"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.


Aaron said...

The two issues that your system misses are the variable delays between emissions and impact and the very non-linear nature of some of the impacts. Delays make control systems difficult. Non-linear effects make feedback systems difficult. It is like ice. Not much impact as ice absorbs heat until the nears its melting point, then the potential energy stored in the ice takes over and the movement of the ice changes from creep to (catastrophic) fracture. If you wait to see an impact, you are way too late to change the policy, that changes the emission, that changes conditions to stop the impact.

Joshua Stults said...

I like your control theory analogy, I think it is a good one, but this:
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.
Strikes me as silly. All of the projections I've seen (global mean surface temp response to CO2) look like a textbook case of highly damped response to a step input; no 'ringing' involved. Do you have any data that supports this choice of verbiage?

Nonlinearity is the least of our problems!

Yeah, understanding what control authority, if any, your 'actuator' has over things that matter being the one that springs to mind (followed shortly by, what things actually matter? Global mean surface temp probably isn't on that list).

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.
How does understanding time-constants lead to the 'dangerous territory' conclusion? I would think that conclusion follows from an understanding of impacts (their probability and cost).

Michael Tobis said...

To some extent Aaron answers jstults.

Further point:

It is important to understand that the process is not CO2 -> global mean temperature -> global impacts -> local impacts. It is better regarded as CO2 -> perturbed radiative forcing -> local impacts -> global impacts.

Thus global mean surface temperature is in some ways a symptom of global change, not a cause. (And for God's sake, please, not a synonym!)

Since global temperature is the average of many local changes it looks smooth even if the components are likely to be very bumpy. Of course, energy conservation is best construed globally, but the matter is how the pieces fit together. There is absolutely no reason to suspect local effects to be strongly damped.

Some speculation on my part:

El Nino in particular is an oscillation. The non-engineers don;t seem able to predict enhanced EL Nino cycles form forcing, but I would be surprised if they didn;t occur, simply because the forcing projects onto that time scale. The same can be said about other physically-based multiyear oscillations such as the PDO.

(It's not clear that the NAO qualifies - it might be a statistical artifact rather than a real energy transfer.)

Also, the recently fraught question of whether noreasters are a sign of global warming. Well, they could be a sign of major shifts in precipitation preceding major shifts in the snow line. So if they are indeed a sign of climate change, they are one that will eventually go away.

In all cases, these are small impacts on the global mean surface temperature that will be perceived as large excursions from a simple trend locally.

David B. Benson said...

What the heck. Based on Variability of El NiƱo/Southern Oscillation activity at millennial timescales during the Holocene epoch I'll predict more frequent and more intense El Ninos are in store. My reasoning is the pronouned shift in El Nino patterns about 1200 years ago during the interval when precession set the thermal equator furthest to the south. This was then followed by the decline to more recent patterns as precession has been moving the thermal equator further north. Except that quite recently already El Nino frequency is at a once-in-450 year high (from a different paper).

For potential effects, please see one or more of anthropolgist Brian Fagan's books regarding the known pre-history.

Ken Green said...

Michael -

Ignoring your continuing efforts to promote the "nothing to see here, move along" thing, and your petulant turning on the media for having found a vague hint of balanced reporting, finally...

I'll observe that your graphic is missing something significant. Coming off of the "impacts" circle should be an "NGO" bubble, and lines flowing from THERE to the media, public, and policymakers. I don't think that either the media, public, or policymakers would either notice or emphasize either the impacts, or science articles about them if they weren't either promoted, or disputed by various NGOs.

The Evil Reductionist said...

I very much agree that this is not a failure of the science. Rather, it is a failure of science communication, journalism and politics. And I think that the internet has made things worse, not better.

The internet seems to trap people into areas where their opinions are built upon and reinforced. So, if someone doubts the science a little bit and goes to a sceptic site, they see that many, many people share their doubts. And this makes them doubt more. (To be fair, the same thing happens the other way, too.)

So rather than helping people find answers to their questions, the internet polarises opinions, particularly opinions on complex issues.

Michael Tobis said...

Ken, do tell, what is there to see?

Steve Bloom said...

Michael, am I misremembering or did Ken just dodge things last time he was asked here for specifics to back up his ideas? That was what, a couple of months ago?

Unknown said...

I do not agree with the expression by Kenneth Green, but I think it important that the perception of impact by people, not the impact itself, will be input to policy making.

I got the idea from the book:

Nico Stehr and Hans von Storch, 2009: Climate and Society, Singapore: World Scientific.

Section 4.7, p. 125

The GES [Global Envirnment and Society] model could be replaced by the model of "Perceived Environment and Society" (PES), which is sketched in Fig. 27. It distinguishes itself from the GES model only through two further boxes: the "experts" who monitor and interpret climate variations and explain them to the public, and the "social interpretation" itself, the process within the public that adjust the experts' explanations to the culturally constructed cognitive models of society.

I am not sure whether reading the book is helpful for you or the quotation is enough.

Ken Green said...

To be honest, given all that has poured out on WattsUpWithThat, the Bishop Hill Blog, Climate Audit,and others detailing what must now number in hundreds of problems that riddle AR4, it's not a good use of my time to get into extended arguments over this on any blog, much less one where I'm invariably responding to many people at once, and having to ignore endless snide remarks. I'll leave it to others with more time on their hands to compile all the glitches of AR4, and all the details of misbehavior revealed by the CRU leak.

I will only say that if you don't think there's anything wrong with claiming >95% certainty about understanding the climate system based on input documentation that (among other known problems) accelerates glacier melting by 300 years based on hearsay; exaggerates potential crop losses; exaggerates potential species loss; downplays previous periods of comparable warming; and uses 'data' from dozens of reports prepared by environmental activist groups as well as dozens of non-peer- reviewed academic theses, then nothing's going to convince you that there is anything wrong with climate science.

And that does not include the fact that Jones has indeed been found to have violated information sharing laws in order to hide what is, by his own omission, data that is so sloppy he cannot provide provenance data for his temperature records. This is like taking a painting to Sotheby's, and saying "I have no provenance data, but you'll have to trust me, it's a Van Gogh."

But hey, by all means, keep your heads in the sand, and pretend there's nothing wrong if that makes you feel good.

Oh, and Michael...you might have addressed the body of my post, which pointed out the obvious omission on your flowchart.

Michael Tobis said...

For purposes of this chart, NGOs and think tanks are part of "journalism", i.e., interpreting evidence for the public and directly for the policy sector.

I thank Ken for his latest comment, which makes up in grandiosity and outrage for what it lacks in substance. Ken's posturing provides an excellent launching point for the next part of my Big Big Picture essay series.

guthrie said...

PArt of the problem as I see it is that more work needs to be done on warming and oceanic acidification will do. And it has to be gotten out to the public in an appropriate fashion so they understand it. This of course is where NGO's and the media have done everyone a disservice.

Ken Green said...

So, let's see, I take the time to read this blog, putting up with insults every time I comment; I offer an obvious correction to a flowchart you offer as somehow representing the flow of information that leads to climate policy(NGOs are not even vaguely journalistic); and then I respond to posts asking for specifics by listing several examples, along with references to sites where one can find more. This gets me labeled as 'posturing,' 'grandiose' and 'outraged,' with a suggestion that I'm to be a poster-boy in some forthcoming screed against people you disagree with.

Well, y'all, I'll just leave you to just preach to each other from now on.

Best of luck with that.

Michael Tobis said...

"Go look at WUWT" is a reference, now?


David B. Benson said...

Even I, a mere layman, opine that Kenneth P. Green amply illustrates the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Anonymous said...

"claiming >95% certainty about understanding the climate system"

Who said that, where, Kenneth?

Unknown said...

"...detailing what must now number in hundreds of problems that riddle AR4..." Specifics, please, Mr. Green. You might try reading this:


Also, Michael posted an excellent quotation from Paul Krugman. You might want to think about it.

Joshua Stults said...

DBD said: Even I, a mere layman, opine that Kenneth P. Green amply illustrates the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The (unintentional?) irony of this statement is colossal, well played sir.

Marlowe Johnson said...


Given your interest in climate change economics, I thought you might find the following interesting (it's a comment on the EPA's GHG rulemaking):



amoeba said...

It has now been independenly confirmed, by multiple persons, that Tamino's results regarding the impact of station dropout on global temperature are correct. Watts' and D’Aleo's claims, in their document for the SPPI, are just plain wrong. Furthermore the fact that they saw fit to publish without performing the analysis is surely indicative of Malice in Blunderland.

This episode will be now known as 'Wattergate'!