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, April 30, 2009

Tardis Earth: Malthus Discredited

Can technology override the physical limits of the earth once and for all?

Note that space travel doesn't count for our present purposes. For one thing, the day when outer space becomes a net source of wealth for humanity remains far in the future. For another, the time when outer space becomes politically autonomous from earth follows immediately thereafter. The earthbound will need to maintain our unique natural advantages to have something to offer. If earth is martiformed while mars is terraformed, the prospects of prosperity through trade through the gravity well will not rescue us. Anyway, while I hope the species prospers long enough for these peculiar events to occur, in any case they seem far less imminent than they did when I was a child.

So either way, let's consider the earth as a closed or nearly closed system with a human population on the order of 10^10. We'll go along with the demographers who seem untroubled by the prospect of the population resuming rapid growth beyond that point.

The question posed by those who are very attached to growth is then whether the prosperity of the 10^10 people can increase without bound, without significant population changes and without significant exchanges of materials with extraterrestrial sources.

Now I'll make another assumption, which is that we will not become Time Lords anytime soon, and hence that Tardis technology remains inaccessible to us. So the size and weight of the earth, and of its oceans and of its atmosphere, remain for practical purposes constant. So to fit more and more of something, the thing that grows, into the fixed non-Tardis-like space of the Earth, forever and ever, world without end, amen, necessarily requires that the thing that is growing either 1) becomes paradoxically ever smaller or 2) is so miniscule to begin with that its piling up won't do too much damage to anything already existing.

It is important to understand that our system evolved under condition 2: A world of 10^9 people at 1899 consumption levels is drastically emptier than a world of 6*10^9 people at 1999 levels. A factor of a hundred doesn't seem out of line. If the world seems to be pushing vairous limits now, a century ago it would have been 99% empty. Little wonder the factory builder didn't care much for the stream. There was a shortage of factories, not of streams. The "wealth" we had was tiny compared to the "undeveloped wilderness". It may have been Thoreau in the 19th century who said "In wildness is the preservation of the world" but even if we are clued in to what he meant (are we?) it's likely that his contemporaries weren't.

Today there is so little undeveloped wilderness that it has become paradoxically precious. An ironic profession of "wildlife management" was invented by Aldo Leopold in the 1930s. Today we don't even see the irony. (I think of the animated cartoon where the fox and the rabbit punch in at the start of the workday, have various adventures, and check out at the closing whistle. "Goodnight, Frank." "Goodnight, Harry." Now that's wildlife management.)

The fact that we are managing remnant wilderness so as to keep it in some semblance of its wild state is one clue among many. The world is full of our "wealth"; the idea that the wealth is small compared to its container is no longer a useful approximation.

But our economic system, which is not only the engine of wealth but also of sustenance, keeps us from chaos, is predicated on the idea of growth, the growth that was so recently so harmless. It is built into so many assumptions of commerce and government and culture that to abandon it to a steady state philosophy would require wrenching changes. And although people who think of the earth as a system have been aware of the need for such a transition for half a century, attempts to convey it to the general public or the political class have met with abject failure.

We are left as a compromise with the somewhat trickier idea of the miniaturization of wealth. Just as we can continue to grow the amount of computer memory in a fixed volume for a long time by reducing the size of each flip-flop perhaps we can continue to grow the amount of wealth on the earth by decreasing the impact of each unit of wealth. This leaves us a sort of an escape hatch, perhaps. It leaves us, given a nearly-full planet, with the result that a given economic growth rate can be sustainable only if the average impact per unit wealth declines at an equal or greater rate.

Now that probably can't be maintained forever either. It's hard to imagine the infinitesimal limit of impact and the enormous wealth associated with it in the long-term limit. But maybe this can keep us out of wrenching changes in the short run. It appears that is what the existing democracies are aiming for.

It's a very very tall order, though. Consider, for instance, that the total CO2 impact needs to go *down*, by general agreement, by 80%. And even if the US aims at zero growth while the rest of the world catches up, present affluence levels imply that at least a ten-fold increase in world aggregated wealth must be possible, before the US can reasonably claim that there is room for growth here. So the carbon impact per unit of wealth has to go down fifty-fold from the present US standard before we can even budge.

Even where we are approaching the limits, that tenfold multiplier kicks in.

What this says to me is that all this talk of "green jobs" and "green growth" and economic revival is, well, let me be polite and call it desperate wishful thinking. I say this and my good (albeit virtual) friend Arthur says "cool, now we know what to do". No, we don't. The actual quantities are terrifying. We are deep into overshoot in CO2 emissions and at least near overshoot on many other quantities even before we account for international equity.

That factor of ten is going to hurt, but if we ignore it we become something very ugly.

This morning I went to a presentation by a class of graduate students at the LBJ School of Public Policy about the future of energy in America. I was hoping to learn about new techniques and new organizations, but instead I got a dose of middle-of-the-road compromise from a bunch of earnest young people in tailored suits with little scientific or technical skill. Near-future congressional staffers and McKinsey consultants, I guess. The content was not that interesting for me.

I did find it interesting how they came to the right conclusions, conclusions that neither party seems capable of grasping (basically: "vigorous pursuit of nuclear power, development of CCS, and government investment in many other technologies, acceptance that fossil fuels remain in the mix, 80% cut in emissions by 2050"). There is some skill there in extracting such a reasoned position from limited knowledge, though the LBJ school has enough cachet that they get to interview dozens of real experts. Aside from the one clunker (they think cold fusion is on the table) it was exactly the dull and reasonable presentation you would expect from the middle party that America so sadly lacks. It was (and perhaps zero of my readers will understand exactly what I mean but so be it) an earnest and boring product worthy of Lester Pearson.

On the whole, if energy were our only problem and if recent graduates from the LBJ school were our only policymakers, we could probably muddle through. They interview the right people, and are in a sufficiently intact matrix of trust to come to mostly sound conclusions, with the mistakes being relatively harmless. They seem to have no grasp of numbers or of physical principles or of scales. They really are a throwback to the 1960s, when politicians at the national level were in some business other than posturing. In that world, the skills they have in interviewing exeprts and distilling a staid and sensible policy would be quite useful.

The other interesting thing was the three guiding principles of their project. The first slide was a sort of meaningless Venn-diagramlike thing with the blobs labelled
  • environmental protection
  • national security
  • growth
In the questions I addressed the "growth" business. I raised the fact that the first two motivating concepts ("security" is largely a codeword for "peak oil" in their view) specifically arise from limits to growth, and asked "what if growth is impossible"?

I got two very interesting responses from the students. The first, presumably a B-school type, was amazed. He shook his head as if he had spotted a stegosaurus. "I thought neoMalthusianism had been discredited!" Not just refuted. Discredited. "Technology has always found a way. Technology will always find a way," he said.

Isn't it interesting that technologists are not the people saying this?

A young woman also answered me, mostly to admit that economic growth really hadn't been involved in their deliberations, and that perhaps it was enough to aim for "spiritual growth".

In some ways, perhaps. I hope so, yes.

Image from via Google images.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Tautology and Its Weaknesses

A given economic growth rate can be sustainable only if the average impact per unit wealth declines at an equal or greater rate.

I argue that this is certainly true if one grants that a sustainable behavior must be sustainable indefinitely.

Shortly after coming to this pretty firm conclusion and wondering how smug to feel about it, I realized that it's just a consequence of the old I = PAT tautology, due to Ehrlich and Holdren (yes that Holdren). Tidal pointed out the same before I got round to making the connection.

I'll continue to argue, though, that
it's both a striking consequence and a useful one. Anyone talking about both returning growth to the economy and about sustainability needs to take this constraint into account. This includes President Obama. If you think about returning to sustained 3 % annual growth rates you are talking about some very massive changes in the consituents of the economy.

Pointing to the constraint does not guarantee that there is a way to achieve it. There are many reasons to expect negative growth in the largest economies in the future after all. We don't even know if unsustainable growth can really be reconstituted. If we have really begun the long decline, it is probably a bit sooner than might have been necessary were it not for the great outburst of irresponsibility in the financial sector of late.

What the constraint does guarantee is that we will not be able to revive growth at full steam without a very substantial virtual tax implied by accounting for what has until now been treated as external, and shunted to later generations. We are no longer in a position to shunt things to later generations. We are the later generation that those awful people who were right about the environment warned our parents about.

I'm not claiming some secret key to answer all our problems. I'm suggesting only that those desperate to avoid challenging the growth paradigm have a very steep and narrow path ahead. I'm noticing that this includes our otherwise enormously admirable leader. I hope President Obama or someone around him has some secret recipe to make these ingredients work together, but I think instead that nobody has faced up to the constraints properly.

So I'm proposing we be as optimistic as possible, and also be sort of mathematically oriented. Proving that growing impact is unsustainable is easy. Detaching our institutions and traditions from growing wealth appears very difficult. But is it impossible? We can take the mathematician's approach and assume a solution exists, and try to examine the properties that follow from the constraints we have set in search of a final contradiction.

So consider some of the responses to my previous article in this vein.

Let's first tip our hats in the direction of the stuff that John Mashey wants us to take into account: the fact that whatever we do, energy is going to get more expensive. This surely makes many things more difficult, but I don't see that it makes a sort of numerical growth in wealth more difficult. On the contrary, it would appear in some odd paradoxical way to help! We want more wealth per unit of energy and we will automatically get less energy per unit of wealth. Isn't that the same thing, really? Well, no, not exactly, because it means all else equal that real wealth tends to decline, but suppose all esle is not equal. If there's some other sort of low-impact wealth that compensates, the combination actually pulls in the right direction. I am scratching my head about this one, too, but not everything works the way intuition says it does.

The question, though, is what that other source of wealth might be.

Another interesting comment comes from Dave Gardner of Growthbusters :
I like your notion that perhaps we can all be delusionally happy if we are simply given more Monopoly play money and it has no connection to more resource depletion or environmental degradation! You may be onto something.
I think this takes it just a hair too far. I don't think the currency can be entirely delusional, although one might argue that it is already play money in some circles.

(For the love of God, why doesn't Microsoft just take its money home and shut down its production of worthless garbage so everyone can migrate to a sensible platform? What drives their intense drive to prevent us from having useful tools? It's not because they are literally hungry, is it?)

No, the currency has to convey real advantages. Maybe very few people will fly, but the people with more of it will still be able to take luxury liners to fine hotels, eat the little bit of sushi that is left, and so on. The real question remains what is it that has been growing all along? The concept of aggregate wealth seems to me to evaporate the closer one looks at it. It does seem that the changes in the rules of the game might not have to be all that large.

Bart Verheggen offers a challenge from a different direction.
But in the current financial crisis, didn’t the fact that money is already to a great extent decoupled from material items contribute to the problem? Didn’t the (risky) dealing with money as hot air, without a link to a real product or service, play a role in the current financial crisis?
This came at me rather unexpectedly, but I have to admit there is a point. The fact is that our system failed because of its abstraction from real processes. This perhaps ties in with the Monopoly Money issue that Dave raised. But I am not arguing for devaluing real processes. I am arguing for increasing their valuation. Food and energy in particular will become relatively more expensive in proportion to finished products; indeed this is what is likely to happen anyway.

Another problem is raised by my intervening posting about the vast wealth of the internet and the complete lack of sensible models to pay for it. "Too cheap to meter" turns out to be a problem. We used to believe that our material pursuits would be replaced by artistic and intellectual ones. In a sense that is entirely true for me. I hardly care at all where or how I live as long as I have a decent internet connection and a few good friends. (I'm an extreme case being childless, but the principle holds to a lesser extent for families too.) But as a producer as well as a consumer of exactly the sort of intellectual and artistic content that was supposed to be the salvation of the future dematerialized civilization, I find myself in a strange economy, one where the currency of attention can't easily be exchanged for, say, shoes. Admittedly I could get into endless pissing matches with famous denialists, but after all, I do have some standards. I'd rather just work at Wal-Mart.

Maybe I can follow in The New Yorker's footprints and sell Tobis's Tautology T-shirts. (I have seen someone selling T-shirts with the slogan "There is No Planet B" which I wish I had thought of.)

Maybe this is teh whole story, though: we will just need to adjust to a radical rearrangement of pricing structures. But this brings me back to my basic confusion about economics. As the "basket" of goods we choose changes, the "value" of the "currency" in which we measure our "wealth" becomes less determinate. So what, exactly, is it that is supposed to be growing? Can we keep that something growing while decreasing absolute impact?

But what is the something? Bart ponders along these lines:
Could a redefinition of the growth parameter (GDP) help? More car accidents raises GDP, but decreases the average wellbeing. If impacts, also those that are distant in time or place, are included within the growth parameter, then the picture of growth would quickly look very different. The genuine progress indicator (GPI) and other initiatives along similar lines could perhaps serve as an example.
To which the Texas answer is a squint and a "y'all aren't from 'round these parts, are ya?" Around here we spend money, not GDP.

I think it's the individual and institutional incentives that matter, not the collective metrics. But we do have to play around with them and stop letting them have their way with us.

It's interesting. So far my answer to the question framed by the tautology is "maybe". I haven't convinced myself that we absolutely need to let go of something very much like growth. I freely admit to being uncomfortable with macroeconomics. Unfortunately, it's not just my own grasp of the subject that I find wanting, though. I doubt everyone else's as well. That said, I think the present company will be able to recognize cogent analysis and we will all appreciate any further consideration of these ideas.

Image from the T-Shirt sales at the New Yorker. Please do buy something from them and keep their lawyers at bay so I can keep the cartoon up.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Great Harvest on Twitter Today!

The most time-consuming find is this one: Montreal bagels! I have no choice but to try recipe and report. Cursed internet! via

  • @johndcook Radiohead/Brubek mashup:
  • RT @thegreengrok Obama has relaunched a Bush climate initiative by convening 17 biggest economies for a meeting
  • RT @AlexSteffen "Climate deniers spin geoengineering as answer" article . Fine article at .
  • @abhishektiwari Liked "Scientific Blogging: Ignore It and Be Ignored?"
  • @TEDchris Today's fascinating #TED talk on brain plasticity is gaining ground at digg. Will you help?
  • @timoreilly Excellent: Google book search settlement deadline extended to Sept 4.
  • @abhishektiwari Liked "Check out this great post about science blogging by Jean-Claude Bradley "Is it becoming dangerous NOT to..."
  • @LizNeeley Now I love fish (species, not food) but this NYT article on fishless lakes is very cool. RT @conservationmag -
  • @ianbicking RT @mudstuffing Huge Mexican Clay Stamps made from tires.... (via @potteryblog)
  • @grist How this little piggy got the flu? RT @tomphilpott: My update on possible Smithfield/swine flu link: #swineflu
  • @LizNeeley Great essay on Two Cultures: need to align science/gov/literary intellectual camps. RT @2020science via @sciandthecity -
  • @radar Ignite Seattle (and elsewhere) Tomorrow, 4/29
  • @timoreilly The Economist makes sense on why electric bikes may be better than electric cars. (via Saul Griffith in email)
Too much! This is what I call wealth, and yet nobody will even let me pay for it.

Anyway, do follow me on Twitter...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Malthusian in Theory but not in Practice?

So I asked for an explanation of how a policy of indefinite economic growth could be feasible.

I have a half-answer myself, if we enforce that real-world impact per dollar declines faster than the number of dollars increase, we can have indefinite growth in dollars. The endless growth in dollars may be so hard-wired into everything we do that this otherwise silly approach may be needed so as not to violate out institutional imperatives.

Is it possible? I don't know. Is there any chance this idea will be taken up in earnest? I don't know. I'd be very happy if I could start a conversation about it.

But absent this half-baked idea of a rate of decreasing impact per unit of wealth directly tied through policy to the rate global growth of wealth, I can't imagine us continuing to pursue growth while avoiding a catastrophe.

An interesting alternative was proposed in the comments to that posting by Paul Schick:
Oh, maybe that isn't so hard. Exponential growth of material things forever is surely impossible in this universe. But then again, on current physical theory, forever itself is of no practical interest or importance, because forever seems destined to contain at most, insentient photons, neutrinos, and/or whatever of quasi-infinite wavelength.

The practical question for a politician or anyone else is whether growth really needs to slow down or stop in any time-frame of practical interest, i.e. now. The obvious answer to that is "no", until some force majeure intervenes in a manner that is widely perceived as decisive. After all, all sorts of people have been raising every conceivable manner of scare and alarum from time immemorial, so we've heard it all before ad nauseam. Yawn.

Keep in mind that nothing clearly out of the ordinary, or even important in that sense, has yet happened except within computer simulations. More people are still living longer than ever before even in some of the more awful places. Oh, maybe there are vague hints emanating from the cycling of ice shelves thousands of miles beyond the back end of beyond, but those are almost as abstract and remote as, say, Barnard's Star.

This is a coherent position and at least worthy of consideration.

Whether it is to be taken seriously is a quantitative, not a qualitative matter. The idea that the whole world has never been overtaken by Malthusian crises is true enough, but one can also argue after falling 27000 feet from an airplane at 30000 feet without a parachute that the episode has been proven harmless, since 90% of the fall has happened without any sign of discomfort. Which model to take seriously has to be a matter of knowledge, not of faith. The historical argument is further weakened by the fact that individual isolated locales have indeed suffered Malthusian catastrophes in the past, as documented in Jared Diamond's excellent book Collapse.

Note that Obama is not arguing for growth in Mozambique or Nicaragua: he is arguing for growth in the USA. These days, everyone seems to forget the essentially explicit promise (and to be fair, one not entirely unfulfilled) made to the third world during and after the collapse of communism: support the capitalist fabric, participate in the GATT, and you too will eventually reap the benefits of capitalist creativity. There is no level of wealth which we in the west can attain that you in other lands cannot also attain was the promise. Eventually, following in the footsteps of Japan and Taiwan, you will become equal partners/friendly competitors on the happy global stage of friendly competition and endless happy growth.

So let us begin by proposing what no successful American politician would dare to admit was acceptable: a long-term growth rate, starting from the date of the Lehman Brothers collapse, of zero, essentially forever, or to make matters easier for people with a non-mathematical perspective to grasp, for a thousand years. Again, for the purposes of the present argument, this is not a proposal, it is a hypothetical. Consider it a
worst case
simplifying assumption
(see comments)

Now consider the business proposition made to the developing world. Essentially we have promised that they will eventually be in a position to catch up to us. If we make zero of what we continue to call "progress", the implications are easy enough to visualize. Recall the following from David MacKay's excellent book "Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air" (available online or in print)

(Actually I wonder about the vertical axis: I believe that should be tons of C as CO2, not tons of CO2. But it's the proportions that matter for the present argument.)

Now stretch the horizontal bar out to between nine and ten billion, where we hope population growth will stop, and fill the vertical up to the US level. Compare the size of the resulting rectangle to the cumulative size of the rectangles shown constitutes the implicit extra carbon load in a scenario with long term zero growth in the US and global equity. That alone requires something like thirty times the present impact.

So is the factor of thirty available? Can we emit carbon indefinitely at thirty times the present rate? Can we find the carbon to do so? The answer to both questions is quite obviously negative.

Consequently, if economic activity remains closely tied to carbon emissions, either the growth imperative or the equity imperative must be abandoned, and not in the distant future.

The solution, therefore, is to decouple growth from carbon, and given the scope of the changes required and the dawdling in getting started (after all, agreement in principle was reached in 1992, and matters have hardly proceeded in a realistic way since them), with urgency.

Suppose, though, that some Dysonian genius comes up with some carbon eating trees that grow harmlessly and rapidly whenever CO2 concentrations exceed 400 ppmv and survive without net growth at lower concentrations. A deus ex machina, then, to decouple concentrations from emissions. And suppose, meanwhile, that vastly superior oil extraction technologies emerge that can extract net energy from much smaller deposits than is now feasible, offering us an essentially unlimited supply of petroleum. Two dei ex machinae. Are we out of the woods?

No. Even if these two miracles occur, the chart above representing carbon impact is very similar to other impacts and demands:
  • ocean health; not just fisheries loss and ecosystem loss, but possibly per Lovelock other long-term homeostatic mechanisms preserving an equable climate
  • supplies of industrial minerals
  • water supplies and phosphorus for agriculture; soil depletion; declining biodiversity of crops
  • water supplies for industry, especially energy-related uses
  • regional climate change due to local and upwind land and energy use
  • pollution of various sorts
  • increased vulnerability to disease through increased population and mobility; arms race between medical science and infectious agents
All of these problems are arguably manageable individually, but they begin to overlap: a notable event in this increased coupling was the sudden rise in cost of the very cheapest foods as corn began to be diverted in earnest to ethanol production. This is not a one-time event: as the world becomes full the various limits will interact.

And all of this neglects the lack of any international legal protocol to protect individuals or the interests of the future comparable to the GATT which protects existing corporate interests.

And all of it happening already; none of it is in the future.

And all of it is just the product of per capita impact and population.

It really doesn't seem that the international equity position which requires at least a thirty-fold increase in wealth makes any sense at all.

The alternatives are:
  1. abandon growth
  2. abandon the idea that the system is fair, and pursue explicit exploitation of less developed countries
  3. find some way that impact per unit growth declines rapidly enough, which means, in practice, VERY rapidly
I personally find the second solution absolutely unconscionable. If you don't, at least consider how vicious and militarized such a world would end up being. It pretty much kills any idea of globalization anyway; so if that part of the economic conventional wisdom holds you still have a very big hole in your theory.

So if 3 is possible we should pursue it. But consider that the long term growth rate of every meaningful impact must be zero. Consequently the only way growth of any quantity is sustainable in a finite space is if impact per unit of global growth of that quantity on all physically constrained subsystems declines at least as rapidly as the quantity increases.

In other words

The only way economic growth can be sustained indefinitely on earth is if every environmental impact per unit growth declines at a rate equal or greater to the rate at which the economy grows.

Is this sustainable growth approach feasible? I don't know. It would require some new flavors of policy. I'd like to see it explored. As far as I know even this fairly straightforward connection of the economics and sustainability worlds hasn't been made.

I think the only alternatives are 1) decline of the leading economies or 2) imperialist fascism of the most vicious imaginable sort. Of those choices I prefer decline.

Now Schick's position doesn't essentially argue against any of this, except to assert that the problems must be far in the future since none of them has ever bit us yet. This is not the position widely held in the sustainability community. The following graph indicates the present opinion of how close we are to overshoot:

By "high income" they mean contemporary North American standards. By "middle income" I would guess they mean something like the level of Spain or Korea, comfortable and pleasant but much less overt wealth or luxury; obviously the idea is about a third of the impact of the average American. Even this level as average is now argued to be beyond the physical limits of the earth.

Of course, the fact that many people lack a gut feeling for exponential growth with relatively long time constants does mean that many things are estimated to be further in the future than evidence actually indicates. This is a big part of the greenhouse gas problem, after all.

But even people who think the problem is far in the future have an ethical dilemma. So to Paul Schick who suggests that the problem is immensely distant, I propose the following questions:
  1. On what basis are you confident that the problem you acknowledge remains far in the future?
  2. How would people of the future detect that the problem is impending soon enough to deal with it?
  3. What ethics should they apply to the situation if it were detected?
Update: It's really a tautology, isn't it?

Some things are obviously true and yet bear repeating, And it fits in a tweet!

A given economic growth rate can be sustainable *only* if average impact per unit wealth declines at an equal or greater rate.

Update: I was looking for this infographic for the present article but I was looking in the wrong place. It's not at WIRED but at New Scientist, here.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Obama doesn't mess with the Growth Imperative

The Washington Post a few weeks back had a wonderful interview with President Obama. I am sure I am not the only one to be experiencing a tremendous feeling of gratitude and relief to be hearing such coherent and thoughtful answers to difficult questions.

I find one thing troubling though. While Obama speaks of sustainability on more than one occasion, he suggests that "growth" is his core mission. As far as I know, nobody has ever come up with a way to reconcile sustainability and growth.
The one message I want to send to the American people is that on all these fronts my consistent bottom line is how do we make sure that the American people can work, have a decent income, look after their kids, and we can grow the economy. That’s my criteria. I don’t have an ideological agenda in how we’re approaching it.
It would help, perhaps, if one could identify the quantity that one could cause to grow indefinitely in some form other than currency.

I think that sustainable growth, if possible, would be the least socially disruptive idea, hence the most politically accessible. It's easy to see the appeal to politicians.

But I don't know what it means, in any sense that is actually possible. I wish somebody would explain it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Revkin's Coin Comes Up Shiny Today

Revkin in the Times today:

“The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue.

But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.

“The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.
It is good that the press addresses whom the opposition is. I think that is key. And I suppose that a "smoking gun" like this gives the news media the "newsy" hook to hang stories off. So this is great, and go for it, but it's really not news to me.

While I am happy that the shiny side came up last time Revkin flipped his coin, and while this is certainly useful, I am a bit bemused, to put it charitably, that anyone is surprised. I certainly recall thinking at the time that it was odd that glossy magazines would print such brazen lies.

What surprises me is that it worked so well. I expected backlashes, apologies and hasty retreats, since the GCC ads were so brazenly misleading, but I saw nothing of the sort.

It's possible, I think, that the failure of civil society to reject this cynical manipulation of factual information may turn out to be the single most salient historical fact of our time. It certainly deserves a lot more attention than it's gotten so far, and the sooner the better.

Update: More early reaction: Nick Anthis and Will Bunch. (yet another hat tip to @BoraZ) Bunch is great on this. He quotes George Monbiot via Revkin:

George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.

“They didn’t have to win the argument to succeed,” Mr. Monbiot said, “only to cause as much confusion as possible.”

and concludes:

Except this is one case where the "media norms" may prove catastrophic, maybe not for me but for my children and eventual grandchildren. Several media critics -- but most notably journalism guru Jay Rosen from NYU -- have been focusing on the dangers of a kind of mindless "he said, she said" journalism that rules inside-the-Beltway reporting, sometimes to trivial effect but sometimes with great consequence, on topics like the financial crisis. But climate change may be the textbook study here.

Journalists have to weigh many things in striving for the truth -- but the ultimate mile marker must always be objective facts where they exist, and not a juggling act of talking heads, especially when one of the heads doesn't even believe its own baloney it's putting out there.
And this on a newspaper site! Alas, probably too little, too late.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

Mueller neighborhood, Austin TX, Earth Day 2009. Click on image for slightly more detail.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Gunther: "Phony Green Jobs Debate"

Marc Gunther at The Energy Collective pretty much agrees with me on the "green jobs" thing.
Let’s get real: We can’t predict oil prices 12 months out. Last spring, virtually no one anticipated the global financial crisis of last fall. And we are projecting the number of green jobs that will be created or lost on a state-by-state basis by a law that won’t take effect until 2012? Who are we kidding?
I called Russ Roberts, an economist at George Mason University who hosts the fine EconTalk podcast, for some guidance on how to think about green jobs and the economics of climate regulation. “Creating green jobs is easy,” he told me. “We could employ millions of people picking up litter, and we could make them very good-paying jobs if we want. But of course that would make us poorer as a nation. There’s a cost to providing those jobs that would have to be borne by other people in the economy.”

It’s not just the cost of higher taxes that needs to be factored into the equation, he noted. To the degree that the government makes policy that favors, say, vast construction of wind turbines throughout the upper Midwest, the people doing those jobs will be drawn from somewhere else, maybe even from more productive work. If policy leads to the hiring of thousands of contractors to do energy efficiency, the cost of building a new home or renovating your basement may go up because many of the good construction workers are busy.
“As voters and citizens and readers, what we want to think about is the big picture—are we moving in the right direction when it comes to environmental policy?” Roberts says. Put another way, are we spending enough money today to head off the threat of global warming in the future? Because if anyone tells you that we can deal with climate change at no cost, they probably shouldn’t be trusted.
Maybe that’s what bothers me about the green jobs ads. They’re like political campaign ads. They promise something for nothing. They treat the voters like children. They’re emotional and not educational. And they’re not helping to build a movement around climate change.
Other than that, they’re fine.
It is certainly good to have worthwhile projects to employ people doing, while we reconsider how to arrange things so that having a job stays rewarding while not having one gets a lot less punishing. And unless we get very lucky, this carbon thing is going to cost us plenty, no matter how we approach it. But the issue is not jobs. That just reinforces people's confusion. 

The environment is not a subsidiary of the economy. It is the other way around.

Something called the Sustainable Development Commission in the UK, which appears to have some sort of government charter, issued a report called Prosperity Without Growth which is on the whole a worthwhile read for people unfamiliar with the idea of a steady-state economy. There are lots of good quotes in there that will be showing up here.

It also talks about the confusion in the relationship between "green jobs" and the redesign of the economy. They point out that the natural inclination of politicians is to just treat the "green jobs" thing as an ordinary Keynesian stimulus, to get the economy "back on track". I believe Prof. Obama is doing an astonishingly good job at this goal, actually, which is unfortunate given that it is the wrong goal.  

The report hits on the awkwardness of the Keynesian strategy at this juncture at several points. For instance, while we see this on p.69:
By early 2009, a strong international consensus had emerged in support of a very simple idea. Economic recovery demands investment. Targeting that investment towards energy security, low carbon infrastructures and ecological protection offers multiple benefits. These benefits include:
  • freeing up resources for household spending and productive investment by reducing energy and material costs
  • reducing our reliance on imports and our exposure to the fragile geopolitics of energy supply
  • providing a much-needed boost to jobs in the expanding 'environmental industries' sector
  • making progress towards the demanding carbon emission reduction targets needed to stabilize the global atmosphere
  • protecting valuable ecological assets and imporving the quality of our living environment for generations to come
which is all true and very compelling, but on the other hand, from p. 71:
it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in the longer term, we're going to need something more than this. Returning the economy to a condition of continual consumption growth is the default assumption of Keynesianism. ... the systemic drivers of growth push us relentlessly towards ever more unsutainable resource throughput. A different way of ensuring stability and maintaining employment is essential. 
A great deal depends on how these policies are sold and implemented. Were it not for the financial crisis, it might be better to wait until the public gained a better grip on the issues. There is a real risk that supporters will end up as confused about the fundamental purpose of these initiatives as its opponents. 

Some of us are eager to challenge the structure of society, and specifically of its economics. I myself am not so reckless as to look forward to it. I do understand that it is necessary. I wonder if those advocating "green jobs" while avoiding explaining how serious the underlying issues are might not be doing more harm than good.  If the economy can be rebooted, will people shrug off the idea of sustainability as some nice WPA-like project and get on with business?

Will people ever get the idea that the planet is full, and that consequently the basic idea of the invisible hand is broken? That nothing you do is only your own business anymore? That we're not on the lonesome prairie, we're on a leaky boat, and we'd better learn how to get along because there's no place further west to go? 

I don't know. Not if we don't try to explain it, I reckon.

Update: See also John Whitehead on the Environmental Economics blog, who doesn't think that "green jobs" necessarily will have a net positive impact on employment. 

Image from

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

See? It's the Gold, I Tell you!

The Canberra Times reports:
A group of CSIRO senior climate scientists has defied a gag order by the organisation to speak out on Australia's proposed greenhouse reduction targets.


They claim tougher targets are needed to avoid Australia being ''locked in'' to dangerous climate change, and list 14 recent scientific findings that support their argument.


the scientists made their decision to go ahead with personal submissions after CSIRO management ruled out any participation in the inquiry by Australia's peak science body on the grounds that it would require comment on government policy.

A CSIRO spokesman said the inquiry's terms of reference, ''went to the policy of the Government's carbon pollution reduction scheme, and in line with our public comment policy, we don't comment on government policy''.

The scientists had been told to, ''make it absolutely clear'' they were not speaking on behalf of CSIRO. If asked to testify, they will be required to take formal leave and travel at their own expense.

If that isn't greed, I don't know what it is.

OK, maybe the kangaroo was too easy, but I like it. From Wikipedia and released under GFDL by пан Бостон-Київський .

Open Thread No. 4: The Numbers Game

The Guardian has a poll of Copenhagen Conference participants.

Most of those who responded expect a global mean temperature increase over the next century in excess of 3 C . About 5.5 F globally; well over 10F, presumably , in continental interiors and the Arctic.

What do you think? Pick a number.

Image: NASA

Monday, April 13, 2009

Excellent TED Talk Until the Climate Part

A really awe-inspiring TED talk by David Deutsch is also really discouraging and disappointing.

Of course at first I didn't see where he was going. Unfortunately he was leading up to some fundamentally cracked ideas about climate change. It's really sad, as the talk is inspiring and invigorating until it gets to the hopelessly wrong parts. But what is it about physicists that gives them license to get the climate problem so dramatically and publicly wrong while putting so little effort into investigating it?

Deutsch concludes that we should focus on fixing big problems, not on avoiding them. This is a commonly held opinion by smart people who don't understand the climate problem. It's fundamentally wrong on two grounds. First, as he in effect points out, there really isn't a strong distinction between avoiding a problem and solving a problem; avoiding a problem is a version of solving a problem, isn't it? Second, of course, the extent to which you have a problem isn't binary. You may have a big climate change problem, or a huge one, or an overwhelming one. And of course, all the exciting progress he goes on about, all this capacity to "create the relevant knowledge" suddenly goes away once problems become overwhelming. Perhaps people whose immediate family have never actually been in overwhelming situations are overly sanguine about this possibility.

Those are just the gross failures of his position. Now onto the deatils.

He only talks about climate change for three minutes, after leading up to it for fifteen, but look at the holwers he manages to come up with in those three minutes.

1) "It's already too late to prevent a catastrophe" is true in some weak sense, but again, the situation isn't binary. It is the scope of the catastrophe that is exactly what is at issue.

2) "The actions proposed don't solve the problem, but merely postpone it by a little". That was true of Kyoto, the advantage of which would have been that we would have international protocols in place now that the real cuts are needed. Having skipped that step, our job is more difficult. But 80% cuts in the advanced countries by 2050 are at least consistent with addressing the problem at scale, and that is what we are discussing nowadays. In fact, that is the only sane recourse.

3) "in the 1970's when the best science was warning about humans causing an ice age". Groan.

4) "When we know how to avoid a disaster at a cost that's much less than the disaster being avoided, there's not going to be much argument, really." You'd think. But, alas, no. I refer Dr. Deutsch to an interesting blog called Only In It for the Gold which is centrally focussed on why this fairly obvious "fact" just isn't true. (Hint: what is "known" to science greatly exceeds what is "known" to policy.)

5) "Instead of reducing gases we ought to be looking at plans to reduce the temperature". This is geoengineering idiocy. It is really necessary to get a couple of very fundamental facts across. First: the problem is not the temperature, it is the rearrangement of the fluid flow regimes in the new temperature regime. Temperature is only a crude gauge of climate change. We can have massive climate change with small changes in global mean temperature, though the case of small climate change with large temperature changes is excluded. This is where the actual scientific knowledge comes in. And though Deutsch claims to defer to the experts, it appears he has not bothered to talk to any of them.

6) He also briefly mentions an approach to carbon sequestration and then proceeds to a broad brush characterization that "nobody" is thinking seriously about these things. Of course that's a very sweeping generalization, and I think it's actually not true at all in the actual scientific sectors where the work is happening. Of course, the left and the right may not be paying any mind, so of course the press isn't either. But I'd hope a physicist talking informally about the subject would know better, and I'd insist that a physicist talking publicly about it take the time to actually meet and talk to people working in the field.

So six substantial objective errors of fact in three minutes in a public talk.

Finally, let me point out that his arguments are totally disjoint from economics or politics. I sympathize. I like to start from what's physically possible, proceeding thence to what is socially and economically possible. Deutsch ignores that problem altogether. I suppose that is better than the opposite position which ignores physics in favor of politics, but not by much.

Again, there's much that I very much enjoyed about the talk so I'm sorry to have to say it's irresponsible. Indeed it is irresponsible in a very Dysonesque way. Why do physicists with their perspective on the largest and smallest scales get the idea that they understand the planetary scale? I'm sure the folks at the Hadley Centre, for instance, would be happy to entertain this interesting fellow and give him a more nuanced view.

So, why didn't he bother?

Update: A much better TED talk on geoengineering by David Keith. He seemed more optimistic than I thought was warranted, mostly based on the AGU session in 07, though.

Scientific Software Days at TACC

I am co-organizing this thing:

MAY 21 - 22, 2009

The Texas Advanced Computing Center, in association with the Jackson School of Geosciences at The University of Texas at Austin, is pleased to present the third annual "Scientific Software Days" event. The purpose of the event is to increase communication among scientific software users, vendors, and service providers.

Day 1, May 21: Short presentations and Keynote Address

Victoria Stodden of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society will present a keynote on the subject of "The Future of Computational Science: Information Sharing and Responsibility".

Day 2, May 22: Tutorials

Two half day tutorials will be presented:
- Karl Schulz of Texas Advanced Computing Center will present a survey of version control and data management (intermediate)

- Matt Knepley of Argonne National Laboratory will present an Introduction to PETSc (advanced)


The opening day of the event will be devoted to short presentations about available software packages and technologies. We would like to invite you to present your work to the scientific computing community on that day. Contributed presentations should focus on software and its use in scientific computing. You may be the author of the software, or simply an expert user; if you think it deserves broader exposure, here is your platform. We are also interested in case studies, especially discussions on how supercomputing enabled your work, the challenges and benefits of the supercomputing environment, scaling and validation issues, and other aspects of your strategies that might be of broad interest. Presentations will be 30 minutes in duration, of which at least 5 minutes should be left for questions. If you are interested in participating, please send an email to:


There is no cost for attending, but spaces are limited. To register, or for more information about planned presentations, please visit:

Morano vs Montana

I suppose a blog like this one ought to take note of the fact that Mark Morano's web project is up and running; and it takes the interesting approach of trying to be the Drudge site of the global environment. Some serious stories are actually represented, though a bit swamped by denial stories,and peculiar diversions (the "millions for sheep farts study" thing again, for instance, via an obscure little news article from a small town newspaper in Australia. Note to press: ruminant emissions are really a major source of methane, but are not actually farts.)

What really strikes me more than anything is the fact that he links to this very website. His minions therefore show little probability of leaving me alone if I should blunder into sound-bite territory again. Welcome, then, Morano minions. (I suppose you already know that I think you should reconsider your employment on ethical grounds, but I digress.)

Second only to that is this: in his initial foray Morano has not one but two articles on Miley Cyrus a.k.a. Hannah Montana, a teen idol for the tween set recruited and groomed by the Disney enterprise.
"And the one thing that I talk about a lot is my faith. So I try to keep politics out of it and what not, but I am very into just like the whole taking care of the environment and everything,"
she says. A good girl, most readers will think in the casual and inattentive way that they read articles of that sort. About as forgettable a bit of news as is imagineable, right?

Apparently not. Morano thinks it's worthy of note. This Morano technique of expanding incidental statements into national monuments has hit me as well as regular readers will recall, but you can sort of squint and spin me into someone whose opinion matters. But what sort of a story is this: child star earnest and inarticulate on environmental issues! So?

Now what would be the point of quoting a sixteen year old pop star on an environmental news site? True "I am very into just like the whole taking care of the environment and everything" sounds rather juvenile, but Ms. Cyrus is, actually, a child and can be forgiven on that account.


IML: What's the toughest thing about living in the spotlight?

Miley: I think just having a camera on you all the time gets kind of frustrating, because if you make a mistake, like if you say or do something really stupid, the whole world knows about it. It's not just your family or friends. Sometimes I'll watch something back and think, "What am I doing? I'm like the biggest geek!" Sometimes my friends will call me and say, "Did you see that commercial? You were such a nerd!" And I'm like, "Thanks guys, I love you too!"

IML: So even though you're in the spotlight, do you still have to do chores at home like other teens?

Miley: I do. I just learned how to use the dishwasher. That was our rule. The first time, it was like a movie. The bubbles started coming out. I was like, "Oh wait, maybe I'm not supposed to just pour the soap all over the inside. Oh, that little container? That's where I'm supposed to put it! I got in so much trouble. Also when I was doing laundry, I shrunk my mother's favorite pair of jeans. In my family, because our legs are so long, we're not supposed to put jeans in the dryer because they'll shrink up, we have to hang them outside to dry the old fashioned way. Now she's got really cute capris!

Publicly mocking children's efforts to understand the world, even famous children, would seem to me stretching propriety a bit far. The only purpose is to implicitly tar the opposition with an accusation of childishness. Presumably, though, children who can sing and dance can be found saying not especially insightful things in favor of one's opposition without too much difficulty. I fail to see why this is worthy of note.

Morano appears to be drawing six figures from this venture. I've been hearing some moaning that there isn't comparable funding on the "other side". Whether that's true or not (I certainly haven't seen any sign of such funding), I am not sure it's worth worrying about in this case. I don't know that anybody needs to emulate Morano's approach.

Morano brags:
“The goal is to expand on key elements from the award-winning Senate EPW website and quite simply revolutionize climate and environmental news dissemination. ... Much of what the media reports is simply a regurgitation of the rhetoric from partisan and ideologically driven environmental groups, foundations, and the United Nations, which are spinning data to promote a cause,” Morano said.
Hmm... Well I have my own complaints about the press, I suppose.

I am not so confident, though, that if the two links about Hannah Montana, not to mention an incorrect headline from a small article from Tweeds Head NSW are exemplary, that the site will turn the tide toward more accurate information. Morano is taking his nomination as chief denier literally, but I wonder if he isn't jumping the shark already in the early episodes. Is this effort worth losing sleep over? Will this sort of schoolyard mockery actually influence anyone who is old enough to vote?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

More on Black Carbon and Secondary Forcings

Another INECE press release on black carbon:
Eurasia Could Recover ¼ of Pre-Industrial to Present Snow Cover Loss 

by Cutting Black Carbon Emissions

Washington, D.C., April 10, 2009 – A new study “Springtime warming and reduced snow cover from carbonaceous particles” published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics this week, shows that emissions from black carbon and organic matter drive springtime melting in Eurasia nearly as much as anthropogenic CO2. It also finds that 21 out of 22 climate models that contributed to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report underpredicted the rapid observed warming of .64˚C since 1979.

“Our study finds that black carbon is especially effective at warming climate during springtime, when the Northern Hemisphere is highly reflective and transitioning into snow-free summer,” said Marc Flanner of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO and lead author of the study. “By inducing early retreat of snow cover, black carbon causes (Eurasian) land areas to absorb more sunlight and warm disproportionately.” Eurasia includes the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan Plateau, which is the headwaters for most of the major rivers in Asia.

The short atmospheric lifetime of black carbon offers the opportunity for fast mitigation. Flanner explained, “Our model studies suggest that eliminating black carbon emissions from fossil and biofuel sources would cause Eurasian springtime snow cover to recover at least a quarter of its estimated loss from pre-industrial times to the present.”

“This is yet another major study revealing the major role of black carbon in the retreat of snow packs and glaciers around the world,” said Professor V. Ramanathan from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, a co-author of the paper. “Fortunately, we can do something about black carbon, for we know how to reduce emissions of black carbon from combustion of fossil fuels and biomass fuels.”

The publication of this study coincided with the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and the Arctic Council which commenced this week in Baltimore, Maryland. Presiding over the first joint session of the meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the importance of targeting black carbon and other non-CO2 climate forcers to protect the Arctic.

“There are also steps we must take to protect the environment. For example, we know that short-lived carbon forcers like methane, black carbon, and tropospheric ozone contributes significantly to the warming of the Arctic,” said Clinton. “And because they are short lived, they also give us an opportunity to make rapid progress if we work to limit them.”

Although policymakers are beginning to take notice of black carbon and the significant near-term climate and health benefits that would result from reducing black carbon emissions, more aggressive action will be necessary to avoid the consequences of major ice melt, such as lack of fresh water, rising sea levels, and national security concerns.

“Reducing CO2 emissions is essential, but to save fragile regions such as the Arctic and the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan glaciers in Asia, we also need to take immediate action to reduce non-CO2 forcers,” said Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. “Targeting black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, as well as HFCs, gives us a package of ‘fast-action’ strategies that can bring critical near-term mitigation.” Zaelke added, “At this point, they are the only chance we have for saving the Arctic.”
For further information, contact: Alex Viets, IGSD: (213) 321-0911,

(I don't understand why conventional journalism feels a need to rewrite press releases and dress them up as original work. Why don't they just publish them?)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Last Meta Posting

I am summarizing my thoughts about journalism, especially in the American context. I hope this will be the last in this vein for some time.

1) There really is a very deep problem in the way things operate. It's symptomatic that the healthiest part of journalism is sports journalism. It's almost as if the methods were ideally suited for team sport. Is that why politics has devolved into a team sport? A chicken and egg problem.

2) It's easiest to get attention by attacking somebody, but you don't make friends that way. It's easiest to get paid if you get attention. This drives writers and bloggers onto the teams. For various reasons, probably describable in game theory, two teams seems to be especially stable. This phenomenon appears in the general public. The extent to which it has been aided and abetted by journalistic practice is unclear, but probably significant.

Nothing guarantees that either cluster has a workable or coherent position.

3) The mainstream press tries to set itself up as an arbiter between the two sides that emerge. However, its sports mentality is so obvious that it itself has become a common theme. At election time, "let's focus on issues rather than the horse race" is a constant refrain, often followed by a dutiful and halfhearted listing of rhetorical battlegrounds that have emerged due to the strategic choice of the organized parties.

I got in trouble for joking about this last week, but relevant things that the public doesn't know (either as yet uncontroversial, or uncomfortable for both parties) are rarely examined. Presumably the business of journalism demands this: if there isn't already a controversy it doesn't pay to drum one up; if there is a controversy, it doesn't pay to settle it.

In what I consider the most crucial instance, the whole Club of Rome problem of sustainability vs growth, which should have been dominating public discourse over the last half century, is completely ignored in the press. Most scientists have occasion to spare a thought for it, and the more socially and politically conscious of us think of it as central. But the political horserace is conventionally largely about which party is more likely to "grow the economy". The parties don;t like it, the advertisers don't like it, and so there's little mention of this problem in the mainstream media, even though it really is the core question.

(Remarkably, among actually famous press folk, it's Iraq war cheerleader Tom Friedman who is out front on this issue. I don't quite know what make of that, except that the world is more complicated than people like to make out! But this is a broad brush article so I'll proceed anyway, ignoring exceptions like that. Thanks are due to Friedman for breaking the ice.)

4) The centrist position of the media is not affected by facts, but by who believes the facts. Because politics is viewed as a race, opinions are weighed and reported in proportion to how many people support them.

The main purpose they serve to their readership is to give people who don't have much time for politics, especially people who have to maintain business relationships with a wide variety of people, a safe haven, a way of expressing themselves that is least likely to irritate customers. Not coincidentally this serves the purposes of most advertisers in the media as well. Accordingly, the mainstream media effectively act as a source of friction on the mobility of public opinion, pulling opinion toward the center of gravity of existing opinion as they perceive it. The actual facts of the matter have little bearing on the position taken by the press.

5) There's no need for centrist blogs as the center is represented by the mainstream media. Blogs tend toward the idiosyncratic and uninfluential, but bloggers who think their writing is important enough to gain a readership strive either for entertainment value or to reinforce a partisan position.

6) What is largely missing in all of this is a market for fierce dedication to truth; truth at the expense of alliances, truth indifferent to popularity. The internet allows such truth to be published, and this is great progress, but such truth is rare. The internet also allows paranoid ravings of all stripes; such untruth is as common as dirt. The public is left no better off than before.

7) Most people underestimate the extent to which society is changing under the pressure of new circumstances. (Some of the ones who don't are being drummed into a dangerous paranoid frenzy, but that isn't my topic here: I'm still hopeful this will fail and in fact I can't imagine what Mr. Murdoch thinks he's achieving by it.) The media is utterly complicit in this complacency and seems determined to promote it.

In short, left and right, as promoted by the parties, and center, as promoted by the press is not adequate to the situation we face.

8) Science blogging is an extraordinary exception. It turns out that many people trained as scientists are extraordinary thinkers and writers. (A few people pick up the intellectual style as science reporters, but most don't.) And extraordinarily interesting and thought provoking stuff gets written in science blogs, stuff that is far more accessible than what is in the journals.

The approach of scientist bloggers is especially important in the light of the fact that our common problems are quantitative, physical, and tightly coupled to matters of science and engineering. So the question is not just whether science blogging or freelance journalism influenced by science blogging can adequately replace the science journalism that is disappearing (it seems likely that in many cases, it can), nor even whether some professionals can be supported in that role. (Not yet; it seems that most of the readership of science blogs are science bloggers.)

The question is whether a fourth way of looking at things can be promoted to the general public: a way that is not attached to left, right or center, but is attached to facts, principles, algorithms and tests. This is a very tall order, to be sure.

One thing people need to let go of is the idea that everybody's opinion counts equally. Democracy is not negotiable, but it is not a useful way of handling the discussion that leads up to the elections to suggest that everybody's understanding is equally valuable.

9) A business model for the fourth way is crucial. I can imagine bootstrapping a career as a freelancer, presuming I can learn from my recent mistakes. But I can't imagine bootstrapping a really viable fourth voice. Filtering, reputation mechanisms and editorial functions can't be provided by the individual writer, and adequate advertising and promotion can't be had either.

I have more to say about this; I am still looking for the right people to say it to.

10) For example, and on the turf of this blog, somebody needs to promote sensible responses to the climate problem to the public, something between green romanticism and hare-brained naysaying, something where CCS and nuclear power are the likeliest players. But the climate problem is only the first of many problems that we face now that we have essentially covered the planet with ourselves and our activities.

We need to be able to reason together, and not just with some common morality but with due respect for arithmetic too.

OK, I'm done with metajournalism for now. Back to the various topics at hand, I promise.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Failure of Short Run Strategies in Long Run Arguments

There's plenty of evidence that politically active people interested in fighting climate change think very differently than scientists who are also interested. I also think they are getting it wrong.

This is in my email from Gore's "We Campaign".
Dear Michael,

I asked Troy Galloway -- a former steelworker who now builds wind turbine blades -- to share his story. Congress needs to support more opportunities like this and revitalize the economy.

- Cathy

---------- Forwarded message ----------

From: Troy Galloway
Subject: Worst day of my life

The worst day of my life was when I got that pink slip. I expected to work in the steel mill until the day I retired, and then suddenly my job and my livelihood were gone.

Then in 2006 a wind turbine company opened two plants near my home in Hollsopple, Pennsylvania. Today, I build the blades for wind turbines that are powering parts of America with clean electricity.

A clean energy job saved my family and me, and many more in my community. But with the current economic mess, even some of my smartest and hardest-working friends here are still struggling -- as I know millions of Americans are.

That's why I am asking you for help.

We need millions more green jobs -- like the one that saved me -- all across the nation. And those jobs will only be available if our leaders in Washington take bold steps.

Please sign the petition to our leaders here:

Here's what the petition says:

"Congress must support bold national policies this year to transition to a clean energy economy and help solve the climate crisis. We urge you to cap carbon pollution to help create the jobs and businesses that will Repower America."

I'm hearing some talk on TV about how we can't afford to deal with the climate crisis and the economic crisis at the same time. Well, my experience shows we can't afford not to. The green jobs that reduce carbon pollution are this country's ticket out of a deep economic rut.

I hear that we lost half a million jobs last month. Imagine if those laid-off workers could turn in their pink slips for jobs in wind, solar, clean cars and green technology.

Well, our leaders in Washington have an opportunity to deliver green jobs like these to cities and towns all across America.

Send them a message today:


"Well, my experience shows we can't afford not to." Um, no it doesn't. It indicates, perhaps, but it doesn't prove anything. It's a datum, not a proof. There is a huge difference. (Then there's that "well". Well, that reminds me of Ronald Reagan, and if you'll recall, that's where our troubles really started. )

Is this a bad approach? I think so; in fact I think it's dreadful. Even if it doesn't strike you as reprehensible to argue in this anecdotal way, consider the strategic implications of this tactic.

It alienates people who think quantitatively in favor of those who don't. In the short run that may be enough, but this isn't a short run decision. Engineers and MDs and corporate mangers can be forgiven for having their BS detectors go off, when the arguments they see are the arguments of BS-vendors. And while in the short run such people can be overwhelmed, they have long-run influence in their communities and associations that matter a great deal.

So even leaving aside the ethical problems, I don't think that this tradeoff is a winner in the long run, and that may have something to do with why, despite having the truth on our side, we are not winning in the long run. We don't have to win a battle. We have to win every battle. Getting a bill passed is a trivial matter. The public must be won over overwhelmingly.

Anyway, Mr. Gore wrote an excellent book called The Assault on Reason. It's peculiar, because this campaign has me strongly inclined to recommend to Mr. Gore that he read it.

Mr. Gore, in his disastrous his-to-lose-and-actually-lost Y2K campaign, showed that his capacity to connect with the experts in science and policy was not matched by his capacity to connect with experts in politics. He is listening to the worng people again.

While the left worries about winning battles, the right worries about the war. The field of play in this game is not symmetrical; the tools of reason win in the long run while the tools of polemics work in the short. For advocates of sane policy to exclusively use ancedote in favor of analysis abandons the terrain of advantage and limits the battle to places where the advantage is with the oppposition.

The implicit idea that the purpose of pushing sustainability is to support employment has no fewer than five problems
  1. It is not logically supported in arguments made in its favor. For all its supporters know sustainability costs jobs. Certainly the idea that it is a net economic benefit in conventional terms (neglecting externalities) is unlikely.
  2. It abandons the far more important and susbtantiated argument of externalities.
  3. It totally abandons technically sophisticated opinion leaders like engineers and doctors, who will see through manipulation and be inclined to presume there are no better arguments to offer if nothing more is offered.
  4. It totally abandons addressing the question of sustainability in economics, failing to draw attention to the underlying problem of the growth imperative and how to overcome it.
  5. It continues the assault on reason, weakening collective reasoning.
This approach may just be enough to win a round given the support of the Obana administration. But a round is not enough. The population needs to be won over permanently and decisively. A narrow legislative victory will accomplish very little in the long run; perhaps it will hurt more than it helps.

The author of the above communication has been nominated as an undersecretary of DoE. I have been unable to track down Cathy Zoi's biography, but it's hard at first glance to see how that nomination is a good thing, given that what is valuable about DoE is science and technology, and what needs to be excised is the excessive tendency toward posturing and spin.

Maybe this is intended a concession on Obama's part to Gore's constituency, but I'm concerned that this doesn't speak well for either of them.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Journalism of Climate Change per Yulsman

Apparently, Tom Yulsman has been on the "climate beat" for quite some time.

Anyway, he has a collection of interesting observations about communicating climate science from various participants. Unfortunately, no compelling position emerges from it. Sometimes I suspect that it is exactly the purpose of conventional journalism, to avoid influencing the reader's position at all.

In this (for all I know unintentional) goal, Yulsman succeeds.

The necessary bow in the direction of RPJr contributes to the obfuscation:
As the politics heat up, he urges journalists not to take sides in what is certain to be a vigorous debate with all kinds of information vying for people’s attention and belief. “Climate policy needs more options, not less,” he argues. “Like it or not, people wanting to go slow or not go at all are part of the political scene.”
Whatever the hell that means.

Yulsman quotes Revkin saying something more or less sensible at first blush:
In his opinion, that clear view of the science is getting “terribly lost in the distillation that comes with saying that there is no more denying it.” His warning: “There is complexity out there, folks, and the things that are clear are only the basics: more CO2 means a warmer world.”
which hardly accounts for his craven habit of giving far too much attention to the people not clear on the basics. As I'm always pointing out, Revkin seems incapable of taking note of the extent to which he perpetuates exactly the problem he is complaining about here.

Schneider, of course, talks sense, though one wonders if there weren't juicier quotes that got left on the cutting room floor:
“Given the risks we’ve identified, how many chances do you want to take with planetary life-support systems, versus how many chances do you want to take with the economy?” Schneider asks. “That’s a value judgment, and that’s the government’s job, the corporation’s job, an individual’s job.”
Out of this muddle, Yulsman only manages to make one cogent summary point, a plaintive plea for more journalism:
Demanding that the case for climate change be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” is unreasonable and has contributed to the false balance problem. “‘Preponderance of evidence’ is the order of the day in a civil court.… [And] this may be the fairest analogy to apply to policy and science issues such as climate change,” Dykstra recommends.

This is great advice. It’s just too bad that his bosses at CNN are no longer receiving it. They dropped Dykstra and his entire unit at the end of 2008. He believes their ouster leaves broadcast and cable news with no reporters or producers working full time on environmental issues, not to mention science and technology.

This gaping chasm in environmental expertise in television news, along with downsizing at nearly every newspaper and the slackening of online ad revenues that might pay for serious-minded digital journalism, does not bode well for the future of news reporting about climate change.
Dykstra's advice about the burden of proof, though nothing new, is solid. The question here is whether the reporting about climate change will be missed, whether the plea for more of what passes for science journalism should be heeded. As far as I am concerned, not this sort, thanks.

It's certainly true that blogspace as currently configured does not create readily credible sources for the average person investigating a complex topic. Perhaps this can be repaired somehow. Credentials are crucial to preserving the function of reporting on the net. But that doesn't mean that the sort of lukewarm indecision propagated in this article or elsewhere among trained journalists is helping the situation.

There are two questions that come to mind about science journalists:
  • 1) Do journalists know who is lying? If so, why do they give the liars so much prominence? If not, what service do they provide as filters?
  • 2) How do journalists decide correctly which stories are important enough to follow? Climate is not the only sustainability story out there. Where is the press on the rest of them?
It definitely feels, on our end, like earth scientists and biologists against a wall of ignorance, with the press as the guys on top of the wall dropping the burning oil.

It doesn't feel at all like the press is an ally of science conveying legitimate balance on matters that are open and backing up the experts on matters that are settled. And without huge improvements along that front, we are so very hosed. The question of how the public learns about science is a primary survival concern for civilization going forward. More "not taking sides" like this might just kill us all, good and dead.

Update 4/12: Jay Rosen just blogged a very insightful article on the false balance problem. From that article:
he said, she said is not so much a truth-telling strategy as as refuge-seeking behavior that also fits well into production demands. “Taking a pass” on the tougher calls (like who’s blowing more smoke) is economical. It’s seen as risk-reduction, too, because the account declines to explicitly endorse or actively mistrust any claim that is made in the account. Isn’t it safer to report, “Rumsfeld said…,” letting Democrats in Congress howl at him (and report that) than it would be to report, “Rumsfeld said, erroneously…” and try to debunk the claim yourself? The first strategy doesn’t put your own authority at risk, the second does, but for a reason.

We need journalists who understand that reason. And I think many do. But a lot don’t.

Also, and this is crucial:
The newswriting formula that produced it dates from before the Web made all news and reference pages equidistant from the user. He said, she said might have been seen as good enough when it was difficult for others to check what had previously been reported ... but that is simply not the case ... in April, 2009.
Where's Marshall McLuhan when you really need him?
Roman coin showing the two-faced God Janus from is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien.

I thought about including a picture of the old Batman nemesis "Two-Face", but, well, ewww.