"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Middle of the Roaders aka Dead Armadillos

The trouble with talking to people who are too interested in politics that relate to quantitative matters is that they don't seem especially interested in the quantitative matters. They see "politically realistic" as a constraint. They don't see "adequate to the circumstances" as especially relevant.

But political realism is a grossly premature calculation in the absence of quantitative reasoning.

The anecdote I like to repeat (I saw it in a comment somewhere by a "Z" (Zeke?) ) is of a fish viability study in Atlantic Canada. The scientists said the fish catch had to drop to X. The fishermen said they could not afford for it to go below Y. The Government, good liberals at the time, presumably, settled on the obvious (X + Y)/2 but (X + Y) /2 is substantially higher than X, so the fish population collapsed and now the fisherman have (another) Z which in this case stands for zilch.

First you have to figure out what is necessary. Then you come up with a bunch of schemes that achieve the necessary goals, with their various drawbacks and advantages, which, like it or not, will not work out to equal utility for each stakeholding constituency (in our case, that is everybody now living and, in a more diluted way but still significantly, everybody who might ever live).

You are as always entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to weigh in on this until you have a clear enough understanding of what is actually necessary.

If you feel that there is a responsible array of opinion on the matter of what is necessary, you should weigh your strategy appropriately to your degree of confidence in each possibility. This is even harder.

Once that is established, you figure out the politics. Maybe the market will handle it. Maybe not. List the scenarios out and come up with reasonable risk estimates. Then figure out what politics is necessary.

The reason the new Republicanism is irresponsible (both on climate and on budgetary matters) is because they have not taken into account informed and plausible scenarios of what is necessary. What they are doing is not conservatism. Neither conservatives nor liberals should mistake this for conservatism.

The reason the compulsive middle in America is irresponsible appears to be that they always were, but it wasn't clear until one of the official poles of debate went bonkers. They just split the difference. Either side of the matter is always "unrealistic". The solution is always "compromise".

Under circumstances with two moderate parties this works well enough and the middle looks smart. Those circumstances are gone, and now it turns out that many of them weren't very smart after all.

P.S. It begins to appear that Obama is of that school, but I'm not sure yet.


Anonymous said...

And along these lines, with regards to climate, is there any way we can get the "politically realistic" types to stop using the term "no regrets" policy? It's just misleading. Is it not the most illogical moniker for policies that carry all sorts of possible regrets? It's almost as if they have no idea why these policies aren't acceptable people who care about "quantitative matters". And somehow its us who are the extremist partisans who don't listen?

Links to other people who make sense.



Michael Tobis said...

I'd appreciate if anyone could track down the fish story, by the way.

Paul Kelly said...


No regrets is an awful, inaccurate phrase. Low hanging fruit is almost as bad.

re Roberts. Interesting he has come to endorse the bottom up approach that I get so much criticism for advocating.

Alastair said...

The story you want about fisheries collapse is "here."

It is from Greenpeace. The other reports that are obtainable by Googling "grand banks fisheries collapse" are not so judgemental.

Steve Bloom said...

PK, the problem isn't your advocacy for bottom up stuff. Others, me e.g., have been advocating for such things for a long time, although of course thinking about and activism toward local sustainability goes back more than the ~25 years I've been involved in such things.

Rather, the problem is with your rejection of the just as necessary large-scale stuff. Local efforts do not, e.g., make for a power grid suitable for the long-range load balancing required by all-renewable power generation.

You should read the Roberts piece more carefully, maybe taking notes of the main points.

Also, I notice that your grassroots effort was insufficient to stop approval of that nasty coal-to-liquids plant in Chicago.

Steve Bloom said...

This article and linked slide presentation on the just approved German program (an 85% vote in Parliament, which I expect means most everyone but the CDU) to go nearly carbon-free by 2050 *without nukes*. It seems pretty consistent with Mark Jacobson's work.

If they can do it, we can do it. Er, if we weren't collectively batshit crazy, that is.

Steve Bloom said...

Michael, no doubt this affected your brain chemistry, else you'd be quite sure about Obama by now. :)

Michael Tobis said...

That's the same link you put in your prior comment. Not that I'm sure I want to know what you are accusing me of.

I never thought Obama was a leftie. All this talk of him being a socialist is simply insane.

If he's being clever there is something he very much wants in this particular briar patch, but I don't know what it is.

Steve Bloom said...

Well, *that* joke fell flat. As they say, it's all in the delivery. Try this link instead.

On the point, I think Krugman is right that Obama is looking to make his reputation as the Great Compromiser, and at this point is reduced to hoping that the economy revives in time to assure his re-election. At this point, it seems more likely that Obama's legacy will be delivering us unto the Bachmann Administration.

This from Digby is worth a read (along with the linked John Judis piece). It seems especially telling that Obama's campaign-launching speech evoking Lincoln's historic "house divided" speech managed to reverse Lincoln's meaning.

Paul Kelly said...


Don't conflate bottom up with localism. I have never rejected practical necessities like grid improvement. In fact I've argued that it is one area where government needs to have a more active roll.

You will understand bottom up better if you give it a definition broad enough to include grid improvement. I'm pretty sure Roberts does. There's a lot I agree with in his article. I think he goes off track in his continued reliance on the political model.
That coal to liquid plant is a case in point. It is supported by the President , our governor, Speaker of the Illinois House, President of our Senate, the Mayor and our 50 aldermen, Democrats all and all publicly so very concerned about climate change.

Michael Tobis said...

Paul, as far as I am concerned you have been in the minor leagues of saying nothing whatsoever emphatically, but you're starting to give the main players a run for their money.

Please point us to a coherent statement of what you mean if it actually amounts to anything. It's hard enough extracting meaning from Pielke, which I've volunteered to make an effort to try to do.

What do you advise us as individuals to do, and how will that keep us below 3 C warming, say?

Steve Bloom said...

PK, it's a much longer list than the grid.

To focus things, maybe you should look at the German model and tell us what you think is wrong. If nothing major, then it would seem that the problem is entirely in the political arena, in which case I would point to the aged observation (made by DR also) that the fossilheads will push back hard against anything that affects their economic interests.

In that regard, perhaps you can address the case of Prop. 23 on last November's California ballot. A little closer to home (figuratively) for you, I think Prop. 16 on the same ballot is a good example of a major utility's response to people trying to take control of power distribution at a local level, so perhaps examine that as well.

Re the Democrats, as a Green I have few illusions. As an old friend of mine said, they're not the devil, but they do an awful lot of sub-contracting. And of course, I have even fewer illusions about Illinois being a coal state.

P.S. -- Hopefully you and yours survived last week's shitstorm with property intact.

Paul Kelly said...


I'm hoping that as I throw my ideas out here and at stoat and kkloor's (and Bart's if he reactivates), I'll eventually come up with something that makes sense. I'll take another stab at it tomorrow.

Nick Barnes said...

Your fish description more-or-less matches what has happened over and over again in European fisheries for the last 20+ years. Scientists say "You must stop all catches in this area, or the population will collapse". Fishermen say "how about a million tons?" Scientists say "No, no, zero." Politicians fire scientists, hire new scientists, a few times, until they find some who say "hmm, perhaps fifty thousand tons." Politicians then say "Right, we're making a tough compromise here, 950,000 tons."
Surprise, surprise, the result is population collapse.

Dan Andrews said...

In my classes at University of British Columbia, our professor had done work on the Grand Bank fisheries (he was a population ecologist, modeler). His lecture on the subject showed how there were big screw-ups on the part of everyone.

One example in particular I remember. The fishers started fishing in the nursery areas, which were supposed to be off-limits, and they kept that a secret. Scientists looking at the catch, thinking it came from the general population, said, "Look at all the recruitment (young fish). The stocks must be doing well", and so they recommended the catch limit be raised.

By the time they learned that the recruitment was being taken from the off-limit nursery stock, the damage had been done and stocks collapsed very shortly afterward (due to the combination of other factors which can be summed up under "Human Stupidity" or "Desperation" for those fishers who had to feed families regardless.

Adam said...

re. the fisheries analogy:

RPJ does not get this. In fact, to maintain the very existence of his point of view in the climate debate, he must not get it.

RPJ is not as desperate a rejectionist as Watts because, unlike Watts, he has a genuine job. But like Watts and the surface stations, there are some things for which he must maintain rigorous denial.

Tom said...

Paul Kelly, don't worry. You'll get trashed as thoroughly as anybody else who actually makes sense as soon as you offer anything concrete. Be prepared for the denialist scum sucking devil dog from the nether reaches of hell meme to surface shortly.

Michael Tobis said...

Out of line, Fuller. That sort of shit does not come down on this blog and I would expect you to know it by now.

I'll have a WordPress site soon, and that's a borehole item if ever there was one.

All: please do not feed the troll.

manuel moe g said...

Along the lines of "motivated individuals" vs international policy action to solve environmental crises, I want to get an idea of what success would look like.

Is the main example the successful transition from Freon to other refridgerants, that you wish to model, MT? Are their other examples?

Maybe the work by Economics Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, on the "successes of the commons" where the actors are also the domain experts, and are also the decision makers, and who all have the majority of the value of their enterprise trapped in long-term future activity.

Paul Kelly said...

What do you advise us as individuals to do, and how will that keep us below 3 C warming, say?

If us as individuals means you and I and the others reading, my answer will be about activism. If it means people globally, the answer is to confront the initial cost vs the time to break even impediment in a market solution.

Since keeping us under 3C requires some innovation and enormous engineering and deployment, you want to stretch out the time needed to reach the desired energy mix for as long as possible. While it is good to keep that end energy mix in mind, that mix will be accomplished - by whomever and however - one installation or purchasing decision at a time.

In the market solution, individuals have the opportunity to put a dollar value on their desire for energy transformation. This dollar value can be used to exert downward pressure on the price of energy transformation.

Michael Tobis said...

Please think like an engineer.

What could go wrong with that, ahem, plan? How will you prevent it? Hell, how will you even know if you are succeeding?

Dates? Targets? Numbers of any sort?

Otherwise, as Joe pointed out to Roger, you haven't really said anything.

Paul Kelly said...

Dates? Targets? Numbers of any sort? These are all readily available at MIT and Stanford for 3C (560 CO2 ppm).

Energy transformation will probably take all of this century.

Where the energy mix has to be at that point, and at ten year intervals leading up to it, is well covered in scholarly papers.

The numbers for how much deployment or emission reduction or decarbonization or however you want to measure things aren't much a matter of debate. I consider all of these as givens, settled so to speak.

Success can be measured by the percentage of non CO2 emitting energy deployed and the number of people participating in the energy transformation market.

I've offered you the opportunity to participate in the energy transformation market. It is not nothing. It is something. It is something you should jump at the chance to do.

Michael Tobis said...

Is this like the deal in Madison where I got to pay extra for electricity and the utility told me my power would therefore be "clean"?

I didn't see the value proposition, honestly.

I'd love to see an actual argument that a bottom-up plan could work. All we get from you is the claim, repeated over and over.

You are close to the "repetitive" clause for deletions. Kindly say something substantive or go away.

I really want you to be right, but saying "join us" does not constitute an argument. Join whom? To do what? By when? Why?

Put up or shut up, please.

andrew adams said...

Paul Kelly,

What does your approach say about China and India and the developing world?

Steve Bloom said...

Not to pile on, oh but what the heck, who at MIT or Stanford advocates for 3C/560 ppm? Most scientists seem to think anything in that ballpark would be a disaster. Maybe you meant 2C/450 ppm, but even there scientific advocates have become rather thin on the ground. In any event, please provide the MIT/Stanford links.

Steve Bloom said...

And see here, PK. There are all sorts of grassroots projects going on in California, but there's no real argument that deployment at the necessary scale requires government coordination and incentives.

Public support for such things is very strong, as reflected in a poll last week showing continuing strong support (75%) for global warming action even if it costs significant money during the continuing economic downturn. I think part of what goes on with this is that we've been there and done that with the Tea Party crowd years ago (albeit that some struggles continue). As well, there's a nearly 50-year history of leading the country on clear air action, with industry whining every step of the way, so there too there may be an inoculation effect.

It may also be significant that our major media dropped the tell-both-sides BS years ago.

And oh yes, there's the fact that many of our leading businesses have their heads screwed on straight regarding climate.

Michael Tobis said...

Steve, I advocate for "cutting as fast as is possible without creating a different disaster", which I think just barely gets us to a 450 ppmv peak and maybe 375 ppmv sustained on a multi-century time scale once the faster sinks settle down.

I'm just trying to give Paul a softer target to see if he has some way to hit that. He doesn't even seem to understand the question entirely.

manuel moe g said...

Paul Kelly:

> Energy transformation will probably take all of this century.
> ...
> I've offered you the opportunity to participate in the energy transformation market.

"Energy transformation" is simultaneously magical enough to solve all past, present, and future problems, and prosaic-sounding enough to sooth us into near inaction - not to put too fine a point on it, that is exactly its appeal. It is solely a rhetorical device, not a strategy.

[Begin Snark. Otherwise, why not assume the marketplace+innovation will eventually invent time travel, and the lack of time travelers visiting the present to cap off all fossil fuel sources is a sign that it all will go just ducky, no reason to worry about climate disruption. End Snark.]

"Energy transformation", if powerful enough to avoid climate disruption without sacrificing fossil-fuel-age economic growth, would be so incredibly valuable, if we had a hope and an inkling, all available investment monies would fly toward the hopeful research and development. That we see nothing of the sort speaks volumes.

I will ask Michael the question that I believe he has never satisfactorily answered: why are we to believe that we can avoid climate disruption?

I see climate disruption as inevitable as the collapse of Rome: the expense of politically necessarily entitlements + standing armies overtakes gains from available conquest, and human nature + inertia makes collapse inevitable.

Or, avoiding climate disruption could be like [1] the successful transition to ozone-friendlier refrigerants, or could be like [2] Economics Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom's "successes of the commons": the significant actors are also all domain experts and decision makers, and they have the lion's share of the value of their circumstance trapped in long-term future activity, on the scale of human generations, or it could be like [3] any other successful environmental stewardship you care to name.

Why will it be the second hopeful state of affairs, and not the first tragic state of affairs? If it is simply hope against fate, I can accept that, but I believe you are asserting more than that.

Michael Tobis said...

Moe, the technical means are at our disposal. (This is one reason the Breakthrough Boys are being silly.) They just cost money (really, effort and resources). If people understood how much they were losing they would pony up the money.

While things attributed to Churchill may or may not be real quotes, there's this one which sounds believable: "You can count on the Yanks to do the right thing after they'd tried everything else."

The events of this week show the capacity of Americans to behave rationally at the very last possible instant. So maybe the same will happen regarding sustainability.

Paul Kelly said...

I thought the question was can bottom up meet targets, dates and numbers that MT can agree with. Set the target as stabilization at 450ppm. That will take about 35 years. The time frame can be expanded 10 to 30 yrs. by prioritizing black soot.

I appreciate the pillow provided. If you want an actual argument that a bottom-up plan could work, Dave Roberts may be a better source than me.

My best argument for bottom up is that we don't have to wait for it. It is happening already. It is comical when people like Steve say "Don't you know people are already doing bottom up?" as if that's an argument against what I'm saying.


This is nothing like Madison. It is not about current energy sources or offsets. It is about new deployment of efficiencies and technologies.

Steve notes a majority is willing, and many are eager, to spend money if it goes to decarobnization. They have put a dollar value on their desire for energy transformation. Desire is as strong a market force as necessity. The market impediment is high initial cost. It results in a large group of willing to spend buyers with no product to buy. However, by aggregating the value of individual desires, individual transformative projects can be bought. I am proposing a product, a unit of energy transformation. No one has to wait to willingly pay a tax or absorb extra costs. That money can be used effectively right now.

manuel moe g said...


> [T]he technical means are at our disposal. [...] They just cost money (really, effort and resources). If people understood how much they were losing they would pony up the money.

25 years to transition to wind, wave, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, etc, without a burst of fossil fuel burning. During and at the end of 25 years, a loss of real wealth, effectively humankind would take a 80% pay-cut. Human population halves in 4 generations. All this, based on a pervasive understanding that the duty of stewardship to "our" [biological or cultural] grand-children and great-grand-children necessitates this.

[I will not lie and say the above is inconsistent with human dignity & freedom, accomplishment, life satisfaction, fulfillment of potential, happiness. I will not play that game. What is inconsistent with the above is the comfortable present-day stakeholders indulging in some false luxuries.]

As currently understood, am I correct that this is the necessary scale of change, understanding, and shouldering of stewardship? I am probably being too conservative, if anything.

Simply saying it all aloud makes the case for my incredulousness. That doesn't mean I will not work to try to make it happen, because right is right regardless of judgement of feasibility.

[Or am I *supposed* to keep quiet about the likely feebleness of the response to climate disruption, because despair would promote total inaction and give license to a termination burst of hedonistic profligacy?]

manuel moe g said...

Paul Kelly:

Why do you seem to tiptoe around national and international environmental policy, and why do you tiptoe around expected losses that comfortable present-day stakeholders will suffer from decarbonization?

I respectfully assert that for you, the status of present day fossil fuel industrialists and consumers is of greater weight than the burden of environmental stewardship for future generations. And that appeals for individual action is made precisely because that threatens present day fossil fuel industrialists and consumers the least.

That is fine: present day fossil fuel industrialists and consumers have brought a lot of wealth into the world made available for widespread increases in the standard of living. I will not argue that they are evil.

But if it threatens the environmental inheritance of future generations, some morally cannot promise to preserve the status of present day fossil fuel industrialists and consumers. I believe that is the rough consensus of this forum, if I may speak for the group.

If I am reading your priorities wrong, I apologize, and then would appreciate learning more about your position.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't see where you are getting an 80% decrease in anything but carbon emissions.

We can do this. It will be slightly technically inconvenient. It will be considerably socially inconvenient, and there is the rub. And we **may** have to cut down on energy excess; this might amount to everyone who is rich and acts like it (say top decile of impacts in North America) being taken down a notch.

Please don't give aid and comfort to the naysayers. There's no reason we can't do this. It's our planet. We do what we want with it. It's just a question of changing what we want.

andrew adams said...

Paul Kelly,

My best argument for bottom up is that we don't have to wait for it. It is happening already. It is comical when people like Steve say "Don't you know people are already doing bottom up?" as if that's an argument against what I'm saying.

But then no-one is arguing against bottom up actions per se. What we are arguing is that they will not in aggregate have sufficent impact in order to solve the problem we face, or even close to it.

Steve Bloom said...

Just so Andrew. We'd all be thrilled to do the whole job just with "bottom up" (whatever that is -- see below) if that seemed realistic.

PK, you have terms you should define before proceeding further. For example, you're distinguishing between "bottom up" and "local" but not being clear about what the distinction is. Your Leo project seems to be both, but what are counter-examples of things that are just one or the other? After that, you can try to make a case for the former as the basis for a comprehensive solution. Please explain specifically how grid replacement/upgrade (probably the largest scale project of all, one requiring massive government investment over a period of time) can be "bottom up."

Another question you should address is why a person without a specific connection to Leo HS should be more motivated to give to something like the Leo project (to replace doors and windows with energy-efficient ones, AIUI) rather than a community-level project that has a benefit for them, or for that matter rather than just upgrading their own house or business. IOW, absent that Leo connection I don't think it's much of an opportunity.

And BTW, how are you doing on the Leo project?

manuel moe g said...


> I don't see where you are getting an 80% decrease in anything but carbon emissions.

I am always inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt, but everything I touch from morning to night was manufactured and distributed under the regime of cheaply available fossil fuel energy with no environmental stewardship externality priced in.

I am always inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt, but the Industrial Revolution grew with coal mining, and since then fossil fuels were always the vastly predominant energy source.

Returning to pre-Industrial-Revolution carbon-neutral lives would not necessitate dispensing with all lifestyle enhancing technologies, but it is not outrageous to estimate it to be on the order of a 80% salary cut. (Obviously, I pulled this nice round number out of my tush.)

> Please don't give aid and comfort to the naysayers.

I find the useful distinction to be between those who take their human inter-generational environmental stewardship responsibility seriously, and those who don't. I am probing to see if there is a place in your taxonomy for those who take environmental stewardship responsibility seriously but are struggling to see how collapse can be avoided. Not all "naysayers" are motivated by a moral vacuum, I beg you to consider.

> There's no reason we can't do this. It's our planet. We do what we want with it. It's just a question of changing what we want.

This part I agree with you. I agree with you that the biggest obstacle to sustainable humane civilization is faulty premises about freedom, success, fulfillment, accomplishment, happiness. (If I am not putting words in your mouth.)

Steve L said...

Can't remember who said it, but: "economics is an excellent tool for getting from A to B efficiently; it is not appropriate for determining what B to choose." The goal shouldn't be determined by practical concerns; how to achieve it should. But what you're saying seems to be that democracy shouldn't choose among possible B's. That's tough.

Paul Kelly said...

Andrew & Steve,

There is no one thing that will do the whole job. The question I'm trying to answer is what is the most productive path for those who would be activists. I think the collapse at Copenhagen has been a real game changer. The irrelevancy of the information deficit model and the failure of the top down, politically dependent approach has been demonstrated through empirical observation and social science research. Otherwise, there would be no need for a bottom up approach. As the saying goes, don't knock it if you haven't tried it.

Another saying is think globally, act locally. It applies to bottom up in that bottom up includes, but is not limited to localism. Whether this or that particular action fits into a however broad or narrow definition of bottom up isn't important or meaningful. Bottom up is an approach, a mindset, not a rigid form into which all things must be molded.

The unique idea I've had is that those desiring mitigation can be organized to effect the market in ways that make mitigation more likely. For me, the Leo project is a kind of beta testing for that idea and to acquire the skills I need to be an alternative energy activist.

The project is moving along, albeit at I pace slower than I would prefer. From an energy transformation point of view, it is perhaps not an ideal project. It is, however, one that was available to me, one in I'm a participant, but not the leader. Those that are leading anticipate a year or longer fund raising effort that offic1ally kicks off Nov. 19 with an awareness promoting event at the Beverly Arts Center of Chicago. A media and social networking push will roll out over the next sixteen weeks to draw attention to the event and to the project.

Whether or not the project will appeal to those without a Leo connection is a good question. We'll find out if it will. Luckily for Leo, it's surprising how many people have that connection. Last Sunday I had a booth at a neighborhood arts festival and was amazed at how many people there either went to Leo or had a father, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin or good friend that did.

Steve, if you'd like to put grid improvement in the top down category, that's fine. I would note that our communication infrastructure has been rewired with fiber optics without much government spending required.