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

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Surprised to Agree

Surprisingly, I have found nothing to disagree with in R. Pielke Jr.'s op-ed piece in the Financial Post. Have you?

As you might expect, he doesn't manage to quite come around to the point that the worst-case outcomes deserve more weight, in a cost-benefit risk analysis, than the best-case outcomes.

So while he agrees that uncertainty does not call for inaction, he doesn't go so far as I do, to claim that the less we believe the models, the more vigorously we should act.

That said, he didn't say anything I disagree with, and it appears he has, without crediting James especially, absorbed the impact of the discussion about "consistency with models" correctly. I think that his point about that is sound.

The appropriate moral behavior in this context is only obvious, though, if you think democracy is sound and functional and capable of rationally weighing ideas. In the best of worlds this process is necessarily imperfect. At present, we are faced with organized and funded people who cherry-pick any possible indication that concerns about AGW are overblown.

We can't win. If we react in a balanced way, the public splits the difference and moves to a muddled and inadequate response. If we cherry pick in the other direction, we become "the extremists on the other side".

It is very difficult for a balanced view based on reason to fight an unbalanced view based on polemics, the more so the more nature indicates consequences that don't seem intuitive.

While I may have some objections to what RP Jr doesn't say, surely expecting those blanks filled in, in the FP these days, is wishful thinking. But what he says in the op-ed seems correct.

15 comments:

Michael Tobis said...

I've already received a length argument in email and am looking for permission to post it.

Of course, I do object to the "junk science" tag the FP put on Pielke's op-ed and I see many things to object to in the accompanying opinion piece here, "Nothing Wacky About the Weather".

Especially of note is that while it is very difficult for a single event to be consistent or inconsistent with climate predictions, that doesn't mean that midwesterners should shrug and ignore the fact that they've had two 500-year floods in the space of 15 years; nor that the rest of us should ignore the increasing prevalence of flooding events elsewhere.

The question is what to say about the inevitable "Is it Global Warming' question. There seems to be no right answer.

David B. Benson said...

'Is it global warming?'

With long enough records, this is answerable, in a statistical sense. One long record is Central England Temperatures. Tamino posted about this.

Steve Bloom said...

Michael, I have to say RP Jr.'s piece seems to me to be only a very slightly sanitized version of his usual line.

In particular I'm surprised that you find his central thesis unobjectionable:

"But what does it mean to say that some weather events are 'consistent with' climate model predictions? The implication of such statements of course is that models are reliable and offer accurate predictions that have been borne out by experience. But unfortunately, the real answer is that saying that any recent weather events are 'consistent with' model predictions is an empty statement."

Here's how I look at this: Imagine we're in a future where the models have been perfected and it's obvious to all that the predicted increase in extremes has indeed come to pass. Under those conditions we will be able to say what about any particular event? Perhaps that it's "consistent with" what the models show? Still no more than that, I think. So even if the statistical attribution is iron-clad (although of course still not 100%), there will be no qualitatively better answer to the question of whether a particular event is influenced by the larger change.

The problem is that, human nature being what it is, the dangers of climate change cannot be communicated effectively without using a "consistent with" type of argument. (This may be equivalent to saying that it can't be communicated without resorting to some sort of statistical reasoning to link events to the larger change.) And of course we know (from Katrina e.g.) that events are what the vast majority of people respond to. It sure isn't an abstracted .2C/decade.

The grain of truth in RP Jr.'s argument is that one can use "consistent with" to construct a misleading argument, but is this really a problem among climate scientists? I don't think so.

Anyway, this is a good example of why, every time I see something RP Jr. writes, I look for the cheap rhetorical trick. There's almost always one to be found.

IMO RP Jr. wants to hamstring the ability of climate scientists to function in the public policy arena, in considerable part because he doesn't want the competition. (I'm guessing that the email you mention might have been from a fellow Texan of yours who had something similar to say.)

Steve Bloom said...

Michael, you say people in the Midwest shouldn't ignore the flood stats, but then suggest that climate scientists should stand there tongue-tied in the face of that inevitable question? Even if there's no "right" answer in an absolute sense since statistical answers on issues of this sort can't ever be completely right, there is a sufficent one (or perhaps more than one such). I just don't see it as a problem.

Let me try some basic dialogue:

"Was this flood caused by global warming?"

"We won't ever be able to be certain about any specific flood since such events occurred in the past due solely to natural causes, but the science tells us that as the planet warms such events are expected to become both more common and larger in extent, and that it is not too early for this effect to be seen. Globally, we have already detected an increase in the sort of extreme rainfall events that are necessary for this sort of flood."

Is there a problem with this?

Steve Bloom said...

The comments by Joe Romm and Tokyo Tom over at RP Jr.'s are excellent. His response and most of the other comments are an object lesson.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't know what RP is about in the large. It all seems so tactical and calculated and coy.

That said, he made no false assertions that I saw in the present article. My summary is that it there is a real polemical in saying event A is the sort of thing we expect and is therefore consistent with the models and then when challenged with event B say that is NOT the sort of thing we increasingly expect but it's nevertheless consistent with the models.

In the present case I do not fault Roger because he is not the instigator of the criticism. There is plenty of it about. We stand accused of blaming everything on global warming.

The problem may be just one of nomenclature. An individual cold outbreak is not inconsistent with predictions. The 500 year flood event in Iowa, then, should be seen as something more than merely "consistent".

I an never quite sure what Roger Jr. is trying to do. Sometimes it seems to me he is doing a service in his peculiar way. In the present case I am reading the article at face value. Some word besides "consistent" is needed to make the argument carry some weight. The meaning of "consistent" is empty in this case, and something stronger is needed.

How about: "The Iowa flooding is just the sort of thing we can expect to see more of in the future". Or: "This cold outbreak is the sort of thing we can expect to see less of in the future."

Both events are entirely consistent with theory and models. So "consistent" isn't a useful distinction and stakes out a very awkward position that is sure to be attacked.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't know what RP is about in the large. It all seems so tactical and calculated and coy.

That said, he made no false assertions that I saw in the present article. My summary is that it there is a real polemical in saying event A is the sort of thing we expect and is therefore consistent with the models and then when challenged with event B say that is NOT the sort of thing we increasingly expect but it's nevertheless consistent with the models.

In the present case I do not fault Roger because he is not the instigator of the criticism. There is plenty of it about. We stand accused of blaming everything on global warming.

The problem may be just one of nomenclature. An individual cold outbreak is not inconsistent with predictions. The 500 year flood event in Iowa, then, should be seen as something more than merely "consistent".

I an never quite sure what Roger Jr. is trying to do. Sometimes it seems to me he is doing a service in his peculiar way. In the present case I am reading the article at face value. Some word besides "consistent" is needed to make the argument carry some weight. The meaning of "consistent" is empty in this case, and something stronger is needed.

How about: "The Iowa flooding is just the sort of thing we can expect to see more of in the future". Or: "This cold outbreak is the sort of thing we can expect to see less of in the future."

Both events are entirely consistent with theory and models. So "consistent" isn't a useful distinction and stakes out a very awkward position that is sure to be attacked.

bi -- IJI said...

"The 500 year flood event in Iowa, then, should be seen as something more than merely `consistent'."

Perhaps one should ask what theories the events are inconsistent (or not so consistent) with. Are the spate of measurements we have so far "consistent" with the theory that "there's no global warming", or "it's the sun", or "it's methane", etc.? Cut out the competition, so to speak.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Michael Tobis said...

Steve,

"We won't ever be able to be certain about any specific flood since such events occurred in the past due solely to natural causes, but the science tells us that as the planet warms such events are expected to become both more common and larger in extent, and that it is not too early for this effect to be seen. Globally, we have already detected an increase in the sort of extreme rainfall events that are necessary for this sort of flood."

Even that's a bit simpler than a scientist would be entirely comfortable with, but the press is sure to truncate it or muddle it up somehow.

The real problem is that it sounds equivocal. "He doesn't sound very sure of himself." Or worse, "He pretty much said it had nothing to do with global warming but he seemed to be bowing to pressure to toe the party line."

The fact that there is no longer any serious argument that the problem is not serious makes matters worse. Now there is nobody on the other side speaking the sort of equivocal language that scientists usually view as the only professionally correct form of speech.

The fact is that relatively very few people know how to think, which pretty much subverts the idea of democracy. We'd better learn, and fast. Meanwhile, we have to do what we have to do to keep the train on the rails. This may on occasion verge on violating scientific propriety.

Michael Tobis said...

Some comments from email from a rather well-known correspondent, a climate scientist who wishes to remain anonymous:

I'm not sure you are reading the same text I did. Pielke essentially states that any claim of consistency with models is not only misleading but actually false and neither open nor honest. This is specious.

In the four traceable examples he gives at Prometheus (which is where he directed commenters when asked):

i) "But almost everyone involved in the debate agrees that the planet's seas and atmosphere have been warming. "What we are seeing is consistent with what the global warming models are predicting," link"

ii) the long term shifts in the jets (a 22 year trend) link.

iii) changes in ocean gyres - specific quote: "The fact that we are seeing an expansion of the ocean’s least productive areas as the subtropical gyres warm is consistent with our understanding of the impact of global warming. But with a nine-year time series, it is difficult to rule out decadal variation,” link.

iv) Arctic river runoff over a 50 year time period link.

In each case the commenter is talking about long term trends being consistent with long term trends in the models - with the possible one exception of (iii), but there it is very clearly caveated.

Pielke also gets the context of Knutson's quote wrong (he is clearly talking about long term warming not hurricane trends), but in none of these cases is anyone quoted discussing individual weather events.

However, even if they were, his sweeping generalisation still has no validity. Take a statement like "The latest extreme downpour is consistent with a long term trend towards more intense rainfall". This is perfectly true (and actually has nothing to do with models). Similar statements are made in relation to increased violent crime stats, or salmonella cases etc. In fact every situation where there is a single instance of an event that while not defining a trend is clearly exemplary of it. Half the stories in the daily newspaper use a similar construction.

As to his 'no inconsistent withs', James Annan has provided dozens. And since the long term trends in the models for most of the issues talked about are pretty robust, there is no way that the opposite effect is still "consistent with long term model projections". It might not be inconsistent with short term predictions though.

Only if the only use of this phraseology was in connection with a short term prediction of the models and only discussing short term weather events would it be problematic, but RP has shown no example in which this is the case, let alone a whole string of well-respected scientists saying so.


We had a couple more exchanges of email after this, of which I think the most salient addendum would be, in response to my

> On the substance, I think there is a problem in making a distinction between "consistent with" and "not inconsistent with". They seem to be commonly used distinctly where in fact they ought logically to be the same.

the response was:

The subtlety is not in the logic, it is in the context. All of these statements are ones about the long term trends. There is no difference between 'consistent with the long term trends' and 'not inconsistent with the long term trends', but there is a difference between 'consistent with the long term trends' and 'not inconsistent with short term expectations'. That is the distinction RP is glossing over.

and my:

> When I say that this year's floods in Iowa are consistent with predictions and last year's floods in Texas are not inconsistent with predictions, informally I mean two different things; in the Iowa case that I expect more events like the former and in the Texas case I have made no claim that events like the latter are impossible.

garnered advice similar to Steve's:

that's fine and it is very easy to make that point in an interview. You are not restricted to only two word answers!

thingbreak said...

You have no problem with this bare assertion: I have been asked by some of my colleagues why I raise these points, since action on climate change is a good thing and those questioning climate models typically are opposed to action. So what, I am told, if action on climate change is based on some exaggerations and false claims to certainty, isn’t the end goal important enough to justify bending the truth just a bit?

And his subsequent refusals (at least three by my count) to provide corroborating statements or names to verify the claim?

Steve Bloom said...

Thing, of course RP Jr. is misrepresenting those folks. I suspect this particular one may have started out more like: "OK, Roger, granting for the sake of argument that the science sometimes gets exaggerated in the course of communicating it to the public, in the larger scheme of things is that such a problem that it makes sense for you to focus on it like this?"

I think the most useful observation to make about RP Jr. is that he has made a choice to focus on the alleged exaggeration rather than on the more interesting (from a policy analysis POV) and far more common underselling of the science, likely because the former gets his name out in public a lot more.

thingbreak said...

Or why he seems more interested in attacking consensus-friendly reports or studies, or emphasizing any he perceives as against than he does going after pieces by AEI or Cato or similar anti-regulation think tanks that get mainstream media press.

EliRabett said...

As Eli said elsewhere, he knows a lot more climate science folk who have toned down what they know is happening to avoid appearing partisan than the opposite. Human driven climate change is one issue where those who know something about it are a lot more concerned than those who read about it in the supermarket checkout lane.

Michael Tobis said...

I heartily agree with what Eli says, and want to make it clear that I am not undertaking a blanket endorsement of RP Jr. by any means, as some correspondents seem to think.

I nevertheless think the way "consistency with theory" or "consistency with model" is used is confusing and does leave an opening for some unfair criticism. Here RP Jr. has made what I see as a useful contribution.

Also, for someone to assert the necessity of mitigation in a paper like the FP is very helpful, and for that we should commend him.

As for what evidence would be sufficient to refute the existing theory, by now there would need to be a LOT of it. The fact that the public does not understand this highlights the success of the denialists and is most of the reason that this problem has not long since gotten under control.

Fundamentally that's why it's difficult to come up with observations inconsistent with our understanding. A priori it could be because we are stubborn and it could be because we are correct.

Our job is to explicate the balance of evidence without either exceeding the bounds of scientific priority on the one hand but without understating the scale and scope of our understanding on the other.

All this in our spare time, and faced with professional obfuscators whose professional ethic is inherited from attorneys: do the best possible job for the client and leave opposing evidence to the opposition.

The fix is surely to hire trained scientists as communicators. Again I'll say if anyone knows of any steady work of that sort, I'd love to hear about it.