Write your editors re G8 academies statement

Don Libby on the GlobalChange list makes the suggestion that we write letters to the editor of prominent local media demanding coverage of the joint statement of the national academies.

This would be especially effective coming from a group of credentialed scientists at a major university. If you’re in a position to drum up such a letter writing campaign, even on a small scale, please do so.

(see other recent postings on this blog; will update with links later).

Update: I posted on this on Grist. Let me know if you spot any effect.

Don’t it Always Seem to Go

Irene and I spent Saturday driving on the nearly deserted and stunningly beautiful back roads of the Texas Panhandle, on the way to Asleep at the Wheel’s tribute to Bob Wills (yeee-haw!) slackjawed in amazement at the wild profligate unspoiled profusion of nature.

The few locals that are there think of it as a buncha danged weeds.

We stopped, on the way, for a soda and some peanuts. (The Prius did not need any gas.) The pasty and sad looking girl at the checkout asked us where we were from. When we said Austin, she nearly melted with longing and jealousy, for to a rural Texan adolescent, Austin is heaven. She saw Irene’s SLR and asked if we had stopped to take pitchers of Spur. (Indeed, we were in Spur, Texas, not far by West Texas standards from Bob Wills’ hometown of Turkey Texas.)

I said that, no, we were taking pictures of the countryside, and I expressed my deep appreciation for its beauty. (I’m not poet enough to express my feelings in text very well. I might have gotten choked up a bit as I expressed my admiration for the countryside.)

The young woman regarded me as if I were mad, to leave Austin to dally among the weeds of the Texas Panhandle.

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone
They’ve paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Joint Academies’ Statement Real? Yes.

I found myself wondering if this Joint Science Academies Statement is for real. I really want it to be, but I like the so-called Chief Seattle thing and the so-called Mandela inaugural address a lot too. Wishing something doesn’t make it true. You would think a thing like this would get a whole lot of notice.

Anyway, it is linked from the Royal Society, and it also appears on the US National Academies’ site, which is reassuring. I would hate to have to retract that posting.

I really want it to be true. So, I am glad to report that it appears to be true, though I admit to still be hanging on to a shred of doubt.

So now I wish it were getting more attention. Why isn’t this on everybody’s lips these days?

Uncertainty and Conservatism

In a comment by Onar Aam on RC, it is alleged that proposed policy responses to anthropogenic climate change are excessive because scientific uncertainty leaves open the possibility that the sensitivity of the system is much smaller than the consensus would have it. This argument is common enough.

For almost fifteen years now I have been (using my unfortunately trivial influence; though for some reason Fergus seems to be singlehandedly trying to change that; thanks Fergus!) pointing out that such an argument is totally wrong, pretty much exactly 180 degrees off the mark.

Here’s my response, verbatim, which you can also read on RC.

Suppose we grant for the sake of argument that the total range of uncertainty (of some quantity) is a factor of 100. Does it follow that the quantity is possibly overestimated by a factor of 100? Perhaps, but surely it follows no more and no less than it follows that there is an equivalent possibility that the quantity is being underestimated by a factor of 100.

Why are people constantly harping on the risk of overestimating climate change when the risk of underestimating it has vastly greater consequences?

Rational policy under uncertainty should be risk-weighted, which implies that the less faith one has in the consensus position, the more vigorous an emissions policy one should support. It is very peculiar and striking to observe how common a position like Aam’s is despite the fact that it is incoherent.

Those people who doubt the consensus in a rational way (e.g., Broecker, Lovelock) advocate for a very vigorous policy. We don’t know how bad it can be, so we really ought to give considerable weight to it being very very bad. The asymmetry arises because we know how good it can be. Climate change can at best amount to a (relatively) very small net gain, if it is modest and slow enough. At worst it can quite conceivably be a threat to civilization.

Most people stressing the uncertainty, though, seem to me to deliberately strive to confuse the policy process, or to echo others who do so. It is discouraging how effective this tactic continues to be, given that it is based on a completely irrational argument. The only remotely sensible way to argue for small or no policy response is not to argue for large uncertainty. A rational argument for policy inaction requires arguing that the consensus position is certainly wrong and oversensitive. A rational, conservative response to uncertainty would be to take more effort to avoid the risk.

My use of the word “conservative” in the concluding sentence is deliberate, of course.

I always find it a tortured use of the word “conservatism” to suggest that monkeying with the biosphere (an astonishing and rare natural phenomenon) is a better idea than tuning the economy (an artifact). I can anticipate the tedious answers of course (cue Mr Duff), but I find myself wondering what, exactly, these so-called conservative people think they are conserving.

Essential Reading: Updated

Whew, it’s harder to maintain a blog when you are working than when you ain’t…

Anyway, a couple of bits of essential reading from the blogroll today: Samadhisoft points to this BBC report which suggests that

  • There is a global migration crisis
  • climate change will make it worse


It’s not a matter of climate change, all else being stable. It’s a matter of throwing an unprecedented problem into an increasingly volatile mix. I think people should be talking about the big picture more. I see this in science as well as in politics. Everyone’s wrapped up in their niches. Thinking about the big picture is discouraged.

Dennis at Samadhisoft calls the confluence of population and technology driven global problems a “Perfect Storm Hypothesis”. I’m not sure it’s a hypothesis, strictly speaking, but that’s whistling past the graveyard, isn’t it?



Meanwhile Eli points to John Fleck, (who gratuitously invokes the Framing Meme in) pointing to the joint position of the various national science academies of:

South Africa
the United Kingdom
the United States of America

surely representing the great majority of contemporary scientists worldwide, stating:

  • “Our present energy course is not sustainable.”
  • “Responding to this demand while minimising further climate change will need all the determination and ingenuity we can muster.”
  • “The problem is not yet insoluble but becomes more difficult with each passing day.”
  • G8 countries bear a special responsibility for the current high level of energy consumption and the associated climate change. Newly industrialized countries will share this responsibility in the future.”

Nicely done. Hopefully this will have an impact on most people’s thinking. It’s a great relief to see the academies making such strong and unequivocal statements.

Update: Also, be sure you catch up on the last of Jeffrey Sach’s Reith lecture series. In the final installment, Sachs suggests that defeating severe poverty and inequity, globally, in the very near term (a decade or so) is a necessary and plausible first step in our escape from our quandary. I think he has a point.

Finally, I suggest you wander over to the Global Change List which is getting very interesting these days.

Statement of the Obvious

Of course alternatives to fossil fuels cost more than fossil fuels do, provided you neglect the environmental impact of fossil fuels. If this were not the case, the other sources of power would already be dominant.

Unfortunately, the marketplace as presently constituted does not adequately account for the damage due to fossil fuels.

The fact that carbon is not already largely phased out is a simple example of the tragedy of the commons. In the global aggregate, fossil fuel use is much more expensive than it appears. It’s just that you are extracting wealth from a common pool every time you use them, rather than from your own resources. The commons is the climate system. So each of us, when we maximize individual utility in our energy decisions, reduce the viability of the world as a whole, by extracting value from the climate resource held in common.

The simplest solution is to increase the cost to the consumer of carbon emissions to the point where these externalities are accounted for, and wait for alternatives to emerge from private enterprise. Since it would be counterproductive to increase the profits of the producer, this amounts to a tax. Public revenues can be held constant, if so desired, by reducing other taxes.

The devil is in the details of course, but the big picture is really not all that complicated.