Interesting Talk

Unfortunately I missed it since it coincided in time with me coming to realize I had a kidney stone. 😦

Anyway I thought y’all might enjoy the abstract just the same.

>>Dr. Robert Mace (P.D., 1997)
>>
>> “Policy and Science: An (Ethical) Match Made in Heaven?”
>>
>>In the ideal world, science and policy stroll down the wedding aisle
>>arm in arm, smiling warmly to family and friends, eager to start their
>>new life together. However, after the wedding bells stop clanging, the
>>cake is gone, and those tans earned during that Bahamas honeymoon fade,
>>reality sets in, with science often feeling like it*s tied to the
>>railroad tracks with the policy train asteaming in the distance. A pure
>>scientist, using the scientific method as their creed, wants to see
>>reproducible results and testable hypotheses-and expects policy
>>decisions to be based solely on fact. Policy, on the other hand, is
>>often a complicated equation with the most transiently random variable
>>of all: people. In most cases, the people making the policy decisions
>>are not scientists. What appears as fact to a scientist is far more
>>fuzzy to a policymaker. For the most part, policymakers want to base
>>their decisions on good science. However, if a policy issue is
>>controversial, then the waters get murky quick-with good science getting
>>the murk. Savvy detractors to good science may attack the scientific
>>method as being biased, claim unrealistic certainty to appear infinitely
>>credible, and make mountains out of a study*s molehills. Good science
>>may trip on its own feet because of poor communication, a tepid defense,
>>being non-transparent to the public, or having its scientists cross the
>>”advocate line,” a line that separates scientific facts from personal
>>biases and personal opinions. What*s a scientist married to policy to
>>do? Recognize the flaws of your partner (as they recognize the flaws in
>>you…), realize that facts are one small part of policy decisions,
>>ensure that when you speak your voice is understood, remain ethical, and
>>remember that, in the end, good science-as fact-always wins.

I agree, except for the last clause. The truth, unfortunately, may not prevail in any reasonable amount of time. We are still arguing Darwin in this country!

Food and Carbon Dioxide

The NYTimes, peculiarly and I think inappropriately in the “Media and Advertising” section, has an article on the connection between meat and carbon emissions. It’s interesting enough. I think the vegetarians have a point, very much unlike the “vegetable-mile” people, who complain about how far your food has travelled, who as I will explain in an article soon, have it fundamentally and deeply wrong.

I don’t have much to add right now, except to point out that anyone who wants to follow up on the “University of Chicago Study”, given that the Times astonishingly and inexcusably does not even deign to name the researchers (thank you Media and Advertising section) should look for Eshel and Martin, Earth Interactions, Vol. 10, pp. 1-17, March 2006, available here.

Some Obfuscation from Patrick Moore

The Greenpeace apostate, Patrick Moore, has an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun that really includes no falsehoods that I noticed, but seems deliberately contrived to confuse.

Old growth forests are not carbon sinks, bit paper plantations aren’t either. Harvesting lumber for furniture and building construction is a minot carbon sink, but using that lumber makes matters worse. In the case of using lumber to incerase the size and energy intensity of housing stock, surely the impacts dominate the modest sequestration.

It is usually possible to make a case for just about anything by selecting your evidence carefully. The usual name for this is cherry-picking. Unlike some other fallacies, cherry-picking arguments are almost invariably disingenuous.

I have no opinion yet on the De Caprio movie that was the occasion for Moore’s rant, but this is enough for me to lose any inclination to take Patrick Moore seriously. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, he also appeared in the Great Global Warming Swindle swindle. Enough said.

Systematic Noise

Denial of science can be dressed in leftist or rightist garb but as described in the PLOS medical online journal, it follows universal patterns.

Deniers also paint themselves as skeptics working to break down a misguided and deeply rooted belief. They argue that when mainstream scientists speak out against the scientific “orthodoxy,” they are persecuted and dismissed. For example, HIV deniers make much of the demise of Peter Duesberg’s career, claiming that when he began speaking out against HIV as the cause of AIDS, he was “ignored and discredited” because of his dissidence [23]. South African President Mbeki went even further, stating: “In an earlier period in human history, these [dissidents] would be heretics that would be burnt at the stake!” [1].

HIV deniers accuse scientists of quashing dissent regarding the cause of AIDS, and not allowing so-called “alternative” theories to be heard. However, this claim could be applied to any well-established scientific theory that is being challenged by politically motivated pseudoscientific notions—for example, creationist challenges to evolution. Further, as HIV denial can plausibly reduce compliance with safe sex practices and anti-HIV drugs, potentially costing lives, this motivates the scientific and health care communities to exclude HIV denial from any public forum. (As one editorial has bluntly phrased it, HIV denial is “deadly quackery”) [24]. Because HIV denial is not scientifically legitimate, such exclusion is justified, but it further fuels the deniers’ claims of oppression.

Whom to Trust?

Atmoz takes on the main issue, the core problem, the nub, the crux, the 64K question:

A person unable to judge the scientific validity of two differing viewpoints will tend to agree with the group that… [choose a,b,c, or d]

Atmoz puts his chips on d:

d) is best able to express their side in simple terms

Much as I am glad to see people taking the bull by the horns, there are two problems with Atmoz’s analysis.

The first is the confusion between description and prescription: the article goes on to discuss what people ought to do, though the question is phrased in terms of what they tend to do.

The second is that his choice is pretty much not going to help. In prescriptive terms, d is no better than the others. A false explanation “it’s the sun, stupid” can be much simpler than the truth, viz., “optical depth in certain infrared bands can be set by small concentrations of a colorless gas, changing the balance of the longwave cascade to space and thence the lapse rate”.

The only sensible approach I can see is e) relies upon a network of trust. e is similar to a, except that e is based not on whether you like the advocates of a position, or share their culture or ideology or religion, but on whether you trust their intellectual judgment and their network of connections to people who understand the matter at hand.

One must admit that there are difficulties in all directions. On plan e, sound judgements depend crucially on a sound social fabric. The civilization whose fabric is frayed is in a very poor position to make sound judgements using this method, but it’s hard to see any others that could do as well.

Does My Prius Help?

While we generally disagree on how it shakes out on this or that issue, I have always agreed with John McCarthy’s principle (well, OK, one of his principles):

He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.

Recently I have heard, both from a genuine climate denialist (the only one I have met in person, she was charming and infuriating) and from left wing bloggers that the negative manufacturing impact of a Prius outweighs its environmental positives.

Here’s a peculiar video (it meanders back and forth into and out of sarcasm in a way that I find exasperating) wherein numbers are bandied about to intimidate, but no serious comparisons are made. Nevertheless, Jerry Mander, who among leftwing kvetches is one whom I admire more than most, is in there arguing against buying Priuses. He suggests that buying a used car has a smaller impact.

Before starting to think about this, that if you are more worried about peak oil than about climate change, let’s stipulate that the Prius is a clear winner. If we switch to lower fuel consumption vehicles, the liquid fuel will last longer and the transition to alternatives will be smoother.

What about climate change? My initial response was that Mander’s position is ridiculous. I decided to do a back of the envelope calculation to prove it, and I failed.

I did my calculation in dollars. Suppose I fill the tank of my Prius a thousand times over its lifetime (a reasonable number.) Suppose, generously, that an alternative car would have had half the mileage. So we have saved twenty or thirty thousand dollars worth of gasoline on a twenty-five thousand dollar car. Case proved, right? There is no way thirty thosand dollars worth of energy went into the manufacture of a twenty-five thousand dollar car.

But wait. Manufacturing typically uses coal, not petroleum. Petroleum has not been competitive with coal in stationary manufacturing for a long time, as liquid fuel is much more in demand for portable engines. Also, there are huge distribution costs and consumer taxes associated with gasoline that don’t apply to coal. So let’s backtrack to the historical pump cost of gasoline before the shortage started to bite, about a dollar a gallon, and assume only half of that is energy cost, the rest being tax and distribution. Now we have cut the actual energy savings to the equivalent of $5000 worth of fuel. Can the energy component of manufacture and delivery of a Prius exceed $5000? Hmmm, that starts looking plausible.

OK, but we aren’t talking costs, we are talking impacts. Of course most stationary large scale manufacture is coal-fired, and coal has roughly double the climate impact of petroleum. This means the break-even point on climate change is on the order of $2500 worth of coal.

All very crude estimates, but a bit shocking.

So I not only failed miserably to prove that the Prius is a net gain on the climate front, I find in the end that the contrary is quite plausible. I haven’t proven Mander’s position, but it seems well within the range of possibility.

However, I missed a point that goes the other way. We are talking about the *saved* fuel so we should be talking about the *excess* manufacturing energy. Does it take that much more energy to manufacture a Prius than a comparable non-hybrid? That’s the number we should really be thinking about.

I imagine the bulk of the extra energy cost if there is some is in the manufacture of the battery. Replacing the battery costs, what do you know, about $3000. Hmmm.

As the video points out, there is also a direct environmental cost in terms of the mining and refining that goes into the battery, but I would think this would be tiny in comparison to global climate change, no matter

So the back of the envelope analysis is inconclusive, but so far leans in favor of the Prius as a net positive in climate change, compared to a conventional vehicle, although much less obviously so than you might suspect.

The people claiming that it is a net negative really ought to come up with better numbers than these and make a quantitative case, though.

Remarkably, great minds thinking alike, Climate Progress has something to say about this peculiar meme; Joe apparently worked harder at this one than I did.

Of course, whatever we choose to drive or fly, we should drive or fly less.

Does it make environmental impact sense, as Mander argues, to preserve nasty old equipment in rather than purchasing less nasty new equipment which has manufacture costs. I guess the answer is, that depends on the new equipment and the old equipment as well as how you cost things out. You’ll have to do your own arithmetic, and the information you want won’t be all that easy to find.

But hey, I bought my Prius used. 🙂

So I am off the hook, right?

Update 7/29/09: This silliness is still hanging around, as silliness does. There now is a more substantive response on The Energy Collective. 

Widespread Fire in Greece

Fires pushed by gale-force winds tore through more parched forests in Greece, swallowing villages and scorching the edges of Athens on Saturday with ashes raining onto the Acropolis. (NASA photo via Associated Press and the SF Chronicle)

“Massive fires consuming large areas of southern Greece for a third day raced toward the site of the ancient Olympics on Sunday, engulfing villages and forests as the flames reached one of the most revered sites of antiquity.

Fires are burning in more than half the country,” Diamandis said. “This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece.”

Elsewhere, flames were less than two miles from the Temple of Apollo Epikourios, a 2,500-year-old monument near the town of Andritsaina in the southwestern Peloponnese, said the town’s mayor, Tryphon Athanassopoulos.

“We are trying to save the Temple of Apollo, as well as Andritsaina itself,” he told Greek television.

PETROS GIANNAKOURIS, Associated Press Writer

The Missing Feedback

People who are relatively sanguine about a climate sensitivity of 3 C per CO2 doubling often miss a number of points. The following are just about the climate system itself, not about the impacts of these changes on human infrastructure or the natural environment, nor about the direct disruptive effects of increasing CO2.

  1. That’s a sensitivity, not a prediction. If we cause the atmospheric concentrations to more than double, the temperature perturbation goes up still more.
  2. There are other human perturbations besides CO2, some of them significant greenhouse gases, and all of them wildcards in relatively complicated climate dynamics
  3. It’s the sensitivity of what has arbitrarily been called the “climate system” for the purposes of certain scientific reasoning processes. What we should be concerned about is the sensitivity to emissions, not the sensitivity to concentrations. The sensitivity to concentrations is pretty well constrained to be near 3 C per doubling, but we have a far less well-constrained idea of how much net emission corresponds to such a change in concentration.

The last point is widely underappreciated.

We know from paleoclimate evidence that there must be multiple feedbacks in the system. Here’s how the argument goes:

Solar forcing is synchronous with much larger climate changes than it can account for directly. We see massive retreats of ice sheets more or less synchronized with peak summer insolation at the southern edge of the ice sheets. That is, when the earth’s orbit wobbles so that the sunshine is greatest in, say, the middle of Canada, it is hard for the ice to maintain itself from one season to another, and the ice retreats. This makes qualitative sense.

But whoops! It doesn’t make quantitative sense. The thermodynamics don’t work out. A little ice should melt, and the ice should retreat a little, but it abruptly almost all goes away. Something gives the system a very big kick, the warming trend runs away, and the ice vanishes relatively abruptly.

SO we notice that CO2 increases synchronously with the ice retreat. Work that in, and it all works out. The extra CO2 enhances the greenhouse effect. The enhanced greenhouse effect rapidly warms the edge of the ice sheet. The ice sheets melt. The theory works out in detail, the models replicate the paleobotanical evidence, and Bob’s your uncle.

OK, so problem solved, right? Well, no, not really. Nobody knows how the extra carbon got into the atmosphere. We don’t really understand the fluxes of carbon in the system on the time scales of rapid natural climate change.

What we can be pretty sure of is that there is a mechanism whereby increased temperature leads to increased carbon, and we already have a mechanism whereby increased carbon leads to increased temperature. Now fortunately there must be some limit to the process or we would have all been throughly boiled and then steamed long before we had this conversation. On the other hand, that process must exist.

So we need to worry about whether that process has any extra ammunition.

In an excellent series of articles on Grist, Joe Romm points out the serious consequences of this error. Like me, Joe suspects land surface processes are the key, though he doesn’t refer his argument to paleoclimate evidence. There are reasons based in isotopic evidence that argue against this, and the majority of the paleoclimate community therefore believes in an all ocean process as the missing feedback.

For now it doesn’t matter. We are giving a tippy system which we don’t fully understand an extra push; an extra carbon pulse is a very likely result.

This feedback is entirely unrepresented in most climate models. Joe’s latest article refers to preliminary results from the first model to model the climate system and the carbon fluxes in a unified system. That news is not good.

I think there are all kinds of scientific reasons why coupling the carbon cycle into a climate model to create what is being called an ESM (Earth System Model) is premature. Many of the cirticisms unfairly leveled at GCMs and CGCMs will be leveled quiasi-fairly at ESMs. The results of these models are not at all trustworthy and it’s very hard to say if and when they will be.

Presumably the Mojojojo set, who for some godforsaken idiotic peabrained psychotic reason would prefer to have more money in a lousy world than less money in a nice one, will argue that since ESMs are unreliable, they should be ignored. The contrary is true. If we cannot well constrain the carbon cycle, we need to account for the possibility that a great deal more carbon is lying in wait for us, be it under Siberia, or Greenland, or Antarctica, or the bottom of the Atlantic, or the swamps of Amazonia. Wherever it came from in the past, there might be more of it.

The feedback from temperature to carbon is not well understood but that does not mean it does not exist.

As usual the mojojojoists start with a nugget of scientific truth (the temperature inflection seems to lead the carbon inflection in the ice cores) and promote exactly the wrong conclusion. They conclude that it proves that CO2 does nothing.

(Of course, since they are determined to spew all the CO2 in their nefarious plot to destroy the Power Puff Girls and take over Townsville and then rule the world, every single piece of evidence anywhere is presumed to prove that CO2 does nothing).

In reality this is another piece of evidence that indicates that nature is likely to happily match our contributions to our impending calamity. That “temperature is the cause of the CO2 rise” argument does not prove the falsity of “CO2 is the cause of the temperature rise”. They must both have been true in the past.

If they are both true now our boat could be much leakier than the usual understanding of a 3 C sensitivity indicates.

More Extraordinary Flooding


There have been unusual flash floods in the “upper” (northern) midwest this week. Here’s a spectacular road washout in Wisconsin on State Road 60, a road I am personally familiar with and very fond of. It’s a beautiful autumn drive that I highly recommend, but it looks like there will be a bit of a detour this season.

Here’s a plot of recent rainfall accumulation from Jesse Ferrell’s blog at Accuweather. This would be over the week ending Monday the 20th; contours in inches.