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

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Climate and Ethics

James Garvey, the author of a book called The Ethics of Climate Change has an interesting essay about the subject to stir up your interest.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

It's Not Just Your Car, It's Your Religion

From the Statesman a few weeks ago; freedom to park considered equivalent to freedom of worship in Texas. Thanks to neighbor Jose for the tip:
The Texas Lawyer’s blog Tex Parte had an interesting item today about a Southwest Austin church suing the city over a parking lot permit. Leaders of Hope in the City, a 7-year-old nondenominational church, are claiming a burden on their “free exercise of religion”.
the city, citing environmental restrictions, has failed to issue the church a parking-lot-expansion permit

This parking lot space sits on sacred Austin ground: the Barton Springs watershed. This could turn into a holy war.
Yet Barton Springs Eternal.

Fun with Dot Earth

Demonstrating that web polling is different from scientific consensus, and exposing the toxicity that still lurks out there for what it is, have a look at a most interesting if somewhat disconcerting conversation on Dot Earth about the AGU position on climate change.

I'm happy with my contributions to the thread, especially comment #207, which I think summarizes why Revkin's approach in the parent article didn't work, as any usenet veteran could have predicted.

National Climate Teach-In Jan 30/31 (USA)

There's a group called Focus the Nation that is trying to move climate change into American schools and universities. They are holding a national teach-in this week, and many institutions appear to be participating.

Here is the widget to find your nearest event. I will at least be attending the "2 % solution" presentation here tomorrow evening, and will try to find out about the teach-in at UT.

I'm a bit discouraged that I didn't find out about this effort except through the university-wide events calendar; neither the departmental channels nor blog channels gave me any clue.

Still the approach here seems promising. I hope this event has been more visible to students than it was to me.

From their "About" page:
In the next few years, we as a nation will make, or fail to make, critical decisions regarding global warming pollution and clean technology investments. These decisions will have far-reaching and irreversible impacts on the lives of today’s students and the lives of their children. At this moment in time, we owe our young people at least a day of focused discussion about global warming solutions for America.

Focus the Nation is organizing a national teach-in on global warming solutions for America—creating a dialogue at over a thousand colleges, universities, high schools, middle schools, places of worship, civic organizations and businesses, and directly engaging millions of students and citizens with the nation’s decision-makers. Focus the Nation will culminate January 31st, 2008 in simultaneous educational symposia held across the country. Our intent is to move America beyond fatalism to a determination to face up to this civilizational challenge, the challenge of our generation.

Focus the Nation is an educational initiative, but we also promote civic engagement. Each Focus team will invite local, state and federal political leaders and decision-makers to come to campus and participate in a non-partisan, round-table discussion of global warming solutions. US Senators and members of congress, state representatives, mayors and city councilors, all will be receiving dozens of invitations to speak about global warming, from over a thousand institutions nation-wide. Every institution will also vote on their top five national priorities for global warming action, producing a campus and citizen endorsed policy agenda for 2008.

Currently over 1000 institutions, mostly colleges and universities, have signed on to participate, and dozens of college and university Presidents have endorsed the initiative. To maximize both education and civic engagement, Focus the Nation has four key components:

NATIONAL TEACH-IN: On January 31st , thousands of students on every campus, millions of students nationwide, participate in workshops and panels, brainstorming global warming solutions. Are you with us? Are your faculty supporting you? Ask ten, twenty, fifty faculty to stand up as educators on behalf of your future. They will say yes. To make this happen, start with the sample teach-in.

Update: I hope your experience was better than mine. The UT never got the stream working.

(Younger people had much more elaborate theories than old people. Old people: "I often have trouble getting Flash to work"; young people: "for some reason it's defaulting to Windows Media rather than Flash; there's too many people connecting; finally (this one really doesn't work for me but it's the consensus process at work) it's defaulting to Windows Media because too many people are connecting...)

Anyway, except for the hardly surprising fact gleaned from informal conversation than earnest young greenies tend to be innumerate, (there was a great deal of talk in the bull session they tried to pull together in lieu of the webcast about selling special backpacks with solar panels mounted on them; also there is some project about the 9th ward in New Orleans that "Fergie has lent her name to" that has a lot of "star power") I have nothing to report.

I hate to say we're doomed but if the UT experience is any indication we're in big trouble.

The whole thing was rushed, ill-planned, and poorly promoted. I guess it's best that it was ill-promoted; else more people would have been inconvenienced.

If a top 20 CS school can't pull this sort of thing off, I have to wonder about the other 1399 schools. Anyone have more success than we did?

Anyway I presently have no more idea what the content of the presentation was than I did this morning.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Bicyclist on Tollway

A bicycle commuter tried to get one of those transponder gizmos for the tollway, but the state of Texas is confused and can't seem to manage to take his money.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

How Not to Communicate Quantitatively

OK, UNEP doesn't want me to livelink to their map pages without their permission, and I'm going to have to be scrupulous about such things. But I think this partial clipping is fair use in an act of criticism.

The page on which this image is found is a spectacularly bad presentation because it titles both the article and the graphic with the unfortunate text "Temperature increases 2001-2005". If this were an accurate label this would be a map of truly terrifying proportions. In fact I am relieved to report that it is merely (one hopes) a very severe and disap
pointing error, as the caption below the map, in small print and somewhat opaque language essentially acknowledges, as follows:

Increases in annual temperatures for a recent five-year period relative to 1951–1980. Warming is widespread, generally greater over land than over oceans, and... (etc.)

Will every reader notice that "relative to 1951-1980" Will everyone who notices it be able to confidently explain what it means? Does, say, your aunt understand "five year period relative to three decade period?"

The title is misleadingly wrong. It should be captioned "temperature changes since mid-century" or something like that. Sowing such confusion is hardly a good idea.

ohmmmm, yeah, that URL?

(rolls eyes)

If anyone has any information on whom to contact at UNEP to correct this problem I would be much obliged.

Update: I submitted this in their feedback form:
The title of the page, the legend of the map and the URL are all seriously misleading in the same way. One could easily be misled into thinking that the image shows the increase in temperature over a five year period. The caption makes this explicit, but not so clearly as to outweigh the potential damage done by the title, legend and URL. A much better title would be "2001-2005 temperatures compared to 1951-1980". I strongly urge you to repair the misleading title in all its manifestations.
Feel free to join in. The feedback link is right on the map page.

Update: It's fixed! See comments.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ocean's Biological Deserts Expanding

In weakly stratified or highly mixed ocean waters nutrients mix up from the deep forming the base of the food chain.

In places where the ocean is strongly heated from above and away from intense currents, very little of these bottom nutrients are recycled, and these form regions of the ocean that support very little sea life.

Of course, increased warming from above makes surface water lighter; hence increases the stratification and suppresses the upwelling of nutrients. Could this be a negative consequence of global warming?

Possibly so, apparently:
Climate-ecosystem models predict that global warming will exacerbate ocean desert expansion, but not this quickly, Polovina notes. During the past 9 years, gyre deserts expanded 10 to 25 times faster than modeled. The trend feels solid to other scientists. "Everything seems to hold together," says SeaWiFS project scientist Charles McClain of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who was not affiliated with the study. A variety of oceanographic observations and modeling is consistent with warming driving the expansion of the gyres and their low-productivity waters, he says.
Emphasis added. Chalk up another one for the "worse than expected" column. Of course in the absence of bias, you would expect literally half of everything to be worse than expected! (The other half would be better.) It's not a field of my expertise but still, a tenfold error!

Such an error in rate estimation looks to this casual onlooker to be a big deal.

That's an odd sort of model and needn't reflect too harshly on the main GCM efforts, but I definitely think this particular effort should go back to the drawing board!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Climate Models: Best Hope of Policy Gradualism

There's much to consider in Ray Pierrehumbert's latest posting on RealClimate, "The Debate is Just Beginning on the Cretaceous". For now I'd like to focus on Ray Ladbury's comment #22. Ray L says something much like I've been saying, though he expresses it somewhat differently. Logically, I have argued that the less you believe the models, the more you should support vigorous (ok, ok, I'll say it, "draconian") policy to restrain emissions.

Here is how Ray L explains it:
Excellent post as usual. The seeming glee that denialists sieze upon any result that could be interpreted as calling model results into question has always amused me. The empirical data are sufficient to establish that warming is occurring. The fact that nobody can construct even a semblance of a scientific model that explains these data without anthropogenic CO2 being the driver establishes convincingly the cause. And the paleoclimate is sufficient to establish that the consequences of rapid, significant warming can be severe indeed. The models are the only tools we have that could LIMIT how much we should be concerned. Right now it is the models that are suggesting scenarios by which we could limit the consequences of climate change without significantly harming our global economy. If the models are wrong, the upside risk of climate change cannot be limited, and arguments for draconiam measures are strengthened rather than weakened. That is why I keep telling responsible skeptics that the models are the best friends they have.

Drought and Nukes

I mentioned this last August: nuclear plants are thirsty. Though they help with the carbon problem, they are also vulnerable to climate shifts. (The article I referenced then seems to have expired.)

(Why are newspapers so silly? I am sure that paid archives achieve less for them than ongoing advertisements. The NY Times seems to have figured it out...)

Here's another article in the same vein: the southeastern drought is causing power shortages over there by shutting down nukes. Let's hope that this eases before the summer cooling season kicks in.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

AAAS Supports Science Debate

American Association for the Advancement of Science today announced that it has joined a major effort to mount a presidential debate on science, technology and the economy.
“It’s a new, global knowledge economy. Dealing with that is going to be a pretty major policy question for the next president – one that affects the pocketbook of every American. When you add global warming, the healthcare crisis, biotechnology, and transportation, it starts looking like many of the major issues the next president will face are not being seriously debated,” said Otto. “That’s why a leading organization like the AAAS, the world’s largest general scientific society, is signing onto our citizen initiative.”
(emphasis added)

Antarctic Melting Accelerates

JPL Press Release Jan 23 2008:
Ice loss in Antarctica increased by 75 percent in the last 10 years due to a speed-up in the flow of its glaciers and is now nearly as great as that observed in Greenland, according to a new, comprehensive study by NASA and university scientists.


Rignot said the losses, which were primarily concentrated in West Antarctica's Pine Island Bay sector and the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, are caused by ongoing and past acceleration of glaciers into the sea. This is mostly a result of warmer ocean waters, which bathe the buttressing floating sections of glaciers, causing them to thin or collapse. "Changes in Antarctic glacier flow are having a significant, if not dominant, impact on the mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheet," he said.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Free Market Fairy

Linked from Bryan L's blog this AM, a remarkable blog called bitworking.

I'm very fond of the recent Free Market Fairy article:
You know the one where you put your problem under the pillow and during the night the Free Market Fairy visits and your problem is solved the next morning.

Now no one on the right is using the term Free Market Fairy - they use is "free markets", or very rarely "invisible hand" - but let's be very clear that they are invoking not a general theory of markets nor a deep understanding of economic systems, but instead a magical mythical benevolent force that can do only good and can never do harm and will solve all the world's problems if only we'd let it. I will refer to that force as the Free Market Fairy.

The Free Market Fairy is a very different creature from the original Invisible Hand of Adam Smith, who only mentions it briefly in all of his works where it is couched in a whole framework of economic theory. Today we know that Adam Smith's Invisible Hand is the operation of free markets to maximize efficiency. It is the beginning of an understanding of emergent behavior, the power of individuals, acting locally, that can produce globally things no individual could produce.

I certainly believe in the power of a market economy to maximize efficiency and in the power of emergent systems. What I want to do away with is the Free Market Fairy, a fluffed up fraud injected into the conventional wisdom

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Please Get Out of the Way

Andrew Revkin has an article and a video up on the NYT site about Kevin Conrad, representing Papua New Guinea at the Bali talks, whose outspoken challenge to the US tipped or at least appeared to tip the US delegation into a more cooperative stance.

I had wanted to hear more about this and I very much appreciate Revkin's work on this story.

Personal News: Long Term Project Found

It looks like I have 50% funding more or less indefinitely on a software project for which I have great enthusiasm. It's not directly about climate models but it does support climate as well as other sciences; improving applicability to climate science is one of my goals on the project. It will also leave me in a position to keep bugging NSF about alternative approaches to climate modeling.

It may be some time before this is official. I'll let you know more once the last i's are crossed and t's dotted (this is a quite mathematically intensive package :-) ) but it looks like my association with U of Texas is likely to persist.

I've actually dropped back to halftime on my existing work, partly to extend my appointment but partly to find time to attend to my health and especially my weight problem. So it looks like I'll be back to full time in late spring and half time in the interim (which also means it may be a good period for writing and blogging). Then from fall onward I am at least 50% funded which looks sustainable.

Irene and I also just finished moving into our trite but solid little Texas ranch house, and her psychology practice looks to be successfully spinning up. So things (keyn ahora) are looking good for us down here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Inhofe 399

Let's subtract one at least.

Presentation Tonight in Austin

Local folks who read this blog may be interested in the following presentation at the Austin Forum:
Three Case Studies: Cities and the Use of Technology to Achieve Urban Sustainability

Steven Moore is the Bartlett Cocke Professor of Architecture and Planning in the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin. In 2001, Moore co-founded the UT Center for Sustainable Development. He is a Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and a Loeb Fellow of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and has authored numerous books.

Moore will present case studies of three very different cities that aspire to develop sustainably — Austin, Texas; Curitiba, Brazil; and Frankfurt, Germany. His experience as a practicing architect and his knowledge of science, technology, geography, and planning allow him to study the built environment as a socio-technical artifact. He also uses Geographic Information System (GIS) analysis to model the physical impacts of public policy choices and relates this directly to his work.
You can also glimpse the current champion world's most powerful computer (actually online now! yay!) blinking through a wall of glass and if you ask me nicely I'll show you my office too, both in the same building.
Research Office Complex
J.J. Pickle Research Campus
10100 Burnet Road
Building 196
Austin, Texas 78758-4497
Update 1/17: Nobody took me up on this which is just as well. The talk was not entirely boring but it far from knocked my socks off. The title of the talk was utterly misleading, and I would venture that the speaker knows very little about technology or for that matter about the sorts of thing I would call science. More to follow.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Nice Flipped Question Presentation

On the GlobalChange list, Roger Coppock points to this wonderful graphic from the UKMO.

Rather than a noisy time series, we get a rather elegant view of an unmistakable trend. It's the same information presented in a more cognitively accessible fashion. The accompanying story is here.

Rather detracting from the value of the image is the fact that the vertical extent of the colored bars is not explained in any detail. It "feels like" some sort of uncertainty measure (older years indeed do have wider bars) but the source of the data and the analysis represented by the bars should be explained somewhere accessible from the page. It would be dramatcially more useful that way.

That said, the image itself is a very nice illustration of Tufte-esque principles, and it makes the actual situation (right, the actual warming trend) much more cognitively accessible than does the usual time series.

Update:Per Hank's suggestion in the comments, here is a tweaked version optimized for the most common form of color blindness:

Blogger slightly broken

Sorry about the paragraph breaks; blogger seems to be inserting random div tags that don't show up on the preview. This makes the gap between paragraphs somewhat random.

Yet another "hey Google" thing...

Anyway I am probably going to move this blog once; when do you suppose I should give up hope for an invite from SciBlogs? Having experienced more powerful blogging platform via I am ready to make the shift but I don't want to do it twice.

Not that Blogger is a bad thing. Until this current bug it was easy and functional.

Update: I suspect the bug is Safari-specific.

Update 1/24: The brazenly whinged-for SciBlogs invite has arrived! There is apparently a contract involved. I suspect I will sign it; I will certainly read it!

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Brief History of US AGW Politics

Some useful background on climate change history and politics in the US focusing on Hansen, on DKos.

UNEP Maps the Anthropocene

You can get a random graphic of the day from the United Nations Environment Programme.
If you use iGoogle, here's a widget link. Else you can use the RSS feed .

It's a nice feed to follow if you like to think about, you know, the rock you are astonishingly hurtling through space upon.

I'm scratching my head a bit over this one: River fragmentation and flow regulation.

It "indicates the areas which are most affected by river channel fragmentation and flow regulation. River fragmentation is defined as the interruption of a river's natural flow by dams, inter-basin transfers or water withdrawal, and is an indicator of the degree to which rivers have been modified by human activity." The extent of regions where rivers are unimpeded is a bit shocking. (Note that the grey and pink areas are "don't know", only the very pale green are places where hydrology is "known to be in a natural state".) (Paging Dr. Tufte...)

Welcome to the anthropocene.

This picture is an example of why it bothers me when people are so adamant about "thinking local". A dam here, a dam there, this tends to strike me as fine. The idea that almost all the rivers in the world have been replaced by plumbing, on the other hand, is at least something that bears thinking about.

Computing and Climate Threads

So as not to bore the broader audience intended for this blog, I am going to move my comments on more technical matters over to and I'm turning comment moderation back on here for a bit. I very much welcome discussion on the technology of climate science over there.

I'll be rearranging the column on the right soon to indicate when I have articles elsewhere, for those who are inclined to follow bit would rather not add another feed.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

What Will You Believe You Now Believe?

Not surprisingly, but to perhaps a surprising extent, people's opinions of their prior opinions are biased.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Science and Politics Intersecting, Correlating etc.

Via email from Sheril:
Hey folks,

Today at 2pm, listen in on NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow on the Call for a Science Debate:

Friday, January 11th, 2008
Hour One- 2pm EDT
The Call for A Science Debate

"Should the presidential candidates participate in a debate focusing on science, technology, and the environment? A group of voters has started a petition movement calling for a science debate."

Details on today's program here:
On a related note, Atmoz spots a good starting point at Physics Today, compiling candidates'
positions on science-related matters.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Fresh Air

Jim Hansen was on “Fresh Air” today and Terry Gross asked him what the one most important thing we could do about the climate problem would be. Hansen answered correctly that we need to stop building new coal plants unless they have CCS.

Well, you know, I haven’t built one of those lately, at least not personally.

As Gore points out in 18 point text as my current blog slogan, the only way out of this mess is through cooperation at all levels, including national and global. Only governments capable of competent, careful, serious and quantitative thinking can save us, and if we don't have them, we need to create some.

Ms Gross had an interesting follow-up, which was whether Hansen was going beyond his charter as a scientist in recommending policy. His answer was a very polished and polite dance around the fact that if the scientists don’t come out and say this blazingly obvious fact in the clearest possible terms, the politicians won’t manage to figure it out.

Click the link and give a listen. Thanks Howie, for the tip, and thanks again to Terry Gross for yet another remarkably insightful interview.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Staying Geeky

Most scientists, especially climate scientists, know next to nothing about what is actually happening in computing.

Most computer people, even academics, know next to nothing about what climate people consider standard practice.

The gap is enormous. You'd think someone who speaks both languages might be able to get some steady work... The trouble is that the customer still has very little idea of what is possible and the vendor still has very little idea what is needed. I'm trying to occupy a middleman position that neither side perceives quite rightly. It's not at all certain that I'll get to do that in any official capacity.

Failing that I will have more time and less resources, but I'll probably have a climate modeling project anyway, probably with a more didactic spin.

Anyway I'm going to be starting to look to my readership for advice or assistance. How do I keep my science gig going (small inputs of reasonably relevant funding through academic channels in the near term would be hugely helpful) else how do I keep myself doing something useful if the science thing sputters out again. Any advice welcome here or in email.

See also related articles:

Excised Paragraphs
Why is Climate Modeling Stuck?

NCAR vs Google

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Nice Carbon Proposal

Via Dot Earth via On the Commons by Peter Barnes, a way to both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade that's less difficult to swallow than either of them alone.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

NCAR vs Google: Place your Bets

Sticking with a technical theme for a bit, and following onto my most recent previous article, I'd like to further address what I perceive as the limited productivity of climate modeling as an enterprise.

Getting software right is a very subtle skill. In general it is much easier to write barely useful software than to write powerful software, and broken software is easier still. On the other hand, observing that it is possible to do much better than has been done in the past has become trivially easy.

That is is possible to get software right is proven daily in the commercial sector. In my commercial career and especially more recently in the Chicago Python group I have been exposed to extremely talented programmers, some of whom are literally orders of magnitude more productive than ordinary programmers.

They are very particular regarding their choice of tool as any highly talented and productive person is, and many of them tend to choose Python or similar tools for most of their work. Of course, I cannot paint like Rembrandt even given the finest brushes and paints, but that doesn't mean brushes and paints don't matter. The tool isn't the point, though. The point is that a new approach has emerged.

You don't have to take my word for it anymore. The consequences of these capacities, interestingly developed almost entirely outside the academic sector, are increasingly visible through the productivity of Google, the largest collection of people with this sort of talent. Many smaller companies and organizations also partake of this cluster of techniques, but the remarkable productivity of Google is visible to anyone who cares to look.

So let me flip my question from the previous article, which was, whether computational technique can help to increase the rate of progress in climate modeling? Here is a recasting of that question:

Can we be sure that the greatly improved methodologies recently developed in the private sector can't be applied to climate modeling and related endeavors?

It seems to be obviously premature to say so.

The question, then, is whether climate modeling (and computational science, at least as applied to complex natural systems) matters. If it doesn't, we should all take up macrame or real estate. If it does matter, we should be paying very close attention to what works elsewhere. Not everything will apply, but what will apply will not be nothing, either.

Should Silicon Valley folks just build a climate model? It's a risky endeavor and I don't see a viable business proposition, but maybe, maybe somehow.

Should they just fund a climate model and not get involved? No. Foundation money directed toward software is probably even more likely to go astray into worthless boondoggles than government money.

Should they just shrug and forget the whole sorry business, accept that CO2 is a major forcing, and get on with other things? Maybe but I hope not. This abandons the adaptation side which is going to matter, trust me.

So I think the problem is institutional and motivational, not technical.