"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, June 29, 2007

Good News Bad News

I was flattered to receive a review copy of Chris Mooney's new book, Storm World.

I haven't read it all, but so far I agree with the very favorable RC review.

Matt Huber is not given a lot of space, but the space he gets hits the nail on the head. You can (well, probably) take this quote from him to the bank, folks. As I mentioned earlier, this ties up a lot of loose ends in paleoclimate:
"The good news is the world may have a tropical thermostat that helps keep the planet cool. And the bad news is that that may be tropical cyclones running around all the time."
That's the physics fact to take home if you don't have time to read the book soon.

There's a lot more to this book, though, and it's wonderful to see such good work in science journalism.

unusual Texas meteorology (Austin Statesman)

Here's a little more detail on our atypical summer from our local daily news source, the Statesman. (Note, if you are visiting from the Future, welcome. Sorry that these stories may already have expired. I hope you are comfortably cool and dry in the Future.)

"June comes in as the third- or fourth-wettest month of the year," said Lower Colorado River Authority meteorologist Bob Rose. "But usually the rain occurs earlier in the month."


Rose said a ridge of high pressure usually forms after the first couple of weeks of June, preventing storm systems from moving across the state. But this year the ridge of high pressure has split to the east and west, allowing a stationary upper-level low-pressure system to spin over the state, drawing in moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.

Rose said the forecast for the summer looks wet.

"Long-term models say this pattern may be over Texas for a couple of weeks and bring scattered activity to the area," Rose said. "This pattern is not typical at all for June."

While the 19 inches (revised upward) in Marble Falls in 24 hours was very local, similar problems are occurring elsewhere in Oklahoma and Kansas as well as in Texas. Here's a map of recent flooding in Texas:


Local humorist John Kelso on the benefits of the local climate shifting toward more rain, which he calls "global dripping":



When you get to work in the morning there's not some jerk in the elevator asking, "Hot enough for you?"

You don't have to spend a lot of money on sunblock.

That overpriced $750,000 loft in downtown Austin you just paid for might be worth it, since it's on the third floor, which may save your carpet.

Pet grooming is easier. You can shampoo your dog and just set him outside to rinse.
Update: Another month has passed, basically raining most of the time. I blogged further on July 27.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

How Do We Know We're Not Wrong?

All sincere doubters ought to consider Naomi Oreskes' excellent overview of the state of knowledge about anthropogenic climate change in specific, and about how we collectively come to know anything about anything in general.

Thanks to Andrew Dessler and Grist for the link.

Weird weather

18 inches of rain in 24 hours, yesterday, just upriver from us at Marble Falls TX. The flood control people (the LCRA = "Lower Colorado River Authority") are going bonkers trying to smooth this event out and parcel out minimal flood damage. More rain is expected in the Colorado basin this week.

Such rainfalls are not unheard of in Texas, but usually they are associated with tropical storms, which this one isn't.

Here's hoping we don't get one of those soon.

No individual event is caused by climate change. By definition, "climate change" loads the dice in favor of certain types of events. Theory (Allen and Ingram, Nature 2002, v 419 pp 224 - 232) indicates an increasing likelihood of such severe local precipitation events in the foreseeable future.

Update: more here.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Is Economics a Science?

If the question "is climatology a real science?" is fair game, the question "is economics a real science?" cannot just be dismissed as subversive. What we really know, how valuable our conceptual models are and how reliable our computational embodiments of them are, are questions everyone offering expertise should be willing and able to answer.

It appears that a few economists are asking the question of one another. Here's a brief article in an online economics periodical called Economists' Voice. Consider the abstract:
How do economists know what they know? In a call for a new empiricism Barbara Bergmann asserts that economists mainly make it up.
Alas, Bergmann's plea for evidence-based economics is adorned with the following motivational exhortation:
If we had some realistic ideas about how business people arrive at their decisions on investment in plant and equipment, our ability to formulate policies that would stimulate growth would improve.
(Emphasis added.)

Sigh. Naturally. Of course there is not even the slightest hint of re-examination of the idea that the objective of macroeconomic management must be to stimulate growth.

Regardless, the article closes with the observation that a pioneer in the use of observations in economics does not teach the technique to his students on the grounds that this would be likely to "ruin their careers".

See also this letter in response in the same publication.

Newsweek: Sun not relevant to climate

Newsweek asks the following question and alleges that "the sun" is the right answer.

I was at first going to blame this on the lack of clarity of the phrase "global warming", an old hobby horse of mine, but I actually can't think of any meaningful sense in which there is a correct answer provided.

23. Which of the following does NOT contribute to global warming?

Greater output from the sun

SUVs, or Sport Utility Vehicles

Rice paddies

Don’t know/Refused

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Bush Proposes Vigorous Response to Warming

I must say the proposed program is innovative.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Deniers: Flattering Stories from National Post

The National Post of Canada, which had an interview with Richard Lindzen on Earth Day on which Eli has commented, has featured no less than 27 stories about people they call "The Deniers", puff pieces about various scientists who heroically (despite threats of industry funding and press attention should they persist) urge us not to worry too much. Update: Or so the Post claims (see comments). Actually not all of the 27 really disbelieve the scientific consensus. Thanks, Belette.

Rolling Stone Magazine on Climate Change

Rolling Stone is running some climate change stories.

Global Warming: A Real Solution by Robert F Kennedy Jr

Al Gore's Fight Against The Climate Crisis by Eric Bates and Jeff Goodell

Al Gore Speaks: selected audio clips

The Secret Campaign of President Bush's Administration To Deny Global Warming
by Tim Dickinson

Slide Show: Inside the Bush Administration’s Denial Campaign Against Climate Change

I'm not expressing unbounded enthusiasm for all of this but it's all interesting.

President Klaus's Definition of "Environmentalism"

Well, the man, (who I am reminded is the president of a medium sized country), isn't shy, really. You can find lots of Czech President Klaus's opinions on his own website.

I'm particularly intrigued by his catalog of the features of environmentalism in his speech to the Cato Institute. Let's look at his characterization:
The followers of the environmentalist ideology, however, keep presenting to us various catastrophic scenarios with the intention to persuade us to implement their ideas about us and about the whole human society. This is not only unfair but extremely dangerous. What is, in my view, even more dangerous, is the quasi-scientific form that their many times refuted forecasts have taken upon themselves.

What belongs to this ideology?

- disbelief in the power of the invisible hands of free market and belief in the omnipotence state dirigism;

- disregard for the role of important and powerful economic mechanisms and institutions – primarily that of property rights and prices – for an effective protection of nature;

- misunderstanding of the meaning of resources, of the difference between the potential natural resource and the real one, that may be used in the economy;

- Malthusian pessimism over the technical progress;

- belief in the dominance of externalities in human activities;

- promotion of the so-called “precautionary principle“, which maximizes the risk aversion without paying attention to the costs;

- underestimation of the long-term income and welfare growth, which results in a fundamental shift of demand towards environmental protection (this is demonstrated by the so-called Environmental Kuznets Curve);

- erroneous discounting of the future, demonstrated so clearly by the highly publicized Stern-Report a few months ago.
To paraphrase an old punchline, well, he may be crazy but he ain't stupid.

(Compare presidents of certain actually large countries...)

It's an interesting list. While I don't really consider myself an 'environmentalist' I imagine Klaus would. While I am innocent of some of these opinions many of them do describe my beliefs.

Other than the vile, contentious and almost entirely worthless idea that people who advocate environmentally based policies are essentially totalitarian ("dirigists") I think Klaus's list raises interesting points about the role of economics in policy.

The ideas deserve some deeper consideration than the perfunctory dismissal they get here, though. I'm sure dismissing these ideas out of hand flies at the Cato institute, but perhaps the rest of us would like to consider why these are bad ideas.

Some of my immediate reactions
  • Again, my opposition to CO2 accumulation does not originate in a megalomanic desire to stamp out human freedom and dignity, and I doubt this motivation is common among others who have the same concern. That particular piece of the opposition's model is so much at odds with the real world and so deleterious to civilized conversation that it's right to call it crazy.
  • I agree with Klaus that the 'precautionary principle' as usually stated is unworkable.
  • There is a bit of a polemical parlor trick in his last accusation: "erroneous discounting of the future", by which he means "inadequate discounting of the future". The casual reader may take this the other way.
  • Klaus takes no notice of the extent to which a correct (market-driven) discount rate proposed in the last point acts against the validity of his second point, the tired libertarian dogma that private ownership takes better care of land than collective ownership. One can understand how a central European might reach that conclusion, but it's really quite shallow and doesn't stand up to investigation. It somehow presumes the underlying dynamics of selfishness, crassness, laziness and secrecy is unique to the Soviet system and cannot happen under capitalism. Mr. Klaus should consult with the residents of Bhopal in reconsidering this opinion. It's an informed and participatory society exercising its vigilance through regulation and enforcement that protects the environment. That is, the best protection occurs neither in totalitarian societies nor in libertarian ones but in social democratic ones.
That's not all I might have to say about this list. I think most of these ideas are worth discussing (I can't quite parse the third one; I suspect something lost in translation which perhaps Lubos can help with) and except for the gratuitous insults in the first point none of them is a slam dunk either way.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

In Case You Think We're Making Progress

Lubos Motl may not be correct about earth science but as for the politics around it he has a point. Intelligent lay people are not buying what we are selling. Lubos points to the technorati discussion about Vaclav Klaus's recent Motlesque writings on climate change. It's sobering indeed.

Update: Lubos comments that I must be a propagandist because I linked to an obscure environmentalist website (which he characterizes rather harshly) to illustrate what Klaus has been saying. Fair enough, here's a link to more of what Klaus has to say from Lubos' own blog, to balance that. The point is not just that the president of a small country has bizarre opinions. That's bad enough but I have posted on that already. The point is that non-specialists who are interested enough to post a position on the subject increasingly tend to line up behind those bizarre opinions, which is very disconcerting.

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

"In these fibbing competitions, the party actually wronged, the party with an actual practicable program, or possessing an actually beneficial product, is at a severe disadvantage; he is stuck with a position he cannot abandon, and, thus, cannot engage his talents for elaboration, distraction, drama and subterfuge."
-- David Mamet in "Bambi vs Godzilla: Why art loses in Hollywood", Harper's, June 2005.
Also, it looks like I won't be making any money of Google AdSense. (See the sidebar on the right.) So far in just one day my page has been polluted both by GGW Swindling and by tasteless Gore-baiting. I'll let it run for a bit but I'm guessing I won't be able to stomach it. Update: It's gone. I would need much more traffic to make it worth considering. Definitely not worth the space for a few cents a day.

Who pays for this stuff? When will they have the decency to stop?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Economics and Global Change: The Bathub Analogy

I posted this to the globalchange list some time ago, but now that I have the attention of a couple of market conservatives, let me post it here. Apologies to those for whom it is a rerun. Note that the apparently rational strategy actually guarantees an eventual flood.

Imagine that you are an economist who enjoys playing Tetris on your computer, so while your bathtub is filling you decide to play a round in the TV room upstairs.

The round of Tetris is going fabulously well. You are in the zone. You are placing piece after piece where it goes; you have long since passed your all time high score; you are having a whale of a time. Your bathtub is meanwhile filling up.

A tiny corner of your mind suggests that you ought to go downstairs and check your bathtub, even though it would interrupt your excellent Tetris game.

Fortunately, you are an economist. The tiny corner of your mind that is concerned with the structural integrity of your house and not the joy of Tetris is sufficient to reason as follows.

Probably the tub is not full yet, so the utility to me to keep playing this next piece exceeds the utility of running downstairs to turn off the water.

Maybe the tub is already flooding. Well, then, that is too bad, but the additional flood cost of playing this next piece will be small compared to the total flood cost, while the pleasure I am getting from this game going so well would be terminated.

Perhaps the tub is right at the point of starting a flood; a "tipping point". Well in that case you certainly would run right downstairs and turn it off, but what are the odds of that? There is no way to prove this highly unlikely ands speculative circumstance to you. There really isn't enough information to know exactly when that moment might be, so this almost certainly isn't it. Surely you can just dispense with that sort of wild speculation.

You have just proven that the matter does not deserve much attention for the duration of placing this next Tetris block. You will revisit this problem later when you are placing another block, with the same small shred of your attention. Tetris is such fun!

So you keep playing, secure in the knowledge that you have maximized utility.

National Review Gets Real

Can the Wall Street Journal be far behind?

Quark Soup
points out that the libertarian-conservative-republican (US) magazine National Review has a cover article conceding the reality of anthropogenic warming. You have to subscribe to read the article (I intend to read it over coffee at Borders, frankly) but here's the (current as of this posting) link for confirmation.

Update: The web is pretty cool sometimes. Apparently the author has written in with a link to a PDF of the article.

All they tell the nonsubscriber is this:
It is no longer possible, scientifically or politically, to deny that human activities have very likely increased global temperatures; what remains in dispute is the precise magnitude of the human impact. Conservatives should accept this reality — and move on to the question of what we should do about it. This would put us in a much better position to prevent a massive, counterproductive intervention in the U.S. economy.

By Jim Manzi

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Less Impressively - Pat Michaels

From the proof-that-the-internet-can-be-as-vapid-as-television-if-it-tries department:

Fellow UW-Madison Meteorology Ph.D. Pat Michaels (I've seen his thesis; it, um, doesn't have a lot of science in it) has changed his tune a bit. It is interesting to watch this accuweather.com video (spotted at DeSmog) which has him explaining that anthropogenic global warming is real enough, but we shouldn't do anything about it because we will be richer later. (Interestingly, though he is surrounded by copies of his past publications of dubious merit and credited with them, he doesn't seem to find it necessary to repudiate any of his former positions.)

The peculiar thing about that argument (the same one John McCarthy used to make on sci.environment) taken at face value is that there is no actual way for believers of this point of view to actually know when, um, we are already rich enough, thanks.

The hidden flaw is that, of course, there is no guarantee we will keep getting richer. If you think about it, it's very likely that climate change and the decline of cheap fuel will likely start making us less rich. I think it seems likely that we will reach the peak of global wealth right about, um, 4... 3... 2...

The Worth of an Ice Sheet - Paul Baer

Let me call your attention to an elegant article by Paul Baer which does a better job than I have of calling the Stern Report methodologies into question and arguing for something other than economics to be steering our decisions. I have not heard of Mr Baer before but I look forward to hearing from him again.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Climate Change and its Evil Twin 'Global Warming'

Inel briefly discusses the success of an egregious skeptic's article entitled Global Warming and its Evil Twin 'Climate Change' claiming that the expression "climate change" is a conspiracy by alarmists to confuse weather and climate. (!) I have also heard greenies claiming that "climate change" is a conspiracy by big business to make everything sound neutral and non-threatening.

In fact "climate change" is a meaningful expression, and "global warming" is hopelessly confused by polemicists.

"Global warming" is a problematic term because scientists and the public mean different things by it, and what the public means by "global warming" is much closer to what scientists mean by "anthropogenic climate change". Global warming is only one of the easier to predict and easier to understand anticipated consequences of changes in greenhouse gas forcing.

While it is irritatingly incorrect to have every severe weather event attributed to anthropogenic change, that doesn't mean there is anything dishonest or manipulative about the phrase "climate change".

Quite the contrary. The expression "global warming" is being used manipulatively by the people who are professionals at manipulating language.

(One often sees disreputable people accusing their decent opponents of exactly their own favorite tactics. The opening scene of the movie "Thank You for Smoking" has a classic example.)

The whole concept of "do you believe in global warming" is intended to mystify, as if in a conversation about economics you asked "do you believe in inflation"? Given that "global warming" means "a rise in mean temperature", "an anthropogenic rise in mean temperature", "anthropogenic climate change", "observational detetction of rise in mean temperature", "observational confirmation of anthropogenic causes of climate change", "scientific theory about anthropogenic climate change", etc. etc., it gives people who are trying to confuse the conversation ample opportunities for sleight of hand.

I explained this in a (largely futile) feature article on RealClimate (my one and only) a couple of years back and advocated that scientists avoid the phrase "global warming" in public communication. It may have had some small effect. Some people do talk about AGW or "anthropogenic global warming", which avoids some of the semantic pitfalls.

There is also the risk that people think "global warming" is "the problem", so it can be solved straightforwardly if not cheaply by an equal and opposite dose of anthropogenic global cooling. Sigh. No it can't, because global mean temperature rise is a prominent symptom, but accelerating climate change is the problem.

Froot Loops Contention and Ownership of Environmental Fluids

This has always driven me crazy, and I haven't heard it discussed much.

In summer camp they would give us twelve little boxes of cereal for a table of eight kids who all loved breakfast cereal. The rule was you couldn't get seconds until you were done eating your first serving. This of course degenerated into a mad cereal eating contest, so half of us got to enjoy a second serving, and half only had a few seconds of cereal joy. (Of course this was one of the few sports I excelled at.)

If you associate oil, gas, or water rights with real estate property, and the reservoirs cross property lines, you have a similar bizarre incentive to pump as quickly as possible.

Via John Fleck, here is an interesting article on private sales of aquifer water in Texas.

In this context the "takings" clause is a disaster. The idea that all the water under my land is mine makes very little sense, because that would be the whole aquifer, wouldn't it?

Meanwhile the individual "owners" of water (really owners of water rights) find themselves in a sort of a race to cash in on them. The more of "my" water I sell, the less you will have of "yours".

The society had best do all the "taking" sooner rather than later, when the market value goes up.

Froot Loops Contention applies to oil and gas fields as well. I understand early in the days of wildcatting it was necessary for government to intervene lest all the wealth be drawn out so suddenly that much of it was left spatterred about the plains. Was that a "taking"?

I think there are a couple of things wrong with conventional economic thinking. One of them is the idea that any transaction between myself and somebody else doesn't affect you. In practice, as the world becomes more crowded this becomes less true. Fluids present an extreme case. If I sell my groundwater to Lubbock, that reduces my neighbor's ability to sell water to Abilene.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Persuasion, honesty, steady work: pick two

I am reminded that David Roberts said:
As for the rules of effective persuasion, well, they're the same for scientists as anyone else. The point to scientists is just: if you go out in public, study those rules. Accept that you are attempting to persuade, not just to impart dry facts, and take responsibility for it. If you don't want to be in the persuasion business, don't speak out publicly. Just don't have any illusions.
On the other hand, we have to have due respect for truth, which professional persuaders do not. Also, we have to get our work done and funded.

Professional persuaders do not have to do any of that. This, in short, is why we lose so many people once they start to take a serious look at climate change. The spin doctors do a better job than the doctors of philosophy, at least at spin, and that is what counts.

The whole thing is a mess. I think there needs to be a new job description somewhere.

I would take such a thing in a heartbeat, in case anybody out there is listening. But who would be willing to pay for it? It's very hard to see how this could work as a public sector position in the US, and by its nature a fair look at the big picture is not necessarily in the interest of any private organization.

Yes freelance writing is an option, but so is being somewhat miscast as a scientific programmer (not that I won't do the work well, please understand) and writing a lot on the side. The latter comes with a steady paycheck.

Reticence and Excess

Somehow this escaped me until it was pointed out by no less than Lubos Motl in this fascinating thread on Stoat. So thanks are due to Lubos for highlighting this very interesting argument by James Hansen on the subject he calls scientific reticence.

Hansen claims that there are pressures on scientists to understate rather than overstate risks. I am not sure this phenomenon applies to all scientists everywhere, but it certainly applies to climate scientists in the US, where the perception of the consensus position is that it stands at one pole of a scientific debate, rather than constituting a center of gravity around which excursions in both directions are healthy and worthy of investigation.

However, it is not fair to simply shrug this off and say it cuts only one way in general. The constellation of forces arrayed around climate science (geology, agriculture, military, civil engineering) are naturally conservative. Other groups may feel very different pressures.

For instance, reticence does not seem to apply to environmental nonprofits.

I am particularly unhappy to face up to the fact the propagandistic skewing of data recently demonstrated by the Audubon society. Toxic environmentalism is real enough, and it's really shocking to see it an an association as venerable as the Audubon Society. It's hardly surprising that a survey of species shows the ones in most rapid decline as declining rapidly. This must be placed in context of the rest of the survey, which the Audubon Society, almost surely deliberately, did not do. In fact, if I understand correctly, and more appear to be increasing rapidly than decreasing rapidly in their survey, but Audubon appears to be taking considerable care to leave a different impression.

Reason requires fair attention to evidence. It is necessary to resist pressures to skew what your data means, regardless of who butters your bread. These days that is all too commonly difficult, and to that extent, regardless of his severely confused ideas about climate, Lubos Motl has a point.

Here's a quote from Paul Dietz, duly crediting John McCarthy, which I found on an interesting discussion about AGW skepticism :

Yes, this is a great symptom of denialism, showing what John McCarthy called 'lawyers's science'. You start with the position you want to prove, and search for evidence, however thin or dubious, to support it. The result is the jumping from one easily debunked argument to another.

The surprising thing is the persons exhibiting this behavior often don't allow themselves to realize what they are doing.
Agreed. Of course McCarthy usually talks about lawyers' science on the part of environmentalist groups. Let's try to remember that the pressures run in both directions, and let's try to have the courage to tell the truth regardless.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Peak Oil Explained

Thanks to the anonymous poster who pointed me to Quark Soup, which seems to maintain an excellent compendium of timely science links. I've blogrolled it and intend to follow it. I also won't be shy about adding a few words about some of the more interesting links. (For instance I note the irrepressible Matt Huber appears again, this time on a story of making use of CCSM a little less painful. Boy, there's a timely issue for me. But that wasn't even my favorite link of the first batch I saw.)

I always appreciate when people manage to boil the essentials of complex issues down to a few words. I'm not sure that is what lit crit people mean by framing, but it's what I mean. Quark Soup points to a fine example which appeared in this The Independent story about peak oil:
According to "peak oil" theory our consumption of oil will catch, then outstrip our discovery of new reserves and we will begin to deplete known reserves.

Colin Campbell, the head of the depletion centre, said: "It's quite a simple theory and one that any beer drinker understands. The glass starts full and ends empty and the faster you drink it the quicker it's gone."

Dr Campbell, is a former chief geologist and vice-president at a string of oil majors including BP, Shell, Fina, Exxon and ChevronTexaco.

Friday, June 15, 2007

W on GW

Top Ten President Bush Global Warming Solutions according to Letterman.

Widespread decline in US bird populations ????

From the Audubon Society website:
Audubon's unprecedented analysis of forty years of citizen-science bird population data from our own Christmas Bird Count plus the Breeding Bird Survey reveals the alarming decline of many of our most common and beloved birds.

Since 1967 the average population of the common birds in steepest decline has fallen by 68 percent; some individual species nose-dived as much as 80 percent. All 20 birds on the national Common Birds in Decline list lost at least half their populations in just four decades.

Update: Hmm; the article didn't seem all that convincing. It had that "of America's best tasting gums, Trident is sugarless" feeling, as if what they were actually trying to get across was different from what they were allowed to literally say.

So I looked at the referenced technical report.

We see two different measures of species trend, one called BBS and one called CBC. I didn't look into the meanings of these, but they correlate well. There is also a reliability score. Both on the high reliability trends and on all estimated trends:

The number of species increasing in abundance exceeds the number in decline!!!

Species trends are divided into rapid increase, moderate increase, stable, moderate decrease and severe decrease. One slice through the data looked at those with reliability index of score of 2 or 3 on a scale of 0 to 3 on both measures, with 3 being most reliable. Using the BBS measure, we see 41 species in rapid increase, 38 in increase, 31 stable, 24 in decline, and 22 in rapid decline. Similar numbers for the CBC measure.

Similar numbers are seen on various other measures. I didn't cherry pick. Look for yourself.

Is this bad? Maybe. Maybe more stability should be expected.

Is the situation obviously bad? Not really from the point of view of the birds. It is nasty form the point of view of the nature of public discourse, though.

I am not saying I am sure there is no problem, but the technical report certainly requires a different exposition than the Audubon website provides. In fact I would suggest their implied position is at odds with their report.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Great Society

Found in a fascinating book called Social Indicators, Raymond Bauer ed., American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1966:
The Great Society looks beyond the prospects of abundance to the problems of abundance ... Everywhere there is growth and movement, activity and change. But where is the place for man? ... The task of the Great Society is to ensure our people the environment, the capacity and the social structures which will give them a meaningful chance to pursue their individual happiness ... Thus the Great Society is concerned not with how much, but how good - not with the quantity of our goods but the quality of our lives. - Richard Goodwin, speechwriter to Lyndon Johnson, addressing students, July 20, 1965
Update: In a comment, Inel points to an address by LBJ, also to students, in 1964. Here are some more thoughts to ponder.
Within your lifetime powerful forces, already loosed, will take us toward a way of life beyond the realm of our experience, almost beyond the bounds of our imagination.

For better or for worse, your generation has been appointed by history to deal with those problems and to lead America toward a new age. You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age. You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation.

So, will you join in the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin?

Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty?

Will you join in the battle to make it possible for all nations to live in enduring peace -- as neighbors and not as mortal enemies?

Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?

There are those timid souls that say this battle cannot be won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth. I do not agree. We have the power to shape the civilization that we want. But we need your will and your labor and your hearts, if we are to build that kind of society.

Those who came to this land sought to build more than just a new country. They sought a new world. So I have come here today to your campus to say that you can make their vision our reality. So let us from this moment begin our work so that in the future men will look back and say: It was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Coal Thing

Kevin Vranes summarizes the news nicely.

Upadte: I'm not suggesting that anything Vranes says supports the following. I think he provides important context. I don't know whether or not he agrees with me.

To the extent that we can't get by without liquid fuels, we have an out, but we have to pay for it.

Update: It appears likely that we won't pay for it, which would constitute a tragic missed opportunity. We can use this occasion to civilize the coal interests, and instead we seem to be encouraging their cynicism.

Gasoline-like fuel from coal would be a good thing in the short run. It would release us from the disastrous situation in the middle east that we, um, don't seem to be improving very much. We could dodge the peak oil crisis and have a little more time to work toward a rational long-term strategy. It's potentially the sort of lucky break we don't deserve but at this point need.

The only way to pay for it is to require sequestering any carbon that can be sequestered in the production process and mandate it for all coal plants as quickly as possible. It is perfectly sensible to subsidize the transition.

Failing to place such a requirement while directly subsidizing the process is government malfeasance of the highest order. The fact that both parties seem aligned to this is about as depressing a fact as I can imagine.

However, the idea of liquid fuels from coal, with source capture of the non-mobile CO2 sources, is perfectly reasonable. Any reasonably sensible carbon policy would make that step inevitable. I am perfectly OK with subsidizing the coal interests to become responsible players in the society, so long as the end user price stays high and gradually increasing, and as much of the CO2 as possible is sequestered.

So we have an opportunity to get the coal people to butter their bread on the same side the rest of us do, dodge the peak oil bullet, bail out of the middle east fiasco, and not make the climate problem worse. A big win.

By saying "coal is the enemy" we act against this outcome, though. We want the coal people to see sequestration as favorable to them.

Reagrdless, if a requirement for CO2 sequestration is dropped from the picture, it is congressional malfeasance of the highest order; we are essentially halving our vehicle efficiency as a gift to the people who have been causing a whole lot of the trouble, and we will make new enemies worldwide in the process.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Mayor of Austin "Feels My Pain"

Not this one, but this one, the man with the best imaginable name for a politician, Will Wynn.

Wynn has been giving a talk remarkably like Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth talk, with a bit of Texas interest thrown into the mix. I hate to fault him for that, and he did a reasonable job of it. He asserted, correctly, that "clammit santiss" like me are pretty much unanimous about many global warming questions that still generate far too much debate in the press and among the public. He also had a lot of interesting initiatives, including making the institution of city government carbon neutral, which is a very sensible way to help create necessary markets.

(In fact he goes out of his way to make Texas look even worse than it is on this issue, since the energy cost of energy production is split into our per capita emissions on his slides: those should be charged to the consumers not the producers... Texas is by far the worst per capita emitter among the states but it is an energy provider. Also I'm not at all sure that driving to the farmers' market to buy a tomato is all that much more efficient than buying a mass market tomato at HEB.)

And as you can see from his homepage, he really is pushing very hard to be recognized as an especially climate-aware mayor.

So I'm afraid I messed up his public presentation last Sunday evening at the Alamo (the Austin Alamo, the beer and movies one) because I got to ask the first question, which was, as a new Austinite and former resident of Madison WI, I am absolutely apalled by the conditions in this town for a bicyclist. I acknowledged that the city was not designed around any transportation mode other than cars, but I suggested that ought to change. Being Lance Armstrong's hometown, there is immense interest in recreational bicycling around here. That combined with the mayor's ambition to be a leader in urban efficiency, you'd think, would be enough to argue for a little bit of leeway for the overweight middle-aged climate scientist trying to get to work and get a little exercise at the same time.

The audience applauded my point. The mayor cringed and (literally, I swear this) said the words "I feel your pain". Bah. I cannot bicycle to work, the bus takes an hour, the car takes 12 minutes. I would happily switch to zero emissions if I weren't risking my life to ride that last no-choices mile up Burnet ("burn it durn it") Road. Do you think that the energy research complex of the great university in the great green boomtown of the sunbelt might deign to put in so much as a shoulder or a sidewalk by its energy research campus for its energy researchers to, um, save some energy?

No, but Will Wynn deeply sympathizes. What am I to make of this? Burn it, durn it, and to hell with the clammit, dammit?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Coal is not the enemy of the human race

David Roberts, Grist's editor, has been banging this "coal is the enemy of the human race" drum, and as a Grist contributor I seem to be associated with it. It will be interesting to see if he lets me write a rebuttal. Apparently a fair number of people do read Grist and I'd hate to give up that soapbox, but on the other hand I think this meme is a disastrous error, both tactically and morally.

Update: David writes and graciously informs me that it is OK if we disagree, and hopes that nobody on Grist has to take responsibility for what everybody else writes. Fair enough. Now I have to write a Grist article on coal. Oh, well...

Certain coal interests have behaved very irresponsibly and I don't forgive them, but coal is a resource as well as a threat, and at this point we can't afford to take anything off the table.

In case you missed it, coal is a mineral. Minerals mean you no harm.

Pogo identified the real enemy long ago.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Livelihood, right?

Irene observed that the question of right livelihood is much harder than it once was. It is very difficult to know that what one does for livelihood is actually contributing to the world. It is easy to think of moral arguments against almost any sort of job or profession. It is hard to think of a job or profession that is exempt from moral question.

Most people don't think about right livelihood, I replied. They just think "livelihood, alright"!

This all ties into the sense that for all our talk about democracy and the consent of the governed, we have lost control of our world. We no longer can distinguish between actions for good and actions for evil. When we think about who gets what, we find ourselves in a frenzy of blaming others and rationalizing ourselves.

The world is in an era of plenty and of a new crowdedness. The right behavior for all of us, on the whole, is laziness, idleness, and satisfaction. We have designed a system than punishes laziness and rewards ambition, but our circumstances require more laziness and less ambition. We have no idea how to readjust our behavior because we have lost control of our reward systems.

This is an oversimplification, yes, of course.

We need people to do unpleasant jobs, and we need heroes, and we won't have either if we don't reward them somehow. Those are the exceptions, though.

On the whole, in the advanced countries we need to learn to be satisfied with less. We need to learn to respect people for who they are, not just what they do or what they own. To do this, we need to reconsider what wealth is, what livelihood is, what rightness is.

Update: Fergus examines how the G8 is adamantly oblivious to the real issues.

Another update: More interesting ideas about the growth quandary on the GlobalChange list.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Kids on Global Warming

Inel has some great comments from kids about global warming.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

NASA, DOE, and the Myth of Neutrality

UPDATE: To clarify my point here, US Federal scientific agencies have an aversion to taking positions. SUch aversion is not in line with public desires or expectations, and is ultimately infeasible. A refusal to take a policy position by a public agency on a matter of their specific expertise is equivalent to taking an explicit position that a policy is unnecessary. Saying nothing is not neutral.

Griffin's blundering into explicitly defending NASA's silence highlights this problem perfectly. Other agencies, which may demur more gracefully, are nevertheless equally arrayed against solving problems by their excessive reticence.

By now most readers will have heard of NASA administrator Michael Griffin's gaffes on NPR, for instance:
I'm also aware of recent findings that appear to have nailed down — pretty well nailed down the conclusion that much of [global warming] is manmade. Whether that is a longterm concern or not, I can't say.
Don't miss Stephen Colbert's interesting take on this. It's fish in a barrel for Colbert, though he did get the fish square between the eyes.

Griffin does not understand that we want more from our professionals than a studied neutrality, but the public doesn't understand how pervasive his attitude is among the scientists in U.S. federal agencies. The problem is not that Griffin is being bizarre. The problem is that he is being quite typical within his context. Colbert, as usual, isn't as funny on second thought as he is at first.

Last week I attended a "town hall meeting" conducted by the Department of Energy, on the subject of very large scale computing ("exascale computing") as applied to energy and environmental simulations ("E3").

(It is interesting that the meeting is not called E4, exascale for energy, environment and economics, though the fourth "E", economics, had an important role at the meeting. For now I want to relate my primary frustration with the meeting, where some speakers echoed Griffin's stance. I'll have more to say about this whole cluster of concepts in a later posting.)

It was in many respects a great honor to be there, and many of the conversations were far ranging and excellent. The keynote address by Argonne Lab Director Robert Rosner was very much inspiring and to the point of our sustainability issues.

However, subsequent discussion showed a real aversion to actually applying science to inform policy. Specifically, when I suggested at the plenary that we come up with a formal definition of sustainability, and use this to provide a common goal to unify the various efforts being contemplated, this was met with an explicit argument that the policy sector would not like it.

The scientific establishment in the US executive branch is happy to "do science" about this or that policy, but they are adamant that it is not their job to propose or defend a policy. They seem terrified of advancing conversations about energy policy. I wonder what they are so afraid of.

If it is not the Department of Energy's role to advise the policy sector on complex technical issues regarding energy security, exactly whose job is it?

I hate to bite the hand that feeds me. I have friends in the DOE and at least have some prospect of benefiting from DOE science expenditures. Still, the times are such that DOE (like the other scientific agencies in the executive branch) needs to show some gumption whether they like it or not. It won't kill them and in the end it will make them stronger and the rest of us safer.

We need experts to recommend policy, not to spend money and leave policy to the politicians. As the world becomes more complicated, the job of the executive branch becomes more technical. To the extent we collectively allow science to duck this responsibility, we assume a very serious risk.

Coming back to Griffin, you will note that he never retracted his opinion. If anything, he tried to reinforce the idea that he had no opinion at all. This is not dissembling. That is not backing down. That is what he was trying to say all along. He is adamantly defending his position that he doesn't need to have a position and doesn't have one. The fact that it came across as, hmmm, barking madness, proves that there is no such thing as having no opinion.

What this event should teach us is that scientific agencies cannot possibly operate in some sort of policy-free vacuum. People need expert advice.

Imagine if your doctor said to you "Diagnostically, we are pretty sure you have a serious condition of (let's say) acute carbonic acid toxicity. We have many volumes of journal articles about your condition, but we're just scientists. Left untreated this will probably kill you, but since we are value neutral and only interested in facts, it wouldn't be appropriate for us to suggest whether or not your imminent demise is a good thing. It would certainly be arrogant of us to recommend a treatment."

tropical storms and extreme climate change

Matt Huber and his student Ryan Sriver are onto some interesting ideas about tropical storms to say the least. Following on some ideas of Kerry Emanuel's they are arguing that there are no ifs or buts about it. If their argument, which looks pretty solid to me, is correct, increased tropical cyclone activity is inevitable in a warming scenario. If you have access to the May 31 issue of Nature you can look up the original article.

Matt also points me to this nice summary of the PETM climate crisis of 55 million years ago, including some of the implications of his work, so I thought I'd share.

Schrag doesn't think it's all that complicated

and neither do I, honestly. He is quoted in a news article in Science.
Geochemist Daniel Schrag of Harvard University argues that mandatory carbon caps should have been applied years ago to force energy technology innovations. He doesn't think that it's necessary to have, as Bush proposed, a year and a half of discussion to define emissions goals. "We know what we need to do now," he says.
PS - Like anyone in or around the paleoclimate science community, I have the utmost respect for Dan Schrag.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Hansen v Griffin; NASA mission

Thanks to Jim Torson, who on the globalchange list points to this interesting report on Hansen's response to NASA administrator Griffin's astonishing comments of last week.

This also ties into a "where's the damned press" meme. Note especially the last three paragraphs from Hansen. Consider whether these results were handled in a manner appropriate to a free society, with respect to not only the responsibilities of the legislative sector but also those of the press.

Tagged "wheres the press". (Apostrophe left out to help weak search software) Please use this tag on your blogs, or come up with a better name for it.

(PS To my dozens of regular readers: sorry I've been away for a while. I have been gathering ammunition for more bloggin' aplenty though...)