"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Talk (by Me): Cybernetics of Climate July 1

I'm giving this talk July 1 at 6:30 PM as part of the Austin Forum at the Texas Advanced Computing Center in Austin.

Y'all come. Directions and details here.

If anyone is interested in seeing me present this talk in your town, please contact me.

Cybernetics of Climate

You're invited to a discussion session entitled "Cybernetics of Climate" presented by Dr. Michael Tobis, Research Scientist Associate at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics. at The University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Tobis's presentation will focus on climate change as an example of whether, when and how computing can influence policy.

As human activity changes the composition of the global atmosphere at an unprecedented pace, human society is faced with unprecedented challenges. We have to determine to what extent the changes matter, and by when. Some argue that the risks of excessive policy response are as large as or larger than the risks of inadequate policy response. One of the unique aspects of the problem is that the conditions being predicted have no historical or paleontological analogy. We are entering new territory, and are forced to make projections based only on scientific principles, without any direct observations.

Most progress in engineering relies to some extent on doing exactly this sort of extrapolation. The assistance of high performance computers is crucial in developing most new technologies these days, from spacecraft to medicines.

How well do these techniques apply to predicting the future of the earth as a physical system? Climate simulations often take center stage in public discussions about climate change, but how should these computations be understood? Is the climate system well enough characterized to rely on models? If not, how should that affect what we do about it?

Dr. Tobis will offer a tour of how computers and computations are used in addressing our planet's future and some ideas as to the strengths and limitations of these approaches.

Michael Tobis started his career as an electrical engineer with a focus in statistics. As a graduate student, he built one of the first multicore computers and used it to run ocean simulations using code he himself developed. Since his doctorate in climatology, he has been focusing on climate computation, at Argonne National Laboratory, at The University of Chicago, and now at The University of Texas at Austin.

Update: Changed the posting date to move this to the top, to remind people in commute distance of this.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Manzi's Folly and Economics in General

Remarkably, an IPCC WGII report (see p 17) shows the "cost" of a 4 degree C temperature increase to be on the order of 3% of net economic output.

Jim Manzi uses this assertion to conclude that Waxman-Markey is a bad idea. I would go further. If 3% were a measure of anything realistic it would be hard to argue for the sort of policy measure that we are all so urgently arguing for. So I can't provide a counterargument to Manzi. He even goes so far as to address the fat-tail argument (though of course he misattributes it to Weitzman... sigh...) but it's all calibrated against that 3% .

I think it becomes crucial to track down that 3% and address it. Which makes us all economists, whether we want to be or not. Boulding's observation seems germane; total capital is NOT actually the integral of net economic output. It's where our capital stocks are in 2100, not our GDP, that matters. If climate change is marginal, we should let the chips fall where they may, but the conclusion that only 3% of net economic output is at stake seems totally disproportionate to the risks. IPCC or no (and I've never been a big fan of WGII) I have a lot of trouble believing it.

Hope to pick this up again at some point.

Update: Nice followup here. UT doesn't have priv's to the referenced article, unfortunately. Is this any way to run an intelligentsia?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

For Those Who Underestimate Climatology

This is climate model output! See the movie here. Watch for the tropical storm in the Indian Ocean toward the end of the simulated month.

If anyone has any advice how I can include this Quicktime in a Keynote presentation I'd be very much obliged.

Update: It's a matter of paying $30 to Apple to ransom the ability to download a Quicktime.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Long Time Coming

Via Erik Conway on Facebook, via Encyclopedia of Earth
Title: The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth
Author: Kenneth Ewart Boulding
Source: H. Jarrett (ed.), Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy, pp. 3-14. Baltimore, MD: Resources for the Future/Johns Hopkins University Press.
Year published: 1966
It's interesting though not flawless. "The question of whether there is anything corresponding to entropy in the information system is a puzzling one" is a bit of a clunker, wouldn't you say? And I'm still inclined to think of von Bertalanffy, whom he cites directly, as a hack pretending to be Norbert Wiener. But the interest is more than historical.
Economists in particular, for the most part, have failed to come to grips with the ultimate consequences of the transition from the open to the closed earth. One hesitates to use the terms "open" and "closed" in this connection, as they have been used with so many different shades of meaning. Nevertheless, it is hard to find equivalents. The open system, indeed, has some similarities to the open system of von Bertalanffy, in that it implies that some kind of a structure is maintained in the midst of a throughput from inputs to outputs. In a closed system, the outputs of all parts of the system are linked to the inputs of other parts. There are no inputs from outside and no outputs to the outside; indeed, there is no outside at all. Closed systems, in fact, are very rare in human experience, in fact almost by definition unknowable, for if there are genuinely closed systems around us, we have no way of getting information into them or out of them; and hence if they are really closed, we would be quite unaware of their existence. We can only find out about a closed system if we participate in it.


The closed earth of the future requires economic principles which are somewhat different from those of the open earth of the past. For the sake of picturesqueness, I am tempted to call the open economy the "cowboy economy," the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the "spaceman" economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.

The difference between the two types of economy becomes most apparent in the attitude towards consumption. In the cowboy economy, consumption is regarded as a good thing and production likewise; and the success of the economy is measured by the amount of the throughput from the "factors of production," a part of which, at any rate, is extracted from the reservoirs of raw materials and noneconomic objects, and another part of which is output into the reservoirs of pollution. If there are infinite reservoirs from which material can be obtained and into which effluvia can be deposited, then the throughput is at least a plausible measure of the success of the economy. The gross national product is a rough measure of this total throughput. It should be possible, however, to distinguish that part of the GNP which is derived from exhaustible and that which is derived from reproducible resources, as well as that part of consumption which represents effluvia and that which represents input into the productive system again. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever attempted to break down the GNP in this way, although it would be an interesting and extremely important exercise, which is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper.

By contrast, in the spaceman economy, throughput is by no means a desideratum, and is indeed to be regarded as something to be minimized rather than maximized. The essential measure of the success of the economy is not production and consumption at all, but the nature, extent, quality, and complexity of the total capital stock, including in this the state of the human bodies and minds included in the system.

In the spaceman economy, what we are primarily concerned with is stock maintenance, and any technological change which results in the maintenance of a given total stock with a lessened throughput (that is, less production and consumption) is clearly a gain. This idea that both production and consumption are bad things rather than good things is very strange to economists, who have been obsessed with the income-flow concepts to the exclusion, almost, of capital-stock concepts.

Emphasis added (along with a couple of paragraph breaks for easier reading).

The same site describes Boulding as follows:
Kenneth Ewart Boulding (1910-1993), an American economist famous for his emphasis on the social, moral, and ecological implications of economic growth. Boulding coined the term “spaceship earth” to emphasize the energy, material, and environmental limits to economic growth. He compared the economy to biological systems in terms of its need to use energy to transform materials, which in the process produces wastes. Boulding suggested that the current “cowboy” economy, defined by the wasteful use of nonrenewable resources, must ultimately be replaced by a “spaceship” economy, powered by renewable energy and characterized by efficient recycling of materials. Boulding was a founding intellectual in the field of ecological economics.
I had thought the Spaceship Earth idea was Bucky Fuller's. Clearly there was some mutual influence between Bucky and Boulding.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Update to the Recent Long Piece

In a recent essay which is much too long for most blog readers to bother with, "We Are What We Think", I argued that we need to rethink our relationship to the world. I was somewhat vague as to how to do it. Also for good measure I snarled at Andy Revkin, which I sill usually do given a chance.

Revkin has gone a way to redeem himself with his most recent Dot Earth piece which I think is both wonderful, and whether so intended or not, an excellent follow-on to "We Are What We Think".

In "The Climate Bill in Climate Context", Revkin offers a realistic look at the many further steps along the road which we begin here, and concludes with the realistic and yet radical advice of the UK's Prime Minister Brown. This provides a good basis for the new thinking, new thinking which needs to pervade all societies, quickly. For fundamentally, the extent to which we are competitors is dwarfed by the extent to which we are, like it or not, teammeates.

Success will require two major shifts in how we think - as policy makers, as campaigners, as consumers, as producers, as a society. The first is to think not in political or economic cycles; not just in terms of years or even decadelong programs and initiatives. But to think in terms of epochs and eras — and how our stewardship will be judged not by tomorrow’s newspapers but by tomorrow’s children.

And the second is to think anew about how we judge success as a society. For 60 years we have measured our progress by economic gains and social justice. Now we know that the progress and even the survival of the only world we have depends on decisive action to protect that world. In the end, without environmental stewardship, there can be no sustainable prosperity and no sustainable social justice.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

107 F

I was at a remarkable citywide organizational meeting of various environmental groups today. The "Al Gore curse" didn't apply, in that it did not snow.

107 F. Nearly 42 C. That's the official high at Austin TX today. Unquestionably the hottest day of my life, and it's only June. Not only a local daily record, but only one degree shy of the local monthly record. More to the point we've been over 100 most days for two weeks now, and I expect we are in contention for hottest June.

Now, since Climate Depot linked to my mention of a severe cold anomaly in Canada, they will also take note of me noting the extreme heat in Texas this week, right?

Update: See also here and here.

June 24, 2009 was the hottest day ever recorded in New Orleans.

Update 6/29: Today's 100° day in Houston ties the longest string of 100-plus degree days in recorded history at seven (1902).

At this moment it is 104
° F in Austin. The lowest high temperature since June 9 is 97° F (on the 9th and 12th) and we have failed to hit 100° F on only one of the 17 days starting June 13. Thus today we surpassed the previous record of 15 100-degree days in June.

Isopetroleum Projection

Via Andrew Sullivan; the Atlantic. Sullivan's blog is an amazingly prolific and interesting source of news from Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.

Unstated and so far unexamined: the oil from Iran is still flowing. Discontinuing engagement with Iran would require worldwide participation and would cause a huge price spike. I suspect Eisenhower or Kennedy in a comparable situation would not hesitate to lead the world to embargo Iran.

Sullivan implies that the belligerent "neocons" are talking embargo. It's very odd for me to be inclined to agree with them on anything. But the negative impact on the fragile economy would be very substantial. I think Obama's realpolitik puts relative economic calm ahead of any other goal. And oil being what it is, it requires universal participation by all major economies to make an embargo bite.

But it's not as if we had no influence on the situation. And the economic disruptions, which are likely to come anyway, embargo or no, could be blamed on external events.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

We Are What We Think

We are what we think. With our thoughts we create the world.

- Buddha

OK, first, let me hasten to say that I find myself, as most any physical scientist would, irritated by the ancient quote above.

I expect a modern person to know, though the Buddha may or may not have known, that the logic of the physical universe is so intricate and so precise that mere human thoughts are grotesquely insufficient to create it, that some objective reality must exist.

What You Think About Determines What You Think

There is another sense, though, in which it is precisely true that we create the world with our thoughts. We live in a world both of artifice and of nature. Our environment shapes our minds and our minds shape our environment. What we are thinking about matters.

Consider the matter of Iran, for instance.

By now everybody's talking about Iran, but early last week there was immense frustration directed at the major media in a small niche community, for ignoring the story entirely. That niche community was Twitter users.

It was an unusual week among Twitterphiles. We were experiencing the world much as one did when the Berlin Wall was coming down, with a sense that noble events of great and auspicious consequence were happening in the world, that one should at the least fervently wish for the success and safety of those of pure heart, and that little else could possibly have comparable relevance, not even climate change or health care or the economic, um, thing.

But if you were not the sort of person to use Twitter to get news, you might have barely registered that something was going on in Iran. You may have had a mild interest in the events but you are still a bit confused about who possibly stole what from whom, and what Twitter could possibly have to do with it.

This fact in itself is an interesting part of the story. Not only was Twitter an important player,
your level of interest in Twitter is a strong predictor of your level of interest in the outcome of the crisis in Iran!

Isn't that strange?

Perhaps not. The ideas that fill our minds are the ideas we are exposed to every day. One reason we were upset was because we saw events of immense importance taking place, and a press that was treating it as a non-story. Recall the substantially similar events in the Republic of Georgia six years earlier. There was some news coverage, but it didn't take over our consciousness, because none of us were watching media where the story was pervasive.

What we think about is determined by what we experience, and waht we experience is determined by what we think about. As a result, we live side-by-side in different worlds.

Idea Clusters

Comparisons of how different groups, be they professional or ethnic, construe related ideas are usually revealing. Trouble and misunderstanding often arises when the habits of mind of different communities of interest are brought to bear on the same subject.

These ideological clusters emerge from habits of mind. The habits of mind emerge from language, and from the accessibility of concepts.
Russians, who have no word for blue, but rather two words for light blue and dark blue, apparently are quicker to distinguish light blue from dark blue objects than speakers of other languages. And then there's the infamous precision of Inuit with regard to snow and ice, which may or may not be apocryphal, but I suspect there is something to it. Have you ever listened to a conversation about snow among skiers?

It can be stunning how differently different subcultures address related ideas. Economists vs energy providers, reporters vs bloggers, cat lovers vs bird lovers, industrialists versus environmentalists, ecologists versus climate physicists, scientists vs politicians, journalists vs entertainers, engineers vs economists. The consequences of differing vocabularies and habits of thought are everywhere and are increasing as the world becomes more crowded, complex and interdependent.

Economists' faith in eternal growth as opposed to the environmentalist's fear of imminent doom is a case in point. It leads me and a few stalwart others to a synthesis position: the desire to apply intellect to the problems to avoid the doom associated with compulsive growth, and instead to create a reasonable steady state economic system. This is the idea cluster that I'm trying to participate in building, but it is early days for this ambitious view.

An idea cluster is much bigger than a meme. It is sometimes identical to an ideology, but it isn't always that. It is a cultural predisposition to notice certain things and think about them in certain ways.

Where Idea Clusters Come From

To see where we're going it often helps to consider where we've been.

In the past century, the century of mass media, it was the media that mostly provided the language, the Lego blocks, the molecules of thought for most people. Tiny little cultural clusters coalesced under the pressure of very powerful aggregators and distributors of information, not just through news but even through entertainment.

In America, the news media developed a set of scruples that reporting and commentary functions should be kept very distinct. The reporting people in particular were taught this as a bedrock ethical principle, and continue to defend it fiercely. A news medium is an economic entity, but its success depends on public trust, so the thinking went. Thus the reporter should be scrupulously "neutral". Because the ownership wanted an outlet for its own ideas, the "editorial" sandbox was set up for them.

So the raw materials for thought become 1) the world of commerce, trade, profit, wealth, "free enterprise" to give it its triumphal name 2) the world of strife, controversy, secrets kept and secrets breached, objectives baldly stated and objectives obscured, speech honest and speech mendacious, in other words the gritty world of "muckraking". And opposition to these ideas was framed in the same terms: "the workers control the means of production", "power to the people" "el pueblo unido jamas sera vencido" etc.

For a long time, this model served well enough. When there is a local question, say a road bond or new convention center, the tension between fiscal conservatism and boosterism is very well suited for this constellation: there is a horse race of two ideas, both resonate with the values of the community, no special expertise is required to understand the issues, and eventually, one side or the other will win. (Then, if the project is approved it will be executed well, indifferently or badly, again stories which the traditional media are well suited to examine.)

In the past, even national questions were somewhat more disjoint than they are now. Everything wasn't deeply enmeshed in everything else, specifically because the American landscape wasn't very crowded. So for the most part, even national issues had a local, parochial flavor; a public dance of debate, a backstage drama of arm twisting and intrigue, and on the whole, an increasingly homogeneous national character that matched circumstances well enough.

Thus emerges our habitual mental model: "there are two sides to every story". Everybody bends the truth in their direction. The public interest is the sum of every individual's self interest. Some people are especially influential because they control large institutions or large pots of money. Decisions are based on cultural affinities, alliances, and exchanges of political capital.

But the questions we face now are very different. Try to map this habit of mind onto questions of managing the earth as a tightly coupled and disrupted system and what do you get?

There's an nerdy joke among scientists, that a mathematician who knows what to do when confronted with a burning building will set non-burning buildings alight, thereby reducing it to the previous problem. When there is only one side to a story, the press will manufacture another.

The press has a natural cultural affinity for politics, especially the brawling, sometimes cynical and always entertaining world of local and state politics. The vocabularies and intellectual maps of the press and the politicans are closely entwined. Propositions have winners and losers, advocates and opponents. Eventually they are either enacted or defeated. Is that how we have managed to find ourselves in a world with people who are willing to be called "anti-environmentalists"? With our friends at Climate Depot, whose response to existential uncertainty on a planetary scale is mockery with a side order of cherry-picking?

I think so. This "opposition" is partly political opportunism of course, and it's partly entertainment for a certain sarcastic and defensive state of mind, but ultimately it is to a large extent a creation of our adversarial mindset, embodied in the news media, which given an issue of importance goes off in search of an opposition. So we've managed to create a significant constituency whose stance is in opposition to the persistence of a viable planet!


We are thinking about our circumstances as if we were in opposition to each other, but it is in the interest of everyone on a ship at sea, be they communist or jihadist, butcher or vegan, that the ship not sink. Why are the words we use to think about our collective future so adversarial?

They didn't start out that way. If the issues came from the deliberations of scientists and academics, the discussions would remain polite, truth-seeking and unpolarized.

The polarization may not originally come from the press, but it is maintained by their conceptual maps, idea clusters, meme complexes. Polarization is embedded in their model of human activity as economic activity, of politics as contention. As a result, words and ideas and conceptual maps that the public draws upon date from the industrial revolution: workers against capitalists, rich against poor, centralization of decisions versus distributed decision making, nation vs nation, lifestyle vs, lifestyle, sect vs. sect. Of course these problems have not gone away; of course they only make our new problems that much harder.

But our new problems do not look like that. And what we need is a new cognitive map.

A Better Word for Doom?

All of this is by way of addressing one of my perennial questions, which Andy Revkin again raised recently in a Dot Earth column:
If the science pointing to a rising risk of dangerous human interference with climate is settled, the thinking goes, then why aren’t people and the world’s nations galvanized?
People are casting about for the right words to describe our moral and existential quandary, words that will galvanize "action".

Revkin points out an article on Seed where several very appropriate people (myself oddly excluded, hrmph) take up the topic with varying degrees of success. I am most sympathetic to Ann Kinzig's approach. She concludes "If we accept that language is never neutral, why not adopt the terms that resonate with a broader swath of the public?" And indeed, I think language is never neutral, despite the protestations of people inculcated in journalistic culture. But what language should we use?

Matt Nisbet, whose article with Chris Mooney is often credited (somewhat to my dismay, longtime readers might guess) with starting the conversation about how these ideas are communicated, starts off on the right foot but then stumbles into this rather inane and feeble pair of examples:

The point is not to “sell” the public on climate change, but rather to use research on framing to create communication contexts that move beyond polarization, promote discussion, generate partnerships and connections, and that accurately convey the objective urgency of the problem. If the public feels like they are being marketed to, it will only continue to fuel additional polarization and perceptual gridlock. In shifting the frame on climate change, the goals should not be to persuade, but rather to start conversations with the public that recognize, respect, and incorporate differences in knowledge, values, perspectives, and goals.

In one prominent example of re-framing the debate, strategists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger have led the way by advocating that climate change should not be defined as a pollution problem that requires additional regulation but as an energy problem that provides an opportunity for growing the economy and creating jobs around clean technology. This reframing moves the debate beyond a narrow constituency of environmental advocates and opens the doors for a broader climate movement that includes labor, business leaders, and the investor class. The frame was a major emphasis by both presidential candidates in the past election, is emphasized in Al Gore’s “Repower America” television ads, and continues to be a dominant focus of the Obama administration.

A second framing strategy to move beyond perceptual gridlock is offered by scientists such as E. O. Wilson and Evangelical leaders such as Richard Cizik who frame environmental stewardship in terms of morality and ethics, engaging an Evangelical audience who might not otherwise pay attention to appeals on climate change. This frame is more than just a talking point or a rebranding of the issue: When scientists and religious leaders join together around shared values to work on a common problem, it builds bonds of trust that enables long-term collaboration and that breaks down prejudices.

Sorry, a shallow appeal to the fading paradigm of personal greed as one example, and a scolding from an evangelist on the other? Out of the frying pan and into two fires? What sort of help is that? Does that help you? It doesn't help me, and it apparently doesn't help Revkin who ends on a note of futility:
So what’s your view? Is the climate challenge one of communication style, of inadequate energy choices, of the hard-wired aspects of human nature?

My sense is there’s a big dose of the latter in this arena. Humans remain mainly focused on the here and now,
and the worst outcomes in a warming world remain someday or somewhere. There’s still scant evidence we’re able to invest against inevitable shocks even when the danger is clear and local ...

Stop the Presses

Stop the presses, Andy. You missed the point. Of course you missed the point, or pretended to, because the problem is you.

No, not you, Revkin, personally. Revkin, despite my constant harping about you, you are among the best of a bad lot, trying to bring a journalistic sensibility to a set of problems that do not map onto the intellectual style of the journalist. The point is that that style is serving us badly.

If the science pointing to a rising risk of dangerous human interference with climate is settled, then why isn't the press galvanized? Why do the stories run on page 13?

What we need is not a noun phrase, a new name for doom. The qeustion of global this or climate that is not going to help. We need a noun phrase embedded in a new way of thinking, an approach to planetary maturity on a suddenly depleted world. You can call it Mrs. Renfro's Corn Relish for all I care; it's the context that matters.

The Sustainability Mindset

Sustainability on a crowded and finite world is a fundamental challenge to every culture and ideology that ever emerged on the growing and open world. Humans are vastly adaptable, but the cultural matrices in which we find ourselves are not. The buildings of Rome are mostly not new, but they are much newer than the routes that the streets take through them. The main street through Bastrop TX carries little sign of the Spanish empire but is still called El Camino Real.

Most of us don't have a sustainability mindset.

Those few that think they do, mostly don't. The green movement have a Luddite view, a romantic view perhaps workable on a planet with a tenth of its present population. They are, I think, good people with much to teach us, but they aren't really facing up to the scale of the problem any more than most other people are, and their culture is actively suspicious of quantitative thinking. So much as I love greenies, as much as I hope the agrarian ideal eventually pans out, this isn't the time for it. We have big, collective problems to solve and we need a big, collective way of thinking about it. And not even a Woody Guthrie-esque "one big union" is big enough. Big government, big business, these are part of the solution.

The press isn't giving us the vocabulary to think about our circumstances.

Where the media are bored by a topic, the public is implicitly informed that the topic is unimportant. My experience of understanding that events unfolding in Iran were important before the press caught on was sadly familiar to me.

Just as early last week, when non-Twitterphiles were not thinking about Iran, most people aren't thinking about a way out of our quandary. People may think there is no quandary, or they may think there is no way out, or they may think that some other "They" have everything under control. What they don't think about is which approaches they would tolerate, what the menu of scenarios, getting uglier by the month, looks like. There's little awareness of the nature of the choices we face, and hence little support for people in the position to make the decisions/

The media are, in fact, bored. Sustainability, for the most part, doesn't map onto what excites them. Read my lips Andy Revkin.

There is no proper word for doom when that word only appears on page thirteen.

Even running the same old stuff on page 1 won't do. The entire way we organize ourselves, not just our cultures and our subcultures, but everybody else's too, have to change in ways that lack any precedent. And they will change, too. There is no maybe about that. The only maybe is how much suffering we will have to endure before our thoughts adequately conform, to the world we actually end up with. All of which depends, as Buddha says, on our thoughts.


I only know what to do in the broadest sense. We need to start thinking about the things we need to think about. All of us, not just a few wonks and nerds.

We don't need a friendlier name for doom. We need a 24 hour doom channel. God knows it's not boring once you actually get the picture.

It's the future. The press, or whatever replaces it, needs to read more like science fiction. Let's talk about scenarios, about what problems nature will present us with, and about coalitions, how we will address them. Let's talk about social organizing tools. Let's look backward from 2400 AD and describe how we overcame the nation-state, the proliferation of mutually hostile religions and ideologies, and the ethic of greed. Let's think about how to extract unity from hostility and fear. Let's try to understand why surplus feels like poverty.

Let's not wait for Them to rescue us. There is only us. And whatever ends up serving the purposes of the "front page", let's put the "stuff that matters" on it, and not just "what's fit to print".

If you find this piece of value, I'd very much appreciate you spreading the word.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Republication in whole with attribution to "Michael Tobis, Austin TX" is encouraged. This license applies to the text only. Please do not reproduce the images.

If you use this material in a collection or online aggregation, please let me know.

Buddha from Museum of Fine Art in Boston; green Twitter icons from the #iranelection Twitter stream; printing press from Kilmer House Museum

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cap and Trade that Might Work

James Hansen, as followers of our pet subjects will probably already be aware, has been arrested in a protest against mountaintop mining. Perhaps almost as well known is the fact that Hansen opposes Waxman-Markey so strongly that he hopes for its failure, believing that writing an inadequate bureaucracy into place is worse than doing nothing at all and waiting for a stronger political consensus to emerge. All pretty strong stuff for an AGU keynoter.

He's advocating for a simple carbon tax. Opponents, despite the evidence of British Columbia, believe that such a thing is not sellable to the public. Others, like David Roberts, (link?) have argued that in practice a tax is a complicated beast. And everybody's proposal defers to national sovereignty, letting every nation work out its own path to its own sustainable share of emissions. See the problem with that one? It gives every nation's politicians plenty of leeway to blame the politicians elsewhere. "If they won't do it, why should we bother?" From a game theory perspective it pays to bail out.

Here's a solution of the sort that I am stuck with dreaming up. It's technically practicable and politically impossible. Few politicans will consider the dilution of their power attractive, and it will be easy to stir up the xenophobes (the ones who think NAFTA is a conspiracy between Mexico and Canada to take over the US for instance) into a paranoid frenzy, but it has some very nice features.

Rations. Yes, you heard me. Rations. Not by country. By head. Per capita carbon rations, controlled by smartcards.

One day, you get in the mail a smartcard giving you exactly the same share of the world's atmosphere over the next year as anyone else. You can spend it on emissions or you can specify a price. If the price of emissions exceeds your price, your carbon share goes down and your card contains the equivalent in money. If you want more than your share, you have to bid on the energy you want. If you sequester carbon, you get credit.

The only political decision to be made after that point is the annual share. How many tons can you emit?

This looks like a direct transfer of wealth to poorer countries, but if you believe the atmosphere is a commons, it is not. It is a correction: a direct way of pricing the carbon effects so that the correction flows directly from the high-intensity user to the low-intensity user. In other words, it is the reverse of the stealing from the poor that is happening now. In a sense, it is exact rather than approximate.

The details, admittedly, are as complicated as anything else. What constitutes an emission? (I think it should be modeled on a value-added tax, though in this case it is value-subtracted!) What constitutes a sequestration? How should the near-frictionless transactions be set up? In what currency? Lots of other stuff I haven't thought of, probably, too.

As I said, I really doubt this is politically saleable in the short run. But it removes a lot of arbitrary decisions, and manages the international equity question with remarkable clarity, destabilizing tinpot dictators while transferring wealth without stigma to their population.

One trouble is that those of us in energy intensive cultures will have to bid on a finite pool of energy rights in addition to production costs. Energy prices will rise. Energy companies will compulsively hate this because Africans and Asians get some of their profits. Americans will understand very quickly what an 80% reduction means.

Another advantage, though, is that this approach is very market-flavored. There's no shame in wanting a Hummer. You just have to pay a bunch of other people not to do so.

Also, nonlinear pricing can be applied. At the cost of more decisions, this can penalize frivolous uses against socially responsible ones. Your first 100 kg. C per year, for instance, might not be transferable at any price, so people won't be tempted to sell their cooking fuel. On the other hand, your excess above some threshhold could have increasing purchase prices (Austin does this with water.) So all the energy would be discouraged from going to people with money to burn.

Yes, an international agency is required to issue the cards. And enforcement mechanisms have to exist. My intuition, though, is that it's technically workable. And if a carbon tax is regressive, a carbon license is surely progressive.

Hat tip to MR who came up with most of this idea over coffee at Sodade and can claim credit if he wants. I suspect he won't like the international angle, but he's hard to predict sometimes.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Winter Persists in Northeastern Canada

A fascinating article in the Winnipeg Free Press indicates that conditions in the Arctic are not what you might expect:
Prolonged cold snowy conditions in the Hudson Bay area are expected to obliterate the breeding season for migratory birds and most other species of wildlife this year.

According to Environment Canada, the spring of 2009 is record-late in the eastern Arctic with virtually 100 per cent snow cover from James Bay north as of June 11.

May temperatures in northern Manitoba were almost four degrees C below the long-term average of -0.7, and in early June, temperatures averaged three degrees below normal.
I presume this will make the rounds among the denialists. What I'm not sure is what the right answer is. The referenced report is muddled:
"Such major oscillations are part of a bumpy ride toward global warming," said Thomas Karl of the National Climate Center. "For awhile at least this will be the shape of things to come."

Vegetation is also impacted upon by late Arctic springs, with green-up about three weeks late this year. Consequently, herbivorous animals have delayed breeding

"People often confuse climate with weather, and this spring is a weather phenomenon," said an Environment Canada spokesperson.
Of interest to Canadians is the fact that the nationality of the National Climate Center (American) is not identified. NOAA is also mentioned without reference to its nationality. More important is the coexistence here of two responses, which while in close proximity to each other ( 1) it's weather, not climate and 2) it's a bumpy ride ) are essentially different in character. Though the reporter has a doctorate (in zoology) he doesn't seem to be aware that he has provided two explanations that while not wholly incompatible are different in flavor. One could argue that in a bumpy climatological transition the bumps are weather-like, I suppose. Even so, with all the talk of maximal warming in high latitudes, this is very surprising, bumps and all.

I have to admit that the fact that
Recent late springs in the Hudson Bay area have been more frequent than normal: 2004, 2002, 2000 and 1997.
is not something I for one would have expected. I would have expected the warming by now to have outweighed the bumps. So I'm scratching my head about this one.

Is there some dynamical or climatological explanation beyond handwaving about bumpy rides? Would this have any relationship to the sea ice sweepstakes either as cause or as effect?

Update: In comments David Duff advises me to stock up on longjohns.

Indeed, it looks to be relatively chilly on Saturday. So I appreciate the solicitous advice.

Update: Sure enough Morano takes the bait, links this article. Calls me a "fear promoter"; hrmph. And here I thought I was promoting courage and decency.

It's amazing how much traffic Climate Depot drives. Quite a spike here. (Not sure Depot readers will have much interest in sticking around, but have a look around anyway.)

Update: Make that Monday. And by the way Thursday's heat ended up rating its own posting.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Collapse: U R Doing It Rong

I've been sort of terse lately because I'm working on a longer piece. I'm not sure regular readers will want to hold their collective breaths; perhaps you've heard it all before. It might not show up all that soon; I'll see if I can get any interest in higher profile venues.

So meanwhile, continuing in the vein of short bits, consider this amazing bit of circular reasoning from Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine:
But what about the past? Haven't societies collapsed due to overpopulation? To the extent that it is true that some societies have suffered collapses, we now know that it was because they lacked the proper institutions for channeling individual striving into a process of economic growth which ultimately promotes the public interest. Very few earlier societies could be characterized as either economically free or respecting the rule of law.
See, if you live somewhere where freedom promotes the public interest, then obviously the public interest will never get any damage from freedom, right? It all makes such perfect sense!

I am not sure whether or not the real mechanism of the demographic transition has anything to do with this sort of economics, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't actually put more oil in the ground or even (as a social organization conceivably could) keep more carbon out of the air. I will concede to Mr Bailey that a perfectly organized society is, by definition, organized perfectly. I'm just not all that convinced from this bluster that Bailey knows how to make one.

Update: Much to my surprise, Tokyo Tom, far less silly about the global commons than most libertarians, thinks Bailey's blurt is a positive contribution.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

One Love

h/t @gfriend

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Journalism and Numeracy

This is the third time I've heard of this type of error in the press, but is perhaps my favorite:
Average temperatures in the US have risen by 1.5F (-17C) over the last 50 years, the report said. Rainfall in major storms has increased 20% over the last 100 years - with the heaviest downpours in the north-east. Sea levels have risen up to eight inches along some parts of the east coast.
Emphasis added. The temperature increased by negative 17 Celsius. Perhaps that is why it's so hot these days in Texas. Er, or something.

Joe Romm picked up the Guardian story in an earlier incarnation, and without comment on this aspect approvingly quotes the following:
The final draft of today’s report uses climate models to map out starkly different futures if the current generation of Americans fails to act to reduce the carbon emissions that cause global warming.

If today’s generation acts on climate change, the average US temperature will rise 0.4C-1.83C (4-6.5F) by the end of this century, said the draft, which was finalised in April.

If it does not, average temperatures could rise by about 2.1C-4.3C (7-11F) with catastrophic consequences for human health and the economy.

Americans have already been living with evidence of changing climate, the report said. Over the last 30 years winters have grown shorter and milder, with a 2.1C (7F) rise in winter temperatures in the midwest and northern Great Plains. Hurricanes have become deadlier.
Forgive me, but I expect more attention to data from a physicist. "Tim R." points the problem out in comments at Romm's site but no correction appears.

It's an unfortunate blemish actually. Romm's article is worth reading. He raises the question of where the press is on this issue. (Pretty much absent actually, but what else is new?)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Big RT @dcarli

channels Mark McElroy

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Times, They Are A'Changing

It's hard to keep a secret these days.

News from Iran here.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

More Drought, More Severe Storms

People are always asking whether this is a contradiction, whether this doesn't amount to everything being evidence of global warming.

No. More rainfall in less severe events in the southern US would be counterevidence.

As I am just plugging everything back in after getting the only rain in the whole south in an intense and scary burst, it suddenly occurred to me that the picture might tell the story plainly enough.

See? One severe possibly tornadic storm (right over mt's house as it happens) and lots of nothing much else at the same time.

It could get more like this. There are reasons to suspect that it will. Make sense now?

He who hesitates...

From this worthy petition, which I am having trouble signing, because their web programmer considered "scientist" and "journalist" mutually exclusive...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Sea Ice Steeplechase

It is on, and our horse has taken the lead by a nose.

Image: NSIDC

Monday, June 8, 2009


Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, CCS NIMBYism is starting up.

CO2 pipelines exist. This map (via RexTag Strategies) shows one of several CO2 pipelines leading to the oil fields of the Permian Basin in West Texas. Natural CO2 deposits are actually being tapped and mined in Colorado. 

The CO2 is shipped to Texas to assist in petroleum extraction. Wouldn't it be better to use some of the extra CO2 from coal fired plants for this purpose? I mean, rather than digging up extra CO2?

(Isn't that crazy? I wonder how that got going! Where were the NIMBY crowd then?) 

Note that the pipelines pass through populated areas in New Mexico. A more complete map of comparable pipleline systems is posted, but based on what I see in the hallways of my workplace, I believe even that one is incomplete.

However you feel about any of this, it's interesting to note that the extant CO2 pipelines in the US have been federally subsidized in the pursuit of domestic fossil fuel supplies (see p 15).

Conceivably under extremely unfavorable circumstances that CO2 could escape and kill somebody already. Dangerous industrial processes happen all the time. Trains and trucks and pipes full of who knows what go every which way. 

We can neither afford to allow them to go unquestioned nor to stop every one. What we need is a consistent way of thinking about them, not advocates and opponents slugging things out over and over using whatever weapons are handy. What happens now is not just capricious and random. It damages our capacity for collective thought every time.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Limits to Growth Kicking In?

In another The Oil Drum production, Ugo Bardi makes the case that yes, the condition of the world today is the Club of Rome prediction "verifying" as metorologists would say, or "coming true" as they say in the fable business.
The industrial capital stock grows to a level that requires an enormous input of resources. In the very process of that growth it depletes a large fraction of the resource reserves available. As resource prices rise and mines are depleted, more and more capital must be used for obtaining resources, leaving less to be invested for future growth. Finally investment cannot keep up with depreciation, and the industrial base collapses, taking with it the service and agricultural systems, which have become dependent on industrial inputs.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Economic Crisis and the Limits to Growth

Thanks for all the responses on my query of how to link the resource question and the current economic crisis. I really do intend to follow up soon; an unexpected project dropped in my lap this week though.

Meanwhile you can get Herman Daly's most recent take on things at The Oil Drum:
The level of physical wealth that the biosphere can sustain in a steady state may well be below the present level. The fact that recent efforts at growth have resulted mainly in bubbles suggests that this is so. Nevertheless, current policies all aim for the full re-establishment of the growth economy. No one denies that our problems would be easier to solve if we were richer. The question is, does growth any longer make us richer, or is it now making us poorer?


We have many problems (poverty, unemployment, environmental destruction, budget deficit, trade deficit, bailouts, bankruptcy, foreclosures, etc.), but apparently only one solution: economic growth, or as the pundits now like to say, “to grow the economy”-- as if it were a potted plant...


So—if we can’t grow our way out of all problems, then maybe we should reconsider the logic and virtues of non-growth, the steady-state economy. Why this refusal by neoclassical economists both to face common sense, and to reconsider the ideas of the early Classical Economists?

I think the answer is distressingly simple. Without growth the only way to cure poverty is by sharing. But redistribution is anathema. Without growth to push the hoped for demographic transition, the only way to cure overpopulation is by population control. A second anathema. Without growth the only way to increase funds to invest in environmental repair is by reducing current consumption. Anathema number three. Three anathemas and you are damned—go to hell!


Well, let us not do that. Let us ignore the anathemas and instead think about what policies would be required to move to a steady-state economy. They are a bit radical by present standards...

If that's not enough to convince you to go read it, I can't imagine what you are doing hereabouts.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Progress Marches On

Economists and politicians are often found putting more faith in technical progress than actually technically adept people do. Hope springs eternal. It's a shame to neglect the possible role of technical progress in getting us out of our difficulties. Perhaps we should be rethinking our pessimism.

I was trying to track down the power consumption of a typical car in watt-hours per mile (this is oddly hard to do) when I came across this particularly striking example of techno-optimism in comments here. See what you think of it:
746 watts per Horsepower outdated
written by free energy now , April 18, 2007
Your comments in compairing the car to cold fusion means that you're assuming that technology can't change the 746w/hp. Is it at all possible that the cars engines are more efficient then your calculations allow for. There are also ways of using capacitors to increase efficiency in heavy load conditions. Technology is changing my friend, and in a lot of situations the nubers just don't add up. My friend has designed a heater which can run indefinitly after a couple of days of being pluged in. He heats his whole house with them, no they don't use cold fusion, just an ingenious design. So just because you can't figure out the math, doesn't mean it's immposible. Peace out
That's the way to do it. Now we're really talking progress!

Water and Energy

I didn't raise any questions during Michael Webber's talk on Wednesday, but I did consider raising the issue of water, or specifically the relationship between fresh water production and energy production. Whatever Texas's advantages in energy production, they are somewhat mitigated by our disadvantages in water supply. If one agrees that water production and energy production are related issues, this obviously becomes relevant.

Until today, the only person I had heard raise this issue has been Richard Doctor of Argonne National Laboratory. In a talk I saw him give a couple of years ago, he pointed out that increasing water supply takes energy, and increasing energy supply takes water, so that the once demand reaches a certain point one can't treat the problems separately.

It turns out I should have asked the question as it would have been a real softball pitch for Webber. He has written an article on the subject [link to abstract only; article is behind a pay wall] appearing in Scientific American. (While it lasts: here is a scan of the text.)

This raises a question which I did not put to Richard nor to Michael Webber but which has been puzzling me. Webber's article makes it explicit:
We cannot build more power plants without realizing that they impinge on our freshwater supplies. And we cannot build more water delivery and cleaning facilities without driving up energy demand. Solving the dilemma requires new national policies that integrate energy and water solutions and innovative technologies that help to boost one resource without draining the other.
So here's my question: why do power plants require fresh water? Is the dominant purpose of water not cooling? If not, why is water such a big issue? On the other hand, if cooling and quenching and thermal conduction is the issue, why use precious freshwater instead of sea water? 

I note that Austin Energy's part-owned nukes are on the seashore. Of course, there is sea level rise to contend with... Yikes! 

I suppose that renewable energy (except biofuel) doesn't require significant water in operations. (Capital costs aside.) Isn't this a strong argument for wind and solar? Why aren't they making it?
Note, the following appears in an information-poor infographic (that doesn't make it into the scanned text) in Webber's article:
Water Required to Generate One MW-hr 
  • Gas/Steam: 7,400-20,000 gallons
  • Coal or Oil: 21,000-50,000 gallons
  • Nuclear: 25,000-60,000 gallons
Another argument for natural gas rather than nuclear as the bridge to renewables.

Drop the thousands to convert into the easier to think about KW-hr, which is about the draw from watching a big screen TV for an evening. That would be, depending where you live, between 7 and 60 gallons. (25 to 225 liters). As much as a bathtub's worth on the high side.

So anyway. Is sea water usable instead of fresh water in power plants? 

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Green Star State"

In an influential article in Texas Monthly and in a series of lectures, UT Engineering Prof. Michael Webber argues that Texans, who by an undeserved twist of good fortune, led the world into the carbon-burning age, may well be the ones who are doubly fortunate to lead us out.

Webber so argued today at this month's monthly talk at The Austin Forum, a series of public talks held at the TACC/UTIG facility where I work, and I attended.

He doesn't mince words:
Despite the general perception of our energy consumption, Texas is already doing much more to promote clean energy than the world realizes. For example, we created the nation’s first comprehensive municipal green-building program (in Austin) and the first technology incubator designed explicitly to encourage clean energy start-ups. Our biggest impact has been the aggressive use of renewable electricity—we were one of the first states to establish a renewable portfolio standard, which requires that a certain percentage of an energy company’s power generation come from renewable sources. Today half the states have something similar, following, to their surprise, in the footsteps of Texas (and Nevada). The renewable portfolio has been a huge success, leading us to create the largest installed base of wind capacity in the nation, about 9,000 megawatts, nearly three times as much as second-place Iowa. Our quick ramp-up of wind farms has pushed the U.S. ahead of every other nation, including Germany, the former leader, in terms of installed renewable capacity.

One of the ironies is that in Texas, our lack of concern about the environment enables us to do great things for the environment. You hardly need permission to build a wind farm here, and your neighbors cannot sue you for blocking their view. It’s much more difficult in environmentally inclined states like Massachusetts or California, where activists worry about the impact of the turbines on wildlife and ocean vistas. We don’t mind raising wind turbines, building transmission lines, or laying pipelines, all key advantages for renewable energy, which is diffuse by nature and requires vast tracts of land and sprawling infrastructure to be effective. Texas has a long history of trading blight for money. Why stop now?
He also notes that by a combination of extensive experience in big energy, geographic enormity, and dumb luck, Texas is well-positioned for wind, solar and biomass. While it is not obviously dominant in any of these categories it is easily the best positioned to move resources among the three. Also, not only does Texas have good geological formations for carbon sequestration, Texas also has the companies with experience running CO2 pipelines and pumping it underground.

I think a strong majority in the audience, myself included, agreed with Jeffrey Sachs (This was originally on Grist but several efforts by me today to find it there failed. If David or somebody over there wants me to file a bug report on how the site search went drop me a line. Linked is the Guardian's version.)
That leaves the U.S. with no choice but to develop and use CCS technology, despite the fact that it's never been successfully implemented, he said. Renewable energy sources and improvements in efficiency won't come close to meeting the world's growing energy demand, he said.

"There's no quantitative way to get this right without the nuclear industry playing a really large role," he said. "It's not a happy thought, but it's unavoidable."
Well, agreed except for the "never successfully implemented". Hey. Guys. We do it all the time. We have CO2 pipelines runnin all over WesTixes and N'Mexico.

There was some CO2/greenhouse skepticism in the audience, but it was polite and intelligent, for which I am grateful.

Most of the Austin Forum talks have been excellent, by the way. July's is being given by me. Y'all come.