"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, September 28, 2007

Help from the Tundra

From Bob Park's newsletter:
One of the global warming nightmares is that thawing permafrost might release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. This positive feedback would accelerate warming. A group led by M. Turetsky of Michigan State found that new plant growth in thawing Canadian peat bogs more than offset the release of methane.
I looked for Turetsky's study and found this press release linking to this abstract

WIRED Correlations

I may have referred you to Wired Magazine in the past, on occasion, but I will no longer do so. I must henceforth refer you to "WIRED" magazine. The all-caps rendition is a sort of concession to the fact that they are, at least indirectly, paying me a few dollars.

In association with the PBS TV station KCET, a new popular science TV show is starting called "Wired Science", oops, "WIRED science". I've seen the pilot and it's not bad at all. Of course, given the connection to WIRED, they need some sort of interactive media angle. One low-hanging fruit of course is to start a blog. They asked around for science bloggers who were interested in and capable of reaching a broad audience and somehow ended up with me, among others. Now it's a bit odd that they ended up with me. I've never thought of "In It" as appealing to a broad audience, though it largely discusses how to reach a broad audience.

Well, now I get to put up or shut up. There are professional promotional dollars here, and even (full disclosure) a modest recompense for me. So we'll see if all my thinking about reaching a broad audience has resulted in any actual, you know, skill.

Unfortunately there is already a "WIRED Science" blog at wired.com, so we had to come up with another name, and under time pressure settled on Correlations. So this is to announce that I'll be doing genuine outreach on the Correlations blog associated with WIRED Science on television.

"In It" fans should not be concerned. "In It" is not going away or changing substantially. I'm just going to be putting a few extra brain cells into a bit of pop science every week. Cross-linking to and from "In It" may be expected, but I will try to stick with the existing tone and content of this blog here.

More about Correlations can be seen at co-correlator Tara Smith's blog.

I look forward to conveying the substance of climate science and computational science to a broad audience without worrying too much about the noise factor.

Good News Bad News

The good news is that the first new nuclear plant in the US in ages is being proposed for Texas, and the City of Austin is thinking about chipping in. Thus it is an important step to realistically addressing greenhouse gas accumulation.

The bad news is that the plant will be sited next to existing nuclear facilities near Bay City TX at Matagordo Bay, and so, as far as I can tell, would add to the already vast industrial infrastructure at risk from sea level rise.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Bicycling in America

Another argument against bicycling in America is provided by a 140 pound classical musician who claims he was assaulted and tasered by a police officer for riding a bicycle on an airport access road which had no postings against bicycling and politely inquiring what regulation he had violated.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Generalized Climate Change

A report called "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change", written by some generals and admirals of the US military, was released in April of this year by an outfit called The CNA Corporation, and is available for you to download.

The report gets it right, I think. Climate change isn't the big problem; it's all one big problem, but climate change makes it worse.

In the vocabulary of military people it comes out like this:
Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security risks for the United States. Accordingly, it is appropriate to start now to help mitigate the severity of some of these emergent challenges. The decision to act should be made soon in order to plan prudently for the nation's security. The increasing risks from climate change should be addressed now because they will almost certainly get worse with delay.
I wouldn't put it that way myself, but it's true enough.

The report is available from SecurityAndClimate.cna.org which summarizes as follows:

The report includes several formal findings:

  • Projected climate change poses a serious threat to America's national security.
  • Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.
  • Projected climate change will add to tensions even in stable regions of the world.
  • Climate change, national security and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges.

The report also made several specific recommendations:

  • The national security consequences of climate change should be fully integrated into national security and national defense strategies.
  • The U.S. should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate changes at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability.
  • The U.S. should commit to global partnerships that help less developed nations build the capacity and resiliency to better manage climate impacts.
  • The Department of Defense should enhance its operational capability by accelerating the adoption of improved business processes and innovative technologies that result in improved U.S. combat power through energy efficiency.
  • DoD should conduct an assessment of the impact on US military installations worldwide of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and other possible climate change impacts over the next thirty to forty years.

The Long Now

The Long Now is a very impressive site which has been up for years apparently. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Of course since Stewart Brand is one of my main intellectual influences it's little surprise I'd like his organization's blog. I'm just sorry I've missed it for so long.

Anyway, Alexander Rose hits the nail on the head with yesterday's entry "Engineers vs. Druids".
We have seen this now playing out all over the world where the “druids” have come out against many low-to-no carbon methods of generating power (wind, hydro, nuclear and in some cases solar all fit this bill). What is often missing from these arguments are the larger contexts that now global warming is forcing upon us. We see opposition of wind farms world wide due to ‘unsightliness’ or because they may kill several hundred birds per year (However it is estimated that there are 32,000 air quality related deaths each year in the US, and hundreds of thousands world wide due to coal burning alone).

It seems that while we argue over how pretty a wind mill is, the earth’s climate continues to change. And soon the New England beach homes whose views may be adulterated by the windmills will be underwater.

Knowing Whom to Trust

It's becoming clearer and clearer to me that this is the number one issue; not overpopulation, not climate change, not war. All of these problems rest on miscommunication, sometimes even deliberate miscommunication, which in turn rest on misplaced trust. The idea of democracy rests on a belief in the fabric of society maintaining valid networks of trust. Whether this happens or not is determined by social aspects of the society.

Specifically, where science is at issue, the problem is determining whether the dude in the white coat is actually an authority.

In this article I talked about authority-detection circuits in the scientific mindset, alleging that despite absolutely no expertise in medicine beyond the man on the street, and an actual incapacity to understand the arguments made by a certain MD, I was convinced that the man was a genuine expert conveying genuine expertise with due regard for uncertainties. I alleged that familiarity with the culture of science gave me the grounds for such insight. As Piet Hein once said "truth is constructed in such a way that it can't be exaggerated".

John Fleck encouraged me to expand on this theme. At present I owe John, thanks to an impromptu lunch in Albuquerque a few days ago which, in addition to being great fun, put a research group in touch with a leading researcher we ought to have known about.

I think at some point a discussion of the nature of intuition won't be off topic for this blog. It's deeper than you might think. I highly recommend the rather misnamed book "Sources of Power" by Gary Klein (MIT Press) for a remarkably original investigation into how successful people actually make decisions.

For now, though, I'd just refer you to an anonymous blog entry that's made a splash (linked from Slashdot, no less) entitled Is Scientific Journalism Doomed? As you can guess it takes a rather pessimistic stance.

Nevertheless, since John the journalist linked me the scientist to the right person for some interdisciplinary work I am proposing now, we can claim a refutation that expertise detetction must be unique to practicing scientists.

The anonymous blogger acknowledges being somewhat new to the process, and is also faced with the more difficult process of passing muster rather than of detecting puffery.

Probably the central point I have to make in this blog is that knowing who is the real deal is the crux of all of our problems. I'm trying to add that credentials aren't necessary or sufficient in either the judge or the defendant.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Certified Alarmism Free!

Google AdSense ads clipped from my gmail display. Note the last one.

Certified Alarmism Free!
Peer reviewed!
Tell Your Friends!
What, Me Worry?

Should I put a line item in my grant proposals for advertising to the general public?

It appears that the CO2science.org folks have funding to do so.

Two questions:
1) Where is the money coming from for this? (Well, OK, in some sense we know that, but the question is how many readers don't take the time to ask themselves that question.)

2) How is disinterested science supposed to prevail over interest-group science under these circumstances? Seriously, should we have an ad/PR budget? (What passes for "outreach", at least at US institutions, remains pretty much pro forma.)
Also, to ice the cake, the CO2 "science" home page currently concludes as follows:
Tell Your Friends!
When was the last time you referred someone to the Center's website? We challenge you to introduce two new people to CO2 Science each week. More...
Hmmm, science by Ponzi. Great idea. Guerilla marketing, it's called in some circles.

What can we do in response with our new line item? Let's, hmm, offer a chance for a trip to Hawai'i with each download of an actual peer-reviewed paper. Or maybe we can tap into the "free mp3 with a six-pack of Pepsi" thing with "free pdfs"! Come on people, let's be creative here!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Ocean to Violate 1976 EPA pH Standards

Another direct CO2 effect:
"Atmospheric CO2 concentrations need to remain at less than 500 ppm for the ocean pH decrease to stay within the 0.2 limit set forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [1976]," remarked Caldeira. "If atmospheric CO2 goes above 500 ppm, the surface of the entire ocean will be out of compliance with EPA pH guidelines for the open ocean. We need to start thinking about carbon dioxide as an ocean pollutant. That is, when we release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, we are dumping industrial waste in the ocean."

CO2 -> plants -> hydrology

This is a few weeks old, but I haven't seen much mention in the blogosphere. Perhaps I missed it.

A significant study by Betts et al. of the Hadley Centre in the UK examines the observational record for biotic-CO2 feedback on hydrology. Plant physiology is substantially affected by the increases in CO2, directly, without any reference to climate change. Betts confirms that the net effect of the increased availability of CO2 is to reduce water uptake by plants and increase total runoff.
Assessments of the effect of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations on the hydrological cycle that only consider radiative forcing will therefore tend to underestimate future increases in runoff and overestimate decreases. This suggests that freshwater resources may be less limited than previously assumed under scenarios of future global warming, although there is still an increased risk of drought. Moreover, our results highlight that the practice of assessing the climate-forcing potential of all greenhouse gases in terms of their radiative forcing potential relative to carbon dioxide does not accurately reflect the relative effects of different greenhouse gases on freshwater resources.
The BBC article that pointed me there concludes that this result reduces the likelihood of droughts (especially, I'd think, in biologically productive regions), and increases the likelihood of flooding. Similar articles appear elsewhere in the UK press. No sign of it over here. Here's how the Telegraph spins it:

Dr Betts said that the effect was a double edged sword: "It means that increases in drought due to climate change could be less severe as plants lose less water.

"On the other hand, if the land is saturated more often you might expect that intense rainfall events are more likely to cause flooding."

He said that until now scientific models had only looked at the effect of gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide on global warming.

If one wanted to look at their full effect on flooding and drought, the effects on plants had to be considered too.

Dr Betts said he had communicated his results to the EA, who have been working on a Government study which said the flooding risk to rivers could increase up to 20 times by the 2080s.

This estimate would now have to be revised upwards.

What had the EA said to that? "They were very cross," he said.

"Very cross" indeed. Hail Britannia!

Anyone have an idea out there what this "20-fold" business is about? Is the Telegraph out of control again? (And what's the "EA" anyway?)

As for the big picture, it looks to me like another example of difficulties communicating across disciplinary boundaries. It's hard enough to have climatologists and hydrologists communicating effectively, without having to bring plant physiologists into the loop. In the present case, what climatologists consider climatology has very little to do with the global change dynamics at issue.

Now climatologists don't always have to be the intermediary and in this case we shouldn't be. In fact biologists commonly consider themselves a customer of hydrology and so do hydrologists. In this case the coupling works the other way around and perhaps the phenomenon was missed for a while.

The push from the early 90's to create an overarching discipline of "earth system science" that ought to be looking for and systematizing these sorts of couplings seems to have run out of steam from what I can tell. The troubles at NASA can't be helping.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

From Sweden to South Africa by Bicycle

A good photographer is bicycling from Sweden to South Africa. He submitted his URL to the globalchange list. I'm inclined to think it's off topic, but it would be a shame if he didn't get any attention.

On the other hand, this is someone who is under the misapprehension that Good Will Hunting is a good movie.

Hmm. Well, nobody's perfect. Okay, have a look for yourself. Just in case you have lost track of what planet you live on.

Friday, September 21, 2007

America "Soviet Style"

Moving to the southwest has found me taking an interest in water management.

Here's a story in Time Magazine about the Army Corps of Engineers making ludicrous decisions involving lots of money. The story makes an explicit analogy to the Soviet Union:
the Corps routinely manipulates its data in the name of moving dirt, pouring concrete and helping friendly politicians and powerful industries. In 2000, after it was caught cooking its books to justify a $1 billion navigation project on the Mississippi River as part of a Soviet-style "Program Growth Initiative," the Pentagon inspector general concluded that the Corps had a "systemic bias" toward large-scale construction.
Now consider the ethanol subsidies. Same flavor. Much activity. Negligible and probably negative result. Underlying problems unresolved.

Yes, I do work in the public sector. Yes, I have worked in the private sector. Yes, it does make me want to scream sometimes.

No, I won't be specific. Nothing egregious enough in my corner of the world to call for whistle-blowing, but I'm pretty angry about a little bit of bureaucratic incompetence/indifference I tripped over today that may impact my own prospects.

"Can Anyone Stop It?"

Bill McKibben in the New York Review reviews four new and important books on climate change.

From the article:
Working Group III of the IPCC, which reported at the beginning of May, said at great length that in fact it was technically feasible to reduce emissions to the point where temperature rise could be held below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius—the point where many climate scientists now believe global warming may turn from a miserable problem into a catastrophe.
Do they? I think 2 C is not a tipping point, it's the best we can conceivably manage. Which side of 2 C the problem gets severe enough to push us over the edge and into decline is something I believe is completely unknown. I will point out that a 100 C warming actually would be catastrophic. I am not suggesting that this will happen. I am saying that there is some amount of warming that would be catastrophic, and it's surely less than 100 C.

It may be prudent to act as if the number were less than 2 C. I don't see where 2 C is some magic number as far as climate science is concerned, though.

Thanks to 3 Quarks Daily for the link.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Anthropocene Geography

Via Resilience Science, an Andrew Revkin article in the NYTimes about "mapping on the run".
Now, though, the accelerating and intensifying impact of human activities is visibly altering the planet, requiring ever more frequent redrawing not only of political boundaries, but of the shape of Earth’s features themselves.
The images are before and after pictures of the Aral sea. The scale on the ground is hundreds of miles. You may be able to make out a white rectangle at lower left that represents 20 km or about 13 mi.

Images are from the UNEP Atlas of the Changing Earth which is very spiffy in a sobering sort of a way.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Should We Stop Modeling?

Kevin Vranes starts from an interesting Nisbet article (warning: behind the Wall of Science) and then proceeds to use a rather Lomborgesque argument to suggest I should be out of a job. Tom Fiddaman has a cogent reply in Vranes' comments section.

Essentially the argument is that we know what we need to know from the GCMs, and should stop modelling and start mitigating. Tom's reply is that, despite what the denialists would have you believe, the actual expense of GCMs to date is trivial.

Actually, they could get massively better with an order of magnitude more spending and an importation and empowerment of real software management talent. I once tried to interest Google in taking this on. They stopped returning my calls, alas.

Vranes' argument is that this counts for nothing. The government shouldn't do it and Google shouldn't do it. Nobody should pay anything for GCMs, because the purpose of GCMs is to tell us we're in trouble, and they have already done their job.

Vranes is wrong. That is not, as some argue, because the GCMs are insufficient to tell us we're in trouble. Hell, we don't even need the GCMs to know we're in deep. As realclimate said a while back:
The main reason for concern about anthropogenic climate change is not that we can already see it (although we can). The main reason is twofold.

(1) Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are increasing rapidly in the atmosphere due to human activity. This is a measured fact not even disputed by staunch “climate skeptics”.

(2) Any increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will change the radiation balance of the Earth and increase surface temperatures. This is basic and undisputed physics that has been known for over a hundred years.
Vranes is wrong because it's time to get down to brass tacks on the adaptation side. It's time to start computing in earnest to support the adaptation question, which is pretty much what the Ramanthan NAS panel is saying.

Eli sensibly argues that adaptation without mitigation is insane. This is true. On the other hand, it's far too late to have a pure mitigation strategy. The main applied science role of the large climate models should be to inform adaptation.


Irene and I have joked about those carbon offset bumper stickers being a form of climate absolution. That said, to some limited extent the idea makes sense, though it may give people the wrong idea of how cheap it would be to solve the climate issue. The problem is that the marginal cost per unit of remediation goes up with volume, which is one of the ways a closed environment confounds the open-system thinking of economists.

Anyway, it appears that one entire nation is committed to this form of absolution. Guess which country is absolved of its sins?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Pseudoscience Symptoms

In a remarkably patient and detailed examination of the new journal Homeopathy, Timmer, Lee, Gitlin and Ford in the technology site Ars Technica come up with a list of the characteristics of pseudoscience.

Remarkably, it seems to me that every single one of them applies to the patterns of many prominent climate change denialists. See if you agree:
  • Ignore settled issues in science: We know a great deal about the behavior of water (and evolution, and other contentious topics), but there are many efforts to introduce new science without ever addressing the existing body of knowledge. As such, many of the basic tenets of topics such as homeopathy appear to be ungrounded in reality as we understand it.
  • Misapplication of real science: Quantum mechanics is an undeniably successful description of parts of the natural world, but the limitations of its applicability are widely recognized by the scientific community, if not the general public. Pseudoscientists such as homeopaths appear to cynically target this sort of ignorance by applying scientific principles to inappropriate topics.
  • Rejection of scientific standards: Over the centuries, science has established standards of evidence and experiment to ensure that data remains consistent and reproducible. But these strengths are presented as weaknesses that make science impervious to new ideas, a stance that is often accompanied by...
  • Claims of suppression: Pseudoscience is rejected because it does not conform to the standards held by the scientific community. That community is depicted as a dangerous hegemony that rejects new ideas in order to perpetuate a stifling orthodoxy. This happens in spite of many examples of radical ideas that have rapidly gained not only acceptance, but major prizes, when they were properly supported by scientific evidence.
  • A conclusion/evidence gap: Many areas of pseudoscience do not set out to examine a phenomenon but rather have the stated goal of supporting a preordained conclusion. As such, they often engage in excessive logical leaps when the actual data is insufficient to support the desired conclusion.
  • Focusing on the fringes: All areas of science have anomalous data and anecdotal findings that are inconsistent with the existing understanding. But those anomalies should not obscure the fact that the vast majority of current data does support the predominant theories. In the hands of a pseudoscientist, these unconnected edge cases are presented as a coherent body of knowledge that supports the replacement of existing understandings.

Perhaps the clearest theme running through many areas of pseudoscience, however, is the attempt to make a whole that is far, far greater than the sum of its parts. Enlarging a collection of terminally-flawed trivia does not somehow strengthen its scientific significance. This is especially true when many of the components of the argument don't form a coherent whole. For example, quantum entanglement, structured water, and silica are essentially unrelated explanations, and any support for one of them makes no difference to the others. Yet, somehow, presenting them all at once is supposed to make the case for water's memory harder to dismiss.

In extracting these consistent themes, it was remarkably easy to recognize similar instances of most of them in many of the more contentious areas of pseudoscience, such as intelligent design, creationism, and denial of the HIV/AIDS connection. We've intentionally avoided discussing those topics in detail, but we hope those who read this article are willing to perform that exercise on their own.

I made similar observations recently.

It makes me wonder if there is a pseudoscientists' professional association for the exchange of these techniques across subdisciplines, perhaps an AAAPS? Is the pinnacle of achievement in this field to get pulished in Pseudoscience or Supernature? Update: :-)

Friday, September 14, 2007

US Science panel complains re policy connection

The Climate Change Science Program, created in 2002 by President Bush
to improve climate research across 13 government agencies, has also
been hampered by priority shifts, the panel found. Those shifts have
led to the grounding of earth-observing satellites and the dismantling
of programs to monitor environmental conditions on earth, concluded
the report, issued by the National Academies, the nation's preeminent
scientific advisory group.

In a printed statement, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, the panel's chairman,
said that the program's basic scientific efforts have constituted "an
important initiative that has broadened our knowledge of climate


But the report cited more problems than successes in the government's
research program. Of the $1.7 billion spent by the program on climate
research each year, only about $25 million to $30 million has gone to
studies of how climate change will affect human affairs, for better or
worse, the report said.

"Discovery science and understanding of the climate system are
proceeding well, but use of that knowledge to support decision-making
and to manage risks and opportunities of climate change is proceeding
slowly," concluded the 15-person panel, made up mainly of scientists
from universities, though scientists from BP and DuPont also were
Update 9/15:The AP has more info and a slightly different spin.

Also Ars Technica has an interesting opinion on the matter.

Update 9/17: Here's the NAS press release which has an interesting spin in itself.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Evil That is Socialism

The horror.

Remember, it's not just your car, it's your freedom.

Uncertainty about Uncertainty

and uncertainty about uncertainty about uncertainty...

There's a Godel-Escher-Bach strange loop flavor to trying to think rationally about decisionmaking in uncertain circumstances. Wherever recursion appears, life gets interesting.

Anyway, the conversation on the topic on the globalchange list is worth a look, especially for the more mathematically inclined.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Postmodern Geophysics

About eight vehicles in various states of disintegration are half-buried along the side and bottom of the gulch of the Coyote River in a small town in a remote, mountainous section of New Mexico. One of them was right in the middle of the river course. Likely they were parked by the building and the land under the cars failed abruptly. They seemed to have been there for a few years, and there were no signs of any intention to recover them. I snapped these pictures today.

Welcome to the anthropocene.

The earth (specifically the Coyote River in New Mexico) recovers some borrowed resources.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Taking Lomborg Seriously

The NYTimes is featuring an article today on Bjorn Lomborg's take on climate change.

While the content won't be unfamiliar to most people who follow the issue, let me quote the gist of it:
“Wealth is a more important factor than sea-level rise in protecting you from the sea. You can draw maps showing 100 million people flooded out of their homes from global warming, but look at what’s happened here in New York. It’s the same story in Denmark and Holland — we’ve been gaining land as the sea rises.”


In his new book, he dismisses the Kyoto emissions cuts as a “feel-good” strategy because it sounds virtuous and lets politicians make promises they don’t have to keep. He outlines an alternative “do-good” strategy that would cost less but accomplish more in dealing with climate change as well as more pressing threats like malaria, AIDS, polluted drinking water and malnutrition.


But preparing for the worst in future climate is expensive, which means less money for the most serious threats today — and later this century. You can imagine plenty of worst-case projections that have nothing to do with climate change, as Dr. Lomborg reminded me at the end of our expedition.
I don't think these points can be dismissed as easily as a lot of my fellow climate worry-warts tend to do. My response to this way of thinking is to question the very notion of "wealth", which surely must mean something different on a planet which is full of people than on a planet with open space and natural ecosystems. For instance, the "value" of a free ranging species of bird or butterfly is much higher now that so many of them are in decline, but there's no sensible way to reduce that to dollars.

I realize this is a lot to swallow all at once. Is there another way of looking at it that doesn't require a total rethink of economics?

I think there is. Lomborg suggests putting more emphasis on our "other problems" and less into climate change. The difficulty with this view is that we no longer have the luxury of thinking of our problems as decoupled. Our problems include:
  • increasing superstition and xenophobia, tendency to war
  • decline of the natural environment, especially the oceans
  • immediate limitations on liquid fuel
  • desire for increasing wealth in backward countries
  • dependency on extractive water sources, food security
  • accumulation of trace substances not appearing in nature in the environment
Assuming the Hansen rapid sea level rise scenarios are unlikely (which I'm not sure about), climate change will not kill us. What it will do is this.

Climate change makes addressing almost every one of the principal global issues more difficult to address. There is no case where it makes matters easier.

Lomborg does advocate a carbon tax, so he really isn't the enemy people make him out to be. I am not at all sure the way many people react to him is justified. Based on what I have seen, I think it's reasonable to consider him intellectually serious and honest. I don't think he understands the complexity of our predicament, though.

In a sense I actually agree with Lomborg. "Climate change" is not the problem. Managing the earth is the problem. Success is not in avoiding this or that global calamity. We have to avoid all of them, and they are intertwined.

There is only one big problem, how to get the biosphere into a sustainable condition. Economists are ateached to an essentially nonsustainable concept of perpetual growth, so they are not helping. They have a good point that climate change should not be viewed in isolation.

Update 9/14: Joe Romm's first anti-Lomborg article discussed polar bears, about which I have no opinion. His second anti-Lomborg article addresses sea level rise. It is very clear that Lomborg got this badly wrong, but I still don't see that he did so dishonestly. People are easily confused about things that aren't their core expertise.

Anyway, I specifically excluded sea level rise above when discussing whether Lomborg could be right on his own terms. The confusion about sea level rise is attributable in large measure to systematic understatement on the part of the IPCC. Lomborg is not alone in missing the fine print, and this still is no indication of intellectual dishonesty.

I still think it would be best to engage Lomborg respectfully, rather than trying to tie him to the lawyer's science of the main denialists. Of course, I recommend being
studiously polite even to the slimiest of the opposition, a tactic most of them know well enough. In the case of Lomborg, the respect would be genuine. Based on what I've seen so far, I see a man thinking for himself and advancing his opinions, even in the face of vitriolic opposition. He may be wrong, but that doesn't make him dishonest.

My opinion remains tentative but Romm has not dissauded me from it.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Policy as a Problem in Engineering

I couldn't resist attending this talk. It wasn't especially well-attended, and I think the audience that appeared was not entirely receptive. I enjoyed it though.
Corey King
President, Energetics Research and Engineering

Design Synthesis of Multistable Equilibrium Systems and the World Development/Energy Path

Design synthesis can be thought of as picking a desired outcome and then figuring out how to achieve that outcome as well as determining if it is even possible. In this presentation I will discuss the design synthesis methodology for a class of engineering systems and how the design synthesis context could be used for future planning of world development and energy resource usage.

The engineering systems discussed are termed Multistable Equilibrium (MSE) systems. MSE systems are those physical systems, usually mechanical components, that can reside in more than one stable equilibrium position. Each position can have a different configuration, stiffness, or local frequency response to achieve multiple functionality in the same device.

The MSE design methodology is based upon shaping energy curves. This concept of ‘shaping the curve’ will then be expanded to discuss curves that can describe future energy resource usage. Any given desired shape of a ‘future curves’ has much to say about short, medium, and long term preferences and goals. The chosen shape of a future energy curve also entails ethical issues related to sustainability.

I liked seeing someone try to apply control theory to the big big picture. I felt vindicated when he talked about what I would call the multiple regimes of the earth system. He independently concluded that effective reasoning about the world changes as time scales become longer.

Interestingly, he had a military/security time scale that surprised me. King suggests that this time scale, the one where you try to keep ahead of competing countries so you can be safe, was intermediate between the economic and the environmental time scale. As a pretty much rootless person, this whole way of thinking has always been alien to me. It may be helpful in getting certain other mindsets past the purely econometric viewpoint, though.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Agreeing to work to agree to work to...

As Maribo (aka Simon Donner) points out, the forward momentum these days is well nigh infinitesimal. This is from a declaration of the Asian and Pacific nations (APEC) recently:
We agree to work to achieve a common understanding on a long-term aspirational global emissions reduction goal to pave the way for an effective post-2012 international arrangement.
In case you find that hard to parse, Simon elucidates nicely.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Whom Should We Trust - The Flip Side

"Why can't scientists make themselves heard?"

The question of which expert communities the public and the policy sector ought to trust seems to me to be the central issue of our time. Bob Park flips the question around in the most recent issue of his excellent newsletter where he has interesting things to say about energy legislation pending in the US Congress.

The flip side, and really the central issue of this blog, is how legitimate science, not the institution but the body of legitimate knowledge that the institution produces, can establish trust in the political community, in competition with the cherry-picking that private interests are so good at spinning into a skewed story.

The bit that seems most interesting to me follows. These four short sentences, which I understand to be true from conversations with Department of Energy experts on the matter, are especially telling about our quandary.
Finally, both bills call for more ethanol from corn. That's just crazy! For all its good intentions, ethanol from corn doesn't balance. Why can't scientists make themselves heard on a simple question of energy?

Friday, September 7, 2007

Quote of the Day

The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking.

A.A. Milne

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Encounter with a Texan

Had a brief conversation this evening with an acquaintance who is a fellow devotee of Warren Hood and the Hoodlums. The topic got round to my work, and soon enough he brought up Michael Crichton.

I allowed as Crichton was alleging that I was only in it for the easy money.

He looked me up and down, my shirt, my shoes, and said "I hope you don't take this wrong, buddy, but y'all don't look like someone who's in it for the money."

What Corporate Executives Believe

I just got an unsolicited invitation in my email. I contacted them to see if it was spam, and they told me I was invited as an "influential blogger". Shucks. Flattery will get you somewhere, but I am way behind on this proposal I need to get out, so I'll pass.

A global shipping insurance concern is basically doing a global change for executives event. My sense is that this is for real. I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to tell my six billion closest friends more about the event or not, so I'll just quote the interesting bit from the invitation:
To address the major disconnect surrounding future risks for businesses, Marsh, the world’s largest insurance broker and strategic risk advisor, has created the Center for Risk Insights to help businesses better understand the risks they face today and to identify and explain threats looming on the horizon. As part of this effort, the Marsh Center recently surveyed over one hundred board level executives of Fortune 1000 companies to gauge their perceptions on the greatest business risks. Highlights of the findings include:[...]

An astounding half of executives surveyed do not believe that global climate change resulting in long-term environmental and economic impacts is likely to occur.

Terraform Earth First

Terraforming Earth has got to be easier than terraforming Mars.

Here's a very interesting rant that suggests we treat the Earth as if it were Mars. It's a hopelessly wild idea, I'm afraid, but worth a thought just the same.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

How Propaganda Works and How It Fails

I'm just going to lift this straight from Slashdot (much nerdy discussion found there as usual), which refers to an article on the Washington Post. Most "In It" readers will probably find this interesting.
lottameez recommends an article in the Washington Post about recent research into the persistence of myths. In short: once a myth has been put out there (e.g., "Saddam Hussein plotted the 9/11 attacks"), denying it can paradoxically reinforce its staying power. Ignoring it doesn't work either — a claim that is unchallenged gains the ring of truth. Over time, "negation tags" fall out of memory: "Saddam didn't plan 9/11" becomes "Saddam planned 9/11." From the article:

"The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths... The research is painting a broad new understanding of how the mind works. Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner, the studies show that the brain uses subconscious 'rules of thumb' that can bias it into thinking that false information is true. Clever manipulators can take advantage of this tendency.
Climate Spin advocates the silent treatment. Atmoz recommends the calm rebuttal. The research does not bear out that either approach is effective in reaching the tangentially interested, which in a democracy typically constitutes the ruling majority. I recommend ridicule as a useful strategy. It's fun, it's harmless at worst, and it works on the adolescent subconscious in all of us very nicely. "If I take this idea seriously but it's as silly as these uncontrolably giggling people say, people will be able to mock me and thereby reduce my perceived reproductive fitness."

Effective ridicule needs to be deft, of course, but I really think it is an appropriate adaptation. The organized opposition is increasingly ludicrous on many points. Making this clear to the casual observer will go a long way to short circuiting endless discussion on matters that ought to be behind us by now.

Update: A very relevant article by Eliezer Yudkovsky appears on Overcoming Bias which refers to several older studies on a related matter. Which do you think is more common, murder or suicide? Your likelihood of getting such questions wrong correlates strongly with press coverage. The money quote from that article:
Using "availability" seems to give rise to an absurdity bias; events that have never happened, are not recalled, and hence deemed to have probability zero.
which may have something to do with 50% of Fortune 1000 executives disbelief in the likelihood of substantial impacts from climate change.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Carbon Sequestration

Vis Grist, Ceruleus/Sir Oolius (yet another Canadian! interesting, the prominence of Canadians on this turf...) hoists the coal companies on their own petard (whatever that means), finding a quote from a coal guy that
the value of carbon sequestration is political: n.b. it is not technological or economic.

There is opposition to power generation systems that emit CO2 as waste (this is similar to opposition to nuclear power systems that emit radioactive waste). A response to the opposition is needed until the AGW scare is ended. And claims of carbon sequestration (cs) provide that needed response although everybody knows cs would be too expensive for it to be used.
Monsieur Oolius goes on to argue that this is "what the coal industry really thinks". This is a deep and a dangerous fallacy. The coal industry has no mind. It thinks nothing. People who work in the coal industry have ideas. Many think that, all else equal, a 50% rise in the per watt-hour price of coal is a non-starter.

Of course, that person neglects the extrnalities in his calculations, so gets it terribly wrong, but it doesn't matter. As long as they keep capitulating on political grounds, we get closer to having someplace to put the carbon, which is the best possible outcome, better even than wind or solar because it leaves the world with fewer enemies.

Business executives see the world through a time-discounted-value-of-money window. The rest of us see the world as something formerly permanent and sacred, suddenly rendered transient and tawdry. The gap cannot be bridged head on.

The 50% rise per unit energy cost envisioned is tiny compared to the alternatives we face. The fact that the quoted coal exec can't see that is simultaneously bizarre and totally to be expected. He's wrong though. CS is a big win for him. Energy demands will not go away any time soon, and anyone in a position to produce sustainable energy will be in a winning position.

If the coal interests can get over their cultural biases against environmental protection and environmentalists can get over their resentment toward coal, we can make progress. Eventually the coal people will understand that the world as a whole is in need of protection. Eventually environmentalists will understand that we can't support the whole world on a preindustrial economy. Eventually a political deal will be struck. The question is when to compromise and when to be a purist.

(A similar argument goes for conventional mining over strip mining, a point which was horribly lost in recent regulatory retreats in the US.)

A rise in cost combined with a rise in general well-being is a tradeoff the society will eventually make if it is to survive at all. The coal interests will either adapt to this or be left out of the mix. I think in the end everyone will be surprised to see how coal can make a positive contribution.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think how we feel about today's coal people or for that matter about today's environmentalists is not really a big issue. We need every resource we can get to get us through the population crunch without a population crash and/or a terrible degradation of the earth. Coal without sequestration is poison, but coal with sequestration is a resource.

Coal is not anybody's enemy, for all the nasty history of the people who have made money from it. Coal is a dumb rock. We have lots of it and we need lots of it, we just can't be so 19th century about how we do it anymore.

Sequestration developed for coal has an extra, very very large benefit. Sequestration can then be applied to other carbon-burning plants. Combined with biofuel plants, sequestration can actually provide a net draw-down of atmospheric CO2 at an energy profit.

We very very much need this trick to work, and we need to work existing financial and political interests to make it happen.

Like Itzhak Rabin (I think) said, "You don't sit down to peace talks with your friends".

Chemical Alley

A disconnected set of followups relating to my wife's photo and my article featuring the Dow plant in Freeport TX (or, "near Clute" as I had it.) (This photo, of an unidentified Dow facility, is linked from the careers pages of Science magazine.) (Update 1/23/09: photo is now gone.)

The plant is very well known in Texas. It has come up in conversation with water management folks. Of course water rights allocation is a very tricky business in Texas. It turns out the Dow plant has somehow managed a very high priority, and in dry years can essentially squelch water usage further upstream.

It turns out I have an old friend who works there! I was aware he was a quantum chemist in the Houston area. Since I went that way (on a trip to Galveston) specifically to avoid Houston I didn't piece it together. Apparently in addition to all the other toxic substances they manage, they manage PhDs as well. J estimated that the plant constitutes over 10% of the capacity of the Gulf Coast and the Gulf Coast represents over 10% of the capacity of the world for bulk chemical production.

J also pointed out that such facilities are invariably on navigable waterways and typically are near sea level. A big win (or a big lose perhaps) for my old stomping grounds on the St. Lawrence?

Once sea level rise becomes a real economic problem, most of the world's production and essentially all its shipping of raw chemicals is at risk. It seems to me that port facilities as well as production plants need to be relocated inland to places like Montreal or Chicago, or their equivalent overseas. J also points out that most new facilities are being located in lower wage (and, I guess, lower environmental control?) countries.

He estimated the replacement cost for the facility as on the order of 10 to 100 billion dollars. He expected that sea level rise was not high on the priority list of Dow management. I pointed out, and he agreed, that a five-to-ten year time scale is very dominant in corporate planning because of economic constraints. Our discussion didn't get so far as the cure, but it still seems to me that only stringent regulation can keep longer time scales in view in the corporate planning process.

Isn't it past time for a grass roots push for uniform international regulations of environmental and labor law?

In defense of Dow, J says there is a policy intention for a substantial push within the company for instrumental solutions to the world's impending water supply problems. They should be commended for this and allowed to profit handsomely from it if they succeed.

As for what happens to such plants should they be suddenly evacuated and not reclaimed, that occupies an entire chapter of the remarkable new book The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. It just came out and was reviewed in the NYTimes this weekend. I picked up a copy and have already read a fair chunk of it. It discusses in general how and when things would return to a natural state once human activity ceases, a very revealing thought experiment. (Plastic, it turns out, is a very big deal.)

I read in Weisman's book that the oldest operating plant in the Gulf Coast area is celebrating its centennial this year, dating from 1907. These things tend to stay put. Significant sea level rise would be a large cost to the world's industrial economy in ways that are hard to list and quantify. It's easy to think as an end user of consumer products; it's hard translating that back to a reliance on bulk petrochemicals.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Pedal to the Metal

I'm personally in an unusually cheerful frame of mind; though my roots are not in a particularly sanguine culture things are going well for me personally.

The big big picture remains not so pretty. Nature continues to prompt us with ominous signs that the times they are a changin'; hurricane Felix goes from zero to Cat 5 in record time.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Earth Observation COVR-up

Just thought I'd do my bit to cheer on DeSmog's efforts to call attention to the ludicrous defunding of NASA's earth observation programs. In particular, they assert that a valuable instrument, officially called DSCOVR, and in some circles dismissively called "GoreSat" has been sitting in cold storage for several years, and the US has even refused to let other nations launch it on their own dime.

Look, I suppose I don't get a lot of knee-jerk conservatives here, but you don't automatically have to disagree with everything your opponent says. If Osama says that two and two make four that doesn't make it five, okay?

Al Gore thinks we should collect more data, to see if climate theory is valid. Does that mean, if you disagree with Al Gore, you should avoid collecting data? I mean, this whole "GoreSat" nomenclature shows a level of intellectual maturity you wouldn't leave unchallenged if it came from an eleven-year-old.

Update 9/13: Stoat argues, conversely, that just because Gore likes it doesn't mean it's a good idea. That's fair as far as it goes.

If the French are really willing to launch it, it seems likely that there is some demand for the information. Direct measurement of albedo seems useful enough alone.

Sometimes a scalar series can be an important constraint.

I'm inclined to think that the sunk costs should win the day unless it's a spectacularly bad idea, in which case we should be asking why such a very bad idea got funded in the first place.

The real issue is at least probably the effective abandonment of earth observation as a NASA priority.

One might ask, in turn, why it is the US's responsibiltiy to do everything in this regard. In fact, though, if the French are willing to launch it, maybe they'll be willing to maintain it if we ask.

Something really does seem odd about this. I'm willing to be convinced that the consequence of the oddity is that the mission should be scrubbed, and perhaps DeSmog aren't the ones to figure this out, but I'd really like to hear the whole story.