"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hansen Book

Press release:

The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity

by James Hansen

At the Copenhagen Climate Conference (December 7-18, 2009), one expected guest will be noticeably absent. Dr. James Hansen’s groundbreaking research on climate over the last thirty years has been startlingly accurate—research that is now accepted as irrefutable proof of global warming. But he has decided to sit out the conference in protest.

In his first book on the subject, STORMS OF MY GRANDCHILDREN, Hansen argues that we no longer can accept the greenwash of politicians and world leaders (i.e. those assembling in Copenhagen next month). Greater grassroots efforts must help mobilize the masses, even through acts of civil resistance, for the sake of our children and their children. STORMS is the blueprint for that action.

James Hansen is best known for his accurate predictions about global warming since the 1980s, as well as his advising Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth. He is a frequent expert witness on Capitol Hill and the subject of numerous articles and profiles (including a recent feature piece by The New Yorker). He was also notoriously censored by the Bush administration for speaking out on global warming and the need to curtail carbon emissions. The book recounts this experience.

Though a vocal critic of public policy and author of several supporting papers, he has never before written a book on the subject of climate change. The title refers to his growing concerns about the world his grandchildren may inhabit if we do not do all in our power to address man-made pollution to the atmosphere. The book brings together three decades of research to explain for a general readership the science behind global warming.

It is also an impartial challenge to politicians globally—on either end of the spectrum—to accept the reality of the science and take the necessary steps to forestall further damage to the environment.

Dr. James Hansen is perhaps best known for bringing global warming to the world’s attention in the 1980s, when he first testified before Congress. An adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and at Columbia’s Earth Institute, and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, he is frequently called to testify before Congress on climate issues. Dr. Hansen’s background in both space and earth sciences allows a broad perspective on the status and prospects of our home planet. This is his first book.

"When the history of the climate crisis is written,

Hansen will be seen as the scientist with the most powerful and consistent voice calling for intelligent action to preserve our planet's environment."

— Al Gore on James Hansen (from Time magazine)

Note that Stephen Schneider has a new book out too (h/t Stoat).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Primate Change Denialism

H/T the infamous P Z Myers

An Interesting Gripe

Never one to shy away from sticking his neck out, Ray Pierrehumbert (aka Raypierre) has actually submitted a top level article to Dot Earth. Ray's follow-up comment is especially interesting.
There is so much uninformed comment here I don't know where to begin. So many people are complaining about the "open-ness" of climate modelling, when in fact it is just about the most open area of science there is -- certainly more open than the economic modeling used to make trillion dollar decisions routinely. People complain about data sets not being released, when the data in question represents only a tiny slice of the total. You can get virtually all of the data from public sources. And do you want to see what's in a climate model? The algorithms used in the models are all documented in the peer reviewed literature. For most of the key models, you can get the source code and technical documentation and look at it for yourself -- many of the models even will run to some extent on a laptop.

So before you go on declaring a fatwa against climate scientists, why not take some time to get to know us? What we are like, and the way we do our work, bears no resemblance to the hateful cartoon you are pitching. And what do you think any of us would have to gain from a conspiracy to distort climate data anyway? If we were interested in making money, we could do it a lot more easily by just becoming investment bankers. Most of us are in this because we think the world is facing real peril, and we want to understand the nature of that peril better. A better world for my grandchildren to live in. Your grandchildren, too. Everybody's grandchildren, everywhere. Is that something to hate us for?
Now it's especially interesting to me because I do know Ray. I have confidence in his moral integrity and tremendous admiration for his intellectual capacity and domain knowledge. The trouble with this "getting to know Ray" (or someone like Ray) algorithm that Ray proposes is that, as any computational person worth his salt will immediately point out, it doesn't scale worth a damn. It is an effective technique at small scale, though, and I heartily recommend it to those few people who get the chance.

But it's also interesting what response this gets. "Biker Trash" replies
" There is so much uninformed comment here I don't know where to begin. "

Well, let's take a couple of specific examples that illustrate why this might be the case.

" So many people are complaining about the "open-ness" of climate modelling, when in fact it is just about the most open area of science there is -- certainly more open than the economic modeling used to make trillion dollar decisions routinely. "

Let's compare the open-ness of climate science with the degree of open-ness of the independent review and verification of, the Yucca Mountain Project, the certification of passenger aircraft by the FAA, construction of a nuclear power plant by the NRC, approval of a new drug by the FDA, construction of bridges, elevators, buildings, and many other cases that effect the health and safety of the public. This is the standard for the degree of open-ness required for all decisions that have the potential to effect the health and safety of the public.

Consider the Yucca Mountain Project. Every calculation, every piece of data, every detailed aspect of the independent review and verification of this project is online and accessible to anyone. Every nitty-gritty detailed part of every aspect without exception; http://ymp.gov/. Note that the basis of the Yucca Mountain Project is a natural process, directly analogous to that of climate science.

The same degree of open-ness is true for construction of nuclear power plants; check the NRC Web site; http://www.nrc.gov/reactors.html. The complete independent review and verification, not the extremely limited and incomplete information that appears in peer-reviewed literature, is publicly available.

Where is the documentation that the procedures and processes used to ensure that independent review and verification of climate science results have been properly applied. Where is the documentation of the procedures and processes that are required to be applied.

" And do you want to see what's in a climate model? The algorithms used in the models are all documented in the peer reviewed literature. "

The phrase, "the peer reviewed literature" is not very specific and the climate science literature is enormous. We have been told several times the same thing that you say here. Several people have tried to find the following information without success. Because climate science is your field of expertise and experience you could save us hours and hours of additional time if you could give at least a hint or two having more specificity.
BT goes on a bit of a tangent about computational fluid dynamics; an understandable and informed error. Many people think of climate physics as primarily a classical problem in fluid dynamics; they are misinformed in some fundamental ways that few people are qualified to explain in a way that will be acceptable to those within the field and convincing to those outside it. I have tried with very limited success and I won't try again just now. (In short, getting the fluid dynamics right to high order is not among the key problems. We aren't trying to solve a well-specified system. We are trying to specify the system.)

But the part of the complaint above, as far as I am concerned, is perfectly valid. Given the importance of climate modeling, one would expect a more rigorous and contemporary development process. Steve Easterbrook (along with his student Jon Pipitone) is the first person I know from the software engineering community to really take the development process of these models at face value and understand the some of the constraints that make the codes work the way they do. But Steve is just scratching the surface. There are efforts from within the community to improve matters, but I am among those who find them misguided.

As matters stand, it requires weeks to understand how to effectively run a climate model on a supported machine, and typically months to get it working on a new one. The success rate closely depends on how well integrated into the community one finds oneself. An outsider downloading a few blocks of code with no guidance will get nowhere.

So Ray's claim of openness reminds me of the part in the Hitchhiker's Guide where the bureaucrat defensively stated that Arthur's public condemnation had been duly publicized when the notice was in a locked cabinet in an unlit basement in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying "beware of the tiger!"

The thing is, climate scientists don't expect better, and never have seen much better. The fact is that despite the endlessly inflating claims of billions of dollars going to climate science, the software engineering staff on the leading American climate model has been reduced from eight to six, with the cuts coming from user support and documentation. This is why CCSM, though on release 3.1, is only documented to 3.0, and that only badly.

Yes, it's true, it's a trillion dollar problem, but the annual budget for studying it (once you subtract all the impact studies and the ecological observation programs and the satellite launches and satellite base stations, all very valuable but not what most people think of as climate science, and get right down to what is actually climate science) is about that of a high-profile Hollywood movie, and that for model development and maintenance on each individual model is far less. From 2003-2008 NCAR had to lay off approximately 55 people and lost another 77 positions due to attrition, totaling roughly 16% of NCAR positions, because of sub-inflationary NSF funding and decreases in other agency support. (Statement of program reductions at NCAR).

Here's a presentation of how NCAR is meeting a 9 million dollar shortfall this year. (PDF)

Yes, the support for the software used in climate science sucks. I promise you I hate it more than you do. Maybe if you all would stop treating climate science as a heinous enemy and supported improvements, or hell, even complete rewrites, things would get better.

What you see is what we get every bit as much as it is what you get. The climate community should stop pretending to any practical openness; in fact the only way to play is to sign up for a tour of duty. This is not because we are hiding anything. It is because we lack the resources (and to some extent the skills) to do any better. What is perceived as an intent to hide is mostly an incapacity to elucidate, exacerbated by some excesses of competitive zeal which come from a tightly competitive grants process.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fighting Bad Science

One of the issues with how the UEA emails are perceived is whether the reader understands the context of the dubious pseudoscience and constant harassment the field faces. If you understand that, the emails are understandable and mostly excusable. If you don't, if you think that normal science is being stymied, then you come away with a very different impression.

For some reason I've been bcc'ed on a conversation among scientists about a different controversy in climate science. I will go so far as to reveal text that says nothing about the underlying issue (about which I am not qualified to comment). I will say that the topic has bubbled up a little bit in the popular press over the last few weeks.
I have heard from several of you and there seems to be some support for going forward with a letter to ****[journal]. This will be foremost designed to correct the two reports' critical and blatant errors, politely, while supporting the broad validity of most of what is contained in those reports. And furthermore, showing in general terms that ****[topic] is complex; it is not a simple picture, as many people have said. This paper will avoid details of ****[dataset] data analysis, and other analysis which is prone to be controversial, nuanced, complex in its own right, and not needed to correct the two reports' errors. Finally, but importantly, this paper will be a call to buttress peer review in ****[field] literature, which has mostly been the usual course, but in too many cases has not been. We are all shocked by the errors. A key, however, I think is to not cast blame to any degree not required to explain what the errors are and how the errant statements relate to other components of these documents that are for the most part correct. This paper will not delve into the science details much, just enough to make the points. So people who have papers in prep or in review need not fear that they will be scooped. This will be as short a paper as possible, to the point. With team effort in writing, we can get it out.
I do think time is critical, because we cannot have a situation where politicians or the media are correcting our communal errors for us, then risking further blanket condemnation of otherwise very good (not perfect) and important documents, such as IPCC 4th Assessment.

Several points here. First, there is crap getting into real journals. I don't think Oreskes' unanimity holds anymore. Second, real scientists' time is being taken up by the necessity for responding to the crap. Thirdly, responding to the crap is contrary to the scientists' self interest (time, fear of being "scooped").

Fourthly, scientists are still at pains to avoid "blame" and stick to genuine logical and evidence-based argumentation. No matter how egregious the nonsense, the rules require it be responded to in the same journal, and only the rebuttal rather than any concerns about the underlying process, may be represented there. This doesn't mean the community remains unaware of the problems. It does mean there is no public record of what the community actually thinks. This ties into climategate directly. People in the field know real challenges from bullshit. Outsiders have no such context.

Also interesting is the unlevel playing field. Scientists' time has always been divided and motivations have always had a multiplicity. Anti-science has no such constraints; its motivations are simple and easily measured.

Coping with anti-science is just one more log on the fire for real scientists. Among its other nasty attributes, anti-science functions as a filibuster technique. It appears that once a science comes up with a result that requires a social response, far from becoming more lucrative and pleasant, that field is going to become nasty and financially unstable.

Update: Another example of filibustered science. This paper would never have been written in a world where the greenhouse policy controversy either didn't exist or had already been politically resolved. Nor would GRL have published it. From a scientific point of view it is totally redundant.

On another front

We'll return to climategate and its lessons shortly.

Meanwhile, I know this is King of the Road bait, almost as much as if I'd mentioned Bill Maher, but James Kunstler starts the day making sense:
I'm not one of the economists that Mr. Krugman talks to (nor am I an economist). But it's sure interesting to know that the ones palavering with Mr. Krugman imagine that that the US can possibly return to an economy based on the fraudulent securitization of reckless debt. Does Mr. Krugman think that the production housing industry can resume paving over the nether exurbs with half-million-dollar houses (to be bought with no money down loans by the sheet-rockers working inside them)? Does he think all those people receiving cancellation notices from their credit card issuers are in a position to flash their plastic at the Gallerias this Friday? Or ever will be again? Is he perhaps misusing the term "recovery?" After all, that is generally taken to mean resuming a prior state, which is, in turn, presumed to be a healthy prior state. Is that what the economy of the past decade was? And, incidentally, what exactly is a "consumer?" And why, at the highest levels of journalism in this land, do we refer to citizens that way? As if the American people have no other purpose except to buy things? Or is that that the only way an "economist" can imagine them?

I'm sorry to burden the reader with so many questions, but the idiots running the mainstream news media in this land are not doing it and somebody has to.

If a "recovery" is not in the cards, then what exactly is going on out there?

What's going on in the US economy is a slow-motion convulsion from which we will emerge as a very different nation with a different economy. The wild irresponsibility of the media in pretending otherwise is only going to make the convulsion worse, more painful, more socially and politically destructive.

He then goes into lots of stuff I find dubious at best, much of it flat wrong, and sometimes quite objectionable. But the conclusion still resonates with me:
At the moment, going into Thanksgiving 2009, America's leadership has dedicated itself to worst action it could take under the circumstances: a campaign to sustain the unsustainable. This is what's embodied in the foolish term "recovery." The way we try to explain things to ourselves matters, if we don't want to be crushed by history.
Make no mistake. Geithner should get a ticker tape parade like John Glenn. Statues should be put up to him everywhere. He and Obama brought us back from what might well have been a vast and sudden catastrophe. The lack of appreciation for Geithner's achievement is absolutely grotesque. He should be strewn with medals and prizes.

And then he should be fired. Summarily dismissed. The short term crisis is brilliantly resolved, and now the core economic problem is not about restoring the status quo, but about moving to a new, sustainable arrangement. Geithner has no way of knowing how to do this. He probably doesn't even understand the problem.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

For Science, Against Opposing Anti-Science

Too long for the quote of the week, the following is quoted verbatim from "The Religious Case Against Belief" by James Carse. I think it reflects very clearly on the difficulties we are having. It is crucial that science not be cast as a "belief system", because that simply stiffens the spine of the anti-science movement. It is crucial (er, make that essential) that science be correctly seen as process, not incorrectly as allegiance.
If [Luther and Emperor Charles V] had agreed ... or if the emperor had been indifferent ... the trial would not have been held and we would have heard nothing about the views of the pope. There would have been no mention of this belief at all; it would not even have appeared to be a belief. In other words, the act of belief is always an act against; it requires an opponent who holds the contrary belief.

This feature of belief is hardly limited to Christianity. How could there be Sunnni Muslims if there were no Shia? Would Israeli settlers have been so vocal in declaring G-d's promise considering the land of Judea and Samaria if Palestinians had not thought it was they to whom it belonged? Could American Patriots have flourished during the cold war in the absence of their Soviet counterparts?

Belief systems thrive in circumstances of collision. For every believer there is a nonbeliever on whom the believer is focused, whose resistance is carefully delineated. We could go so far as to say that belief is so dependent on the hostile other that it may need to stimulate the other's active resistance. Belief has a confrontational element built into itself that is essential to its own vitality. If believers need to inspire fellow believers to hold firmly to their position, they need just as much to inspire nonbelievers to hold to theirs.

For this reason, belief systems are territorial. They stand off from all others and rarely do they overlap. (Note how often countries go to war, or threaten war, over disputed boundaries - Kosovo, Taiwan and Kurdistan, for example, or for that matter the American Civil War.) They act variously as factions, states, blocs, interest groups, parties, ethnicities, and schools of thought. Each of these has its comprehensive network of beliefs that offers a thorough analysis and assessment of itself and its opponents. Even self-defined ethnic groups have more than just a (presumed) shared genetic heritage; they have developed a convincing characterization of their persecutors, and they have elaborate explanations for their superiority or purity and detailed histories that justify it all. Just as they share with most other varieties of belief system a panoply of heroes and martyrs, sacred sites, scriptural texts, and binding rituals, their rivals fall under similar, but reversed characterizations. They are schismatics, breakaway groups, racists, apostates, fallen backsliders, subversives, false ideologues, forces of evil, aggrandizing powers, intolerant majorities, all of whom are dedicated to the repression and destruction of one's own group of believers. They are in every respect other, but in this case a hostile other.

Second, because belief is always belief against, it is itself an act of unbelief. Itis the active refusal to take a rival position. To believe something, one must disbelieve something. Each belief must not only have an opponent; it must have an opponent whose disbeliefs are a perfect match. For this reason, each is largely defined by its opposite. If beliefs die when their opposition disappears, they are obliged to mimc any changes the opposition makes of itself. Belief and unbelief are therefore locked into mutual self-creation. Imagine if Luther, under the urging of the emperor and the attending theologians, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Fine. I can alter my position to accord with yours." Should they still be determined to call him a heretic, they must then search out a new issue over which they can nourish their rejection of each other. Failing that, whatever the content or the intensity of their beliefs, the act of believing becomes meaningless.


What better example can we offer than the way that the great belief systems of our age have painstakingly elaborated a portrait of their rivals. The Nazis presented a detailed account of the worldwide domination of "Jewish bankers" whose only goal was the economic subjugation of the rest of the earth. Radical Muslim sects have an almost farcical view of the "Zionist" program against Islam. In the United States, radical underground military groups find evidence everywhere that the government is developing a hidden couterforce to steal their freedoms. Conspiracy theories often operate in the conflicted encounter of belief systems. In American politics the opposing parties are as much antiliberal and anticonservative as they are liberal and conservative. Even a Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia, dissenting in a case that rejected the Texas law forbidding sodomy, referred to what he called "the homosexual agenda".

The point I wish to stress here is that in this case we have gone far beyond disagreement, even byond outright collision; both sides depend on the other to know what they believe. They are joined in a kind of compact that freezes them to a stable self-understanding consisting of a reverse image of the other. There is no middle ground, no dialogue that could result in modified doctrine and practice.
Do you see Marc Morano in there? I sure as Shinola do. Marc wants us to play advocate's devil while he play's devil's advocate. It's all too easy of a trap to fall into. Look at what the well-intentioned P Z Myers and Richard Dawkins do constantly in their ironic crusade for atheism. They play the game perfectly, making victory over superstition impossible by falling into the trap of absolutism and tribalism. (Of course, this dynamic is aided by the fact that they genuinely see nothing of value in their opponents' position. I would say that anyone who sees nothing at all of value in their opponents' position should refrain from arguing with them as they will thereby serve their opposition's purposes as much as their own.)

Every time we fall into the polarization trap we abandon science and slip into antisocial politics. We can't win the cause for reason by falling into unreasoned antipathy. We have to convince people that we are not who the opposition says we are, that indeed the position the opposition opposes does not exist. The first step is to avoid becoming who they say we are, regardless of the provocation.

Update: This is very much apropos why people on the fence find the UEA emails so off-putting.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Viaduct? Vy not?

Talk about playing "gotcha".

Regular readers are likely to be aware of the release of a huge mass of illegally obtained emails among leading climate scientists of the observational stripe. RealClimate, I think, handled it nicely.

A lot of attention is being placed on Phil Jones'
Once Tim’s got a diagram here we’ll send that either later today or
first thing tomorrow.

I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps
to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from
1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline. Mike’s series got the annual
land and marine values while the other two got April-Sept for NH land
N of 20N. The latter two are real for 1999, while the estimate for 1999
for NH combined is +0.44C wrt 61-90. The Global estimate for 1999 with
data through Oct is +0.35C cf. 0.57 for 1998.
I have never been one to defend the caginess about data and methods that the century-scale data folk are alleged to have; I don't have enough information myself either to defend them or to accuse them.

But the purportedly damning quote is obviously being misused.

I don't think anybody is hiding any evidence or tricking any audience. The word "trick" is to be understood as a programmer would understand "hack"; a clever shortcut. And the word "hide" is almost surely meant as "filter" meaning "the thing we want to do with this data is hard because there is another signal there hiding the one we are looking for, but we can subtract it out for the purpose at hand". It would seem to be about the minutiae of data processing, not about hiding data for publication or subverting a published result.

There is a lot to think about here, some of it both subtle and important. But I think the words "trick" and "hide" are being taken out of context. I believe that they are used here as part of ordinary day-to-day innocent data processing back-and-forth, and do not mean what they are being taken to mean.

It's a travesty that the fate of the world is being reduced to word games.

Update: Big hat tip to Greenfyre for noticing this, an excellent answer to this burst of noise:
Shocker! Isaac Newton's correspondence examined: the final nail in the coffin of Renaissance and Enlightenment 'thinking'!

Update: on a more serious note, an excellent comment by "Andrew" on RealClimate.

Thursday, November 19, 2009



Best Enviro Toon Ever!

Easter Bunny Island is now available in livid color.

Jobs, Not Tree!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Melting Ohio Daily

So this droll item, apparently unveiled by Jay Leno, is making the rounds, which makes it a perfect opportunity for an exercise with large numbers.

Let's start with what we can glean about Enco's production in 1962. We can then compare it with modern production of its more or less descendant corporation Exxon/Mobil.

Presumably the copywriter was trying to inflate the number in the first place, to make it more impressive. This would mean that all the ice was already at the freezing point, and all the energy was going to latent heat of fusion. The latent heat of fusion of water ice is 334 kJ/kg according to Wikipedia. Now a ton is a thousand kg, hence we are talking 334 MJ/ton, or for the 7 million tons, 334 x 7e6 MJ per day = 2.3 billion MJ. Now a barrel of oil contains about 6100 MJ, (confirmed here) so we are talking about production of 2.3e9/6.1e3 = 390 thousand barrels.

1962 world oil production was 23 million barrels per day. This is not that big a fraction for Humble/Enco, and perhaps refers only to energy sold in the US market.

And how much ice are we talking about? It's really hard to visualize "7 million tons". Let's use the standard metric of area, the American football field, (a bit under half the size of a typical professional soccer/euro-football field) which is 120 yards x 160 ft. I'll cheat and call yards meters, close enough for this kind of an exercise. OK, so we are covering the field in ice to a depth of hmm, 7,000,000/(120*(160/3)) = 1092 yards. (Update: Corrected; see comments.)

Or make it 1092 football fields to a depth of a yard. (Update: corrected too. My football fields were oversized. Shows how much attention I pay to football.)

Or, to make it easy, in 1962, Humble melted 3.5 km x 2 km or over two and a half square miles covered waist deep in solid ice. That was one company's modest contribution in 1962.

Consider, instead, total oil production today. That's 73 million barrels, or 220 times the number in the ad. If all that energy went into melting ice, it would melt 550 square miles to a depth of a meter daily, an area slightly larger than all the boroughs of New York City combined, or almost as large as London, or about twice the size of Toronto, or more than fifteen times the size of Paris.

But, of course, none of this takes into account the irony of the thing, which is that the side effect of the oil melts much more ice than the oil does itself. The exact multiplier is somewhat problematic, because carbon is forever. Some part of the CO2 you emit hangs around for millenia warming the earth. This can end up as a really scary quantity, a multiplier in the thousands. On the other hand, that heat is diluted, and what the distant future holds is hard to know. Let's stick to a planning horizon of a century, where the calculations are clearer.

I'll defer to Ray Pierrehumbert on this one. "by the time a hundred years have passed, the heat trapped each year from the CO2 emitted by using coal instead of solar energy to produce electricity is 125 times the effect of the fossil fuel waste heat." According to a neutral arbiter (a natural gas promotion site) oil has a 20% advantage over coal in carbon intensity. Which brings us neatly to a factor of 100.

So how much ice (assuming it were already at the freezing point) would that melt if it were all released at once? Well, the world's daily production of oil, with all the heat released at once, would melt 55,000 square miles of ice of a depth of a meter. This is larger than North Carolina or New York State, and a tiny bit smaller than Iowa, but I've fudged a few figures here and there so let's make it more like Ohio or Virginia to be on the safe side.

That is, the indirect warming associated with each day's production of petroleum could melt an area of meter-thick ice covering a mid-sized state.

A bit less than a tenth of this, or about the size of Connecticut, is directly attributable to Exxon/Mobil refineries. This is nearly 2000 times more than their proud claim of 1962 asserted.

Fortunately 1) not all the heat goes into melting ice 2) not all the ice is pre-warmed up to the melting point 3) the real ice sheets are thousands of times thicker than the one we imagined covering Ohio and 4) a lot of this warming is delayed decades into the future.

Unfortunately, we're not considering the coal, the natural gas, the direct methane releases, or the methane or CO2 feedbacks. What's more, the delay mentioned in point 4 above is going to come back to bite us later on. We are doing more damage than we perceive. Much more.

PS, Any Texans feeling smug should consider that a Texas sized portion of meter thick ice could be melted in a work week, leaving two more mid-sized states for the weekend. An area the size of the entire US could be thawed in less than three months by the contribution to anthropogenic warming over that same period.

PPS, Ken Caldeira as quoted by Joe Romm comes up with a factor of 100,000 rather than 100. In other words, a thousand times worse. My intuition is squawking about this multiplier being too high.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Snake eyes.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Make the Invisible Visible

We must make the invisible visible. We must make the vastness perceptible. We must make the alien familiar. We must make the implausible plausible. We have no other choice.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Arctic Sea Ice




Scary plot from treehugger

Less scary plot from NSIDC

Non-scary plot from Meteorology News

All show the SAME DATA.

A nice presentation by CalTech postdoc Ian Eisenman today on the possibility of a genuine Arctic Sea Ice tipping point. Not a "tipping point" but a tipping point. The stuff that was once known as "catastrophe theory" but which really just comes down to hysteresis.

A hysteresis is like driving around Madison Wisconsin: the way from A to B has no resemblance to the way from B to A. If Greenland melts due to a little warming, it will take a LOT of cooling to grow the ice sheet back. Or as Lech Walesa once said, it is easier to make a fish soup from an aquarium than to make an aquarium out of a fish soup. (By which he was referring, of course, to Poland's emergence from communism, which has an unfavorable hysteresis.)

Does something like this apply to sea ice? The argument is that a little more CO2 will melt enough ice that the Arctic albedo will DECREASE (was "increase", corrected. See comments.) enough to melt more ice, such that once one crosses a certain threshhold, the Arctic would suddenly warm all of its own, and it would take a huge cooling push to get sea ice back.

Eisenman has a simple energy balance model which has convinced him that 1) yes, it's possible and 2) no it's a long way into the future, above 4xCO2. He finds that most of the Winter sea ice needs to be gone before a small increase in forcing flips the Arctic Ocean really into a warm state where it becomes impossible to restart the ice cycle without a very large reversal of the forcing.

He made two very interesting points related to the sea ice trends.

The charts we see show much more decline in summer sea ice than in winter sea ice. But it happens that the latitudes of winter-only sea ice are mostly covered in land. If you plot, instead of ice area, the latitudinal extent of sea ice, you actually get very similar declines for all seasons.

Secondly, the 2007 anomaly that everybody got all excited about wasn't as spectacular as it looks. Five or six comparable anomalies have occurred on the latitude metric, just in other seasons. It's simply the fact that the 2007 anomaly occurred in the season of the sea ice minimum that it jumps out visually. It's a display of quantitative information question. Plots of annual ice minimum looked really scary in in late '07, but other ways of looking at the data much less so.

None of this is to say the ice isn't in decline, nor that we won't have ice free summers soon. It is to say that the scare of 2007 was a bit overblown and that though there may well be a tipping point in the Arctic, it's fairly far off at present, at least in Eisenman's opinion.

The guts of the talk are here at PNAS if you can access that. He made many other interesting points in an engaging and enlightening talk. A first rate presentation and in my opinion a first-rate hire for the department that gets him.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Deficit of Record Cold, Surfeit of Inexpertise

Dot Earth reports
Scientists sifting for trends in record high and low temperatures across the United States have found more evidence of long-term warming of the climate, with the biggest shift coming through a reduction in record low nighttime temperatures. That is a pattern long predicted by climate scientists using computer simulations.
Nevertheless, comment #2 reads, in full:
re: "with the biggest shift coming through a 'reduction' in record low nighttime temperatures."

That is evidence for land change usage, not an increase in CO2 concentrations.
I replied:
The first place to look for observational confirmation among extreme events would indeed be a smaller incidence of nighttime record lows without an accompanying increase of daytime record highs.

Record lows occur on clear nights when the surface radiates to space and the surface cools quickly. Greenhouse gases directly interfere with that process. Therefore all else equal less severe low temperatures are to be expected.

Climate models of every stripe, as far as I know, generally agree that this is the case.

On the contrary, direct heating equally would increase both record highs and record lows, not substantially affecting the proportion.

It is because the first order effect of CO2 is to suppress surface cooling rather than to enhance surface warming that this is indeed a reasonable place to look for observational confirmation.

Comment #2, being among the earliest comments, is likely to be widely read. Already it has been recommended by 3 readers. This site does not allow for a thumbs down vote, nor for extra weight on actually informed opinion. Thus, Dot Earth, despite the best of intentions, contributes to the vast array of misinformation on the subject.

We need ways to filter information based on the competence of the speaker to address the subject at hand. I am sure "Mac" knows things about which I am ignorant, would be ill at ease to see me making wild guesses about such topics, and very uncomfortable seeing them gain prominence by the approval of people who share my ill-informed prejudices.

It would be appropriate if "Mac" expressed himself with an appropriate level of humility for his knowledge on the subject, and the "recommenders" who must be equally ill-informed did the same. Since people lack such restraint, and since the supply of inexpertise is vastly larger than the supply of expertise, the public is making very poorly informed judgments about this issue and others where complex information is at issue and genuine expertise should matter.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nice Throbgoblin's Pieces

Easter Bunny Island ("Jobs Not Tree!") remains my all time favorite of Throbgoblin's, but this one is certainly apropos:

I'd prefer if Cantankerous Frank's expression of exasperation that appears at the end of each story could be drawn in a bit more of an understated way, sort of like a Charlie Brown sigh. I guess that's quibbling, but Frank really ought not to be surprised by this sort of thing anymore. This time, it is consistent with the storyline, though, which may be part of why I like this one. That and, well, that it's true.

Speaking of surprise, TG also has a cosmic mind-bending three-parter with a clever punchline this week called "Imagine my surprise!"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Very Slow News

I've been casting about, recently, for how to express what I mean about the three kinds of non-delusional climate blogs, and what the difference between them might be, in such a way as not to make unnecessary enemies, but also to promote this kind of one, which in the long run I assert is much more important than the other two kinds.

OK, on the one hand we have old-line journalism, which seeks something it calls "fairness". It's a very American concept and it's based on a vanished and perhaps somewhat mythical past when America had two vaguely stodgy, more or less responsible, and from a distance not easily distinguishable political parties, called "Coke" and "Pepsi". Sorry, called "McDonald's" and "Wendy's". So the journalist would be called upon to parse the smallish difference between the two, everyone would color between the lines, and all was well in Happy Valley. (No grumblers or malcontents, you understand.) These guys are playing a game which no longer makes much sense, not only as a business model but also as a social model, now that one of the two parties is ideological, stubborn, and reluctant to face reality, while the other is certifiably insane.

This odd neutrality is an American model of journalism. You won't find much of the sort coming from elsewhere. Clearly in this class are Keith Kloor, Andy Revkin, and my favorite of this ilk, John Fleck.

On the other hand, we have advocacy journalism. After dismissing the people who are totally wrong on the facts, we find ourselves dominated by Joe Romm's Climate Progress. There's also David Roberts, Brad Johnson, and that sort. Often worth reading, but not of my tribe.

What they are trying to do doesn't seem like what I'm trying to do, or what Eli is trying to do, never mind what the purists like Tamino and Maribo and Grumbino are trying to do. So what is the difference? All of us are in favor of rapid, dramatic, effective and permanent changes in public behavior. But what we write about and how we write about it is different.

Then there's the question as to why Climate Progress and Grist get so much more traffic (at least according to Technorati). Now, there's some question as to how to measure that. Alexa puts me "not in the top 100,000" with Climate Progress at about 12,000th while Technorati has me at a respectable #2598 with Climate Progress at #264. Finally, I have 172 subscribers in Google Reader, while Joe has 1363. So in general, it seems he has about 8 to 10 times the traffic I do.

Well, he started out better known, I guess. Though I've been a presence on the net forever, net pioneers don't automatically get that much momentum from it. I think the issue is this: what Romm produces is newsy.

All of this is pretty much a reprise of the previous article. So what's new? A couple of things.

First is the recent coverage of pushback to Waxman-Markey. Like many people, I've always been suspicious of the climate bill passing through Congress, not because it's "too weak", but because it's too messy. It seemed put together in a hurry and intended to buy people off, to incur huge unnecessary costs and likely to create huge unproductive hard-to-stop cash flows of exactly the sort that cause people to be suspicious of government. But I was urged by fans of the bill to keep my mouth shut on the grounds that I didn't know whereof I was speaking. Except that sure enough, now people who know whereof they speak say, well, that it was put together in a hurry and intended to buy people off, it incurs huge unnecessary costs and it will create huge hard-to-stop cash flows of exactly the sort that cause people to be suspicious of government.

But still, we are urged to keep our traps shut, on the grounds that "the incumbent party always loses midterm elections", it will be many years before "we" have similar supermajorities in the house, and therefore "this is the best we can do".

And I think we finally divide ourselves newsies and non-newsies, into people who believe this makes a whit of sense and those who don't. Non-newsies prefer a public in touch with reality, and are willing to take the time needed to get there. We don't think a "bad bill is better than nothing" because we are not interested in a bill, we are interested in a public which understands the problem and therefore supports the necessary actions. We are interested in a public which would not elect James Inhofe senator from Oklahoma. A tall order, yes, but the fact is that nothing less will work. And if passing a lousy reputation-tarnishing mess reduces CO2 by a few points for a few years until it's torn down in a flourish by a resurgent and still delusional opposition, it won't be worth it in the long run.

Which brings us to today's articles on the concept of slow news, which I suppose is another idea that I won't get credit for, though in this case I was going to steal it from my wife. (I alluded to it briefly here.) Slow news (via the first link in this paragraph), apparently

comes down to this: The faster the news accelerates, the slower I’m inclined to believe anything I hear — and the harder I look for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation.

Call it slow news. Call it critical thinking. Call it anything you want. Give some thought to adopting it for at least some of your media consumption, and creation.

I think that's not enough. Slow news means putting your brain in gear for things that take longer than a news cycle to change, even though the changes are enormous, and rapid on their own terms. Melting glaciers. Plummeting aquifers. Accumulating plastic crap in the ocean. None of these things noticeably worse this week than last, but all dramatically worse than fifty years ago, and all struggling for attention.

The question, then, is not whether Inhofe will be re-elected. It is how the people of Oklahoma came to be superstitious, paranoid, and generally misused by the people they trust, and what we can do about it. It's a tall order, but it comes with a side of sustainability.

Now I know that in a sense this is dreaming. The majority of the people in the world cannot read a graph. I don't know if that is inevitable (I think it isn't) but it is inevitable that not everybody is a scientist, and that not even a scientist can be familiar with all of science.

But we do need social networks that trust the right people. Barring that we're in very bad shape. And tricking people into a 20% carbon reduction along with raiding the treasury was a bad bargain even back when there actually was a treasury. What we need is leadership, not legislation. The legislation will follow if the leadership actually happens.

Maybe, in the end, there are inside-the-beltway blogs and outside-the-beltway blogs. I wish the insiders all the fun and games they desire. But in the long run, we'd better figure out how to get the basic ideas across to the public.

In the short run, I think we're already hosed. The tortoise never starts out ahead.
The image, by the looks of it out of copyright, was lifted from http://www.ltseo.com.au

Monday, November 9, 2009

Austin Streetscape

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cybernetics of Climate - Slides

Here are the slides from the second time I've given a talk by this name.

Update: This has generated enough interest that I will polish the slides and make them more legible and better able to stand alone. Meanwhile, I apologize in particular for the twice-digitized hand-drawn graphic, which you can see here more clearly, and also for the mess the process made of James and Julia's graph, which I will embarrass them by saying is the most important result in climate science of the past decade.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Against Waxman-Markey

A few months ago when some scientists, notably Jim Hansen, and less notably myself, were expressing doubts about cap-and-trade, the more politically active of our acquaintance were urging us to STFU, since we are presumed totally unrealistic about how Washington works. Notably it was David Roberts (in combination with the impenetrability of the bill's language) that convinced me to drop the matter.

Suddenly, David is running a convincing video that makes the exact case that people like Hansen were making in the first place, viz., that the whole cap-and-trade idea is too complicated and legalistic to work, and that the likelihood of market distortions and loopholes was much larger than for a simple tax-and-rebate scheme.

To David's credit, (and not so much to Obama's) this is a free-speech issue for him. The video's authors are on the federal payroll and have been asked to take it down, even though they were explicit about not speaking for their employer.

But I think we ought to pay attention to the substance of what they say, as well.

I think we ought to be in a hurry to get things right, not in a hurry to "do something, anything". It's better to do something next year that works than something this year that backfires.

If the way the video describes things is right, which seems entirely plausible to me, this is classic politics, getting buy-in from enough constituencies by buying them off. Democrats seem to think buy-in through buy-off is the way to get things passed. It reminds me of how I see some real mistakes working in scientific funding, actually. If everybody gets a piece of the pie, there's nobody left to object. Unfortunately we are left, it seems, with action that is only symbolically effective.

OK, the US congress can only do things in odd-numbered years. (They ought to take a leaf from the Texas State Legislature's book, and not bother to show up in election years at all.) So maybe we wait two years. Maybe that will give us time to do something effective. It's not the end of the world, with probability 0.97 or so...

The issue is which path probabilistically yields the best long range outcome. Yes, there are risks with each further delay, but a broken bill is likely as bad as a delay or worse. Now that Copenhagen is not a big deal anymore, there's no real rush to produce a bill in the US. Let's drop Waxman-Markey and its variants, and take our time to try to come up with something that works.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Troubled Transition

Alex Steffen has made a very cogent complaint about the Transition movement. Although I remain a member of the Transition Austin group, I also remain frustrated at its stubborn attachment to small scales and romantic thinking.

A particularly striking example of the problem (and of obtuseness regarding Steffen's complaints) appears here from Carolyn Baker.

Let me state that I remain an admirer of Rob Hopkins and his approach to things. I'm also an admirer and a friend of most of the people I have met through Transition Austin, a very interesting, kind and decent group indeed. That said, I share Alex's frustrations, and perhaps my reply to Ms Baker will clarify things for those who aren't getting it.

My reply, admittedly perhaps just a little overheated, did not pass moderation. (Update: It appeared moments after I posted this!) And I seem to have the ear of some of my most admired Twitter follows on this one, so here it is for what it's worth.
"Spin it as we will, the human race is precariously poised on the
cliff’s edge, hanging by its fingernails. "


"Our challenge is not to try to prevent the collapse of the larger systems"

I couldn't be more thoroughly in disagreement with this. It most certainly
IS our main challenge to prevent the collapse of the larger systems.

Anything else is mystification and begging for disaster. I get the
sense that you are practically begging for the death and suffering of
billions of people on an unprecedented scale just so you can have a
chance to try out your beet and turnip pie recipe.

We don't have a choice but to prevent the collapse. Every single thing
we do has to be directed toward the soft landing, not the
post-apocalyptic scenario. We have to steer, not to bail out, because
there is no lifeboat. If worse comes to worst a few survivors will
probably swim to some distant shore, but the Transition movement will
not get to pick them.

"What do I and my loved ones and my community need to do to prepare? "

You are a free person; what happens is therefore in part up to you.

What you need to do is lend a hand to avoid the catastrophe, not to
"prepare" for it. There is no preparation for the worst case, and if
we do avoid the worst case it won't be because people have been upping
their skills for a preindustrial world that can never be returned to
us. "Preparing" rather than "repairing" is hugely irresponsible.

Please get real. It's like you're in a car falling asleep at the wheel
and your only thought is to make sure your airbag is charged. What you
need to do is to pull over. You need to acknowledge that the tragedies
we might face will be your own fault as much as anyone else's if you
don't bend your will toward avoiding them. I am sorry but I read your
position as deeply and terrifyingly selfish and immoral. I'm sure you
don't think that of yourself, but our responses to the current
predicament couldn't be more different.

Count me with Alex.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Odd Concordance

When Peggy Noonan http://is.gd/4Lb4z and James H Kunstler http://is.g/4Lb6x share an iconoclastic point of view it's worthy of note. It's not surprising that neither is happy with Obama, but it's surprising how similarly they express it.
The most sophisticated Americans, experienced in how the country works on the ground, can't figure a way out. Have you heard, "If only we follow Obama and the Democrats, it will all get better"? Or, "If only we follow the Republicans, they'll make it all work again"? I bet you haven't, or not much.

This is historic. This is something new in modern political history, and I'm not sure we're fully noticing it. Americans are starting to think the problems we are facing cannot be solved.

Part of the reason is that the problems—debt, spending, war—seem too big. But a larger part is that our government, from the White House through Congress and so many state and local governments, seems to be demonstrating every day that they cannot make things better. They are not offering a new path, they are only offering old paths—spend more, regulate more, tax more in an attempt to make us more healthy locally and nationally. And in the long term everyone—well, not those in government, but most everyone else—seems to know that won't work. It's not a way out. It's not a path through.
If you think we have been in a crisis of finance and economy for the past year or so, consider that we have also been sunk in a comprehensive crisis of leadership. Nobody in authority is willing to face the truth, state the truth, and offer a reality-based idea about how to meet the truth, This is a leadership failure not just in politics and government, but also in business, in the university faculties, in the editorial and production offices of the news media, and even among a barely-breathing clergy.

Americans look around and see nobody standing up for their interests. Their greatest interest is a vision of a fruitful society that they can help build and be a part of beyond the current wreckage of revolving-debt consumerism. It will have to be a vision based on fewer resources and on new arrangements for daily living. It will have to recognize losses frankly, and enable us to let go of things whose time is over, whether that is Happy Motoring, college-for-everybody, vast industries devoted to vanished leisure, or procedures geared to getting something-for-nothing.
Can you tell which is which? Well, Kunstler is a little more gonzo in style, so yeah, I guess. But what they're saying is alarmingly similar, isn't it?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

'Tis not Mete. Or is it?

Well, my dog food calculations went awry, as Richard Reiss pointed out in the comments. I slipped a digit.

To recall, there have been recent allegations that having a dog does as much damage as driving a large SUV, on account of the carnivorous habits of the dog. Now there's some question as to how much of the damage due to meat should be attributed to the dog, but even given a proportionate impact by weight, I found at a rough cut that supporting the dog was the equivalent of driving the SUV no more than 5 miles per day. It turns out that my particular calculation was wrong by an order of magnitude, and that it has to be corrected, but it needs to be corrected AWAY from the calculations of Vale & Vale, in favor of the dog. Even fed a diet of sirloin, it appears that the dog's daily impact is on the order of driving about a half mile.

But this leaves me in a quandary. My prior result was in the same ballpark as Eshel & Martin's famous result that personal transportation and personal food consumption in the US are of comparable scale insofar as greenhouse gas impact is concerned. Counting the human as triple the dog, and the vehicle thus as driven 15 miles per day, seemed consistent with that estimate. But now I'm left at a loss, since the meat impact is now coming out as tiny.

And now here comes a Worldwatch white paper claiming that meat dominates transportation!

This level of confusion is ridiculous. How the hell are we supposed to cap and trade stuff that we have such a fuzzy grasp of?

Let's revisit the fuzziest numbers in my calculation. I erred by a factor of 10 in the power consumption of the vehicle going at 40 mph, which I took to be 10KW but was listed at 100KW. The first number seemed more plausible to me, but it;s easy to check. Let's suppose the vehicle is getting 20 mpg. Then it is consuming two gallons of gasoline per hour. Googling "energy per gallon of gasoline" is immediately successful, yielding US gallon = 115000 Btu = 121 MJ along with another handy energy conversion reference page. So I get 33,700 W, neatly splitting the difference between the small number I expected and the large number I should have used!

OK, now it's an extra factor of 3 in favor of the dog (compared with prior calculations). A dog eating ribeye steaks is worth about two miles of SUV travel daily; a human about six.

The per capita mileage in Martin & Eshel was 200 per week, supposedly compatable to human impact, so I have only a factor of five to make up. Still a bit awkward. (Update: And half of that comes back because most people aren't riding SUVs. As Marcus points out in the comments, some of that comes from my neglect of methane and nitrous oxide in the dietary impact. So maybe we are still in the irght ballpark.)

This past weekend I saw a presentation at the Texas Book Fair (at the State Capitol, an innovation for which I have Laura Bush to thank, of all people) on the subject of Texas barbecue as a repository of authentic rural Texas culture. I love Texas barbecue; not the famous places like the Salt Lick, but the still-authentic ones like Black's in Lockhart. It would be a real pity to have to sacrifice this oddly satisfying and evocative bit of authenticity to sustainability. It's just not the same with barbecuing a chicken. Never mind a tofu.

To be sure, there are real ethical issues with even the smallest bit of meat. I don't deny that for a moment. But the environmental ones are new, and they need to be properly calibrated. I'm afraid the numbers are all over the map.

I'm totally unconvinced that the impact of a dog compares to that of an SUV, even lightly driven. My latest calculation moves things a factor of three in further favor of the dog, although to be sure the dog cannot carry as much cargo. But I'd really like to pin down just how guilty I should feel when I bite into a Texas brisket sandwich. Are these pleasures of the blessed or pleasures of the damned? The estimates have way too much variance. This question has a real answer, maybe not within a factor of two, but surely within a factor of fifty!

Let's get quantitative. How many miles in an SUV is a piece of brisket worth? Surely I should feel more guilty that I drove my Prius the thirty miles to Lockhart than that I stopped there for supper?

Oh, yeah, I parked the Prius around the block.

You cain't really pull into Black's in a Prius. It's hoard to expline. Sort of a Tixes thang.

Update 12/31/09: Similar calculations here.