National Academies Get Iota of Press Coverage

The various national science academies of the G8 nations were joined by five others (China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa) in issuing a joint statement calling for urgent action on climate change.

Unlike previous similar statements this did get a smattering of not especially deep press coverage, but it has to be counted as progress.

Here, for instance, is Andy Revkin’s article from June 11. Nice work, Andy. Not to be an ingrate or anything, but how about a link to the actual report next time?

Hansen’s Inflammatory Language

While you are trying to decide what to think or do about James Hansen’s recent provocations, especially about fossil energy executives who ought to know better, you should take some time to understand who he is and why he might be quite so pissed off.

Hansen is not by origin the sort of person to become a flaming radical. Hansen is a physics Ph.D. from Iowa of high repute nearing comfortable retirement. I don’t know if you know any midwestern PhDs or even any midwesterners nearing retirement, dear reader, never mind both at the same time, but I have had the privilege of meeting a few. (Updated his discipline. Thanks, Andrew.)

While there may always be exceptions, I hope you will concede that these are not the sorts of people who are normally given to such strong language.

It might be worthwhile thinking about what, exactly, the man is quite so peeved about.

Okay? Thanks in advance.

What Science Blogs Can Do

Excellent find by Atmoz of an interesting article by Blake Stacey entitled What Science Blogs Can’t Do.

Stacey begins as follows;

My thesis is that it’s not yet possible to get a science education from reading science blogs, and a major reason for this is because bloggers don’t have the incentive to write the kinds of posts which are necessary. Furthermore, when we think in terms of incentive and motivation, the limitations upon the effects of online science writing become disquietingly clear. The problem, phrased without too much exaggeration, is that science blogs cannot teach science, nor can they change the world.

While I found it an engaging read I disagree with the thesis on no less than three major points:

  1. I do think science blogs are important
  2. I do think the web will change the nature of scientific education eventually and
  3. While I agree that we can’t educate the public in the scientist’s sense of “educate”, it’s the intended readers’ motivations, not the writers’ motivations, that present the main issue.

What we need to do is inform, not educate; education is a very difficult and time consuming process under the best of circumstances, and the general public will never understand your pet phenomenon (e.g., barocliinc instability to pick a favorite of my own).

To inform means telling people:

  1. These are the facts as we understand them
  2. These are the options as best we can tell.

As long as the press models the conversation as a two-sided debate they will undermine our capacity for sound judgment. Never mind their propensity for muddling facts and confusing priorities. Blogs can offer a great deal in this respect.

Hansen’s 20th Anniversary Speech

Opening salvo:

My presentation today is exactly 20 years after my 23 June 1988 testimony to Congress, which alerted the public that global warming was underway. There are striking similarities between then and now, but one big difference.

Again a wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public.

Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic. Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.

The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next President and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.

Update: The usual noise (sort of like sci.environment about ten years ago) appears on today’s discussion of this presentation on Dot Earth. I’m particularly taken by this comment #129:


My understanding of economics is quite complete, thank you, as is my understanding of the power of freedom, and the proven consequences of totalitarianism.

What is most disturbing is that AGW’s supporters understanding of economics is so weak, that they don’t recognize government force and intervention when it’s staring them in the face.

The whole underpinning of a carbon-tax, ignoring the whatever scientific basis it may or may not have, is government force. …

I really appreciate the claim of “complete understanding”. It is nice to know that economics is so trivial that a claim of “complete understanding” can be made without supporting evidence.

Unfortunately, all the usual patterns are reinforced in the Dot Earth discussion, and the stalemate continues. 

Hansen’s point, though, is that we can’t afford a stalemate anymore.

My Little World Revisited

Sometimes I think that I do some good that never gets formally associated with me.

Anyway, I have to wonder whether my essay “My Little World” had some effect on this graphic from a BBC report on the state of the planet that came out a few months later.

Mind you I didn’t come up with the facts of the matter, just the way of presenting them. The shrinking planet graphic seems to draw upon that. I’d have liked it better if they explained the analogy a bit and emphasized how very small your planetoid really is getting to be. Still I am glad the Beeb ran this image and I urge you to think about it.

Though I’ll confess that the vertical axis on the third graph is perhaps overprecise, the rest of the article should be part of any thinking person’s world view too.

Surprised to Agree

Surprisingly, I have found nothing to disagree with in R. Pielke Jr.’s op-ed piece in the Financial Post. Have you?

As you might expect, he doesn’t manage to quite come around to the point that the worst-case outcomes deserve more weight, in a cost-benefit risk analysis, than the best-case outcomes.
So while he agrees that uncertainty does not call for inaction, he doesn’t go so far as I do, to claim that the less we believe the models, the more vigorously we should act.

That said, he didn’t say anything I disagree with, and it appears he has, without crediting James especially, absorbed the impact of the discussion about “consistency with models” correctly. I think that his point about that is sound.
The appropriate moral behavior in this context is only obvious, though, if you think democracy is sound and functional and capable of rationally weighing ideas. In the best of worlds this process is necessarily imperfect. At present, we are faced with organized and funded people who cherry-pick any possible indication that concerns about AGW are overblown.
We can’t win. If we react in a balanced way, the public splits the difference and moves to a muddled and inadequate response. If we cherry pick in the other direction, we become “the extremists on the other side”.
It is very difficult for a balanced view based on reason to fight an unbalanced view based on polemics, the more so the more nature indicates consequences that don’t seem intuitive.
While I may have some objections to what RP Jr doesn’t say, surely expecting those blanks filled in, in the FP these days, is wishful thinking. But what he says in the op-ed seems correct.

Sea Ice Update

Well, as the sun reaches its azimuth in the north, we find ourselves neck and neck with last year in Arctic ice area and thus ahead of last year in seasonal ice area loss.

The first image is from the graphics guys at UNEP, and shows some of their usual sloppiness. The “79-00 average” must be for the seasonal minima, though this is not made clear. However, the data look right and are obviously spectacular. This should be no surprise to those of you who have been following climate news for over a year.

Now much was made of the fact that the area anomaly bounced right back to the trend line in late fall. The pollyanna camp suggested that it was just a glitch. The cassandra camp contested this, pointing out that young ice and old ice aren’t exactly the same substance (yes, they’re both water, but the older ice is harder and has fewer structural weaknesses) and that young ice is relatively thin. This camp appeared to me on the whole to be the one with more expertise, though we found William in the more pollyannish camp.

Perhaps my opinion of who had the real chops was deflected a bit by the inevitable crowing of the cherry-pickers’ union. The further you are from a topic the harder it is to filter out uninformed opinion, and to be honest I have always avoided sea ice: the math is actually very messy. (It’s three kinds of continuum blended together: elastic, viscous and plastic depending on where and when!)

So the time to prove the pudding is approaching.

From the NSIDC along with the graph of current data:

June 3, 2008Arctic sea ice still on track for extreme melt

Arctic sea ice extent has declined through the month of May as summer approaches. Daily ice extents in May continued to be below the long-term average and approached the low levels seen at this time last year. As discussed in our last posting, the spring ice cover is thin. One sign of thin and fairly weak ice is the formation of several polynyas in the ice pack.

I understand there’s some bets outstanding as to whether last year’s record minimum will be overturned. This will give us some strong indication of whether the final meltdown of perennial sea ice is imminent or is still decades away as was thought prior to last season.