"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Another Sign of Dawning Realization

Dot Earth is running "Eleven Questions for Obama's Science Team" and I would like to especially recommend they (and all of us) think long and hard on question eight, which is a nice statement of one of our themes here:
My request to the Obama transition team is to introduce the economy team to the science team. Economists like Daniel Tarullo would benefit from discussing the laws of thermodynamics with Steven Chu. I’m also sure that the science community would benefit from learning something of the complexity of economics theory and practice. New ideas might evolve!

I’m certain that physics has laws that must be obeyed at our peril, but I’m not convinced that economics has shown their ‘laws’ to be inviolate. In fact, just now to the contrary those principles are looking quite tarnished. And, I’d like to see a science-cum-economics dialogue continue and evolve throughout Obama’s tenure in the White House. It would greatly benefit our transition to a sustainable economy based on alternative energy, resource conservation, green jobs and creative partipation by all sectors of our society.
Thanks to the questioner, Wayne Hamilton of Springdale, Utah.


Post-Growth America

A surprising glimmer of recognition spotted in the major media:
"Look," said the President, walking across the stage with a microphone in hand, "here's what no one wants to tell you. Structural changes in our economy, and new competition from countries like China and India, mean that we're in a different world now. That pattern we once took for granted, in which our incomes basically kept rising across the board, turns out to be something we can't sustain. Many of you are earning less than your parents did, and the truth is, many of your children will earn less than you do."

The President paused, watching as the words sank in. "I don't think denial helps any of us. I know it won't help us come together to do the things we need to do as a nation to thrive even amid these new realities."

Don't worry, you didn't miss the news; the scene above has not happened yet. Few politicians would say those things even if they believed them to be true, because it would challenge a notion at the heart of the American dream: the idea that the kids will earn more than we do.


There's a third worrisome attitude traceable to our faith that the kids will earn more than we do. This is the imprudent conviction that we can live beyond our means, because somehow we'll earn enough later to deal with any problems. This outlook represents a dramatic shift from earlier American thinking, as the sociologist Daniel Bell noted in 1976. "Twentieth-century capitalism wrought a ... startling sociological transformation," he wrote, "the shift from production to consumption as the fulcrum of capitalism." Both as individuals and as a society, we've been gambling on better days tomorrow to make good on unsustainable borrowing today.

Such is the toll of a Dead Idea.
This is from Matt Miller, editor at Fortune, raised in Greenwich CT and Rye Town NY, BA economics magna cum laude Brown, LLD Columbia Law School, member Council on Foreign Relations. In other words, to the extent that there's still an "Establishment", he's in it. You heard it there second.


Monday, December 29, 2008

Academia and New Media

Bora Z tweets about a fascinating blog about new forms in academia called Academic Evolution.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tierney vs Holdren

NYTimes science reporter John Tierney goes after Obama appointee John Holdren, about whom I have written admiringly of late, with both guns a-blazin'.

Along the way he expresses concern for how Lomborg gets treated in certain circles and has a kind word to throw in for Roger Jr.. It's sticky stuff, not as easily dismissed as the usual denialist tripe, as I have argued before. This stuff is badly wrong, but it needs to be handled with care.

Update: Three guesses what Joe Romm thinks.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Obama on Science

More grownup talk:

Whether it’s the science to slow global warming; the technology to protect our troops and confront bioterror and weapons of mass destruction; the research to find life-saving cures; or the innovations to remake our industries and create twenty-first century jobs—today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It is time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.


Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us

Like my friend J says, he better not f'ing blow it. Don't you want to hear Palin's take on this issue?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Grownups in Town

It's so very nice to see grownups in the executive branch; any hope that the legislative will follow suit?

The choices of Holdren and Chu show every likelihood that the incoming administration wants to put the carbon problem on the front burner. This is great news!

But they have so much else to do what with the "economy" of the US and to some extent of the whole world being shown to be based on utter lunacy over the last twenty years. Oh and that little thing about the two bollixed wars... OK, I'm not saying anything you haven't heard...

The referenced Dot Earth article doesn't dwell so much on John Holdren, whom we discussed here recently. Rather it branches sort of peculiarly into a very good discussion with Gary Yohe, from Yale's e360 site.

Anyway I am glad this way of thinking has finally made its way into the Times:
Uncertainly is ubiquitous. There are some fundamental conclusions that we now know: that the planet is warming; that humans are the cause of it. We’ve seen the climate signal and changes in global mean temperature… But there’s some uncertainty that simply will not be resolved in a timely fashion. Yet once you adopt a risk-management perspective, then uncertainty becomes a reason to do something rather than a reason not to do something. And people who argue against doing anything then have to guarantee that humans aren’t changing the climate. They can’t do that, so they can’t argue against enacting some climate policy. At the same time, though, uncertainty is something we need to recognize will be persistent. We have to learn how to make decisions under uncertainty.


So the point is that climate policy has to adopt a risk-management approach. It involves both adaptation and mitigation. We have to think seriously about how we do mid-course corrections. What is near-term policy? How do you make adjustments? Well, you keep track of how you’re doing relative to the short-term target that you set up. But you also have to worry about whether or not the target was right, and that’s where increased knowledge about the climate system and the economic system come into play. And so every 10 years or so, you have to sit down and say, “Okay what have we learned? Are we doing well compared to the target we set? Is the target right? Is it too high? Is it too low? Should we ramp these things up or ramp these things down?” And those are the essential things that we need to do.
Maybe this kind of sense will somehow find its way into the congress. Paging Sen. Inhofe?

The Financial WTF in Context

Walden Bello has put together a fascinating presentation putting the financial crisis in context.

It's more leftist in tone than I'd like, and I'm not sure it adequately understands the irrationality of growth addiction, which really is shared by left and right.

Also a couple of the slides are misformatted.

All that said, it does focus on the key role of manufacturing overproduction and excess capacity in the present financial disaster. I think it's a very helpful and insightful summary and I am definitely adding it to my conceptual arsenal. Maybe you should do likewise?

I stole the wonderful image from the presentation. It's based on what for all I know is, or at least once was, a heavily advertised bubble bath product called Mr. Bubble.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Singularity

Unlike a certain breed of AI enthusiasts, when I contemplate the possibility that we are at a singular point in human history, that we may be at a point where past conventional wisdom needs to be actively disregarded, I don't see it as a moment of new kinds of progress but one of new kinds of peril.

Basically, we are going through a phase transition, between a state where there were few monkeys to one where there are many monkeys. This means the former time where issues are distinct and perhaps have tenuous connections is over; now there is one big tangled problem: how do we keep the monkeys happy while settling them down and training them to live in a more or less zero-sum situation.

Maribo (H/T Stoat) offers us this daunting image to bring home one slice of the problem:

and a recent article in the online Journal PlosOne goes further.

In Ecosystem Overfishing in the Ocean by the Spanish, Canadian and Italian collaboration of Marta Coll, Simone Libralato, Sergi Tudela, Isabel Palomera, and Fabio Pranovi, the overfishing problem is viewed as a bulk biogeochemical process.

Here's the abstract:
Fisheries catches represent a net export of mass and energy that can no longer be used by trophic levels higher than those fished. Thus, exploitation implies a depletion of secondary production of higher trophic levels (here the production of mass and energy by herbivores and carnivores in the ecosystem) due to the removal of prey. The depletion of secondary production due to the export of biomass and energy through catches was recently formulated as a proxy for evaluating the ecosystem impacts of fishing–i.e., the level of ecosystem overfishing. Here we evaluate the historical and current risk of ecosystem overfishing at a global scale by quantifying the depletion of secondary production using the best available fisheries and ecological data (i.e., catch and primary production). Our results highlight an increasing trend in the number of unsustainable fisheries (i.e., an increase in the risk of ecosystem overfishing) from the 1950s to the 2000s, and illustrate the worldwide geographic expansion of overfishing. These results enable to assess when and where fishing became unsustainable at the ecosystem level. At present, total catch per capita from Large Marine Ecosystems is at least twice the value estimated to ensure fishing at moderate sustainable levels.
In other words:
Fisheries catches represent a net export of mass and energy that can no longer be used by trophic levels higher than those fished. Thus, exploitation implies a depletion of secondary production of higher trophic levels due to the removal of prey. Based on this assumption, a new method was developed to quantify the loss in secondary production (L index) due to the removal of marine organisms through catches (expressed as PPR equivalents) compared to a theoretical unfished situation...
Humans aren't just overfishing species, we are exporting biomass, degrading it, and pooping it back out into estuaries to first order. We are clear-cutting the whole ocean.

Again, the incentives for individual ship owners to behave this way are clear enough. The question is how to remove those incentives when the catch becomes too large, which it clearly is. I don't know; cap and trade is hard enough to enforce on nations, never mind on boats. And maybe, since we're going to acidify the oceans beyond supporting advanced life anyway, it could be argued that we might as well go ahead and send boats to pick out all the nice sushi first.

The sorts of decisions that have to be made to preserve the entire ocean are without precedent. It is a good thing that scientists go out and try to keep us informed as to what is happening. It would be better if there were some way to reward people for coming up with ways to change our collective behavior.

Update: Here's some perverse incentives for you, in a video clip sent by "tidal".

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ah, Academe

Interesting discussion on managing PDFs on the NYTimes kicks off some grumbling.

I agree with both points made by a snarky outsider (Acronzy, comment 12):
I will try to put this delicately. Lack of public access to journal pulications , when almost all of the research and support represented by those articles is significantly indebted to tax payer dollars, is simply disgusting. If the New Yorker can archive, index, and provide a search engine for everything it has ever published, so can any journal.
Of course, the existing firewall system for journals is just completely inexcusable, but at least most academics understand that, admittedly without taking ownership of the problem.
Your rather naieve [sic] efforts to “organize” your “on line” research material, would make any relational database designer shiver in his shoes.
When will academia understand how backward it all is? The lack of the most ordinary, elementary, entry-level office skills is just appalling. Not only are the skills and experiences I picked up in the private sector completely unvalued, but I have to put up with the sort of idiocy every day that would quickly get people canned out in the real world.

Not that our actual administrative staff is all bad; some of them (by no means all!) are real gems. It's the PIs I'm talking about.

Actually UTIG is a real exception since many of the PIs actually run expeditions. If they don't have management skills, people's lives are at risk. But I don't have much to offer the intrepid explorer crowd, unfortunately.

I absolutely adore some of the people I am complaining about. I'd walk twenty miles on hot coals if it suited Ray P's purposes. Still, both I and the world would be better off if there were more totally mundane information management skills around groups like his. The idea that EndNote or Papers is some great breakthrough in information management is indeed as laughable as Acronzy suggests.

There really is no market for organizing professors.

Irene and I tried to find a niche doing that once. We helped quite a few professors, especially at UW-Madison, but though we were locally famous, getting paid was still a monumental hassle. The universities and grant agencies have no line items for outsourced managerial services, and more than one researcher ended up paying us out of pocket. Our LLC is still an established vendor of consulting services to academics at UW-Madison, but my two academic employers since then have treated my time, including consulting to academic institutions, as irrelevant.

The need is so profound it isn't perceived at all. When I was a consultant I noted that people who had no interest in management were as bad as customers as people who specialized in management; the latter didn't need the services but the former couldn't even perceive their absence. There are managerial structures in universities focused on money, but almost no managerial attention is focused directly on research productivity.

So I am in a frustrating bind, that having lived in such a way as to gain skills that could be of considerable value in a research institution, I have no publication record so I have no obvious way of getting into a position to put them to use.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Anything that can not be sustained eventually stops. Given that our whole way of living is unsustainable, the next question is "when?" The exponential growth of human impact on the planet will eventually cease, and the curve will take some other shape. When will the growth curve break?

(Modest clarification for the mathematically inclined: We do not know what shape the curve will take when the exponential stops growing, but it will be something other than exponential growth. After the point of inflection, the long term average of human impact on earth necessarily must stabilize or decline, possibly with superimposed wobbles and swings of various shapes. At some point in the persistent growth, human impact reaches or exceeds the long term sustainable average. Necessarily something else happens. Now we have to decide what. Arguably that point has been reached, and indeed that is what I believe.)

So, when? To be more specific, is it now? It seems to me that the present economic event is already big enough that it is likely to appear to the eye of the historian of future generations as a notable event. It may well look like the first major disruption of the impact curve rather than just a big glitch that is superimposed on that curve.

If so, if the great inflection is now, it is a drastic mistake to confuse the inflection with a recession. In a recession we should arguably go on doing what we've been doing in the past, and somehow we'll wander out of it. But if this is the inflection, what happens in the future depends sensitively on how we react to it. It is necessary to accept that impact has peaked or soon will peak, not just in greenhouse gases, but altogether.

It is not impossible that clever enough contrivances may decouple "money" from "impact". What I mean by this is that we somehow change our incentive systems so that people enhancing sustainability profit and those detracting from it pay.

To be sure, there are gestures in this direction, but systematically the incentives are almost universally perverse. There are good historical reasons for the perverse incentives and it will be a very delicate matter to reverse it.

Rewarding sustainability is by far our least disruptive path. Humans don't change easily, and time is short. If we weren't in a hurry, I'd consider changing the culture to something less driven by financial incentives, but given our time constraints that idea will not work. I think the most promising escape route is to play around with incentives so people are rewarded for more benign behaviors and penalized otherwise.

This won't be easy but any alternative I see is much more severe.

Update: Gloomy? Moi? Check this out. H/T Dennis at Samadhisoft.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Wanna see something scary? I discovered this while fishing around yet again for M J Sparrow's impressive http://tinyurl.com/agw-consensus .

Google "global warming consensus". Look past the first couple of listings. Find the next example of something vaguely in tune with reality.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Black Carbon

INECE press release:
Dangerous Sea Level Rise Imminent Without Large Reductions of Black Carbon and Implementation of Other Fast-Action Mitigation Strategies

Poznan Panel of Experts Discuss Importance of Black Carbon, the Montreal Protocol, Biochar, and Methane as Part of Global Climate Strategy

Poznan, Poland, December 11, 2008 – The world is already close to passing the tipping points for abrupt climate change events, and if strong measures aren't taken immediately the results will be catastrophic, concluded panelists during a side event at the UN climate conference in Poznan Tuesday night. Both scientific experts and government representatives alike at the event sponsored by the Federated States of Micronesia and Sweden, stressed the urgent need for fast-action mitigation measures that should be implemented and expanded immediately in order to avoid devastating consequences such as sea level rise.

Dr. Hermann Held of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research pointed out that land ice melt is being vastly underestimated, and that non-linear abrupt climate change is not being taken into account as it should be by the climate convention. The world is already committed to an astounding 2.4 degrees of warming, due in part to the warming effects of black carbon – a substance that is now considered the second-greatest contributor to climate change after CO2 – which are being "unmasked" by reductions of SO2, which produces a cooling effect.

"As we continue to reduce sulfur emissions around the world for health reasons, we are unmasking additional warming that is bringing us closer and closer to tipping points like the meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet," said Dr. Held. "In order to avoid a large jump in temperature and in turn avoid the devastating effects of sea level rise, we need to act quickly to reduce black carbon emissions in coordination with sulfur."

"Black carbon is extremely bad news because it contributes to climate change in two ways: it absorbs heat from above and contributes to warming, but then as it falls on snow and ice it darkens the ground and reduces the albedo, or reflective ability," said Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. "As a major contributor to snow and ice melt, this is especially troublesome for places such as the Tibetan Plateau, which is a critical tipping point. If this ice mass disintegrates, millions of people will lose their drinking water and irrigation for agriculture, leading to famine and possible national security threats over natural resources."

Zaelke emphasized that although the current situation is dire, using these fast-action measures can still save the world from passing the tipping points. As the world's best environmental treaty, the Montreal Protocol was brought into the discussion because of its track record of mitigating climate emissions by 135 billion tonnes of CO2-eq (many times more than the Kyoto Protocol) and effectively delaying climate change by up to 12 years. With its continued success in regulating ozone-depleting substances for both ozone and climate benefits, the Montreal Protocol can serve as an important model for climate.

"Since the creation of the Montreal Protocol, the Parties have been conscious of the potential effects of these ozone-depleting substances on climate, but now they have openly accepted their responsibility to protect climate, with the historic agreement to accelerate the phase-out of HCFCs in September 2007 and again this year with the decision to address the dangerous ozone chemicals from old equipment which are also very damaging to climate," said Marco González, Executive Secretary of the Montreal Protocol Ozone Secretariat. "So far, we see more potential for the Montreal Protocol to benefit both ozone and climate, and we must continue to strengthen it."

This sentiment was echoed by Husamuddin Ahmadzai from Sweden in his statement to the audience: "Among the opportunities for cooperative action now, measures to strengthen the Montreal Protocol can provide significant climate mitigation to help avoid tipping points. This is supported by the world's major economies who, in July 2008, through the Declaration of Leaders Meeting of Major Economies on Energy Security and Climate Change, pledged:

'We, the leaders of … the world's major economies … recognizing the need for urgent action … commit to taking the actions in paragraph 10 without delay. … To enable the full, effective, and sustained implementation of the [UNFCCC] between now and 2012, we will: … promote actions under the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer for the benefit of the global climate system.'" An agreement to hold a workshop next year on possible collaboration between the Montreal Protocol and the UNFCCC in regulating potent HFC greenhouse gases, is a positive step, and another way to maximize the potential of the ozone treaty to protect climate.

Andrew Yatilman, Head of Delegation for the Federated States of Micronesia, expressed his support for using means under both treaties to address the climate crisis and reduce the serious threat of sea level rise to island nations: "The Federated States of Micronesia takes the Montreal Protocol and the UNFCCC very seriously because we understand that the future of our small islands and the lives of our people depend on the success of these two treaties. We urgently need to find the political will necessary to move these fast-action strategies forward." Micronesia submitted a proposal last week in Poznan regarding Paragraph 1 of the Bali Action Plan, in order to stress the importance of fast-action climate mitigation measures in the face of tipping points and abrupt climate change.

"One clear way to move the climate negotiations forward is to focus some attention on trust and confidence building through concrete actions and decisions during this COP and this year," said Ana Maria Kleymeyer from Argentina. "Parties need to believe that they will be able to carry through on their agreements, for which financial and technological assistance are the keys. Under the Montreal Protocol, developing countries have consistently been able to achieve all goals because the Multilateral Fund and its supporting institutional and capacity building support were firmly in place to help deliver results. We can, with similar instruments, build that foundation of trust within the climate convention in order to move forward."

Another key piece of the fast-action strategy is an emerging technology called biochar, which refers to a charcoal-like substance sustainably produced from biomass, that has the ability to permanently sequester significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in soil.

"Biochar is one of the most promising carbon-negative technologies available," said Peter Read from Massey University Centre for Energy Research in New Zealand. "We need these technologies because reducing emissions (even to zero in 25 years, which is not a realistic possibility) cannot avert the threat of climatic catastrophe with unacceptable consequences for Micronesia as well as many populous river deltas around the world. While it is important to cap emissions, there is no question that we need an additional strategy for taking carbon out of the air and putting it somewhere safer – biochar has incredible potential to do this, along with a great deal of good in raising soil fertility and enabling sustainable rural development. It should be seriously considered by the climate convention." The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification has already submitted a proposal to include biochar under the UNFCCC.

Although methane's contribution to climate change is not a new issue, recent increases in temperature could drive up methane emissions significantly. Importantly, like black carbon, methane is a short-lived climate forcer, making its reductions an ideal way to benefit climate in the near-term, while at the same time improving air quality and reducing mortality rates.

"Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and currently accounts for 18 percent of radiative forcing," said Ashley King, Co-Director of the Methane to Markets Partnership Secretariat. "Reducing methane emissions from anthropogenic sources, which are estimated to increase 23 percent by 2020, is an important tactic for avoiding serious abrupt climate change events."

The key message from the panel was summed up by Durwood Zaelke: "Several years ago, we thought that abrupt climate change events were something for future generations to worry about. True, the effects of passing the tipping points will continue to worsen as time passes without serious action. Unfortunately, we have to face the fact that increased emissions from dangerous substances like black carbon are exacerbating the climate situation and leaving us very little time to react. Taking quick action that will immediately benefit climate, is quite simply our only near-term option."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Taking

There's an interesting exchange at an interesting article in Environmental Economics. The article advocates cap-and-trade along with market creativity. (Pessimists argue that the market isn't all that creative, and that the wealth of the past century has been more about expending seed capital than about actual expansion in human per capita wealth. I don't entirely buy it, though there's certainly a case that it has been that way of late; see Fig 4 here.)

Anyway. There's an above-average exchange on the old "takings" question in the comments on the E-E article between "LVTFan" and "Hydra". The former suggests that land values in previously unpalatable places are the result of public investment, and the public rather than private investors should be capturing the increase in value. The latter argues that doing so retroactively is unfair, raising the old property rights problem.

I personally have been the "victim" of a government "taking" just recently. When I bought my house, I inquired about its flood status, and it was not in a flood plain. Due to recent FEMA reanalysis, I have been demoted to the 100-year floodplain, even though the property across the street, barely a foot higher it seems to me, is still outside the 500 year flood plain. I am obligated to buy flood insurance, and report this when I sell my home; two very substantial financial hits. I don't know whether the old or the new FEMA evaluation is the sound one; it's a strange gully behind the house, emerging from a highway interchange with no visible source upstream.

Now, I think the coal companies should not be allowed to sell their product without sequestration, and it's up to them to make that work. I think houses discovered to be in a flood plain should be required to be insured, too. However, changes like that are very disruptive. I am taking enough financial hits about now along with everybody else to have to put up with this totally random hit.

There is no question that policies need adjustment, and there is no question that such adjustment inconveniences people in what feels to be a random and capricious way. Being a liberal, I am willing to take this relatively in stride (though if anyone can tell me how to check FEMA's actual results I'd be grateful) but I can see how something like this would cause some people who run on tighter margins to become absolutely beside themselves. Changes like this should be softened by the public sector, but nowadays we seem to be too busy nationalizing the financial and automotive sectors to compensate individuals inconvenienced by factors beyond their individual control.

Unsurprisingly people are less opposed to capricious bailouts than to capricious liabilities. (Even though you could argue that public ownership of General Motors pretty much amounts to a capricious tax on all other industries.) On the whole, though, it would be best if there were some sort of meta-policy so people would understand how much invisible risk they actually carry.

On the other hand, the "takings" philosophy is nuts. The commons is held in common. Without air or water your property is worthless. Real estate confers some complex set of socially determined rights; your home may be your castle but it isn't a separate planet.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Celebrate the end of the Rat Race

Via Wikipedia:
Linus Torvalds himself also describes a notion as Linus's Law in the prologue to the book The Hacker Ethic: "Linus's Law says that all of our motivations fall into three basic categories. More important, progress is about going through those very same things as 'phases' in a process of evolution, a matter of passing from one category to the next. The categories, in order, are 'survival', 'social life', and 'entertainment'."
So stop worrying. Kick back. Set a spell. This is progress.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Not getting it

In a fine example of not understanding radically changed new circumstances, French economists have managed to convince the Sarkozy administration to subsidize purchases of new automobiles, to "stimulate" the "economy".


Economists will try anything to put Humpty together again, and who knows, maybe they will have succeed for a little while, but we had better start thinking about a what a post-Humpty economy looks like instead.


Radical Novelties

Slashdot is featuring the twentieth anniversary of renowned UT computer science professor Edsger Dijkstra's essay "On the cruelty of really teaching computer science". It happens I believe Dijkstra's central point in the essay is bit ill-conceived (he misses the connection between testing and proof) but that needn't concern us here. The first six pages of his painstakingly handwritten essay (quotations painstakingly typed in by me) are of interest to sustainability questions as well:
The usual way in which we plan today for tomorrow is in yesterday's vocabulary. We do so, because we try to get away with the concepts that we are familiar with and that have acquired their meaning in our past experience. ... It is the most common way of trying to cope with novelty: by means of metaphors and analogies we try to link the new to the old, the novel to the familiar. Under sufficiently slow and gradual change it works reasonably well; in the case of a sharp discontinuity, however, the method breaks down: though we try to glorify it with the name "common sense", our past experience is no longer relevant... One must consider one's own past, the experiences collected, and the habits formed in it as an unfortunate accident of history, and one has to approach the radical novelty with a blank mind, consciously refusing to try to link it with the familiar, because the familiar is hopelessly inadequate. ... Coming to grips with a radical novelty amounts to creating and learning a new foreign language that cannot be translated into one's mother tongue.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

More on Texas and Evolution in Schools

General interest:

There is information at the Texas Freedom Network

Note especially the survey of Texas scientists.

Local interest:
Asbury United Methodist Church is hosting a free showing of a movie, this Friday night, related to science and the schools.

"Kansas vs. Darwin"
Friday December 5, 2008 7:00-9:00 PM
Asbury Methodist Church Fellowship Hall
Cherrywood & 38 1/2 St. (1605 E. 38 1/2 Street, just east of I-35)

In January, the Texas State Board of Education may make a decision as to
whether "alternatives to evolution" will be taught in Texas public
schools. This movie offers some timely commentary on a very similar
situation in Kansas.

Kansas vs. Darwin <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1098212/>

A documentary about the Kansas Evolution Hearings. Covers the politics
and motivations behind the school board decision to challenge the
teaching of evolution in Kansas public schools. All witnesses brought
in by Intelligent Design Network. Kansas educators and scientists
organize a worldwide boycott of the hearings, which some say confuses
the issues. Participating school board members admit they don't
believe in evolution at the outset and some admit they don't
understand the science presented by the witnesses.

I will be speaker (for only a few minutes), and then discussion leader after the movie.

--John Keohane

Withdraws from Funded Work due to Climate Ethics

Convenient ethics is no ethics. UT astronomy Professor John Lacy chooses the viability of the planet over funded astronomy, choosing a less convenient path in service of the greater good.

I think he's right in this particular case, but it's easy to make such decisions for others.

Should this show go on?

Generally, when should we make omelettes and when should we refrain from breaking any eggs? That is, how should we judge the importance of activities that have other benefits against environmental impacts? Absolutism won't work; a prescription for misery won't get much traction in practice.

Still, it's worth appreciating that there are still people who put the general interest above their own personal advancement. On a related note, check this out:
The question, in effect, is What are we to make of evidence suggesting that material self-interest is a powerful force in people's lives? The thesis of the article is that this evidence is inherently ambiguous because the ideology of self- interest, widely celebrated in individualistic cultures, functions as a powerful self-fulfilling force. The assumption of self-interest contributes to its own confirmation in at least two ways. First, individualistic cultures structure their social institutions to reflect their belief that people are naturally disposed to pursue their self-interest, which results in these institutions fostering the very behavior their structure presupposes occurs naturally ( Lerner, 1982 ; Schwartz, 1997 ). Second, as argued here, individualistic cultures spawn social norms that induce people to follow their material self-interest rather than their principles or passions, whether the latter be noble or ignoble. Stated more boldly, people act and sound as though they are strongly motivated by their material self-interest because scientific theories and collective representations derived from those theories convince them that it is natural and normal to do so. As Kagan (1989 ) observed, "People treat self-interest as a natural law and because they believe they should not violate a natural law, they try to obey it".

Evidence that material self-interest is powerful, therefore, may speak more to the power of social norms than to the power of innate proclivities. Interpreting the presence of self-interested behavior to suggest that self-interest is inevitable and universal rather than historically and culturally contingent only serves to strengthen the layperson's belief that pursuing self-interest is normatively appropriate, rational, and enlightened. The result of this is a positive feedback loop: The more powerful the norm of self- interest, the more evidence there is for the theory of self- interest, which, in turn, increases the power of the self-interest norm ( Schwartz, 1997 ). None of this is to say that self-interest, even narrowly defined, is an insubstantial force in human affairs. But, however strong the disposition to pursue material self- interest may be, it is likely not as strong as the prevalence of self-interested behavior in everyday life suggests. Homo economicus, it should not be forgotten, inhabits a social world.
This is why it appears bizarre and even rude for me to call into question, in the title of my blog, that I might be operating from some other values in addition to pure self interest. It seems that altruism is something best performed privately and in secrecy. It's simply been out of fashion of late.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Shale energy and water constraints in Colorado

The Colorado Independent asserts:
The Bush administration and the Bureau of Land Management are pushing relentlessly ahead with plans to fast-track Colorado’s long-dormant oil shale industry, but a study released this fall exposes one factor that could put a big damper on the boom: a serious lack of water.

The report, prepared for key government and private water stakeholders in the area, says that northwest Colorado rivers can supply enough water to meet the growing demands of the natural gas, coal and uranium industries, but unproven oil shale production technology would “require tremendous amounts of water” that might not be available.


“In a nutshell, the energy industry in Colorado will need a lot of water, but it’s manageable — with the exception of the speculative oil shale part of the equation,” said water consultant Caroline Bradford, the former director of the Eagle River Watershed Council, an organization devoted to preserving that tributary of the Colorado.

If true this is disappointing but not surprising. According to several sources I've seen, the Bush Administration seems to be pushing for a lot of environmentally doubtful intiatives in its waning days.

Regardless of the political machinations, this particular water/energy tangle is a good example of how everything is One Big Problem nowadays. Nice to see Andy Revkin catching on to how everything is all tangled up.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Things change

Texas 1805 (as played by Wyoming)

Texas 1905

Texas 2005

Texas 2105

(A similarly motivated set of images due to R. Crumb is worth a look.)


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Texas School Board and Creationism

So I finally got the scoop about the impact of the election cycle from my colleague Paul Murray, an exploration geophysicist at the Bureau of Economic Geology.

Essentially nothing happened in the election. The Texas Board of Education is status quo, split 7 modestly liberal Democrats, 7 fundamentalists and one conservative not entirely fundamentalist. It could have been worse, but it's still pretty bad. Note that the district boundaires are tragically gerrymandered; note the bizarre boundaries tending to slice the urban areas into shreds.

A great deal of strum and dang (Texas for sturm und drang) is going into affecting the swing vote in setting educational standards in biology in Texas. Of course the pseudo-rational fundamentalists are trying to "teach the controversy". Paul attended a meeting of the board last week and he will keep me posted about the next one. Hopefully I will be able to take the day off and act like a good reporter, since this is one of the biggest science/public policy issues around and it's happening locally. Paul is not satisfied with the local reporting, but this editorial in the Statesman, I think , gives the flavor of the situation.

Standards are revisited in Texas on a decadal basis. Whatever these people decide is going to be the truth in Texas schools for ten years.

(Note: Texas has 8998 public schools serving 4.5 million students according to this site. De facto Texas strongly influences the textbooks for much of the country, i.e., most of the red states.)

Unfortunately these meetings do go on. Paul tells me the last one started at 9 AM and lasted until 11 PM. True journalism requires a strong stomach; putting up with fourteen hours of fundamentalist jive talk...


Monday, November 24, 2008

The peridotite solution

Here's a remarkable sequestration mechanism that seems ideal for our needs. A single wedge, even a single site solution.
The researchers have shown that rock formations called peridotite, which are found in Oman and several other places worldwide, including California and New Guinea, produce calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate rock when they come into contact with carbon dioxide. The scientists found that such formations in Oman naturally sequester hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide a year. Based on those findings, the researchers, writing in the current early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calculate that the carbon-sequestration rate in rock formations in Oman could be increased to billions of tons a year--more than the carbon emissions in the United States from coal-burning power plants, which come to 1.5 billion tons per year.


The researchers found that the natural peridotite formations in Oman captured carbon dioxide in a network of underground veins. Peridotite contains large amounts of olivine, a mineral composed of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. As groundwater reacts with the olivine, the water becomes rich in dissolved magnesium and bicarbonate, with the latter effectively increasing the carbon concentration in the water by about 10 times. As this water seeps deeper into the rock and stops reacting with the air, the magnesium, carbon, and oxygen precipitate out of solution and form magnesium carbonate, also called magnesite. Dolomite, which contains calcium, magnesium, carbon, and oxygen, also forms. As the magnesite and dolomite form, they increase the total volume of the rock by about 44 percent, causing cracks to appear throughout it, which creates a network of fractures as small as 50 micrometers across. This opens up the rock and allows water to penetrate further. "It's a little bit like setting a coal seam on fire," says Peter Kelemen, a professor of earth and environmental studies at Columbia University. "You're taking rocks that haven't been exposed to the atmosphere, and you're oxidizing them very fast."

Many a slip twixt cup and lip of course, but (to scramble metaphors) maybe there is a silver bullet after all. I'd love to see this work at scale. Most of the commenters on the linked Technology Review so far tend to disagree, choosing to worry about the local ecosystem. How do In It readers feel, I wonder?

Update: Here's the peer-reviewed article that Tech Review ought to have cited, with thanks to David Benson.

Update: Here's a similar article at Popular Mechanics.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ozone Treaty and Secondary GHG Protocols

Hey, I can be a lazy journalist too! I'm pasting a press release (minus contact info) here in case anybody finds it interesting.

Basically it seems to amount to good news on the non-CO2 emissions front. (Besides, it says "Montreal" several times, which is always a good thing.)
Ozone Treaty Parties Agree to Start Cutting More Climate Emissions

Doha, Qatar, 20 November 2008 – Today the 193 Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer—representing virtually all countries of the world—agreed for the second year in a row to strengthen their treaty to provide additional protection for both the ozone layer and the climate system.

The Parties will start collecting and destroying ozone-depleting substance from stockpiles and from discarded products and equipment that are the easiest to reach. These "reachable" substances will be emitted by 2015 without action through the Montreal Protocol. Destroying them will speed recovery of the ozone layer by up to two years, and avoid up to 6 billion tonnes or more of CO2-eq. in climate emissions. An additional 14 or more billion tonnes of CO2-eq. could be emitted later from these sources unless further action is taken.

Argentina first proposed destroying the stockpiles and "banks" of substances in discarded products and equipment. Micronesia and Mauritius also proposed collecting and destroying banks because this can provide fast climate mitigation and help avoid passing thresholds for abrupt climate changes, including the disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which would lead to many meters of sea level rise and threaten all low-lying island and coastal countries.

Romina Picolotti, Argentina's Minister of Environment, stated, "We recognize the importance of near term climate mitigation, as well as long term mitigation, and believe the 6 billion tonnes of CO2-eq. in banks that will otherwise be emitted by 2015 is a critical target we can address today." She praised the Montreal Protocol Parties for their "cooperative spirit and their ability to act fast" and stated that "the Montreal Protocol is a model for the world." (For comparison, Parties to the Kyoto climate treaty are trying to reduce their climate emissions by 1 billion tonnes per year below 1990 levels during the treaty's initial commitment period from 2008 to 2012.)

The developed country Parties to the Montreal Protocol also agreed to provide $490 million in additional funding over three years to assist developing country Parties meet their treaty obligations. This includes initial funding to immediately begin pilot projects for collection and destruction of the "reachable" banks. The Parties directed the treaty secretariat to explore co-financing, including the carbon markets.

The Parties also agreed to begin discussions on whether to move hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, from the climate treaty to the stricter Montreal Protocol, where HFCs with a high global warming potential could be phased-out. HFCs are substitutes for substances that are being phased-out by the Montreal Protocol, and are projected to grow at an alarming rate.

Moving HFCs to the Montreal Protocol could pave the way for moving the four other non-CO2 gases in the climate treaty to separate protocols, where they could be more strictly controlled. "Removing the five non-CO2 gases would still leave the climate treaty to do the lion's share of climate mitigation," said Durwood Zaelke, the President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. Zaelke added that, "the advantage of 'disaggregating' the climate problem this way would be to allow separate governance structures that could strictly regulate each of the non-CO2 gases."

Antonio Oposa, representing Micronesia, stated, "This could provide faster climate mitigation in many cases, which is what the island countries need to survive." He added, "There is a clear and present danger of abrupt and catastrophic climate changes in the near future. In the face of these threats, we must act not only with a sense of urgency, but a sense of emergency."

The Montreal Protocol has successfully phased out more than 95 percent of 97 ozone-depleting substances since it began in 1987. Because many substances that deplete ozone also warm the climate, the Montreal Protocol has delayed climate change by up to 12 years through the mitigation of 135 billion tonnes of CO2-eq between 1990 and 2010. Last September, the Parties took their first step towards becoming a more explicit climate treaty, in a decision praised by Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, as "perhaps the most important breakthrough in an international environmental negotiation process for at least five or six years."

In July 2008, the 17 Major Economies recognized the need for urgent action under the Montreal Protocol for the benefit of the global climate system and committed to take such action. Today's decisions follow through on this commitment to climate protection.

Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development
INECE Secretariat
2300 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Suite 300B
Washington, DC 20007

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Worst Noel: Celebrating Recession

One thing that's always disappointed me about the growth imperative is how the Christmas season is described based on gross sales. OK, that's sad enough in itself but consider that a season is described as "disappointing" if it grows less than the average growth rate. As far as I know, none of the recent "disappointing" Christmases has actually amounted to a decrease in economic activity over the previous year. As far as I know, there has been positive growth in US Christmastime sales for as long as the growth imperative has been in place.

Maybe I will be the first to say this publicly, but probably this Christmas will be different.

Because the growth imperative flies in the face of reality, the time will come when the "disappointing" Christmas will actually amount to a retreat. Likely we are entering that time at this very moment. It will be interesting to see badly we cope; how badly we are dependent on our growth addiction. Oil addiction is just a symptom; we have blundered into a situation where the unsustainable is a core of our social organization.

Maybe the stupidity of the financial sector has done us a service by hastening the day of reckoning. We need to cope with sustainability. This is not that big a deal for most individuals (I think we'll still have individual competition and individual wealth) but its a radical change for the society as a whole.

Will anybody be talking about this if the first "terrible" Christmas is upon us?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

McCain Rediscovers his Menschlichkeit

A little more electoral politics, which is off topic for this blog; apologies to regular readers. This stuff will end forthwith, but in addition to celebrating the Obama victory, I thought it might be worthwhile to acknowledge the beautiful, gracious concession speech from John McCain, trying to rediscover his inner mensch. In fact his speech, to my great surprise. moved me more than did Obama's excellent victory speech.

If only McCain the Mensch had been in the campaign, instead of the weird snarky sleepy angry guy and his comedy-horrorshow of a running mate, if only they had not resorted to tactics of fear, distortion and last-minute juvenile pranks, perhaps his supporters might have been in more of a mood to hear these stirring words. (On the other hand, we might have been plunged into yet another nightmare tie-game. Until the actual nuts and bolts of voting are updated into something sensible, America is better off when its elections are decisive.)

So, while it's impossible to be grateful to McCain for the disgraceful way he conducted himself during the campaign, we can at least temper our memories of him with gratitude for his gesture at the end:

I've always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too. But we both recognize that though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation's reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.

A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit -- to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now -- (cheers, applause) -- let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth. (Cheers, applause.)

Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it, and offer in my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day, though our faith assures us she is at rest in the presence of her creator and so very proud of the good man she helped raise.

Senator Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.

I urge all Americans -- (applause) -- I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences, and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.

Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that. ...

I would not -- I would not be an -- an American worthy of the name, should I regret a fate that has allowed me the extraordinary privilege of serving this country for a half a century. Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant. That is blessing enough for anyone and I thank the people of Arizona for it. (Cheers, applause.)

Tonight -- tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama -- whether they supported me or Senator Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.

And I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties but to believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.

Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history, we make history.

Thank you, and God bless you, and God bless America. Thank you all very much.

If I have the ear of any McCain voters I urge them to take the senator's words to heart.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Blogger ate my pompous posting in a very weird way. I swear it was made up of complete sentences when I saw it last. I even thought it might be coherent. This happened when I tried to move the images around! Here is what is left of three complete paragraphs, fished from an HTML image tag. (I added the last word, "promise" back in manually.)

Maybe it's better this way. Anyway I am happy tonight.

" good="" thing="" when="" actually="" loves="" makes="" things="" possible="" otherwise="" child="" last="" much="" america="" truly="" loved="" anyone="" might="" consider="" deserving="" john="" had="" privilege="" living="" such="" myself="" few="" later="" montreal="" during="" trudeau="" very="" happy="" saw="" see="" was="" canada="" its="" subsequent="" years="" my="" native="" land="" borne="" mostly="" all="" charismatic="" leadership="" pierre="" elliott="" unlike="" does="" rise="" power="" auspicious="" knows="" taking="" on="" huge="" will="" succeed="" without="" every="" ounce="" goodwill="" country="" world="" muster="" those="" that="" find="" meaning="" in="" prayer="" praying="" the="" rest="" us="" at="" least="" fervently="" wish="" him="" though="" can="" as="" piet="" hein="" pointed="" should="" hope="" it="" time="" get="" past="" petty="" jealousies="" pull="" together="" for="" barack="" obama="" has="" yet="" shown="" himself="" be="" he="" obviously="" not="" only="" brilliant="" but="" i="" think="" an="" ability="" to="" inspire="" young="" people="" rare="" and="" precious="" we="" have="" reached="" is="" a="" moment="" of="" great="" promise

Calling out around the world
Are you ready for a brand new beat
Summer's here and the time is right
For dancing in the streets
Dancing in Chicago
Down in New Orleans
In New York City

All we need is music, sweet music
There'll be music everywhere
They'll be swinging, swaying, records playing,
Dancing in the street, oh

It doesn't matter what you wear, just as long as you are there
So come on, every guy, grab a girl, everywhere, around the world
They'll be dancing, dancing in the street

It's an invitation across the nation, a chance for folks to meet
They'll be laughing and singing and music swinging
Dancing in the street

Philadelphia, PA
Baltimore and DC now
Don't forget that motor city
On the streets of Brazil
Back in the USSR
No matter where you are

All we need is music, sweet music
There'll be music everywhere
They'll be swinging, swaying, records playing
Dancing in the street, oh

It doesn't matter what you wear
Just as long as you are there
So come on every guy, grab a girl, everywhere, around the world
They'll be dancing, dancing in the streets

Way down in L.A., everyday
Dancing in the streets
Cross in China too
Me and you
Dancing in the street

Don't you know
They'll be dancing
Dancing in the street (repeat)

Update: Although I have come to appreciate Texas, there are times now and again when I deeply miss Chicago, presently the greatest city in the Western hemisphere. Election night was especially bittersweet.

More wonderful victory images at Huffington's here and here.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Several Inconvenient Truths: Ethics of CO2

The following is the text of a talk I gave, or strictly speaking intended to give at the Ethical Society of Austin. It turned out that I extemporized much more than read, but the general outlines were the same. I hit the same points in the same order, in other words. So this is not only the talk I intended to give but a pretty good proxy for what I actually said.

The parable, which accessibly presents a crucial idea that needs to get into people's understanding about the situation, is taken from Paul Baer's essay "Equity, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Global Common Resources".

The audience was a group of Texans with progressive inclinations but like most Texans I would guess not entirely friendly to centralized decision-making. To some extent, I am trying here to make a case as an unapologetic liberal for a certain amount of government in the classic big-government liberal (Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson) vein.
SEVERAL INCONVENIENT TRUTHS: The Ethics of Carbon Emissions

If the world's civilization were built on ethical principles, which as I understand it we think it ought to be, how much would we owe the future, and even the distant future?

Last time I talked to this group, I tried to make the case that the future of the world was in our hands. Neither God nor Nature controls the future. We have become so powerful that what people used to call Providence is no longer a guarantee. We have nobody and nothing but our own ingenuity to promise us that the world will support us as well in the future as it did in the past. What the world will look like in a century or a millennium or possibly even longer depends very much on what we do now.

Today I will contend, first, that behaviors we do every day have consequences in the very far future, and second, that while addressing these problems begins at home, it doesn’t end at home, or even at our national boundaries. We have world problems that the whole world needs to solve collectively. 
We don't really know how to do that, but we have no choice but to try to figure it out.

I’m going to talk a bit about carbon dioxide, but I don't want this to be a science lecture, or a science discussion. I have nothing against the vanishing tradition of public lectures but I don’t think that’s why we meet here.

I am aiming for a discussion of ethics and global citizenship. The carbon problem presents us with an important example. There are other places where the same sorts of issue come up.


The point of view I’m advocating here is explicitly liberal; it has little traction in Texas on the left or on the right. I believe that in the end, collective action is necessary and so involvement of government is inevitable. So we might as well take the trouble to do it right rather than pretend we can minimize it. 
I grew up in Montreal, a city that has always been explicitly liberal, that celebrates government more than resenting it. So I realize the point of view I’m pushing here is a bit alien. From the point of view of the world, though, it’s not me who is the outlier. In a democracy, the people should feel that the government is their servant, not their master. Of course, if you can imagine how to get out of this mess without government and treaties, it certainly would be interesting to hear about it.

You've heard a lot about climate change lately. I have lived most of my life in cold icy places, and around this time of year I don't miss them a bit. On balance, though I complain about the heat, I prefer the southern climate to the northern. 
Yet we are all worried about a global temperature change of just a few degrees, even though I personally have been through changes of about twenty degrees without it bothering me too much. And in fact, it is the colder places that warm up most in global warming, so some people argue that there’s little basis for concern.

Well, for one thing, it’s me that moved to the new weather, it wasn’t the place I lived in that changed. That’s a very big difference. I had to adapt. The trees and grasses and animals didn’t.

More to the point, in the extreme where we continue to do little or nothing to prevent it, the changes eventually become very large.

What changes?

a) Weather patterns. The main ideas are that severe storms become more severe, and droughts more common. Essentially, rainfall becomes more bursty.

b) People and infrastructure are in the wrong place. Borders prevent migration, and some nations, especially smaller and/or drier ones become overpopulated without any fault of their own; migration stresses increase.

c) Huge additional stresses on ecosystems. Widespread forest decline. Increase in invasive species, decline in biodiversity, increased extinctions. This adds to existing stresses.

d) Large sea level rise, probably on a longer time scale. It may take centuries between the time that the ice sheets are destabilized and the time they collapse. It’s possible this has already started

e) While the ocean can adjust to a very slow increase of CO2 to very high levels, its adjustment time is thousands of years. If it encounters a carbon spike on a faster time scale, it becomes acidified. Dissolving CO2 in seawater also increases the hydrogen ion (H+) concentration in the ocean, and thus decreases ocean pH. As ocean pH falls, so does the concentration of the carbonate ion, and when it becomes undersaturated, structures made of calcium carbonate dissolve. In short, too much CO2 in the atmosphere will kill the ocean, even if there is no global warming at all. Like sea level rise, the peak of this effect occurs hundreds of years after the peak in atmospheric CO2. Even if climate change effects are more modest than we think, it appears we are committing subsequent generations to a crisis in the viability of the entire ocean.

How bad these effects are depends very much on how long it takes us to stop adding more carbon to the system. At what level of CO2 do these consequences become catastrophic? Nobody knows, but most agree that eventually they do.

Renowned climatologist Andrew Weaver of UBC recently said that

"People have simply no idea how serious this issue is."

“It's so serious, he said, that unless we reach a point where we stop emitting greenhouse gases entirely, 80 per cent of the world's species will become extinct, and human civilization as we know it will be destroyed, by the end of this century.

"Climate scientists who grapple with this every day ... we see where it's headed. We understand it very well.

"I think the public needs to know, straight in their face, that you can give up on civilization as we know it. "

Notice the difference in time scales between actions and consequences. Carbon dioxide has an atmospheric lifetime (roughly speaking) of a century or so. So when you drive to Taco Cabana to avoid cooking at home, the benefits accrue immediately, but the consequences are spread over an entire century. Every day for the next hundred years, that carbon you emitted will contribute to changing the world's climate. The moment we are committed to a catastrophe occurs long before the catastrophe itself does.

To summarize; we know qualitatively what is happening, but when these events really get kicked off is unknown. In some cases the event becomes inevitable long before it occurs. We aren’t really wired to deal with things like this. At least in an old-fashioned train wreck you could see the train coming.

That’s hard enough; perhaps you had already heard most of it.

There are still more complications I’d like to call your attention to.

First, to avoid disaster, we must stabilize carbon in the air long before it is all used up. The sooner we do so the less risk we take. In order to do this we must either stop burning the stuff altogether or else catch all the CO2 and put it someplace.

Yes, emissions must go to near zero and the sooner the better. "Soon" means starting to take serious steps now, to achieve near-zero emissions in the next few decades. Until we get to near zero emissions, the disruption in climate will continue to get worse. This can’t be achieved by any one country. It has to be achieved everywhere in the world.

Second, at just about this time we are running out of petroleum. Let's be clear. We are not running out of fossil fuel, just out of petroleum. For those of us in car-oriented cultures this is very daunting.

If it weren't for the other problems I just mentioned, though, I wouldn't worry much. There are potential processes for obtaining liquid fuels from shale, or from coal. These are highly energy-intensive, but still yield more energy than they withdraw so it would seem to constitute a setback for prosperity but not a killing blow. This will be exacerbated by companies exagerrating their reserves to keep their stock values high, some say. The end of oil may come sooner than we have planned for, so the readjustment may be painful.

With climate change in the picture, though, matters get much worse, because those alternatives are much worse for the CO2 accumulation problem than petroleum is. We simply can't allow them to proceed, and we can't afford not to have them proceed either. What a tangle!

Other ways of achieving personal mobility involve either external power supplies or other portable fuels like hydrogen. It's important to understand that these keep our cars moving but don't provide power themselves.

In short, the decline of petroleum puts ever greater demands on our other energy systems just as we need to be setting up massive changes. Of course, other recent bad news, especially on the financial front, greatly constrains what we can easily afford at this time.

Finally, I have one more piece of bad news to add to the mix. I'm not much of a story-teller, but I do have a parable about this last point that I inherited from my friend Paul Baer, a principal at the non-profit EcoEquity, which tries to draw the world's attention to this next point. It's crucially an ethical point rather than a scientific one.

Imagine a small island shared by two farming families, say the Norths and the Souths. For the purposes of this story, let's assume the island is equally divided; it doesn't really affect the argument. Now this island has a shared aquifer, and for a long time both families got by with subsistence farming, supported by this well water. But some years ago, the Norths scripmed and saved, and managed to acquire a modern new pumping system that greatly improved their ability to get water, hence their farming yields, hence their wealth. They renovated their house, installed new HVAC, terraced their vegetable garden, and so on. Unselfishly, the Norths urged the Souths to follow in their footsteps, and sure enough, the Souths have been saving up and are about to install a pump of their own.

At about this time the Norths start to worry about draw-down of the aquifer. They inform the Souths and try to come to some agreement about which family should pump how much. Eventually they realize they will have to match the average recharge rate of the aquifer, but the Norths have been pumping far above this rate. What is the ethical balance?

Should the Souths and the Norths continue at their current ratio, meaning that new pump or not, the Souths will actually get less water than previously? Should the Norths and the Souths split the water equally? The Norths argue that they have a culture that "requires" more water and so the balance should lie somewhere in between. The Souths, however, argue that the Norths have already received the benefits of the earlier pumping, and that the South's share should be more than half on an annual basis until the total draw to date has been equalized.

You can think of putting carbon into the atmosphere as like taking water out of the reservoir. The analogy is a pretty good one, and this is the core of the struggle at meetings like Kyoto. The gap between the advanced countries and the developing countries on how to allocate emissions is vast. How should it be resolved?

If every individual gets the same allocation of tradeable emission rights, the rich country will buy up emissions rights on the open market, leaving the poor country only slightly less poor and the rich country still consuming a lot. The poor country would see such an arrangement as making the wealth differential permanent. The less developed countries argue for at least taking into account cumulative emissions. On that basis, though, the right of the highest consuming countries like the US to further emissions is zero!

There have been several rounds of global negotiations on these matters. Most famous was the Kyoto accord, a nonstarter in the US Senate because it eschewed any limits on developing countries. Note however, that it was signed by all significant nations besides the US and Australia, but was only actually put into effect by very few nations, notably the Netherlands.

The recent followup meeting at Bali last year left the US terribly isolated. Eventually the US made capitulatory statements at the meeting, but no serious policy changes were implemented.

Leaving aside the minutiae of international treaty negotiations, it’s worthwhile to consider

In our new circumstances, the idea that everyone can get richer and richer forever is no longer especially credible. It’s hard to see a world in which the rich stay rich at the cost of the poor staying poor as fair or sustainable. The emergence of limits to global growth leads to serious issues about global equity that in the past could be ignored. Some sort of agreement is necessary, and a purely competitive stance by wealthy nations, especially the US, will continue to prevent it.


It’s often argued, including by Irene and me, that much of our wealth in the rich countries is not wealth but "illth". If we come to recognize this, it will help a lot.

In many ways we'd be better off with less energy intensive, more collaborative systems. And a great deal can be achieved in this direction by individual and small group effort. This just conceivably could leave a little room for growth in the poorer countries. While I'd love to see us less energy intensive and more social, though, I don't think it will be enough, and it probably won’t catch on soon enough.

As communities, we can work on restructuring our lives. We can make more alliances, share capital-intensive tools, share housing and adapt existing buildings rather than wantonly building new ones. As citizens of cities, and states, we can support less energy intensive infrastructure (light rail, bicycle paths, local markets) and identify ways to increase our resilience to climate change. All of this is necessary and still not sufficient.

That’s why it’s equally important is the fact that there are technological solutions to our problems.

We have to find ways to organize ourselves so as to support development of carbon neutral energy (like wind, solar, and nuclear energy) and possibly of carbon sequestration. We also need to cope with the post-petroleum needs of transportation and freight, which will put still greater demands on other energy systems. We need careful and rational decision making about complex infrastructure issues. We collectively will need the sorts of things that always get local opposition: transmission lines, power plants, nuclear waste facilities, CO2 pipelines and so on.

They will not implement themselves, though. The changeover will be expensive no matter what we do. This will require huge decisions about and huge investments in infrastructure and technology both here and elsewhere. This is the hard part at the national level. It will require a spirit of cooperation and a respect for competence over political expedience.

The international level may be even harder. Avoiding disastrous consequences requires at least a modicum of global agreement on who gets to do what.

What I am saying, basically, is that personal and community responsibility is not enough. Commitments at the national and global level are needed, that amount to more than just lip service. As individuals we have little role in negotiating them, but we have a huge role in whether they have enough support to be passed.

These measures must be supported; it’s an ethical obligation. We have to see our task as getting the whole earth through the mess, not just ourselves, and not even just our own countries. Anything less has the flavor of rearranging deck chairs. As individuals, we need to work within our commuities and social connections to explain the necessity of these sorts of uncomfortable changes and pave the way for people to put up with them. The alternatives are much worse.

The important thing is that like fishing, using fuel is no longer a private affair. A fish you catch is a fish I don't catch. A gallon of gasoline you use is a gallon I never see. What was best viewed as an open, unbounded system suddenly becomes a zero-sum game, and a global one. And yet, there can in the end be no losers. We are in the unaccustomed position of being ahead and needing to play for a tie.


Before I open this up for discussion, there’s one more thing I’d like to point out.

As we all know, Texas is special. Texas has a special role to play in this issue in the world for a few reasons. For one thing, just as our geographic fate, we have been a nexus for oil and stand a good chance of being so for wind, solar, and carbon sequestration. For another, our culture has been a standout in individualism even within the US, and the US has been a major problem in the process of the world agreeing to any carbon treaties with teeth. So I think there is both a special opportunity and a special obligation to change the worldview of Texans, particularly on this point.

I’d also like to express a bit of disappointment. Often Austin is mentioned as a leader, at least within the US context, in sustainability and energy conservation, but as we moved here Irene and I went from a one-car family (where we’d have to remember, on some cold days, to start the car up and drive around the block a few times to recharge the battery) to a two-car family. I have always managed to commute on foot, by bicycle, or by train. Austin provides a much more convenient climate for biking or walking, but the city is laid out to discourage it. Again, this is a problem we can’t solve as individuals.

On the other hand, I’ve found democracy in this town to be alive and well. My impression, and this was unexpected, is that people participate in local, city and state issues with interest and vigor, with considerable wisdom, and perhaps even with a decency that is on retreat elsewhere in the country. But on the left and on the right, there is a suspicion of big projects and big decisions. I am sure there are reasons for this, but it is a problem. Do you think I’m right that this needs to change? If I am, is there a way to change it? What Texas does is important to the whole world.


Again, I’d like not to discuss the science today. I am open to organizing a meeting to do that some evening if there’s interest. For now, let’s take the situation at face value, and discuss it as a hypothetical.

1) What are ethical responsibilities to future generations, if any? Specifically how should this affect our behavior with respect to the earth as a whole system? How far into the future does our responsibility stretch? Should we care about the seventh generation? The seventieth?

2) Is there any hope of getting enough Americans, or specifically enough Texans, to understand the point of view of the developing countries? Is it reasonable to tie the future of energy to the past of development? Does past behavior of a country matter?

3) Are global environmental ethical questions appropriate for the Ethical Society of Austin and the American Ethical Union to take on? If not, what other organizing principles are available to grapple with these issues?
I guess especially points 1 and 2 are open for discussion here if anyone out there has something to say. (I am told that the AEU is going to have the environment as a key organizing concept at next year's annual assembly in Missouri.)

Friday, October 31, 2008


Eli is going on about incoherence of the denialists . Things Break had a sighting in the comments here recently:
In reading past comments at Dot Earth, or by either Spencer or Christy (I can't remember which), I don't understand where the myth that those who seek to avoid the worst aspects of climate change are callous towards the rights of those in poorer nations comes from.

A few years back, the smear was that we wanted to funnel the hard-earned tax dollars of white Christians to the brown third world as part of a massive Red Conspiracy. I'm curious as to when this newer meme started and why it seems to have taken hold despite it's obvious conflict with the older one.
I have been doing some thinking about how to tell real experts from fake experts. A single sound bite (on a topic on which the listener is inexpert) reveals nothing. You have to look at the whole record of the speaker and the speaker's close allies to determine who is an expert and who is playing one on TV. The "tell" is coherence. The core problem is that people who pay insufficient attention and people who don't themselves understand coherence have influence, especially in a democracy.

Many people don't seem to understand that ideas have to be tested for coherence and have to pass the test. Refusing to do interviews is not a laughing matter; it simply declares immunity from any coherence test at all.

Jane Smiley has a terrifying rumination about the incoherence of the American "conservative" movement here. For what it's worth I don't think it's conservative at all. I'm a dyed in the wool Trudeau Liberal myself, (I'm a Montreal Texan and I ain't fixin' to start changin' now) but I respect and draw upon conservatism that actually conserves things. One of the things it ought to conserve is intellectual rigor.

In the end, Ross Perot's position on just about everything was the right one. "I don't know everything. I'd just get the experts together and have them hash it out. Then I'd figure out how to get it done." The trick is being able to identify the experts. So you have to be able to demonstrate that you yourself understand the coherence test, and the best way to do that is to be coherent.

Changing your mind is one thing; within reason it is a good sign, a sign that you don't operate dogmatically. Saying two things simultaneously that can't possibly both be true is another. Coherence is important because it is the sign of actual thought.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Consequences for getting it wrong?

Wouldn't it be nice if there were consequences for a journalist garbling a story?

"MIT scientists baffled by global warming theory, contradicts scientific data"

In the pre-Web 2.0 days, this would have gotten no notice, but now it's getting "Dugg" up. The story reads in part:
The two lead authors of a paper published in this week's Geophysical Review Letters, Matthew Rigby and Ronald Prinn, the TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science, state that as a result of the increase, several million tons of new methane is present in the atmosphere.

Methane accounts for roughly one-fifth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, though its effect is 25x greater than that of carbon dioxide. Its impact on global warming comes from the reflection of the sun's light back to the Earth (like a greenhouse).
Ah. So what with the 25x greater effect, its effect must be 25 x greater, right? Or should that only be 5x greater, since it's only "one fifth of greenhouse gases". Or should it be 1/5th, because the factor of 25 is already accounted for? (Hint, that last one is closest, but what was that about water vapor?)

Open loop systems fail.

This is what all those free-marketeers, in their narrow little way, are trying to tell us. If journalists get no correction for getting things wrong, they will continue to get things wrong, and the public will continue to be confused. Feeling themselves barraged by streams of contradictory nonsense, what choice to they have but to "go with their gut"?

The throwaway article in an (I suspect) not especially important tech website is getting passed around, based on the reporter's deep understanding and coherent explanation of the story, right? Or perhaps it is because of the conclusion:
One thing does seem very clear, however; science is only beginning to get a handle on the big picture of global warming. Findings like these tell us it's too early to know for sure if man's impact is affecting things at the political cry of "alarming rates." We may simply be going through another natural cycle of warmer and colder times - one that's been observed through a scientific analysis of the Earth to be naturally occuring [sic] for hundreds of thousands of years.
No need to blame that crap on the innocent researchers. Just one more writer writing about something he doesn't know as if he does. Just one more tiny bit of intellectual poison, that's all, just a little bit more. Yummm. Open wide...

Update: Watt's Up runs with it.