Vaclav Klaus’s Error

Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic, is a climate change skeptic. He believes that what we are doing here is advancing a dangerous ideology, essentially a reworking of Soviet communism with high-sounding motivations, and freedom-quashing collectivist impulses.

My own family experienced the same oppressive communist regime in Czechoslovakia as did Klaus, so for what it is worth I have no sympathy for Stalinism. I have no choice but to acknowledge that an increase in collective power over individual power is necessitated by anthropogenic climate forcing as well as other global change issues. The question, really is whether the evidence for the necessity is real. That question should be decided independent of politics, and society’s failure to do so cannot be said to speak well of us or our prospects.

Klaus had an interesting speech to the Cato Institute about all this some months ago, which I linked to, wherein he treats environmentalism and climate concerns in particular to distasteful political movements. I don’t agree with his points but I think it’s worth considering the worldview which finds them plausible.

Klaus’ book “What is Endangered: Climate or Freedom” has been translated into English and his presentation to the National Press Club on that occasion is also interesting.

Here, I’d like to draw attention to what seems to me the core of his argument, in which he quickly brushes by its fundamental weakness:

The book was written by an economist who happens to be in a high political position. I don’t deny my basic paradigm, which is the “economic way of thinking”, because I consider it an advantage, not a disadvantage. By stressing that, I want to say that the Climate Change Debate in a wider and the only relevant sense should be neither about several tenths of a degree of Fahrenheit or Celsius, about the up or down movements of sea level, about the depths of ice at North and Southern Pole, nor about the variations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The real debate should be about costs and benefits of alternative human actions, about how to rationally deal with the unknown future, about what kind and size of solidarity with much wealthier future generations is justified, about the size of externalities and their eventual appropriate “internalization”, about how much to trust the impersonal functioning of the markets in solving any human problem, including global warming and how much to distrust the very visible hand of very human politicians and their bureaucrats. Some of these questions are touched upon in my book.

I agree in two respects: 1) there is a standard “economic way of thinking” about the problem which concludes it does not rise to a level worthy of a contemporary collective solution and 2) it depends crucially on the presumption that future generations will be “much wealthier”.

The second point ties into the whole question of sustainability, neatly sweeping it under a rug by fiat. We observe growth over two centuries, arguably three or even four, therefore growth is considered inevitable and permanent unless actively interfered with. Consequently governing best is governing least. Anything which promotes growth is natural and anything that restrains growth isn’t….

I don’t buy it. The common outcome of exponential growth processes in nature is a logistic curve, asymptoting to a constant, non-growth pattern. Slightly more complex scenarios are asymptoting to wild oscillations, and crashing. Indefinite growth is not sustained in the real world.

Have we reached the point of inflection in the logistic curve? There are so many arguments that this is the case that it is surely pointless to recount them all. Presumably you have spent some time in the last week being concerned by energy prices, to pick an obvious example.

So the crucial idea in the economists’ argument, that future generations will be wealthier (“much wealthier”) than the present generation, is in no way certain. The very problems we are discussing are the ones that are most likely to cause that pattern to fail.

Conventional economic thinking as defined by a prominent economist, then, systematically ignores sustainability as an issue. A keystone of the argument crumbles, and the whole approach that economists from Stern to Lomborg advocate falls apart.

New National Assessment

While the denialists are in full-court press even as Exxon tries to quietly change its stripes, the US government issues a new national assessment (PDF available) with a sobering set of regional climate predictions.

The NYTimes reports:

The report also reflects a recent, significant shift by the Bush administration on climate science. During Mr. Bush’s first term, administration officials worked to play down a national assessment of climate effects conducted mainly during the Clinton administration, but released in 2000.

The new report, which includes some findings that are more sobering and definitive than those in the 2000 climate report, holds the signatures of three cabinet secretaries.

The report also emphasized that the country’s capacity to detect climate shifts and related effects was eroding, as budgets and plans for long-term monitoring of air, water and land changes — both on the ground and from satellites — shrank.

Drying of the southwest is probably the most robust and consequential result.

Better Explanations?

In It has picked up a persistent contributor, “Steven” who complains:

“Specific information pro-AGW that is understandable to the layman has been very thin… which is unfortunate because I think it’s an area you could really make your niche (or one of).”

Leaving aside my easily guessed objection to the awful name “pro-AGW”…

While I have made some efforts in this direction over the years, I admit that isn’t the focus here. I began this blog specifically with the observation that no matter how much information is aimed at the layman, it will be insufficient in the face of organized opposition.

That said, I somewhat sympathize. We can’t just be pointing people to IPCC, and a few simple tutorials. The $300 M “We Campaign” is an embarassment of earnest and shallow positioning as long as it lacks any effort to educate. I am on Mr. Gore’s mailing list, of course. I think I need to say that I find the whole approach the opposite of inspiring.

Some reasons that we are not doing better:

1) There is no funding for people who understand the material to convey it. In America at least, academic outreach funds go exclusively to non-controversial topics of research and are aimed almost exclusively at schoolchildren. (American schools, it need not be stressed, are in a disastrous state largely because of their incompetence in dealing with matters of controversy). Skeptics have been funded generously by fossil fuel interests and private foundations run by people very suspicious of collective activity.

2) Scientists are in very competitive positions, and any significant efforts spent on reaching the public detract from their competitive position both as a matter of reducing available time and as a matter of reducing their perceived seriousness among their peers. Outreach is for the Isaac Asimovs, Stephen Goulds, Carl Sagans etc. who are perceived as having given up trying to make a mark directly.

You could put me in that category, by the way. Having spent enough time with Ray P. (we are the same age and grew up reading the same science fiction) makes me very sure I won’t ever be able to contribute in the way he does. I think I have something to add regarding how scientific software is done, but that’s pretty abstruse and will likely never get me first authorship in the sort of Science or Nature article that gets quoted a lot by climate blogs.

3) There are fewer ways to tell a true story than a false one. It just gets tedious writing up various version of the Gore slide show over and over. By contrast, the variety of nonsense that can be put up in opposition is relatively vast. In other words Mamet’s Law applies.

4) People who understand the material best have no formal training in conveying the material or in participating in the rough-and-tumble of polemics. We constantly fall into traps set by our more politically adept opposition.

5) We don’t actually spend our time thinking about AGW; only the opposition does. We spend our time on science. Our expectation of AGW is a fairly straightforward consequence of science and is rarely studied as such. So when we write about what we are thinking about or working on, it does’t apply directly to what the public is thinking about.

6) It’s very hard to get it right, much harder than if you don’t care. Even a single mistake does a lot of damage to a scientist’s credibility, especially given the idiotic sport of gaffe-pouncing that has developed in the mainstream press. Say one stupid thing and you run the risk of being identified with it forever. Best therefore to say nothing.

All this said, I have concluded that the quantity of intermediate level materials matters a lot.

It’s not necessary to be redundant. There are so many interesting stories to be told about actual, real science in ways that the public could understand. I wish some of the “We Campaign”‘s funds were directed toward scientific communication. It is symptomatic of how they operate that there is no way to communicate with them other than by checkbox or by check. If anyone wants to create such a job, please consider me interested.

The current situation is that, of course, the peer-reviewed literature is long past the point of arguing about global warming, but that isn’t what most people see. Starting from a typical Google inquiry, the materials proposing that AGW is in some way false tend to be more sophisticated than those which assert a reasonable balance or those which are unduly alarmist.

Adding material isn’t primarily what this blog is about, though I will poke at it now and again. Actually, I would love to have this task take over my life. Short of that, though, I can’t see amateur efforts making enough of a dent to matter. I’m under no illusions about how difficult this would be. Some fraction of the $300 million for the We Campaign ought to be going that way, though.

I agree that it’s a real problem.

Update: Per a suggestion in the comments I am looking over RealClimate’s off-site links. They seem rather perfunctory on the whole. I think the best example of an introductory FAQ is Tom Rees’s site. And of course, there’s GlobalWarmingArt. Both are inexplicably missing from RC’s links. Any other suggestions?

Change at Exxon

I think many bloggers still believe that Exxon is an ongoing supporter of denialists. I wonder if this is true.

An interesting report in the NYTimes documents the Rockefeller family’s efforts to nucleate a shareholder push toward a broader energy portfolio at Exxon. I found the following of interest:

Kenneth P. Cohen, vice president for public affairs at Exxon, said the shareholders pushing the resolutions were “starting from a false premise.” He added that the company was already concerned about “how to provide the world the energy it needs while at the same time reducing fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Since taking over the company two years ago, Mr. Tillerson has gradually shifted the company’s positions away from those of his predecessor, Lee R. Raymond, who was considered a skeptic on the science of global warming.

Now, while this is (ahem) consistent with a rather lukewarm acceptance of the global climate problem, it is not very consistent with outright denialism. This would mean that even with a failure of the shareholder resolution, the last of the major oil companies has already turned toward a more realistic position.

How did we reach a point where a huge slice of the public is still buying the bogus arguments of the denialists when they no longer hold any influence even at the most resistant of the major oil companies?

Update: In the comments, John Mashey points to a relevant story on DeSmog. Thanks, John!

Update: The financial press is reporting it thus.

Why Listen to Science?

Are scientists uniquely qualified to make certain judgements about reality?

Forty years ago I think very few people would have argued otherwise. Perhaps science is not as healthy as it was then, but on the other hand, the very idea of expert opinion is threatened these days.

I make these observations in the light of an interesting opinion piece by Geoff Davies out of Australia arguing that

Those in strategic positions in our society, like politicians and journalists, who treat scientists’ collective professional judgments as no better than any other opinion are being seriously irresponsible.

(Update: Link inserted; thanks to Molnar)

Archer’s fourth point

David Archer’s response to Freeman Dyson in RealClimate is not to be missed. All of it is excellent. His fourth point describes the denialists better than I have seen it done, and I’d like to draw your attention to that.

The target audience of denialism is the lay audience, not scientists. It’s made up to look like science, but it’s PR.

Climate science is perfectly healthy; many points of view are represented on matters that are in doubt; rational revisiting of points generally treated with good humor. Communication aimed at political rather than scientific discourse are not necessary and hard to see as other than malicious.

Would most scientists agree with this assessment? Maybe not. Most scientists are only dimly aware of the denialists. This is because the denialists avoid actual scientific meetings for the most part, preferring to talk to the press. Some busy scientists don’t feel a need to follow the press on their area of expertise, so they never really hear about all this supposed scientific controversy unless they find themselves entangled in it.

While it’s progress that they are no longer getting equal time, how long will the press misrepresent the denialists as serious? There’s a great deal of damage that needs to be reversed. It will be interesting to see the reactions to David’s calling a thing by its right name.

Light After a Long Darkness

In the wake of the oil price spike, coal mining is being revived in marginal coal production areas.

Here’s a cheerful article in the NYTimes about it.

But after decades of seemingly terminal decline, Japan’s coal country is stirring again. With energy prices reaching record highs — oil settled above $133 a barrel on Wednesday — Japan’s high-cost mines are suddenly competitive again, and demand for their coal is booming. Production has jumped to its highest in nearly four decades, creating a sensation rarely felt in these mining communities: hope.

“We are seeing a flicker of light after long darkness,” said Michio Sakurai, the mayor of Bibai, on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. “We never imagined coal would actually make a comeback.”

Appearing nowhere in the article are the words “climate”, “warming” or “greenhouse”.

Update: Fleck and Appell also noticed this story, pointing out that it is consistent with Appell’s Theorem. (PS – Those who know me as “mt” please take note that I am not the “MT” who comments on Quark Soup.)

Appell’s Theorem: Despite the worst threats to the planet, earthlings will burn whatever it is that keeps them warm.

Too too contango


The image is lifted from The Oil Drum and shows the progress of oil futures prices over the past couple of months. Normally, future prices are lower than present prices, because of discounting. Discounting amounts to an expectation that you can invest money somewhere else now and buy the commodity at a lower net price because of your profits. So when the curve goes the other way, it’s unusual. According to the site (this is all news to me) this sort of reversal in futures is a prediction of a shortage and is called a “contango”.

This week is apparently the first time ever that all future dates are in contango. There is an expectation of rising prices built into the market even with discounting.

Of course, there’s some sort of tie-in between discounting and the growth imperative, so at some point the whole idea of futures pricing gets a little dicey if you enter a regime where what economists call “growth” is not the normal or long-term condition.

That’s all interesting enough, if a little aside the point of the obsessions of this blog. But there’s this comment from “westexas”:

My 2¢ worth:

In my opinion, we are looking at an accelerating net oil export decline rate, combined with a requirement for an accelerating rate of increase in oil prices, in order to balance supply & demand, as forced energy conservation moves up the food chain.

Let’s take all consumers in all oil importing countries and break them into five groups, and then rank them by income. So, at the bottom of the bottom quintile, we have a poor Third World consumer. At the top of the top quintile, we have Bill Gates. As we go up the income ladder, the cumulative purchasing power vastly increases, which as noted, IMO, suggests a requirement for an accelerating rate of increase in oil prices in order to balance supply & demand.

I think that these two factors will interact–and are interacting–to produce the following oil price trend: $50, $100, $200, $400, $800 . . .

Yeah. This is related to what I am saying about the effectiveness of prices in regulating behavior. We have a world where the distinction between the richest and the poorest is vast. The rich use the vast majority of the resources, and are very price insensitive compared to the poor.

I continue to search for something resembling a decent loaf of bread in Texas, the sort that any average boulangerie in Montreal will sell without a second thought (or a word spoken, but that’s Montreal for you). I don’t know what bread sells for in Montreal these days, but the closest equivalents (usually either too sour and pasty or too grainy and leaden, grumble) sell for almost $4.00 per loaf at Whole Foods or Central Market. (sigh)

Anyway, the cost of the wheat in that bread was what, like two cents. If it doubles to four cents it will not materially affect my decision whether to buy a loaf of somewhat disappointing bread or simply accept the wonderful tortillas on offer and eat tacos instead of sandwiches.

Enough whining. My nostalgia for a decent sandwich is something I can go on endlessly about, but somewhere in the world the difference between two cents and four is making a real impact on the budget of a desperately poor family. Their necessity is impacted long before my discretionary decision is influenced at all.

Similarly, people who can afford Hummers are not the people who care about $4 gas or even, in a lot of cases, $12 gas. I won’t say they dominate fuel usage (there are freight trucks to consider) but they are a major player. High prices don’t change their behavior much.

Families on a tight budget, meanwhile, often have long commutes and their lives are dramatically impacted by these changes.

Putting a price on carbon gives the most wasteful users a pass. When relatively few people were wealthy, when commodities were labor-limited rather than supply-limited, this sort of thing didn’t matter. In the new order, newly-many wealthy people and still-many poor people are bidding on very different uses of the same resources (grain, fuel) that are changing from demand-limited to supply-limited.

I don’t know if anyone saw this particular train wreck coming, but here it is. Commodities rule but prices aren’t effective in reducing demand. This seems madly inflationary to me. It’s also immensely destabilizing since it essentially makes the poor bear the burden of the adjustment, more or less on the grounds that if they wanted that flour badly enough they’d have been willing to bid a dollar on it.

Almost Cut My Hair

I have been pretty demoralized about blogging for about a week. I like the attention but I am trying to figure out what the point of it all is. It strikes me that most people are either indifferent or stubborn, and that a simplistic but wrong position is far more effective for motivating people than a complex and pragmatic approach. 

I still think that one needs to act toward the best possible outcome even if one is pessimistic about achieving it. And of course I find people who find what I write interesting, interesting. I’m wondering if all this conversation is just self-indulgence, though. 
I note the superficial approach being taken by the “We Can Solve It” people in particular. I suppose that’s carefully thought out? 
I would rather they spent some of their resources on educating people. Unfortunately, if you use facts rather than polemics, soon enough the complexities of the problem come up, and you start fracturing on difficult technical issues. Unfortunately, getting support that is earnest but ill-informed is not actually going to get us through the hard choices that face us. Eventually there will have to be some triage, some conventionally green items sacrificed for some others.
The “what-me-worry” opposition hasn’t got these problems. What a mess. If you don’t need to make concessions to reality you don’t have to find yourself arguing propositions that are intuitively unappealing to the demographic that is inclined to support you. It’s just another way the deck is stacked against a good prognosis for civilization in this century.

I guess I’m sticking around for now but please be on notice that I am a bit demoralized and burnt out by the results of my blogging of late.  Having achieved a little bit of prominence (my audience did grow substantially over the past few weeks) I have succeeded in attracting the attention of more of the stubborn and confused people we are up against, which is not the kind of thing I find fun.
As a result of this effort I have a clearer idea of what I believe about this stuff at the cost of a firmer expectation that the world will not come around close enough to agreeing with me and the like-minded folk who read this blog. I wish I had some better idea of what to do about it besides ranting.

Kleiman Demolishes Teirney

I’m rethinking the price on carbon thing in the light of recent events with food prices and the poorest countries. We need to put a floor under some level of human dignity below which we will let no one cross, before we let the market determine everything.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed Mark Kleiman’s demolition of Tierney’s thinly vailed attack on Mr. Gore. Here’s what Tierney said, in case you missed it:

If you travel frequently by air, even on commercial flights, you can’t escape having a huge carbon footprint. Yet many of the most vocal advocates of cutting emissions — politicians, environmentalists, journalists, scientists — are continually jetting off to campaign events and conferences and workshops. Are they going to change the way they operate? If not, how are they going to persuade anyone else to cut back emissions? (My advice to the peripatetic preachers: Do not try explaining why your work is more important than everyone else’s.)

Here is Kleiman’s response. Lots of hits. Here’s the home run:

Rich people use more goods and services than poor people. That’s what “rich” means. Of course multi-millionaires have larger gross GHG footprints than you and I do. So what? If Tierney wants to work on decreasing income gradients, I’m all for it. But of course he’s not. He just hates the idea that some rich people use their wealth to promote ideas he dislikes.

Go read the whole thing.