"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Water, Climate Change, Texas

For reasons that need not concern us I was unable to attend but I should mention the existence of this meeting. I contented myself with mentioning sea level rise in the comments to the Statesman article and in an email exchange with one of the principals.

My other point in those comments about emissions being distorted by production is supported by this new Purdue map, with a hat tip to Dr. Bunny.

Tom Friedman Gets It This Time

I don't know about Tom Friedman's enthusiasm for globalization. I think recent events in Haiti for instance point to the problems there. And as for his foreign policy, well, I try not to stray that way on this blog, but you might guess I have some, ahem, issues with his approach.

But he sure nails it this time about the gas tax holiday.
It is great to see that we finally have some national unity on energy policy. Unfortunately, the unifying idea is so ridiculous, so unworthy of the people aspiring to lead our nation, it takes your breath away. Hillary Clinton has decided to line up with John McCain in pushing to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for this summer’s travel season. This is not an energy policy. This is money laundering: we borrow money from China and ship it to Saudi Arabia and take a little cut for ourselves as it goes through our gas tanks. What a way to build our country.

When the summer is over, we will have increased our debt to China, increased our transfer of wealth to Saudi Arabia and increased our contribution to global warming for our kids to inherit.

and also:
Few Americans know it, but for almost a year now, Congress has been bickering over whether and how to renew the investment tax credit to stimulate investment in solar energy and the production tax credit to encourage investment in wind energy. The bickering has been so poisonous that when Congress passed the 2007 energy bill last December, it failed to extend any stimulus for wind and solar energy production. Oil and gas kept all their credits, but those for wind and solar have been left to expire this December. I am not making this up. At a time when we should be throwing everything into clean power innovation, we are squabbling over pennies.
When a serious columnist adopts Dave Barry's tag line about making things up, it's time to sit up and take notice.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Skepticism regarding "thermodynamics"

It's time the conspiracy of engineers promoting their "thermodynamics" stopped getting a free ride.

It happens I believe in Phlogiston Theory. But so did all the Nobel winners, not just in physics and chemistry but also economics and peace. Without exception. Also Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi not to mention Babe Ruth and Bobby Orr and Joe Namath...

I understand that the contrary "thermodynamic" theory is motivated by economic self-interest on the part of engineers who want to keep getting money for designing their so-called combustion chambers and engines and such, but their pretense that the science is settled is very far from true. Look. Nobel winners. And hockey players.

They agree with me because I say so. Who are they to argue?


Monday, April 28, 2008

No Food Shortage

There is a food pricing crisis, but that isn't the same as a shortage. I elaborate on Grist.

In short, I conclude that the wider the separation of rich and poor, the less effective market mechanisms are in providing useful incentives and the more necessary complex regulatory systems become.

The market libertarians want it both ways: minimal regulation and no worry about wealth stratification, but recent events in the global food market indicate that you can't have both and a viable planet too.

Comments disallowed here so I don't have to track two threads. Do comment on the Grist site, please and thanks.

Agreeing with WSJ Op-Ed

Today's Wall Street Journal has an opinion column entitled "The Real Cost of Tackling Climate Change" from Steven Hayward of the (often egregious) American Enterprise Institute, which I find myself surprised to be mostly in agreement with. He argues:
  • Greenhouse gas targets will be very difficult to meet
  • Renewables will probably not help as much as we'd like
  • Very large scale efforts and projects will be needed
and, especially
  • "Someone should put this question to the candidates. And not let them slide past it with glittering generalities."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Another Oil Shock?

Not looking too pretty over in the UK according to the Oil Drum, even before the failure of a complex and tightly coupled system to deliver oil:

Failure by BP to recognise the dependency of the Forties Pipeline upon vital services provided by Grangemouth, and to provide contingency back up for their loss, is the principal cause for over 40% of UK North Sea oil and gas production now being shutdown.

Update 4/30: The pipeline has restarted.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Two Alternative Stupidities

"High gas prices might be uncomfortable while we search for viable long-term solutions, but they’re more comfortable than the alternative: no gas and no solutions." says a delightfully sarcastic article on the Environmental Economics site.

I can't resist brazenly copying whole swaths of this.
Eighty-two Democrats and 3 Republicans in the House have proposed the Federal Price Gouging Prevention Act (H.R. 1252) otherwise known as the FPGPA, pronounced STUPID. So let's take a look at the STUPID price gouging bill...


The STUPID price gouging bill will make it a federal crime to:

...sell crude oil, gasoline, natural gas, or petroleum distillates at a price that is unconscionably excessive or indicates the seller is taking unfair advantage [of] unusual market conditions (whether real or perceived) or the circumstances of an emergency to increase prices unreasonably.

Unconscionable excessive? Unfair advantage? Increase prices unreasonably? Yikes.

Allow me to interpret. The STUPID bill makes it a federal crime to:

...sell crude oil, gasoline, natural gas, or petroleum distillates at a price that makes my constituents complain because they are too lazy to drive less at higher gas prices.


In looking into the STUPID price gouging bill, I came across
the Republican Study Committees reports on the STUPID price gouging bill. In it, they list a set of alternative proposals for lowering gas prices. They are:
  • Streamline the environmental hurdles to building new oil refineries.
  • Make it easier for small refineries to increase capacity.
  • Allow more offshore (e.g. Outer Continental Shelf) and inland (e.g. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) oil drilling.

In other words...screw the environment and roll back new source review.

  • Temporarily suspend the gas tax.

...because driving more is always a good short-term solution.

  • Temporarily suspend the gas tax and temporarily suspend spending on all transportation earmarks in the most recent surface transportation reauthorization bill.

...because driving more on crappy roads is an even better short term solution.

  • Permanently reduce the gas tax.

...because driving more on crappy roads is an even better LONG term solution.

Is this funny?

This wandered into my email. I sure hope it's supposed to be a joke. I think it is (Tripp's Institute?) But to quote the feminists and the light bulb joke, "I don't think there's anything funny about that."

This is sad and interesting not because it is serious, but because the nature of the joke shows how we are being misperceived. It's the "in it for the gold" accusation all over. "Global warming?" I responded. "No, that's finished. You can only play that violin for so long. This last winter took care of that money maker with the extreme cold and heavy ice and snow in mid-America."

Hmm. Well, stay tuned, I guess. I wonder when this noise actually goes away. In the 1990s I predicted it would go away about now, when the changes started to become casually obvious. I was too optimistic. I wonder how long people will keep blaming cosmic rays or 1500 year cycles or leprechauns, anything but their own foolishness...
I was in San Diego several weeks ago and drove over to Ocean Beach to dip my footsies into the Pacific. I was surprised to witness one of the lowest tides I'd ever seen. The water was out past the end of the pier that extends from the end of Newport Avenue. I'd never seen that before. Later that day, I was having lunch with an old high school friend who happens to be a scientist at The Tripp's Institute of Oceanography, in La Jolla.

I mentioned the low tide to him and he suddenly got a
serious look on his face. "You've seen first hand the next natural disaster that's gripping the world," he said. "Global warming?" I responded. "No, that's finished. You can only play that violin for so long. This last winter took care of that money maker with the extreme cold and heavy ice and snow in mid-America. However, there's a new crises looming that's real and could very well mark the end of life, as we know it. It's been labeled, The Noah Affect. It involves the seeming disappearance of water from the earth."

"Why the Noah Affect?" I queried. "That was a deluge that blanketed
the earth with water."

"Well, yes, but after the flood there can a period of water being
quickly dried up. In that case it was accomplished by high winds, hot, dry days and a return of extreme cold to the polar ice caps. But now we're seeing the departure of water for no apparent reason at all… except possibly one."

"What is that one," I asked.

"Containers," he replied. "You see, us scientists had found a convenient way of making a few bucks by selling people on the idea that their drinking water wasn't worth drinking. At the same time we were investing in bottled water companies and as it turned out, seeing great returns on our investments. But what happened next really surprised us. Soon, nearly every man, woman and child in the civilized world was drinking only bottled water."

"So how does that affect the water supply? Doesn't it still end up in the same places once it is consumed?"

"Well, yes… and no. The problem is that there is an ever growing
abundance of water in plastic bottles sitting on store shelves and in warehouses. Plus, something we hadn't counted on was the way people dispose of their nearly empty water bottles. Let me ask you this; the last time you drank a bottle of water; when you threw away the bottle, was it dry inside and did you replace the cap?"

I thought for a moment. I immediately saw where this was going. "The last time I drank a bottle of water, when I threw the bottle away, it was recapped and there was about two ounces of water still remaining in the bottle."

"There in lies the problem. That's what most people do and the bottle
ends up in a landfill where it will take about a hundred years to deteriorate to the point where that water again enters the water life cycle. Now, if you multiply that by five billion people a day throwing a cup or more of water in the trash, you've got about twenty billion ounces of water tied up for a hundred years… each day. In a month you have six-hundred billion ounces and on and on. Well, you can quickly see what's happening. It's been estimated that in ten years, the world's oceans will be about twenty-five percent smaller and with the depth of the seas decreasing, the polar ice caps will extend further south, gobbling up more useable water. That, in turn, will affect the climate and we'll see global cooling taking place. In fact, we may have already seen the early effects of it this past winter. It will change the whole eco system in ways we've never experienced before and available water for crops will virtually disappear."

I left San Diego that day with a giant lump in my stomach, resolved to make sure I never capped a plastic bottle again. It's scary to think about, but I'm convinced my scientist friend is right. I've been to the beach and seen it for myself.

Doesn't the carbon "end up in the same places"? Well, probably, but not before causing us a lot of trouble for a few intervening centuries... Sorry I'm having trouble seeing this joke as funny...

Update: How about this similar joke? It is sort of funny. I think it wasn't intended as humor though.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Tireless Denialists Create another List

I've got a few things to say but I'm pretty tired today, so I'll just shoot a fish in a barrel.

I thought I'd just point out that a denialist has come up with a list of anti-consensus publications. Specifically the list is entitled Peer-Review Papers Skeptical of "Man-Made" Global Warming.

Now we'll have to go over it. Groan. What a waste of time these people are. (Of course, it would be nice if that was all the damage they did, but a massive waste of time, remember, is the best case.)

The first one I checked out (I ignored ones that had one of the usual dirty dozen as a coauthor) was Effects of bias in solar radiative transfer codes on global climate model simulations(Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 32, L20717, 2005)- Albert Arking . Here is the abstract:
Codes commonly used in climate and weather prediction models for calculating the transfer of solar radiation in the atmosphere show systematic differences amongst each other, and even the best of codes show systematic differences with respect to observations. A 1-dimensional radiative-convective equilibrium model is used to show the effects of such bias on the global energy balance and on the global response to a doubling of CO2. We find the main impact is in the energy exchange terms between the surface and atmosphere and in the convective transport in the lower troposphere, where it exceeds 10 W m−2. The impact on model response to doubling of CO2, on the other hand, is quite small and in most cases negligible.
I don't know, does that sound "skeptical of man-made global warming" to you?

Update: Some fellow called Andrew claims credit for the list, and indeed it can be found with an earlier date stamp here, along with an impressively great spew of material of varying quality. I suspect this is a professional agnotology site.

Also via the "Andrew" article, this is the second time this week I came across this Higgs paper. Probably a sincere amateur in this case. Their intellectual armaments are getting quite sturdy for a group advocating a fundamentally incorrect position. Most likely the way the truth will finally out will not be pretty...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sea Level in the Daily Press

Finally a sign of realism in the daily press. The Miami Herald has a story on sea level rise, in which they take a meter's rise as "conservative", which strikes me as a modest estimate. I note the peculiar use of the word "conservative"; a truly conservative estimate would be a worst case, no, perhaps 3 meters?

The usual noise (blaming it on Al Gore, e.g.) appears in the reader comments. Lots of idiotic blithering about your inland house gaining value because it's beachfront property. Ha. Ha.

Here's a particularly interesting one:
This is crap. "Under a conservative three foot rise" . That is not very conservative is very catastrophic, no scientific evidence that it will ever happen. Where they did get this number, why not 4 ft or 2 ft. Whoever lives on the ocean right now, I will trade my house in Hialeah, and save them from the rising tides. Of course I will start working on the ark right away. Even if it is true there is nothing we can do to stop it, until we get the dialethean crystal from the Klingons to run our cars.
I think he (interestingly, I am sure it's a male) means "dilithium"... Anyway, notice how it's all about cars (a common misconception on all sides) and especially notice how our modern way of life is considered a force completely out of our control.

Seriously, it is going to be very hard for people owning property in South Florida (or other comparable places, especially on the vast and recently built up southeastern beach and coastal plain) to face up to this threat to their wealth. Should we help them out? If so, how much?
Should it depend on whether they take mitigation seriously? It will be very psychologically difficult for them, and a bad economic move too, to acknowledge sea level rise. ("Here, buy my house, it should stay above sea level for at least half the duration of your mortgage...")

Happy Earth Day y'all...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Questions, Questions

Too many questions, not enough answers.

Andrew Revkin asks: what is the energy demand of vat-grown meat?

It's an example of a good question that ties into the future that is hard to answer. Who knows? How can we get such information? How much can we rely on such information if we get it?

The "collaboratorium" group at MIT proposes a mechanism for collaborative thinking. I see some flaws. It seems pretty labor-intensive and not very fun and not very scalable. For some things it it might work if enough people get in the right spirit. I have a feeling they are taking on too much too soon with, you know, the everything (a.k.a. climate) question. Of course, everything is intertwingled ultimately...

(By the way, weren't people talking about collaboratories in a somewhat different sense quite some time ago? I guess science doesn't get to register trademarks.)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Nicholas Stern Admits to Error

Sir Nicholas Stern, lead author of the Stern report has reconsidered his position and has concluded that his previous report, indicating a modest net benefit to sustained modest cuts in greenhouse gas emissions was wrong!

So is it time to tell Inhofe to add another name to the list? no...

The [original Stern] report argued that emissions would need to be cut to at least 25 per cent below current levels if a dangerous temperature rise of over two degrees is to be avoided – a scenario the report argued would trigger an economic crisis on the scale of the Great Depression. Such a reduction would require a cut in emissions from developed economies in the region of 60 per cent, a target the government subsequently adopted as part of its climate change bill.

But speaking in an interview with Reuters yesterday, Lord Stern admitted the report underestimated the scale and pace of climate change and urged politicians to step up action to curb emissions.

He said that the latest climate science showed that not only were emissions rising faster than thought, the ability of the earth to absorb carbon dioxide in so-called carbon sinks was deteriorating faster than expected.

"Emissions are growing much faster than we'd thought, the absorptive capacity of the planet is less than we'd thought, the risks of greenhouse gases are potentially bigger than more cautious estimates, and the speed of climate change seems to be faster," he said.

Stern added that to minimise the risks of dangerous climate change, the original target for global emissions would have to be doubled to a 50 per cent cut by 2050. He said that such a target would require the US to cut its emissions by up to 90 per cent by then.

The US needs to cut its net emissions by 90 per cent by 2050!

I still don't buy into Stern's methodology, but at least he seems to be getting the idea that this isn't just a minor annoyance we are talking about.

CCS had better work and we had better get on with deploying it.

Agnotology, Left and Right

To go along with my discovery of the wonderful word "agnotology" (the study of ignorance) in Naomi Orekes' publication record, Deltoid points to a very well written and well organized article on Slate about it, called The Paranoid Style In American Science.

Author Daniel Engber advises moderation in skepticism.

You will see that people tend to deploy vast amounts of skepticism selectively toward things they wish were untrue. Engber sees this in the "Precautionary Principle" every bit as much as in, say, Global Warming do-nothingism. I think he has a very good point.

In the other hand, at least the precautionary types, though muddled, are sincere. Some of the "no such thing as global warming" crowd have jumped over to unstoppablism without pausing to consider the possibility of responsible behavior. At this point I exercise my skepticism that such people ever meant a word of what they said.

I'm just meandering here. Read the article.

Pielke Jr vs Romm

Somewhat marred by garbled punctuation, there is a very interesting take on the Romm vs Pielke Jr. (and Wigley and Green) fracas on Scitizen.

I think Pielke et al. can be accused of taking an unstoppablist position, and that is behind Romm's objections. This is all kicked off by the Raupach, Canadell work that I, too, have been citing.

The commenter may be unaware of Pielke Jr.'s odd intellectual history.

We need to come to grips with the fact that matters are getting worse, not better, though.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Top Ten List

Top ten climate change selections on Amazon (US site) today:
  1. denialist (#120 in sales)
  2. economist quasi-denialist (#834)
  3. denialist turned unstoppablist (#1180)
  4. competent (#6226)
  5. scientist (#8979 )
  6. denialist
  7. alarmist
  8. denialist
  9. not very competent
  10. unstoppablist
5 denialists/unstoppablists plus Lomborg in the top ten; nothing remotely sensible in the top three. Ranking vs sales is roughly logarithmic base 10 so Spencer is selling ten to a hundred times as many books as Broecker.

I wonder if there are people who have denialist book collections, though. I figure one global warming book every five years or so is good enough for most people who don't thrive on conspiracies. Interesting. If you buy only one global warming book every five years your most recent one should probably be Field Notes from a Catastrophe (#9504) by Elizabeth Kolbert, which for some reason didn't show up on the top ten list.

WSJ Op-Ed Laments: No Science Debate

Nobelists David Baltimore and Ahmed Zewail lament the candidates' refusal to consider a discussion about science. A good article about a bad situation, and in the Wall Street Journal of all places!

Also it's nice to see this sentence snuck in on the WSJ Op-Ed page:
Our government needs to treat science honestly. When the world's scientists flag global warming as a threat to our way of life, it is a warning that should be taken seriously. Stewardship of the planet is our responsibility. No one else is going to do it for us.
Is the Journal finally coming around?

Still No Progress

Only 12% of Republicans believe "global warming" (sigh) should be a high priority.

We can't address this as a substantive debate outside of formal science using the methods we use within science; the denialists have saved up plenty of pretend science and plenty of debating mojo. It's a proven loser. 

So, as I asked a bit over a year ago when I first started this blog, what should we do instead?

I think I fell into the "framing" frame a little too heavily. There are issues with framing science so as to alienate religious people. I think many biology bloggers are damaging the social fabric with their head-on approach. I also find it notable that the country which explicitly enshrines separation of church and state in the constitution is the one having the most difficulty managing it in practice. This again seems to be indicative of unintended consequences.

Even when Pielke Jr. makes little sense, it seems that what he does is about keeping the social fabric intact. It's an interesting approach. In the end I wonder if it isn't a more positive contribution than it might appear.

The wonderful documentary film The Unforeseen tells the story of the City of Austin attempting to assert environmental stewardship beyond its borders. When Governor Ann Richards supported the city against the legislature, the movie intimates that this may have been overreaching with a direct unintended role in the emergence of Karl Rove and he who shall not be named.

There's no doubt in my mind, or those of the good people of Austin (who are both Texan and not-Texan; it's hard to explain) that the Spring should be as permanent as the gods would allow.

There's also no doubt in my mind that the people of Texas are like people everywhere only perhaps a bit more so. Wise and clever, foolish and vain, kind in intent and vicious in impulse, suspicious and canny yet vulnerable to trickery. The management of Texas has to include the people of Texas, and it's best not to go directly against their closely held beliefs except when absolutely necessary.

I think what's crucial is bridging the gap and repairing the divide. Surely we still all agree on more than what we disagree about. Maybe it's best to focus on points of agreement and avoid head-to-head confrontation when we can.

Unfortunately there are clever people who promote the confrontation for their own gain. It's a problem.

It's necessary to allow people to see how they have been fooled. A direct attack on their beliefs will only harden those beliefs. We need to tell the whole story of how they have been manipulated.

In email conversation, Anna H has convinced me that Oreskes' work is a crucial component of the right approach. We need to take that work out of the cloisters of the academy and into the popular press.

Al Gore also has it right in his book "Assault on Reason". We have a problem in that democracy is not working. There are a number of reasons for that, some of which he discusses. It may be more to the point to address how our society has been damaged by manipulative and vicious trickery, that to go after the problem directly and fall into trap after trap after trap that has been set to foil us.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Defense of Kestenbaum

Science functions in a social context. Emergence of an educated class is as disastrous as emergence of a wealthy class. Without a social fabric in which it is securely enmeshed, science is worthless. The reason we are seeing persistent and dangerous pseudoscience is that the fabric has been torn. We will not repair it by physics lectures. I am so very tired of people missing this point, and recently many of us appear to have missed it badly.

Everybody's up in arms about the NPR story about Kristen Byrnes. David Appell says he's lost all respect for David Kestenbaum, the NPR reporter. I have to say I'm baffled. I seem to be a severe outlier on this one. I think Kestenbaum's story was excellent.

Not that Kristen isn't a problem, obviously. In fact Kristen's website was a motivation for me starting this blog a year ago. I think she has confused herself in a prefectly sincere way, and that indicates the deeper problem that Kestenbaum gets to.

The problem isn't that just one person gets it wrong; the problem is that it is easier to get it wrong than to get it right. Intermediate level (advanced high school, early college level) material on the denialist side is vastly more copious and more accessible to that on the side of science (with the severe alarmists like Mr Turner holding their own).

The truth will lose out to the lies more often than not when an intelligent person without much connection to academia openmindedly takes on a study of climate change. The ease with which we on the inside are perceived to be driven into arrogant huffing (as a consequence of being baited into it) doesn't help.

But that's just to establish my bona fides. I'm not here to discuss that today.
I'm here to stick my neck out and defend David Kestenbaum. What, after all, was his point?
And the truth is, for people who want to get down into the details, climate change science can get very hairy. There are oceans to consider, which can absorb heat, water vapor and cloud cover to account for.

Much of the evidence comes from detailed computer models. Scientists disagree on some of the details. A handful do not think the case has been made. But the overwhelming consensus is that humans are causing global warming, and the consequences could be serious.

Despite Kristen's online celebrity, she doesn't talk about climate change much with her friends.

During lunch at a local chowder house with her friend Chrissy Flanders, they talked about food and friends and clothes.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise when Chrissy piped up to say she disagreed with Kristen on climate change.

"I think it's partly because of humans," she says. Asked why she believes that she says she doesn't know. Kristen chimes in: "She just believes what everyone else is making her believe."

It's probably fair to say that most people — even those who have strong opinions about global warming — couldn't make a strong scientific argument for why they believe what they believe.

Most of us delegate, decide to believe someone we trust. We don't actively seek out the other side. We probably wouldn't know what to make of it, or how to reconcile the two. Who has time? Or the expertise?
Yes! Exactly!

I don't see why all the recriminations against Kestenbaum. He has identified the problem exactly. Science is about collective knowledge, and collective knowledge is about trust. Whether Kirsten is a little more sophisticated than her friend who happens to be right is secondary. The question is about whom each of these girls has decided to trust.

When you get deep enough into something a certain coherence emerges, but it's not easy to get that deep. I am trying to think about global food security for instance but I'm having a heck of a time identifying the authoritative sources. Of course, I am also asking the wrong questions: where does nitrogen come from, where does it go? These are questions that the experts don't spend a lot of time talking about because they know all about it. So who addresses the person who has come to the point of asking about nitrogen?

How do networks of trust operate when they work? How do they fail? How are they subverted by zealots? (Dare we hope that the press will get the gumption to take this on, finally?) These are the right questions, the crucial questions, and Kestenbaum has got to the root of them.

Update: Also, isn't Kristen chimes in: "She just believes what everyone else is making her believe" just deliciously ironic? I am really shocked and dismayed at how superficially the climo-blogo-spheroid is looking at this report. It's really very clever.

Update: Ponder the Maunder seems dramatically inferior in quality to what I saw a year ago, which presumably was the school project. Accroding to my recollection, anyway. Earthlink is unwilling to serve that up at present. Anyway, the page David Appell links to makes absolutely no sense, for instance. This doesn't bode well for young Kristen. If she wanders here in her ponderings, I hope she'll check my article on Wired Science about youthful hubris, in which, alas, she figures prominently.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Crazed Swedish Bicyclist Reaches Ifni, Morocco

Andreas Narfstrom may still be mad but he still takes great pictures.

Ifni is a former Spanish enclave within Morocco about which the internet knows frighteningly little. Apparently it was the site of a relatively recent but forgotten war. Wikipedia has the population in excess of 50,000 in the 1960s, and this untouched by human hands and likely previously unseen page has it as under 2000 now.

Go Andy! Everyone else, if you have it to spare, consider dropping something in his tip jar.

Roscoe Village Cougar

The first cougar sightings in northern Illinois in over a century have been made.

What's really interesting is where. This would be at Hoyne and Roscoe, in trendy Roscoe Village, in Chicago, a modest and ordinarily charming mile's walk from my last known residence in the north. A 5 foot cougar was cornered and killed there.

A cougar (likely but not certainly the same one) had recently been sighted in Wilmette, near Mrs. Clinton's birthplace among the congenitally Republican group that profits most from Chicago's grit and energy. Prior to that there had been a sighting in North Chicago, a fading rustbelt satellite, further north along the great lake, and prior to that, one a bit further north still in southern Wisconsin.

Where was this cat heading? Did it want to check out the jazz scene at Schuba's? Was it planning to apply for a job at the Board of Trade? Did it have tickets for a Cubs game? Did it have a lifelong ambition to see the Monets at the Art Institute? Why, in the name of everything gigantic and catlike, was it heading directly downtown?

There was a similar incident in Madison, Wisconsin a few years back in which a large bear was found wandering around a suburb inside the beltline highway, far from anything that might serve as bear habitat. At the time I had a similar reaction. I imagined it was, perhaps, coming to see Governor Tommy Thompson to petition for more bear habitat.

Unfortunately, the bear met a similar end as the cougar, shot to death in a school playground rather than a back alley, having willfully ignored the prominent "no grizzlies unaccompanied by an adult allowed" sign.

Have we reached a point where our urban areas are so much more attractive than our countryside that even the wild animals are starting to head downtown? Or did the animals proceed from some deeper, more altruistic motivation to get to the bottom of the strange goings on that have been increasingly unavoidable of late, even for the most reclusive of megafauna?

I hope it's that last one. Even though they are horribly outmatched, I have deep admiration for these remarkable animals, who seem to have gotten it into their heads to figure out where all the trouble was coming from and fix it once and for all.

Update: It was indeed a wild cougar, apparently, and had been heading for the Loop from its home in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. But why?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Good Night and Good Luck

A recent comment on this humble blog from "tidal", very much worth your attention:
The Energy Bulletin had a link to a Bill Moyers speech earlier this month: Journalists As Truth-Tellers. Not about climate science, per se, but relevant. Excerpts:

"The job of trying to tell the truth about people whose job it is to hide the truth is almost as complicated and difficult as trying to hide it in the first place. We journalists are of course obliged to cover the news, but our deeper mission is to uncover the news that powerful people would prefer to keep hidden....

"... I still wish we had a professional Hippocratic Oath of our own that might stir us in the night when we stray from our mission. And yes, I believe journalism has a mission...

"... Walter Lippman (wrote) "The present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis of journalism. Everywhere men and women are conscious that somehow they must deal with questions more intricate than any that church or school had prepared them to understand. Increasingly, they know that they cannot understand them if the facts are not quickly and steadily available. All the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster must come to any people denied an assured access to the facts."...

"... when young people ask me, "Should I go into journalism today?"... I remind them of how often investigative reporting has played a crucial role in making the crooked straight. I remind them how news bureaus abroad are a form of national security that can tell us what our government won't. I remind them that as America grows more diverse, it's essential to have reporters, editors, producers and writers who reflect these new rising voices and concerns. And I remind them that facts can still drive the argument and tug us in the direction of greater equality and a more democratic society. Journalism still matters.

"But I also tell them there is something more important than journalism, and that is the truth... And if you can't get to the truth through journalism, there are other ways to go..."

He also makes reference to Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow. "Good Night and Good Luck"!


Thanks to Kayron for the link.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

More Fun with Dot Earth

Now there's this item:
Talk about a civics lesson: A high school senior has raised questions about political bias in a popular textbook on U.S. government, and legal scholars and top scientists say the teen’s criticism is well founded. They say “American Government,” by conservatives James Wilson and John DiIulio, presents a skewed view of topics from global warming to separation of church and state. The publisher now says it will review the book, as will the College Board, which oversees college-level advanced-placement courses used in high schools.
Here's my reply, which essentially and churlishly blames Andrew himself for the whole mess:
I think the authors of the textbook have been honestly misled, as have many of the commenters here. It's not necessary to accuse them of bias; they're just wrong, and probably wrong with the best of intentions.

It is not difficult to run into people who are deeply confused about this issue; there's no reason to expect writers of civics textbooks to be an exception.

The textbook should be updated in due course; meanwhile teachers should be encouraged to discuss the matter with their classes.

The comments this time around are particularly hard to take, though.

Number 26, accusing scientists of making a distinction between "good" and "bad" CO2 shows intelligence sadly uninformed by understanding. Nature produces and consumes CO2 in equal amounts. This is not a coincidence but a result of equilibration. Adding dramatically to CO2 production without changing CO2 consumption drives nature to a vastly different balance.

This is the sort of fact that should be well understood by any high school graduate. I don't fault the writer here but the press. The concept isn't hard to understand, but most people are very far from grasping it.

The immediately preceding posting, #25, is even more painful to behold, as it absconds with Moynihan's pithy and crucial observation and uses it in the service of misinformation.

To see where the facts of the matter lie, it does not suffice to read about them in financial and political publications. One should examine where the leading contemporary scientific bodies of the day stand.


Those who wish for this to be perceived as something less than virtual unanimity among competent parties are doing a far better job than they ought to be able to manage. It is the abdication of responsibility by the press that allows the conspiracy to misinform the public to persist.

I agree that talk of Lysenkoism is relevant.

People interested in the corruption of science should take some care to notice on what side of this debate the powers that fund the science find themselves. I wonder which side #15 perceives as the Lysenkoists and which as the representatives of science.

You are not entitled to your own facts, even if you buy them wholesale from the manufacturer. Politics is the clash of opinion, and science is the progress of facts. Facts are not matters of opinion, and the failure of the society to make the judgment effectively is not due to the triumph of dogma over science within science, but its triumph elsewhere.

It is the responsibility of the press to sort this out. I eagerly await the Times or a comparable outlet finding the nerve to expose the sources of the misinformation that so tragically pervades this very conversation.

That the confusion extends to a civics textbook is
neither surprising nor, with all due respect to young Matthew's courage, especially important. This is not primarily a failure of science or of education. It is a failure of journalism, and thence of reason, and thence of democracy.

There's plenty of muck out there. Dr. Oreskes has even been so kind as to provide you with a rake. It's perfectly obvious that somebody is lying in this situation. It is a gross failure of journalistic responsibility that so many people (especially in English-speaking countries) are so confused about who that is.

Andrew, though I appreciate your efforts as much better than nothing, it isn't enough for you to scratch your head about these problems as a spectator.

Journalism is a key player in the future of the world. You are in a position to do something about it. You speak about following the money in Mr. Gore's new initiative. How about at least equal time in following the money on the side of the organized forces of confusion, derision, ignorance, hostility and misdirection on the other side?
Update: Here's a report on DeSmog about a study that corroborates the role of journalism in the pervasiveness of confusion in America.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Population and Money

The top map is a cartogram showing equal areas per equal population, while the lower map is skewed for equal areas per equal GDP. (Via Resilience, the maps are by physicist Mark Newman who has plenty more on his homepage.)

Minor note: I wish Alaska weren't so emphasized in the second map. I am sure that isn't meant to break it down by state; it's misleading because it just takes the eye off the total hugeness of the USA relative to its population.

Now, is the above situation OK? On the conventional capitalist model, yes, certainly. The more developed countries have had the skill and persistence to "grow" and deserve their wealth. Such growth is not intrinsically limited, nor is it any sort of a zero sum game. We are happy to help others "grow" as well, although those of us in dominant positions, you understand, will do what we can to stay "ahead" of the "game" which "everybody wins, but some win more than others". This view is the key to western optimism, and that in turn is the key to the massive denial about limits to growth, about which, after all, we were duly warned almost fifty (correction, almost forty) years ago to essentially no effect beyond the briefest media splash. (Always a trendwatcher, I still own a contemporaneous paperback edition. Call me a creature of fashion.)

If you have limits to growth, though, the everybody wins game simply goes away, and any mismatch between the population shapes and the wealth shapes is hard to defend on moral grounds. The closer we are to the maximum sustainable wealth of the planet, the closer we get to a zero sum game. Accordingly, if we are close to that limit, any outcome other than, basically, white people getting less wealthy, is unsustainable without imperialism. Even if you believed in the growth game in the past, where you are happy to give your neighbor a hand so long as you stay ahead, you can't believe in it anymore once you hit limits. Post-growth, it's just a matter of holding on to your share, even if it's much bigger than the next fellow's, or else figuring out how to let go.

Well, many of us are seeing limits popping up all over the place. Yet business proceeds in as near a usual fashion as it can manage. Can this have anything to do with the presidential candidates' reluctance to talk about science? Telling the truth, it appears, is political suicide. Best to stay as far from numbers as possible. The idea "maybe we can aim for about a sixth of your current impact on the earth, if we are all smart and lucky" is not, really, likely to be a big seller. So we in the west lead the rest of the world off the cliff, unwilling to take note of the fact that there is no more material wealth to be discovered, no more new frontier to settle.

A change is going to come. What change is the question. People are always saying the poor countries are the most vulnerable but I think that may not be exactly correct.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Time to Reconsider Biofuels

Krugman is pretty damned harsh about biofuels, much as Time magazine was. Let's hope this is an overreaction and something can be salvaged.

The Royal Society has come out with what looks to be an authoritative report which is available.

Meanwhile, a quintuple whammy of financial volatility, increased energy prices, competitive bidding with biofuels, bad weather and increased demand for meat in growing economies, of which the first three trace and arguably the fourth trace directly to government errors in the west and especially the US, has sent grain prices soaring, abruptly causing protectionism in poorer food exporting countries and severe stresses in poorer food importing countries.

Update: In the comments, AdamW points to a UN report that worldwide grain production is at record high levels. This would seem to eliminate direct effects of climate change (e.g., Australian drought) as a major factor in the present price spike.

I find it really interesting that China's increasing prosperity is leading to increased misery elsewhere. This is consistent with the idea that the switch to a zero-sum game has already started.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Global Change

Global warming is only a piece of the puzzle.

We wish to avoid an abrupt loss in human welfare which would probably be accompanied by a population crash and many other associated tragic losses. Preservation of a few remnant natural ecosystems seems like a constraint we ought not lightly let go of, lest we bequeath our descendants a landscape and a lifestyle hardly finer than that we could achieve on Mars.

In addition to energy, water and food are crucial constraints, both related to climate but under direct stresses as well. Consider some of the risks and couplings. Food is largely provided through extractive use of ground water. Much hope in carbon dioxide control is based on biofuel, but biofuel is water intensive. Fresh water can be manufactured from saline, but such manufacture is energy intensive. Solar and biofuel energy compete with other land uses, renewable energy requires dramatic infrastructure changes or breakthroughs in energy storage, and the idea of atmospheric carbon capture along with sequestration at scale imposes huge burdens on land use and material flows. And so on.

If recent rumblings about the scale and efficacy of biofuels hold water the idea of creating extra biofuel just to bury it is a nonstarter.

See the current issue of Time magazine, with atypical apologies for its typical lack of references to useful literature. In a lengthy and less-than-usually vapid article entiteld "The Clean Energy Scam" Time argues that a full tank on an SUV derived from biofuel is the equivalent of a person-year of food, which seems plausible. Of course, it's only a month's worth of meat. Time also argues that creating a field of biofuel implies non-sequestered sourcing of the carbon on an equivalent amount of forested land, which seems less than inevitable to me, but avoiding it is apparently outside our current competence as the article explains quite well.

Can we manage all of it? Any of these problems considered in isolation is daunting. We rarely see anyone considering the big picture.

The level of discourse doesn't appear promising to say the least. The press and the politicians and industry seem to be saying that what we are facing is a "recession", confounded perhaps by also having an "enemy" out there. Mention of actual physical constraints on our future seems not so much buried under a rug as beyond the competence of the main centers of public discourse. We aren't equipped to even recognize, never mind address, the fact that we have a big, complicated and quantitative problem.

It seems to me we have to give up something lest we lose everything.

I suspect a huge push toward nuclear power is the only plausible escape route given the limitations on other sources of energy. There are a lot of numbers you will need to convince me otherwise, though I'm open to them.

As LBJ said, "come, let us reason together". The first thing we need to demand is proper numbers. We need a new sort of journalism, one that can act in support of quantitative reasoning.

We also need nothing less than a conversion of freight as well as personal travel to electric vehicles, a significant absolute decline in the ecological footprint of the USA and comparable countries including considerably reduced consumption of meat, smoother and kinder international migration, and dramatically improved international cooperation. Coming up with the right numbers and formal constraints to think about these things is very difficult, but the current social configuration appears to already be sufficiently degraded that we fall far short of even trying to find them.

I hate to be a pessimist, but the rate at which problems arise seems likely to overcome the rate at which they are solved. Something big has to change in the way we think about things soon.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Inuit Word for "Red Herring"

Well, Andrew Revkin rubs me the wrong way once again with his overblown mea culpa about whether there is or is not an Inuit word for "robin".

I'm a bit tired of people making mountains out of molehills. I understand why Andy felt compelled to take this up, but I would rather he had done so in passing rather than making a whole feature out of it. This misdirects our attentions.

Perhaps there is some overlap of the vast natural range of the robin and the vast historical territory of the Inuit. There is little doubt that the range of northern hemisphere temperate species is moving northward, though, and so the overlap must be increasing, and more dramatically the further north one goes.

Accordingly, some people are seeing robins who have never seen them before and don't have a name for them. The contrary position isn't even plausible.

If Knappenberger and Michaels want to argue that species ranges aren't shifting northward they should do so. Shooting down anecdotes with counter-anecdotes doesn't advance understanding.

Suppose we stipulate that *some* Inuit have a word for robin and some don't.

Suppose, for a minute, we stop yelling at each other about imaginary yes/no questions and try to find questions that are more suited for science than for a courtroom. Among the most notable is this: what is the maximum peak concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere that doesn't carry so much risk that we need to avoid it at all costs.

There must be such a number; 100% CO2 for instance, would be too much for anyone who doesn't favor instant universal asphyxiation. Most of us think the number is on this side of 550 ppm, about double the natural background. I for one favor 450 as a target; even that carries substantial risk.

Before I see much consideration of the vague discontents of the likes of Mr Knappenberger and/or Mr Michaels, I'd like to see them advance such a number and defend it.

We absolutely have to drop the idiotic idea that carbon is innocent until proven guilty. This is not a trial at law. This is a huge decision with many tradeoffs, and people need to take a position on a spectrum. Both "innocent" and "guilty" are entirely inappropriate and destructive positions.

Please stop "taking sides" and please ***pick a number***.

Just the Gold

Speaking of being in it for the money and the perks, there's this.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Gore Blimey

Two Gore-related items today:

1) I think there must be a team of denialists who troll the net for any mention of Gore.

These people aren't representative of the eWeek readership.

I especially liked the one who blamed his spelling errors on the fact that he was a busy capitalist with no time to spell correctly; this apparently didn't apply to his writing obnoxious and ignorant nonsense about Gore in public.

2) Not that I'm especially impressed with the latest thing Gore has lent his name to.

Anyway what I'd like is for Mr Gore and all to take some of those hundreds of millions and use them to actually convey facts rather than breathless and vague calls to action. People who don't understand the facts aren't especially likely to come up with useful actions.

This isn't even especially effective propaganda, I suspect. Did they do any testing or are they just guessing? It rubs me the wrong way. What about you?

It's sad to see Mr. Gore self destructing at the hands of bad PR people again.