"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Write your editors re G8 academies statement

Don Libby on the GlobalChange list makes the suggestion that we write letters to the editor of prominent local media demanding coverage of the joint statement of the national academies.

This would be especially effective coming from a group of credentialed scientists at a major university. If you're in a position to drum up such a letter writing campaign, even on a small scale, please do so.

(see other recent postings on this blog; will update with links later).

Update: I posted on this on Grist. Let me know if you spot any effect.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Don't it Always Seem to Go

Irene and I spent Saturday driving on the nearly deserted and stunningly beautiful back roads of the Texas Panhandle, on the way to Asleep at the Wheel's tribute to Bob Wills (yeee-haw!) slackjawed in amazement at the wild profligate unspoiled profusion of nature.

The few locals that are there think of it as a buncha danged weeds.

We stopped, on the way, for a soda and some peanuts. (The Prius did not need any gas.) The pasty and sad looking girl at the checkout asked us where we were from. When we said Austin, she nearly melted with longing and jealousy, for to a rural Texan adolescent, Austin is heaven. She saw Irene's SLR and asked if we had stopped to take pitchers of Spur. (Indeed, we were in Spur, Texas, not far by West Texas standards from Bob Wills' hometown of Turkey Texas.)

I said that, no, we were taking pictures of the countryside, and I expressed my deep appreciation for its beauty. (I'm not poet enough to express my feelings in text very well. I might have gotten choked up a bit as I expressed my admiration for the countryside.)

The young woman regarded me as if I were mad, to leave Austin to dally among the weeds of the Texas Panhandle.

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone
They've paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Searching in Vain

I continue to search in vain for the remotest sign that the joint statement of the national academies on energy policy has been picked up anywhere on any professionals news media.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Joint Academies' Statement Real? Yes.

I found myself wondering if this Joint Science Academies Statement is for real. I really want it to be, but I like the so-called Chief Seattle thing and the so-called Mandela inaugural address a lot too. Wishing something doesn't make it true. You would think a thing like this would get a whole lot of notice.

Anyway, it is linked from the Royal Society, and it also appears on the US National Academies' site, which is reassuring. I would hate to have to retract that posting.

I really want it to be true. So, I am glad to report that it appears to be true, though I admit to still be hanging on to a shred of doubt.

So now I wish it were getting more attention. Why isn't this on everybody's lips these days?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Nice comment by Hank

Hank Roberts has a comment on RC on whether an interest in environmental protection is altruistic.

He says not, in an interesting way.

If wishes were fishes I wish I could hear Dawkins and E. O. Wilson hash this out. Perhaps the selfish gene produces biophilia for a reason...

Whither and Whence Social Biases in Climatology?

At least in the US, the financial pressure is probably not toward overstating the climate change problem.

Here's a data point for consideration in the "in it for the gold" argument.

Uncertainty and Conservatism

In a comment by Onar Aam on RC, it is alleged that proposed policy responses to anthropogenic climate change are excessive because scientific uncertainty leaves open the possibility that the sensitivity of the system is much smaller than the consensus would have it. This argument is common enough.

For almost fifteen years now I have been (using my unfortunately trivial influence; though for some reason Fergus seems to be singlehandedly trying to change that; thanks Fergus!) pointing out that such an argument is totally wrong, pretty much exactly 180 degrees off the mark.

Here's my response, verbatim, which you can also read on RC.

Suppose we grant for the sake of argument that the total range of uncertainty (of some quantity) is a factor of 100. Does it follow that the quantity is possibly overestimated by a factor of 100? Perhaps, but surely it follows no more and no less than it follows that there is an equivalent possibility that the quantity is being underestimated by a factor of 100.

Why are people constantly harping on the risk of overestimating climate change when the risk of underestimating it has vastly greater consequences?

Rational policy under uncertainty should be risk-weighted, which implies that the less faith one has in the consensus position, the more vigorous an emissions policy one should support. It is very peculiar and striking to observe how common a position like Aam's is despite the fact that it is incoherent.

Those people who doubt the consensus in a rational way (e.g., Broecker, Lovelock) advocate for a very vigorous policy. We don't know how bad it can be, so we really ought to give considerable weight to it being very very bad. The asymmetry arises because we know how good it can be. Climate change can at best amount to a (relatively) very small net gain, if it is modest and slow enough. At worst it can quite conceivably be a threat to civilization.

Most people stressing the uncertainty, though, seem to me to deliberately strive to confuse the policy process, or to echo others who do so. It is discouraging how effective this tactic continues to be, given that it is based on a completely irrational argument. The only remotely sensible way to argue for small or no policy response is not to argue for large uncertainty. A rational argument for policy inaction requires arguing that the consensus position is certainly wrong and oversensitive. A rational, conservative response to uncertainty would be to take more effort to avoid the risk.

My use of the word "conservative" in the concluding sentence is deliberate, of course.

I always find it a tortured use of the word "conservatism" to suggest that monkeying with the biosphere (an astonishing and rare natural phenomenon) is a better idea than tuning the economy (an artifact). I can anticipate the tedious answers of course (cue Mr Duff), but I find myself wondering what, exactly, these so-called conservative people think they are conserving.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Essential Reading: Updated

Whew, it's harder to maintain a blog when you are working than when you ain't...

Anyway, a couple of bits of essential reading from the blogroll today: Samadhisoft points to this BBC report which suggests that
  • There is a global migration crisis

  • climate change will make it worse
Yep.

It's not a matter of climate change, all else being stable. It's a matter of throwing an unprecedented problem into an increasingly volatile mix. I think people should be talking about the big picture more. I see this in science as well as in politics. Everyone's wrapped up in their niches. Thinking about the big picture is discouraged.

Dennis at Samadhisoft calls the confluence of population and technology driven global problems a "Perfect Storm Hypothesis". I'm not sure it's a hypothesis, strictly speaking, but that's whistling past the graveyard, isn't it?

UPDATE: IS THIS TRUE? YOU'D THINK THERE WOULD BE MORE TALK ABOUT IT.

ANOTHER UPDATE: YES I THINK SO, SO WHY ISN'T EVERYBODY TALKING ABOUT IT?

Meanwhile Eli points to John Fleck, (who gratuitously invokes the Framing Meme in) pointing to the joint position of the various national science academies of:
Brazil
Canada
China
France
Germany
India
Italy
Japan
Mexico
Russia
South Africa
the United Kingdom
the United States of America
surely representing the great majority of contemporary scientists worldwide, stating:
  • "Our present energy course is not sustainable."

  • "Responding to this demand while minimising further climate change will need all the determination and ingenuity we can muster."

  • "The problem is not yet insoluble but becomes more difficult with each passing day."

  • G8 countries bear a special responsibility for the current high level of energy consumption and the associated climate change. Newly industrialized countries will share this responsibility in the future."
Nicely done. Hopefully this will have an impact on most people's thinking. It's a great relief to see the academies making such strong and unequivocal statements.

Update: Also, be sure you catch up on the last of Jeffrey Sach's Reith lecture series. In the final installment, Sachs suggests that defeating severe poverty and inequity, globally, in the very near term (a decade or so) is a necessary and plausible first step in our escape from our quandary. I think he has a point.

Finally, I suggest you wander over to the Global Change List which is getting very interesting these days.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Statement of the Obvious

Of course alternatives to fossil fuels cost more than fossil fuels do, provided you neglect the environmental impact of fossil fuels. If this were not the case, the other sources of power would already be dominant.

Unfortunately, the marketplace as presently constituted does not adequately account for the damage due to fossil fuels.

The fact that carbon is not already largely phased out is a simple example of the tragedy of the commons. In the global aggregate, fossil fuel use is much more expensive than it appears. It's just that you are extracting wealth from a common pool every time you use them, rather than from your own resources. The commons is the climate system. So each of us, when we maximize individual utility in our energy decisions, reduce the viability of the world as a whole, by extracting value from the climate resource held in common.

The simplest solution is to increase the cost to the consumer of carbon emissions to the point where these externalities are accounted for, and wait for alternatives to emerge from private enterprise. Since it would be counterproductive to increase the profits of the producer, this amounts to a tax. Public revenues can be held constant, if so desired, by reducing other taxes.

The devil is in the details of course, but the big picture is really not all that complicated.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thank you for emitting CFCs

On the globalchange list, Tom Adams points to a very interesting essay about ozone hole skepticism.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sign a Petition to Get Fox News to Drop Junk Science on Global Warming

Now that Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch has announced that his company would join the battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it's time for Fox News to end its reporting of misinformation on climate change. Here is a petition to encourage more, uh, "fair and balanced" coverage.

Here's a nicely framed brief video motivating the petition.

Of course you have to believe "our" economists instead of "their" economists to follow this video's argument to the end, but frankly I don't care if it costs more than ten dollars to save the world. I am in for whatever it takes, silly me.

(Hmm, eleven dollars and no world, world and no eleven dollars, tough call...)

The point of the petition is that Fox News is feeding people noise and interfering with the function of democracy. It's irresponsible to do so, and they should stop.

By the way, note that you do not have to do a PayPal contribution to the petitions service to make this work. Just navigate away from that page if you want to.

UPDATE: A couple of comments apparently directed to this thread have appeared attached to the recent posting "global wamring updates". Apaprently I indavertently had comments turned off here.

Anyway, despite the lead-in, which probably appeals to young males at the cost of being a bit off-putting to the rest of, I do think Brian's YouTube video presentation on AGW is worth a look.

Global Warming Updates

NASA shows some gumption.

The AAPG considers backing off. (Compare with their previous position.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Microsoft Tells Us About Geoengineering

Speaking of engineers, IEEE Spectrum has an article on geoengineering that reads rather as if Heiko Gerhauser had written it, except that it is by Somebody Important, specifically William B. Gail, director of strategic development at Microsoft's Virtual Earth unit, and a member of the National Research Council's "Decadal Study" group for Earth science and applications, whatever any of that means.

The strongest point he makes is this:


Our influence on climate may be inadvertent, but it is a milestone in civilization's progress. We have, for the first time, the technological capacity to noticeably alter climate on a global basis within a person's lifetime. History suggests that our expanding population and increasing technological ability will cause this capacity to grow with time, not decline. If not because of greenhouse gas emissions, it will be because of something else, such as changes in land coverage or the acidification of the ocean. The question now is: Should we strive to channel this capacity to our benefit, or should we struggle perpetually to avoid having any impact, for better or worse?


It seems plausible, but it's so impractical as to be silly.

It's ridiculous to talk about human activity bringing the system under control any time soon. At the moment we are utterly out of control. We have not demonstrated a capacity for postindustrial civilization to reach any stable operating point. It may be possible to do that sometime in the distant future, but for now we have to slow the huge input that is in process, to reach something like a quasiequilibrium.

It's like having a barely conscious drunk at the wheel of the car and arguing that in principle the car could get to Myrtle Beach. (I assume for the purpose of the analogy that you are in North America but not in South Carolina.) Yes it might, but the immediate issue is pulling off to the side of the road without major incident.

Gail is ridiculously optimistic about climate models (and presumably the poor sod has to run his climate models under Microsoft operating systems... I actually know someone who tried to do this once... He didn't fare well...) but that is the least of his problems. Look at his conclusions.


Before we picked a climate, we would need to evolve the political, commercial, and academic institutions to get us there. International institutions, in particular, would need to be strengthened to support the inevitably global solutions. The new technical discipline Earth systems engineering would have to be expanded and countless practitioners trained. We would have to develop complex new computer models, not only to forecast climate but also to understand how today's costs should be balanced against tomorrow's benefits. The private sector would need to envision climate change as opportunity, not impediment. The complete transition will take decades, if not centuries, but it can be accomplished in small steps.

The risks, of course, would be enormous. Virtually no significant technological breakthrough has ever occurred that nations did not find a way to apply to warfare, and the possibilities of global-scale climate alteration for military purposes would be staggering. Even putting those aside, the temptation of nations to use climate to gain economic advantage will be great. All human institutions suffer from mismanagement to some extent—those associated with climate will be no different. Any approach to climate management would have to be very robust to compensate for such failings.

Some may argue that humankind will never be able to manage projects that are so big and risky. Much the same was said about nuclear weapons, yet civilization has so far succeeded in controlling their enormous risk. In the case of climate change, the risks of not acting—relying on the belief that human climate influence can be eliminated soon and forever-after avoided—could be even more dangerous.


Indeed.

I am sorry to say to those of you still running "Windows" that people who think exactly this clearly designed your computer's software.

Meanwhile Hank Roberts has a rather more insightful approach to geoengineering on the globalchange list.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Economists vs Engineers

For those wandering in here without context, I am advocating a rethinking of economics in the light of sustainability issues in general and climate change in particular.

Consider minutes 4 through 7 of this video of a Google Tech Talk by Van Jacobson.

"It's not that the solution we have is a bad one, it's that the problem has changed."

I'd like to see this sort of breadth of vision coming from economic thinkers. (I'm not saying it never does, of course, but it doesn't seem that real alternatives bubble to the top the way they do in other applied disciplines.)

If you are a bit technical you will find the rest of the presentation, which goes into detail about these revolutions in the data communication sphere, interesting as well.

Why is there such little prospect of a Copernican revolution in economic thinking? Do people really think that the circumstances of the past two centuries as generalized by economics are invariant? That the system can have no regimes? That there is only one possible correct way of looking at aggregate behavior and that we already have it?

[Update: Yes, apparently some people are perfectly happy to go that far without even a hint of humility. See the comments to this entry. They must have some powerfully compelling evidence and rigorous arguments. It sure would nice to see these.]

Many people think the calling of a scientist is in some way higher than that of the engineer, but frankly I am not at all convinced. Scientists seek truth, and engineers seek solutions. The circumstances we are in require solutions, and so the engineering mentality will be more valuable for the foreseeable future.

We need more pragmatic economics. Ambitious economists ought to let go of this bizarre pretension that the world's economic system is anything but an artifact, and will start to think about how to redesign it to account for the fact that the problem has changed.

More on the Asteroid

A chap called Alex Steffen has a response to my recent Grist article based on The Little Prince.

Thanks to David Roberts for catching that and calling it to my attention.

Anonymous Contribution: In Defense of Growth

Inel passes along this anonymous contribution, in an effort to answer one of my perennial questions about the conventional wisdom in economics. It's interesting and polite, but it still seems to see everything on a pretty narrow Marxism/capitalism axis with the limits set by sustainability as a sort of afterthought.

In short, I can't agree but I think it's worth reading.





Growing GDP is an economic, political and philosophical issue

Economics

* GDP has a definition in economics (I forget specifics but its easy to find a definition) as the gross output of a nation. You could in theory say that you could measure spending rather than output to define the “economic size” of a nation.
* It is the bluntest tool used for comparing the wealth of nations.
* Real GDP is net of inflation: for example GDP growth of 5% at a time when inflation is 10% would indicate the national economy is shrinking.
* The “economy” of a nation is a complex organism with many compensating and conflicting trends, drivers and results: GDP helps to give a blunt measure of size and growth (each year and over the long term). Most economies are valued in dollars to make international comparisons possible.


Politics

* Political systems vary.
* Managed (command-style) economies are goal driven rather than economically driven. For example, USSR used to have a five year plan (etc) which defined success in meeting quotas such as tank production, wheat harvest, etc. In such political systems, the obsession with output was regardless of cost, damage and lives lost. It was not a good system.
* Political systems based on shared wealth, production, workload have all failed. Leaders and oligarchs inevitably distort the system for their own ends because of human nature (temptation and the ability to abuse their position). It always happens – look at Africa and Eastern Europe. Such systems are utopian and not practical. Such systems killed 100m people in the 20th century though bad implementation of ideals.
* Open, democratic political systems have done best (historically) during a period of free markets and international competition / cooperation through trade. The most extreme example of this is the globalization of the past 20 years.
* In such democracies, growth is a sign of progress. The opposite of growth leads to electoral failure. Growth may be defined in more terms than just GDP: for example – unemployment levels, quality of state services (health, education, benefits). There are also intangible measures (“equality of opportunity”, “social mobility”, etc)
* State spending in democratic countries is always under pressure: look at increasing healthcare costs. Therefore in general, improvements in state provision require GDP (output) growth and such growth is driven by rising expectations of the citizen.
* By definition, the average citizen (measured by mean income) earns less than half the population – the other 50% earn even less. In an open society (democratic institutions, freedom of speech, reasonable policing), most people will aspire to better things. These aspirations provide a permanent driver for economic advancement, driving demand for increased GDP.


Philosophy: Two major issues arise for me in this discussion about GDP

Society vs. the Individual

o One’s view on the role of the individual in society generally guides one’s politics more than anything else. The US is highly individualistic, Sweden has a more collective society. There is no right answer. I am more of an individualist because I am able-bodied and successful, and feel society does best when the best and brightest are encouraged to achieve: scientifically, economically, creatively. Beyond a certain point social initiatives by government limit choice, suppress excellence and dumb down the potential to a reasonable average.
o Systems which say for example we should have net-neutral economies (no real growth in GDP) will inevitably place limitations on the freedom of the individual. Inventors will be prevented from inventing stuff that provides economic advantage against other countries; there will have to be quotas on creativity, invention and ultimately freedom. I believe the implications of a forced “non-growth” are dangerous.
o A parallel discussion concerns population: it is clear that fewer people (as well as fixing global warming) provides better resource allocation for us all. The morality of implementing such a strategy has implications best seen in China over the past 40 years with single child quotas that have led to mass abortion and infanticide. Its morally unacceptable to pursue such a strategy.
o In conclusion, GDP growth matters less than GDP neutrality / contraction: the latter leads people, and their elected officials to ask why we are not advancing and so GDP growth is the logical goal for modern democracies.

Nationalism vs. ‘Internationalism’

o The other approach here is to question the nature of nation-states. If we had a world government, there would be less national rivalry, less emphasis on growth for national pride, less need to compare.
o Lessons of the EU show both sides of this issue.
o It is great that EU expansion brings many people together, the Euro and tax harmonization strive to minimize the petty differences between countries. On the other hand, the EU failed to agree a constitution and now has a major rethink about future strategy.
o I believe the EU constitution story is relevant: on the whole, people do not want to be equalized and homogenized. They will put up with being average if there is a chance to be better off: it is more important to have the opportunity than to achieve the goal.


So, I do not believe a voluntary or mandatory scheme to reduce GDP growth to acceptable levels (or zero) is feasible or desirable. I think the best opportunity for tackling climate change is to use the forces of greed and ambition and risk-taking to our advantage. I just do not know how."

Sunday, May 6, 2007

What I'm complaining about

This way of thinking seems literally insane to me.

These numbers mean pretty much nothing. There is no purpose to arguing whose numbers are right. The problem is what is at risk, and how much it is at risk. People. Places. Beauty. Culture. Safety. Stability. Sanity. Peace.

Quantifying it in GDP gained or lost is so thoroughly senseless that I am rendered speechless. (Well, maybe only for a minute or two. It does make me shake my head a whole lot, though.)

It's time to upgrade the OS

Economics isn't the machine, it's just the operating system. Consider the "great depression".

The day before the 1929 stock market crash, the world was no wealthier than the day after in real terms. The operating system crashed.The actual poverty was a consequence of the failure of the operating system, not a failure of crops or industry. It was a software failure, not a hardware failure.

That it has not repeated with the same force is a consequence of actual human intervention into the processes by which economic transactions occur, not of some "laws of nature" that "economic science" merely discovers.

It is time for a conscious redesign of the economic structure. We need a smooth transition to a new operating system or an abrupt and nasty one will be foisted upon us by reality.

This need not be and should not be conceptually extreme or radical, but it can't be shallow and symbolic either. We need to build some way for the sustainability requirements of the long time scales to impact day-to-day decisions about utility. Otherwise we will be throwing out the baby and cherishing the bathwater.

Changing "the entire economic structure of the world" is a matter of will, and is no small task, but in the end, it's words, not deeds. Whether farmers grow the corn or AMD makes the Opterons is a matter of deeds. The economic structure is not provided by God, it is a deliberate social construction, one which effectively motivates some behaviors and effectively demotivates others. Beliefs to the contrary strike me as rationalizations of the beneficiaries, like monarchs muttering about the "divine right of kings".

We can choose which behaviors are rewarded and which are not by upgrading the operating system. This must be done carefully and judiciously, and with due attention to motivations and rights, but under current circumstances it has to be done substantially and without delay.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Economists

Economist William Nordhaus , among the best of the breed, is giving a talk entitled Measuring the Economic Effects of Global Warming. It will be presented to the Committee on National Statistics of the National Academies (US) in Washington DC on May 10, 3 PM Eastern time. It will be webcast.

Here is a related Policy Forum letter in Science from 2004.

Though I find economists interesting, and I am gratified to see the cost/benefit approach I advocated in the 90s get some traction, I think they are approaching long time scales in a way that is fundamentally wrong.

I have made some progress in identifying and explaining my discomfort with their approach. Here's a contributing event to my new understanding.

Now that I am living a car-based existence in a sprawly and ugly (albeit strangely lovable) town, I get to listen to NPR again. (By the way NPR has a plethora of climate stories on their website.)

Anyway, All Things Considered had some climate stories a couple of evenings ago. One economist stated "in order to deal with the greenhouse problem, we would have to change the entire economic structure of the world!"

Well, duh. The implication that this means we are doomed escapes me altogether. Economics are software, the control system of our society, not its infrastructure.

Maybe a couple of analogies will give you the idea of what I am thinking.

In order to keep our boiler from exploding we're going to have to replace the entire thermostat!

In order for our car to get back on the road we're going to have to replace the entire alternator!

Yeah, and...?

In short, economics should be a branch of engineering, not of science. The pretensions to pure science are confused and counterproductive.

I'll have more to say on this, so stay tuned.

Update - I just had a look at the WGIII SPM,as I ought to do if I'm going to talk about this stuff. It is much better than I expected.

(The WGII muddle didn't leave me expecting much, frankly, but I'm pleasantly surprised with WGIII.)

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

I really must reorganize my blogroll

My blogroll taxonomy just won't do.

For instance I am having trouble categorizing this very interesting chap who wants to exchange blogrollings.

Dennis has been writing quite a lot, and I've only looked a little bit of it.

It's a bit off center but so far I haven't seen much I can disagree with. While my first impression wasn't good, the second was quite favorable. So far, it looks to me like fresh, intelligent thinking from outside the usual channels.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Interesting Anti-Framing Article

My good friend Rob Jacob has an interesting anti-framing rant up on Climate Spin.

I try to defend the framing position in the comments...