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

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Snippets from the Pseudo-Debate

In looking through all 203 responses to Tierney's anti-Holdren screed to date I came up with some interesting nuggets. Alas, the idea that "global warming" is some sort of conspiracy is not going away. Witness, then,  a grab bag of comments from John Tierney's recent anti-Holdren screed in the NYTimes blogs that I think are sadly representative:

#73, Steven Walser:
none of us KNOWS what the correct response is, should be publicized far more widely.
We must all realize that ALL theories of climate change are just that THEORIES, not FACTS.
The proposed nostrums have very real world consequences. We simply do not have adequate knowledge to be implementing “solutions” that may, in fact, turn out to have unintended consequences far graver than the problems they seek to solve.
The questions of climate science far exceed in complexity the questions in economics which is wholly of human design and creation and yet as we currently see the effects of our common lack of understanding of human nature play out in the economic world many here call for putting more power into the hands of these same, very fallible humans, to craft a future over which they have even less understanding.
You hear this nonsense spun over and over again. It's so confused it's hard to refute but somebody ought to give it a try.

Simply because we don't know exactly what would be best to do is no excuse for doing nothing. We always must act on best available information. Doing nothing (construed as making no changes in extant policies regarding energy) is not even possible in any case, as should be plain to anyone who thinks about it. Something will be done, and the question is what that will be. So this boils down to an argument to discount evidence that the writer finds, well, inconvenient. Yet the writer has no concept that this is the case.

It is interesting that the assertion is made that "The questions of climate science far exceed in complexity the questions in economics". The comparison between the two fields is, I think, both fruitful and thanks to the political power of economists, inevitable. 

I find the above-quoted writer's position nonsensical. Economics, being essentially a branch of psychology, is vastly more complex than climatology; the scale separations and level of detail that make climatology complex compared to other domains of essentially classical 19th century physics are very favorable in comparison to behavioral sciences. If a robust theory of applied economics is possible, the available data is so vastly inadequate to test it that it is hard to see how a correct theory might emerge. Meanwhile, the set of observational and theoretical constraints on the physical atmosphere and oceans are precise and well understood. 

It's really interesting how and why Mr. Walser gets this backwards.

#80 has this old saw:
Can Holdren prove his point? Nope. The only “proof” he has are climate MODELS. That’s not empirical science.
Um, well, what do we mean by MODELS here? This is fodder for a very long discussion; I've seen a couple of stabs at it. I don't actually know how one predicts the future empirically, of course. This also boils down to an argument for celebrating ignorance.

#84 comes right out and gets it very wrong in very few words:
Has Holdren caught on to the fact that CO2 doesn’t cause an increase in temperatures yet?
Heh. What can you say to that? "Does too!" 

It might be wise to avoid that trap and move onto "That's not what I understand. What makes you say that?"

#101 has this remarkable claim:
I think the AGW people are fearful that the earth is cooling. Which means that they have to enact their economic control laws quickly in order to take credit for the cooling.
I don't see how that would be possible; there is little likelihood that the CO2 concentration will be stabilizing, never mind declining, any time soon. The author seems to be unaware that the claims being made are quantitative or what their nature might possibly be. Nevertheless he feels confident in refuting the claims, whether he knows what they are or not.

#114, by Donald Kingsbury, is far more reasonable at first blush:
Holdren is acting as a defense attorney for a complicated mathematical model of climate — which is far more complicated than the current mathematical models of our economy, which have just been proven, by circumstance, to be drastically inadequate.

As a mathematician I can assure you that current climate models — either those “proving” that humans are having a lethally bad effect on climate or those “proving” that the changes are within the normal bounds of the last million years — are not adequate. Obama needs another adviser, a prosecutor who can look at what Holdren refuses to look at, ie those aspects that might be wrong with current theory. That is the way SCIENCE is done.
Kingsbury is only correct in principle. He seems unaware that the trial has already been conducted, many times. Here is the root of our problem. We have to get on to the sentencing, but the sort of noise Tierney is propagating here cause the trial to be repeated endlessly. Is it malfeasance on Kingsbury's part top be wrong about this? Presumably not, he seems a thoughtful enough fellow. Is it malfeasance on Tierney's. Yes indeed. A journalist has the responsibility not to be egregiously wrong. If he is ill-equipped for the task at hand, he should cede the territory to someone who is able to address it correctly.

Which brings us neatly to the claim of Lysenkoism in #62:
Now, I can be wrong but I do see some uncomfortable parallels between Lysenkoism and climate-change alarmists.
In both cases skepticism is not tolerated ( the science is “settled”) and skeptics run the risk of losing their jobs. On top of that, prominent alarmists like James Hansen en David Suzuki want “climate criminals” on trial.
First of all, if willfully lying about matters of this consequence is not criminal, it seems to be a severe oversight in the law. Proving intent will be nearly impossible, but if anyone intentionally lies in either overstating or understating the case here, it's not hard to argue that they are liable.

Let's cpnsider, though, the claim that alternative positions are squelched that is the issue.

People like Joe Romm who go ballistic about articles like this Tierney's are not without justification (though I suspect the display of the anger may be counterproductive we can argue about it). It's easy, on the other hand, to misconstrue this sort of anger as an infringement on free speech by political correctness. Whether it is the one or isn't independent of the substantive evidence, though! The question depends sensitively on how strongly the evidence points in one direction or another. Are reasonable opinions being suppressed? Or are unreasonable opinions being appropriately ignored?

In the present case, the evidence that human impact on the climate system is detectable, growing, and hard to alter on a suitable time scale, is overwhelming. (Whether that time scale is 10 years or 100 is another matter, but the number of arguably informed people who think it's outside that window is very small.)

Unfortunately, the number of people who can evaluate the evidence directly is relatively small compared to the entire world population, though it is not insignificant; probably numbering on the order of 100,000 people; or one person out of every 50,000 in the general population. The rest of us have to operate on networks of trust, and these networks are sufficiently frayed and tarnished that some people find themselves hooking up with the likes of Tierney or Lomborg, themselves inaccessible to the people who really understand what is going on.

It is the task of the general public to evaluate exactly whom the experts are, to weigh the plausibility of the proposed conspiracy against the plausibility of the problem, and to support appropriate action. Significant sections of the public in some countries are failing at this task. It is the task of journalists to provide the public with a fair representation of the balance of evidence. Part of the failure of the public is attributable to a failure by journalists.

Speech must remain free in a free society, of course, but it does the free society no good to indulge in speech that is irresponsible. As long as Tierney is carrying the imprimatur of the New York Times, people will continue to take this stuff seriously. Journalism should endeavor to close debates as well as open them. It's a matter of the merits of the debate.

Peer review does help, of course. When an opinion has currency in the press and not in the journals, one thing the press might do is call attention to the two alternative explanations of why that is. Suppression of valid opinion is one possibility, but a lack of coherence with scientific evidence is another. Science is an imperfect enterprise, to be sure, but an opinion on scientific matters that is not represented within science should typically not garner attention from the press.

The thing about science is that eventually things are decided. It seems the journalistic sector has either lost track of this fact or is afraid to convey it to the public.

Update: Here's a gem from comments to a pretty trivial Newsweek article
When will you and other publications realize that CO2 is a trace gas and has little to do with temperature variations? Temps vary in cycles of approximately 30 years, and have been dropping for about 5 years now, but those like you are hopelessly blind to real science. Global warming has become a tenet of the eco-religious who think a butterfly is more valuable than a baby. Research and report the truth or you will eventually lose what little credibility you have left.
In other words, not only does he know more than you do, but he threatens to ignore you if you don't come around to my (unsupportable) point of view. Indeed, this is what the press is afraid of, the more so now that their business model is in trouble. 

Update: It looks like the bad guys are trying to give the Bill-Ayres treatment to Holdren and thus anyone associted with him. It's a very silly effort because, unlike the attack on Ayres, it sorely lacks for ammunition.

The denialists do not want, themselves, to be the topic of conversation and are trying very hard to punish anyone who brings the topic of who they are and  how they got that way to center stage. Holdren has taken them on directly and this is an attempt at revenge.

It's also another opportunity for the press to take on the real issues. I am not betting they will.

17 comments:

Annabelle said...

You have chosen some naive arguments from the sceptic camp which are easy to ridicule. Of course you will hear equally silly arguments on the other side of the debate.

I recently spoke to a Canadian friend about the harsh winter they are having, and made some comment that at least it's not a sign of "global warming". My friend immediately answered "Oh but it is! Any severe weather is a sign of global warming"!

What can you do - there are fools on all sides.

Michael Tobis said...

Admittedly there are fools on all sides; this is the problem of democracy. Good decisions do not necessarily emerge from voting. There's a certain amount of eternal vigilance that is necessary, and by that I don't mean angry armed rednecks on hilltops.

While some of the chosen quotes are silly, they aren't chosen for silliness. They are chosen to be representative, in my own opinion, of how people have been led to "think" about this stuff.

That in turn leads to some prelimanry thoughts about how to approach the problem.

Pico said...

The thing is Annabelle, that the skeptic camp for the most part only has naive or spurious arguments that are easy to ridicule. These are the favourite talking points of their champions. They don't have anything else, and no matter how much their arguments self contradict, or how cogently they are debunked, they just keep doggedly presenting them.

On the other side, while there are plenty of lay-people who have only a shaky grasp of the science, the scientists themselves are on the whole carefully presenting a very coherent suit of scientific facts and theories, which they are steadily building upon and improving.

When scientists have datasets or theories that contradict, they work away to resolve the contradiction (ie. work toward a consensus about how the world really is). The skeptics by contrast don't display any desire at all to develop such a coherent view of the world.

John Mashey said...

Speaking of Canadians, here's a nice study by U of Toronto folks on Kudzu, "the plant that ate the South".

Now, why might Canadians worry about kudzu? Read the study.

Why did Canada start tracking West Nile virus ~2002? It wasn't a problem before.

What do they think about the bark beetles chewing up the trees in British Columbia?

Really harsh winters stop this stuff...

King of the Road said...

Michael, I have a problem, it is this:

I'm reasonably well educated in science and possess a Bachelor of
Science in mathematics. I'm a businessman however and that, along with my family, uses up most of my waking hours.

I want to know the truth of these matters and am willing to do some reading to find it. But I have neither the time nor the background to read from journals.

I read blogs such as yours and the links you provide. You and they complain about media bias creating a controversy with respect to the facts where there should be none.

Then I read such articles as that at http://www.middlebury.net/op-ed/global-warming-01.html and at http://www.energypulse.net/centers/article/article_display.cfm?a_id=1598 and they complain that the media keeps the concept of AGW alive.

It's quite reminiscent of listening to Salem Radio and then Pacifica, both of whom say the "mainstream media" supports the other side.

In any case, the anti-AGW articles above, to a reasonably well-educated layman, seem as convincing as yours and those you cite. I know you don't feel it your duty to go through a point by point rebuttal, but I really don't know where to go, given that I can't do original research and haven't the resources (mental or temporal) to scour the journals.

I tend to anticipate that you are correct, but I'm unable to completely accept it without some rebuttal of the points raised by the "deniers," particularly the first link above.

I don't know if convincing a single individual does any good, but possibly I represent a larger set.

Regards,
Rob

Michael Tobis said...

Nice to see you here, welcome!

I doubt that trying to respond to every silly thing the "opposition" comes up with will suffice, but there are a few websites that do a pretty good job collecting the spurious arguments and disposing of them.

The important thing is to understand the big picture. Without that it is difficult to understand how off base the attacks are. That, in turn, is a fairly long story.

I might be willing to give it a try, but there are other resources out there if you are serious. See the first batch of resources at Rabett Run.

Regarding your first link, I looked at it and spotted several problems just at first glance. Compare for instance his CO2 absorbtion spectrum with this one. Note also that absorbance correlated with the black body spectrum of the earth is what matters.

A common trick of the deniers is to oversimplify graphs to their own convenience and then draw conclusions form the oversimplified graphs.

The bottom line is still about 1.2 C per CO2 doubling without water vapor feedback and about 3 C with water vapor feedback. (Roughly logarithmic so usually quoted "per doubling".)

They come up with like "8%" that are meaningless; you have to correlate the spectrum with the infrared radiation of the surface just to begin with.

They are also all hung up on the millenial time scale, which is why they make a big deal about Michael Mann.

They are hung up about it for a number of reasons, but the way I put it is this. It doesn't matter. The atmosphere was very stable over the past millenium. It is the wrong time period to look for anything at all. Whether the present bump is or isn't within variability is secondary. What is primary is whether 2xCO2 or 4xCO2 matters. The evidence that it does is compelling.

One can put a lot of effort into knocking down one red herring after another. I think it's unfortunately a necessary thing to do, even though it seems so futile...

Anyway, let's start by agreeing on the proposition to be demonstrated. I would propose

"The risk of significant and accelerating disruption of large scale climate and geochemical disruption from unrestrained emissions related to fossil fuels is already sufficient to warrant vigorous policy actions to implement and massively deploy alternative energy processes."

I think that's fundamentally the question. What do you think?

What I like about statistical concepts is that they force you to think globally rather than to spend oodles of time picking at things like a politician trying to muddy his opponent's reputation.

King of the Road said...

I'll agree with your proposition, it succinctly expresses the crux of the issue.

I've started to look at some of the information in Rabett Run. Obviously, it will take significant time to sort, absorb, and analyze it.

I'm afraid it IS necessary to address the red herrings and straw men, assuming that's what they are. I've read a sizeable chunk of your posts; I note that you've spent a lot of time contemplating how to educate the public, at least the thinking public. In a way, I represent "them," in that I'm concerned, reasonably educated, objective (IMHO), and to a certain extent, capable of critical thinking. But I'm naturally skeptical and highly constrained by background and time.

Thus, I and those I symbolize, are your best case scenario without speaking into the "echo chamber."

Michael Tobis said...

Bah. Sometimes I make sense and sometimes I don't. Too many "disruptions" in there.

"The risk of significant and accelerating disruption of large scale climate and geochemical PROCESSES, resulting from unrestrained emissions related to fossil fuels, is already sufficient to warrant vigorous policy actions to implement and massively deploy alternative energy processes."

So, how should we proceed? I have some idea how you think, though it's been a long time. But what do you know or think you know?

Didn't we have physics together? If not we couldn't have been more than a year or two apart. Remember "black body radiation" from Halliday & Resnick? I seem to recall we touched on it.

Energy conservation in the physicists' sense is the place to start to tell this tale.

Steve Bloom said...

Rob, there is a tendency in our society to think that all assemblages of words are equal until proven otherwise. That doesn't work too well when it comes to science. Non-scientists can, however, use a basic filtering process to distinguish between science and the sort of propaganda you linked.

First, what are the qualifications of the author? Does he/she have the academic chops (PhD and a history of research leading to publication in peer-reviewed journals)? If not, they're highly unlikely to be the next Galileo.

This particular guy, "James Peden," refers in vague terms to a scientific background, but note e.g. that there's no reference to having received a PhD nor to any sort of research career beyond that of a student. The single publication mentioned has nothing to do with climate science.

By way of contrast, have a look at Mike Mann's web site.

Second, is it just a propaganda piece? Notice that Peden's piece is chock full if polemics. I'm not saying scientists don't resort to such language when writing in popular venues, but they never do so to such an extent.

Regarding many of the specific arguments in suich articles, there are a couple of sites devoted to specific refutations of them, e.g. here and here.

But these resources are no substitute for acquiring your own basic sense of the science, and the most efficient way to do that is to read The Discovery of Global Warming.

More is available in the "Start Here" section at RealClimate.

John Mashey said...

King of the Road:

Actually, I suggest starting with a book or two:

try David Archer, "The Long Thaw"
and
William Ruddiman, "Plows, Plagues and Petroleum."

The pair will cost you ~$30-$40.

These are ~200-page, clearly-written books for the general audience, written by top-notch, well-respected climate scientists.

Do that *before* plunging into the maelstrom of blogland, to get yourself a coherent knowledge base.

King of the Road said...

Good afternoon Michael,

I do recall a quarter of physics at NU and, amazingly, I still have my class notes. I also used HR for my physics classes at Cal State Los Angeles (24 units required for a B.S., but they gave me 4 for my NU transcript).

As to what I know or think I know:

I follow the incoming radiation -> absorption by Earth -> emission of IR (primarily) as a blackbody radiator -> absorption by various atmospheric gases that are relatively more opaque to outgoing longer wavelength radiation than to incoming shorter wavelength solar radiation due to their absorption lines in that portion of the spectrum.

I'm also conversant with the concept of energy conservation and with its equivalent formulation as the "first law of thermodynamics" (uppercase delta U= lowercase delta Q - lowercase delta W).

So certainly, the foregoing would lead me to naively think that the atmosphere should be warmer than it would be had its various components no absorption lines where the fat portion of the Earth's blackbody spectrum lies.

But it's also clear to me that this effect is primarily beneficial, in that the Earth would be uninhabitably cold without it. I haven't (nor could I) run those numbers but everyone seems to agree and it makes sense.

I have had statistics, and have studied the subject on my own to an extent, and I can still soldier through elementary partial differential equations (though I'd rather not) and linear algebra.

Hopefully that will give you my foundation.

So the first question is: what portion of the warming of the Earth as compared to an Earth with no atmosphere can be attributed to CO2 and what are the (approximate) absolute numbers? It seems to be that that alone would give me a grasp on the sensitivity.

By the way, the possible level of my scientific lack of understanding is shown by the fact that Peden's geometric (volumetric) argument that CO2 couldn't have a large effect makes sense to me.

I'm not so thick headed that I think that "the geophysical system is so huge and complex that we can neither affect nor understand it" but it's a significantly long chain:

1. CO2 is increasing - undebated
2. CO2 will cause warming (in a generalized sense) - largely undebated
3. This warming will be significant - highly debated by the "deniers"
4. Its effects will be generally detrimental - highly debated by the "deniers"
5. Those effects can be predicted with reasonable accuracy - scoffed at by the "deniers"

I'm quite willing to accept the substitution of the word "attacked" for "debated" in much of what I've read.

Based on a link in Rabbet Run, I've downloaded "Principles of Planetary Climate" by Pierrehumbert but I haven't dived in yet.

Regards,
Rob

Michael Tobis said...

Rob, regarding Ray's book, I know Ray Pierrehumbert personally.

If a personal vouch from me is worth anything, he is a good man, honest, extraordinarily talented, and probably with the best grasp of the climate system (with the only close competitor being Francis Bretherton) of anyone I've ever known. In my experience there, the University of Chicago climatologists, and even to some extent the solid earth geoscientists, generally defer to him on matters of scientific substance.

I am rusty enough on this stuff that I would be working through it with you. I'm pretty sure I remember the outlines of how it goes, though.

Regarding your formulation of the first question, it is tangled up with the other GHGs and especially water vapor. More substantive response to follow. The surface T in the absence of GHGs is not a difficult calculation if you fix the albedo. Prying apart the contributions of the various gases is not that easy. Again, let me try to formulate this carefully lest it come back to bite me in future.

Regarding the chain of the argument as you've displayed it, I have seen something like this before and I don't buy it. I have some difficulties with the way the fourth question is framed, but let's leave that aside for now.

I have long argued that the fifth question is entirely misunderstood.

"5. Those effects can be predicted with reasonable accuracy - scoffed at by the "deniers" "

My claim is that the weaker the science, the less well we can constrain the risk, and therefore the more vigorous the rational policy response.

That is, assuming the level of understanding you have already displayed, why should response be larger the more we understand the system? The less mature climate physics is, the less well we can exclude catastrophic outcomes.

The denialist attack on climate science is totally a red herring. If they really believed we knew nothing, they ought to be more concerned than we are. Among climate scientists, it is the ones who are least happy with the state of the science that are the most worried and inclined toward caution in emissions. The fact that this is reversed in the public debate has always baffled and irritated me.

Can you explain what I am missing on this score?

King of the Road said...

I'd not be the best to explain it, but the argument would revolve around cost benefit analyses. Acting vigorously is (obviously) not without cost but, as you've pointed out, economics is hardly a mature science and hence the costs are not well known but are possibly huge. The benefit will either be the salvation of the Earth as we know it or nil, or anywhere in between.

And clearly, the analysis can be turned around - doing nothing has a cost whose magnitude is difficult to determine and whose benefit is "business as usual."

At http://entropy.brneurosci.org/pprinciple.html is an argument against the so-called "precautionary principle." I suspect you will have read something by the author. I've not been able to find his CV online but, in reading from his site, he certainly seems like a smart and interesting guy. I think he's a biologist/biochemist with an interest in Alzheimer therapies, what other background he may have is unknown to me.

I found him via a google search on "blackbody spectrum calculator" or some such. Not surprisingly, he has an essay on AGW as well, at: http://brneurosci.org/co2.html. I don't recommend wasting your time on that piece though.

King of the Road said...

Thinking further and keeping in mind that I'm not endorsing this analysis, perhaps a "denier" might make the following analogy:

It's quite possible that a nearby gamma ray burst could sterilize the Earth at any moment. But whether one will or won't is unknown, though statistically unlikely. Should we begin construction of a Faraday shield around the Earth?

Michael Tobis said...

Regarding brneurosci, his/her simpleminded calibration of CO2 sensitivity, feedbacks included, misses two important factors:

1) Masking due to anthropogenic aerosols (a short-term cooling effect)

2) Thermal "inertia" in the system (response is delayed on the order of 20 years from the forcing because the imbalance in energy goes to slowly warming the ocean.)

As for the trajectory of carbon into the next century, indeed the projections are based on the idea that the world escapes from abject poverty, as is indeed happening in many places. This implies a huge increase in energy use, and if we do everything with "business as usual", this means digging up all the coal and using it, which allows for continued exponential growth of emissions and also of concentrations in excess of the baseline.

As usual, 100,000 heads are better than one. brneurosci is smart, but the scientific community is smarter.

===

Regarding low risk high impact catastrophes, yes, the whole logic of risk analysis gets pretty garbled.

But, if we only assume the level of knowledge that you have already stipulated, the case is of high impact events that are of moderately high likelihood. The weaker the science, the broader both tails of the distribution; but there is no climate change that can be enormously beneficial, while there are many climate changes that can be enormously destructive. Hence the weaker the science, the bigger the risk and the larger the rational response.

King of the Road said...

Your analysis of the appropriate response to the current situation may be correct from your (and possibly my) viewpoint, but the deniers wouldn't agree with the level of knowledge that I've stipulated. thus the 1 through 5 points I listed a few posts back apply FOR THEM.

They would, I think, say that we just really don't know and thus the risk/reward calculus would argue against (in their view) squandering resources in an effort to mitigate a low-risk threat. They might further muddy the water by claiming that doing nothing with a resulting slight warming may be beneficial. Now, some would argue in this fashion for intellectually honest reasons, others for venal ones but neither would stipulate a level of knowledge sufficient to quantify the benefit side.

In any case, even if AGW were proven to be nonexistant, I'd agree with many of the actions you support but for the reason that we're going to have to learn to live in a world where fossil fuels aren't burned regardless. This will occur either because you're proven to be correct and the appropriate measures are implemented, because other consequences of fossil fuel burning become intolerable (breathing in China for example), or because we simply reach a point where energy return on energy invested to extract the fuels becomes less than one. I've posted on that several times in my own humble blog.

Dano said...

It looks like the bad guys are trying to give the Bill-Ayres treatment to Holdren and thus anyone associted with him. It's a very silly effort because, unlike the attack on Ayres, it sorely lacks for ammunition.

The denialists do not want, themselves, to be the topic of conversation and are trying very hard to punish anyone who brings the topic of who they are and how they got that way to center stage.


Yes.

I think Holdren will be the new Hansen, who was the new Algore, who was the new Mann, who was the new Schneider, who was the new Ehrlich...did I miss any who were demonized? Not minor figures who were demonized like Tyrone Hayes or Chapela.

At any rate, I must say that the appropriate response, in my view, is exactly the last para italicized above.

Why?

This is how that segment of society responds. They have a frame and a mode of thinking, and this approach activates this frame. Think about it.

Best,

D

Oh, P.S.: happy new year to you and yours, Micheal.