"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, September 12, 2016

Vanishing Blogs

Updating the blogroll (how old-fashioned!)

I would like to call attention to blogs which are not merely inactive but have also vanished.

People who allow their materials to vanish from the internet are not real bloggers, as they don't understand the purpose of the internet. In fact, my paid blogging for KCET has vanished from the internet, and nobody seems interested in taking my calls. I imagine I have raw text for this somewhere. I'm in the porcess of reorganizing all my old files from my old computers. We'll see if I can recover that material.

Collide-A-Scape's early stuff is gone; this rankles me especially as I participated actively there.

And of course, Facebook keeps everything you've ever written for them, but doesn't really let you find it.

Others from the Hall of Shame:

Climate Post
Climate Safety
Salsa Verde

If you comment extensively on a site you don't control or contribute to an aggregator, particularly one run by an institution or a big media outlet, make backups.

The following blogs are off the roll. When I last checked, these were inactive but still live on the internet:

Also, I would like to apologize for having linked to Curry's "Climate Etc." which is emphatically part of the problem.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


E. O. Wilson, the coiner of the terms "biodiversity" and "biophilia", has recently said that he sees Mr. Trump as the greatest threat to humanity's future.

He's not alone, My friend Arthur Smith's Facebook feed recently asserted that he has several European friends who see Trump as an existential threat to democracy.

I think so too. It has called me to call into question why I write and for whom.

My writing has always been based in a belief in democracy. That is to say, I believe it is possible for the population, collectively, to navigate the increasingly complex terrain of our tightly coupled and complex future.

I've always had some doubts about this prospect, because it would seem that the burden of democracy gets bigger as the complexity of collective management increases, but the cognitive and effort burden of effective participation increases while the reward does not. Lately the doubts have been winning.



I've written about climate and related matters in the belief that reaching the more involved segment of the public with more sophisticated arguments is crucial. (This belief boils down to what Kahan et al. call "the deficit fallacy, but I'll refrain from revisiting that argument here.)

Let's imagine for example that there is a complex decision - for instance a hydroelectric project is proposed.

In the long run, this project produces carbon-free energy, which has enormous benefits, but there is a one-time clearing of forest to contend with, which leaves the carbon balance not entirely neutral. Also a few remote communities will be disrupted. Some of them have special status under old treaties with indigenous tribal groups. It's a difficult tradeoff. Should this particular project go through? How should we weigh local interests in continuity, regional interests in prosperity, and global interests in sustainability? It's complicated.

Nowadays, people will align on this argument somewhat impulsively, based on some sort of underlying belief "hydro is a good thing" vs "hydro is a bad thing". But what of the position that some projects are good and some are bad? I choose hydro because I actually hold that position - which hydro projects to pursue is a contingent question. Neither "all" nor "none" makes any sense to me.

(If you're a person who objects to all large hydroelectric projects, I don't want to argue about that, and I don't want this point to derail your interest in this essay. So you can consider the question of which projects to remove, and in which order, a problem which has very similar constraints.)

How do we deal with such situations in practice? Local interests will have little difficulty expressing their objections to the project, but regional interests are expressed by jockeying for power among people elected on the basis of how nice their teeth look, how much fun they'd be at a barbecue, and their stance on specific, charged questions which tug at people's emotions.  (Abortion policy, for instance, is a real issue, but it is used politically as a way of short-circuiting people's reasoning capacities.)

Politicians are expected to have networks of self-interest and mutual obligation, which allow them to weigh the risks and benefits of the project. Of course, an immense amount of technical knowledge goes into the design and implementation of a large project like this should it go forward, but the go/no go decision is made by people who attained to power through no particular sophistication about energy matters. But the decision comes down to balancing the influence of stakeholders, specifically the capacity of the stakeholders to affect the re-election prospects of the representative and his or her party by funding or by directly influencing voters. It's true that occasionally politicians rise above this and "vote their conscience", but they can't afford to do so very often. 

In this particular case, "environmental" concerns are not aligned. The stakeholders for sustainability, weak though they are to begin with, are split between local concerns to preserve a specific piece of ground and global concerns to restrain the terrifying trend in the carbon content of the atmosphere and ocean. In practice, the constituency for the global view in local questions is much diluted.

How should we inject global concerns into local decisions, lacking a global power center?



Let's imagine, counterfactually, how we'd like this to work.

In this counterfactual world, the costs and benefits and risks and uncertainties would be weighed rationally against a clear and thoughtful enumeration of values and intentions, both universal ones and idiosyncratic ones of affected subgroups. 

This is, let's be clear, even harder than deciding whether or not to dam the reservoir. It's harder because there is no solution on which everyone can agree; it's harder because a decision must nevertheless be taken; and it's harder because the result is contingent on many of the technically complex (and hence obscure) factors that go into the design itself.

But for the purposes of argument, we're imagining this working. This means that while anyone may disagree with a particular decision, most people feel that for the most part, decisions are being taken that respect both themselves as individuals, their community as a social fabric, their nationality as a cultural whole, and the world as a whole. Further, we would believe that all of these interests are respected both in the present and the very distant future.

A key ideal in this counterfactual is one of deliberation. Ideas are presented and digested; useful syntheses are constructed, risks and uncertainties are weighed against values and objectives, and a rational policy emerges that is coherent not only within itself, but within a larger network of policies.

In theory, this deliberative process must occur with the entire public.

Here's the rub. Think of 100 people you know, outside academic or professional circles. How many of them would you want to discuss the risks and benefits of a particular hydroelectric project with? Not many, I'll wager.

So how could this deliberative process possibly work given that the vast majority of the public lacks the skill or interest to participate effectively in even a single complex decision process, never mind all of them?

Clearly, there has to be delegation. I want someone who knows about dams and about energy and about climate and who understands my own interests and those of my own community at the table. (That's the ideal of democracy, right?) In order for this to work, there has to be such a person whom I trust, and that person has to deserve the trust that I invested. There really is no practical alternative.

In fact, if you ask me what made America great in the first place, in addition to the amazing bit of real estate within its borders, and the amazing creativity of its people, I'd have to put that there actually was, for a large stretch of time, a workable deliberative process which a sufficiently large and stable swath of the public (*) trusted decision makers ("the Establishment") and the decision makers merited that trust.

(* I don't mean to trivialize the extent to which "the public" in this case meant the white majority at the expense of others. It complicates the case I'm making. It shows that there's a key ethical component that implies that deliberative democracy is not enough. The point, though, is that there was enough competence and trust to create the immense engine of wealth and prosperity that America has been for over a century.)



How should this work in practice? Nobody, no matter ho brilliant, can grasp in detail all the factors that go into a single decision, such as adding (or removing) a hydroelectric project. Yet a complex society has a great many such decisions to make to navigate our increasingly fraught and difficult future.

A national leader, in particular, must rely on a "cabinet", a set of about one or two dozen trusted advisers, to drill down and focus on specific areas. These relationships are built on mutual trust. These in turn have their own set of advisors. There's a mutual sense of trust and competence with each of these relations. And each of these people have their own calculus of power and influence.

This isn't different from what we have now.

What's missing from what we have now is a sense of mutuality and a sense of trust that extends to the entire public. If someone has an idea, there is little sense that the political structure will be able to consider it fairly. If someone has an objection or an objective, they have to build up a power platform of their own to be considered. In our functioning democracy this changes. 

Of course, most people are operating on limited expertise and information. So most ideas, no matter how fervently held, are in some way wrong.  But on the other hand, if the deliberative process were about something other than mere powermongering, the germs of the good ideas could be nourished, and collective competence could rise to the level of individual or corporate competence. 

So ideas need to be debated and winnowed not just by an established elite, but by the public at large. This gets harder and harder as matters get more complicated. So in this counterfactual world, we get much better at discourse than we are in the real world we inhabit. 

In this world of sane deliberation, facts and serious argumentation matter a lot. (Staking out positions, lawyer-like, and contesting them with cherry picked facts matter very little.)

The purpose of my writing has always been to contribute to this world of sound and sane and value-driven discourse. I always believed that democracy is possible, even though by the nature of the complex and coupled future, it gets harder. Because it gets harder, we have to get better at it. That is, the fraction of our attention and resources that go toward governing ourselves has to increase.

It's always been my goal to pitch in to creating this world of collective competence. 

Leaving aside my own limitations and also the limitations of the commercial world in which we find ourselves, I am finally questioning that objective itself. It's not that the goal is unworthy, it's that the environment doesn't make the actions practical.

The deck chair analogy comes to mind.



It's not hard to come to the conclusion that I am tilting at windmills.

What we see is a world where, despite the fact that there is less and less realistic work to be done, people are increasingly frantic and stressed. Even experts find themselves in situations where preserving their own position is more important than advancing the general state of understanding. Most people lack the time to develop a connection to the decision-making process.

Meanwhile, the decision-making process itself has become professionalized. This divorces it from the public. Decision-makers have little time for anything but amassing funds, tricking people into voting for them, and jockeying for power. 

(Real deliberation is relegated to the fringes. It's why I've been spending so much time on Twitter lately. If you choose your Twitter population carefully, you can find semblances of fair and reasoned argument, ironically enough, in 140-character snippets.)

I've been worrying about this for a long time, and I have lots of thoughts about why this is happening, and why the USA in particular is leading the world down this disastrous path. This essay is already too long to address them here.

All I'm saying is it's happening. To the extent we are moving away from discourse, providing information for this discourse is futile.

This trend has been building for a while, but it's now obvious. I give you this exchange with Donald Trump in evidence:

Matt Lauer: Let me stay on ISIS. When we’ve met in the past and we’ve talked, you say things like I’m going to bomb the expletive out of them very quickly. And when people like me press you for details like that gentleman just said on what your plan is, you very often say, I’m not going to give you the details because I want to be unpredictable.
Donald Trump: Absolutely. The word is unpredictable.
Matt Lauer: But yesterday, you actually told us a little bit about your plan in your speech. You said this. Quote, “We’re going to convene my top generals and they will have 30 days to submit a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.” So is the plan you’ve been hiding this whole time asking someone else for their plan?
Donald Trump: No. But when I do come up with a plan that I like and that perhaps agrees with mine, or maybe doesn’t — I may love what the generals come back with. I will convene…
Matt Lauer: But you have your own plan?
Donald Trump: I have a plan. But I want to be — I don’t want to — look. I have a very substantial chance of winning. Make America great again. We’re going to make America great again. I have a substantial chance of winning. If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.
Matt Lauer: But you’re going to…
Donald Trump: And let me tell you, if I like maybe a combination of my plan and the generals’ plan, or the generals’ plan, if I like their plan, Matt, I’m not going to call you up and say, “Matt, we have a great plan.” This is what Obama does. “We’re going to leave Iraq on a certain day.”
Matt Lauer: But you’re going to convene a panel of generals, and you’ve already said you know more about ISIS than those generals do.
Donald Trump: Well, they’ll probably be different generals, to be honest with you. I mean, I’m looking at the generals, today, you probably saw, I have a piece of paper here, I could show it, 88 generals and admirals endorsed me today.

Why is it not clear to the public that this is empty bluster from a dangerous fool?

I would say that the reasons that this and similar trumpian argument from "buhlieve me" is a marketable posture, that Mr Trump has "a substantial chance of winning",  are closely related to the reasons that deliberative democracy has failed.

If it's enough to convince the most gullible 51% of the public that a con man has a "secret plan" or maybe doesn't, who knows, the problem is that the network of trust between the public and the people who are paying attention has practically completely broken down.


In this context, though, does it make any sense to write a commercially unviable book about attribution of extreme events to climate change? 

I think I have something to add to that conversation, but I don't think my addition would penetrate the public discourse.

Also, almost everyone I know of who has staked out a position on this question has a position that is substantially different from mine, so I don't really have a market or a constituency.

More generally, why should I blog? Why should I even engage on Twitter? I enjoy it, but perhaps it is interfering with enjoying other things. There's still time for me to play the piano. Why should I wear out my keyboard muscles on mere typing?

It seems to me that in a world where discourse doesn't matter, adding to the discourse in a way that has no established constituency has no value. To the extent that I am adding value, it's mostly to a world that doesn't exist.

Most people learn to STFU sooner. I guess I'm just slow.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The new world order


Time for me to figure out how to use storify

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Look to Sweden

Ray Pierrehumbert:

How to decarbonize? Look to Sweden
 Bringing global warming to a halt requires that worldwide net emissions of carbon dioxide be brought to essentially zero; the sooner this occurs, the less warming our descendants for the next 1000 years and more will need to adapt to. The widespread fear that the actions needed to bring this about conflict with economic growth is a major impediment to efforts to protect the climate. But much of this fear is pointless, and the magnitude of the task – while great – is no greater than the challenges that human ingenuity has surmounted in the past. To light the way forward, we need to examine success stories where nations have greatly reduced their carbon dioxide emissions while simultaneously maintaining vigorous growth in their standard of living; a prime example is Sweden.  
More at the link.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

How we think we think

I swore to Irene that I'd stay out of politics, at least until summer. And I know many, maybe most, of my friends are Bernie folk so this may irritate some of you.

But this article is IMPORTANT.


Anyway, it's not really a violation. Please read carefully.

The article TAKES NO POSITION ON HILLARY VS BERNIE. If you read this article as taking sides in Hillary vs Bernie you are missing the point.

This article is about how we think, how we think we think, and how we are manipulated.

At the risk of violating my "parole", let me be explicit about something this article assumes you understand but does not actually say.

Sanders has excellent points, and it's a good thing that he has put these issues on the table in a way that Mrs Clinton, who actually needs to win a national election in the conventional way, can't. But his success in doing so is in part because the Karl Roves and Frank Luntzes of the world have been planting BS in people's minds for decades about prominent Democrats, and especially the Clintons and Obamas. Are Rove,  Luntz and company actually quietly supporting Sanders? I wouldn't put it past them.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

No point arguing with me

I'm just stubborn

Saturday, March 12, 2016

February GMST Anomaly

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Improving on Silence

I find an attribution of this idea from an unexpected direction.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Canada Green Party Revives Social Credit Movement in Canada

Huffington (Canada) reports
The Canadian Medical Association endorsed basic income this past summer and nearly 200 physicians signed a letter to Ontario's health minister calling for a pilot project because "income is the great divide when it comes to Canadians' health."

One of Canada's loudest proponents of basic income has been former Tory senator Hugh Segal. In a HuffPost blog in 2013, he wrote that we can't let "the ideological conceit that a rising tide lifts all boats obscure the hard reality that many Canadians have no boat or access to anyone who has ever had a boat."

The Liberal membership, meanwhile, passed a priority resolution last year calling for the party to "design and implement a Basic Annual Income." However, there is no mention of it in the Liberal's just-released election platform.

The federal NDP have been mum on the subject throughout the campaign, preferring instead to discuss a $15 minimum wage for federal workers — though there have been murmurs that Alberta's NDP government might give it a trial run with support from the mayors of Calgary and Edmonton.
The Green Party, however, has made basic income one of the most important planks of their platform, tying it to their anti-poverty efforts and their elder care strategy. Dubbing their version the "Guaranteed Livable Income" (GLI), the Greens would use "a single, universal, unconditional cash benefit delivered through the tax system" to replace the current complex system of federal and provincial support.

The Greens would then give every Canadian a regular GLI payment and set a minimum income level just above the poverty line. After that point, the GLI would be gradually taxed back until it was eliminated at a ceiling of, say, $60,000.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May:
It's just that as people make more, they get into the range of being tax-paying citizens. It's a good thing to give it to everyone because we eliminate income splitting that Stephen Harper brought in and generally only benefits families that are better off. This is a program that ensures that everyone can live with dignity.
It is very efficient because it costs a lot of money to check up on single mothers to see if she moved in with her boyfriend. It makes much more sense to give everybody a cheque so that you have no economic poverty anymore. People who receive that money are spending that money, they are happy to go out and make more money.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

No Place To Go But Up

I have a longish article on Medium about the future of transportation. It's written from an Austin-centric point of view, and I do think Austin should be the first to try this.

But if you want to try it where you are, more power to you!

My point is that when the roads are full, you have to build alternative transportation off the roads, which means either below them or above them. It's not as if elevated rail were really a new idea.

(Purportedly a view under the Baltimore el, pre-1950)

It turns out that elevated bikeways aren't novel either! (more at the link)

And there's another co-benefit: an emerging car-free commons.
The solutions to our problems lie in alternative lightweight transportation on alternative route networks that minimally intersect with the existing road network and as much as possible are human-powered or externally powered (like electric trains). The best way to achieve this is by putting trains and bicycles above the car traffic. This offers an opportunity to develop delightful above-grade pedestrian and recreation facilities as well.
Blegging for Medium.com likes, please and thanks! I sweated over this piece, and it doesn't target my usual audience.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Kiribati Bails Out

The low-lying island nation of Kiribati (formerly "Christmas Island") is buying real estate on the larger Fiji Island and planning to move everybody out, on account of, well, you know, water.
The country's outgoing president Anote Tong said the accelerating effects of climate change meant he had given up dealing with the day-to-day issues to concentrate on finding creative solutions for his low-lying country.

He told a climate change conference in Wellington those include building up the atolls, floating islands and buying land in Fiji.
Mr Tong said he had also tried to motivate the 100,000 strong population to prepare and adapt themselves for what he calls migration with dignity.
(Image of failed Kiribati seawall via indaily.com.au)

On unlinking work from sustenance

I think we need it to be possible to get rich from working, but we need to make it impossible to get desperate from not working.

Hat tip to Dan Olner who points to a cogent argument for what I will persist in calling social credit or creditisme [sic], by Paul Mason on the Guardian.
A low-work society is only a dystopia if the social system is geared to distributing rewards via work. 

The automation revolution is possible, but without a radical change in the social conventions surrounding work it will not happen. The real dystopia is that, fearing the mass unemployment and psychological aimlessness it might bring, we stall the third industrial revolution. Instead we end up creating millions of low skilled jobs that do not need to exist.
The solution is to begin to de-link work from wages.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Should We Stop Breathing?

If CO2 CAUSES climate change, and we EXHALE CO2, what happens if a billion people (like CHINA) stop exhaling for a minute? A measurable effect?

Lung capacity is about 3 L according to Lung Volumes and Capacities
Exhaled air contains about 100 times the concentration of carbon dioxide that inhaled air does, or about 4% CO2 by volume via Carbon dioxide comparison between inhaled and exhaled air

So the amount of CO2 sequestered in the lungs of a billion people is 4 % of 3 billion liters or 120 million liters at roughly 1 atmosphere pressure. At 2 g / L (What is the density of carbon dioxide (CO2) at STP if 1 mole occupies 22.4 L?) we get the lungs of China holding 0.002 * 1.2e8 = 240,000 kg.

The entire atmosphere has 5 x 10^18 kg total, of which 0.04% is CO2 so that amounts to 2 trillion kg.

So the fraction of the earth's CO2 in a billion lungs holding their breath is
240,0002,000,000,000,0o0 = about a tenth of a part per million. If they held it forever, they would be uncomfortable, but the effect on CO2 would be so tiny as to be hard to measure.

As a global warming question this is sort of misguided, because CO2 breathed out balances carbohydrates eaten - there is no new net carbon injected into the system. That is, it seems to confuse fluxes and reservoirs, or as economists call it, stocks and flows. In fact, breathing contributes nothing to global warming at all, if food is produced in a carbon neutral way. It makes more sense to look at the carbon footprint of food production than of breathing, though in practice that is quite substantial, perhaps 10% of the total. This link says 9%: Agriculture Sector Emissions

I am sure you are responding to somebody who snarkily suggested we stop breathing. In fact, this boils down roughly speaking to whether we stop eating. If somehow we could live our lives otherwise the same without eating, we'd reduce our emissions by around 10%, and the accumulation in the atmosphere would be somewhat slowed. It's probably not a promising approach, though. But that's all about agricultural practices, not about agriculture itself. It's probably still possible to feed the earth's population entirely in a carbon neutral way.

What is pursuing a PhD in Climatology like?

What is pursuing a PhD in climatology like?

There few departments that have "climate" in their name.

Among the closest is the program at Wisconsin from which I attained my doctorate, the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (formerly Meteorology). So there's a strain of physical climatology that emerges from the meteorological and oceanographic traditions. You'll learn more than you want to know about the nuts and bolts of weather prediction, but you'll get a feel for how the physics of the system works.

The other strain of physical climatology emerges from earth science. It is more focused on paleoclimate and thus on how climate changes in nature. There's a lot of very interesting information about past climate buried in rock formations. Emerging from this discipline is an interest in more recent paleoclimate proxies - corals, tree rings, mud deposits, and ice sheets - which contain information on the intermediate time scale (a few thousand years) and which seem to attract more than their share of howling from the sidelines. (People who want to think our current changes are in large part due to nature want to see more variability in the millenial record and less variability in the century record. You may think this is an odd way to approach science, but that's veering off topic.)

Related, and probably the richest climate-related field of study for the mathematically adept nowadays, is computational science. Unfortunately, for institutional reasons the connections between the computational science community and climatology are relatively weak. But if you're very strong both intellectually and in terms of ambition, that's an angle that would be worth pursuing.

This is all what might be called "working group I" stuff. That's the IPCC nomenclature, where there are three working groups. People working on impacts (group II) and on economics (group III) are often broadly called "climatologists", but I am not in a position to help you with this and I assume this is not what you are asking about.

The material is fascinating, but at least when I did this the pedagogy was week. I think the textbooks have improved somewhat, but you'll still have to be something of an intellectual self-starter. As far as paving the way to a secure job, the importance of the topic is no guarantee.

In the US in particular, one political party is increasingly hostile to climate science as a community. Even if the most extreme elements there do not succeed in shutting it down, the political overlays on the funding make things both unsteady and somewhat ill-organized from the top down. It's certainly not a great situation. Those suggesting the field is rolling in money are simply unfamiliar with how it goes. Funding in the US has been unsteady and not showing long-term growth though it bumps up and down with the political winds.

So as with any career path, much depends on your aptitudes, your interests, and your goals. There are many drawbacks to a career in climate science, including being forced on a daily basis into a conscious awareness of how badly the planet's future is being bungled, which isn't exactly fun.

If you're not much interested in saving the world, it was a much better gig when it was a pure science that nobody cared about. It's not the healthiest scientific community you can imagine, which is understandable given all these pressures. But if you can associate yourself with a top-rank professor at a good program, all of these concerns will be secondary while you are a student, as there is a lot to learn and it's intrinsically beautiful and satisfying material.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The bumpy ride - Dr Twila Moon

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Open science good, FOIA snooping bad.

Open science good, FOIA snooping bad. It’s not complicated. But it’s not easy.

By me, on Medium:

Keep Your Damn Lawyers Out of My Notebooks

Helicopter Money

Social Credit (*) is mocked here as "helicopter money" here; based on this article it certainly seems likely that the Swiss proposal to go all in on a guaranteed non-means-tested universal income will be excessive and will backfire.

(* Historically in Canada this idea was called "social credit", which remains the name I prefer. Unfortunately the idea was premature and also it  picked up some cultural baggage by appealing to unsophisticated and xenophobic rural voters. But I think it's clear that "helicopter money" is not intrinsically a bad idea.) 

Work and wealth have to be connected, but work and survival with a reasonable level of dignity should not. And as machines end up doing all the substantive work, they increasingly cannot.

An otherwise thriving society based on the artificial necessity of enormous amounts of pantomime work has been tried before, I think, on Easter Island. It did not end well.

A good press report on a good attribution study

For a change. Lots of English-language sources for this, and it's not clear which to link to. It's originally from Agence France-Presse. Here it is on Yahoo.

Rather less successful is this piece from the BBC on the same research, but it's still relatively good on the spectrum of this sort of reporting.

Because I'm trying to cover this ground myself in my book project, I'm trying to understand why I like some reports and so thoroughly dislike others.

For one obvious thing, though, the NPR report isn't actually reporting any science, just a bit of off-the-cuff speculation. But it's not that I am opposed to off-the-cuff speculation, as I intend to do some of my own.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Houston Mayor: Texas Needs a New Transportation Paradigm


Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner:
TxDOT has noted that 97% of the Texans currently drive a single occupancy vehicle for their daily trips. One could conclude that our agencies should therefore focus their resources to support these kinds of trips. However, this approach is actually exacerbating our congestion problems. We need a paradigm shift in order to achieve the kind of mobility outcomes we desire.


The Katy Freeway, or Interstate 10 west of Houston, is the widest freeway in the world, with up to 26 lanes including frontage road lanes. The 2008 widening had a significant impact on the adjacent businesses and communities. Yet, despite all these lanes, in 2015 the section of this freeway near Beltway 8 was identified as the 8th most congested roadway in the state. This was only 7 years after being reconstructed! This example, and many others in Houston and around the state, have clearly demonstrated that the traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems. These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.

Social Credit Revived


"Does basic income make for a more creative society liberated from the constraints of cash?" "Does basic income increase happiness through greater leisure?"

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Another Day, Another Attribution Question

NPR asked some of the usual climatology suspects (Mike Mann, Heidi Cullen, etc.) "how come" about the recent, impressive Northeast blizzard.

I am sure a lot of meteorologists squirmed at the result.

People like to be asked questions about their expertise, and are loath to say "I dunno", so the resulting report is a baffling series of maybe-sortas. Climatology comes off looking very lame. OK, maybe it is in some ways somewhat lame, but it comes off much worse than it should.

If you had asked a meteorologist, you would have gotten a much more confident and impressive series of answers, and neither El Niño nor climate disruption would have figured prominently.

This is very reminiscent of  my recent comments about the Indian Monsoon, which were followed up by a much more detailed exposition by Rohit Singh, a fellow who obviously thinks about the monsoon in far more detail than I do.

I made the case that statistical climatology is mute and moot on the question, and that physical climatology would indicate that climate disruption must have an effect on the monsoon.

The question of whether El Niño has an effect on a blizzard is comparable. Of course, it must, as everything is not only connected, but in the atmosphere, everything that happens on a large scale is quite closely connected. But do we know what? Nope.

A far richer and more detailed answer can be provided by meteorologists, looking at short-term causality. Their explanation of the blizzard will have much in common with Singh's explanation of the monsoon. Along the lines of:
The storm ended up occluding in classic fashion, meaning that its main coastal surface low hung back while jet-stream energy carved out an occluded front extending northeastward just off the East Coast (see Figure 7). This evolution led to prime snowmaking conditions in a region of frontal formation aloft called a deformation zone that set up inland from the surface front, putting the heavy snow along and just northwest of the urban corridor. (Here’s an NWS explanation of deformation zones.)

WU blogger Steve Gregory, like many others, saw the classic nature of this setup emerging in the NAM and GFS models on Friday, although even then he wasn’t totally convinced. “Whenever a storm occludes out, it slows down and is pulled closer to the upper low (500 mb) and the storm track. Most importantly the deformation zone was then able to spiral further outward (northward) by 100-150 nautical miles, which brought very heavy snow bands into the NYC/Long Island/Cape Cod region,” Steve told me in an email.
But all of this phenomenology is embedded in a climatological setting, where both El Niño and anthropogenic climate change play a distinct role. If you ask me whether El Niño had a hand in this, all I can say is "how could it not?" If you ask me WHAT role it played, I will, like any other physical climatologist, be rendered speechless. The models made the storm successfully, and the climate made the models do that. Can we "explain" the connection? No, there are too many steps.

If a business goes under in a recession, can you blame the economy for the failure? It's tempting. If a business thrives in a recession, or goes under in a boom, though, what can you say?

The larger economy has an effect on your business. It certainly affects your chances of success. But whether you succeed or fail depends on whether you have a sound business model and successful marketing. There will be some red ink somewhere that tells you what happened in detail. The economic "climate" will certainly have an effect, and it will show up in the aggregate statistics of all businesses. But each business succeeds or fails for particular reasons, and trying to connect a single business's profit statement to global trends is barking up the wrong tree.

In the case of severe weather, it's often worse.

I would have said that the unusually warm water off the east coast was a crucial factor, and that a global warming connection was hard to miss... But in retrospect I'm glad they didn't ask me.

The report is a mess because the question is a mess. Yes of course El Niño had an effect - it's a dominant feature of the atmosphere these days. But was it the "cause"? This is really the wrong question.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is climate change the cause of irregular monsoon in India?

From Quora

Is climate change the cause of irregular monsoon in India?

My short answer is “I think so”, so you may want to skip the rest of this answer.

 This is a very interesting question, one of the larger class of questions “Is this particular phenomenon caused by climate change”, but one where the answer is particularly complicated, because monsoon variability lies right at the edge of “climate” and “weather”. Some would consider each individual monsoon onset a “climate variation” while others would consider it a “weather event”. The pat answers one usually hears about “the difference between weather and climate” rather founder on the rocks in addressing the question.

First of all, let’s make sure we agree what you mean by “climate change”. Both “climate change” and “global warming”, which are in some sections used interchangeably, are problematic. In a literal formal sense, “climate change” is a change in the statistical patterns of weather events. And you are trying to attribute a specific perceived change to “climate change”. So literally, you are asking “is this particular climate change because of climate change”, which is not really any more meaningful than asking “is Mars cause by planets”. The postulated increase in monsoon irregularity is by definitiion a type of climate change. So it cannot be caused by climate change.

To rephrase the question as “is irregular monsoon caused by global warming” is little help. Global warming is an observation of an increase in surface temperature. It is a consequence of a vast number of local responses to a global change in conditions. Among those conditions is the monsoon onset over India. This gets cause and effect backwards. The global change is an aggregation of local conditions - it is not directly the cause of local conditions.

I think the best literal phrasing for what is informally (and somewhat incorrectly) usually called “climate change” or “global warming” is “anthropogenically forced climate change”. That is, what you are probably asking is how much humans are responsible for an increased irregularity in monsoon behavior. A good shorthand for this is “climate disruption”. That is, we are discussing to what extent an event is attributable to human activity in changing the properties of the atmosphere.

There are two basic approaches to this problem, that yield dramatically different results.

The first is purely statistical. One looks at the historical record for a particular class of event - for example the onset of the monsoon in India. There are two steps to such an analysis - the first is to find a statistically significant trend, and the second is to test the hypothesis that the trend is correlated to some causal agent. In the case of climate disruption studies, in increasing order of appropriateness, one might use CO2 emissions, CO2 concentrations, CO2-equivalent concentrations, net top-of-atmosphere forcings (accounting for anthropogenic arerosols) or most difficult but theoretically best, all forcings as distributed geographically. (The use of emissions per se is strictly speaking incorrect, though it’s often seen in the less serious critiques of climate science.) Then, using “frequentist” argumentation, one tests the “null hypothesis”: is the observed correlation less than 5% likely due to chance.

It is quite possible, using this approach, to attribute global warming in the literal sense to climate disruption. But one cannot go much further with this approach, especially for rare events like typhoons in a given region, or for annual events like monsoon arrival dates. This is because the natural variability in these statistics is high.

 For example, the extraordinary late arrival of the monsoon in 2015 was not dramatically different from that of 1899, which caused even greater social devastation than last year’s event.

(Incidentally, this was a crucial event in the emergence of physical climatology as a scientific discipline. Sir Gilbert Walker, a diligent and creative scientist, was assigned by the British Empire to find causes for these events. He immediately concluded that “The variation of monsoon rainfall ... occur on so large a scale [that we can assume they are] preceded and followed by abnormal conditions at some distance” [“Floods, Famines and Emperors” by Brian Fagan, 1999], an insight which directly led to the discovery of the Walker Circulation and the Southern Oscillation, and indirectly to our current understanding of El Niño.)

 So while the events of 2015 were extraordinary (and I was very aware of them at the time because we were simultaneously having extraordinarily wet weather in Texas, which turned out to be by far the wettest month in our history) they are not, in isolation, without precedent.

There are only a few hundred observed monsoons, and only a handful of outliers. Finding trends among the outliers is by its nature doing statistical reasoning on very small data sets. And such reasoning is almost always inconclusive. This doesn’t mean human agency is absolved of influence, merely that it cannot be convicted beyond reasonable doubt using statistical methods.

But there’s a second way of looking at it. We can look at the physics of monsoons, and try to understand what makes them late, following in Walker’s footsteps with much richer understanding and tools. This amounts to studying the specific details of monsoon formation. I am sure papers are working their ways through the journals as I write this, but let me draw upon established knowledge here.

The monsoon is driven by differential heating between the continental landmass and the surrounding ocean. As the land heats, it creates a pool of hot air, which surrounded by relatively cooler, denser air is forced upward, causing condensation in rising air columns, causing intense rainfall. In 2015, however, the Indian Ocean was particularly warm. So this delayed the onset of the monsoon because the cool ocean air wasn’t actually cool enough to start the monsoon dynamic.

Next, we have to examine WHY the Indian Ocean was warm. This is complicated, and I’ll resist the temptation to speculate in detail. I am sure people are thinking about this in more detail than I have. But here we have a strong possible connection to anthropogenic forcing. Ocean surface temperatures have been extraordinarily high globally since 2014. So here is a very plausible connection to human activity, through radiative imbalance leading to global warming.

Can we prove this in a statistical sense? Absolutely not, as I explained above. The sample size is too small. But does it mean that there is no connection?

That is an absurd conclusion. If I punch you in the face and your jaw breaks, you do not need statistical significance to bring me to justice!

Furthermore, as I explain here , I think it is reasonable to expect larger seasonal excursions as climate change proceeds. This doesn’t mean that we can prove anything in court about any individual such anomaly. It’s important to understand that anomalies would have occurred in an undisturbed environment too. But it’s also important to understand that they would not be the same anomalies. Weather depends sensitively on the distribution of sea surface temperatures and their geographic gradients. We expect these to change with increasing vigor. Are we seeing the beginnings of these effects? Certainly so. Is there a causal chain? Clearly there is.

But are we worse off than we would have been in an undisturbed climate? This depends on the phenomenon in question, and in most cases it can’t be proved. That doesn’t mean we can’t say the evidence suggests that climate disruption is making matters worse. In the matter of the Indian monsoon, it seems more likely than not.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Spotted on Quora

Spotted on Quora, by Paul Mainwood, reposted without permission.

 Why is "scientific proof" of climate change so elusive?

Because when the challenge is issued: "Where is the scientific proof of climate change?" there's a bait and switch going on. Here's how it works. 
There are at least two meanings of the word "proof" in usual English usage. I'm going to call them proof1 and proof2. 
proof1: This is the sense used in mathematics: a deductive proof from a set of axioms. In this sense there are no proofs in science (see here as to why: is nothing ever proved in science?) 
proof2: This is the sense in which a scientific theory can be "proved", by repeatedly surviving harsh tests that were designed to falsify it. 
Most scientists know this. But this makes them even more susceptible to the bait and switch. Try to spot where it happens (clue in advance, it's not where you think it is): 
"Show me scientific proof2 of climate change!" 
"Sure, here's some basic thermodynamics and the properties of CO2, some projections of CO2 in the atmosphere and some modelling of global temperature changes based on this. Here's the observed global temperatures against the modelled values." 
"No, I mean scientific proof1!" 
"Er, do you mean proof1?" 
"Yes! Of course." 
"Ah, well there is no proof1, you see I have read Hume and Karl Popper, and can happily explain this to you. In science, proof1 does not exist, and we can only ever have proof2. And we have plenty of that proof2 for climate change. In fact, to be precise, anthropocentric global warming is not really a theory in itself but a single prediction based on well-understood theories that have been subjected to lots of proof2" 
"Aha, So you admit you have no proof1!" 
Did you spot the bait and switch? 
The real bait and switch is not switching proof2 for proof1. The real bait and switch is switching a scientific debate for a philosophical debate. 
That is, the trick is to get the scientist to engage on the nature of scientific proof (or even better, on the nature of truth). For once they have started talking about this, they have lost. They have strayed from the ground of authority that science gives them, and have started making philosophical-sounding claims, where everyone knows opinion reigns, truth is relative, and there can be no authority as a basis for public policy. 
Substitute "evolution" for "climate change" and the process goes through the same. 
The trick is to make the scientists sound elitist, out of touch with reality, and to rob them of the authority that their scientific credentials gives them. And it works every time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Kevin Anderson on Paris

The article is here