For those who have been off planet

I said in a recent posting:

“If anything the deniers seem interested in postponing the emergence of certain relevant truths as long as possible”

In response, a commenter asks:

What truths would these be? And who is trying to get them out?

It seems odd to answer, since the answers seem so obvious to regular readers of this flavor of blog, but after all, if they were obvious to everyone, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. So I’ll take it on.

First let me refer you to William Connolley’s definition of the consensus: wherein he refers to the IPCC third assessment report:

  1. The earth is getting warmer (0.6 +/- 0.2 oC in the past century; 0.17 oC/decade over the last 30 years) [ch 2]
  2. People are causing this [ch 12] (see update)
  3. If GHG emissions continue, the warming will continue and indeed accelerate [ch 9]

and less certainly but very probably

4. (This will be a problem and we ought to do something about it)

I would also say

2.1. Humans are changing the radiative properties of the atmosphere more rapidly than they change in nature (absolutely certain). Update: CO2 is the majority term in this forcing but there are several other components worth considering.
2.2. The climate must inevitably change in some way faster than it changes in nature as a consequence (absolutely certain in a physical sense; the radiative fluxes must change. almost certain in a practical sense; one could imagine the climate somehow contriving to change in a way that wouldn’t disrupt human life very much but the likelihood of this is incredibly small and the evidence for this is mostly contrived)
2.3. The simple back-of-the-envelope prediction of warming in the global mean is almost certainly valid on many streams of evidence (This is essentially William’s point 3 above) but changes will not be limited to that. As an example, increased drought in the southwest US is becoming a robust prediction.
2.4. We may already have won a 12 meter sea level rise and the more we persist in our behavior the more likely this is; we don’t know how fast our prize will be delivered.
Update: 2.5 There is a delay built into the climate system in addition to the delays built into economics and politics. The day we decide the problem is serious enough to act predates measurable benefits of our actions by decades.
2.6 The problem is roughly cumulative. Each increment of carbon you add to the system stays there for centuries. If we stopped emitting altogether, the planet would not cool off; it would keep warming for a decade or two and then stay at that level for a very long time.
Keeping emissions rates constant will result in a constant slope to the rate of increase; only a net emission rate near zero stabilizes climate.
2.7 Technical solutions exist. It is not necessary to change society dramatically except to adapt to higher energy prices a little bit faster than would otherwise be the case.

Also there are salient factors we don’t know.

3.1. There are reasonable dynamical arguments that storm intensity, both middle latitude convective cells and tropical cyclones, will increase, and such a prediction is consistent with, though not yet strongly confirmed by, observational trends.
3.2. There is paleoclimatic evidence that there are feedbacks that release additional carbon in response to warming. These are not well-constrained and are likely to amplify the human effect; we don’t know how much
3.3. As stated above, we don’t know when the rapid sea level rise will start or how fast it will go
3.4. Temperatures are likely to exceed the range seen for the last 2 million years at a time when ecological systems are under severe stress already. It’s difficult to constrain how much this will exacerbate the current extinction event.
3.5. Models seem to understate the transient variability of the system under abrupt forcing. This isn’t entirely surprising but leaves us with some difficulty constraining how much trouble we may be in.

Then there is the social context:

4.1. PR professionals are being paid to keep these facts obscured from the public. Some of them do not shy away from spreading lies.
4.2. Scientists are not paid to emphasize these facts and are actively discouraged from doing so both directly and indirectly (because any outside effort weakens their competitive position.) Update: The relevant climate sciences are not especially well-funded and the relevant sciences are not direct beneficiaries of the engineering strategies we advocate. The widely believed mechanisms for corruption don’t actually exist.
4.3. The paid PR staff on the side of sounding the alarm is vastly smaller than the team doing the obfuscating and has much fewer resources. Admittedly some of the alarmists are intellectually lazy and some few of them may also be dishonest but on the whole, seriously dishonest people will go where the money is.
4.4. Mamet’s Law applies:

“Law, politics and commerce are based on lies. That is, the premises giving rise to opposition are real, but the debate occurs not between these premises but between their proxy, substitute positions. The two parties to a legal dispute (as the opponents in an election) each select an essentially absurd position. “I did not kill my wife and Ron Goldman,” “A rising tide raises all boats,” “Tobacco does not cause cancer.” Should one be able to support this position, such that it prevails over the nonsense of his opponent, he is awarded the decision. …

“In these fibbing competitions, the party actually wronged, the party with an actual practicable program, or possessing an actually beneficial product, is at a severe disadvantage; he is stuck with a position he cannot abandon, and, thus, cannot engage his talents for elaboration, distraction, drama and subterfuge.”

Update: Anything else?

I think most people who are well informed as to the state of the science and the policy context would consider these assertions factual. I think the press has failed to convey these facts to the public, especially in English speaking countries and particularly the USA. To some extent that is because English is the language of the bulk of the paid denial professionals.

The greatest mystery, to me, is how those denial professionals justify their behavior to themselves. Can all of them believe their own nonsense? If not, do they really think they are better off with more money on a sick planet that with less money on a healthy one? I can’t understand where these people come from.

Anyway, if the public understood the outlines of the situation as described here, we’d be much better off than we are.

As for “who is trying to get them (those facts) out”, at present that would mostly be a bunch of scientists acting as communication amateurs in their spare time, some idealistic fresh college grads with badly paid internships at nonprofits, a handful of self-supporting pundits, a few professors and postdocs in policy sectors, and a very small group of decent journalists like Andrew Revkin and John Fleck who nevertheless don’t entirely have the nerve to spell out what the denialists are doing. All this activity surely accounts for less than a part in a hundred thousand compared to the total economic activities of the energy sector, and I would guess perhaps a tenth of the effort of the actively paid denial squad.

Update: Heh, bad timing. The balance of resources may be shifting at last. I worry, though, that the Gore campaign may settle for symbolism at the expense of actual education.

The Unforeseen

The idea that each person is responsible for their own fate and is justified in the fiercest resistance to anyone who implies otherwise has no deeper resonance anywhere than in Texas. Yet, water is a key to the landscape and water obeys no boundaries. A remarkable clash emerges between the individualist, historic and literate, geographic views of Texas, which is examined in the remarkable film “The Unforeseen”.

You can read more of my reactions at correlationsblog.com .

The title refers to this poem by Wendell Berry, someone I consider a rather excessive luddite, but one who has a miraculous way with words:

Santa Clara Valley

I walked the deserted prospect of the modern mind
where nothing lived or happened that had not been foreseen.
What had been foreseen was the coming of the Stranger with Money.
All that had been before had been destroyed: the salt marsh
of unremembered time, the remembered homestead, orchard and pasture.
A new earth had appeared in place of the old, made entirely
according to plan. New palm trees stood all in a row, new pines
all in a row, confined in cement to keep them from straying.

New buildings, built to seal and preserve the inside
against the outside, stood in the blatant outline of their purpose
in the renounced light and air. Inside them
were sealed cool people, the foreseen ones, who did not look
or go in any way that they did not intend,
waited upon by other people, trained in servility, who begged
of the ones who had been foreseen: ‘Is everything
all right, sir? Have you enjoyed your dinner, sir?
Have a nice evening, sir.’ Here was no remembering
of hands coming newly to the immortal work
of hands, joining stone to stone, door to doorpost, man to woman.

Outside, what had been foreseen was roaring in the air.
Roads and buildings roared in their places
on the scraped and chartered earth; the sky roared
with the passage of those who had been foreseen
toward destinations they foresaw, unhindered by any place between.
The highest good of that place was the control of temperature
and light. The next highest was to touch or know or say
no fundamental or necessary thing. The next highest
was to see no thing that had not been foreseen,
to spare no comely thing that had grown comely on its own.
Some small human understanding seemed to have arrayed itself
there without limit, and to have cast its grid upon the sky,
the stars, the rising and the setting sun.
I could not see past it but to its ruin.

I walked alone in that desert of unremitting purpose,
feeling the despair of one who could no longer remember
another valley where bodies and events took place and form
not always foreseen by human, and the humans themselves followed
ways not altogether in the light, where all the land had not yet
been consumed by intention, or the people by their understanding,
where still there was forgiveness in time, so that whatever
had been destroyed might yet return. Around me
as I walked were dogs barking in resentment
against the coming of the unforeseen.

And yet even there I was not beyond reminding,
for I came upon a ditch where the old sea march,
native to that place, had been confined below the sight
of the only-foreseeing eye. What had been the overworld
had become the underworld: the land risen from the sea
by no human intention, the drawing in and out of the water,
the pulse of the great sea itself confined in a narrow ditch.

Where the Sabbath of that place kept itself in waiting,
the herons of the night stood in their morning watch,
and the herons of the day in silence stood
by the living water in its strait. The coots and gallinules
skulked in the reeds, the mother mallards and their little ones
afloat on the seaward-sliding water to no purpose I had foreseen.
The stilts were feeding in the shallows, and the killdeer
treading with light feet the mud that was all ashine
with the coming day. Volleys of swallows leapt
in joyous flight out of the dark into the brightening air
in eternal gratitude for life before time not foreseen,
and the song of the song sparrow rang in its bush.

Almost all of the movie was shot in and around Austin over the past decade. The route on which I commute to work is shown at various phases of its construction (along with other amazing Austin highways and other remarkable central Texas scenes). The longest reading of the poem in the movie takes place, I believe, eighty feet below the interchange I use daily.

OT: Six days smarter than the FDA

I quit taking Singulair a week ago, which makes me 6 days smarter than the FDA. I pretty much concluded that it was what was making me mean, groggy and stupid.

It took about 3 days to fully wake up, which counts as corroborating evidence as far as I am concerned. I doubt there was long term damage in my case. Detailed anecdote to follow.

It will be interesting to know how common my story is. I suppose I might be a rare outlier, but you can see how it doesn’t much look that way from my point of view. I have a wild guess about the big picture with this drug but I probably shouldn’t go mouthing off about it. I will be watching this one closely, though.

Update: Here’s the FDA page for reporting drug reactions. Also, this site seems to be ground zero for conversation among (ahem) dissatisfied Singulair users.

Bill Clinton Accused of Violating Taboo

In a cogent if demoralizing screed, the World Climate Report quasi-blog (no comments allowed, please and thanks) argues (ignoring any contradiction with its other articles, but so what) that exceeding 2 C warming is unavoidable. You’ve heard it all before, of course, and in spite of everything I am afraid it’s basically more likely than not to be how things pan out. I wouldn’t even call your attention to it, except insofar as it reflects on the growth taboo. It is so unacceptable to question growth that even mentioning questioning growth in a discarded hypothetical is grounds for punishment in the political arena.

Here’s how it goes. Step 1: Mr. Clinton (whom I otherwise greatly admire but who is definitely not a person who violates the taboo) spoke as follows:

“Everybody knows that global warming is real,” Mr. Clinton said, giving a shout-out to Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize, “but we cannot solve it alone.”

“And maybe America, and Europe, and Japan, and Canada — the rich counties — would say, ‘OK, we just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions ’cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren.’ We could do that.

“But if we did that, you know as well as I do, China and India and Indonesia and Vietnam and Mexico and Brazil and the Ukraine, and all the other countries will never agree to stay poor to save the planet for our grandchildren. The only way we can do this is if we get back in the world’s fight against global warming and prove it is good economics that we will create more jobs to build a sustainable economy that saves the planet for our children and grandchildren. It is the only way it will work.

In the lead paragraphs of the very same ABC article, this is summarized as follows:

Former President Bill Clinton was in Denver, Colorado, stumping for his wife yesterday.

In a long, and interesting speech, he characterized what the U.S. and other industrialized nations need to do to combat global warming this way: “We just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions ’cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren.”

At a time that the nation is worried about a recession is that really the characterization his wife would want him making? “Slow down our economy”?

Then we see the official Republican position quoted as an update to that same article:

“Senator Clinton’s campaign now says we must ‘slow down the economy’ to stop global warming,” said Alex Conant, RNC Spokesman. “Clinton needs to come back to Earth. Her ‘tax-it, spend-it, regulate-it’ attitude would really bring the economy crashing down. No amount of special effects will hide Clinton’s liberal record.”

Finally, it is reflected this way in WCR:

And conservation is limited—after all, we can only roll energy usage back so far before we are unable to sustain our current lifestyle (and no government on earth is going to purposely role back the standard of living of its people—or at least they won’t be governing very long if they do—Update Jan. 31, 2008: Although apparently this is precisely what Bill Clinton proposes that we do!).

Note the implicit syllogism: energy rollback = reduced economic activity = roled [sic] back standard of living. No effort to question any of these identities will be tolerated. Even mentioning the possibility will be severely punished in politics by sound bite.

At least the WCR article acknowledges the obvious: eventually the carbon intensity of our lives will be rolled back. Apparently we are not allowed to think about how to make that happen before the carbon runs out. Apparently after the carbon runs out we will think of something, but before the carbon runs out we are not allowed to, because that would reduce our “standard of living”.

Everybody knows that well-being is synonymous with money which is synonymous with spewing all available carbon.

Any questioning of any of this is Communist. (Of course it isn’t, but it’s sort of implied to be.) Stalin was a Communist. Stalin was very bad. So you’d be wise to shut up.

Well, I’ve got some news for you all. The concept of a party line that it’s subversive to question even in a rejected hypothetical is pretty much the key weapon of totalitarianism. I would think it is not considered subversive in a free country to question widely held ideas, even the idea that total wealth can in any meaningful sense grow forever, and it’s not sufficient to answer the question by adopting an expression of hostility and suspicion and disgust, effectively pointing out that the question itself violates a taboo.

I’d still like to see something resembling a serious answer to the question that Clinton was so foolish as to raise in passing. Anything at all.

I’d also like to know why this taboo exists. I think it’s a back-formation from the growth addiction. The tenacious attachment to it on all sides combined with the lack of a well-known rational defense of it strikes me as symptomatic of something severely out of kilter.

Same Stuff, New Order

I’ve written an article for correlationsblog.com that recapitulates many of the themes from around here in a new order, based on a remarkable hallway conversation with “Hank” who has discovered this blog. Like Tex-Mex food, new arrangements of the same old ingredients can sometimes be interesting.

Also today I’ve been corresponding with someone who argues that describing the denial movement itself (as opposed to responding to their obfuscations) is our best defense against their tactics. It’s a very interesting suggestion that seems to have some merit.

Two Campus Events This Week

Compare and contrast:


  1. Climate action workshop sponsored by United Student Activists
    Description:
    United Student Activists will be presenting a workshop conducted by Rising Tide to connect the overarching crisis of climate change and the grassroots struggles of communities resisting the fossil fuel industry’s assault on their land and culture.
    Time: Mar 26, 7-9 p.m.
    Location: Mezes Hall 1.120

  2. Experts discuss climate change and its predicted effects on the world
    Description:
    Sponsored by Engineers for a Sustainable World, climate experts from Hewlett-Packard Company and the World Wildlife Fund will provide an overview of climate change and its predicted effects on various regions of the country as well as the world, and their responses to the challenges that climate change presents.
    Time: Mar. 27, 6-8 p.m.
    Location: Jackson Geological Science Building, Room 2.216

Both of these events don’t appeal to me at all. (Follow the links.) Surely there is some potential for some sort of a middle ground between these unfortunate misfires.

Neutrality vs Advocacy: Must Read

I’d like to draw your attention to a remarkable article by Baruch Fischhoff of CMU called Nonpersuasive Communication about Matters of Greatest Urgency: Climate Change.

Such advocacy makes many scientists uncomfortable. Of course, science itself entails advocacy, as researchers make the case for the importance of their studies, the soundness of their methods, and the robustness of their results. However, that advocacy follows the familiar norms of the scientific community. Those norms compel scientists to, for example, identify uncertainties, consider all data (and not just supporting evidence), and update their beliefs as new evidence arrives.

Public advocacy, however, follows the norms of politics. Claims should be based on fact. However, they need not include all the facts. Evidence is assembled to make a case, not to provide a full picture—let the other side provide what is missing. Uncertainty is avoided—let observers infer it from the clash of certain views. Positions are defended, come what may.

Scientists typically resort to public advocacy after concluding that, without it, the science will not get a fair hearing. One way or another, the public is blamed for this failure. It might be blamed directly, for not understanding the science, or indirectly, for falling prey to the other side’s advocates, who exploit its scientific illiteracy. Such advocacy runs the risk of winning battles over what science says, while losing the war over what science is.

There is a great deal more, with surprisingly cogent analysis of details. This is an anti-framing article in the end, but it has very cogent and detailed advice about information processing in a democracy as well. Here’s the conclusion:

Scientists faced with others’ advocacy may feel compelled to respond in kind. However, they can also try to become the trusted source for credible, relevant, comprehensible information by doing the best job possible of nonpersuasive communication. With long-term problems, like climate change, communication is a multiple-play game. Those who resort to advocacy might lose credibility that they will need in future rounds.

I’m not sure I agree. These days I am pretty confused about what I think we should do really. I think the article should not be missed by anyone with an interest in these matters, though.

Economics Question

How much of the housing bubble is due to the fact that America is overbuilt?
I have never seen discussions of housing units per capita. I do see a surprising number of unoccupied houses, though. I suspect it is much too high.
(There are cases where extended families need to reduce costs and would tolerate moving from two houses to one (ironically, often adding to demand for gasoline) but in the home ownership culture that prevails here end up stuck with an albatross mortgage. In other countries where rental still affords a civilized lifestyle, these liabilities would more frequently accrue to large corporate or government property holders. )
I once had a condo salesman tell me with a straight face that “property values never go down” and reassert it calmly when challenged. If professionals in real estate really believed this in America, it is little wonder that there is a housing bubble. On this view it has rather little to do with banking practices, and much to do with some stupidly simplistic extrapolations. If the banks were overextended they merely did us a favor by ending this nonsense sooner than it might otherwise have occurred.
Unlike extra tulips or extra dot-coms, though, extra housing units take a very long time to go away. Anyway it now stands to reason that we need to loosen immigration and tourism visas and in general stop humiliating people at the border, especially if they have some money. I wonder how long it will take to figure that out.

Energy is unbelievably cheap

A hundred dollars a barrel. A barrel! Energy is unbelievably cheap.

That’s about six million BTUs. One point seven megawatt hours. With that $100 barrel you can power your laptop for two years. You can ship hundreds of pounds of bananas from Guatemala. You can microwave a hundred and two thousand cups of tea to steaming warmth. You can power the digital clock on your microwave for seven million years!

It’s not that energy is too expensive. It’s that it’s too cheap. It’s made us ridiculously lazy.

As a consequence of our laziness and our wealth, our demand for energy is inelastic.

It’s a consequence of the cheapness of energy that poor people in America need cars. In the past, we had to house them in little hovels behind the rich people’s houses, which was bad for morale (among the rich people especially). For this marginal gain and others like it we clog the highways and twist the world’s culture and politics into knots. We can manage that only because energy is so cheap, and the transition is only a problem as it becomes slightly less cheap.

Once it settles down to a realistic true cost, probably three to five times what it costs today, we can all do just fine, assuming we stop making the wrong choices at every turn.

John Mashey, on John Fleck’s blog, comes up with a link to the efficiency of big trucks. We see an estimate of how many ton-miles of cargo you can carry on a gallon of fuel in a big rig. The answer is about 200. So how much does it cost to carry a tomato from California to Maine?

It’s about 3000 miles. It’s about 1/4000 of a ton. So its about 3/4 of a ton mile. OK, make it a nice big juicy tomato. It’s a ton-mile. So that costs about 1/200 of a gallon of fuel, or about a penny and a half.

Suppose the price of fuel triples. Your tomato will cost almost an extra nickel. Big deal.

This idea that we need to shop for locally grown vegetables for energy reasons is simply innumerate.

Energy is very very very cheap, and once it is only very, very cheap (one less very) it will still be not a big environmental impact or cost to move a tomato across the continent. You are going to expend about as much energy cooking the tomato sauce as you did shipping the tomato.

Suppose you drive twenty miles round trip to the farmer’s market to pick up a half dozen locally grown tomatos. That’s 2 pounds of tomatos and one gallon of gas, or about 50 cents per tomato. Your per-mile efficiency was 30,000 times less than the truck’s delivery was. In this realistic scenario you spent thirty times as much energy buying locally as I did walking or biking to the supermarket for an agribusiness tomato.

We may yet ruin our civilization out of rank stupidity, but the scenario where it will be so dramatically more expensive or more damaging to the environment to have a long distance tomato that we’ll have to give up on out-of-season tomatoes isn’t even worth worrying about. You might want to live closer to the market, though.

Energy’s real cost is not about money but about how we organize ourselves and our lives. How we grow the tomato counts and how we ship it ocuts for more than where we grow it and how far we ship it, though the latter is more visible. The unintended and obscured activities swamp the intended and obvious ones.

The big comeuppance comes when the auxiliary costs of all the various pokes and prods to the biosphere actually start interacting in a major way.

Not to minimize the effect on poor people here and abroad who have to stretch to get the energy they need, but peak oil is way, way, way overrated as a threat to the western way of life. The shifts we face will be costly, but not overwhelming, unless we persist in being stupid and ignorant about them.

Meanwhile, do your arithmetic. Buy global but walk to the market.

Update 4/15: This from comments to an interesting article on the Oil Drum site:

a US gallon Gasoline = 115,000 Btu
1000 Btu = 0.293 kWh
therefore a US gallon = 115 x 0.293 kWh = 33 kwh

Assume, at best, in an 8 hour working day you could get 100w continuous useful work from a man, ~0.8 kWh?

As a check, a normal man should consume ~ 2,500 kilocalories per day? (1 kilowatt hour = 859.6 kilocalories, so about a third converted to useful work seems reasonable?)

Therefore a US gallon contains the same amount of useful energy as 33/0.8 = 41 days or ~330 hours of human (slave?) labor!

In a barrel there would be 42 x 330 ~ 13,800 hours of manual labor.
13,800 hours of manual labor at $20 per hour is $267,600 per barrel.

So oil at $100/bbl is still quite a bargain.