It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The first meter

This is a Dow Chemical plant in or near Clute TX, at about a meter above sea level. I am sure they take petrochemicals in. I am not sure what they ship.

Every structure you see in this picture is, I believe, on a single property. There are similar scale facilities all along the Texas Gulf Coast. What will happen to them if and (most likely) when they are permanently submerged? The economic consequences are clear enough. What about the environmental consequences? Will all these vast factories be evacuated in an orderly fashion?

The trains in the foreground explain the photo opportunity: the picture is taken from the highway overpass over the tracks. There is a vast surrounding territory which is absolutely flat.

Somewhat higher resolution picture here. If you are interested in the full 8 megapixel pic let me or Irene know; we don't have an appropriate server for it just now. There is an amazing amount of detail in the original shot.

photo: Irene Tobis (who rocks!)

update: Commenters seem to think it's important that these facilities are protected by levees. First of all, these levees become one meter shorter for each meter of sea level rise.

More to the point, though, one lesson of New Orleans is that protecting land below sea level indefinitely in an area subject to tropical storms is extremely difficult and expensive. I am not opposed to heavy industry: the current world population cannot survive without modern technology. I do think the industries in question should be paying attention to their own vulnerabilities to climate-driven sea level change, which seems very substantial.

Coping with the occasional flood is not the same thing as coping with sea level rise.

People with an interest in low-lying property have a tricky situation to negotiate. The best way to protect their property values in the short term is to deny the problem, and in the long term, to address it vigorously.

It's messy alright. In a way it's like the dilemma attached to any other real estate property with a defect, but it applies to a whole region. Unfortunately this inclines the people who are most motivated to deal with the potential problem to deny that it's serious.

update: Thanks, on the other hand, to the sharp-eyed commenters who pointed out that this is primarily a Dow facility, not BASF. I saw a sign on a gate saying BASF but apparently that is for a subfacility. There is a BASF location in Freeport TX on the property. Anyway, the text is updated with the correction.

Here's a map showing the facility for those interested.

update: This article is getting some attention from people outside my usual readership. Since I love attention, I'll ask y'all to stay tuned for an upcoming article in the week of August 6 on the science of sea level rise. update**2: Here is that article on sea level rise.

update: The New York Times has a relevant article about the difficulty in replacing large infrastructure here. From that article:

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey sometimes points out that digging for what are now called the PATH tubes, which connect Manhattan and Newark, N.J., began in 1874, two years before General Custer died at Little Big Horn.

Generally, the bigger an object, the longer it survives, because it has economic value, and has usually become intricately connected to things around it.

Replacing the Brooklyn Bridge, in service since 1883, would mean years of disruption, and the possible replacement of all roads that lead to it. The PATH tubes are still in place because they are still needed and because a new Hudson River crossing would cost billions. Replacing old nuclear plants would be similarly astronomical, even if the legal and environmental barriers could be overcome.

“You cannot just replace the old stock with new stock, without changing a lot of stuff around it,” said Viren Doshi, a London-based consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, who has studied the telephone and electricity industries. “So they keep on patching up the old stuff.”

update: Yet more thoughts about chemical plants near sea level.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Climatological Culture, Wunsch and Ruddiman

Ecologists, the science closest to environmentalism, have had a culture of protest and dismay for some time. It's not surprising, really, considering what they study and what is happening to it.

Climatologists are perceived as culturally close to ecologists, and perhaps there is a tendency toward a countercultural perspective among younger participants. (I'm sort of the oldest of the young here.) On the whole, though, the field emerges from culturally conservative, Eisenhoweresque roots; physics, agriculture, military logistics, aviation.

You can see this attitude in the curmudgeonly attitude of the few older climatologists who have strayed into the camp of the obfuscationists (I'm thinking Grey and Lindzen in particular, with a sort of half-tip-of-the-hat to Reid Bryson), but it's interesting to consider the position of the founders of the field. While you do get people willing to rise to the occasion like Hansen and Broecker, you mostly see very politics averse people. I saw Robert Toggweiler visibly shudder when climate policy came up in his detailed mathematical discussion of the dynamics of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current in the the glacial cycle. His attitude to climate change is to wish it were someone else's problem, because life was easier when he was further from controversy. The older generation didn't get into climatology because they wanted to be in the thick of controversy!

You'll see this in younger scientists as well. I know of a promising young scientist who has some ideas about tropical storm incidence in climate change, but is backing away from the field as quickly as possible under the glare of non-scientific controversy.

Now, all of us are frustrated by how little the world understands our own obsessions. Climate scientists don't think the policy questions are all that complicated. If only people would pay attention! Yet, most scientists pay very little attention to the larger context in which we operate. This is how Karl Wunsch got in trouble. He didn't see Durkin coming not because he was credulous, exactly. Rather, he had no imagination that a creature such as Durkin might exist!

For those of you who find that strange, I am pleased to report that another of the old guard, William Ruddiman, in the conclusion of his excellent book Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum (2005) reveals the mindset of the scientists who revealed the climate change problem to the world. Ruddiman's book argues that human-caused climate change began gradually with agriculture, and has been at an instrumentally detectable level for millenia.

Here are some quotes that reveal how Ruddiman learned about the Durkins of the world.

Until the past year or two, I kept a wary eye on both sides of the global warming debate. I discredited the disinformation coming from both extremes of the issue and tried to weigh the solid evidence and form my own opinions. Very recently, however, I have become aware that this dispassionate detachment may be too idealistic. The debate has taken a surprisingly ugly turn. ...

I told [journalists] that the global warming issue was a hornet's nest, and I didn't intend to stick my hand into such a nasty mess. I also said that I was willing to predict how ... the two extremes would probably react. ... Both of these predictions came true: reports on my hypothesis appeared in both industrial and environmental newsletters, each making use of it for their own ends. ...

my name had somehow been added as a recipient of several [contrarian] newsletters ... These newsletters opened a window on a different side of science, a parallel universe of which I had been only partly aware. The content of these newsletters purports to be scientific, but actually has more in common with hardball politics.

One technique is instant commentaries against any new scientific results that appear to bolster the case for global warming. ... A related technique is to cite published papers that address the same subject but come to conclusions more favorable to the industry view. In the cases where I know the science reasonably well, these papers do not match the rigor of the originals. ...

This alternative universe is really quite amazing. ... But this alternative universe is new and worrisome; in the name of uncovering the truth, it delivers an endless stream of one-sided propaganda. ...
Stop the presses, eh?

How different this attitude is from the one that the obfuscationists try to paint us with! This is the dominant culture of climatology.

Radio Interview: Me

I'll be on community radio on KOOP Austin's "Shades of Green" interview program Thursday at 1 PM Central Time (91.7 FM) and, I believe, streaming at . The conversation will be about the science of climate change in general.

(That would be 18:00 UTC according to my computer.)

My intention is to make it clear that I am speaking for myself and on my own time, rather than treating this as outreach. It's far from clear that my employer wants me being the voice of their climate change outreach.

Thanks to Ken McKenzie-Grant, whom I met at a Live Earth house party, for the opportunity to vent to a new audience.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Texas Flood

First of all, it's still raining and it looks to be getting worse soon.

The New York Times had an article recently about Ron Paul remarked on the strange confluence of far left and far right opinion. This has coastal folks baffled. It makes perfect sense in the south, though. People who dismiss "flyover country" and come up with stupid theories about what makes rural people tick drive me mad. They should drop their theories and try to get acquainted with the average Kinky Freidman or Ron Paul voter.

I'm on an interesting Texas-based mailing list. I won't identify the list; I'm not sure whether that would be a violation of trust, but I will say that it's interesting how kind and decent their hearts are and how confused their information is. There's some interesting dancing around religion on the list; people are going out of their way not to offend each other and I will stand by that. (While I won't point you to them I have pointed them to here.) This mutual respect is wonderful and remarkable.

The list pretty much begins with a substantive agreement that Something Is Wrong and We Must Do Something About It. While there are substantial and impressive competencies represented I have to say that broad education and scientific insight is distressingly weak. It's hard to imagine how this genuinely decent and courageous demographic can actually work together without making big mistakes.

There is blame aplenty on both sides for the nearly complete failure of the reds and the blues to communicate. I wish the courage and decency of this group could be combined with coastal sophistication. (Instead we have a government that combines coastal cynicism with heartland confusion. Great. Democracy at work.) Anyway I'll try to bring a little blue perspective to the list without being overbearing. It's hard to bite my tongue as much as I ought to.

So back to the point. Those on the list who are willing to treat climate science as authoritative seemed basically relieved when I told them that nothing uphill from San Antonio would be below the sea, ever. This strikes me as very strange; all the coastal counties, along with the enormous petrochemical infrastructure perched upon them, are at risk. The Katrina migration has affected everyone; refugees are scatterred hither and yon through Texas, and yet there is little concern what effect hundreds of times that amount of migration and homelessness might have on our beautiful hill country.

Meanwhile, August approaches. The high pressure cell that is supposed to be established over Texas by mid-June is nowhere to be seen. Rather, there's a persistent low. Rain occurs daily, downpours most days, and huge localized flood events pop up here and there in the hills. The normal high for the time of year is 97 F (36 C). Yesterday we barely hit 80 (27 C). An actual tropical depression approaches and we (and especially neighbors to our south around San Antonio and points south and east of there) may be in for some real trouble.

Statistically, one weird summer can't be called climate change, but the headscratching seen around here is very similar to what you saw in the shirtsleeve-weather Christmases in Chicago that have been popping up lately (including last year's one). Some people are sticking to their "climate change is natural" guns, but nobody except the statisticians suspects for a minute that what we are seeing is a part of normalcy.

I see the statisticians' point but there's a point they are missing. I don't think you can treat the various northern hemisphere anomalies happening this summer as independent events. I go along with the folk wisdom on this one. I don't suspect for a minute that nothing unusual is happening.

Update: The tropical depression fizzled. We are still fine.

Update: Hank Roberts points to a site with an alarming estimate of global flooding trends.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Hansen Expects Meters of Sea Level Rise Soon

James Hansen begins a popular article released today thus:
"I find it almost inconceivable that "business as usual" climate change will not result in a rise in sea level measured in metres within a century. Am I the only scientist who thinks so?"
Good question. Is he?

Thanks to Atmoz for noticing this.

Update: Some discussion on this on the GlobalChange list.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Walking Considered Weird

A readable article, flickering somewhere between respectful and mildly condescending, about a journalism professor appears in the Austin Statesman, focusing largely on the man's refusal to own a car. Living without a car, in Texas, constitutes news. One of the reader comments reads
"In the classroom we heard about his unique way of life. I guess I thought it was weird at the time, but consistently living according to one's own standards and convictions is something to be admired. Plus I bet his health care bills are next to nothing!"
On this score, This small city in Russia is very weird.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Jobs, Not Tree!

Read all about it.

Except for the bunny ears and a few telling anachronisms, it's a true story, you know.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

B-schools vs Scientists

I don't have much intellectual respect for B-school (school of business) types, and unlike most scientists I have had some dealings with them. It appears the pseudo-skeptics are getting a lot of mileage out of some bet that Al Gore is justifiably ignoring and some generic principles that do not apply promulgated by a Professor Armstrong.

I said in the comments to another article:
So the person behind accuses climate science of being unaware of . To this accusation I for one plead guilty.

He isn't moving the goalposts, he is inventing the game.

It is certainly the case that the sorts of forecasts he dwells on on his site are very difficult.


On the other hand, a forecast of the position of Jupiter in the sky exactly 50,000 years hence is quite feasible.

Climate physics is more constrained than social dynamics and less constrained than the orbits of the planets. So we can get more than 5 years and less than 50,000.

Beyond that you have to get into detail.

These guys are promulgating purported universal principles on the basis of an argument from authority, when as far as I can tell the only basis for their authority is having registered "".

Well, I registered some years ago. This means that anyone claiming to be three-dimensional will have to pass 83 criteria identified by me.
Well, that last bit goes a tiny bit too far. It appears that Armstrong has some authority. He is a professor at the esteemed Wharton School of Business.

While I am sure the Wharton School is more respected than the U Wisconsin - Madison B-School I have a couple of anecdotes about one of the most popular and respected professors at UW, a recent emeritus from whom I took a minicourse in management. I was universally assured by the B-school that this was an extraordinary opportunity.

The good professor X, whom I shall not further embarass by identifying, suggested that it is "not all that hard to start a business". He reported on an extensive survey over several business categories which he did by simply comparing the yellow pages (business phone directories) from two years a decade apart (say 1989 and 1999). He asserted that 80% of the businesses in the 1989 directory were around in 1999, and that therefore the rate of successful startups (defined as lasting a decade or longer) was clearly 80%. (Think about it.) The words "sample bias" escaped neither his lips nor those of any of the students. Nor did he distinguish between startups and existing businesses at all.

That was bad enough, but the time he used the question numbers on a questionnaire to weight the results really had me slapping my forehead. He made several other glaring logical errors. I saw the other engineer in the room rolling his eyes on one occasion. Everyone else was diligently writing down everything the illustrious professor X was saying.

To be honest, I did get a couple of insights from this course into how MBAs think, not all of them pretty but not all of them horrible either. It did strike me that they had essentially zero skill in quantitative reasoning though; they make economists look like von Neumann.

My father likes to tell the story of the successful illiterate businessman from the shtetl:
"Look, from factory in Minsk, I buy each piece for hundred ruble," he says. "In market at Omsk I sell each piece for three hundred ruble. And from this three percent (shrug) I make a living."
Anyway, James makes clear why it's not a bet worth taking, but implies that it is surely dishonest. I think this gives business people too much credit. Armstrong may or may not have chosen the points of comparison disingenuously. It may just be a perfectly honestly constituted invalid metric, an instance of Hanlon's Razor.

My father also has this to say about B-school types:
"If they know so much about how to get rich, why would they be telling you?"
Which disciplines to esteem and which not to in decision making is a difficult problem. Authority and competence may shift as time passes. As long as decision makers listen to bad advice more than they listen to good advice, we will have serious problems.

Is there some systematic way to tell the difference?

Update: Unfortunately but unsurprisingly this nonsense has made the op-ed section of the Wall Street Journal. That makes this interesting story relevant.

Update: The Armstrong thing is further dissected on RealClimate. The concluding summary says all you need to know.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Still Nothing About Polar Bears Here

My feed from the wonderful NASA Earth Observatory web series today looks like this:

News: Melting Ice Drives Polar Bear Mothers to Land
News: Volcanic Mudflow Witnessed in New Zealand
News: Faults’ Structure May Dampen Earthquakes

The last two links work normally, but the first one yields

The requested URL /Newsroom/MediaAlerts/2007/2007071225366.html was not found on this server.

Also I can't find any mention of the first one on their website. Of course, since speaking for myself I do not understand the Administration's position on polar bears, I therefore have nothing to say myself on the matter, but I am always interested to hear from those who are licensed to have Polar Bear Positions. Perhaps this does not include NASA.

I wonder whether the non-appearance of this item announced on my newsfeed is some sort of a glitch, or whether it has something to do with the present Administration's tight controls on matters of Polar Bear Security.

Update: Thanks to Coby's diligence and Googling "polar bears" I was able to find the source of the story here. Readers may wish to read it for their own interest. I personally will continue to say nothing about polar bears until I understand the Administration's position.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Attention Mayor Wynn

Bicycles are good enough for Paris. When will they be good enough for "green leader" Austin?

Jean-Luc Dumesnil, who is an adviser in City Hall on cycling policy, said that while the number of bicycles on the streets increased by 50 percent in the last six years, the number of cycling accidents remained stable.

“It’s the cycling paths, but it’s also a question of critical mass,” Mr. Dumesnil said. “The more bikes there are, the more car drivers get used to them and the more care they take.”

Bill Moyers' Eulogy for Lady Bird Johnson

From Bill Moyers' eulogy for Lady Bird Johnson:
[A] man called me back at the White House from the pay phone at a local train depot. He was choking back the tears. "As long as I live," he said, in a voice breaking with emotion, "I will thank God I was here today, so that I can tell my children the difference courage makes."
Moyers' eulogy is here; more stories here.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Should science drive policy?

As a fat person who is coping using a method I call "episodic Atkins" (I am now in a vigorous carbohydrate avoidance phase, alas. Texas without corn or beans is a much less interesting place... ) I take an interest in obesity stories. Here's one that in addition to being intrinsically interesting overlaps with our interests here. In a radio interview on Australia's ABC, Dr. Robert Lustig talks about the influence of dramatically increased sugar intake on obesity.

Two points:

1) It's interesting that I find him quite convincing even though I don't entirely follow his arguments. This is a part of the "consilience" argument that Oreskes doesn't get into. The guy sounds to me like a scientist. This intuition as to who is the real deal is well developed among scientists and ill-developed among the general public. It's not obvious how to develop this intution. Nevertheless, he is far from any area of my expertise, so my confidence is not perfect, and I am only vaguely able to recapitulate his argument.

2) It's interesting that he says "the science is clear, the science is there and the science has to drive the policy." It seems sadly familiar somehow. It is not hard to imagine the manufacturers' argument; freedom, consumer choice, obviously people prefer their hamburger buns spiked with corn syrup. The marketplace optimizes for what we choose it to optimize for. If we make no choices, some of what it will optimize for will be very bad. Good regulation is difficult but that is no excuse for no regulation.

I'll quote the last part of the interview. See, fellow climate worry-warts, if it doesn't seem strangely resonant:

Norman Swan: So do you check your home garage floor for brake fluid every morning, I mean you can't be the most popular person with the food industry?

Robert Lustig: Well I'm not, I am not, very much so. The Corn Refiners Association and the Juice Products Association have been on my tail, but the fact of the matter is the science is clear, the science is there and the science has to drive the policy.

Norman Swan: So what about the regulators?

Robert Lustig: Well we're trying to work with them, we are trying to do something about it. They are not moving very fast. In fact you may be aware of the International Obesity Task Force that met at the Sydney meeting in October and they came out with something which they called the Sydney principles. The Sydney principles involved marketing and advertising to children and trying to get rid of that, and they basically said that you have to do something about this and it has to be statutory in nature, it has to be regulated, it has to be a law. In fact in Europe 52 health ministers from the World Health Organisation from all the different European countries got together in Istanbul in August and agreed that marketing to children had to stop. Well in fact that is not happening in America.

Norman Swan: Nor is it in Australia.

Robert Lustig: Well probably not, but I just met with the commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, Miss Deborah Taylor Tait, and she mentioned that she expected that the food companies would police themselves, that regulation would not be necessary. In fact I said, excuse me but I disagree. In fact in 1978 the US Federal Trade Commission had an entire congressional hearings on marketing and advertising to children and the food companies actually lobbied congress to actually have that killed. And they knew why, they knew what they were doing then, and they are going to do it again because it's not in their best interest. They couldn't increase their profits by 5% a year if they didn't advertise and market to children.

Norman Swan: Dr Robert Lustig is Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco.

UKMO: Hot summers increasing in Europe

"Hot summers are now much more common," said Gareth Jones of the UK's Met Office, speaking at the IUGG meeting in Perugia, Italy. "The current sharp rise in the incidence of hot summers is likely to continue."

Not much more but there is a brief article at ;

Friday, July 13, 2007

Vonnegut quote

Thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.

- Kurt Vonnegut

Florida gets real

Florida starts to get real, anyway.
With California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger by his side, Republican Florida Governor] Crist signed executive orders setting targets for cutting carbon emissions from vehicles 30 percent by 2016, and rolling back the clock on power plant emissions to 2000 levels within a decade.

Crist also signed agreements to develop climate change policies with the United Kingdom and Germany rather than waiting for Congress and the White House to do so — even pledging to join California in a lawsuit if the federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn't approve its auto emissions standards.

"As the old adage goes, there's strength in numbers," Crist said.

Florida's addition to the growing ranks of states bucking the federal government on climate change has reverberated around the globe.

"Florida is just such an example of a state with so much to lose from climate change, and they have been doing relatively little compared to other states," said Judi Greenwald, director of innovative solutions for the Pew Center on Global Change, who worked with California to devise a plan for creating a market-based carbon emissions cap-and-trade plan.
Spotted here via Google News.

In a nice instance of the Assault on Reason, the article also quotes California weightlifter-in-chief A. Schwarzenegger as follows:
Now Schwarzenegger said the auto industry has put up a billboard in Michigan that reads " Arnold to Detroit : Drop Dead."

"What I'm saying is 'Arnold to Michigan : Get off your butt,'" Schwarzenegger said.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

How do we know climate models are useful?

Jim Manzi, who believes we have an anthropogenic climate change problem, (or at the least, someone unverifiably claiming to be Jim Manzi) nevertheless remains in the model-skeptic camp. He asks the following in response to Oreskes' presentation:

Page 64 is pretty amateurish – “many model-based predictions have come true”. Really, I have a causal model for predicting the winner of baseball games – the team that bats first wins. Look at this long list of predictions that my model has made correctly.

Pages 65 – 69 use the intense 2005 hurricane season as confirmation of predictions. 1. Too bad about 2006. 2. There is a reason that hypotheses are subject to falsification tests rather than confirmation tests .
Let me take these in reverse order.

The latter criticism of Oreskes is relatively stronger. A fair consideration of the point requires understanding of a few things:
  1. The climate system doesn't care very much about whether the tropical storms make landfall and 2006 was not unusually quiet
  2. Atlantic hurricanes correlate inversely with El Nino and 2006 was an el Nino year
  3. There are other components of tropical storm variability which are not known. The question of whether the 2005 Atlantic season was so anomalous as to require explanation is something of a judgment call. (The next few months will tell us something, as a negative El Nino anomaly, favorable to Atlantic hurricanes, has returned.)
As an aside I say that the lesson of New Orleans is not so much that the age of superstorms has arrived, though in fact it might be so. The lesson of New Orleans is that society should listen to well-informed people who say "listen to me before it's too late!" before it is, actually, too late.

In summary, though, the very peculiar Atlantic tropical storm season of 2005 doesn't constitute a trend in itself. It is however, part of a trend, and that trend is consistent with predictions. It certainly doesn't argue against the climate change consensus, and the very high sea surface temperatures of late support it.

On the first point I must disagree with Jim and agree with Oreskes.

The list of validated predictions is long and extraordinary, in the context of the near-stationary climate of historical times. It can be argued that Oreskes missed a very important one: cooling of the stratosphere, which is inconsistent with solar forcing which would warm the entire depth of the atmosphere.

Polar amplification, nighttime amplification, these are robust (all models that can replicate contemporary climate from primitive equations do this) predictions of dramatic change matched by robust observations. This is not cherry picking as Manzi suggests. If it were cherry picking he (or anyone) could identify comparably robust comparably unprecedented changes that were predicted by most GCMs that didn't happen at all.

Am I missing something? If so, please enlighten me.

So, Jim or some person claiming to be Jim, on what basis do you assert that you "don't think the models are validated"? As for the necessity of the models to constrain the sensitivity, even that isn't entirely crucial. We still have theory and (if you don't go along with some of your 'conservative' allies in ignoring any evidence that implies the world is more than 10,000 years old) pretty extensive paleoclimate evidence.

By the way, testing models against paleoclimate is one of the best ways to validate them. For the most part it works out OK, though in very warm periods (the Eocene, notably) the results have been sort of funky. Sriver and Huber of Purdue claim to have worked this out, though. On their theory, it appears that the tropics are less heated than the poles in hot worlds because a good deal of heat is transported poleward by relatively more active tropical storms.

The sensitivity range question was handled admirably by Annan and Hargreaves. James Annan stops by occasionally and may want to elaborate. James is more concerned about tendencies to exagerate the high end, but I think even Lindzen, if pressed, doesn't take a position much below the low end.

Reading List about Climate Change (not "global warming")

Another reason to use the expression "climate change" rather than "global warming" is it's a far more fruitful search term. Amazon's hits on "climate change" are dramatically more useful, though Singer and Michaels do turn up. I discovered this in responding to a query this morning from a nonspecialist about what to read after "Inconvenient Truth" to learn more.

Here's my first pass at a response. Suggestions anyone?
If you have the patience, there is no better source than the IPCC itself, especially working group 1. Start with the summary for policymakers.

Somewhat easier reading is Elizabeth Kolbert's book "Field Notes from a Catastrophe".

There are a couple of other excellent pop science books I know of that give a lot of context:

Snowball Earth by Gabrielle Walker

Update: Some good suggestions in the comments. Also here's a nice Amazon list.

Plows, Plagues and Petroleum by Warren Ruddiman

All of the blogs on my blogroll are well-informed, and they span a spectrum of opinion, so that's another place to start.

an email from Al Gore

Shameless copy of a shameless message from Al Gore follows. People who have a visceral dislike of Mr Gore are advised to look away. In his defense I rather doubt he wrote this thing. Would he really repeat the same request three times? Three times? Three times?

Nevertheless, I surely have more than five friends among my dozens of repeat visitors. So please join me and Irene. Sign up, be counted and help build a serious, moderate and non-ideological but smart and committed movement to get global change under control, because politics as usual isn't enough.
Dear Friend,

Thank you! Because of your hard work, millions of personal commitments have been made via the Web and SMS in 178 countries and 35 territories around the world. And our concert was not limited to 7 venues, but instead took place at parties and events in more than 10,000 homes and communities.

A decade from now, when people look back on Live Earth, what they will remember isn't what happened during the show -- instead my hope is they remember what happened after. More than 2 billion of us joined together on 7.7.07 and with one voice demanded an end to the climate crisis. We now have the responsibility to carry this movement forward and force our leaders to take action.

We need to take the first step today and make sure every single person possible joins us. That's why, right now, I need you to email five of your friends. Ask them to sign the Live Earth Pledge by visiting:

All of the actions we take from here on out to solve the climate crisis will be based on a simple premise: our home, Earth, is in danger. We don't risk destroying the planet, but instead risk making it inhospitable for human beings.

We have put so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that we have changed the heat balance between Earth and the Sun. And if we don't stop soon, the average temperature will increase to levels that will end the favorable climate balance on which our civilization depends.

The world must come together and direct our governments to take on a global challenge. Our leadership is a precondition for success.

We need to demonstrate that we have reached the tipping point where political will demands our representatives take action to solve the climate crisis. That's why it's so vital that millions of people sign the Live Earth Pledge.

Ask five of your friends to sign the Live Earth pledge today by visiting:

The climate crisis offers us the chance to experience what few generations in history have had the privilege of experiencing: a mission; a compelling moral purpose; a shared cause; and the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict of politics and to embrace a genuine moral and spiritual challenge.

Please email five of your friends right now. Ask them to join us in this cause and sign the Live Earth Pledge today by visiting:

Our work begins now.

Thank you,

Al Gore

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

R I P Lady Bird Johnson

To learn that more than four thousand native plant species are in danger of extinction in this country gives us a wake-up call and brings close to home the Wildflower Center's mission. Will these plants be lost to all but memory, with succeeding generations losing even that fragile connection? Are there sources of food, fiber or medicine that might perish with them? How do we save these species in the face of an ever-expanding human population and its impact on the land?

As daunting as the prospects may seem as we search for ways to protect and make room for nature, we must remember that there are success stories in all of this. Although we may not be able to save every single species, we can each do our part to protect them. Some of the answers lie as close as our own backyards, and as far as the highways that transverse this nation to its outermost reaches.

-- Claudia Alta Taylor "Lady Bird" Johnson

"Today, perhaps most people think of Lady Bird Johnson as the reason why we see wildflowers blooming along the nation’s highways and fewer junkyards and billboards. The Beautification Act of 1965 was one tangible result of Mrs. Johnson’s campaign for national beautification. Known as “Lady Bird’s Bill” because of her active support, the legislation called for control of outdoor advertising, including removal of certain types of signs along the nation's Interstate system and the existing federal-aid primary system. It also required certain junkyards along Interstate or primary highways to be removed or screened and encouraged scenic enhancement and roadside development.


"The term beautification concerned Mrs. Johnson, who feared it was 'cosmetic' and 'trivial.' She emphasized that it meant much more—'clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas.'


"Mrs. Johnson made it her mission to call attention to the natural beauty of the nation."


Lewis L. Gould, University of Texas professor and author of Lady Bird Johnson and the Environmental Movement, wrote in his preface: “If a man in the 1960s had been involved with an environmental movement such as highway beautification, had changed the appearance of a major American city, had addressed the problems of black inner-city youth and had campaigned tirelessly to enhance national concern about natural beauty, no doubts would be raised that he was worthy of biographical and scholarly scrutiny. Lady Bird Johnson’s accomplishments as a catalyst for environmental ideas during the 1960s and thereafter entitle her to an evaluation of what she tried to do and what she achieved.”

More here and here and a quite remarkable anecdote here. update: See also Bill Moyers' eulogy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Good News for a Change

Carbon sequestration looks better and better to me. It's been a long while since I could say anything like that on the global energy picture.

Will CO2 stay buried? My acquaintances closer to the field say yes. They point to the very long lifetimes of underground natural gas deposits, which are after all constited by an even smaller molecule. They insist there are places to put it, too.

Not only can it make coal a break-even proposition on the carbon front. (Economically of course it makes carbon fuels relatively more expensive, but that is by removing the hidden transfer of wealth from future generations, so it is a good thing for anyone other than a very shortsighted coal investor).

It's even more important than that! Sequestration is, so far, the only player that can remove net carbon from the system effectively and at low risk. Consider burning sawgrass and capturing the CO2 and burying it. If we mandate sequestration on biofuels, and we take care not to use crops from food-growing areas, we could actually not be talking about trouble vs crisis vs catastrophe vs armageddon. We could actually be talking about actual stabilization and even return to baseline.

In time to save the West Antarctic? Who knows...

If the cost of admission is playing ball with the coal companies, I say let's go for it. They do not deserve their good luck, but the rest of us do.

Update: Links here, (Susan Hovorka's name is misspelled in the article) here, here, and much more here.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Documenting the Consensus

Does science work by consensus? Actually, hmmm, yes, in fact, it does, as Naomi Oreskes and myself and perhaps most interestingly George Musser in Scientific American have recently asserted.

A very impressive collection of pro-consensus statements has been put together by "Logical Science" a.k.a. M.J.Sparrow a.a.k.a. Wacki, and can be viewed online here.

Sunday, July 8, 2007


I have never seen a single instance of an academic sector job posting that explicitly required project management skills, never mind certification.

This is madness.

I am thinking of getting a PMP cert anyway.

Also madness.

Update: As a Canadian citizen I appear to be eligible for some of these postings at the UKMO; I have (as the Brits would say) half a mind to apply. Farewell tacos, gorditas, enchiladas, beer with fresh lime, margaritas... ?

Live Earth House Parties

Well, I needn't have worried about being an old fogey.

Irene and I went to two different Live Earth house parties, and we met a whole bunch of interesting Austinites, but not a soul at either party was a day under forty (except for children of the host in one case, and I believe the hostess herself in the other) . Which was odd because most of the music wasn't pitched at us. I can report that all conversation stopped for Roger Waters' excellent (if a bit unadventurous) performance of his classics, though!

We are brimming with practical ideas and new connections.

Also, we signed a pledge including carbon neutrality. It appears that the live earth pledge is suddenly much less demanding than I remembered.

I warned irene that pledging carbon neutrality would be expensive. Our hostess looked nonplussed. She said "well, every time I take a plane flight I plant a tree" as if that were all there were to it. I tried to explain to the hostess that Irene had the disadvantage of being married to someone who could and would do the numbers. As long as we can, though, it is neutrality for us!

I was a bit taken aback by our hostess's conviction that there would be no inconvenience involved in carbon neutrality. I was very discouraged by the absence of any young people. The optimistic theory is that they all were so connected by AIM and myspace and such that they could pull together their own parties, but it seems more likely that American kids just don't do politics. Apparently the idea that young people are "more liberal" than the intervening generation does not extend to actual participation in any community activities, at least in Austin.

I'd love to hear reports from other places. Did you see anyone in their teens or twenties?

Update My conclusion from the response is this. The difference is that young people saw the rockstar all-star game as the event, while older folk thought of it as the excuse for the real event. Consequently the occasion attracted less serious young people as an entertainment event and more serious older people as an organizing event. At least, that's my working hypothesis. That still leaves a problem as to how to overcome this, but it's not as disturbing as the initial suspicion that young people don't care.

Update Some lively commentary ongoing since I posted a similar article on Grist. Nothing resembling a consensus emerging though, as yet.

Update: This looks quite a lot like the scene we saw, though we didn't land a political candidate. Note the boomer demographics.

Update: Julia Hargreaves has a memorable criticism of the whole business quoted on James' Empty Blog.

Mann, Tree Rings, etc.

Thanks to Jim Manzi, who in commentary to my posting about Oreskes' talk "How do we Know We're not Wrong?" asks a couple of provocative questions.

I am not an expert on tree rings and 1000-year scale reconstructions, so I will just say my peice on the subject and leave it at that. I'll have more to say about his modeling questions later, where I'm better armed, and more sure he is on shaky ground with his critique.

Anyway, for what it's worth.

I haven't met any of the tree ring people people and am almost a layperson on the subject except for a single journal club meeting at U of C, led by Rodrigo Caballero, with David Archer and Ray Pierrehumbert in attendance, so it was one of the many undeserved priviliges I had at U of C.

It was about von Storch's criticisms of Mann's statististics.

Mann, as is well known, produced a time series with considerable uncertainty but very little variation prion to 1900. This especially presented a threat to those who argued for large natural variation. To modelers, it was something of a surprise, because Mann showed our models to be exactly right, in fact, more right than most of us would have expected. (Mann's hockey stick reconstruction, modulo a couple of early bumps, does pretty what AOGCMs do.) It was also an iconic figure because the difference between preindustrial and postindustrial behavior of the atmosphere was so obvious.

In fact it appears Mann was in some sense "wrong". The way statisticians jump on people who aren't statisticians is, in fact, a bit obnoxious. They tend not to engage in the work of other fields until after it is published. (Fortunately there are exceptions, and our group does have a close collaboration with a statistician.) The fact remains that roughly 5% of the record of anyone else's reconstruction falls outside Mann's confidence bounds, so in a sense he was entirely right.

The other problems Mann had with bitwise replicability are very interesting and revealing of how science is conducted in climatology. Our practice is less formal than you might like in a life science lab and much closer to what happens in a small software shop, where the focus is on the output and not on the process. We think the importance of our work is so great compared to our small resources that will resist any imposition of process that reduces productivity. I see the other side of that argument but I'm not in the majority on that. In fact, I would be very pleased with a mandate that all public sector computing (except for a very small subset of security related matters) be performed entirely on an open source tool chain. I think the only reason a compelling argument to that effect hasn't been made is that it's a lost cause in the present political and economic context.

In practice, software in the scientific sector gets done by people trained in science and self-trained in software, and the maintenance and documentation issues for small-lab output (this does not include high performance models like GCMs to the same extent) would be considered amateurish and completely unacceptable in even the most casually run commercial software company.

Should somebody producing results you don't like should be held to higher standards retroactively? Called on the carpet in front of congress? Investigated publicly? That's the sort of thing that drives the best people out of science.

Von Storch pointed out that Mann's method systematically eliminated low frequency variability in the record. Subsequent reconstructions did show more secular variability, and since this was the point of greatest interest to the critics, they have declared him "wrong". The conclusion that contemporary temperatures are probably higher than they have been in a millenium, however, stands.

So, if the hockey stick is wiggly, what does that mean in practice? Our journal group was left with a damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don't conclusion. If Mann's reconstruction was right, the detection of the greenhouse signal would be unequivocal. (Remember this was a few years ago when there was a still tiny shred of hope that we were wrong about the basic physics.)

On the other hand, if the stick had more wiggles, if natural variability were higher, this would weaken the detection argument, but would be cause for concern that the climate system is "tippy", with a tendency to wander further from its equilibrium than models show. This means that perturbing the system would have larger century-scale effects, and that models likely exclude phenomena that would cause the prognosis to be worse than expected.

Many arguments about model inadequacy go like this: it's more bad if the models are overoptimistic than it is good if they overpessimistic. So risk-weighting means the less we trust the models the more we should worry. The pseudo-skeptics invariably get this one wrong, and the real skeptics (Hansen, Broecker, Lovelock) are quite worried as a consequence.

The bumpiness of the reconstruction also is used backwards in the arguments; the bumpy record does not argue for complacency. Yes, if the record is bumpier, the detection problems becomes harder, but that one is in the bag already. The bumpier the record, the more evidence we have of models missing system modes at time scales that we have to worry about even in conventional policy terms. If Mann is wrong about the bumpiness, we are in bigger trouble, not less!

Regarding Jim's "bow vs stick" question, that's a sort of Rorschach test, isn't it? There is no doubt that from about 4000 BC until 1900 AD there was a gradual cooling trend. Nobody is claiming that present temperatures are the warmest in the postglacial period. Yet.

Regarding the performance of the reconstructions within the 20th C, my understanding is that there are all sorts of confounds introduced by the onset of anthropogenic forcings, not least of which is CO2 fertilization. That said, I wonder why that effect wouldn't artificially steepen the curve rather than flatten it out, if we assume that any individual specimen grows more under conditions of more warmth and more CO2.

You have plumbed the depths of what I know about this. I don't make a big deal out of this particular question and I don't think Oresekes does either. These guys think it is unusually warm, and I tend to believe them because that is what I expect, but the reasons I expect it have little to do with their work. I am sure they share my expectations, and I am not sure how effectively they separate their expectations from their results.

Oresekes is pointing out that their evidence is consistent with other lines of reasoning. I'm more familiar with the other lines of reasoning and am happier defending them, but if I had to bet I'd bet that we are already at the hottest point in the lasst 1000 years and will probably exceed the hottest point in the last 100,000 years (which happened about 6000 years ago) soon.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Not about polar bears

Scientists representing the Soviet Union traveling overseas were enjoined from mentioning certain technical topics that might reflect negatively on soviet socialism, and were required to refer any questions about those polar bears to their accompanying commisar.

Wait, did I say "polar bears"? Sorry. Sorry. Never mind. This comment has nothing to do with polar bears. There is nothing here about polar bears.

Live Earth Events

Anyone have a take on this Live Earth thing (besides the ever-reliable Mr Duff who surely doesn't like the idea at all)? Those not in the favored locations can always watch it at local events on TV.

I figure I'll go to the local one that seems to have some momentum. I'll probably make myself unpopular by saying something pronuclear or insufficiently anti-corporate. My stunningly Austin-hip collection of vinyl records from the early 70s will obviously avail me naught. We'll see.

Anyway fellow Cintral Tixens who might want to see me make a damn fool of myself in a crowd most of whom are about half my age can join the party on Centennial Trail. Live bands, too! I'd be thrilled if an In It reader recognized me.

Cringe factor be damned! Let's turn out for the planet and see if there's some way to get some popular momentum behind changing things a little!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


Read this NYT op-ed on incentives before it expires!

RC on Monitoring and Modeling

I started blogging because I saw scientists losing arguments to obfuscators and specifically largely because I saw RC coming off as arrogant and overly casual. Far be it from me to take any credit, but I'd like to take note of the current RC article, which is extremely elegantly put together, and in which the provocations are being handled deftly.

The article is in response from the latest noise from the Climate Audit folks. It absolutely demolishes their silliness; as usual they start with a nitpick and try to blow it up into a showstopper. Realclimate puts the whole thing in appropriate context very effectively.

Some very interesting conversation about the nature of GCMs ensues, and I hope to have more to say about it. After all, some people have me listed as a "science blog", and it's time I delivered some substance where I have some expertise.

Meanwhile, please note another aspect of the converstaion, the money double bind.

Many of the nits being picked are consequences of and adaptations to inadequate and episodic funding, yet the critics claim that the whole business is motivated by overfunding and are constantly applying pressure to scale back. Rather, they should be advocating more funding for more data, better data, and more contemporary software engineering practice with extensive maintenance and software infrastructure.

So we are being yelled at for not doing things more carefully and transparently and with better data and easier replicability, but all of these things are expensive. Yet the same people doing the yelling are convinced we are getting too much money.

Of course, the expectation that the big picture will be overturned at this point is silly. There is admittedly no point spending more money to pay people to find a different answer unless the truth is actually different than what we've been saying for almost thirty years now (including several correct predictions!)

We still have a lot to learn, some of it with policy implications, but it's pathetic that people are still trying to make the "no such thing as AGW" case, and ridiculous that they accuse us of lying for the money and the proof is that we haven't spent more money on the problem.

To those reading from America, happy 4th y'all!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Environmental Economics vs Ecological Economics

A fellow named Zeke Hausfather has showed up on the globalchange list and is saying a lot of interesting things. At last I am getting some glimmer of an idea that some sort of sensible discussion is happening in some corner of economics. I hope this leads to some substantive reading at some point.

In the discussion (unfortunately marred by a moderator's error as you will see) on the Rolling Stone article aboout the "Secret Campaign to Deny Global Warming", Zeke offers the summary that there is a
fundamental divide in the community of economists studying environmental matters; namely whether unlimited growth is possible coupled with a dematerialization of the economy, or if we need to aim for a more "steady state" solution. This question largely divides Ecological Economists from Environmental Economists
which seems like a very good place to start. Much better than what we usually see, about "correctly discounting the future" and such.

I'm not sure which side I will find mroe attractive, but I am inclined to a belief that "unlimited growth is possible" as a designed feature. This is not because I believe that the quantities that have been growing, historically, are all that useful. Rather it is because I don't think the growing quantity is very meaningful at all.

If all of our systems are predicated on the increase of an arbitrary quantity, by all means let us try to arrange to gradually redefine it so that it tends to increase!

In other words, I see the "environmental" (vs "ecological"; what awful nomenclature) position as achievable by design as a retrofit, and preferable to revolutionary change in the economy on the one hand or ever-hotter flirtation with catastrophe on the other. The real economy, which will seek sustainability and serenity, will have to ride atop this artifact, but we won't need to unplug it!

Am I making sense? I wonder.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Developing Countries' View

Westerners and especially Americans tend to fail to understand the seriousness of the international equity constraints on our future behavior. Here's an article that spells it out.

Pradipto Ghosh, who retired last month as India's environment secretary and now sits on a committee advising India's prime minister on climate change, warned that the West must "get serious" about cutting its own emissions if it wanted progress on the issue.


At the heart of India's position on climate change is the notion that India - whose population is predicted to reach 1.5bn by 2050 - must be allowed to pollute on a per capita basis equally with the West.

That would imply drastic cuts in emissions in developed countries if the world is meet the target of keeping global warming within the generally agreed 'safe limit' of two degrees, as set out by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


Mr Ghosh said it was now up to the world to decide how big the 'carbon pie' should be at a certain point in the future - say, 2050 - and then agree that by that date all nations should have an equal entitlement relative to their size of population.


"There does seem to be a reluctance to appreciate our position," he concluded, "There seems to be an idea around that developing countries like India must accept the position of being second class global citizens in our planet.

"We can only hope that this is not the frame of mind in which negotiations are approached in the future."

US equivocation called costly from business perspective

Many interesting points are made in an opinion piece appearing in the Austin Statesman recently, by Michael Webber, the associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the UT's Jackson School of Geosciences. Webber's piece is entitled The U.S. lacks direction in climate change fight. It argues that failure of US leadership has direct economic and political costs.

The premise:

Since President Bush came to Washington, he has ceded control of the climate issue to Europeans. The result is a power vacuum that hurts American interests while setting up a bonanza for France and other countries that take hard-nosed, businesslike approaches to the issue.

What's especially confusing is that a majority of Bush's political allies, including energy trade associations and religious leaders, call for the kind of action outlined in the German proposal. Even major greenhouse gas emitters such as ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell and Duke Energy have said the time for debate is over and the time for action is now.

The conclusion:

With the decline of America's perceived moral leadership worldwide, global climate change could be the perfect remedy. It is our free pass to better foreign relations and higher profits.

It's time for America to lead again. If we act swiftly and earnestly, we can minimize the risks of outright disaster, improve our standing in the world and profit handsomely. That's the kind of strong, pro-American leadership we deserve.

It's an interesting way to put things. I wouldn't phrase things that way myself. An important point of note for me is that even from a corporate/competitive point of view it can be argued that US policy is inadequate.

Thanks to the Jackson School of Geophysics Quarterly for the link.