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

Friday, August 31, 2007

Interesting Talk

Unfortunately I missed it since it coincided in time with me coming to realize I had a kidney stone. :-(

Anyway I thought y'all might enjoy the abstract just the same.
>>Dr. Robert Mace (P.D., 1997)
>> "Policy and Science: An (Ethical) Match Made in Heaven?"
>>In the ideal world, science and policy stroll down the wedding aisle
>>arm in arm, smiling warmly to family and friends, eager to start their
>>new life together. However, after the wedding bells stop clanging, the
>>cake is gone, and those tans earned during that Bahamas honeymoon fade,
>>reality sets in, with science often feeling like it*s tied to the
>>railroad tracks with the policy train asteaming in the distance. A pure
>>scientist, using the scientific method as their creed, wants to see
>>reproducible results and testable hypotheses-and expects policy
>>decisions to be based solely on fact. Policy, on the other hand, is
>>often a complicated equation with the most transiently random variable
>>of all: people. In most cases, the people making the policy decisions
>>are not scientists. What appears as fact to a scientist is far more
>>fuzzy to a policymaker. For the most part, policymakers want to base
>>their decisions on good science. However, if a policy issue is
>>controversial, then the waters get murky quick-with good science getting
>>the murk. Savvy detractors to good science may attack the scientific
>>method as being biased, claim unrealistic certainty to appear infinitely
>>credible, and make mountains out of a study*s molehills. Good science
>>may trip on its own feet because of poor communication, a tepid defense,
>>being non-transparent to the public, or having its scientists cross the
>>"advocate line," a line that separates scientific facts from personal
>>biases and personal opinions. What*s a scientist married to policy to
>>do? Recognize the flaws of your partner (as they recognize the flaws in
>>you...), realize that facts are one small part of policy decisions,
>>ensure that when you speak your voice is understood, remain ethical, and
>>remember that, in the end, good science-as fact-always wins.
I agree, except for the last clause. The truth, unfortunately, may not prevail in any reasonable amount of time. We are still arguing Darwin in this country!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Food and Carbon Dioxide

The NYTimes, peculiarly and I think inappropriately in the "Media and Advertising" section, has an article on the connection between meat and carbon emissions. It's interesting enough. I think the vegetarians have a point, very much unlike the "vegetable-mile" people, who complain about how far your food has travelled, who as I will explain in an article soon, have it fundamentally and deeply wrong.

I don't have much to add right now, except to point out that anyone who wants to follow up on the "University of Chicago Study", given that the Times astonishingly and inexcusably does not even deign to name the researchers (thank you Media and Advertising section) should look for Eshel and Martin, Earth Interactions, Vol. 10, pp. 1-17, March 2006, available here.

Some Obfuscation from Patrick Moore

The Greenpeace apostate, Patrick Moore, has an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun that really includes no falsehoods that I noticed, but seems deliberately contrived to confuse.

Old growth forests are not carbon sinks, bit paper plantations aren't either. Harvesting lumber for furniture and building construction is a minot carbon sink, but using that lumber makes matters worse. In the case of using lumber to incerase the size and energy intensity of housing stock, surely the impacts dominate the modest sequestration.

It is usually possible to make a case for just about anything by selecting your evidence carefully. The usual name for this is cherry-picking. Unlike some other fallacies, cherry-picking arguments are almost invariably disingenuous.

I have no opinion yet on the De Caprio movie that was the occasion for Moore's rant, but this is enough for me to lose any inclination to take Patrick Moore seriously. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, he also appeared in the Great Global Warming Swindle swindle. Enough said.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Systematic Noise

Denial of science can be dressed in leftist or rightist garb but as described in the PLOS medical online journal, it follows universal patterns.
Deniers also paint themselves as skeptics working to break down a misguided and deeply rooted belief. They argue that when mainstream scientists speak out against the scientific “orthodoxy,” they are persecuted and dismissed. For example, HIV deniers make much of the demise of Peter Duesberg's career, claiming that when he began speaking out against HIV as the cause of AIDS, he was “ignored and discredited” because of his dissidence [23]. South African President Mbeki went even further, stating: “In an earlier period in human history, these [dissidents] would be heretics that would be burnt at the stake!” [1].

HIV deniers accuse scientists of quashing dissent regarding the cause of AIDS, and not allowing so-called “alternative” theories to be heard. However, this claim could be applied to any well-established scientific theory that is being challenged by politically motivated pseudoscientific notions—for example, creationist challenges to evolution. Further, as HIV denial can plausibly reduce compliance with safe sex practices and anti-HIV drugs, potentially costing lives, this motivates the scientific and health care communities to exclude HIV denial from any public forum. (As one editorial has bluntly phrased it, HIV denial is “deadly quackery”) [24]. Because HIV denial is not scientifically legitimate, such exclusion is justified, but it further fuels the deniers' claims of oppression.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Whom to Trust?

Atmoz takes on the main issue, the core problem, the nub, the crux, the 64K question:
A person unable to judge the scientific validity of two differing viewpoints will tend to agree with the group that... [choose a,b,c, or d]
Atmoz puts his chips on d:
d) is best able to express their side in simple terms
Much as I am glad to see people taking the bull by the horns, there are two problems with Atmoz's analysis.

The first is the confusion between description and prescription: the article goes on to discuss what people ought to do, though the question is phrased in terms of what they tend to do.

The second is that his choice is pretty much not going to help. In prescriptive terms, d is no better than the others. A false explanation "it's the sun, stupid" can be much simpler than the truth, viz., "optical depth in certain infrared bands can be set by small concentrations of a colorless gas, changing the balance of the longwave cascade to space and thence the lapse rate".

The only sensible approach I can see is e) relies upon a network of trust. e is similar to a, except that e is based not on whether you like the advocates of a position, or share their culture or ideology or religion, but on whether you trust their intellectual judgment and their network of connections to people who understand the matter at hand.

One must admit that there are difficulties in all directions. On plan e, sound judgements depend crucially on a sound social fabric. The civilization whose fabric is frayed is in a very poor position to make sound judgements using this method, but it's hard to see any others that could do as well.

Does My Prius Help?

While we generally disagree on how it shakes out on this or that issue, I have always agreed with John McCarthy's principle (well, OK, one of his principles):
He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.
Recently I have heard, both from a genuine climate denialist (the only one I have met in person, she was charming and infuriating) and from left wing bloggers that the negative manufacturing impact of a Prius outweighs its environmental positives.

Here's a peculiar video (it meanders back and forth into and out of sarcasm in a way that I find exasperating) wherein numbers are bandied about to intimidate, but no serious comparisons are made. Nevertheless, Jerry Mander, who among leftwing kvetches is one whom I admire more than most, is in there arguing against buying Priuses. He suggests that buying a used car has a smaller impact.

Before starting to think about this, that if you are more worried about peak oil than about climate change, let's stipulate that the Prius is a clear winner. If we switch to lower fuel consumption vehicles, the liquid fuel will last longer and the transition to alternatives will be smoother.

What about climate change? My initial response was that Mander's position is ridiculous. I decided to do a back of the envelope calculation to prove it, and I failed.

I did my calculation in dollars. Suppose I fill the tank of my Prius a thousand times over its lifetime (a reasonable number.) Suppose, generously, that an alternative car would have had half the mileage. So we have saved twenty or thirty thousand dollars worth of gasoline on a twenty-five thousand dollar car. Case proved, right? There is no way thirty thosand dollars worth of energy went into the manufacture of a twenty-five thousand dollar car.

But wait. Manufacturing typically uses coal, not petroleum. Petroleum has not been competitive with coal in stationary manufacturing for a long time, as liquid fuel is much more in demand for portable engines. Also, there are huge distribution costs and consumer taxes associated with gasoline that don't apply to coal. So let's backtrack to the historical pump cost of gasoline before the shortage started to bite, about a dollar a gallon, and assume only half of that is energy cost, the rest being tax and distribution. Now we have cut the actual energy savings to the equivalent of $5000 worth of fuel. Can the energy component of manufacture and delivery of a Prius exceed $5000? Hmmm, that starts looking plausible.

OK, but we aren't talking costs, we are talking impacts. Of course most stationary large scale manufacture is coal-fired, and coal has roughly double the climate impact of petroleum. This means the break-even point on climate change is on the order of $2500 worth of coal.

All very crude estimates, but a bit shocking.

So I not only failed miserably to prove that the Prius is a net gain on the climate front, I find in the end that the contrary is quite plausible. I haven't proven Mander's position, but it seems well within the range of possibility.

However, I missed a point that goes the other way. We are talking about the *saved* fuel so we should be talking about the *excess* manufacturing energy. Does it take that much more energy to manufacture a Prius than a comparable non-hybrid? That's the number we should really be thinking about.

I imagine the bulk of the extra energy cost if there is some is in the manufacture of the battery. Replacing the battery costs, what do you know, about $3000. Hmmm.

As the video points out, there is also a direct environmental cost in terms of the mining and refining that goes into the battery, but I would think this would be tiny in comparison to global climate change, no matter

So the back of the envelope analysis is inconclusive, but so far leans in favor of the Prius as a net positive in climate change, compared to a conventional vehicle, although much less obviously so than you might suspect.

The people claiming that it is a net negative really ought to come up with better numbers than these and make a quantitative case, though.

Remarkably, great minds thinking alike, Climate Progress has something to say about this peculiar meme; Joe apparently worked harder at this one than I did.

Of course, whatever we choose to drive or fly, we should drive or fly less.

Does it make environmental impact sense, as Mander argues, to preserve nasty old equipment in rather than purchasing less nasty new equipment which has manufacture costs. I guess the answer is, that depends on the new equipment and the old equipment as well as how you cost things out. You'll have to do your own arithmetic, and the information you want won't be all that easy to find.

But hey, I bought my Prius used. :-)

So I am off the hook, right?

Update 7/29/09: This silliness is still hanging around, as silliness does. There now is a more substantive response on The Energy Collective. 

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Widespread Fire in Greece

Fires pushed by gale-force winds tore through more parched forests in Greece, swallowing villages and scorching the edges of Athens on Saturday with ashes raining onto the Acropolis. (NASA photo via Associated Press and the SF Chronicle)

"Massive fires consuming large areas of southern Greece for a third day raced toward the site of the ancient Olympics on Sunday, engulfing villages and forests as the flames reached one of the most revered sites of antiquity.


Fires are burning in more than half the country," Diamandis said. "This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece."

Elsewhere, flames were less than two miles from the Temple of Apollo Epikourios, a 2,500-year-old monument near the town of Andritsaina in the southwestern Peloponnese, said the town's mayor, Tryphon Athanassopoulos.

"We are trying to save the Temple of Apollo, as well as Andritsaina itself," he told Greek television.
PETROS GIANNAKOURIS, Associated Press Writer

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Missing Feedback

People who are relatively sanguine about a climate sensitivity of 3 C per CO2 doubling often miss a number of points. The following are just about the climate system itself, not about the impacts of these changes on human infrastructure or the natural environment, nor about the direct disruptive effects of increasing CO2.
  1. That's a sensitivity, not a prediction. If we cause the atmospheric concentrations to more than double, the temperature perturbation goes up still more.
  2. There are other human perturbations besides CO2, some of them significant greenhouse gases, and all of them wildcards in relatively complicated climate dynamics
  3. It's the sensitivity of what has arbitrarily been called the "climate system" for the purposes of certain scientific reasoning processes. What we should be concerned about is the sensitivity to emissions, not the sensitivity to concentrations. The sensitivity to concentrations is pretty well constrained to be near 3 C per doubling, but we have a far less well-constrained idea of how much net emission corresponds to such a change in concentration.
The last point is widely underappreciated.

We know from paleoclimate evidence that there must be multiple feedbacks in the system. Here's how the argument goes:

Solar forcing is synchronous with much larger climate changes than it can account for directly. We see massive retreats of ice sheets more or less synchronized with peak summer insolation at the southern edge of the ice sheets. That is, when the earth's orbit wobbles so that the sunshine is greatest in, say, the middle of Canada, it is hard for the ice to maintain itself from one season to another, and the ice retreats. This makes qualitative sense.

But whoops! It doesn't make quantitative sense. The thermodynamics don't work out. A little ice should melt, and the ice should retreat a little, but it abruptly almost all goes away. Something gives the system a very big kick, the warming trend runs away, and the ice vanishes relatively abruptly.

SO we notice that CO2 increases synchronously with the ice retreat. Work that in, and it all works out. The extra CO2 enhances the greenhouse effect. The enhanced greenhouse effect rapidly warms the edge of the ice sheet. The ice sheets melt. The theory works out in detail, the models replicate the paleobotanical evidence, and Bob's your uncle.

OK, so problem solved, right? Well, no, not really. Nobody knows how the extra carbon got into the atmosphere. We don't really understand the fluxes of carbon in the system on the time scales of rapid natural climate change.

What we can be pretty sure of is that there is a mechanism whereby increased temperature leads to increased carbon, and we already have a mechanism whereby increased carbon leads to increased temperature. Now fortunately there must be some limit to the process or we would have all been throughly boiled and then steamed long before we had this conversation. On the other hand, that process must exist.

So we need to worry about whether that process has any extra ammunition.

In an excellent series of articles on Grist, Joe Romm points out the serious consequences of this error. Like me, Joe suspects land surface processes are the key, though he doesn't refer his argument to paleoclimate evidence. There are reasons based in isotopic evidence that argue against this, and the majority of the paleoclimate community therefore believes in an all ocean process as the missing feedback.

For now it doesn't matter. We are giving a tippy system which we don't fully understand an extra push; an extra carbon pulse is a very likely result.

This feedback is entirely unrepresented in most climate models. Joe's latest article refers to preliminary results from the first model to model the climate system and the carbon fluxes in a unified system. That news is not good.

I think there are all kinds of scientific reasons why coupling the carbon cycle into a climate model to create what is being called an ESM (Earth System Model) is premature. Many of the cirticisms unfairly leveled at GCMs and CGCMs will be leveled quiasi-fairly at ESMs. The results of these models are not at all trustworthy and it's very hard to say if and when they will be.

Presumably the Mojojojo set, who for some godforsaken idiotic peabrained psychotic reason would prefer to have more money in a lousy world than less money in a nice one, will argue that since ESMs are unreliable, they should be ignored. The contrary is true. If we cannot well constrain the carbon cycle, we need to account for the possibility that a great deal more carbon is lying in wait for us, be it under Siberia, or Greenland, or Antarctica, or the bottom of the Atlantic, or the swamps of Amazonia. Wherever it came from in the past, there might be more of it.

The feedback from temperature to carbon is not well understood but that does not mean it does not exist.

As usual the mojojojoists start with a nugget of scientific truth (the temperature inflection seems to lead the carbon inflection in the ice cores) and promote exactly the wrong conclusion. They conclude that it proves that CO2 does nothing.

(Of course, since they are determined to spew all the CO2 in their nefarious plot to destroy the Power Puff Girls and take over Townsville and then rule the world, every single piece of evidence anywhere is presumed to prove that CO2 does nothing).

In reality this is another piece of evidence that indicates that nature is likely to happily match our contributions to our impending calamity. That "temperature is the cause of the CO2 rise" argument does not prove the falsity of "CO2 is the cause of the temperature rise". They must both have been true in the past.

If they are both true now our boat could be much leakier than the usual understanding of a 3 C sensitivity indicates.

Earth's Blogger profile

Earth's Blogger profile is linked here

I claim no credit for Earth's interesting bio, though I am a huge fan of hers.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

More Extraordinary Flooding

There have been unusual flash floods in the "upper" (northern) midwest this week. Here's a spectacular road washout in Wisconsin on State Road 60, a road I am personally familiar with and very fond of. It's a beautiful autumn drive that I highly recommend, but it looks like there will be a bit of a detour this season.

Here's a plot of recent rainfall accumulation from Jesse Ferrell's blog at Accuweather. This would be over the week ending Monday the 20th; contours in inches.

A Lose-Lose Proposition

Oh joy. The Peachfuzz Administration strikes again. From the NYTimes this morning:
WASHINGTON, Aug. 22 — The Bush administration is set to issue a regulation on Friday that would enshrine the coal mining practice of mountaintop removal. The technique involves blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams.

It has been used in Appalachian coal country for 20 years under a cloud of legal and regulatory confusion.

The new rule would allow the practice to continue and expand, providing only that mine operators minimize the debris and cause the least environmental harm, although those terms are not clearly defined and to some extent merely restate existing law.


The regulation is the culmination of six and a half years of work by the administration to make it easier for mining companies to dig more coal to meet growing energy demands and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

They Have One Point

I conceded as follows on RealClimate:

I’m afraid that I agree with the skeptics that even when published our codes are unnecessarily impenetrable, inadequately validated, inadequately linked to the literature (which itself is unnecessarily impenetrable, although IPCC reports are a big help in the latter regard).

We climatologists do not seem willing to acknowledge that our unanticipated responsibilities really do require more formality and more accountability than was the case when we were pursuing what amounted to a peculiar and idiosyncratic academic curiosity.

Our most adamant critics do not seem willing to acknowledge how difficult, expensive and risky such a change would be even in the best, most civilized and most supportive of circumstances. Such benign circumstances are not the ones those same critics are, for the most part, willing to grant us.

Tamino didn't refer explicitly to my comment but I agree completely with his susbequent comment:

A man goes to the hospital with severe chest pain, a shooting pain in his left arm, shortness of breath, and when the intern on call listens with a stethoscope she hears a highly irregular heartbeat, typical of heart attack victims. The intern orders an EKG, which shows the classic pattern of heart attack, so she pronounces that he’s suffered a major heart attack and orders the appropriate treatment.

Suddenly another doctor comes in. Hold the phone! The software used by that EKG machine has never been validated! It’s not “open source!” It can’t be trusted! Tell that patient to go home, we’ll call him back as soon as everyone agrees that the EKG software doesn’t have a “bug.”

Validating the EKG software is a good idea. But let’s not make the already overworked interns do it, and let’s not make the already underfunded hospital pay for it. And since we have a plethora of lines of evidence of lifethreatening illness — so many that even if the EKG is totally SNAFU there’s still no doubt — quit stalling, for GOD’S SAKE get that patient into the critical care unit. Stat.

Update: I hope this isn't construed as me saying the effort to model climate has been fruitless, (though I suppose it will be so construed). In Tamino's analogy the EKG machine we actually have is a bit clunky and its user manual is wretched, but it's better than no machine at all and it has many appropriate uses. All of which is neither here nor there as far as the patient is concerned.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Shareholder Actions and Sustainable Prosperity

Via The Panelist, an interesting article on on shareholder resolutions about corporate greenhouse gas policies.

Update: I'm interested in how little interest y'all are showing in this.

What's your take? Is this approach at all feasible?

Can investor democracy work?

Is it even legally possible for a publicly traded company to behave ethically if its financial interests pull it toward unethical behavior? Isn't it considered the responsibility of the company to maximize shareholder return to the exclusion of all else?

Admittedly consumer pressure can influence consumer oriented companies, the more so if their market is educated and otherwise has good taste (e.g. Apple). The question is whether stockholder pressure can alter business behavior to the point where the business is actually negatively impacted.

Admittedly, BP and Exxon approach environmental matters differently. Corporate culture definitely matters. The question is whether stockholder culture matters, and whether it might matter sufficiently.

Monday, August 20, 2007

How Do They Sleep?

I mean seriously. How the hell do these people manage to sleep at night? It's hard to imagine they don't know what they're doing.

What good is money in the diminished world they are creating anyway?

I can't fathom it sometimes. My best theory is that they watched superhero cartoons as children and decided to be the bad guy.

Update: Bloggers need to quote directly. The link is still live but the article is vastly less egregious than it was. Interesting.

Delusionist Arguments Ranked

A fellow named John Cook got in touch asking for inbound links.

He's been working very hard at producing a well-designed and informative "global warming" information site focusing on the ill-founded contrarian arguments out there.

I found this page in particular to contain original and interesting research. It must be a bother to maintain it, but it could be a useful tracking index.

Nasty feedback loop

Nuclear power plants require water cooling, and avoid climate change. Climate change reduces the volume and increases the ambient temperature of cooling water flows. Nuclear capacity may be taken offline, implying an expensive restart at best.

This is probably not a first order problem with nuclear power specifically, but it is illustrative of how when you start pushing systems out of their accustomed range you start seeing informal assumptions violated by the real world.

Large cooling systems need to account for uncertain water supplies and increasing water temperatures.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Plausible Inference Solved? And so?

I saw an astonishing book at Borders today:

Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems Networks of Plausible Inference by Judea Pearl

If I gathered correctly, under the rubric of AI, Pearl essentially provides rigorous analysis of how to reduce a system of weakly held beliefs into the optimal decision. I am not sure I still have the brain cells aligned right to absorb it very quickly, but it seemed to me potentially very important, and all my plausible inference circuits were telling me the man did it right.

Of course it is heavily Bayesian. It's all about a complex set of relationships between prior beliefs and their consequences.

If my cursory reading is correct, he claims he could systematically reduce a sufficiently formally stated set of beliefs into the most plausible mutually consistent subset, and use them formally to offer likelihood ranges on a decision. Exclamation point.

In the end, I left it there. Maybe if it had been $20 instead oif $85 I'd have picked it up on the spot. I hope someone with their math neurons fully engaged who's interested in policy will give it a thorough reading. It's in a sense quite miscast as an AI book.

I don't think the perfectly reasoned response to uncertain information matters as much as it should, but I also don't think the methodology is practicable in practice for very large problems like climate policy. It's the estimate of prior belief that is the problem. I am sure the monkeywrenchers corporate and anticorporate will be doing their best to prevent coming to sensible conclusions anyway.

I often see my civilized, calm and safe European colleagues (Annan and Gerhauser in particular come to mind) talking about optimal paths and controllable risks. This all stuns me. Of course the optimum policy exists. It appears there are better developed tools for obtaining that optimum than I knew about. Nevertheless, people will not concede their sovereignty to a formula, no matter how cleverly construed, certainly not in all countries and certainly not at all times, on any known precedent. They will cling to their illusions, and some of those illusions will be dangerous, as we ought to have learned from the Easter Islanders.

What good is plausible inference when based on demonstrably inconsistent and yet strongly held views? How can a democracy take account for such an optimization when easily half the population believes things that are impossible?

This is why we will be very lucky to avoid a great global population crash sometime in the relatively near future. It's not that we can't see things coming, it's that we don't always find ourselves in societies with the capacity to react to the balance of evidence.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Cure Worse Than Disease?

Trenberth and Dai in GRL argue that injection of aerosol into the upper atmosphere reduces the vigor of the hydrological cycle, and thus is not a good compensation for greenhouse gas forcing. Even the abstract is behind the firewall! (That seems a bit counterproductive on any model of scientific publishing.) Here is the abstract:
Effects of Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption on the hydrological cycle as an analog of geoengineering

Kevin E. Trenberth and Aiguo Dai
National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, USA

[1] The problem of global warming arises from the buildup of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels and other human activities that change the composition of the atmosphere and alter outgoing longwave radiation (OLR). One geoengineering solution being proposed is to reduce the incoming sunshine by emulating a volcanic eruption. In between the incoming solar radiation and the OLR is the entire weather and climate system and the hydrological cycle. The precipitation and streamflow records from 1950 to 2004 are examined for the effects of volcanic eruptions from El Chichón in March 1982 and Pinatubo in June 1991, taking into account changes from El Niño-Southern Oscillation. Following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in June 1991 there was a substantial decrease in precipitation over land and a record decrease in runoff and river discharge into the ocean from October 1991–September 1992. The results suggest that major adverse effects, including drought, could arise from geoengineering solutions.

Received 27 April 2007; revised 4 June 2007; accepted 26 June 2007; published 1 August 2007.

Keywords: Pinatubo, hydrological cycle, geoengineering.
Greenhouse forcing enhances the hydrological cycle, but in general not enough to compensate for evaporation, leading to much headscratching among the general public about how increased flooding and increased drought could both be valid predictions.

I think their overall conclusion, that we should not rely on geoengineering to extract us from our predicament, is true enough for another reason I have rarely seen cited; if we don't have the political structures to limit climate disruptions it is hard to see how the decisions to control any geoengineering effort can be put in place.

This isn't to say that T & D are wrong, of course.

If they are right it raises some interesting questions, in the context of this summer of astonishing flooding here in Texas and neighboring states, in the UK, in China, in Korea. To what extent do existing anthropogenic aerosol emissions already suppress the otherwise anthropogenically enhanced hydrological cycle?

Nick Kristoff's NYT Op-Ed

Nicholas Kristoff has issued the first of a promised sequence of New York Times op-eds, urging action on climate change, especially on the part of the US. Oddly and unfortunately, the Times has decided to hide these calls to action behind their subscription firewall.

The big splash seems to be coming from Kristoff's reporting Al Gore's expectation that today's youth react in some way comparably to how us boomers would have:
"I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers,” Mr. Gore said, “and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants.”
It's an interesting question, but I don't think it's Kristoff's biggest contribution. I think the concluding paragraphs are especially salient. This is where I'd like to direct your attention:
Critics scoff that the scientific debate is continuing, that the consequences are uncertain — and they’re right. There is natural variability and lots of uncertainty, especially about the magnitude and timing of climate change.

In the same way, terror experts aren’t sure about the magnitude and timing of Al Qaeda’s next strike. But it would be myopic to shrug that because there’s uncertainty about the risks, we shouldn’t act vigorously to confront them — yet that’s our national policy toward climate change, and it’s a disgrace.

Washington Post Op-Eds

Interesting meta-commentary on Denialism, via Atmoz. Good stuff.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Truth: The Neglected Virtue

A couple of very interesting complementary items appear on the blogroll:

Fergus has a lament that is very similar to the ones that finally got me starting blogging, here. It appears that reason is not enough.

Overcoming Bias is a site that advocates that people think more like statisticians. This can be difficult. Statisticians tend to be more like snipers than collaborators sometimes, alas. It's very easy to get criticism from them, but much harder to get good advice. I suspect that the nature of the field makes bemused contempt a natural response. Nevertheless, I certainly aspire to think like a statistician, and one of the better pieces of advocacy for that approach is currently on offer at Overcoming Bias.

Both pieces seem to come to more or less the same place via very different routes. Probably the best we can do is to be open-minded ourselves, they suggest. Maybe so, but I'm afraid that may be too little, too late. We need to change the culture at large, not to be greener or kinder or gentler, but to revive the value of intellectual honesty.

Not entirely tangentially, one of the reasons I advocate programming as part of basic high school education is that you cannot cajole, bully, bribe or whine your algorithm into submission. I wish more people simply had the experience of right versus wrong at this fundamental level. We now have a tool at our disposal to make that possible.

It's Not That Hard

The Climate Spin blog has been interesting of late.

In a recent article, Rob Jacob points to recent improvements in science journalism exemplified by Newsweek reporter Sharon Begley.

While it's starting to dawn on American journalists how they have been played like a fiddle for the past couple of decades, (something many of us have found painfully obvious all the while) it still seems that they miss important stories. It amazes me that a unanimous declaration by all the G8 science academies got no reporting whatsoever outside a few blogs.

I'd like to know how things get to be considered news at all.

Erin Go Sploosh

It's rainin agin.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A congressman reports on science

Quoted via Daily Kos:
Now, what a lot of people don't know when we talk about global warming or the CO2 emissions, that is the gas that is depleting our ozone, the vast majority of that is created naturally, not by humans. Yes, human activity that I am going to talk about in a minute does contribute to that.

Now, as I understand, the major contributor and the most significant contributor to CO2 emissions is livestock.
- Representative Lee Terry (Republican of Nebraska)

There really ought to be some sort of actual penalty for being that wrong. Moynihan's principle applies: one is entitled to one's own opinion, but not to one's own facts.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Another Bunny Story

I hate to scoop Dr Rabett on his home turf again, but he's on vacation and this from the New York Times is certainly deserving of note.
The rabbit-proof fence — or bunny fence — in Western Australia was completed in 1907 and stretches about 2,000 miles. It acts as a boundary separating native vegetation from farmland. Within the fence area, scientists have observed a strange phenomenon: above the native vegetation, the sky is rich in rain-producing clouds. But the sky on the farmland side is clear.

Update: an image from the UAH Bunny Experiment Website. Eli beware; there seems to be some talk of a bunny fence blog...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Dyson Exegesis

Freeman Dyson starts an article with the words "My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models". Yet his article is hardly about climate models, or their relationship to experts or citizens, at all.

I personally have no disagreement with the "third heresy", the idea that the USA is at the end of its hegemony, by the way. I actually think this is occurring now, not 50 years hence as Dyson suggests. I have no idea what this has to do with the purported intent of Dyson's essay, though.

The primary practical (as opposed to theoretical) problem our field needs address these days is to identify specific regional trends and risks, to inform adaptation. This is as opposed to the mitigation question, whether and how much to change our behavior to reduce climate impacts.

The question of how much to mitigate or not is not primarily about climate science anymore, but about economics, ecology, and values. Dyson points out that this is not "a problem in meteorology", and on this point, it must be said, he is very much correct. We already know that the global temperature sensitivity to equivalent CO2 doubling is near 3 degrees C.

The fact that this is considered to be in doubt is a consequence of people using meteorological uncertainty as a diversion, in order to avoid the issue for as long as possible. Dyson fails to understand how this is happening. Like most older scientists he lives in an older, more civilized world than the rest of us occupy. So he misunderstands where the controversy comes from.

That said, his position seems to meander: carbon is a land management problem, but it isn't a problem anyway, and we might kick off an ice age and we might not and... Many of the common misconceptions and not uncommon hubris are scrambled together here. This isn't a serious article, it's an intelligent but essentially uninformed rant. Unfortunately I have to call it irresponsible.

It's also a bit incoherent. So I respond below to some of the individual points made without further summary.

Dyson's text is in blue, my responses in black. Hopefully people inclined to take Dyson seriously on this matter will come by here and think again.

PART I Paragraph 2

The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds.


That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

Um, I must have missed a step here... In fact climate model experts do not particularly "believe" models. Our skepticism is informed and consequently rather complex. Do we believe this, did we capture that... So here Dyson is completely off base.

Paragraph 3

the warming is not global

This is just confusion. He should read my realclimate article on the definition of "global warming".

Paragraph 4

The number that I ask you to remember is the increase in thickness, averaged over one half of the land area of the planet, of the biomass that would result if all the carbon that we are emitting by burning fossil fuels were absorbed. The average increase in thickness is one hundredth of an inch per year.

Per YEAR!!! On every piece of viable land, under economic use or otherwise... He certainly identifies a viable carbon sequestration sink, but the idea of an inch of graphite per century being redistributed on all land everywhere in soil restructuring is hardly a trivial matter to handwave away.

Anyway, notice he is already wandering away from climate modeling and has said very little about it.

Paragraph 5

Changes in farming practices such as no-till farming, avoiding the use of the plow, cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this. If we plant crops without plowing the soil, more of the biomass goes into roots which stay in the soil, and less returns to the atmosphere. If we use genetic engineering to put more biomass into roots, we can probably achieve much more rapid growth of topsoil. I conclude from this calculation that the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem of land management, not a problem of meteorology.

Well, it certainly isn't an EASY problem in land management. However, I agree with Dyson that the focus on meteorology is misplaced in the mitigation arguments. Climate science is crucial on the adaptation side, but all the focus on it on the mitigation side is a red herring and a vicious one.

What Dyson is proposing here seems at first blush unrealistic to me. Of course I'm always hopeful when a mitigation startegy is proposed that doesn't involve too much disruption. I don't know if he's talked to soil experts or agronomists. What it is, is a very coarse approach to a mitigation strategy.

Let's be pleased, at least, that Dyson acknowledges a problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Paragraph 7

When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories. Many of the basic processes of planetary ecology are poorly understood. They must be better understood before we can reach an accurate diagnosis of the present condition of our planet.

Well, the topic has suddenly lurched to ecology. This has little to do with climatology. I think I can say that ecologists I know would tend to agree with this, but it has nothing to do with what is normally charitably described as "anthropogenic global warming skepticism". That's not the disturbing part, though. This is:

When we are trying to take care of a planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient, diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured.

Yikes! So should the patient keep ingesting the toxin meanwhile?

PART III Paragraph 3

If human activities were not disturbing the climate, a new ice-age might already have begun.

Maybe so.

We do not know how to answer the most important question: do our human activities in general, and our burning of fossil fuels in particular, make the onset of the next ice-age more likely or less likely?

Nonsense. (He wheels out the usual misinterpretation of Broecker's ocean-driven change scenario, but no scientist is expecting any ocean circulation changes to overwhelm the huge warming and kick off an ice age.) This is simply a layman's mistake and totally out of line with the evidence. Here he is simply substantively wrong, and repeating a common misconception.

PART IV Paragraph 2

First, if the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is allowed to continue, shall we arrive at a climate similar to the climate of six thousand years ago when the Sahara was wet? Second, if we could choose between the climate of today with a dry Sahara and the climate of six thousand years ago with a wet Sahara, should we prefer the climate of today? My second heresy answers yes to the first question and no to the second. It says that the warm climate of six thousand years ago with the wet Sahara is to be preferred, and that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may help to bring it back. I am not saying that this heresy is true. I am only saying that it will not do us any harm to think about it.

It does no harm to think about it, but it can do a great deal of harm for a celebrated person to speculate in an uninformed and incorrect way. We are changing the overall forcing of the system much more than the shift from 6000 years ago to today. The extent to which this is the case is quantifiable.

Essentially the natural shifts on that time scale amount to moving solar input from one season to another. The climate system responds in interesting ways, ways which, by the way, are replicated by climate models operating from first principles.

Our present forcing operates at all latitudes in the same direction. The system cannot respond identically. Humans are focussed on climate at the surface, but physics cares about the entire depth of the atmosphere; surface conditions are an important but not a dominant component. We cannot replicate a prior natural climate with an atmosphere whose radiatively active components are different than those seen in nature.

The idea that we will drift smoothly into and settle down to a lusher more convenient climate is a fantasy and a rather stupid one. Yes, a blundering near unconscious drunk could, in fact, blunder into a wonderful jet-setters party and be celebrated for his wit and plied with champagne and caviar. This is no reason for him not to sit down and recover his wits; the champagne thing is rather a long shot.

Update: Promoted from comments:

Ugo Bardi said...

Excuse me. I have a question. At some point Dyson says:

In humid air, the effect of carbon dioxide on radiation transport is unimportant because the transport of thermal radiation is already blocked by the much larger greenhouse effect of water vapor. The effect of carbon dioxide is important where the air is dry, and air is usually dry only where it is cold. Hot desert air may feel dry but often contains a lot of water vapor. The warming effect of carbon dioxide is strongest where air is cold and dry, mainly in the arctic rather than in the tropics, mainly in mountainous regions rather than in lowlands, mainly in winter rather than in summer, and mainly at night rather than in daytime. The warming is real, but it is mostly making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter. To represent this local warming by a global average is misleading.

I am not sure of whether this is correct or not. Sounds reasonable, but, on the other hand, considering the level of the rest, it may not be. Is this the reason why the higher latitudes are warming more than the lower ones?

My reply:

Thanks Ugo. I'm really astonished that I missed this. I must have been rolling my eyes up a little too high.

The argument you quote is invalid for two reasons.

First, the greenhouse effect never fully saturates; increased optical depth continues to warm the surface long after the atmosphere is essentially opaque to outgoing infrared waves.

Second, for the most part there is little overlap between the absorption bands of H2O and CO2.

The idea that the effect applies "mainly in mountainous regions rather than in lowlands" is particularly astonishing. It is exactly 180 degrees from the truth.

It is the integrated column depth of greenhouse gases that trap the outgoing IR. Mountains, being nearer the top of the atmosphere, experience less greenhouse warming than the surface.

So "particularly in the mountains" shows that the author has never even sat down with the undergraduate level approximation of how atmospheric radiative transfer actually works. It's really quite shocking.

In fact, the high latitudes are more sensitive to warming. However this is not because they are dry but rather, in part, because of the persistent presence of low clouds, (exactly contrary to the tale he is trying to spin) as well as ice-albedo feedback. See, e.g., Holland and Botz

Update 3/29/09: See also: Slicin' and Dicin' with Dyson and Bryson in response to recent coverage of Dyson with reference to an interesting precedent.

Update 1/23/10: See also: Guest Posting: Expanded Dyson Exegesis .

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Freeman Dyson's Heresies

Freeman Dyson, FRS, in addition to being famed as Esther Dyson's dad, is an accomplished fellow, and in my personal pantheon famous for Dyson's Aphorism:
[NB: paraphrased from memory; an exact quote would be appreciated]

Interviewer: (something like) Do you ever find yourself wondering why you are so intelligent?

Dyson: (something like) I don't think I'm especially intelligent. I am occasionally astonished at how unintelligent most other people are, though.
I am fond of the quote especially because I have had close dealings with other people who have a similar peculiar flavor of humility. It's interesting that extraordinarily smart people need defense mechanisms at all, never mind that they can manage to stick with such an unconvincing one.

Anyway, Dyson's gone on record with his global warming skepticism, which I am sure he comes by honestly. I don't think we should dismiss him along with the Singers and Michaelses. This is reported on Slashdot, where the usual sorry chorus ensues.

I haven't read any of it yet; just a heads up at present.

Like most of our more or less serious-minded critics, Dyson is getting on, and may be more familiar with the very nascent state of climate science a generation ago and less so with the considerable progress since then. Still, I am guessing his thoughts ought to be worth considering.

Update: I review Dyson's article here. In short I find it very disappointing.

Friday, August 10, 2007

What's In A Name?

Good news for a change:
President George W. Bush signed a major science and technology bill this morning at a White House ceremony.

Just before it recessed last week, Congress passed the bill calling for multi-billion-dollar increases in federal support for science, math and technology funding over the next three years.

Among provisions, the bill authorizes (but does not appropriate funding for) doubling the budgets for National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the Department of Commerce National Institutes of Standards and Technology laboratories.
Additionally, the bill significantly expands NSF scholarships and math and science partnerships, as well as many other educational and research programs. It establishes an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy at DOE.

In a press conference this morning, Bush said the law includes many of the provisions he has requested, but added, "I will continue to focus my budget requests on key funding priorities."

The actual funds are provided via appropriation bills to the individual departments and agencies.

The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act (COMPETES), is widely regarded as a landmark measure.
It must be the clever quasi-corporate acronym that closed the deal.

Sea Ice Retreat Called 'Incredible'

Most regular readers will have already noted RealClimate's coverage of this year's record Arctic sea ice retreat. Let me also point out that it has made the New York Times, with the headline "Analysts See ‘Simply Incredible’ Shrinking of Floating Ice in the Arctic".

Also, Fergus has some interesting discussion and fascinating links.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

How people search for data

I started typing IPCC into my Google search box. Firefox helpfully supplies a pull-down list of common searches to save on typing. (tech note: I'm not sure how it does this; it seems there must be some AJAX trick with Google?)

This time, only one suggestion appeared. It's a bit alarming; it seems to show a great deal about what most people doing web research think "research" means.

5 Meter Sea Level Rise Precedent

The latest IPCC report notoriously appears to reduce the predicted sea level rise. The caveats to this reduction do not appear in the summary for policymakers. The middle of the road climatologists' position is expressed in some detail by Stefan Rahmstorf on what I take to be one of the most important postings to appear on Realclimate. Here's the upshot:

The main conclusion of this analysis is that sea level uncertainty is not smaller now than it was at the time of the TAR, and that quoting the 18-59 cm range of sea level rise, as many media articles have done, is not telling the full story. 59 cm is unfortunately not the “worst case”. It does not include the full ice sheet uncertainty, which could add 20 cm or even more. It does not cover the full “likely” temperature range given in the AR4 (up to 6.4 ºC) – correcting for that could again roughly add 20 15 cm. It does not account for the fact that past sea level rise is underestimated by the models for reasons that are unclear. Considering these issues, a sea level rise exceeding one metre can in my view by no means ruled out. In a completely different analysis, based only on a simple correlation of observed sea level rise and temperature, I came to a similar conclusion. As stated in that paper, my point here is not that I predict that sea level rise will be higher than IPCC suggests, or that the IPCC estimates for sea level are wrong in any way. My point is that in terms of a risk assessment, the uncertainty range that one needs to consider is in my view substantially larger than 18-59 cm.

This is because of new results in ice sheet dynamics, which considerably increases the risk of rapid ice sheet contribution to sea level. A recent symposium here in Austin officially came to a similar conclusion. Unofficially, some of the participants have expressed the opinion that a there is a significant chance that the meeting's consensus report underephasized the risks. Here, the money quote is:

Our understanding of ice-sheet flow suggests the possibility that too much melting beneath ice shelves will lead to “runaway” thinning of the grounded ice sheet. Current understanding is too limited to know whether, when, or how rapidly this might happen, but discussions at the meeting included the possibility of several feet of sea-level rise over a few centuries from changes in this region.

(This report is Antacrtic-centered and does not address potential rapid sea level rise contributions from Greenland, which would have other mechanisms.)

On the other hand, we have a recent quote from no less than James Hansen, stating that he finds the concept of sea level rise this century not "measured in meters" "almost inconceivable". Hansen also claims that climate scientists systematically understate risks, for pretty much the same reason that the denialists claim that we systematically overstate risks, i.e., social, political and financial pressures.

So, practically, say if we are a petrochemical concern with billions of dollars invested near sea level, how should we consider these risks?

First of all, there is a precedent for sea level rise much faster than a meter per century in periods of global warming. In fact there are two of them clearly represented in coral records. These can only be associated with rapid decay of either the northern or the southern ice sheets; too much water is involved to attribute the rise to any other source.

Here is some evidence regarding the earlier pulse. It may help you to understand the graph to know that geologists tend to run the time axis backwards. Time is thousands of years ago on the horizontal axis, the vertical axis shows depth below contemporary sea level in meters. Each data point is obtained from some mud with evidence of when it supported mangroves; i.e.; was near sea level. Note that the fastest sea level rise is not resolved.

Rapid Flooding of the Sunda Shelf: A Late-Glacial Sea-Level Record

Till Hanebuth, Karl Stattegger, Pieter M. Grootes; Science V 288 pp 1033 ff (May 2000)

The increase in sea level from the last glacial maximum has been derived from a siliciclastic system on the tectonically stable Sunda Shelf in Southeast Asia. The time from 21 to 14 thousand calendar years before the present has been poorly covered in other records. The record generally confirms sea-level reconstructions from coral reefs. The rise of sea level during meltwater pulse 1A was as much as 16 meters within 300 years (14.6 to 14.3 thousand years ago).

A clever technique has identified the source of the pulse as Antarctic, which causes some headscratching because the forcing of the major glacial retreats is usually described as being in the northern hemisphere. (Sea-Level Fingerprinting as a Direct Test for the Source of Global Meltwater Pulse IA; P. U. Clark,1 J. X. Mitrovica,2* G. A. Milne,3 M. E. Tamisiea, Science V 295 pp 2438 ff, March 2002) Nevertheless, a big chunk of the Antarctic failed first; if I understand correctly its remnant now forms the Ross Ice Shelf.

Meltwater pulse 1a increased sea levels by about 16 meters over 300 years or less; the record is not fine enough to tell. So we have a precedent of at least 5 meters of sea level rise per century; for practical purposes it must have been faster than that at some point.

Let me emphasize the take home point. We do not have any strong limit on how fast significant chunks of Antarctica can fail, neither theoretically nor observationally, but we know it can be at least as fast as 5 meters per century.

There is little doubt that contemporary human behavior is destabilizing both Greenland and the West Antarctic, implying an eventual sea level rise of an additional 15 meters (dominating thermal expansion and minor ice caps). What we don't know is how fast this will happen.

There is a moral question as to whether we should care how fast. Perhaps we have a moral obligation to future generations not to burden them with the consequences of our own profligacy.

I am sure this affects the stockholders of Dow very little in their financial calculations, though. So let's consider how likely it is that Hansen is right. (He does after all have a very good track record, despite what is alleged about him by the lawyers' science camp.)

We are pretty sure that under sustained double-CO2 equivalent conditions both the West Antarctic and Greenland would collapse eventually. The question is only "how soon"?

We simply don't know in detail how or when the ice caps will fail. Ice dynamics turns out to be an amazingly complex process and observations are expensive and relatively few.

Hansen is not a glaciologist, so his intuitions probably should carry less weight than the core professionals. However, I know some of them, and they just aren't taking strong positions at this point.

The physics of the question is a race between the structural integrity and thermodynamic inertia of the ice on the one hand and the warming on the other. I personally find it entirely conceivable that one or the other will win out in the short run (i.e. on policy time scales); from what I can tell this is in line with much expert opinion. Some people are still resisting the idea, while others, or at least Hansen, go out on a limb in the other direction.

In the long run, presuming no dramatic change in human culture, the warming will win. The structural integrity of some major ice sheet component will fail, and sea level will go up by tens of centimeters per decade for a while.

There is good reason to expect two (one per hemisphere) or more very rapid increases. Not tsunami-like, but over a few decades. Recent results have come closer to understanding the physics of ice sheet retreats. They are reasonably expected to be episodic.

There will almost surely be meters of sea level rise in a century if we don't change our ways very soon. What isn't clear is which century. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen; which cylinder has the bullet?

Note: This article is a follow-up to another recent posting of mine about low-lying Gulf Coast infrastructure which has generated a lot of interest.

Updated: Newly included sea level graphic; some changes to the text moving the substance closer to the included graphic.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Global Wierdness Index

The South Asian Monsoon is turning out to be quite exceptional.

I think there should be a global index of how anomalous the global weather is at any given moment. It's not obvious what the right metric would be. Because everything is more or less coupled to everything else, anomalous weather in one place should be accompanied by anomalous weather elsewhere.

It certainly is hard to avoid an intuitive sense that flooding is rampant this (northern hemisphere) summer.

update: An F2 tornado hit Brooklyn NY on the day I wrote the article. Urban tornados are rare and this one caused quite a lot of disruption.

update: A blogger at Wired chimes in.

Texas, however, has at last settled down into the wretchedly and uneventfully hot, humid and sunny pattern I had been warned about...

Monday, August 6, 2007

Jim Hansen's radical exhortation

is here. Terrifying, huh? Lucky such unrealistic civilization-threatening foolishness will never gain any traction, huh? ( :-/ )

Thanks to the ever-perspicacious Atmoz for catching this one.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Mundane Problems Festering

The news from Minneapolis sheds a disturbing light on the chances of a positive contribution from America to our unprecedented new problems.

Minneapolis suffered a perfect storm of nightmares Wednesday evening, as anyone who couldn't sleep last night can tell you. Including the parents who clench their jaws and tighten their hands on the wheel every time they drive a carload of strapped-in kids across a steep chasm or a rushing river. Don't panic, you tell yourself. The people in charge of this know what they are doing. They make sure that the bridges stay standing. And if there were a problem, they would tell us. Wouldn't they?

What if they didn't?

The death bridge was "structurally deficient," we now learn, and had a rating of just 50 percent, the threshold for replacement. But no one appears to have erred on the side of public safety. The errors were all the other way.

Would you drive your kids or let your spouse drive over a bridge that had a sign saying, "CAUTION: Fifty-Percent Bridge Ahead"?

Apparently between tax cuts, subsidies to people who don't need subsidies, and random military interventions, we apparently aren't able to keep up with perfectly ordinary problems.

The type of problem that is easiest to treat negligently is the type of problem where very bad things happen at some time in the future but nobody complains until then. Falling bridges, collapsing levees, failing ice sheets.

My fellow Texans, left and right, are so unimpressed by politics that they all trust in individual action. Such ideas are misplaced.

A dramatic increase in the competence of the public sector is urgently needed.

No matter how well-intentioned you personally are you can't replace a dam, a bridge or a levee on your own, never mind the West Antarctic freaking Ice Sheet, which, in case you didn't know, is about six times the size of Texas.

Tiltin' at Windmills

Texas ought to be leading the way on energy. We need it, we have an established culture of energy related industries, we have land, wind, sun and saltwater (for cooling and possibly even for hydraulic energy storage), and we have geological formations that can contain sequestered carbon.

We in Texas also have a huge coastline at huge risk from business as usual, possibly worse than anybody except Florida. That's worldwide; the other real comparable trouble spots I know of are Shanghai, Bangkok, Calcutta and parts of the Baltic region (Scandinavian and northern Slavic countries). Anyplace where the coastline is steeper (California, New England, Britain, Japan...) or the big cities are further inland has much less at stake. Sea level rise is for real, folks, and we're on the front lines. So we ought to be motivated.

What we don't have is the cultural inclination to address big problems collectively, and I'm afraid that might be a showstopper.

Texas will be either a big winner or a big loser in the coming century, I think. We ought to be pushing for change, hard, in our own selfish interests if for no other reason. It's hang together or hang separately, as old Ben Franklin once said.
I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.”
-Molly Ivins