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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Last Post

This blog is moving to Please reset your bookmarks and feeds ( That site and feed are now live. Updates about the shutdown of this site will appear on this article.

Approximately a million page views (at least 979,918 as I write, not counting feed subscribers) have been served by this Blogger site.

10/16 Most of the archive successfully moved over to WordPress. The first few months don't show up for some reason.


Comments are welcome on the new site.

UPDATE MARCH 11 2013 :

The Wordpress move never really worked. Lots of live links from the internet go here. So I have revived it as a historical record.

 Most of my recent writing is at Planet3.0


Dennis Ritchie has Died

A less publicly renowned figure in the history of computing than Steve Jobs, but at least equally central in its development, Dennis Ritchie also passed away recently.

Dennis was coauthor of the original UNIX operating system and author of the first implementation of the C language. This is to say, the majority of modern computing builds directly on his work, and most of the rest was directly influenced by it.

One of his collaborators, Rob Pike, shared this message on Google Plus:
Dear Rob--

As Dennis's siblings, Lynn, John, and Bill Ritchie--on behalf of the entire Ritchie family--we wanted to convey to all of you how deeply moved, astonished, and appreciative we are of the loving tributes to Dennis that we have been reading. We can confirm what we keep hearing again and again: Dennis was an unfailingly kind, sweet, unassuming, and generous brother--and of course a complete geek. He had a hilariously dry sense of humor, and a keen appreciation for life's absurdities--though his world view was entirely devoid of cynicism or mean-spiritedness.

We are terribly sad to have lost him, but touched beyond words to realize what a mark he made on the world, and how well his gentle personality--beyond his accomplishments--seems to be understood.

Thank you.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A better Way

This blog will be moving soon, to be a sub-blog under Planet3.0 .

Recall that the original purpose here was to examine how scientific communication had failed and what to do about it. Planet3.0 is the result of that thinking. It's my attempt not only to do something about it, but to encourage others to do something about it as well.

Trying to be both editor and reporter at a site with at least the intent of reaching a broader audience than this one has already been revealing. The nature of a site is, to some extent, as much about what it excludes as about what it includes. The blogger just writes whatever he pleases. The editor has to consider what will build the community and what will splinter it.

What's more, for the first time ever, I have information on "background"; that is, a source really wanted to tell me something, on condition that I not explicitly tell the audience. It's hard to explain why they would do that. I find it sort of weird, really. And now there is the question of whether to betray the source and my reputation, or to tell only half the story, or to let the story drop. This changes journalism from an exercise in nonfiction writing to an exercise in politics.

The editor's temptation not to rile people is pretty palpable. I find myself suddenly inclined to "safe" stories. The key to making Planet3.0 work is to improve the quality of disagreement. So being a chickenshit won't work.

On the other hand, I see plenty to criticize on both "sides". This is also a problem! Criticizing mainstream science makes you a tool of the denial industry, and ultimately an instrument of the decline of civilization and the biosphere. Avoiding that is the whole point. Refusing to criticize it makes you a voice in a tame chorus, incapable of saying anything that isn't explicitly in the interest

The point of view of the scientist is to advance the truth. It's really hard under the circumstances when politics and science get tangled up. My guiding light will continue to be to get the maximum amount of truth visible to my intended audience. I think it may be the case that doing this will lose me more friends among my allies than it gains me respect among my enemies. This is a sign, I think, of how low we have sunk. I will have to brace myself for it.

Much as I do not want to give attention to the ridiculous obsessions of the bunkosphere, I also don't think that making Planet3.0 into another also-ran pop science site is enough.

There are basically a bunch of approaches around today:
  • tell everything that makes the future look scary, and nothing else
  • tell everything that makes the people looking scared ridiculous, and nothing else
  • tell all the above without choosing any of them
  • science and engineering fandom, repeating press releases
  • get into the thick of the policy, trivializing or ignoring science and engineering
If we're going to get anywhere, we need to close the loop. The venue we need is not afraid to draw the big picture.

In It will continue as my base for half-baked speculations about economics and for introspection about how to make public communication work. News about the move will appear shortly.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Good News from Texas

It's still unseasonably warm in Austin, but at least the season has changed. While it remains very dry here, major storms have been quite visible to our north and south of late. So, it seems that October is bringing us a normal summer pattern, and it's raining a more or less normal amount in Texas. Far from enough to bust the drought, but not threatening us with turning into Arizona.

We'll see if the double-dip La Nina makes for another severe outlier of a summer next year.

Also, it looks like Rick Perry is no more serious about becoming US President than Sarah Palin.

Also, occupy Austin is happening. I am nervous about actively supporting the Occupy thing. Since I still hold Canadian citizenship, it seems far safer for me to go up to Toronto and occupy it. But I've been very impressed with the way these guys are managing things; it seems the only people advocating foolishness at these groups are pro-corporate agents provocateurs.

As manifestos go, this one is marvelous. Majorities are for amateurs. (h/t PHA.)

This was really why I had no enthusiasm for cap-and-trade. Without near-unanimity in the public, globally and in each nation, the prospects for climate stability are grim.

We need to have traditional government chasing a social media consensus. And so that social media consensus has to be competent.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Forces of Occupation

Obviously I've been wrapped up in Planet3.0 these last couple of weeks. But amazing developments have been afoot.

I am ALMOST as far as this:

But it is tempered by something clever somebody said at SXSWEco last week. Something like:
We don't need a movement chasing down the White House to make them do the right thing.

We need a movement that is strong enough that the White House needs to chase it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Planet 3.0

Please check out our new Planet3.0 sustainability news site.

I hope the quality of conversation that has emerged on this site, of which I am very proud, can be transferred and scaled up on Planet3.0. We have in mind a number of experiments to facilitate intelligent and informed conversation, but they need a nucleus of participants.

So especially if you have been a contributor at this site, I'd like to ask you for a modest if kind favor. Please sign in at the Planet3.0 site and participate in the conversation there. Let's show the world how it's done.

Why They Are Called Numbers

Those of us who have learned the ability of numbers, properly deployed, to explain and illuminate have always had difficulty understanding where the name "numbers" came from.

All you need to do is attend a typical talk by a concerned, active, engaged but not especially informed person on almost any subject of collective importance.

Then you will see numbers being used to numb. So many million pieces of plastic in the Pacific. So many gallons of oil in the Gulf. So many trees saved. So many billion dollars saved. So many thousand jobs lost. Always without context, without weight, without comparison. Not meant to explain. Meant to numb.

Numb numbers are the sign you are wasting your time. If after hearing the numbers you say, not "yes I already knew that" or "wow, that really opens my eyes to how things work", if your response to the numbers is "yayyy" or "ewww", you are being victimized by numbing numbers.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Is Debt Conserved?

Arthur Smith makes an interesting argument.
I don't understand what a global overall "borrowing from the future" could mean in any physical sense. Maybe you have something specific in mind?

With monetary debt every loan has two sides: the borrower and the lender. There is a promise that the borrower will pay back the loan - with interest, so that's a promise of future exchange, a commitment by the borrower to redirect some of his future income to the lender. But there is no physical constraint involved: it is merely a contractual obligation between borrower and lender, and can be broken under various conditions without any fundamental damage to the world.
Clearly every time a dollar is borrowed, a dollar is owed. The transaction of borrowing money does not create or destroy total wealth in itself; one party owes a dollar, another is owed a dollar, so in the aggregate nothing happens.

After acknowledging that this is absolutely algorithmically true, I note that it is not what my conventional Keynesian macroeconomic prof taught me in Econ A01 at Northwestern in 1973 or so. (Wish I could remember his name, Robert something I think, he was an adviser to McGovern's campaign shortly thereafter.) He did not teach Keynesianism as a theory. He taught it as established fact. We would never ever have another depression because Keynes.

According to professor Bob, "public debt is OK, because we are borrowing from our future selves".

So did we borrow from our future selves (thus committing to growth) or did we borrow from the Chinese (thus giving them an asset to balance our deficit).

Well, the crucial thing to understand is that the bank and the government can lend money that they don't actually have. This has always been the secret of banking, and why, ordinarily, having a bank is the best possible business, with the possible exception of evangelism. In fact, when you put money on deposit at the bank, the bank gets permission to lend out some multiple, larger than 1, of that money as loans. This quantity is controlled by government fiat in some way.

I believe something very much like this is true in every non-Islamic country, by the way, except maybe the very weirdest pseudosocialist autocracies like Myanmar and North Korea. It includes contemporary Russia and China, though perhaps not their communist predecessors a generation ago.

So the point is, something did happen in the aggregate. The total of assets and liabilities remains zero, of course, by the fundamental theorem of accounting ledgers. But the absolute quantities of liabilities increased.

Now, why is the bank lending you money? After all, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, right? Well, because you agree to pay back the loan, plus inflation, plus coverage for the bank's risk, plus a profit for the bank. As we all experience with mortgages, in the end this is a significant penalty. It does not show as part of your or the bank's credits or debits (if you win the lottery tomorrow, you can settle your mortgage account with the bank next week, after all) but is something you implicitly owe the bank in addition to the amount you borrowed.

This is the engine of capitalism and it runs on optimism. The bank has some confidence that you (or your insurance company) will repay, or find someone else who can repay to buy the house from you, or in the worst case, that it can resell the house after repossessing it. In any case, the likelihood of losing most of the value of the house (or business) is small enough that it can be placed in a statistical category on which a profit can be made.

When you take out a mortgage, you are borrowing from the bank. But you are also committing your household to a specific level of economic function, such that you expect to be able to pay off the house and all the financial overhead associated with the loan. So although you are borrowing from the bank, you are also borrowing from yourself. You are saying, in order to have the pleasure of living in a house before I have paid for it, I promise to work hard enough to have enough surplus to pay for the house and the financial overhead.

You are borrowing from your own future earnings. If you expected to lose your income, you would not take out such a loan. If the bank expected that, they would not give it to you. At least, that was the idea until recently, but let's leave aside how the pattern failed.

The point is that when China buys US bonds, China is assuming that the US will pay them off.

If Tea Partiers come in and break the US economic system because they are too stupid to learn how the system works before taking hold of it...

Well, it could break in a number of ways that my Keynesian prof would have found absurdly unlikely, let's just leave it at that.

But in the aggregate, every loan that isn't disguised charity is an optimistic bet on the future of the debtor. And pretty much all the money comes into its strange ghostlike existence through such loans. So every dollar in circulation represents most of a dollar bet on the future. It's a "promissory note" that no longer promises gold or silver. It simply represents somebody's promises to gladly pay the bank on Tuesday for a hamburger today.

And as for Treasury bills, they are a special debt that is explicitly incurred by the nation as a whole, so its implicit problem is for the future prosperity of the nation. Without growth, the debt payments gradually become insurmountable. Without growth, that is, borrowing from your future self is destructive.

And that is why I think Krugman is not entirely right. We can't necessarily take up as much public debt as is needed to go back to "full employment", never mind expect the private sector to pick up the slack when "demand" goes back to baseline.

At this point future growth is not a sure thing. At some point, it becomes a sure not-thing. And whatever that point is, it's not clear we should be carrying debt at that time.

Fortunately there is an immense amount of wealth in the US and the wealthy are hugely undertaxed, so if anybody were making any sense there would be no reason to take on any debt.

But eventually, debt does matter.

What happens when the optimism is misplaced? Well, we are seeing exactly that now. The sudden disappearance of "wealth" and widespread increases in various stresses and demands, even though little or no physical damage was incurred!

This is bad for the debtor and bad for the creditor. It is no zero-sum move for the creditor to write off the loan and the debtor to lose access to credit. And this bad thing happens when growth is less than foreseen. And a worse thing happens when zero growth is foreseen.


Nothing happens. Zero growth, basically zero credit. And since we have arranged things so that we can only feed ourselves when something happens economically, well, everything goes to hell in a hurry.

So we'll have to change that. But the holders of debt will not like any prospect of growth stopping. Not one bit.

Zorg: I hate warriors, too narrow-minded. I'll tell you what I do like though: a killer, a dyed-in-the-wool killer. Cold blooded, clean, methodical and thorough. Now a real killer, when he picked up the ZF-1, would've immediately asked about the little red button on the bottom of the gun.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shoulda Toljaso

I don't know if I'm on record at all about this, but I always thought the Euro was a crummy lousy stupid idea for the Europeans.

My reasoning is that of Jane Jacobs, in Cities and the Wealth of Nations: "Jacobs makes a forceful argument that it is not the nation-state, rather it is the city which is the true player in this worldwide game." as Wikipedia has it. But a lot of people miss the real upshot of that treatise, which is that for every currency, a dominant city tends to emerge.

This has been somewhat masked in the United States, with its immense mobility and uniformity. It has been difficult for one region to come to dominate the others and thus benefit from the revaluing of the currency (down at times when the dominant city is relatively weak and up when it is strong). In Canada and Mexico, as in non-Euro Europe and elsewhere, the emergence of a dominant metropolis per currency has been obvious.

In America, the whole Northeast from Chicago to Boston to Washington forms a single metropolis with great mobility. Its only obvious competitors have been the two California conurbations. At this point, as commodities become dominant, the Texas triangle (including all five big cities) may emerge as the winner. But the game is still on.

In post-Euro Europe, the Ruhr Rhine valley has always been a contender for dominance. The value of the Euro is thus set high because of the success of Germany. This strangles the Mediterranean, which is prevented from devaluing its currency and thereby promoting growth of local industries.

The absolute ungovernability of the Euro zone just means that the dysfunction of the USA as a modern state has been inherited by the United States of Europe. It's cargo cultism: the advantages of the USA can never be implemented in Europe because of the plethora of cultures and mores. The Euro zone never made much sense, except as an effort to replace the dollar as the reserve currency of the world, which never happened, and as it appears now, a good thing.

The Euro treaty should be unwound, and local currencies re-established in Europe to re-establish quasi-normal economic activity for a while. Is that a good idea? I think it's better than trying to glue together something which can't function properly as a whole. And in the long run, Europe's multiple currencies present a huge competitive advantage on Jacobs' theory.

America, however, should not opt for fifty statewide currencies. America has an advantage in its capacity to inflate its way out of debt. That America has not eagerly opted for as much inflation as it can swallow is another aspect of its political confusion these days as far as I can see. Nobody else has their debt denominated in their own currency! Plus, inflation would greatly untangle the real estate mess, as the real value of the debt will shrink relatively quickly.

I must be wrong, of course. I can't possibly understand these things better than everybody else. So I'm open to being set straight...

Jaron Lanier and the Morita Principle

Jason Jaron Lanier defends money. (long, but excellent video rant here)

He begins in the same place I do, and Rushkoff does, essentially, that there is no longer a market for labor.

To be sure he only makes passing reference to limits to growth. I think those greatly complicate the situation.

But Lanier's key point about money is, um, right on the money. Between smothering bureaucracy and cruel neglect, there stands only one possibility: a functional middle class.

And for this to happen, bespoke creative work has to be valued. There is no limit to the amount of art we can produce OR consume. We may be at the beginning of an immensely creative era, but only if we agree to monetize creativity. How to do this requires some careful thought. The idea that we are all in the midst of an endless apprenticeship (while traditional commercial and industrial modalities vanish all around us) doesn't scale.

But I think we have to let go of growth, or many other things break. So that complicates the job; real things cannot constitute a vanishingly small part of the economy in any way that is stable. Else, you end up with a tulip crisis, of course.

Somehow this all has to be balanced, growth gradually and smoothly ended, fairly soon in the richer countries; somehow all the global constraints have to be fed into the incentive systems too. Nothing resembling government today is competent to do these things. But I don't see how we manage without burning new constraints into the system.

It's going to be enormously hard to even get people to understand the spectrum of possibilities.

I call it Morita's principle; Akio Morita (the Steve Jobs-like visionary behind Sony for many years) frequently said "the customer does not know what is possible."

This applies to our collective vision of the future. People are selecting from a profoundly demoralizing pair of implicit competing visions (universal poverty on the left; militarized wealth in a sea of poverty on the right, both in a diminished, biologically depleted world). We need to create a shared vision of a future that is something other than extrapolation, something other than a more comfortable car to be stuck in traffic in, something other than shabby and grim and dehumanizing.

But most of our customers, that is, the people who need to buy into some new more inspiring vision, are mostly stuck in their day to day problems and just want strategies to see them through the week, not the century.

We must ask people for a lot of thought and a lot of effort and some sacrifices. We cannot succeed without a positive vision of the future, something that no political party anywhere is offering in any credible way at this time.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The US Government Cannot Help the Climate

Jeff Sachs recommends an informal international mostly academic collaboration to come up with actual options and get around the noise-making. He points out that expectations of leadership from the US government are unrealistic in the near future.

Long (over an hour). Intro lasts about four minutes.

h/t Rust Never Sleeps

JEFF SACHS from HUCE on Vimeo.

Stealing Another Video from Think Progress

Go figure this out.

Let me know once you can make sense of it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bill Clinton Gets it Right

Update: In order not to disappoint people coming here from Eli's only to find exactly the same clip, here's some more on American denial as a humorous topic that I recently posted.

Book Review: A Planet for the President

A Planet for the President, by Alistair Beaton, showed up in the remainder bin at BookPeople in Austin, and thus, inevitably, followed me home.

It's a dark comedy by a British writer about a US President of the conservative stripe (the name of his party is never mentioned but is obvious) and his cabinet finally coming to terms with the unsustainability of the American lifestyle on a crowded world. This group decides that rather than dealing with the sustainability aspect, they might just want to consider the crowding aspect...

Many hilarious incidents ensue, the situation becoming ever bleaker. For instance, the plot is almost leaked on account of a fastidious general ordering an enormous supply of deodorant, in the hopes of keeping the fumes from enormous numbers of dead Mexicans and Canadians from wafting across the border.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the book, and hard luck for its author I imagine, was the scene wherein New Orleans was devastated by a hurricane and ensuing floods, creating thousands of casualties. The book was published only a few months before Katrina hit. In the storyline, the President is distracted from the disaster by his son's publicly coming out as gay.

(In this regard, the fictitious president is actually slightly less horrifying than Bush was in the event, as Bush had no real distraction but paid no attention anyway. Sometimes truth is very strange.)

I think it may be time to take yet another president's suggestion. Bill Clinton recently said:
"If you're an American," Clinton said, "the best thing you can do is make it unacceptable" to be a climate change denier. "We look like a joke, right? You can't win the nomination of one of our major parties if you admit that the scientists are right."
Well, unfortunately we've been looking like a joke for a while. And while it's a gloomy sort of a joke, sometimes it pays to laugh.

This book is out of print, but Amazon has a dozen or so copies at cheap prices. I won't tell you how it ends. I will tell you I enjoyed it.

Flattery Gets You Somewhere

An email from Climate Nexus:
Dr. Tobis,

I was wondering if you were aware of's upcoming Moving Planet day of action this Saturday, 9/24/11? We here at Climate Nexus (a new organization focusing on climate communications) are helping get the word out to as wide an audience as possible. We think that In It For The Gold would be a great outlet, given its robust readership and influential status in the blogosphere.

In short, Moving Planet is intended to build global support for moving past fossil fuels as a solution to the climate change problem. By connecting groups across the world, it hopes to show our global leaders that the time for strong climate action is now.

Attached is a 1 page backgrounder we've prepared for you to look over. It includes a synopsis of the event as well as some examples of what will be happening.

We would absolutely love it if you could provide a mention of it on your site so your readers can connect to groups in their area, or even better, organize your own action to mobilize your local readers!
Aw, shucks. Well, if you put it that way:
Moving Planet is an international day of action planned by It is intended to build support for moving the planet away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable transportation. On September 24, 2011 participants from over 170 countries will hold events aimed at solving the climate change crisis by eliminating our global dependence on fossil fuels.

Movers on a Mission

On September 24th, 2011, hundreds of thousands of people across the world will be working together to send the message that it is time to move beyond fossil fuels. Through independently conceived creative rallies, groups will promote sustainable transportation for the future by walking, biking, skating or whatever creative and non-fossil fuel based methods of transportation they can imagine!

The day of action intends to build support and demand for a comprehensive clean energy plan to be reached in the November session of the UN Climate Meetings in South Africa, as well as the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil next spring.

The message is clear-the time has come to move past fossil fuels. We will no longer tolerate inaction on climate change as severe weather continues to threaten lives and livelihoods around the world. Climate Change is a global problem that requires a global solution. The time for comprehensive action from the UN is now, and anything less will be unacceptable. We will all bear the brunt of a changing climate, and we must all now band together to end our reliance on fossil fuels.

Emissionless Examples
  • These are just a few of the hundreds of events planned!
  • Organizers in Indonesia have already begun a 350 hour cycling trip, collecting petition signatures on the way.
  • Students in the Dominican Republic are painting the first bike lanes in Santo Domingo.
  • Hundreds in Ukraine will be “flash-dancing” in the main square of Kiev. (err...? -mt)
  • A massive parade is planned in Egypt, where participants will wear blue clothing to form a giant human Nile river.
  • Hundreds of Parisians will unite to form an image of a wind-turbine.
  • In New York, a giant bike ride calling for climate action will end at the United Nations General Assembly.
  • Amateur astronauts in New Zealand will “launch” a rocket in search of a new planet to colonize. Once that fails, they'll try and save this planet.
See this map to find an event near you. Or, there's still time to plan your own!
I'll be at the Texas State Capitol protesting the impending tar sands pipeline from Alberta and headed thisaway. Watch for my clever picket sign.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Major Cuts to Environment Canada

From a promising young researcher at the University of Toronto. James emphasizes that he is speaking for himself here, independently of his supervisor and his department.

Canadians, especially, please take note.
Over the past several months we have seen major cuts to Environment Canada that have left it without any real scientific or research power. These cuts include the Environment Canada lab I presently do research at under Dr. Brad Bass of Environment Canada’s Adaptations and Impacts Research Section (AIRS). Almost the entire Section – which focuses on measuring impacts and responding to climate change across Canada – has been cut, alongside many other departments. Dr. Bass and many other Environment Canada scientists have had their jobs cut and we’ve seen in recent days rather strong political intervention from above in what EC scientists can and cannot mention to the public, whether it’s research critical of present policy or even just discussion of the cuts.

We have seen many prominent scientific jobs cut, research funding slashed, and our ability to effectively do environmental assessment and management largely neutralized (see here, here and here). Our scientists have been muzzled, and their ability to go to press has become tightly managed by a new “media relations office” put forth by the Harper Government. There is no more money to do research on Adaptations and Impacts as we do, projects on water quality have been halted (including those serving Aboriginal reserves and northern communities), and many of the tools and researchers necessary in order to adequately measure the consequences of the Athabasca Tar Sands are presently in a questionable state of limbo. This rearrangement of staff – preceding the 5-10% first round of budget cuts coming in February as part of Harper’s “balancing the books” will effectively leave Environment Canada powerless and effectively useless. They even went so far as to slate twenty-one out of twenty-four water quality monitoring stations in the Northwest Territories for shutdown – an act that managed to embarrass Harper (who was touring the region at the time) sufficiently for it to be reversed. But the cuts and targeting of research in the public interest continues.

Tony Clement perhaps put it best: Environment Canada is now “open for business” – you may now hire their award-winning scientists at will, privatize their research and keep them from working in the public interest.

One of the most prominent areas to be hit was climate change research and adaptations: exactly what our thirty-person lab has focused on and our broader Adaptations and Impacts Research Section has pioneered in for the past seventeen years since its formation. Dr. Bass is a co-recipient of the IPCC Nobel Prize, and the work many of our researchers do is critical to the advancement of science and the development of viable responses to climate change the world over. Because Environment Canada scientists cannot go to press over this, coverage (and response) has largely been muted – and the Canadian public, by and large, is unaware of the changes that are taking place. This is, to put it lightly, a major problem not just for Canadians but for the whole of the international community.

Our lab in particular, based at the University of Toronto, does cutting edge research on community energy systems, energy conservation, urban agriculture and food security, new methods of waste management, and urban sustainability through design and green infrastructure to address many of the problems we now face as Canadians. Our research is open, our results are available to the public, and we are presently slated to lose everything – much like many other prominent Canadian research institutions if nothing is done and no attention drawn to the changes we now see. Government research partnerships with universities are likewise slated to be terminated.

Myself and a number of students working with Dr. Bass have independently decided to attempt to address and draw attention to the cuts as we now see them. We have put together a list of very simple things even ordinary Canadians can do in order to fight the changes we now see. These include writing to your MP or school board trustee – just a short “I don’t want to see this laboratory gone” should do – and spreading the news about the cuts. The CBC recently drew attention to one aspect of our research , and our team is rushing to put up a website to draw attention to some of our projects to address the food crisis, do away with plastic waste, make desalination cheap and easy to do and much, much more.

I hope you can help with this matter. Please feel free to respond with questions, ideas or even just support, and I’ll answer you as best I can.

All the best,

James I. Birch

Student Researcher,

Adaptations and Impacts Research Section,

University of Toronto

Friday, September 16, 2011

Democracy at Work

via JonikCartoons
h/t Steven Mann

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Is There a Swarm Solution?

Coalition Of The Willing from coalitionfilm on Vimeo.

It's a stupid name; about grass roots environmentalism rather than about wars of invasion.

It starts off strong and then gets into some frantic handwaving and saccharine and not entirely well-grounded reassurance and encouragement.

I honestly don't think the swarm they describe will be enough. And perhaps what swarming there will be doesn't need this kind of cheerleading. The makers will make and the thinkers will think. It is perhaps a bit early to get the B Ark folks too interested. And not everyone will be too attracted by the piece's 60's utopianism, though I for one think the cultural history is presented about right. And the amount of oversimplification in this little pep talk is astronomical.

I really liked it anyway.

It is, at least, a start toward a vision of the future that isn't a horror. And if the cloying narration starts to get to you, you can turn the sound down and enjoy the excellent and creative animations.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Nielsen-Gammon vs the New Normal

John Nielsen-Gammon, our Texas State climatologist came up with this scary image that most of you have seen, and that everyone in Texas ought to take a good long look at. I was one of the first to reproduce it, but I've seen in lots of places since, and with good reason.
Unfortunately, John has followed up on this contribution with what I consider a mistaken article, wherein he claims that

"Texas would probably have broken the all-time record for summer temperatures this year even without global warming."

Before we get into his argument and its drawbacks, let's note the obvious. We see that this years drought/heatwave is far outside the observed pattern distribution of events.

It's hard not to take note of the tremendous similarity of the situation here to Australia's a couple of years back, though Australia's droughts are on the other end of the El Nino seesaw. (Australia has, in fact, been extraordinarily wet of late.)

So is it a "New Normal"? Is Texas in perpetual drought now? Will we swing back and forth out of unheard-of droughts and unheard-of floods? Will Australia do the same, along with other parts of the formerly semi-arid subtropics? Certainly this is the intuitive impression that many of us come away with. Barry Brooks is no amateur, and he was at least willing to quote a colleague saying
“Given that this was the hottest day on record on top of the driest start to a year on record on top of the longest driest drought on record on top of the hottest drought on record the implications are clear...

It is clear to me that climate change is now becoming such a strong contributor to these hitherto unimaginable events that the language starts to change from one of “climate change increased the chances of an event” to “without climate change this event could not have occured”.
Clearly, we can say similar things in Texas this year. But should we? Nielsen-Gammon says we shouldn't.

Let me summarize his argument:
  • The temperature anomaly this summer is about 5.4 F
  • Global warming to date has led to a local warming of Texas summertime temperatures of 0.5 F, so the temperature anomaly can be divided into 0.5 F background warming + 4.9 F other warming.
  • There is a strong correlation between annual rainfall variation and annual temperature in the graph. N-G finds a second order curve that fits the data [about as well as the linear fit] (see comments), and figures that the low rainfall could account for most of the remaining 4.9 F
  • He sinks into the tea-leaf territory of the "AMO" and claims to pick up the balance
  • Leaving aside the odd idea of superposition of temperature anomalies and the very weak evidence for the AMO, clearly there is a plausible claim that the huge temperature anomaly is "mostly" "because of" the drought
  • There is no obvious trend in Texas toward drought, so climate change does not cause unheard-of droughts
  • Therefore this is a fluke and has nothing to do with climate, or that other fluke in Australia in '09, or all the other flukes we have been seeing lately
I don't buy this for a minute. I am, in fact, shocked by the seriousness with which this argument is being taken.

It is interesting that when I have run this by non-experts, they all think it is crazy. Are they right?

I've been struggling for an analogy, and have come up with nothing resembling a realistic real-world example that allows this fallacy, so allow me a parable instead.

There is a small, isolated urban country where the wild fauna have been eliminated, and the public is only familiar with pets: dogs, cats, hamsters, and a few horses used in ceremonial events. The entire population knows very little about other animals, and even the experts have acrimonious debates based on fossil records and old paintings, just as we are familiar with contemporary climate but have to extrapolate to ancient or future climates.

One day, there is an earthquake. Not only does a border fence fail, but that fence abuts on the neighboring country's great zoo. Many animals escape into our urban country, and it happens that one of them is an elephant, which they will perceive only as a large, bizarre animal.

However, our experts have been observing the zoo from a distance. They believe they have a good idea of the number of animals at the zoo from the number of feeding stations (visible from an observation tower), and a good idea of the total mass of the animals (calculated from the size of the food deliveries). They conclude that the average zoo animal is the size of a large dog. Therefore, the elephant is not an escapee from the zoo! It must be an extremely unusual dog or cat.

That's the best I can do. It makes no sense, does it? We have an invasion of phenomena which we have only weak characterization for. We have some idea of averages and trends because of physical constraints, but we know very little of the nature of outliers in the changing climate.

(This is to say nothing of anomalies due to transient climates for the present.)

Here is the thing. We are increasingly disturbing the climate. A truly bizarre season occurs in a particular place. Either these extraordinary events are connected, which is perhaps unlikely, or they are unconnected, which is extremely unlikely. That is, you are asking for a bizarre coincidence.

But now we add up the number of bizarre coincidences, for each of which John can make comparable arguments. The tornado outbreak this spring. The huge blocking event in Asia last summer which did so much damage in central Russia, Pakistan, and parts of China. The fires in Australia in 2009 and the floods this year. The floods in the midwest. Heat waves in Europe.

None of these are clearly part of local trends. None of these are particularly predicted in the literature, and as far as I know the GCMs don't indicate these things happening.

But, here's the thing. They are happening.

So when I look at John's plot, I see that there are only two possibilities. First, a bizarre coincidence as John suggests: a gigantic grey housecat with big teeth, floppy ears, enormous legs, and a strange nose. Second, an unexpected consequence of climate forcing. An elephant.

That is, what we have is not because of a change in the mean but because of a spreading, an expansion of the cloud of possibilities. From a dynamics perspective, that's not surprising in the least. We're passing, year by year, from one climate configuration to another at a very rapid pace, and we are used to thousands of years of unusual stability.

Does anyone actually expect "global weirding"? Well, I am not sure how we should specify an a priori metric for it, and without one we can't really formally detect it. And the models, well, we already know that the non-assimilating GCMs are very stingy with extreme events. Why? My theories on that are too vague for publication, but it's widely known to be true.

But when I see a graph like that one, I don't find myself saying, hmm, obviously not part of the trend, therefore natural.

Now my other analogy is emotionally fraught, and let me apologize if it offends anyone, but I have to say it. When I saw a couple of 100 story buildings falling down, I didn't say, there's no anthropogenic trend to date for buildings to fall down so they must have fallen down naturally.

I'm sorry, but I find that argument, ahem, less than compelling.

Let me offer a couple of simple propositions instead.
  • There's a first time for everything.
  • If you push something hard enough it will fall over.
I for one think the fan is no longer pristine.

I am working on a longer version of this article. It also ties into the less obvious but very similarly wrong arguments about rainfall anomalies and also to a case that the egregious Pat Michaels has been flogging.

I think it's time to take this bull by the horns. You can't apply small-signal arguments to large signals in nonlinear systems. So please stop it.

Update: Via Google Plus, Jonathan Abbey summarizes my argument nicely:
Climate characterizes the statistics of weather and the statistical bounds of weather. If we start seeing weather patterns change, that can indicate a change in climate.

The question is all about how likely it is that this weather would occur if the statistical parameters of the climate were held fixed as it has been since instrumental records began, say.

If weather like this is sufficiently unlikely under our previous understanding of regional climate, it may be (a piece of) evidence that the climate is itself experiencing a dislocation.

Which is sort of interesting.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Texas Pics

The consistently remarkable "The Big Picture" photo site at has a series of pictures of the drought and fires in Texas.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Daily Rainfall Record Exceeded By 60%

While we're caught in futile waiting for our first raindrop in over a month and perhaps our fourth rain event of the year here in Austin, the northeast continues to be drastically, roll-a-13-ishly wet.

Jeff Masters, as usual, has the scoop:
An extreme rainfall event unprecedented in recorded history has hit the Binghamton, New York area, where 7.49" fell yesterday. This is the second year in a row Binghamton has recorded a 1-in-100 year rain event; their previous all-time record was set last September, when 4.68" fell on Sep 30 - Oct. 1, 2010. Records go back to 1890 in the city. The skies have now cleared in Binghamton, with this morning's rain bringing the city's total rainfall for the 40-hour event to 9.02". However, another large region of rain lies just to the south in Pennsylvania, and all of the rivers in the surrounding region are in major or record flood. The Susquehanna River at Binghamton is at 25.18', its highest level since records began in 1847, and is expected to overtop the flood walls protecting the city this afternoon. In Hershey, Pennsylvania, Swatara Creek is 18' over flood stage, and more than 8' above its record flood crest. Widespread flash flooding is occurring across the entire area, and over 125,000 people have been evacuated from their homes.
You don't often see a major city break its all-time 24-hour precipitation record by a 60% margin, according to wunderground's weather historian, Christopher C. Burt, and he can't recall ever seeing it happen before. It's worth noting that the Susquehanna River Binghamton stream gage, which has been in operation since 1847, is due to be shut off in 3 weeks due to budget cuts.
Have we been underestimating the extent to which climate change will drive extreme events?

How should we be thinking about such bizarre occurrences?

And how the hell is it possible that we cannot afford something we were able to achieve in 1847, after 164 years of sustained 3% growth compounded annually? Can someone explain that to me?

h/t Lou Grinzo

Bastrop Fires Subside

I think Ron was joking, but in fact some of the success in controlling the Bastrop fire was actually due to informal, volunteer contributions.

Firefighters are mopping up the remnants of a blaze that tore through Bastrop State Park this week. All but 100 acres of the park were blackened by wildfire, but crews managed to save many historic Depression-era buildings.


Firefighters worked 30 hours without rest to limit damage by the fire. They saved cabins and other structures by spraying them with water and carving fire lanes around them with bulldozers loaned to the agency by volunteers.
Here's (hopefully) the final footprint of the Bastrop fire.

(NASA explains the 'LEUCKE', which is coincidentally used to calibrate their image resolution.)
We also made an empirical estimate of spatial resolution for lower contrast vegetation boundaries. By clearing forest so that a pattern would be visible to landing aircraft, a landowner outside Austin, Texas (see also aerial photo in Lisheron 2000), created a target that is also useful for evaluating spatial resolution of astronaut photographs. The forest was selectively cleared in order to spell the landowner's name 'LUECKE' with the remaining trees (figure 10). According to local surveyors who planned the clearing, the plan was to create letters that were 3100 ´ 1700 ft (944.9 ´ 518.2 m).

Another Anthropogenic Forcing

Rick Perry, among his other interesting attributes, has managed to unbalance the state budget of Texas, you know, the state with the miracle economy, to the tune of $2.5e10/annum; yes that is twenty-five billion dollars. Consequently, the forest service and the volunteer fire departments were among the services substantially defunded as of September 1, and some professional firefighters just recently lost their jobs.

The following is a republication (with permission) of an article from the Texas Tribune:

Fire Crews Straining Amid Devastation in Central Texas
by Matt Largey 9/7/2011

Federal authorities arrived in Bastrop on Tuesday to assist with the wildfires that have killed two, charred more than 30,000 acres and destroyed at least 600 homes. Matt Largey of KUT News reports that the crisis has stretched fire crews to their breaking point.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Who's left holding the bag? Not the wealthy taxpayers of Texas who got a big tax break from Perry, presumably. In fact, nobody seems to know.

As a Texan, I have no hesitation drawing on my vast supplies of culturally encouraged hubris to propose that the Bastrop disaster (now approaching the scale of the Joplin tornado disaster with over 1000 houses lost, with the fire only "35% contained" as of this morning) be considered primarily a federal matter. But I wouldn't be surprised to find the rest of the country disinclined to agree.

Update: Some comments at the LA Times fit my expectations nicely.
Stone_icon at 12:24 PM September 08, 2011

What kind of moron cuts the fire proctection budget in the midst of a long drought? You brag about your balanced budget and making hard choices, and then beg for aid when your foolishness bites you in the rear. Well good luck with that. Remember, there is no such thing as climate change.

JohnZ52 at 10:45 AM September 08, 2011

Perry slashed the budget for firefighters in his state. The majority are volunteers who pay for their own uniforms and equipment. Now Perry who foams at the mouth when government intrudes on business and regular folk is whining about not getting Federal Aid. Why should my tax dollars as a resident of CA go to assist a state and governor who are anti-gay, anti- choice and anti-immigrant? Perry once advocated that Texas seceed from the Union. Deal with it Gov, and quite crying that the rest of the United States isn't bailing you out.

JasonFerguson at 10:39 AM September 08, 2011

A tax free state with affordable housing is the accepted trade off for living in states that are vulnerable to natural disasters. Bet hedging 101 would encourage them to buy the best insurance they can afford. Why do they deserve additional financial help? I've chose to pay additional taxes to live in California and enjoy the beaches. Will the government help me out if I can't pay my property tax? No. They shouldn't. I knew what I was signing up for and so did they. The government can't continue to bailout nitwits. This is non-sense
No. You guys are wrong. You should send us money because Texas! Texas, Texas, Texas! And oh yeah, because climategate.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

More on Fires

An excellent piece on the Texas fire situation at Texas Climate News.
“In rapidly growing population areas like Austin, as more and more of the desirable land fills up, you get kind of a pushing in and a pressure to build in the zone that everybody knows you shouldn’t be building in,” says George Rogers, a senior research fellow at Texas A&M University’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center. “As your population expands, it’s a natural consequence: You have built-in pressure to build in less safe places.”
Picture is from a gallery at the Washington Post site.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lost Pines, Yesterday

Not the Obligatory Spencer Post

Satellite-derived fire sites today. (click image for higher resolution.)

Sorry if I'm not in the thick of the soap opera this week.

We are kind of sliding into a full blown catastrophe around these parts. It seems not quite timely to be playing paranoids and nerds right now.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Approaching Bastrop Today

More pictures via the Statesman. Top image from the Texas Trib.

"Lost Pines" Today vs 30 Months Ago

Also known as Bastrop State Park.

Click image for details.

Bastrop, Texas

Original photos, March and April 2009

click to embiggen

A Recent Comment About Lost Pines

Andy S said...

I believe the loblolly pine forest is a good indicator of long-term climate trends. They and their long tap roots are sensitive to long term soil moisture levels. The lost pines of Bastrop are there because it's an island of sandy soil that is permissive so that more of the region's rainfall is available for tree growth versus becoming surface runoff. Likewise the east Texas pines indicate both sandy soils and greater and more dependable rainfall. There are islands of loblolly forest between Bastrop and Houston whereever sandy soil inclusions exist in what is largely a sea of heavy clays.

How old is the pine forest around Bastrop? I'd guess it's been there since before the end of the Pleistocene when rainfall was higher than today and temperatures were cooler. Probably the pines were continuous or nearly so between Austin and Houston. I'd also guess that it survived the Holocene optimal as I've heard from other biologists that there is significant genetic differences between the Bastrop pines and those of east Texas.

So if the Bastrop pine forest dies before we get rain, then I'd say the drought and high temperatures are unprecendented since at least the last interglacial and that this is no longer weather but climate change that is killing Texas.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

It's Not Your Father's Recession

I was contemplating pointing out how there really hasn't been an "ordinary" recession for thirty years in the US: how employment recovers has been much slower since the early 80s. I guess it was in the air, because I came across somebody else ("mikekr") making the same point (with convenient graphics).

mikekr's attempt at an explanation is this:
(1) Let’s consider a stereotypical manufacturing situation.

With 5 workers, you product 5 widgets in 8 hourswith 5 machines

If your demand is 10 widgets, then you need 10 workers and 10 machines to produce these in 8 hours.

Often these relationships are pretty clear to management.

In a service economy, things are less clear. A retail shop has certain minimum staffing (say, 1) but if business is slow there is 1 staffer, doing not much. You might cut hours, but that cuts business even more. Once business picks up, there may be excess capacity (less boring time for the 1 clerk), OR it may be a while before the shop owner figures the queues are too long and more help is needed.

Similarly in sales: commission salesmen may not really want more “help”. Having suffered through the recession, they’d like to have people lining up outside their offices.

Either way, there is a less clear relationship between the amount of revenue and the amount of labor.

(2) Let’s consider consumer credit. If you have savings, or home equity, then in bad times you can tap these. But if you were using these assets during the previous “boom”, you will find your credit restricted and so instead of there being assets/credit lines to tap, there’s both no home equity to tap and possibly restricted credit.
There is probably something to that, but that isn't the way I see it. The way I see it is that there is that post 1980, there really is no profit-driven demand for labor. The slow growth you see in employment is demand-driven. Unemployed people desperate for incomes jockeying for position, driving employment conditions gradually down, eventually finding some way back to the trough.

In short, every bit of that work, no matter what the economists' idea of "efficiency" is totally unnecessary. It is not driven by actual demand for goods and services, but by demand for employment. Because of how politics works, politicians are totally frantic to drive these numbers back up, and so help the process. But the process only makes matters worse in the long run.

Now everybody is being paid part-time wages for full-time work and half the work being done doesn't do anybody any good.

At least, I have trouble seeing it any other way. But admittedly I'm strange about this stuff.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Foley says the same thing twice

My classmate Jon Foley has an interesting presentation, and it's mostly true and important, so admittedly everything actually should be said at least twice.

So he does.

I wonder about the presentation. Which is more effective, the twelve minute talk with images or the four minute screed-toon without much evidence. Or both? Is it really better to present exactly the same thing twice?

Personally I'd have liked more evidence, and links to literature.

PS - Is the part about the 30% greenhouse footprint true?


An interesting article at Bloomberg's on how insurance companies view climate change is, in my opinion, marred by this illustration of, well, sort of an equation from dreamland. Or possibly two. Hard telling.

Editor Apologizes for Spencer Paper, Resigns


Journal editor says Spencer paper arguing low climate sensitivity should not have passed peer review, resigns.
Peer-reviewed journals are a pillar of modern science. Their aim is to achieve highest scientific standards by carrying out a rigorous peer review that is, as a minimum requirement, supposed to be able to identify fundamental methodological errors or false claims. Unfortunately, as many climate researchers and engaged observers of the climate change debate pointed out in various internet discussion fora, the paper by Spencer and Braswell [1] that was recently published in Remote Sensing is most likely problematic in both aspects and should therefore not have been published.
After having become aware of the situation, and studying the various pro and contra arguments, I agree with the critics of the paper. Therefore, I would like to take the responsibility for this editorial decision and, as a result, step down as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Remote Sensing.
With this step I would also like to personally protest against how the authors and like-minded climate sceptics have much exaggerated the paper’s conclusions in public statements, e.g., in a press release of The University of Alabama in Huntsville from 27 July 2011 [2], the main author’s personal homepage [3], the story “New NASA data blow gaping hole in global warming alarmism” published by Forbes [4], and the story “Does NASA data show global warming lost in space?” published by Fox News [5], to name just a few. Unfortunately, their campaign apparently was very successful as witnessed by the over 56,000 downloads of the full paper within only one month after its publication. But trying to refute all scientific insights into the global warming phenomenon just based on the comparison of one particular observational satellite data set with model predictions is strictly impossible. Aside from ignoring all the other observational data sets (such as the rapidly shrinking sea ice extent and changes in the flora and fauna) and contrasting theoretical studies, such a simple conclusion simply cannot be drawn considering the complexity of the involved models and satellite measurements.
This will presumably dominate the climate blogs for a while. Maybe the mainstream press will find it interesting.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Burden of Proof

One delayer tactic is to demand "proof" of "global warming" before advocating "hugely expensive actions". (*)

This comes down to "burden of proof" arguments. Much though we might wish people understood Bayesian reasoning better, it appears that people are primed to a sort of naive absolutism by the legal system:
I was mugged once some years ago and was called in for a line up. It was night, the mugger was wearing a hoodie and for most of the time during the mugging there was a street light behind him. When I went in to the line up, I said I was 90% sure it was number 5. The officer questioned my 90% saying "Are you sure you're just 90% sure? We know it's the guy". I stuck to my 90%. I simply wasn't 100% sure and explained why (night, hoodie, street light).

After doing the line up, I was taken into an office with a detective to make a statement. When I got to the 90% sure thing, the detective started to get pretty agitated.

So, he stops the tape recorder and starts grilling me about my insistence on not saying I was sure it was the mugger. He got really angry and then said, "Don't give me that bullshit! We know it's the guy. Just say it's him, damnit!". He turns the tape recorder on and again I say I was 90% sure. So, he gets visibly angry, turns off the tape recorder and storms out of the office telling me I can get the hell out of there.
Where did this idea of "scientific proof" even come from? Anyway, this expectation of waiting for "proof", convenient for the fossil fuel interests, seems tied into some logical absurdities in the legal system as well.

( * ) - though they never demand "proof" that the actions would be hugely expensive. They certainly would be hugely expensive to the fossil fuel interests, after all!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Alleged Non-Limits to Growth

We presume as given that the energy consumption of the world must reach a finite limit, and consider whether the economy can maintain the imperative for growth. Prominent blogger Matt Yglesias comes up with some feeble handwaving that says it can. Yglesias is wrong.

Physics Prof Tom Murphy puts the endless growth conundrum through its paces and ends up in familiar places.

I'd like to quote this part. (If you don't fully understand it, go read it in context. In fact, go read it anyway. Murphy has had the patience and courage to work through several aspects fo the problem.)
The important result is that trying to maintain a growth economy in a world of tapering raw energy growth (perhaps accompanied by leveling population) and diminishing gains from efficiency improvements would require the “other” category of activity to eventually dominate the economy. This would mean that an increasingly small fraction of economic activity would depend heavily on energy, so that food production, manufacturing, transportation, etc. would be relegated to economic insignificance. Activities like selling and buying existing houses, financial transactions, innovations (including new ways to move money around), fashion, and psychotherapy will be effectively all that’s left. Consequently, the price of food, energy, and manufacturing would drop to negligible levels relative to the fluffy stuff. And is this realistic—that a vital resource at its physical limit gets arbitrarily cheap? Bizarre.

This scenario has many problems. For instance, if food production shrinks to 1% of our economy, while staying at a comparable absolute scale as it is today (we must eat, after all), then food is effectively very cheap relative to the paychecks that let us enjoy the fruits of the broader economy. This would mean that farmers’ wages would sink far lower than they are today relative to other members of society, so they could not enjoy the innovations and improvements the rest of us can pay for. Subsidies, donations, or any other mechanism to compensate farmers more handsomely would simply undercut the “other” economy, preventing it from swelling to arbitrary size—and thus limiting growth.

Another way to put it is that since we all must eat, and a certain, finite fraction of our population must be engaged in the production of food, the price of food cannot sink to arbitrarily low levels. The economy is rooted in a physical world that has historically been joined at the hip to energy use (through food production, manufacturing, transport of goods in the global economy). It is fantastical to think that an economy can unmoor itself from its physical underpinnings and become dominated by activities unrelated to energy, food, and manufacturing constraints.
I think we are already facing the problems of the real economy (especially food and water) becoming too small a fraction of the symbolic economy. I think Murphy is making the case that this can't possibly work.

How it will fail remains to be seen. An example would be some people starving while farmland is used to make gasoline.

Less obviously, emissions leading to massive climate change might thoroughly dominate over sustainability. That is, so much more "wealth" is tied up in energy than in the environment that we are willing to sacrifice the environment to such an extent that it will actually start to kill us.

Now consider the fact the speculative economy (banking and finance) is also many time larger than the symbolic economy. That is, banking and finance exchanges dominate symbolic exchanges (movies, real estate, fashion, personal computing gadgets) which in turn dominate over food and water. At some point, the decisions of the marketplace become stupid. The food goes away, driving the prices up, pulling the energy-intensive portion of the economy back into play.

What Murphy adds to the analysis is to close the loop. This is not just possible, somethinbg to worry about. On the presumption that the growth imperative can be maintained, it is inevitable, as the growth imperative keeps driving monetary value toward items disconnected from energy.

The real questions are first whether the time of the transition is already at hand, and second, whether we will have the social capacity to transition smoothly to non-growth, or whether disaster will force it upon us.

Endless growth supporting an endless debt-based economy cannot work.

Update: Again I remind everybody of the Ms Fnd n a Lbry

Update: Via Ron Broberg, this graphic from an article (in English) on der Spiegel

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Spot the Outlier

Thanks to reader MM for pointing out John Nielsen-Gammon's latest posting at the Houston Chronicle site. It is very much worth a read if you are interested in climate or in Texas. (It happens that I am obsessed with both, as readers probably know.)

I'll steal just one of the stunning graphics as a teaser:

Climate change is now, folks, and this is what it looks like.

Will Texas revert to its normal, already quite variable, range? Well, yeah, probably. Will it ever be too wet again? I wouldn't be surprised. (Remind me to talk about why I believe that year over year climate variability is going to increase almost everywhere. I really don't think most people are thinking about this right. Take note of 2004 and 2007 over on the right side of the figure, for instance.)

But will there be another year like this next year? That's up to the tropical Pacific of all places. Another La Nina year (as some ENSO models predict) might just do us a lot of damage if it pans out the way this one did. Two years in a row like this one would cause permanent environmental damage to Texas. It's hard to imagine many unwatered trees left alive anywhere from El Paso to Texarkana if that happens.

And it's far from clear that the infrastructure would hold up either.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Truth About the Truth About Greenhouse Gases


I've been asked to comment on William Happer's "The Truth about Greenhouse Gases", and finding no competent discussion of it anywhere on the first three pages of hits have agreed to take it on.

To give you an idea of the tenor of the document, it starts off modestly, like this:
“The object of the Author in the following pages has been to collect the
most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been
excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to
show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and
gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes,” wrote Charles
Mackay in the preface to the first edition of his Extraordinary Popular
Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I want to discuss a contemporary
moral epidemic: the notion that increasing atmospheric concentrations
of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, will have disastrous
consequences for mankind and for the planet. This contemporary
“climate crusade” has much in common with the medieval crusades
Mackay describes, with true believers, opportunists, cynics, money-hungry
governments, manipulators of various types, and even children’s
Yes, Happer, who holds a named chair in physics at Princeton, is of the paranoiac school of skepticism, the one that would rather believe in a grand conspiracy than to consider for a minute the possible need for collective action on this matter.

After this blistering start, he takes some time to get warmed up. A few pages go on about how plants like CO2 and CO2 is necessary for life, so we shouldn't call it a pollutant until we start suffocating. This, before taking on the climate question, is plainly putting the cart before the horse, but it takes up a few pages. And by now we are convinced that the reason the fellow is not getting around to making a point is that he hasn't got one.

That is to say, William/Belette/Stoat's point is basically the right approach:
So the question is, how can Happer not be aware of this? He is not obliged to agree with the IPCC report, but he cannot but realise that it is the authoritative voice of the position he disagrees with; he is obliged to at least know what it says and (if he is being honest) he is obliged to report (and then, if he can, refute) its arguments. It is dishonest of him to substitute strawmen.
I summarize the case at greater length than William does:
  • Most of the constituent gases of the atmosphere are transparent at the frequencies of the earth's thermal radiation.
  • Most of the opacity in the infrared ("greenhouse effect") is due to carbon dioxide and water vapor, and clouds (liquid and solid water emulsions) which of course are also opaque to incoming radiation
  • Human activity directly increases carbon dioxide, mostly due to fossil fuel consumption, but also through deforestation and chemical processes related to manufacture of cement. Human activity also affects the radiative properties of the atmosphere via a few other trace greenhouse gases, and via increases in aerosol dust.
  • Finally, human interference in surface processes over land can have large regional effects.
  • As these perturbations increase in rough proportion to economic activity, the carbon dioxide comes to dominate over time because of its long residency in atmosphere-upper-ocean-land system. Though exchanges among these reservoirs is large, that does not reduce the net amount of carbon in the atmosphere. To a first approximation, carbon is removed on the time scale of the deep overturning of the ocean, on the order of a thousand years.
  • While of course the sun is by far the dominant energy source for the system, its variability is small (measured in energy) compared to the disruptions due to greenhouse gases and aerosols. Climate forcing is dominated by anthropogenic effects, of which warming is expected to increasingly dominate.
  • Water vapor feedbacks are well characterized and are known to approximately double the temperature sensitivity of the system. Cloud feedbacks, which potentially might be ameliorating or exacerbating, remain poorly characterized.
  • Various forms of evidence are in rough agreement that sensitivity is on the order of 2.5 degrees per doubling, but the uncertainty has proven stubborn. Probably this is correct within a multiplicative factor of 2, i.e., almost certainly between 1.25 C and 5 C per doubling.
  • Simulation of the atmosphere (using GCMs) is a useful tool within science, but its results should not at present be considered as reliable projections of the future, even given emission scenarios. Simulations are tuned to the present day, be expected to understate risks and fail to represent unprecedented configurations of the climate system.
  • Very little is known about the potential geochemical feedbacks which clearly exacerbated the glacial cycle in the geologically recent past. These could potentially greatly amplify the dangers without actually affecting the sensitivity as usually measured. It is expected and hoped that these feedbacks would take a long time on human scales to appear, but we may be committing future generations to deal with them.
I think all the above is uncontroversial. Happer addresses none of it. What does he come up with instead?

At the bottom of page four we come to the first mention of climate, and we are well into the fifth page before the famous physicist manages to construct the following argument:
The argument starts something like this. CO2 levels have increased from
about 270 ppm to 390 ppm over the past 150 years or so, and the earth
has warmed by about 0.8 C during that time. Therefore the warming is
due to CO2. But correlation is not causation. The local rooster crows every
morning at sunrise, but that does not mean the rooster caused the sun to
rise. The sun will still rise on Monday if you decide to have the rooster for
Sunday dinner.

There have been many warmings and coolings in the past when the CO2
levels did not change.
Yes, after five pages he leads with a version of the "dinosaurs had no SUVs, QED" argument!

What's more , he defends it with the "wine exported from Greenland" meme. I myself am responsible for tracking this one down to an archaeologust who showed that wine was imported into Greenland. A horse of a different color, you'll admit.

So by the time we reach page five we have four pages of waffling, a stunningly weak fallacy, and an incorrect anecdote raised in support of it. Hardly an auspicious start.

Bah. My bad. It was wine "exported from England". I jumped to a conclusion because the whole Greenlandic wine incident tickles me so. I have found lots of evidence, by the way, that wine was produced in the south of England in the middle ages for local consumption, but so far no evidence of any export. But that's a quibble.

But it's all in service of a ludicrous claim. Nobody has ever said that CO2 is the ONLY influence on global climate. This is a childish bit of misdirection, not befitting a scientist.

En passant, it's worth noticing, Happer manages this howler:
Yet there are strident calls for immediately stopping further increases in
CO2 levels and reducing the current level (with 1990 levels the arbitrary
There are no such strident calls. Everybody knows that CO2 will continue to rise for some considerable time. It is emission levels that form the arbitrary benchmark. Again, the whole reason that CO2 is the key to anthropogenic forcing is that concentrations are approximately cumulative, that the residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere/upper-ocean/land-surface system is very long.

another rationale for reducing CO2 is now promoted: to
stop the hypothetical increase of extreme climate events like hurricanes
or tornados. But dispassionate data show that the frequency of extreme
events has hardly changed and in some cases has decreased in the 150
years that it has taken CO2 levels to increase from 270 ppm to 390 ppm.
Hurricanes and tornados have very noisy statistics with components at interannual time scales. There is also contention about the theoretical expectations, particularly regarind hurricanes. It will be some considerable time before we have much confidence in what the trend is.

But do we have theoretical and modeling reasons to expect increased floods and increased droughts in the greenhouse-enhanced world, and here the record is strongly supportive of those expectations. Happer carefully tiptoes around this evidence.
But these records show that changes
in temperature preceded changes in CO2 levels, so that CO2 levels were
an effect of temperature changes. Much of this was probably due to
outgassing of CO2 from the warming oceans or the reverse on cooling.
That the effect goes one way does not preclude it from going the other way. That, in fact, is what "feedback" means. There remains much for the scientific community to learn about the glacial cycles of the geologically recent past. But we are certain that it cannot be explained without the greenhouse effect. The energetics do not add up otherwise. Accounting for the CO2 brings temperatures back into balanace.
During the “Younger Dryas” some 12,000 years ago,
the earth very dramatically cooled and warmed -- as much 10 C in fifty
years -- with no apparent change in CO2 levels, and with life -- including
our human ancestors -- surviving the rapid change in temperature just
Um. No. The 10C in fifty years was the temperature shift in Greenland. Most life was not affected by it.
Our present global
warming is not at all unusual by the standards of geological history,
No, though it is unusual in human history. But this is not the point. The anticipated rate of CO2 increases, especially in the absence of a globally supported mitigation policy, are unprecedented in geological history (with the possible exception of the disastrous K-T PETM transition which nearly wiped out all ocean life, probably in a burst of ocean acidification). And the rate and duration of the incipient CO2 spike lead to a strong expectation of a very large shift in temperature to be anticipated over the coming century.
The organization charged with producing scientific support for
the climate crusade, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC), finally found a solution. They rewrote the climate history of the
past 1000 years with the celebrated “hockey stick” temperature record
This is tendentious nonsense. Research advanced. The graph in the 1990 report was a rough schematic.
[M & M] showed that the hockey stick was not supported by observational data.
They nitpicked. The millenial preindustrial data remains unexciting. The evidence for a global Medieval Warm Period remains marginal and roughly irrelevant. And its removal has negligible impact on any serious estimation of the prospects. It's really not in any way significant whether or not these events occurred. It would merely be incorrect to claim that they are in the global record, though to be sure regional changes did occur on this time scale.
One of the most consistent themes of the e-mails is the need to hide raw data from anyone outside the team. Why the obsession on withholding data? Because the hockey stick lost credibility when it was possible to see the raw, unmanipulated data on which it was based.
This, I am sorry to say, is not just vicious but quite wrong. The reticence is based on a distaste for cooperating with people who had shown themselves to be rude and malicious. There is a long story here with raw feelings on both sides, but one side of it starts with a desire to avoid what was perceived as unpleasant people and time-wasting interactions. But the general outlines of the hockey stick remain. Numerous independent procedural investigations have concluded that no data was altered or misrepresented, and numerous scientific investigations have confirmed the general outline of the result, albeit some with a bumpier "shaft" to the hockey stick, a perfectly ordinary point of research contention.

But finally we come to the central myth of post "Climateg*te" bunk:
Peer review in climate science means that the ”team” recommends publication of each other’s work, and tries to keep any off-message paper from being accepted for publication. Why this obsession with cleansing the “scientific” literature of any opposing views? Because it allows climate extremists to claim that they represent all of science and anyone who questions their message is at war with all of science, except for a few “flat-earthers”, “deniers,” or others scorned with carefully researched epithets, designed to discredit dissenting scientific opinion
This is simply begging the question. If there is in fact legitimate scientific argument that the consensus position is wrong, then it is wrong for people to keep these positions out of the literature. But if the so-called skeptic papers are garbage, scientific flat-earthism, it is the legitimate function of editors to keep them out of the literature and out of the literature review.

This can only be addressed by actually looking at the science, which Happer refuses to do. He simply repeats the usual political talking points, trying to justify doing so by his position and his reputation. But his reputation is as a physicist, not as a politician. He does himself and us no favors by repeating shabby talking points from the political press.

It goes on. Shabby attacks on the models:
John von Neumann once said, “With four
parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle
his trunk.” Climate models have dozens of parameters, not unlike the
epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy.
Yes, but with dozens of parameters, climate models simulate systems with millions of degrees of freedom at the implementation level, and at least thousands at the physical level. This can only be possible with an actual underlying physical model. It cannot be a coincidence.
No model predicted the lack of net warming of the
earth’s temperature that we have experienced over the past ten years
Well, we don't have a date on this publication, or I didn;t find one at least. For a brief moment in 2008-9 one could actually make this case without being blatantly dishonest, but of course even so it is just cherry-picking. In other words, it is at best a truth of a mendacious sort. As has been explained many times, there is unforced interannual variability which can mask the trend over relatively short time intervals. If Happer had any genuine interest in the material, he would know this. And indeed, a later paragraph shows that he does understand how this works, yet he repeats the flawed argument in the very next breath.
All of the proposed controls that would
have such a significant impact on the world’s economic future are based
on computer models that are so complex and chaotic that many runs
are needed before we can get an “average” answer. Yet the models
have failed the simple scientific test of prediction.

etc. etc.

The last several pages are reduced to conspiracy-mongering of the worst kind and make no pretense to engaging the science at all. As with Dyson, the points of actual substance are few, incoherent, and ill-informed. But at least Dyson manages an air of decency and humility. Happer is blazing with anger and contempt, without showing any signs of having listened to the people he is criticizing.

It's true that the intellectual style of earth science is different from that of pure physics. But it's not as if Happer were remotely as intellectually lazy as this empty attack would indicate. Politics seems able to override reason. This is a pile of political talking points, not any sort of engagement with the evidence. It's a shame.

Climate science could well do with competent criticism. It increasingly appears that serious concerns about the science must be impossible, because all the critiques are so spectacularly non-serious.

pic: William Happer from his lab's website