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

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


John Fleck has an interesting article about confusing the two questions: 1) is there significant AGW? and 2) should very much be done about it? I missed it when it came out but fortunately Revkin linked to it.

John argues (presumably somewhat under the influence of RP Jr.) that the latter question is legitimately an open one, that substantive information already in existence is insufficient to settle it.

The primary audience of this blog is people who disagree with John on the second point. That is, we agree that the focus of the discussion should move away from physical climatology, the focus on which is a deliberate red herring on the part of people who oppose action. We disagree with anyone who suggests that it is a marginal or unproven case that such action is necessary. This requires us to broaden the conversation from physical climatology to the whole structure of modern society, which makes it incredibly interesting and incredibly difficult to make a case. It's immensely frustrating that there is still a focus on the physics part; regardless of what you may hear it is really a slam dunk by now that contemplated levels of CO2 are climatically significant.

So, one of the questions that most irks me is how and why we are still spending so much time on the first question. On the other hand, while I am convinced that only one answer is possible to the second question once present evidence is accounted for, it doesn't immediately follow from the first. Several steps are missing between a significant change and a policy imperative, but they are all quite solid.

One way of looking at it is as follows:

1) Are humans changing the composition of the atmosphere?
2) Does that change have observable consequences already?
3) Given current human behavior, what is the likely trajectory of those consequences into the future?
4) Are those consequences morally acceptable?
5) If not, what action should be taken?

It's hard to avoid a doubt whether question 4 is admissible. Some will prefer to substitute "Are those consequences economically acceptable?" I find this substitution unacceptable for various reasons.

Aside from question 4, a conclusion that dramatic changes need to be made is extremely solid. So why aren't we discussing point 4? Well, because that would get us thinking seriously about what society is for and what life means. All sides seem intent on avoiding the question of what our moral obligations are and how we should think about them. Focusing the conversation on a basic and unsurprising and incontrovertible result in climate physics at the expense of a discussion of who we are and how we should make collective decisions is a sign that social maturity has ebbed drastically.

So, as a refinement of John Fleck's argument, I would say that it's true that all of these are typically conflated. The extent to which we are discussing 1 and 2 to the exclusion of 3 and 4 and 5 is simply a mistake. On this point I agree with John.

On the other hand, I believe that we disagree in that I think the evidence on points 3 and 4 is overwhelming, but my position of #4 (and the implicit position on #4 of most who agree with me) is not based on an explicit social consensus, for once we get to the meta-question of what the right question 4 is, we are in a deep quandary.

We need to adjust to a finite world or that world will adjust us for us. The decisions involved are not well-represented in an economics that models labor and capital and real estate as first order inputs but consumable resources as a correction.

The press is not so much afraid to discuss this as utterly incapable (what news slot does it come under?), and advocates on all sides (except for market libertarians for whom it is all too simple) ignore the elephant altogether. Consequently the public is utterly confused about the choices imposed by the transition that is upon us, one that is as great as any in history.


Dano said...

I have been thinking much about the very same subject of this post, Michael, as I am preparing for my personal "presentation season" and this subject dovetails with my current work, and I'll get similar questions during discussion.

The question is: can we do something? That is, more precisely: can societies with profound inertia and divisiveness do something in time (and what is in time).

My reply is my standard reply: I'm a glass half-full kinda guy, but it's full of water tainted by big ag.

I think our societies are on information overload in a complex world, and societies don't change unless they are galvanized and motivated to do so.


Anyway, I'm with ya.



herbert stencil said...

Spending even a little time at your site, and observing your posts at CA, one cannot doubt your genuine concern and sincerity.

Having said that, I feel that I must take issue with your logic construct. The main reason is that your approach makes some primary assumptions that may not be valid. The assumption that I am concerned about is that the most serious adverse risk for humanity is CO2 caused AGW. If I were to accept that assumption, then I agree that the rest of the logic more or less follows.

However, I think an important prior question is what are the most serious adverse risks for humanity. If we had asked that question thirty years ago, we would probably have said pollution of various kinds - air pollution, water pollution etc. However, at least in the developed western countries, great strides have been made in dealing with those problems, so much so that the air in many major cities is now clear, and fish are coming back into lakes, rivers and harbours adjacent to major cities. That has been a triumph for the conservation movement, and deservedly so. There is of course much work to be done in developing countries yet, but even there considerable progress is being made.

Today, CO2 and its relationship to AGW has captured widespread attention - lets not discuss here how that has been achieved. In my view, the jury is still out on whether CO2 is a serious problem or not, and I note, despite claims that "the science is settled" and that "an overwhelming consensus of scientists agree", that the issues still seem to be the focus of vigourous debate.

Whatever the outcome of that issue is, my main concern is that attention is being diverted from other serious issues, that may have potential to cause much more harm for our children and grandchildren than CO2. I am only one person, with necessarily limited knowledge, but the issues that concern me more than CO2 relate to desertification and water. There is quite a lot of work that shows that man's land-use (clear felling of forests, irrigation, monoculture agriculture and similar practices) are creating very serious problems worldwide which will be seen manifesting in changes to local and regional climate (think 1930s Dustbowl in the US) with the associated social and economic disruption.

Bear with me for a moment. What if it could be shown that these practices pose a much greater risk to mankind than CO2 and AGW? Would you then continue to focus all of our energies and resources on trying to fix CO2 and AGW? Or would you apply some energy and resources to trying to fix the adverse effects of poor land-use practices?

So, having addressed your Q1, and come up with a different question, and answer, we then go to your Q2 and Q3, but asked in relation to the most serious issues we can identify in Q1, not just CO2 AGW.

I would argue in support of your Q4, but observe that there is a moral dimension in the discussion where tremendous resources are focussed on the lower order question (from my POV anyhow) than on the much more serious land-use issues. I could question whether it is moral to divert attention from the most serious issues.

Then we come to your Q5 about what action should be taken. Well, you can see from my discussion that I would apply available resources to fixing the problems, but in some proportion to the risk/danger that the problems pose to mankind. I might therefore not agree to allocate 100% of the resources to solving the CO2 AGW problem, but instead focus at least some of the resources on the land-use issues.

Lets say that I am right. It is obvious that there are massive commercial interests vested in the current land-use practices, and it would be a huge challenge to deal with those. However, if we are primarily interested in the truth, then maybe we cannot continue to ignore those problems.

I note that Dano's reference to big ag suggests that he might have at least a little sympathy for the viewpoint I have expressed.

bernie said...

Your five questions are incomplete to the analysis of a public policy issue. You have to size the problem and the cost of the solutions. You also have to specify "morally unacceptable" to whom.

Dano's comment is Orwellian. It is a very strange and disturbing "if ...then" proposition. It is precisely the kind of comment that makes a natural skeptic like me, more skeptical regardles of the attraction of the position he advocates.

Dano said...

I suspect I must be on to something if the denialist fringe...erm...skeptics start calling me "Orwellian". Thank you Bernie.

The argumentation by 'Stencil' deconstructing the logical construct suffers from numerous questionable premises, no doubt some of them promulgated by what troubles Tobis.

The most important one is the "science is settled" argument, which originated from Luntz in his infamous propaganda memo. Similarly, the "concencus" argumentation is very familiar to those who have been following the propaganda trail for a decent length of time. That is, a few major propaganda cycles ago this type of comment was quote common.

Lastly, Stencil's

What if it could be shown that these practices pose a much greater risk to mankind than CO2 and AGW

is wanting in its own logical construct, as the origin of these practices is the same. As Michael mulls about occasionally here, and wonders how we get folks to understand that it is all of a piece.

And I sigh again.



John Fleck said...

I'm not sure why I'm presumed to be under the influence of Svengali Pielke here. It was Andy Dessler's book that first exposed me to a careful discussion of the distinction between normative and positive statements in climate science - a distinction that the first Boykoff paper missed and the second paper captured.

bernie said...

What constitutes propaganda and who exactly is producing it? Can propaganda only be produced by "skeptics"? Aren't others involved in "galvanizing" and "motivating" others?

tidal said...

There is a quote on wikipedia (for which I have never been able to find the source, fwiw...):
"The environment is the libertarian Waterloo: it reveals the flaws of the doctrine in a way that seems to ensure that no 'answer' is forthcoming."

Unfortunately, I think you can almost interchangeably swap out "the libertarian" for any number of other institutionalized "isms" and face the same dilemma: e.g. swap in "capitalism's", "globalization's", consumerism's, supply-side's, etc, etc. Almost everything that has "worked" and prevailed over the last 10,000 years, and particularly the past 250 years, has been unwittingly based upon an "empty-world" assumption. But in a full-world paradigm, they all display disconcerting evidence that they may start to break down. And, using Bartlett's example of the lily pad continually doubling on the pond, and the lateness in the game before we realize it's signifigance... We suddenly approach the full-world with institutions and solution-sets that are ill-equipped to apprehend, let alone rapidly respond to, a full-world reality. So it is "threatening" because it seems to require us to internalize a new reality and then change, quickly, to some unknown, unproven new set of values, policies.

Is it any wonder that the "just make it go away" repsonse is so strong/persistent?

You are right, eventually question 4 is going to lead to much broader introspection. But on the timelines we require to prevent question 2 from overtaking our ability to control it, we have to dance with the girl that brung us. Reality - however it plays out - will continue to dominate the "answer" questions 1,2, and inform the repsonses to 3,4,5.

The analogy of human society/economy to a supertanker, which takes a long time to change course, let alone reverse course, deeply concerns me. "Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." Feynman.

Anyway, there is not much "solution" to my post. It's just that I think we are in for a white knuckle ride as our existing institutions and solution sets and beliefs stagger and stumble as they try to respond on the required timeframes. If we had 100 years to get on top of this... different story, but we have to act yesterday...

I remain optimistic though, by dispostion as much as anything else. (Although, when I occassionally read things like this quote I read yesterday... sometimes I need a beer... "In tremendous extremities human souls are like drowning men; well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the causes of that peril; nevertheless, the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown." Herman Melville... luverly... just luverly... )

Michael Tobis said...

John, fair enough. My first three questions are of a more objective and less normative character than the last two. Such distinctions are useful.

However, the normative questions become rather academic once the scale of the problem is properly appreciated.

bernie said...

I am sure many would argue that it is the relative size of the (benefits minus costs)of a policy that will determine whether choices remain normative or not - if not we would have banned automobiles a long time ago because of traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

Michael Tobis said...

Bernie, sure, acknowledged.

A central obsession of mine is how people like you get this balance so completely (as I understand it) wrong, and what can be done about it.

To engage me in conversation about this, the best place to start is "presuming you guys are for real, what you would have to do to convince me would be X, Y and Z".

Then we can discuss whether such goals are realistic, and what stands in the way of achieving them. Because, if we are right, you do want to know that, right?

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

"3) Given current human behavior, what is the likely trajectory of those consequences into the future?"

That's an important question... and I think the current inaction is also partly the fault of the Alarmists. If current behaviour is any guide, what'll happen in the future is this: Gore will continue to give his hackneyed presentation for the umpteenth time; Nisbet will continue to wax lyrical over "framing" while presenting nothing concrete; Fleck will continue to be afraid of offending climate cranks; John Cross will continue to debunk denialist talking points; the mainstream media will continue to disappear^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hfreedom-away stories like the "Heartland 500" fiasco and how Milloy's full of junk about the APS.

And everyone will continue to ignore those who say we should be experimenting with new strategies and new techniques for talking about global warming; and somehow they'll think this is just right. (Yes, I realize I'm starting to sound grouchy...)

Anyway, as part of my experimentation, I'm proposing to come up with a new petition. More generally, it's clearly high time to put our heads together to come up with new ways of doing things... and, of course, to put them into practice.

The current hodgepodge of approaches is semi-working, but it's not working well and fast enough. And "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing" (as Edmund Burke didn't say).

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

(Erratum: by "John Cross" I meant John Cook...)

Dano said...

What constitutes propaganda and who exactly is producing it? Can propaganda only be produced by "skeptics"? Aren't others involved in "galvanizing" and "motivating" others?


I played basketball for ~25 years. I know a head fake when I see one.

The point is that Luntz introduced "the science isn't settled" argument, and it was in a propaganda memo. And the origin of "there is no consensus" (spelled concencus by rubes who pick it up from ideological sites then parrot it widely) has a similar history, which Mike Morano wants to add to.

These facts and the facts on what motivates groups have nothing to do with your italicized statement.




Michael Tobis said...

Dano's position is very far removed from mine in response to Bernie's challenge.

I acknowledge that manipulative presentations exist on all sides when there is an issue of substance; indeed that is what lawyers and PR people are paid to do.

One could argue, then, that what Gore is up to is propaganda. While he is careful to insert caveats such that his assertions are literally true, he is equally careful not to emphasize those caveats or to bring up some facts inconvenient for our side; notably the rather long time scales involved both in the threat and in the effectiveness of any response to it.

This indeed is the question I am raising in the "squawk" thread. If one speaks in the usual ways of science, even the strongest statements are buried. There's a poster up in my hallway that means "we continue to find no clear lower bound on how fast West Antarctica will disintegrate" but states something like "the mechanism proposed by Schoof appears to be applicable to the retreat of Thwaite's glacier. Consequences to the regional flow regime are not excluded." Only not as clear as that; I'm an expert; that's how occluded I can manage from memory.

What this means is "Eek! Meters of sea level rise are possible within the current century!" but that's not how you get to make a presentation to AGU. So the question is whether the investigator should say exactly that to the general public, thereby endangering his reputation and to a great extent the funding of his work.

Squawking of this nature can easily be manipulative. FOr instance, it doesn't say "or it might take a thousand years. We don't know. All we're saying is it will be relatively sudden once it starts." Saying the latter tends not to motivate people as much. It's equally implicit in the formal statement.

Now, I personally think the more alarming scenario deserves to be very important in the policy debate, and I also think we owe some obligation to our distant descendants, whoever turns out to be the people who suddenly have to retreat from the coast.

I understand that we have a democracy that is confused and TV-addled. We really don't have time to make the case in the face of malicious propaganda. The temptation to resort to counter propaganda is strong. In this case, though, the counter propaganda is based on actual real reality.

In general, there is no rule of thumb as to whether the greens or their opponents are indulging in promoting a fiction on any given issue. I have certainly seen green propaganda that was every bit as self-serving and malicious as the "so such thing as global warming" crowd.

This is a huge part of the our problem. We have no collective capacity for selecting valid information anymore. It bodes ill for the democratic ideal.

bernie said...

Head fake, moi? Surely not.
Head fake or no, "galvanize" and "motivate" are your words.

To the best of my knowledge I have never spelled consensus in any other way - but then I am not sure of your point in bringing it up.

bernie said...

MT & Dano:
Let's see: "Joe six pack" and 'TV addled" ...

In the mean time, Michael I am thinking about your ├╝ber question.

Dano said...

Head fake or no, "galvanize" and "motivate" are your words.

These are the words of the social scientists.

It is how groups are motivated to action. It has been known since at least the Greeks, and likely the ancient Chinese too (my knowledge here on the ancient Chinese is wanting). It is part of the human condition.

One of the reasons the right and the corporate vested interests have struck so hard at Algoreacle is fat!!! is because AIT galvanizes and motivates. Of course, Goreacle is a galvanizing phrase, so we see how this works.

And I never accused you, Bernie, of misspelling concencus (why would you use an argument implying I did?). I bring it up because it is a phrase promulgated and then parroted by folk who had never heard the word 5 minutes ago, but now they're experts on scientific concencus because they read an op-ed piece on a think-tank website. This is also part of the human condition.


Wrt Michael's assessment of my approach to "Bernie's" challenge (to me a head fake using standard templates), my approach is to clarify sources.

CBAs used as a position have limited value; that is: they are good for economics only, and for certain categories of goods, but they are great for corporations because they argue that lump all goods should be considered equally and together.

So what isn't counted? The loss of families' networks and love from the ~45k deaths a year from auto accidents in the US. The damage to the environment from air pollution, asthma exacerbations, urban heat island (from pavement necessity), eutrophication and scouring of urban waterways, noise from traffic, health effects from LL O3 and other precursor chemicals, etc.

Morally, economics and CBAs don't count the 'hidden' value of human life. Corporations want to discount such things as I list above, and their proxies (for whatever reason) like to simplify such things on the list. This is also part of the human condition - hasty generalization and oversimplification.

The larger issue is how do we wrest the average Joe's (Joe six-pack's) thinking away from the patterns of thought that allow corporations to act in our stead?

In this, I think mt and I are on the same page, if not in the same paragraph. Dano just goes about it differently so as to reveal different things.



bernie said...

You "conflated" your response to me with your riff on those who do not know how to spell consensus and are influenced by those with nefarious intentions. I didn't actually accuse you of anything - I merely didn't understand your point!

As for the use of "galvanize" and "motivate," isn't that still "propaganda" whether social scientists choose to pontificate about it or not?

As for cba, only bankers looking to protect their loans and folks selling replacement windows use cba in the way you suggest - and that doesn't mean they are bad. Almost all public policy decision implicitly or explicitly attach a value to human life. It is not immoral or unethical per se to do so. Most analysts use cba the same way old Ben Frankin used his lists of advantages and disadvantages - namely as an analytic tool to ensure the consideration of all relevant variables.

P.S. Dano, you mispelled consensus in your last post but I did understand your point. ;)

Dano said...

As for the use of "galvanize" and "motivate," isn't that still "propaganda" whether social scientists choose to pontificate about it or not?


It's how groups of people git goin' to do stuff.