"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

They concede nothing; they can't

The perception of competing polarized scientific camps within climatology is a politically constructed illusion.

I argued as such in response to a question I saw on Quora:

What are the logical premises shared by both sides of the AGW debate?

 The questioner, Martin Stoehr, proposes for starters that:

* The average land surface temperature has increased over the last 200 years

 * A CO2 molecule does not absorb EM energy at visible wavelengths and does absorb EM energy at infrared and near-IR wavelengths (1437nm, 1955nm, 2013nm, 2060nm, 4257nm asym-stretch, 7205nm sym-stretch, 14993nm bending: Page on wesleyan.edu)

Well, you'd think.

I respond as follows:

The question holds a premise that there are two coherent scientific positions. But there aren't.

Within science, there is no polarization, although there is a spectrum of opinion on a lot of open questions. The illusion that there are two competing camps is promoted by political interests. If you look at the actual scientific perspective of the few people who are constantly invoked by the naysayer camp, you will find no coherence or commonality among their opinions. Many of them are frank crackpots, and all of them are, by definition, scientific eccentrics.

Therefore there is almost nothing or maybe nothing at all that they would agree to among themselves. They really don't have an alternative theory they are advancing.

 It should be considered settled that

* humans affect the climate in many ways
* greenhouse gases are among those ways
* CO2 accumulates so the greenhouse perturbation grows every year
* CO2 accumulation causes energy to accumulate in the climate system on short and long time scales, which causes warming, some of which is delayed
* warming is observed, most of which is a direct result of human impacts
*  a great deal more warming is to be expected.

That some warming has occurred is obvious - sea level is rising and this provides a crude global thermometer just by itself. You don't need a whole lot of observations and subtle data manipulations to observe this.

Also it is demonstrated that the rate of CO2 accumulation overwhelms the ocean's buffering, creating ocean acidification.

We can debate ethically, economically, and politically what to do about all these things. We can debate scientifically about the numbers and scales. But those facts should be considered established.

People questioning these points are very rarely real scientists in the physical climatology domain . Such exceptions as there are don't agree with each other, so they collectively concede nothing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

DSCOVR - Better Very Very Very Late than Never

You'd think people who think we have the earth's energy balance wrong would be eager to go ahead and fund a science mission that could prove it. But you'd be wrong. You don't seem to understand how know-nothingism works. The denier position is not that we don't know enough - it is that we can't know anything and therefore we can do whatever we want. (If you don't follow the syllogism, you still don't understand know-nothingism.)

So observing the energy balance of the sunlit side of the planet turns out to be possible because of a peculiar consequence of orbital dynamics. And it turns out that, although a clever idea for "an expensive screen-saver", and arguably worth it for that purpose alone, such a satellite, properly instrumented, could offer important constraints on the earth's energy budget.

In short, if the consensus understanding of climate change really were badly wrong, this instrument would almost surely provide enough information to prove it.

The instrumentation and platform was proposed in 1998 in conversations initiated by then Vice-President Gore and quickly constructed; it was ready for launch in 1999. But Republican pressure in the 1999 budget negotiations mothballed the project, disparagingly called "Gore-Sat" by its opponents. (In some circles, and mention of Mr. Gore is considered disparaging. He's sort of like Mike Mann in that way, a serious, moderate, thoughtful and highly competent person who has somehow been painted as a demon. Witness modern discourse at its best.)

And in mothballs it sat. Because Al Gore. Because conspiracy. Surely not because the data would utterly fail to upend the existing consensus and would help refine it.

Until this year, when it was launched. Until today, when its first image of the whole earth was released, to much calloo-ing and callay-ing.

Here's Neil de Grasse Tyson's celebration of the image, which was released as a memo by the White House.

Here's astronaut Scott Kelly.

Here's Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic.

All the happy talk today seems to be trying to bury the very interesting back story of Republicans practically sabotaging the launch by delaying it for an absurd amount of time. Wikipedia has links on that



Going back to what I myself said a few years back, there is likely to be a deeper and more interesting story here than has been told to date:


Would it have been more sensible to redesign the platform rather than launch an almost 2 decade old gizmo? Is this the best instrumentation for the mission to launch today?  I don't propose to have answers for those questions; I would not be surprised if the contemporary purpose of the launch is almost as political as the purposes of the absurd delay.

These are also things worth talking about.

That all admitted, I would defend the screen-saver aspect of it. Actual photos of the whole earth available on a daily basis are worth the few cents per capita that we actually spent on this thing. Providing collectively funded information of collective utility is a legitimate function of government.

Science has never been the sole purpose of NASA
, or we wouldn't have sent astronauts to the moon.

Apparently taking pictures of Pluto is less controversial than taking pictures of the Earth, though.

Welp, Pluto is cool too. Perhaps a bit too cool, but that's another tale, nicht wahr?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Looking for Consensus in All the Wrong Places

There's lots of bother about what the climate community agrees or disagrees to and to what extent.

This all follows on from Naomi Oreskes' investigation into the existence of a consensus in the literature basically on the question as to whether the future holds an unusual amount of climate disruption. (It does and the literature is consistent with near unanimity on that question.)

But whether there is, as is commonly claimed a "97%" consensus depends crucially on who you include as a scientist, what question you are asking, and how you go about asking it.

I think the most consistent and interesting pattern is that the more a person specializes in climate as a physical system, the more alarmed they are by our future prospects. At least two surveys have shown this.

Doran & Zimmerman 2009
1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant? 2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures? 
In general, as the level of active research and specialization in climate science increases, so does agreement with the two primary questions (Figure 1). In our survey, the most specialized and knowledgeable respondents (with regard to climate change) are those who listed climate science as their area of expertise and who also have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change (79 individuals in total). Of these specialists, 96.2% (76 of 79) answered “risen” to question 1 and 97.4% (75 of 77) answered yes to question 2.

This result is further confirmed by a more recent and more extensive study conducted by Verheggen et al. There's much of interest there, but I'd like to focus on the following, which examines the distribution of opinion among the group that the prior study would consider the most expert.

Here we see that the gradient of concern vs expertise arguably goes even to the most expert. The more you have published, the more likely you are to consider the anthropogenic component of warming to date to be "strong". And that's worth considering.

When science discovers something alarming, how does the alarm propagate? It makes sense that the best informed people would be the most alarmed if the cause for alarm is real, while if it is dubious or baseless, the distribution would be very different.

But why examine the consensus itself? Why have there been these various follow-ons to Oreskes' study? It seems to be largely driven by a group of naysayers who wish to insist either that there is no such consensus at all, or that consensus is an illegitimate basis for argument.

 This should all come as something of a shock to people interested in public health, where a formal consensus process has long been the mechanism of interaction between science and policy. For instance, "In the United States, for example, the National Institutes of Health promotes about five to six consensus panels per year, and organizes this knowledge by means of a special Consensus Development Program, managed by the NIH's Office of Disease Prevention (ODP)."

 So why doesn't climate science have such a consensus process? That should settle all this argument and allow us to move on on the basis of formally selected information. It seems like a good idea. Indeed, right-wing commentator Peggy Noonan suggested exactly this in 2006:
During the past week's heat wave--it hit 100 degrees in New York City Monday--I got thinking, again, of how sad and frustrating it is that the world's greatest scientists cannot gather, discuss the question of global warming, pore over all the data from every angle, study meteorological patterns and temperature histories, and come to a believable conclusion on these questions: Is global warming real or not? If it is real, is it necessarily dangerous? What exactly are the dangers? Is global warming as dangerous as, say, global cooling would be? Are we better off with an Earth that is getting hotter or, what with the modern realities of heating homes and offices, and the world energy crisis, and the need to conserve, does global heating have, in fact, some potential side benefits, and can those benefits be broadened and deepened? 
Also, if global warning is real, what must--must--the inhabitants of the Earth do to meet its challenges? And then what should they do to meet them? You would think the world's greatest scientists could do this, in good faith and with complete honesty and a rigorous desire to discover the truth.
You know what would be a great pity, though? What if there had been a consensus process of just this sort in place for decades, and nobody noticed. Fortunately the world is not that silly, is it?

A Policy Naysayer Makes His Case

...with Lomborg grinning enthusiastically from the panel


Peter Huber’s video is interesting and worth watching.

He expresses the Prisoner’s Dilemma aspect of the situation very well. His conclusion “chasing the impossible is never worth the money” is of course a tautology.

But there are other players than individual economic interests and national economic interests. There is the interest of the whole world. And the collective interest at the global level is profoundly opposed to the sovereign national interests in a classic tragedy of the commons setup.

Economically, leaving the carbon in the ground is a hugely losing proposition as long as there is no accounting for the diffuse but accumulating and persistent damages of fossil fuels. Specific interests will always look for ways to continue this lack of accountability. The market will continue to slowly but hugely damage our collective future as long as this accounting is neglected.

Huber, like most people with an axe to grind, considers only one side of the ledger. So while most of what he says explicitly is right, his implicit selection of evidence is profoundly biased, and his conclusion is distorted by the blinders he is wearing. Others looking only in the other direction see the transition to carbon free fuels as an economic boon, which is, if anything, even sillier.

The energy/climate future will be expensive, difficult, and disruptive. It’s too late to avoid that. The longer we pretend that changes will be either unnecessary on one hand or easy on the other, the more expensive, difficult, and disruptive the future will be.