The code is not the model

I have a new essay up on Correlations, wherein I try to get the reader comfortable with the idea of a “model”.

In writing this, I came to understand that the way the word “model” is used in the climate sciences is confusing. An executable software package (a “program”) is often called a “model” but this overvalues the code and undervalues the model. The code is an attempted embodiment of the model. The model is the science. The realization of the model (“running the code”) is the prediction. The code itself is just an instrument.

It’s hopeless to demand that we stop calling it a “model”. It’s just too ingrained. We should be aware, though, that this is sloppy thinking. The code is just code.

Speaking of Dramatic Changes

Via Slashdot, Matthew Chapman of the Washington Post makes the modest suggestion that the presidential candidates have a debate on science. A closed book exam as it were.

The Slashdot discussion seems better than their norm these days, maybe because it is about ideas and not about facts. hmmmm… There’s some irony there.

Remember the Future?

Do you remember progress? Probably, if you do you, then you are an older sort like me, or an oddball collector of paleo-futurism.

Michael Chabon has a wistful eulogy for the future at Long Now.

The odd thing about contemporary market triumphalism is that it celebrates an incapacity to redesign the world. This so-called “realism”, which is in fact a deep pessimism, is not really new, but it is a spectacular retreat from the the optimism that prevailed when I was an adolescent with a season pass to Expo ’67.

We don’t even have World’s Fairs anymore.

This may be the explanation of the lack of activism in today’s youth. It’s not that they like what’s going on. They simply don’t believe that the course of history can actually be changed by human will. They retreat to sarcasm, at which they excel.

I think it may fall to us boomers again, to make change happen. We mostly still believe in the likes of Gandhi or Martin Luther King to actually change the world, but our own courage appears to have vanished along with our naivete.


The topic of the Yale Forum site is supposed to be “climate change and the media” but there are some nice climate change as such articles showing up, too, especially ones by Zeke Hausfather.

There’s a new player on the scene who’ll jump to the head of the line instantly. David Revkin of the NYTimes, a very fine reporter, now has a blog called DotEarth. I’ve been impressed with NYT columnist Krugman’s efforts, and Revken seems serious about keeping his up as well. It will be interesting to see how journalists adapt to the form. I hope Revkin will stay somewhat in touch with the rest of us, though, and not just limit himself to conventional sources.

I also added a couple of other sites. It is getting hard to keep up, but my blog roll really is the set of blogs I try to follow. I’ve been leaving off the better known ones like Gristmill, Climate Progress and Intersection, but maybe they aren’t obvious to my readers, and it helps me keep my reading organized.

Nature is not a Budget Item

Mr. Gore is right in a claim he made some years back in Earth in the Balance. This century must be the time we come to grips with our relationship to the planet. It is the crucial issue of our time, and it links everyone together in a common fate.

When the phrase “Nature is not a luxury” occurred to me, it resonated so well that I wondered if I had heard it before. If not, I could sort of claim it as a slogan and possibly as a book title for myself.

I’m not the first person to utter the sentence, but according to Google, other people mean it a bit differently than I do. The first hit is from Campbell Webb of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale, writing in Conservation Biology:

Nature is not a luxury. The nonhuman world has rights. Conservation is an ethical stance. True, humans have rights, and these will often clash with the rights of nature, but let us at least talk about this conflict. Obviously, arguing for the rights of nature is not new (Naess 1973), but it has seldom been the stance of academic biologists, although this appears to be changing.

I understand this point of view, and I agree with it, but it doesn’t capture what I mean by “nature”. Even stranger to me is this:

Nature’s services cast a broad net, says Robert Costanza, an ecological economist at the University of Vermont. He spoke recently in Maryland, where he studied the bay for many years. They range from regulation of climate, pollination of crops and food and timber production, to soil formation, genetic resources, waste treatment and recreational opportunities. “Nature is not a luxury, not an ‘if we can afford it’ proposition,” Costanza told members of the Maryland Conservation Council. He and other researchers have attempted to put a price on the natural planet, coming up with what he calls “a very conservative estimate” of around 33 trillion bucks a year in goods and services. That far surpasses the value of the human economy.

Both of these fall into the old trap of imaging humans as being in conflict with nature, of economics as a triumph over nature, of nature as an obligation or a line item in the budget that needs to be thrashed out every year. In practice of course there will be such battles, but this yields the perspective to those who are so wrapped up in the wealth game that they forget it is a game. Taking the romantic, empathetic view of nature as delicate and fragile disrespects nature and seems to persist in undervaluing the risks we take.

As I see it, the problem is in the nature of “nature”, a word which, as William Cronon points out in a remarkable symposium he put together, has had many interpretations. Consider, though, what nature means in a literal sense, the sense the publishers invoked when they decided to call a leading science magazine “Nature”.

Nature in that sense is not going away; the idea of “protecting” it is ludicrous. The main things we can do about nature are to make it less congenial to us or to leave it alone. (Conceivably we can argue about whether it is possible to make it better, but we are so far from that as to make this question quite academic for the present.) We can provoke nature, souring the oceans, razing the forests, soaking up the rivers. Nature will (in the sense I mean the word “nature”) go on. Possibly we won’t, or possibly we will squeak by in poverty; possibly the planet will be greatly depleted of life forms, and won’t appeal to us very much. There will still be life, most likely, and even if there isn’t life there will still be nature.

We arose in and live in a peculiar and unique configuration of nature. We can’t get by on other planets where nature has other configurations. We don’t fully understand what keeps nature in the peculiarly fine configuration it’s in. As we push the balance ever harder, eventually we’ll disequilibrate something.

We need to rethink how we think. Human laws cannot override natural laws, and the eco-system is not a component of the eco-nomy. We can behave very stupidly, but we’re the ones who’ll suffer from it, not nature.

Nature is necessary not merely because we need the forest to cleanse our souls. Nature is pervasive; we need air to breathe and water to drink and food to eat and land to walk on. There is no number of gold bars sufficient to tilt the balance once it goes far enough. There is no limit to the peril into which we can place ourselves by poking at nature, short of our own extinction. Nature will not care, but we very definitely will.

Jeffrey Sachs vs U of C Law Profs

Jeffrey Sachs has an interesting short article about Climate Change and the Law at Scientific American.

While it was a great (and I am sure they would agree, undeserved) honor to be associated with the geophysics deprtment at the University of Chicago, some other departments at the place spook me. In particular, Sachs refers to a couple of unnamed

distinguished professors of law at the University of Chicago, who argued in the Financial Times on August 5 that the U.S. has no obligations to control greenhouse gases, and that if other countries don’t like how the U.S. behaves and how that behavior affects them, they might think about paying the U.S. to cut its emissions. In other words, the U.S. should behave as it likes. It is up to the others to induce the U.S. to change course.

Sachs isn’t buying this, and goes on to try to refute it, discussing in particular the recent Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gases constitute pollution under American law.

I hope he’s right. If he’s wrong, if the laws of people and the laws of nature are in conflict, then it’s human law that has to change.