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

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Lumpy Container, Yet.

Now that I've explained what I'm trying to do, maybe I should start to explain where I'm coming from.

I come at this from a branch of what I call Messy Classical Physics. MCP deals with ordinary non-exotic physics, but in really complicated situations where pencil and paper math is quickly overwhelmed.  The branch of MCP that most interests me deals with rotating, stratified, radiatively forced, mixed state, convective... (etc.) fluids. In a lumpy container.

I like approaching climatology as a problem in physics. While it's big and messy there's nothing weird or counterintuitive. It's got a lot of pieces, but it starts in the realm of things that are intuitively accessible; meters, seconds, ordinary everyday temperatures and pressures.  So it's one of the easiest of all messy physics problems, much easier than biophysics, very much easier than particle physics or cosmology, infinitely easier than a complete model of psychology or economics, if such a thing is even possible. 

There turns out to be beautiful and elaborate math which models the system pretty well, but it's only approximate.  It's too messy for getting very far with pencil and paper, but see, we have these computers. What fun! Let's try to put all the important bits into a computer and see what happens. 
"Wow, that looks sort of right! Did you get a Hadley cell? A Walker circulation? A Gulf Stream? An El Nino? Cool!"

"Wonder what would happen if you twist this knob here? I'll bet it would do... "

"Naw, it wouldn't, what would happen is..."

"Bet you a beer..."

"You're on..."
But oops, it turns out that while we are happily geeking away learning how to make our toy model, people out in the real world are twiddling the knobs of the real system, tweaking them this way and that like a bunch of cavorting chimpanzees. (Before we even have a properly instrumented baseline! Great plan!) 

So what will happens to the real system? Don't know? So, naturally, some of y'all knob-twiddlers think to ask us nerdy guys who have a sorta-kinda-working model.
"Um, uh, that's a pretty big deal, it looks like", we say. "Maybe four watts per square meter, bigger than the forcing that kicks off ice ages, for sure."

"Four watts per square meter?" you reply. "Are you sure? Are you sure you're sure? Ha! So you're not 100% sure you're sure, are you?"
So here we are.

Now let me ask you this. If you really understood how the climate system worked, by which I mean the real system, the one where you live, where your house is, where everybody's house is, would you be 
  • a) more worried or 
  • b) less worried about the knob twiddling? 
I mean, compared to if you had no idea whatsoever?

OK, following on that, suppose NOBODY understood how it worked. Suppose you couldn't even find anyone who looked like a genuine climate nerd. Would you be 
  • a) more worried or 
  • b) less worried 
than if there were folks whose opinion you believed you could trust?

I, myself, sometimes doubt that climatology is all that robust.  Yup, (usually when I've been away from the real geniuses for a few months) there are even those days when I feel my field is hopelessly confused. Those are the days I worry the most.

So those of you who make a naughty schoolboy game of mocking and angering the climate nerds really ought to reconsider. You want happy and comfortable climate nerds.You want hardworking and productive climate nerds. Dissing us is a very bad habit. You want this thing figured out for real. And if at times you suspect that we aren't very good at it, that's when you really should start worrying.

Because if we climate nerds are right, you are already in big trouble, but if we're completely off base, you could be in very very very big trouble -- for all you know.

Why is it that so many people get this exactly backwards? The press gets it wrong, the "climate auditors" get it wrong, and the public is misled. 

So if you enjoy practicing the manly sport of asking climate geeks for their source code, I can see where you are coming from. It is something you really ought to be worried about, though you ought to be doing it for something more than schoolboy giggles.

But remember this. The less you know about the boat you are on, the more careful you should be about rocking it. 

The less sound you believe our understanding of the world climate to be, the more you should avoid twiddling the knobs that affect it. The less impressed you are with us and our theories and our codes, the sooner you should be recycling your SUV, riding your bike downtown, and joining the marching masses in the streets, demanding a stringent carbon cap. 


bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Well, you need to see where some of these people are coming from. There are some people who think that

randomly frobbing the knobs = freedom = capitalism = catallaxy


being careful of which knobs to frob = totalitarianism = Communism = Fascism = Nazism = Islamism = ...

For me, "freedom" has always meant the freedom to strive to do the right things; for others. If I like freedom, it's because it gives me a chance to make a careful evaluation of the available choices (for whatever problem) and, based on this informed evaluation, to implement the choice which I've made -- in order to better my own life, the lives of other people, etc.

For certain other people, "freedom" seems to mean the freedom not to care whether what they're doing is right or not. To them, freedom is "I don't know! I don't want to know! I don't care! I'll do whatever I feel like doing!" And they call this "personal responsibility".

Anonymous said...

You ask: "Why is it that so many people get this exactly backwards?"
I guess this is a rhetorical question but just in case...

Based on my experience interacting with people who get this backwards in meatspace, it's got little to do with the science or press coverage. Instead, they have prior beliefs that apply to a whole range of social and economic issues and they're simply reasoning backwards: from the conclusion they want to reach to the arguments they can use to buttress it.

I believe you can learn a lot about what motivates such skepticism by looking at what it is they're questioning. I would expect people who want to keep their SUV or who are opposed to regulation of emissions to question the effectiveness of such measures. It seems to me that it would be much easier than challenging climate science.
My impression is that what's bothering people about AGW as such (and specifically about the A) is reponsibility. Challenging specific policies wouldn't get people the absolution they seek and that beliefs about religion, evolution, technology, socialism, national interests or economics could give them.

In other words, climate science is not generally viewed as a source of information in a risk management process as your argument implies but rather, in my opinion, as a threat to (or in some cases a support for) one's beliefs.
This doesn't mean risk management won't be discussed of course... but I wouldn't expect that to dominate on the web, among the general public or in the press.

Aaron said...

If climate science was robust, then the various GCM would include ice sheet dynamics. They don't. GCM do include sea ice dynamics, and seem to have missed the mark, and still society uses those models as an excuse to set “goals” of 450 or 550 (or higher) ppmv CO2. We are acting like junkies that disregard the likely consequences of current behavior. We use ignorance to justify high risk behavior.

If US policy makers and science agency managers really wanted a robust climate science they would have pushed for higher researcher productivity, and the climate models would be built in high productivity languages like Python.

As a society, we have developed an additive personality. We have abandoned prudence.

Ok, Australia is having the worst drought in a century or more. That is bad, but we knew that Australia was subject to drought and heat waves. However, somewhere on Greenland has gotten rain every week this year. This time of year, Greenland should be very cold and very dry. The weather in Australia is exceptional. The weather in Greenland has been doubly so. Taken together, our weather is simply off the charts and out of the range of the GCM.

What are the penalties to the organizations that “own” the GCM for failing to consider real physics? Taxpayers paid for NCAR, DOE, and NOAA to build models related to estimating risk from climate change. They failed to do their job. Oh, Well! Junkies (taxpayers addicted to oil) do not do so well at managing their money or other affairs.

Steve Reynolds said...

"Why is it that so many people get this exactly backwards?"

I am possibly one of the people you are talking about (I do have some sympathy for the 'climate auditors'). However, I do also have some confidence in climate science and accept most of the IPCC positions on climate science. I agree that steps need to be taken to reduce GHG emissions, especially in the long term.

So why am I somewhat cautious about implementing radical 'solutions' to the problem? As you say, Michael: climate science is "infinitely easier than a complete model of psychology or economics...". It is very possible to turn the economic knobs and produce a cure that is worse than the disease. Depending on your politics, you may disagree, but I think my position is supported by a great majority of the professionals in the economic field.

So my bottom line: I have what seems to me a reasonable position: some confidence in climate scientists and some confidence in economists, which leads to be against radical economic knob turning.

thingsbreak said...


We're largely (although certainly not exclusively) talking about a group of people whose leading ‘intellectual’ lights (pardon the boorish self-linking, but it seems appropriate) treat the subject like petulant children. To see how close a fit the political persuasion and "skeptics" normally enjoy, one only need observe how quickly the worm turns when the latter sense disagreement about the former.

As I'm sure I won't be the first to point out, this isn't really an issue of science for these people.

Anonymous said...

A bit off topic. Since you work in climate software maybe you can help. I have been trying to locate a source for the spectral absorption of CO2, CH4, H2O and the standard atmosphere for the full spectrum.

Not in a graph but actual files.

I want to look at the difference in forcing using my own calculations. Sometimes the data can teach you more than a dozen papers.

As far as your post, I think the carbon cap knob will be easy to find because it is bright RED and says "economic self destruct" right on the top.

Also, if you've been overseas you can immediately see anything we do here will have little effect on the world CO2.

What do you think about nuclear fission/fusion power?

Jeff Id

Michael Tobis said...

These comments reinforce my view that conventional economics is the key barrier to progress.

It's not as if they've done so well by us of late, is it?

Steve Reynolds said...

"It's not as if they've done so well by us of late, is it?"

Depends on who 'they' are. If you mean economists, I disagree. Most economists think the political intervention of the last few years is the cause of our problems.

I agree if 'they' are the politicians (probably mostly the same ones that would implement GHG controls).

Michael Tobis said...


thingsbreak said...

I submitted a comment with more links in it than probably common sense should have dictated. Any chance it got flagged as spam?

Michael Tobis said...

Maybe so, Frank. I haven't seen it.

Email it to me if you like

mtobis (a) gmail

or post at your place and link...

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

"It is very possible to turn the economic knobs and produce a cure that is worse than the disease."

So once more we have this dumb idea that allowing big corporations to buy and sell huge truckloads of borked mortgage-backed securities equates to "personal responsibility" and "prudence".

You see, right now the economic knobs are in the hands of these corporations, and they've been frobbing the knobs like crazy.

Now that disaster has struck, what are they going to do? Luxury spa treatments! Private jets! That's prudence.

The same problem that's causing the climate crisis also led to the economic crisis. In both cases, people have the problems exactly backwards, and for the same reasons.

Steve Bloom said...

Michael, JH points out that the case for AGW is paleoclimate, observations and models, in that order. I like the way you frame the modeling case, but it needs to come after the first two to be most effective. Of course "Target CO2" does a pretty good job of this on a formal level, but for most people less formal arguments similar to yours are going to be more effective.

Also, I think one has to avoid focusing arguments too much on the inherently unpersuadable portion of the populace (not that you've done that here).

thingsbreak said...

Email it to me if you like

I didn't save it to a text file beforehand. Subsequent posters have done the work for me, though, as it was merely pointing out how this was not a matter of science to many, but rather politico-economic ideology, including links to the "leading lights" of the ideological movement and their childish/childlike views on the subject.

And for fun I linked to the thread at CA about the US election results noting the cognitive dissonance of many when they discovered their Guru didn't share their same views.

The two (or three if you count limitless growth econ separately- which neither you or I probably do) cannot really be separated for purposes of explaining denial.

It's the implied political/ideological consequences, rather than a rational analysis of the potential real-world consequences that drive it.

Michael Tobis said...

I'd like to see the CA thread in question.

thingsbreak said...

I'd like to see the CA thread in question.

CA thread here and "Blackboard" thread here.

The overlap between ideology and denialism is quite apparent. Even those who ostensibly accept anthropogenic warming (e.g. "lucia") blatantly state that they believe Obama will somehow turn the country "socialist" (as though the financial crisis hadn't already rendered that fear misplaced if not laughable).

The implicit condescension by some of the commenters to Stephen McIntyre is hilarious. How can Steve (who prior was so wise in seeing through the elaborate conspiracy surrounding AGW) not see that he's being hoodwinked by the cryptocommie stutterer!

thingsbreak said...

Ah, you found the post- I'd like the record to show that I referenced Cockburn here well before Morano did over at my place in the comments. ;)

Michael Tobis said...

Re: delayed posting. Yes, it was in the blogger online queue but not in my email queue, so it was gmail, not blogger, that must have flagged it. I will vouch for your priority on this matter over Morano, though the "credit" such as it is, surely goes to Cockburn himself.

(Inhofe/Morano love to mention left wing types who question the science for some reason. The Huffington glitch played right into their hands.)

lucia said...

Things break:
1) I do think Obama is inclined toward expanding social programs, increasing taxes etc. So, I do consider this going down the road toward socialism. That's not necessarily the same thing turning the country "socialist". It all depends how far down the road one is before a country is socialist.

I'm not sure what you mean to suggest by this:

(as though the financial crisis hadn't already rendered that fear misplaced if not laughable).
Is there anything about the choices in the stimulus that contradict the notion that Obama is inclined toward expanding government? If you want to want to argue that you agree with him, that's fine. But are you suggesting Obama had acted in a way to contradict the notion that he was inclined towards expanding social programs?

Anyway, I tend to prefer to avoid expanding government's role. ( While you may not be aware of this, I criticized Bush for expanding the role, and he did so well before the financial markets imploded.)

2) I do think AGW is true. Why do you say "ostensibly"? Do you think that all who believe AGW is true will be for Obama and/or expanded social programs?

3) FWIW: I'm for taking some measures to reduce carbon emissions and reduce carbon levels. For example, I'd like to see programs to speed up construction of nuclear power. I'm for conservations for multiple reasons.

4) By the way, my actual name is Lucia. There is no need for you to place quotations marks around my name.

5) Out of curiosity, who is the "cryptocommie stutterer" who is hoodwinking SteveM?

Michael Tobis said...

It's a fable, not a history.

It's true; there's a risk that people will take this as confirmation of the canard that science is about computer models.

On the other hand, it tells a more or less true story about who made the computer models and why, and about how good they are and why.

This part of the story is more or less true, too: the short answer to how good the models are is "better than we expected". And unlike most of our tale, that is way cool.

thingsbreak said...

1) Because all but the lunatic fringe agree (and did so before election night) that massive government intervention into the financial system is necessary to stave off catastrophe, rendering that particular complaint against Obama moot. Also, if you were at all familiar with Obama's economic philosophy prior or his favored econ team (hint miles from socialism) you would have found the suggestion as humorous as I did. I'd rather not derail the thread getting into the details here.

2) In as much as someone like Lomborg does, sure. Accepting the existence of anthropogenic warming but opposing mitigation has the same net effect as rejecting it- the real world impact is unchecked emissions growth.

3) See above.

4) Noted. I didn't want to assume- people often go by lowercase user names that aren't their actual names. No offense intended.

5) Barack Obama.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

What's with this obsession with nuclear power anyway? How does one reconcile this nuclear-mania with the desire for 'smaller government'?

Michael Tobis said...

The leanings of the do-little/delay squad in favor of nuclear power are difficult to reconcile.

Equally so the unconditional opposition of most carbon policy advocates to nuclear be reconciled.

It really is interesting. Either way it is a wedge issue. Maybe that's why neither side talks about it all that much, but when they do it's to embarass the other group.

From my point of view it's still on the table.

Though Charlie Hall gives nuclear power a very low EROEI [Microsoft ppt] I'm not entirely convinced about that number (on the famous Slide 22, thanks again to John Mashey for calling this to our attention).

In fact I find the nuke bubble dubious. How does one reconcile it with the French experience?

Anonymous said...

What do you mean with the French experience?

I'm not aware of any EROEI estimates for that but it that wasn't the point of the nuke program so I don't know why one would expect a high EROEI. It was a national security program and, from that perspective, it's a resounding success.

Depending on what you include in the energy costs (R&D, superphenix and other boondoggles, waste processing, maybe security even), you could easily paint a bleak EROEI picture if you wanted to.

lucia said...

1) Things break: I am familiar with Obama's policies. For that reason, I'm not surprised that you don't wish to describe trying to explain them to support your position.

2) Why do you think I reject taking steps for mitigation? I support taking steps.

3) See above.

4) Gavin and all the contributors at RC also uses lower case. It's pretty common at blogs. I don't know the history. I've done it for years.

5) You call that stutterling? I have to admit, I'd have never guessed you meant Obama. Also, who says he's a commie?

Oh well... no point in trying to have a long discussion about the different nuances of the word "socialism" and "communism. Obviously, there is little point in the distinction between a statement like "taking steps down the road to socialism" (i.e. expanding tax-funded welfare programs increasing regulation of markets) and "totally redesigning our countries social and economic structure to place the means of production in the hands of the proleteriate!! Go Lenin!!"

Michael Tobis said...

Regarding the big red button, I was reminded of this conversation by today's Krugman column, where he said, in regard to the economic stimulus bill,

"Over all, the effect was to kick the can down the road. And that’s not good enough. So far the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis is all too reminiscent of Japan in the 1990s: a fiscal expansion large enough to avert the worst, but not enough to kick-start recovery; support for the banking system, but a reluctance to force banks to face up to their losses. It’s early days yet, but we’re falling behind the curve.

"And I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — a feeling that America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years. The best may not lack all conviction, but they seem alarmingly willing to settle for half-measures. And the worst are, as ever, full of passionate intensity, oblivious to the grotesque failure of their doctrine in practice."

Such is the nature of ideology. See the cartoon in the sidebar.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

"Such is the nature of ideology."

That it is. So, once more we're back to the problem of noise (and polemics)....

Michael Tobis said...

"It really takes some nerve [for] people who totally messed up their job to come out and talk to us like we're idiots." -Economist Dean Baker

Mark Scattergood said...

My comment is only related to the topic in an abstract way - an interpretation of the topic, if you will.
I've read reams of documentation regarding AGW as well as predictions based on models of possible effects on oceanic levels. I wondered whether such an event could influence the Earths' axial tilt, until recently a some few papers have also hinted at a possible axial shift, which has indeed taken place previously on our 'Lumpy Container' and with rather dramatic results, I presume.
The one thing I have never heard mention of, is whether there is a model which projects possible effect(s) the redistribution of so much watery mass might have on our delicately aligned yet highly 'irritable' tectonic plate structure. It would seem such a shift would at least aggravate certain subduction zones? It also occured to me that, as catastrophies go, this would be far more likely than a major axial shift, or would at least precede and perhaps, precipitate one.

EliRabett said...

Jeff ID

The highest resolution spectral data base is HITRAN. You might find SpectralCalc

a bit easier to use, although you will have to pay a few bucks for data files (the figures are, to an extent free).

Brian said...

If nobody understood how the climate worked, where would the assumption that the mass pouring of C02 into the air would heat the planet come from?

You have to trust a climate scientist to know that. If you don't trust them, you're going to assume its not a problem.

And thats how the debate is always framed. Its never in terms of 'How severe is the effect of anthropogenic C02', its always in terms of 'is anthropogenic C02 a problem or not'.

Even though climate scientists differ on how large the effect is (I assume, I'm not a climate scientist) they more or less all say that the effect is significant. Disagreeing with them automatically puts you in the 'not significant' camp, because of how the debate is framed. Even though everyone (even skeptics) agree that adding C02 causes heating, and that the only disagreement is on how MUCH heating, because the argument is framed in terms of 'is it a problem or not', it splits people into two camps.

That is why everyone makes this error. The argument produces a 'if the scientists are wrong then the skeptics must be right' mode of thinking. It doesn't even come into play that there's room for the scientists to be wrong in more ways that one.

Interestingly enough, I started this post to vehemently disagree with your assertion, but I had an amazing amount of trouble making an intelligent argument. It was that 'problem or not' framing that caused me to automatically disagree, even though I couldn't make my position make sense. Fortunately, I realized my error.

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks Brian. That's high praise, whatever you originally thought.

Based on what you said you might also like this article of mine.