Friday, December 20, 2013

Reddit's science forum bans climate change deniers

But what's really schadenfreudelious is the editor's explanation (h/t Grist):
After some time interacting with the regular denier posters, it became clear that they could not or would not improve their demeanor. These problematic users were not the common “internet trolls” looking to have a little fun upsetting people. Such users are practically the norm on reddit. These people were true believers, blind to the fact that their arguments were hopelessly flawed, the result of cherry-picked data and conspiratorial thinking. They had no idea that the smart-sounding talking points from their preferred climate blog were, even to a casual climate science observer, plainly wrong. They were completely enamored by the emotionally charged and rhetoric-based arguments of pundits on talk radio and Fox News.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Yes, Virgina, there are simple villains in climate change

Andrew Revkin, in his continuing efforts to be the bard of inactivism, wants us to know the climate change is everyone's (and thereby no one's) fault:
We grew up in the twentieth century when everything about the environment was either “woe is me” or “shame on you.” It’s all coming undone, and it’s your fault. That is so antiquated when you look at a problem like climate change, where there’s no whodunit. It’s, ‘We all dunit.’ We’re all using energy. You can punish Exxon, but I still have to fill up my Prius once in awhile and my mini van, which I need because we have two dogs, is not the most efficient vehicle in the world. So whodunit? Me. But the old model was that it had to be someone else’s fault and the other part of the old model was we had to pass a law, which basically means the solution is someone else’s solution. It’s government, a treaty, a law that’ll solve it. Things like climate change are just so much more wicked than the kind of problem you would solve that way. We have to get comfortable with the story when there is no simple villain….
This reminds me of nothing so much as Megyn Kelly's recent rant against evil historical revisionists who question the unquestionable reality that "Santa Claus is just white": 

Prompting Jon Stewart and friends to respond along the lines of "Uh, Megyn? Santa Claus isn't real."

Similarly, it's time the internet had a talk with Mr Revkin and explained to him another of the hard truths of adulthood: simple villains aren't real. Truly, they aren't any more real than Santa Claus. Climate change is no exception to the general rule of life that most big problems implicate a large number of people to a lesser or greater degree.

Whilst the civil rights movement was making simple villains out of Bull Connor and Strom Thurmond, there was endemic racism throughout both South and North. Whites everywhere benefited from employment and housing opportunities denied to blacks and other minorities. To this day Americans continue to benefit from centuries of unpaid labor by black slaves which contributed to our economy, for which reparations have never been made, or even attempted.
You are all me!

Stories of simple villainy exist for the same reason stories about Santa Claus exist: they make people happy. Specifically, they make people happier in undertaking just what Revkin wants them to undertake; reform of a social ill to which many people are a party, which will require short-term sacrifices from a lot of people.

The campaign against Jim Crow is one example of how this can be successful. The campaign against smoking is a still more recent example. Smoking has been steadily losing its grip on the American people over the past fifty years:

Smoking rates in the US over time
The simple villains of the tobacco wars were not the individual smokers (of course) but the tobacco companies who concealed evidence of the health risks of smoking, and waged an aggressive campaign of disinformation to cast doubt on the strong scientific evidence of harm (sound familiar?)

The tobacco companies ended up paying out hundreds of billions of dollars in settlements. But were they the only, or even the primary source of the harm caused by smoking? Certainly not. Farmers had to grow the foul stuff. The government subsidized that growth with taxpayer dollars, which makes it pretty rich, one might argue, for the government to go after the tobacco companies.

Hundreds of thousands of supermarkets, corner stores, bars, smoking shops and other businesses sold (and continue to sell) these death-dealing products, to make money.

Tens of millions of Americans chose to smoke this unhealthy product, to expose other people (most damagingly, their own children) to the smoke, and continued to do so, in many cases, long after their own health had been destroyed.

Did the campaign against tobacco target these people? No it did not. Should it have? Obviously not. As targets they are too numerous, too diffuse, too varied in their level of responsibility, too weak individually to alter the course of the epidemic.

Were the tobacco companies unfairly targeted? No! They lied to the public, lied about the science, and did tremendous damage to the public health in the service of their own bottom lines. Nevertheless, making them the simple villains of the tobacco wars was a political decision by those activists working on the problem -- a very successful one. While waging a rhetorical and later legal war on the tobacco companies, they very successfully encouraged a large portion of Big Tobacco's customers to divest themselves from its product. They convinced legislators to heavily tax cigarettes and heavily restrict where you could smoke them. They did this without making the individual smokers targets. They used their simple villains, the tobacco companies, to cast them as victims.

Revkin speaks dismissively of targeting Exxon as a villain of climate change, or using the kind of legislation used against tobacco companies to restrict the activities of big polluters. But he doesn't actually give any real reason why this won't work. Yes, everyone is implicated in the release of GHGs to some extent. Just as everyone is implicated in structural racism to some extent, or in the labor conditions that produce the cheap plastic products Americans so love, or as tens millions of Americans willing participated (many still do) in the tobacco epidemic. But that is no reason why we cannot identify big, destructive actors profiting hugely and deceiving the public and go after them.

Simple villains are a story, a rhetorical choice. In real life nothing is perfectly simple. But identifying bad guys and going after them can be a spoonful of sugar to help social change go down. Action is easier when there is a villain to target; that is why the government has taken vast amounts of action (much of it ill-considered) against the threat of terrorism, and virtually none against the far more dire threat of climate change. And in the complex tale of our fossil fuel addiction, there's no shortage of serious bad guys begging to be highlighted.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Trouble with Tamsin

Do you trust that face?

During my long and unexplained hiatus -- during which I may or may not have been reforging the sword of my fathers in anticipation of the final confrontation with Steven Goddard -- there was a large amount of buzz about Tamsin Edwards' throwing down the gauntlet and proclaiming that no one in climate science ought to offer any opinion about climate policy.

In the descriptively but unimaginatively titled, "Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies" Edwards lays out her case for abstinence-only public science eduction:
I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral. At the very least, it leaves us open to criticism. I find much climate scepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence. So I’ve found my hardline approach successful in taking the politics and therefore – pun intended – the heat out of climate science discussions. They call me an “honest broker”, asking for “more Dr. Edwards and fewer zealous advocates”. Crucially, they say this even though my scientific views are absolutely mainstream.
Pace Edwards, scientists who indulge in advocacy can expect to see their reputations trampled in the mud, their credibility shredded, and their careers imploded. Examples are not far to seek. In 1947, for instance, a middle-aged physicist published "Why Socialism?":
[M]ost of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.
There goes his credibility. By the Law of Edwards, he's finto. It's a shame. But for this, I really think that Albert Einstein guy could have made something of himself.

If anyone would like a long list of immortal scientists who argued for particular public policies, I'm happy to provide one, but for the moment let's take that as read and ask why Dr. Edwards has put forward so aggressively an argument that falls apart like tissue paper when applied to real scientists?

Edwards lays out her initial motivation in her first sentence: "As a climate scientist, I’m under pressure to be a political advocate." She doesn't want to be a political advocate. But she obviously feels some defensiveness about this reluctance, or she would simply have said "Fuck off; I'm busy" rather than develop a general theory about why not only should people stop pestering her to take a stand, but that all scientists everywhere should never do so.

Now, if Dr. Edwards had stuck to her own case, and refused to engage in policy debates, her position would be, in my opinion, unassailable. Scientists have an obligation to do good science. They have no obligation to address any question of public policy. If they are reluctant to do so, they had best not do it. No one should bully them into it with expansive doctrines of the scientist's duty to educate. That "duty" has no basis in the traditions of science (1).

But it extrapolating from the personal to the general, Edwards misses the mark. Her argument is threefold:

1) Scientists who advocate for particular policies will lose the public's respect.
2) Scientists who advocate for particular policies will inflame climate deniers (whereas they love and respect Edwards.)
3) Scientists don't know what they are talking about (and anyway, it's all about values and stuff).

The third point I have addressed before. I have little to add, except that I like that post better than when I wrote it, and I think in a small way it contributes to the discourse, in that the nonsense claim that climate change is all about values has a lot of currency on both sides.

The second point is not only thin but somewhat sad:
So I’ve found my hardline approach successful in taking the politics and therefore – pun intended – the heat out of climate science discussions. They call me an “honest broker”, asking for “more Dr. Edwards and fewer zealous advocates”. Crucially, they say this even though my scientific views are absolutely mainstream.
I have no doubt that Edwards is accurately describing how some climate deniers react to her  They are pleased with her, as indeed they should be, because she is not challenging their inactivism in any way. Anyone who knows anything about climate "skeptics" knows that they do not care passionately about the scientific reality, but about the implications of that reality for public policy, so the fact that they like Edwards' stance is utterly predictable. Silent, neutered climate scientists are to deniers almost as good as no climate scientists at all.

Note what Edwards does not say: She does not say any "climate sceptics" have changed their minds about the science. She does not say they have changed their minds about any question of policy. She does not even claim that they accept her "absolutely mainstream" scientific views.

So what is she claiming? Really, only that climate skeptics tolerate her. They don't verbally abuse her. They don't threaten violence against her or her family. They don't sue her, or spam her with FOI requests, or file complaints with her university.

Shorn of sentimentality, this is what Edwards is actually saying: If you refuse to make any connection between your science and public policy, and denounce others who do, climate deniers will spare you the campaign of abuse they inflict upon more dangerous scientists. They may even call you an "honest broker." (No word on whether they call her the Gangster of Love.)

Of course the irony of claiming that title is that Edwards is not an "honest broker." She may be honest, but she can't be a broker, one who "arranges or negotiates (a settlement, deal, or plan)." That is what she has said she will not do, and what climate deniers do not want to do. The irony is thick. Just as many on the right want a government which does not govern, so the climate deniers' ideal "broker" is one who refuses to negotiate a settlement.

Finally we are left with Edwards' claim that scientists who weigh in on matters of policy will lose the public's respect.

This is another place in what Edwards doesn't say is as interesting as what she does. She doesn't say that scientists who advocate policy solutions will lose their objectivity and their science will suffer for it. She is not such a fool. As a working scientist, Edwards knows that scientists working a hypothesis are far from objective. She, like any publishing scientist, could probably list the top ten biases any scientist is fighting to keep at bay upon sitting down at the bench, to wit:

1) I hope this is publishable.
2) I hope my hypothesis is correct.
3) I hope I collected enough data.
4) I hope this work is broadly useful to society.
5) I hope this work shows something substantially different than what my reviewers have read in the last few months.
6) I hope after I publish this it will be easier to get funding.
7) I hope I'm invited to present this at a meeting somewhere nice.

etc. . . .

Edwards, as I said, knows all this, so she doesn't make the claim that you need objectivity to do good science. Instead she claims that scientists need the appearance of objectivity to maintain the respect of the public. Which, if you think about it, reduces to an odd claim: in order to maintain the public's trust, we must all participate in misleading the public about what a scientist is and how science happens.

Because science, in fact, does not depend on objectivity or impartiality. That's why no one cares that Albert Einstein wrote "On Socialism" or that Issac Newton needed a special dispensation of the king to refuse the ordination required of all professors at Trinity College or that Jonas Salk, having invented the polio vaccine, urged its wide adoption.

Science does not require impartial individuals because science can be tested. Science is grounded is data, and the reproduction of results. A baseball umpire or a traffic cop or a federal judge ought to be known for their impartiality, because of the inherent subjectivity of their judgments and the difficulty of revisiting them. Science, ideally, involves careful judgements based upon shared facts and evidence that can be modified or discarded as they are repeatedly reexamined.

Appearing objective, then, is essentially a dodge, a hustle, the opposite of honest. If we are going to try and buttress scientists' respectability by that, we ought to ask Dr Edwards why her blog photo shows neither glasses nor a white coat even though both of those things (2) have been shown to increase the trust of the public in the speaker.

Ultimately I find Edwards position sad. She began with a personal refusal to engage with politics, as is absolutely her right. She extended this to an ill-considered attack on other scientists who made a different choice. Predictably this has led to praise and admiration from the usual suspects who are more than happy to ignore her "mainstream beliefs" (3) and celebrate her rejection of "activism." This praise seems to have turned her head, and only time will tell if she has, as it seems, embarked on the long downward spiral into irrelevance and Curryism.

1) Compare medicine, where practitioners take an oath "to teach [students] this art; and that by my teaching, I will impart a knowledge of this art to my own sons, and to my teacher's sons, and to disciples bound by an indenture and oath according to the medical laws."

2) Glasses convey the impression the wearer is intelligent and good.
White coats convey the impression the wearer is an authority and is trustworthy.

3) Much like they ignore the multitude of contractions between the various mutually incompatible "skeptic" theories.

Monday, September 16, 2013

There is no theoretical limit to the number of times a person can be shot in the face

Gabrielle Giffords -- techno-inspiration.

Following where the courageous Erle C Ellis has led, I want to correct a misconception that has been much circulated and widely believed, even among medical experts: there is, in fact, no firm limit to the number of times a person can be shot in the face and survive.

Many medical scientists and  activists -- anti-gun-violence advocates, anti-gang task forces, opponents of domestic violence and so on -- have frequently misrepresented the science of ballistics so far as to convey the impression that being shot in the face even three or fours times will always kill the victim. This is nonsense.

Now, I am in no way advocating shooting people in the face. As a medical doctor, I have seen and treated people who have been shot in the face, and very serious consequences can follow from that. Still, as a scientist, my first loyalty is to the truth, and the truth is: being shot in the face is not invariably fatal, and in fact as the science of medicine advances, being shot in the face is getting less and less lethal all the time.

Certainly, if you are shot in the face repeatedly, there may be negative consequences for your health. But it's important to keep things in context: most people die of cancer, COPD, heart disease and infections, not being shot in the face.

Humans are endlessly adaptive. If we look at people being being shot in the face, they will often bite or claw at their attackers, which can be highly effective at deflecting the shot. If the bullet makes contact, the result is frequently a graze or damage to the facial bones and the soft tissues of the neck. Even several of these, taken together, are unlikely to be fatal. Every shots to the brain may not be fatal -- consider Gabrielle Giffords notable recovery.

Giffords benefited from rapid emergency response and the near availibilty of first-rate trauma care, including a neurosurgeon on standby. Without glossing over her very serious injuries, it is apparent that if every single person on earth were within ten minutes of a level one trauma center, deaths from being shot in the face -- all deaths by being shot, in fact -- would be much reduced. Therefore -- no matter how ludicriously unrealistic that scenario is as it pertains to the present moment -- it logically demonstrates that there is no necessary relationship between being shot in the face a certain number of times, and dying.

We can, and indeed should, look even further forward, to a time when humans will be able to be cloned from a single cell, our memories and thought patterns stored on hard drives in anticipation of the need to copy them onto the cloned bodies in the event of accident or violence -- such as being repeatedly shot in the face. In such a case no amount of gunshots -- even a high-velocity Gauss-type future weapon vaporizing the head and leaving only a bloody stump -- would cause true, permanent death.

In no way should we allow the incidental and irrelevant detail of the vast gap between the future society of our imaginations and the reality of the present day to cloud our reasoning -- there is no hard and fast theoretical limit upon how many times a human being can be shot in the face and live, any more than there is upon how many human beings can share a fixed amount of soil, water, or cropland. These things are theoretically limitless, however much it might be that they are limited, in practice, at the present moment.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Space-based solar

 With apologies to Roger Pielke, Jr, the problem in tackling the carbon problem is not a lack of technology. It's the inability of our people and our political system to exploit to harness the technology we have through collective political action.

If our country retained the tiniest bit of the ambition and drive that built the Hoover Dam or the Interstate Highway System, we could rip our way through the assumptions of the fossil fuel era like a Sherman tank through a chain-link fence.

Case in point: space-based solar energy.

Space-based solar requires getting a significant amount of mass into geostationary orbit, coping with the degradation of solar panels in that environment, and getting the power back to earth.

There are many speculative technologies for reaching orbit cheaply -- space elevators, magnetic catapults, laser-ablative propulsion, reusable spaceplanes -- but we are approaching a point at which mature conventional rocket technology can, for the first time, move significant masses into orbit without a cost-prohibitive number of launches.

Mature Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles  offer the promise of cutting the cost to low earth orbit (LEO) from $10,000-$15,000/kg today to perhaps $2,200/kg (the estimated cost of a lift from the new Falcon Heavy, a SpaceX rocket in development).

Once you move your payload into LEO, you need to raise it higher, into geostationary orbit (GEO). Fortunately, once in free fall, more stately and deliberate (low-thrust) transportation can be used, such as, for example, ion thrusters. A "tugboat service" could be set up between LEO and GEO, docking with payloads in LEO and gradually moving them into GEO.

Once in geostationary orbit and deployed, a solar panel enjoys half again the power output available on the ground (144%) and can gather that power for >99% of the time. Hence a square meter in orbit will produce between five and ten times as much electricity as the same solar panel on the ground, and it provides baseload power.

The first problem with reaping this bounty is getting their weight into orbit; the second problem is the life expectancy of the panels (the third is getting the power back to earth, which I'll get to in a minute.) It's the second problem, I think, which is the most tricky.

Researchers have succeeded in creating absurdly thin and light solar cells; most recently, the groundwork has been laid for cells two molecules thick. But the orbital environment has an abundance of hard radiation and a certain amount of atomic oxygen that limits the useful life of solar cells. Here too, though, there has been dramatic progress:

A group at NASA took on the challenge of specing out a space-based solar system. Their report is worth a read. They have creative solutions to some of the problems with a space-based system mentioned above (as well as some I hadn't thought about, like waste heat). For example, they limit the mass of expensive and degradable photovoltaics by using a hybrid solar concentrator-PV model -- in plain English, they use reflectors, which are more lightweight and durable, to direct sunlight at a smaller area of solar panels. One model of the end result looks like this:

The large teacup is the reflector array; the small disk is the PV panels. This concentration-PV hybrid approach is also being tried for earth-based systems, and seems promising.

The PV panels, in this design, are cleverly sandwiched together with microwave emitters, which transmit the power to a receiving station below.

The NASA group estimated a final cost of an industrial-scale system along the lines of the above to be about $90/MWh (see page 9). That's a really low number, comparable to new coal plants:

Some have proposed using disposable, foldable ultralight solar panels; your panel collects energy for ten years, and then you simply roll out another thin layer of PV. The article just cited (see part 8) estimates such a system could offer a "power density" (a standard measure of the mass-to-current ratio of space-based PV) of 1.2kW/kg. Ignoring things like the earthbound receiver ("rectenna"), the cost of the panels, and the LEO-GEO shuttle service (because they will essentially be rounding errors for the total cost) a 1,200GW baseload system (supplying about half the current global electrical demand of 20,000TWh/year, or 40% or so after transmission losses) with a forty-year life expectancy would mass about one million tons and cost about $2.3 trillion dollars to orbit with the Falcon Heavy rocket.

That's a staggering sum of money -- almost exactly what we have spent, so far, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite the remarkably low ROI from that, we are still the richest, most powerful nation in the world, however little it feels that way. It's not about technology. It's about ambition. It's not about how we solve the problem. Contrary to popular opinion, there are many possible solutions. It's about making the decision to solve the problem and concentrating all our efforts on what has to be done.

Update (Oct 2020): The current cost to LEO via a reusable Falcon rocket is approximately $2,000/kg. Starship promises to bring that number down to $270/kg. The latter number would bring launch costs down to $270 billion. That is roughly a tenth of what we have spent on coronavirus relief in the last nine months alone.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Climate denier/neo-nazi murderer Varg Vikernes wants you to know it's all natural cycles

NorwegianVarg Vikernes, a vicious racist and murderer who achieved notoriety by firebombing several churches, was recently arrested in France following his wife's purchase of four guns, which the French authorities feared were to be used in a mass shooting.

When the last Norwegian mass murderer hit the news, he turned out to be, among other things, a rabid climate denier. I was interested to see if his fellow right-wing terrorist shared this pathology, and here we are:

The Ice Ages come and go too; they stay for about 100,000 years, or perhaps about 120,000 years, and then they go and leave a warm period for about 10,000 or perhaps about 12,000 years. In the long run, there is no change there either, only a rhythm. We are now living at the end of a warm period, and of course the scientists believe that the changes in the climate is due to human activity, but it isn’t; we are entering a new Ice Age, that will cover all of Northern Europe with glaciers, and the climate changes we see now are a prelude to this. Man has no influence over climate.
In a recent interview, Mr. Vikernes elaborates:

You also talk about the "rape of Mother Earth". What do you do in your own day-to-day life to care for the environment?
Climate changes are caused by solar radiation and other natural phenomena, so I don't worry one bit about that. Nothing we do can change anything in the climate. The last Icelandic volcano eruption for instance polluted more than all of Europe put together has done the last 40 years. So I drive my Russian 4*4 with a clear conscience, knowing very well it uses far more fuel than most other cars (I am not driving a f***ing Land Rover when the Land Rover company is not even owned by the English and Russian 4*4s are better off-road anyway... ;-p). 
Mr. Vikernes would also like to inform us that all Roma are worthless trash, and Jews are incapable of producing original science. As I said after the Breivik case, and in regards to the disgusting pornographic and murderous threats against climate scientists and their families, "respectable" climate deniers are going to have to draw some bright lines between themselves and the right-wing terrorists and thugs that have taken up their banner. If they don't, the public will quite rightly judge them by the company they keep.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Shale gas vs coal is the wrong question


Quick: Which is worse, a carjacking or a rape?

I know what you're thinking, but suppose the carjacking involved a gun, whereas the rape was "just" statutory rape between a sixteen-year-old and her nineteen-year-old boyfriend?

To be fair, though, neither of these examples is probably quite representative of the "typical" carjacking or rape. Perhaps we ought to assess the badness of each act based upon a weighed average of the typical circumstances of the two crimes, respectively, and only then give our opinion about which is "worse," per se. Then again, it is possible that the social stigma that has historically been associated with the victims of rape causes that crime to be systematically underreported, leading to a biased sample.

At this point we could do some philosophical heavy lifting involving definitions, sources of data, and standards of badness, all as a preface to an open-ended debate with other people who made different assumptions or preferred other data sets. Or, just putting it out there, we could ask ourselves why the fuck we care.

As the astute reader can probably discern, I'm losing interest in the question of whether shale gas or coal is worse for the climate. This is an unfamiliar experience for us here at IT; more typically, we find ourselves worrying the bone of a topic whilst other, more responsible commentators have long since satisfied themselves that there's not an atom of meat left to scavenge (can you say, Scott Armstrong's climate "bet"?)

But I'm about ready to be done with this one, and the reasons are fairly simple:

1. The answer is heavily dependent on the initial assumptions you chose. Both the facts (the leak rate[1]) and the value judgments (how far into the future should we look to compare the effects of CO2 and methane [2]) remain hotly disputed. It is also laughably easy to stack the deck by comparing new natural gas to old coal, or old natural gas to new coal, or heating capacity vs electrical generation, none of which choices are clearly right or wrong and all of which, given a large energy sector and enough time, will describe some set of power plants, somewhere.

2. Even if we could reach a final a definitive answer to the question, we would still be left with the reality than coal has a bunch of other negative externalities, most crucially, the particulate pollution kills people. As vitally important as climate change is, you can't just pretend all the other costly, deadly, and environmentally destructive consequences of coal mining and coal burning don't exist.

3. Like a lot of questions that suck up time and energy in the climate debate, this one fails to inform the discussion of the only question which, in the final analysis, matters at all: Will our society and the global civilization to which it belongs succeed in undertaking collective political action (commensurate with scale of the challenge) to limit global warming and abort the Business as Usual scenario? 

If we will, there are numerous tools and technologies close at hand to speed our transition, which might or might not include some shale gas. If we won't, if we are determined to rely on blind chance in the form of a distorted profit motive coupled with an unchecked tragedy of the commons to deliver us, we will bring down devastating climate change upon ourselves, and whether the cheap shale gas that energy companies pried out of the ground purely in the name of corporate profits happened to be  somewhat better or somewhat worse for the climate than coal will be the definition of irrelevance.

1) So what's the leak rate, really? Very recently, the EPA estimated 2.3%, but this was revised downward to 1.4%. On the other hand, direct measurements of leakage from gas fields often come in quite a bit higher, as in the recent study that found leakage from 6.2% to 11.7%. This followed another study from 2012 that found leakage rates of 4% at a field near Denver.

When your estimates of a quantity from various credible sources differ by an order of magnitude, I think it's fair to suggest that we do not have a firm grasp on the final number.

Note, too, that it is not just the wells that leak. The downstream infrastructure is full of leaks as well, and this may account for a third of the estimated fugitive emissions.

This naturally raises the question: couldn't we fix that leaky infrastructure if we wanted to? (Yes, we could.) For that matter, couldn't we strictly regulate and monitor shale gas developments to force companies to keep their fugitive emissions low, or risk hefty fines? (Seems to discourage oil spills.) And might that alter the calculus of whether the substitution of gas for coal brings important climate benefits? (Of course it could.)

This is why I say the central question is not which energy source is "better," but whether or not we have the will to take collective political action to make the situation better.

2) The latest marker in this debate was laid down by Raymond Pierrehumbert, a climate giant by any definition, but one who in this case, in my opinion, has not got things quite right. He says:
The important thing to understand is that essentially all of the climate effects of methane emissions disappear within 20 years of cessation of emissions; in this sense, the climate harm caused by methane leakage is reversible. In contrast, CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere, ratcheting up the temperature irreversibly, at least out to several millennia. Therefore, if switching to natural gas from coal reduces the amount of CO2 you emit, you can tolerate quite a large amount of leakage and still come out ahead, because the warming caused by the leakage will go away quickly once you eventually stop using natural gas (and other fossil fuels), whereas the warming you would get from all the extra CO2 you’d pump out if you stuck with coal would stay around forever.
One can quibble with some of Pierrehumbert's facts here; the breakdown of methane in twenty years or so depends on how much of the stuff is in the atmosphere to begin with; some of the reactions are subject to saturation kinetics. These can extend the life of methane in the atmosphere by a factor of three or more, albeit at concentrations far higher than today's.

But the important problem here is logical, not factual. Pierrehumbert's absolutely right that looking at the earth in a thousands years or so, the amount of methane that leaks today is not going to have any influence on the amount of radiative forcing the earth is experiencing. Whereas a significant bit of the CO2 released today will still by present in the atmosphere, warming the planet every minute of every day right out through the year 3,000 anno domini and beyond.

The problem, as I've said, is with the logic. When you define your vantage point as "thousands of years in the future" or even hundreds of years, you can discount the radiative effects of methane today. But from that vantage point, looking down on oceans that have swallowed dozens of the world's great cities, in the aftermath of wars over water and food, with three-quarters of all mammals extinct, from that vantage point, all fossil fuel burning looks like a crime against humanity. If future Ray from the year 3,000 gets a vote, he may very well not give two straws for the methane leaks, but he will veto the carbon dioxide released by burning shale gas.

This is perhaps a more subtle point than is usually to be found on this frankly pugilistic blog, so let me restate it in the form of an analogy:
You are in the emergency room suffering with some abdominal pain. Your doctor comes in to share the good news that all your tests are negative and you will be going home, after one more (ludicrously expensive) CT scan. When you ask why this is needed, she tells you "Oh, it's going to be a big help in a couple of days, when you come back in with overwhelming sepsis on the brink of death."
The proposed CT scan makes no sense because you either are or are not sick: it makes no sense to take some actions based on the idea that you are fine (discharging you home) and others based on the belief that you are extremely ill (an expensive scan after your other tests were negative.)

Similarly, if you are the kind of person who thinks the state of things in the year 3,000 is critically important, then you are welcome to be indifferent to methane leaks, but by the same token, no fossil fuel burning should be even a little bit acceptable to you -- you, the far-future person, suffering from the effects of our stupid and thoughtless abuse of our shared life support system even after we knew the likely consequences -- future you will look at gas' lesser amount of CO2 per Kwh of electricity in the way we, in 2013, look at slave owners that only whipped their slaves after a fair and impartial hearing. That is, far-future you will recognize one of these things as theoretically more awful than the other, but regard the activity as a whole as so morally repugnant as to make the distinction academic, at best.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Idiot Comment of the Day

You also missed my entire point. Nobody should be forced to receive a vaccine that they do not want. It is not your right or anybody else's right insist [sic] upon this.

If I want to "die from cervical cancer" as you allege, that is my business.

You are obviously an idiot-Statis, an apologist for the destruction of individual freedom and human rights (to be left the hell alone, in case you need a primer).
From our own little corner of the Interwebs, even. The ranter brought up, then inveighed against the hypothetical situation of a mandatory vaccination for cervical cancer. He (and I think we can confidently assume it's a he) is strongly against said hypothetical mandatory vaccination. Because freedom!

Monday, June 24, 2013


Currently the most read story at
A study published Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the prevalence of high-risk strains in teenage girls dropped by half after the vaccine was introduced in 2006, from 7.2 percent in 2006 to 3.6 percent in 2010.
No comment from Michelle Bachmann on the success of the vaccine that (she maintained on national television) can make your kid retarded. There is still a ways to go:
Unfortunately, many parents still resist having their daughters immunized. A study published in March found that 44 percent of parents said in 2010 that they did not intend to vaccinate their daughters, up from 40 percent in 2008. . . . 

Increasing the vaccination rate to 80 percent in this country could prevent an additional 53,000 cervical cancers and 17,000 deaths among girls now 13 years old and younger over the course of their lives.
 . . . but for now let us savior this little moment of win. It works, bitches. If we let it.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Like father like son

 First the dismissive chuckle:
Stupid environmentalists! Getting excited over a meaningless plan that allows emissions to double.

Then somebody challenges the "double" part of the statement. And Roger flashes a degree of cognitive dissonance that may not via with Sr's climate-research-kills-kids-by-tornado, but is equally as startling because more unexpected:

Strangely, no response from the illustrious Dr. Pielke Jr. And he's supposed to be the reasonable one . . .

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Pielke Sr: Climate research makes children die in tornadoes

In a particularly ugly and nonsensical Idiot Comment of the Day, we have this:

Drink in the crazy. Yes, Roger, we should defund science and send the money to Oklahoma for tornado shelters.

Never mind that what bothers you about climate science is its success in predictions and what those predictions are, not a supposed lack of skill. Never mind that tornado deaths have plummeted in the last hundred years because scientists have learned to more effectively forecast (or "develop projections of") when and where they will strike.

Never mind that "Too much science research" is the very last reason that home-of-Senators-Coburn-and-Infoe doesn't have an adequate public safety net in the most literal sense of the word -- that if any state embodies the principle of damn-the-science, and should therefore have plenty of money for public goods like tornado shelters, if their hostility to science were not matched by an equal or greater hostility to government action to promote the general welfare.

As I say: never mind that. To come out with that crap while they are still sifting through the wreckage of their lives is just crass. Not everything is about your pet issue, fer Chrissake. Twenty in the Douchebag jar, Roger.

UPDATE: IDK, maybe I'm being too hard on the man. If only there were some form of incontrovertible and objective evidence that this little brainstorm was an ill-mannered, whiny bitch slap of weapons-grade stupidity. But there's one one way we could ever know that for sure . . .

. . . and there you go. That's $20 in the Jar for you, Tony. It's the one you've labelled "Retirement Fund."

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Dear Andrew Revkin: Time to rethink your dismissal of Cook et al

Doubling down:
The clear message of the team conducting this fresh assessment of the climate science consensus is that it’s vital to close that gap to have a chance of breaking societal deadlock on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. On his Skeptical Science blog, John Cook, the paper’s lead author, put it this way:
Quite possibly the most important thing to communicate about climate change is that there is a 97% consensus amongst the scientific experts and scientific research that humans are causing global warming. Let’s spread the word and close the consensus gap.
Forgotten [Really? Did they say climate communication was the only thing that mattered? No, they said "to have a chance." I.e., closing the gap is necessary but not sufficient condition, not the only thing that matters] in much of this is a point made in an e-mail message sent to me and some other science communicators this morning by Dan Kahan, the Yale law professor who studies the cultural filters that influence how people perceive and react to information. Kahan linked to his fresh post reviewing how many times in recent years such studies have been promoted, then asked this:
Climate scientists aren’t the only ones whose message never gets through. The “science of science communication consensus” that deficits in knowledge & rationality are not the problem [there's more than one problem!]— 99.9999999% agree! — never does either, & to the very people it should be of value too, viz., those trying to promote constructive engagement w/ climate science.
Is there someone studying that science communication problem???!
. . . 
This doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time to communicate climate science [in contrast to what you tweeted yesterday]. But it does mean that communicating the science of science communication matters, too.
For more on the wishful nature of hopes that closing such gaps will matter much, read Keith Kloor and David Appell.
Dear Andrew,

I like a lot of what you write, and I respect your ability to take a second look at your positions and well, it's time. Your own shifting justifications for why Cook et al doesn't matter should be a warning sign that something is amiss: "This study will not fundamentally alter the climate debate forever" (*) is quite a climb-down from "This is an irrelevant study that tells us nothing new and changes nothing."

The Cook study added a greater degree of rigor to the evidence that 97% of climate scientists agree global warming is happening and is human caused. Most Americans -- 70% in the 2011 Six Americas study -- do not know this. Attempting to defend the initial, rather rude and ill-thought-out, dismissal of the study reflects a natural and predictable defensiveness, but you should reconsider.

Neither the authors of the study nor anyone else claimed the study solved all the problems in communicating the science of global warming, still less that it showed a way past all the obstacles to collective political action.

But as a piece of science communication -- a subject you have written and lectured about on many occasions, and therefore seem to think is relevant in some way to the challenges we face -- it was a stunning success(**). Both your initial dismissal and the further attempts to justify it are wrongheaded and invite the label of "inactivist" which some have attached to you.


* A point Appell makes in even more bizarre fashion when he crows ("Climate Candy: The Proof" (!)) that the Huffington Post is no longer leading with the study the next day (?)).

** Let us consider some of the reasons for its success:

1. A simple message.
2. Careful research that sticks to the facts.
3. A message grounded in what we know well, not in new science, extremes, or "single study syndrome."
4. Information that the disengaged (not aware it has been available for some time) have REPEATEDLY TOLD POLLSTERS would increase their concern about global warming.
5. Despite a message well-gauged to increased concern, it is not apocolyptic, not overwhelming, and not likely to make people want to "tune out" the issue.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The intolerant moderates

Skeptical Science won the internet last week with a superb original paper by Cook, Nuccitelli et al that evaluated over 12,000 sources and found 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening.

Amazingly some people managed to miss the point:
Their names are practically a role call of the "intolerent moderates" -- journalists who have chosen to define themselves as independent-minded thinkers ready to castigate both sides. The intolerant moderates accept that climate change is happening and action is necessary, but struggle to occupy a middle ground condemning the excesses of both sides. Since the excesses in the climate debate are not at all equally distributed between science deniers and the concerned, this positioning often leads to tepid critiques of climate deniers coupled with energetic castigation of the other side for minor, or, as in this case, nonexistent sins.

Dave Appell just doesn't see the point of the study:
I'm not very keen on these kinds of numbers -- they are made for lazy journalists who don't want to examine the complexity of the science, reporters who just want a number that quickly and easily supports their position.
Or maybe reporters who want to convey to their readers a simple, rock-solid case that a majority of climate scientists believe climate change is real and is caused by humans something only 30% of Americans know to be true (Really).

Kloor is spouting the same sort of nonsense:
The latest example is this survey by John Cook et al that is getting a lot of undeserved attention in the mainstream media. I say that because, questionable methodology aside, the survey tells us nothing new and is, as science journalist David Appell noted, “a meaningless exercise.”
I enjoy their quoting one another for added support: but they are both completely, utterly, ludicrously wrong.

It's hard to say which is the more fundamental fail here: that Kloor doesn't understand that replicating results is critical to science, or that he thinks that he has somehow become a scientist, whose responsibility it is to follow and critique the bleeding edge of climate science, rather than his actual role as a science journalist helping the public grasp the critical core of the field, a job that evidently has to be done by scientists, who have pulled off a massive coup of science communication, only to be sneered at by the people who are paid to perform that function themselves.

I really expected better of Revkin than to jump on this bandwagon. This is why the survey is not a "meaningless exercise":

Half of the public in this survey -- HALF -- said that if 90% of climate scientists agreed that global warming is happening, it would increase their concern. This mind-boggling result is possible, again, because SEVENTY PERCENT OF THE PUBLIC DIDN'T KNOW MOST CLIMATE SCIENTISTS THINK GLOBAL WARMING IS HAPPENING.

That three SCIENCE JOURNALISTS do not know this about their audience is scandalous. It borders on professional incompetence. These people are lecturing scientists about science communication?

UPDATE: In the comments, MikeH perceptively notes that the intolerant moderate is a subspecies of the VSP:

They are the Very Serious People (popularised by Paul Krugman in his NYT column)

"Valuing common sense over scientific consensus when there is a conflict. When pushed far enough VSP will eventually err on the side of science but will hold a candle for pseudoscience as long as it has a veneer of respectability.
Loves the hell out of the balance fallacy. They feel uncomfortable pointing out flaws concentrated in the right-wing or left-wing without pointing to an opposite example. "Both sides do it!"

Climate scientist 2+2=4
Denier 2+2=5
VSP 2+2=4.5

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

So it's come to this

We passed 400ppm the other day. It occasioned some hang-wringing, but no more than that. Many were at pains to point out that the milestone is strictly symbolic, that CO2 is steadily rising and likely will continue to do so, etc.

It's hard to know what will be required to shake us out of our torpor and motive human civilization to begin aggressively cutting fossil fuels. Something will, eventually. The beauty of this problem is that is will get progressively worse until we are ready to stop ignoring it. The unfortunate thing is that it will then continue to get worse for many decades after that.

Optimists abound, of course. Mark Lynas is still in the mix, accusing "catastrophists" of ignoring past human impacts on the environment:

 As in his ill-considered attack on Diamond's "Collapse," however, Lynas is really rebutting a straw man: no one is arguing that humans' changing their environment is a new thing. Changing it in this way and to this extent is a new thing.

It's hard to tell from a Tweet, but Lynas seems to want to think that because changes happened in the past, and humanity survived it, that there's nothing to worry about in radically altering the climate upon which our survival depends. But of course, that is not at all what the historical record shows. The historical record is replete with mighty empires that turned fertile lands into deserts, tribes that hunted the large mammals to extinction (creatures they might have domesticated as farm animals or beasts of burden), societies that outgrew their water supplies or the available food supplies. Predictable disasters resulted.

The long history of people altering their environments is in part a history of people who carelessly or in ignorance damaged the productive capacity of the environments they inhabited. It's entirely in keeping with that history that we face similar choices today.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Has Christopher Monckton ever won a lawsuit?

My lawsuit was much better than "Cats." I'm going to file them again and again.

Christopher Monckton is an ignorant, incompetent, dishonest, delusional mess of a gibbering idiot. I've reported on this fact for years and I have yet to hear from any lawyers, which is why I was skeptical that the Nova-Monckton account of him repeatedly crushing his enemies in lawsuits was anything other than a slop bucket of narcissistic lies(*).

First claim: Monckton sued the British government over using An Inconvenient Truth in schools, and won.
We have had some good court victories. In 2007 the London High Court condemned Al Gore’s mawkish sci-fi comedy-horror movie. It found nine errors so serious that the court ordered 77 pages of corrective guidance to be circulated to every school in England. The judge said: “The Armageddon scenario that he [Gore] depicts is not based on any scientific view.”
Two days later, Gore won the Nobel Mickey Mouse Prize. But he was holed below the waterline. Now he is seen not as a prophet but as a profiteer.
The whingers of the do-nothing brigade were at work even then. The lawyers refused to file the case on the ground that there was no chance of success. They were fired.
The new lawyers said we could not possibly win on the science and refused to use any scientific testimony. The judge threw the case out. I recovered the position by instructing the lawyers to write to the judge asking if he had even seen Gore’s movie before he had reached his judgment without holding a hearing.
Tellingly, the judge did not reply. I insisted on – and got – a new judge. This time the lawyers did what they were told. I wrote 80 pages of scientific testimony. Bob Carter and Dick Lindzen– bless them both – worked from the document in crafting their evidence, and signed off as expert witnesses. As soon as the other side saw it, they collapsed and settled, paying the plaintiff $400,000.
Reality: Monckton wasn't one of the litigants in that suit, which the deniers lost. The quote from the judge, which I've bolded above, is a fabrication -- a total fiction (for a comparison with what the judge actually said, see this outstanding analysis, beginning at the two-minute mark.)

He claims to have asked one of his friends to fund Stewart Dimmock, who actually sued. Dimmock has been asked who helped fund his suit, at refused to name anyone, calling it "a private matter." Many sources, understandably, report this as fact, because who would lie about participating in a failed lawsuit? But the reality is that Monckton lies constantly, habitually, and always by way of growing the legend of Monckton.

The case, Dimmock v Secretary of State for Education and Skills, wasn't settled, and Dimmock didn't get a payment of $400,000. He did, as is routine in British legal battles, win a payment for a portion of his legal costs, leaving him 60,000 pounds poorer.

His stated objective in the lawsuit was for An Inconvenient Truth not to be shown in schools any more. The judge rejected that request.

Monckton claims to have been involved in funding this failed lawsuit, but as far as I know, no one actually involved in it has confirmed that, placing his role in the same category as his claimed discovery of the cure for AIDS.

The second win claimed by Monckton has already been exposed as another fantasy: he claimed that Mann had settled a lawsuit with Tim Ball for a million dollars. Whoops! Pure fiction, and Jo Nova was troubled to print a correction.

Monckton also trumpets a huge, simply huge, victory against the dasterdly BBC:
I sued the BBC a couple of years ago when they did a hatchet job on me. I had been told – in writing – that I should have the chance to alter any points that were inaccurate. Fat chance.
So I lodged a High Court application for an injunction. The BBC’s first reaction was to deny that the director-general’s office had received my letter. Not having been born yesterday, I had delivered the letter myself and had insisted that the director-general’s personal assistant should sign for it.
I insisted on seeing the programme before it was broadcast. It was a disgrace. I wrote to the Director-General listing two dozen factual errors and numerous other biases in the schlocumentary. No reply.
So I lodged a High Court application for an injunction. The BBC’s first reaction was to deny that the director-general’s office had received my letter. Not having been born yesterday, I had delivered the letter myself and had insisted that the director-general’s personal assistant should sign for it.
The BBC crumbled and cut the programme from 90 minutes to an hour, taking out the overwhelming majority of the vicious nonsense. There were still some objectionable points, so I went into court.
I fought the case myself. When I introduced the two barristers and three solicitors for the Beeb, the judge interrupted me and said: “Lord Monckton, I fear I must draw your attention to a potential conflict of interest. You see, I am a member of your club.”
I had no objection and invited the BBC’s expensive QC to give his opinion. He had no objection either, but added: “Er, I too have a conflict of interest. I also am a member of Lord Monckton’s club.”
The judge did not prevent the Beeb from leaving a few barbs in my side. The BBC issued a lying statement that I had lost. But the judge held that I had “substantially won” the action. A 90-minute programme had become 60 minutes. The Beeb had lost. Big-time.

He lost, of course. Really this story gets to the heart of why Monckton is such a memorable liar. It's full of specific details -- about the club, and the judge, and the director-general's personal assistant. Yet nothing that can be easily checked, nothing that can be readily verified. It's full of numbers -- two dozen errors, 90 minutes to an hour, two barristers and three solicitors, etc. And it has a simple story of Monckton prevailing against odds. Really the only weakness of the story, as is typical of Monckton, is that he cannot control his own narcissism long enough to sell the story. Monckton is always the least believable part of a Monckton anecdote. He demands! He sues! He belongs to a fancy club! He takes on an army of lawyers and wins!

Monckton has surely mastered the Big Lie(**), as his fictional legal career illustrates.

Monckton has also threatened legal action against George Monbiot after an article dissecting Monckton's dishonest hackery. (He claimed it was "libellous of me in my calling.") But no lawsuit ever emerged. He promised to have John Abraham brought up on charges of academic misconduct; he didn't. He made the same threat about Dr. Barry Bickmore: again, no follow-through.

So here is my question of the day: Has Monckton ever actually followed through on his profuse threats, undertaken legal action against a critic, and won a judgement against them? Or are his repeated claims to have done so -- claims that have now progressed to advocating specious lawsuits against critics as a strategy, since it's worked so well for him -- simply another of his narcissistic fantasies?

See also:

Skeptical Science's Monckton Myths.

Barry Bickmore's Lord Monckton's Rap Sheet.

Abraham debunks Monckton (1/6)

Monckton Bunkum (Parts 1-5):

*That, and of course the fact that their mouths were moving.

** The Big Lie is a propaganda technique described by Hitler in Mein Kampf:
All this was inspired by the principle--which is quite true within itself--that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.
Monckton, exceptionally, explicitly admits to hiding behind this cognitive glitch:
Abraham’s approach is novel. He’s saying not that I got one thing wrong but that I got just about everything wrong. And how plausible is that?

Friday, April 19, 2013

WUWT denounces innumeracy, demonstrates illiteracy

Where have all the flowers gone?

Innumeracy is terrible, don't you know (and I suppose they would know):
For any rational discussion of the effects of CO2 on climate, numbers are important.
OK, so far so good, when you mention "rational discussion" in the first sentence the phrase "protesting too much" comes to mind, but numbers are indeed important, so so far, so sane.
 An average temperature increase of 1 C will be a benefit to the planet, as every past warming has been in human history.
 . . . and here comes the crazy. What?
 And the added CO2 will certainly increase agricultural yields substantially and make crops more resistant to drought.
 Evidently the author missed the part where the added CO2 causes warming, droughts, and extreme weather, leading to an estimated 200 million additional food insecure people and 24 million addition malnourished children by 2050.
 But in articles like “Scant Gains Made on CO2 Emissions, Energy Agency Says” by Sarah Kent in the Wall Street Journal on April 18, 2013, we see a graph with a 6 C temperature rise by 2050 – if we don’t reduce “carbon intensity.” Indeed, a 6 C temperature rise may well be cause for concern. But anyone with a little background in mathematics and physics should be able to understand how ridiculous a number like 6 C is.
The article is paywalled, but they also attribute the assertion of 6C by 2050 to Joe Romm, and that we can check:
This is one of the most enlightening calculations I’ve seen in awhile, and it is worth your time to understand it because it speaks clearly to debunk many of the claims of temperature rise in the next 100 years made by activists, such as the 6c by 2050 Joe Romm claims,
Emphasis in the original. But if we follow the link, we discover the headline is the result of a reading comprehension problem:
 “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius [11°F], which would have devastating consequences for the planet.”
2050 is not mentioned. There is a rather obvious error in a Reuters article cited in the post (they've corrected it), but as Romm did not repeat the error, to attribute it to him is simply a lie, and to build a post around "refuting" the red herring is  . . . well, it's what they do. Somewhat more surprisingly, David Appeal made the same obvious mistake. Rabbit is on the case.
Grandpa's favorite climate blog
WUWT, of course, uses this flimsy excuse to launch into a bunch of cargo-cult math, embarking on a "greatest hits" of basic scientific mistakes, including:

  • The warming caused by CO2 is instantaneous! (So the warming caused by 280ppm --> 400ppm is only the warming seen so far.)
  • Never mind, because climate sensitivity is only 1C per doubling! (No evidence for that; it seems to have become an article of faith.)
  • CO2 increases, like any other trend, are completely linear and can be extrapolated infinitely! (If CO2 is rising by 2ppm/year now, that is the rate of change expected for the next 12,000 years.)
WUWT, grandfather of the denialosphere, continues to demonstrate an effortless command of the three Is of full-spectrum ignorance: innumerate, illiterate, and ill-mannered.