It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Why is Climate Modeling Stuck?

Why is climate modeling stuck?

There is no obvious reason why we can't do better, and yet the promised progress in this direction isn't appearing anywhere near as fast as the policy sector needs it.

Specifically, is it possible to provide useful regional prognostics of the consequences of global change? That's what most people want us to do and what most people think we are up to. Whether that is what we want to do or not, I think some of us should rise to the occasion.

I would like to make the case that I can help do something about this. It's a personal ambition to actually influence the architecture of a significant climate modeling effort before I retire. I think my skill set is unusual and strong in this regard, but unfortunately my track record is less so. It's not that I haven't accomplished anything as a coder, a software architect, a EE, or a manager, actually. It's just that academia treats my time in industry as tantamount to "unemployment" and vice versa.

At the least, though, I can try to start a conversation. Are we stuck? If so, why? What could be done with a radical rethinking of the approach?

I have an essay on one view of the problem on another blog of mine. ... I think both climate dynamics and software engineering issues are germane, and I'd welcome any informed discussion on it. There seem to be enough people from each camp lending me an ear occasionally that we might be able to make some progress.

Update: Well, since I've failed to move the discussion over there, I'll move the article here. Thanks for any feedback.

I believe that progress in climate modeling has been relatively limited since the first successes in linking atmosphere and ocean models without flux corrections. (That's about a decade now, long enough to start being cause for concern.) One idea is that tighter codesign of components such as atmosphere and ocean models in the first place would help, and there's something to be said for that, but I don't think that's the core issue.

I suggest that there is a deeper issue based on workflow presumptions. The relationship between the computer science community and the application science community is key. I suggest that the relationship is ill-understood and consequently the field is underproductive.

The relationship between the software development practitioners and the domain scientists is misconstrued by both sides, and both are limited by past experience. Success in such fields as weather modeling and tide prediction provide a context which inappropriately dominates thinking, planning and execution.

Operational codes are the wrong model because scientists do not modify operational codes. Commercial codes are also the wrong model because bankers, CFOs and COOs do not modify operational codes. The primary purpose of scientific codes as opposed to operational codes is to enable science, that is, free experimentation and testing of hypotheses.

Modifiability by non-expert programmers should be and sadly is not treated as a crucial design constraint. The application scientist is an expert on physics, perhaps on certain branches of mathematics such as statistics and dynamics, but is typically a journeyman programmer. In general the scientist does not find the abstractions of computer science intrinsically interesting and considers the program to be an expensive and balky laboratory tool.

Being presented with codes that are not designed for modification greatly limits scientific productivity. Some scientists have enormous energy for the task (or the assistance of relatively unambitious and unmarketable Fortran-ready assistants) and take on the task with energy and panache, but the sad fact is that they have little idea of what to do or how to do it. This is hardly their fault; they are modifying opaque and unwelcoming bodies of code. Under the daunting circumstances these modifications have the flavor of "one-offs", scripts intended to perform a single calculation, and treated as done more or less when the result "looks reasonable". The key abstractions of computer science and even its key goals are ignored, just as if you were writing a five-liner to, say, flatten a directory tree with some systematic renaming. "Hmm, looks right. OK, next issue."

This, while scientific coding has much to learn from the commercial sector, the key use case is rather atypical. The key is in providing an abstraction layer useful to the journeyman programmer, while providing all the verification, validation, replicability, version control and process management the user needs, whether the user knows it or not. As these services become discovered and understood, the value of these abstractions will be revealed, and the power of the entire enterprise will resume its forward progress.

It's my opinion that Python provides not only a platform for this strategy but also an example of it. When a novice Python programmer invokes "a = b + c", a surprisingly large number of things potentially happen. An arithmetic addition is commonly but not inevitably among the consequences and the intentions. The additional machinery is not in the way of the young novice counting apples but is available to the programmer extending the addition operator to support user defined classes.

Consider why Matlab is so widely preferred over the much more elegant and powerful Mathematica platform by application scientists. This is because the scientists are not interested in abstractions in their own right; they are interested in the systems they study. Software is seen as a tool to investigate the systems and not as a topic of intrinsic interest. Matlab is (arguably incorrectly) perceived as better than Mathematica because it exposes only abstractions that map naturally onto the application scientist's worldview.

Alas, the application scientist's worldview is largely (see Marshall McLuhan) formed by the tools with which the scientist is most familiar. The key to progress is the Pythonic way, which is to provide great abstraction power without having it get in the way. Scientists learn mathematical abstractions as necessary to understand the phenomena of interest. Computer science properly construed is a branch of mathematics (and not a branch of trade-school mechanics thankyouverymuch) and scientists will take to the more relevant of its abstractions as they become available and their utility becomes clear.

Maybe starting from a blank slate we can get moving again toward a system that can actually make useful regional climate prognoses. It is time we took on the serious task of determining the extent to which such a thing is possible. I also think the strategies I have hinted at here have broad applicability in other sciences.

I am trying to work through enough details of how to extend this Python mojo to scientific programming to make a credible proposal. I think I have enough to work with, but I'll have to treat the details as a trade secret for now. Meanwhile I would welcome comments.

Bipartisan Congressional Participation in Science Debate!

Chris and Sheril continue to do great work in reminding us how democracy is supposed to work.

Congressman Vern Ehlers, R-MI, and congressman Rush Holt, D-NJ, have agreed to co-chair the non-partisan initiative, called, whose signers also include fourteen Nobel laureates, several university presidents, other congresspersons of both parties, the president of the Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists, and the heads of several of America's major science organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

These congressmen are apparently "also scientists" whatever that might mean. Anyway it's great news!

More at Intersection and at the ScienceDebate site.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Orangutan's Last Stand

From the UNEP:
The management and enforcement of the protection regime in Indonesia is insufficient, and illegal activities - such as logging, hunting and mining, is rampant. The RAPPAM methodology, developed by WWF, has been used to assess the relative pressures and threats using questionnaires and workshops. Borneo and Sumatra are home to the Orangutan, and the protected areas represent vital habitat for the survival of the species.
Does Indonesia's national sovereignty trump everything else? Does Indonesia have a right to sell off its national parks, much as Texas claims to have? Do orangutans have rights? Do I have a right to live in a world where orangutans are not extinct?

I don't know, but I think that small worlds are different from big ones. Eventually obligations trump rights; the smaller the world the more so.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Excised Paragraphs

Spending XMas day trying yet again to convince NSF to let me, not so much rewrite the climate models, as redesign the architecture of the models to match the workflow.

Given the nature of the call, the following is probably not going to strengthen my argument, but I think it's interesting and I welcome your input. (I'd especially welcome commentary from JM and JM).


The difficulties in constructing working high-performance codes color the scientific process and other decision support networks dependent on it.

To some extent the problem in climate modeling is based on the origins of the component models in operational prediction communities (such as weather prediction), wherein the goal of software design is the cost-efficient optimal projection of the state of the atmosphere into the near future. It's often noted that this is an initial value problem while running similar codes in climate mode is a boundary condition problem; the objectives are substantially different. Nevertheless, a weather code has a climate and a climate code has weather; these are structurally similar. Accordingly, the methods of the weather modeling community are injected into climate methodologies.

The problem is not in the different mathematical structure of the purposes at hand. It is in the different social structures. A weather model is write-once, run many times. Its purpose is efficiency and correctness. A climate model is an experimental platform. While it is efficiency constrained, flexibility and transparency are key to its utility, keys which are of trivial importance in operational settings.

I believe that despite the very slow progress of the past decade or so, climate modeling has the potential to be vastly more skillful. It seems at least that this should be put to the test. Flexibility, transparency, interoperability, testability and accessibility to automated reasoning are needed. Climate modeling needs to partake of modern agile development methodologies such as those at Google and similar very high productivity companies. Certainly the potential value add is there. It's time that some institutional structure existed to support this.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Contemporary Discourse

Image available as fridge magnets and such.

See also profiles in courage, Fred Thompson style.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Inhofe 400

In case somebody asks you about it, you could send them here.

Friday, December 21, 2007

What is Education For Anyway?

This, found at Dot Earth, strikes me as very disturbing. I can only conclude that what passes for education in America isn't really education in any form needed to support the sort of Jeffersonian democracy that Americans aspire to.
A lot of us live in intellectual silos, it seems. A sobering survey of more than 1,700 voters, published by the Pew Research Center for the Public and the Press in January, found that more education, for example, does not shift attitudes, and instead actually hardens them.

In the survey, Republicans with a college degree were substantially more skeptical about global warming than Republicans without one. Democrats with a college degree were significantly more convinced global warming was a problem than were Democrats who didn’t go to college.

This is bad news for anyone commenting on Dot Earth who plans to try to win over readers with starkly different attitudes. My hope is that the interactions here will be a little bit like the scientific process, whittling away at unsupported arguments, building on areas of agreement and creating a trajectory toward understanding and meaningful action.

The linked survey also has a number of other daunting statistics, but I think the one that Andrew Revkin focuses on is particularly suprising and unfortunate.

Does anyone know of comparable data in other countries?

Update: I found comment #10 on the referenced Dot Earth article especially interesting among many interesting responses. Consider this advice:
So if you’re interested in bringing doubters/skeptics over to an understanding of the theory, be a little be humble, be as familiar with the limits of the theory as you are with the strengths, and try to resist making calls to ban SUVs, restrict reproductive rights, constrict the economy and other nutty ideas.
So what am I to do? Of course the science stands by itself, and I am glad that occasionally someone can be won over by reason.

On the other hand, I think the taboo against considering the nature of the growth imperative is very much a core issue in coming up with a sensible solution to our problems. Even if a growth-imperative-friendly greenhouse gas strategy is meaningful, something else will break soon enough. I don't understand why this particular belief, that it is "nutty" to "constrict" the "economy", is immune from skeptical inquiry.

Update: My response to comment #10 is visible as comment #131

Update: Some excellent postings by Edwin Hall on the Dot Earth article. Please take special note of this one.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Backhanded Optimism

"What an exciting time to be alive. All human systems are so bankrupt that they all need to be redesigned if we are to survive. How fun!" - Paul Hawken

h/t Leonardo DiCaprio via Adam Browning via Sarah van Schagen.

There's No Ultimate Tipping Point

Ray on a response on RealClimate says nicely something I have been trying to say to the doomsayers:
Edward Greisch: See the chart on page 274 of “Six Degrees” by Mark Lynas. Mark Lynas says we have until 2015 to BEGIN REDUCING our total CO2 output and we have until 2050 to actually reduce our CO2 output by 90%. Mark Lynas says if we don’t follow the schedule in Six Degrees, we will encounter positive feedbacks which will take the control of the climate out of our hands. Civilization may fall anyway well before 2050, but we can avoid going extinct by 2100. Mark Lynas says we have to hold the CO2 level to 400 parts per million to have a 75% chance of avoiding the positive feedbacks. Is Mark Lynas correct? 8 years is a very tough timetable to stop the building of coal fired power plants and replace some coal fired power plants with nuclear. I doubt that anything else other than a plague that kills a few billion people could make a dent within 8 years.

Response: From other estimates I’ve seen, Lynas’ timetable seems about right if the goal is to avoid 450 ppm. To avoid 400ppm, even his timetable is a bit of a stretch. However, with regard to the impacts of exceeding 400ppm (or even 450ppm), if you are quoting Lynas correctly I would differ with his assessment. There is no magic threshold crossed at 450 that commits us suddenly to the kind of catastrophic changes you mention, and certainly not to extinction of humanity by 2100. If we can’t hold the line at 450, there are still harms to be avoided by stopping short of doubling. If we can’t stop doubling, there are still harms to be avoided by preventing tripling, and so forth. But his general sentiment that we can’t drag our feet on this is correct. –raypierre]
No matter what the circumstance, unless we are finally extinct, there is always a best we can do. We should strive in our imperfect way to stay close to that.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Capitalism Being Creative

My objection to economics should not be taken as an objection to capitalism. I think capitalism is necessary, if not entirely sufficient. We just have to build in a few gentle incentives and stand back.

Here's a nice example of creative capitalism promoting efficiency: auto insurance based on miles travelled.

This is a very helpful idea for those of us who have to drive sometimes but don't like to or want to.

The Trouble with Science

Well, the 2008 budget is out, and despite earlier noises to the contrary, science funding continues to lag behind inflation. I'm not surprised.

The entire enterprise has problems from top to bottom.

I've been talking about the proposal review process, and I have lots of pent-up frustration about the managerial process.

Linus Torvalds attributes the success of open source to following a scientific openness model, but scientists are closed and university legal teams are cagey and possessive of codes and methods, sacrificing science in their search for the jackpot patent.

In conversation last week at AGU, James complained about the value add in journals, the gatekeepers of science, being provided by unpaid volunteers while the huge financial transfers go to corporate entities mostly concerned with binding and shipping antiquated bits of paper that nobody ever actually looks at anymore.

Atmoz points us to an article lamenting the state of science journalism, which justifiably asks for more participation from scientists, indeed, much more.

Meanwhile, once something even a little bit technically subtle comes across the field of vision of the political sector, there are enough clowns in scientist costumes around to derail any remotely sensible policy.

All of these problems come down to communication; communication among peers, communication across disciplines, communication within institutions, communication with students, and communication with the public. Communication involves listening as well as speaking.

Scientists these days are scrambling to meet their perceived demands. We have little time to absorb the work of others, little time to design meaningful collaborations, little time to communicate. The fraction of achievement to unit work is grossly suboptimal. A few especially energetic and brilliant people manage to thrive, but their work is buried in the vast array of mediocrity that fills the paper journals.

It seems to me that we need to restructure the design of the whole system. We can't add new demands without loosening existing ones. There needs to be ways to fit in a range of talents. The emphasis on gathering information needs to be reduced in favor of vetting it and communicating it. We need more time to think and less time proposing to think. We need to think critically about others' work and generously about them as people rather than the other way round.

It's amazing how much gets done in spite of all this. Imagine what could be achieved if we weren't working with ridiculous antiquated managerial structures.

Update: Interesting, if only tangentially relevant musings here, again via Atmoz:

Even if cognitive enhancers had the potential to shift the standings in the competitions between students and between scholars to a dramatic degree, should we say that there's a problem with the use of these drugs -- or instead with the way the system is set up? Is it more unfair that some professors use a drug that gives them the mental energy to grade papers until 3 AM, or that the workload on professors is such that they have to stay up grading papers until 3 AM in order to have time to meet the obligations of their job?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On Compromise

Monday, December 17, 2007

World Doesn't End in 2100

Or so most of us hope, anyway.

There is plenty more to geophysics than climate, so there were three very accessible climate change talks in huge rooms at the AGU meeting in San Francisco last week. Of the plenary climate change talks, Hansen's got most of the press attention and perhaps Lonnie Thompson's got the most attention from the attendees, but I thought Richard Alley's was the most interesting and compelling.

Here's a slide of Alley's that I think presented nothing new to climate scientists, but that the public seems not to understand. The climate disruptions we are seeing now are very small compared to the ones we are worrying about. The importance of the past record is in confirming our understanding, but our expectation in business-as-usual scenarios is very much worse than a linear extrapolation.

Please also note that so far, we have been exceeding the steepest of the standard scenarios. Also note that as Dr Alley points out, the fact that the graphs traditionally end in 2100 doesn't mean the temperatures don't keep going up after that.

So what does a warming of 6 C portend? There's a book out about that called Six Degrees that you might want to have a look at. To give you an idea of the scale, warming over land is typically double the global average, and 12 C is about 20 degrees F.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Non-failure in Bali

The possibility of more meaningful international action is not foreclosed, which is a victory of sorts. I like the way AP Correspondent Charles Hanley tells the story:

Then the delegate from Papua New Guinea leaned into his microphone.

"We seek your leadership," Kevin Conrad told the Americans. "But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way."

The U.N. climate conference exploded with applause, the U.S. delegation backed down, and the way was cleared Saturday for adoption of the "Bali Roadmap."

See also the New York Times story.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Something Nice About Economists

Well, Krugman is one so they can't all be totally nuts.

See if this reminds you of anything, by the way:
Part of it was the usual bubble psychology. Economists like to cite Stein’s Law: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” I think it needs to be paired with another law — let’s call it Glassman’s Law — along the lines of “If something unsustainable goes on for a while, there will be people claiming it can go on forever.”


And I know that when I began writing about housing, I got a lot of mail from people claiming that I was only saying that there was a bubble because I hated Bush. Honest.

Anyway, it’s just amazing. The reality of a housing bubble was staring us in the face — but nobody wanted to see it.

Cato Dude Replies

I am not sure it is a good idea for Grist to entertain submissions from the Cato Institute, seeing as the Cato Institute is unlikely to entertain submission from Grist regulars. That said, apparently my counter-provocation about economics was sufficient to elicit a reply from Jerry Taylor, the Cato-ite who made the grand claim to the effect that economists and only economists are qualified to make difficult decisions.

See whether you think he addressed my points.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Do Politicians Understand Science at All?

Science Debate 2008Do politicians understand science at all? OK, silly question, I guess.

Still, I don't think we should allow a conspiracy of number-averse journalists and political operatives prevent any serious quantitative reasoning in public discourse. It's time we grew up.

So I am very pleased to be listed among the blogs calling for a presidential debate on scientific matters, an effort kicked off by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum at Intersection which has garnered quite significant support already.

I'd actually like to see as many as four debates: science and education, engineering/energy/infrastructure. health/medicine, and ecology/environment/global change. That's asking for too much I suppose. Something would be much better than nothing.

Unfortunately I was in an airplane this afternoon and couldn't participate in the lifting of the "news embargo" at 2 PM EST. Let me stand up and be counted now; better late than never.

Let me also remind you of this snippet from the Texas Observer:
Geologist John Anderson says he’s tired of explaining the map, and the science behind it, to city officials. “If they do not understand it, they should not be in public office,” he says sternly.
I think this general principle should apply to the head of state as well as to the Galveston city council, don't you?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Bali Story on DKos

Easily the best essay to come out of the Bali conference so far, and probably the best that will. Read it. [Note: link fixed; thanks Anna.]

Here's an excerpt:

Ultimately, as the government heavyweights arrive in Nusa Dua, the truly key questions to ask – the answers to which form the crucible in which all the answers to all the other key questions must be tested – is whether our political leaders are serious about going far and going quickly on global warming. And whether we – Americans, Chinese, Balinese – are serious about making them get serious if they fall short.

With that in mind, let me recommend that one climate delegate from each of the 188 nations in attendance take an hour’s trip eastward from Nusa Dua along the coast to Candi Dasa. Pronounced chán-di-dassa, Balinese for "Ten Temples," it’s that little dot on the eastern horn of crescent Amuk Bay about two-thirds of the way to Bali’s easternmost point at Amed.

When the tide comes in at Candi Dasa, the concrete sea wall causes a rent in the water. At night the sea wall can look as black and solid as granite, and in the early misty morning light, pearly as a shell. By day, it is a blackened, rippling scar, an ugly reminder of what it replaced.

And So Say All of Us

2007 Bali Climate Declaration by Scientists

The 2007 IPCC report, compiled by several hundred climate scientists, has unequivocally concluded that our climate is warming rapidly, and that we are now at least 90% certain that this is mostly due to human activities. The amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere now far exceeds the natural range of the past 650,000 years, and it is rising very quickly due to human activity. If this trend is not halted soon, many millions of people will be at risk from extreme events such as heat waves, drought, floods and storms, our coasts and cities will be threatened by rising sea levels, and many ecosystems, plants and animal species will be in serious danger of extinction.

The next round of focused negotiations for a new global climate treaty (within the 1992 UNFCCC process) needs to begin in December 2007 and be completed by 2009. The prime goal of this new regime must be to limit global warming to no more than 2 ºC above the pre-industrial temperature, a limit that has already been formally adopted by the European Union and a number of other countries.

Based on current scientific understanding, this requires that global greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by at least 50% below their 1990 levels by the year 2050. In the long run, greenhouse gas concentrations need to be stabilised at a level well below 450 ppm (parts per million; measured in CO2-equivalent concentration). In order to stay below 2 ºC, global emissions must peak and decline in the next 10 to 15 years, so there is no time to lose.

As scientists, we urge the negotiators to reach an agreement that takes these targets as a minimum requirement for a fair and effective global climate agreement.

If you are familiar with the science you will recognize some of the signers of this declaration. The Nature blog has a bit more on this.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Economists Untested Claim to Oligarchy

The only way to a soft landing is down.

In a brief article on DeSmog by Emily Murgatroyd, a Cato Institute type, Jerry Taylor, is quoted as saying
scientists are in no position to intelligently guide public policy on climate change. Scientists can lay out scenarios, but it is up to economists to weigh the costs and benefits and many of them say the costs of cutting emissions are higher than the benefits.
Can we consider this claim, or is it somehow protected by a taboo? Is one a Marxist or even a Stalinist for pointing out that economists are not, themselves, necessarily, right about everything?

Climate science has been subject to a great deal of scrutiny, not all of it undeserved. I would be the last to claim that climate science is conducted impeccably and flawlessly. Though many of the problems are widely misconstrued, much of it indeed traces to motivational structures. At least we are constrained, though, by established physics.

Economists, meanwhile, claim to have the key to rationality. A claim in more desperate need of challenging I cannot imagine, yet on it goes, essentially unchallenged. Is infinite growth of some meaningful quantity possible in a finite space? No scientist is inclined to think so, but economists and their hypnotized victims habitually makes this claim without bothering to defend it with anything but "I'm, an economist and I say so", or perhaps more thoughtfully, "hey, it's worked until now".

You know, the gods of Easter Island smiled on its people "until now" for a long time, until they didn't.

The presumptions are so pervasive that great swaths of economic theory collapse in a singularity if a negative growth rate occurs. What, for instance, does a negative discount rate imply? Accordingly there is a presumption of growth the pervades everything. Even the Stern report, which is based on enough understanding of our circumstances as to see that unconstrained carbon emissions are to be avoided, has to torture economics a bit to come up with the result, and even so speaks of the consequences of failure in terms of "slowed growth".

Well, the cockroaches and jellyfish won't consider it a period of decline, I guess...

As for our species, we need a new economic theory.

Maybe what I'm saying would carry more weight if I formalized it a bit. How about this: everything economists say suffers from the bias of an implicit conditional. Two implicit conditionals in fact: economists provide advice presuming that growth is unlimited and that endless growth is desireable. They never bother to defend either condition on which their advice is based. (I think even the quantity which is "growing" is ill-defined.)

These conditionals were good approximations in the past. Once the finite nature of our world comes into play they become very bad approximations.

The whole growth thing becomes a toxic addiction. The only path to a soft landing is down; we in the overheated economies need to learn not just to cope with decline but to celebrate it. We need not just an ideology but a formal theory that can not only cope with reduced per capita impact but can target it.

I think the soft landing is still within our grasp. The longer we treat the people who call themselves economists as a priesthood above criticism rather than as a human subculture with serious dysfunctions, though, the bumpier the best landing we can achieve gets.

Climate change is just a symptom, though an increasingly salient one. The problem lies in our (humanity's) collective failure to consider what human decency means and to use that understanding to manage what money means. We don't have to listen to people who get that backwards.

Note: I submitted a somewhat clearer version of this to Grist. I'll let you know if/when it appears. Sunday evening: still not on Grist but here's a closely related article there by some other folks that I found very interesting.

Update 12/10: This is posted on Grist and is getting quite a few comments.

Update 12/11: "Tidal" offers us an immensely valuable link. (Thanks!) I am entirely enthusiastic about the contents of this talk by Josh Farley. He talks a bit too fast, which is a bit unpleasant, but that lets him get a lot in within a relatively short talk. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Massive Storm, Flooding in WA

Some unusual storm activity in the Pacific Northwest, with hurricane force winds, severe flooding. The interstate is closed, many smaller roads destroyed.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

2nd Life and Excessive Travel

In answer to not unreasonable complaints about the carbon impact of holding global climate conferences in out-of-the-way resorts like Bali, it's worth noting that a shadow conference is being held on being held on Second Life by Nature magazine, under the inevitable rubric "Second Nature".

I am getting my Second Life tonight (as soon as I come up with a name). Will keep you posted.

A stray thought

Maybe the commodity that substitutes for gasoline is civilization...

See No Evil

Nature News reports on our declining capacities for remote earth observation.
Climate scientists have a list of a couple of dozen 'essential climate variables' (see 'The dimensions of the problem') that they would wish to see monitored in perpetuity.
The story they tell isn't a simple one, as some claim is the case with DSCOVR a.k.a "GoreSat".

However, it does seem like whatever you might think about climate simulation you probably ought to be in favor of data. This is slightly more important than Mars right now.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Power of Words

Two articles appearing in the NY Times recently talk about the power of words, coming to strikingly different conclusions. Andrew Revkin has a somewhat morose article about coming to grips with the crisis entitled "Are Words Worthless in the Climate Fight?" (The commentary there, which I haven't read as I write this, promises to be quite interesting.)

Yet, there appears in the health section an article about making healthier foods more attractive merely by renaming them. Apparently, for instance, "when regular peas were renamed 'power peas,' the number of children who ate them doubled."

Perhaps the problem is only that the truth has inferior marketing to the fiction.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Catastrophizing Disempowers

A recent article was linked on Grist.
A short new briefing (PDF) from the International Institute Environment and Development (IIED) says that media coverage of climate change has improved, but ...

"The false balance that has been a problem for years appears to be declining but a catastrophe narrative that disempowers people remains. Those supplying the media with information -- scientists, politicians and NGOs -- share some of the blame. The way they and the media frame climate change will affect how audiences respond."
It's time we started crafting a more nuanced message: yes, it's serious, but yes, we can do something about it.

New Essay on Correlations

Chaos Doesn't Matter, on the predictability of climate change.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Words I'm Giving Up for the New Year


I'm going to say a word. You tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Ready?


What's that mean, "model"?

Did you hear the one about the software engineer, the climatologist, the psychologist, the statistician and the fashion photographer?

I am swearing off that word. It's got so many meanings. Any sentence with the word 'model' in it is likely to get you into trouble.

I'm giving the words "uncertainty" and "feedback" a very dubious eye as well. I am currently inclined to think they are also not usable in mixed company, but I'm not sure I can manage to go cold turkey on those. No, you shouldn't be too hard on yourself at New Year's.

Oh, and "error bars". What's up with that?

I never want to see those error bounds things again without a clear description of what you mean by it. "This is the manufacturer's spec on the measurement instrument" would be fine, but it's been a long time since I've seen one of those.

Does your error bar mean "that's how confused I think I am"?

I mean, seriously... Are you 100% sure that you're 75% sure of that? Rilly? What is that, an "imprimatur"? Do you guys get them from your spiritual leader or what? Because, you know, we don't get those.

Seriously, if I had some error bars I'd be slapping em on everything in sight; if you know how to detect a sure thing don't you think you should be out there making the most of it?

If science worked better, there would be a definition of the word "model" like that of the word "energy" which means something very specific in formal conversation, but there isn't such a definition. The word is a complete mess of vaguely associated concepts. I'm serious that dropping the word "model" from my vocabulary has greatly clarified my writing.

To climatologists looking askance at me here, the word you are probably casting about for is 'simulation'.

West Antarctica

A recent feature in EOS by people at William's erstwhile institution and at my own adresses the lack of a clear constraint on the rate at which the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will fail, focusing on evidence that the mass may well leak out of an obscure and hitherto little-explored region called the Amundsen Embayment.

Want to know where that is? This map will draw your eye right to it. It's the place where the Antarctic surface elevation is dropping fastest. The current rates are not especially alarming. It's the lack of any obvious mechanism to constrain that rate from increasing by a couple of orders of magnitude that's the issue.

The base of this ice sheet is below sea level. That means the mechanics of its retreat is very different from the mechanics of retreat of land ice sheets. It is informed consensus that the very rapid sea level rise episodes of the not-too-distant past resulted from unstable decay of similar structures. A mechanism for abrupt retreat has been proposed.

Let me try to be clear. This is not to say that a couple of meters of sea level rise is imminent. It is to say that it might be relatively sudden when it happens, and that it might be imminent.

It's worth investigating and its worth modeling. I don't want to mess around in the politics of the situation too much, but it reinforces my distress about how science is funded to note that while the right people (I'm not speaking of myself, by the way; I would be pleased and lucky to be peripherally involved; I like being around people who are smarter than I am) are willing to do the work, there seems to be some difficulty identifying the "right pot of money".

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Holocaust Analogy

Have a look at Averting Our Eyes on Dot Earth. Some of the main points are not unusual.
So far that seems to have been the story: the special interests have been cleverer than us, preventing the public from seeing the crisis that should be in view.
The peculiarity is the analogy to the Nazi Holocaust that Hansen makes. He seems at first to be backing down a bit.
I regret that my words caused pain to some readers. I hope that they will accept my apology for having caused discomfort, an apology that is heartfelt.
Yet Hansen walks right back into the trap he just squeezed out of at the end of his discussion. It seems quite deliberate.
A related alternative metaphor, perhaps less objectionable while still making the most basic point, comes to mind in connection with an image of crashing of massive ice sheets fronts into the sea — an image of relevance to both climate tipping points and consequences (sea level rise). Can these crashing glaciers serve as a Krystal Nacht, and wake us up to the inhumane consequences of averting our eyes?

Alas, that metaphor probably would be greeted with the same reaction from the people who objected to the first.
It is very difficult for me to deal with this with any equanimity, but I feel I ought to say something.

I understand as well as anybody that people still get very upset about Hitler. My elderly father, still alive, certainly has a right to; he was a Jew in Slovakia in the 1940s, and most of his friends and relatives didn't survive the war. His father died in the gas chambers, as did my oldest cousin. My aunt, still alive, was there too. She has a number tattooed on her arm, and not out of a sense of fashion. My late mother spent the war hiding in closets and under beds.

I think us descendants of holocaust victims should stop being so attached to the uniqueness of our suffering. It was a particularly horrible event in human history, and in some ways it has no parallel, but on the other hand there have been other uniquely horrible events with no parallel.

If we compulsively complete the destruction of the earth out of some idiotic sense of inevitable economic destiny it will also be uniquely horrible.

It's dangerous to make analogies on this scale. I think Hansen believes there eventually comes a time where it is dangerous not to make them as well.

Whether that time has already arrived is hard to say. I certainly would not speak in the terms Hansen has spoken, perhaps because the comparison is more palpably terrifying and painful for me than it is for him. It is hard for those of us who are suffering losses from this disaster every day of our lives even sixty years after its end to hear the analogy come from the lips of those for whom it is a rather academic matter. Thus perhaps it is for the likes of me and not the likes of him to say such things. I am not sure, for the likes of me may lack the courage.

Alas, if time for such talk hasn't arrived, it certainly seems to be approaching rather than receding.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Burnt Orange and Green

A typical Texas intersection
(I'm not exaggerating quite as much as you think I am,
there are literally dozens of intersections on this scale in and around the five biggest cities):

Update on the image above: I should also point out for the non-Texan reader that Texas "urban" (I use the term in its loose southwestern sense) expressways are typically six lanes wide, and paralleled by two-lane one-way commercial streets for a total of ten lanes in four distinct paths. Where two of these expressways cross, it is a requirement that each of the eight crossing paths not only continue but have a path to each of the others for a total of 64 paths; of which twenty-four (the four right turns and the four U turns on the service roads, and all crossings from an express path to an express path) are expected to be unencumbered by stops. In order that I not get too acclimated to this nonsense I insist on calling the U-turns "Texas U-Turns".

What you see in the picture is the canonical intersection between two large Texas roads. Similar structures are being built and planned daily to replace that hideous inconvenience, the traffic light. For instance, there is currently a vast project to eliminate the embarassment of the possibility of as many as three stops on the stretch of Highway 183 between the airport and I-35. Clearly an expenditure in the neighborhood of tens of millions of dollars to replace a traffic light is a wise expenditure of funds, which may explain the state of the Texas school system. Not to mention the bike routes. Or not. I'm new here. Who the hell am I to say?

On the plus side my commute to work will only take seven minutes, provided I own a car.

Morning Edition, November 26, 2007 · Texas emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other state. And if Texas were a country, it would be the seventh-largest carbon dioxide polluter in the world. More...

Although second in population to California by a wide margin, Texas has higher emissions.

Texas has a much higher per capita carbon emission rate than other large states, but that is because emissions in mining and refining are attributed to the state with the facility, though they should be charged to the end user of the energy. It's awfully inefficient here and in some circles conservation is actually frowned upon. Yet it's not quite as bad as the statistics indicate.

Texas somehow is just an energy nexus. After all that coasting on oil wealth, and the weird Enron incident, now it turns out we are at the continental sweet spot for wind energy, and vast windfarms are sprouting on the high plains.

This proves there's no justice, I suppose.

A related NPR story goes a long way toward explaining the Texas aesthetic.
Wind energy is transforming the landscape here. Look in nearly any direction from Roscoe and you can see the white towers of wind turbines rising into the cerulean sky like giant candlesticks. The sight of rotating white blades on a distant mesa is now as common as bobbing pump jacks.

Although people in other parts of the nation say the 400-foot-tall structures are unsightly, people around Roscoe have a different view.

"My wife and I talked about this the other day. We were coming in from church, and she said, 'You know, at first I really thought they were kind of trashy looking,'" says Daylon Althof, a farmer who has one turbine going up on his land. "But she said, 'The more I see these going up, they're kind of beautiful because we know what they're going to provide for the economy around here.'"
I always have found them beautiful.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Latest on History of Climatology

My brief summary of the role of Vilhelm Bjerknes, on Correlations.

Does Pauchari Go Too Far?

Don't get me wrong. I'm at least as nervous about all this climate change business as most people. The idea of "tipping points" doesn't irk me the way it, for some reason, irks William. And I think we are in bigger trouble already than the general public seems to appreciate.

Still, I doubt this is justifiable, either in substance or in ethics:
The panel, co-winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, said the world would have to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 to avert major problems. "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late, there is not time," said Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and economist who heads the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "What we do in the next 2-3 years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."
Supose it's 2013 and we've still done nothing. Is it time to give up and have an end-of-the-world party or what?


There's always a best we can do, and we should always try to do that. There's no now or never until the last breeding pair of humans is gone (and we're a very long way from that).

Yet Pauchari seems to be suggesting that in a few years we will have failed so utterly that there will be nothing we can do.

As far as I know there is nothing special about 2012 in the reports. Admittedly we have to draw the line somewhere, and in fact most countries drew that line years ago at Kyoto and proceeded to ignore it. Now that we are far across that line we need to draw another one, and more effectively. It's fair for IPCC to make that assertion in the most vigorous way. Putting a number onto the estimates of the dangerous time scale is at least arguably fine for an individual, like Hansen.

On the other hand, doing so as Pauchari does on behalf of the IPCC is a very troubling matter even without the false precision. It is a matter of no little concern if the IPCC starts to turn into what it has been accused of being, that is, primarily an advocacy group, never mind an irresponsible one.

Science must be represented. It isn't Pauchari's job to pull numbers out of a hat.

I was sitting on the above article wondering if it would be better or worse to publish it, and it sort of scrolled out of consciousness. But then David Appell said something very similar on Quark Soup and I found myself agreeing. So let me say "me too".

The situation is bad enough without making it worse than it is. The last thing we need to is to give more ammunition to the people who think it's all over so what the heck...

Let me repeat my position. There's always a best we can do, and we should always try to do that.

This principle will not expire in three years or ten. It will not expire at all until we all expire with it.

Thus I violate my resolution not to write anything until New Year's. In my defense, somebody else said it first. So it doesn't count.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Runaway Train

Note to those visiting from Rabett Run: I believe Eli's posting is more closely related to Reply to Revkin than to this present article, which probably makes more sense read second.

On the thread Reply to Revkin, John Fleck asks
It would be useful if you, as one of the scientists in the room, would be specific about what you see as "the cliff" we're all marching toward. One of the interesting strengths of Lomborg's book is that he gets quite specific in discussing the various hypothesized cliffs, and the costs and benefits of various approaches to not going off of them.
I'm still thinking about that, but fortunately I can at least point to the freshest hot from the oven scientific consensus fretting from the IPCC. Here is the IPCC's Fourth Synthesis Report Summary.

Fellow Texan Andrew Dessler has an excellent summary of the summary on Grist.

An alternative answer to John came up when, after weeks of nagging, friend Howie finally convinced me to watch the documentary What A Way To Go. (The link takes you to the film trailers. Watch them for a taste of the what the film has to offer.)

Using the metaphor of a runaway train which Dennis at Samadhisoft is also fond of, the film is a poetic and a morose compendium of what we're up against that spares little time for techno-optimism, and what time it spares is scornful.

I don't ultimately agree with the film at all.

I am not holding up the film as a summary of what I believe we should do. It pretty much suggests we try as individuals to act with a certain futile dignity and hope a few of us survive. I do not appreciate that answer.

I understand the suspicion toward quantitative and technical thinking that many people who appreciate the depths of our quandary hold, and I'm not immune to it myself, but I also understand that only a careful and vigorous technocratic society can steer us through the coming turbulence to anything like a soft landing. I feel we have to try, and that the best we can do must be done collectively. It's our future vs. the detritus of our past.

Yet I think no thinking person should miss seeing it.

What a Way to Go is a deeply moving and deeply thought out description of how we have stacked the deck against ourselves. In no part of the film where I consider myself well-informed did I encounter any errors of substance. Which is pretty daunting, as the film is terrifying from beginning to end.

If you look at the big picture, at the whole earth as a system, well, it's not hard to see it as an unholy mess. The film's impresario Tim Bennett manages to say so in the most poignant, convincing and moving way. Unlike Tim, I believe there are answers. However, Tim has done a very fine job of asking the right questions.

Let it serve, for now, as an alternative answer to John's challenge.

Danes and Dutch and Dead TVs

Our cheesy little VCR/TV combo (our only television) almost ate an irreplaceable VHS tape that had been lent to us. Also the picture has been declining. We rarely even plug the thing in, now that we watch movies on the 20" iMac. So now we will likely have no TV at all. The problem is that we have no idea what to do with the corpse of the thing.

It's not really a very Texan question. Even the unrelentingly hip Central Market (world class live music accompanied by the antics of dancing toddlers at your main grocery, providing a level of civilization that is enviable anywhere and anywhen) offers no bottle recycling at their cafe.

Those who despair that sufficient social change is possible should consider some of the examples set by Northern Europe. Consider the achievements of the Danes and the Dutch in managing household waste.

"In wildness is the preservation of the world", Thoreau said. I say "in techno-liberalism is the preservation of the wild".

Planning is possible and necessary. Let's do some.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Nature vs Real estate

Galveston TX is built on a shifting sandbar off the Texas coast, not far from Houston.

Galveston, it appears, is in big trouble even if sea level rise doesn't accelerate. The Texas Observer has an article called "That Sinking Feeling" detailing how the beach boom town is in denial about the fact that nature trumps real estate. The article only vaguely alludes to the likely outcome, which is that, at least for a while, until some day when the entire enterprise is abandoned, the less well-connected population of the Texas interior will be paying a lot of money to maintain what will essentially become (and is in parts already becoming) a vast and charmless concrete pier.

Texas geophysicists have stirred the pot with an alarming map showing high risk of near-term erosion of large parts of the island.
Geologist John Anderson says he’s tired of explaining the map, and the science behind it, to city officials. “If they do not understand it, they should not be in public office,” he says sternly.
Yet the map is based on an assumption of no acceleration in sea level rise at all.

Unsurprisingly and I think rather poignantly, Galveston real estate interests haven't really picked up on all the clues we've been shipping them. "Global warming, sea-level rise, whether it's man-made or it's the natural process we're going through, that's to be determined," one of their leaders, Jerry Mohn, says.

The same issue of the Observer has an unsurprising but remarkably well-stated editorial about climate change. It's probably worth quoting the juicy bits:

An unassailable majority of the world’s scientists believe that climate change is real, that human activities contribute to it, and that the consequences will be devastating. Yet our president and our governor—such learned men as they are—insist it’s not true. (White House Press Secretary Dana Perino noted last week that global warming has an upside: Fewer people will die from colds. We did not make that up.)

Their flight of fancy might be amusing if they weren’t taking all of us aboard with them. Like many conservatives, they have a curious relationship with science, seeming to believe that adamant ideology can somehow trump empirical data. Perhaps their free-market bent leads them to believe that an invisible hand will hold the polar ice caps together. Or maybe theirs is a faith-based approach: Global warming is a divine creation, or God will come down and make everything all right.

Faulty science is quaint when it’s just a few rubes publishing flat-earth pamphlets. But when their intellectual bedfellows are setting our public policy, things get a bit dicier. Under President Bush, eight years that should have been spent facing up to global warming will have been squandered. Gov. Perry seems to believe that ridiculing the notion of climate change will help win him the second spot on the next GOP ticket or a cabinet post in a future Republican administration.

We don’t have time for this nonsense anymore.

The Storm King

I've been trying to pull together a history of climatology on WIRED Science - Correlations.

While the large scale behavior of the atmosphere is complex and hard to grasp, it occurred to me that the basic ideas for understanding a rainstorm cloud were in place by the early nineteenth century. I wondered if history had captured the story of the person who had put the pieces together. I wasn't able to find an answer last week, but I inquired on a couple of mailing lists, and my question on the global change mailing list caught the attention of Tom Adams, who came up with some very interesting information.

The genius in question was the American, James Pollard Espy, who published his theory in 1841, to less than universal acclaim.

Read more on Correlations.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Well, one way to get science done is to not bother with the grants, the bureaucracy, the reports, the committees, and the modest income, and rather to just be a bum doing science.

Here's a garbled article on the Telegraph that reports that an unemployed but healthy and robust fellow has created a promising "Theory of Everything", i.e., a mathematical foundation that accounts for both gravity and quantum theory. It sure looks a lot like string theory at the vast distance I view it from, (something group theory something something) but apparently the math is actually a lot simpler than that called for by string theory. You could have fooled the reporter who blithers "E8 encapsulates the symmetries of a geometric object that is 57-dimensional and is itself is 248-dimensional," and to be honest you could have fooled me.

For all I know this is completely bogus, but I really like the back story. Oh, yeah, the article is headlined Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything .

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Cat 5 hits Bangladesh

This looks awfully serious. Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum at Intersection are following the story closely.

Update: Sheril vouches for the person who vouches for the following. I'll vouch for Sheril. Let's call it a network of trust. are some links to donations that will reach the devastated areas immeadiately:

Islamic relief: (They are good, and I personally recommend them)

Bangladesh Red Crescent:

The Hunger Project Bangladesh (I've worked for them in the past)

Posted by: afreen | November 17, 2007 9:20 PM\

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reply to Revkin

I posted approximately this on Dot Earth:

I am beginning to see more clearly what Andrew Revkin is aiming at here in his celebration of the "middle way". I think it's mistaken in emphasis.

I consider myself a reasonable liberal, and what I see here in this pursuit of the middle is a reasonable liberal impulse, so I sympathize. Unfortunately, that impulse is taken to illogical extremes. It is not the case that things are either terrifying or benign or in between, and in fact one of the problems with climate change is that none of these positions is a reasonable summary.

The idea of business as usual is terrifying, and after twenty years of perfectly clear warnings, some of which have already come to fruition, there is little sign that business has any intent of being conducted in any unusual way.

Perfectly good solutions exist that are only modestly inconvenient and only modestly technically demanding. However, they impose immediate costs and deliver mostly long range benefits. Our decision making systems quite efficiently discount anything of the sort.

Accordingly we march lemminglike toward the cliff, even though we don't actually need to. Anyway, that's my position, and I think it's Gore's position, and I think it's the position of most people who think about it a lot. Is it a middle position?

If a man with a wild haircut, tattoos and a nosering dressed in an impeccably tailored three piece suit is modestly dressed, yes, I suppose so.

Sometimes the truth itself is extreme. Nature does not subscribe to our political principles, and it is a futile sort of moderation that tries to get reality to compromise with culture, no matter how refined or well-intentioned that culture may be.

We are not necessarily doomed; we have the technical capacity to solve our problems, but we need to develop substantially changed decision making mechanisms. There are places where there is no room for compromise or the friendly impulse to split the difference.

For instance, net carbon emissions must not only stop growing but must shrink to near zero or negative values as quickly as possible. Stabilizing them at present values isn't a compromise worth considering, reasonable though it might sound.

Update 11/16: I missed what James had said about this business in January. Go read it.

Update 11/18: You have to give Revkin credit for livening up the conversation. Tim Lambert has some interesting thoughts, at Deltoid, have a look at my conversation with John Fleck at Inkstain, and don't miss Revkin vs David Roberts.

I'd especially like to point out "z"'s comment on Deltoid which I will take the liberty of quoting here:
As I always repeat, to the point of boredom, several years ago, scientists said the North Atlantic fisheries were being overfished and suggested cutbacks. The fishing industry had an opposing point of view. The government(s), Solomonlike, split the diference, allowing a bigger annual catch than the scientists recommended, but less than the fishing industry wanted. And it worked out so well, that the fishing industry collapsed.
Update 11/21: See also my first attempt to come to grips with Revkin's misguided middlism.

David Roberts has picked up the thread again on Grist today, referring prominently to your humble narrator. Steve Bloom's comment there is worthy of consideration. Oddly, he is saying the opposite of what I am saying, and yet I find it a much more useful model than Revkin's. That puzzles me.

See what you think:
To put forward what may be way too irreducibly simple a paradigm for some, IMHO there are people who sincerely want to avoid dangerous climate change and then there's everyone else. There is no middle.
Update 11/24: see also The Runaway Train

Selling the Incomprehensible

Dear science funding agency;

I understand the desire for anonymous reviewers. I understand the reluctance to negotiate the terms of our engagement. I understand the reasons not to put proposers in touch with competitors who are also potential collaborators. I may not agree with these approaches but I understand them.

What I can't understand is why I have to act as if you were on a distant planet.

I can't understand why I don't get to put together a powerpoint presentation, and why I don't get to respond to reviewers' questions until it's too late.

It's clear that reviewers misunderstand proposals. Of course they do. That's not a criticism. It's an inevitable consequence of the complexity of what we do. These things are complicated, and your reviewers have a limited amount of time to get the idea.

The formalism of printed documents with tight page limits is just silly. It's proven every time we get our reviews back. Reviewers frequently miss the point. Didn't some of your reviewers miss the point of your last proposal? Most of them? Shouldn't we be making some efforts to be sure we understand each other?

Better ways have been developed to convey complex ideas. They are called "presentation" and "conversation".

I want to do what I would do in a business setting. I want to look you in the eye and explain to you why you would be foolish not to fund my proposal; i.e.;

1) that you have a problem,
2) that I know how to solve it
3) that my team has or can find the right people to solve it
4) that those objections which make any sense are already accounted for in the plan

If I can't look you in the eye, could we at least try instant messaging?

Why do you insist on presentation mechanisms that are practically guaranteed to fail to communicate the ideas and address the objections?

Why do you refuse to talk to me? What is the purpose of making multi-million dollar investments in an information vacuum?

Thanking you in advance for your prompt reply.

Update: Bryan Lawrence has substantial things to say about this, on his blog.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Geoengineering again

A really excellent article on geoengineering appears on Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth in which In It reader RM Reiss has already commented briefly but cleverly. Revkin also points to related NYTimes articles by Cornelia Dean and William Broad.

I've been hard on journalists in general and Revkin in particular of late, so let me take this opportunity to emphasize that not all journalism is off base and the NYTimes in particular is usually very helpful, at least in this regard. (I think their architecture criticism verges on criminally insane, for instance, but that's another matter...)

Dean quotes David Keith of the University of Calgary:
One way or another, Dr. Keith said, in 200 years the earth will be “an artifact,” a product of human design.
I don't know if I agree with that. The world will never be an artifact, but we are already well into the anthropocene where we are by far the dominant surface process. Or as I've said recently, we've already taken the wheel, so we'd damned well better learn to drive.

The YouTube video featured on the Dot Earth article concludes something like "ultimately it comes down to the wisdom of our politicians. I'd best not say anything more about that." But something else Keith says really bears thinking about:

And who should decide what action should be taken or when?

“I have no idea,” Dr. Keith replied. But just as international organizations were formed to regulate the use of radio frequencies, organize air traffic control, track space debris and deal with other problems, it might be possible to create an international organization to deal with these questions, he said.

“We are backing our way into global governance, very slowly,” he said.

That won't go over big in Texas either... But the world is less like a frontier and more like a boat every day. I've never heard of a boat with two hundred captains.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Origins of Climatology

I have an essay on this topic at Correlations, intended as part of a series. Comments and corrections are welcome.

A Blogger's Lament

This is a nice summary of the problem with blogging, with analogies to software development and zen.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Fall Cancelled after 3 Billion Seasons

"As much as we'd like to see it stay, fall will not be returning for another season," National Weather Service president John Hayes announced during a muggy press conference Nov. 6. "Fall had a great run, but sadly, times have changed."

Celsius, Fahrenheit and Journalists

Unfortunately, comments are closed on "Find the Error" on RealClimate.

So I'll use this space to point out that the error (equating a difference of 1 degree C equivalent to a difference of about 34 F) is not without precedent. The following is a submission from myself to the what was then the comp.risks usenet group in 1995.
I thought the RISKS readership shouldn't miss this gem, posted in sci.geo.meteorology by (Steven Babin at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory):

> There seems to be some confusion over the giant iceberg. [...]
> The Reuters news agency reported that the iceberg was 656 feet 2
> inches thick, implying a tremendous accuracy of measurement. It
> is actually 200 m thick and the reporter converted this to English
> units. Reuters also reported that this event was the result of a
> 36.5 F increase in temperature since the 1940's. It was actually
> a 2.5 C increase. The reporter apparently converted this to F
> as a temperature rather than a temperature difference.
> I don't know whether this speaks more for the educational level of
> reporters or more for the fact we should all be using SI units.

The risks of the transmission of technical information by people who don't know what they are talking about will be familiar to RISKS readers. Perhaps more striking is the risk that something as simple as a Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion algorithm can be misused by making invalid assumptions about context.

Michael Tobis

I am pleased to note that the RISKS Digest ("Forum On Risks To The Public In Computers And Related Systems") is still in business and still moderated by Peter Neumann. Or displeased. I'm not sure. There's too much to read....

Friday, November 9, 2007

Revkin's Imaginary Middle Stance

Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth discusses climate change scaremongering (off-putting) vs climate change formalism (invisible). He asks an interesting question.
In a line that didn’t make it into an article, [a source] said that a quieter tone in describing the problem “could be interpreted as satisfaction with the status quo.”

So if quiet warnings are ignored, and the politics of fear is as empty as pornography, what is a message on climate risks and responses that is true to the science, but also effective?

Any ideas?
I don't know. I do like the question.

On the other hand, it seems the legal/political habits of mind are so pervasive even among journalists that even the best of them, like Revkin, can not only make but repeat clunkers like this from the same article:
I explored these questions in the context of global warming last year in a piece called “Yelling Fire on a Hot Planet,” and then again last January in a story exploring the durable, but largely invisible, “middle stance ” amid all the shouting. Scientists holding this view say the world should move assertively to curtail emissions of heat-trapping smokestack and tailpipe gases, but mainly to limit the worst outcomes decades down the road — not so much because such actions could reduce today’s climate-related risks.
This doesn't ring true for me. I don't think asserting that there is an "invisible middle stance" among scientists is a useful model.

Anyone who knows anything about the climate system, including but not limited to geoscientists, knows that greenhouse-relevant actions taken now have minute immediate effects. Arguably, the whole reason we have a problem at all is that effects of anthropogenic emissions changes are cumulative over decades, far outside the political cycle and unaccounted for by conventional politics. That's not the "middle", that's the facts of the matter. Whether your attitude about that is alarmed, sanguine or resigned comes from personality, political or philosophical differences, not from scientific "stances".

On the whole, I like what Revkin does, but his continuing efforts to put climate science into camps or "stances" suffers from the usual confusions.

While there certainly are camps on open technical questions, there really isn't a left, right and middle in climate science. Whatever "stance" we take on the big social and political questions is outside the purview of science. This is why Revkin's "middle way" stuff rings hollow for most of us.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

What's Wrong with Web Polls

From LW (full credit to whom if LW so desires) and Think Progress. Feel free to not take this seriously. The contender among the real science blogs is Bad Astronomy, which is, in fact, very good.
At 5:00 PM (EST) tonight, voting will close in the fifth annual Weblog Awards, "the world's largest blog competition." In the competition, participants are allowed to "vote once every 24 hours in each poll."

Currently leading the field in the "Best Science Blog" category is a website whose work has gone a long way in furthering anti-scientific interests, the global warming denialist blog Climate Audit.

Climate Audit is run by Stephen McIntyre, a Canadian and "former mining executive" who has become the darling of climate skeptics by challenging the conclusions of Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann and NASA's James Hansen.

McIntyre's criticisms of Mann, which appeared in the non-peer reviewed conservative journal Energy & Environment, have themselves been challenged for "overstat[ing]" their case. Even McIntyre himself has admitted that "the significance of things has been misstated by [Rush] Limbaugh and people like that."

But the right blogosphere has made Climate Audit's shot at the Weblog Award a cause celebre and are using postings and "endorsements" to rally their support to push for a skeptic to be named "Best Science Blog"
Sigh. I can't believe I'm having anything to do with this stupid game, but anyone who campaigns to win something like this, it seems to me, deserves to lose. The vote count for this "award" is about ten times the ones in the other categories.

Update: The voting is now over. It appears unclear who won this contest. McIntyre is declaring victory but as I look BadAs has the lead. I am sure the results are meaningless in any case.

Let me add that I think there's nothing wrong with playing this game to gain attention. What is disturbing is that McIntyre seemed to be playing the game to gain credibility, which is a very different thing.

Some follow-ups are substantially more interesting than the event itself. Bad Astronomy is generous to McIntyre:

This brings us to the heart of the problem: I am a scientist, and I understand a lot of the methods used to analyze data. However, this does not make me an expert on all data. I would have to spend a large amount of time plowing through what McIntyre did and what the folks at Real Climate say to see what’s what, and even then I cannot know for sure, because I am not an expert in this field.

And there you have it. How do any of us interpret these crucial findings when we are not experts? We have to rely on other experts. In this case, the overwhelming number of experts, truly overwhelming, say that GW is anthropogenic. That doesn’t mean they are right, but it does mean it’s the way to bet. And I encourage people to look into the studies on both sides of this. Science is all about keeping people honest.

About the science, though: I refuse to get sucked into any debate over “sound science”, because that uses science’s own strengths — tentative results constituting evidence and support, but not “proof” — against it. You can always wait and try to get more data, but there are times when you have enough. In my opinion, we have enough.

Again, let me be clear: I applaud McIntyre’s efforts to work through this. He has clearly done some good, and I have said so in previous posts. An argument can be made that my use of the term “denialist” for him may be too strong, but it still does seem to me after reading more of his site that he comes at this from the angle of trying to tear down arguments made for anthropogenic GW while not going after the antiGW claims.

McIntyre himself uses the event to protest his innocence in an article provocatively titled "why is this left and right", a question many of us find pertinent.

Prior to this vote, I (and doubtless many CA readers) had been unaware of the Bad Astronomy blog (and other interesting nominees who have undeservedly not attracted the attention that deserved) and I’m sure that this same holds in reverse. I hope that readers of each blog will take the opportunity of this introduction to visit the other site; I’ve added a link to Bad Astronomy in my very short blogroll.

Like many issues, the voting seems to have divided on left-right lines. While I realize that much of my support has come from right-wing sources, I don’t think that the analysis that’s done here is anything that should either comfort right-wing people or offend left-wing people. Sometimes the argument is made that, if Mann’s Hockey Stick were wrong, it means that the climate situation would be actually worse than people think. I ask “left-wing” readers to ponder this for moment: if the errors in Mann’s (and similar studies) result in a disguising of a problem, shouldn’t people concerned about AGW impact be on the cutting edge of attempts to analyze the Hockey Stick and see if there any defects in the analysis? Shouldn’t they be demanding that all the data used in these studies -even Lonnie Thompson’s - be available so that each one of them can be properly analysed?

Back when views on Iraq were more evenly divided, I sometimes compared what I do to being a CIA analyst arguing that sometimes an aluminum tube is just an aluminum tube and not evidence of WMD. That wouldn’t mean that proponents of the war couldn’t argue the matter using different arguments or that the war was or wasn’t justified, or that the subsequent occupation of Iraq was or wasn’t botched. All it means is that policy-makers shouldn’t be basing their decisions on questionable information about aluminum tubes. This was a line of argument that used to rub right-wing people who liked part of my message the wrong way, but I hope that it says something about me.

I’ve said on many occasions that, if I had a big policy job, I would be guided by the views expressed by large institutions. Unlike some “skeptics”, I don’t argue that decisions should be deferred pending perfect certainty. I have business experience and know that people make decisions all the time with uncertainty - you have to. At the same time, if you’re going to make effective decisions, you need to have the best possible information. And I vehemently disagree that scientists can use the “big picture” as a justification for being careless with their details. People should try their hardest to get the details right as well as the big picture.

But runner-up P Z Myers at Pharyngula sticks to the denialist label for McIntyre, and protests a good deal more vigorously:
what's bringing you and your fellow naive whiners here is the need to defend the climate change denialist, McIntyre — so many of you, after carping that I'm not meeting your demands, are protesting that he's not a denialist, and you aren't denialists, and you're all here in the cause of good science.


My expertise is not in climate, but in biology, and I'm familiar with his type — it's a common strategy among creationists, who do dearly love to collect complaints. There are people who put together a coherent picture of a scientific issue, who review lots of evidence and assemble a rational synthesis. They're called scientists. Then there are the myopic little nitpickers, people who scurry about seeking little bits of garbage in the fabric of science (and of course, there are such flaws everywhere), and when they find some scrap of rot, they squeak triumphantly and hold it high and declare that the science everywhere is similarly corrupt. They lack perspective. They ignore everything that doesn't fit their search criterion, and of course, they're focused only on putrescence. They aren't scientists, they're more like rats.

And the worst of the rats are the sanctimonious ones that declare that they're just 'policing' science. They aren't. They're just providing fodder for their fellow denialists, and like them all, have nothing of value to contribute to advance the conversation. You can quit whining that you and McIntyre are finding valid errors; it doesn't matter, since you're simultaneously spreading a plague of lies and ignorance as you go.

So bugger off, denialists. I am not impressed.

Update: The web awards site punted.