"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Big Big Picture

As usual (sigh) Blogger eats some resolution and screws up the graphic. Click on the image for a somewhat better look.

This is my crude attempt at the Big Big Picture (thanks to Larry Marder for the name) of our actual circumstances, focusing on climate. (There are other slices through it that are equally daunting, and they have similar shapes.)

The point is to think of the world as a feedback control system, with nature as the plant, humans as the feedback loop, and economic behavior as the actuator. Once you think of it this way (as Norbert Wiener himself would attest were he still with us) that vision never quite goes away. Of course, the rigorous mathematics of feedback systems for which Wiener was renowned is very hard to apply at the level of complexity we have here. Nonlinearity is the least of our problems!

Focusing on the carbon dioxide slice of our problem, only one part of the diagram becomes simple. That is CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, which reduces to a single number. All the other pieces of the system are immensely complicated.

Now IPCC working group I deals with the climatology and geochemistry parts of the system. These parts are relatively mature science. I would maintain that at the level of the Big Big Picture these are the best understood components of the system by far. Yet these are the parts that are the target of most of the controversy. Why is this?

It cannot be because the feedback system is working well. If it were, we'd be much more concerned about the great uncertainties in the realm of consequences (WG II) policies (WG III) and journalism and politics (not IPCC's business at all). No, the focus on the physical science, the effort to paint it as a conspiracy, comes from the failure of not-IPCC parts of the system: journalism and politics.

The attention goes to the wrong place because all the impacts flow through the climatology block. If the climatology block is replaced by an open loop, people convince themselves there will be nothing to worry about. Here is where the delusion really strikes. The problem is not the block of climatology as a culture or a profession. The problem is the climate system, which will continue to react whether we continue to study it or not!

Of course, climate change is slow and continuous, and is swamped by the normal variation of seasons and by the ringing of the system as we keep hitting it harder. Perception of climate change is notoriously unreliable. The fact that the change is accelerating doesn't make us, as individuals, better observers of it.

So if the information flow from climate as a discipline is stanched, the effort to come up with a realistic evaluation of our risks at the political level is effectively stymied. This is, in practice, not done at the obvious spot where climatology informs its client disciplines. It's done by journalistic malpractice, disrupting the political process.

There's the inconvenient problem that CO2 chemically disrupts the ocean as well. This opens up a second front of obfuscation, which is now being handled nicely by making a great deal of noise about climate science.

A good understanding of feedback control and a good understanding of the time constants of the components leads to the conclusion that we are entering very dangerous territory, and are now incurring consequences that will not be realized for decades to come. This sort of thing is quite unfamiliar to the political system under the best of circumstances.

Against this model we have a peculiar set of suggestions 1) that climate science has been corrupted in such a way as to grossly misrepresent the scope of likely consequences 2) that a similar corruption applies in marine geochemistry 3) that in the presence of this corruption the appropriate strategy is to treat the sensitivity of the systems to CO2 as near zero and 4) that the best thing to do under such circumstances is to muck around in people's emails and nitpick a few marginal conclusions in reports of the other working groups.

The amazing thing is that great swaths of the press treat this position as something other than what it obviously is, a plague of red herrings from desperate people. I've always thought journalism was important. What we are seeing is not primarily a failure of science. We are seeing a failure of science communication and a victory of malice and slander. We are seeing a situation in which there is a desperate need for journalism to rise to the occasion, and in which there has been, so far, a desperate failure to do so.

Paging Doctor Malthus

Via the remarkable Desdemona Despair site, in case you are feeling too cheerful.

Desdemona informs us:
Indian Photographer Wins the UNCCD International Photo Contest
Bonn, 7 September 2009. Chetan Soni is the first-prize winner of the International Photography Contest of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the secretariat of the Convention, which is based in Bonn, Germany, announced today. The picture depicts a young Indian girl dressed in a colorful blue and orange saree with pot in hand walking through the dry and cracked bed of Kal Bhairav Lake, where she once drew water. Now, she makes a daily journey to fetch water delivered by the National Defence’s trucks, courtesy of the state government of Madhya Pradesh, India.

More Outsiders Getting It Right

This is Walter Russell Mead, from a couple weeks ago in The American Interest
The scientific case for anthropogenic global warming is pretty much what it was three months ago. But the prospects for effective US action to do anything about it have drastically changed. If Congress tries to go forward with cap-and-trade, a volcano of public resistance and Tea Party rebellion will erupt now, and in the current political climate, the environmental side will not be able to prevail.

That is news and it is important news, whether human action is causing dangerous global warming or not.

Readers of the New York Times don’t need to know about all the brouhaha in the British press because a bunch of reporters are trying to bring down the science behind global warming. What they need to know is that a bunch of reporters have succeeded in making the leading figures in the climate change movement look like incompetent, unreliable self-promoters whose evidence cannot be trusted.

Blake writes that I’ve linked ‘uncritically’ to these overheated press reports. I am not linking to endorse the journalistic attacks on climate science; more than once in these posts I’ve restated my own conclusion that the ‘revelations’ don’t affect the core scientific case. But I link to these press reports as evidence of what happens when science meets journalism — especially when the scientists are clueless about the nature of the game being played.

The science hasn’t broken down, but the interface between the scientific process and the political process has broken down completely. The Times needs to report on this not to protect itself against charges of liberal bias, but because it’s an important development on a major issue of great concern to its readers.

The problem, I think, is that like Blake, the Times can only see the story in scientific terms. If an interview like Phil Jones’ interview with the BBC doesn’t break scientific ground, then it’s not newsworthy. If there are a few embarrassing snafus in the IPCC report, that is unfortunate but it is not intellectually serious enough to be a major story.

But climate change has moved beyond the ivory tower. It’s a political issue now and believe me, from a political point of view, Phil Jones’ troubles and his troubled interview have made the news. If you don’t believe me, go watch Fox News and see how the interview is being used.

Let me say this again one last time: the story here is that the movement to stop climate change is being swift-boated right before our eyes. And just as Senator Kerry and the journalistic establishment failed to see the importance of the swift boat attacks and develop a counter strategy early, so the Times along with the climate change establishment is, yet again, missing the boat on a major piece of news.
Unfortunately, seeing the disaster for what it is doesn't seem very common outside the trenches.

Meanwhile, Juan Cole addresses those of us in the trenches:
  1. Every single serious climate scientist should be running a blog. There is enormous thirst among the public for this information, and publishing only in technical refereed journals is guaranteed to quarantine the information away from the general public. ...
  2. It is not your fault. The falsehoods in the media are not there because you haven't spoken out forcefully or are not good on t.v. ...
  3. If you just keep plugging away at it, with blogging and print, radio and television interviews, you can have an impact on public discourse over time. I could not quantify it, but I am sure that I have. It is a lifetime commitment and a lot of work and it interferes with academic life to some extent. Going public also makes it likely that you will be personally smeared and horrible lies purveyed about you in public (they don't play fair-- they make up quotes and falsely attribute them to you; it isn't a debate, it is a hatchet job). ... But if an issue is important to you and the fate of your children and grandchildren, surely having an impact is well worth any price you pay.

Friday, February 26, 2010

How It's Done

This via The Economist, via Deltoid:
For example, a week ago Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, gave an interview to the BBC that was widely described as a debacle. The main reason was that the BBC reporter asked Mr Jones whether he would concede that global warming since 1995 has not been statistically significant. Mr Jones replied: "Yes, but only just," and went on to note that there was a measured global warming of 0.12°C per decade since then, and that it tends to be harder to get statistical significance out of shorter time samples.

This led to a Daily Mail headline reading: "Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995."

Since I've advocated a more explicit use of the word "lie", I'll go ahead and follow my own advice: that Daily Mail headline is a lie. Phil Jones did not say there had been no global warming since 1995; he said the opposite. He said the world had been warming at 0.12°C per decade since 1995. However, over that time frame, he could not quite rule out at the traditional 95% confidence level that the warming since 1995 had not been a random fluke.

Anyone who has even a passing high-school familiarity with statistics should understand the difference between these two statements.
See, Mr. Yulsman, Mr. Kloor, that is how to do it.

Also, the Economist article quotes a commenter lamenting:
Rather than 'taking a stance', newspapers should do [a] better job of describing the nuances of scientific findings. I know I'm being delusional, though. I mean, how many science/engineering graduates go into journalism?
I see no reason in principle why people trained in science should not do journalism.

In practice, the jobs have always been better in science, of course, even though working conditions in both areas have been in rapid decline of late. In terms of value added to society, though, it seems to me that journalism has enormous economic importance. If there were a reliable way for journalists to capture a fraction of their added value, science and technology journalism would be practiced by people with substantial training in their subject areas.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


We have all been here before.

Excerpts from Steven Johnson's remarkable The Invention of Air, a biography of the seminal chemist and founder of the Unitarian Church, Joseph Priestley.

To Priestley, ever the optimist, the controversies of the 1780s seemed like an indisputable sign of progress, both personal and societal. His ideas on religion and politics had reached the level of influence that his natural philosophy had attained during the Leeds years a decade before. ... Yet almost all the core elements from this period of Priestly's life - the coal deposits, the new factory system, the empowered dissenting churches, the revolutions abroad - conspired to produce a kind of dialectical monster that would rise up to take its vengeance on everything that Priestley and his coterie stood for. This was the "Church and King" movement a reactionary and of largely working class men, incited by the conservatrive elites, hostile to change in all its diverse forms ... [Priestley] was the ultimate nemesis for the mobs of Church and King.
Church and King in Birmingham would not fully break free until July of 1791, when the newly formed Constitutional Society - which numbered Priestley among its members - announced plans for a dinner on Bastille Day, welcoming any "friend to freedom" to join them ... A succession of leaflets, handbills, and newspaper adverts rolled in over the next week, inciting tempers on all sides. The most incendiary was a veritable call to arms: "Whatever the modern republicans may imagine, or the regicidal propounders of the rights of men design, let us convince them that there is enough loyalty in the majority of the inhabitants of this country to support and defend their king". ... The Constitutional Society itself took out an advertisement ... reaffirming its belief in the three estates of King, Lords and Commons, without backing down entirely from their support of the French revolt. ... These last minute gestures proved futile.

... The hotel proprietor ... suggested ... they carry on with the dinner, but leave early, before the inevitable trouble started. ... The discovery that they had missed their regicidal foes appeared to pique the mob's anger.

... Within a matter of hours [Priestley's home was burned to the ground]... the library where Priestly had performed magic lantern shows for the Lunar children, the drawing room where Mary and Joseph had played their backgammon, thousands of manuscript pages documenting decades of Priestley's investigations, the laboratory he had lovingly built for himself, along with that unique collection of tools that his Birmingham friends had crafted for him over the years. All of it had been lost to the fire.

... At the King's request three troops of Dragoons had arrived on the 17th to subdue the riot. (Many thought the response time was suspiciously slow.)

... The King's order to send the Dragoons had included this withering remark: "I cannot but feel better pleased that Priestley is the sufferer for the doctrines he and his party have instilled, and that the people see them in their true light." The Times even ran an entirely scurrilous report of the dinner, which falsely placed Priestley at the event, and quoted him raising his glass to "The King's head on a platter."

[At an advanced age, when crossing the ocean was not easy Priestley immigrated to the US, but found to his astonishment that his troubles have followed him, as he became known as a critic of President Adams, who had signed the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts into law.]

... The situation was about to get much worse. Unbeknownst to Priestley, a few weeks before the Alien and Sedition Acts passed, a packet of letters headed for Priestley was captured on board a Danish frigate and leaked to the British press. ... The correspondence addressed Priestley as a committed supporter of the French, and spoke rhapsodically of France's plan to invade England and complete its project of bringing the glories of liberty to all Europe. ... It was entirely a one-sided conversation, but the undeniable impression on reading the letters was that Stone believed he was writing to a friend whose primary allegiances were to the Directoire Executif in Paris above all else.

... William Cobbett published the letters in their entirety, accompanied by scathing editorial commentary and a banner headline "PRIESTLEY COMPLETELY DETECTED". The copy included a direct challenge to Adams: "If this discovery passes unnoticed by the government, it will operate as the greatest encouragement that its enemies have ever received"

Emphasis added. The whole book is great, by the way, and not in the Bill Gates sense of greatness (the lesser greatness that applies to Microsoft products).

Priestley never really got his laboratory rebuilt in America, of course.

Some aspects of the story seem oddly familiar, don't they?

Portrait of Joseph Priestley ca 1794 by Ellen Sharples (1769 - 1849) via Wikipedia

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lack of Consensus

Stolen from Macleodcartoons.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

UNEP - More Ambition Needed

Eppur si sciogle.

UNEP Press Release:
More Ambition Needed if Greenhouse Gases are to Peak in Time, Says New UNEP Report
Pledges Post Copenhagen Unlikely to Keep Temperatures Below 2 Degrees Celsius by Mid Century

Bali (Indonesia), 23 February 2010 - Countries will have to be far more ambitious in cutting greenhouse gas emissions if the world is to effectively curb a rise in global temperature at 2 degrees C or less.

This is the conclusion of a new greenhouse gas modeling study, based on the estimates of researchers at nine leading centres, compiled by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The experts (see notes to editors) suggest that annual global greenhouse gas emissions should not be larger than 40 to 48.3 Gigatonnes (Gt) of equivalent C02 in 2020 and should peak sometime between 2015 and 2021.

They also estimate that between 2020 and 2050, global emissions need to fall by between 48 per cent and 72 per cent, indicating that an ambition to cut greenhouse gases by around three per cent a year over that 30 year period is also needed.

Such a path offers a 'medium' likelihood or at least a 50/50 chance of keeping a global temperature rise at below 2 degrees C, says the new report.

The new study, launched on the eve of UNEP's Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum taking place in Bali, Indonesia, has analyzed the pledges of 60 developed and developing economies.

They have been recently submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) following the UN climate convention meeting in Copenhagen in December.

The nine modeling centres have now estimated how far these pledges go towards meeting a reasonable 'peak' in emissions depending on whether the high or the low intentions are met.

"The expected emissions for 2020 range between 48.8 to 51.2 GT of CO2 equivalent based on whether high or low pledges will be fulfilled," says the report.

The report, as noted earlier, says that in order to meet the 2 degree C aim in 2050, emissions in 2020 need to be between 40 Gt and 48.3 Gt.

Thus even with the best intentions there is a gap of between 0.5 and 8.8Gt of CO2 equivalent per year, amounting to an average shortfall in emission cuts of 4.7 Gt.

If the low end of the emission reduction pledges are fulfilled, the gap is even bigger-2.9 Gt to 11.2 Gt of CO2 equivalent per year, with an average gap of 7.1 Gt says the report How Close Are We to the Two Degree Limit?

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "There are clearly a great deal of assumptions underlying these figures, but they do provide an indication of where countries are and perhaps more importantly where they need to aim."

"There clearly is 'Gigatonne gap' which may be a significant one according some of the modelers. This needs to be bridged and bridged quickly if the international community is to pro-actively manage emissions down in a way that makes economic sense," he added.

"There are multiple reasons for countries to make a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy of which climate change is a key one. But energy security, cuts in air pollution and diversifying energy sources are also important drivers," said Mr Steiner.

"This week at the UNEP GC/GMEF we will also shine a light on the opportunities ranging from accelerating clean tech and renewable energy enterprises to the climate, social and economic benefits of investing in terrestrial and marine ecosystems," he added.

How Close Are We to the Two Degree Limit?-An information note to the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

This paper was prepared by the Chief Scientist of UNEP with input from representatives of the following groups: The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (D. van Vuuren and M. den Elzen), Ecofys (N. Höhne), Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, Germany (M. Meinshausen and J. Rogeli), Climate Analytics (M. Schaeffer), UNEP Risø Centre on Energy, Climate and Sustainable Development, Risø National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy, Technical University of Denmark (Jorgen Fenhann and John Christensen), National Center for Atmospheric Research, United States (B. O'Neill), International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (K. Riahi), Met Office Hadley Center, United Kingdom (J. Lowe), Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, United Kingdom (C. Taylor, A. Bowen, N. Ranger.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Misleading Denial-Friendly Headlines

At that link Joe Romm objects to the story, but I think the headline is far more destructive and misleading than the story.

There's a persistent pattern of climate stories where the headline or subhead does not actually match the story. It seems to me that the headline is the most important part of a story. I am led to understand that the person writing the headline is usually not the person writing the story. It appears that there is absolutely zero accountability for this process; even the very modest consequences that go to uncorrected bad reporting and bad punditry don't seem to accrue to bad headlines.

This loophole has got to go.

Anybody have more examples? Let's make a collection.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

AAAS Tweets by Jamie Vernon

Wish I could have been there!

Here's just a selection from the amazingly thought-provoking AAAS meeting tweets by local boy @JLVernonPhd

Eric Lander: It is the responsibilty of all of us to make sure we deliver on the President's investment in science. #AAAS10
about 18 hours ago from TweetDeck

Eric Lander: support for STEM is really about creating the informed citizenry that we need #AAAS10
about 18 hours ago from TweetDeck

Eric Lander: if we fail to lead in clean energy our children will pay for it #AAAS10
about 18 hours ago from TweetDeck

Eric Lander: The vast majority of companies leading in green energy lie outside the US #AAAS10
about 18 hours ago from TweetDeck

Eric Lander: Deep collaboration between science and economics is crucial. #AAAS10
about 18 hours ago from TweetDeck

Eric Lander: the rightful place of science merits vigorous public investment #AAAS10
about 19 hours ago from TweetDeck

Eric Lander: the rightful place of science is in humility and not overstating #AAAS10
about 19 hours ago from TweetDeck

Eric Lander: Stimulus has been so effective that people forget how close we were to the precipice if disaster. #AAAS10
about 19 hours ago from TweetDeck

Eric Lander: what is the rightful place of science? It's in the President's Cabinet. #AAAS10
about 19 hours ago from TweetDeck

Eric Lander:FY2011 budget contains nothing less than an overhaul of NASA. Holdren "it's about putting science back in rocket science"#AAAS10
about 18 hours ago from TweetDeck

Didn't know I was attending a meeting to poison the environment (according to protesters)...to what end? I have no idea. #AAAS10
11:00 AM Feb 20th from TweetDeck

Was nearly assaulted by protester outside the meeting because I asked them if they had any scientific evidence for their arguments. #AAAS10
10:52 AM Feb 20th from TweetDeck

Ron Howard: Audiences want portrayal of science in films to ring true. #AAAS10
7:14 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Second time today that popularizing science has been promoted. Seems a paradigm shift is occurring before my eyes! #AAAS10
7:01 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Elizabeth Daley: Our part at the USC lab will be to tell the stories of discovery. / To teach about the process of discovery.
6:59 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Again the simplistic and ineffective media coverage of science is mentioned. The media is really taking a beating at#AAAS10
6:53 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Dan Yankelovich: If your opponents feel that you have done justice to their position, you are more likely to achieve your goals. #AAAS10
4:42 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Neal Lane: Scientific institutions (university) must take responsibility for science and scientists AND defend them from attacks. #AAAS10
4:38 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Neal Lane: Are blogs the answer? How many scientists have the time to do good science and blog? #AAAS10
4:31 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Neal Lane: Its hard to imagine scientists having success countering the antiscience parties without similar financial commitment. #AAAS10
4:29 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

RT @JLVernonPhD: Neal Lane: how should scientists deal with lies, innuendo and character assassination? #AAAS10
4:27 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Promising. Jean Johnson: Americans feel strongly that we should seek alternative fuel sources. #AAAS10
4:13 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Jean Johnson: 65% Amer. think US has more than 10% world oil reserves. Actually only 2.4% #AAAS10
4:10 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Jean Johnson: 4 in 10 Americans cannot name a fossil fuel.#AAAS10
4:05 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

This is the third symposium today where the faults of the media in appropriate science coverage have been mentioned.#AAAS10
3:49 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Lewis Branscomb: science cannot rely on scientists telling the public what scientists think they need to know #AAAS10
3:47 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Lewis Branscomb: if the public is ignorant of the science how can they find trust in their representatives #AAAS10
3:43 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Lewis Branscomb: if science is corrupted by government then govt is surely to become corrupted as well #AAAS10
3:41 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Ahhh! They'd rather cover this than real climate science. RT @lizlandau: CNN: the science of superheroes:http://ow.ly/19dkf #aaas10
3:27 PM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

SS: MSM biz model: send general news reporter to cover science, send specialist to Super Bowl, despite the fate of earth in balance. #AAAS10
11:50 AM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

SS: Fox and MSNBC are essentially propaganda. #AAAS10
11:47 AM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Quest: Is it helpful to characterize the media as "Fox News." SS: Outside of a few, there's been such an incredible dumbing down of MSM.
11:45 AM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

SS: If you don't have fast synapses don't do talk shows, don't sit on the other side of Limbaugh. #AAAS10
11:25 AM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Steve Schneider: Encourage popularizers who follow responsible practices, expose those who are unclear or biased. #AAAS10
11:20 AM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

SS: Scientists have failed to overcome the false doctrine of media balance. #AAAS10
11:07 AM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Stephen Scheider science is not a democracy. Quality trumps equality. #AAAS10
11:05 AM Feb 19th from TweetDeck

Childhood's End


If things had worked as scientists expected, here is what would have happened. The IPCC reports would have come out. Influential people would have been convinced by it. Major news media would have reported the story in a straightforward way. People would have been convinced of their responsibilities to future generations. Kyoto would not only have been passed but implemented. The inadequacy of Kyoto would have been realized. More stringent controls would gradually have been put in place. Advanced countries would have pressured the less developed with carbon tariffs. The economic explosion in China and east Asia might have been set back a bit but probably would still be underway. And the accumulated carbon, by now, would have been lower, giving us more time to work our way out of the fossil fuel trap.

This far preferable alternative history failed to materialize because Carbon Dioxide was not "convicted" in the court of public opinion.


There are those who approach anthropogenic global warming as a courtroom, and CO2 as an individual endowed with rights. CO2, on this model, is innocent until proven guilty. What is more, the proof has to be to a jury. (Not of its peers, I suppose. Who would those be? Argon, Nitrogen, Water Vapor and Laughing Gas?)

This means that IPCC is insufficient, as IPCC reports are sufficient to make a compelling case to fair-minded people with trust that IPCC scientists themselves are fair-minded experts. The average twelve people on the street are not convinced by IPCC, especially given the campaign to undermine trust in IPCC. This campaign exists for the simple reason that a great deal of power is in the hands of market libertarians. (The reasons for that, in turn, are outside my present scope, but it's obvious that this is the case.) If we need to leave some fossil fuels in the ground, some collective action at the global level is required.


Such collective action is anathema to market libertarians, so when presented with evidence that such action is necessary, they immediately look for reasons to distrust it.

That approach is delusional. Whether CO2 accumulation is or is not dangerous is a fact of physics, not of economic philosophy. If their position were really consistent, they would have some mechanism for dealing with problems of this sort, independent of whether the problem is actually realistically described. Many of them, instead, become so attached to the conspiracy theory that they believe things that make no sense.

Any understanding of the early history of the climate science community makes it clear that no such conspiracy is plausible. Whatever you may think of the motivational structures today, there simply was no motivational structure prior to 1990 to drum up such a vast and monolithic community. The history that is implied by their conspiracy theory makes absolutely no realistic sense.

What has happened is that CO2 has got better lawyers than the prosecution. They bring true stories to the table, but lawyer-style, picking the anecdotes they like and ignoring those they dislike, to spin a tale that has recently been swallowed whole by great swaths of the press.


This disastrous outcome is a consequence of the wrong mental model pervading the public.

They understand courtroom dramas. They do not understand scientific contention. Essentially we should not care whether CO2 can be "proven guilty". We care whether there is some likelihood that CO2 will disrupt the future enough that the present should take account of it.

In other words, it is not a prosecution, it is risk management. This takes it out of courtroom drama and into the tedium of insurance. Most people do understand risks well enough to be willing to get insurance, but nobody enjoys talking to an insurance salesman. Insurance does not sell newspapers. Fires sell newspapers. Accusations of arson sell newspapers. Every time the scientific community brings up insurance policies, eyes glaze over.

So fundamentally, the reason we are slowly but (almost) surely destroying the viability of the earth is because slow and steady processes do not sell newspapers.


Has IPCC made a case that there is sufficient risk to take action?

Strictly speaking, that is not IPCC's job. But any reading of IPCC that does not come to such a conclusion pretty much discounts the value of the world's future to zero.

Is IPCC trustworthy?

Clearly IPCC is not infallible, and I would say that the job of WG II is pretty much infeasible as currently constituted. But the idea that IPCC constitutes a grand conspiracy is very much at odds with the history of the organization, which has always been explicitly structured as to understate risks.

Close examination of the actual balance of evidence, not especially dominated by the recent temperature record, makes it clear enough. If we accept any responsibility for the future, we need to stabilize the concentrations of radiatively active atmospheric constituents, notably among them CO2, to avoid enormous risks.

This is not proven in the sense that Pythagoras' theorem is proven, but one can make the case that nothing outside of pure mathematics can be proven in that way. It's not really even a scientific result: the science just says that the perturbation is almost surely very large compared to what nature alone can do. It's a value judgment whether we need to avoid doing that. But most people who understand the evidence and feel some commitment to the world beyond the limits of the time frame set by the discount rate come to that conclusion.


The idea that the main thing to discuss is what CRU or GISS says about historical mean temperature, though, is simply delusional. This delusion is at the core of the interests of the readership of Climate Audit, Blackboard and Air Vent, if perhaps not their main authors. And this delusion feeds the whole campaign of paranoia and defamation aimed at climate science. The focus on this question draws attention to a small group of people, and whatever you may think of them, hardly the most exciting or attractive branch of science. Finding fault with that group is possible, but they have very little impact on the questions at hand if you understand the questions at hand. If, however, you in turn pretend that this small group is the leadership of the climate community, then blowing up their minor mistakes and marginal judgments to vast capacities can color a huge misjudgment of the efforts of a large and impressive intellectual community.


The question is widely being reduced to a sales pitch now. This is unfortunate. I think the failure of the real picture to penetrate people's consciousness is because of sales pitches, not despite them. The opposition is drawing attention to a small group of scientists and a minor point in the big picture. The Gore camp is trying to sell global warming like it is soap. The Democrats are pitching it as a job creation program (which makes sense in the same way it makes sense to replace the internet by scribes with quill pens as a job creation program).

No. It's unfortunate. It's costly. And now that the banking bubble has burst, it's ill-timed. But preserving a stable environment is an ethical responsibility like none that has preceded it. We need people to understand not only that CO2 is a global problem, but that it's just the first in a series, as we make the transition from an open frontier world to spaceship earth.

In that sense, the burden of proof is on us. We have to sell the idea of a widespread set of changes in behavior, a new set of ethical constraints, and a dramatic increase in the complexity of governance. Those of us who appreciate the value of the marketplace as a distribution mechanism surely appreciate the risks and costs involved, but avoiding this responsibility will yield something much worse.

This is not a happy fact. Windmills may or may not be pretty, but our situation is not pretty at all. We need to come to grips with it. And our frantic lives with their narrowing margins of sanity and declining capacities for contemplation make it very difficult to do so. What we are selling is not an act of congress or a treaty. We are selling the idea of limits. We are selling the idea of the end of the global adolescent growth spurt.

We are selling adulthood, a concept that seems almost forgotten these days. In the end, we are losing this stage of the battle because adolescence is more fun than adulthood, because the adolescent worldview sees no advantages to maturity.

It certainly would help if the press would examine its own role in the present fiasco. Otherwise, the best we can do is try to hang on for the present, and try to convince people to pay closer attention in the future.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Carrot Eater and CWTF Call for Blog Accountability

Brazenly lifted from comments at Eli's, Carrot Eater says:
On a somewhat similar note, here are some thoughts about holding sceptics accountable, from a new blogger.


I agree with him. A couple minor errors buried in the IPCC report get blown up like crazy in the media, but the clowns make schoolboy errors in their blogs and columns on a daily basis. Other blogs (like this one) sometimes discuss those errors, but they get a free pass from the media. Yet the clowns have a real impact on politics in the US.

It's time for accountability for Watts, etc. If Watts' blog is influential for Republican lawmakers, then it is part of the policy-making environment. So if it's big news that the IPCC report got the sea level % in Netherlands wrong, then its big news that Watts has CO2 snow in Antarctica.
Comments are off. Please follow up at Eli's or CWTF.


You may remember some confusion betwixt James Annan and Roger Pielke Jr regarding "consistency", here, among other places.

I tried to get Roger out of the mess he was in thus (linked article, my comment dated May 20, 2008 09:57 AM):
Roger: "But I will repeat, any test of consistency that means that more bad forecasts (ie. a greater spread in your ensemble) implies greater consistency is just nonsense. It means that the problem has been framed in a way that is at best misleading."

Technical meaning may not always match intuitive meaning, but we are scientists and should not resort to the sort of argument where a "tightly constrained" result is one that requires liberation.

It is indeed the case that every possible result is consistent with a theory that anything can happen, and that very few results are consistent with a very tightly specified theory. This doesn't mean that vagueness is *better* than precision; it just means it's *harder to falsify*. Frankly, one doesn't expect a scientist to construe this as "misleading". On the contrary, it seems rather obvious.

Essentially, it's easier to satisfy a vague promise than a precise contract. The question of consistency is raised by you and others questioning the modeling enterprise, not by the modelers. The idea seems to be that observations call the model projections into question at the global scale. To make that claim you have to show that the observations are inconsistent with model predictions. You can't actually get very far doing that because the GCMs make very modest claims about near-term global temperature change.

If there is any misframing you are the one who set out the frame in the first place.
to which he immediately made the surprising response:
If you are suggesting that what these scientists really mean when they say this is that "models make very weak claims," then I'm surprised, because when I see such statements I interpret them to say quite the opposite.
Given the technical context of his discussions up to that point, this seemed strikingly naive. Does RPJr represent the scientific community or the lay public in these discussions? But his closing point in that comment is worth considering.
Such claims by scientists and the IPCC lead people in the professions of policy research and decision making to ask, "what could these scientists mean with such claims?"

When efforts to resolve this question are met with responses that "technical meaning may not always match intuitive meaning" then we have a problem. If the IPCC is indeed to support decision making then it should present its findings in ways that make intuitive sense to decision makers. Consider this exercise an effort in that direction.

Obviously, we are not there yet.
I didn't pick up that ball, partly because I was still shaking my head about the technical discussion. But there is a real point to be made here, and RP Jr takes up the opportunity to do so, in going after a pair of apparently contradictory papers. (To be honest, after a pair of press reports. Here are the actual papers, with a h/t to ThingsBreak on Planet3.0)



It's hard to see those results as both being valid.

In this case, these could just be two perfectly reasonable studies reaching contrary results, but one predicts a warmer coast and lower condensation level, while the other predicts the opposite. So unless my reading is wrong, at least one of them will turn out to be wrong. There's nothing at all unusual there. Regional climate change is hard, and the occasional disagreement of this sort is not totally unexpected. Though some easy chuckles might result, it's nothing for the world (aside from the respective authors) to lose much sleep over.

But there's the larger point about "consistency".

Though he messed it up terribly in his argument with James, RP Jr. has a real point in the whole "consistent with" language, which is used in two very different senses. Sometimes it is used to mean "provides supporting evidence" (see WG 2 press releases) and sometimes it us
used to mean "not inconsistent with" i.e., "does not provide sufficient evidence to refute".

I really would like the "consistent with" language to disappear form public communication; at this point it has become terribly unclear what it means.

The AR4 WG II SPM says " Of the more than 29,000 observational data series,[7] from 75 studies, that show significant change in many physical and biological systems, more than 89% are consistent with the direction of change expected as a response to warming (Figure SPM.1)
[1.4]. " which is clear enough, but their press release said something like "more than 89 per cent of the significant changes in physical and biological systems are consistent with global warming." I couldn't dig it up, but here's Susan Solomon saying
"89% of current changes in ecosystems are consistent with changes
expected due to global climate change"

Now if 11% of your observations are NOT consistent with your theory, you have a big problem. The trouble is, the implicit contextual meaning of "consistent" is lost here, and so the claim is not helpful.

I don't think having two contradictory regional studies is all that embarassing, especially on a regional scale in a complex climate, but I agree that they are contradictory. I also think, regardless of literal truth, "consistent with" like "significant" or "global warming" itself, is a phrase we should be wary of in communicating to the public.

This isn't hair-splitting. This is a real point of weakness in public communication and it needs to stop.

The question of when to take RPJr. seriously and when not to remains, to my eye, complicated. I agree with Joe Romm that a press article should not quote him as representing "climate scientists". On the other hand, he is a close observer of the scene and his critiques of the communication skills of climate science have merit.

Roger Pielke Jr. is very far from relaibly insightful, in my opinion, (for that matter, neither am I) but I think it is a mistake to demonize him. In this case we ought to thank him for continuing to press a very valid point despite having gotten into a tangle on it in the past.

Note: I have already violated my "ignore Roger Pielke Jr." policy by trying to track down the "hot spot" critique and getting caught up in the morass of Klotzbach foolishness. (I stand by my earlier conclusion that the oft-cited Klotzbach et al. "bias" paper, coauthored by Pielkes Sr. and Jr., is a mess and that the naysayer spin on it is totally valueless.) In fact, as long as the relationship between climate science and the press is on my beat (though I am no competition for some of the amazing metamuckraking being done at Deltoid these days) and so long as the press remains fascinated by RP Jr., avoiding him entirely verges on impossible.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Tim Lambert asserts that the high profile article in the London Times claiming that former IPCC chairman, Prof. Robert Watson, says that IPCC has a warming bias, is flagrant and willful distortion:
Yes there is bias here, but the bias is in the media that only reports the errors that overstate the problem and also reports as errors things that are not errors at all. This seems pretty obvious and Robert Watson is no fool, so I asked him if The Times had accurately report his views. He replied:

The article distorted my statements - I was interviewed for an hour and it was obvious that the reporter wanted me to say that the authors were biased - I said I did not believe that.

Watson said that the authors were not biased, but The Times reported him as saying that they were. That's outright dishonesty by Webster and Pagnamenta.

This is serious business if true, and is easily verified. If Watson will talk to a blogger (albeit as distinguished a one as Tim) he will talk to another major newspaper. The press had better get off investigating IPCC and start investigating its damn self.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Open letter from a Glacier Scientist

Reprinted here with permission:

Dear all,

I was quite disappointed in the tenor of the Washington Post article a couple days ago:


It's particularly sad for me that I have been quoted in the same article as Sen. Inhofe, the guy who claims that climate change research is a hoax. The article correctly points out the errors and negative fallout, and I guess we need to grin and bear it, again, and again, week after week, month after month, until the media figures out that there's a reality to report on as well. The Post article makes it sound as if the scientific community thinks that the IPCC process needs either scrapping or complete overhauling. This is not the impression I get at all in 99% of the comments I get from scientists; and it for sure isn't my view.

David Farenthold did not misrepresent my views, so that's not my concern. And the article made some useful points. But I just wonder at what point the unfolding story will go toward questions such as:
  • If the Himalayan glaciers won't melt by 2035, when will they melt? At what rates are they melting?
  • Are the actual rates of melting really significant?
  • In what ways are they significant?
  • If the Amazon really is so sensitive to changes in precipitation (notwithstanding the sloppiness of the citations), what--for the public-- are the consequences of this sensitivity?
  • What roles have been played by the media in making the exaggerated claims? (This question is NOT to blame shift. It is just to recognize that media reporting has been wildly inaccurate in many cases, and commonly the reporters must have known it.)
  • What is accurately presented, insofar as we can assess correctness, in the IPCC 4th Assessment?
  • Can we have a public, well-aired synthesis of what is accurate in AR4?
  • How can scientists be better communicators?
  • How can scientists and the media work together to present a more accurate picture of the changing Earth system?
  • How can scientists help the media ferret good information and diagnose misinformation and errors?
  • How can the media better discern and educate the public in what is Hollywood-type hysteria-for-entertainment versus legitimate science-based concern about hazards, disasters, and dangerous trends in the changing Earth system?
  • How can the science-media-public information system avoiding again sinking into the pit where every newly reported hazard or impending Earth change is necessarily a disaster so much better and bigger than the last one that was reported?
  • How can we help the public understand what is real from what is fabrications for entertainment's sake or political gains?
  • What responsibilities do scientists, the media, and politicians have in disseminating accurate scientific information?
  • How can this dissemination be done more accurately?
  • How can the science-journalism-public connections be made in compelling, interesting, and understandable ways while maintaining accuracy and not spinning into a "weapons of mass destruction" type of sequential filtering and oversimplification that results in errant conclusions at odds with the scientific inputs?
  • How can we avoid such a degree of "dumbing down" that reality is no longer adequately portrayed on issues which fundamentally affect us all (whether that's effects of climate change or effects of policy to address or ignore climate change)?
  • How can the media better identify political witch hunts or political conspiratorial leanings and discern the difference from legitimate political criticisms of scientific errors and errant scientists? What responsibilities does the media have in exposing unsubstantiated political claims about global change (regardless of which side the errors fall on)?

I am about as optimistic a spirit as a reporter will find anywhere. I have actually shunned the idea of discrete tipping points in favor of a some vague continuum of changes. But my optimism fades rapidly when I see the uncertainties resolving in this way.

In my view, this unfolding story must go to these types of questions, as well as things like "how did such a stupid error get into the IPCC's 4th Assessment, and what simple little but effective changes can be made to improve the process and products of the IPCC?" In my view, these last two questions have been well answered already, with the proof of the last question's resolution awaiting the Fifth Assessment or preferably in some intermediate assessment version 4.5. The bold reporting will be to deal with what's real, and not endlessly rehash and refine and tweak and probe what is not real, what was error, and what was stupid. Let's look for a change at what's smart. We need that critical journalism, but at this point some actual real information needs to be conveyed to the public. This is the journalists' job. If we as scientists are just so tarnished by some few of us having written some stupid things, so tarnished that nobody trusts scientists, then we might as well go pay the fortune tellers and politicians and all types of seers to tell us what the Earth's future will be; that seems to be what we're doing.

--Jeff Kargel

mt here again...

I wish the uppercase text had gone a tad slower, but consider the hypothetical:


then what?

Essentially our critics are undermining our capacity for self-criticism, and then accusing us of "wagon-circling", defensiveness, etc. How the hell are we supposed to keep ourselves sharp if any disagreement among us is used as proof that we are incompetent or dishonest?

There are a number of occasions where I have written pieces critical of the climate science community, and refrained from posting them. The fact is that whatever we say publicly that has the slightest controversial component is, at this point, guaranteed to be misconstrued. The new feature of the situation is that now, everything we say in private has to be treated as public.

Meanwhile, we are left putting out fires pretty much constantly.

I don't think our more serious critics actually want to damage humanity's capacity for advancing climate science, but if they had set out to do so they could hardly have done a better job.

Thanks to Jeff Kargel for permission to reproduce his interesting letter.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Fundamentals Haven't Changed

There's a transcript of a press briefing from Todd Stern, who was the US envoy to Copenhagen. Of course he's trying to put a positive spin on it.

Naturally, some of the questions were about the new feature of weather weirding, the teapot tempest, of which there have been a few of late, especially on the east coast (burying Washington DC in several feet of thick fog) and in the UK. He handled this diplomatically (of course) but very well, I thought. His key claim is that "the fundamentals haven't changed" which I think is the message we need to get across to the press.

QUESTION: ...How much more difficult has your job been since the errors in the IPCC report came to light, both globally and –

MR. STERN: It was difficult already. (Laughter.) No, look, I think that the scientific underpinning for action on climate change, the fundamental science of climate change and the observed data, is quite overwhelming. I think that to the extent – and again, I make no comment one way or another about whether they’re mistakes – I just don’t know. But to the extent that there were any mistakes in the IPCC report, reports, assessments, or anywhere else, that’s regrettable. You don’t want there to be mistakes.

But what should not happen is that any individual mistakes, typos, whatever they might be, be taken to undermine the very fundamental record that exists from scientists all over the world and from observed data from all over the world that this is a quite serious and growing problem. So I think that that’s really the kind of underlying important point.

And nor should – and I think what you do see sometimes is that people who have an agenda that is directed toward undermining action on climate change grab whatever tidbit they can find and say, look, there’s no climate change, it snowed last week in Washington, there’s no climate change. That kind of stuff is nonsense. And the exploiting of this or that mistake that might have occurred in some part of long reports that pull together a lot of scientific data, again, I think is – I think it needs to be seen for what it is, which is a deliberate attempt to undermine. The fundamentals haven’t changed.

So, how about putting it, um, less diplomatically? For that I'd refer you to Charlie Petit whose summary is "one of the greatest outbreaks of institutional lunacy regarding scientific research since the Vatican told Galileo to say he’d made a mistake"!
Oh for the love of god, or Darwin, or whatever one exalts. I have to fully and somewhat proudly concede that when it comes to being objective, I am such as much as I can be. And I objectively believe that the global media and blogosphere convulsions over climate gate, IPPC-hate, Himalayan glaciers’ exaggerated fate, and global warming’s implied demise (despite the data) collectively reflect one of the greatest outbreaks of institutional lunacy regarding scientific research since the Vatican told Galileo to say he’d made a mistake about the Sun, Earth, and the moons of Jupiter. I for one am unsurprised and satisfied that what’s left of the US press, especially its cadre that covers science and environment regularly, is getting tired of reporting the same old same old about the IPCC’s now-revealed shortcomings in the fact-checking and executive summary department, digging up new, latest words about old data files and sloppiness at Britain’s Climatic Research Unit, and echoing the cackling from the bloggy fringe and elected GOP mainstream about global warming buried in an East Coast snow bank, and all of that.
Well said, Mr. Petit. What he said, Mr. Yulsman. Just because there are lunatics willing to spin a sort of a tale doesn't make it, you know, actual news.

Image: Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, painting by Cristiano Banti, via Wikipedia

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Saturday, February 13, 2010


Journalism at its most irresponsible. There really ought to be a law. At least there ought to be consequences.

The BBC interviews Phil Jones:
B - Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming

Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.
The Daily Mail headline:
Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995

but the text is more reasonable, if also, well, wrong:
He also agreed that there had been two periods which experienced similar warming, from 1910 to 1940 and from 1975 to 1998, but said these could be explained by natural phenomena whereas more recent warming could not.

He further admitted that in the last 15 years there had been no ‘statistically significant’ warming, although he argued this was a blip rather than the long-term trend.

As is common, the most egregious behavior is by the anonymous headline writer. The journalist, Jonathan Petre, can claim innocence, except for the peculiar use of the word "blip" showing a mind boggling lack of understanding of statistics for someone reporting on science, but at least an attempt at fairness.

Defenders of the press, explain this one. And explain where the world gets redress from this.

With a hat tip to a hostile correspondent.

Update: Excellent discussion and useful links on this subject at the Bad Science Forum

Update: Tamino has an excellent analogy.

Update: RealClimate gets into some detail

Update: Nice piece on the subject by James Hrynyshyn

Update: Excellent, related item at Climate Safety, herewith added to the blogroll. Highly recommended.

The Ocean Chemistry Crisis

Nice piece. I loved the (too brief) earthrise sequence.

I actually don't like Sigourney Weaver very much, and the whole idea of having Hollywood types on screen in these things bugs me. And they could have snuck in 60 seconds of actual chemistry.

And, well, there was the claim that the only way to stop this is to stop emitting CO2. Not exactly. The only way to stop this is to stop emitting net CO2. Sequestration is expensive and problematic, but perhaps less so than stopping gross emissions altogether. Of course that's sort of off topic, but it was a bit jarring to have that little piece of opinion slipped in among the facts, and it's an important issue.

But the piece is very much worth watching and considering anyway. h/t Jim Prall and Wit's End


I am coming to realize that I have been inconsistent on two big questions. Here I will just raise them, hoping to point to analogies between them and hoping to show that there are meaningful principles being traded off in each.

The boffin question:

Should scientific experts on a particular topic take a position on policy? If so, what about the tendency for advocacy to color substantive opinion? If not, who is responsible for conveying scientific advice to the policy sector? The tradeoff essentially has some resemblance to that between false positives and false negatives. Should the center for disease control not be staffed by epidemiologists? Is something special about climate that causes climatologists to be inclined to eschew expressing their opinions? Is Hansen out of line for breaking this "scientific reticence" mold, or was the mold wrong to begin with? If Hansen's opinions are, for purposes of argument, correct, and yet his behavior, for purposes of argument, is not, who should be filling the gap in spreading the relevant concerns to the public and the policy sector?

What about technology experts? There's also an odd tension in the fact that engineers tend to be overenthusaistic about the matters of their expertise while scientists tend to be overly worried about theirs. The fact that the first people to hear about a technology are its advocates is a point that has been emphasized by lefty grumbler Jerry Mander for some time.

The hobbyist question

Is it true that people are uniterested in science? Or are people just uniterested in the obviously shallow nonsense that passes as science related on the major media. Should we as a soceity absorb Clifford Johnson's advice that "scientists are not special people. We are ordinary people doing a special thing." or should we accept that a degree of specialization is necessary?

To what extent should outsiders be included in the already expensive and error-prone process of peer review? How can we deal with the existence of people who cannot accept criticism, especially given the propensity of peer review to mix invalid and valid criticism anyway? How do we explain the rarity of Popperian refutation to a public looking to "disprove" inconvenient "theories"? How do we improve on the public perception of scientific process as set by high school classes or collegiate lecture halls and associated "experiments"?

What do you say to soemone who proudly announces "I'm a frequentist" as if there were two branches of statistics at war with each other? How much time and effort would it take to make the case that this isn't so? Whose responsibility is such a thing?

What do you say to people who demand rejection of a technique that a certain scientist used on a certain time series the way politicians demanded of other politicians that they renounce certain ethnic leaders who made statements that were offensive to other ethnic groups?

What do you say to people who accuse you of being shallow or evasive when there are a hundred times as many people asking questions as the number qualified to answer them? Is it possible to incerase the number of people qualified to answer the questios? Is it possible to organize the informed parties to answer effectively?

Enter Marshall McLuhan

Clip h/t Deltoid.

The medium is the message.

We have new media and new ways of processing information. Do these new ways facilitate erasing the boundaries between roles? Or do they necessitate firming them up? The fact is that many times more people have an interest in climatology (a good fraction of them, by now, doubters) requires some way of either addressing the scale or reestablishing the old barriers.

Scientists (specifically Richard Somerville) suggest re-establishing the old barriers:
Science has its own high standards. It does not work by unqualified people making claims on television or the Internet. It works by scientists doing research and publishing it in carefully reviewed research journals. Other scientists examine the research and repeat it and extend it. Valid results are confirmed, and wrong ones are exposed and abandoned. Science is self-correcting. People who are not experts, who are not trained and experienced in this field, who do not do research and publish it following standard scientific practice, are not doing science. When they claim that they are the real experts, they are just plain wrong.

The leading scientific organizations of the world, like national academies of science and professional scientific societies, have carefully examined the results of climate science and endorsed these results. It is silly to imagine that thousands of climate scientists worldwide are engaged in a massive conspiracy to fool everybody. The first thing that the world needs to do if it is going to confront the challenge of climate change wisely is to learn about what science has discovered and accept it.
Media people seem to advise continued reliance on oversimplification, on the grounds that people seem to have no interest in details. Surely this is true of most people, but people can also tell when they are being brushed off.

There's certainly not enough of a market for this sort of thing to be supported by advertising, but science itself isn't supported by advertising either. Opening the process will do more to create half-informed nuisance types (of whom there are plenty now) than actual contributors. But the science itself is being conducted at the request of the public and in the interest of the public. The demands for more openness may be in conflict with the perennial demands for frugality, but that doesn't mean they aren't persistent and sincere.

Similarly, how can we inject actual expertise into policy discussions? How can we find ways for strategies that weigh tradeoffs across multiple domains and make the best possible decisions? How can we convey to a public that sometimes no choices are available that will satisfy everybody? How do we choose the winners and compensate the losers so that the increasingly tightly knit world doesn't just blow apart at the seams? How do we collectively make the increasingly difficult decisions that our suddenly small world imposes upon us?

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Hill of Snow

Nine inches of snow in Dallas! (note: not real cattle)

Well, blizzards in DC are no big deal as far as we are concerned here, but blizzards in Texas, that's another matter. And with reports of a minute amount of snow sticking to the ground in Florida, we have what is really an unusual event: snow cover in every one of the contiguous states. (I spotted a tiny bit of frozen precipitation in Austin mixed in with the rain, but with my cowboy hat off and my Habs' tuque on, I wouldn't really have called it snow.)

So what are we to make of the snowpocalypse? Mark Morano very effectively makes hay out of it. Irritating though it is to see Climate Depot always featuring cold or snowy weather, Morano in this interview completely demolishes his opponent, who is bound and determined to make this huge snow event evidence "for", um, "climate change". Sneaking the last word in (over the rather pathetic whining of the interviewer) was a very effective little bit of norm-evasion on Morano's part.

(Hints to interviewer: get an off switch on the interviewee's audio channel. Use it. Don't whine on air.)

Of course, the usual lesson can be learned. Use trained media-ready people for media interviews, avoid debates with people who have sharper debating skills than you.

But there's another lesson here, too. Don't overreach. Is there anything in any particular weather event (except prehaps ones far more bizarre than this one) that offers strong evidence for or against any theory of climate change? Morano says no, despite constantly implying otherwise on his aggregator. His opponent (Daniel Weiss I believe) pretty much says yes, and Joe Romm does too.
  • Clarification: As several correspondents point out, Romm does not make such a claim explicitly. In fact, neither does Weiss. By "pretty much" I meant only that an unsophisticated audience member could come away with that impression. I should have said that, and no more. I apologize.
What do I say? I say Weiss and Romm have been tricked by Morano (have made a tactical error).
  • Clarification: I should not have "tricked by Morano". I don't think Romm's position is directly affected by what Morano says. And probably the tricking is inadvertent. We are in enough trouble already, though, without falling into rhetorical traps, and this "consistency" matter is one of them. That's my point.
I strongly advise against this tactic. Not every bit of weather weirdness is anthropogenically forced. A far better response, for example, is the first half of Rachel Maddow's. Unfortunately, she then gets the (in my opinion worthless) Bill Nye on to fall right into the trap.

So what's going on?

Well, when this year is different from last year, the best place to look is not in gradual climate change but in large natural shifts in climate. Of these, the prime candidate should always be the big one, the El Nino/La Nina cycle (known in the field by the inexcusable name ENSO which stands for "El Nino Southern Oscillation" which sacrifices both the oceanographers' poetry and the meteorologists' precision for mealy-mouthed and worthless compromise. But never mind that.) Anyway, Google being my friend, I asked it "noreaster el nino" and was promptly rewarded with the following abstract:

Lynne M. Hoppe, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD; and D. R. Smith

A significant wintertime event along the East Coast is a marine cyclone called the Nor'easter. These storms occur when cold air from the continent interacts with warm air and water just offshore, associated with the Gulf Stream. This paper investigates whether El Niño events have any influence on the development of such storms. This paper looks at winter storms for the 1983-84, 1997-98, and 2004-05 events. The number of extratropical cyclones, intensity of these cyclones and the central and minimum pressures of the cyclones were gathered. By comparing these data, conclusions were made regarding the generation and movement of Nor'easter storms. The storms during El Nino events were pushed further south due to the jet stream being pushed further south. The frequency of storms increased during strong El Niño years (e.g., 1983-'84 or 1997-'98). Although the is ability to predict when or where these storms will occur is difficult at best, this study provides clues to better understand the effect of El Niño on these extratropical marine cyclones.

extended abstract Extended Abstract (2.3M)

Okay, kids? Got that? Jet stream moves south, and more noreasters happen IN EL NINO CONDITIONS. The US is just going to be more snow-covered in El Nino conditions.

Then there's the question of whether more intense snowfalls are a likely result of a warming climate. Well, let's stick to the US again. Here we have the question of whether El Nino years will become more frequent and intense, for one thing, and whether various other contributing factors will become more favorable to noreasters for another.

Now one big argument is that there are signs of larger intense precipitation events. This is true.

One problem with this is that a snowfall is not an intense precipitation event. It's a prolonged precipitation event. The actual rate of water mass precipitation is not high. So this doesn't really fit in with the idea of less large scale organization and more intense small scale organization, which is what I understood the expectation from climate change to be, at all.

And, John Nielsen-Gammon makes a cogent argument that snow events in particular have a maximum intensity that is set more by very constant aspects of nature than by climate variables. I'm not sure it's a perfect argument (it may be moister tropical air riding up over the cold front) but it does make a certain amount of sense to me.

On the other hand, it is very much what we expect from El Nino events. So we should stop at saying "this is not inconsistent with expectations" rather than saying "we expect more of this sort of thing in the future" unless it's actually the sort of thing we expect more of. Which, in this case, it actually ain't, at least on present evidence.

Which brings up the quandary of the notorious concept of "consistency". And that's another can of worms.

But for now, when we are back on our heels under the force of our opponents' misrepresentation and innuendo, this is hardly the time to be making s**t up. We don't expect these big snowstorms in DC to go away forever for a while yet. Big snowstorms are not significant evidence against anthropogenic climate change (as apparently Morano knows, who'd have thought it?).

big snowstorms in the mid-Atlantic or the South, particularly in El Nino years, are not evidence in favor of anthropogenic climate change either. They are not the sort of thing we particularly expect more of because of human interference. At best it seems to me that the case is uncertain.

Okay? Okay then.

Update: I should point out that nobody I know of said "caused by". All were careful only to say "consistent with".

I'd like to make clear that I am not praising Morano in this piece. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I think Morano is skilled, but that doesn't mean he is using his skills in a decent or honorable way. I don't mind when Morano drives traffic here, but I have no expectation that we are friends and I wouldn't be terribly surprised if, given a suitable opportunity from his perspective, Morano would do me great harm for small gain.

I don't agree with Romm's approach to this particular matter, but as I've said before, in the grand scheme of things we are both working for the same things. Nothing in this piece should be taken as a condemnation of Joe Romm or an endorsement of Morano! I just think Joe is making a tactical mistake.

Dallas pic via Huffpo; an ordinary day in Montreal (false watercolor: Cote des Neiges in the snow; click image for 1000 pixel version) is my own. If you like my landscapes there are more at PECULIAR MO .