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.