"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Settled Science Strawman

Someone on Quora asked
Why do people say "the science is settled" when it comes to climate change? Isn't the point of science that nothing is "settled?"
You might find my answer interesting.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Science Communication Cluetrain

David Roberts has an article out on climate communication. It seems to be generating some controversy and will surely generate some rebuttals. I too am frustrated by the academic specialists in "climate communication", and I have a few points to add. 

This is Harsh, But It's Right

David says:
What I take from the social science of climate-change communications is that no one knows much of anything about what kinds of messages and messengers have what kinds of long-term effects on behavior. At the very least, these remain deeply subjective judgments.
The key qualifier here is "long-term". And I think this is exactly right.

Social Science is Hard, But Working Hard Doesn't Guarantee Results.

Social science is hard, but I am not convinced that there are "climate communication experts" who adequately consider what psychologists call "longitudinal" effects. To an oceanographer this is cringeworthy jargon, but it means "over a long time and multiple exposures".

Climate communication doesn't actually occur in the small chunks that are easy to study; yet single-exposure experiments seem to dominate most of the studies I have seen. 

I'm not afraid to change my mind, so I'd welcome any updates or corrections to this observation, which aligns with David's.

It's All About Context

There is a truism in advertising. I am not sure whether there is any research to support it, but most advertising people worth their salt will tell you it's the case. People usually don't take action until they receive a message from three sources that they take to be independent.

It makes sense to me. The rule-of-thumb "three" is not the point. The point is that communication occurs within a communication context. People already have priors. This means that any study that involves how a specific message moves people, absent the long-term context in which the message is received, is rather pointless.  

The Context We're In Is Largely Designed by Evil Advertising Geniuses

It's time to recall the infamous Luntz Memo:
"The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science." What I take from the social science of climate-change communications is that no one knows much of anything about what kinds of messages and messengers have what kinds of long-term effects on behavior. At the very least, these remain deeply subjective judgments.
"Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.
"Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."
Luntz's campaign was tragically successful. We're now in a condition where the first thing many non-experts in climate think of in any climate context is "uncertainty". Even the most certain things (the greenhouse effect, the basics of the carbon budget, etc.) are tarred with this "excessive certainty"/"arrogance" brush.

Consensus messaging is a part of the answer, but a direct response to the broken communication environment itself has to be part of the response, too. A very tall order for the sane members of the climate and energy policy communities.

As individual scientists conveying our own opinions, it's unfortunately unavoidable, but fortunately not our issue. What we need to convey is expertise and sincerity. By far the best way to do that is to know what you are talking about and be sincere about it.

The "Fear Question"

Does fear motivate? Of course it does. We wouldn't have evolved fear if it didn't motivate. Does a fear-bearing message motivate? Well, sure it does, if you believe it. But first you have to decide if you believe it.

People hearing the climate message are in a communication context where they have been encouraged to doubt the message.

That is, individual messages are not the issue. The context is the issue.

There is, I think, quite a lot to fear in this matter. So an entirely fearless message is either dishonest, crazy, or wrong.

The Scicomm Cluetrain

I wish somebody would write a scicomm version of this: http://cluetrain.com/
Markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, dir ect, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can't be faked.

Most corporations, on theWhat I take from the social science of climate-change communications is that no one knows much of anything about what kinds of messages and messengers have what kinds of long-term effects on behavior. At the very least, these remain deeply subjective judgments. other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.
But learning to speak in a human voice is not some trick, nor will corporations convince us they are human with lip service about "listening to customers." They will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf.
The most important thing is to speak with your own voice.

My advice is to know what you're talking about, and talk about it in a way that your audience can absorb.

If you have fears, say so, and don't pretend otherwise. Leave the "communication research" to the politicians. Politics is a necessary evil, but it's not sufficient to the task at hand. We need well-informed people to tell the truth in their own way, in their own voice, honestly.

Train image by "Extra Zebra" is in the Creative Commons under license Attribution 2.0 Generic(CC BY 2.0)

Monday, December 4, 2017

Quote Gallery II

See also Quote Gallery I

Contributions always welcome; use the comment section.


So far, we're not doing any better than the cyanobacteria.

- Ray Pierrehumbert


Trivializing democracy; being anti-government; claiming all politicians are evil; saying there are no differences between political parties; stoking conspiracy theories; insisting that the civic sphere is all a joke: These all serve the powerful.

Cynicism is obedience to power.

-Alex Steffen


We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not – the only question we have a right to ask is: What’s the right thing to do? What does this Earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?

- Wendell Berry


For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it's looking like we have no other choice.

-David Graeber in Debt, The First 5000 Years


In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late ... We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late".

- Martin Luther King Jr, 1967


The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun.

We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2. Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 46% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm.

The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.

- Stephen Leahy


It is not widely understood that carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for centuries, so our future will depend on the total amount we humans put into it over the next several decades. This is the paramount fact that separates climate change from all other environmental problems.

 – Clive Hamilton Utopias in the Anthropocene

In the end it’s not about finding policies that work, it’s about forging consensus and fighting cynicism. Can we do this?

- Barack Obama


A tolerably good human future is possible if we work together toward it. It’s not a question of predicting. It’s a question of deciding.

- mt


A journey of a thousand miles begins with deciding where you are going.



People always ask me one question all the time: ‘How do I know that I won’t be found out as a supporter of what you’re doing?’ We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us.

- Richard Berman describing how oil money gets transferred to what he calls ‘Win Ugly’ political action


When the going gets tough, the people losing the argument start whining about civility.

- Paul Krugman (h/t Eli)


If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.

- George Orwell (1984) via David Brin


Qu’on me donne six lignes Ă©crites de la main du plus honnĂȘte homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre.

- Richelieu


well-funded companies would love to disprove climate change to the satisfaction of the scientific community at large. So if scientists could be bought, these motherf***ers would have already made it rain in nerd town, trust me.

- Jon Stewart


We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. … We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. … The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

 - R. Buckminster Fuller 1970


Projections of climate change by the IPCC are deeply skeptical, and there is no attempt to hide the large uncertainty of climate forecasts. … Ironically, those labeled “skeptics” by the media are not in fact skeptical; they are, on the contrary, quite sure that there is no risk going forward. Meanwhile, those interested in treating the issue as an objective problem in risk assessment and management are labeled “alarmists”, a particularly infantile smear considering what is at stake.

- Kerry Emanuel


“Isn’t it sad that you can tell people that the ozone layer is being depleted, the forests are being cut down, the deserts are advancing steadily, that the greenhouse effect will raise the sea level 200 feet, that overpopulation is choking us, that pollution is killing us, that nuclear war may destroy us – and they yawn and settle back for a comfortable nap. But tell them that the Martians are landing, and they scream and run.”

- Isaac Asimov in The Secret of the Universe


Less semantic aggression might conduce to clarity all around. -

- Russel Seitz


We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society.

 – Barack Obama, on climate change


It is good to know there are unknowns. It is better to know when you know enough.

- Florifulgurator


Men argue; nature acts.

- Voltaire


If you think a journalist is asking the wrong question, don’t answer it – tell them what the right question is.

- a Planet3.0 reader, paraphrasing Ed Yong, citing Tom Stafford


The community of scientists has responsibilities to improve overall understanding of climate change and its impacts. Improvements will come from pursuing the research needed to understand climate change, working with stakeholders to identify relevant information, and conveying understanding clearly and accurately, both to decision makers and to the general public.

 - American Geophysical Union statement “Human-induced climate change requires urgent action.” revised August 2013


I was… labelled as an advocate because… I measured something.

- ecologist Jeremy Jackson


Resolved, that none of us know, or care to know, anything about grasses, native or otherwise, outside the fact that for the present there are lots of them, the best on record, and we are after getting the most out of them while they last.

- Resolution of a Texas stockmen meeting ca. 1898. (With a hat tip to Martin Gisser).


There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.

- Marshall McLuhan


Aliens might be surprised to learn that in a cosmos with unlimited starlight, humans kill for energy buried in sand.

- Neil deGrasse Tyson


If you’re talking to someone who isn’t following the climate change discussion very closely, they may not understand the difference between technical and political difficulty. It does them no favors to talk about inevitability and the fall of civilization. They’re either going to think you’re nuts or they’re going to join you in despondency. We need to always reinforce the point that we can make life a lot easier for ourselves (and especially our children and grandchildren) if we just choose to start doing something about it.

 - anonymous commenter at Planet3.0


Here is the IPCC message: We are as certain that humans are radically changing the planet’s climate as we are that tobacco causes cancer.

- Peter Gleick


We don’t need more dead clutter to entomb in landfills. We need more options.

 - Bruce Sterling


The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?

- John F. Kennedy


Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.

- Rebecca Solnit


We hold the future still timidly, but perceive it for the first time, as a function of our own action. Having seen it, are we to turn away from something that offends the very nature of our earliest desires, or is the recognition of our new powers sufficient to change those desires into the service of the future which they will have to bring about?.

- J. D. Bernal (1929) via David Grinspoon


“Global warming, huh? By pure coincidence every scientist was right”

- Homer Simpson (the cartoon character)


We do not share the view of many of our economics colleagues that growth will solve the economic problem, that narrow self-interest is the only dependable human motive, that technology will always find a substitute for any depleted resource, that the market can efficiently allocate all types of goods, that free markets always lead to an equilibrium balancing supply and demand, or that the laws of thermodynamics are irrelevant to economics.

- Herman Daly and Joshua Farley via Tom Murphy


Maybe we’ll be smacked by an asteroid we’re not looking at and it will offset the CO2 we’re not looking at.

- Bruce Sterling


Many people improving the environment think only in terms of the air they breathe in their hometown and the water in the aquifer under their hometown. My guess is very few are thinking centuries ahead or thousand of years ahead, but that’s what we have to do.

- Pete Seeger


I’m just hanging on like grim death to the simple truth that giving up is just lazy. We have a commitment to life, because that’s all there is, and that’s all about it.

- Susan Anderson


We need at least ten times more editors than we need auditors.



These arguments are not those of serious people.

Judge John G Hayburn II


Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice.

- B H Obama


Peo­ple often ask me if I’m an advo­cate for some kind of pol­icy. Do I want every­body to have a car­bon tax, do I want every­one to drive a Prius, do I want every­body to have a renew­able energy standard? I have opin­ions about all of those things, but that’s not what I am advo­cat­ing for. What I’d like to have peo­ple do is have an intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion about the prob­lem of cli­mate change. … But what actu­ally hap­pens is, that all of those things get sub­sumed. We have these fake argu­ments – we have these argu­ments about tree rings in the 15th cen­tury, as if any­body … was going to make a pol­icy about what a tree said in the 15th cen­tury. It’s absurd. -

Gavin Schmidt


Climate change is a collective problem demanding collective action the likes of which humanity has never actually accomplished. Yet it entered mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being waged on the very idea of the collective sphere.

 - Naomi Klein


It’s not that the scientists are alarmists – it’s that the science is alarming.

- Bill McKibben


Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it’s hotter to areas where it’s cooler. That’s what wind is. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I’m not saying that’s going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can’t transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It’s just something to think about.

- Federal Representative Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, with a tip of the hat to Mr. Coke Dilworth, yellow dog Democrat of Austin TX


Good people are not those who lack flaws, the brave are not those who feel no fear, and the generous are not those who never feel selfish. Extraordinary people are not extraordinary because they are invulnerable to unconscious biases. They are extraordinary because they choose to do something about it.

- Shankar Vedantam via Maria Popova


Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to permanent war, none is so great as [the] deadening of our response.

 - Joanna Macy (h/t Martin Gisser and Dan Olner – follow that link!)


What do we most need to do to save our world? What we most need to do is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.

- Thich Nhat Hanh


Since the start of the industrial revolution, mankind has been burning fossil fuel (coal, oil, etc.) and adding its carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In 50 years or so this process, says Director Roger Revelle of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, may have a violent effect on the earth’s climate Dr. Revelle has not reached the stage of warning against this catastrophe, but he and other geophysicists intend to keep watching and recording. During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), teams of scientists will take inventory of the earth’s CO2 and observe how it shifts between air and sea. They will try to find out whether the CO2 blanket has been growing thicker, and what the effect has been. When all their data have been studied, they may be able to predict whether man’s factory chimneys and auto exhausts will eventually cause salt water to flow in the streets of New York and London.

- Time Magazine, 1956 (via Simon Donner)

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Science Fiction Dilemma

In the Start Trek universe, travelers in deep space are always encountering other species that are of comparable technological and military capacity, competing for control of sections of the galaxy. I don't think it will work like that, but imagine if it did.

The electromagnetic signal of our emergence as a technological species is some 70 years old, enough to penetrate a 70 light-year sphere, or to penetrate, say, a 25ish light year sphere and allow for space-faring civilizations to mount a mission to pay us a friendly first-contact visit.

Imagine that there are two competing species approaching us now, about to make their pitches.

Both are physically repulsive creatures, harder to look at than the most disturbing bugs or snakes, but both claim to come in peace and encouraging us to ally with them against their sinister opponent.

How would we distinguish between these two?

Imagine we had in the vaults enough data to reconstruct some information about their home worlds.

One species' world is rich in plant life and we have enough information to conclude that it is a thriving biosphere. The other's is a smoldering wreck, and we conclude that any surviving species from that world must be maintained in enclosed life support bubbles much like their spaceships.

Would this information affect your choice of which species to ally with?

Mark Jacobson Abandons Science, Takes Up Barratry

Stanford professor Mark Jacobson has sued a prominent energy researcher and the National Academy of Sciences for defamation over a sharply-worded rebuttal of his work, shifting a heated scientific debate over renewable energy out of the journals and into the courts. 
The suit, filed September 29 in a Washington, D.C., superior court, demands a retraction of a June paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jacobson seeks more than $10 million in damages from both the paper's publisher and its lead author, Christopher Clack, who is chief executive of Vibrant Clean Energy and a former NOAA researcher. 
Jacobson was the lead author of a 2015 paper in the same journal that concluded wind, solar, and hydroelectric sources alone could supply 100 percent of the U.S. grid's needs, all at low cost. 
Many other energy researchers have long argued that additional technologies, such as nuclear energy, carbon capture, and advanced storage options, will be required to decarbonize the electricity sector, particularly in a cost-competitive manner. 
Earlier this year, Clack and 20 other researchers published a response arguing that, as MIT Technology Review previously reported, Jacobson's paper "contained modeling errors and implausible assumptions that could distort public policy and spending decisions." (For more details on the researchers' critiques, check out our earlier article on the Clack paper: "Sustainable Energy Scientists Sharply Rebut Influential Renewable-Energy Plan.")
Jacobson wrote (what seemed to me at the time) a very bad paper. At least the climate modeling makes no sense, which caused me to doubt the rest of it.

It got into PNAS without peer review. (That journal has a publication mechanism that allows some non-peer-reviewed articles.)

If I and many others are right that his work is poor, that doesn't mean his conclusion is wrong, just that the paper shouldn't be relied upon as evidence that his conclusion is right.

Normally, bad work is quietly ignored, but this was getting enough publicity that a multidisciplinary team of highly regarded authors hastened to put together a rebuttal, and ran it through peer review. Rather than correcting, amending, or defending his work, Jacobson chose to treat the challenge as libelous. This is inexcusable, even if the paper somewhat misrepresented Jacobson as he claims.

(It is difficult to correctly represent incoherent argument, of course. If one criticizes one part of the argument it may be inconsistent with another part of the argument. )

The context is that Jacobson is telling people what they want to hear, specifically that 100% renewable energy is possible with little cost or effort. That doesn't make him one of the good guys.

This is not a schism within science. It's an attack on science from someone who doesn't accept the norms of science.

Attacks on science can't be tolerated, whether they come from people who tell you what you want to hear or people who tell your opponents what they want to hear.

By taking this dispute outside the norms of science and into the courts, Jacobson essentially is rejecting and subverting science. His actions should not be seen as reflecting on the scientific community. Without science, we are flying blind. Jacobson's behaviour is ridiculous, and the scientific community is having none of it. I hope the activist community, which claims to be such a strong supporter of science, backs us up.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Quandaries about ethics

So William objects to my argument from intergenerational equity on the grounds that I have claimed an ethical basis without specifying a coherent ethical theory, never mind one that can serve as the basis of a social contract.

His point seems to be that it's easier to agree on a discount rate (which is after all just a number, not to mention one decided by a free market (of extremely wealthy actors, but never mind that, it's in some sense objective)) than to agree on a whole theory of ethics. And that absent any such theory of ethics, we can't decide anything on an ethical basis. Ergo, ethics doesn't matter, and therefore economics, QED.

Contrast this with this interesting argument that life doesn't begin at conception, intended to undercut ethical arguments against abortion:

See also http://www.scarymommy.com/patrick-s-tomlinson-twitter-abortion/ where Tomlinson's conclusion is discussed:

Here, ethics is derived from what "any rational [sic] human being" and "anyone with a beating heart" would agree to. I am not advocating a position on the claim that anyone would behave in this way, though I'm fascinated by the "argumentam ad ducking the question by missing the point of the analogy" aspect of some of the responses. "No they aren't viable", "no they don't weigh that much" etc. I am admitting that something about this way of arguing strikes me as unsatisfying, and I think that William is accusing me of doing something similar.

Now to be fair, this is a trolley problem, an absurdly unrealistic distillation of reality, while climate change, alas, is something we actually are bequeathing to succeeding generations.

But I'm saying "if we could distill this climate problem to its essence, people would not behave the way they are now behaving". That is, I am arguing from an innate ethical sense, just as Tomlinson is doing.

As I keep saying, my position on ethics is fundamentally the traditional conservative one, the Tory one. It is that we do know good from evil in some sense, whether this is by nature or nurture, and that this understanding should be honoured rather than trivialized. In particular we should honour ethical standards that apparently arise in disparate cultures, such as acting in service of the eternal at the expense of our own personal benefit.

That we increasingly lack a consensus on ethics seems to be core to both William's point and mine. Building an ethical consensus when it is breaking down is more difficult that maintaining an extant system that optimizes for self-interest and eschews any long view. I think we agree on this. Where we disagree is what to do about it. I think, in what I believe is a fundamentally Tory way, that we should reach back to our ancestors and try to understand what they'd think of our behaviour, and consider modifying it appropriately. William's position seems to me to be that it's too hard, and we need to settle for what economics will buy us, and hope that is enough.

Tom's position is like that of the guy who refuses to answer Tomlinson's question. It isn't that we should or shouldn't temper economics with ethics. It's that climate isn't that big a deal. Of course, I find that position wrong, but in the present context it's worse than wrong, it's irrelevant. Do we owe something to the seventieth generation, specifically, a viable ecologically diverse planet? I say yes, and I say we're screwing it up spectacularly. William shrugs, defers to his friend the economist, and says, well, the ecological viability of the seventieth generation isn't worth much according to revealed preferences in the marketplace. Tom F says "squirrel".

There's a new entrant in the field, Steve Mosher, who considers my explicit appeal to ethics "wacky and repugnant". I remain hopeful that Mosher is an outlier in making such a claim, that ethical discourse is acceptable to most people in deciding, well, what we should do.

Notice the "should"?

The trouble is that we don't really have an explicit ethical basis. It's possible that "life begins at conception" could be a consensus. The Spartans said "life begins when the infant is granted a name", allowing for postpartum abortion. This could also be an imaginable consensus.

(I know I'm treading on dangerous ground here. Lord give me strength not to voice an opinion on this question!)

But I do think that most people do not want to believe that their lifestyle is destroying the world for their grandchildren.

Since in fact it quite arguably is doing exactly that, the easy approach is to resort to denial. "It's not really a problem." ("The embryos in the case are not really viable." "Global warming will have modest impact.") And a denial industry has arisen to serve exactly that predeliction, simultaneously protecting literally trillions of dollars in reserve fossil assets.

But I'm venturing that "we should not irreversibly damage the world" is a proposition that a vast majority of people would agree to. An ethical consensus still exists, even if accompanied by no formal ethical philosophy.

That being the case, denial that major change is necessary, without due consideration of the evidence that it is, is in violation of a global ethical consensus.

So we're being bad. Evil, by our own, very limited but still extant, shared ethic.

Mosher further suggests that it is impolitic to say so. I think that's weird, but that's another topic.

Impolitic, repugnant, too difficult, lacking a coherent philosophy, squirrel.

Sorry, I still vote none of the above.

We may not agree when life begins. But we can still agree that it would not be a good idea to end it or drastically curtail its potential.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Why do we take from nature instead of integrating with it?

I had the temerity to answer. Here's my answer:

Why do we take from nature instead of integrating with it?
That’s not a Quora question so much as a book topic, or indeed many books and PhD theses.

But I’ll say a few things anyway. What follows is my opinion only. I can’t easily prove any of this but I do firmly believe all of it.

How we live is a combination of how we lived in the past, how we think we should live in the future, and what we desire today. This doesn’t always lead to the best solutions.

Efforts to drastically fix things have often made things worse, sometimes terribly worse. Some people conclude from this that we should never try to fix things. But that obviously doesn’t work either.

We need to learn from the past and still be aware that the future is very unlike the past. The thing we need to do less of is worry on a day to day basis.

The societies where day-to-day living is the most difficult have the least mental and emotional capacity for imagining how the future might be better. So the first thing we need to do, in each jurisdiction, be it nation or town, is to aim to be more generous and inclusive as a society. This is becoming a matter of urgency.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Seventieth Generation

What do some of us mean when we say that climate change is an ethical problem, not merely an economic one?

Consider medieval Europe's habit of building cathedrals. There is no conceivable rational self-interest in expending resources to build a cathedral - the (oftentimes amazing) aesthetic value of the result of the enterprise occurs long after the lifetimes of the people planning and organizing the effort have come to an end.

When Christian vernacular refers to matters outside the church as "secular", they provide an answer to this, which appears to the modern homo economicus as a puzzle. Secular literally means "of the century". It is usually contrasted with "sacred" but many contemporary readers will have too many associations with this term that I'd like to avoid for present purposes. Let's go with "eternal" for present purposes. "Eternity" may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the people planning the cathedral presumably weren't sparing much thought for its eventual ruination.

"Secular" activities refer to the foreseeable future, while "eternal" activities correspond to activities in the interest of a distant future which we cannot foresee, but to which we nevertheless have a responsibility. Traditionally, our responsibility to the eternal has been to convey the best of our civilization forward to our progeny. Nowadays we have a new one.

There's a story that the Iroquois tribal culture would judge its actions on the basis of its effects as far as on the seventh generation. I don't know how true the story is, but it is instructive even if apocryphal. The responsibility to the distant future is not about our own advantage, but about the sustenance of the world for our progeny.

Our current immense power over the environment has placed us in a position where our actions have impacts on not just the seventh generation, but the seventieth.

Yet our behavior is, as anyone paying attention to the climate problem will attest, astonishingly shortsighted. Far from constraining ourselves to be considerate of the seventieth generation, we seem to have little concern for the world of our own grandchildren. How is this possible?

I propose that part of the problem is that the eternal has been systematically removed from public discourse. "Religion", we say, "is a private matter". Our collective actions are necessarily "secular'. Only secular activities are informed by objectivity. Ethical responsibilities are too divisive to discuss, and must be ignored. We can leave all the actual discussions to technocratic discourse among professionals in decision-making.

Those decision-makers are systematically "secular" in both senses. They ignore ethics, and they concentrate only on the foreseeable. They base their advice on a framework of perpetual economic growth, under which conditions a dollar today is worth two in the future. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" because the bird in the hand will almost surely produce more birds in the future.

In this secular way of thinking, we owe little to the distant future. The more distant in time our impacts, the less we need care about them. Our ancient obligation to carry the torch of civilization is invisible to this way of thinking. Our new obligation to leave the world viable at all for our distant descendants is considered actually beneath mention, a sort of contemptible hysteria.

Whether the reassuring calculations of econmists about the next few decades are realistic or not absorbs all of our discourse. Somehow, we find ourselves arguing about the global temperature perturbation in 2100, not the (probably much higher) global temperature perturbation when the climate equilibrates to the anthropogenic carbon pulse.

This systematically understates our generation's vast ethical transgression.

We are behaving insanely. Insanity is, above all, a failure of love. And we cannot muster the imagination to act from love for our descendants, or for what remains of the world in which they will live.

It's not as if ethical constraints on economic activity themselves are unimaginable. We no longer tolerate slavery or murder, at least not at the scale they occurred in the past. Money is no object. There is no amount of compensation that (we suppose and hope) absolves a person of murder. We just don't do that.

Drowning the coastlines, burning the forests, souring the ocean, these are not just matters for secular consideration subject to discounting.

Yet we continue to do just those things. In our daily mundane acts, we impoverish and desecrate the future of our planet. At the present scale, what we are doing is unambiguously ethically wrong.

Economics should have nothing to say about it other than to acknowledge the constraint and proceed from there.

Economics can't be expected recognize this on its own. It lacks an ethical vocabulary, and shouldn't be expected to have one. The constraints have to be imposed from outside economics. We simply have to find the gumption to tell economics that we are its masters, not its vassals.

It's especially sad and discouraging to see so many religions in denial, foolishly siding with the economic reasoning, since the disaster is partly but directly traceable to the secular overriding the eternal in our reasoning.

The sooner we can wean ourselves from what was once inadvertent destruction, but is now plainly and explicitly immoral and unjustifiable injury to the ages, the less awful we are. We prefer to hide from this culpability, understandably enough, but hiding behind economics' skirt doesn't exonerate us.

UPDATES: responses by Tom F, William C, with a postscript, and And T.T.P.

Links to other direct responses or relevant articles online or in print will be appreciated.


Friday, September 8, 2017

Neptune's Revenge

Graphic is excerpted from an excellent visualization at Axios.com, shows all Atlantic hurricane intensities from 2003-2015. Category five storms are highlighted and named. It illustrates the peculiar feast/famine pattern of hurricanes that makes statistical inference difficult.

After a worst case storm hits Houston another seems to be aiming for Miami. A worst case storm for Miami could be very bad indeed. I've seen a trillion dollars in possible damages bandied around - that would set the whole country back. (*) It almost seems as if a malign force is aiming hurricanes so as to do the most possible damage. It's weird and maybe karmic, as if Neptune were hurling his trident against his newly discovered enemies. It's the stuff of nightmares.

But is it really the "climate change wake-up call" that some people are claiming?

I think a lot of people have been far too quick and adamant about the climate change connection to Harvey. The main impact feature of Harvey was its slowness to advance, and its remaining parked near enough to shore to keep drawing on Gulf moisture. While impressive, Harvey was not a record-setting storm before it landed, and the factors that made it memorable don't seem all that directly related to climate.

Of course, Harvey is an instance of the changed climate; there's no disputing it was *affected* by the changed climate. Everything is, nice days as well as bad ones.

It's natural to ask whether a given extreme event was more representative of the changed climate than a comparable event would be in an unchanged climate. But that doesn't mean that science can provide a good answer.

Harvey, basically, was a Category 3 storm at landfall, Category 4 at peak, and it met an atmosphere where there were no strong steering winds just after it landed. I don't see any reason this is impossible under an unchanged climate. Is it more likely under the changed climate? Maybe. Perhaps it's slightly more likely than not.  But I don't think there is an especially strong case that it is definitely so.

Beyond that, I object to the formulation "Hurricane Harvey was not caused by climate change but was made worse by it". So what do some scientists mean when they say that so unequivocally?

The context is a rather uncertain expectation that tropical storms will remain about as common as in the undisturbed climate or perhaps slightly more rare, but that the more vigourous among them will become stronger than in the past. There is weak observational evidence for these claims, but the theory and modeling is clear about a raised "speed limit".

When the public asks about attribution of specific events, the old habit of the scientific community of saying "you cannot attribute individual events to a changed climate" has been replaced by a weird sort of fractional attribution. "Rainfall in strong events is expected to go up X per cent, and this is a strong event, so X per cent of the rainfall is attributable to climate change."

I don't think this makes any sense, and it leads people to conclude things like "To be clear, Hurricane Harvey would have formed over the western Gulf of Mexico and wreaked havoc on Texas, regardless of a warming climate" which doesn't actually make any sense. This was written by Paul Douglas, a meteorologist, and I'm afraid it indicates an alarming lack of understanding of fluid dynamics.

If the proverbial butterfly can change the weather, (small perturbations lead to vastly different weather states) a trillion tons of CO2 certainly will. You just can't compare scenarios like that.

No, causality is conceptually an all-or-nothing thing. We don't want to say "Harvey was caused 99% by nature and 1% by humans" or even worse "Harvey was caused 101% by nature and -1% by humans".  Nobody will understand this, and I think that is not because they don't understand the subtleties of scientific statistics, but because it makes no sense.

Does it really make more sense to say "Harvey was not caused by anything in particular but climate change made it rain 5% harder?" I am finding this just as hard to make sense of. Five per cent harder than what? Than that other Harvey that couldn't have formed in that other climate?

To be fair, it does make some sense to talk about storm surge riding on top of sea level rise. I think it's easy to see how a 12 foot surge on top of a foot of recent sea level rise is a lot like (though not exactly like) a 13 foot surge in a more stable climate. So sea level rise makes storm surge worse in a measurable way. I get that. It's worse than if sea level hadn't risen rapidly. And this matters to Rockport and Corpus Christi. But it doesn't matter to Houston, which was the main story.

The thermodynamic state of the atmosphere and ocean are all an intrinsic part of "this" storm. If there were a storm with 5% less rain, it would be a different storm in the first place. So I just don't get "made Harvey worse". If Harvey were less bad, it wouldn't be Harvey. These events are unique and distinctive. That's why we give them names.

It reminds me of the German aphorism my parents were fond of, "If my grandmother had wheels she would have been a bus."

"If Harvey weren't Harvey, it would be 5% weaker" just doesn't add up to a sensible claim to me.


What we really ought to be doing is seeing where the statistics of tropical storms are heading. If Harvey is part of a trend, to increasing storms, or increasing stalling, or whatever, we could say that. At least that's a well-formed claim.

But can we even say that?

The evidence is rather equivocal. NOAA says:
It is premature to conclude that human activities–and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming–have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane or global tropical cyclone activity. That said, human activities may have already caused changes that are not yet detectable due to the small magnitude of the changes or observational limitations, or are not yet confidently modeled
Yes, they also say:
There are better than even odds that anthropogenic warming over the next century will lead to an increase in the occurrence of very intense tropical cyclone in some basins–an increase that would be substantially larger in percentage terms than the 2-11% increase in the average storm intensity. This increase in intense storm occurrence is projected despite a likely decrease (or little change) in the global numbers of all tropical cyclones.
 But that's a long way from "global warming definitely made Harvey worse".

See for yourself. There's an excellent chart that shows what the Atlantic has been doing hurricane-wise, here (excerpted and linked at the top of this article as well). Do you see an unambiguous trend? Or do you see a remarkably noisy and peculiar pattern about which it is hard to generalize?


So why all this talk of hurricanes? It's obvious. It's a news hook.

Climate change is very serious. Hurricanes are very serious. They're not unrelated, of course, but the relationship is complicated and as yet unclear. Claiming that "climate change made Harvey worse" is not a good look for climate science. It doesn't make semantic sense, and even if translated into terms that do, it's not a slam dunk that it's true.

Climate change is a very serious problem even if tropical storms go away altogether.

The linkage has already caused damage to the reputation of climate activism, as it was much touted in 2005, after which Atlantic hurricanes promptly subsided. People remember this. Going for a remake is not a good idea when the original movie wasn't any good.

I've been criticized for "not being a team player" on this matter. That's too bad. I really hate going against my friends and allies, and it has costs for me. But as far as I'm concerned, the way the Harvey and climate story has been told is not something I am buying into.

Our job as communicators of science is to tell people the scary truth, not just to scare people.


(*)  (Fortunately for my peace of mind though a bit unfortunately for my catchy opening paragraph, as I finish writing this Irma is trending a bit west, which would be quite a bit less disastrous overall, though that's little compensation for the Southwest coast of Florida and the Keys, or Cuba.)


UPDATE: Phil Plait does a good job taking up the contrary position. But again I don't think it applies to Harvey very well.


UPDATE 2: Scott Denning makes a point on Twitter that I had also made earlier this week: that the language "climate change causes weather event X" is very confusing to the public regarding the relationship between weather and climate. Climate doesn't cause weather - climate is made up of weather. This point is a bit pedantic, admittedly. There's a conceptual underpinning here that, true or not, seems to need a coherent phrasing. But the problem that this phrasing is much like saying "the base hit was caused by the batter's improved batting average". In baseball you say "he's hitting well these days" or something. Then you can talk about his improved statistics. But you don't say the statistics caused the hit. The trouble is, I am having trouble formulating a clean way to say what is trying to be said.

For instance, I'm fine with making a connection between anthropogenic climate disruption and the forest fires now raging in the northwest US and western Canada. But I'm struggling with how to make the case clearly without mangling the language.


BACKPEDAL: Really, I think the case for a climate disruption footprint on Irma is rather stronger than that for Harvey.