negative. I am sure some of the proposals on the table to achieve this are bad ones. To the contrary, bad policy is always much easier than good policy. But continuing laissez faire is surely among the worst ones, as we can not get to net zero that way until it would be far too late and a great deal of damage would be done.

Bad policy, including continuing the effective no-policy policy which is the easiest bad policy, is probably the likeliest outcome. But we very much need a good policy despite the odds.

Doing policy right is a huge challenge to global collective decision-making, which (GATT, WTO, IATA etc.) has some successes that people somehow like to forget.


One idea going under the rubric of “lukewarmism” is that getting to zero is not important, so that the no-policy policy is fine. On this view, we just need to slow down a little. This simply fails to understand the physical constraints on the problem.

Another view, until recently called the "breakthrough" view and now being rebranded as "ecomodernism", also supports the no-policy policy while at least bowing in the direction of a carbon neutral future.

That new “ecomodernist” push implicitly restates the Breakthrough Institute (BTI) position that getting to zero follows from technological innovation alone. Again there is no need for a policy instrument on that view. That is exactly the stated position of the main players in the fossil fuel industry. But the immense economic interests of that industry are in slowing that transition down. If they extract the full book value of their reserves, which “fiduciary responsibility” says they are supposed to do, the outcome will likely be somewhere between grim and cataclysmic. Avoiding that is the reason we need a globally binding policy.

Bjorn Lomborg adopts both of these positions - he advocates that the problem, while real, is smallish AND that technology will solve it left to its own devices with perhaps some research subsidies but no regulatory effort.

“Lukewarmism” and “ecomodernism” are wishful thinking in my opinion.


In the real world, there is a fossil fuel industry, and the imperatives of capitalism put them under enormous pressure to do us harm. Some sort of global regulatory instrument is needed. Doing this responsibly and effectively will be very difficult. The fact that lots of people would just as soon that such a process fail for their own ideological reasons just makes matters even harder.

On the whole, I agree with the ecomodernism perspective, that we ought recognize the immense capabilities of modern science and technology. Though I have some problems with his recent essay, on the whole I agree with Stewart Brand (who indeed has always been an inspiration to me) that we should work toward a world not just of defending a shrinking natural endowment but of enhancing it.

See the Planet3.0 manifesto (which I wrote, drawing extensively on Bruce Sterling and David Schaller) for more. Is it ecomodernist? Maybe so.

But to the extent that the ecomodernist manifesto does not take account of the real-world obstacles to that goal, it ducks the very question it pretends to be addressing. There is no workaround to a global, binding treaty.


UPDATE: Hmm, there's a problem with this stance. The Planet3.0 manifesto is pretty handwavy on how to jump those hurdles too (though it does at least allude to them).

More to follow.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

You say Texian, I say Tejano

"How to talk Texian" by a Yankee quotes Molly Ivins & other Texians 

Nice, but I want to know how to pronounce "Texian"

Have heard Tex-EE-an but don't believe it was 19th century vernacular. Tekshuns? Compare Parisian, Tunisian. see