"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Wherein Mr Fuller Calls Me Out as a Kook

If you enjoy that sort of thing, go have a look.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Good Reporting on Bee Colony Collapse

by Nathaniel Johnson at Grist

Friday, June 26, 2015

On Laden vs Revkin

I started taking blogging seriously in the first place when I realized how the New York Times, as personified by Andy Revkin, though better than most of the press was proving incapable of conveying the outlines of the climate change problem to the public.

I have thought quite a bit about Revkin since. I saw him as two-faced, and others have struggled with this as well. People who have met Revkin find it hard to entirely dislike him (I have since entered into that category), and people who have been interviewed by him especially so. There's an obvious sincerity and wit (not matched by musical talent, alas) that makes the two-facedness even harder to account for.

I have since decided that it's best to think of Revkin as the Larry King of the sustainability world. A good interviewer of the friendly sort - the type that brings out the best, most convincing, most coherent, in anyone he interviews. When he interviews somebody basically sound, the result is extremely helpful. When he interviews someone basically confused and/or ego-driven, or tries to address both "sides" of what ought to be a noncontroversy, the result is toxic. On the whole we end up with a few gems in a total contribution that is not helpful.

A key controversy is on the "stridency" question. Journalists face competing ethical pressures - to tell the truth as it exists and to be open to challenge. This is a tightrope act. As such, journalists are suspicious of advocates - those who only tell one side of the story. I sympathize.

In the end my position on all this is closed to Gavin Schmidt's. What we want from all this communication is for real conversation based on realistic assessments of evidence to replace all these idiotic proxy arguments we are having instead. But when the proxy arguments are hopelessly skewed away from reality, representing a success on the part of the advocates of policy paralysis, the best thing to do is not always the thing that looks to the confused public as the most balanced.

So a case in point arises in a recent kerfuffle between Greg Laden and Andy Revkin.

It begins with an article Greg writes that is heavily critical of Andy, suggesting that he is becoming an active agent of the forces of confusion and denial.

For what it's worth, I wouldn't have written it that way. I don't think Andy has changed much. As Greg points out, it's the evidence that has changed, and there's little sign that Andy has moved along with the evidence.

But of course, that misunderstands what his role in all this. He has always been a de facto agent of confusion and denial, because his kindness and essential neutrality combines with excellent interview skills to produce this mass of wonderful and terrible articles, the net effect of which is terrible. Andy Revkin, though I like him, is the embodiment of the problem I set out to solve when I started blogging.

True to form, Andy is open to criticisms of himself, but decides to put some focus on this paragraph of Greg's:
There is plenty of room for variation in policy approaches to climate change. But there is absolutely zero room for considering the reality of climate change or its severity. We can honestly argue about thresholds, and which decade will see what severe effects, but we can no longer argue about the existence or overall seriousness of the problem.
Revkin picks up on Olson's critique and in his response replies sarcastically
“Zero room.” That’s scientific.
and expands
It is on the severity question that his “zero room” for debate meme fails.
Randy "Don't be Such a Scientist" Olson (grrr...) runs with it:
By pinpointing the “zero room” comment, Andy got right to the heart of the problem, and even cued a more specific elaboration from Greg of “zero room for debate.”
There’s your problem. In just two words you’ve captured much of the core of the failed climate movement of the past decade. And it is failed, given that there was once climate legislation in the works and bipartisan support for action, but today there’s nothing.

In 2006 Gore’s movie gave rise to the misguided “there is no debate” communication strategy. It took Climategate and Jon Stewart ridiculing the climate science community to show that actually there very much is a debate if you use the broader public’s definition of the word “debate” (that half the public does not support climate action) rather than the academic community definition (all the data point one way).

“Zero room” captures the self-defeating arrogance and tone deafness that has characterized the American environmental community for decades. Thank you, Greg, for distilling it down to just two words.
I won't waste my breath on how much every word of that irritates me, but that's Olson for you. Maybe I will write a book for Olson called "Don't be Such a Media Whore". What's important is that this does seem to capture Revkin's point.

But look, it's obviously wrong. The question is what Greg meant by "zero debate" on the "severity question". Does it mean zero debate on HOW SEVERE, or zero debate on WHETHER IT US SEVERE. Because if it's the former, there's certainly room for criticism. But see, Greg already answered that for us. Since bits are free, I'll repeat it with emphasis:
There is plenty of room for variation in policy approaches to climate change. But there is absolutely zero room for considering the reality of climate change or its severity. We can honestly argue about thresholds, and which decade will see what severe effects, but we can no longer argue about the existence or overall seriousness of the problem.
Although the second sentence is open to criticism on one interpretation, it is immediately paraphrased in the third sentence. And that paraphrase makes clear that the zero debate question refers not to quantitative dickering but to the basic facts of the matter, facts which Revkin insists that he accepts.

In short, this particular line of attack is baseless and at best very sloppy.

Beyond that, I'll let Andy and Greg slug it out. I don't entirely agree with either of them on their characterizations of what Andy does (and what most of the rest of the American press does too).

In the large, Greg is wrong when he (implicitly) calls Andy a sell-out. (* UPDATE/NOTE - Greg says on Twitter that he wouldn't use that description.)

(It's perhaps unsurprising that Andy turns around and defensively calls Greg a zealot, and that's wrong too. I don't always agree with Greg, but I think we've learned that tiptoeing around the climate issue trying to sound like a proper scientist is not having the desired effect. Greg can be reasoned with - he's reasonable in that sense.)

The problem at root is a totally confused sci-comms ideology that has gripped the press, exemplified and championed by Dan Kahan. And the best illustration of it has been provided, ironically and apparently unwittingly, by Andy Revkin. Watch.

Sorry. A bit excruciating, I know.

But if you ever wanted to see what ideological blinkers really do to a person, listen to how Revkin ducks and weaves to avoid answering Gell-Mann's simple question. (Ironic, no?)

A real pity the camera is facing the wrong way because Gell-Mann is the interviewer. (A hat tip to Steve Bloom for the reminder.)

And this bizarre abdication of responsibility by the press leaves nobody willing to take responsibility for the public understanding the issue. And that's the problem. I'm hard pressed to see how we reach a point where the public "believes in" something it doesn't have any understanding of.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Post-Panic Attack

So Facebook recommended a group to me whose description starts out
Mainstream media is marketing collapse panic or denial and must be countered with a responsive and honest citizen media initiative...
 Hmm, well that sounds promising, so I clicked on the full description
Mainstream media is marketing collapse panic or denial and must be countered with a responsive and honest citizen media initiative to prepare local communities for the onslaught of starvation, dehydration, disease, predation, and hopelessness. Images and narratives may empower the public with examples of those who are preparing to enter planetary hospice; images which reinforce ritual behaviors that do not require electricity, and can sustain us until life leaves our bodies. Ritual activities like: mindfulness practice; yoga; exercise; dance; prayer; hiking; gardening; painting; singing; journaling; massage; woodworking; reading; listening to live music; playing cards or games; cleaning and cuddling; or sleeping. Additionally, indie media could portray rituals in which we joyfully say good bye to our neighbors; our planet and our suffering. 
To quench the fire of retribution, and the agony of waste, independent media producers could choose to portray collapse as a spiritual event, a passing through the veil of our species, a culmination of our short excursion on Earth, with great reverence, and humility, humor, and compassion for one another. Indie media can act as a bridge uniting disciplines by collaboratively envisioning a post apocalyptic culture in which we use our stories and our art to celebrate our multicultural heritage, and pay homage to our planet, with compassion for every single being, releasing them to the infinite, each as a beat of a butterfly's wing, and a victim of unintended consequences. 
Aargh "rituals in which we joyfully say good bye to our neighbors; our planet and our suffering"! How empowering...

None for me thanks.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Do you believe us yet?

Record large-scale warm monthly temperatures in May: Northern South America, Florida and offshore, southern Africa, central Africa, Arabia, equatorial Indian ocean, south Indian ocean, equatorial Pacific, Alaska. And a couple of other isolated spots.

Record large-scale cold monthly temperatures in May: none.

Also NOAA has this as the warmest monthly global anomaly on record, though GISS doesn't; by their count it's merely very very warm.

It looks likely that the overblown "hiatus" story will go away in the next few months. Good riddance.

And what with the "tropical hot spot" issue also likely going away, one wonders what the naysayers will dig up to complain about next. I don't doubt it will be something. After all, it's a "hoax", right? They just have to move the goalposts a little more....

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Anthropocene Images and their Messages

It's worthwhile to try to visualize the anthropocene, and photography is a good way to do it.

Here for instance is my own image of the anthropocene stratum being formed in a gorge in New Mexico:

A parking lot at the top of the cliff apparently had collapsed some years ago, and the cars are sinking into the earth forming an iron deposit of an idiosyncratic sort. What we dig out of the earth eventually goes back into the earth. It has nowhere else to go. So if humanity fades from the scene, the modern era will be explicitly represented geologically by the earth swallowing our detritus again. (Click on the image for more detail.)

Much of our quandary needs to be expressed in abstract ways. People are so easily impressed by big numbers that aren't that big.

("Every year, Alaska loses some 75,000,000 tons of ice" I read recently. Why, that's enough to raise sea level by 5 microns!)

UPDATE: For what it's worth the real number should be 75,000,000,000 per 20 years. 25 mm/century in other words if my math holds. It's not an important number in any case, but bigger than I made out. The Himalayan ice may be a bit more important, but the real sea level story remains thermal expansion and the big ice sheets. I think the Facebook claim I saw was twice garbled.

Similarly, pictures of environmental awfulness need to be accompanied by some though into how widespread they are.

There's a series of pictures that's gotten some play in Facebook circles here.  Some just represent large problems, while others demonstrate them. This for instance is an unequivocal horror:

while this could represent a huge problem or not; we have to provide context ourselves:

(My aesthetic sensibilities prevent me from reposting the horrifying #15.)

But what are we to make of these two images, of Mexico City and Los Angeles?

Well, there sure are a lot of us, yep. But given that, is this sort concentration of humanity a problem? Maybe it's a solution! If we live closer together, we can share resources more effectively.

It's widely known that whatever else there is to being a Manhattanite, it comes with a much lower environmental footprint than anywhere else in America, with places like Boston and Chicago forming the second tier. Granted this sort of bird's eye view is sort of scary, but given that there are billions of us, isn't this the right way for us to live?

But then there was one image in the set, intended after all to be as mortifying as possible, to shake the viewer into some sort of radicalism, one image to which my response was unequivocally favorable. Maybe I'm odd about this. It's this one, captioned "The area around Almeria in Spain is littered with greenhouses as far as the eye can see – simply for a richly filled dinner table."

Assuming that really is what we are seeing here, so how is that a problem? Imagine how much more land and resources this agriculture would take done out in the open.

I'm not convinced by this idea that plowed-field agriculture is in any way "natural", that an agrarian landscape is particularly sustainable or delightful. (The endless cornfields of bizarrely flat Illinois are a particular horror, actually, as I look at it. I have nightmares about them.)

(via Wikimedia)

So regarding "greenhouses as far as the eye can see – simply for a richly filled dinner table"?

Yeah! More please!

I think it's not an easy question whether, in the end, agriculture has not done more environmental damage than heavy industry. Certainly it's not heavy industry that depleted the soil or displaced most of the world's biodiversity with monocultures. If we can pack ourselves into small spaces, so much the better. I think the same holds for our crops.

What's more, the more we rely on traditional agricultural methods, the more we are at risk from climate change. Indoor solar-powered agriculture recycles water, saves land and thereby preserves habitat, stops soil erosion, and increases resilience to the climate shocks that are coming.

I just don't buy into the back-to-the-land plan. It's way too late for that. Are greenhouses really so terrible?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Oreskes Interview

If you're interested in the climate problem, it's hard to imagine a better way to spend 3/4 of an hour than watching John Cook's interview with Naomi Oreskes.

The "in it for the gold" question is raised explicitly, by the way, and was one of the fine moments of this excellent piece.

(And now I know that I should have been a historian of science... Oh, well.)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Fun with Doom

It’s not good enough to do good if you’re not having fun.

Ram Dass:
Say you join the anti-WIIP (Nuclear waste disposal issue). Or you join the Central American Committee or something. You will find a group of people who are deeply entrapped in righteousness and anger. Social activists are not the most conscious people. They are good people. But they are not very conscious. And they will guilt trip you continually for not doing more. And if you say, I’m going to go home and meditate, they look at you like you’re killing little children. You hear that. And you’ve got to have this incredible strength, and you feel like some kind of a viper for saying I’m going to take the afternoon off to go swimming.
the foundation that I am connected with, is working very hard as a collective entity to be able to live in the world of suffering. Help it. Not lose our sense of humor. Seva has three definitions of itself.  One is to do something to relieve suffering. The second is to grow in the process of doing it. And the third is to have fun doing it. If we miss one of those, we blow it. It’s not good enough to do good if you’re not having fun. Because you’re just adding more suffering into the network of the human condition.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Why Climate Change is a Hard Problem

Now viewable online on the YouTubes

First Unitarian Universalist Public Affairs Forum #1436 
- 09/07/2014 - 
Climatologist, Dr. Michael Tobis  

"Why Climate Change is a Hard Problem

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The sort of thing that needs explaining

Washington Post:
Down south, 8.81 inches fell on average across the entire state of Texas, which made May the wettest month on record for the state — blowing away the previous record of June 2004 by over 2 inches. The rest of the top five statewide records are all within less than a ¼-inch of each other.
emphasis added. This sort of outlier can't be attributed to any cause, but it sure doesn't look normal. How many of this sort of thing do we need before we get the message?

Climate change is not just about severe events. It's also about unprecedented events. For which, by definition, there are no statistics at all.

It was also the wettest month on record for the contiguous states, but not by such a strange margin.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Headscratching About the Attribution Question

We need to find smarter ways to talk to the public about what we know and what we suspect about severe events in a changed climate

India just had its second-worst (in terms of mortality) heat wave.

Is this because of climate change?

If it had been unambiguously worst, would that change your opinion? To what extent, and why?

Statistical reasoning is fraught on the fringes.

That said, according to Reuters via Emily Atkin at Climate Progress
[T]he country’s minister of earth sciences did not mince words about what he says is causing the disaster.

“Let us not fool ourselves that there is no connection between the unusual number of deaths from the ongoing heat wave and the certainty of another failed monsoon,” Harsh Vardhan said, according to Reuters. “It’s not just an unusually hot summer, it is climate change.”
While he said it was too soon to directly attribute India’s current heat wave to climate change, University of Georgia atmospheric sciences program director Marshall Shepherd agreed that climate change is having an influence on many extreme heat events across the world.
This all seems like rhetoric, ducking the question of causality, sounding strong to the masses but feeble to the scientifically adept.

I'd say this is due to the framing of the problem. We need to find smarter ways to talk to the public about severe events in a climate change context. The whole language of "causality" is fraught, and can be attacked in innumerable ways. We need a stronger effort at making what we do know about these issues accessible.

So it appears that Indian pre-monsoon season of this year of 2015 is not totally without precedent.

Therefore, it doesn't desperately need explanation in the way, say, this does:

(Texas summer scatter plot via N-G)

That all said I am very relieved that the (often deadly) Indian pre-monsoon season of this year is not totally without precedent, that it appears to be ending, and that the suffering was not even more severe than it was. If anyone is reading this in affected parts of India, please accept my sympathies.

Monday, June 8, 2015

On Being Ahead of One's Time

I really ought to figure out a way to get credit for some of the things I say.

A recent article in Chronicles of Higher Education bemoans the uses of relativism in the organized subversion of civilization by moneyed interests.
"But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists," the literary critic Michael Bérubé noted, "… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind."
That is the price one pays for playing with ideas as if doing so has no consequences, imagining that they will be used only for the political purposes one intended. Instead, the entire edifice of science is now under attack. And it’s the poor and disenfranchised, to whom the left pays homage, who will probably bear the brunt of disbelief in climate change.
Yeah. Well, I kind of said that in 1996.
My concern is that the weaponry of relativism is only coincidentally
and temporarily associated with the rhetoric of freedom and dignity. Less
developed versions of the same thing have been used in the Stalinist
and Nazi tyrannies. This is a central fact of the history of twentieth
century science. In developing a rhetoric of willful uncertainty and
confusion (somehow ignoring manifest and spectacular success) and
conferring some sort of academic respectability upon it, the relativists
are developing a weapon that can and would be used by spectacularly
malevolent forces in the process of subverting and eliminating the
very sorts of human dignity contemporary proponents believe themselves to be
promoting. Ultimately it comes down to the triumph of the ad hominem
over the substantive. In that case, it is a trivial matter to move
the trusted class from tofu munching bicycle commuting book collecting
casual buddhist environmentalist utopians (I have described the class so
as to include myself) to gun totin beer guzzlin angry racist tax paranoids.

If such people ever get the sort of power they aspire to, they will
need a front of intellectual respectability, and the machinery of
radical relativism will prove remarkably malleable.

Truth is not so cooperative. Relativism is the enemy of decency as
much as unfounded certainty is.

Celebration of confusion and uncertainty transcends the left/right
dichotomies of property and nationality. A position that opposes
the possibility of testing hypotheses moots the issue of which
form of government is superior. It amounts to "why, whichever
form I say". It thus presents a common enemy to left and right.
Did y'all listen? Actually getting credit for seeing this coming would be a sort of a nice consolation, but it would be nicer still if my warning had been heeded or, really, had I been actually wrong. But that's reality for us Cassandra types. When we are right, it doesn't matter.