"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, June 30, 2008


Andy Revkin has an article up on a public radio site that gives us some insight into what he thinks the problems of his work are and ends up, to me, emphasizing the related but not identical problems that I think are the core issue. This is striking:
Now, however, the nature of environmental news is often profoundly different, making what was always a challenging subject far harder to convey appropriately to readers. By appropriately, I do not just mean accurately. Any stack of carefully checked facts can be accurate but still convey a warped sense of how important or scary or urgent a situation may be. Therein lies an added layer of responsibility—and difficulty—for the reporter.
That goes directly to what I think the most cogent criticism of even the most responsible media on global change issues (as often voiced by Jeff Huggins in Dot Earth comments). These stories persistently appear on page 14, behind Pres. Sarkozy's love life or Michigan's manufacturing or California real estate and so on. On thing we are missing in the media is a serious concentration on the serious issues.

You might argue that the endless saber-rattling in the middle east is a direct consequence of this sleight-of-mind.

Revkin offers us a case in point, remarkably mentioning "page 14":
News is almost always something that happened today. A war starts. An earthquake strikes. In contrast, most of the big environmental themes of this century concern phenomena that are complicated, diffuse, and poorly understood. The runoff from parking lots, gas stations, and driveways puts the equivalent of 1.5 Exxon Valdez loads' worth of petroleum products into coastal ecosystems each year, the National Research Council recently found. But try getting a photo of that, or finding a way to make a page-one editor understand its implications.

Here's how I handled that story, which the science editor pitched for page one, but was trimmed back and ran on A 14 on May 24, 2002 :

“Most oil pollution in North American coastal waters comes not from leaking tankers or oil rigs, but rather from countless oil-streaked streets, sputtering lawn mowers and other dispersed sources on land, and so will be hard to prevent, a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences says in a new report.

“ The thousands of tiny releases, carried by streams and storm drains to the sea, are estimated to equal an Exxon Valdez spill -- 10.9 million gallons of petroleum -- every eight months, the report says.”
Emphasis added. And then there is this:
The hardest thing sometimes, is to turn off one's news instinct and insist that a story is not “frontable,” or that it deserves 300 words and not 800. Try it some time. It violates every reportorial instinct, but it's do-able—kind of like training yourself to reach for an apple when you crave a cookie.

It's time the Times realized that there is no requirement that it have the same number of "pages" every "day", nor that stories length should be related to their importance. The "paper" is no longer made of paper!

Which is why stuff like this:
Somehow, through the ensuing years I adapted to the rhythm, but also to the reality of its limitations. Particularly on an issue like the environment, I understood why that crutch of “on the one hand” was so popular. There's just no time to do better.

And there's no space. Science is one of the few realms where reporters essentially have to presume no familiarity at all in the reader's mind with the basics. Just about anyone in America knows the rules of politics, business, or baseball. But a spate of studies of scientific literacy shows just how little most people know about atoms or viruses or the atmosphere.

All that extra explication has to somehow fit into the same amount of space devoted to a story on a primary vote, a stock split, or a shutout. And it doesn't. The shrinking of an environment or other science story competing on a page with national or foreign developments is as predictable as the melting of mountain glaciers in this century.
doesn't fly. Andrew simply is not acknowledging that the nature of his job has changed. News lasts forever, and should be written as such. I make little distinction between yesterday's story and last month's. If it comes to my attention and I find it interesting, I read it in exactly the same way with the same attention. If it's more than two years old I may be making some mental adjustments.

Finally there's his anecdote about the reporter who got everything wrong. He tries to pass some blame onto the scientist.
I was at a meeting in Irvine, California, on building better bridges between science and the public, and one researcher stood up to recount her personal “horror story” about how a reporter totally misrepresented her statements and got everything wrong. I asked her if she had called the reporter or newspaper to begin a dialogue not only on fixing those errors, but preventing future ones.

She had not. She had never even considered it.

Until the atmosphere has changed to the point where that scientist can make that call, and the reporter respond to it, everyone has a lot of work to do.
Despite all the grief I give him, I'd love to meet Andrew some day. But I hope never to meet the reporter in question here. I would never consider getting in touch with someone to whom I had given hours of my time who showed no sign of understanding a word I said. I might contemplate, in a charitable frame of mind, whether I should refrain from trying to get such a reporter fired, or at least assigned to another beat.

Andrew seems to understand the quandary we are in, though he doesn't seem able to convey his understanding to the front page where it belongs, and is tied to an old model of what a newspaper is. Other than that, on the whole he does a good job. If he misquoted me I would call him on it and would expect a first rate clarification.

With the other reporter on the story, I wouldn't call to clarify at all. That reporter would get the clarification wrong too! That such a reporter is assigned to science stories is yet another sign that the editors, like reporters, lawyers, politicians, tink thanks, etc., the whole east coast power enterprise, don't have a clear idea of what planet we live on.

Settling for 300 words on page 14 is not going to help.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

National Academies Get Iota of Press Coverage

The various national science academies of the G8 nations were joined by five others (China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa) in issuing a joint statement calling for urgent action on climate change.

Unlike previous similar statements this did get a smattering of not especially deep press coverage, but it has to be counted as progress.

Here, for instance, is Andy Revkin's article from June 11. Nice work, Andy. Not to be an ingrate or anything, but how about a link to the actual report next time?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Hansen's Inflammatory Language

While you are trying to decide what to think or do about James Hansen's recent provocations, especially about fossil energy executives who ought to know better, you should take some time to understand who he is and why he might be quite so pissed off.

Hansen is not by origin the sort of person to become a flaming radical. Hansen is a physics Ph.D. from Iowa of high repute nearing comfortable retirement. I don't know if you know any midwestern PhDs or even any midwesterners nearing retirement, dear reader, never mind both at the same time, but I have had the privilege of meeting a few. (Updated his discipline. Thanks, Andrew.)

While there may always be exceptions, I hope you will concede that these are not the sorts of people who are normally given to such strong language.

It might be worthwhile thinking about what, exactly, the man is quite so peeved about.

Okay? Thanks in advance.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What Science Blogs Can Do

Excellent find by Atmoz of an interesting article by Blake Stacey entitled What Science Blogs Can't Do.

Stacey begins as follows;
My thesis is that it’s not yet possible to get a science education from reading science blogs, and a major reason for this is because bloggers don’t have the incentive to write the kinds of posts which are necessary. Furthermore, when we think in terms of incentive and motivation, the limitations upon the effects of online science writing become disquietingly clear. The problem, phrased without too much exaggeration, is that science blogs cannot teach science, nor can they change the world.
While I found it an engaging read I disagree with the thesis on no less than three major points:
  1. I do think science blogs are important
  2. I do think the web will change the nature of scientific education eventually and
  3. While I agree that we can't educate the public in the scientist's sense of "educate", it's the intended readers' motivations, not the writers' motivations, that present the main issue.
What we need to do is inform, not educate; education is a very difficult and time consuming process under the best of circumstances, and the general public will never understand your pet phenomenon (e.g., barocliinc instability to pick a favorite of my own).

To inform means telling people:
  1. These are the facts as we understand them
  2. These are the options as best we can tell.
As long as the press models the conversation as a two-sided debate they will undermine our capacity for sound judgment. Never mind their propensity for muddling facts and confusing priorities. Blogs can offer a great deal in this respect.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Hansen's 20th Anniversary Speech

Opening salvo:

My presentation today is exactly 20 years after my 23 June 1988 testimony to Congress, which alerted the public that global warming was underway. There are striking similarities between then and now, but one big difference.

Again a wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public.

Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic. Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.

The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next President and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.

Update: The usual noise (sort of like sci.environment about ten years ago) appears on today's discussion of this presentation on Dot Earth. I'm particularly taken by this comment #129:


My understanding of economics is quite complete, thank you, as is my understanding of the power of freedom, and the proven consequences of totalitarianism.

What is most disturbing is that AGW’s supporters understanding of economics is so weak, that they don’t recognize government force and intervention when it’s staring them in the face.

The whole underpinning of a carbon-tax, ignoring the whatever scientific basis it may or may not have, is government force. ...

I really appreciate the claim of "complete understanding". It is nice to know that economics is so trivial that a claim of "complete understanding" can be made without supporting evidence.

Unfortunately, all the usual patterns are reinforced in the Dot Earth discussion, and the stalemate continues. 

Hansen's point, though, is that we can't afford a stalemate anymore.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

My Little World Revisited

Sometimes I think that I do some good that never gets formally associated with me.

Anyway, I have to wonder whether my essay "My Little World" had some effect on this graphic from a BBC report on the state of the planet that came out a few months later.

Mind you I didn't come up with the facts of the matter, just the way of presenting them. The shrinking planet graphic seems to draw upon that. I'd have liked it better if they explained the analogy a bit and emphasized how very small your planetoid really is getting to be. Still I am glad the Beeb ran this image and I urge you to think about it.

Though I'll confess that the vertical axis on the third graph is perhaps overprecise, the rest of the article should be part of any thinking person's world view too.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Surprised to Agree

Surprisingly, I have found nothing to disagree with in R. Pielke Jr.'s op-ed piece in the Financial Post. Have you?

As you might expect, he doesn't manage to quite come around to the point that the worst-case outcomes deserve more weight, in a cost-benefit risk analysis, than the best-case outcomes.

So while he agrees that uncertainty does not call for inaction, he doesn't go so far as I do, to claim that the less we believe the models, the more vigorously we should act.

That said, he didn't say anything I disagree with, and it appears he has, without crediting James especially, absorbed the impact of the discussion about "consistency with models" correctly. I think that his point about that is sound.

The appropriate moral behavior in this context is only obvious, though, if you think democracy is sound and functional and capable of rationally weighing ideas. In the best of worlds this process is necessarily imperfect. At present, we are faced with organized and funded people who cherry-pick any possible indication that concerns about AGW are overblown.

We can't win. If we react in a balanced way, the public splits the difference and moves to a muddled and inadequate response. If we cherry pick in the other direction, we become "the extremists on the other side".

It is very difficult for a balanced view based on reason to fight an unbalanced view based on polemics, the more so the more nature indicates consequences that don't seem intuitive.

While I may have some objections to what RP Jr doesn't say, surely expecting those blanks filled in, in the FP these days, is wishful thinking. But what he says in the op-ed seems correct.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Sea Ice Update

Well, as the sun reaches its azimuth in the north, we find ourselves neck and neck with last year in Arctic ice area and thus ahead of last year in seasonal ice area loss.

The first image is from the graphics guys at UNEP, and shows some of their usual sloppiness. The "79-00 average" must be for the seasonal minima, though this is not made clear. However, the data look right and are obviously spectacular. This should be no surprise to those of you who have been following climate news for over a year.

Now much was made of the fact that the area anomaly bounced right back to the trend line in late fall. The pollyanna camp suggested that it was just a glitch. The cassandra camp contested this, pointing out that young ice and old ice aren't exactly the same substance (yes, they're both water, but the older ice is harder and has fewer structural weaknesses) and that young ice is relatively thin. This camp appeared to me on the whole to be the one with more expertise, though we found William in the more pollyannish camp.

Perhaps my opinion of who had the real chops was deflected a bit by the inevitable crowing of the cherry-pickers' union. The further you are from a topic the harder it is to filter out uninformed opinion, and to be honest I have always avoided sea ice: the math is actually very messy. (It's three kinds of continuum blended together: elastic, viscous and plastic depending on where and when!)

So the time to prove the pudding is approaching.

From the NSIDC along with the graph of current data:
June 3, 2008 - Arctic sea ice still on track for extreme melt
Arctic sea ice extent has declined through the month of May as summer approaches. Daily ice extents in May continued to be below the long-term average and approached the low levels seen at this time last year. As discussed in our last posting, the spring ice cover is thin. One sign of thin and fairly weak ice is the formation of several polynyas in the ice pack.
I understand there's some bets outstanding as to whether last year's record minimum will be overturned. This will give us some strong indication of whether the final meltdown of perennial sea ice is imminent or is still decades away as was thought prior to last season.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Move Left!

We will all find ourselves moving leftward under the pressure of events.

By "left" I don't mean become more socialist. I mean become more energy efficient. The industries on the right (except for refining) in this graphic are disadvantaged compared to those on the left. The 2002 data means that the bottom scale is off by a factor of what, three?

I am especially struck by the cost of paper production. I suppose we will be moving more toward digital displays. How's that digital ink idea coming along, I wonder?

Larger image, via World Resources Institute, here; a tiny bit of context is found here.

Update: Much more context in the associated report, which is about the potential effect of carbon taxes on the US manufacturing sector, which apparently still accounts for a hair over 10% of all employment.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Progress in Pop Climatology

Wunderground, long my preferred weather site, has a series of pop science articles on climate and climate change that are really first rate.

Meanwhile I am slapping together a series on Correlations, about the global mean radiative balance. The delivery schedule is tight. Consider it a rough draft. Definitely not as well thought out or polished as the Wunderground stuff, but I hope you see the germ of a good approach there.

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

I hope to find time to do this approach justice some day. I worry that most people simply will lose patience with the numbers, though, even though the concepts are simple enough.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Recommended reading

An anonymous positive review of an econ textbook about energy on Grist is worth having a look at.

The reviewed author, Ferdinand Banks, does not feel petroleum geology is beholden to economic theory, but rather observes that it is more useful to look at things the other way round. He does not seem to consider himself to be in the mainstream in so doing.
I also became the object of some "attitude" on the part of other delegates what I made a friendly remark about the work of Dr. M. King Hubbert that dealt with the ultimate availability of petroleum. Among other things, I was sanctimoniously informed that oil reserves are "dynamic," and basically are dependent on human ingenuity (i.e., technology) -- which as all thoughtful persons are supposedly aware, would ultimately come scampering to the rescue in case the energy wolf appears at the door. Finally, I was assured that economics and technology were always the correct aperture through much oil reserves should be scrutinized. Geology was taken to be of minor importance.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Flooding? Not here.

I was in Wisconsin for the flooding of '93, and I'm glad to be missing this episode. However...

Meanwhile, here in Texas it has been spectacularly hot, with many daily records falling. Hopefully at least the record-setting will stop before July and August. The new Texas weather/climate blog atmo.sphere (heh) has some nomenclature to help us parse the monotonous weather calendar:
Languages created in very cold climates develop lots of terms for snow. It's about time we came up with a vocabulary to describe the different types of hot and humid. Such as:

* doggy: Weather typical of the dog days of summer; light winds, high humidity; nothing remarkable for southeast Texas. It wears on you after a while.
* bearish: Similar to doggy, but with a bit more of a breeze, so that sweat has a fighting chance to evaporate. This weather's a bit more bearable.
* murky: More common late in the summer, when the East Coast haze invades these parts. Visibility is poor, air quality is poor. Tim Heller suggests calling this "dirty humidity".
* brackish: Sort of like a stagnant swamp, when very light winds allow the ozone to build up in Houston. Generally rather unhealthy, especially for asthmatics.
* light and crispy: Air from the deep tropics, though humid, is quite clear. The cloud formations can be spectacular. Analogous to "crisp" fall weather, with fine visibility and terrific light. Even the stars are bright.
* soggy: Hot and humid with rain. Water doesn't know whether it's supposed to be coming down or going back up, so it does both. 'Nuff said.
* haughty: Every once in a while, we get a blast of summer air from the west. It's drier than normal, and also hotter. This lets us brag about how hot it is, and feel proud that we're from Texas and we can take it.

Now that I have a complete vocabulary suited to our weather, here's my weather forecast for the next ten days:

Thursday through Saturday: bearish

Sunday through next Thursday: brackish

Next Friday: light and crispy

Next weekend
: murky
Great. I'm watching "Fargo" tonight for some reason.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Message from an Old Friend

apropos your blog, it made me wonder what the world would be like if we (typical americans) spent the same number of hours watching physicists and mathematicians reason as we spend watching the fast, strong, and tall play basketball. we wouldn't spontaneously become scientists (as we don't become competitive with michael jordan just by watching him) but we might be in a better position to appreciate the excellence and grace of the real pros. and a few young dreamers might even be inspired to shoot a few mental hoops out behind the house and dream of the swishing sound which would surely result from sinking a spinning lepton in a net of quantum strings...

oh, and we (typical americans) would also be more likely to do the sums and so catch the quacks and sophists before gullibly swallowing their snake oil.

so howz by y'all?

Not bad, you?

History of Opinon on Climate Change

Spencer Weart has a two part history of the subject of how popular opinion about climate change has evolved that is quite interesting now and will be of great use to posterity. There are links to other articles by himself and others.

I am especially taken by his article for the American Physics Society. Here he makes a remarkable claim.

The naysayers are constantly going on about how IPCC is as much a political as a scientific organization. They use this to suggest that it will necessarily be biased in favor of increased government power, hence inclined to exaggerate risks. In that context, consider Weart's version of the story, which I had not heard presented this way:
Half a century ago, nearly all scientists thought greenhouse warming
was scarcely likely to be a problem. It took decades of accumulating evidence, with many hardfought debates, to convince them they were wrong. Panels of scientists convened on climate change hundreds of times in many countries. As scientists, most of the panelists were professional skeptics. Yet since the late 1970s essentially every such panel has concluded that warming could become a bad problem someday. In the present century, every respectable panel has concluded that it probably will be a severe problem, and soon.

Some people suspect such panels are just an old-boy-and-girl network looking out for its own research funds. History helps counter that suspicion, for the origins of
the present consensus are revealing. The Reagan administration believed that any self-appointed group of scientists would issue alarmist, hyper-environmentalist
statements. They forestalled that by promoting a complex international
advisory structure, led by people appointed by governments rather than by the scientific community. To further impede any statements that might push toward government regulation, the advisory group’s conclusions would have to be consensual –the unanimous findings of representatives of all the world’s governments.

The result is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Surprisingly, the process produced useful advice. Relentlessly confronted with the evidence and arguments of their colleagues, even the science representatives of oil-rich states eventually agreed that the world is very likely warming at an unprecedented rate, and that the most likely cause is the buildup of greenhouse gases due to human activities.
I'd really like to know if that's true. It certainly sheds an interesting light on the argumentative style of the opposition if so. On the whole Weart seems an honest and diligent reporter of the facts. As old Mr. Spock might say, raising an eyebrow, "fascinating".

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Uncertainty Does Not Call For Inaction

There's an array of economists expressing positions about climate policy in a special issue from 2007 of the web journal Economists' Voice.

While I fail to see any special expertise in the article by Nobelist Thomas Schelling, I find his argument cogent. It's a relief to see somebody besides myself making at least this point:
Now the critical question: what does uncertainty have to do with the question, proceed with costly efforts to reduce CO2 abatement in a hurry, or wait until we know more?

In some public discourse, and in sentiments emanating from the Bush Administration, it appears to be accepted that uncertainty regarding global warming is a legitimate basis for postponement of any action until more is known. The action to be postponed is usually identified as “costly.” (Little attention is paid to actions that have been identified as of little or no serious cost.) It is interesting that this idea that costly actions are unwarranted if the dangers are uncertain is almost unique to climate. In other areas of policy, such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, inflation, or vaccination, some “insurance” principle seems to prevail: if there is a sufficient likelihood of sufficient damage we take some measured anticipatory action.
(Emphasis added.)

I go further than this, though. I argue that the less clear the science is, the greater the implied rational response to a credible threat. If we lack information about the safety of a particular action, typically we proceed with extra caution. It is as if the delayers want us to drive more recklessly because it's dark and foggy and the highway lights are out. After all, it's much harder to demonstrate the existence of a threat under such conditions, isn't it?

This is why defending the science is not the right way to defend vigorous policy. When someone points out to you the weaknesses in climate science, if you aren't well versed you are probably best off reframing the debate. "Look, we know there's SOME effect of all these human activities, right? So if the climate scientists are wrong, they could just as easily be UNDERESTIMATING the problems!"

I also like Schelling's argument against the "precautionary principle", the irrational argument that all activities should be based on fearing the worst, summarized as "never do anything for the first time". His concluding paragraphs:
How should we respond to that kind of uncertainty? Wait until the uncertainty has been resolved completely before we do anything, or act as if it’s certain until we have assurance that there’s no such danger?

Those two extremes are not the only alternatives!

A lot of the usual interesting questions about the uses of expertise in a democracy ensue from this conclusion, and Schelling does not take them on. In practice, though, we will continue to see a great deal of skepticism directed at climate science.

What would be the consequence if that skepticism were valid? In, short, what if rather than a factor of two, our uncertainty about the global temperature sensitivity were uncertain to a factor of ten? Then rather than looking at 1.5C to 6C per doubling we'd be looking at 0.3C to 30C. Neither of these outcomes strikes those of us familiar with the territory as plausible, but the point is that starting from an assumption of intellectually weak climatology, they are roughly equally probable. That would bring us into a world where total or near-total extinction is a substantial risk. It would dominate the calculation.

Rational behavior is risk weighted. What is widely missed is that the less confidence you have in climate science, the less the risks are constrained and thus the more you should be weighing the severe risks in your risk-weighted decisions.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Denialists Convincing Selves of Biodiversity Increase

Lawrence Solomon has an article in the Financial Post pointing to the unsurprising fact that satellite obs show that biomass is increasing (we have known that biomass is increasing for some time) and manages to leave the reader with the idea that satellite observations indicate an increase in biodiversity. The evidence for that latter link? A "report" circulated along with the current round of the Oregon petition!

This made Slashdot as "Scientists Surprised to Find Earth's Biosphere Booming"  unfortunately. 

The denialist echo chamber is eating it up, of course. Carbon dioxide! Yum! Let's have more of that please! e.g.:
Picked this up in ICECAP and posted it in a couple places already this morning, Anthony, being absolutely delighted both by its content and its inspiring message. Earth, you are beautiful, and just so much bigger than any wishful doomsayer.
Warms your heart, huh? Our cuddly little planet just LOVES our effluents! It's like a puppy dog eager for our table scraps! How cute!

Anyway, be prepared for the latest meme, that satellite evidence shows biodiversity increasing. 

Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but as far as I know, that isn't something that can be determined by remote sensing at all. Nevertheless, you haven't heard the last of this, alas.

Update: A commenter on Atmoz points out that biodiversity, normally defined as the number of genetic patterns in existence, can't really increase significantly on these time scales at all. D'oh. Right. Which means we are probably pretty safe from this particular nonsense catching on.

That said, here (emphasis added) is the quote from Lawrence Solomon's article:
As summarized in a report last month, released along with a petition signed by 32,000 U. S. scientists who vouched for the benefits of CO2: "Higher CO2 enables plants to grow faster and larger and to live in drier climates. Plants provide food for animals, which are thereby also enhanced. The extent and diversity of plant and animal life have both increased substantially during the past half-century."

Yale 2005 and Followups: Science to Action?

A current article in EOS by J Stevens of Clark U and A Graham of NIT points to this report from a 2005 meeting at Yale [large PDF] about getting better public involvement in the changes needed to cope with the climate change problem, especially in the US. It begins with a good description of the problem, which isn't so much about carbon as it is about the public misunderstanding of what is necessary:
a substantial political gulf persists between those advocating such actions and those opposed. Sir David King, Chief Scientific Advisor to the British government, wrote in Science in 2004 that “climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today – more serious even than the threat of terrorism.” He called for “early, well-planned action” leading to the developed economies cutting their greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and warned that “delaying action for decades, or even years, is not a serious option.”

But public and policy-maker commitment to action of this seriousness remains elusive indeed. The U.S. government, citing remaining scientific uncertainties, economic costs, and the unfairness of a global regulatory regime that excludes the developing world, has rejected the Kyoto Protocol and largely refrained from positive international engagement on the issue. Today there are signs everywhere that the climate issue is beginning to gain traction, but the gap between climate science and climate policy and action remains huge.

What explains this gap? Is climate change merely one instance of a larger problem, namely, the expanding gulf between the increasingly scientific and technical content of public policy issues on the one hand, and the declining public understanding of science and technology on the other? Good environmental science and forecasting are absolutely necessary but, it would appear, far from sufficient. If we want science to affect real-world decisions and events, how can we best address the barriers that lie between good science and effective policy and action?
There's a good deal more, but here are their top ten recommendations:
Recommendation #1: Create a new “bridging institution” to actively
seek out key business, religious, political, and civic leaders and the media
and deliver to them independent, reliable and credible scientific
information about climate change (including natural and economic

Recommendation #7: Educate the gatekeepers (i.e., editors). In order to
improve the communication of climate science in the news media, foster
a series of visits and conferences whereby respected journalists and
editors informed on climate change can speak to their peer editors. The
objective is to have those who can credibly talk about story ideas and
craft reach out to their peers about how to cover the climate change issue
with appropriate urgency, context, and journalistic integrity.

Recommendation #11: Religious leaders and communities must
recognize the scale, urgency and moral dimension of climate change,
and the ethical unacceptability of any action that damages the quality
and viability of life on Earth, particularly for the poor and most

Recommendation #20: Design and execute a “New Vision for Energy”
campaign to encourage a national market-based transition to alternative
energy sources. Harness multiple messages tailored to different
audiences that embed the climate change issue in a larger set of cobenefit
narratives, such as: reducing U.S. dependency on Middle East oil
(national security); penetrating global export markets with American
innovations (U.S. stature); boosting U.S. job growth (jobs); and cutting
local air pollution (health).

Recommendation #25: Create a new overarching communications
entity or project to design and execute a well-financed public education
campaign on climate change science and its implications. This multifaceted
campaign would leverage the latest social science findings
concerning attitude formation and change on climate change, and
would use all available media in an effort to disseminate rigorously
accurate information, and to counter disinformation in real time.

Recommendation #26: Undertake systematic and rigorous projects to
test the impact of environmental communications in all media (e.g.,
advertising, documentary, feature film) on civic engagement, public
opinion and persuasive outcomes. Use these to inform new creative
work on multi-media climate change communications.

Recommendation #28: Improve K-12 students’ understanding of
climate change by promoting it as a standards-based content area within
science curricula and incorporating it into other disciplinary curricula
and teacher certification standards. Use the occasion of the state reviews
of science standards for this purpose, which are being prompted by the
states’ need to comply with the Fall 2007 start of high-stakes science
testing under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Recommendation #29: Organize a grassroots educational campaign to
create local narratives around climate change impacts and solutions,
while mobilizing citizen engagement and action. Kick the campaign off
with a National Climate Week that would recur on an annual basis.

Recommendation #33: The Business & Finance working group at the
Conference composed an eight-principle framework, and proposed that
it be disseminated broadly to trade associations and individual business
leaders (especially at the CEO and board level) as a set of clear and
feasible actions that businesses can and should take on climate change.

Recommendation #36: Create a broad-based Climate Action
Leadership Council of 10-12 recognizable and senior eminent leaders
from all key national sectors and constituencies to serve as an integrating
mechanism for developing and delivering a cohesive message to society
about the seriousness of climate change and the imperative of taking
action. The Council would include leaders from business, labor,
academia, government, the NGO sector, the professions (medicine, law,
and public health) and community leaders. They would be chosen on
the basis of their credibility within their respective communities, but
also across society at large.
#7 seems to align with a conclusion I have been trying to promote around here. #28 is immensely problematic given the bizarre and pusillanimous state of public education in America these days. In my view there has been precious little progress on any of these fronts in the intervening years. I'd be happy to learn any facts to the contrary.

The complete list and some sadly limited discussion appears on a page on the Yale site.

The EOS report refers to a similar meeting at MIT, but makes no expression of pessimism. Indeed it refers with some pride to the "Focus the Nation" event in January. I use the word "event" generously, at least from the perspective of the U of Texas.

Also, there was similar conversation at an event last November in Hawai'i, commemorating (it seems to me one ought not to say 'celebrating') the 50th anniversary of the instrumental CO2 record.

It's nice to see people identifying the communication problem correctly. The gap between the scale of the problem and the scale of the attempts to resolve it is terrifying. The We Campaign has at least got a few bucks, but it is preaching to the choir and is so far from taking public education seriously that it would be laughable except for the detail that it is a harbinger of universal doom.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Green Tomatoes

Food miles don't matter very much. I've always thought so, and here's an article with several interesting links by Chris Blattman making the point effectively. See especially the New Yorker article on carbon footprints by Michael Specter, wherein finally, at fourth remove, you find this interesting quote from John Murlis (*):
"You can feel very good about the organic potatoes you buy from a farm near your home, but half the emissions—and half the footprint—from those potatoes could come from the energy you use to cook them. If you leave the lid off, boil them at a high heat, and then mash your potatoes, from a carbon standpoint you might as well drive to McDonald’s and spend your money buying an order of French fries.”
(*) No, I've never heard of any of these people either.

Good intentions and intuition aren't enough. Eventually somebody has to do some arithmetic.

The good thing about a carbon tax is it saves everyone the trouble. No need to think about whether food miles are important. Whether they are or not, the carbon tax will do the arithmetic for you and let you know.

Friday, June 6, 2008

More Fish, Same Barrel

What I have been calling "linear programming models" in economics apparently have a different name, "Computable General Equilibrium" models. These are the ones that extend the guns vs butter idea you saw in Econ 101 to multiple commodities.

Clark Williams-Derry on Grist points to Peter Dorman calling this whole enterprise into question on purely economic grounds. Never mind the meta stuff. The modeling approach is wrong, he claims. Nobody "with any skin in the game" as Williams-Derry puts it uses them. Yet academics write lots of papers about them and make lots of congressional testimony about them. Is there is any serious evidence of their utility?

On a theoretical level, it is surprising that CGE modeling has become such a vibrant industry, since its underpinnings in general equilibrium theory have been systematically undermined over the past several decades. (1) CGE models use the technique of representative agents—vast numbers of households and firms are treated as if they were a single decision-making entity—when we now know that multiple agents cannot be modeled as if they were just one. (2) In particular, the Debreu-Sonnenschein-Mantel result demonstrates that full knowledge of all supply and demand relationships in an economy is not sufficient to predict the equilibrium the economy will arrive at when it is not there yet. (3) The behavioral assumptions of these models, typically resting on utility maximization or simple modifications of it, have been empirically falsified. (4) Production and utility functions are routinely chosen for their convexity properties, despite the widespread recognition that nonconvexities (that yield multiple equilibria) are rife. In short, if theory should inform practice, we shouldn’t be doing CGE.

Now for the challenge. As far as I know, there has never been a rigorous ex post evaluation of CGE models in practice, one that compares predicted to actual outcomes. Based on performance, is there any evidence that such models add value—that their predictions are any better than those derived from macro or sector-specific models, or even a random walk? Also, are CGE models employed by any private sector players who bet real money on the results, or is it only in academia and the public sector that CGE modeling is taken seriously?
Emphasis added.

If mainstream economists are claiming that all decision making should pass through them shouldn't they make some effort to demonstrate that they know what they are talking about?

On the other hand maybe I should drop this pursuit. It may be too easy. Via Naked Capitalism an article called The Economist Has No Clothes, which in turn quotes an article of the same title in Scientific American by Robert Nadeau as follows:
But what is not widely known is that these now legendary economists—William Stanley Jevons, Léon Walras, Maria Edgeworth and Vilfredo Pareto—developed their theories by adapting equations from 19th-century physics that eventually became obsolete.
The strategy the economists used was as simple as it was absurd—they substituted economic variables for physical ones. Utility (a measure of economic well-being) took the place of energy; the sum of utility and expenditure replaced potential and kinetic energy. A number of well-known mathematicians and physicists told the economists that there was absolutely no basis for making these substitutions. But the economists ignored such criticisms and proceeded to claim that they had transformed their field of study into a rigorously mathematical scientific discipline.
These curious developments explain why the mathematical theories used by mainstream economists are predicated on the following unscientific assumptions:
  • The market system is a closed circular flow between production and consumption, with no inlets or outlets.
  • Natural resources exist in a domain that is separate and distinct from a closed market system, and the economic value of these resources can be determined only by the dynamics that operate within this system.
  • The costs of damage to the external natural environment by economic activities must be treated as costs that lie outside the closed market system or as costs that cannot be included in the pricing mechanisms that operate within the system.
  • The external resources of nature are largely inexhaustible, and those that are not can be replaced by other resources or by technologies that minimize the use of the exhaustible resources or that rely on other resources.
  • There are no biophysical limits to the growth of market systems.
This theory can no longer be regarded as useful even in pragmatic or utilitarian terms.
The comments are fascinating. While there are a few cogent criticisms, many readers claim that Nadeau "knows nothing about economics" yet eschew making any contrary factual statements. Seems familiar somehow.

And thence to yet another critique of economics, this one from a University of Chicago Ph.D. in economics, and an erudite and witty writer as well: The Secret Sins of Economics by Dierdre McCloskey, no less than a masterpiece of essay writing.

I had a lingering suspicion that conventional economics might be useful, but it's out of my system now, and am ready to start looking into alternatives.

Second Life Journal Club

I have an opportunity to set up a journal club in Second Life.

I would like to base it on journal club at U of Chicago, with a quarterly focus, starting each quarter with a general topic, beginning with review papers and moving historically through the topic to current controversies. I'd expect participants to have a degree in a physical science; either an advanced degree or ongoing work toward one is preferred. This will cost me a little money which I'll pay out of pocket the first year if there is sufficient interest. If we get enough momentum I'll take up a collection for the second year.

Topics might include pleistocene paleoclimate (the last 2 million years, the interesting ones with the ice sheets coming and going), climate dynamics, glaciology, biogeochemistry. I am interested in mathematical and statistical rigor. I am totally not interested in hockey sticks and century to millenial temperature reconstructions; this is the only climate science topic I will exclude up front.

Also, this is not an occasion for policy nattering. (I have no trouble managing that; keeping up with the literature is much harder.)

Membership in Second Life is free; it requires access to a decent computer and a fast internet connection. We'll try to get the audio channel working. I'd like to get on the order of a dozen participants.

The time will be weekly, either 07:30 or 21:30 GMT, on a weekday to be determined. The idea is not to be in the middle of the night in Australia/Japan, western Europe or North America.

Please let me know if you are interested. Contact mtobis@gmail.com

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Union of Concerned Scientists Letter

Here's an excerpt. If you're qualified, you can read the whole thing and sign it here.

U.S. Scientists and Economists’ Call for Swift and

Deep Cuts in Greenhouse Gas Emissions

We call on our nation’s leaders to swiftly establish and implement policies to brig about deep reductions in heat-trapping emissions. The strength of the science on climate change compels us to warn the nation about the growing risk of irreversible consequences as global average temperatures continue to increase over pre-industrial levels (i.e., prior to 1860).1,2 As temperatures rise further, the scope and severity of global warming impacts will continue to accelerate.

...The longer we wait, the harder and more costly it will be to limit climate change and to adapt to those impacts that will not be avoided. Many emissions reduction strategies can be adopted today that would save consumers and industry money while providing benefits for air quality, energy security, public health, balance of trade, and employment.5,6

...A strong U.S. commitment to reduce emissions is essential to drive international climate progress. Voluntary initiatives to date have proven insufficient. We urge U.S. policy makers to put our nation onto a path today to reduce emissions on the order of 80 percent below 2000 levels by 2050. The first step on this path should be reductions on the order of 15-20 percent below 2000 levels by 2020, which is achievable and consistent with sound economic policy. 5,6

There is no time to waste. The most risky thing we can do is nothing.

I note the publication includes the following statements by bona fide economists:

Preventing dangerous climate change is a great investment. It will cost between one and two percent of GDP, and the benefits will be between 10 and 20 percent. That’s a return of 10 to 1—attractive even to a venture capitalist.
Geoffrey Heal
Paul Garret Professor of Public Policy and Corporate Responsibility, Columbia
Business School, New York, NY; Co-organizer, U.S. Scientists and Economists’
Call for Swift and Deep Cuts in Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Cutting carbon—if done right—can spur the economy through energy savings and job growth.
Eban Goodstein
Professor of Economics, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, OR;
Focus the Nation

Since petroleum’s discovery in 1859, innovation has radically changed the structure and development of the world economy. Today, we must pursue innovation in clean energy, which offers similar long-term growth prospects. Delaying the necessary incentives and institutions to foster this transition will only narrow our choices and increase our costs.
Edward B. Barbier
John S. Bugas Professor of Economics, Department of Economics and Finance,
University of Wyoming

As emissions increase, any delays in action necessitate larger emissions cuts and higher
mitigation costs in the future.
Tom Teitenberg
Mitchell Family Professor of Economics, Colby College, Waterville, ME;
Former President, Association of Environmental and Resource Economists
So even in tenured economics professor terms there isn't a slam dunk here the way some people would have you think.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Why Criticize Economics

Suppose you believe the things that most people who understand the science believe:
  1. that the changes we are imposing on the world are huge and dangerous
  2. that the impacts follow the causes by some decades
  3. that we have a moral obligation not to trash the whole planet in the future
Then suppose you grant that, as an especially egregious op-ed by Holman Jenkins in the Wall Street Journal has it today:
Our political system has been looking at the problem of climate change for a generation, and lack of action is not due to the machinations of big oil – but to the inability of policy to bridge a giant chasm between proposed costs and benefits. Even if carbon's guilt is assumed, the economics are far from certain that it wouldn't be cheaper just to endure a changing climate.
You would conclude that the word "cheaper" in this case is not an example of frugality but of shallowness. You would try to find out how this sort of shallowness managed to position itself as the arbiter of long-range decision making. You would seek intellectually sound alternatives that didn't yield results absurdly out of line with any remotely moral position that doesn't have a direct line from God on the date certain of the Rapture.

Then there's the concluding paragraph:
Voters and their representatives then could at least contemplate supporting a climate policy on cost-benefit grounds, rather than on the religious posturing that Al Gore and others adopt to push what they can't sell rationally.
Yes, of course, Al Gore, Al Gore, Al Gore. Who's the rational one here? (Of course, if it weren't Al Gore it would be somebody else.) This isn't about personality cults, it's about physics and biology.

As for costs and benefits, I have been arguing all along that you need to attend to the worst plausible cases for cost-benefit analysis. I welcome the day when people at the WSJ and the like understand that the IPCC median outcome is very far short of the cost-weighted mean outcome.

That's not my main point, though. Look very carefully at what they are doing. See how "cheaper" is declared "rational", protecting the earth for our descendants is "religious posturing". This position is unreasonable, even if you concede that it is in some sense "cheaper" to "endure". Human beings did not sell the right to a moral compass when we invented money, insofar as I know.

Economics is not the totality of reason, no matter whether it declares itself so or not. There are, as even the WSJ may have heard, some things that money just can't buy.

A viable planet, for instance. It's an important case, you know. It's the one thing that if you don't have it, money can't buy anything at all.

Update: Dano didn't much care for this entry, but he came up with this amazing link, congressional testimony of Jonathan Rowe. That's the best statement of the problem with the growth imperative that I have ever seen. Except for the (very interesting) history, there's probably nothing here I or many of us haven't said in one way or another, but it's presented powerfully and (for me at least) very persuasively.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Jobs as Cost vs Jobs as Benefit

"Tidal" points out that Tony Juniper, described in his bio as "director of Friends of the Earth", has an article up on the Guardian site called "It's the Economists, Stupid". While the article is nowhere near as broad as I would have hoped, it raises a couple of interesting points for me.

First, you see the blustery assertion that [Juniper] was "economically illiterate if not actually innumerate." I have been getting a fair amount of this noise around here and I don't care for it. Yet my field stands accused of arrogance. Note that we have been trying for years to point people to the evidence, rather than going directly to bluster as a first recourse.

How peculiar.

Moving on to the specific topic, I find myself particularly baffled. Here is Juniper:

He went on to say that "When people have jobs they get paid for doing them. Jobs created are therefore a cost of such schemes. If we are creating more jobs then it's very difficult indeed to see how we're doing whatever it is for less money."

Powerful claims based on interesting logic that will be very familiar to many environmentalists. But let's unpack it a bit.

Of course, jobs are a cost, but it is not difficult to see how we could generate power with more jobs and for less money. One way is to set out policies that will lead to more jobs while avoiding other costs, such as storing nuclear waste, mining uranium or cleaning up after the effects of climate change. Another way to see how it could happen is by creating jobs in sectors that reduce costs, such as in energy efficiency programmes. Not so hard to see, when you think about it for a minute.

In other words, he accepts the idea that "jobs are a cost" but tempers it with the idea that there may be balancing costs reduced elsewhere.

This has been a long-standing bafflement for me. I am ignorant and confused on this matter. I assure you I am not willfully ignorant and confused; I just want to see an answer that makes some sense to me.

Admittedly, if a company needs more security guards, that is a cost: a declining security environment places demands on the corporate resources, and it's paid with extra staff who don't contribute to production or profit but are a pure cost center.

On the other hand, if a society raises more taxes and hires more policemen, that is not to first order a cost. Many people experience a small demand on their taxes, but in exchange a few people who would otherwise be unemployed have jobs. In the total, the society is redistributing wealth (and responsibilities) and not expending anything (beyond, perhaps, the vehicles and uniforms and such, but note that those are provided by human vendors...)

To be sure there are some arguments within conventional economics saying that any subsidy is worse than the free market, but the fact is that this is marginal; despite all the huffing and puffing, the disutility of a given subsidy is in most cases tiny compared to the cost of the subsidy.

It also seems to me that the contextual improvement in utility from subsiudies are simply ignored in the analysis that claims to show all subsidies are bad. Individual preferences for guns and butter are distorted by subsidy, but the costs and benefits of having more butter and fewer guns in the environment are not included in the model. Which is why, despite the protestations of the most ideologically committed, we have public security forces after all.

In short, I don't get it. The total cost of a totally non-productive job seems so small that I wonder if it wouldn't make sense to just hire everyone who wants a job into the public sector even in the most marginally productive of activities. Wouldn't this make us all better off just by reducing uncertainty and increasing wealth (the collective benefit)?

Yet Juniper and his accuser seem agreed that all else equal jobs are a big net cost. Now neither of them have any claim to expertise, but I have been puzzled about this very question for a long time, and now that I have a few dozen clever people's attention I thought I'd see what you all have to say.

I will note that practically every public works project I have ever heard of has had opponents talking about "cost" and proponents talking about "new jobs" and "stimulating the local economy", as if they weren't talking about pretty much exactly the same thing, with one side slapping a minus sign onto it.

I suppose I am missing something important here. I'd really like to know what.

Suppose I concede once and for all the point that I am ignorant, and even lazy. I don't think my readers are interested in further discussion of that point. Telling me I am lazy and stupid to ask the question is not a useful contribution. I have already conceded that point. I am too stupid to figure it out for myself. I am too lazy to read many volumes of dense reasoning in the hopes of getting a coherent answer to this particular point of confusion, never mind the half dozen other ones that bother me about economics.

I just haven't raised this particular confusion lately. (I think I may have brought it up on usenet sci.environment an eon or two ago.) If you are feeling generous, please let us know what the thinking is, conventional or otherwise, on this matter. A substantive argument on any side of this question (more jobs good, more jobs bad, more jobs neutral) would be welcome.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Getting Things Backwards

A whole series of articles is possible on how climate change delusionists get things backwards.

Joe Romm has an excellent one, that takes Vaclav Klaus's Marxists in green clothing argument and argues that, after actually accounting for science, climate delusionism actually is a very good way to promote centralization and gigantic government.

I have noticed other cases of them casually or earnestly getting things backward. Each could be the subject of an article. Temperature leads CO2 in the Antarctic ice cores, therefore no worries (umm?? You like positive feedbacks?) Past natural climate variations were large therefore no worries (umm?? You think it is good news that the system is precariously balanced in a comfortable regime?) Matters are far more uncertain than IPCC claims therefore no worries (umm??? you like making the risk-weighted outcome even worse?) and so on.

I'd just like to point out a small example for now, a case where no less than the Free Republic site follows in the footsteps of the National Post in celebrating what is intended as an alarmist point of view. The author of the denialist-celebrated point of view, by the way, has also written a brief celebration of what he calls "post-autistic economics", a name which I dislike, because in all seriousness it strikes me as unnecessarily unkind to autistics as well as conventional economists.

I doubt, though, that this is what the delusionist camps have in mind. Personally I think the cure Orrell is pushing is worse than the disease, but that's neither here nor there. What we see is another example of how weak the reading abilities and reasoning abilities of the delusionist camp are. Anyone, anyone willing to say a word against climate science is surely an ally, right, because it is science that is at fault here, right? Any enemy of climate science must be a friend of theirs.

If, by some chance, you wanted to make a coherent skeptical case you would need to argue
  1. climate is well understood
  2. greenhouse gases matter very little on Earth for some reason
  3. the recent warming is well understood and attributable to other forces, including in the vertical and horizontal distributions which match climate model predictions
I haven;t seen any serious effort to do that.

Alternatively there is this simpler goal. Demonstrate that it is possible to construct a climate model of comparable or better quality to what we have that has dramatically lower greenhouse gas sensitivity. Computers are cheap these days and decent compilers are free. Go to it.

Delusionists take neither of these paths. Instead, their arguments are almost invariably specious. There is only one way to understand this that I can see, and it has two simple parts. 1) They are wrong and 2) they don't seriously care whether they are wrong or not. The second part is very disturbing, though. It's hard to understand people taking such risks with the future consciously.

At best they have convinced themselves of their nonsense. It's worth thinking about how that is possible.