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, May 29, 2010

Aardvark and No Play

"aardvark" has a plausible summary of the state of play at the well site. Be sure to click through to the diagram while you read it. I am not saying that everything there is right (I am not qualified to say either way) but it certainly offers some insight into the flavor of the technical problem.

Comment 7 on this Dot Earth article is somewhat simpler, and also tells the story quite well.

The Fairy Tale

I don't always like what Joe Romm says or the way he says it, nor do I support an abrupt end to offshore oil exploration in the Gulf, but his article about BP and Obama is elegantly written, on target, and angry about just the right things.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Future of Climate - Talk Tomorrow in Houston

If you happen to have time and money on your hands in Houston this weekend, you may want to come hear me talk to the Gulf Coast MENSA regional meeting about future climate scenarios. Because of the nature of the audience, I have allowed myself some fairly wild concepts in the talk.

The talk might be of interest at science fiction conferences and the like. If anybody is interested, let me know.

I'll post the slides next week.

The event is called SynRG; it's at

Four Points Sheraton

11065 Katy Freeway

Houston TX, 77024

and I speak at 5 PM on Saturday. (Unfortunately I think they charge a hefty admission fee expecting you to attend the whole weekend event.)

Conflicting Reports re "Top Kill"

Not a bad interview for mass market TV with Dr. Groat below.

He confirms my impression that we aren't getting a clear prognosis on the "top kill" at this time.

Nobody's talking much about the period of time between a hypothetical failure here and a successful relief well on a time scale of a few months. Maybe there's not much that can be done.

We are possibly facing a particularly fierce hurricane season, too, based on the usual heuristics for such things.

Update: The NYTimes quotes an anonymous worker on the scene declaring failure. It's not clear that this is definitive. Some speculate that BP wants to defer the declaration of failure into the long weekend. (h/t RN: see comments)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Some Spill-Related Conversation at the Oil Drum

Lifted directly from The Oil Drum, and relevant to some of the recent themes here. Emphasis added by me.

Relevant to the shabby sensationalism at NPR and much echoed on green media:
shelburn on May 27, 2010 - 11:22am

AP News release

U.S. Geological Survey Director Dr. Marcia McNutt said Thursday that a government task force estimates that anywhere from 500,000 gallons to a million gallons a day has been leaking.

The new government estimate means at least 19 million gallons and maybe as much as 39 million gallons have leaked in the five weeks since an oil rig exploded and sank.

That would be about 12,000 to 24,000 bpd, way under the previous "scientific" estimates. And it is a range, not a flat number. Looks like the task force may be getting it right. No mention in the press release of the snapshot of time when the estimate was made.

Media of course grabs the number and multiplies by number of days starting 3 or 4 days before the blow out without any adjustment or mention of the flow starting out slow and steadily increasing.

That would make the Purdue number which was supposed to be accurate by +/- 20% off by 75% even using the task force's high number, 87% using their low number. And he was on the task force. Be interesting if there is any follow up from the media about the overstatements.

It is still a terrible spill, almost certainly surpassing the Exxon Valdez (which may have actually be close to twice as much as Exxon reported) in quantity even if the top kill is successful.

...and right in line with the estimates posted here on TOD. Too bad the press didn't come here for a little education - they would have been able to ask better questions and provide much better service to the public. I sent NPR a nasty note early on (before the flow-rate controversy) criticizing their superficial coverage, lack of informed analysis, etc. and pointed to the discussions here - not that it did any good...

The gas fraction wasn't addressed in the press release was it?

One can hope that the report from the task force, when it is finalized, will include estimates of the rate over time from the beginning.

Overall the incident is a hard lesson for all sides. The industry needs to have effective procedures and techniques at the ready to handle repairs and disaster mitigation at depth if deep water drilling is to continue. Spill response needs to be improved. We need to understand what happens to oil released at depth and how it affects the ocean ecosystem. Is use of dispersants really the best of the bad alternatives?

Relevant to the technical competence of the response:

First post, so please forgive my ignorance and delete if inappropriate to this thread. Can anyone tell me why they waited over a month to attempt this top kill?

Mostly Amrita, it's because the engineering to do this took a very long time to get right. The pressures and other difficulties under the water made this a logistic nightmare--it was unprecedented. Worse, it was a one-shot game--they screwed it up, this thing gushed until the pressure eased.

Thank you, Professor. I appreciate the level heads and technical knowledge on this site. Praying this works...

Unfortunately the media has done a poor job of explaining the timeframe, why, what, and how. It is juicier to report about how the experts don't know what they are doing, the administration is sitting on their hands and talk about doomsday scenarios. This reporting is flat out wrong in many cases. It would have been much better if real experts and highly knowledgeable individuals like those on this site were the ones covering this.

Re: Shelburn's "Be interesting if there is any follow up from the media about the overstatements," place your bets, ladies and gents.

Oil Spill: Two Excellent Charts

While we're holding our collective breaths about the top kill operation, the oil remains out there. The New York Times has two excellent maps giving a sense of the extent of the damage and the risk.

This one shows the shoreline that has been impacted.

This one shows the development of the floating oil over time. Comparing the daily maps makes it apparent, as I said last week, that much of it is dissipating, so keeping the oil at sea is a good plan, at least insofar as the coastal impact is concerned.

I realize there's controversy about the booming strategy, but it seems to me that slowing down the progress of the oil to the shore has been a worthwhile proposition.

PS - Information I have just received while composing this is "So far the "top kill" effort, launched Wednesday afternoon by BP engineers, has pumped enough drilling fluid to block oil and gas spewing from the well".

This doesn't mark successful completion as I understand it, which admittedly is not that well. I believe they still have yet to kill the pressure at the surface. But it sounds like significant leakage is now, at least for the time being, stopped, and this is an important step to say the least. The prognosis for this amazing repair operation is now looking good.

Update: Here's the clearest simple explanation of the "top kill" I have seen, and it's consistent with the above.

Update: NASA time series video; h/t Andrew Sullivan and Houston Chronicle:

Image: clipped from the first New York Times link above

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Go Read This, OK?

This one's for Andy.

I don't know Al Giordano from Adam, and I don't know why he calls his site the "Narcosphere" and I don't think I care. But he gets this so exactly right I'd like to quote the whole thing. That wouldn't be fair, so here's a good quote:
Without an easy solution in sight, and with the knowledge sinking in of just how harmful this oil gusher will be to the Gulf of Mexico, its shores, its fishing and tourism and quality of life, a lot of people seem to be screaming that somebody should yell louder and point their fingers harder.

Okay, just this once, I will point fingers. You know who is to blame in addition to BP and the government that allowed this oil rig to be built?
Go follow this link to find the answer to that question, and lots more about how you can help.

Update: My gripe is with people demanding that the mess be undone by Obama. As a commenter on Giordano's site said, "I worked to elect a president, not a glorious magic dictator."

Calling this Obama's Katrina is ridiculous. Nobody expected Bush to reverse the hurricane. They just wanted water, food, medical support on the scene. In this case, everything feasible is being done after the disaster.

It is true that in both cases the disaster was caused by laziness in government administration tracing back to misallocation of resources by government policy. In both cases it was neglect of consequences of foreseeable events.

Update: Brad Johnson has a much sounder case here, when he argues that everything except capping the well should be taken over by the government, regardless of whether the capping operation works. There is a case to be made that BP's problems aren't just a matter of bad luck, but of bad process, and that it should therefore be ineligible for government contracts.

Brad's focus on the "foreignness" of BP rubs me the wrong way, though. It's not as if Americans expect or want US companies to be treated badly overseas, is it? If Exxon/Mobil had this record, should we treat them differently?

It's clear that the incentive structure wasn't sufficient to seriously get a safety-minded culture at BP, or at least at BP America. How best to handle that is interesting.

My view is that large corporations, which should not be considered "persons" for purpose of rights, should for comparable reasons not be considered "persons" for purposes of ethical responsibilities.

That is not to say that BP isn't liable for damages or penalties. It is to say it is meaningless to get mad at BP; it is not a morally responsible entity. The incentive structure has to somehow go beyond the corporation and to the people who run it.

How? Social pressures and transparency where possible, and well-thought-out regulations and incentives.

It would not be impossible for a concerted effort to succeed in destroying or greatly diminishing BP as an organized entity over this. Would it be a good idea? I don't know. I think it would depend a lot on how and why this was done.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Revkin Comes Up with the Ross Perot Solution

This approach solves every problem.

You just get the experts into a room, and ask them what to do! And then you do that!

Ross Perot ran for US President on this theory, but Revkin is just acting in an unappointed advisory capacity when he says:
To my mind, if the “ top kill” procedure being prepared for midweek fails, Obama must step forward far more forcefully and publicly engage an oil-well SWAT team drawing on the country’s leading lights in hydraulics, deep-ocean engineering and geology, from the Pentagon outward.
Brilliant, Andy! Thanks so much! Where would we be without you?

Dude, if the top kill fails and the junk shot fails, we spend a couple months drilling relief wells, hope the pressure drops, and grin and bear it meanwhile.

That's the size of it according to the "leading lights", as I understand it.

I really think "ask smart people" is not especially helpful. Does Revkin really think the Pentagon is better at dealing with broken oil wells than the oil industry?

If you know a sufficiently smart person with a realistic idea that isn't already on the table, speak up. Otherwise, the bleachers are over there, sonny. Go get yourself some popcorn, settle in, and watch the game.

Update: From another excellent piece on The Oil Drum:

As the complexity of the job becomes evident there are also reports that the Government are stepping back from taking over the problem, should this try fail.

After days of lambasting the company's handling of the spill, the Obama administration appeared to step back from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's threat on Sunday to "push out" BP if it did not do enough to plug the leak.

The U.S. government needs BP's deepwater technology to try to shut off the oil well, said Carol Browner, President Barack Obama's adviser on energy and climate change.

"Obviously, we need the BP technology, but we are not relying on them ... we have our own minds in there," she told CNN, referring to the team of government scientists working with BP to battle the disaster.

How silly. The government should appoint Revkin to take over. That would be so much better. He would get smart people in the room and ask them what to do!

Horizon - Backing Off Optimism

OK, so first of all, somebody I've heard of (a physical oceanographer whose opinion on such matters I'd trust more than my own) is worrying about long-range transport of oil:
Niiler is not speculating. He has studied the way ocean currents and winds moved hundreds of "drifter" buoys around the Gulf. In the drifters' 90-day lifespan, he has seen them scatter to all parts of the Gulf with the help of a tropical storm with 40-knot winds.

Some drifters were found as far west as Texas and others were caught in the Loop Current that carries Gulf water out and around to the East Coast of North America.

What's more, said Niiler, there's no evidence that oil will be diluted by the time it reaches the East Coast.

"We see Mississippi water in the Loop Current all the way to Cape Cod," said Niiler. "It's not mixed up."

And neither will any oil slicks that are sucked into the Loop, he said, unless there is something causing the water to mix, like a hurricane. A powerful hurricane can cause the ocean waters to mix down to 150 meters.
Is this right? I'm not sure. The Mississippi delivers more than 100 K barrels/day. So the fact that Mississippi water is detectable offshore in the east doesn't settle the question whether the oil will be noticeable, never mind troublesome.

Actually, this brings me to one of the things I've been thinking about. We really need to think about four sorts of oil in this situation:
  1. oil in colloidal suspension in the deep
  2. oil in two dimensional configuration on the surface
  3. oil in two dimensional configuration on the sea floor
  4. oil in linear configuration on a beach
Each of these will have different impacts. So far, it seems like we are getting a lot of #1, and I still think this is a lucky break. Suppose for the sake of argument we have 100,000 barrels divided into four equal parts of 25,000 barrels each. So each portion is about a million gallons (four million liters). Now suppose a gallon of oil is floating in a thin film, about a centimeter thick, it will cover about a third of a square meter. The whole mess will cover 33000 m^2 or an area of about 181 meters on a side. Of course, it doesn't do us the kindness of staying in a neat square. So suppose we consider a coverage of about 1/1000; that will probably be enough to provide a sheen on everything. The mess will cover a square about 5.7 km on a side and will be very depressing.

Now let's distribute that same amount of oil over the water column. This will be those "plumes" we are talking about. Presume the water column is 2000 meters thick. Here we have a gallon of oil over 1000 m^2 * 2000 m = 2,000,000 m^3. What is the density of oil in the column? Well a gallon is 4 liters is .004 m^3, so the concentration of oil in the water column is .004/2e6 = 2 parts per billion. Ho hum.

Of course, that is a bit generous. Suppose the plume is constrained to a 2 meter thickness instead of a 2 km thickness. 2 parts per million. Still hard to lose sleep over. Here, the dimensionality of the problem is on our side. So if these plumes get into the loop current, they will get sheared out and nobody will ever hear of them again.

The question is whether the colloidal suspension is stable on time scales comparable with the surface weathering of oil. I guess some of it is buoyant and gets to the surface. I get the impression that it is.

On the other hand, there is the sea floor. If some of the oil gets there, or some of the colloid settles down to the bottom, the lifetime is probably very long. And if a significant amount of colloid gets dragged past the coral formations off the Florida Keys, surely that won't help the corals which are already stressed by lots of things. Both of those things convert from 3 D back to 2 D.

But the dimensionality of the problem cuts the other way on the shoreline. If a gallon is essentially trivial in a 3D column, and unpleasant on a 2 D surface, it is catastrophic on a shoreline. There, 25,000 barrels of oil can make a huge mess. The entire Santa Barbara spill amounted to 100,000 gallons. If we are approaching such quantities on a daily basis, the amount of shoreline damage can be spectacular.

This is why it has been such good news that the oil has been kept offshore until the last couple of days, and such bad news that it is beginning to accumulate.

So I'm not as optimistic as I was a few days ago. But I'm sticking to my guns on this part: I think the main issue is the shoreline. The bottom is a secondary issue. Stuff that remains in suspension is not a big worry, and so the exact measure of the flux through the hole is not an immediate concern. Some aquatic birds and animals will get oiled at the surface, but not many.

We will be able to measure things better when it all settles down. Certainly it's important to do that, to gain experience if this ever happens again.

On the other hand, most of what I've seen indicates that this was entirely avoidable. Like Chernobyl, it tells us how bad things can get if people really screw up badly. That's pretty bad, so the best thing to do is to avoid screwing up. So I still think the measurement issue is a red herring.

This isn't to defend or attack BP's post-spill actions. I really don't have the information or skills to judge, much as I enjoyed the forthrightness of the f***ing booming rant.

I think it's important to understand that the engineers are not pleased. I think it's important to understand that an entity the size of BP is a lot of people and a lot of decision-makers. Inevitably with an organization of that size some of its members take their responsibilities more seriously than others do. The culpability and liability of the organization itself I leave to the lawyers and others who like to cast blame at inanimate objects.

Image: NASA via SkyTruth h/t Hank. Note that the darker area in the east is not oil, but rather an area of calm water where the waves are too small to reflect sunlight directly to the satellite.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Eschenbach has Half a Point

This isn't to justify most of what Willis Eschenbach does, but he has a point in yesterday's WUWT article "On Being the Wrong Size", or at least a half a one.

GRACE measures the gravity of the planet, and it provides information that the size of the Greenland ice sheet is declining. Eschenbach's half a point, quoting an article on Grist by Seth Shulman:
So the next time you read something that breathlessly says …

“If this activity in northwest Greenland continues and really accelerates some of the major glaciers in the area — like the Humboldt Glacier and the Peterman Glacier — Greenland’s total ice loss could easily be increased by an additional 50 to 100 cubic kilometers (12 to 24 cubic miles) within a few years”

… you can say “Well, if it does increase by the larger estimate of 100 cubic km per year, and that’s a big if since the scientists are just guessing, that would increase the loss from 0.007% per year to around 0.010% per year, meaning that the Greenland Ice Cap would only last until May 23rd, 12010.”

OK, so scientists aren't "just guessing", let's leave that aside. And it really isn't clear what the prior expectation was.

In fact the story is not the rate of ice loss, nor the ice sheet as a whole, but the confirmation of estimates of accelerating mass loss at the fringes:
The team found that uplift rates near the Thule Air Base on Greenland's northwest coast rose by roughly 1.5 inches, or about 4 centimeters, from October 2005 to August 2009. Although the low resolution of GRACE -- a swath of about 155 miles, or 250 kilometers across -- is not precise enough to pinpoint the source of the ice loss, the fact that the ice sheet is losing mass nearer to the ice sheet margins suggests the flows of Greenland outlet glaciers there are increasing in velocity, said the study authors.
"When we look at the monthly values from GRACE, the ice mass loss has been very dramatic along the northwest coast of Greenland," said CU-Boulder physics Professor and study co-author John Wahr, also a fellow at CU-Boulder's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

"This is a phenomenon that was undocumented before this study," said Wahr. "Our speculation is that some of the big glaciers in this region are sliding downhill faster and dumping more ice in the ocean."
As you see, this isn't "just guessing", and GRACE has higher resolution than the subcontinental scale that Eschenbach is going on about. The press release doesn't provide maps. Here's a nice little piece at that does.

Here's what Grace sees:

Here's some independent evidence about the melt season, which you can see maps nicely onto the GRACE data and gives you a good idea of the resolution of GRACE.

What we see is Greenland softening at the edges. Ice is sort of a glassy substance, that flows much faster as it warms, so we see the beginnings of a possible failure mechanism for the whole ice cap structure. That is what we should be worrying about, and it means that Eschenbach is, willingly or unwillingly, performing some sleight of hand here.

But ultimately, he is objecting not to the press release, but to Grist's take on it. And here Eschenbach's point stands on its own.
Finally, the original article that got my blood boiling finishes as follows:

The good news for Luthcke is that a separate team using an entirely different method has come up with measurements of Greenland’s melting ice that, he says, are almost identical to his GRACE data. The bad news, of course, is that both sets of measurements make it all the more certain that Greenland’s ice is melting faster than anyone expected.

Oh, please, spare me. As the article points out, we’ve only been measuring Greenland ice using the GRACE satellites for six years now. How could anyone have “expected” anything? What, were they expecting a loss of 0.003% or something? And how is a Greenland ice loss of seven thousandths of one percent per year “bad news”? Grrrr …

I’ll stop here, as I can feel my blood pressure rising again. And as this is a family blog, I don’t want to revert to being the un-reformed cowboy I was in my youth, because if I did I’d start needlessly but imaginatively and loudly speculating on the ancestry, personal habits, and sexual malpractices of the author of said article … instead, I’m going to go drink a Corona beer and reflect on the strange vagaries of human beings, who always seem to want to read “bad news”.
Yuppers. There is something to what he says.

But it's only half true. Pretty much exactly half true.

I'm not fond of false symmetries, it makes for such an easy target for an essay. In this case, I'll make an exception; I see a very close to perfect symmetry here.

Lots of other people cherry pick information to support their point of view. The site Eschenbach writes for is a fine example. If only he weren't guilty of cherry-picking in the opposite direction, if only other people didn't only want to read "good news", we might be able to make some progress.

Greenland is melting detectably and contributing detectably to sea level rise. The quantity is now reasonably well constrained. That's good news, scientifically. It's slightly bad news as far as sustainability is concerned (the change might still have been undetectable, but it isn't.) It's too early in the record to detect any acceleration (*). If and when it accelerates, we'll be in a position to detect that, too. Grist does not have a real basis for "faster than anyone expected", but Eschenbach does not have a basis for being sanguine about it either.

By the way, you will note the increase in mass in the Greenland interior. That is increased snowfall. While this mitigates the net melt and the sea level rise a bit, it's consistent with expectations from global warming: increased winter temperature =>increased winter column moisture => increased snowfall. It is a negligible term in the force balance so far, but in the long run it would also increase the pressure gradient and tend to further accelerate the glacial flow.

Update: (*) It's clear that Greenland once must have been in mass balance just from basic mathematical principles, so arguably any loss at all must be an acceleration. In fact, early measurements in the mid 20th c. did seem to show mass balance, though they were very crude.

My point is that the GRACE record itself shows no acceleration of mass loss over a decadal time scale. I'm basing that on this figure, from Velicogna and Wahr, which I believe is a mass total, not a mass flux. Sorry if this was unclear.

I have little doubt that ice sheet mass is retreating and accelerating. The retreat is not yet rapid, and this is the closest thing to a legitimate point of Eschenbach's. The GRACE record is just too short to provide a convincing demonstration of acceleration in itself, though it certainly is suggestive.

Some of these guys are just down the hall from me. I guess I should just ask them!

Update: It's looking a little stronger on "acceleration"; thanks to a correspondent. Here's the latest Velicogna. I don't call this a slam dunk, myself.

: Gavin has a really nice piece on RC that addresses some of the issues raised here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Euro Fail: mt Reads the Future Again

The Euro is likely doomed.

I guess I saw this coming when they first pulled the common currency together. I had just read Jane Jacobs' "Cities and the Wealth of Nations".

Jacobs argued that currency should be local; that each currency supports one city at the expense of others, that a currency was a feedback mechanism supporting a tightly linked regional economy. When the city falls behind, its currency declines, facilitating exports and reducing imports, stimulating local contributions to the world. When the city gets ahead, its currency grows, facilitating imports and increasing the city's role in the world's cultural exchanges. Almost as if it were planned that way.

The trouble is that if more than one economic zone shares a currency, that the feedback mechanism fails completely until one city clearly dominates. At that point the feedback mechanism starts to work for the dominant city, increasing its dominance.

Jacobs, by the way, was a resident of Toronto, which I have, ever since reading the book, thought of as "Canada City".

How does the US get around this? Mobility, I think. People move around, tolerate moving around, sacrifice deep connections for personal financial gain. It's all effectively one city with rapidly shifting neighborhoods. There is very little that is local about America. When California becomes ungovernable, technology and entertainment move to Boston and Austin and Fhloston. The people follow the jobs. America is tightly economically coupled, so the currency serves well enough.

So when the Euro plans started, I was thinking "but, but, but Jane Jacobs". I saw not a peep about this anywhere in the press. Both inside and outside Europe everybody thought it was a great idea, so that Europe could "compete" with America. But Europe cannot compete with America, because Europe has cultural roots worth preserving, and language and culture differences that prevent mobility even if people are willing to sacrifice their roots. In other words, Europe can never function as a single labor market. Which means that once you unify the currency, you will tend to promote a single, large, tightly coupled sub-economy and squash the others. Which is pretty much what Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein is describing. He claims you can't understand Greece's failures without reference to Germany.

So the Rhine valley emerges as Euro city. It was probably the leading candidate in any case. And Jacobs turns out to be right in the end. Which spooks me, because I was right and practically everybody writing about business or economics was wrong. (In this case I can't prove it. I don't think I ever posted anything about this.)

Everybody but me thought the Euro idea was the bee's knees. Maybe I should have said something, but I didn't even have the audience I now have (Don't get me wrong, I love you guys! I just want more!) so what good would it have done?

As far as I know Jacobs herself never said anything about the Euro, which surprises me.

Update: Great. I'm on the same side of this one as climategatist Christopher Booker. I'd best reconsider.

Off Off Shore

Now that drilling under miles of water is possible, it becomes meaningful to ask what regulations apply in drilling in international waters. Are there any at all?

Those who think "global governance" is the same as "world socialism" which is the same as "soviet tyranny" are especially invited to come up with an idea of how to manage such things.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Stray Late Night Thought

More wild speculation, but it seems like this may be a part of our problem

Bloggers mostly read other bloggers and write to impress other bloggers.

Economists mostly read other economists and write to impress other economists.

Scientists mostly read other scientists and write to impress other scientists.

Journalists mostly read other journalists and write to impress other journalists.

Republicans mostly read or listen to other Republicans and write or speak to impress other Republicans.

Democrats mostly read or listen to other Democrats and write or speak to impress other Democrats.

And so on.

By dividing up into our little hermetically sealed subcultures and sub-subcultures do we stop making sense to other groups? Inside vs. outside the beltway barely begins to capture it.

Mega-Disaster in the Gulf? Or Not?

How long will it take before somebody raises the question? Could we be lucky? Is the Gulf Oil Spill turning out to be something less than the worst possible case?

Let me start by stipulating that it is certainly a horrible calamity when eleven people die suddenly. The families of the victims, should they chance to hear about this article, should be assured that they have my deepest sympathies. If current evidence that the event was caused by negligence holds up, I will also sympathize in their anger and hope for a measure of justice on their behalf. I have nothing good to say about the operations people who seem to have cut corners left and right on this operation to make a buck, or the system that encouraged them.

Having said that it is a calamity and a travesty, I will also stipulate that it is a disaster, in the sense that a large number of people and a large swath of territory is adversely affected. If anybody is foolish enough to claim that this is good news, or less than a disaster, it isn't me.

But that all said, we seem, so far, to be avoiding anything like Exxon Valdez scale impacts. It's time somebody spoke up and said this. I've gotten tired of waiting and am hereby proceeding to bell this damned cat.

Will everybody I like hate me if I advocated a position supporting the Obama administration's position on the Horizon spill, supporting BP's assertion that the exact flux of oil is unmeasurable and of secondary importance, claiming that (aside from the initial and tragic loss of life on the platform) the present event is far less destructive than the Exxon Valdez, noting that the early evidence from this event is that accidents only result from an egregious violation of technical protocols, and arguing that deep water drilling should proceed?

I find the statements by Waxman & Markey grotesque, the breathless coverage by NPR irresponsible, the spin by Climate Progress and co. grossly excessive, even the NY Times going overboard, and while there's still plenty of prospect for it to come out very badly, the news from the gulf seems, so far, basically reassuring.

The size of the slick has essentially equilibrated. This means that whatever comes to the surface is disintegrating in the hot subtropical sun so quickly that very little hits the coastlines. The stuff that's under the surface is probably tremendously diluted. I see no reason to suspect that what's gushing out of the pipe isn't mostly methane by volume, and so of little direct consequence. We didn't really dodge a bullet, but we did dodge a cannonball I think, and what's even more politically incorrect, this all makes it look to me like deep drilling accidents are both avoidable and surmountable. If the operations were as badly mismanaged as it is alleged, that means the engineering protocols were sound, and the entire operation as designed (rather than as carried out) was safe.

As far as I can tell everyone I respect thinks I shouldn't dream of saying such things. But the way the whole thing is being processed is really starting to bother me a lot.

I mean, look at the pictures of Prince William Sound from the Valdez disaster, or the Santa Barbara spill. Nothing like that is happening here, at least not yet. We don't have miles of beach getting a lube job. We do have little puddles of goop on a few isolated beaches if photographers go out and look for them. Not good news, but not of the same order at all.

I'm peeved.

Furthermore, if nothing much happens to Gulfport, Mobile or Pensacola, which seems to me quite likely, there's a fine example of environmentalist overreaction for all those red-staters to point to. I promise you those towns aren't happy with the loss of tourist business for a whole month and counting while nothing much happens. So I figure I'm nowhere near as peeved as they are.

And this stuff about the loop current? Give me a break. The loop current is on the order of 5 Sv. or something over a billion gallons per second. So I get that the worst case figures people are bandying about amount to the entire flow to date over a month being comparable to a tenth of a second's flow of the loop current, or about a sixtieth of a second's flow of the gulf stream. If every single drop of the worst case flow got into the loop current, it would be diluted by a factor of about 25 million to 1. The stuff getting into the loop current would just shear it out and dilute it. I have never heard of an oil spill being transported to distant beaches by large-scale current systems. I think it's pure fantasy.

What's more, I'm afraid to say anything. I figure the disapproval I'll get will not be worth it. But what's that all about?

"I'm not a warmist. I'm a scientist."

So to hell with correctness. Explain to me why I need to believe that this is the biggest disaster ever. Why all this eagerness to panic?

Update: The response website

Deepwater Horizon Response on Flickr

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Scientist Sneaks Science into Heartland Meeting

Apparently Prof. Scott Denning of Colorado State has tricked the Heartland Institute into accepting a talk entitled "Debunking Common Myths About Global Warming" for their annual conference caucus this year.

The joke is on them. It turns out that the presentation is quite excellent! (Well, except that it's a Microsoft PowerPoint (with heavy use of Comic Sans) but if you can put up with that, here you go.)

h/t Baron von Monckhofen

Update: Apparently my impression relayed above that Scott Denning spoke to the Heartland Institute on the basis of some subterfuge, was incorrect. I apologize to all concerned.

I remain convinced that his slides are an excellent introduction to the science behind the concerns about climate change. I also think that his remarks to the plenary, kindly linked by Jim Lakely in the comments below, are extraordinarily insightful and helpful. I recommend careful attention to what he is saying to anyone interested in these matters.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Journalists engage at last!

Not only has Kloor at least tried to take up the gauntlet, but Revkin has showed up as well.

And in two major advances on that thread, Keith admits he doesn't quite get what we're on about, and Andy Revkin admits his Gore/Will comparison was flawed!

60 Minutes Report for Real?

Sorry, but the 60 Minutes interview of the Deepwater Horizon survivor really strikes me as fiction. Why did "the lights get bright"? Don't they have circuit breakers on board? Why did his "monitor explode"? The last place on earth you'd see a CRT monitor these days is onboard a ship. Did the LCD pixels catch fire or what?

The whole rest of the story seems to me totally pitched at Hollywood. The stuff about lifeboats. The stuff about the captain. The stuff about the scared woman. Did he explicitly say she was gorgeous when she let her hair down and took her glasses off? He might as well have. The exploding doors. It really seems way too pat for real life.

I've been wrong before but my BS meters aren't wobbling just a little bit. Did anybody else have the same reaction?

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Story About the News

I don't think it is a good idea to stop repeating that there is only one climategate story of any significance, and it is the story of how the press were manipulated to take a middle of the road position. Paulina Essunger, in a comment at Yulsman's, said much of what needs to be said to get the conversation started.

As we have come to expect from the people interested in covering us, there was a virtual shrug and a turn away. Nobody in the press is willing to say that this is a journalism story above all. So it's left to us to keep saying it.

I had a wonderful IM chat with Paulina today and I convinced her to let me rerun her comment as a guest posting. So Paulina to the press, take it away:

The “story about the news”?

Sounds great. Here’s some more background.

““The story behind that graph certainly didn’t show that global warming was a hoax or a fraud, as some skeptics proclaimed,” Tierney wrote, “but it did illustrate another of their arguments: that the evidence for global warming is not as unequivocal as many scientists claim.”” (Clark Hoyt)

No, it did not illustrate that.

The IPCC AR4 states that the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” The story behind the graph has no bearing on this claim.

In fact, Tierney’s sentence is simply false and grossly misleading.

This is just one example of how the New York Times has helped manufacture the impression that these emails should damage the public’s trust in climate science and climate scientists.

Who’s going to cover *this* story about the news?

The NYT immediately ran a front page article that claimed–based on pure fantasy–that the hacked material could “erode the overall argument,” the overall anthropogenic global warming argument. The article made this claim implicitly, by making the understatement of the year: the article said the material was “unlikely to erode the overall argument.” By writing “unlikely,” the NYT implied it was possible. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Yet no evidence for the possibility that a bunch of emails could do this was offered at all.

Or consider the epitome of false balance, put forward by the Yale Forum on Climate Change and Media, of all things:

“Take those who see this event as the end of days when it comes to anthropogenic climate change with a huge grain of salt. And take those dismissing it as much ado about nothing with an equal dose.”

Once again we have the suggestion that the materials possibly could undermine the overall argument.

You do not have to be a climate scientist to see that the burden of proof is on anyone who wants to suppose that the hacked material possibly could have the power to erode the overall argument.

Instead of recognizing and honoring this burden of proof, the media ignored it and manufactured the possibility.

Ironically, to their relative credit, less serious media and hate media at least acknowledge that endowing the materials with such fantastic powers is premised on a conspiracy fantasy.

The media engaged in wishful rather than critical thinking and engaged in a sensationalistic approach. This is no one’s fault but their own. This massive media FAIL is what most desperately needs to be examined in order for there to be any lessons learned from the very unseemly business of reading other people’s mail.

Mainstream science and environmental journalists got “the story” massively wrong.


Perhaps Andy Revkin has part of the answer. In an essay on science writing he points out that, by the “metric of the media,” it’s the “reporter’s job” to be “irresponsible.” “Finding the one element that’s new and implies malfeasance [even if the "find" or "implication" proves mistaken] is the key to getting on the front page.”

I think this irresponsibility, this carelessness–a smashing up of things and creatures–warrants a lot more “story about the news” coverage.

You seem very interested in Dr. Curry. Why?

Curry, of course, has made very strong claims, in the NYT and elsewhere, regarding the effect of the stolen CRU materials on “public trust.” But Dr. Curry had no data (and possibly no argument–I’ve tried over the course of the day to work out, with her, what her argument was, with no success, so far) to back up this assertion and neither did the NYT. Further, there’s been very little exploration of what the concept even means (for instance, Curry’s essay on the topic blurs normative and descriptive concepts, thereby leaving the issue *less* clear). And little distinction between potential damage done by the materials themselves, as a kind of proxy for the scientists, and potential damage done by misleading media coverage.

I look forward to blow-by-blow coverage of media missteps from Nov 20 to the present.

I also look forward to constructive, clear, focused exchanges on what lessons journalists need to learn from this and how the media can avoid making the same mistakes again. This is the time for some serious media introspection.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Exasperated Experts

OK, one more bit from Taibbi's "The Great Derangement", this one showing that we aren't alone in having to manage our exasperation in dealing with bizarre conspiracy theories. Regarding the "9/11 was an inside job" ideas:
The enthusiastic belief in the pure, almost mathematical precision of the conspiracy, with its unshakable faith in the unthinking, automatic participation of these long lists of faceless members of the cultural establishment, all coldly eager to get in on the killing of innocent Americans - it freaked me out. ...
Was I losing my mind? To make absolutely sure, I spent much of November 2006 calling structural engineers and architects and pestering them with questions about 9/11. Most of the ones I reached seemed ready to reach through the phone and snap my neck in half for even bothering them with the dreaded "controlled demolition" theory. ...
"Let me ask you a question," hissed Mir Ali, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Architecture. "If you get sick and you need an operation, where do you go? Do you go to a restaurant? A bicycle store?" ... "It's the same with this. How many of these people are structural engineers? How many? You people, always you are calling me!"
"But I'm not one of..."
From there he veered into a long tangent ... [concluding] "The air outside the building wants to rush in, do you understand?"
"No" I said, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Well, then, how can you say you know what caused the building to collapse?"
"I didn't," I said. "I'm calling about somebody else's theory about..."
But he was off on another tangent by then, ranting angrily into the phone. I got similar responses from more than a dozen other engineers and architects, all of whom said that no one in the field took the controlled demolition seriously...
Our critics seem convinced that we are "rude and arrogant" and are "hiding something", but there comes a point where trying to be reasonable is just a waste of time. Sometimes innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire, but after all, you still have to get some real work done. This story indicates that this pattern is common across fields that get caught in conspiracy theories.

What Story Is He Going To Tell?

Yes, there is absurd polarization on both sides. Yes, there is paranoia on both sides. Yes, there is "epistemic closure" on both sides. Maybe one side is "worse" than the other, but nobody has a monopoly on confusion or rudeness. (Blaming actual scientists is crazy, though.)

But you cannot understand any of the disastrous situation we are in (with America leading the way and the rest of the world following passively behind, as ever) without taking account of the failure of the press.

I devoured most of a book by Matt Taibbi (another mt!) last night called The Great Derangement, which I highly recommend. I will quote from what I consider to be the central point of the whole brilliantly sorry story, on pages 187-189 in the paperback edition, the closing section of the chapter "9/11 and the Derangement of Truth":
"They hate our freedoms" was only one of a number of preposterous lies mainstream society was expected to embrace after 9/11. The Iraq invasion and the reasons for it were only the most obvious. By 2003 or 2004 any American with even half a brain could only assess the performance of his government via a careful weighing of various lies and contradictions. An educated person understood that the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) business was a canard and that there had to be some other reason for the invasion of Iraq...
It's not a good sign when even your supporters don't even bother to take your cover story seriously...
When the administration submitted its "Clear Skies" plan to Congress, who among us didn't automatically know that it was a giveaway to polluters? Or that "Healthy Forests" was somehow going to result in more trees being cut down? America by the early years of this century was a confusing kaleidoscope of transparent, invidious bullshit, a place where politicians hired consultants to teach them to "straight talk", where debates were decided by inadvertent coughs and smiles, and elections were resolved via competing smear campaigns...
The message of all this was that Americans were now supposed to make their own sense of the world. There was no dependable authority left to turn to, no life raft in the increasingly perilous information sea. This coincided with an age when Americans now needed to understand more of the world than ever before...
Now broke, or under severe financial pressure, with no community leaders, no community, no news he can trust, Joe American has to turn on the internet and tell himself a story that makes sense to him.
What story is he going to tell?
Emphasis added.

Maybe the idea of "saving" journalism is wrong-headed.

Many of the information streams we need have never existed, and many others are moribund.

Journalism must be reinvented.

It may be too late, but if there's any hope for sustained democracy, that is for both dignity and freedom into the future, it requires a population that is informed, skeptical and responsible. We need to be slow to claim rights and quick to grant them, slow to cast blame and quick to accept responsibility.

Reading the other mt's book doesn't leave one feeling optimistic about these matters. It's very sad; in my childhood in the 1960's, for all the not-entirely-baseless fear of Stalinist Russia, it seemed a given that civilization would continue to progress.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

How Deep is this Result?

There are deep results in the climate sciences. By "deep result" I mean something that would take some years of study to understand or place into context. This is an intrinsically interesting branch of physical science. (Indeed, if there were no policy issue it would probably be better funded and attract a larger number of highly talented people than it does now. But let's avoid that topic for now.)

William Stein is an accomplished mathematician and a the leader of a large open source project (that scientific programmers in the audience would do well to look into, SAGE, a replacement for Maple, Mathematica, Matlab and "Magma", the last being more of a niche product that especially interests Bill.) I had the pleasure of having dinner in his company along with various other very smart people last Monday, several of us among the climate-obsessed. Bill, however, being a very focussed person, knew very little about it. Accordingly he asked a couple of remarkably insightful newbie questions. The one I remember clearly was "how deep of a result is it?"

The response we came up with first was a bunch of caveats. Of course we cannot "prove" anything in the sense a mathematician might. Once we got that across, I pondered the question.

It emerged that Bill's question could be quantified as follows. Suppose you have a non-ideological person with a bachelor's degree in a serious mathematical science. How long would it take to complete the argument?

I quickly came to the point where I asserted that, if "it" means "greenhouse gas accumulation presents us with serious consequences over the next century" it was difficult to think of any intelligent, open-minded graduate student in the climate sciences who didn't find the proposition obvious after they had attained to a master's degree level. "So, two years then?" Bill asked? I said that was excessive: these people are studying particular phenomenologies, not the "is global warming scary" question.

So I've reached an upper bound of a few months. And I think that's roughly right. I'd think a single course (full-time equivalent of a month, possibly represented by David Archer's book "Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast") should suffice. A Ph.D. level person ought to be able to read a book like that as if it were a novel, say a few evening's concentrated work. Would that be convincing? A couple of online lectures, say Alley's and Hansen's, to ice the cake, and yes, I'd say the picture could be conveyed to a scientifically educated person in a couple of weeks of serious concentration, perhaps just a few days if that person were familiar with some of the underlying physics.

Steve pointed out that the deniers could monkey-wrench any individual argument, since we are doing earth science and not mathematics. That said, their are a number of convergent arguments, and little evidence to the contrary. And of course, denying the science is insufficient to derail the policy. It is necessary for the zero-policy position to prove a low sensitivity, but not enough to question the consensus sensitivity. So a week isn't really enough to manage the minefields of debate. In fact, time constrained "debate" as construed by many people is never really a good way to examine a broad scientific context, though one could defend an individual result that way.

But "global warming is scary" isn't a scientific result in the ordinary sense.

From a strictly philosophical point of view, "scary" isn't an objective standard. Some real-world metric for "scariness" is needed, and therein we get to difficult territory. But it's hard to compare the scope of the changes we expect with the scope we are used to and be sanguine about it.

A more serious issue is that "scariness" isn't a result in that it isn't a straightforward conclusion from laws and data to a consequence. It's a "balance of evidence" argument that leads to an estimate of how big a deal this all is.

Usually the number we use is "sensitivity", i.e., the amount of warming associated with a doubling of CO2 (or equivalent radiative forcing). That number appears to be in the neighborhood of 3 C, and that in turn leads us to expect 1) detectable changes by 1990 2) noticeable changes by 2010 and under business-as-usual 3) disruptive changes by 2050 and 4) catastrophic changes by 2100. Also, failing a scheme for removing CO2, likely a more expensive prospect than not emitting it in the first place, these disruptions will be very long-lived.

So this article is my long answer to Bill's question. I also came up with a short answer, as Steve said, "the outlines of the argument" that could be understood in a few minutes and was intended to be maximally persuasive in a few minutes. That will be another article.

This article, I think, would give any fair-minded scientist enough material to at least understand the perspective of mainstream climatologists in the absence of deliberate obfuscation (*).

* - The obfuscation, alas, is there. That is a problem we have to deal with, and how we deal with it in addressing an energetic and intelligent person who is also fully occupied with their own projects and interests is another matter. It's an important one, though, and we can't rely on PR people or politicians to do it for us.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Nashville Flood: Dubious Analysis by Nielsen-Gammon

I'm wiped out. Had a wonderful weekend as co-organizer of a somewhat scaled back Scientific Software Days, conferring with Steve about the imminent future of science communication, hanging around with him and other friends arguing the future of climate science, and even having the privilege of interacting with Bill Stein over dinner, which was a treat. Plus I'm seriously starting an exercise program which for a man of my sphericity is no small task, and trying to spin up some new projects, and, yeah, attend to the tedious details of the day job.

Today I was worthless; you can always tell those days because there are eighteen items on my Reader feed. That means I was in "I'll just poke around a bit and see if I wake up enough to work" mode all day. Sigh.

Consequently not much time/energy for blogging this week. Read my feed if you're bored!.

I'd like to draw your attention to this article by John Nielsen-Gammon. It makes me uncomfortable and I think it's wrong, but it's not obviously wrong.

My first response was "um, that can't be right".

My second response was "perhaps the question is ill-posed" but I think it isn't. There's a serious actuarial question here. To be sure, given that there is only one Earth rather than thousands, it's not one that is easy to answer.

The question is essentially "How much more likely is an event on the scale of the recent Nashville flooding as a consequence of anthropogenic climate change?" John says not much, but his answer changes when you drop the "anthropogenic" term. In other words, he's saying that changes in severe flood events to date have been real climate changes but not anthropogenic climate changes.

So I'm back to "um, that can't be right." I'm pretty sure there's something more or less non-obviously wrong there, but what is it?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Harry, Read Me

by Michael Tobis

COLLEAGUE: Harry, I've had a look at your alpha version of the new suite, and so far it all looks right except...

HARRY: I'm still testing, you know... Don't use this stuff for publication yet!

COLLEAGUE: Calm down, Harry. I know what you mean by "alpha". Look, everything except the twelfth script looks good to me...

HARRY: But the twelfth?

COLLEAGUE: I'm not absolutely sure. These aren't numbers I could dismiss out of hand, but it looks a bit dodgy...

HARRY: Dodgy? How?

COLLEAGUE: You sure you haven't got a mercator bug? This all looks like it overweighs the polar values.

HARRY: It'll take me ten seconds to find out. I'll just run it again, like that, but here, after I've got the zonal averages, I'll put thirties in all the way except at the poles. Then the hemispheric average will have to be near enough thirty.

COLLEAGUE: Alrightee then, try it. I'll sort out what we should get. (Punching on pocket calculator.)

HARRY: (tap tappity tap tap, tap tap!) Voila! Oh hang on a second... (tappity tappity)

COLLEAGUE: You're documenting a piece of code you're deliberately breaking?

HARRY: Just a little bit, so I won't mistake it for production code. I er, I haven't set up the CVS on this thing yet.

COLLEAGUE: (bemused) The C V wot? Harry, we don't want you wasting your time on computer science nonsense until you get your work done! Still, I suppose the test model might get copied somewhere and cause some confusion. So comment away!

HARRY: (pausing, mildly exasperated) For the ninetieth time, please don't call this a model. You never know when a visitor from Hadley will be around to take offense! It's just analysis code.

(Tappity tap.)

I'm just commenting it for myself. It's not as if somebody's going to publish it on the iternet, after all!

COLLEAGUE: Ho ho ho! Imagine what those denier b****s would do with this if it were. Maybe you ought to write ten thousand words justifying this little test in case some bloke hacks into the server.

HARRY: (alarmed) Surely you're not serious??

COLLEAGUE: (bemused) Just joking. Carry on.

HARRY: Let's have a look then... Hang on a mo... (click. click. tappity tap.) It's twenty-eight point seven and sommat. Wot's that tell oos?

months later...

SOMEBODY WRONG ON THE INTERNET: Computer models were run with mid-run intervention!!! In England! By somebody who knows somebody in Virginia! Attorney General, Hell! Call out the damn cavalry!

Update: Apparently the word "alpha" appears in the real Harry Read Me as a reference to the late lamented DEC's relatively unlamented Alpha platform, not to alpha version software (see comments). This is a coincidence. I looked at this stuff just long enough to convince myself it was most likely completely innocent. I didn't study it in detail and to my recollection just made up the reference to "alpha" version software. The above is fiction and is only intended to offer the flavor of Harry's hack and the many similar hacks that any decent scientific programmer often does. The details are completely an invention of mine and are certainly wrong.

I don't have any reason for suggesting a mercator bug, for instance, had anything to do with the case in point. That's just an easy one to understand, where area average calculations on the globe are incorrectly done as if the latitude-longitude grid were regular. Putting artificial values in a postprocessing script would be a natural way to help track something like that down and identify the cleanest way to fix it.

Energy Collective

For some bizarre reason or other, The Energy Collective has put my picture, instead of Peter Gleick's, at the top of the NAS letter. I think they should put Gleick's on. Hasnt he had articles on there?

In any case it's absurd for them to attribute it to me.

That said I have been handling a flame war there, and I feel happy with my contribution to it so far. Go have a look see.

No, no, no, no, no

Television is a drug. from Beth Fulton on Vimeo.

three hat tips... thanks y'all!

Friday, May 7, 2010

TIME on CRU for Keith Kloor

Keith seems to have an odd position on the CRU-water episode (more like Whitewater than like Watergate, some minor embarrassments irresponsibly spun into a criminal conspiracy by political opponents). He says the press has no choice but to cover it, but that we participants in the field shouldn't get worked up about it because it doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things. At least, that's if I understand correctly, though of course I probably don't. (Generally people whose positions you find baffling don't much care for the summaries you provide, I've noticed. But really, that's the best I can do.)

Well, here's what TIME has to say about it today:

Has any field suffered a faster drop in public confidence than climate science? Two and a half years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was finishing up its widely acclaimed fourth assessment on global warming, which made an unequivocal case for the threat of man-made climate change. For its work, the IPCC was rewarded with the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — shared with Al Gore for his green advocacy — and polls showed strong concern over global warming, even in the U.S. By the time of President Barack Obama's election in 2008, the stage seemed set for climate science to go from the professional journals to the stuff of legislation.

But that was then. Thanks in part to the events of Climategate last November — when someone hacked into and released thousands of e-mails and documents from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at Britain's East Anglia University — climate scientists now find themselves under fire. The Climategate e-mails revealed that scientists used terms like trick while discussing climate modeling techniques, which was enough to set off skeptics, who considered it proof that scientists were bending data to reach their conclusions, and making climate change seem worse than it really was. In the aftermath of Climategate, critics also uncovered factual errors — small and few, but real — in the IPCC's fourth assessment. (See how alternative energy sources were discussed at the World Energy Technologies Summit.)

It energized global-warming skeptics. Most recently, on April 23, Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli launched a civil investigative demand (CID) with the University of Virginia (UVA), searching for information on the climate scientist Michael Mann, who once worked at UVA. Mann, who now runs the Earth Systems Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, authored many of the controversial e-mails at the center of Climategate.

The cost of these assaults is real. Despite the fact that a parliamentary inquiry in Britain looked into Climategate and in March exonerated Phil Jones, the head of CRU, of any wrongdoing, the damage had been done. A British survey in February found a 30% drop over just one year in the percentage of adults who said climate change was "definitely" real, and polls in the U.S. have found a similar decline.

Of course it's something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And of course TIME ends up waffling in its report. "Climate change is too global a problem to be left to the academy, and if scientists are to be trusted, they need to be held accountable." That is the opposite of analysis, a deliberate conflation and confusion of many issues. Thanks for that exsight (opposite of insight) TIME. But there's no waffling about whether "Climategate" has been important in weakening public sentiment to cope with the greenhouse gas issue. That's the sort of thing where you'd still expect TIME's opinion to carry some weight, and they say yes, this thing really did take a bite.

They aren't, of course, acknowledging the fact that they were, in effect, active participants in the process. As far as I'm concerned that's the main problem.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Abdication of Human Control

Something about Thursday's Wall Street fiasco seems to me to have some wider implications about our predicament. We are running the whole world on autopilot. Everything is fine, at least until a pilot is needed. But then, there isn't one, or if there is one, she doesn't have the right authentication to take control.

Look, we set these things up. Anything they do to us is our fault. A little foresight is needed for the cases where something does go just a tiny bit out of kilter.

Bruce Stirling tweets: Hey Adam Smith, your "invisible hand of the market" has become a crazed robot crushing everything it can grip

and: A ten percent market dip on a typo makes bank-torching Greek rioters look like conservatives


The Whole Thing

The Google may hold this against me, but it seems to me I might as well quote the whole thing since Science seems to have it behind a paywall and everything.

Many thanks to Peter Gleick for his efforts on this.

Science 7 May 2010:
Vol. 328. no. 5979, pp. 689 - 690
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5979.689


Climate Change and the Integrity of Science

We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial—scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That's what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of "well-established theories" and are often spoken of as "facts."

For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today's organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution). Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category: There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.

Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific assessments of climate change, which involve thousands of scientists producing massive and comprehensive reports, have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected. But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change:

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth's climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

Much more can be, and has been, said by the world's scientific societies, national academies, and individuals, but these conclusions should be enough to indicate why scientists are concerned about what future generations will face from business-as-usual practices. We urge our policy-makers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the un restrained burning of fossil fuels.

We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them. Society has two choices: We can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.

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