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.

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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.