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

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Against Overstating or Understating the Case

The ethics of lying are easy; you're off the hook. You just make up whatever suits you and see what sticks.

The ethics of telling the truth are more complicated, especially if the purpose of your speech is to affect the opinions of the public.

Here's an interesting article on the Times of London that goes to this point.

Consider on the other hand this piece by Karl Wunsch from a couple of years back. I would consider the piece strictly speaking true but strikingly ineffective. He probably wanted to conclude with "you can never be 100% sure of anything" but noted that was a self-contradictory statement (What's the opposite of a tautology?) in that "never" expresses 100% certainty. So he backed off to "we have not as yet achieved 100% certainty about attribution", even though, well, you really can never get to 100% certainty in statistical attribution, can you? What he's left us with is a pile of doubt that Wunsch seems to have intended as a call to action!

Stop me if you've heard this one before.
So there are two managers who are balloonists for a hobby, and they get blown off track and a bit lost. So one of them yells at someone he sees down on the ground:

"Heyyy! Yes youuu! Wherre arre weeee?"

to which the reply comes back

"You're in a balloooooon!"

The balloonist shrugs and says ruefully to his companion "That must be an engineer. He responded exactly to my question, everything he said was precisely correct, and yet I am no better off than I was before."
Getting the right balance is not easy. Stephen Schneider got into terrible trouble (which has never entirely abated) with a sound bite that tried to make that point.

In the end, like an old person who is always too cold when the temperature is below 75 F and always too warm when it's above 70 F, the best you can do seems to be when both tendencies, toward precision and toward influence, are a little bit stressed.

All of which brings us back to Mamet's Law, the insight that started this blog in the first place.
"Law, politics and commerce are based on lies. That is, the premises giving rise to opposition are real, but the debate occurs not between these premises but between their proxy, substitute positions. The two parties to a legal dispute (as the opponents in an election) each select an essentially absurd position. "I did not kill my wife and Ron Goldman," "A rising tide raises all boats," "Tobacco does not cause cancer." Should one be able to support this position, such that it prevails over the nonsense of his opponent, he is awarded the decision. ...

"In these fibbing competitions, the party actually wronged, the party with an actual practicable program, or possessing an actually beneficial product, is at a severe disadvantage; he is stuck with a position he cannot abandon, and, thus, cannot engage his talents for elaboration, distraction, drama and subterfuge."

David Mamet in "Bambi vs Godzilla: Why art loses in Hollywood", Harper's, June 2005.
So the good news is that we are much smarter than the opposition. But the bad news is that we'd better be.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Dogs, SUV's, and Freaks

Ray's excellent takedown of Freakonomics in RealClimate has me shaking my head about people's abilities to discuss even the arithmetic, never mind the algebra or calculus or statistics, of global sustainability issues.

Of course, Ray is exactly right, not just in the substance, but in the fact that the substantial argument in question is elementary.

Now I am going to say something harsh, but I'm afraid it needs saying.

Anybody who writes on this stuff ought to be able to figure as much out on why the solar panel/albedo question is moot in a few minutes. I mean ANYBODY, not just economists, who writes on this stuff. To be clear that includes journalists. If you lack the skills to do the arithmetic, in my opinion you should not actually be writing on sustainability issues. Period. Also, if you missed the fact that any albedo effect is swamped by the greenhouse effect, if the question didn't instantly jump out at you on reading the claim, you should be asking yourself very seriously whether your grasp of climate change is sufficient to write about it.

The same holds for many other "consider a spherical cow" type questions. If you can't do math with large numbers you should find another beat. What you are doing is the opposite of helping. (That said, what am I to make of Joe Romm's "they are not black, they are blue!" response to the panel albedo issue?)

While I was pondering these matters, a tweet arrived from @Revkin way:
Your dog a bigger CO2 source than an SUV? (Finally had chance to read; math seems to hold up?)

Well, at least there's that question mark, but as you can see, it generated a lot of retweets.

Best to nip this one in the bud. I found a very handy page for back-of-envelope energy calculations. Please let me know if you find errors on it, because I plan to refer to it a lot in future.

So, it claims that the energy of a human is about 100 watts (seems about right) and of a car going a sustained 40 mph is about 10000 watts (also seems believable; it's about 13.4 HP). So let's figure a dog is about a third of a human, consuming about 1/300 of the car. Roughly speaking, then, the energy of a dog day is equivalent to the energy of driving a car for about 5 minutes, or a big SUV for about two and a half.

So at first glance it appears that there's really no contest. Even though the referenced article presumed only 10,000 km per year (6300 miles) that's still about 20 miles per day which is a long way to drive in 2 and a half minutes, especially at 40 mph.

For this to come out in favor of the SUV, we need to get up to a half hour, (even leaving aside the manufacturing and ancillary costs which the original article claims). To do this, we have to make a very unfavorable comparison between food energy and petroleum energy, a factor of about 8.

Now, there are claims that the food we eat consumes about 400 gallons of gasoline per year. This is a few bucks a day, and sounds plausible to me. So about a gallon a day, or a third of a gallon for the dog, if the dog's consumption is equivalent. Which will get your SUV about 4 miles further. Still not enough to get the 20 miles though.

Then there's the fact that most of the meat your dog eats is by-product of meat production for humans, rather than independently produced. I'd argue that proportion is free, which greatly reduces the impact of the dog.

However, consider the cost of a meat-eating full grown adolescent child. You will find the child's food supply (or yours) is indeed comparable to the cost of a lightly driven SUV.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Texas Drought Abates

It's actually been raining quite a bit these last few weeks, and the outlook is for a wet winter on account of El Nino. Things are pleasant and green again, and we're hopeful for an especially colorful and cheerful spring next year. Nevertheless, it was the worst drought on record for several counties near Austin, though our own county (Travis) did not quite experience that.

There's a news report here and the state climatologist's report (PDF) here.

The image, from the state climatologist's report, shows 24 month precipitation surplus/deficit expressed as standard deviations at the peak of the drought. Darkest red shows 3 standard deviations, and corresponds to the areas of record-setting drought. At that moment, (late August) San Antonio had received less than two feet of rain over the preceding two years. In addition to the rainfall deficit, this drought was exacerbated by unusual heat.

Regarding climate change, the report is willing to take the bull by the (long) horns:
The drought intensified to exceptional status during late spring and summer 2009.
This intensification was associated with an upper‐level jet stream pattern featuring
troughs on the west and east coasts of the United States and a ridge across the
central United States. This weather pattern persisted for close to two months,
inhibiting convective activity and causing late spring storms to move farther north
than usual. The unusual, persistent jet stream pattern simultaneously led to
drought and heat in Texas and rain and cool weather in the Midwest and Northeast.
The extent to which this particular jet stream pattern was a random event or was
driven by particular patterns of sea surface temperatures is not known at this time.

Global warming has been identified as a possible cause of future extensive droughts
in the subtropics, including the southwestern United States. Computer models on
average project a precipitation decline of 5% over the next forty years. However,
long‐term precipitation trends across Texas remain upward. It is possible that the
present drought is the beginning of a long-term decline in rainfall, but it is also
possible that precipitation will remain steady or continue to increase. Based

on present scientific knowledge, it is not possible to say whether global warming
contributed to the present rainfall deficit. Indeed, whatever large‐scale processes
led to the overall upward precipitation trend may have caused rainfall to be greater
than it otherwise would have been.

Global warming has, however, contributed slightly to the severity of the present
drought through higher temperatures. Global temperatures have increase by about
0.7 °C over the past century, and long‐term temperature trends across Texas are
now at or above the sustained warm temperatures of the 1950s. It seems
reasonable to assume that present temperatures in Texas are on average about
1 °F warmer than they would have been in the absence of global warming. This has

increased potential evaporation and water demands by livestock and humans.
Thus, if a similar precipitation deficit had developed in the absence of global
warming, it would not have been quite as severe.

I'm not sure this is exactly the best way to describe the situation, ("global warming has contributed", argh...) but all in all I guess it's a good compromise between getting overly technical, being too vague, and also between being too strident, and being too indifferent.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Transition Towns: Mostly Harmless

I dabbled in the Transition Movement for a little while but quickly became disillusioned for exactly the reasons Alex Steffen describes in a controversial article on WorldChanging.

When I retweeted that article, gl33p, a buddy on Twitter, warned "Nonconstructive conflict on solution side limits network strength. Solidarity smart, no shortage of humans: nonzerosumgame", and I think that gl33p raises a good question.

It's clear that a focus on marginal backyard farming is not going to go far toward the massive reorganization of society that is needed. The question raised by this article is whether it does substantial damage. Should we be okay with the most idealistic and dedicated people focusing on a shabby sort of localism, because it offers some solace and some community? Or should we be concerned over the zero-sum game of attention being drawn away from the really big tasks of reinventing, well, everything, at scale?

It's a hard one. For me, thinking about the problem at scale and casting about for something to do about it is obviously the right thing to do. But then I'm a geophysicist. Most people, even those who see the great outlines of the problem, can't really begin to get a handle on the stocks and flows, the major risks and the minor ones, the tradeoffs and triages we will have to face.

I agree that there is something scary and off-putting about Transition, especially its accommodation to the paranoid survivalist streak in America. I also understand that many people just see a perfectly innocent revival of the hippie philosophy, and maybe Transition is that too.

So in the end, I just decided to put my attentions elsewhere, and not express my concerns. Had I done so, the concerns would be very similar to Steffen's. That said, I'm not entirely sure it was worth saying. I guess you pick your battles, and becoming too much like Totnes Town is hardly the biggest threat we are facing, you know?

On the other hand, the Totnes model really won't solve America's energy-intensive infrastructure, and won't make the southwestern urban landscape pedestrian friendly nor its climate conducive to casual gardening. Totnes has the advantage that it was a town in the first place.

Doing it Right

OK, so I griped about a graphically attractive but shallow effort to use information technology to communicate. Being negative isn't really enough, though, if you can avoid it.

Do I have any examples that I can be enthusiastic about? You betcha.

Update: Another excellent instance of web-based communication of complex concepts is here, this one regarding the relative sizes of very small objects. Others?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Web based tool

Do you like this?

I think it is high-design and low information. The thing is, at first glance it LOOKS like it could carry a lot of information, but on playing with it, one discovers that, alas, it doesn't.

Other climate science sites are high information and low design.

Of course, high information high design is the expensive quadrant, but it's the place to make progress on how people think.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Vote Today on AGU Governance Changes

All members are being asked to vote on the changes that the Council has approved. The proposed changes expand the Council, focusing it on science, and they move the fiduciary responsibility for AGU to a newly created, smaller Board of Directors. The proposed Bylaws outline the working relationship between these two groups; the modifications bring AGU’s governing documents into alignment with District of Columbia requirements and reflect current practice in not-for-profit governance.

If you need more information before voting, the governance vote web page more fully explains all aspects of the proposed changes. There you’ll find FAQs, a video of AGU leaders talking about the proposed changes, and explanations of the specific changes in governing documents.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Political Theater or Just Plain Delusion?

Mr. Obama knows the difference between climate change theater and actual progress, as was demonstrated by this anecdote:
The debates unnerved both candidates. When he was preparing for them during the Democratic primaries, Obama was recorded saying, "I don't consider this to be a good format for me, which makes me more cautious. I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, 'You know, this is a stupid question, but let me ... answer it.' So when Brian Williams is asking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, 'Well, I planted a bunch of trees.' And he says, 'I'm talking about personal.' What I'm thinking in my head is, 'Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I f---ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective'."
That's exactly right, and that's pretty much the same point that Elizabeth Kolbert is making in her recent New Yorker piece Green Like Me.

Kolbert, author of "Field Notes from a Catastrophe", the best-written book out yet on global warming, is a treasure. She perhaps the best reporter in the catastrophic field in question. So when she writes, I sit up and take notice.

On the other hand, I'm sympathetic to "stunts", or political theater. Public behavior that causes people to question their own beliefs has a history that is hard to mock; arguably Mahatma Gandhi is the originator of what eventually became the Abbie Hoffman school of politics.

So I don't share Kolbert's implicit disdain for Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon:
Smith and MacKinnon also can’t find any local salt, so in the final scene of the book they make a twelve-hour journey—by car, by ferry, by steamer, and, finally, by rowboat. “A blue horizon, forever and ever to Japan,” they write. “The open Pacific Ocean rushing in as clear and clean as the air.” They fill a huge stainless-steel pot with salt water, which they carry back to shore and boil down. The journey is made to sound poetic, but from an ecological perspective it would have made a lot more sense for them to walk around the corner and buy some Morton’s.

MacKinnon wants us to know that he recognizes the futility of the undertaking. “I am acutely aware that efforts like the 100-mile diet are readily dismissed as ‘the new earnestness,’ which is currently enjoying a very temporary cool,” he writes. “And I am not deluded enough to feel that I’m making a difference or being the change I want to see in the world.” (The italics are his.) He is unwilling even to attempt a reasoned defense of the project: “My actions are abstract and absurd, and they are neither saving the rain forests nor feeding the world’s hungry.”
That is, they are play-acting and know it. This is productive behavior as a project, not as a lifestyle, and for a few people, not as a literal example for the world. The other players in Kolbert's story seem less clear on the concept. Please consider Kolbert's conclusion in the light of Obama's lightbulb complaint as well.
What makes Beavan’s experiment noteworthy is that it is just that—a voluntary exercise conducted for a limited time only by a middle-class family. Beavan justifies writing about it on the ground that it will inspire others to examine their wasteful ways. On the last page, he observes:
Throughout this book I’ve tried to show how saving the world is up to me. I’ve tried hard not to lecture. Yes, it’s up to me. But after living for a year without toilet paper, I’ve earned the right to say one thing: It’s also up to you.

So, what are you going to do?
If wiping were the issue, this would be a reasonable place to end. But, sadly—or perhaps happily—it isn’t. The real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about.

What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”
It's essentially a byproduct of American libertarianism, this idea that collective problems are the aggregate of individual actions, and that collective decisions are not important. It's delusional.

Perhaps Kolbert is less amenable to political theater than some of us, and is perhaps a bit harsher than she ought to be. Perhaps not. It really depends on how the various experimenters in reduced impact present their efforts to the world. It's fine to set an example by individual behavior. It can in fact be inspiring. But it isn't enough, it's very far from enough, and in the end it's just scratching the surface.

We need to live with less collectively, not just individually.

h/t Marion Delgado

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Geoengineering Quandary (In Living Color)

Following up from yesterday, we have a bunch of people being a little bit coy in response to a straightforward statement, Richard Branson's comment that "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."

Note that he didn't say all our problems would be solved. The finiteness of fossil fuels is obviously on deck. And while we might manage enough biofuels to keep our airplanes flying, that won't be enough to solve our problems. Still, there's little wrong with the substance of the assertion: if CO2 emissions could be made harmless, they would be harmless.

In response we have a chain of half-stated reactions:
David Roberts: "entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson said something heroically, world-historically stupid" and "The authors of the upcoming book SuperFreakonomics also think that geoengineering is a cheap, easy way to avoid the work of fashioning a more sustainable society." Branson is lumped in with Levitt and Dubner, a place one really doesn't want to be lumped these days.

(What David clearly means is that there are plenty more limits beyond this one, and finding a workaround to one limit without changing our behavior in the long run is not a happy ending, just a prolongation of the inescapable crisis. With this I am in total agreement.)

Keith Kloor: "The irony is that Roberts posts a set of global land use & ecological impact graphs to make his point that geoengineering won’t save humanity from all the upward trends in the graphs. So if every ecological and climate indicator demonstrates that the earth is becoming less livable because of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations and other global land uses, then is it realistic to take geoengineering off the table just because someone like Richard Branson makes a glib and simplistic statement?"

(I kind of agree yet again. Depending on what you mean, I don't think geoengineering should be off the table. Branson is advocating for biochar. Biochar should definitely not be off the table, and I don't think David Roberts wants it off the table anyway.

Where Kloor rubs me the wrong way is in his closing paragraph:
But the truth is that no matter happens at Copenhagen and in the U.S. Congress, some type of adaptation measures will be necessary. 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. Why there isn’t room for both discussions to occur beats me.
The idea that there is some sort of zero-sum game between "adaptation" and "mitigation" is really a very half-baked way of thinking about the problem. Forcing things under that rubric is simply a distortion.)

me: My coy statement was: "But what about geoengineering? Is David right? Is Richard Branson right? They are both right, as I'll explain later."

(In that article I tried to explain the very loose coupling between what is normally considered the mitigation community and the multitude of disparate adaptation communities, and the difference in scale of their problems. I explained that thinking of geoengineering as a part of "adaptation" was not splitting nature or the relevant intellectual communities at their joints. It's a very poor apprehension of the situation to find these communities as if they were in competition, and weaker still to assign geoengineering to the wrong side.

But what of geoengineering solutions? I am not in the least averse to using whatever tools we can bring to bear to manage the situation on the way to some sort of sustainability, a sustainability that I can't imagine really coming to fruition for a century or two, while the population slowly drops to a billion or a tenth of a billion.)
We need to use whatever works in the intervening generations. (It seems to me the folk are in agreement with Branson in supporting biochar as the nicest way to quickly bring the CO2 concentration down. So I can't see how David Roberts chooses to lump Branson in with the egregious Dubn and Dubner).

What works? Well, in addition to a rather ill-informed attempt to create a zero-sum game between "adaptation" and "mitigation" the press seems to be forming a rather confused idea of "geoengineering" (a trap into which Branson has inadvertently walked, though he will likely walk right back out none the worse for it personally), and unfortunately the scientific community writ large is contributing to the confusion on this matter.

Have a look at this figure, from the Royal Society report "Geoengineering the Climate", Sept 1 2009, via 2020Science

The above is from Royal Society’s much-anticipated report on geoengineering. As 2020science puts it:
Aimed at presenting “an independent scientific review of the range of methods proposed [for geoengineering the climate] with the aim of providing an objective view on whether geoengineering could, and should, play a role in addressing climate change, and under what conditions,” it provides what is perhaps the most authoritative and comprehensive assessment of the options to date… It dares to consider the option of actively engineering the climate on a planetary scale to curb the impacts of global warming, and advocates further research into geoengineering. In doing so, it will no doubt simultaneously enrage deniers of anthropogenic climate change, and those who fervently maintain that technological fixes are not the solution to the consequences of humanity’s excesses. ...Yet for anyone mature enough to consider the merits of evidence-based and socially-responsive decision-making, the report offers a clear and insightful perspective.
The figure speaks eloquently for itself. (I'd have made the size of the dots represent the potential scale of the effort, but that is somewhat subsumed under "effectiveness". Roof painting is fine, but of course there really aren't enough roofs to make a difference.) Rather, and somewhat counterintuitively, the size of a bubble indicates how quickly the approach could be brought online. Of course, this sort of chart subsumes a tremendous amount of debate and uncertainty, and is likely far from the final word on any of these approaches, but it's certainly interesting on its own.

Well, maybe not completely eloquently. "BECS" is "bio-energy with carbon sequestration".

What I'd like to point out is that there are two very different classes of strategy being discussed here: carbon sequestration strategies and radiative transfer balance strategies. It is easy to tell them apart. All the green dots (except for the low-effectiveness urban rooftop one) are carbon sequestration strategies. Those are considered safe. All the red ones are radiative transfer strategies. Those are considered high risk.

This is not a coincidence! These are really two very separate categories of idea! I am increasingly frustrated at the extent to which they are being confused. It amounts to retrograde progress in public understanding. Can we please distinguish between them?

Removing the carbon from the atmosphere solves the carbon problem. The climate disruption goes away. The direct ecosystem disruption goes away. The ocean acidification goes away. The cost is pulling out the carbon. The effect is that there is no extra carbon! It's pretty difficult in practice, but in principle it's a no-brainer!

Changing the radiative properties of the atmosphere is global climate engineering. It has numerous and extremely spooky consequences. It's like drinking more and more liquor every night and drinking more and more coffee every morning to compensate. You may crudely cancel out a few of the symptoms, but you're getting more and more unhealthy with every passing day, and anyway, plenty of the symptoms are still with you.

Part of this traces back to the earlier mistake of calling the problem "global warming" in the first place. Our problem is accelerating climate change, not global temperature. Global temperature is merely an easy-to-measure symptom (and is relatively easy to obtain from paleodata as well). No doubt it is an interesting quantity. But the change in global temperature is not the problem, and never has been. The problem is that the atmosphere is a forced fluid flow, and relatively small changes in the forcing can have very large changes in the flow as a consequence.

It is easy to counteract the changes in global temperature by cancelling out an inadvertent heating with a deliberate cooling. But it's really a desperation move. It might keep our ice sheets from falling apart, and that is a big goal, but it will add to climate change, not cancel it out!

Now, neither approach will solve all of our problems. But the sequestration approach will solve one of our problems, and it is a big one. If you don't believe in any of the sequestration approaches, you;d better take off that "350" cap, mate, because we need at least one of them to work if we're going to get to 350 before Greenland melts.

My bottom line, then, is all about nomenclature.

The "adaptation" community deals with local change on decadal time scales. The "mitigation" community deals with global change on longer time scales, and with forcing. There is no real competition between the adaptation and mitigation communities and certainly no zero-sum game. It's irresponsible to try to drum one up.

Technologies that can affect the forcing on a global scale are not really part of the adaptation conversation but rather part of the mitigation one. There are two main types of global strategy that don't address emissions directly: radiative and geochemical. The word "Geoengineering" is often applied to both but should probably only be applied to the radiative class of strategy.

Studying radiative geoengineering in this sense is probably justified, but anyone thinking that sort of geoengineering provides a free pass is indulging in childish wishful thinking. (One surely shouldn't publish a reputation-bearing book making such a case.) Also, of course these symptomatic approaches do not save the oceans from death by acidification, another environmental problem of the highest order.

Sequestration strategies are commonly lumped under geoengineering, but they are very different in strategy. They deal with the carbon problem itself, not just with one of its symptoms.

Solving the carbon problem will not suffice to bring us into balance with the world, but it will help a lot. It will help us survive to the day when we can achieve sustainability. If you dismiss every one of these ideas you need to hang up your "350" cap because we need at least one of them to work to get to 350.

PS - It's still a good idea to have a reflective roof if you are in a hot climate. It just won't fix global warming to any significant extent, okay?

PPS - Wow. A long article for a short attention-span world. David, can I borrow some puppies? (OK, I did some coloring, hope that helps.)

Update: A related conversation last January on Brave New Climate. A salient point for the Freakonomists out there from Prof. Brook:
Needless to say, no one would credibly argue that geo-engineering is a replacement for mitigation of carbon emissions. A business-as-usual scenario of coal burning, taking atmospheric CO2 to 750 to >1000 ppm (directly or via carbon-cycle feedbacks), will force the climate system so far out of whack that no ‘patch up job’ will be sufficient. No, the context under which geo-engineering might need to be considered is if a measured analysis shows that even with major emissions reductions, the impacts of committed warming will be so bad as to warrant using additional ‘terraforming’ of planet Earth. Are we at that point already? Dunno. But let’s have that risk assessment and necessary R&D done, just in case.
Needless to say? Nothing is needless to say anymore, apparently.

Update: Related article on RC. (With a link back to here, thanks!) The crucially relevant point which seems invariably forgotten by people who wish there were an easy solution so they could trumpet how blind we all are, is explained thus:
The point is that a planet with increased CO2 and ever-increasing levels of sulphates in the stratosphere is not going to be the same as one without either. The problem is that we don’t know more than roughly what such a planet would be like. The issues I listed above are the ‘known unknowns’ – things we know that we don’t know (to quote a recent US defense secretary). These are issues that have been raised in existing (very preliminary) simulations. There would almost certainly be ‘unknown unknowns’ – things we don’t yet know that we don’t know. A great example of that was the creation of the Antarctic polar ozone hole as a function of the increased amount of CFCs which was not predicted by any model beforehand because the chemistry involved (heterogeneous reactions on the surface of polar stratospheric cloud particles) hadn’t been thought about. There will very likely be ‘unknown unknowns’ to come under a standard business as usual scenario as well – another reason to avoid that too.

There is one further contradiction in the idea that geo-engineering is a fix. In order to proceed with such an intervention one would clearly need to rely absolutely on climate model simulations and have enormous confidence that they were correct (otherwise the danger of over-compensation is very real even if you decided to start off small). As with early attempts to steer hurricanes, the moment the planet did something unexpected, it is very likely the whole thing would be called off. It is precisely because climate modellers understand that climate models do not provide precise predictions that they have argued for a reduction in the forces driving climate change. The existence of a near-perfect climate model is therefore a sine qua non for responsible geo-engineering, but should such a model exist, it would likely alleviate the need for geo-engineering in the first place since we would know exactly what to prepare for and how to prevent it.
This is why all intervention has to be about reducing net carbon. Anything else is a desperation backstop and probably won't work for all sorts of reasons.

Update: RP Jr shows up to say that
"Here is what I have said recently (for example) on adaptation vs. mitigation:

"I think that mitigation policies should be completely decoupled from adaptation policies and they should proceed on separate tracks. They are not trade-offs but complements."
If this is his opinion I have indeed misrepresented it and apologize. I would like to register complete agreement with the above and regret any inconvenience. I have removed the reference to Dr Pielke's opinion within the text and apologize for my error.

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

Friday, October 16, 2009

In Defense of Revkin

A correspondent writes in support of Revkin's approach, and Revkin pounces of course. Nevertheless, food for thought for me and people like me who have been critical of Revkin.
Is there a way to show enough respect to the opposing argument to engage people so that the litany of skeptical arguments that are tossed about can be sequentially addressed and put respectively into the camps of “confirmed”, “need further research” and “debunked”?

You’ve made an attempt in the past to provide such an evenhanded approach through your journalism, and gotten significant scorching from the climate-campaigner side. But that approach allowed me, a former skeptic, to open myself up for a little cognitive dissonance, which when resolved resulted in a changed view. Am I the only one?

— Michael T. May

Andrew Revkin Boy, Michael, if my writing and blogging has allowed even one person (you) to step out of the fog of competing messages and obfuscated science in the climate arena, I feel it’s been worth the hassles (and all that “scorching” you refer to, which has come from folks on all sides of this issue at one point or another).
It's worth serious consideration. Revkin is still not off the hook for the Gore/Will fiasco as far as I am concerned, though.

Update: Oh forget it. A man who can write an article on E O Wilson and then wrap it up with a serious discussion of the philosophy of George Carlin and get away with it just has things too goddam easy.

Some schoolteacher should take a red pen to some of his garbage. "Andy, please try harder. These people's ideas are not comparable or related. Everybody knows you can do better than this. C-"

Update: Very thoughtful critiques of Revkin from Jeff Huggins: 25 27 36 41 57 . Credit to Revkin at least for running them. Some especially worthwhile stuff:
It is quite possible for the journalism community to continue awarding awards to its members, year after year, even as the public remains grossly under-informed, and even as we continue pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, and even as too many politicians remain deadlocked and ineffective, and even as the climate warms, and even as other species die, and even as large numbers of people are displaced from their homes, and so forth. Not a pretty picture! YET, unless journalism and the news media (including The Times and perhaps especially The Times) wake up, recommit to the ultimate aim of journalism and responsible news, shift their paradigms on how they cover these issues of central importance, raise the bar, find some courage, and so forth, that’s the path that we’ll continue to be on.
Have we (the public, politicians, corporations, etc.) taken responsible and timely and wise actions, of the sort that will most likely be effective, to address these problems (climate change, etc.) or to substantially begin addressing them?

Are we well along our way in doing so? Are we being wise, responsible, and timely?

Are we well prepared (in terms of inform-ed-ness, understanding and will) to continue doing so or, at the very least, to promptly do so beginning tomorrow morning?

Are we well prepared in terms of understanding? Do the public, key politicians, and other key leaders have sufficient understanding to face and address these problems? Do large and effective majorities of politicians and business leaders, in numbers more than sufficient to lead and implement effective solutions, feel the warranted and eager public pressure to do so?

Is the public well prepared and eager to make choices that will serve its own public good in a genuine and healthy way?

What is the state of public understanding?

And so forth.

I won’t bother to answer these questions or to try to quote polls and so forth, here. The answers aren’t good. In fact, given the stakes involved, they are downright dismal. They’re embarrassing. They are nothing to be proud of, speaking here of journalism and the news media generically and in general.

It also helps to keep in mind the dimension of time. For example, it was on April 3, 1980, that Walter Cronkite hosted a rather excellent segment on global warming on the CBS Evening News, no less, at a time when the CBS Evening News enjoyed higher viewership than the other network news programs and when cable news was barely being born.

That was over 29 years ago! And here we are, still, today!
Of course, a substantially under-informed, confused, and fragmented public in a modern scientific democracy, in today’s times, is not a safe and sustainable thing. Period. Public understanding and wisdom are not mere discretionary luxuries. Thomas Carlyle once observed, “I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” The media’s role is vital. The AIM is Vital. And Achieving It is Vital.

Romm vs Freakshow II

The SuperFreaknomics fiasco (a sequel to a very popular book on economics which has a very bad chapter on climate change) is a case where Joe Romm's approach is entirely appropriate. I hope Joe will forgive me for quoting a good chunk of his article, which includes some forthright statements by Ken Caldeira. It's something nobody should miss.

One sentence about Caldeira in particular is the exact opposite of what he believes (page 184):
Yet his research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.
Levitt and Dubner didn’t run this quote by Caldeira, and when he saw a version from Myrhvold, he objected to it. But Levitt and Dubner apparently wanted to keep it very badly — it even makes the SuperFreakonomics Table of Contents in the Chapter Five summary “Is carbon dioxide the wrong villain?” It fits their contrarian sensibility, but it makes no actual sense.

Here is what Caldeira really believes:
I believe the correct CO2 emission target is zero. I believe that it is essentially immoral for us to be making devices (automobiles, coal power plants, etc) that use the atmosphere as a sewer for our waste products. I am in favor of outlawing production of such devices as soon as possible….

Every carbon dioxide emission adds to climate damage and increasing risk of catastrophic consequences. There is no safe level of emission.

I compare CO2 emissions to mugging little old ladies … It is wrong to mug little old ladies and wrong to emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The right target for both mugging little old ladies and carbon dioxide emissions is zero.

I am in favor of fire insurance but I am also against playing with matches while sitting on a keg of gunpowder. I am in favor of research into geoengineering options but I am also against carbon dioxide emissions.

Carbon dioxide emissions represent a real threat to humans and natural systems, and I fear we may have already dawdled too long. That is why I want to see research into geoengineering — because the threat posed by CO2 is real and large, not because the threat is imaginary and small.

Emphasis added by me. See the rest of Joe's article here.

Update: See also Ezra Klein (h/t Things Break): "The problem with Super Freakonomics is it prefers an interesting story to an accurate one."

Update: The authors, Dubner and Levitt, are busily jumping the shark, now calling critics "fraudulent".

The Other Way to Get Rich

(Probably not an original thought, links to similar ideas would be appreciated...)

It occurs to me that the easy way to get wealthy is to increase the number of things you can happily do without.

Update 11/11/09: Maybe I was trying to remember this:

"The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less." -Socrates

Thursday, October 15, 2009

It's Blog Action Day

It's Blog Action Day for climate change all around the blogosphere!

Of course it's always Blog Action Day for climate change around here, so it's easy for me to participate. Newcomers, please just look at the "best of" links over to the right.

Regulars, it would be a good idea to look around and see if any of the participants have anything new and useful to add.

Nominations for the best BAD article?

Update via email:

Hey bloggers,

October 15th is finally here and nearly 10,000 bloggers around the world are writing about climate change today for Blog Action Day 2009!

At the stroke of midnight we got off to a great start when UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown surprised us with a Blog Action Day post on his blog saying that "climate change is the biggest threat to all our futures."

From there we have seen thousands of interesting posts from bloggers in 150 countries. The Official Google Blog provided a green tour of their campus, Gadling is featuring green travel posts all day, and Grist has a great round-up of some of the best posts thus far. Nonprofits including Oxfam, Greenpeace , 1Sky and TckTckTck have all put up new posts. Blog Action Day has been the top Google blog search today and CNN just wrote an article about us!

Right now posts are pouring in constantly. It's truly an impressive display and there’s too much going on to list it all in an email.

You have to check it out yourself.

You can follow all the latest posts and tweets on a new live stream on the homepage. You can also get breaking updates and more in-depth information on the official Blog Action Day blog.

If you haven't posted yet, remember to include the words “Blog Action Day” in your post so that it gets pulled into the live feed on our homepage. If you are on Twitter, you can follow @blogactionday and use the #BAD09 hashtag in your tweets.

Thanks to all of you who have already posted and to all of you who will throughout the rest of the day. If you haven't, you can still register and participate today!

This has already been an amazing day and the Blog Action Day team couldn’t be more impressed with how many bloggers from all parts of the global are coming together for such an important issue.

Thank you so much,

Robin Beck
Lead Organizer
Blog Action Day 09: Climate Change.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Germany Reconsiders the Growth Imperative

A three part series in Der Spiegel examines the growing disconnect between national growth and national well-being.

"Our affluence has quadrupled in the last 40 years. But at what price?" asks Kurt Biedenkopf, a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the former governor of the eastern state of Saxony. The growth rate is "no longer a clear indicator of rising affluence," Biedenkopf told SPIEGEL in a recent interview.

Even German President Horst Köhler is suspicious of politicians' assurances that growth is indisputably beneficial to society. "We have convinced ourselves that permanent economic growth is the answer to everything," Köhler said in March, in the midst of the financial crisis. It was an astonishing statement, coming as it did from a professional economist and former head of the International Monetary Fund. And yet Köhler did not reveal what the correct answer could be. Stagnation, perhaps? Or even contraction?

Apparent certainties are now beginning to falter, as a broad front of critics of the system develops. They question whether it is really necessary for consumers who already have everything they need, to consume -- and throw away -- more and more each year. And they are also searching for new methods of measuring well-being, applying criteria like healthcare and level of education. French President Nicolas Sarkozy attracted attention last week when he proposed such an alternative way of measuring wealth.


We have reached the point at which the Earth's regeneration capacity is being stretched too thin. Theoretically, humanity today already needs 1.3 planets to maintain its lifestyle. If everyone were as wasteful as the Americas, five planets would be needed. To make matters worse, by 2050 the world's population will have increased by 2 billion -- people who will also need food, clothing and shelter. How is this even feasible?
In the end, though, they back down to what I consider a slender hope:
The principle is clear: Resource consumption must be decoupled from growth. The respected US economist Paul Romer employs a kitchen metaphor to illustrate the concept. "Economic growth springs from better recipes," he says, "not just from more cooking."

This is effectively what representatives of the world's governments will be discussing when they meet in Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December. But the world is still a long way from this goal.
The problem is that when you think about it, it turns out that In order to support business as usual without increasing net impact or abandoning any claim to international equity, impact per unit wealth has to decrease by more than a factor of fifty.

That's a tall order.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Should Emissions be Allocated Per Capita?

"Should Greenhouse Gas Permits be Allocated on a Per Capita Basis?" is an article by Eric Posner and Cass Sunstein appearing this year in the California Law Review. That is, should emissions cap per nation be assigned on the basis of the nation's population? Posner and Sunstein argue in the negative.

They begin their article by a lengthy and plodding exposition of the very different picture presented by per capita emissions and by national emissions. They would have done better to simply refer to David MacKay's illustration, I think.

By the end of 14 pages, the reader is expected to understand that China's total emissions exceed those of the US, but per capita emissions are only a sixth as high, while India's per capita emissions are barely a twentieth those of the US. Finally they assert the position they oppose:
With this background, we should be able to glimpse the intuitive argument on behalf of per capita allocations. Nations are not people; they are collections of people. A citizen of China should not be given emissions rights that are a small fraction of those of a citizen of the United States. Nor should a citizen of India be given emissions rights that constitute a small fraction of those of a citizen of Japan. Each person should count for no more and no less than one.
The opposite "end member" (as geoscientists like to say) of the spectrum of plausible models is the one where countries are allowed to emit in proportion to their existing emissions at some fixed recent date.

(Posner & Sunstein argue that this is close to the Kyoto model, which is peculiar given the reluctance of the US to participate. It would seem that such a model would fix a structural competitive advantage to the US for all time. That certainly isn't in line with the perceptions of Kyoto in the US, not just among the public but also among informed opinion. But that's neither here nor there for the present.

On the other hand, later in the paper they assert that the US would have borne half the costs of Kyoto had it signed, so I'm a bit confused on where they stand on this point, and on what the truth actually is.)

Other approaches are considered: a rather arbitrary per-nation distribution (wherein Luxembourg is a big winner and China and India the biggest losers) and a purely redistributive approach (where all initial permits are allocated to poor countries). C&S simplify these in a two-nation model.

The important point is that the number of permits issued is the control on emissions, and that actual emitting parties (individuals and industries, not nations) contribute a market cost on this constrained resource/right.

Those of us who'd prefer a simpler carbon tax apparently do not understand why this is preferable, but the consequences are rather the same - the nations must agree on who is allocated what fraction of future emissions, and the polluter pays something.

The essential question is - to whom should one remit the check? Should it go to the US government, say, or to the government of India? (This is the "trade" part of "cap and trade".)

On the cost side of the ledger, equal per capita emissions rights seems fairest.

C&S then identify three arguments against the per capita approach. The first comes from an observation that national per capita wealth is not correlated with national population. I have to say I have no idea what they are going on about here. Of course per capita allocations are per capita; national population has already been factored out. So this whole point seems wrong at the most elementary level. Hopefully I am missing something.

The second point proceeds from the point of view that because poor nations are more at risk from climate change, they get more benefit from the activity. Paying attention to the benefits side of the ledger moves the point of fairness back in favor of the richer countries, because they will have less to gain!

The third point is that allocations to poor nations will tend to go directly to the rich elites of the poor nations. (I have taken this into account in my repetition of my friend Mel's suggestion.) Even without this fix, I fail to see this as an argument against the ethics or practicality of a per-capita distribution of a carbon cap.

They then go on to list a couple of purportedly perverse consequences that might be set by a precedent of this sort. One is that governments would get a bigger slice of the pie as their populations increase, creating an incentive for increasing population! To this I say bollocks. Fix the population on which the allocations are made to the date of the start of the regime. Secondly, it creates an incentive for poverty! This is beyond bollocks.

Back in the days of the first incarnation of Ducks-In-A-Row Irene and I had a client, a small businessman who wouldn't bill his own customers because it would increase his tax liability. This is the same sort of "incentive". Except that even the worst run of countries isn't likely to be as confused as this fellow.

On the other hand, I guess important political scientists are that confused. What can you do?

OK, let me spell it out. Something that makes poor people slightly less poor is not an incentive to stay poor. Something that makes a rich person slightly less rich is not an incentive for the rich person to become poor. If finding a dollar on the ground is taxable at 20%, is that a reason for leaving the dollar on the ground? ("It's the principle of the thing, man!")

They do make a good point, though, here:
From an ex ante efficiency perspective, the best use of the surplus would be to reward the states that had taken steps in advance of the treaty to abate greenhouse gases.*' These states would probably be the European states that accepted binding emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol, though there are complexities here, since not all European states accepted meaningful reductions and others were simply taking advantage of independent technological and demographic changes in their country.

The larger point is that such a distribution would establish a precedent to the effect that when a global problem exists, states that respond quickly and in advance of a treaty will not be penalized. With this principle in place, states would be more likely to act quickly and to negotiate a treaty regime rather than drag their feet. For example, if states ever need to enter a new treaty that regulates cybercrime, they would know that first movers that have implemented controls that reduce dangers to other states would not be penalized and would even be rewarded in some way.
But then they go back to confusing people and countries with wild abandon:
Rather, our basic claim is that if these points are meant to provide a defense of the per capita approach, they run into serious difficulties. The reason is that the central objections to the welfarist argument rematerialize when faimess, understood in the ways sketched above, is our guide. First, to the extent that some of the most populous states are wealthy, the per capita approach is not fair at all since it has some of the same vices as the status quo approach. Second, per capita allocations have the disadvantage of giving large numbers of permits to highly populated nations that have relatively little to lose from climate change. Finally, it remains true that permits are allocated to the govemments of poor states, not to the citizens of poor states, and allocations to such govemments may not help those who are most in need.
I'm sympathetic to the third point, but the first two, again, seem completely confused to me.

So in the end I am left singularly unimpressed by Posner & Sunstein's arguments. I would simply call it a confusion between intensive and extensive quantities. They go on and on about the total population of countries as if this argued against per capita allocations, but of course, it argues for them. They spend a third of their paper on an elementary exposition best explained with MacKay's graphic (see link above) in a blink of an eye.

On the other hand, I have little difficulty agreeing with this conclusion of theirs:
In sum, the feasibility problem with the per capita approach is that it confiicts with the state system that currently organizes the world. States might well be willing to enter a climate treaty that mitigates climate change if the treaty creates restrictions that work off existing levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Doing so would serve their national interests. But given the current level of altruism that appears to exist, they are highly unlikely to adopt a distributive goal like that mandated by the per capita approach. To insist on the per capita approach, then, is most likely to subvert the best chance for a climate treaty and hence to render the climate change problem intractable.
Maybe so, but that's no reason for bogus arguments that such an unfortunate reality is the right thing. This confusion of the prescriptive and the descriptive seems to me to be a fundamental intellectual error of our time.

Perhaps we will not achieve the optimum, and some of the reasons are explained fairly cogently in Posner and Sunstein. But that is no reason to argue that optimum is other than a fair, per capita distribution; indeed arguments from what is politically feasible should not appear in an article discussing what solution is optimum from a given point of view.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ludeke, Petschel-Held and Schellnhuber

This Hans-Joachim (a.k.a. John) Schellnhuber is a very interesting fellow indeed. Among many other items of surprising interest, breadth and depth (including publications in the 80s on solutions to Schrodinger's equation), here's an especially accessible one by Schellnhuber as third author, along with Matthias K. B. Ludeke and Gerhard Petschel-Held entitled "Syndromes of Global Change: The First Panoramic View". It's first a taxonomy of types of unsustainability and secondly a map of the distribution of the various patterns.

It turns out that many areas have more than one form of unsustainability, sometimes mutually reinforcing and sometimes competing. And almost everywhere there is some form of unsustainable activity.

Apparently the German Advisory Council on Global Change has come up with a taxonomy of 16 "syndromes" of global change:

Utilisation syndromes

Sahel Syndrome (*) Overcultivation of marginal land.
Overexploitation Syndrome (*) Overexploitation of natural ecosystems.
Rural Exodus Syndrome = Environmental degradation due to abandonment of traditional agricultural practices.
Dust Bowl Syndrome (*) Non-sustainable agro-industrial use of soils and water.
Katanga Syndrome = Environmental degradation due to depletion of non-renewable resources.
Mass Tourism Syndrome = Development and destruction of nature for recreational ends.
Scorched Earth Syndrome = Environmental destruction due to war and military action.

Development syndromes

Aral Sea Syndrome (*) Environmental damage to natural landscapes as a result of large-scale projects.
Green Revolution Syndrome (*) Environmental degradation due to un-adapted farming methods.
Asian Tiger Syndrome (*) Disregard for environmental standards in the context of rapid economic growth.
Favela Syndrome (*) Environmental degradation due to uncontrolled urban growth.
Urban Sprawl Syndrome = Destruction of landscapes due to planned expansion of urban infrastructure.
Disaster Syndrome = Singular anthropogenic environmental disasters with long-term impact.

Sink syndromes

High Stack Syndrome = Environmental degradation as a result of large-scale dispersion of emissions.
Waste Dumping Syndrome = Environmental degradation due to controlled and uncontrolled waste disposal.
Contaminated Land Syndrome = Local contamination of the environment at industrial locations.

The syndromes marked with an asterisk are described in detail and mapped in the article. Here's a sample. Go look at the article (click the PDF button) to understand what all those colors mean. In short, though, all colors are bad, and so are the little white dots.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Our Many Bombs

Tom Friedman, it has to be said, sort of gets it about climate change. I mean, he thinks Joe Romm is indispensable. How much more can you get it?

But it's sort of odd, the way pundits parse the world. Friedman claims that climate change is one of three "bombs" we face in the coming generation: climate change, economic collapse, and the actual El Guapo bomb.

I used to think of Friedman as very perceptive. Of course the Iraq fiasco cost him lots of points with me, but reading this stuff I have to wonder what I saw in it. The three issues he is listing are in three different categories: one is a problem in the real physical world, another is a problem in social organization, and the last is the risk of the first two getting out of control.

However the world ends, after all, it will be called World War III.

Compare Friedman's fears with my old colleague Jon Foley's take. As John Fleck summarizes,
Foley, a climate scientist and head of the Institute on the Environment at the University of [sic] the Minnesota, argues for a more inclusive view of the set of global problems we face. He believes the argument in favor of action on climate change is close to being won. But the struggle to feed earth’s growing population, and the enormous implications that has for land and water use around the world, pose problems of similar scale to that of decarbonization of our energy system, Foley argues. And those problems right now, he believes, are getting short shrift.
Here is the problem: there are something like ten billion of us, all striving for comfort and most for status. Expectations have been running high after a century of progress, expectations that show little chance of being met. We are in a desperate hurry to come to some sort of mutual accommodation, and failure to do so will lead to people not being comfortable or safe, which will lead to "economic" decline, which will lead to belligerence and risk-taking, which will lead to disaster.

Failure just isn't an option, but Friedman's confusion of categories of problem doesn't help us get things untangled. It's land, water, and energy in the end. It's not clear we have a plan for distributing resources in accordance with needs.

It's a whole bunch of little problems wrapped up in one big problem. Calling it "three" problems where one of them is "debt" just seems completely bonkers to me. Jon's piece isn't the finest writing I've seen, but that's a minor complaint. He is much better tuned to the reality of our predicament than the fellow the Times thinks is worthy of our attention every week.

Update: Archdruid puts it nicely:
For most people in the modern industrial world, the only way to get access to any kind of wealth – that is, any good or service – is to get access to money first, and exchange the money for the wealth. This makes it all too easy to confuse money with wealth, and it also fosters the habit of thought that treats money as the driving force in economic life, and thinks of wealth as a product of money, rather than seeing money as an arbitrary measure of wealth.

The thought experiment of placing a hundred economists on a desert island with $1 million each but no food or water is a good corrective to this delusion. Unfortunately this same experiment is being tried on a much vaster scale by the world’s industrial economies right now. We have seven billion people on a planet with a finite and dwindling supply of the concentrated energy resources that are keeping most of them alive, and governments and businesses alike are acting as though the only possible difficulty in this situation is coming up with enough money to pay for investments in the energy industry.

It should be obvious that no amount of money can overcome the thermodynamic and statistical laws that have placed hard limits on the amount of highly concentrated energy resources that happen to exist on our planet. This is not obvious to most people nowadays, however, because the metastasis of money throughout the economy has trained nearly all of us to think that if you have enough money you can get whatever you want. The fact that the richest people in the world can put their entire fortunes into health care and still get old and die is one of the few persistent reminders that money cannot overcome the laws of nature, or provide access to goods and services that don’t exist.

AGU reorganization: Please Vote if You Can

The AGU leadership unanimously recommends a formal reorganization.

An introduction to the matter at issue is here:

and if you have access to EOS, here:

There's a document tracking changes to the charter here in Word format:

I've uploaded it as a PDF for the benefit of those who eschew Word format.

The main point is separation of a larger Council (focused on scientific issues) and a smaller Board (focused on administrative issues) to replace the current Board of Directors. Readers of this blog will be interested in this change as it potentially enhances the capacities of AGU for public outreach on matters of earth science.

It is necessary to motivate 10% of the membership (full members, not non-geophysicist associates) to vote in order for these changes to take effect. Please pitch in if you can.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Amen re the Press

Sorry I've been incommunicado for the last couple of weeks. A family matter I'd rather not discuss here has occupied most of my attention and I've had very limited internet access as well.

To try to get the conversation going again, I'd like to quote Frank Bi's comment from a recent thread:
John Fleck:

"And there's good research suggesting that, in such situations, a very large fraction of a naive audience [...] remembers the bunk rather than the debunking."

Frank Bi:
I'm calling bunk on this latest blanket assertion until I see for my own eyes what the "good research" actually says in detail -- I'd guess the solution isn't to discard the story, but simply to devote less attention to the bunk itself (it's bunk after all) and more attention to the debunking.

And in any case, in between yourself and Kloor throwing out all sorts of excuses for not changing the way you do things, aren't you missing a really big picture?

Let me put it this way:

The public has a need -- indeed, a right -- to be aware that

(a) there's a climate inactivist noise campaign out there;
(b) it's very well-funded, very calculated, and very deliberate;
(c) it uses morally (and sometimes legally) dubious tactics; and
(d) we have evidence to show for it.

It's not just about debunking random pieces of bunk. It's about shining the light on the entire noise campaign, and calling it as it is. I don't see what purpose is served by not talking about it.
History will record the climate bunk as one of the principal characteristics of our time. Why won't the press touch it? That's one of the biggest questions around.