Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Not only is he talking about taking the nexus of environmental threats seriously, he said stuff very reminiscent of Gore's "Assault on Reason", which of course any real conservative would do, if there were any of them left. Gore's position in that book, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is fundamentally Tory. Any so-called conservatives who have a shred of seriousness and decency left ought to embrace that book wholeheartedly. (See also Krugman on media discourse.)
Of course Gingrich doesn't admit to agreeing with Gore, but still it's refreshing to hear critiques from the right of the idiotic way in which public discourse takes place these days.
I remember being very depressed when Gingrich took over the congress and, I thought, started torpedoing Clinton in the most cynical imaginable ways. Did I misjudge him then, or is it just that anybody looks good after six years of the Peachfuzz administration?
Shedding some light on this question, David Roberts is extremely skeptical of Gingrich's sincerity.
It's true I didn't hear Gingrich renouncing his past, but maybe that isn't the most useful thing he might do at this point. Politicians will be politicians, I suppose. On the whole it's nice to hear someone like Gingrich talking something resembling sense.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
In writing this, I came to understand that the way the word "model" is used in the climate sciences is confusing. An executable software package (a "program") is often called a "model" but this overvalues the code and undervalues the model. The code is an attempted embodiment of the model. The model is the science. The realization of the model ("running the code") is the prediction. The code itself is just an instrument.
It's hopeless to demand that we stop calling it a "model". It's just too ingrained. We should be aware, though, that this is sloppy thinking. The code is just code.
Monday, October 29, 2007
The Slashdot discussion seems better than their norm these days, maybe because it is about ideas and not about facts. hmmmm... There's some irony there.
Michael Chabon has a wistful eulogy for the future at Long Now.
The odd thing about contemporary market triumphalism is that it celebrates an incapacity to redesign the world. This so-called "realism", which is in fact a deep pessimism, is not really new, but it is a spectacular retreat from the the optimism that prevailed when I was an adolescent with a season pass to Expo '67.
We don't even have World's Fairs anymore.
This may be the explanation of the lack of activism in today's youth. It's not that they like what's going on. They simply don't believe that the course of history can actually be changed by human will. They retreat to sarcasm, at which they excel.
I think it may fall to us boomers again, to make change happen. We mostly still believe in the likes of Gandhi or Martin Luther King to actually change the world, but our own courage appears to have vanished along with our naivete.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Saturday, October 27, 2007
There's a new player on the scene who'll jump to the head of the line instantly. David Revkin of the NYTimes, a very fine reporter, now has a blog called DotEarth. I've been impressed with NYT columnist Krugman's efforts, and Revken seems serious about keeping his up as well. It will be interesting to see how journalists adapt to the form. I hope Revkin will stay somewhat in touch with the rest of us, though, and not just limit himself to conventional sources.
I also added a couple of other sites. It is getting hard to keep up, but my blog roll really is the set of blogs I try to follow. I've been leaving off the better known ones like Gristmill, Climate Progress and Intersection, but maybe they aren't obvious to my readers, and it helps me keep my reading organized.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Thursday, October 25, 2007
When the phrase "Nature is not a luxury" occurred to me, it resonated so well that I wondered if I had heard it before. If not, I could sort of claim it as a slogan and possibly as a book title for myself.
I'm not the first person to utter the sentence, but according to Google, other people mean it a bit differently than I do. The first hit is from Campbell Webb of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale, writing in Conservation Biology:
Nature is not a luxury. The nonhuman world has rights. Conservation is an ethical stance. True, humans have rights, and these will often clash with the rights of nature, but let us at least talk about this conflict. Obviously, arguing for the rights of nature is not new (Naess 1973), but it has seldom been the stance of academic biologists, although this appears to be changing.I understand this point of view, and I agree with it, but it doesn't capture what I mean by "nature". Even stranger to me is this:
Nature's services cast a broad net, says Robert Costanza, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont. He spoke recently in Maryland, where he studied the bay for many years. They range from regulation of climate, pollination of crops and food and timber production, to soil formation, genetic resources, waste treatment and recreational opportunities. "Nature is not a luxury, not an 'if we can afford it' proposition," Costanza told members of the Maryland Conservation Council. He and other researchers have attempted to put a price on the natural planet, coming up with what he calls "a very conservative estimate" of around 33 trillion bucks a year in goods and services. That far surpasses the value of the human economy.Both of these fall into the old trap of imaging humans as being in conflict with nature, of economics as a triumph over nature, of nature as an obligation or a line item in the budget that needs to be thrashed out every year. In practice of course there will be such battles, but this yields the perspective to those who are so wrapped up in the wealth game that they forget it is a game. Taking the romantic, empathetic view of nature as delicate and fragile disrespects nature and seems to persist in undervaluing the risks we take.
As I see it, the problem is in the nature of "nature", a word which, as William Cronon points out in a remarkable symposium he put together, has had many interpretations. Consider, though, what nature means in a literal sense, the sense the publishers invoked when they decided to call a leading science magazine "Nature".
Nature in that sense is not going away; the idea of "protecting" it is ludicrous. The main things we can do about nature are to make it less congenial to us or to leave it alone. (Conceivably we can argue about whether it is possible to make it better, but we are so far from that as to make this question quite academic for the present.) We can provoke nature, souring the oceans, razing the forests, soaking up the rivers. Nature will (in the sense I mean the word "nature") go on. Possibly we won't, or possibly we will squeak by in poverty; possibly the planet will be greatly depleted of life forms, and won't appeal to us very much. There will still be life, most likely, and even if there isn't life there will still be nature.
We arose in and live in a peculiar and unique configuration of nature. We can't get by on other planets where nature has other configurations. We don't fully understand what keeps nature in the peculiarly fine configuration it's in. As we push the balance ever harder, eventually we'll disequilibrate something.
We need to rethink how we think. Human laws cannot override natural laws, and the eco-system is not a component of the eco-nomy. We can behave very stupidly, but we're the ones who'll suffer from it, not nature.
Nature is necessary not merely because we need the forest to cleanse our souls. Nature is pervasive; we need air to breathe and water to drink and food to eat and land to walk on. There is no number of gold bars sufficient to tilt the balance once it goes far enough. There is no limit to the peril into which we can place ourselves by poking at nature, short of our own extinction. Nature will not care, but we very definitely will.
While it was a great (and I am sure they would agree, undeserved) honor to be associated with the geophysics deprtment at the University of Chicago, some other departments at the place spook me. In particular, Sachs refers to a couple of unnamed
distinguished professors of law at the University of Chicago, who argued in the Financial Times on August 5 that the U.S. has no obligations to control greenhouse gases, and that if other countries don’t like how the U.S. behaves and how that behavior affects them, they might think about paying the U.S. to cut its emissions. In other words, the U.S. should behave as it likes. It is up to the others to induce the U.S. to change course.Sachs isn't buying this, and goes on to try to refute it, discussing in particular the recent Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gases constitute pollution under American law.
I hope he's right. If he's wrong, if the laws of people and the laws of nature are in conflict, then it's human law that has to change.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Nature is the law.
Nature doesn't ask for protection.
Nature demands respect.
Nature doesn't need a seat at the table.
Nature is the table.
-Irene Tobis and Michael Tobis(See "Nature is not a budget item" for a more prosaic version of this argument.)
The interesting new book The Upside of Down by Thomas Homer-Dixon talks about resilience of complex societies as one of its themes.
I've recently added Resilience Science to my blogroll over yonder ---> It has a lead story on drought right now. (More Canadians. Hmmm....)
And John Fleck has something to say about the R-word in a recent article in the Albuquerque Journal:
Currently its contributors are members of Resilience Alliance (RA), a research network of scientists and practitioners from many disciplines who collaborate to explore the dynamics of social-ecological systems. Key RA concepts include resilience, the adaptive cycle, and panarchy. The RA works to develop a practical theoretical foundation for a sustainable civilization. The RA develops sustainability science along three paths:
- Contributing toward theoretical advances in the dynamics of complex adaptive systems
- Supporting rigorous testing of theory via: participatory regional case-studies, adaptive management, minimal-modelling, and the use of scenarios and other qualitative modelling tools.
- Developing guidelines and principles that will enable others to assess the resilience of coupled human-natural systems and develop policy and management tools that support sustainable development
Our growing population and resulting increasing water demand also leave us vulnerable to natural dry spells. And in the West, the tree ring record shows those dry spells can be severe and very long lasting.So what does it all mean, Mr. Natural? Exactly why are we moving backwards?
A friend who lives in Colorado made an interesting point last week. Colorado went through a similar experience in 2002— a bad drought made far worse by the increased demands of a growing population.
"Colorado society is less resilient than in the past," my friend said. "Georgia society is also less resilient than in the past, not more. You'd expect that an advanced society would become more resilient over time. Instead, we're moving backward."
Let me recommend another book, probably more highly than I'd recommend anything else I've read lately. That would be Jared Diamond's Collapse. Read the book, or if you only want to put in an hour, watch the movie. I always think the tail, er sorry, tale, of the Easter Islanders is the most instructive part of that remarkable work.
The Easter Island statue ideology worked very well for a long time. It was only at the point of its peak success that it failed. People failed to see that what had brought them so much joy and prosperity in the past was exactly the same as what would bring them tragedy and devastation in the future. The thing became peculiarly elaborated as people lost sight of their circumstances and focused idiotically on the symbols that had helped them triumph in the first place.
We are madly confusing the symbols of our prosperity with the thing itself, driving ourselves into a frenzy of production and consumption when our circumstances call for laziness, above all, laziness. I recently heard an Important Person (more on this shortly) mention, in the context of the petroleum quandary, that people demand mobility.
I disagree. People want resilience. People want comfort, security, respect, joy and love. We set up a society where achieving some semblance of these things requires frantic motion. People become ridiculously attached to their vehicles because they can no longer imagine a world which is not dreadful without them, but there's no biological imperative for mobility (or, similarly, for gainful employment) any more than there is a biological imperative for giant black igneous rock heads.
There is surely a biological imperative for resilience, which translates into the desire for wealth or gigantic igneous heads or something.
What we need is an explicit quest for global resilience. There's enough nasty stuff heading down the pike from our predecessors' actions without us adding to it our own selves. We need to set things up so our individual desires move the society toward less, rather than more consumption.
It's a tall order, put that way. Imagine a president running for re-election on a platform of "Four More Years of Peaceful Economic Decline!"
Apparently there is a quasi-official UN estimate in answer to this question. The relevant web page explicitly forbids hotlinking or reproduction, so please just go have a look. Apparently the sustainable population at western consumption levels is under 2 billion, and at under 6 billion at "medium" consumption levels. The demographers' consensus prospect that the population will settle at perhaps less than 10 billion over this century is therefore not really all that reassuring.
There are some source documents listed in text embedded in the graphic. It would be interesting to see how they arrived at these numbers.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
From Alabama Governor Riley's letter to Bush:
Georgia has repeatedly framed its request as a contest between people in the Atlanta area and endangered mussels in Florida. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality the action that Georgia seeks will have dire consequences on people and their livelihoods downstream in Alabama.
Monday, October 22, 2007
These satellite images were taken four hours apart yesterday.
For those reading from overseas, perhaps you haven't heard. It is looking very serious in southern California.
Much of San Diego is being evacuated. Like the fires in Greece a few weeks ago, this is certainly due to drought and to land management policies, and arguably attributable in part to anthropogenic global climate change.
Resilience Science links to a fascinating chart of Southwestern drought as measured by water level in Lake mead.
The LA Times has excellent reporting along with some remarkable reader-contributed pictures which I can't resist posting:
Update 10/25: Tamino has interesting things to say about this. Among his other comments he points to some evidence that increasing wildfires have a significant climate change causation:
Just last year Westerlin et al. 2006, Science, 313, 940-943, DOI:10.1126/science.1128834 reported the results of a study of wildfire activity in the western U.S. Here’s the abstract:
Western United States forest wildfire activity is widely thought to have increased in recent decades, yet neither the extent of recent changes nor the degree to which climate may be driving regional changes in wildfire has been systematically documented. Much of the public and scientific discussion of changes in western United States wildfire has focused instead on the effects of 19th and 20th-century land-use history. We compiled a comprehensive database of large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970 and compared it with hydroclimatic and land-surface data. Here, we show that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. The greatest increases occurred in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests, where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks and are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt.
Update 10/25: Satellite visible channel movie of smoke plumes over three days.
An edtorial in the Austin Statesman tells us that:
The donors oppose the planned sale, and a provision in the gift deed bars a sale “without the prior written consent” of the Conservation Fund. But Patterson has said the provision is unenforceable.Of course this is another instance of the peculiar incompetence of Texans in governance. (For the most part we are much nicer people than you'd think at a distance. It's bizarre behavior like this that gives us a bad name.) And of course, especially fellow Texans should at the least pop over to Environment Texas and sign the petition to stop the sale.
The deed, however, does welcome a transfer of the land to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department or the National Park Service for use as “a nature park, wildlife refuge, recreational area or similarly designated use area.”
The Texas parks agency, starved already for resources, passed on the offer, as did the federal park agency when the subject first came up about 15 years ago. But on Oct. 12, Superintendent William Wellman of Big Bend National Park asked Patterson to postpone the sale to give the National Park Service time to reconsider.
This raises a couple of questions for me.
The passage that states that the state park service, "starved already for resources" declined the offer of a transfer of the deed to them is baffling. Sure, maintaining a park costs money. It would seem to me to be in the nature of, um, nature, that maintaining a wilderness does not.
When the Republic of Texas was born, I imagine the amount of money spent maintaining wilderness was pretty small, yet the wilderness presumably was doing fine at its task of sprawling vastly and maintaining a huge array of scruffy plants and nasty critters. Sure, there's a sort of economic opportunity cost in not developing land, but the idea that the state has to expend huge resources for land to just sit there and do whatever it does escapes me somehow.
I also don't see why the park service should be in a position to refuse to accept donated lands altogether. I'm new around here, though. A lot of things about Texas surprise me. Is it like this elsewhere?
Another thing, what does this do to the libertarian argument about land preservation - "If it means so much to you, make some money, buy some land, and donate it to nature". To do that, I have to trust whatever agency I donate the land to in perpetuity. Isn't it (in the libertarian view, not in mine) a violation of property rights for me to transfer a deed with certain restrictions and then have the restrictions violated?
Finally, if the state isn't the steward of perpetuity, who or what is? Are we so totally surrendered to the power of the marketplace that we have absolutely no mechanism for removing something from the tyranny of the discount rate?
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Palm trees bent in half as wind gusted to 60 to 65 mph, and dust and debris whipped around the area. Thick smoke obscured the sun.
Susan Nuttall sat in her black Mercedes in a cul-de-sac just off the Pacific Coast Highway, saying she had fled her condo just below the Pepperdine campus.
''We're all scared to death and we have nowhere to go,'' said Nuttall, 51, still wearing a bathrobe and holding her chihuahua.
And, via In It reader cieldumort's livespace thing (which I don't entirely understand, but never mind that) an article in the Scotsman referring to observational work by Andrew Watson indicating that the ocean's uptake of CO2 is becoming dramatically less effective.
Update 10/22: Maybe the ocean story (which is an easier one to spin for the media and probably a bigger deal) will get some attention. There is a NASA press release today. If you have the media's ear, bang a drum about this.
Update 10/23: Eli has come across more bad news in this vein.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Friday, October 19, 2007
Gore stresses, as have Deltoid, Inel and Stoat, that the judge's principal verdict is that the film is a sufficiently fair representation of the scientific mainstream to be shown in British schools.
On the whole, though, I think none of the commentary from the rest of us usual suspects or the press has expressed the core truth of the matter as well as Dr. Rabett has.
EMISSIONS: "THIS DOESN’T LOOK LIKE KANSAS," DORTHY [sic] SAID.This is great! Maybe there's not that much wrong with Kansas after all?
The Kansas Department of Health yesterday rejected a permit for a proposed
coal fired power plant saying emissions threaten health and environment.
It was the first government agency to cite CO2 in denying a permit, in
keeping with a Supreme Court ruling in April that EPA must treat CO2 is a
simply," Governor Sibelius [sic] said, "we have an obligation to be good
stewards of this state."
Local news report here; Grist has already discussed this as well.
Unfortunately, the CNN report which implies this might not hold up is probably realistic. Still it's good to raise people's awareness that electricity generation is the biggest part of the problem, and a few people obsessively unplugging microwaves won't really help that much.
Soapbox time: The coal people should get nothing until they they get sequestration working. We should be open to sequestration (and minimally destructive mining practices) though, and we should all, producers and consumers, get used to the idea that energy is going to cost much more than it does now.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
With those points in mind, I am passing along a letter from the Alliance for Climate Protection:
As you might have heard, Al Gore was awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless efforts to help solve the global
climate crisis. But he's not working alone -- millions of people
across the country and around the world know that climate change
is a critical issue that we need to act on, and now.
With the proceeds of his Oscar-winning movie, Inconvenient Truth,
Al Gore founded the Alliance for Climate Protection. You can do
your part today by joining the Alliance's mailing list. You'll
receive important news and be given the chance to take actions
that will help stop global warming.
Mr Gore said it best: "We face a true planetary emergency. The
climate crisis is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual
challenge to all of humanity. It is also our greatest opportunity to
lift global consciousness to a higher level."
Please sign up now to stand with Al Gore and make important
contributions to the urgent, but solvable, global warming crisis.
Our increasing numbers will demonstrate to leaders in every time
zone and on every continent that halting climate change is a top
From the remarkable Global Warming Art site. Here's a closeup of the East Texas coastline.
Regardless, a recent article in the Houston Chronicle on the impacts of global warming on Houston barely mentioned sea level rise.
(see also The First Meter and other of my entries linked from there)
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Well, as it happens, I'm more worried about the intellectual climate, too. Solving climate change alone is not enough. We will have to be very smart and take the best of everyone's thoughts and everyone's abilities and everyone's actions to resolve our problems to avoid severe setbacks in the next couple of centuries. We really need to know how to think more effectively, collectively.
So how well is "Demand Debate" living up to its declared intent to worry about the intellectual climate? This well:
Aha, that explains it...
DemandDebate.com is surveying climate experts about climate change.
It would be terrific if you could take a few moments to
participate. Please reply to this e-mail by answering the questions
below. Simply place an "X" in the box that best represents your view.
Responses will remain confidential. If you have any questions, please
Question #1. Which best describes the reason(s) for climate change?
[ ] Human activity is the principal driver of climate change.
[ ] Human activity drives climate change, but natural variability
is also important.
[ ] Natural variability drives climate change, but human activity
is also important.
[ ] Natural variability is the principal driver of climate change.
[ ] No opinion.
Apolitical expert: On what time scale would that be? Of course natural variability has been dominant over billions of years. It's a vague question, but 'natural variability' is probably best.
Non-expert reader: See, experts don't believe that "global warming" is man-made.
Question #2. Which best describes the role of manmade CO2 emissions
in climate change?
[ ] Manmade CO2 emissions are the principal driver of climate change.
[ ] Manmade CO2 emissions drive climate change, but other natural
and human-related factors are also important.
[ ] Other natural and/or human-related factors drive climate
change, but manmade CO2 emissions are important.
[ ] Other natural and/or human-related factors are the principal
drivers of climate change.
[ ] No opinion.
Apolitical expert: Easy one. the second choice.
Non-expert reader: They have so many theories, they don't know anything!
Question #3. Which best describes the impact on global climate of
controlling manmade CO2 emissions?
[ ] Limiting manmade CO2 emissions would have a strong impact.
[ ] Limiting manmade CO2 emissions would have some impact.
[ ] Limiting manmade CO2 emissions would have no impact.
[ ] It would be impossible to discern the impact.
[ ] No opinion.
Apolitical expert: On what time scale? It may be difficult to discern the impact of a responsible policy for a considerable time.
Non-expert reader: Hah! The experts think any policy change is futile!
Question #4. Current mean global temperature is:
[ ] Unprecedentedly warm and getting warmer.
[ ] Within natural variability but moving to unprecedentedly warmer
[ ] Within natural variability and stable.
[ ] Not a useful metric.
[ ] No opinion.
Apolitical expert: On what time scale? Certainly it was much warmer in the Eocene. Hopefully we'll be able to put the brakes on before THAT happens! Actually I can't agree with any of these choices.
Non-expert reader: See! It's all cycles.
Question #5. The climatic impacts of a mean global global temperature
that is 1-degree Celsius warmer than today are:
[ ] Undesirable.
[ ] Desirable.
[ ] Desirable for some and undesirable for others.
[ ] Too difficult to assess.
[ ] No opinion.
Apolitical expert: Oh that's a small change. It would be mixed.
Non-expert reader: So warming doesn't even matter!
Question #6. The ideal global climate is...
[ ] Warmer than the present.
[ ] Cooler than the present.
[ ] Occurring today.
[ ] There is no such thing as an "ideal" global climate.
[ ] No opinion.
Apolitical expert: Oh, come one. Ideal for what purpose?
Non-expert reader: So lots of experts don't think change is bad at all!
Thank you for your response. Please return this e-mail to
Executive Director, DemandDebate.com
These questions are carefully chosen to have different meaning in formal and informal discourse. They are slimy tricks.
I suppose we will need to watch for this "survey", but everyone should notice these are tricks with language intended to subvert serious conversation. One can easily and consistently choose all of the positions that Milloy wants one to choose while still favoring vigorous reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases.
With thanks to Dr. A. for the forward.
Update: Inel has an excellent article about the nine 'errors' that also addresses tricks with language and casual impression.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Via Pharyngula, still more shocking evidence of dogmatic closedmindedness in science. An expose' will be released as a documentary film next winter, showing how:
a long line of physicists, astronomers, chemists and philosophers ... have had their reputations destroyed and their careers ruined by a scientific establishment that allows absolutely no dissent from Isaac Newton's theory of natural forces causing attraction between bodies of mass.A news report on the alternative hypothesis appeared in a renowned publication some months ago.
We will need the Chinese to participate in fixing our global problems, but the Chinese do not seem inclined to take sustainability seriously. The lengthy article is third in a series of five on China's environmental crisis. Quoting:
Toxic cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as pond scum, turned the big lake fluorescent green. The stench of decay choked anyone who came within a mile of its shores. At least two million people who live amid the canals, rice paddies and chemical plants around the lake had to stop drinking or cooking with their main source of water.
The outbreak confirmed the claims of a crusading peasant, Wu Lihong, who protested for more than a decade that the region’s thriving chemical industry, and its powerful friends in the local government, were destroying one of China’s ecological treasures.
Mr. Wu, however, bore silent witness. Shortly before the algae crisis erupted in May, the authorities here in his hometown arrested him. In mid-August, with a fetid smell still wafting off the lake, a local court sentenced him to three years on an alchemy of charges that smacked of official retribution.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
I've watched the relevant scenes, and though I find the polar bear sequence a bit silly, I can find nothing whatsoever wrong with what Gore says in substance or in emphasis in eight of the nine cases.
The troublesome case is where Gore says:
"that's why the citizens of these Pacific nations have all had to evacuate to New Zealand"
There is certainly no case where all the inhabitants of a nation have evacuated, to date, although the prospect does not seem remote. This astonishing fact does not seem to faze the critics of the movie in the least.
Now, I'd like to point out that 'all' is a word used very commonly and casually in middle-south educated language. It is used for emphasis, not as a logical qualifier. Indeed in another scene, Gore in discussing ice albedo speaks of the reflection of "all of that energy, over 90%". It's used as a term of informal emphasis.
Arguably, there is some subset of Pacific Islanders who have 'all evacuated' in the loose, emphatic sense of 'all'. I can certainly imagine a context in which the statement, with a little slack for Gore's vernacular, would be reasonable.
That said, the sentence and the accompanying photograph seems spliced loosely into a discussion of sea level rise. It appears without context or preparation. It appears a sort of an orphan clip.
I blame bad film editing. We can't really know exactly what Mr Gore said about that matter from the context of the film, as it was almost certainly dropped in out of context. In at least that sense, it is an error in the film.
The polar bear case, it seems, can be argued.
The others are simply slam dunks in Gore's favor. Other than that out-of-context evacuation comment, I can see nothing wrong with what Mr. Gore said or how the film presented it.
Update: RealClimate comes to exactly the same conclusion I did.
Awarding it to Al Gore cannot be seen as anything other than a political statement. Awarding it to the IPCC is well-founded. [Gore's film The Inconvenient Truth has] some very obvious mistakes, like the argument that we're going to see 6m of sea-level rise.
They [the Nobel committee] have a unique platform in getting people's attention on this issue, and I regret they have used it to make a political statement.
Never mind the odd choice of purported error for now.
I am reminded of the scene in the Monty Python film Life of Brian, where the crowd demands of Brian's mum whether she is a virgin, insisting it "isn't a personal question". How, exactly, could a peace prize not be a political statement?
1) A general process and chronology covers a number of cases (not all), so I'll do that first, and then answer the specific question about consensus in global warming.
- a) First, nobody really knows.
- b) People start doing serious studies, and they don't all agree, but evidence starts to pile up around some hypothesis on its way to being a theory.
- c) As elements of a hypothesis get established, people stop arguing about them, but argue about other elements.
- d) At some point, some things are so well-accepted that almost no one doing serious research and doing peer-reviewed publication argues with it. I say almost no one, because there are always a few dissenters, sometimes even quite distinguished ones.
Well, that applies to most scientific arguments ... EXCEPT:
2) Sometimes people find the resulting consensus undesirable for extra-science reasons:
- a) religious
- b) economic
- c) ideological/political
- or combinations.
- - Evolution vs creationism/intelligent design, going on for a long time. (a)
- - Medical science versus smoking and then second round, secondhand smoke. (b) If you can find Allan M. Brandt's "The Cigarette Century" you can learn all about the tactics used to obfuscate the science, and it's the best case, because unlike almost any other case, there is this huge database of public records of internal documents.
(As an example of a dissenter, the great statistician Sir Ronald Fisher disbelieved the smoking-disease linkage right up to his death in 1962, long after there was very powerful evidence.)
A bunch of thinktanks came into existence, learned the skills with tobacco, and then applied them later to:
- - ozone depletion vs CFCs (b,(c))
- - other environmental regulations vs business interests (b, (c))
- - global warming vs fossil fuel (b, (c)
Some of this dates to Frank Luntz, an influential pollster: see Wikipedia entry and the parts of LuntzSpeak, especially:
Hence there is: George C. Marshall Institute, SEPP, CEI, AEI, Heartland, Frontiers of Freedom, SPPI, Fraser Institute (Canada), (and more) mostly in USA, and concentrated around Washington, DC, and with a lot of overlapping participants, often with funding from tobacco companies, very-conservative foundations, ExxonMobil, and coal companies.
3) In any of these, we get into a state where the scientists think there is a strong consensus about something, and will say so if asked, but are working on areas that are in doubt. Papers do not waste words reaffirming the consensus, i.e., very few biologists waste words confirming evolution.
However, the other side constantly attacks the consensus, trying to sow doubt among the public, "teach the controversy" etc. Fighting with this is generally a thankless task for most scientists, as Michael says.
Note that this very different from a real scientific argument, like the multiple-decades-long fight over continental drift, or the shorter fight over the causes of ulcers.
When somebody says there is a consensus, it's not usually that they're trying to close off scientific debate or win an argument, it's just an observation of fact, as seen in the rear-view mirror! Scientists I've talked with (a lot, over 40 years, on many different topics) usually calibrate what they say with uncertainty levels.
Sometimes, the obfuscation strategy backfires into a court case like "Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District", which is one the Discovery Institute did not want to fight, and in which the dissenter witnesses, under oath, got slaughtered in court in front of a conservative, but honest judge John Jones III.
4) AGW consensus.
Assuming this means: "The recent (say since 1975) rise in temperatures is mostly caused by humans, especially by adding GHGs to the atmosphere." I think that has actually been mostly in place (scientifically) before 1990, although as always, people argue about the details.
REPUBLICAN President George H. W. Bush said, in:
"President Bush announced today that the United States has agreed with other industrialized nations that stabilization of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions should be achieved as soon as possible." that was 1989.
The more it looked like people might actually do something to conserve fossil-fuels, and the stronger the statements got by the IPCC, the louder the anti-AGW PR got, and for whatever reason, some parts of the Republican party took a distinct anti-science turn (see Chris Mooney's book "The Republican War on Science."
5) At the February 2004 AAAS meeting, the (prestigious) George Sarton Award lecture was "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How Do We Know We're Not Wrong?" of which you can find a slightly-updated version at:
This was given by UCSD Professor Naomi Oreskes, who is a well-published, award-winning geoscientist and science historian, and it is well worth reading.
Naomi's original talk mentioned a quick experiment she had done, which was searching the ISI Web of Science for "global climate change" in papers published 1993-2003 and looking at abstracts and assessing them, expecting to see when and how the consensus got established, and was surprised to find that the consensus was already there.
However, this got a strong audience response, and she ended up doing a 1-page essay for Dec 2004 Science (which does not give out pages casually):
Bennie Peiser (a UK Social anthropologist!) wrote a letter to Science (not accepted) attacking these results, in 2005. It turned out that he simply lacked the expertise, and this was refuted, rather thoroughly.
The other side constantly raises doubts about the consensus, and often attacks Oreskes, sometimes quite personally via threatening letters.
The latest one is a bizarre combination of a Britsh Lord Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount of Brenchley, a London endocrinologist, Klaus-Martin Schulte, who wrote an article (not yet published) that tried to refute Oreskes and teh consensus again. Even without being published, it managed to generate:
Google: less than half published scientists endorse global warming
--> 700,000 hits
I.e., regardless of the truth, the desired publicity was accomplished, using a well-tuned PR machine centered in Washington, DC.
There also turned out to be plagiarism, threats of lawsuits, letters sent to Oreskes' Chancellor and then publicized via Business Wire, etc, etc.
So: there is a large machine crying "no consensus, there is doubt" which is perfectly happy to publicize
- an indirect reference to a paper by an endocrinologist
- who turns out to be fairly clueless about climate science,
- and whose paper couldn't even get published in the poorly-regarded journal to which it had been submitted.
This story is spread across various blogs, but some key ones are:
Note that the above, except for the italicized intro, was entirely written by John Mashey and not myself.
Update: It looks like it's time for John Mashey to get his own blog, since he has a lot of interesting things to say but says them on other people's blogs.
Friday, October 12, 2007
I had seen the same fellow's earlier attempt and was dissatisfied with it on the grounds of the giant hamster defense (watch the clip for a definition). The present version takes note of this counterargument and handles it deftly.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
From an alarming article from a group called Carbon Equity with a hat tip to Eric Swanson.
Thanks to James for the tipoff.
Are the nine points fair? That's a bit much for discussion in a blog format, so I set up a quick wiki for the purposes of conversation. We'll see if this works out or fizzles, or worse, if it takes off too far and I get swamped by administrivia. Consider it an experiment. Anyway, rather than trying to get to the bottom of all nine points, why not try to see how far you can get with one of them?
It seems likely that if we do a good job of this, the final result could be contributed as a collaborative RealClimate article.
(And remember, as we say in Austin, Barton Springs Eternal.)
Update: The majority appears to believe the judge is called Burton, not Barton, though the latter appears in many places. As far as I know, Burton does not spring eternal.
More Important Update: Excellent discussions at Stoat, Deltoid (thanks, john), and New Scientist
DailyKos pitches in with the progressive Democrat p.o.v.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
The circumstances under which the consensus process succeeds or fails are very important, and are not at all easy to investigate.
The social momentum of a given academic community can deflect progress. I had hoped this would be increasingly rare, but perhaps it isn't. It may depend to a large extent on the health of the scientific culture.
I had a brush with a minor example of this myself. It happens that my thesis advisor, John R. Anderson (tellingly, now at Pixar) recommended a topic for me where I would disprove the common wisdom about a relatively obscure atmospheric phenomenon, called the Madden-Julian oscillation. I never quite understood what John was going on about, to be honest, so it was problematic right there, though he convinced me that the prevailing wisdom had to be wrong. However, nobody except those who have already published cares enough about the MJO to care very much about an alternative hypothesis. So this would be a bad career move, even if John is right (as he tends to be about such matters). It would make a few enemies and no friends. I moved on. John's hypothesis remains published only as grey literature from Colorado State. Does it matter? Mostly as an instance; the consensus is sticky on matters of limited importance.
The New York Times has an interesting article by John Tierney, subtitled "A Severe Case of Mistaken Consensus" on this matter, claiming that the relevance of a high-fat diet to heart disease, long held as a consensus in the US, is uncertain. I am having some difficulty judging the quality of the article or of the truth of the matter at hand.
In the discussion area, Tierney's readers are, unsurprisingly, quick to bring up "Al Gore" (the new word for "Global Warming" apparently). Unsurprisingly, given the vagueness of Teirney's reporting, some or unconvinced of the point being made.
To be fair to Tierney, the point is Gary Taubes' (no relation) point, which he is making in the book Good Calories, Bad Calories, which Tierney is reviewing.
On the other hand, one commenter mentions Tierney in the same breath as Easterbrook, which is perhaps unfair guilt by association, but worth considering:
Have Tierney, Gregg Easterbrook, and John Stossel ever been seen in the same place as the same time?Regardless, the article does discuss the dynamics of incorrect consensus very effectively and is worth a read on that account.
They all seem to pay their bills by claiming that they know more about science than the overwhelming majority of scientists. They are journalists, and not very good journalists, at that.
Outrageous, undefendable strawmen and the appeal to an oddjob, outspoken authority are their stock in trade.
Please don't misunderstand. Consensus itself is not a sign of science misfiring. I am acknowledging that consensus is not a sign of science working correctly either. It's more subtle than that, unfortunately.
And regarding Taubes' point, it's certainly argued that he suffers from the same selectivity of evidence that other consensus-busters are prone to.
As for myself, I was influenced by Taubes' article in the Times a few years ago to take up very low carbohydrate dieting. I lost some weight episodically but in the end it was just an oscillation. And a few weeks ago I had a kidney stone episode. The doctors were puzzled because they claimed I was rather older than a typical first onset of this problem. It's associated with excessive animal protein. So I am regrouping. Count me as one anecdotal argument against Atkins, though.
All the same, the arguments against consensus have some cogency.
Economists have a number of consensus opinions, including that theirs is the only science that is qualified to synthesize all other sciences for the policy sector. The fact that some belief is a consensus in some academic community doesn't make it true.
Let me make sure this is clear.
- I think the IPCC WG1 report does represent a consensus position among the relevant sciences.
- I think the IPCC WG1 report is a good representation of truth.
- IPCC report represents truth not because there is consensus. Consensus exists because of the same intellectual and social robustness of the relevant disciplines that allows them to approach truth.
- The extent of the robustness of a scientific community is difficult for outsiders to determine.
- Yet that determination is crucial to successful governance.
Monday, October 8, 2007
Friday, October 5, 2007
I'm a bit out of the loop this week, what with the excitement of launching Correlations (come on over and give me some grief...) and visiting with family. So my main report for this week is that there's so much global warming in the press right now (I don't usually look at newsstands except when I'm stuck in an airport) that my head spins. I may have more to say soon, but for now I'll report that even the American Airlines in-flight magazine is featuring a green issue and an article about green guilt.
It was interesting how the author (Mark Henricks, a fellow Austinite feller) went on about light bulbs and such (not to mention bamboo flooring and recycled plastic bathmats) and nevertheless managed to shrug off the environmental impact of aviation with an unchallenged quote.
But air travel probably gets more attention than it deserves, says Arnold. While flying does have an impact, especially with regard to carbon emissions, it does not have nearly the negative effect that other carbon contributors do. For instance, he considers coal-fi red electricity-generating plants a much more serious problem. “Aviation is a minor part,” Arnold says. “For certain travelers, it’s an issue, but globally, it’s only about 2 percent of the problem.”Right, but, um, aren't those 'certain travelers' the ones who use airplanes?
In fact, George Monbiot has pointed out that aviation is the only part of modern life where no non-GHG intensive substitute was foreseeable. I can't find that right now but a typical anti-aviation rant of his is here. It's not easy to shoot this down, unfortunately. I much prefer to drive or Amtrak even as far as Chicago, but Montreal-Austin is quite a shlep and I see no escape from making this particular type of journey twice a year anytime soon.
So it was weird reading an article actually entitled "green guilt" on an in flight magazine on an airplane, which pretty much told me to feel guilty about bathmats and not about flying.
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
I think valid public perceptions of trustworthiness are absolutely crucial to a functioning democracy. I think that we climatologists get rather less than our due, but, more problematically, that economists get vastly more than theirs.
I don't think credentials or tradition suffice. If they did, the Wall Street Journal editorial page (among others) would be genuinely conservative, rather than recklessly mad.
So while I have no objection to the topic, I am a little dubious about whether the prominent naysayer with the cute avatar is really motivated selflessly.
More to the point though, I'd like to see comparable attention paid to the validity and utility of advice from economists.
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
An interesting twist appears. If sea ice continues to vanish, it's a fertile research topic, likely to be funded, likely to be published. Unless, that is, it goes away altogether. When the ice cover becomes purely seasonal, it becomes a less interesting phenomenon for field study or modeling. The problem is that this may happen sooner than expected.
A sardonic quote from an Alaskan geophysicist about this is nevertheless not entirely a matter of grim humor:
At a recent gathering of sea-ice experts at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Hajo Eicken, a geophysicist, summarized it this way: “Our stock in trade seems to be going away.”Anyway, even if Eicken isn't serious, I am. Should we be as concerned about the glaciologists as about the polar bears who are under the same threat? More so? Less so?
How much risk should scientists be taking in the event that their field goes out of fashion (or, in this case, out of existence)? There are a lot of intrinsic reasons to do science, but there are some extrinsic reasons not to bother. What should be the fate of the person who bets on the wrong scientific horse?
Scientists historically traded off the possibility of wealth for a life of calm contemplation, not one of personal financial risk. If the deal gets worse, fewer people will become scientists. This matters.
Monday, October 1, 2007
Will the long-term sensitivity of the system be twice what we expect? Joe Romm reports that Hansen thinks so.
Eli has some disturbing feedback from overseas.
And Tamino paints a picture of what just happened that might please Dr Tufte, but is more than a little bit sobering.
PS - Not actually stolen from Atmoz's "what I'm reading" list, but might as well have been.
As usual with economists, I was planing to wheel out my "wrong question, therefore answer irrelevant" spiel, but somehow it didn't quite fit. They aren't growth-obsessed, at least not in the arguments they present.
As I read it, their problem is here, in their core paragraph:
...this money ought to be used to create a new military-industrial-academic complex around clean-energy sciences, similar to the one we created around computer science in the 1950s and '60s. The transformation of Silicon Valley from a sleepy collection of apple orchards and small towns to the information technology powerhouse that it is today was the result of massive investments by the federal government into a set of interlinked military, industrial, and academic institutions in the region--a fact that is largely ignored by many high-tech executives, who prefer to imagine that it all started in Bill Hewlett's garage. Concretely, this means creating undergraduate and graduate programs in new energy sciences; post-graduate fellowships for scientists, engineers, and technicians; and training for the electricians, construction workers, efficiency experts, and installers needed to make the clean-energy revolution real.
This is new-age magical thinking, which is to say, not actual thinking. There is no "clean-energy revolution". No amount of expenditure on homeopathy or cold fusion will pan out.
Clean energy is, presently, expensive and limited. People are motivated to change this, but have so far not succeeded. Accordingly, the prognosis isn't very good. You can no more wish this inconvenient truth away than any other. It is conceivable that there is a fix, but there's no reason to expect that throwing money at the problem will pay off.
I will be cheering as loudly as anyone if something pans out, and I am certainly in favor of as much research in this direction as makes sense scientifically or technically. But there is a limit to what experts can achieve, no matter how much funding they get. Insufficeint funding slows things down, but excessive funding certainly does not speed things up. Ten scientists cannot get a decade's worth of one scientist's work done in a year any more than nine women can make a baby in a month.
If there's anything to this stuff they ought to offer some arguments of substance. "Some energy experts have calculated that an investment of roughly $200 billion would bring the price of solar energy down to that of coal." Names, details please? Solar advocates have long compared apples and oranges. Oh, and until storage problems are solved, coal will continue to be much cheaper at night.
No, the reason we are in trouble is not because we are too mopey. Yes, bad news is always a hard sell, but that's no reason to deliver imaginary good news instead.
Exactly which research programs are underfunded, and by how much? I am sure there are some. That's something we can talk about, and we can also talk about which programs haven't panned out and should be cut.
Throwing too much money in the general direction of a problem never solved anything.
Update: To clarify, I have no objection to further R&D on renewables. In fact, I encourage it. I object to the idea that we can, without diminishing returns, avoiding subsidies or taxes, count on decreasing the unit cost of renewable energy to the point where it is cheaper than digging up some foul gunk and torching it. That's wishful thinking taken to the point of insanity.
The collapse in prices per unit of information technology are a bizarre and possibly unique event in history. Relying on something similar happening in energy technology is where Nordhaus & Shellenberger lose touch with reality. And everything else they say is completely conventional.
In the end, we will be devoting a larger share of GDP to energy, and if we manage to prosper through our coming troubles, we will have plenty of it. This means the energy will be "more expensive". So?
I say let's get it over with. The disruption is tiny compared to the alternative, and investing huge efforts into magic pixie dust is probably not going to help. A gradually increasing tax on carbon emissions to the point where sustainable sources are competitive will do the trick. The magic pixie dust, maybe not.