Sunday, December 12, 2010

Idiot comment of the day

Lawrie Ayres says:
December 3, 2010 at 12:28 am
There have been suggestions from Cancun that we humans could consider carbon rationing, the introduction of wide spread diseases and mass suicide to protect the planet. While I wait for those making the recommendations to go first so we can see if their proposals are effective I suppose turning the Sahara into a giant PV is less threatening.

I missed out on an university education and so have had to live a reasonably sucessful life using common sense and observation. At no time have I realised that my very existence was causing such heartache to the learned. OTOH we could just ignore their ramblings as they cry for relevance.

They're really off somewhere in their own world, aren't they? I must have missed the exhortations to mass suicide and biological warfare at the otherwise tepid international conference at Cancun. But what really puts Lawrie over the top is the follow-on self-description: "I missed out on an university education and so have had to live a reasonably sucessful life using common sense and observation." Time for some remedial education.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

. . . and speaking of forest fires

Alaska's peat bogs are burning.

About half of the carbon dioxide we emit is taken up by the biosphere, cutting the rate of growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide by half. That will change. While catastrophic shifts like the explosive release of methyl hydrates are a frightening possibility, the smoldering (literally, in this case) CO2 feedbacks are already gradually reducing the net uptake and will eventually reverse it. Once that happens CO2 levels will continue to rise even if we stop all human emissions.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Idiot comment of the day

Robroy says:
November 28, 2010 at 12:49 pm

I started to boycott ‘Google’ When I looked at ‘Google Earth’, the North Pole pole was all water, an obvious exposure that they are part of the AGW cabal. I don’t know if there is ice there now(on ‘Google Earth’). I’ m boycotting.

If Google files for chapter eleven this year, now you know why.

Best Damn Climategate Redux Post Period

The anneversary of the hacked CRU e-mail has produced a lot of commentary in the blogosphere, most of it not adding materially to our understanding. But the Economist has been publishing some awfully good climate pieces lately, and continues their streak with the most cogent summary of "Climategate," one year on, that I've seen:

Questions about the validity of reconstructions of mediaeval climate based on treerings, about why some treerings are taken to be good records of temperature at some points in history but not in the recent past, about cherry-picking of data, about the traceability or otherwise of Chinese weather station data and so on had all been aired long before. The climategate emails offered little if any new information that might move these debates on in either direction.

What they offered was colour—catchphrases like “hide the decline”—and context. There was clear evidence of circled wagons, shared distaste for the scientist’s critics, and unwillingness to conform to the quite high standards of opennness that the freedom of information act—and the ideals of their calling—seek to impose on scientists.
A lot—[lots], indeed—of science would look just the same if its privacy were similarly breached (and many other areas of human endeavour would look as bad or worse); but to accept that this is the way of world does little to minimise the damage. People do not want to believe that scientific knowledge of high and lasting value is messy and human in the making; scientific culture does its best to insulate then from that belief. The middle of a media storm is not the place to wheel out sociologists and historians who might educate them on the subject.

Perversely, the authors argue, the controversy might have been more swiftly laid to rest if there had been more substance to the allegations:

If there had been straightforward fraud things might, in fact, have been simpler. The most notable flat out scientific fraud in recent years was that of Jan Hendrik Schon, who made up data about single molecule semiconductors. He was found out and disgraced, papers were retracted by journals, souls were searched about how he got away with it: and physics went on. Climategate had no such catharsis, because it revealed no sin so heinous

The authors cannily describe how the opponents of action on AGW used Climategate to recast as a victory for doubt what was really a victory for inertia:

And what of those who were happy Copenhagen had failed? For them, climategate was a more comforting reason for that failure than the real ones. Copenhagen did not fail because governments didn’t want action on the climate, or even because no one is willing to take any action. It failed because they all wanted other countries to take more and different actions than the other countries would agree to. For people who don’t want there ever to be action, though, it is obviously happier to think that the case had been undermined by some dodgy emails than to recognise than that it still stood—and indeed still stands—but had simply failed to compel action. 

All in all, an outstanding bit of climate journalism that reminds us what it's like when a news outlet describes what is happening and why, not just endless he said/she said nonsense.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bad news from GISS

By combining the newer fire model with an existing climate model developed at GISS, Pechony and Shindell ran their model back to 844 to check how well they could capture past conditions, and forward to 2100 to simulate future wildfire trends under different climate regimes. When projecting forward, they modeled three different greenhouse-gas emissions scenarios, including one that curtailed greenhouse gas emissions significantly, one that assumes they continue unabated, and one in the middle. All three produced rapidly rising temperatures, regional drying, and increases in fire abundance.

This is kind of a tall drink of bad news. It reminds us that a large amount of warming is in the pipeline regardless of what we do . . . a fact which makes it all the more crucial that we put the brakes on this runaway train as soon as possible. And it draws our attention to another tipping point, in this case the point at which rising global temperatures overcome the firefighting infrastructure, and forest fires rage out of control. This will release significant amounts of CO2, and spread black soot which decreases the Earth's albedo -- both of which will cause more warming.

Other important feedbacks include the loss of Arctic sea ice, decreasing the albedo, decreased absorption of CO2 by warming seas, destabilization of methyl hydrates, and the melting of permafrost. Throw in some landslides and tsunamis, and it'll be an interesting century ahead.

Around the Interwebs

Lots of good stuff floating around cyberspace right now. The Economist talks about adaptation to the climate change already in the pipeline. Meanwhile, a parcel of medical associations reminds us that a low-carbon economy will improve public health.

Skeptical Science dismantles the canard that variable output from renewables like wind and solar makes them ineffective in generating low-carbon energy. In the process, they provide a useful review of the state of the science of some of the cutting-edge renewable technologies.

Finally, Alexis Madrigal points us to a Business Week feature on the burgeoning problem of copper theft:

As copper prices soar, looters nationwide are attacking electrical grids, telecom towers, transportation hubs, and emergency-service generators.

Two things make this a climate story. First, like the Russian grain embargo, it's a reminder that when scarcity appears as a reality of even as a threat, people do selfish and destructive things for a short-term benefit. Living in a society with food banks and Medicaid as well as cops and soldiers, we Americans don't have a lot of experience with the desperate things people will do when the social order starts to break down. Metal theft also posed a major problem in Iraq reconstruction.

I've previously addressed the skeptic arguments that economic growth is the answer to climate change. The act of ripping apart billion-dollar high-tech infrastructure to steal copper at $4 a pound is a reminder of why. Today we are cementing and accelerating vast changes in the Earth's climate which are already proving to be extraordinarily destructive -- because we will not pay a relative pittance to transition to a low-carbon economy. The "economic growth" we reap by refusing to stop this destructive behavior is analogous to the $4 a pound the thieves are making off of ripping our infrastructure apart. Yet some people maintain that we should continue inflicting this enormous harm so that we will have the money to redress it. The reasoning is Simsonsesque:

Homer Simpson: Okay, boy. This is where all the hard work, sacrifice, and painful scaldings pay off.
Employee: Four pounds of grease... that comes to... sixty-three cents.
Homer Simpson: Woo-hoo!
Bart Simpson: Dad, all that bacon cost twenty-seven dollars.
Homer Simpson: Yeah, but your mom paid for that!
Bart Simpson: But doesn't she get her money from you?
Homer Simpson: And I get my money from grease! What's the problem?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Three dimensions of risk – Part One: Severity

A few posts ago I introduced the concept of risk in climate change in, it must be said, a very simplistic way:

Suppose there is a revolver to your head with a thousand cylinders (it's a big revolver). For a 3% raise, how many chambers are you willing to have loaded before your boss pulls the trigger? One? Maybe if you're hard up. One in a thousand's not a huge chance to take. Ten? Probably not, if you have anything to live for. A hundred? Never in a million years.

The problem with Russian roulette as a metaphor for climate change is that while a bullet to the head will usually* result in instant death, the effects of climate change on you personally and on society as a whole are a bit (OK, a lot) more complicated than that.

Effects vary in terms of how likely they are to come to pass, ranging from already happening and unstoppable (coral bleaching) to unlikely (massive near-instantaneous releases of methane hydrates). But they also very according to three other important terms: one is severity, a measure of how destructive the change is likely to be; another is distribution, which I will explain in part two, and finally time – when will it start and how fast will it progress?

Severity is self-explanatory, although neither severity nor any of these other factors are easy to quantify. A minimal severity impact would be that harder rains in late spring shred, simply shred, your prize-winning geraniums. A maximal impact, on the other hand, would be something like what happened at the end of the Permian: massive anoxia in the oceans, brought on by global warming, led to overgrowth of sulfate-reducing bacteria, which caused a massive release of poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas that suffocated the majority of life on earth; most of the survivors of the gas itself were done to death by UV radiation when the gas destroyed the ozone layer. That, in the immortal words of Egon Spengler, "would be bad."

Usually impacts are assessed in terms of monetary cost – what will be the impact on GDP? This is a good way to assess low-severity events which progress relatively steadily. As sea levels rise, for example, we can simply ("simply") add the damage caused by submersion of land, increased erosion, salinization of water tables, increased storm surges, and flood defenses for major cities we can't afford to lose (young people may see the day when the rest of New York joins Manhattan as a series of islands.)

More severe impacts, however, are difficult to estimate in this way. If you imagine a degree of drought in many locations around the world which cuts food production by two-thirds, you cannot simply value that food at today's market prices and assign that loss as your risk. Lose that much productivity, and many millions of people will starve. A simple calculation of the value of the food won't begin to capture the destructive potential of such an event.

And as argued here, when estimating the risks of such events, we have to recognize the frailty of our political and economic systems. For several centuries now, the world's population has been rising on a massive wave of economic growth and scientific progress. Much of that was created and is maintained by sound(er) national and international political systems (not perfect by any means, but much better than what came before). Free trade. Open economies. Stable governments with a limited amount of corruption that maintain comprehensive educational systems, public health, and physical infrastructure.

But stress people enough and, very predictably, all of this will come crashing down. Free trade will give way to protectionism. Governments will divert resources from research and entrepreneurship to maintaining the living standards of restive populations. Environmental protection, ironically, will suffer as people burn more and more of their ecological "capital" in order to compensate for diminishing "returns."

This is a critical and under-studied aspect of climate change; the effect it will have on our institutional strengths, and hence, our adaptability. We often assume adaptation will accelerate as the damage of global warming becomes more severe, because the urgency of the problem will be better recognized. This is no doubt true, but we also have to recognize that the process often reverses itself in failing societies, from Easter Island to pre-Bolshevik Russia; they turn inward, give way to corruption, seek refuge in nativism, extremism, and pursue scapegoats rather than solutions. There is a point – a deer-in-the-headlights point – at which trauma and terror of the future make us less adaptable, because adaptation depends on cooperation, trust, and shared burdens, and when societies confront a crisis, they will eventually lose all of these to an unpredictable degree.

This is the second major reason – and to my mind the most important reason – we must not wait to act on climate change until the damage is massive and the need to act is apparent to all. The first reason, which everyone knows, is that our climate has great inertia, and by waiting to act we lock in a dangerous level of future impacts. But reason number two is little discussed (Jared Diamond started the conversation in "Collapse"): As the damage mounts, we will reach a point where we lose the ability to act together on a long-term project like climate change. We will lose the will to help each other, and it will first become a matter of each country for itself, and then each community, and eventually, perhaps, each person. Today, we stand at the helm of a human civilization with more wealth, more knowledge, and strong bonds of union among peoples than ever seen in the world before. We must turn the wheel and start correcting our course before we are damaged to the extent that the controls no longer respond.

Soon: Risk, Part Two: The discount rate

*Though if anyone out there is considering it, I have to warn you that a significant percentage of the time it goes horribly wrong. Shooting yourself in the head is a great way to transform yourself from a suicidally depressed person into a suicidally depressed retarded person with no face.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lomberg cons Sullivan

The usually-savvy Andrew Sullivan recently penned a very foolish review of Lomberg's recent sedation-prop, the movie "Cool It":

What's great about the movie is its focus on R&D and how innovating new energy is more important than taxing carbon. In a mostly negative review, Andrew O'Hehir whines from the left but makes no substantive critique of what Bjorn argues. Yes, some climate change denialists latch onto his work, but Lomborg is not now and never has been a climate change denialist. He's a climate change realist and wants to address the problem through new technology while focusing aid on more pressing human problems . . .

The first problem here is that he mistakes Lomberg for a credible source of information, when in fact the mendacity of the man I like to call "Monckton Jr." is legendary. Entire books have been written about his errors, misrepresentations, and outright lies. Websites too. Here's a recent example of the Lomberg method from an exchange with the reliably gullible Andy Revkin:

Second, the damage cost of a ton of CO2 (at 3% discount rate) ranges from negative to $22 at the 99 percentile [from Richard Tol's paper "The Social Cost of Carbon: Trends, Outliers and Catastrophes" ], with a median of about $4. Emphasizing the high end does indeed mean we should reduce emissions a little more (a carbon tax that is $22/ton CO2 rather than just $4). But it does not justify that we should embrace the incredible outlier of Stern and say let’s tax at $86.

The science-sounding stuff here (99th percentile! The Social Cost of Carbon! Outlier!) is all smokescreen. Richard Tol is among the 2% of working climate scientist that reject the consensus and argue that warming either will not happen or will have few negative effects. Hence, it doesn't matter what discount rate he uses or what bogus cost calculation he comes up with, because his beliefs on what will happen as the earth warms are so far out of the mainstream you'd need a six-meter telescope to find them.

The impressive-sounding paper turns out not only to be un-peer reviewed, but actually to have been self-published online. (Thank you, "Economics: The open-access, open-assessment e-journal.")

This is the story of Lomberg's "sources" in their hundreds: the fringe is presented as the mainstream, dubious sources are passed off as scholarly; real science is ignored. Often, he will cite real science, but completely misrepresent what the article says (a favorite Monckton Sr. tactic as well).

Besides giving credence to a serial liar (a lapse I credit to Sullivan's personal friendship with Lomberg) the larger problem is that Sullivan, a self-professed conservative, is nodding along with this:

What's great about the movie is its focus on R&D and how innovating new energy is more important than taxing carbon.

I should not have to explain to someone who has written at length about their libertarian sympathies the reason why a carbon tax is the optimal instrument for reducing carbon emissions. It should be obvious. Research grants and tax credits affect only the behavior of the people eligible to receive them. They invariably favor certain technologies or approaches, because there must be some standard in how the money is distributed.

There are about a half a dozen ways to reduce carbon emissions. We can:

1. Chose to invest in research directed at new low-carbon energy sources.
2. Chose to invest in technologies improving energy efficiency.
3. Chose to upgrade our current infrastructure to take advantage of the technologies (power-generating) that we already have.
4. Chose to upgrade our current infrastructure to take advantage of the technologies (power-saving; efficiency) that we already have.
5. Chose to conserve (actually give up things; less meat, shorter showers, etc.)
6. Chose to capture and sequester carbon (scrubbing emissions, planting trees, etc.) Or research methods to accomplish same.

Which of these should we attempt, and in what proportions? Assuming we do invest in new technologies, at what point do we decide the technologies are good enough to push widespread implementation (upgrade our infrastructure)? Is it better to work on improving current power sources (wind, tidal, solar) or invest in other power sources further from market (fusion, thorium reactors, etc.)?

These are the kind of complex allocation-of-resources problems capitalism was made to solve. By pricing carbon according to our estimates of the negative externalities of climate change, we correct the market failure, and instead of depending on the government to back the right research by the right scientists and industrialists, we instead engage the brainpower of every producer and consumer in the economy; anyone with a pocketbook. When solutions range from double insulation on your home to massive irrigation projects to grow thousands of square miles of forest, from hybrid cars to self-contained mini nuclear reactors, the only way to optimize our choices is the market. The market is the only tool that can find the right balance between all the choices we have to cut our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

Conservatives, especially smart conservatives like Andrew who understand that conservatism is not about reflexively hating taxes, ought to see the power of raising the price of carbon emissions, which is the only solution that can harness the power of the market to avert disastrous climate change.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Idiot comment of the day

More steaming pile of stupid, this time from Watt's own beehive:

When precipitation falls on glaciers and doesn’t melt, the glacier grows. That obviously isn’t going to end up in streams anytime soon. When glaciers retreat, more water is melted and it adds to the rivers. That seems pretty basic and obvious. How are retreating glaciers going to reduce the water in Rivers. That would be the case if it didn’t melt and it accumulated water. Do these people not think that the amount of precipitation plus the melt equals the amount in rivers. They seem to have it backwards. I would think they would be more worried about glaciers expanding and the water not making it to the rivers. I must be too dumb to see that 2+2=4.

What unites the treacle highlighted over the past three days in the arrogant, self-important strut of not-very-original people who have been convinced by their leaders that ideological blinders and ignorance of science are in fact deeply penetrating insight.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Idiot comment of the day

It was fun yesterday. Let's do it again:

#35 Virtually all of the claims of catastrophe made by warmists ignore the extremely probable scenario that rapidly advancing science will be able to easily deal with any potential problems caused by human-induced warming. If one large volcanic eruption can cause significant cooling for a year or two, it is almost impossible to conceive that scientific advances could not achieve the same in 100 years when we should know much more about dark energy, dark matter and nanotechnology.

Yep, purely hypothetical forms of matter and/or energy will save us. "Extremely probable," no less.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Idiot policy of the week

The world spends $300 billion dollars a year to subsidize the production and consumption of fossil fuels. Seriously.

Idiot comment of the day

From this excellent article on glacier melt and sea level rise:

Logic dictates that scientists will not be able to show any increase in sea levels due to two reasons. Firstly population increases around the world has led to increased demand for water from river systems which in turn decreases water run offs into the sea. Secondly the advent of desalination technology and its increasing use globally, means more water is being drawn from the sea for human consumption. Australia for example has 3 plant in operation with another 4 in construction or proposal stage. The largest plant currently under construction should be in operation in two years time and capable of producing around 400 million litres of water from the sea per day. Desalination technology is also widely used in the Middle East and parts of Asia.

That's right folks, drink up; your water consumption stops the seas from rising. Unless of course you drink diuretics like coffee or beer; then they rise faster.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Scott Armstrong loses again . . . and again

Despite six months of La Nina conditions, Scott Armstrong continues to fail miserably in his misbegotten "climate bet." Background on the bet here. On to the update:

For September:

Armstrong: 0.263C
Gore (fictional): 0.363C
Actual (UAH): 0.60C

"Winner": GORE

For October:

Armstrong: 0.263C
Gore (fictional): 0.366C
Actual (UAH): 0.42C

"Winner": GORE

Can Armstrong bat a perfect .000 for 2010, at what is probably to be the peak of La Nina? Time will tell.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Denialism and racist hate -- the chocolate and peanut butter of teabagger Steven Milloy

Steven Milloy's is the usual bland denialist gruel of lies and whining, but a more-than-usually odious screed deserves to be underlined:

Yesterday, the APS has answered to Dr Hal Lewis in a way that I consider breathtakingly arrogant and dishonest.

First of all, the answer to the important letter by a serious scientist was apparently composed by a secretary, a black female bureaucrat called Tawanda Johnson. Or is it a coincidence that she is signed under the reply and that the quality of the text suggests that indeed, no scientist was involved?

Wow. Just wow. You think he's done? He's not close to done:

Needless to say, she has no clue about science or research and it is self-evident that she is employed just and purely for the money.

After all, the record shows that she has never cared about anything linked to the scientific truth in her life. Her knowledge of physics is closer to the knowledge of an average dog than the knowledge of Dr Hal Lewis . . .

That's right; not only is it "breathtakingly arrogant" for a "black female" to be addressing the now-great Hal Lewis, but Milloy troubles to tell us that in her understanding she comparable to "an average dog."

His own readers are squeamish at this bigoted turn, but Milloy wants us to know he's the real victim here:

Please try to understand that I, my ancestors, or my nation, for that matter, have never held any slaves or anything of the kind. We've been mostly suppressed. Although it wasn't that bad, the suppression wasn't too different from that of other (often colored) nations from colonies and similar places, so if some people with English or other "imperial" ancestors play their games to regulate their feeling of guilt, could they please kindly notice that despite my or my countrymates' [sic] skin color, I/we have no feeling of guilt and no reason to participate in such a dumb game?

Please note, Steve, no one expects a racist piece of shit like you to feel guilt at your actions. Anybody with the slightest bit of sense can see that you lack the moral sense, to borrow a phrase, of the average dog.

CORRECTION; Via a helpful commenter:

Shouldn't Lubos Motl get the 'credit' for the original statements, per your link?

And Steven Milloy the 'credit' for passing it all on?


Friday, September 24, 2010

Robert Laughlin article, not all bad

At this late stage I just got around to reading the controversial article by Robert Laughlin, Nobel-prize-winning physicist, "What the Earth Knows." Large parts seem totally uncontroversial to me:

Carbon dioxide from the human burning of fossil fuel is building up in the atmosphere at a frightening pace, enough to double the present concentration in a century. This buildup has the potential to raise average temperatures on the earth several degrees centigrade, enough to modify the weather and accelerate melting of the polar ice sheets.

The IPCC couldn't say it better. And he understands the distinction, which I discussed here, between what is a big deal for humans and a big deal in terms of the time scale of the earth.

It's not at all controversial to say AGW will be a tiny ripple in geologic history: global thermonuclear war would be a tiny ripple in geologic history. That's a function of the vastness of geologic time; on a human timescale these things are quite a bit more important.

There are a couple of silly ideas, one, which has been discussed at length in the blogosphere, being the idea that there is "no solid scientific support" for our ideas about the causes of past climate change. That mistake could be a function of ignorance of the subject, or it could be a function of a physicist's unrealistic idea of what constitutes "solid scientific support" outside his own field.

Then, after seeming to comprehend so well the difference between human and geologic time, he goes off the rails and equates them:

The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.

No. This is like saying that because the earth is sometime struck by giant meteors, it's pointless to try and avoid nuclear war. Human-caused is different in a very practical sense from natural changes, because natural changes happen over geologic time: that is, from a human perspective, they occur hugely infrequently and usually very slowly. They occur so infrequently, in the earth's 4.5 billion-year history, that the chances of the next thousand years seeing even one of these natural shifts is tiny.

Whereas human-triggered changes occur with blinding swiftness by the earth's standards and, by logical necessity, humans are always around to suffer the consequences.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Open Mind calls it

I have to give a shout out to Tamino at Open Mind, who call the low point of Arctic ice within 1% of the true value. Amazing! He predicted 4.78 million km^2. The actual value was 4.81 million km^2.

Needless to say, he kicked denier butt on this one -- Anthony Watts and Steve Goddard, whose frequent posts on the state of the Arctic brightened our summer, missed the mark by 960,000 km^2 (High or low? Do you have to ask?)

Besides demonstrating yet again the value of recognizing the reality of global warming when making predictions about the physical world, what's notable about Tamino's eerile accurate prediction is that he generated it by plotting an exponential decline in the Arctic ice cover -- that is, in popular terms, a death spiral.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Between the science and a hard place, Part Two: Confidence and Risk

As you sit in what is hopefully a comfy chair, blissfully consuming this fine, robustly flavored, 100% complimentary content, have a moment's sympathy for the lot of the climate blogger. Many are his (or her) woes.

Fer instance, I want to talk to you today about the Scylla and Charybdis of lukewarmism, confidence intervals and risk. I would normally pursue this much as I did in the last installment, by plugging in some lukewarmist assumptions and discussing the results. But the trouble with this, as we saw in Part One, is that even the most conservative lukewarmist predictions imply equilibrium warming greater than 2 degrees C – a condition not seen for millions of years, which climate scientists predict will lead to disaster. In order to talk about the problems of confidence intervals and risk, though, we need a projection that doesn't definitely lead to disaster.

My solution is to pull from the AR4 absolutely the lowest-warming model, based on the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval for the lowest-emission scenario family, B1. This family is described as follows:

The B1 scenarios are of a world more integrated, and more ecologically friendly. The B1 scenarios are characterized by:
• Rapid economic growth as in A1, but with rapid changes towards a service and information economy.
• Population rising to 9 billion in 2050 and then declining as in A1.
• Reductions in material intensity and the introduction of clean and resource efficient technologies.
• An emphasis on global solutions to economic, social and environmental stability.

This is a totally unjustifiable procedure on a couple of levels. Obviously at the moment we are not making anything that could be described as rapid progress towards an "integrated . . . ecologically friendly world." Put that to one side. You also cannot simply take the lowest bound of the lowest temperature rise scenario and call that your estimate; that's cherry-picking of the worst kind. But this is the only way to get an estimate this low, so . . . I'm going to have to ask you to play along.

So say I'm a lukewarmer, and I think we're in for about 1.1C in warming over the next century. Add that to the 0.7C seen since the start of the industrial revolution, and you end up with 1.8C of warming – a princely 0.2C below our maximum safe-ish warming of 2C. Provide we do not care anything about what happens after 2100, as for example, in 2120 or 2130, we're golden.

Having ascended to these lofty height of assumption, we can finally deliver the coup de grace (the stress is causing me to mix my metaphors – who would be dealing out mercy killings on a mountaintop?) We have our lukewarmer, and they have their 1.1C by 2100. First question: What is your level of confidence in that projection? Let's look at some real-life estimates of climate sensitivity, based on actual data:

Royer, et al. (2007)[24] determined climate sensitivity within a major part of the Phanerozoic. The range of values—1.5 °C minimum, 2.8 °C best estimate, and 6.2 °C maximum—is, given various uncertainties, consistent with sensitivities of current climate models and with other determinations. - cite_note-24

Annan and Hargreaves (2006)[22] presented an estimate that resulted from combining prior estimates based on analyses of paleoclimate, responses to volcanic eruptions, and the temperature change in response to forcings over the twentieth century. They also introduced a triad notation (L, C, H) to convey the probability distribution function (pdf) of the sensitivity, where the central value C indicates the maximum likelihood estimate in degrees Celsius and the outer values L and H represent the limits of the 95% confidence interval for a pdf, or 95% of the area under the curve for a likelihood function. In this notation their estimate of sensitivity was (1.7, 2.9, 4.9)°C.

Based on analysis of uncertainties in total forcing, in Antarctic cooling, and in the ratio of global to Antarctic cooling of the last glacial maximum relative to the present, Ganopolski and Schneider von Deimling (2008) infer a range of 1.3 to 6.8 °C for climate sensitivity determined by this approach.[12]

Andronova and Schlesinger (2001) found that the climate sensitivity could lie between 1 and 10°C, with a 54 percent likelihood that it lies outside the IPCC range. - cite_note-15

The first thing you likely noticed about these calculations is that to continue to test lukewarmism we have really, really underestimated the magnitude of the warming expected in the 21st century. But the second thing you should notice is that the ranges -- the confidence intervals -- are really large. Climate sensitivity is a fiendishly difficult thing to pin down with precision, and most honest scientists come up with a range of 4-9 degrees C for the sensitivity that may be implied by any given data set or model. Those assimilating the results of many experiments and model runs can do substantially better, with recent estimates of 2.6-4.1C, a range of only 1.5C, or 2.6C if we reach down and include the unlikely possible of a sensitivity of 1.5C.

So the critical question then becomes: what is the lukewarmers' range? Consensus scientists estimate climate sensitivity at about 3C, but concede that it might be 1.5C, 4.5C or even higher (and very unlikely to be much lower). What range do lukewarmers think is plausible?

So far, to my knowledge, no self-identified lukewarmer has been persuaded to answer this question. They will find it difficult. Because they have positioned themselves as participants in the scientific debate, they can hardly claim 100% confidence in X climate sensitivity, no error bars. If they are reasonable, they have to accept they they are as fallible as the rest of the scientific community, and although they think the climate sensitivity is 1.5C (say) it might be 1.0C, or 2.0C, or even (gasp!) 3.0C (where the consensus puts it).

So even if they see 1.5C as the most likely number, they have to concede the possibility the number may be higher or lower. Emissions, too, may be higher or lower -- and so could the 2C estimate for disastrous climate change, which is just an estimate, be low or, what is more likely, high.

And this leads us to the problem of risk. What amount of risk will we accept in the next century that our civilization will be severely affected by global warming? Five percent? One percent? A tenth of one percent?

Put it another way: rapid cuts in emissions are estimated to cost between 1-3% of the GDP. Suppose there is a revolver to your head with a thousand cylinders (it's a big revolver). For a 3% raise, how many chambers are you willing to have loaded before your boss pulls the trigger? One? Maybe if you're hard up. One in a thousand's not a huge chance to take. Ten? Probably not, if you have anything to live for. A hundred? Never in a million years.

People differ in their appetites for risk, but I think most people would agree that a 1% risk of major climate disruptions like multi-meter sea level rise, massive droughts, mass extinctions, and millions of climate refugees, is around the upper limit of acceptable. And that's the end of lukewarmism (again). Any remotely reasonable estimate of climate sensitivity, even if centered on 1.5C or even lower, even if it gives you a central estimate of less than 2C, will carry with it the very significant chance that the real value is 2C or 2.5C or 3C. Traveling with it will be uncertainties about the rate of growth of emissions, and the possibility that less than 2C will get us to planetary disruptions like the rapid melting of most of the ice sheets or large-scale methane release.

Once you've acknowledged the greenhouse warming caused by CO2 and other greenhouse gases, even a ludicrously low estimate of climate sensitivity will not save you from the iron logic of risk assessment: "maybe not" and even "probably not" are unacceptable for the kind of impacts we're talking about. Even 1% is too high. But, absent a new data set allowing a much, much more exactly calculation of climate sensitivity than we have been able to provide to date, there is no way even the most Pollyanna estimates of climate sensitivity and future emissions can provide any acceptable level of assurance that "business as usual" is anything but a road to ruin.

Between the science and a hard place: The intellectual incoherence of lukewarmism. Part One: jimming the Overton window.

In recent years, the climate wars have witnessed the rise of a group of self-identified "lukewarmers," people who, to borrow Greg Easterbrook's self-description, believe that:

[G]lobal warming is scientifically confirmed but exaggerated as a threat; that greenhouse gas regulation is justified, but not an emergency need.

The first use of the term I have found was by David Smith, on "Watts Up With That" (a bit of foreshadowing, that):

I am a “lukewarmer” who thinks that the world is warmer than it would otherwise be due to anthropogenic gases (but doubts that the impact will be extreme).

Probably the most famous "lukewarmer" is Lucia Liljegren, a mechanical engineer (surprise!) whose blog, The Blackboard, can be found on the blogroll here. The Blackboard entertains many lukewarmers, along with a bunch of deniers and a smattering of pro-consensus folks, including myself.

Another self-described lukewarmer, Steven Fuller, has stepped into the giant floppy red shoes of Steven Goddard at WUWT, now that Steve has metastasized to his own blog. His self-description is the closest to providing a clear, testable proposition, as well as reflecting, by my reading, the central thrust of the comments by the "lukewarmers" on The Blackboard:

It’s because I am a ‘lukewarmer,’ one who believes that the physics of climate change are not by theselves controversial, but who believes that the sensitivity of the earth’s atmosphere to a doubling of concentrations of CO2 is not yet known, but is likely to be lower than activists have claimed.

Before I get into what the climate sensitivity might be, it's important to note who the lukewarmers are, which is slightly different from their self-definition. The lukewarmers to a person are critical of the IPCC, but when we take a look at the estimates of climate sensitivity cited by the IPCC, it's clear that thinking climate sensitivity is low is not enough to get on the outs with them:

Most estimates of climate sensitivity, regardless of how they are derived (and there are several lines of evidence including comparisons with paleoclimate, response to modern forcings like the Mount Pinatubo eruption, and climate modeling) include in their 95% confidence interval sensitivities between 1-2C. In some cases, the central estimate is between 1.2-1.5C for a doubling of CO2. So favoring a low number for climate sensitivity is not, by itself, enough to put you at odds with the "consensus." You need the other piece – the it's-not-a-big-deal piece. And that's where the trouble starts.

There is a half-full glass here, which is that a number of people who clearly identify emotionally and politically with the denialist movement have taken major steps towards the scientific consensus in order to maintain their credibility. While sharing the denialosphere's loathing of "activists" and its demonization of scientists like Hansen and Mann (whose unforgivable sin was to establish beyond a reasoned doubt that humans are causing a rapid and substantially unprecedented warming of the earth's climate) the lukewarmers avoid three major pitfalls of denialism:

1. They do not have to deny the basic physical laws which dictate that greenhouse gases cause warming.

2. They do not have to refute the massive physical evidence that the climate is warming.

3. They do not have to pretend that the vast majority of scientists who accept the theory of AGW are participating in a vast conspiracy to hide the truth about (1) and (2).

The lukewarmist position also allows one to position oneself as a moderate threading the needle between two extremes. Steven Fuller again:

The operation of CO2 as a greenhouse gas is one of the least controversial ideas in physics. The calculations that show a temperature rise of between 1 and 2 degrees Celsius if concentrations double is also widely accepted, including by all skeptic scientists without (AFAIK) exception.

We don’t know the sensitivity of the atmosphere to a doubling of CO2, so the effects of feedbacks are not know. Activists think it is 3 degrees or higher. Contrarians think it is very low–1, maybe 2, tops, some thinking it is even lower.
If activists are right we have a very big problem on our hands. If contrarians are right we don’t. If both are wrong, there is a lukewarmer’s way.

Note that the best science around puts climate sensitivity between 2.6-4.1C. It's not "activists" who put climate sensitivity at around 3C or higher – except as far as the activists are saying: Hey, those scientists that have spent their lives in this field probably are the best source of information regarding climate sensitivity.

The real contrast here is not between "activists" and "skeptics" but between deniers and everybody else – between the science and the right-wing lunacy. But lukewarmers are exploiting the shift in the Overton window brought about by voluble climate deniers to position their radical views as a sane middle ground.

Here's the problem. Lukewarmism doesn't get its adherents where they want to go – because even if we accept at face value their claims, the world would still require intense efforts to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases in order to stave off disaster.

Scientists estimate a warming of 2C as the upper limit of what our civilization can adapt to, and not suffer disaster on a planetary scale. This is probably an optimistic number:

… even a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8°C of warming so far, a target of 2°C seems almost cavalier.

The hard lower limit of climate sensitivity -- the lowest it can possibly be and account for our direct observations – is about 1.1C (the real number is very likely to be in that range of 2.6C-4.1C – but we are following the "lukewarmist" argument to see where it leads). The change in forcings expected from a "business as usual" 21st century are +8.5W/m^2 – about 2 1/3 doublings of CO2.

Hence with the lowball number – the number Steven Fuller attributes not to lukewarmers but to out-and-out deniers – put us on course for 2.5C of warming this century. In other words, the lukewarmers' own numbers belie their causal attitude to reducing greenhouse emissions.

Now the deniers – sorry, excuse me, the "lukewarmers" – may say the projected emissions are much too high; that the IPCC is way off with those numbers as well. Or they could take the bull by the horns and claim, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that warm can tolerate warming of 3C or 4C without any major problems (the last time the world was that hot was several million years ago; there were no ice caps to speak of and the sea level was hundreds of feet higher). The trouble with that position is that it undermines the whole thrust of lukewarmism – which is to acquire credibility (or, to be fair, possibly to exercise intellectual honesty) via the advantages (1), (2), and (3).

Disputing one point with the scientific community – climate sensitivity – is compatible with a reasonable, pro-science argument. Hey, it happens -- an idea becomes the established consensus, and it turns out to be, not completely wrong maybe, but off (this has already happened several times in climate science -- unfortunately, every time, to date, the majority of the mistakes have been in the direction of under-estimating the speed and magnitude of the effects of global warming.)

However, when you begin to argue that not only does science have climate sensitivity wrong but also emissions and maybe impacts to boot – well, you're going to have a hard time explaining why thousands of scientists have made not one but a series of mistakes, all supposedly exaggerating the dangers of global warming. Go down that road, and pretty soon you're right back in the tinfoil-hat camp lukewarmist rhetoric was supposed to deliver you from. If you allege not one but a whole series of gigantic mistakes by huge numbers of investigators, all tending to undermine a scientific conclusion (only rapid reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases can prevent a substantial risk of planetary disaster) to which you are avowedly hostile, the simplest conclusion is not that you are a genius and the rest of the scientific community are fools; it is that you are a partisan and you are attacking science with implications contrary to your political goals.

In Part 2, I'm going to give the "lukewarmers" even more rope, and show how even widely unrealistic lowballing of climate change fails to make a rational case for business as usual.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Minor myth: If it's not unprecedented in the last 4 billion years, it's no big deal

Please don’t feed me some line of crap about how all the ice is going to melt. We both know the world has been warmer and the ice caps melted and sometimes they didn’t melt. In fact, the ice caps are actually a rare occurence in earth’s history so we should be surprised that they are even here.

-- Shooshmon, The Blackboard

This is a trope that recurs over and over in "skeptic" arguments: if a state of affairs has ever occurred before (even if we're talking about hundreds of thousands or even hundreds of millions of years ago) then it is not "unprecedented" and hence, no big deal.

I didn't find this myth at Skeptical Science (although #45, "Co2 was higher in the past," could be considered a specific instance) so it is officially in our purview as a minor myth.

Basically, the fallacy here relies on ignorance of just how long the earth has been around and how variable its climate has been over billions of years of geologic time. At times the earth has been covered in ice; at times the ice has melted, and sea levels have been hundreds of feet higher than today. The relevant question, however, is not whether a state of affairs has ever existed before, but what it means for us, people, and our seven (soon nine) billion-strong civilization.

The realistic way to relate these two ideas -- whether a condition has happened before, and what it's likely to be a problem for people -- is obviously not to look at the whole of geological time, but a much briefer span of time, human history, the time in which we have been living in settled communities and growing food to feed ourselves. Those are the conditions in which humans have prospered.

When we look at that period, approximately 13,000 years, we find something surprising. Let's take a look at Shooshmon's example (if that's not too strong a term), the ice caps, as reflected in sea level measurements:

Looks like quite a bit of variation. But look at the x-axis. It's marked in intervals of 50 million years. What does that have to do with anything human? Not much. Next, let's look at the recent past:

Over the last 8,000 years, sea levels have been rock-solid stable. That's the whole of recorded human history; China and Egypt, Judea and Babaylon, the Greeks and the Macedonian and the Roman Empires -- all of it. Prior, sea levels were lower (more ice). They have never been higher in all the time people have been growing their own food. So are higher sea levels safe, because the dinosaurs didn't mind them at all? Of course not. Among other differences, dinosaurs did not live by the hundreds of millions in costal cities and floodplains.

You can identify the same pattern in temperature records:

You can see semi-regular oscillations of several degrees. But always look at your axis. This is five million years of temperature records. The swings that seem to be coming one right after the other are actually occurring at a brisk rate of one every 40,000 to 100,000 years. Now look at it on a human timescale:

All of human civilization has lived in a band of +/- about 0.5C. Until the last decade, in which we've broken through that temperature ceiling headed for parts unknown -- headed, if things keep going on as they are, for conditions not seen on this earth for millions of years, things unknown not just to human civilizations but to the entire history of our species. Unprecedented? Maybe not in the strictest sense. Unsafe? You'd better believe it.

UPDATE: This exchange on The Blackboard captures the above in admirably terse style:

bugs (Comment#52733) September 24th, 2010 at 7:18 am

liza (Comment#52725) September 24th, 2010 at 5:50 am

Bugs, I know what the sea level height was 125,000 years ago because my husband is a geologist and I can google. That graph shows you that “today” isn’t such a big deal.

If you are a rock, or a planet, it’s not big deal.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

WUWT lies like a rug -- where is Ben Lawson?

At the consistently fantastic "Wott's Up With That?" blog, Ben Lawson takes on the Herculean task of documenting and fact-checking the cornucopia of malicious nonsense that is "What's Up With That?" It's a mission I thought I'd be spending a lot more time on when I started this blog. One look at Ben's site convinced me that I could not do it more thoroughly, more tellingly, or with a lighter touch than him.

Lately, though, the effort seems to be taking its toll on Ben, who is often on hiatus, announced or unannounced.

My unsolicited advice; get some underbloggers. One man can shovel only so much treacle.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Ted talk on the oldest living things

H/t (not that they need it from me) to The Daily Dish:

One of these creatures has been alive for four hundred thousand years. It's incredible.

The most common measure of climate change is how the world is going to look in 2100. That's a useful signpost, but when you look at an 80,000-year-old tree, you can't help reflect on the narrowness of our horizons. The world's going to continue to turn, and the physics of greenhouse gases continue to operate, in 2101 and 2150 and 2200.

Should we think about how the world will look after we're gone? Should we worry about destroying unique patterns of life that have weathered nature's changes since before humanity came down from the trees?

We would be in a bad way if the Greeks and the Romans and the Caliphate hadn't had any concern for the next century or the next millennium. The cultural heritage, and the institutions of democracy and human liberty which grew out of them, would be gone. Billions of people around the globe build their lives around principles and precepts of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism -- the youngest of which is more than a thousand years old.

Our modern world-spanning civilization is the richest, the most scientifically advanced society ever to emerge on this earth. Most of the people in past eras could not begin to conceive of it. It's richness is a result, in no small part, of the labors of philosophers, scientists, and artists, proselytizers and engineers of the last 5,000 years. They knew they were working for a future that stretched much further than a few decades, and we are all the beneficiaries of that legacy.

Have we now as a people embraced the role of the spoiled child, to be given everything and value nothing, work for nothing? Are we so rich and our lives so easy that the concept of building for the future has lost all meaning for us?

Another month, another humilation for "scientific forecaster" Scott Armstrong


The original site Armstrong was using to track his bogus "bet," HubDub, has now vanished along with Armstrong's integrity and self-respect. The creators, who evidently have recognized in themselves a certain talent for make-believe, are now running a sports fantasy site. Fortunately Intrade is on the case; above you seeing Armstrong's chances of "winning" his own, self-designed, "Global Warming Challenge." It's now trading at 3.5%. No word from Armstrong, and still not updating the "bet." And while we're on the subject . . .

August UAH: 0.511C

. . . he's lost another month. That makes 7 out of 7 this year, meaning he loses 2010 as a whole (again, using his own nonsensical method of counting "winners" month by month of a ten-year prediction, and counting the winner of the most months as the winner of the year.) He's lost ten of the last eleven months. Here's a shocker -- he hasn't updated the status of the bet since March:

But here at the Idiot Tracker, we're happy to supply the assist to the eponymous Dr. Armstrong:

For April:

Armstrong: 0.263C
Gore (fictional): 0.348C
Actual (UAH): 0.50C

"Winner": GORE

For May:

Armstrong: 0.263C
Gore (fictional): 0.351C
Actual (UAH): 0.54C

"Winner": GORE

For June:

Armstrong: 0.263C
Gore (fictional): 0.354C
Actual (UAH): 0.44C

"Winner": GORE

For July:

Armstrong: 0.263C
Gore (fictional): 0.357C
Actual (UAH): 0.489C

"Winner": GORE

For August:

Armstrong: 0.263C
Gore (fictional): 0.36C
Actual (UAH): 0.511C

"Winner": GORE

You could set up this bet in a more honest, evenhanded way which might be semi-valid in terms of shedding light on what is happening with our climate. Needless to say, that's not the process Armstrong came up with, which makes it all the more amusing that he has managed to deal himself a losing hand from a stacked deck. The trouble with improving the process is that it make victory for Gore more or less assured. But let's look at what such a bet might be like.

For one thing, Armstrong has arbitrarily chosen the coolest of the four widely used global temperature data sets, Roy Spenser's UAH data:

NOAA NCDC: +0.163 C/decade

NASA GISS: +0.166 C/decade

UEA CRU: +0.158 C/decade

RSS LT: +0.164 C/decade

UAH LT: +0.140 C/decade

But even more basic, the notion that month-to-month temperature anomalies determine whether climate change is happening or not is silly. Obviously, if climate change is occurring, it's not going to change the fact that La Ninas lower temperatures, that solar activity goes up and down, or other random factors push the temperatures up or down. The sensible thing to do, and what scientists in fact do, is using moving averages. In other words, the last point in their graph is somewhere in the past, and they determine the average temperature using past and future readings. This smooths out the short-term fluctuations -- if each point on your graph represents a eleven-year average, chances are in that eleven years there have been a couple of La Ninas, and also a couple of El Ninos balancing them out. One really hot or really cold month no longer jerks the line up or down dramatically, which translates to the statistical equivalent of refuting global warming by pointing to snow on the ground (but what do you expect, really, when a guy with a degree in marketing proclaims himself a "scientific forecaster"?)

I mentioned eleven years; the sunspot cycle is eleven years*, so this is a commonly used period for averaging in climate studies. Why didn't Armstrong use an eleven-year moving average? Take a look at what such an average shows:

The herky-jerky of the annual anomalies is gone. In its place we see a smooth upward trend of rising temperature, with occasional brief pauses or accelerations. By the simple expedient of taking a moving average over time, the short-term fluctuations vanish, and the upward trend alone remains.

You can see how pointless a ten-year bet using this data would be. Temperatures have been going up steadily for 35 years; they aren't going to suddenly stop. It's hotter than it was ten years ago; ten years ago it was hotter than twenty years ago; twenty years ago it was hotter than ten years before that. Which is why, despite all the vocal deniers in the world, the ones proclaiming global warming is an obvious scam with no empirical evidence, mere "lying with graphs" as one denier put it, no one seems to be incline to put their money against a 0.15C rise in annual temperatures -- even at 30:1 odds.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cuccinelli’s mini-me McCarthyism quashed

The quick eyes and fingers of Joe Romm have the story.

Cuccinelli's bogus "investigation" was a particularly chilling piece of ideological thuggery, striking as it did at any notion of free inquiry in science. Attacking Michael Mann, one of the world's foremost climatologists, with fraud charges and the threat of an endless, Whitewater-style partisan witch hunt, represented a new and dangerous corruption of the public sphere. Even the creationists, the tobacco pushers and the "scientific" racists, while attacking scientists' results, never dared attack the scientists in this brazen, harassing, threatening way.

It seems like a bad dream, and thanks to Judge Peatross, we can hope against hope that that is all it was. I fear, though, that the loss today will only be temporary. Cuccinelli lost on the facts almost instantly. But the effectiveness of McCarthyism never depended on the ability to win in court. All it requires is a bald-faced liar in a position of authority, a complacent media, a fearful populace, and the willingness to accuse. As far as I can tell, all those factors still exist. Expect to see more scurrilous accusations, and more big lies, until and unless the consequence of such are not just to be defeated but to be discredited, disgraced and speedily dismissed.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cheap coal, cheap sun

I was reading DeSmogBlog's account of the toxic coal ash problem, and it put me in mind of a recent interview Richard Rosen gave to Dot Earth. There are many excellent things in this interview, and it is a real pleasure to get the insider's view of these technologies, and the real barriers to replacing fossil fuels with alternative energy sources. Rosen is very clear that, while he is pessimistic on the prospect of dramatic R&D breakthroughs in renewables, he thinks the technology needs to be implemented on a broad scale today.

That said, I think he overstates the case here:

The situation is similar for solar thermal technologies; they have had major R&D expenditures for decades and they are improving slowly. But they can never be as cheap as coal-fired electric generation because the energy density of the sun’s rays are not nearly at the level of fossil-fuels like coal, so you necessarily need more physical equipment to collect the energy, and turn it into electricity. Also, the lower temperatures that result from collecting the sun’s rays compared to burning fossil fuels inherently limits the efficiency of solar generation, but more importantly, it increases its costs relative to fossil generation.

It's very difficult to predict, based on physics, what kinds of technologies will be cost-effective and which won't. Physics would suggest, for example, that long-haul trucks could never compete with trains for hauling heavy freight (in fact, they dominate the market in the US). Rosen is, under the gloss of a scientific argument, reasoning ex post facto from the actual relative cost of these technologies today.

Suppose we instead lived in a world in which wind, photovoltaic, and solar thermal sources provide most of our energy, and some clever reformer was proposing coal as a solution to the intermittancy problem. How might Rosen explain the prospects that coal would overtake solar and wind?

ALTER-REVKIN: Coal is a promising emerging technology, easily scalable, with theoretical efficiencies twice what we can achieve with solar, but will it ever compete on price?

ALTER-ROSEN: Coal may be a valuable minor player, but it will never be as cheap as solar. There are too many costly inputs and costly side effects. Imagine, you need a research team to locate the coal, you have to purchase the rights to the coal deposit, then you need an entire operation, separate and independent from power generation, to get the stuff out of the ground. That's trucks, it's heavy machinery, burning fuel and writing paychecks to the operators. Then you need to haul it to the power plant -- more trucks, more heavy machinery. Finally you burn the stuff, and it produces coal ash, which is toxic. You have to store that safely for hundreds of years -- it's not like you're going to dump it behind a rickety wooden dam somewhere and walk away!

ALTER-REVKIN: Wow, that's a lot of costs.

ALTER-ROSEN: And we're not done yet. Researchers estimate that if this technology were widely adopted, millions of people would die each year from atmospheric pollution. So the companies would be paying from that, as well.

Bottom line, it's too complicated to find it, extract it, transport it, store the wastes and cope with the consequences of the pollution for coal to every compete with a no-fuel, no-pollution source like wind or solar.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On lighter side: creative grammar

I've been noticing instances here and there of interesting grammatical "mistakes": inadvertent neologisms in which a word is created by combining two words, either of which relate to the intended meaning. It was this now-famous example that put my antenna up:

Sarah Palin (via Twitter): Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.

Palin here creates a word by combining "refute" with "repudiate." The words sound similar, and the phase would have meant much the same thing had she used either word instead.

You might suspect I'm going to castigate Palin for offenses against the English language, but I'm not. In fact, I rather like the word "refudiate." I imagine it means disassociating oneself from a position and, in the very act of doing so, showing that position to be false; i.e., the position in some logical or empirical sense requires your support to be sensible.

For example, suppose I am going around the neighborhood screaming at gay people, which I justify by saying my bishop supports it, and I must do what my bishop supports. Now suppose the bishop disavows me and any knowledge or approval of what I have been doing. He has repudiated me. But in doing so, he also destroyed my argument for what I am doing -- he has refuted it.

We are not talking about the content of her message, which is bigoted and offensive. But the word itself is kind of nice.

Another example, from the fertile garden of language experiments that is the internet comment thread:

The intellectual libertarianism of Brink Lindsey is a cousin of socialism and as such doomed to failure.

Both are fancied by self selected elites that think their intelligence and reasoning power can fix institutions and replace traditions that have organically evolved, over centuries and millennia, and thereby mold a better society in their image.

This is the fatal conceipt.

Here the author has taken the common cliche, "the fatal conceit" and added a little bit of the word "concept." Again, it's clear what he's taking about; liberal rationalism could be described as a "conceit" or as a "concept."

I'm not sure if this particular linguistic phenomenon has a name, though I wouldn't be surprised if there is one, and I don't know it. It's similar to a portmanteau, but that usually describes a conscious yoking of two words, while this seems to be accidental, like a spoonerism or a malapropism. Indeed, the hive mind at wikipedia wants to call "refudiate" a malapropism, but I have to respectfully disagree -- a malapropism is a similar-sounding, but nonsensical substitution. This is not a substitution at all, but a combination of two words, but of which are sort of right.

People who erroneously believe themselves to be experts in grammar will often deplore such innovations as crude, ignorant, barbaric, or ugly, or stupid. This is a particular type of what is known to the real students of language as "prescriptivism"; the impulse to seek universal "rules" of grammar and usage, to see those rules as indicative of education, culture, or intelligence, and to enforce them by heaping scorn on malefactors.

In terms of teaching people, especially non-English speakers, to speak and write for broad audiences, and in formal, work-related, or academic endeavours, the enforcement of grammatical rules has a limited practical use. But the moralistic colors it often flies make of it offensive nonsense.

It can easily be seen that prescriptivism has nothing to do with the study of language. The science of language -- linguistics -- is like every other science. It observes, seeks to describe, then seeks to understand and perhaps predict. It does not seek to ENFORCE the principles it discovers. That would be ridiculous! Imagine if biologists thought a species of fish ate only other fish, and then discovered that many of them eat plankton. Would they deploy nets to keep the plankton away? Poison the deviant fish? Sterilize the lake?

If you see why that would make no sense, you should see why prescriptivism is absurd. People talk the way they talk. There is no right or wrong as long as you can be understood by the people you're communicating with. Children learn the grammar of their native language naturally and without being taught -- we are "hardwired" for grammar, it's built into our brain's language circuits. Most of the things that make prescriptivists' heads spin around in circles -- double negatives, slang, made-up words -- are perfectly understandable and thus, perfectly good language.

I didn't really appreciate this fully until I studied the history of the English language, and was forced to confront the fact that there is no way to understand our modern language except as the accumulation of false analogies, borrowings, errors in translation and in pronunciation, neolgisms and shorthand. Words grow and shrink and are merged with other words.

Don't let me make linguistics sound interesting. It's not. Linguistics, someone famously remarked, combines the dullness of the hard sciences with the uselessness of the humanities. So take my word for it: language, like DNA, evolves via "errors," which are the primary way it grows and changes. Those people whose way of loving language is to attack rule-breakers would fatally wound the object of their affections, were their efforts not so ludicrously futile. So despise Sarah Palin for the many sound reasons she has given us to do so, but not for "refudiate."

Friday, August 6, 2010

No excuse

Andrew offers:

There is no excusing the senseless murder of an IDF soldier – shot while removing a tree on the Israeli side of the Israel-Lebanon border.

While there may be no excusing it, one could certainly make excuses for it, offense being the best defense, as Israel's excuses for the killings at the Gaza border have shown:

Excuse #1: Describe the attack as retaliation, every if the site attacked has no connection with the other side's supposed offense.

"Israel routinely responds to rocket attacks with air strikes targeting smuggling tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border and workshops which Israel says are used to make rockets."

Excuse #2: Describe the attack as if it were an unplanned, mutual affair, "skirmishes" or "clashes":
(The headline) "2 Palestinians killed as IDF clashes with militants near Gaza border"
(The fine print) " Israel Defense Forces troop fired at suspected militants that had approached Gaza's northern border with Israel, Israel Radio reported on Wednesday, with two suspected militants reportedly killed in the incident."

Did the solider killed by the Lebanese "approach the border"? He most certainly did. Was he a "militant"? Worse than a militant, he was actually a uniformed solider of an enemy state. Is there a single righteous man in Sodom these days who would look at this incident and say "We've killed hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese for nothing more than being armed and close to our borders -- who are we to throw stones?" There most certainly is not.

Excuse #3 Justify the killings by asserting the victim was just about to commit an attack – they are dead, they can't contradict you.
"At least one Palestinian terrorist, who attempted to plant a bomb at the Gaza border fence, has been killed by the Israeli army."

When you read the story, you discover no bomb was ever found.
Literally thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese have been killed by Israel while going about their business, no immediate threat to anyone. If they have a gun, if they belong to an armed group – both conditions the IDF solider met – even those on the far left will seldom raise a protest. If on top of that they are in a border area, well, that's the end of it. But when it is an IDF solider who is dead we suddenly remember certain things, like: being an armed enemy during a time of peace or a cease-fire is no excuse for murder. If it were, the idea of a "cease-fire" would be meaningless. Or: being next to the border is not the same thing as being across the border – that's why it’s a border. You are supposed to be able to live and work and cut down trees and even train for battle on your side of the border, and it's not a justification for deadly force or any force at all.

There's an element of colonialism here, make no mistake. In the eyes of Israelis and their enablers, an Arab with a gun is by definition a Jew-murderer in waiting, no rights at all. A Jew with a gun is a brave defender of his home. A Palestinian near the border is an infiltrator, shot on sight; but an IDF solider considers it his right to march right up to the edge of his territory, armed to the teeth. Sometimes he doesn't stop there. For all their fear and rage at "infiltrators," it's not unusual to read that an Israeli "patrol" went a couple of hundred yards or a half mile into Gaza, destroyed some property, shot at some suspected "militants," and came home. If an army tried this on Israeli territory, of course, the IAF would carpet-bomb their cities.

Double standards. That's the work-a-day answer to excusing the inexcusable.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The shape of things to come

From the NYTimes:

MOSCOW — Russia banned all exports of grain on Thursday after millions of acres of wheat withered in a severe drought, a portentous decision at a time when crop failures caused by heat and flooding span the northern hemisphere.

The resilience of civilization is often cited as the answer to the destructive effects of global warming. When these materialize, so the story goes, people will simply deploy the adaptive powers of free-market capitalism and overcome all impediments to the continued growth of prosperity. To that end, we ought to focus not on things like reduced CO2 emissions, but rather focus on getting rich by any means necessary -- something which will position the world's people optimally for adaptation later on.

Russia's reaction to the failure of its wheat crop -- and we're lying to ourselves if we imagine our countries would behave any differently -- illustrates the flaws in that approach. Free markets can be a powerful tool to deal with resource scarcity, including damaged or degraded infrastructure and loss of productive capacity. But markets are only as free as governments make them. As global warming has uneven impacts across the world -- baking crops and destroying coastlines in some regions, mostly sparing or even temporarily increasing productivity in others -- the effects are likely to be magnified by protectionist responses far beyond what an ideal market model might lead us to expect.

Suppose, for example, that a bad growing season in the Northern Hemisphere cuts agricultural productivity by an average of 20%, but in India, for whatever reason, productivity falls by 80%. The "prosperity as adaptation" model would say that India would spend heavily on food imports, driving up food prices around the world, causing citizens of other countries to switch to more vegetable products, less meat and other luxury items, tighten their belts, and, of course, grow more food.

Now let's look at it realistically, given the way real people and real governments actually behave. Look at the protectionist barriers erected in the Great Depression; look at Russia today. And ask yourself, is any country that has lost a fifth of its agricultural crops going to be exporting food? Not likely. Bans like Russia's will be the rule, not the exception. India will have currency, but if enough of the major exporters close their markets, it will do them no good. You can't eat currency.

There are other dysfunctional responses to shortage that may exacerbate the dilemma. Hording, for example. This is a well-known pitfall of imperfect markets. As soon as any agent realizes they may not be able to get something they need in the future, their (rational) reaction is to stockpile it, which greatly exacerbates shortages. In the example above, suppose the following year they have a similar situation, minus 50 million starved Indians. But this year the harvest is better -- it's only down 5%. But this year the US is the "sick man" with harvests down 30%. How easy will it be to import food?

It might seem at first blush countries would be more willing to export food -- the harvest is better, they have more food to spare. But on the other hand, they saw what happened to India -- how they couldn't trade money for food when they needed it. So what is their play? Everybody is going to want to stockpile food. Months of it. Years of it. Even those areas where agricultural productivity is maintained, the temptation to horde and speculate will be great. Huge amounts of a scarce resource end up under lock and key, not in the hands of the people who need them.

A situation like this is hard for people in the developed world to grasp, because we have no experience of a world in which our wealth cannot be readily exchanged for any product or resource we might need. The above examples are greatly oversimplified. But the principle is an important one to grasp: ultimately our needs are for food, shelter and the like. The system that turns money into those things may, and likely will, be compromised by the very scarcity that "prosperity adapters" are counting on to deal with scarcity. With disruption on a large enough scale, scarcity is more likely to overwhelm free markets than the other way around.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Foxman: Loving the victims of mass murder means a pass on irrationality, bigotry

Classic idiocy:

Asked why the opposition of the families was so pivotal in the decision, Mr. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, said they were entitled to their emotions.

“Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,” he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

The ADL has long since abandoned its roots as an anti-discrimination organization, and functions essentially as a group of unregistered lobbyists for the state of Israel. In world where amateur Zionists frequently equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, these are the professional race-baiters. Still, they retain the shell of their past glories in a formal commitment to oppose racism -- the shallowness of which commitment Foxman's comment makes clear. Bigotry? Irrational hatred of the other? It's OK, Foxman has given himself a free pass, because he loves the victims of Hitler so damn much, he can't help being a bigot.

And his victimhood has also granted him the special power of evaluating the suffering of others and determining their worthiness to be deputized into the fellowship of those whose racist hate and irrational prejudices are excused, if not celebrated.

One wonders if the thousands of Palestinian widows and orphans Israel has made would qualify for Foxman's all-access pass to the concert of irrational bigotry.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Scott Armstrong loses another month, still not updating his bogus "bet"

Scott Armstrong is a classic denier -- talk big, make sweeping claims, and tiptoe away when you lose on the facts.

Armstrong is still vomiting up nonsense on his website . . . the last post is dated 5/5/2010 -- but he seems to have lost all interest in the "Global Warming Challenge" that gives the site its name. And no wonder; since March, when he last updated, he's lost every month:

For April:

Armstrong: 0.263C
Gore (fictional): 0.348C
Actual (UAH): 0.50C

"Winner": GORE

For May:

Armstrong: 0.263C
Gore (fictional): 0.351C
Actual (UAH): 0.54C

"Winner": GORE

For June:

Armstrong: 0.263C
Gore (fictional): 0.354C
Actual (UAH): 0.44C

"Winner": GORE

Armstrong has lost every month of 2010 and nine of the last ten months. Time for the "scientific forecaster" to look for honest work.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

July 1st

Those that spent the last four years where I did know what today is. We interrupt our regularly scheduled wonkishness for a few thoughts of celebration, and of caution.

Life is short, and Art is long; opportunity fleeting; experience perilous, and decision difficult. The physician must not only himself do what is right, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals cooperate.

- Hippocrates, Aphorisms

Generosity he has, such as is possible to those who practice an art, never to those who drive a trade. Discretion, tested by a hundred secrets, tact tried in a thousand embarrassments, and, what more important, Herculean cheerfulness and courage.

- Robert Louis Stevenson, The Physician

Paramedic pathophysiology (unabridged): Blood goes round and round; air goes in and out. Any variation on this is bad.

- Unknown

You can map out a fight plan or a life plan, but when the action starts, it may not go the way you planned, and you're down to your reflexes - that means your training. That's where your roadwork shows. If you cheated on that in the dark of the morning, well, you're going to get found out now, under the bright lights.

— Joe Frazier

A mistake is a mistake even if you get away with it.

-- Ed Viesturs

The best part of your worst day.

-- sign on the wall of a critical care transport team

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base....
Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, administered first aid, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother.

- Martin Luther King, Jr

Must remember: a license never replace eyes, ear, brain.

- The Karate Kid

[On resisting the temptation to become complacent on the mountain] Just because you love the mountains doesn't mean they love you.

- Lou Whittaker

And, finally and forever:

I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Oath and this contract:

To hold him who taught me this art equally dear to me as my parents, to be a partner in life with him, and to fulfill his needs when required; to look upon his offspring as equals to my own siblings, and to teach them this art, if they shall wish to learn it, without fee or contract; and that by the set rules, lectures, and every other mode of instruction, I will impart a knowledge of the art to my own sons, and those of my teachers, and to students bound by this contract and having sworn this Oath to the law of medicine, but to no others.

I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgement, and I will do no harm or injustice to them.

I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

In purity and according to divine law will I carry out my life and my art.

I will not use the knife, even upon those suffering from stones, but I will leave this to those who are trained in this craft.

Into whatever homes I go, I will enter them for the benefit of the sick, avoiding any voluntary act of impropriety or corruption, including the seduction of women or men, whether they are free men or slaves.

Whatever I see or hear in the lives of my patients, whether in connection with my professional practice or not, which ought not to be spoken of outside, I will keep secret, as considering all such things to be private.

So long as I maintain this Oath faithfully and without corruption, may it be granted to me to partake of life fully and the practice of my art, gaining the respect of all men for all time. However, should I transgress this Oath and violate it, may the opposite be my fate.

Wish me luck!