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

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hockey Sticks and False Dichotomies


When I see a global aggregate quantity that does NOT show a "hockey stick" pattern (specifically, on the earth's surface, on a several hundred year time scale) I am surprised. My intuition is now to the point where I expect that natural processes are swamped by anthropogenic processes. Global warming is only one of a plethora of problems that we can expect to arise as a consequence.

David Roberts makes the point nicely in a recent Grist article.

And, to my eye, Keith Kloor misses it completely.

Keith takes it to be a diatribe against adaptation, and plaintively asks
Roberts is a very smart guy, and I know he’s capable of chewing gum and talking about climate adaptation at the same time. The fact that he doesn’t want to likely results from his belief–which is shared widely by climate activists–that any discussion of climate adapation is an unwelcome distraction from the debate at hand on mitigation.
What place would mention of adaptation have in David's hockey stick piece?

One part of it is this:

What principle requires every mitigation conversation (of necessity a global, whole-systems, long time-scale conversation) to mention adaptation (of necessity a very large number of local, biome-scale, conventional policy conversation). I don't discuss adaptation very much because "adaptation" is not a subject.

I am not an expert on agriculture, wildlife management, epidemiology, civil engineering, urban planning, insurance or hydrology as practiced in Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ontario or Quebec (the places I have lived) or any other particular place. (I am developing an interest in Texas hydrology, actually, but the main adaptation I would propose is to make it more difficult for people to immigrate to Texas, an adaptation policy that is actually not a likely prospect for the Texas Water Development Board to be advocating.) I am very interested in the whole system problem. What possible reason would I have for mentioning "adaptation" every time I open my mouth? It would just be boring and not especially well-informed.

This is just a red herring. There can be no successful adaptation without mitigation. It's just obvious. And the coupling from adaptation back to mitigation is small. So it is perfectly reasonable to talk about mitigation without mention of adaptation.

In particular, I have looked at David's article several times and cannot imagine where in the exposition one would mention "adaptation".

It makes a little more sense once you acept that Keith is trating "geoengineering" as a species of "adaptation".

I think that confuses the matter intellectually. Geoengineering strategies are whole-system strategies. Some are mitigation strategies and some are adaptation strategies in a literal sense, but in terms of the conversation they belong mostly on the "mitigation" side as far as the underlying intellectual traditions and requirements are concerned. More on this later, but the ones that really are "adaptations" don't work, and for exactly the underlying reasons that David's article exposes.

Let's leave things where they belong: adaptation is short term, reactive and local. It belongs in state and national legislatures and at most in regional treaties (like the Great Lakes treaties in North America). Geoengineering decision making belongs at the same level as mitigation policy. It has to be global or it won't work. As decision processes they are not tightly coupled: very little adaptation is possible on time scales longer than thirty years and very little mitigation is possible on time scales shorter than thirty years.

The main way that adaptation and mitigation are coupled is through cost assessments. Unfortunately, we do not have an economics of sustainable systems to even give us a cost metric. But if we ever had an economic theory that was appropriate to the problem at hand, we would have to put both pieces on the table at the same time. Pending that, it's pretty much an imaginary dichotomy and I wish it would go away. Nevertheless, it keeps cropping up, perhaps because regional agencies that ought to be doing adaptation throw up their hands and pass the buck to global agencies.

But that's not the fault of those of us who think about mitigation, i.e., the whole system. Thinking about adaptation just isn't our job.

But what about geoengineering? Is David right? Is Richard Branson right? They are both right, as I'll explain later.

Update: Here is the promised explanation.
--
Image from skinnymoose.com

8 comments:

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Keith says, "The fact that he doesn’t want to [talk about climate adaptation] likely results from his belief [...] that any discussion of climate adapation is an unwelcome distraction from the debate at hand on mitigation."

So in Keith Kloor's universe, debunking geoengineering-only solution = trying not to talk about geoengineering?

* * *

Branson says, "If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem, then Copenhagen wouldn't be necessary [...] We could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars."

Well, if.

I don't mind him dreaming up weird stuff, because at least he does realize that there's such a thing in the universe as "reality", and that means realizing that a climate treaty will probably be necessary.

-- bi

Alex said...

MT, what a revealing opening paragraph! Your "intuition" (seems to be an important component of climate science ... ) predisposes you to surprise when you don't see a hockey stick in a global aggregate quantity.

Perhaps that's because real statisticians (see for instance Lucia's latest post and loads of very clever and persistent research from Steve McIntyre et al) have shown that, using climate science's methods, it's almost impossible to avoid getting a hockey stick. As Lucia says,"It doesn’t matter if you are using treemometers, thermometers, stock prices, or wheat futures, if your method isn’t carefully designed to prevent an artificial, and unintentional selection of data that correlates with your theory, the whole study can turn out like a hockey stick. Anyone can do this, no special science skills are needed." Read Lucia's latest post at The Blackboard to see why this is so.

And that appears to be why you're seeing hockey sticks everywhere. No great skill required to create them! But a lot of skill is needed to spot the falsehood.

Michael Tobis said...

Alex misses the point so thoroughly that I won't even take it up. It's posted for illustrative purposes.

Marion Delgado said...

In general, and this cuts across all sorts of lines, normative arguments are irrelevant to scientific interpretation of data.

Hank Roberts said...

> posted for illustrative purposes

You know, a simple icon would be adequate for these people's posts:

http://mkeamy.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/2007/08/16/alfred_e_neuman.gif

Dano said...

Speth's latest book brings this out explicitly by presenting a series of graphs that all look similar (depicting growth of various things), and the icon used to introduce each chapter is such a graph.

Best,

D

Dano said...

Alex misses the point so thoroughly that I won't even take it up. It's posted for illustrative purposes.

Yes.

IME this sort of argumentation is made from folk who have zero education in the natural sciences. They can (and increasingly are) be ignored in serious discussion.

Best,

D

EliRabett said...

The point that the Pielke's Kloors Levitts and Dubners miss is that to make geoengineering work, the IPCC is going to have to get a fleet of black helicopters.

It is a last gasp strategy