"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Holocaust Analogy

Have a look at Averting Our Eyes on Dot Earth. Some of the main points are not unusual.
So far that seems to have been the story: the special interests have been cleverer than us, preventing the public from seeing the crisis that should be in view.
The peculiarity is the analogy to the Nazi Holocaust that Hansen makes. He seems at first to be backing down a bit.
I regret that my words caused pain to some readers. I hope that they will accept my apology for having caused discomfort, an apology that is heartfelt.
Yet Hansen walks right back into the trap he just squeezed out of at the end of his discussion. It seems quite deliberate.
A related alternative metaphor, perhaps less objectionable while still making the most basic point, comes to mind in connection with an image of crashing of massive ice sheets fronts into the sea — an image of relevance to both climate tipping points and consequences (sea level rise). Can these crashing glaciers serve as a Krystal Nacht, and wake us up to the inhumane consequences of averting our eyes?

Alas, that metaphor probably would be greeted with the same reaction from the people who objected to the first.
It is very difficult for me to deal with this with any equanimity, but I feel I ought to say something.

I understand as well as anybody that people still get very upset about Hitler. My elderly father, still alive, certainly has a right to; he was a Jew in Slovakia in the 1940s, and most of his friends and relatives didn't survive the war. His father died in the gas chambers, as did my oldest cousin. My aunt, still alive, was there too. She has a number tattooed on her arm, and not out of a sense of fashion. My late mother spent the war hiding in closets and under beds.

I think us descendants of holocaust victims should stop being so attached to the uniqueness of our suffering. It was a particularly horrible event in human history, and in some ways it has no parallel, but on the other hand there have been other uniquely horrible events with no parallel.

If we compulsively complete the destruction of the earth out of some idiotic sense of inevitable economic destiny it will also be uniquely horrible.

It's dangerous to make analogies on this scale. I think Hansen believes there eventually comes a time where it is dangerous not to make them as well.

Whether that time has already arrived is hard to say. I certainly would not speak in the terms Hansen has spoken, perhaps because the comparison is more palpably terrifying and painful for me than it is for him. It is hard for those of us who are suffering losses from this disaster every day of our lives even sixty years after its end to hear the analogy come from the lips of those for whom it is a rather academic matter. Thus perhaps it is for the likes of me and not the likes of him to say such things. I am not sure, for the likes of me may lack the courage.

Alas, if time for such talk hasn't arrived, it certainly seems to be approaching rather than receding.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Burnt Orange and Green

A typical Texas intersection
(I'm not exaggerating quite as much as you think I am,
there are literally dozens of intersections on this scale in and around the five biggest cities):

Update on the image above: I should also point out for the non-Texan reader that Texas "urban" (I use the term in its loose southwestern sense) expressways are typically six lanes wide, and paralleled by two-lane one-way commercial streets for a total of ten lanes in four distinct paths. Where two of these expressways cross, it is a requirement that each of the eight crossing paths not only continue but have a path to each of the others for a total of 64 paths; of which twenty-four (the four right turns and the four U turns on the service roads, and all crossings from an express path to an express path) are expected to be unencumbered by stops. In order that I not get too acclimated to this nonsense I insist on calling the U-turns "Texas U-Turns".

What you see in the picture is the canonical intersection between two large Texas roads. Similar structures are being built and planned daily to replace that hideous inconvenience, the traffic light. For instance, there is currently a vast project to eliminate the embarassment of the possibility of as many as three stops on the stretch of Highway 183 between the airport and I-35. Clearly an expenditure in the neighborhood of tens of millions of dollars to replace a traffic light is a wise expenditure of funds, which may explain the state of the Texas school system. Not to mention the bike routes. Or not. I'm new here. Who the hell am I to say?

On the plus side my commute to work will only take seven minutes, provided I own a car.

Morning Edition, November 26, 2007 · Texas emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other state. And if Texas were a country, it would be the seventh-largest carbon dioxide polluter in the world. More...

Although second in population to California by a wide margin, Texas has higher emissions.

Texas has a much higher per capita carbon emission rate than other large states, but that is because emissions in mining and refining are attributed to the state with the facility, though they should be charged to the end user of the energy. It's awfully inefficient here and in some circles conservation is actually frowned upon. Yet it's not quite as bad as the statistics indicate.

Texas somehow is just an energy nexus. After all that coasting on oil wealth, and the weird Enron incident, now it turns out we are at the continental sweet spot for wind energy, and vast windfarms are sprouting on the high plains.

This proves there's no justice, I suppose.

A related NPR story goes a long way toward explaining the Texas aesthetic.
Wind energy is transforming the landscape here. Look in nearly any direction from Roscoe and you can see the white towers of wind turbines rising into the cerulean sky like giant candlesticks. The sight of rotating white blades on a distant mesa is now as common as bobbing pump jacks.

Although people in other parts of the nation say the 400-foot-tall structures are unsightly, people around Roscoe have a different view.

"My wife and I talked about this the other day. We were coming in from church, and she said, 'You know, at first I really thought they were kind of trashy looking,'" says Daylon Althof, a farmer who has one turbine going up on his land. "But she said, 'The more I see these going up, they're kind of beautiful because we know what they're going to provide for the economy around here.'"
I always have found them beautiful.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Latest on History of Climatology

My brief summary of the role of Vilhelm Bjerknes, on Correlations.

Does Pauchari Go Too Far?

Don't get me wrong. I'm at least as nervous about all this climate change business as most people. The idea of "tipping points" doesn't irk me the way it, for some reason, irks William. And I think we are in bigger trouble already than the general public seems to appreciate.

Still, I doubt this is justifiable, either in substance or in ethics:
The panel, co-winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, said the world would have to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 to avert major problems. "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late, there is not time," said Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and economist who heads the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "What we do in the next 2-3 years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."
Supose it's 2013 and we've still done nothing. Is it time to give up and have an end-of-the-world party or what?


There's always a best we can do, and we should always try to do that. There's no now or never until the last breeding pair of humans is gone (and we're a very long way from that).

Yet Pauchari seems to be suggesting that in a few years we will have failed so utterly that there will be nothing we can do.

As far as I know there is nothing special about 2012 in the reports. Admittedly we have to draw the line somewhere, and in fact most countries drew that line years ago at Kyoto and proceeded to ignore it. Now that we are far across that line we need to draw another one, and more effectively. It's fair for IPCC to make that assertion in the most vigorous way. Putting a number onto the estimates of the dangerous time scale is at least arguably fine for an individual, like Hansen.

On the other hand, doing so as Pauchari does on behalf of the IPCC is a very troubling matter even without the false precision. It is a matter of no little concern if the IPCC starts to turn into what it has been accused of being, that is, primarily an advocacy group, never mind an irresponsible one.

Science must be represented. It isn't Pauchari's job to pull numbers out of a hat.

I was sitting on the above article wondering if it would be better or worse to publish it, and it sort of scrolled out of consciousness. But then David Appell said something very similar on Quark Soup and I found myself agreeing. So let me say "me too".

The situation is bad enough without making it worse than it is. The last thing we need to is to give more ammunition to the people who think it's all over so what the heck...

Let me repeat my position. There's always a best we can do, and we should always try to do that.

This principle will not expire in three years or ten. It will not expire at all until we all expire with it.

Thus I violate my resolution not to write anything until New Year's. In my defense, somebody else said it first. So it doesn't count.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Runaway Train

Note to those visiting from Rabett Run: I believe Eli's posting is more closely related to Reply to Revkin than to this present article, which probably makes more sense read second.

On the thread Reply to Revkin, John Fleck asks
It would be useful if you, as one of the scientists in the room, would be specific about what you see as "the cliff" we're all marching toward. One of the interesting strengths of Lomborg's book is that he gets quite specific in discussing the various hypothesized cliffs, and the costs and benefits of various approaches to not going off of them.
I'm still thinking about that, but fortunately I can at least point to the freshest hot from the oven scientific consensus fretting from the IPCC. Here is the IPCC's Fourth Synthesis Report Summary.

Fellow Texan Andrew Dessler has an excellent summary of the summary on Grist.

An alternative answer to John came up when, after weeks of nagging, friend Howie finally convinced me to watch the documentary What A Way To Go. (The link takes you to the film trailers. Watch them for a taste of the what the film has to offer.)

Using the metaphor of a runaway train which Dennis at Samadhisoft is also fond of, the film is a poetic and a morose compendium of what we're up against that spares little time for techno-optimism, and what time it spares is scornful.

I don't ultimately agree with the film at all.

I am not holding up the film as a summary of what I believe we should do. It pretty much suggests we try as individuals to act with a certain futile dignity and hope a few of us survive. I do not appreciate that answer.

I understand the suspicion toward quantitative and technical thinking that many people who appreciate the depths of our quandary hold, and I'm not immune to it myself, but I also understand that only a careful and vigorous technocratic society can steer us through the coming turbulence to anything like a soft landing. I feel we have to try, and that the best we can do must be done collectively. It's our future vs. the detritus of our past.

Yet I think no thinking person should miss seeing it.

What a Way to Go is a deeply moving and deeply thought out description of how we have stacked the deck against ourselves. In no part of the film where I consider myself well-informed did I encounter any errors of substance. Which is pretty daunting, as the film is terrifying from beginning to end.

If you look at the big picture, at the whole earth as a system, well, it's not hard to see it as an unholy mess. The film's impresario Tim Bennett manages to say so in the most poignant, convincing and moving way. Unlike Tim, I believe there are answers. However, Tim has done a very fine job of asking the right questions.

Let it serve, for now, as an alternative answer to John's challenge.

Danes and Dutch and Dead TVs

Our cheesy little VCR/TV combo (our only television) almost ate an irreplaceable VHS tape that had been lent to us. Also the picture has been declining. We rarely even plug the thing in, now that we watch movies on the 20" iMac. So now we will likely have no TV at all. The problem is that we have no idea what to do with the corpse of the thing.

It's not really a very Texan question. Even the unrelentingly hip Central Market (world class live music accompanied by the antics of dancing toddlers at your main grocery, providing a level of civilization that is enviable anywhere and anywhen) offers no bottle recycling at their cafe.

Those who despair that sufficient social change is possible should consider some of the examples set by Northern Europe. Consider the achievements of the Danes and the Dutch in managing household waste.

"In wildness is the preservation of the world", Thoreau said. I say "in techno-liberalism is the preservation of the wild".

Planning is possible and necessary. Let's do some.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Nature vs Real estate

Galveston TX is built on a shifting sandbar off the Texas coast, not far from Houston.

Galveston, it appears, is in big trouble even if sea level rise doesn't accelerate. The Texas Observer has an article called "That Sinking Feeling" detailing how the beach boom town is in denial about the fact that nature trumps real estate. The article only vaguely alludes to the likely outcome, which is that, at least for a while, until some day when the entire enterprise is abandoned, the less well-connected population of the Texas interior will be paying a lot of money to maintain what will essentially become (and is in parts already becoming) a vast and charmless concrete pier.

Texas geophysicists have stirred the pot with an alarming map showing high risk of near-term erosion of large parts of the island.
Geologist John Anderson says he’s tired of explaining the map, and the science behind it, to city officials. “If they do not understand it, they should not be in public office,” he says sternly.
Yet the map is based on an assumption of no acceleration in sea level rise at all.

Unsurprisingly and I think rather poignantly, Galveston real estate interests haven't really picked up on all the clues we've been shipping them. "Global warming, sea-level rise, whether it's man-made or it's the natural process we're going through, that's to be determined," one of their leaders, Jerry Mohn, says.

The same issue of the Observer has an unsurprising but remarkably well-stated editorial about climate change. It's probably worth quoting the juicy bits:

An unassailable majority of the world’s scientists believe that climate change is real, that human activities contribute to it, and that the consequences will be devastating. Yet our president and our governor—such learned men as they are—insist it’s not true. (White House Press Secretary Dana Perino noted last week that global warming has an upside: Fewer people will die from colds. We did not make that up.)

Their flight of fancy might be amusing if they weren’t taking all of us aboard with them. Like many conservatives, they have a curious relationship with science, seeming to believe that adamant ideology can somehow trump empirical data. Perhaps their free-market bent leads them to believe that an invisible hand will hold the polar ice caps together. Or maybe theirs is a faith-based approach: Global warming is a divine creation, or God will come down and make everything all right.

Faulty science is quaint when it’s just a few rubes publishing flat-earth pamphlets. But when their intellectual bedfellows are setting our public policy, things get a bit dicier. Under President Bush, eight years that should have been spent facing up to global warming will have been squandered. Gov. Perry seems to believe that ridiculing the notion of climate change will help win him the second spot on the next GOP ticket or a cabinet post in a future Republican administration.

We don’t have time for this nonsense anymore.

The Storm King

I've been trying to pull together a history of climatology on WIRED Science - Correlations.

While the large scale behavior of the atmosphere is complex and hard to grasp, it occurred to me that the basic ideas for understanding a rainstorm cloud were in place by the early nineteenth century. I wondered if history had captured the story of the person who had put the pieces together. I wasn't able to find an answer last week, but I inquired on a couple of mailing lists, and my question on the global change mailing list caught the attention of Tom Adams, who came up with some very interesting information.

The genius in question was the American, James Pollard Espy, who published his theory in 1841, to less than universal acclaim.

Read more on Correlations.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Well, one way to get science done is to not bother with the grants, the bureaucracy, the reports, the committees, and the modest income, and rather to just be a bum doing science.

Here's a garbled article on the Telegraph that reports that an unemployed but healthy and robust fellow has created a promising "Theory of Everything", i.e., a mathematical foundation that accounts for both gravity and quantum theory. It sure looks a lot like string theory at the vast distance I view it from, (something group theory something something) but apparently the math is actually a lot simpler than that called for by string theory. You could have fooled the reporter who blithers "E8 encapsulates the symmetries of a geometric object that is 57-dimensional and is itself is 248-dimensional," and to be honest you could have fooled me.

For all I know this is completely bogus, but I really like the back story. Oh, yeah, the article is headlined Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything .

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Cat 5 hits Bangladesh

This looks awfully serious. Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum at Intersection are following the story closely.

Update: Sheril vouches for the person who vouches for the following. I'll vouch for Sheril. Let's call it a network of trust.

...here are some links to donations that will reach the devastated areas immeadiately:

Islamic relief: (They are good, and I personally recommend them)

Bangladesh Red Crescent:

The Hunger Project Bangladesh (I've worked for them in the past)

Posted by: afreen | November 17, 2007 9:20 PM\

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reply to Revkin

I posted approximately this on Dot Earth:

I am beginning to see more clearly what Andrew Revkin is aiming at here in his celebration of the "middle way". I think it's mistaken in emphasis.

I consider myself a reasonable liberal, and what I see here in this pursuit of the middle is a reasonable liberal impulse, so I sympathize. Unfortunately, that impulse is taken to illogical extremes. It is not the case that things are either terrifying or benign or in between, and in fact one of the problems with climate change is that none of these positions is a reasonable summary.

The idea of business as usual is terrifying, and after twenty years of perfectly clear warnings, some of which have already come to fruition, there is little sign that business has any intent of being conducted in any unusual way.

Perfectly good solutions exist that are only modestly inconvenient and only modestly technically demanding. However, they impose immediate costs and deliver mostly long range benefits. Our decision making systems quite efficiently discount anything of the sort.

Accordingly we march lemminglike toward the cliff, even though we don't actually need to. Anyway, that's my position, and I think it's Gore's position, and I think it's the position of most people who think about it a lot. Is it a middle position?

If a man with a wild haircut, tattoos and a nosering dressed in an impeccably tailored three piece suit is modestly dressed, yes, I suppose so.

Sometimes the truth itself is extreme. Nature does not subscribe to our political principles, and it is a futile sort of moderation that tries to get reality to compromise with culture, no matter how refined or well-intentioned that culture may be.

We are not necessarily doomed; we have the technical capacity to solve our problems, but we need to develop substantially changed decision making mechanisms. There are places where there is no room for compromise or the friendly impulse to split the difference.

For instance, net carbon emissions must not only stop growing but must shrink to near zero or negative values as quickly as possible. Stabilizing them at present values isn't a compromise worth considering, reasonable though it might sound.

Update 11/16: I missed what James had said about this business in January. Go read it.

Update 11/18: You have to give Revkin credit for livening up the conversation. Tim Lambert has some interesting thoughts, at Deltoid, have a look at my conversation with John Fleck at Inkstain, and don't miss Revkin vs David Roberts.

I'd especially like to point out "z"'s comment on Deltoid which I will take the liberty of quoting here:
As I always repeat, to the point of boredom, several years ago, scientists said the North Atlantic fisheries were being overfished and suggested cutbacks. The fishing industry had an opposing point of view. The government(s), Solomonlike, split the diference, allowing a bigger annual catch than the scientists recommended, but less than the fishing industry wanted. And it worked out so well, that the fishing industry collapsed.
Update 11/21: See also my first attempt to come to grips with Revkin's misguided middlism.

David Roberts has picked up the thread again on Grist today, referring prominently to your humble narrator. Steve Bloom's comment there is worthy of consideration. Oddly, he is saying the opposite of what I am saying, and yet I find it a much more useful model than Revkin's. That puzzles me.

See what you think:
To put forward what may be way too irreducibly simple a paradigm for some, IMHO there are people who sincerely want to avoid dangerous climate change and then there's everyone else. There is no middle.
Update 11/24: see also The Runaway Train

Selling the Incomprehensible

Dear science funding agency;

I understand the desire for anonymous reviewers. I understand the reluctance to negotiate the terms of our engagement. I understand the reasons not to put proposers in touch with competitors who are also potential collaborators. I may not agree with these approaches but I understand them.

What I can't understand is why I have to act as if you were on a distant planet.

I can't understand why I don't get to put together a powerpoint presentation, and why I don't get to respond to reviewers' questions until it's too late.

It's clear that reviewers misunderstand proposals. Of course they do. That's not a criticism. It's an inevitable consequence of the complexity of what we do. These things are complicated, and your reviewers have a limited amount of time to get the idea.

The formalism of printed documents with tight page limits is just silly. It's proven every time we get our reviews back. Reviewers frequently miss the point. Didn't some of your reviewers miss the point of your last proposal? Most of them? Shouldn't we be making some efforts to be sure we understand each other?

Better ways have been developed to convey complex ideas. They are called "presentation" and "conversation".

I want to do what I would do in a business setting. I want to look you in the eye and explain to you why you would be foolish not to fund my proposal; i.e.;

1) that you have a problem,
2) that I know how to solve it
3) that my team has or can find the right people to solve it
4) that those objections which make any sense are already accounted for in the plan

If I can't look you in the eye, could we at least try instant messaging?

Why do you insist on presentation mechanisms that are practically guaranteed to fail to communicate the ideas and address the objections?

Why do you refuse to talk to me? What is the purpose of making multi-million dollar investments in an information vacuum?

Thanking you in advance for your prompt reply.

Update: Bryan Lawrence has substantial things to say about this, on his blog.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Geoengineering again

A really excellent article on geoengineering appears on Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth in which In It reader RM Reiss has already commented briefly but cleverly. Revkin also points to related NYTimes articles by Cornelia Dean and William Broad.

I've been hard on journalists in general and Revkin in particular of late, so let me take this opportunity to emphasize that not all journalism is off base and the NYTimes in particular is usually very helpful, at least in this regard. (I think their architecture criticism verges on criminally insane, for instance, but that's another matter...)

Dean quotes David Keith of the University of Calgary:
One way or another, Dr. Keith said, in 200 years the earth will be “an artifact,” a product of human design.
I don't know if I agree with that. The world will never be an artifact, but we are already well into the anthropocene where we are by far the dominant surface process. Or as I've said recently, we've already taken the wheel, so we'd damned well better learn to drive.

The YouTube video featured on the Dot Earth article concludes something like "ultimately it comes down to the wisdom of our politicians. I'd best not say anything more about that." But something else Keith says really bears thinking about:

And who should decide what action should be taken or when?

“I have no idea,” Dr. Keith replied. But just as international organizations were formed to regulate the use of radio frequencies, organize air traffic control, track space debris and deal with other problems, it might be possible to create an international organization to deal with these questions, he said.

“We are backing our way into global governance, very slowly,” he said.

That won't go over big in Texas either... But the world is less like a frontier and more like a boat every day. I've never heard of a boat with two hundred captains.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Origins of Climatology

I have an essay on this topic at Correlations, intended as part of a series. Comments and corrections are welcome.

A Blogger's Lament

This is a nice summary of the problem with blogging, with analogies to software development and zen.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Fall Cancelled after 3 Billion Seasons

"As much as we'd like to see it stay, fall will not be returning for another season," National Weather Service president John Hayes announced during a muggy press conference Nov. 6. "Fall had a great run, but sadly, times have changed."

Celsius, Fahrenheit and Journalists

Unfortunately, comments are closed on "Find the Error" on RealClimate.

So I'll use this space to point out that the error (equating a difference of 1 degree C equivalent to a difference of about 34 F) is not without precedent. The following is a submission from myself to the what was then the comp.risks usenet group in 1995.
I thought the RISKS readership shouldn't miss this gem, posted in sci.geo.meteorology by stevenb@pauli.jhuapl.edu (Steven Babin at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory):

> There seems to be some confusion over the giant iceberg. [...]
> The Reuters news agency reported that the iceberg was 656 feet 2
> inches thick, implying a tremendous accuracy of measurement. It
> is actually 200 m thick and the reporter converted this to English
> units. Reuters also reported that this event was the result of a
> 36.5 F increase in temperature since the 1940's. It was actually
> a 2.5 C increase. The reporter apparently converted this to F
> as a temperature rather than a temperature difference.
> I don't know whether this speaks more for the educational level of
> reporters or more for the fact we should all be using SI units.

The risks of the transmission of technical information by people who don't know what they are talking about will be familiar to RISKS readers. Perhaps more striking is the risk that something as simple as a Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion algorithm can be misused by making invalid assumptions about context.

Michael Tobis tobis@skool.ssec.wisc.edu

I am pleased to note that the RISKS Digest ("Forum On Risks To The Public In Computers And Related Systems") is still in business and still moderated by Peter Neumann. Or displeased. I'm not sure. There's too much to read....

Friday, November 9, 2007

Revkin's Imaginary Middle Stance

Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth discusses climate change scaremongering (off-putting) vs climate change formalism (invisible). He asks an interesting question.
In a line that didn’t make it into an article, [a source] said that a quieter tone in describing the problem “could be interpreted as satisfaction with the status quo.”

So if quiet warnings are ignored, and the politics of fear is as empty as pornography, what is a message on climate risks and responses that is true to the science, but also effective?

Any ideas?
I don't know. I do like the question.

On the other hand, it seems the legal/political habits of mind are so pervasive even among journalists that even the best of them, like Revkin, can not only make but repeat clunkers like this from the same article:
I explored these questions in the context of global warming last year in a piece called “Yelling Fire on a Hot Planet,” and then again last January in a story exploring the durable, but largely invisible, “middle stance ” amid all the shouting. Scientists holding this view say the world should move assertively to curtail emissions of heat-trapping smokestack and tailpipe gases, but mainly to limit the worst outcomes decades down the road — not so much because such actions could reduce today’s climate-related risks.
This doesn't ring true for me. I don't think asserting that there is an "invisible middle stance" among scientists is a useful model.

Anyone who knows anything about the climate system, including but not limited to geoscientists, knows that greenhouse-relevant actions taken now have minute immediate effects. Arguably, the whole reason we have a problem at all is that effects of anthropogenic emissions changes are cumulative over decades, far outside the political cycle and unaccounted for by conventional politics. That's not the "middle", that's the facts of the matter. Whether your attitude about that is alarmed, sanguine or resigned comes from personality, political or philosophical differences, not from scientific "stances".

On the whole, I like what Revkin does, but his continuing efforts to put climate science into camps or "stances" suffers from the usual confusions.

While there certainly are camps on open technical questions, there really isn't a left, right and middle in climate science. Whatever "stance" we take on the big social and political questions is outside the purview of science. This is why Revkin's "middle way" stuff rings hollow for most of us.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

What's Wrong with Web Polls

From LW (full credit to whom if LW so desires) and Think Progress. Feel free to not take this seriously. The contender among the real science blogs is Bad Astronomy, which is, in fact, very good.
At 5:00 PM (EST) tonight, voting will close in the fifth annual Weblog Awards, "the world's largest blog competition." In the competition, participants are allowed to "vote once every 24 hours in each poll."

Currently leading the field in the "Best Science Blog" category is a website whose work has gone a long way in furthering anti-scientific interests, the global warming denialist blog Climate Audit.

Climate Audit is run by Stephen McIntyre, a Canadian and "former mining executive" who has become the darling of climate skeptics by challenging the conclusions of Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann and NASA's James Hansen.

McIntyre's criticisms of Mann, which appeared in the non-peer reviewed conservative journal Energy & Environment, have themselves been challenged for "overstat[ing]" their case. Even McIntyre himself has admitted that "the significance of things has been misstated by [Rush] Limbaugh and people like that."

But the right blogosphere has made Climate Audit's shot at the Weblog Award a cause celebre and are using postings and "endorsements" to rally their support to push for a skeptic to be named "Best Science Blog"
Sigh. I can't believe I'm having anything to do with this stupid game, but anyone who campaigns to win something like this, it seems to me, deserves to lose. The vote count for this "award" is about ten times the ones in the other categories.

Update: The voting is now over. It appears unclear who won this contest. McIntyre is declaring victory but as I look BadAs has the lead. I am sure the results are meaningless in any case.

Let me add that I think there's nothing wrong with playing this game to gain attention. What is disturbing is that McIntyre seemed to be playing the game to gain credibility, which is a very different thing.

Some follow-ups are substantially more interesting than the event itself. Bad Astronomy is generous to McIntyre:

This brings us to the heart of the problem: I am a scientist, and I understand a lot of the methods used to analyze data. However, this does not make me an expert on all data. I would have to spend a large amount of time plowing through what McIntyre did and what the folks at Real Climate say to see what’s what, and even then I cannot know for sure, because I am not an expert in this field.

And there you have it. How do any of us interpret these crucial findings when we are not experts? We have to rely on other experts. In this case, the overwhelming number of experts, truly overwhelming, say that GW is anthropogenic. That doesn’t mean they are right, but it does mean it’s the way to bet. And I encourage people to look into the studies on both sides of this. Science is all about keeping people honest.

About the science, though: I refuse to get sucked into any debate over “sound science”, because that uses science’s own strengths — tentative results constituting evidence and support, but not “proof” — against it. You can always wait and try to get more data, but there are times when you have enough. In my opinion, we have enough.

Again, let me be clear: I applaud McIntyre’s efforts to work through this. He has clearly done some good, and I have said so in previous posts. An argument can be made that my use of the term “denialist” for him may be too strong, but it still does seem to me after reading more of his site that he comes at this from the angle of trying to tear down arguments made for anthropogenic GW while not going after the antiGW claims.

McIntyre himself uses the event to protest his innocence in an article provocatively titled "why is this left and right", a question many of us find pertinent.

Prior to this vote, I (and doubtless many CA readers) had been unaware of the Bad Astronomy blog (and other interesting nominees who have undeservedly not attracted the attention that deserved) and I’m sure that this same holds in reverse. I hope that readers of each blog will take the opportunity of this introduction to visit the other site; I’ve added a link to Bad Astronomy in my very short blogroll.

Like many issues, the voting seems to have divided on left-right lines. While I realize that much of my support has come from right-wing sources, I don’t think that the analysis that’s done here is anything that should either comfort right-wing people or offend left-wing people. Sometimes the argument is made that, if Mann’s Hockey Stick were wrong, it means that the climate situation would be actually worse than people think. I ask “left-wing” readers to ponder this for moment: if the errors in Mann’s (and similar studies) result in a disguising of a problem, shouldn’t people concerned about AGW impact be on the cutting edge of attempts to analyze the Hockey Stick and see if there any defects in the analysis? Shouldn’t they be demanding that all the data used in these studies -even Lonnie Thompson’s - be available so that each one of them can be properly analysed?

Back when views on Iraq were more evenly divided, I sometimes compared what I do to being a CIA analyst arguing that sometimes an aluminum tube is just an aluminum tube and not evidence of WMD. That wouldn’t mean that proponents of the war couldn’t argue the matter using different arguments or that the war was or wasn’t justified, or that the subsequent occupation of Iraq was or wasn’t botched. All it means is that policy-makers shouldn’t be basing their decisions on questionable information about aluminum tubes. This was a line of argument that used to rub right-wing people who liked part of my message the wrong way, but I hope that it says something about me.

I’ve said on many occasions that, if I had a big policy job, I would be guided by the views expressed by large institutions. Unlike some “skeptics”, I don’t argue that decisions should be deferred pending perfect certainty. I have business experience and know that people make decisions all the time with uncertainty - you have to. At the same time, if you’re going to make effective decisions, you need to have the best possible information. And I vehemently disagree that scientists can use the “big picture” as a justification for being careless with their details. People should try their hardest to get the details right as well as the big picture.

But runner-up P Z Myers at Pharyngula sticks to the denialist label for McIntyre, and protests a good deal more vigorously:
what's bringing you and your fellow naive whiners here is the need to defend the climate change denialist, McIntyre — so many of you, after carping that I'm not meeting your demands, are protesting that he's not a denialist, and you aren't denialists, and you're all here in the cause of good science.


My expertise is not in climate, but in biology, and I'm familiar with his type — it's a common strategy among creationists, who do dearly love to collect complaints. There are people who put together a coherent picture of a scientific issue, who review lots of evidence and assemble a rational synthesis. They're called scientists. Then there are the myopic little nitpickers, people who scurry about seeking little bits of garbage in the fabric of science (and of course, there are such flaws everywhere), and when they find some scrap of rot, they squeak triumphantly and hold it high and declare that the science everywhere is similarly corrupt. They lack perspective. They ignore everything that doesn't fit their search criterion, and of course, they're focused only on putrescence. They aren't scientists, they're more like rats.

And the worst of the rats are the sanctimonious ones that declare that they're just 'policing' science. They aren't. They're just providing fodder for their fellow denialists, and like them all, have nothing of value to contribute to advance the conversation. You can quit whining that you and McIntyre are finding valid errors; it doesn't matter, since you're simultaneously spreading a plague of lies and ignorance as you go.

So bugger off, denialists. I am not impressed.

Update: The web awards site punted.

Politicizing Climate Change

While everyone agrees there's too much politics in climatology, people overseas will be amazed at the extent to which there's insufficient climatology in US politics.

With oil at $100/barrel, even energy policy gets short shrift.

I recommend, especially to American readers, an article on Daily Kos about the near invisibility of what after all is obviously a defining issue of our time.

(Disclaimer: while I am an unabashed liberal I'm not a Democratic partisan. I don't plan to take this blog too far into campaign politics. The referenced site is explicitly political and big-D Democratic. In this case, though, it raises an interesting point that even those disagreeing with its inclinations ought to consider.)
Notable in the presidential debates, on both sides of the aisle, has been a relative silence on such minor issues as energy and Global Warming. Peak Oil matter? Evidently not, based on the hours of debates. Global Warming? Well, Tim Russert [moderator of the venerable interview program Meet the Press --mt] has asked over 200 questions, not one related to this that I can find. Nor, for example, did it come up at the Yearly Kos Presidential forum in August.
The League of Conservation Voters put out a press release last week pointing out that Russert has had the presidential candidates on Meet the Press at least a dozen times and never used the words "global warming". And, well, it isn't just Russert. It was noted, at Yearly Kos, by a number of the candidates in their sessions after the Presidential Forum in August. (Richardson opened his comments noting this.) As long as reporters (and we) are not asking the questions, the issue won't rise to the top of the debate.

The Overton window not only decides what positions can be discussed in polite company. It also apparently decides what features of the landscape we even look at. To reach 2008 with debate on energy hardly visible in national politics is ludicrous in the extreme.

It's not as if the problem were some sort of secret, either. Everyone except the politicians talks about it constantly. Americans are obsessed about an elephant in the room that the press and the parties are dancing around and trying to sweep under a rug.

It makes the media and political power centers look ever more shabby. The hypocrisy is approaching Soviet levels. Nobody outside the power centers is taking the political process seriously. At least part of the reason is that the topics addressed and the attitudes expressed by politicians and the press seem to refer to a different country and a different time.

It's not as if Mr Gore is entirely off the hook, either. I recall that these matters disappeared from his vocabulary at about the time he started running for President in earnest in 2000.

There must be some awfully powerful pressures that I can't quite understand to keep a lid on the energy tangle. Someone in DC should read the safety warning that comes with an everyday kitchen pressure cooker.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Argument for Carrying Capacity of 7.5 G

My good friend Howie spotted an as-yet obscure blog from Sweden, in English, by Folke Gunther.

Gunther is basing an argument for the world's carrying capacity on the private asteroid argument, turned on its head. Exactly how much land do you need? That is, what is each human's minimum share of the entire planet? He argues that you need just about the share you currently have.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


Climate Progress has a link to Hansen's cogent testimony to the Iowa legislature regarding the risks of new coal plants. The figures constituting the second half of that document are especially good.

There's an interesting biography of James Hansen recently posted by NASA.

Journalism Cannot Be Neutral

I was otherwise busy, but Irene had time to catch Jim Lehrer's lecture to the Journalism school this evening. (He gave a similar talk at my alma mater last month.) Lehrer upheld the conventional tenets of journalism; he is alarmed at the decay of discourse, but it seems Gore and Gingrich agree on that too.

It's an important question, how we came to this pass.

I suspect, and here Lehrer will not agree, that responsible, staid journalism like his, as practiced in America, is part of the problem. The attempt at "balance" requires some definition of the scope of acceptable opinion. As Eli taught me, the implicit limits of discourse, which oddly include Singer and exclude Lovelock, for instance, is called the Overton WIndow in some circles.

Here's an easy place to start. As Gore suggests, don't give equal time to sense and nonsense.

If the window of acceptable opinion doesn't move with the evidence, journalists aren't doing their job of presenting evidence. If they hold a misguided scruple against making judgments, the window will wander around in ways that don't have much to do with reality. That's when Mamet's principle kicks in, that's why we have lost the capacity to cope collectively, and that's why at this point all genuine optimism in America is centered around the idea of abandoning the collective altogether, which unfortunately won't work.

Jim Lehrer is a very nice man, a very smart man, a very serious man, and a very well-intentioned man. And Jim Lehrer is part of the problem.

Update: The CBC ombudsman is quoted as follows on DeSmog:
"The CBC, in its decision making process, is entitled to make its own editorial determination about what opinions are in the mainstream, and need to be reflected, and what opinions are on the margins, and can be given the editorial hook they so often deserve…"
That is pretty much the point. Journalism is not only entitled to make such decisions. It is obligated to do so, and it is obligated to do so responsibly and competently. That is what we pay our journalists for.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Green Mainframes: Big is Beautiful

Via Slashdot, where there follows some interesting discussion about cap-and-trade, IBM is going to offer carbon credits for moving from no-longer-especially-personal PCs (which really are not typically in the user's full control even in a home setting anymore) back to mainframes which have economies of scale in energy consumption.

If high speed home internet bandwidth weren't being gobbled up by rather ill-designed and accidental video-on-demand system, the time for thin clients at home would already have arrived. iPhones... OK, maybe that's off topic for this blog.. Never mind...

The interesting thing for us here is the emergence of private sector carbon credits. Not only are we reverting to mainframes, we are reverting to private mints as well! Essentially IBM is offering you a private endorsement which can be traded for value and openly exchanged.

As far as carbon goes, this is certainly more silver buckshot than silver bullet, but if it works, more power (er, more conservation...) to IBM and Google too.

There is a Big is Beautiful theme here that I'd like to ponder some more.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Carbon Cycle Misfortunes

The National Academy is releasing a PNAS paper on the carbon cycle by Canadell et al. to the public. A summary is available on Environmental Research Web.

The news is grim. The carbon intensity of the global economy has stopped improving and the efficiency of the ocean sink is declining. Consequently CO2 accumulation has not only continued but has accelerated over the past six years.

Recent carbon emissions growth substantially exceeds
the IPCC's most pessimistic emissions scenario!

There is a very effective Powerpoint presentation . The charts are excellent. (Nice choice of text font, too.)

Here are the ones I found most outstanding. The first one should warm the heart of any accountant; it's a budget.

An important point to note from the first image is that emissions are increasing and the ocean is not keeping up; while its total absorption of carbon is roughly constant, its fractional contribution is clearly declining. That means a larger proportion of our emissions contribute to climate change.

Total emissions can be seen as the product of three terms: population, per capita wealth, and carbon intensity. Until very recently the carbon intensity was balancing one of the other two, but now it is trending the wrong way. This is an economic way of parsing out the recent deterioration in the carbon situation. According to this analysis, we don't have more growth than usual. It is just much dirtier growth than usual.

Here's the punchline. It is starting to look like the IPCC scenario spread is far too optimistic.

Fun, huh?

Update 11/2: A similar blog posting is here at "ice-blog", in French. That article also directed me to the related PNAS article by Raupach et al which breaks the emissions scenario down regionally. Here is ice-blog's excellent summary:
Au total, les auteurs décomposent la hausse du taux d'augmentation du CO2 atmosphérique entre 70-99 et 2000-2006 (de 1.5 à 1.9 ppm/an, en gros) comme suit:
* 65 % (+/-16) pour l'augmentation de l'activité économique mondiale
* 17 % (+/- 6 ) pour la dégradation de l'intensité en carbone de l'économie
* 18 % (+/- 15) pour la diminution de l'efficacité des puits naturels.

Enfin, last but not least, les auteurs indiquent que les modèles couplés climat/cycle du carbone (couplage qui n'est pas inclus dans les modèles du GIEC, au passage...) indiquent bien un affaiblissement des puits pour le 21ème siècle (causant une augmention supplémentaire de 20 à 200ppm de CO2 atmo d'ici 2100 par rapport aux scenarios IPCC, voir Friedlingstein et al. 2006 ), mais pas pour la période 1959-2006: pour cette période ils indiquent plutôt une baisse de l'Airborne Fraction (i-e, des puits plus forts).

Ceci suggèrerait d'après eux que les feedbacks carbone/climat se produisent plus rapidement que notre compréhension des phénomènes gouvernant l'absorption des puits ne le laissait penser.

Pour résumer: nos émissions de CO2 accélèrent, sa concentration atmosphérique augmente de plus en plus vite, et, si l'on en croit ce nouveau papier, les puits naturels commenceraient à faiblir plus tôt que prévu...

Voilà un scenario prometteur, en tout cas...
There's an mp3 of an excellent CBC interview (Quirks and Quarks) of one of the authors, Chris Field; you'll have to put up with some introductory sound effects and promotional bluster.

Anybody else care to point to this? I think it's about as important as it gets.