Friday, January 27, 2012

Liberal Science Denial

MarkH makes the case we are letting liberals off the hook too easily:

. . . liberals are just as likely to to disbelieve science that challenges their ideology, only the issues where liberals tend to deny aren't quite as earth-shattering (although anti-vax is a serious public health problem) and not as much in the media spotlight. And recent cognitive studies on why people believe what they believe support the likelihood that all of us, liberal, conservative, or moderate, are poor rational actors in the evaluation of science. . . . 
For instance, I've found liberals are far more likely to be interested in "greening our vaccines" (note the liberal pull of the label "green"). There are conservative anti-vaxxers but they come to it ideologically as well from the "the guv'mint can't tell me to vaccinate" standpoint. Liberals are far more likely to buy into altie-med, to believe "toxins" cause all illness, to engage in "big pharma" conspiracy-mongering, to express paranoid delusions about GMO foods or irradiation, to espouse insane theories about food in general, or to believe Bush was behind 9/11.
 But commenter Rev. Enki sets him straight:
Here's a question: How many (relatively) liberal, serious presidential primary contenders (say, getting >10% of the primary votes in multiple states) for the past decades have been anti-vaccine? How many have been anti-GMO? How many have been HIV denialists? The primaries are generally considered to be significantly biased toward the liberal activists. The liberals among liberals. On the other side, how many serious conservative primary contenders have been anti-evolution? How many have been deniers of, or at least minimizers of global warming? How many have been anti-vaccine, for chrissakes? How many have outright declared, or at least intimated that the UN is considering taking over the world?
Exactly so. While in principle, liberals are just as capable of science denial as any conservative, in practice, denialism among US conservatives at this particular moment in history is mainstream, whilst liberal denialism is relegated to the fringes where it belongs.

If you keep looking and you look hard enough and long enough, you can find ample evidence for the irrationality of all humankind. The fear of nuclear power. Resistance to education reform (lately better) and so on. But denialism is a little more complex than that. It also incorporates a hostility towards the educated, an embrace of conspiracy theory and crackpots, and rage and hostility when confronted with the facts. It takes root and flourishes among those that see themselves as persecuted and threatened by powerful, sinister forces responsible for the lacuna between what they feel to be true and the actual evidence.

This is typically a minority outlook, for obvious reasons. But sometimes a larger political movement will either pander to that outlook or be captured by it outright, and that is what the American conservative movement is flirting with today.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A new way to assess permafrost

Airborne electromagnetic imaging of discontinuous permafrost – Minsley et al. (2012)

H/t you know who. This airborne survey does not tell us -- yet -- about permafrost melting, since it only reflects a single point in time. But repeated annually, it could become an indispensable record of the evolving (read: melting) carbon storage lockers of the North.

I wonder if similar methods have been/could be used in the shallow waters of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf? They say they got data down to 100m -- parts of the ESAS are considerably shallower than that.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Preparations in the meantime

Population: 158 million

Reported without comment:

According to the Bangladeshi government’s climate change action plan, as many as 20 million Bangladeshis may need to be resettled as soon as 2050. “Preparations in the meantime will be made to convert this population into trained and useful citizens for any country,” the plan (pdf) says.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Methane: a worse worst-case scenario

Real Climate has weighed in on the Arctic methane question, and, as always, their contribution is cogent, well-considered, and reasonable:
But the methane worst case does not suddenly spell the extinction of human life on Earth. It does not lead to a runaway greenhouse. The worst-case methane scenario stands comparable to what CO2 can do. What CO2 will do, under business-as-usual, not in a wild blow-the-doors-off unpleasant surprise, but just in the absence of any pleasant surprises (like emission controls). At worst comparable to CO2 except that CO2 lasts essentially forever.
It's comical (which I suppose is the point) the degree to which Randall Munroe captured this perspective in this 2010 cartoon:

"The worst-case scenario is what's happening now." Indeed it is. And we shouldn't allow ourselves to be distracted from the certain disaster of BAU CO2 emissions by the possible disaster of the rapid release of methyl hydrates.

That said -- and at the risk of sounding like stick-figure Michael Bay -- their worst-case scenario is pretty tame -- they increased Arctic emissions by a factor of a hundred compared to today. While that sounds like a lot, a mere 10% annual increase starting in 2010 would push us past that mark in 2060. That's a fair "nasty surprise" scenario, but I don't see how you can really call it "worst-case."

Helpfully, Real Climate rapidly followed the original post with a second one providing an online methane release model. So we can easily look at a Mississippi-rerouting, flaming alligator scenario. Here goes:
While we have estimated the Arctic methyl hydrates at about 2,000Gt, those estimates have varied by a factor of eight from one study to another. In the worst case, we have underestimated the amount of methane, and there is about 8,000Gt under the Arctic, and 40,000Gt worldwide.

In 2023, the Arctic unexpected flips over to a new high-convection state that is ice-free year-round. The Arctic rapidly warms by 15-20C (as it did the last time CO2 hit 390ppm). In this new regime, Arctic methyl hydrates prove far less stable than we thought, and 80% of them are released over the next 170 years. The warming driven by that plus human CO2 even destabilizes a small portion of the global methyl hydrate deposits, previously thought to be safe: 20% of them degas in the same time period.
So 80% of Arctic methyl hydrates (6,400Gt) plus 20% of the rest (6,400Gt) = 12,800Gt over a hundred and seventy years (2023 -- 2193). Plug that into the model and we get:

We rapidly build to a total change in forcing of +25 W/m^2. Because the atmospheric processes that oxidize methane to CO2 cannot keep up, the methane becomes a long-lived greenhouse gas, the average molecule hanging around for decades instead of years:

 With the radiative forcing of seven doublings of CO2, total warming quickly exceeds +15C (on its way to +20C), rendering most of the earth's surface uninhabitable:

Sherwood (2010). +12C.
The blue and red (and black) on the graph indicate areas likely habitable by humans (absent 24-hour climate-controlled environments) in a +15C world. At +20C, it's Greenland, Iceland, Antarctica or fry.

The Amazon and the boreal forest burns; massive anoxic events spread across the oceans; billions fight over the last scraps of habitable land even as plummeting agricultural yields kill billions by starvation. The living envy the dead.

And that, my friends, is a real worst-case scenario.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA: [censored]

SOPA and PIPA enable the government and private individuals and (of course!) corporations to target and block content and websites they don't like, without ever showing in a court of law or proving to anyone but themselves that the content or the website infringes copyright.

This is not about how you feel about people stealing copyrighted works; it's not about whether we believe "data should be free." It's not about that, any more than the power to detain and imprison an American citizen and supposed "terror suspect" without probable cause or recourse to habeas corpus is about how you feel about a plane smacking into the World Trade Center.

Once you excuse the government from having to prove wrongdoing in a court of law, you can forget about who the law is supposed to target or what it is supposed to do, because there is no longer any mechanism for the target or anyone to use the courts to confine the law to its original targets. The Founders understood this. Do we?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Curry's monopolar uncertainty

Recently Judith Curry has been emphasizing the need to consider the possibility that natural variability may be causing a substantial part of the recent warming trend. The following comment is typical:
In the latest issue of Nature Climate Change, there is an interview with Richard Muller (behind paywall).  Its a good interview, with this notable Q&A:
Q:  Do you believe the global warming you see is a result of human actions?
RM:  I have not a done a scientific study, but my own impression–based on reading the literature-is that some of the warming we have seen is caused by humans.  To my mind, you can’t rule out half of the warming being caused by humans, but I think to conclude that most of it is–as the IPCC says–could be an overestimate.  This is my personal impression; the other members of the team might feel differently.
Well said, RM.
 Neither Curry nor Muller has identified any natural forcings -- solar, volcanoes, cosmic rays -- that they believe have been miscounted. Nor have they identified a shifting of energy within the system -- like the El Nino effect, but over decades of warming -- that might account for the current conditions. They seem to be arguing, purely and simply, that our estimates of natural forcings and natural climate oscillations is limited, so we must, as a matter of acknowledging uncertainty, consider that we may have underestimated these natural effects, which are thought to be small:

Gillett et al. (2012)
So about a week age I posed this question to Dr Curry, which seems destined to go unanswered:

Without reopening the discussion of what Hansen said/meant, I have a question specifically for you, Dr. Curry, if you don’t mind. You have argued that it is premature to attribute most warming to AGW with high confidence, because of uncertainty related to natural variability. Let’s take that as fact. Still, in order to do things like attribution analyses, we need to estimate the contribution of AGW to recent warming. My question: isn’t the central estimate for that contribution still about 100%? Proving greater uncertainty broadens the range of possible values, but unless I am really missing something (possible), it broadens them in both directions. Natural forcings could be positive or negative over the recent past; establishing greater uncertainty does not tell us which. We still do not have a candidate for a “natural” warming influence, with solar forcing flat, and volcanic activity flat. So isn’t the most reasonable way to proceed to continue to calculate the effects of AGW as similar to all of the recent warming, given that it could be more (net negative natural forcing) as well as less (net positive natural forcing)? Until we have a strong natural forcing or forcings in mind, we don’t know which. Is this your thinking, or do you think there is a convincing case to be made that the uncertainty is mostly monopolar in the direction of positive natural forcings
 And this follow-up:
Robert | January 9, 2012 at 9:55 am | @Dr. Curry Just to place some numbers around my thought from above ( let’s suppose we consider the current warming, if 100% human-caused, compatible with a climate sensitivity of 1.5C — 4.5C/doubling. Now we suppose that there is a powerful natural variability that is responsible for 50% of the warming trend. We do not know what this might be; we have not been able to detect it, but since we don’t know everything about natural variability, we accept it as possible. Now the observed response of the climate system to human activity is compatible with a climate sensitivity of 0.75C — 2.25C/doubling. But if principled uncertainty, rather than observed natural warming, is the reason for supposing this to be so, then it would seem the opposite proposition is just as reasonable — that absent human influence, a cooling of 50% of the observed warming trend might be unmasked. Such that the actual net forcing producing the current warming is 50% of what we observe humans to be contributing, compatible with a climate sensitivity of 3C — 9C per doubling. If indeed both are possible, then instead of being constrained in a band from 1.5C — 4.5C, the modern climate response would be compatible with a climate sensitivity of 0.75C — 9C. Unless the uncertainty operates in only one direction, for some reason, it would seem that the assumption that current warming is 100% human-caused remains a reasonable working hypothesis, except insofar that if you are right about the greater uncertainty, it implies a much larger “fat tail” of climate sensitivity.
Think she'll respond? I have my doubts.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Romney's Bain

Rich Lowry tries valiantly to find a line of defense:
After Bain’s $8 million takeover, the mill announced plans for a $98 million modernization. It merged with another operation “to form one of the largest mini-mill steel producers in the U.S.” Bain re-invested another $16.5 million. When an industry competitor tried to buy the new steel company, Bain declined. These weren’t the acts of a scavenger picking at a carcass. [IT: Starts off well. Hey, maybe this the "creative destruction" we keep hearing about]

Still, it didn’t end well, as Reuters relates. Management performed poorly. Cheap imports from Asia drove down prices. Energy costs rose. The financial crisis in Asia diminished demand. A unionized work force hampered its productivity. Are we to believe that if Mitt Romney had simply been a nicer guy, it would have worked out differently? [IT: Still making progress. Hey, Lowry says, it was on fire when Romney lay down upon it.]

Bain made money on the deal anyway, since the doomed steel company took on debt to pay dividends. [BOOM! Self-inflicted headshot.] But Bain clearly didn’t want to bankrupt its own enterprise. It did want to get a return as soon as possible. Otherwise, why bother taking on such a tenuous proposition? This thinking certainly doesn’t shock the conscience of all the institutional investors in private equity — the public pension plans, the charities, the university endowments — who get on board expecting precisely such returns.
Oh, it's a good line of patter, right up to the point where it all falls apart.Yes, businesses sometimes need restructuring, jobs are sometimes lost, but value is sometimes created, too. I'll even follow Lowry up to the point that the dismal reek of failed businesses and crushed lives that Bain Capital exudes may be in part the result of a "Buy low, sell high" philosophy that associated Bain disproportionately with companies already in trouble.

But here's the problem: Bain Capital was not prepared to wait and take their chance that they could sell high: they wanted their money whatever happened, so they used the companies to borrow heavily to pay dividends to themselves. They forced these multiple companies to go deep in debt, feeding the borrowed money to themselves, the investors. Then the companies eventually went bankrupt, and the money Bain had borrowed and turned into their personal wealth did not have to be paid back. Pace Lowry, that IS the act of a scavenger picking at a carcass, except that in these cases the victim was still alive when Bain Capital started ripping out chunks of flesh.

To buy control of a company, use its good name to borrow heavily, and funnel that money to you as profit, ensuring bankruptcy, is loathsome. That is not "creative destruction"; it's Bernie Madoff with better legal advice.

The "capitalist at work" story only scans if Bain Capital rises or falls with the fortunes of the companies it invests in. That is supposed to be how the invisible hand turns greed to society's good; the things we own, we are supposed to care for, because if they are hurt, we lose too. This is not what Bain Capital did; instead, they ran a con in which the acquired businesses became effectively shell companies through which Bain could steal from lenders. If a skin-picking meth addict did this with credit cards, he or she would net a few thousand or tens of thousands of dollars, and "identity theft" would send them to prision for decades. Romney & friends went to Harvard and wore expensive suits; Romney made a quarter of a billion dollars. So they're not going to jail.

In the coming days, lots of defenders of Bain are going to point out that not every business they bought took on huge debts to funnel profits to Bain, before going bankrupt (Sports Authority! Staples!). But that, of course, is the beauty of the scam. Bain buys a cheap company. They look at making it more cost efficient and profitable. If they have a company on their hands that will quickly become successful (or is already rising like a rocket), they enjoy its success. On the other hand, if a business like KB Toys or AmPad looks to have a long, difficult road to profitability, they bleed it with the borrow-and-dividend strategy, hire themselves and pay themselves millions of dollars a year in "management fees," and/or pump and dump the stock. It's a heads-we-win, tails-we-win strategy, and that is what is wrong with it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Five denier memes for 2012

In 2012, deniers will still not be Galileo

What denialist tropes will the cool kids be pushing in 2012?

All the golden oldies will remain in heavy rotation, including slandering scientists, "there's been cooling/no warming for X years," and "there's no consensus." But be on the lookout for the following memes, which are focus testing in the small markets of the comment threads now:

1. It's way too small to make a difference.

Notes: Deploying this strategy is as simple as minimizing something by comparing it to something vast. The fallacy is that instead of comparing cost to benefit, the denier compares a tiny instance to a world-spanning, expensive view of the whole, which is relevant only if someone is claiming that instance will address a whole issue by itself (no one ever is).

It's use is as simple as dividing X by Y. For example, if Jo Nova sadistically murdered eight children, that would be merely an insignificant 0.000000115% of the world's people.

Usable on almost anything the denier wants to dismiss; the emissions caused by the Keystone XL's dirty oil, the Greenland ice lost in a single melting season; the contribution to the grid of a single wind farm.

2. It's too late to do anything.

This is the next logical fail back position after "It's not warming" and "We're not causing it" and "It won't be bad." Expect it to surge among the more refined "skeptics," who are still subject to embarrassment when their original line of bull has been shredded.

3. Misrepresenting the world.

Note: Watch out for the sentence beginning "India and China will never . . . ." What follows is almost always an exercise in wishful thinking.

4. God save the white race!

I'm getting a really loathsome, racist vibe off of a lot of deniers these days. I'm not sure why this is making a comeback on the right. More marginalized, less inhibited?

5. Equating inaction with the success of their arguments.

 Deniers are less important than people concerned about inaction think, and much less important than they think they are. They cast themselves (and sometimes we, their opponents, collude in this) as the primary reason the world has not taken action to fight climate change, but here's what we know:

* Denialists have, through two years of relentlessly promoting the fake scandal "Climategate," left 75% of the public blissfully unaware of their anger and striving. 75% of Americans have never heard of "Climategate."

* Those that vehemently deny global warming consistently poll between 10-15% of the public. Of those, less than 5% admit to ever posting a comment about the subject online. So the highly visible fringe of the denialist movement represents a small minority of a small minority, talking mostly back and forth to each other. When they tell you more and more people are flocking to their banner, laugh.

* It's no mystery why Americans and the rest of the world haven't taken the right steps to fight global warming, the steps everyone is going to wish had been taken sixty years from now. It's a long-term problem. Is our political system good at those? It requires a certain degree of scientific literacy just to wrap your mind around it. Is that one of our strong points?

Special bonus prediction: Combining memes 1-4, 2012 will see a surge in the "Our emissions don't matter; the global South's emissions will soon dwarf ours." (Not true, poorer countries emission are important and will become the majority of emissions, but rich countries will maintain a large minority share but when has that ever stopped them?)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Whatever happened to that "Atlas Shrugged" movie?

It flopped:

Those that think money is the measure of all things will be interested to note that Rand lost her backers $15 million.

How could it all have gone so wrong? The hard right had already popped its champane corks, based on a fair but unspectacular opening:
CHICAGO, April 29, 2011 — By current Hollywood standards, it is a movie that should never have been made. Imagine this story pitch to progressive movie execs: "we have a female heroine, genius entrepreneurs disappearing, and a government conspiring to control its people and their creations. In short, a powerfully persuasive anti-government message."
Not exactly “Iron Man 3” is it?
Yet, despite (or because of) Hollywood’s best efforts to keep the movie down, “Atlas” is racking up dollar signs at the box office. With a hearty $5640 per theater in its opening weekend, “Atlas Shrugged,” based on the influential Ayn Rand best-seller, has left Hollywood insiders dumbstruck to explain its success.
The Hollywood Reporter has reported that the film will expand its release from 299 theaters to 425 this weekend and to 1,000 by the end of the month.
What is the explanation? Rand Power.
How do you turn a $20 million investment into almost $5 million? Rand Power. The sequel is now in peril.

I was inspired to check out the stats after reading another self-congratulatory notice of this critically-panned film on the "free-market energy" (and climate denying) blog "MasterResource":
The movie captures what happens in a society when a philosophy of achievement and individualism is replaced by one of mediocrity and collectivism. Government policy hurts the productive and rewards the incompetent. The Ken Lays win and the Charles Kochs lose. The welfare state runs amok with the top burdened by the bottom until the top sinks toward the bottom.
Doubtless the welfare state is to blame for this miserable abortion of a movie. And while I speak in jest, this is really one of the major ironies in Rand's work; it worships an ideal of a naturally superior, overwhelmingly valuable and important person, the Great Man, who is so great that the rest of society is basically surviving on the detritus of his genius. As yet her writing is screamingly mediocre: the characters flat, the dialogue stilted, the conceits implausible and weird. In hating the average she is essentially hating herself, but her work has enduring appeal, not to the accomplished, whom it praises, but to other narcissistic mediocrities, who find in its obsession with an evil world conspiring against the pure genius an explanation for their own failures to succeed.

The lonely life of the pan-energist

Florida has good, not great solar potential

I like nuclear energy (the more so since reading Burton Richter's Beyond Smoke and Mirrors), and I like Brave New Climate and their relentless championing of nuclear energy.

When I read articles like "Solar Power in Florida," though, it makes me feel lonely. Because I do not have a power source to champion. I am not a wind-and-solar guy, nor am I with the nuclear-or-bust folks. As long as it doesn't spew carbon into the atmosphere, I really don't care what it is. This not-caring rests on several bedrock principles:

1. There really are no silver bullets to cut emissions and stop climate change. Everybody admits that, but not everybody really believes it. Whether or not you agree with the details of the wedge analysis, it's deeper truth is this: there is no single technology, strategy, or breakthrough that can cut carbon emissions by 80-90% from current levels while sustaining economic growth. But many hands make light work.

2. Nothing is more obvious in the world of energy than that different technologies thrive in different circumstances. Some places are really sunny; some enjoy a nice steady wind; some have plentiful water to cool a great big pile of fissionables. Some places are ideal for large, more efficient plants; some places are way off the grid and only need a smidge of power anyway. There are great geothermal sites in Iceland; there are mighty rivers coursing through the Northwest.

Wind energy potentials

Places like Japan have already picked the low-hanging fruit of efficiency; places like the Eastern United States have a giant source of "free energy" that they can tap any time they want to by choosing sensible measures (higher mileage standards, green building codes, etc.) to implement greater efficiency. 

Japan gets two-and-a-half times the economic output from a ton of CO2

Our energy present is messy; our energy future will be messy too. Often arguments about existing sources or promising future directions get caught up in what technology has the most promise, the greatest scalability, the cheapest implementation. But the reality of energy generation is that the answer to that question will not only depend on technological advances no one can accurately predict, but on who you are, where you are, and what kind of power you need at what times.

3. There is nothing in the political universe that is as important to me as action on climate change. Some people I respect want to yoke climate change to a more general shift in our politics towards greater equality, less consumerism, more respect for the environment and a smaller human footprint. I might agree with George Monibot that the general anti-progressive trend in politics is to be deplored. But that is not the argument. I am for a wedge solutions to climate change, not climate change as a wedge issue. This is about the survival of our civilization. Everything else is secondary. So I have no problem (well, I do have a problem, but I will accept) our remaining a selfish, consumer-driven, greedy and unequal society, to the extent that we can find a way to do that without shooting ourselves in the head. Give me plentiful no-carbon energy and I will happily waste it like a good American and defer the rest of the green agenda for another day. While we don't have that, we need to think about conserving energy and becoming more efficient, and I'm fine with that too. If the no-carbon energy kills birds or generates waste or floods valleys, then I'm for facing those consequences directly and incorporating them into the cost-benefit analysis, without trying to prove that one source is clearly superior and all the others are useless or repugnant. Which you would think would be the default position for everyone but, surprisingly, not so.

COMING SOON: How the hit piece on the potential of solar in Florida misled.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Hot Air denizens: Bigoted, racist, and in denial

From the geniuses at Hot Air, whilst busily denying that the sea is rising:    

Racist, religiously bigoted, and a climate denier to boot! Ladies, form one line.

Really, "burrata" is just reflecting the general tenor of the conversation over there. The original post, by "Jazz Shaw," informs us that sea levels are not really rising, according to "sea level expert" and master dowser Nils-Axel Mörner. Yep, who are you going to believe, an occultist divination expert or your own lyin' eyes:

But what do I know. I can't even find underground water sources through divination. I don't even own a magic stick.

A Judith Curry Nonsense Sampler

I enjoy Climate Etc.,  which in my imagination always carries the subtitle "The decline and fall of a once-respected climate scientist."

For those interested in an introduction, Curry has helpfully provided a brief summary of her major intellectual faceplants, in a post titled, in a notable example of unconscious self-referential irony, "The real holes in climate science." She starts out with one of her very favorite delusions:
People cry ‘fraud’ and ‘misconduct’ when they perceive that scientists are trying to hide uncertainties.
Dr. Curry loves to attribute the science denial emanating from the hard right wing to what in her opinion are the shortcomings in climate scientists' characterization of uncertainty. In Dr. Curry's worldview, Rush Limbaugh was innocently and trustingly perusing his copy of the Journal of Climate when he determined that Michael Mann's use of an invalid principal component method resulted in an understatement of the noisiness of his temperature proxies. This resulted in his denouncing climate science as a hoax to his 15 million listeners on a daily basis.

The ostensible purpose of the post is to highlight the eponymous article, which has just won a journalism prize. The author writes, sensibly, of the problems with our modelling of precipitation:
A 2007 study, published too late to be included into the last IPCC report, found that precipitation changes in the twentieth century bore the clear imprint of human influence, including drying in the Northern Hemisphere tropics and subtropics. But the actual changes were larger than estimated from models — a finding that concerns researchers.
“If the models do systematically underestimate precipitation changes that would be bad news”
This gives Professor Curry the opportunity to elucidate the single most bizarre lacuna in her understanding, which is that, despite writing voluminously on uncertainty and risk, she completely fails to grasp that more uncertainty does not imply less risk:
 The poor performance of the climate models somehow gives rise to greater alarm about the future.  Go figure.
Her position on this is as clear as it is indefensible: the less we understand the radical changes we have set in motion in the earth's climate, the less we need to worry about them. If the science cannot reduce the uncertainty to an unspecified, but very low level (as determined by Curry herself, based on subjective criteria she has never specified), we are asked to ignore the science completely.

The ultimate defense

The truth, which even a bright ten-year-old could grasp, is that there are different kinds of uncertainties, and different degrees of uncertainty, and the effects on risk vary, sometimes implying more risk, sometimes less (but in no case do the reduce the risk to zero.) For someone who claims to be interested in uncertainty and how it impacts our decisions, the character of the uncertainty does not seem to interest Curry at all.

Above we have a particularly egregious example of this. Scientists have accurately projected changes in precipitation, but they are happening faster than the models predict. In the world according to Judith Curry, this is supposed to be reassuring, because:

1. The climate models didn't get it exactly right.
2. Climate models are unreliable.
3. Therefore, the risks climate science is telling us about (based on a heap of evidence, including the models) aren't anything to worry about.

You can see how a first year undergrad who had just learned about the problem might fall into this fallacy, but for a PhD who claims uncertainty as a research interest, it's insane. Curry would have us believe that if somebody comes to your house and tells you your kid was hit by a truck going 60mph, and you rush to the scene only to be told by the highway patrol that your kid was struck by a truck going 80mph, that you ought to relax and go home, since clearly the first person didn't know what they were talking about.

A particular target for Curry's ill-informed pronouncements on uncertainty is the assessment by the IPCC that most of the observed warming is caused by human activities (with high -- >90% -- confidence):
The uncertainties in the paleoclimate record and the aerosol forcing discussed in Schiermeier’s article are alone sufficient to question the high confidence in the IPCC’s attribution statement.
She can, of course, question whatever she wants to, but neither she now anyone else has seriously challenged the reasoning or the evidence of the IPCC's finding. A higher or lower aerosol forcing implies a higher or lower transient climate sensitivity, but doesn't at all affect the reality that the world is warming or the observation that an enhanced greenhouse effect is the primary cause. As for the "uncertainties in the paleoclimate record," they are likely a large part of the reason the assessment says "most" of the warming is human caused, rather than reflecting the central estimate -- that all of it and perhaps and little more than all of it is cause by human activities, with a slightly negative natural forcing.

Even if we presuppose huge uncertainty in the paleoclimate record, between that and a serious challenge to the attribution statement is a whole chain of mutually dependent unsupported premises, a veritable daisy chain of wishful thinking:

1. That the uncertain record involves radical upward and downward spikes in temperature.
2. That these are not only not clearly demonstrated in the record, but were not noted at the time -- despite the fact that a similar warming in the past might be expected to produce dramatic changes in the ice sheets, the glaciers, growing seasons and animal habitats, as we see screaming at us throughout the world today.
3. That besides it being merely possible (based on the imaginary spikes of warming in the radically uncertain record) for natural variation to produce the present warming, that it is producing the current warming, despite the fact that:
3a. No one can detect this mystery forcing or forcings, and;
3b. We observe at that time an increase in the greenhouse gas forcing that would be expected, based on two centuries of settled science, to produce a dramatic warming, as we observe is happening.

I expect scientific illiterates like Christopher Monckton or Willis to pull stunts like this, taking two cents of uncertainty in an active area of research and proceeding via a long string of biased reasoning to terminate in a nonsensical assertion. But it is a source of continuing bafflement to mean that a working scientists should think this way.

Professor Curry is not only emulating the pseudoscientists' reasoning, but even their excuses for their irrelevance:
The article raises the important issue of the holes in climate science, but only seeks perspectives from establishment scientists.
"Establishment scientists," saints preserve us. By all means, let's weigh scientific expertise according to the ideas of balance and equity popularized by the Washington press corps (it's worked so well for Washington.) Don't accept the dominance of "establishment scientists," and while you're at it, tell the airline you want to take your next flight without any stuffy establishment pilots on board. Don't leave your health in the hands of establishment doctors and nurses -- next time you're sick, consult a Galileo-like dissenter from the germ theory of disease. Let me know how your surgery goes.

If you are writing about science, talk to scientists. If they disagree, reflect that disagreement. If they broadly agree, that is not a problem requiring you to expand your search to less and less credible voices until a dissenter is found.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Anna Karenina scenario

Every happy family is alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Apropos of the Anna Karenina Principle, how many things would have to go right for climate change to be merely an expensive annoyance (or one human problem among many), rather than a planetary disaster?

First, we need continued rapid economic growth. Even in the best case, dealing with the impacts of global warming -- drought, sea level rise, heat waves, extreme weather events -- between now and 2100 or 2200 will require resources we don't have today. Without continual economic growth, even most optimistic global scenarios offer certain disaster.

Stern Review
 Five percent of 2100's projected GDP is over 40% of our GDP today -- an impossible burden that would lead to global impoverishment.

The assumption of continued economic growth is a reasonable one, as the world's economy has been on an upward trend for many years:

Nevertheless, continued rapid economic growth is not inevitable, and should be ranked as one of the requirements in realizing the Anna Karenina scenario. Wars, a global depression, unrelated natural disasters, and climate change itself could all compromise this pillar of futurists everywhere.

It is necessary but not sufficient that climate sensitivity prove to be on the low end of estimates. With a climate sensitivity of 3C, and a BAU pathway of 1000ppm CO2 equivalent (1), we can expect +4-6C of warming, which would wipe out most forms of life on earth.

Extract from p. 42 of Technical Summary of IPCC WGIII Fourth assessment Report (2007)

Reasonable people trying to strike a middle course between "alarmism" and "skepticism" will often say that climate change may not be a big deal, but we should protect ourselves from the possibility that climate sensitivity is high. This is well-intended, but a wrongheaded oversimplification. The reality is that while five degrees and onward is a planetary catastrophe under almost any set of assumptions you chose does not mean that 2-3 degrees is an expensive but manageable problem. A high total temperature rise is game over; a low total temperature rise still requires many other things to go right (2).

Sea level rise is presently estimated at between 0.5m to 2.0m between now and 2100. It needs to be closer to 0.5m to avoid the loss of huge numbers of human settlements to the sea. We must hope that the Greenland ice sheet and the WAIS respond very slowly to warming and are largely incapable of responding on a decadal scale. Of course other ice sheets, such as the less-popular sibling of the West Antarctic ice sheet, the East Antarctic ice sheet, must not have any nasty surprises in store.

Agriculture will have to prove highly resistant to climate shocks. Varying the type of crops and making efficient irrigation broadly available while avoiding massive losses to pests, diseases, and extreme precipitation.

We cannot afford to lose the Amazon (as is expected) or the boreal forests: the Anna Karenina scenario requires they resist warming and there is no massive die-off that would turn the terrestrial biosphere into a net source of carbon. That would insure catastrophic long-term warming.

No Arctic warming tipping points.

Healthcare technology and delivery systems will have to advance faster than the spread of tropical diseases north and south. Efficient building designs and/or air conditioning will need to be available to rich and poor alike to avoid millions of deaths from the direct thermal effects alone.

Permafrost melting will need to release its stored carbon slowly, and overwhelmingly as carbon dioxide and only a small amount as methane. Methyl hydrates need to stay put, or leak out only very slowly.

Political systems will have to prove highly resilient and adaptive. They will have to respond to the escalating climate harms with aggressive long-term adaptation, and not make things worse with panic responses like hoarding, protectionism, or conflicts over migration, borders, or resources. As the Economist cogently put it:
I feel fairly comfortable arguing that a modern economy can handle the stresses of climate change reasonably well; economies are built to handle big change. I feel very nervous about the ability of various political systems to survive temperatures unprecedented in human history. Many political systems rely explicitly on stability to survive, and even those capable of handling climate impacts may struggle to handle the knock-on effects of climate impacts on their more vulnerable neighbours. And as political systems are disrupted, it will become more difficult to sustain growth.
This is a partial list. There are impacts I haven't covered; there are certain to be impacts no one has yet guessed at.

The nasty aftertaste of a clear-eyed look at the possibilities is this: even if everything goes right -- if humanity holds the winning climate lottery ticket and none of the terrible things come to pass, or happen only in a blunted and delayed form, and only (in large part) after we are all healthier and wealthier and wiser than we are today: even so, in the best of all possible worlds, global warming will be an expensive destructive mess than will drag on for thousands of years, making the impoverishment of the natural world and disruption of the benign Holocene climate our civilization's permanent legacy.

Most economic analyses assume all these good things happen and neglect, not out of malice but due to the limitations of their science, most of the horrible disasters climate scientists think are possible -- in some cases likely. Even so, the benefits of slowing climate change outstrip the costs in virtually every economic analysis out there.

One of my least favorite lukewarmer fallacies is the concept of "no regrets" policies -- that we should push ahead with policies that can be sold to the right wing as energy independence or job creation or whatever appeals to those in denial of the science. This is an asinine idea. Climate change is real. You don't get to smart policy by agreeing to disagree on critical scientific facts pertaining to the future of human civilization. Here's the truth; aggressive emissions cuts are the true no-regrets strategy. Uncertainty in climate change lies between bad and worse. The benefits range from saving trillions of dollars and millions of lives, on the low side, to averting planetary catastrophe.


1) Meaning a forcing caused by human activities similar to change the level of CO2 to 1000ppm, comprised mostly of CO2 but also with contributions from methane, NO, CFCs, and land use changes.

2) The best analysis of the economic implications of a "fat tail" probability of climate catastrophe is "On modeling and interpreting the economics of catastrophic climate change" (2009) by Martin L. Weitzman, the undisputed expert in this area (400+ citations for that paper alone in less than three years). He wisely make the limitations of climate sensitivity highly explicit:

There are so many sources of uncertainty in climate change that a person almost does not know where or how to begin cataloging them. For specificity, I focus on the uncertainty of so-called "equilibrium climate sensitivity." This is a relatively well-defined and relatively well-studied example of known unknowns, even if the uncertainties themselves are uncertain. However, it should be clearly understood that under the rubric of "equilibrium climate sensitivity" am trying to aggregate together an entire suite of uncertainties, including some non-negligible unknown unknowns. So climate sensitivity is to be understood here as a prototype example or a metaphor, which is being used to illustrate much more generic issues in the economics of highly uncertain climate change.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Place your bets -- Epsilon redux

Tamino asks:

What’s the chance that if we continue with business-as-usual, man-made global warming will lead to disastrous climate change? It isn’t zero. It isn’t one. What is epsilon?
My estimate (with links added):
Even if benefits were somehow remotely comparable to costs (2% chance of that, maybe?), benefits will be concentrated among the rich, while harms will be concentrated among the poorest and most vulnerable. So disaster is highly likely.

Enough disruption and direct harm to reverse the overall trend to greater wealth and prosperity — 10% — 70% (highly uncertain) — say 40% over the next few centuries.

Collapse of civilization, barbarism, going a long way backwards in terms of knowledge and human adaptive capacity even as impacts continue for centuries — 5%.

About the first estimate I (and most economists who have studied the issue) are very confident, and it’s easy to make the case for mitigation based on that alone. The other estimates are highly uncertain, and many analyses ignore them, foolishly in my view.

Add your own estimates at Tamino's and/or over here. He forbids much supporting argumentation, to avoid distractions, but not being cursed with his degree of popularity, I think we can differentiate ourselves by welcoming rationales and arguments for the numbers. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

ENSO and public concern over climate change

Hypothesis: Americans are not very bright.

Hence we predict their level of concern about global warming will vary quite a bit with the short-term flucuations in warming, despite the strong, persistent long-term trend.

The most important driver of temperature variability, in the short term, in ENSO (El Ninos and La Ninas):

A similar but less powerful short-term influence is the phase of the solar cycle:

So giving people a year or two to process news stories about temperature records, extreme weather, ice cover losses and the like, we might expect to see the levels of concern rising in 1999-2000 after the big El Nino, with a rise starting in 2004-2005 related to the second large recent El Nino, with concern falling in 2009-2010, related to a La Nina event.

The phase of the solar cycle would make the peak in concern from 1998-2002 slightly higher, while the lower solar activity after that, as well as the lack of a similarly intense El Nino event, could be expected to make the peaks of concern lower, and the troughs deeper. In late 2011 we saw the next solar cycle finally start to wake up, but this will not have had a big impact yet.

So how did we do? Here's the gallup polling on concern for global warming:

Not bad. We don't see the brief 2009 El Nino in the data, but it may be too early (the polling stops in May 2011), or it may be the rapid return to La Nina conditions blunted the effect.

Of course, this is all fun and games with graphs, and if we were attaching any seriousness to it it would come dangerously close to mathdurbation. It's just as easy to come up with a different correlation, for example:

Hypothesis: Americans care about global warming only when they are not much more worried about the economy:

 When people felt relatively better, in 2008, concern about global warming was high. When economic worry spiked in 2009, concern about global warming fell. The slight increase in economic confidence recently may show up in 2012's climate polling, especially if the economy continues its still painful slow but accelerating recovery.

Should we expect these short-term reactions to subside as the long-term warming continues to push the earth's climate further out of the Holocene range? Unfortunately, we cannot assume that. Gradual changes and shifts over time are difficult to perceive. This is often described via the (apocryphal) anecdote of the frog placed in lukewarm water that is slowly boiled alive. People rapidly normalize their present experiences, unless there is a readily identifiable shift. The gradual erosion of my paycheck by inflation is not as striking as being swindled out of some portion of my savings, even if they cost me the same amount of money. That is one reason we as a society are prepared to invest huge amounts in speculative measures to reduce tiny risks (dying in a terrorist attack, for example) but not, as yet, to invest significant amounts of money, time, or even attention to the overwhelming likelihood of the less vividly imagined but far more globally destructive process of climate change.

Could there be a tipping point for the Arctic after all?

The rapid disappearance of the Arctic sea ice raised for many the prospect of a "tipping point" at which ice loss becomes irreversible and an ice-free North becomes a permanent condition.

Especially after the dramatic fall in 2007, efforts have been made to model the probable behavior of the rapidly waning sea ice. That led to an important paper with a simple method and an elegant result. Several scientists at the university of Washington did model runs in which CO2 forcing was gradually increased, looking for a tipping point ("threshold behavior"). They didn't find any. The sea ice disappeared gradually as conditions warmed. When they allowed conditions to cool, the sea ice came back. No tipping points in the model.

Well, brace yourselves for the shock, but "skeptics" missed the point of the paper, and shouted the results from every rooftop. Stupid scientists! "The Next Ice Age Now" crowed "More global warming propaganda debunked."

The actual result, rather than the result deniers fantasized had come about, was this: the dramatic fall in sea ice cover to date represents a steady response to the long-term climate warming. It is progressing fast because the climate is changing fast. The ice cover is still falling apart, not (so far) because of a tipping point, but because of rapid global warming. It could recover if we successfully halted or reversed global warming. Short of that, it will continue its death spiral.

Not really a pro-"skeptic" message, if you read past the headline. Fortunately for their peace of mind, they rarely do.

Work to understand the rapid changes to the Arctic continues. Chris R points us to this 2008 paper:

It is argued that deep atmospheric convection might occur during winter in ice-free high-latitude oceans, and that the surface radiative warming effects of the clouds and water vapor associated with this winter convection could keep high-latitude oceans ice-free through polar night. In such an ice-free high-latitude ocean the annual-mean SST would be much higher and the seasonal cycle would be dramatically reduced - making potential implications for equable climates manifest. The constraints that atmospheric heat transport, ocean heat transport, and CO2 concentration place on this mechanism are established. These ideas are investigated using the NCAR column model, which has state-of-the-art atmospheric physics parameterizations, high vertical resolution, a full seasonal cycle, a thermodynamic sea ice model, and a mixed layer ocean. Citation: Abbot, D. S., and E. Tziperman (2008), Sea ice, high-latitude convection, and equable climates, Geophys. Res. Lett., 35, L03702, doi:10.1029/ 2007GL032286.
It's not bathtub reading, but basically what Abbot and Tziperman set out to do was to explain evidence from the paleoclimate record of a warmer Arctic (1) and a less pronounced seasonal cycle at the poles. Both the late Cretaceous and the early Paleogene climate had these features, but existing climate models do not reproduce them well. When they created a more sophisticated model of the Arctic, they found it could settle into a stable ice-free state secondary to changes in cloud cover and atmospheric circulation (they discuss the same issues in a slightly earlier paper published by the Royal Meteorological Society.) The former has been cited 23 times; the latter 16, according to Google Scholar. So while this is serious science, the theory has not exactly caught fire. That they continue to explore the idea in Feb 2009 and again in July 2009, without a lot of other climate scientists taking up the charge,deepens the suspicion that Abbot/Tziperman have not convinced their colleagues that this is a thing, despite a 2011 paper (h/t Artful Dodger) which Abbot wrote with the great Raymond Pierrehumbert, which cites one of the 2009 papers as part of a broader discussion of possible sea ice tipping points.

On the other hand, it's not as if we have a lot of great explanations for the paleoclimate record laying around:
The consensus among these proxies suggests that Arctic temperatures were ∼19 °C warmer during the Pliocene than at present, while atmospheric CO2 concentrations were ∼390 ppmv. These elevated Arctic Pliocene temperatures result in a greatly reduced and asymmetrical latitudinal temperature gradient that is probably the result of increased poleward heat transport and decreased albedo. These results indicate that Arctic temperatures may be exceedingly sensitive to anthropogenic CO2 emissions.
The specter of an Arctic tipping point has not been laid to rest. If a similar amount of forcing to today's somehow got the Pilocene's Arctic 19C warming than today's, than some kind of hole in the floor seems a logical area of concern. (I wonder idly if the phlegmatic Dmitrenko ever modeled 19 degrees of warming over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.)

UPDATE: Check out DosbatChris R's insanely good blog, for even more Arctic/Climate change goodness. Added to the blogroll, as well.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Five things I learned in 2011

1. Trees matter. A lot. They sequester more carbon than we thought; they generate cooling aerosols in their own right. We could do a lot to slow the advance of global warming if we decide to stop reducing forests in extent and start intensive reforestation.

2. The howls of outrage from deniers in the blogosphere in response to an argument vary in direct proportion to how effective that argument is with the broader public. There is a scientific consensus, and in many respects, the science is settled. The global is warming, and humans are the cause. Many deniers or "skeptics" get their funding from fossil fuel companies, exaggerate their qualifications, and misrepresent their results. This is simple stuff to those of us that live and breath this stuff, and deniers try to discourage us from making this arguments with howls of rage and jeering contempt. But they are not the people we need to convince, and the people we do need to convince -- the broader disengaged public -- these are powerful messages that should be underscored. Deniers know they are powerful, which is why they try and silence them.

3. Methane and CO2 release from the North (permafrost and methyl hydrates) could be apocalyptic in its effects. But the significance of this is undercut by the fact that the BAU pathway will almost certainly be apocalyptic in its effects. A lot of carbon is going to come out of those frozen deposits, but having studied it a fair bit this year, this quote from Raymond T. Pierrehumbert most closely reflects my own layperson's view:
But the clathrate release problem is in a rather different category from the runaway greenhouse issue. It has to be seen as just one of the many fast or slow carbon catastrophes possibly awaiting us, in a system we are just groping to understand. The models of destabilization are largely based on variants of diffusive heat transport, but the state of understanding of slope avalanches and other more exotic release mechanisms is rather poor — and even if it turns out that rapid methane degassing isn’t in the cards, you still do have to worry about those several trillion metric tons of near-surface carbon and how secure they are. It’s like worrying about the state of security of Soviet nuclear warheads, but where you have no idea what kind of terrorists there might be out there and what their capabilities are — and on what time scales they operate.
Or to put it another way: what would be the state of the climate today if this carbon didn't exist? Call that scenario one:
On a BAU pathway, we face mass extinctions, tremendous human suffering, and unpredictable feedbacks that could greatly accelerate climate change, including ice loss, glacier melt, forest fires, changes in ocean currents, and other known and unknown shifts in the climate and the biosphere.

With intensive mitigation, many of the same problems await us, but will hopefully develop more slowly, over several centuries, blunting the impact somewhat and giving us an opportunity to reverse some of the effects. We still have to worry about unpredictable feedbacks that could greatly accelerate climate change, including ice loss, glacier melt, forest fires, changes in ocean currents, and other known and unknown shifts in the climate and the biosphere, but forcing the system less intensely will, logically, reduce the risk.
Now add the carbon back in:

On a BAU pathway, we face mass extinctions, tremendous human suffering, and unpredictable feedbacks that could greatly accelerate climate change, including ice loss, glacier melt, forest fires, changes in ocean currents, release of methane and CO2 from permafrost and methyl hydrates, and other known and unknown shifts in the climate and the biosphere.

With intensive mitigation, many of the same problems await us, but will hopefully develop more slowly, over several centuries, blunting the impact somewhat and giving us an opportunity to reverse some of the effects. We still have to worry about unpredictable feedbacks that could greatly accelerate climate change, including ice loss, glacier melt, forest fires, changes in ocean currents, release of methane and CO2 from permafrost and methyl hydrates, and other known and unknown shifts in the climate and the biosphere, but forcing the system less intensely will, logically, reduce the risk.
In isolation, the potential for destabilization of this buried carbon would be a looming global catastrophe. But as it is, it becomes one aspect of a global catastrophe already in progress. That's how I see it, anyway.

4. Climate deniers represent a hard fringe of the American right; climate deniers in the blogosphere are an even smaller and more radicalized sub-group. Their views are not only more extreme than the large minority of the public that doubts the science of climate change, or the majority that is not ready to pay a significant price to combat climate change: they are fundamentally different in their outlook. You can see this in the opinion polls; you can see it in the comments and posts they make, in which a extreme anarcho-libertarianism features prominently. This ideology is totally unknown and would be bizarre to most American conservatives; to climate deniers it is practically conventional wisdom. Note also the amazing prevalence of what can only be described as the mentally ill, suffering from delusions that demonstrate grandiosity, paranoia, loose associations, and flight of ideas.

We can win the undecided middle to our side; there is evidence that this is already happening. We do it not by trying to win over or placate deniers, nor by trying to bait them. We win by telling the truth in a clear, simple, understandable way, by being less crazy and more normal, with the caveat that part of being normal is reacting strongly to people who attack hysterically and dishonestly.

5. Even as the overall picture continues to be grim, I found some of the research I came across this year comforting. This is turn reassures me that my filters, such as they are, are not the industrial-strength blast shields one often notes in one's opponents, but can easily overlook in oneself.

Although I remain very concerned about agriculture, I was happy to see that models that incorporated varying the type of crops and where they are sowed found a less severe impact from warming. Some crops will benefit from a CO2 fertilization effect.

Since warming over the last couple of decades has run at about 0.14-0.17C/decade, versus slightly more, 0.18-0.21C, as we would expect from the bulk of the models, the cheerful possibility exists that short-term climate sensitivity is a little lower than we thought, 2-3C instead of 3C-4C (possibly because the aerosol forcing is on the high side). So while the consequences of climate change, like glacier melt, continue to mostly run ahead of the models, it is hopeful that temperatures are running slightly behind. Of course, even a warming of 0.05C/decade or 0.10C/decade would be incredibly fast in geological terms and very dangerous. To see the danger we need only look at the response of the climate and the natural world. Still, better to be warming a little slower than we expected than a little faster.


What did you learn in 2011?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year

The Year of the Dragon

My head is full of lists and year-end summaries and such, but my schedule is full of real work, so it will have to wait, but welcome to 2012.

It's going to be hot. It's an election year in the USA (and in France, Russia, Finland and elsewhere) so expect to hear a lot of nonsense talked about the climate, and not a lot of sense. Don't despair. The world will take action to combat climate change, for a simple reason -- unlike the plight of the homeless or conflict in the Middle East or hunger in Africa, climate change, despite being one of those problems people just want to ignore, affects everybody, and is going to get worse and worse until even the most short-sighted (well, most of them) see the need for action.

By then, you say, it will be too late? Maybe, but, then, by most objective definitions, it has been too late for some time. Too late to avoid radically transforming the climate. Too late to avoid melting the permafrost. Too late to avoid drought in the Amazon and the crumbling of the WAIS into the sea.

But it will never be too late to pick ourselves up and stop making things worse. It seems like 2012 will not be the year we stop nibbling around the edges of the problem with tiny subsides and minimal regulation, but who knows the future, especially in politics -- I certainly don't.

In 2012 at IT we will continue to watch the science, watch the deniers, and on the basis of that reporting, advocate strongly for real action to combat global warming. We won't exaggerate, we won't demonize, we won't give way to hysteria; those are unhelpful responses. But we will be heard and we will be here, with no retiring or taking a blogging break or moving on to some other hobbyhorse. We'll be here in 2012, and onward, until the world has well and truly changed course.