"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, March 30, 2008

For those who have been off planet

I said in a recent posting:

"If anything the deniers seem interested in postponing the emergence of certain relevant truths as long as possible"

In response, a commenter asks:

What truths would these be? And who is trying to get them out?

It seems odd to answer, since the answers seem so obvious to regular readers of this flavor of blog, but after all, if they were obvious to everyone, there wouldn't be much of a problem. So I'll take it on.

First let me refer you to William Connolley's definition of the consensus: wherein he refers to the IPCC third assessment report:
  1. The earth is getting warmer (0.6 +/- 0.2 oC in the past century; 0.17 oC/decade over the last 30 years) [ch 2]
  2. People are causing this [ch 12] (see update)
  3. If GHG emissions continue, the warming will continue and indeed accelerate [ch 9]
and less certainly but very probably
4. (This will be a problem and we ought to do something about it)
I would also say

2.1. Humans are changing the radiative properties of the atmosphere more rapidly than they change in nature (absolutely certain). Update: CO2 is the majority term in this forcing but there are several other components worth considering.
2.2. The climate must inevitably change in some way faster than it changes in nature as a consequence (absolutely certain in a physical sense; the radiative fluxes must change. almost certain in a practical sense; one could imagine the climate somehow contriving to change in a way that wouldn't disrupt human life very much but the likelihood of this is incredibly small and the evidence for this is mostly contrived)
2.3. The simple back-of-the-envelope prediction of warming in the global mean is almost certainly valid on many streams of evidence (This is essentially William's point 3 above) but changes will not be limited to that. As an example, increased drought in the southwest US is becoming a robust prediction.
2.4. We may already have won a 12 meter sea level rise and the more we persist in our behavior the more likely this is; we don't know how fast our prize will be delivered.
Update: 2.5 There is a delay built into the climate system in addition to the delays built into economics and politics. The day we decide the problem is serious enough to act predates measurable benefits of our actions by decades.
2.6 The problem is roughly cumulative. Each increment of carbon you add to the system stays there for centuries. If we stopped emitting altogether, the planet would not cool off; it would keep warming for a decade or two and then stay at that level for a very long time.
Keeping emissions rates constant will result in a constant slope to the rate of increase; only a net emission rate near zero stabilizes climate.
2.7 Technical solutions exist. It is not necessary to change society dramatically except to adapt to higher energy prices a little bit faster than would otherwise be the case.

Also there are salient factors we don't know.

3.1. There are reasonable dynamical arguments that storm intensity, both middle latitude convective cells and tropical cyclones, will increase, and such a prediction is consistent with, though not yet strongly confirmed by, observational trends.
3.2. There is paleoclimatic evidence that there are feedbacks that release additional carbon in response to warming. These are not well-constrained and are likely to amplify the human effect; we don't know how much
3.3. As stated above, we don't know when the rapid sea level rise will start or how fast it will go
3.4. Temperatures are likely to exceed the range seen for the last 2 million years at a time when ecological systems are under severe stress already. It's difficult to constrain how much this will exacerbate the current extinction event.
3.5. Models seem to understate the transient variability of the system under abrupt forcing. This isn't entirely surprising but leaves us with some difficulty constraining how much trouble we may be in.

Then there is the social context:

4.1. PR professionals are being paid to keep these facts obscured from the public. Some of them do not shy away from spreading lies.
4.2. Scientists are not paid to emphasize these facts and are actively discouraged from doing so both directly and indirectly (because any outside effort weakens their competitive position.) Update: The relevant climate sciences are not especially well-funded and the relevant sciences are not direct beneficiaries of the engineering strategies we advocate. The widely believed mechanisms for corruption don't actually exist.
4.3. The paid PR staff on the side of sounding the alarm is vastly smaller than the team doing the obfuscating and has much fewer resources. Admittedly some of the alarmists are intellectually lazy and some few of them may also be dishonest but on the whole, seriously dishonest people will go where the money is.
4.4. Mamet's Law applies:
"Law, politics and commerce are based on lies. That is, the premises giving rise to opposition are real, but the debate occurs not between these premises but between their proxy, substitute positions. The two parties to a legal dispute (as the opponents in an election) each select an essentially absurd position. "I did not kill my wife and Ron Goldman," "A rising tide raises all boats," "Tobacco does not cause cancer." Should one be able to support this position, such that it prevails over the nonsense of his opponent, he is awarded the decision. ...

"In these fibbing competitions, the party actually wronged, the party with an actual practicable program, or possessing an actually beneficial product, is at a severe disadvantage; he is stuck with a position he cannot abandon, and, thus, cannot engage his talents for elaboration, distraction, drama and subterfuge."

Update: Anything else?

I think most people who are well informed as to the state of the science and the policy context would consider these assertions factual. I think the press has failed to convey these facts to the public, especially in English speaking countries and particularly the USA. To some extent that is because English is the language of the bulk of the paid denial professionals.

The greatest mystery, to me, is how those denial professionals justify their behavior to themselves. Can all of them believe their own nonsense? If not, do they really think they are better off with more money on a sick planet that with less money on a healthy one? I can't understand where these people come from.

Anyway, if the public understood the outlines of the situation as described here, we'd be much better off than we are.

As for "who is trying to get them (those facts) out", at present that would mostly be a bunch of scientists acting as communication amateurs in their spare time, some idealistic fresh college grads with badly paid internships at nonprofits, a handful of self-supporting pundits, a few professors and postdocs in policy sectors, and a very small group of decent journalists like Andrew Revkin and John Fleck who nevertheless don't entirely have the nerve to spell out what the denialists are doing. All this activity surely accounts for less than a part in a hundred thousand compared to the total economic activities of the energy sector, and I would guess perhaps a tenth of the effort of the actively paid denial squad.

Update: Heh, bad timing. The balance of resources may be shifting at last. I worry, though, that the Gore campaign may settle for symbolism at the expense of actual education.


Anonymous said...

Selective Moral Disengagement

Psychologist Albert Bandura has examined the process that people use to maintain strategic ignorance. This overview at John Feeney's blog (currently dormant) might be a good starting point.


Michael Tobis said...

At first glance the article is not offering any surprising insights.

I'm well aware of the triumph of the symbolic over the substantive. I wonder who has spent the most energy going to the store to buy low-wattage bulbs, for instance.

However, I'm not sure this describes the psychology of the true denialist, who accepts payment to disrupt the public's understanding. Fooling oneself is possible with half-conscious psychological processes but fooling others seems deliberate, carefully considered and malicious without any sensible self-interest to balance it.

It's not as if they have will some gated unspoiled planet to retire to.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to disappoint. Perhaps the lurking invisible audience may find some value in Bandura's article.

It seems to me the last couple of sentences of your reply express some underlying assumptions, a sort of implicit model of human thought and human behavior:

"...fooling others seems deliberate, carefully considered and malicious without any sensible self-interest to balance it. It's not as if they have will some gated unspoiled planet to retire to."

(Emphasis added, whitespace removed by me.)

I may have misinterpreted your goal here. Sorry, my bad.

Are you trying to survey the current state of knowledge of human behavior?

Are you trying to develop a new model?

Are you trying to defend one particular, existing model?

Or perhaps just venting frustration about some behaviors of our fellow humans?

(Sometimes I mistake the latter for one of the former. It's a bad habit I should try to work on, I guess.)


Michael Tobis said...

None of the above. I just don't get it, is all.

Usually when I think about something a lot I get a clue of some sort. So far no dice on this one.

Anonymous said...

I see I was too sutble. I see you actually believe that these "truth's" have not had sufficient exposure. Al gore winning the Noble not enough? Please, we have been hearing about it for the last twenty years.
The more people learn about it the less concerned they are.

Michael Tobis said...

The more people learn the less concerned is probably true up to a certain point. This is because of the wall of pseudoscience that has been put up, especially in the english speaking countries. That's exactly the problem.

Once a person actually gets to the point of working with the underlying equations, the pseudoscience crumbles quickly. Most people never get to that point, though and are forced to rely on their intuitions about who is credible.

Some, like our present anonymous, get it wrong. It's not primarily their fault. It is primarily the fault of professional liars.

The question is not the extent to which these matters have been "exposed", it is the extent to which the actual substantive truths of the matter have been understood.

I think people do, on examining the "debate", understand that one or both sides must be lying about the actual state of science. The tragedy is that so many people still get it wrong as to what the state of science is.

It is the joint responsibility of the scientific and journalistic communities to see that the right model of science is conveyed to the public. The state of science is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of fact.

Anonymous said...

Please look at this graph.
Look at it some more.


Lets reduce CO2 emissions as much as we can. Maybe we can even reduce them to the level they were 30 years ago. Oh, wait, the CO2 concentartion in the atmosphere goes up at the same rate anyway!

Is that a fact?

Anonymous said...

If you have an open mind, you might want to read this:


Michael Tobis said...

The only way concentrations will level off is for emissions to go to near zero; the problem is approximately cumulative. Keeping emissions rates constant will result in a constant slope to the curve.

Limiting CO2 is, per RP Sr., not the whole picture; CO2 reduction may not be sufficient but it is necessary. Indeed there is much reason to focus on the secondary forcings first, as Hansen has been arguing.

His conclusion as to the motivations of those focusing on CO2 does not follow.

I will update with these points, thanks.

Anonymous said...

"The only way concentrations will level off is for emissions to go to near zero; the problem is approximately cumulative. Keeping emissions rates constant will result in a constant slope to the curve."

That's not what the curve, actually straight line, shows. It shows a constant slope with increasing emissions; i.e. the rate of atmospheric CO2 increase was the same when we had far fewer emissions.

Michael Tobis said...


Actual numbers here:


Are you proposing some magic? Human emissions go away due to pixies, and then leprechauns add the CO2 that accumulates in the atmosphere?

If you divide the record into halves, get mean slopes, and compare to emission rate rations over the same period you'll get something near matching proportions. If you want to split hairs about the difference tell it to GRL, not some blog.

If you think this is important at the level of calling the big picture into question, you'll have to explain why.

John Mashey said...

"The more people learn about it the less concerned they are."

This meme circulated amongst the usual blogs about a month ago, and I think originates from Texas A&M study: http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2008.01010.x

Of course, it got passed along, mostly by people who didn't seem to have actually readthe paper. [I did read it.]

"It should be noted that the information effects reported in this article are limited to self-reported information. Objective measures of informedness about global warming and climate change might produce different effects. And indeed there is some scholarly evidence to suggest that this might be the case. In their models of mass assessments of the risks of genetically modified foods, Durant and Legge found that self-reported informedness and objective measures of informedness were almost entirely uncorrelated, and that their effects worked in opposite directions."

My favorite Dunning-Kruger Effect may well enter into this as well. In particular, knoweldgeable people who are not professional climate scientists, but actually interact with such, may well under-rate their knowledge.

Some of the most vehement "I know a lot about climate-science and AGW is a hoax, and I've studied it carefully" couldn't answer questions like:
-what actual climate scientists have you met?
- do you read primary research articles?
- what websites do you read?

has a rational take on it.

This study seemed fairly weird to me. It's like saying:

(and then, buried in the text:
X is really negatively correlated with Y'
and Y' might be negatively correlated with Y, more study needed.)

Anonymous said...

"If anything the deniers seem interested in postponing the emergence of certain relevant truths as long as possible"

Chance would be a fine thing! My newspapers and TV are filled by an endless series of 'shlock-horror' eco-stories, and every natural disaster in the world is always the fault of global warming, er, that was until the 'warmers' realised their science wasn't quite as stringent as they thought and changed the slogan to "climate change"! Well, hell, who could argue with "climate change"? It always has changed and always will!

A case of 'if the left hand don't getcha, the right one will'!

Anonymous said...

"The more people learn about it the less concerned they are."

I'm speaking from personal experience as well.

"Are you proposing some magic? Human emissions go away due to pixies, and then leprechauns add the CO2 that accumulates in the atmosphere?"

Sigh. What is the purpose of reducing CO2 emissions if it doesn't change the rate of increase in atmospheric concentration?

Michael Tobis said...

David, I don't deny that there has been excess on the other side elsewhere. It's not much visible in North America.

Anonymous, you seem to be claiming that the CO2 is not coming from emissions at all. Which means that

I think the rate of emissions has not changes as dramatically as you believe, and that the slight change of slope in the record is not a terrible mismatch to it.

However, as climate changes, the efficiency of the ocean and land as uptake mechanisms will vary. These are not first order effects but may affect the curvature of the trajectory.

If you are arguing that the carbon comes from somewhere else you need to identify both the leprechauns and the pixies involved. Don't fail to account for the isotopic signature of the excess carbon.

We had a link to some more detailed calculations on this here a couple of months back. Have a closer look.

Anonymous said...

Let me try this again.

Here is emissions:


From 1974 to 2004 emissions increased 70% but the rate of buildup in the atmosphere stayed the same.


Now you tell me about leprechauns and pixies. Why is it that how much CO2 we dump into the air doesn't affect how fast it builds up im the atmosphere?

Michael Tobis said...

I understand your question. To some extent it is exagerrated. The curve does tend upward a bit.

However, you have to look at it form a mass conservation point of view. The amount of extra carbon in the air and in the ocean is measurable. The difference must go into the biota, which show considerable interannual variability. The best way to look at it is to take the derivative of the time series, showing the annual accumulation.

Which I showed you already, here.

You seem to be claiming that mass is not conserved. Or what?

Anonymous said...

I did notice the very slight increase in the last few years on some of the data sets, but for the most part all of the sampling points from 1974 to 2004 are almost perfectly linear.


The amount of annual emissions increased by 70%. So somehow nature found a way to sock away 70%more CO2. Why is natures ability to store CO2 such that the annual increase is nearly constant regardless of how much is put into the atmosphere?

One possible explanation is that the ability to store CO2 is proportional to the atmospheric concentration. Can a 14% increase in concentration provide the stimulus to store 70% more CO2? This would indicate that nature's CO2 storage ability is an exponential function of the increase in CO2 concentration.

Michael Tobis said...

Well, we're making a little progress here at last.

Yes, perhaps there is something to what you say. Then again you have to consider the possibility that CO2 fertilization is likely to saturate; that would mean this somewhat nice feature of the system would go away.

Once CO2 is essentially not the limiting factor on plant growth, something else is.

Anyway, even if you don't buy that (and the experts on the matter actually do), you seem to be admitting where the carbon is coming from. I'll consider that progress.

Anonymous said...

Yeah,....but doesn't the IPCC say that land use change CONTRIBUTED

"Carbon dioxide emissions due to land use changes during
the 1990s are estimated as 0.5 to 2.7 GtC yr–1" (AR4-wg1 ch2, p-139)

Also, something else they say doesn't make sense:

"The relationship between
increases in atmospheric CO2 mixing ratios and emissions
has been tracked using a scaling factor known as the apparent
‘airborne fraction’, defined as the ratio of the annual increase
in atmospheric CO2 to the CO2 emissions from annual fossil
fuel and cement manufacture combined (Keeling et al., 1995).
On decadal scales, this fraction has averaged about 60% since
the 1950s." (AR4-wg1 ch2, p-139)

If it is a fixed percentage, the accumulation rate should be increasing. The only way for the rate to stay constant is for the percentage to decrease, i.e. a smaller fraction stays in the atmoshphere.

Michael Tobis said...

Uptake by undisturbed ecosystems (believed to be mostly boreal forests, if I recall right) is a separate term from land use and operates oppositely.

There does appear to be something to what you say, but what? Can we rely on this mechanism indefinitely? Even if we can this trajectory spells trouble.

It strikes me more how much year over year variation there is in the slope more than how smooth it looks form a distance, That could well be a sampling artifiact. Again, have a look at the way Canadell plots it. The land/atmosphere tradeoff looks very noisy on an interannual time scale.

There's a lot we (both in the narrow and the broad sense of "we") don't know about the carbon cycle. We do know where the carbon spike is coming from, though.

Anonymous said...

"Uptake by undisturbed ecosystems (believed to be mostly boreal forests, if I recall right) is a separate term from land use and operates oppositely."

That's probaly the case, I didn't think about that. I'll have to read the report again more closely.

"There's a lot we (both in the narrow and the broad sense of "we") don't know about the carbon cycle. We do know where the carbon spike is coming from, though."

This is what strikes me as odd, we don't understand the cycle...but we do understand what is causing the increase?

Now, I agree it is obvious that we are putting a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere, but it is about 2-3% of the amount that is cycled naturally, and a tiny fraction of the amount that is stored. So by saying that the increase is determined by the amount humans are emitting, they are saying that the natural fluxes have been determined to that level of accuracy, but if they have, then why don't we understand it?

I appreciate your patience and reasoned discourse.

Michael Tobis said...

Anon, it's a bit unwieldy to carry on this conversation, since I get a lot of visitors named "anonymous".

Could I convince you to sign up for a blogger ID if you want to continue?

In answer to your question, the extent to which the carbon fluxes were in balance is visible in the preindustrial record.

Those preindustrial fluxes mostly constitute exchanges between the fast reservoirs: atmosphere, ocean and land. This was almost perfectly closed once the interglacial settled down.

Humans take carbon from slow, geological reservoirs and inject it into the fast exchange systems. SO far we have done very little in the reverse direction. It's the flux across the fast/slow boundary that matters. We have greatly increased that flow in one direction (from the geological formations) and not in the other.

The amount that sloshes around between the fast reservoirs is not perfectly understood, but the total amount in the three is well established, and is changing at rates that are totally dominated by human input.

This is not in serious doubt; the behavior of the atmosphere is consistent with that idea, and any alternative hypothesis requires huge sources and sinks suddenly and coincidentally kicking in at the same time as human activity.

Not to mention the isotope evidence (see above for a link).

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Well your last answer is not really in accordance with this diagram, which shows high fluxes between large resevoirs.


Michael Tobis said...

I'm not discussing the size of the reservoirs.

I'm discussing a partition between the slow ones (mineral deposits) and the fast ones (surface processes). The flux between these is the point where we have disrupted the system, and that's why there is more carbon floating around in all the fast reservoirs.

Which accounts for these graphs. Note that the origin of the vertical axis is at zero in the lower figure.