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

Friday, December 31, 2010

Main Street, Richland Springs TX

Click on the image for more detail. Visit my photo blog for more odd pictures of odd places.

My Top Ten List

I find top ten lists of the year tedious. Nobody knows what is important about a year writing from within that year, except in the most extreme cases.

Herewith my top ten (or so) list of climate-science related events of the 20th century in chronological order. Off the top of my head. Any suggestions for stuff I've missed?

Happy New Year Y'All!

Stay tuned for the next in this series on New Year's Eve 2110!


ca. 1900: Bjerknes identifies the "primitive equations", the enhanced Navier-Stokes system for the atmosphere (including moisture state changes and rotational dynamics). Lays out a program for scientific meteorology.

1938: Callendar, G.S. "The Artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and Its Influence on Climate." Quarterly J. Royal Meteorological Society 64: 223-40. (h/t WVhybrid) Callendar was the first to get a good quantitative understanding of the situation.

1942: Sverdrup; generalized linear theory of oceanography

1950: Charney Fjortoft and von Neumann: the first computer simulation of the atmosphere

1955: Suess, Hans E. finds the istopic fingerprint. "Radiocarbon Concentration in Modern Wood." Science 122: 415-17 (h/t WVhybrid)

1958: Charles Keeling's Mauna Loa CO2 time series begins (h/t Nosmo)

1963: Lorenz' treatise "The General Circulation of the Atmosphere"

1963: Lorenz paper brings "chaos" into physical sciences

1966: Arakawa first publishes on his global atmospheric model

1968: Bryan & Cox first global ocean dynamics model

1969: Bryan & Manabe first idealized-geography coupled climate dynamics model

1975: Bryan & Manabe first realistic coupled climate dynamics model

1975: Manabe & Wetherald first computational assessment of anthropogenic global warming (h/t Kooiti Masuda)

1975: Wally Broecker paper “Climate Change: Are we on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” (h/t Kooiti Masuda)

1979: The Charney commission reports on the threat of global warming. concurring Jason report also written in 1979 with similar conclusions. These reports are quite similar to the IPCC position today.

1983: Luyten and Pedlosky: theoretical explanation of deep ocean flow

1990: IPCC first Assessment Report: "Thus the observed increase could be largely due to this natural variability; alternatively this variability and other human factors could have offset a still larger human-induced greenhouse warming. The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect is not likely for a decade or more."

1992: UNCED "Earth Summit" conference at Rio de Janiero and foundation of UNFCCC: committed signatories' governments to a voluntary "non-binding aim" to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases with the goal of "preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth's climate system."

1997: Kyoto protocol; A set of steps which, if implemented, would have left us far better off today, was signed by all parties, but never ratified by the USA. The senate was nearly unanimous in opposition. Mostly honored in the breach.

1998: Unprecedented amplitude El Nino event; the start of climate disruption?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Extra Dimensions

This is a very creative way to display what many of us wish everybody knew.

Stolen from Lou Grinzo who stole it from CarbonTracker.

Climate BS of the Year

"BS" of course stands for "Bad Science". Make of it what you will.
Without appropriate risk management action, the United States will be hit hard. There is no safe haven. Yet confusion and uncertainty about climate change remain high in the minds of too many members of the public and Congress.

Why? In large part because of a concerted, coordinated, aggressive campaign by a small group of well-funded climate change deniers and contrarians focused on intentionally misleading the public and policymakers with bad science about climate change. Much of this effort is based on intentional falsehoods, misrepresentations, inflated uncertainties, and pure and utter B.S. about climate science. These efforts have been successful in sowing confusion and delaying action -- just as the same tactics were successful in delaying efforts to tackle tobacco's health risks.

To counter this campaign of disinformation, we are issuing the first in what may become a series of awards for the most egregious Climate B.S.* of the Year. In preparing the list of nominees, suggestions were received from around the world and a panel of reviewers -- all scientists or climate communicators -- waded through them. We present here the top five nominees and the winner of the 2010 Climate B.S.* of the Year Award.

- Peter Gleick, Kevin Trenberth, John Cook, Tenney Naumer, Michael Ashley, Lou Grinzo, Gareth Renowden, Paul Douglas, Jan W. Dash, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Brian Angliss, Joe Romm, Peter Sinclair, Michael Tobis, Gavin Schmidt, plus several anonymous nominators, reviewers, and voters.

My contribution to the document was marginal, but I'm happy to sign onto it and pleased to be in such eminent company.

I think it's an odd idea to put the same document in multiple places on the internet. Sort of unwebby, if you will. Of the several choices I'll link to the copy at Lou Grinzo's place, though it will appear in many other places, some of them, not necessarily deservedly, more prominent than Lou's.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Alternate Universes

New Zealand Climate Scientists Admit To Faking Temperatures: The Actual Temps Show Little Warming Over Last 50 Years

The above cited articles do not show the revision to the temperature record in question.

Witness the massive revision to the record below:

Graph via Gareth Renowden

The definition of chutzpah used to be the fellow who murdered his parents and pled to the court for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan. But now we have a new definition:
Spokesman for the joint temperature project, Richard Treadgold, Convenor of the CCG, said today: “We congratulate NIWA for producing their review of the NZ temperature record — more than a year after we challenged it — and we think it’s great that NIWA have produced a graph with full details behind it.

“But we note that, after 12 months of futile attempts to persuade the public, misleading answers to questions in the Parliament from ACT and reluctant but gradual capitulation from NIWA, their relentless defence of the old temperature series has simply evaporated. They’ve finally given in, but without our efforts the faulty graph would still be there.”

“The review is lengthy and full of detail, which we applaud, and it will take some time to examine. We won’t comment on scientific aspects of the 7SS until that has been done. However, we have some initial observations.

“Almost all of the 34 adjustments made by Dr Jim Salinger to the 7SS have been abandoned, along with his version of the comparative station methodology.

“NIWA is clearly not prepared to defend the adjustments exposed in Are we feeling warmer yet? But it took a court case to force them into a corner.

“NIWA makes the huge admission that New Zealand has experienced hardly any warming during the last half-century. For all their talk about warming, for all their rushed invention of the “Eleven-Station Series” to prove warming, this new series shows that no warming has occurred here since about 1960. Almost all the warming took place from 1940-60, when the IPCC says that the effect of CO2 concentrations was trivial. Indeed, global temperatures were falling during that period.

“The new temperature record shows no evidence of a connection with global warming. Since that’s the reason this tempest in a teacup has brewed in the first place, it should simmer down now.”

So, admittedly, I am trusting Gareth's graph here. On the other hand, these guys do not seem to be producing, amid all their self-congratulation, a picture of the old and the revised record.

The Republicans and similar parties elsewhere are behaving with regard to sustainability issues in a manner that appears to be insane.

But it is not entirely insane. It is, to a large extent, victimized. The bizarre attitudes are held by people who are the victims of organized bullshit, which although it isn't exactly criminal, it is far more unethical than many forms of criminal activity will ever be.

The whole world is at risk due to these brazen lies. The review of the New Zealand record produced no significant change whatsoever. Whether or not it was a waste of effort is an interesting question. But it's vicious and malign and deeply dishonest to call the result anything but a vindication.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Limits to Texas Growth

Texas appears to be exceptional in the matter of limits to growth!

The population of Texas, close to 25 million, increased by 20% in the past decade, at the expense of pretty much every other state. My wife and I are included among that 20%, debiting Wisconsin where we lived at the time of the last census. It's easy enough to understand on a glorious shirtsleeve weather winter solstice day like today; what's more, unlike Florida we actually have some resources and industries, and unlike California we have plenty of flat land to expand our population onto.

Of course, this is unsustainable. At this rate the population of Texas will be 127 million by 2100, and will exceed a billion just after 2200. I have heard that reaching 50 million in the foreseeable future is considered a best estimate by the Texas Water Development Board.

Texas, of course, is the source of much climate skepticism. This may be real estate boosterism, Texas being hot, dry, and flash-flood prone with much of its infrastructure and property value barely above sea level. Texas is foolish in this regard, with its access to wind and solar power and energy infrastructure expertise. We ought to be leading the world in the transition to sustainability. Nobody here is willing to face the fact that when the really big problems start to get handed out, Texas will be near the front of the line.

But the culture has never had much respect for the land, which is harsh, scrubby and inhospitable, or the fauna, which tend to be as ornery as the short-tempered folk who famously first occupied this territory not too terribly long ago. The idea of farming was never to create a legacy for future generations. The early farmers would "use up" or "wear out" a farm and move on. And of course the real cowboys spirit opposed the fencelines in the first place.

This is not a place which takes kindly to limits. It respects its peculiar legacy but doesn't go out of its way to respect its posterity, and never has. Texans have somehow managed to prosper (mostly due to the happenstance of fuel-rich geology, though the mythos speaks endlessly about persistence, diligence, and effort, and hardly at all of dumb luck). That this prosperity is barely a century old, that it carries no warrantee, that it stands to vanish as a result of the very activities that began here and are the source of the present prosperity, warnings like these are unwelcome. The sky, we say, is the limit.

The world sees the northeast and California as the sources of American culture. Indeed, in a remarkable way they are the source of Texas culture; the myth of the west having grown up simultaneously with the west, first in newspaper reports and then in movies and television. GeronimoSitting Bull went from being a real chief to being a circus entertainer, seemingly hardly missing a beat. But the mythical Texas they created lives on, stitching together the cultures of the west and the south, to a remarkable extent forging the identity of the strange, isolated, proud and arrogant, joyous and angry, pious and profane, vicious and generous culture of the American heartland.

Convincing this boisterous, extroverted culture that it is leading the world in a headlong rush to crash against its actual limits is tricky business.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Infinite Growth and the Crisis Cocktail - Guest Posting

This is a guest posting by Neven. I made no changes except for adding the hamster movie in among the references. I don't necessarily agree with every word, but this definitely seems to get at the root of the problem. --mt

The Crisis Cocktail

If only Thomas Robert Malthus would have been around to see this, I often think. During his lifetime, and even more so after it, he became famous for warning that if human population continued to grow at that rate sooner or later there would not be enough agricultural output to feed it (of course he said many more things, but this is what he's famous for). What he didn't foresee, was that through ingenuity and innovation people would find a way around that limiting factor by digging up coal and later oil which would spur on the Industrial Revolution and eventually lead to the Green Revolution of an industrial, mechanized agriculture feeding the billions of people who are currently more or less enjoying their presence on planet Earth.

I wonder what Malthus would have said, had he foreseen the transformative power of all that hidden energy underground. Would he have said: "Right, that's it, I was wrong, humanity and its economies can grow indefinitely"? Or would he have said: "Sure, my timing was poor, this discovery will prolong things by quite a bit, but in the end it will only make the crash that much bigger". We can never be sure what he would have said, but I'm quite certain it wouldn't be the first. And just a look or two around the globe seems to confirm he would be right to do so.

In Malthus' time the question revolved around the problem of enough food for everyone and not much else. But while mankind has more or less resolved that problem for the time being by subjugating Nature through sheer fossil fuel power, the palette of global problems has extended in manifold ways. If, for instance, we look at agriculture, we can see that much of the arable land has been over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated and over-sprayed. The emphasis on monocultures (one type of corn, cotton, wheat, rice, etc) has reduced diversity and thus makes huge amounts of acreage around the world extremely vulnerable to resistent pests, which leads to a more extensive use of more agressive pesticides that are in turn weakening the indispensable pollinators, such as bees, who are massively dying off around the globe, and in combination with synthetic fertilizers lead to widespread topsoil erosion, because basically all the microscopic life in the topsoil has been reduced in such a way that the soil fertility and cohesiveness is close to zero, whilst aquifers worldwide are being drained much too fast, leading to salinisation of groundwater that is simultaneously getting more and more polluted by said fertilizers and pesticides.

When these chemicals reach the oceans and seas they cause low-oxygen coastal dead zones that are getting bigger every year, putting extra stress on fish stocks that are already suffering worldwide from overfishing by the enormous fishing industry, as well as by synthetic debris that floats around and ends up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, not to mention the slow but inexorable acidification of the oceans due to the excess of atmospheric carbon dioxide that the water is taking up and causes microscopic creatures at the bottom of the food chain to have an increasingly tougher time forming shells, just like coral reefs are enduring more and more stress due to bleaching events that they have more and more difficulty recovering from, coral reefs being the gigantic forests under the sea that hosts most of the world's subaqueous biodiversity.

Hold on, I'm not finished yet.

The forests above water are in many places dying off due to pests like the bark beetle, besides the ongoing problem of illegal (and legal) logging and more rampant forest fires, and also due to ozone pollution (one of those things one never hears about). I've said 'rampant forest fires' and I've said 'ozone', a greenhouse gas, and thus I can no longer delay naming the great enhancer of all the problems named so far: Global Warming.

The enormous amounts of energy that have been added to the coupled system of oceans and atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution will increasingly lead to the rapid disruption of the atmospheric patterns under which human civilisation managed to flourish in the last couple of millennia. I'm not talking 1 or 2 degrees Celsius warmer, I'm talking freak weather, like droughts, heatwaves, flash floodings, stronger hurricanes, rising sea level, disappearing glaciers. This has an indelible and inevitable effect on all those 'little things' I just mentioned (and there are more, such as desertification, landfills filled to the brim and species extinction in general).

Now of course some of these global problems may not turn out to be as bad as they seem, but even if they are half as serious, it's the combination of them all and their synergistic interrelations that makes me conclude for the moment that human civilisation has a Crisis Cocktail on its hands. Here's an interesting picture from a NewScientist special report with a collection of graphs that illustrate my point:

So what do these graphs have in common? Of course, they are all showing a growing trend, and this brings us to the point of this article. Sorry it's taking me so long, but first I have to offer doom and gloom and then show why I believe things are as they are and how this understanding is a first step towards potential solutions.

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? - Winston Churchill, May 1942

Infinite Growth

All these problems seem to be getting bigger rather than smaller every year and for every single one of them there are hosts of organisations clamouring for attention and offering solutions to the problem. But the more I read and think about the problems as a whole, the more I become convinced that they were all in fact symptoms and not causes in themselves. Trying to remedy a symptom is almost always useless if the root cause is ignored. Obiously all the problems have to do with human activities, and these activities have to do with the context they are taking place in, the economic context to be precise. This economic context is determined by the dominant economic concept, and in our case I think it is safe to say that for many decades now the neoclassical economic concept of infinite growth has been shaping the economies of developed nations.

The main problem of this concept is its assumption that growth is always good and that growth can and should be infinite. In theory it sounds great, but unfortunately there is a big chasm between theory and practice. In practice nothing can grow infinitely in a finite system. This is a simple natural law which also applies to the finite system of this planet. Earth has a finite amount of resources, its ecosystems can supply a fixed amount of free services, such as clean air and water, and the solar energy that reaches the planet surface is fixed and constant. Once an organism such as the human global economy starts and continues to grow exponentially it will start to bump into limits. That was what the doom-and-gloom part of this article was about. The emerging global problems are symptoms of the disconnect between the economic concept of infinite growth and biophysical reality.

Now, of course there is nothing wrong with growth per se. It is an essential and universal part of nature. But normally things stop growing. Children stop growing when they reach adulthood, as do trees. Economic growth is a great thing when an economy needs to be developed, as we saw after World War II when Europe was in shambles. People needed housing and food, and putting economic growth on top of the agenda was the most efficient way to get all those things, fast. Developing nations such as India and China are doing the same as we speak. In principle there is nothing wrong with this kind of growth, but the idea that growth is always good and can be infinite is fallacious and dangerous. A thing that doesn't stop growing, is cancer. Until it destroys its host, of course.

After most basic needs were met in the developed world somewhere around the 60's and 70's of the last century exponential economic growth stopped being a means and became an end in itself. This has not only had an external effect (the Crisis Cocktail), but an internal effect as well. Because if you want to make a success of your economic concept of infinite growth you have to get everybody to participate. This has far-reaching psychological consequences that shape culture and society. First of all, everyone needs to be convinced of the fact that producing and consuming are the main goals of human striving. This inevitably has consequences for the way knowledge is transferred from one generation to another, and is thus reflected in education in schools and at home. If you want everyone to endlessly produce and consume the subconscious psychological message will be something along these lines: 'You do not have any worth if you do not produce and perform. People will not love you if you don't. And besides, you will not be able to consume as much you like, and consume you must for it will bring you happiness.'

Mass marketing and peer pressure drive the messages home some more and slowly there emerges an erosion of culture, the foundation on which we depend to relate to each other. Every tradition or ritual from the past has been infiltrated by the need to consume to make unending, exponential growth possible. From birthdays to Valentine's day, and from Thanksgiving to Christmas, all of it nowadays revolves around consuming large amounts of luxury foods and the uninhibited exchange of presents. And this has become pretty uniform all around the developed world. It's all about what you have, what you do, where you travel to, in short: your identity. This mentality is instilled into children at an early age through various marketing techniques such as brand advertising. These customers of the future are conditioned in a way that benefits economic growth. We are conditioned to believe economic growth is our raison d'être.

But there's a physical component to this as well. To consume means two things: Eat, drink, or ingest food or drink, and buy goods or services. Public health doesn't count, only growth does. And so people have to be made addicted to unhealthy low-quality food, sugar, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and so on. The products they buy often contain toxins that are released during production or even use. People get sick physically and mentally, children get fat, diabetes rates soar, as do other diseases. The irony is that this is good for economic growth as well. Sick people get to live longer through extensive medication and neverending professional help. I've read once that there is no better thing for the economy than a businessman with prostate cancer who causes a big car accident on his way to his divorce lawyer.

Another aspect of this need for endless, exponential economic growth is the way corporations have been shaped. Whether big or small, no matter how many employees they have, these corporations are treated as legal persons who need to do one thing: maximize profits for their stockholders, which incidentally is also very good for growing the ecnomoy. This set-up is almost an invitation for large-scale pollution such as the BP oil disaster, creative cooking of the books such as the Enron scandal or the complete financial meltdown and ensuing global recession we recently witnessed due to the subprime mortgage crisis. It is the main driver behind fractional reserve banking and the continuous inflation of the debt bubble that keeps individuals, municipalities and even whole states in a stranglehold.

And talking about strangleholds: the whole system that has evolved to keep the economy growing, has eventually led to the creation of giant multinational corporations that have become bigger than countries and wield enormous power in the area of policy and the political system itself. Thus we now have Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agro, Big Sugar, Big Tobacco, Big Finance, Big Coal, Big Military and so forth, who through their lobbying, through their sponsoring of think tanks, and their direct financial contributions to politicians, make sure that their interests are served first. Never mind the fact that they have in large part taken over the mainstream media and thus control the narrative that is fed to the masses, their clients that have to continue consuming to make their profits possible. To keep the economy growing for all eternity, because it can, because it's good.

From Symptoms to Solutions

But it's not good. It can't be sustained, period. Of course, rich people will get even richer, and some poor people will be less so, but all in all this flawed economic concept will eventually cost more than it delivers. In fact, it already is. And it is making societies all around the world increasingly vulnerable and prone to collapse. So how can this be solved?

Like I said halfway through the doom and gloom you cannot solve a problem by eradicating symptoms. You can spray forests with pesticides that kill off bark beetles, but it only postpones the inevitable. You can try to set up rules for bankers and their bonuses, but they are only doing what the system demands of them. You could perform miracles and replace fossil fuels by renewable energy sources, but it is virtually impossible if you want the economy to keep growing as well (at best it leads to Jevons Paradox).

You cannot solve a problem if you only treat the symptoms, and you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem. And thus no solution will work until the economic concept of infinite growth is replaced by an economic concept that recognizes that there are limits to growth and that this is a good thing. A society that can be sustained in the long term, will most probably be healthier and more just for everyone involved, not just for the small group who can afford it. Last but not least, a problem can only be solved if it is understood completely.

I hope that I have been able to show convincingly that our current economic concept of infinite growth is at the root of all global problems. I believe that when this is realized by enough people, solutions will automatically start to present themselves. Perhaps some day I will write about what these solutions might look like, but if people don't want to wait for that, I would suggest they pay a visit to the organisation that in my view is the only one that really 'gets it': the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, or CASSE. If you like what they do (and I know I do), then please become a member, donate if you can and spread the word.

The first step is ditching the illusory economic concept of infinite growth.
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. - Winston Churchill, November 1942

Further viewing:

The Story of Stuff
The Century of the Self
Blind Spot
The Corporation
Hooked on Growth
The Impossible Hamster

Further reading:

The Problem of Growth, a series by Jeff Vail
Question Everything, a blog by George Mobus
The Archdruid Reports, a blog by John Michael Greer
The Oil Drum

Update (mt): It's worth pointing out that David Roberts made a very similar argument in brief in 2009.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Summertime Blues

I'm gonna take two weeks, gonna have a fine vacation
I'm gonna take my problem to the United Nations
Well I called my congressman and he said Quote:
"I'd like to help you son but you're too young to vote"
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do
But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues

I really like the way the "Is This So Difficult" thread went. Neither blogs nor usenet nor any other new media have been very effective in making progress, no more than the broadcast media that preceded them. What we need is a way for people to converge on issues, think about them together, round up the necessary expertise, and actually move toward new ideas. We had a glimmer of that in that thread.

I've always thought of climate change as just one of the more straightforward aspects of the sustainability problem. If we can;t get this one right, how can we move on to the others? Neven is proposing narrowing that down a bit: growth is the problem. Perhaps we can build a reasonable crusade on questioning the nature and sustainability of growth? After all, it seems to be at the center of the delusional structure of our time, and is a universal opinion of left and right. Full employment! Jobs! Economic Growth! Even population growth! It's so written into every transaction, every behavior, every argument. And yet it's obviously wrong, and has been obviously wrong since 1798 at the latest.

A lot of people will have a lot of resistance at that point. They'll call you communistic (though if you'd said it thirty years ago in Moscow you'd presumably be called an imperialist for that; indeed, imperialism is an ideology of scarcity).

There are other ideas that seem to have resonance with a very wide audience. I have recently had some success reaching out to military types by making the analogy of the earth to a ship, which I owe to the quirky and sporadically brilliant (but genuinely brilliant nonetheless!) Buckminster Fuller. (no relation to Tom, one presumes...)

Which brings me to another really big question.

The fact is that now that there are enough of us to rock the boat, there does need to be some authority to keep the boat steady. One hesitates to argue for a global government; not only is the concept viscerally hated in America these days but it really does have some serious dangers associated with it. Would an American teenager today even fantasize about taking their troubles to the United Nations, like the protagonist in Eddie Cochran;s 1958 song?

In the coming decades, there has to be some authority, some amount of global soveriegnty. I think recent events have demonstrated beyond doubt that we can't cope with just the current system. You don't run a ship with six big captains, a dozen less influential captains, and a hundred and forty minor captains. It seems to me that we have to press for a global decision-making process. (Anyone who is planning to fall back on geoengineering the more so!)

People who believe that such a thing is a very bad idea should reflect on the existence of the GATT and the WTO. We have had global governance for decades now. We simply don't give it any powers other than the protection of big capital. Don't get me wrong. Big capital absolutely needs protecting; the whole bloody system falls apart otherwise. (As I understand it, it nearly did so last year.) We have become quite dependent on this system. But it really lacks some important priorities. There are other stakeholders on the planet, many (one hopes) as yet unborn. The thing that has utterly failed us is the collection of nation-states each acting in its own interest.

What a stupid way to go.

Is there an alternative? Is there a way to exert pressure on a global scale? Is that the end run around idiot nations and nationalisms?

Global Warming Superheroism

So out of the clear blue, I get a Twitter follow from Global Warming Superheroes.

I think I like these guys for a few reasons.

1) Sustainability should be fun. These guys do seem to be at least trying to have fun.

2) The approach is at the very least creative.

3) I like Major Terra's look. The jaunty jacket and T-shirt look. Now where have I seen that before? Especially I like his T-shirt, in particular that he is emblazoned with "MT". That is very cool. (If Major Terra is actually based on me, I have lost a lot of weight in Toon world, and squared up my jaw nicely as well. Plus the hair dye seems to be working very well... Perhaps it's inadvertent, but I'm going to choose to be honored anyway.)

But the troll factor seems pretty high on the conversations. Maybe some of y'all might be convinced to go and pitch in a bit?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Is This So Difficult?

I liked RustNeverSleeps' comment on this image, which he found on yet another interesting climate blog, Signs from Earth.

Quoth Rust:

"Why is this so bloody hard to comprehend?"

Sunday, December 12, 2010

On Happy Endings

There's an interesting reply to my recent article "Eye-Opening Videos" which was carried at The Energy Collective. You will recall that I quoted Bill McKibben saying "There's no happy ending where we prevent climate change anymore."

David Lewis begins his reply "So the 'there's no longer a happy ending' thing seems to be a necessary stage for people to get through if they want to see this problem clearly." He has an interesting perspective and adds some very relevant history.
McKibben in the video link brought up analogies from WWII. I think that period shows us how this will play out. Too many now think you can pretend basic physical laws governing the behavior of the planetary system can be ignored or appeased in the way people pre WWII thought they could appease Hitler. McKibben: "thank god there were some Winston Churchill's around". I wonder. Churchill was a voice in the wilderness but they didn't turn to him until circumstances brought it home to everyone that Churchill had been seeing the issue with more clarity than most others.
I strongly recommend reading it. Follow-up comments there, please.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Emissions vs concentrations

A lot of people seem able to spend a great deal of time on the greenhouse issue and still miss the most basic features of it.

Greg Pollowitz, whom I highlighted earlier as a real gentleman, is every bit as much a scholar:

The Cancun deal commits all countries to keeping temperature rise below 2C (3.6F) by reducing emissions. Rich countries have agreed to consider an extension of the Kyoto Protocol while poor countries will sign up to emission cuts for the first time. There are also a series of key decisions on setting up a green fund to help poor countries cope with climate change and halting deforestation.

Well, this seems doable, at least according to this new NASA model.

Doubled CO2 means just 1.64°C warming

So a country can double its CO2 emissions and satisfy the Cancun accord? Historic!

Um, no. At least not the way you think.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Safety Consciousness in the Oil Business

I find this massively ironic.

Mark Byrd, a lead safety engineer at Shell, quoted on EarthSky:
Byrd said his company wants everyone to be safety leader. He said the best ones have a chronic sense of unease and look for things that might go wrong.
holding a mirror to the sites, so helping expose blind spots and unsatisfactory situations, and then providing support to the leadership of those sites to address those situations, but also having the courage to escalate issues if needed, to arrest issues before they go wrong.


(see also People Can Forget to Be Afraid at Desdemona's)

Things that Backfire for Scientists

Things that backfire for scientists in a public controversy:

- Normal scientific reticence
- Postnormal scientific participation in debate

- Scary scenarios
- Tedious precision

- Being such a scientist
- Using shallow emotional language

- Being secretive
- Being open to timewasting interrogation

- Tolerating incompetence
- Acting arrogant toward well-intentioned ideas

- Dumbing down
- Elitism

- Tightening up peer review
- Loosening up peer review

- Not reacting to attacks
- Reacting to attacks

- Talking to the press
- Not talking to the press

- Alarmism (focus on worst cases)
- Complacency (trust in nonscientists to weigh evidence)

- Criticizing the consensus
- Being quiet about non-consensus opinions

- Ignoring economists
- Engaging with eocnomists

- Not taking advice from PR professionals
- Taking advice from PR professionals

and just generally

- A rock
- A hard place

Why does nothing work? In my opinion it is because scientists are reacting. We should be steering the conversation.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Eye-Opening Videos

Via Treehugger, a ten minute interview by Revkin of McKibben. (I think they talk past each other a bit without noticing. Revkin injects a bit of Pielkeism in there and I don't know if McKibben even notices.)

But McKibben has come to the smae place in the last year or so that many of us have. Our future is down to difficult vs impossible. The easy solutions have been foreclosed. It's officially too late to avoid a damaged world.
The basic issue of the planet right now is that it's disintegrating. That's even more basic than the fact that we have to keep developing and people need energy and all that. There's no way anyone is going to develop anything, including energy or anything else, if their whole friggin country is washing away.
There's no happy ending where we prevent climate change anymore.

Another video I highly recommend is a long one featuring Ben Santer, introduced by Stephen Schneider, last year, telling the climategate story in a radically unfamiliar way, which is to say his own experiences in trying to do the right thing under years of personal attack. This one was dug up somehow by GreenMan Peter Sinclair of Climate Crocks fame. Even without the questions and the introduction it's about an hour, so set aside some time. But if you're seriously interested in climate science, watch the main presentation "Why Such Resistance?" with your full attention. There are some great quotes in that talk! But ultimately it's sad and shocking.

I think anyone with a shred of respect for Steve McIntyre should watch Santer through to the end and see where that leaves them.

(There's also an interesting but peculiar video at that GreenMan link with the odd couple of Santer and Chris Mooney, who I don't really think make a cohesive piece together.)


Brazenly copying Tamino.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Another Rare Occasion

On the other hand, I'm also taking the opposite-of-opportunity to be publicly on record disagreeing with Ray Pierrehumbert.

Ray cogently argues at RC that the long lifetime of CO2 makes it more rather than less urgent to deal with CO2 rather than with shorter-lived perturbations. To the long-now view, to the science fiction reader, to the person who wants to see our planet prosper for another billion years and not just another century, this is cogent. But it's really a question of perspective.

I think we have to do what we can to avoid a crash; that is, a sudden decline in world population. Crashes (which have occurred on national scales) are very nasty times, and there are arguments that they tend to follow hard on the heels of periods of great prosperity. (See Jared Diamond's book Collapse.) This makes short-term perturbations of special importance. As I argued at RC

Two decades is the amount of time we need to buy to break even, as a rational carbon policy should have set in two decades ago. The way I see it is that the time we “buy” just compensates for our past foolishness, not for our future foolishness.

If I may be allowed a moment of armchair economics…

The foot-draggers say we should delay policy change for as long as possible because we will be wealthier in the future and better able to afford to act. The problem is twofold: 1) as long “as possible” may already have expired and 2) even in the absence of climate impacts, conditions have changed enough that future growth in per capita wealth along the model of the last 200 years is in no way guaranteed.

The reason to delay impacts for as long as possible (even at the expense of the long term outcome) is the flip side of this argument. At some point climate change may well become so severe that per capita wealth will begin a long term, accelerating downturn. At that point, no mitigation at all will be affordable. This argues for mitigation as early as possible because we can’t afford it once it’s too late; but it also argues for mitigation whose effects are as early as possible.

Hot on the heels of this exchange, I received another press release from Alexandra Viets making the case. (Other people should send me press releases, too. I have no compunction about just posting them!) And here it is:
Cancun, Mexico, December 7, 2010 – Concern for high-mountain regions of the world is rising, according to a new report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) today, which states that the Himalayas and many other glaciers are melting quickly, threatening lives by flooding, and by reducing the region’s freshwater supply. The findings of the report, “High mountain glaciers and climate change” were announced during the UN climate meetings in Cancun, where negotiators are working towards an agreement to reduce climate emissions.

The new UNEP data underlines the urgent need for climate action that will produce quick results – a topic addressed by a separate event today in Cancun, hosted by UNEP and the Federated States of Micronesia, a country calling for a fast-action work program to protect its low-lying islands and other vulnerable countries from climate change impacts.

The panel of scientists and policymakers, including UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner, and Mexican Nobel Laureate Mario Molina, emphasized the need to address non-CO2 climate forcers like black carbon soot, methane, tropospheric ozone, and HFCs to achieve fast mitigation.

Black carbon, a particulate aerosol produced from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass burning, directly contributes to glacial melt by settling on snow and ice, which darkens the surface and then absorbs the heat instead of reflecting it.

“The Himalayan glaciers are the main freshwater source for hundreds of millions of people across several countries,” said Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. “Fast mitigation of black carbon soot and other non-CO2 forces are the best hope to avert disaster.”

Because these non-CO2 climate warming agents are short-lived in the atmosphere compared to CO2, which can remain for hundreds to thousands of years, reducing them can buy critical time to make aggressive cuts in CO2 emissions.

Added Zaelke, whose organization focuses on the non-CO2 issue and is attending the meetings in Mexico: “Reducing CO2 is essential and we can’t lose that focus, but these are complementary measures that are within easy reach. We would be guilty of Planetary malpractice to waste this opportunity.”

Achim Steiner stated that reducing the non-CO2 forcers “can buy back some of the time” the world has wasted by not addressing CO2 earlier.


It seems that embarrassment over the typo in AR4 WG2 has not slowed the Himalayan glacial retreat. I am, at this point, not sure what the time scale is for disruption of Asia's major rivers. I suppose AR5 will be reliable on that, there's one saving grace!

Anyway, Ray is quite right on the big big picture. I'm not going to criticize Ray on the science, not being a complete fool(*).

But as I see it getting through the bottleneck centuries is the real trick. And the less climate stress in the short run, the better. CO2 reduction is absolutely crucial but it has little short run payoff. I am not saying our distant descendants (if any) won't have quite a gripe against us. I think though that their gripe will be bigger the more spectacularly we drop the ball.

* Note: criticizing Ray Pierrehumbert on science does not ipso facto make you a complete fool. Criticizing him directly on climate science after hanging around him for a few years in a scientific setting, however, makes you either something of a fool or something of a climate science genius. I'm neither.

Taking the rare occasion

to agree with Ron Paul (via Andrew Sullivan):

“In a free society, we are supposed to know the truth. In a society where truth becomes treason, we are in big trouble,” – Ron Paul.

My sympathies are not entirely with Assange/Wikileaks, though, which is the context for the quote. After all, we know how leaks can be spun into something they aren't.

On the other other hand, the sort of extralegal enforcement via corporate capitalist revenge being directed against Assange isn't making the choice any easier. If there's any truth to Greenwald's reports, this creative new approach says to someone the establishment doesn't like "we may not have anything we can pin on you but we can make it impossible for you to work in this town, where "this town" is the world. Watch out for this. Regardless of your sympathies or otherwise for Assange this sets a very dangerous precedent. It essentially creates a shadow legal system controlled by bankers where conviction and sentencing is in the hands of an oligarchy. I am not usually inclined to be paranoid but even if you are actually a banker if you can't see the dangers in this one, I can't imagine what you are thinking. There is no reason this couldn't be scaled up, and in the end it is completely random whether whoever has their hands on this machine once it is in gear likes you and your friends or not.

I could imagine one of the Mayors Daley trying to pull a stunt like this, so Obama's hand may be right on this thing in the Chicago tradition. It's one thing to run a city on clout, though, another to play these games on a planetary scale. This is scary, and is enough to make me rethink my support for Obama.

I don't have a lot of Tea Party buttons, but this pushes all of them, and hard.

Update: I agree completely with Clay Shirky. While I am somewhat sadly forced to admit that he is thinking about this and writing about it more clearly than I myself have done, I am happy to point to something that makes complete sense to me. Read his piece. Two key quotes from it:
I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility ... and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.
If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Open Thread: By and/or About Trolls

This is an open thread. Comments about anything and everything are welcome. Moderation policy is looser than on other threads.

I am gratified to see In It reach new levels of popularity, but this seems to require a tighter comment policy. I don't really like reading sites where there are a lot of unmoderated comments. The noise tends to chase out the signal pretty quickly, and drive up the blood pressure.

John Mashey suggests a more complex moderation policy than thumbs-up vs thumbs-down. This requires new blog software. I am working on it, actually; I find the state of the art in blogware depressing. But that means I'm stuck with Blogger for a while yet, which is a crude device, though easy to use.

Specifically, the question has repeatedly come up about what to do about Tom Fuller's odd fascination with me and this site. In general, Fuller's comments are far below the level of quality I am hoping for from our conversations here. Some have expressed an interest in them as comic relief, and frankly I've been seeing them that way too, but Fuller is a real person. Laughing in someone's face seems cruel. But it also seems awfully smarmy to censor an opponent to protect them when they demand a platform to be foolish and thereby to discredit their cause.

In the end, my goal is to provide a venue that is interesting to my readers. Recently, a few people have expressed pro-Fuller views, but now I am seeing adamantly anti-Fuller positions as well. Certainly Fuller violates the usual rules of conduct here by a mile and I would be well within my stated policy to exclude him.

I will not always say and do exactly what keeps the customer most satisfied, but in this case that will be decisive. Please weigh in here if you like, and please keep these topics off the other threads. Many thanks.


Blame it on Fidel

Just saw a wonderful little French movie last night, English title "Blame it on Fidel" ("La Faute a Fidel").

It's about a young girl, perhaps 9 years old, whose parents drop out of the French upper classes in the 1970s to become revolutionaries. Whatever you may think of the parents' sentiments, this results in no little inconvenience, embarassment and confusion for the little girl, who is suddenly thrust into a whirlwind of incompatible certainties and conflicting myths.

I want to strongly recommend this film as a tonic to anyone who is very sure of their beliefs and a solace for those who are mixed up with them.

One of the themes is "solidarity", which is contrasted with "sheeplike behavior", but of course little Anna cannot tell the difference, and the point of view of the film can't either.

I bring this up because of Frank's query:
I can't figure out what your principles are, MT. First you say that honesty is a prime virtue in science, yet you lash out at honest people (e.g. Gavin Schmidt) over minor points in doctrine, while you keep indulging dishonest people (e.g. Tom Fuller) because they happen to say something at some point in time which seems reasonable and honest when taken totally out of context.

Now Frank seems to have missed the article immediately preceding the one he is responding to, where I started to address this very question. Repeating myself, I said:
One of the great vulnerabilities of scientists in dealing with politicians is that we love discourse. We love intelligent disagreement. Intelligent disagreement is how we get our work done.

Yet we are in a political battle, a battle for the highest imaginable stakes. So one might argue that we need to show solidarity. Indeed, one is often criticized not intellectually but ethically for raising uncertainties in public. After all, any disagreement or even perceived disagreement on any point might be maliciously cast as "disbelieving in global warming".

I think prof M was arguing for more public contrarianism. People should actually be able to see disagreements, and see the whole zoo of ways in which they work out (and not just the most useless ones, of which there are examples aplenty).
OK, so that's why I disagree publicly with honest people who are important allies. I don't think this is "lashing out". Everybody knows I'm on Gavin's "side" on the big picture. I think disagreement is a good thing, if it leads to greater understanding, and in this case I think it rather quickly did so.

As for indulging Fuller, well he is entertaining.

More seriously, I don't think ignoring the crackpots works when the crackpots are sufficiently funded, unified, organized, politically adept, and diligent. Which is the situation we face. So the question is how to engage. There are two theories here: the first is the Monckton method: find the silliest things any of them say and mock mercilessly. Admittedly this is fun. The problem is that it cuts both ways. Nobody can prevent all their allies from being silly. (That they choose to focus their mockery on Gore, or Holdren, or on a handful of perfectly sensible scientists, serious people all, is pretty revealing. But we have no fundamental advantage on the mockery front.)

Our real advantage is in engaging correctly in pursuit of truth. By engaging on the difficult points and not the easy points, you hand the deniers a weapon: they can always use the conversation to gang up on you at various levels of competence. wear you down and drive you into a defensive and arrogant posture. They are also free to make facts up, where we have to research ours. It's a slog. But if you engage on the difficult points and resist being driven into anger or appeal to authority, you demonstrate that your confidence is in the veracity of the evidence.

There's a huge scaling problem there. Not everybody can do it. It's much easier to be a denier of the science than a defender once the battle is engaged. But those of us who can, who actually enjoy the process, ought to. One part of this is studiously addressing the genuine skeptic in the audience. When someone like Fuller comes along making points that will not appeal to the genuine skeptic, it remains best to ignore them as partners in a search for truth. That's one of the tricks. In each conversation you have to maintain a level of scientific sophistication suitable for one or another audience, even though you'll be attacked at several levels. If attacked from above, the appeal to authority must be made very carefully ("I'll be happy to discuss this with you elsewhere; please see refs A, B, and C and get back to me")

All this said, Frank has a real point. If I bend over backwards to treat the deniers with respect on the grounds that there might be a few genuine skeptics in their ranks, meanwhile looking under every rock for any point of disagreement with people who have their heads screwed on right, my site starts to look like, well, Judith Curry's.

The answer, for me, is that above all the amazing fascination of the cluster of topics is the selling point of the conversation. Most people are put off by the thick stench of evil and hostility that surrounds the "debate", but in fact the questions, in addition to being ultimately questions of global survival, are immensely interesting. The objective is to make the conversation as interesting as possible, to attract more eyes, to engage people to develop greater sophistication, without backfiring into Watts-land. Is this sufficient to save our sorry hides? I don't know, but I remain convinced that it is necessary.

So coming back to the fictitious young miss Anna de la Mesa in the movie, solidarity for me is a non-issue. It is contrary to the spirit of science to put solidarity ahead of truth. And for me, it is contrary to the goal of making the conversation interesting. But I take Frank's point as one more piece of the balancing act. I may not always line up with some political optimum, but giving the devil his due doesn't require giving the devil more than his due.

That (silly statistics aside) is the main problem with Judith Curry's efforts. It is one thing to engage, carefully and consciously. It's another to butter up the lazy denialists and bash the diligent efforts of genuine scientists. If it looks like that's what I'm doing, do call me on it.

That said, don't expect me to stop looking for flaws in the consensus or legitimate arguments from the skeptics. I have little expectation that any serious change of opinion will result, much as I'd be thrilled to change sides if I could. (The money is better and the mood is happier over there, and as far as I can tell they don't work as hard.)

See, there's an interesting fact here. It's not defending science to stop questioning science. It's capitulating. This is why science is the opposite of politics, and why science is probably the way to save politics.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

At Kloor's and at Curry's

At Kloor's, someone called Huge Difference, pretty clearly a climate consensus doubter, says
This is what I’ve said before, you seem to rely on proxies, just like the rest of us. Because I rely on proxies outside my own field, I do not say things like “So and so is right, and so and so is wrong”, I say, it seems mainstream scientific thought believes that, but there seem to be significant amounts of disagreement. Many lawyers seem to feel that law would be … but there are others who disagree. I don’t think that’s an emphasis on false balance, I think that’s an emphasis on my stating what I’ve heard, giving people references, and letting them decide for themselves.

But what I see from you and other journalists, is Very Serious Person reporting.
I think there's something to hold onto in that. I replied (pending moderation, which Keith does to me sporadically):
While I am sure Huge Difference and I have huge differences regarding climate change, his point here is extremely cogent and sound. ...

This is just the flip side of my usual complaint: an incapacity of the journalistic profession to make adequate judgments of who the non-serious people are follows from an incapacity to judge who the serious people are. While this has been my key complaint about journalism, and indeed accounts for HD’s apparently skewed vision of the balance of evidence, it cuts both ways.

As I read in a very different context, and have quoted several times since, “when deep quality metrics are unavailable, customers will base their decisions on shallow metrics instead.” That is, we base our beliefs on signals of credibility when we are not in a position ourselves to judge credibility. Since the world is complex, we mostly base our beliefs on shallow metrics. If achieving shallow symbolism of credibility is much easier than achieving actual credibility (which becomes true the more the academic system is flawed, and nobody would argue that it is safe from charlatans nowadays) and false expertise will tend to drive out real expertise. The peer review defense fails once a topic gains broad enough interest; the definition of the peer group becomes unclear.

And here we find ourselves, both in environmental sciences and (I would argue) at least as seriously so in economics. We don’t have a quality metric. We (and this includes our political leadership) look to the press to solve the problem, and the press emits a massive shrug, and the world continues to spin out of control. The whole idea of democracy rides on it: these are not small problem domains.

If academic peer review can’t scale to meet the problem, something else has to. Our natural expectation is to turn to journalism, which basically punts or at best tries valiantly to manufacture some meaningless “middle ground” between theories which can’t be averaged out to anyone’s satisfaction.

My conclusion is that science journalism is too important to be left to nonspecialist journalists. We need a new institution and it will take some time (time that many of us do not feel is in ample supply) to develop its credibility.

Curry, meanwhile, has finally been diagnosed. Stoat says, in a gloss on a comment by Eli:
Still, she seems happy to attempt to re-write Climate from the ground up on her blog. It won't work, and it isn't interesting to watch, but it keeps her followers happy. Perhaps in part because if you do it like that, you can never leave the basic level, so it all remains very easy to understand
and I think that nails what she is trying to do. It's as if she had heard of science but never seen it done. Sorry, everybody, but science (and engineering and medicine and everything that separates us from the ancients) is a collaborative enterprise. Curry seems to be taking this "nullius in verbum" thing altogether too seriously. (I understand it did not originally mean "Don't trust nobody, kid" but rather meant "Dogma is not decisive".) In fact, nobody since Descartes has managed to be a renaissance man, and that's why it's called that. Success depends on standing on the shoulders of giants. This means, of course, you have to have some sense of who the giants are.

Curry now has an article provocatively entitled "education versus indoctrination", which is certainly a good marketing pitch. One instinctively thinks that "education" is the good stuff and "indoctrination" the bad stuff. Now it just remains for the arguer to come up with a plausible distinction. And here it comes:
Often, the purpose of this knowledge transmission seems to be to convince people to “act” or support certain climate change policies, rather than education. True education occurs when the learner is enabled to critically examine the material. How can we we enable true education and engagement on the issue of climate change?
Aha. Well, to some extent we can't. I can't teach my clever cat to do Lebesgue integrals no matter how hard I try; even elementary limit theory seems to escape her. She will never have more than the crudest grasp of it, nor of the greenhouse effect. Most humans can get a glimmer of it, but few will spend the hundreds of hours needed to go from, say, high school algebra and physics to a reasonably complete grasp of the details. Yet we are in a democracy, and most humans must be convinced to take action, as the evidence for such action is quite overwhelming.

To some other extent, we could conceivably do vastly better than we do. The letter at Curry's from Michael Larkin is quite compelling:
I started getting more interested in the nuts and bolts. I desperately needed to find a decent primer. But no one out there seemed to be clued in to my entry behaviour. They seemed primarily involved in one of two things. First, disseminating not things that would help me think for myself, but convince me one way or the other. Second, things which I could perceived had educative value, but which were presented at too demanding a level. I was often referred to scienceofdoom, and all sides seemed to think that site is worthy. But it started at too high a level, and from my viewpoint rapidly went stratospheric. I needed something to bridge the gap between entry behaviour and that.

I haven’t even mentioned all the emotional influences in the debate. Partisanship, disdain, defensiveness… and all the rest, which, once perceived (from whatever side), cast doubts on reliability.

Somehow, I had to negotiate my way through the morass. The only place I found that sometimes spoke to my ignorance was WUWT, and particularly a fellow by the name of Willis Eschenbach. Willis may not realise it, but he is a born educator; he has an instinct for how the naïve mind works, and does not speak down to it. Okay, sometimes he goes above my head, but there is no one else in quite the same league. Yes, he’s a sceptic, but in no ways a bigot, and he can be as harsh on misinformed sceptics as on proponents, and that impressed on me his likely integrity.

Ouch. None of us is doing as well as Willis Eschenbach! Now I will give Willis this much: he's hardly the worst of the bunch and he does seem capable of getting some things right. But if he's the person a serious reader ends up watching closely (and I don't doubt that this happens) we are failing to serve that portion of the public that actually wants to think about these things as best as they can with the knowledge base they have.

This is a real problem, and if Curry were to stop here I'd be on her side.

On the other hand, this is fertile ground for denialists to sow confusion. It's why-why-why land and it's obviously bottomless. People who understand what is going on normally get to control the attentions of the student so as to optimize the path to understanding. But here we have a situation where people are, um, pessimizing. Directing attention so as to maxize the probability of confusion.

Curry fails to acknowledge this. Instead, her example is to doubt everything. Well, to doubt everything is to know nothing. We might as well abandon science if this is really the model of scientific thought. Without community there is no science. Without a credentialing system the community fails. If people are getting their understanding from Willis Eschenbach, they aren't getting it from the scientific community. And policy continues to ride off the rails, taking all us poor passengers alike with it.

Contrarianism, Honesty, and the Value of Debate

One of the most interesting conversations I've had in my recent travels has been with professor M. Professor M lamented the fact that the public doesn't have any idea what the real disagreements among scientists look like. This is not the greatest tragedy of the success of climate denialism, I suppose, but it's not one to be sniffed at, and it's part of a larger pattern which allows muddled thinking to prevail. As a consequence of lack of exposure to informed disagreement, people do not know how to disagree; how the give and take of argument can be made most productive, under which cricusmtances to bend, under which circumstances to yield, and when, on the other hand, to press the point and go for a retreat on the part of the opponent.

Politically influenced debate simply doesn't yield. It offers no political advantage - one loses a constituency one had lined up without gaining much with the constituency that the opponent has claimed. This is why congressional "debate" and "testimony" is mostly for show. I wonder when the last time a representative in any democracy was convinced by anything said in formal debate on the floor of the legislative chamber. I wouldn't be surprised if it was centuries ago. "Debate" is not discourse. It is not aimed at the person you are discussing with; it is aimed at third parties.

One of the great vulnerabilities of scientists in dealing with politicians is that we love discourse. We love intelligent disagreement. Intelligent disagreement is how we get our work done.

Yet we are in a political battle, a battle for the highest imaginable stakes. So one might argue that we need to show solidarity. Indeed, one is often criticized not intellectually but ethically for raising uncertainties in public. After all, any disagreement or even perceived disagreement on any point might be maliciously cast as "disbelieving in global warming".

I think prof M was arguing for more public contrarianism. People should actually be able to see disagreements, and see the whole zoo of ways in which they work out (and not just the most useless ones, of which there are examples aplenty).

For instance, what are GCMs good for, and what not? There's plenty of disagreement there. I hold opinions outside the mainstream. Many of us feel that the much-displayed 20th century simulation results are misleading. The question as to how to say so, and how to argue it out, without giving too much ammunition to the shallow and shabby opposition is fraught.

When I hear the word "contrarian" in a climate context I expect the next two words in the sentence to be "Richard Lindzen", just as "wreak" leads to "havoc" or "fell" as an adjective leads to "swoop". But Lindzen, though nowhere near as ignorant as his allies, is not a useful contrarian. At this point what Lindzen does is not argument, it is just contradiction.

So the question is whether and how to create useful debates among scientists and the scientifically informed that will be accessible both practically and intellectually to a larger audience. The risks are clear, but what we say will be systematically misinterpreted regardless.

I am very much inclined to the contrarian role. Sometimes (the Wikileaks thing) I am not even sure what I think. I'm just trying to ask questions that clarify the matter for myself.

Other times, I see the opposition as having just a smidgen of a minor point, and am horrified to see a weak position being systematically defended: this pulls the whole nature of what we are doing into question. (The 20th century GCM simulations for instance say something, but what exactly is that? And how should we best address the lag between T and CO2 in the glacial record?)

So when I had some discomfort with the CNN article featuring Gavin Schmidt, I had the choice between voicing it and keeping it quiet. In practice, it turns out that I did the right thing, because my critique elicited some excellent comments from Gavin and others. The conversation also elicited from me a clarification of my discomfort with the original article.

Gavin says:
However, I think you might be reading a little more into this than is there though. What I am arguing for is science that is based on what real policies can do. I am not talking about targets, or focuses or one component vs another. Rather that any actual, practical thing that a government puts in place should be assessed against a range of benchmarks - including CO2 emissions of course, but also including the impact of short-lived species on climate and air pollution, and on other aspects of life/environment that people care about.

Each individual might value weight the various outcomes differently, but where there are options that can be supported by more than one constituency, it is clearly going to be easier to move forward.
It's hard to think of anything more reasonable than that. Certainly I have no objection. My concern can be boiled down to this:
For example, we may argue for wind-driven electricity powering electric cars because of the national security aspect of imported oil, when in fact we are interested in the climate aspect. Others may enthusiastically support our argument and then use it to support coal-to-liquids, or Canadian tar sands.

Then suppose we turn around and say, "well we didn't mean *that* because of the climate implications!" This would seem to mean that we were lying about (some of) our motivations in the first place. So we'd get the extra greenhouse gases and the loss of credibility, and only the secondary problem (security of liquid fuel supply) would end up addressed.

No thanks.
I think the conversation makes it clear that this sort of thinking (which I think is quite Lomborgesque) was NOT Gavin's intent. I remain convinced that this kind of thinking does exist and provides us with a very slippery slope. As scientists, we must advocate for evidence and truth at the expense of all other values. To fail to do so is to fail to do our job as scientists.

(The fact that it has become necessary for us to act as advocates is both interesting and unfortunate, but that's a topic for another day. Nevertheless, honesty trumps effectiveness or we aren't bringing our core value to the table; we become just another interest group.)

I have nothing against what Gavin said subject to the clarification, though. One can't control how a reporter will cast what one says. I consider the matter resolved. Both my point and Gavin's stand as somewhat refined, and as far as I know we have no disagreement.

I do want to point out that me acting on my discomfort rather than going with an impulse to solidarity has, at least in this case, had a beneficial effect.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Science, Appropriate and Otherwise

Gavin Schmidt:
the agencies and organizations that bring the science of climate to the attention of policymakers (like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the National Academies) have too often focused on science that is interesting to scientists, rather than the science that would be of most use to policymakers.

This is beginning to change, and far more people in the scientific community are now on board with the idea that science can directly answer questions that policymakers are interested in.
I think this is very true. But I think the emergence of an applied science of climatology remains very much in its infancy at best. But I find the examples Schmidt uses alarmingly Lomborgesque:
Recent work from NASA has shown that reductions in tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks in the United States, resulting from a shift toward more plugin-hybrid vehicles, would help the climate by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, ozone precursors and soot particles (three of the main drivers of global warming). But ozone and soot are also big contributors to smog and its noxious effect on health, and reductions can also have immediate benefits on local populations.

In Asia, using coal and biomass in homes for heating or cooking are important factors in creating the "atmospheric brown cloud" that is damaging the health of Chinese and Indian populations, and causing changes in temperature and rainfall.
I don't think it makes much sense to argue for CO2 cuts for reasons other than cutting CO2.

If this is the best we can do, we are not going to do very well at all. But maybe that's politics. Nobody likes "pollution" and lots of carbon emissions are also polluting in the conventional sense. I don't like it. I'd rather see rational behavior for rational reasons, rather than hoping to feed legislators compensating errors to offset the errors they are already committed to. Call me an idealist.

Applied science needs to be honest. Something which compensates for foolishness with counterfoolishness isn't something that deserves public support. It's hopelessly unstable and unsustainable.

Update: Gavin responds very effectively in the comments.

Update 12/4: Follow-up here