Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Watch the food

Sea level rise, megastorms, forest fires -- these are dramatic and "sexy" features of climate change, present and future. They may be horrifically costly and disruptive but they will not, by themselves, threaten civilization. What might is things like this:

Monday’s panel cited ways in which climate change has impacted food security and safety.

Warmer winters allow pests that carry plant diseases to survive over the cold months and attack crops in the spring, soil physicist Ray Knighton of the US Department of Agriculture said.

Increased rainfall — another result of climate change — when coupled with more fungal pathogens can “dramatically impact crop yield and quality,” said Knighton, adding that greenhouse gases and atmospheric pollutants have changed plant structures and reduced crops’ defenses to pests and pathogens.

h/t Climate Progress.

By mid-century, we will have about 9 billion people requiring about 1.45 * 10^13 calories per day. At the moment, we can hit that number easily, but we cannot increase it significantly by turning to the lab or the factory floor. As advanced as our civilization is, we depend and will continue to depend for the forseeable future on the soil and its bacteria, on pollinators and wild plants a few (too few!) cereal crops, on rain and frost and warmth in the right places and the right times and the right proportions.

Fourteen and a half trillion calories a day. Every month, every year. We can store a little food, plant a larger area, switch from meat to vegetable protein. That will help, just as predictable hoarding and trade restrictions, price controls and accelerated overexpliotation of ground water, soils, and fertilizers will hurt. But that doesn't change the underlying fact that we need a relatively narrow range of climate variability to survive. Human beings are tough and adaptable and they can live without a bunch of coastal cities, without building in floodplains, with collapsing fish stocks and dying corals. What can't people live without?
Fourteen and a half trillion calories a day.

To see the true peril of climate change, follow the food.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Yes, a carbon tax

Some very smart people, from Bill Gates on down, are skeptical of the prospects for a stiff carbon tax and have embraced the concept of subsidies for alternative energy and energy conservation. Americans' hatred of taxation, the theory goes, makes carbon taxes a dead-end proposition, politically speaking. It may be, for the time being. The politics are a discussion for another day. Distinct from the political calculus, it is worth elucidating the reasons a carbon tax is vastly superior to R&D subsidies as a means of reducing carbon emissions.

First, carbon taxes are path independent. Whereas a subsidy for a particular technology is like forcing your way through concrete with a hammer, changing the relative pricing of the inputs is like forcing your way with water under pressure; it seeks the easiest path, it can follow many paths at once.

A carbon tax creates a financial incentive to reduce carbon emissions in any way possible, and the more economically inefficient (wasteful) the emissions, the more powerful the incentive to save. While a solar panel research subsidy reduces emissions (in the best case) only by increasing the amount of solar energy, a carbon tax creates pressure to improve energy efficiency, reduce consumption, upgrade infrastructure, and develop new technology -- all simultaneously. It does not pick winners, does not depend on identifying promising technologies a priori -- tasks the market is better suited for. It allows for experimentation and heterogeneous strategies in a way no government subsidy or set of subsidies ever could, inasmuch as any subsidy, by definition, is targeted at a predetermined solution, and further restricted in how entrepreneurs can pursue that solution by regulatory requirements to minimize waste and fraud.

Second, the power of the incentives offered by a carbon tax is orders of magnitude greater than that available via subsidies. Consider a "neutral" environment, in which the only benefit from (for example) developing a new solar cell is the profit to be derived from selling it. Now add, for example, a billion dollars in subsidies. You have spent one billion dollars of the taxpayers' money, and you have added one billions dollars to the incentive to develop a new solar cell.

Now imagine a carbon tax of $100/ton. Total emissions per year in the US are about 6 billion tons. So imagine the new solar cell, if completely successful, would reduce emissions by 20%. This would save $120 billion dollars a year, every year. In a stable regulatory environment, the total incentive to develop such a solar cell would be equivalent to $120 billion dollars annuity over the life of the patent. If we estimate roughly ten years of useful life for the patent and an overall interest rate of 6%, you get a total value, and hence a total incentive, of about $880 billion. The incentives differ by orders of magnitude. Yet the incentive costs nothing from a budgetary standpoint, and, assuming it is structured to be revenue neutral (as with James Hanson's tax-and-dividend approach) the only cost to the economy is the actual cost of foregoing "cheap" fossil fuel energy in favor of alternative sources which are more "expensive." The economic impact of this is projected to be small.

One might argue that we could make the direct subsidy larger, but there are several problems with this. Unlike profits earned reducing emissions, subsidies must be awarded via some sort of application process. At the most basic level, the incentive is to win the subsidy, not to innovate or reduce carbon emissions -- we need the regulators to set the terms of the subsidies in such a way that these objectives happen. But the larger you make the subsidies, the greater the incentive to game the system -- to profit by winning the subsidy, not by reducing emissions. With a carbon tax, one pays only for success.

Finally, subsidies, unlike a carbon tax, have inherent structural problems that discourage the kind of large-scale changes in our infrastructure that they are meant to encourage. If a subsidy promotes the development of new technology, there is no guarantee that the technology will be cost effective or that it will be widely adopted. If a subsidy is for adoption of a particular technology, it may do nothing to encourage further refinement of that technology, and may become a positive barrier to replacing the "new" subsidized technology with a better solution.

Yet the biggest problem with subsidies is the "activation energy" problem. Both subsidies and carbon taxes are intended to overcome the problem of the cost advantage, in the current regulatory environment, of fossil fuel energy. If low-carbon sources of energy and increased efficiency were much cheaper, they would be widely adopted. At current prices, only a minority will adopt these strategies, either out of moral obligation or because in a minority of circumstances, the low-carbon solutions are cost-saving. The switch to low-carbon solutions can be compared to a chemical reaction with a high activation energy:

Subsidy and carbon taxes are two strategies to attempt to accelerate the forward reaction. The subsidies, by pushing particular technologies or particular plans of adoption, try to push us over the "hill" -- the substantial (let's not kid ourselves) difference between the price(*) of fossil fuels and the price of most alternatives. The carbon tax, by permanently altering the cost comparison, flattens the hill, reducing the upward slope innovators need to overcome, and increasing the rewards on the downward slope. A subsidy is like a factory furnace, needing to be continually fed and stoked in order to supply the energy to drive a reaction. The carbon tax is a catalyst.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Revkin misses the point

I want to like Andy Revkin. I do. He's a good-hearted soul, and he is the gatekeeper at perhaps the most accessible climate change blog around. But the longer he writes and the more of his epistemology he reveals to us, the more sadly apparent it becomes that he lacks any original insight into either of the science of climate change, or the politics, or the problems of messaging and activism. Nice as he is, he just doesn't get it:

For analysts and campaigners stressing the climate factor as the keystone influence on food prices, it’s also worth remembering that grain stocks these days are also not particularly stressed, from the local (Kansas) level up through a global view. A post from last fall on grain stocks and food (in)security on the Big Picture Agriculture blog (at the time, the unrest was in Mozambique) has some helpful context on the mix of issues affecting food availability:

Governmental policies of export and import restrictions, hoarding, subsidies, panic buying, and infrastructure standards of food storage and transport, as well as investor speculation, currency valuations, individual national inflation rates, weather and climate change, the evolving monoculture genetics, rising input costs, and global macro economic health all impact food security.

Now, I'm not saying he needs to read my blog. Wait a few months, and you can find the very same point made (much more eloquently) in the slightly more regarded Economist:

[U]nlike economies, political systems can be quite brittle. When you look at historical Jared Diamond collapse scenarios, what you see is that they're hyper-local. A complex society develops within a local environment, and when the local environmental conditions change the society collapses. But in the modern world, even substantial local environmental collapses tend not to lead to societal implosion. If Chinese crops fail, China doesn't end; it imports grain from elsewhere. But the ability to limit the damage of modern crises depends upon the institutions that support a liberal global economy, and institutions aren't always as flexible as economies. The world has this marvelous grain market, but if price increases lead to export-restrictions then that grain market suddenly fails. And if the grain markets fail, the unstable governments kept in place only by their ability to keep local markets provisioned fall. And if the governments fall, the refugees will seek asylum elsewhere, and if that happens then borders will be overwhelmed, and who knows what conflicts may erupt.

You can't separate the damage of global warming from the damages caused by "export and import restrictions, hoarding, subsidies, [or] panic buying." The one will lead to the other as night follows day. There are not going to be some new kind of human beings twenty years hence who will cope with unpredictable devastation in a calm, unselfish, rational and farsighted way. That is to say: damage to our adaptive capacities by predictably shortsighted and selfish government responses must be counted among the feedbacks of climate change, even if it is impossible to accurately quantify it.

Please, Andy, and for all our sakes, catch up.

O'Donnellgate: O'Donnell flinches, Lucia "the Shameless"

It started like it always starts, with hysterical exaggeration, wild allegations and heaps of abuse:

While there is not much untrue about this statement, there is certainly a lie of omission. . . . There are not enough vulgar words in the English language to properly articulate my disgust at his blatant dishonesty and duplicity.

Thus O'Donnell, in the original.

At once, the useful idiots chime in:

If Eric Steig was reviewer A and he wrote that deceptive mealy mouth comment he is truly the Rod Blagojevich of climate science.

Notably absent from this bay and cry, predictably, is any hint of the quality known as "skepticism." Eric Steig is a demon, and devil, a fraud a liar and a cheat.

And then the commenters get in on the action. Not to argue the facts of the case, heavens no. By now they have seen the same line of patter repeated at Climate Audit, WUWT, and The Blackboard (above), making it established fact. No, the chosen role of the psuedoskeptical thread-monkeys is to consume everything their masters feed them, and respond with uncritical gloating:


But along comes Steve, Ryan, Jeff, Nic, and others who once again expose the utter incompetence of the Team’s statistical analysis. And the Team resorts, of course, to their usual tactics.

For my money, the most hilarious sequence in this tragicomedy, is when Steig suggested Jeff take his Mathematica course (not knowing anything about Jeff) and now Steig says he can’t get Ryan’s R code to run. Maybe Steve, Jeff, and Ryan could set up a course for Steig and Mann on R. They could sure use it.


The clear take from the letter of 18, to Gavin’s hissie fit and Steig’s demonstration of how the team does science is that their work cannot survive anything like real scrutiny. No wonder they have worked so hard to limit any look at climategate.
They are a construct of carefully controlled media, pal review and government/NGO agenda pushing.
There is no ‘there’ there.
Their work, when we finally get to actually look at it, will turn out to be self-referential, circular, nonesense.
CO2 warms the atmosphere.
Give us back our billion$, clowns.


I guess the next step after science by consensus is consensus by intimidation. Or by forceful suppression of all dissent. Something like that.

It still amazes me how tone-deaf these people are. They have a major image problem that is largely of their own making, and they just have no idea how to handle it: they just keep digging themselves in deeper and deeper with ridiculous stunts.

In the end, everybody loses. The purely scientific questions get more and more muddled, through the stubbornness of people who refuse to acknowledge even the slightest mistake; climate scientists continue to lose credibility in the eyes of the general public, as well as more technically knowledgeable outsiders; and, as a result, it only becomes easier to dismiss legitimate concerns and worries about the rate and possible consequences of climate change, for those with a vested interest to do so. Way to go, Team.

All of this has happened before . . . all of it will happen again. And the next step is just as predictable: the original case begins to fall apart; harsh, jarring facts become more and more intrusive on the deniers' passion play. The accuser is caught in multiple lies, and forced to apologize:

Ryan O’Donnell has posted public apology to Eric Steig for the mistake in fact he posted at in his first version of Steig’s Trick; that post has been retitled and edited to eliminate mistaken facts.

Note the causal switch from the singular to the plural; O'Donnell has apologized for one of his lies, but multiple "mistaken facts" have been removed. The nasty smears based on the "mistaken facts" have also been toned down: "Steve: Feb 9, 2011 – some of Ryan’s language, including the original title, breached blog policies and has been edited accordingly."

By now little remains of the original accusations against Steig. He was accused of demanding O'Donnell use a particular statistical method and then criticizing him for it: proven false. He was accused of requesting a copy of a paper he already had (this was the allegation that led lucia to call him the "Ron Blagojevich of science"). But he never got the final version of the paper, as O'Donnell admitted, and he had to apologize for the allegation. (Lucia however, has not.)

Meanwhile, O'Donnell has not only outed himself with his hysterical allegations based on what are now known to be "mistaken facts": he has also publicly admitted to being a lying, two-faced weasel:

I have known that Eric was, indeed, Reviewer A since early December. I knew this because I asked him. When I asked, I promised that I would keep the information in confidence, as I was merely curious if my guess that I had originally posted on tAV had been correct.

Throughout all of the questioning on Climate Audit, tAV, and Andy Revkin’s blog, I kept my mouth shut. When Dr. Thomas Crowley became interested in this, I kept my mouth shut. When Eric asked for a copy of our paper (which, of course, he already had) I kept my mouth shut. I had every intention of keeping my promise . . . and were it not for Eric’s latest post on RC, I would have continued to keep my mouth shut.

However, when someone makes a suggestion during review that we take and then later attempts to use that very same suggestion to disparage our paper, my obligation to keep my mouth shut ends.

Evidently Ryan O'Donnell learned about keeping his word at the same school that taught him about speaking the truth. He's now had to walk back all the allegations he makes in this paragraph, but even had they been true, O'Donnell's attitude demonstrates a -- shall we say a "moral flexibility" that excuses him from honesty the moment he contrives to feel wronged . . . which should alone tell us how seriously to take his "scientific" pretensions.

There are two ways to go from here: Ryan O'Donnell and Lucia Liljegren. Ryan took the hint from his godfather, Steve McIntyre. He's apologized and walked back his allegations to his old statistical shell game, that popular denier meme, which first rose to fame in the various futile attacks on the hockey stick temperature graph, in which choices about the analysis of data sets are treated as black-and-white, and the ability of a denier to produce an alternate analysis by making different choices is treated as proof that the original work erred.

Lucia, in contrast, has ignored the broad hint from her own godfather, who made a rare appearance at the Blackboard:

There’s Got To Be A Better Way Forward

10 February, 2011 (12:53) | politics | By: Chip Knappenberger

Here’s how I see it.

Some of Lucia’s recent blog posts, especially her titles, were a bit on the hot side. . . . And so instead of a public coming together and show of cooperation between “professional” scientists and “citizen” scientists, we got treated to a public spectacle…just what climate science needed. Not.

There may be a better way forward, but it's of no interest to lucia. Despite the fact that all of her outrage and allegations of fraud, duplicity and misrepresentation have now been proven false and indeed rebounded on O'Donnell and by extension those, like lucia, that mindlessly repeated them as fact and added their own slanders and insults, despite all that -- or because of that, lucia cannot admit she made a mistake, and continues to target Steig, engaging in one of the worst case of projection I've ever seen:

Is she embarrassed that she accused someone of fraud based on a fraud? No, it's Steig -- somehow -- who's really embarrassed: Steig the Shameless?

Has her uncritical hurling of insults at Steig only served to heighten the embarrassment of O'Donnell's retreat? No, it's Steig's friends who are hurting his case: Eric To John Nielsen Gammon: it isn’t very useful support.

There is no ending to this story; interest will gradually die away, until, after a respectful interval of time, it reappears as a denier fairy tale, to be alluded to when the true facts are rendered sufficiently obscure by time to resurrect the original denier narrative. For the time being, we are left, again, with the spectecal of deniers' words rebounding upon them with a neatness that is by now familiar but is always startling. Those alleging deception have deceived. Those that paint themselves as the victims of persecution have carrying out a stunningly sloppy campaign of persecution against a man who has often and repeatedly praised their efforts. Those lamenting unprofessionalism and tribalism in climate science, having been graciously welcomed into the community and been published in a prestigious journal, have given us a graphic demonstration of unprofessional behavior, violating confidentiality, slandering colleagues, going off half-cocked on the basis of "mistaken facts" -- only to have the "tribe" of deniers rise up around them and celebrate them as conquering heroes of post-normal science.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the Southern summer:

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Out with the old

As the great philosopher wrote,

"To truth only a brief celebration of victory is allowed between the two long periods during which it is condemned as paradoxical, or disparaged as trivial."

. . . and so the time has come to bid farewell to the Intrade punter's opinion of the chances 2010 would be a record-breaking year (it was, as it turns out) and look to the future:

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title="Price for Will Global Average Temperatures for 2011-2012 be THE warmest on record? at" border="0">

I chose to replace 2010 with 2012, given the La Nina which closed out 2010 and appears likely to dominate early 2011. I really doubt 2011 will be in the running for the title of the hottest ever. It's true -- get ready for the "No warming since 2010!" crowd. There's no way of knowing if 2012 will break the 2010 record, but it should be an interesting horse to follow for the coming brace of years.