"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, August 1, 2008

Tanquam ex ungue leonem?

There's a really first rate anonymous climate blog that has appeared as it were out of nowhere called The Way Things Break. But who on earth is it? Mr./Ms. Break seems to be careful to leave no clues.

Well, let's not waste too much time speculating, but let's link. Great stuff!


bernie said...

I personally did not find the site helpful. Unremittingly strident is the descriptor that comes to mind - to each his own, I guess. However, it did lead to leebert's site and this does appear to be more constructive - so thank you..

Michael Tobis said...

Bernie, I hate to get all Goldwateresque on you, but it seems to me that stridency in defense of truth is no vice.

If you have gripes, you should take it up over there. Leebert is also interesting, as is this alternative SciBlog site.

I presume you are referring to Things Break's excellent takedown of Lomborg. I have tried to take Lomborg seriously, myself, but this argument has definitely caused me to reconsider. Lomborg is an economist after all, and hence not really trained in scientific skepticism of the actual, real, productive sort. The question is whether Lomborg starts with a conclusion and works backwards. Perhaps he didn't start off that way, but now he has painted himself into a corner he will have a hard time walking out of.

He's younger than McIntyre, so he is more likely to live to have to eat his words some day.

bernie said...

I have no gripes - I happen to disagree with their view on Lomborg and find their vitriol simply too much. As to "stridency in defense of truth is no vice" I cannot disagree in principle, but which truth are we really talking about? It seems to me Lomborg's primary argument is that the proposed solutions to the problem are impossible or impossibly expensive to implement. Leebert's commentary points out that there is enough technology close to market ready that "galvanizing and motivating" a bunch of entrepreneurs could trigger a stampede into economically viable alternative energy programs regardless of what those bad fossil fuel executives are doing.

I was talking to a board member of a very large forestry company this morning and they said that shareholder meetings were pretty sad and unproductive affairs because the company was automatically seen as evil by a small very vocal group of activists who essentially knew nothing about what the company actually did in terms of reforestration and land reclamation - the activists simply assumed that all lumber companies rape and pillage the earth. It is silly and extermely counter-productive. The same unremitting stridency echoed on the website.

Finally, 'cause I have to cut the damn grass before it rains, why the snark at McIntyre? I would presume that Steve McIntyre like most people is trying to do what they see as the right thing. Why would you assume otherwise?

Michael Tobis said...

Forestry shareholder meeting? Huh? You know I can actually feel for both sides in a mess like that, but what on earth does that have to do anything?

One of the rules of actually getting closer to truth is not to keep changing the subject...

A reasonable topic is how seriously to take Lomborg. Is he wrong mostly because his assumptions are wrong, or is he wrong more because his discipline is confused, or is he just wrong because he is having fun? Or some combination?

That is interesting. How to get people to understand that he is wrong is even more interesting.

Could he be right? Er, no, not likely.

How much "stridency" to apply in discussing such matters is just a matter of style, and a trivial matter considering what is at stake. Try to concentrate on the content if you want to understand what we are thinking over here.

God knows the style on the other side of the fence is pretty damned exasperating, primo, secundo and tertio.

bernie said...

I do not think I was changing the topic at all. The point about the shareholder meeting was that if you want to be heard and persuade others you cannot start by demonizing those whose opinions you want to change. http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/ as a web-site will be successful in simply talking to those who already agree with them. It is hardly likely to persuade anyone.
As for stridency simply being a matter of style -- I think you grossly underestimate how much harm the stridency of many environmental groups have done to the perceived legitimacy of their point of view.

The Guest said...


Lomborg's Ph.D. is in political science, not economics (see Wikipedia entry). And before you embarrass yourself too much more with your slams on economists, you should read Marty Weitzman's piece on the risks of global warming. In my mind, it's hard to exaggerate how important this piece of work will be. [E.g. it got Paul Krugman to introduce the ideas behind it into MSM last week.]

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks for your concern, guest. I believe I have been careful to avoid saying "all economists" in my complaints.

I am getting more and more convinced that the mainstream of economics is not a science; that we attend to their advice, especially on long-term decisions, at great peril. Still, I'm sure there are peopleoutside the mainstream who have thought about this stuff independently and have useful ideas, which is why I am reading James Case's Competition.

By the way, I think Paul Krugman is a smart and decent person, and I'd love to have an opportunity to talk to him about this stuff, but I don't know that he has come up with or aligned with an alternative formulation of economic thought. Nor have I heard him question the growth imperative, which economists take as axiomatic, and which seems to me, and to practically every physical or biological scientist I've ever heard voice an opinion about it, to be highly dubious.

I would greatly welcome participation on this blog of anyone who has a strong background in conventional economics who manages to have a capacity for discussion with those who don't.

I have been talking about risk-weighting the high-impact scenarios forever, myself, and I find it ironic that the delayers choose to attack the integrity of climate science, where in fact they should logically be defending it.

As for Weitzman, our little corner of the blogosphere has not been unaware of him. James Annan, to whom I defer on matters of statistical reasoning without hesitation, found the details ill-formed.

I still hold that the basic principle is sound, and that given that principle, attacks on the validity of climate science consequently argue for stronger rather than weaker action.

bernie said...

In Europe there is or at least there used to be a clustering of philosophy, politics and economics starting at the undergraduate level - so many would see this as a pointless distinction. Moreover using these labels for someone like Lomborg makes little sense and are primarily rhetorical tricks meant largely to delegitimize what he says. If he was an aggressive proponent of CAGW and current aggressive CO2 reduction policies his academic background would not be an issue. The Chairman of the IPCC is an economist:
"Pachauri was educated at La Martiniere College in Lucknow[2] and at the Indian Railways Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering in Jamalpur, Bihar. He began his career with the Diesel Locomotive Works in Varanasi, where he held several managerial positions. Pachauri joined the North Carolina State University, Raleigh, where he obtained an MS in Industrial Engineering in 1972, a PhD in Industrial Engineering and a PhD in Economics, and also served as Assistant Professor (August 1974 -- May 1975) and Visiting Faculty Member (Summer 1976 and 1977) in the Department of Economics and Business." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rajendra_K._Pachauri

Lomborg's contributions should be evaluated on their merits.

Michael Tobis said...

I am inclined to agree with Bernie about Lomborg's credentials if not on his merits.

John Mashey said...

You sent me over there, so maybe take a look at my note on the Things Break thread on what Lomborg is really doing, as best as I can tell.

Anonymous said...

bernie, MT:

I apologize for the lack of context. I was not intending to discredit Lomborg by discussing (incorrectly it seems), his background, but attempting to properly illuminate why he might come to the conclusions that he does (e.g. the false dilemma) as well as to dispel the myth that he is a "climate expert" as he has been called by some (e.g. here, here, etc.

I will try and make the "background" portion of that post a little more clear later on today.

Also, it appears that I am not the only person that characterized Lomborg as an economist. His own website features links which describe him as such.

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks, Things, Lomborg's home page is very interesting in regard to The Guest's complaint.

Maybe (sly grin) Lomborg is using "economist" to describe an ideology rather than an expertise...

bernie said...

My point is that the old term for economics was "Political Economy" and prestiguous universities offered PPE degrees - notably Oxford. I don't doubt that Lomborg can reasonably call himself an economist.
Lomborg also clearly states in SE that he is not a climate expert and in CI that he does believe in AGW if not catastrophic AGW.

I still don't care for the level of stridency at your site. Do you really think that those of us who are skeptics are delusional, liars, incompetents, manipulators, manipulated, ignorant, etc.? This is a contentious debate with a lot at stake so there are plenty of commenters on the various who are rude and obnoxious on both sides - but only fanatics ignore the validity of their opponents pov.

Anonymous said...


Lomborg also clearly states in SE that he is not a climate expert and in CI that he does believe in AGW if not catastrophic AGW.

Lomborg is listed as an Expert on global warming by the propagandist industry front group Heartland Institute and has been called a climate expert by several media outlets. I did not claim that Lomborg himself was the source of the characterization, although as with the "economist" title he certainly seems comfortable with others attributing it to him.

Also, I noted that he was not a "denier" in the normal sense and at least ostensibly accepts the reality of anthropogenic warming in my post.

I still don't care for the level of stridency at your site.

Well, I appreciate the input. I don't personally consider it to be "strident" in the least- I tend to view the things that really rub others the wrong way as quite humorous. The Lomborg op-ed, for example, typifies the kind of silliness one finds in many of the contrarian points of view. I find it quite amusing that the jet-setting poster boy for "climate change is real but no big deal" crowd is comparing his plight to those kidnapped, tortured, and brutally murdered during the Inquisition, and I intended my post to convey this.

Tongue-in-cheek tends to not always translate well though this series of tubes we're communicating on, so perhaps that might be why you feel my tone is strident?

Do you really think that those of us who are skeptics are delusional, liars, incompetents, manipulators, manipulated, ignorant, etc.?

No, I find those that are actually skeptical to be a breath of fresh air. They are a true rarity these days. (My thoughts on those that feign skepticism but have no interest in anything other than promoting disinformation is another story...)

Thanks again for the feedback, I appreciate any comments that let me know what I can do better.

coby said...

Hi thingsbreak,

Really great work on that Lomborg rebuttal, thanks for that. As I will say in a post tomrrow about you, I had wanted to do something siilar for quite some time, though I rather doubt it would have been that good.

As for tone, I was kind of mystified to hear it described as "strident". Maybe it is as you said about tongue-in-cheek not coming across well. But I hear that criticism about progressive viewpoints all the time, and all the way up the scale to "angry" and "hate-filled" etc, and have never understood what it was those making that complaint were talking about.

Maybe bernie can clarify a bit..?

BTW, thanks, Michael for pointing Things Break out, I will watch it with interest!

bernie said...

What actually happened to Lomborg after SE was published is objectively significantly greater than any bureaucratic constraints, if any, that have ever been put on Hansen. MT acknowledged the strident tone suggesting that it was in defense of truth, no vice. Perception is a funny thing.

I have no problem with progressives who demonstrate a willingness to do that which they want others to do - no pot bangers or hypocrites. Most bloggers on this subject are smart enough to make a personal difference. If you see alternative energy as a viable alternative pursue it, make it work and/or invest in it, e.g., wind farms are in desperate need of all kinds of engineers and riggers, there are few folks in the NE who are pushing geothermal. Reduce your carbon footprint - buy some land and plant some trees. At least Dano is apparently out there improving energy efficiency.

Michael Tobis said...

I did not in fact find the Lomborg piece to be excessive. My comment about excess was more general.

Though I still retain some doubt that Lomborg is doing all his damage willfully, Things and John Mashey over at Things' have certainly made a strong case that his arguments are polemical rather than investigative.

John Mashey said...

needless to say, I make no pretense of reading Lomborg's mind, but I'd urge anyone to:

a) Read Julian Simon's "The Ultimate Resource 2".
Read Julian Simon Wikipedia entry.

b) Then start on TSE, including the first page after the copyright and the Preface, which establish the connection. Assess how much if TSE's view is derived from Simon's.

c) It is well worth picking a few areas in TSE where one knows the turf, and then really chasing down the references. [When I did a neutral Amazon review of TSE years ago, I'd only just started.]

If someone writes generally, with few references, they easily make mistakes. When someone writes with exhaustive references, but somehow misses anything that disagrees with their theses, one must wonder.

I'll just pick a few, as most of TSE has been exhaustively analyzed elsewhere.

Chapter 11 Energy
P.120: Uses famous quote of Yamani about stone age & oil age.
This of course is nonsense, given that oil has great volumetric energy density and very high EROI.

p.122: "it is expected that the oil price will once again decline from $29 to the low $20s until 2020."

Anyway, if you read that whole chapter, you find that there is no near-term Peak Oil&Gas issue, and no worry about energy ... whereas a whole lot of people who really do this think we have very hard work ahead to replace our fossil energy structure [even without worrying about coal-burning]. This includes two of my friends who were Vice-Chairman or above at two of the largest oil companies and at least one Nobel physicist I've met, and a bunch of others.

None of these are pessimists, and all are working on the problem, but they are all scared... whereas Lomborg isn't.

p.144 Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium
[I missed the following on first read, caught it later]:

"Nitrogen is absolutely essential for food production..." correct

"But today nitrogen is almost exclusively synthesized from air, and since air contains about 78 percent nitrogen there are no limits to consumption."

Ahh, big relief. Food is inexhaustible.

This old farmboy asks:
is there anything at all misleading about that?

Hints: Haber-Bosch? natural gas? Electrolyis of water? hydrogen? energy requirements?

Dano said...


SciAm, albeit with too much hyperbole, took apart "Lomborg's" TSE "arguments" soon after it came out. Essentially, Our New Galileo knows little about the natural environment.

Again, those who know stuff know that Lomborg is full of it. Those who want to believe what he says don't want to hear that he's full of it.

Decision-makers understand that ecosystems are stressed, but in large part they don't understand how to change it.



bernie said...

C'mon. Lomborg pointed out that "the sky is falling mantra" of many environmentalists was misplaced.
Our air is cleaner, there are fewer toxins, people are living longer and better. It ain't perfect but on many fronts it is getting better. The reaction at SciAm and elsewhere to Lomborg was pitiful and it backfired big time. If I had been a Sierra Club big wig I would have coopted Lomborg's position big time with a "see what we can do if we try" approach.
Ignoring reality seldom changes it.

Dano said...

Our air is cleaner, there are fewer toxins, people are living longer and better.

These are but a small subset of the plethora of environmental indicators. One guesses that you've never had a college-level natural science class.



John Mashey said...

It is a common rhetorical trick to point at extremists on the opposite side, and then try to tar everyone over there with the same brush.

"Environmentalist" covers a huge range.
Lomborg (and Bernie, apparently) wants all environmentalists in the same box, and I'm sorry, it just isn't so.

In fact, if there's anyone who dislikes the environmental extremists, it's the bulk of realistic environmentalists.

over at ThingsBreak, I mentioned a meeting that included a:

- fiscally-conservative Silicon Valley venture capitalist
[i.e., NOT pessimistic, i.e., NOT anti-business]
- who has long been active in a major environmental group

and he spent many meeting angrily describing the damage to done to realistic environmental protection from the more extreme folks (and sometimes the press). They cringe at this stuff.

bernie said...

Which environmental indicators of significance are going in the opposite direction?
As for my educational background, how would that change what Lomborg's thesis was? But since you asked Physics, Chemistry and what in the UK is called Physical Geography. But I have to say the question or imputation is silly.

You are correct that arguing extremes is a rhetorical trick and I did not use it. But then arguing that someone is using rhetorical tricks is a rhetorical trick. I described Lomborg's thesis. If you think in SE he had a different one, I would love to hear it. You may think he didn't prove it, but that does not change the fact it was how and why he wrote his book.

Dano said...

Which environmental indicators of significance are going in the opposite direction?

Gee. Where to begin.

Fish catch, tropical deforestation, soil loss, CO2 increase, freshwater availability, eutrophication, rate of extinction, coral bleaching, jellyfish increase, per capita grain production, aquifer levels, human appropriation of NPP, Siberian freshwater flows into the Arctic, China grain imports, average global temperature, species migrating up/north, perennial sea ice decline. That's off the top of my head in 4 minutes. But I have an ecological education.

One can go on.

Please, no quibbleicious parsing of "significance", etc. either. If you have environmental indicators other than rising GDP/Kuznets hypotheses that capture ecological processes, by all means give them.



Michael Tobis said...

Dano, the cultural gap is indeed daunting.

On the other hand, Bernie is not a bad person for not understanding things that most people don't understand. Nor is he necessarily uneducated in the sciences; here the various engineers and MDs I have encountered fit in.

Don't believe me? Ask your dentist what he thinks about "NPP" and see if you get an informed response.

On the other hand, I had a cabbie in Chicago once tell me he was upset about the polar bears going "distinct".

I know it's a democracy and all but I'd rather win over one Bernie than ten cab drivers.

Dano said...

Well, that's a good point Michael, and I'll think it over during my nice bike ride this morning. In the weather where the heat has finally broken and we're getting some showers around here.



bernie said...

Its a good list and I will try to look at each in turn. Three immediately caught my eye:
per capita grain production, sea ice and NPP.
Falling per captia grain production is a bit of a stretch viewed historically, see http://www.earth-policy.org/Indicators/Grain/2006_data.htm#fig2 According to USDA 2007 and 2008 continue the growth in total production but I could not find a per capita series.
The sea ice statement is true for the Arctic but not true for Antarctica as a whole. That one we should count as a tie.
I had to look up NPP. If what you are saying is that human population is still growing - that I agree but you also have to admit that the rate of population growth is in fact declining (I don't know about NPP).
More to come!!

Dano said...

Bernie, simply use The Google 'images' for a chart on per-capita grain production. The Antarctic doesn't balance out the Arctic. And NPP appropriation is one of the most important indicators, as our economy is directly dependent upon ecosystem services - ecosystems flipping means their services that we use for free go away and we start having to pay and engineer them. There goes the economy, as this is an unprecedented paradigm shift.



Michael Tobis said...

Dano, I seem to have to disagree with you a lot.

If total terrestrial sea ice area is important, the south does balance the north in recent years. What is happening in the south is by no means reassuring, but if you pick that particular statistic you can make a case that the sea ice trend is neatural. It's sort of like Des Moines, the climate is pleasant and equable year round, by averaging the summers and the winters.

Recent cereal production is at record amounts, and food prices are being driven in the short term by increased meat consumption. Of course, that means more damage, not less, but any starvation that is happening is a consequence of economics and not agriculture.

As for services that used to be free and are now paid for, that is what growth economics wants. If we all had to buy oxygen tanks, think of the boon for the economy! All those jobs in energy extraction, water fractionation, oxygen packaging and shipping, not to mention new opportunities for fire brigades!

Dano said...

Dano, I seem to have to disagree with you a lot.

You don't have to ;o) .

Michael, if I agreed with you all the time, I wouldn't learn anything & wouldn't read your blog. Nonetheless,

Wrt sea ice, I guess the increased albedo in the south balances the decreased albedo in the north, and the resultant permafrost melting, freshwater flow, and CH4 release. I learn something new every day.

Cereals production is indeed at record tonnage, but the production per person is not. In fact, it has been declining for more than two decades; in addition, grain reserves are at almost all-time lows. Our ag systems/current technologies are not keeping up with human population growth, recent food riots noted.

And' it's simply wonderful for the businesses to pop up to sell us oxygen bottles, but now I have to spend my money on oxygen rather than a Wii or dinner at Bennigans or some other defunct restaurant.

Add up all the ecosystem services for free that must be replaced by capital, and that's a big fraction of GDP that used to go to discretionary income that is now directed toward basic necessities.

Simple case in point: the loss of tree canopy in urban areas has resulted in $Bs (yes, billions) being directed to capital projects such as increasing stormwater capacity, shorter repaving rotations, lower property values, higher cooling and heating costs. That money could have gone somewhere else.

IOW: I haven't bought into the 'continuing grrrrowth! forevah!' paradigm. We happen to have finite space and resources, by dint of living on a spheroid of finite dimension.



bernie said...

I tried the Google images - but the chart I referneced looks like it is the most current. It seems odd but that's the best I could quickly find.

Michael Tobis said...

Eli has a recent posting on the interhemispheric ice thing. Note that it is midwinter down there in Antarctica, for what that is worth in thinking about area anomalies.

Hank Roberts said...

Bernie, this is what Coby's trying to explain; Michael has seen it and commented there.