Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A grab bag of portents

April 2010 was the warmest April in the instrumental record. The 12-month running average of temperatures is also at an all-time high. The Arctic sea ice is running below 2007 trends, with more than a million square kilometers of ice missing, compared to the already-low 1979-2009 average.

Greenland's ice sheet is disintegrating so rapidly, parts of the coast are rising by a inch a year -- simply as a result of all those millions of tons of ice melting away. The melt is accelerating by about 20 gigatons a year -- if that acceleration were to continue, a third of the ice sheet would be gone by the end of the century.

And where are the deniers? In short, they are ignoring the science and celebrating the success of their propaganda.

More on this later.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sea ice grab bag

Does anyone remember "José Chung's From Outer Space" that great early episode of the X-files in which Daniel Quinn (pictured above) is found by the side of the road in an alien body suit repeating "This is NOT happening!" over and over?

Well, evidently Mr. Steve Goddard is channeling Mr. Quinn's character, given his latest "Sea ice update," which opens:

The Arctic is still running well below freezing, and as a result there just isn’t much happening.

Uh, Steve? Are you looking at your own graphs?

We are not only trending below all of the three worst years for the summer minimum (2007, 2008, and 2009); we've also fallen more than two standard deviations below the already-low 1979-2009 average.

Cryosphere today (a different dataset using a different definition of ice cover) is now showing the ice at 987,000 square km below the 1979-2009 average. In the last month the anomaly has gone from near-zero to almost a million square kilometers missing. Where's the ice, Steve? And how is a million square kilometers of missing ice nothing much happening?

How on Earth does Goddard rationalize these developments as "nothing much"? His method is quite amusing. For example, take this delicious bit of denier logic, from last week's update:

As in past weeks there is excess ice in the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk, and a deficiency in the Barents Sea – which are all always ice free during the summer anyway.

Oh, well if they always melt anyway . . . not. Sorry, Steve, but ice melting doesn't work like that -- certain parts of the ice field are not labeled "melt" and "non-melt," like furniture tagged for movers. Heat energy is absorbed by the ice during the warm season, and it breaks up and melts from the outside edge inwards. More ice melting at an earlier data means more of that heat energy will be delivered to the interior later in the season. "Oh, all this stuff melts anyway" is the sort of science-illiterate statement WUWT has elevated to an art form.

This week Steve's back with another priceless effort at rationalization; it's not global warming, it's warm water:

The Alaska side has above normal sea ice and the Greenland side has below normal sea ice. This is a reflection of ocean temperatures, which are below normal in the North Pacific, and above normal near Greenland.

Of course, where does >90% of the excess heat trapped by AGW go? Into the oceans of course. And the warm oceans help melt the ice. But temperatures are below average somewhere! Or average. Well, not really average, even, but warm:

Hard to know where Steve sees the average temperatures -- the whole Arctic looks pretty hot to me, and he doesn't source the assertion.

While we're talking sea ice, I thought it might be useful to point out why we suffer this yearly braying about sea ice extent being "near average." Seasonal sea ice extent looks like this:

You can see the summer trend is far greater than the winter trend, although extent is down in every season. This chart helps clarify mattters:

The ice extent predictably approaches the average in the winter, before falling far below it in the summer. To illustrate why this is, fill an ice tray with water, stick it in the freezer, and come back in a half an hour. What do you have? A thin coating of ice over the surface of the water. It takes very little cold to create that thin sheet of ice -- and it takes very little heat to melt it.

This is where we are at with the Arctic today. The good ice, the thick multiyear stuff, has been decimated. That is why Arctic ice volumes are at their lowest level ever; that is why the summer always brings minimum sea ice extents far below average. But no matter how much melts in summer, it takes a trivial amount of cold Arctic night to form a thin layer of what scientists in the Arctic are calling "rotten ice" -- and the satellites which measure the surface area pick up a near-extent in winter, when the reality is, the ice is not normal at all. The winter ice extent numbers are like the infamous single hundred-dollar bill covering a stack of newspaper. The summer heat, like a diligent gangster, quickly breaks apart the pack and uncovers the truth.

It's bad news for the earth, but for sheer entertainment value, it's hard to beat Steve Goddard is his rubber suit, rocking back and forth and chanting "It's not happening. It's NOT happening."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Christopher Monckton; the lesser-known lies

It's an unfortunate feature of our political discourse that the term "liar" has become debased, with commentators on the right and the left applying the term indiscriminantly to those with whom they disagree -- as if to state something someone else does not believe do be true were the same as being dishonest. Thus "liar" is devalued as a criticism. Although one would think that clear evidence of premeditated deception -- as with the faked temperature graph used by Don Easterbrook at the recent ICCC conference -- would disqualify the liar's assertions from further consideration, but sadly, not so.

The example of Christopher Monckton illustrates another point about liars -- they don't just lie about one thing. Monckton does not just lie about global temperatures, or satellite data, or glacier retreat. He lies early and often -- seemingly compulsively. Here are some of the lies that many have escaped your notice:

* He make up a story about having to sell his family home to pay prize money, in order to sell puzzles. Seriously.

* He called protesters at one of his speeches "Hitler Youth." Then he lied about it, even though the event was caught on video.

* He claimed President Obama was born in Kenya, although one may hold out the faint hope he was joking.

* Monckton is also capable of almost superhuman falsehood density -- in one single paragraph describing the (fictional) ban on DDT, which he (mis)attributes to Jackie Kennedy, and mistakenly blames for the persistence of malaria in Africa, he lies no fewer than eleven times in three sentences.

* Monckton claimed in Febuary to have invented a drug which cures HIV, multiple sclerosis, and the common cold. Really. I guess we'll just have to wait on that one to see if it turns out to be true.

Monckton is not a fringe figure in the denialist community -- he is a star. He has challenged Al Gore to debate, and headlined denialist events all across the world. As far as refuting the science of climate change, he is the best they can do. And that one fact tells you most of what you need to know about "climate skeptics."

Compulsive liar Anthony Watts continues his crusade against real scientist Michael Mann

Moronic science wannabes like Anthony Watts have long had a wild hair to tear down the accomplishments of Michael Mann, whose hockey stick research proved conclusively that the end of the 20th century was warmer than any time in the last millenium. Dr. Mann, one of the world's foremost climatologists, has beaten back ludicrous attacks on his research and his integrity, with the support of the National Academy of Sciences and multiple independent reviews of his (unimpeachable) conduct.

But the denialist echo chamber, like a cultural ruminant, feeds off its own wastes, and safe within the walls of its grand delusion, attacks on Mann are big applause lines for the braying bumpkins. Today WUWT is back with one of their favorite weapons, a study they are too stupid to understand:

Thomas Fuller of the San Francisco Examiner has a great piece which summarizes the issue of climate and malaria and Mann. Like with the imagined increase in hurricane frequency due to global warming, so it goes with malaria. There’s no correlation. The premise is false.

Tony, as per his usual, couldn't find his ass with both hands (and I say that leaving aside the non sequitur about hurricanes -- that's nonsense for another day). The study actually says:

. . . bednets and drugs will influence the spread of malaria far more than will climate change, challenging fears that warming will aggravate the disease in Africa.

The authors of the study do not dispute that warming promotes the spread of malaria. They HOPE that other developments over the next century will retard the spread of malaria more than climate change will accelerate it:

Many researchers have predicted that rising temperatures will cause malaria to expand its range and intensify in its current strongholds. But unlike usual models, which aim to predict how climate change will affect malaria in the future, researchers looked at how warming affected the disease throughout the last century.

They used a recent epidemiological map of the global distribution of the major malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum, and compared this with historical data on malaria's prevalence in the 1900s.

The researchers — whose work was published in Nature yesterday (20 May) — found that despite global warming, the prevalence of malaria decreased, which they attribute to disease and mosquito control programmes.

That sounds like a clever piece of modeling, as one would hope it would be to get published in Nature. But it does nothing to discredit previous research that warming temperatures promote the spread of malaria. To read the study that way, you have to be either science illiterate or a liar. Watts and his cronies are both, so take your best guess.

So where does Michael Mann come into this, you ask? Well, he's also doing research into malaria and climate, research Watts wants stopped, immediately:

The researchers — whose work was published in Nature yesterday (20 May) — found that despite global warming, the prevalence of malaria decreased, which they attribute to disease and mosquito control programmes.

Or so you would think. But Matthew Thomas thinks differently. Matthew Thomas said that the study “plays down the potential importance of climate [change]“.

Who is Matthew Thomas? He is a researcher at… Penn State. Matthew Thomas is a researcher… at Penn State… who has just won a $1.8 million grant to study the influence of environmental temperature on transmission of vector-borne diseases. Think he has a dog in this hunt?

Ask his co-investigator on the project. Michael Mann…

Where do we ask for a refund?

I haven't got a lot of time today, so let's tally up the stupid:

* Watt's is treating a paper that says "Technology and development will discourage the spread of malaria" as saying "Warmer temperatures do not encourage the spread of malaria." That's a completely fictional account of the paper.

* The people who justify their continued rejection of a vast body of science supported by hundreds of lines of research and tens of thousands of peer-reviewed papers because science is never settled and skepticism is the heart of science want to stop all research into malaria and climate change because of one paper that argues that malaria won't get worse. One paper that says what we want; that's the end -- close up shop, cancel all grants, anyone who argues is an alarmist ideologue -- the science is settled.

* The people who justify a broad campaign of ad hominem attacks on scientists, to the point of intimidation and physical threats, with the rationalization that controversy and disagreement advance science, want you to believe that it is sinister and corrupt the researchers think their own research is more on point than their rivals and that the fact that their research is funded means we can't trust their arguments.

* Watts evidently doesn't realize that malaria is only one of many important vector-bourne diseases -- either that, or he wants this study not only to be the last word in malaria and climate change, but also be the last word on climate change and -- why not? -- all other vector-bourne diseases as well. Again the "Stupid or dishonest?" question recurs.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Deniers sink into depression

Seems like the evidence for dangerous climate change has been mounting relentlessly of late. The Arctic sea ice, which so recently was being celebrated by Watts et al, is now trending below the record 2007 numbers, putting an end to their premature gloating about the "recovery" of the sea ice, the absurdity of which we've noted before.

April 2010 was the hottest April in GISS records from 1880 -- which likely makes it the hottest April in more than 2,000 years. This is more bad news for pretend scientist Scott Armstrong, who used his pretend field of "scientific forecasting" to create a pretend bet with Al Gore -- a "bet" he has lost for seven out of the last eight months. That's no problem for Scott -- he's just stopped giving monthly updates on the "bet" -- the last was in September of 2009. He has replaced them with full-on pathetic ramblings promoting the disgraced serial liar Monckton (even repeating his oft-shredded claim to have been a "science advisor to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher") and promoting his own psuedoscience in the face of the National Academy of Science report (which found that global warming is real, humans are the cause, and the threats to human welfare are large), which he hopes will be persuasive if he crams enough repetitions of "science" and "scientific" into the description:

Based on scientific research on forecasting [by which they mean not hypothesis tested by experiment, but naive reasoning by analogy; see below], the most appropriate method for forecasting climate over the 21st Century would be a naïve no-trend extrapolation. Due to the substantial uncertainty about climate, it is not possible to forecast even the direction of change and one should not, therefore, forecast changes. As with many conclusions from scientific research on forecasting, this conclusion derives from a finding that is not intuitive: in complex situations with high uncertainty, one should use methods that are conservative and simple (Armstrong 1985; Armstrong 2001).

While much has been made of the climate models used to support forecasts of dangerous manmade global warming, these were used in effect only as tools to present forecasts. The actual forecasts were made by unaided judgment; that is, by judgment unaided by forecasting principles. A substantial body of research has shown that unaided judgment cannot provide useful forecasts in complex situations with high uncertainty (Armstrong 1980; Tetlock 2005), such as is the case with climate.

What Armstrong is trying to say here, with many unnecessary words, is that predictions are hard, especially about the future, and that, per his made-up discipline of "scientific forecasting," it's impossible to make predictions about complex systems.

Except climate models have predicted warming from 1980, and we have had three decades of warming. Armstrong doesn't explain that, he merely launches into more meaningless jargon-ridden "sciencesque" drivel:

The forecasting procedures described in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report violated 81% of the 89 principles relevant to climate forecasting.

81%, wow. 81% is a lot. And such a precise number! But what does it mean? It means that Scott Armstrong, a non-scientist, made up a bunch of rules, rules we may assume real working scientists were blissfully ignorant of. And then Scott Armstrong, in his capacity as judge and jury, decided that the scientists failed to follow his rules -- 81% of the time. And this is how he "proves" that climatologists don't follow the "principles" of his psuedoscience, "scientific forecasting."

Not convinced? Well, let Scott Armstrong protest to you a little more that his work is scientific:

For example, the methods and data were neither fully disclosed nor were they easy for independent researcher to access, no reasonable alternative forecasting methods were assessed, and prediction intervals were not assessed objectively (see “Global warming: Forecasts by scientists versus scientific forecasts”).

Those who were responsible for making the forecasts had no training or experience in the proper use of scientific forecasting methods. Furthermore, we were unable to find any indication that they made an effort to look for evidence from scientific research on forecasting. It is perhaps not surprising then that their implementation of their forecasting method was inappropriate.

There are pages more of this wearying dreck, but it is just more of the same. Prediction is impossible. I, a scientific scientist, have proved it scientifically. So-called scientists, who fill their work with boring stuff like observations and testable hypothesis, fail because they are not SCIENTIFIC, like me!

Scott Armstrong on "scientific forecasting" sounds like a guest column for What's Up With That penned by Gollum. They aren't ssssscientific, my Precious! We hates them forever!

And speaking of the denier Mothership, the sea ice is stressing them out. For the time being, they're continuing the "Sea Ice Updates," but as the sea ice plummets, the "updates" become ever more free-floating, defensive and vague:

It is still too early in the year to see much interesting. Still about six weeks before significant melting begins in the interior of the Arctic. Stay tuned.

Really, Steve? If it's too early to see anything interesting, why did you start providing weekly updates five weeks ago? It was interesting enough when a late melt season brought the ice close to the 1979-2009 average. Now, as in the old Weekly Update skit, suddenly, Steve's lost interest. Pay attention, budding conspiracy theorists, because Steve is giving a clinic: You feed a conspiracy by seizing on and hyping any random piece of data that fits with your theory, and letting your eyes glaze over at the masses of dispositive evidence, which is inevitably "not interesting." What other tips of the trade do you have for us, Steve?

When the facts are running against you, change the subject:

The Catlin Arctic Survey arrived at the North Pole this week. . . . Arctic non-warming since 1938 . . . predictably conclude that pH might be lower than it used to be – due to CO2. . . .

Note particularly the claim that the Arctic hasn't warmed since 1938, a lie backed up with a random graph from a patchwork, discredited data set in direct contradiction to all the reliable temperature records from the Arctic:

This is ninja-level distraction, because not only are the temperatures irrelevant to the "sea ice update," the outrageous lie distracts the critical reader from the central problem -- Steve's not talking about the sea ice.

How about vague and shifty claims, Steve? No problem:

As you can see, not much has changed during the last two weeks.

The sea ice anomaly -- the ice missing compared to the 1979-2009 average -- has increased by over a half a million square kilometers and there in now less ice than the there was in 2007, the worst year on record. Sea ice volume as of 5/13/2010 is at its lowest level ever, worse than 2007. Yeah, nothing much.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The trouble with Pollyannaism

The NYTimes brings us word of a well-intended balm for our fears of the future, “The Rational Optimist,” by Matt Ridley.

The gist of Ridley's argument is that naysayers have been wrong in the past, that humans are endlessly adaptable, and we can look forward to a century in which:

Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.

Dr. Ridley, a former editor of the Economist (the only newsweekly in the English language worth the paper it's printed on) is no idiot, nor is the idea that things are going to get better an idiotic one. Hence, consideration of his thesis is a little OT for this blog, but we aren't going to let that stop us, especially as Mr. Ridley's thesis is a favorite canard of the most dangerous and savvy deniers, those that have given up attack the science of global warming and instead dedicate themselves to attacking the case for action. The endless adaptivity of humans figures prominently in this set of crackpot ideas.

While acknowledging the challenges posed by "politics, wars, plagues or climate change," Ridley proposes what is essentially one meta-argument -- one comeback to rule them all, as it were. And this is that people have always predicted the fall of civilization in the past, and have always been wrong: instead, things have gotten better and better. From the review:

The first school despairs because it foresees inevitable ruin. The second school is hopeful — but only because these intellectuals foresee ruin, too, and can hardly wait for the decadent modern world to be replaced by one more to their liking. Every now and then, someone comes along to note that society has failed to collapse and might go on prospering, but the notion is promptly dismissed in academia as happy talk from a simpleton. Predicting that the world will not end is also pretty good insurance against a prolonged stay on the best-seller list. . . .

Dr. Ridley argues that, as usual, the “apocaholics” are overstating the risks and underestimating innovative responses.

Arguing that the future is going to resemble the past is the cornerstone of rational thought. There's many a slip bitwixt the cup and the lip, however, and Ridley's thesis falls afoul of most of them.

The first problem is the straw man fallacy -- the idea that the discourse is monopolized by doomsayers who are always wrong. In fact, Utopian predictions are just as ubiquitous as catastrophic ones, and equally unreliable. Contrary to the reviewer's assertion, you most certainly can get on the bestseller list with predictions that the Dow will soon be at 30,000, or that we are on the verge of curing cancer, or that America will be the benign despot of the world for decades to come. Here in 2010 we have no flying cars, no sentient computers, and only an anemic little space station hardly worthy of the name. None of those predictions have come true in the past either. So rather than an unblemished record of failure by the opposing side, a more realistic picture of the history of populist prediction is that bold predictions get you on the bestseller list -- especially when they echo the zeitgeist, optimistic or pessimistic as the case may be.

It's also part of the straw man error to treat people who warn of disaster as generic prophets of doom. There are such people, as we have discussed on this blog before, who are unhappy with Western civilization and enjoy prophesying its demise. Yet the recognition of severe problems and the tireless campaigning for their redress are, just as much as the exchange of technology and resources which Ridley praises, a part of the power and resilience of open societies. It was doomsayers that ended slavery, that struggled unsuccessfully to avert the Holocaust, that pushed governments to act on acid rain.

If you are diving in a car, and your passenger screams at you to hit the brakes, it would be better not to turn to them and explain that you've never had a serious accident. And you probably would know better, anyway: part of staying out of accidents is slamming on the brakes when you need to. If you want to believe things will all come right in the end, more power to you. But for that to happen we as a society must listen to specific warnings of problems ahead and not lump them in with professional peddlers of gloom.

And bad things may come, despite Ridley's argument that in the past things have gotten better and better for our society. In fact, Ridley's reassurance is no reassurance at all, really. Consider some of the things that fall under Ridley's heading of constant progress. The Great Depression. World War II with its 50 million dead. The Black Plague, which killed a third of the population of Europe. Did society come back from those things? Yes, eventually. Does that mean we want to march straight into the jaws of comparable disasters, secure in the (supposed) knowledge that all will come right in the end? No, we do not. Many things that do not end our civilization are nevertheless better avoided, if one can.

We cannot even be assured on the narrow point that our civilization will not collapse, despite Ridley's assurances that it has survived every challenge to date. Bright man that he no doubt is, he has formulated a classic friendly dolphin paradox:

There are many anecdotal reports of dolphins finding sailors in the water and nudging them towards land and safety. Can we conclude that dolphins are friendly because they saved those sailors?

Give it a second, if you haven't been exposed to this thought experiment before, then read on:

No. Suppose the dolphins are merely playful, and pushing sailors in random directions. Those that randomly find land praise the dolphins' helpfulness. The others drown and are never heard from again.

In medicine this is called a reporting bias, and it decapitates any conclusions you might want to draw from the data. Here, it defeats Ridley. He argues All past predictions of the collapse of our civilization have been wrong. But of course they MUST be wrong, or there would be no civilization and Ridley would not be writing his book. To have a valid sample, Ridley needs to look at the predictions of societies that have collapsed: to see if the Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Norse Greenlanders did or did not predict the collapse of their civilizations before it happened.

It's a tall order, but there's no escape from it: we can't conclude anything from the non-collapse of a civilization that could not be collapsed, or the argument would not exist. A favorite novelist of mine once set a scene between a young man driving aggressively and carelessly and a matronly women who told him to shape up. "Don't worry!" the young man says, "I've never had a serious accident!"

"You won't have but one," the women replied.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The denialist circus act hits the road again

h/t Watching the Deniers:

Anthony Watts is a TV weatherman, meterologist and has arguably the worlds best blog site on the climate change debate.

He has been researching the global surface temperatures from around the world and will be speaking in 18 cities across Australia. The conclusions are highly significant to the international debate. This tour will have three or four high quality presentations at each meeting. We hope many of you will attend and brings some friends as well.

A TV weatherman and a meterologist, whoa. Talk about punching with either hand. Perhaps he could train as a weather forecaster. Go for the trifecta.

And he's responsible for "arguably" the best climate blog in the world. When I try to picture someone who would make that argument, the image I get is of a homeless schizophrenic arguing with the air about the FBI agents coming to eat his skin. But that's just me. I should disclose, though, that I am arguably the wisest and smartest person who has ever lived.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Arctic ice volume hits all-time low

Only weeks after a gloating Anthony Watts asked:

With nature still not cooperating with “death spiral predictions”, what will be the press release ice meme this year? Color? Texture? Cracks per square kilometer? It will be interesting to watch

. . . The Polar Ice Center reports that Arctic sea ice has fallen to its lowest level ever recorded:

This with three months of melt ahead of us. "Death spiral" is an apt description for what we are seeing.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Meditations on sea ice

About a month ago, due to the late arrival of the Arctic melt, something happened which was practically irrelevant but irresistibly exciting to the denialist set: the Arctic sea ice extent (as shown above) flirted with the 1979-2009 average. The response was predictable:

By itself, this is just a small thing, but it is just one more indication that there’s some improvement in the Arctic Ice situation again, and the indications are that we’ll have another summer extent that is higher than the previous year, for the third year in a row. . . .

With nature still not cooperating with “death spiral predictions”, what will be the press release ice meme this year? Color? Texture? Cracks per square kilometer? It will be interesting to watch.

Yes, Watts and dittoheads don't waste any time celebrating short-term fluctuations in the long-term trends caused by warming. And wisely so because, as they must sense on some level, those fluxes flux right back:

As you can see, the data did approach the the 1979-2009 average briefly. And then it abruptly dropped, so that now it is sitting a hairsbreadth from the 2007 trend, the worst year for sea ice (by far) ever recorded.

How did climate scientists respond to this blip in the data? Did the hide it, distort it, lie about it? See for yourself:

During April, Arctic sea ice extent declined at a steady pace, remaining just below the 1979 to 2000 average. Ice extent for April 2010 was the largest for that month in the past decade. At the same time, changing wind patterns have caused older, thicker ice to move south along Greenland’s east coast, where it will likely melt during the summer. Temperatures in the Arctic remained above average. . . .

Arctic sea ice extent averaged 14.69 million square kilometers (5.67 square miles) for the month of April, just 310,000 square kilometers (120,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average. The rate of ice extent decline for the month was also close to average, at 41,000 kilometers (16,000 square miles) per day. As a result, April 2010 fell well within one standard deviation of the mean for the month, and posted the highest April extent since 2001.

Thus the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which is supported by NASA. Just the facts. The relative increase in the ice is clearly underlined: "April 2010 fell well within one standard deviation of the mean for the month, and posted the highest April extent since 2001."

The ice is described as near average, which is as high as it has been in April for almost ten years. Compare the reaction of Steven Goddard, Watts-ass-licker extraordinaire, to the beginning the the downward trend:

Monday’s NSIDC Arctic ice extent graph took a turn downwards, and is now showing 2010 a little more than 500,000 km2 higher than 2007. . . . In order to look at this closer up, I superimposed the NORSEX 2010 data (red) on the NSIDC 2010 data (blue) at the same scale, and normalised to 2010, and saw some interesting things. The first problem is that they started to diverge right around the first of April, and as of May 2 they disagree by nearly 500,000 km2.

Yep, give Steve data he doesn't like, and the very first thing he does is go looking for another source that gives results he likes better. By the end of his post, which announces its foregone conclusion in its title, "500,000 km2 Discrepancy Between NSIDC and NORSEX," Steve has talking himself into disregarding the awkward numbers from a source he so recently treated as authoritative:

I believe that both groups use SSMI so it is difficult to understand what the problem is. Last year we saw something similar. NORSEX has a history of making adjustments in mid-season, so my sense is that NSIDC is probably more accurate.

Surprise, surprise.

There are a couple of points that occur to me here. First is that we ought to state as a corollary of basic statistics the following principle:

Tracker's First Law: If you track enough different data sets characterized by both short-term fluctuations and long-term trend, some of them will inevitably appear to be "normalizing" as, by chance, the short-term factors oppose the long-term trend.

And, what the heck, a second law:

Tracker's Second Law: If you normalize the current state of affairs as typical (ignoring the changes that have already taken place) you create a false equivalence between things getting worse more slowly than expected, and things getting better.

This is implicit in the way deniers are seeking to use the ice extent average as "normal" (as seen, for example, here).

Spot the fallacy:

Do you see the problem? Sea ice extent has been declining for the last thirty years. The thirty-year average averages include the worst year (2007), the second-worst (2008), and so on. This "average" has approximately 15 years of the long-term decline in the sea ice built into the "average." And that's good science, using a thirty-year average; perfectly kosher, best practice. But the "average" is not "normal." Normal would be what we started with -- the averages in the first decade of satellite measurements, before Arctic amplification of global warming really started to tear it to pieces. And that average is literally millions of km sq greater than we will EVER see again.

Deniers lose on the facts every time, and like a loser at cards, they are always eager to see the next hand dealt. But we can't let deniers ignore the past, which allows them simultanously to gloss over their volumous failures at prediction and to exalt the trend or the data set of the moment above the massive, crushing weight of decades of observation overwhelmingly supporting the science of climate change.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Support "Climate Denial Crock of the Week" -- sign up and vote for a $5,000 grant

I haven't got around to praising Peter Sinclair's superlatively great "Climate Denial Crock of the Week" videos. They are intelligent, funny, and parse the deliberately murky and sophististic claims of the deniers with deadly precision.

As reported at Climate Progress, Sinclair is neck-and-neck is a race for votes to decide who will get a $5,000 grant to support their work.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Thanks, Tim, now I have nothing

Tim Lambert steals my shtick. When informed of the controversy, Lambert replied "Who?" and "That's his gimmick, really?" We scorn his petty efforts to deflect.

As an aside, he's perfectly right: Camille Paglia is a science illiterate, and her weighing in on climate change is a bad joke.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The secondary costs of carbon energy, part two: the terrorism fallacy

Probably the most frequently pundit-cited reason for reducing our use of hydrocarbons is the fact that much of our oil comes from a certain "volatile region of the world," and sales of oil by "them" to us benefit terrorists and tyrants. Pundits without an original thought in their heads typically gravitate towards this story, perhaps because it combines hobby-horses of the left (clean energy!) with hobby-horses of the right (Stick it to them Arabs!) Tom Friedman, who can always be relied upon for the shallowest deep thoughts around, gives us an example of the meme:

Sure, our opponents will scream ‘carbon tax!' Well what do you think you're paying now to OPEC? The only difference between me and my opponents is that I want to keep any revenue we generate here to build American schools, American highways, American high-speed rail, American research labs and American economic strength. It's just a little tick I have: I like to see our spending build our country. They don't care. They are perfectly happy to see all the money you spend to fill your tank or heat your home go overseas, so we end up funding both sides in the war on terrorism — our military and their extremists.

A carbon tax is an excellent idea. If you ever want to feel deeply shitty about supporting a cause you know is right, see if you can find an endorsement of it by Friedman. See also: the two-state solution.

A reviewer of Bill Maher's book, whose cover art is above, makes the same point in greater detail:

In World War II, there was a very famous poster of a man driving a car with a shadow of Adolph Hitler in the passenger seat. The caption was "When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler! Join a Car-Sharing Club TODAY!" This was an appeal to save gasoline for the war effort and that every gallon of gasoline used was one less that could be used to fight the war. Maher makes the very valid point that it is just as true today as it was during World War II. The reason that American forces are fighting in the Middle East is because there is oil there and the Western nations need it to run their economies. If there was no oil or no need for it, hundreds of billions of dollars could be saved and we could care less what happens there.

The argument here is that by buying oil, we send money to the Middle East, and that money finds its way to terrorists, fueling extremism. But is that really true?

There are several problems with this argument. One is that for the most part, the governments benefiting from substantial oil revenues tend to be passionate enemies of terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda. Syria, for example, responded to an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood by leveling a medium-sized city (Hama) and killed 20,000 Syrians. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a violent counterterrorism campaign inside its own borders. Iran is no friend of Al Queda -- in fact they captured and turned over to us several Al Queda operatives in the early days of the war. And so on.

One may argue that, yes, these countries do not directly support terrorism against America, but their wealth is shared with private citizens who do -- people like the Bin Ladens. And that's true. If their economies were weakened by the decline of oil exports, their extremists might have a harder time finding rich supporters. Then again, no one would call Somalia or Yemen well-off, and both have huge problems with fundamentalist Islam -- Somalia is primarily governed by what were once Muslim insurgents.

Those examples point to a couple of problems with the "No Hummers = no terror" meme. One is that while a poorer country may make for poorer terrorists, it also breeds terrorism. It seems unlikely that a country with more poverty and unemployment following the loss of most of its export income would become less hostile to the West as a result. Friedman ought to realize this -- he's written columns gushing over the new Arab future presaged by development in places like Dubai -- development that would collapse on itself faster than a supermassive black hole if the bottom fell out of the oil market.

Another point is that while poverty may weaken terror organizations, it weakens governments fighting terrorists even more. Oil-rich countries may supply some terror funding, but dirt-poor countries like Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia have been the lauching pad for all the major attacks on the West. Poverty breeds chaos, chaos breeds safe havens. And it is safe havens, more than money, and more than people, that terrorists require to plan and execute major attacks.

The sad reality is that terrorism is not all that expensive (except for the state-sponsered kind). 9/11 was carried out for the cost of box cutters and flying lessons. The trickle of money that may find its way from oil sales to anti-American organizations neither makes nor breaks them. There are a hundred good reasons to move towards a low-carbon future, but the threat of terrorism is not among them.

The secondary costs of carbon energy

The destructive and seemingly ever-worsening BP oil spill off the Louisiana coast, a crisis that began with the deaths of 11 rig hands and continues with the release of thousands of barrels of oil per day, is a timely reminder that global warming and ocean acidification are only part of the cost of running an economy on hydrocarbons.

As we weigh the costs of a transition to low-carbon fuels, an up-front cost estimated to be about 1% of the GDP for rapid and deep emissions cuts, it is wrong to assume that the volume of the protests from industry interests is proportional to actual reductions in our apparent wealth.

I say "apparent," because obviously climate change is overwhelmingly likely to make us poorer in the medium- to long-term. The low price of the carbon today is not reflective of the real cost of that carbon to society -- the levels of consumption this artificially low price facilitates are comparable to a shopping spree paid for by maxing out your credit cards. It is an illusory wealth, not true prosperity.

But I had started to say that even the short-term costs are misrepresented by opponents. Capitalism is, by principle, a planless exercise in creative destruction in which old ways of doing things -- and those who invested in the those old ways -- suffer as new better ways of doing things displace them. By fairly pricing carbon, we can accelerate that process for fossil fuels, but regardless of the benefit to society, the people who extract, refine, and sell these fuels will suffer.

There is no getting around that, any more than the tobacco industry could help but suffer a loss of profits as this country, to the great advantage of its health and productivity, undertook measures to reduce smoking. The analogy is a considered one, as the same tactics and many of the same people used to attack the science on the health risks of smoking are now being deployed by the oil industry to obfuscate the scientific consensus of dangerous anthropogenic global warming:

In an effort to deceive the public about the reality of global warming, ExxonMobil has underwritten the most sophisticated and most successful disinformation campaign since the tobacco industry misled the public about the scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer and heart disease. As this report documents, the two disinformation campaigns are strikingly similar. ExxonMobil has drawn upon the tactics and even some of the organizations and actors involved in the callous disinformation campaign the tobacco industry waged for 40 years.

From this paper. H/t to DeSmogBlog. (That reminds me, they need to go in the blogroll.)

Reducing emissions will cost certain people a lot of money, but what are the costs and benefits to society at large? The long-term necessity of these changes is relatively undisputed (by credible people (including credible conservatives, anyway.) But there are short-term benefits as well:

1. A reduction in industrial accidents, like the one that started this oil spill, or the recent coal mine disaster that killed 29 miners, or this accident in India in 1965, which killed 300(!) people. Coal mining accidents continue to kill thousands of people each year.

2. A reduction in air pollution, and with it a reduction in reactive airway disease and cancer. The potential benefits are huge. This study found the benefits in air quality alone from reducing carbon emissions to be around $54 a ton. There are unquestionable many megatons of carbon emissions that could be eliminated for less.

3. In addition to the cost in human life, the environmental cost of energy industry disasters in staggering. The Exxon Valdez cleanup alone cost billions. And the costs are not all monetary. As I have often discussed on this blog, environmental stresses have cumulative effects and potentiate one another. Global warming and ocean acidification to not operate in isolation: loss of biodiversity, nitrogen pollution, damage to water tables, damming and logging and, most definitely, damage from oil and coal extraction contribute to the stress on the environment. From the NYT article above:

The questions that haunt this region are how much more can the wetlands take and does their degradation spell doom for an increasingly defenseless southern Louisiana?

Many variables will dictate just how devastating this slick will ultimately be to the ecosystem, including whether it takes days or months to seal the leaking oil well and whether winds keep blowing the oil ashore. But what is terrifying everyone from bird watchers to the state officials charged with rebuilding the natural protections of this coast is that it now seems possible that a massive influx of oil could overwhelm and kill off the grasses that knit the ecosystem together.

Healthy wetlands would have some natural ability to cope with an oil slick, said Denise Reed, interim director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans. “The trouble with our marshes is they’re already stressed, they’re already hanging by a fingernail,” she said.

It is possible, she said, that the wetlands’ “tolerance for oil has been compromised.” If so, she said, that could be “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

To an untrained eye, the vast expanses of grass leading into Terrebonne Bay, about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans, look vigorous. Locals use boats as cars here, trawling though the marsh for shrimp or casting for plentiful redfish. Out on the water, the air smells like salt — not oil — and seabirds abound and a dolphin makes a swift appearance.

But it is what is not visible that is scary, said Alexander Kolker, a professor of coastal and wetland science at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Piloting a craft through the inland waterways, he pointed out that islands that recently dotted the bay and are still found on local navigation maps are gone. Also gone are the freshwater alligators that gave the nearby town Cocodrie its name — French settlers thought they were crocodiles.

All evidence, he says, is that this land is quickly settling into the salt ocean.

The survival of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands is not only an environmental issue here. Since successive hurricanes have barreled up from the gulf unimpeded, causing mass devastation and loss of life, just about every resident of southern Louisiana has begun to view wetlands protection as a cause of existential importance. If the wetlands had been more robust when Hurricane Katrina’s waters pushed up from the ocean, the damage might not have been as severe.

But they were not. Levees holding back the Mississippi River have prevented natural land replenishment from floods. Navigation channels and pipeline canals have brought saltwater into fragile freshwater marshes, slowly killing them, and the sloshing of waves in boats’ wakes has eroded natural banks.

Since 1932, the state has lost an area the size of Delaware.

A rare outline of how some of the different stresses feed off each other and end in potentially catastrophic consequences for humans. Oil spills worsening hurricanes. Levees and navigation channels weakening the ecosystem of the marshes, opening the door to untold damage from a spill that seems destined to rival the Exxon Valdez disaster. So it goes.

Human activity is always going to have a footprint. And I am not one to dismiss what that footprint makes possible -- the art and the science, the comforts of everyday life, medicine, travel, music and books (and movies and television and really cool cars.) Precisely because we are not going to turn our backs on civilization, we need to minimize our impact wherever we can.

I seem to have wandered a bit from my topic, but the post has gone on a bit already. In part two, I'll talk about the most-cited benefit of the low-carbon economy -- and why it's a fallacy.