Conflation

John Fleck has an interesting article about confusing the two questions: 1) is there significant AGW? and 2) should very much be done about it? I missed it when it came out but fortunately Revkin linked to it.

John argues (presumably somewhat under the influence of RP Jr.) that the latter question is legitimately an open one, that substantive information already in existence is insufficient to settle it.

The primary audience of this blog is people who disagree with John on the second point. That is, we agree that the focus of the discussion should move away from physical climatology, the focus on which is a deliberate red herring on the part of people who oppose action. We disagree with anyone who suggests that it is a marginal or unproven case that such action is necessary. This requires us to broaden the conversation from physical climatology to the whole structure of modern society, which makes it incredibly interesting and incredibly difficult to make a case. It’s immensely frustrating that there is still a focus on the physics part; regardless of what you may hear it is really a slam dunk by now that contemplated levels of CO2 are climatically significant.

So, one of the questions that most irks me is how and why we are still spending so much time on the first question. On the other hand, while I am convinced that only one answer is possible to the second question once present evidence is accounted for, it doesn’t immediately follow from the first. Several steps are missing between a significant change and a policy imperative, but they are all quite solid.

One way of looking at it is as follows:

1) Are humans changing the composition of the atmosphere?
2) Does that change have observable consequences already?
3) Given current human behavior, what is the likely trajectory of those consequences into the future?
4) Are those consequences morally acceptable?
5) If not, what action should be taken?

It’s hard to avoid a doubt whether question 4 is admissible. Some will prefer to substitute “Are those consequences economically acceptable?” I find this substitution unacceptable for various reasons.

Aside from question 4, a conclusion that dramatic changes need to be made is extremely solid. So why aren’t we discussing point 4? Well, because that would get us thinking seriously about what society is for and what life means. All sides seem intent on avoiding the question of what our moral obligations are and how we should think about them. Focusing the conversation on a basic and unsurprising and incontrovertible result in climate physics at the expense of a discussion of who we are and how we should make collective decisions is a sign that social maturity has ebbed drastically.

So, as a refinement of John Fleck’s argument, I would say that it’s true that all of these are typically conflated. The extent to which we are discussing 1 and 2 to the exclusion of 3 and 4 and 5 is simply a mistake. On this point I agree with John.

On the other hand, I believe that we disagree in that I think the evidence on points 3 and 4 is overwhelming, but my position of #4 (and the implicit position on #4 of most who agree with me) is not based on an explicit social consensus, for once we get to the meta-question of what the right question 4 is, we are in a deep quandary.

We need to adjust to a finite world or that world will adjust us for us. The decisions involved are not well-represented in an economics that models labor and capital and real estate as first order inputs but consumable resources as a correction.

The press is not so much afraid to discuss this as utterly incapable (what news slot does it come under?), and advocates on all sides (except for market libertarians for whom it is all too simple) ignore the elephant altogether. Consequently the public is utterly confused about the choices imposed by the transition that is upon us, one that is as great as any in history.

Wishful thinking department

A not-very-informative history of climate change science  is remarkable only for its headline:

Ian Sample looks at how the study of the climate has moved from being a relatively minor branch of science to one that now dominates most others, thanks largely to the work of one man

Leaving aside the toxic lone-genius model of science, i.e., science as mutant superpower (see “Good Will Hunting”), wouldn’t it be nice?

If you’re seriously interested in the topic, Spencer Weart is a good source. 

How Loud to Squawk

The question of scientific neutrality vs scientific obligation to the greater good comes up constantly.

As the title and explanatory anecdote of this blog allude to, one of the most irritating aspects of denialism (which is to say, about deliberate lying regarding science) is the suggestion that controversy advances one’s career. In fact, it is always safer to pick the strict neutrality position for someone pursuing a conventional career in science. People like Joe Romm have a different career path; people like me, not conventionally ambitious, have less to lose. The career scientists who are the mainstay of RealClimate, though, get no advantage for their efforts: time spent on taking a position, even a position that is totally in line with scientific evidence, is time at best wasted in advancing a career in geophysics.

(It may be different in biology, particularly wildlife ecology, for reasons which are interesting.)

The usual person who comes to mind in this context is James Hansen, who has clearly become an outspoken advocate. Even some of his peer reviewed papers have a tinge of advocacy. Is this the right thing to do?

On the one hand, one wants a body of knowledge that is reliable and as untainted by custom, culture and opinion as is possible. That is what makes science science. On the other hand, eventually matters reach a point where one has to begin to insist that society is grossly mishandling a situation, is severely out of touch with the extent of risk that is happening.

I received via email a pointer to an interesting debate on this subject involving my correspondent and the the Texas State Climatologist, who is a meteorology faculty member at Texas A&M and a blogger at the Houston Chronicle.

The question is to what extent the State Climatologist’s job is to rub the government’s nose in the mess it is leaving on the carpet, fully aware that doing so may lose one the title and the modest funding that I am guessing goes with it. To suggest that this is part of the role of the State Climatologist is itself interesting; certainly that is not the traditional role of that position. A case can be made. On the other hand, if the SC is so outspoken as to lose his or her position, the replacement is likely to err on the side of caution.

Max Planck found himself in a similar quandary. The question of the extent to which to defend Einstein and Haber as contributors to physics in the light of a certain lack of respect from the German government for people of Jewish descent turned out to be a major theme in his later life. He avoided speaking out. Wikipedia has the following anecdote:

Hahn asked Planck to gather well-known German professors in order to issue a public proclamation against the treatment of Jewish professors, but Planck replied, “If you are able to gather today 30 such gentlemen, then tomorrow 150 others will come and speak against it, because they are eager to take over the positions of the others.”[6] Under Planck’s leadership, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft (KWG) avoided open conflict with the Nazi regime, except concerning Fritz Haber. Planck tried to discuss the issue with Adolf Hitler but was unsuccessful.

All of this is discussed in detail in the remarkable biography of Planck: The Dilemmas of an Upright Man (J. L. Heilbron, 2000).

Science, properly construed, is neutral, and the main goal of the scientific community must be to protect that neutrality. The question is what is the right thing for an individual scientist or a scientific community to do when society’s relationship to that neutral science goes awry. Such quandaries go back to Copernicus. I don’t think we have an easy answer.

Is "Climate Change" Everything?


Via the Guardian, some peculiar editorial cartoons about sustainability here. I have pasted in my favorite, since it ties into many of my themes. Some of them are worth thinking about.

However, the headline is most peculiar: “Cartoons make climate change a laughing matter”.

The complaints we hear about “global warming” superceding everything else may make some sense at least as a criticism of the press in the UK. Really, the way the cartoonists responded to the challenge of “climate cartoons” makes little sense.

Most of them were not about ‘climate change’ at all but simply about the total appropriation of the biosphere to economic activity. I would call it the ‘sustainability’ issue, but there is a theme running through these cartoons that is a bit darker, more visceral. These are “end of nature” comments. It’s most peculiar calling them ‘climate change’; only two of them seemed related to climate at all, #13 and the remarkable #9.

Also, most of them were far more gloomy than funny. “Cartoons make something other than climate change something other than a laughing matter”, then, but go look for yourself. They are interesting.

Update: Some rather funnier cartoons via ICE.

Limits to Clean Energy

I’ve been meaning to talk about the comparison between carbon-based energy and clean energy in terms of global warming. One way this comes up is when the delusionists bring up “heat island” effects. Somebody who doesn’t understand that the greenhouse warming is already observed will pipe up that “maybe it’s just the amount of energy we’re using”.

Well let’s get some numbers. A CO2 doubling is usually treated as a top-of-atmosphere imbalance of about 4 W/m^2 with fast (century delay or shorter timescale) feedbacks included. What would the comparable number be for ordinary, sensible, net-emission-free energy usage?

Well, here’s a site claiming “Using 1995 figures provided by the World Bank, in that year, the world’s energy consumption totaled 316 quadrillion BTUs.” OK that’s 316,000,000,000,000,000 = 3.16e17 BTUs = 9e16Watt-hour = 9e13 KwH = 9e13/7e9 KwH/capita-yr = 12800 KwH/capita-yr = 12800/(365*24) Kw/capita = 1.4 Kw. So the average person and all his or her support infrastructure currently burns about 1400 watts, night and day. That seems believable.

Then the world wattage is 1.4e3 * 7e9 = about 1e13 W. The area of the world is 5.1 e8 km^2 = 5.1e14 m*2. So the direct heating of existing energy is on the order of 1e13/5e14 W or about 1/20 watt per square meter. Compare this with 2 watts of anthropogenic greenhouse forcing, on its way to 4.

This is in line with what I got all the other times I worked it through, it’s just verging on noticeable but is certainly not comparable to anthropogenic greenhouse forcing. Even if everyone lived at much higher US power consumption levels, this would still be a small forcing, about 1/3 W/m^2, comparable to observed solar variability.

But in the 8 July 2008 issue of EOS, whose website, proudly proclaiming its mission for the advancement “through unselfish cooperation in research, [of] the understanding of Earth and space for the benefit of humanity.” doesn’t make available to nonmembers, Eric Chaisson of Tufts and Harvard puts a different spin on this story. He suggests that this comfortable margin is not as comfortable as all that under conventional growth scenarios.

He points to theories that 1) economic growth is tightly coupled to energy growth and 2) economists believe healthy economic growth is at least on the order of 1%/annum sustained. Suppose we stipulate these ideas. When does non-greenhouse anthropogenic global warming become a problem? High school level computations suffice for an estimate on the order of 450 years for a global warming of 10 degrees Celsius. Higher growth rates bring that point much closer. And nothing in the assumptions allows the warming to stop there.

Accordingly, even in the total absence of an anthropogenic greenhouse effect, the world cannot sustain indefinite increases in energy use. Either the coupling of growth to energy or the growth itself will necessarily stop. Blithely ignoring the discount rate and thinking like a geophysicist, Chaisson concludes as follows:

Even acceding that the above assumptions can only be approximate, the heating consequences of energy use by any means seem unavoidable within the next millennium – a period not overly long and within a time frame of real relevance to humankind.

More than any other single quantity, energy has fostered the changes that brought forth life, inetlligence, and civilization. Energy also now sustains society amd drives our economy, indeed grants our species untold health, wealth and security. Yet the very same energy processes that have enhanced growth also limit future growth, thereby constraining solutions to global warming. Less energy use, sometime in the relatively near future, seems vital for our continued well-being, lest Earth simply overheat.

Got that? It’s a fundamental limit to growth from which there is no escape (short of escape velocity) It won’t cut in soon but if none of the other ones do, this one will eventually show up. The future of the planet has fundamental limits.

Update: Tidal notes that this limit does not apply to earth-based renewable energy, i.e., directly or indirectly solar. The question of what fraction of that we can appropriate is not obvious to me, but the total is vast. A quick follow-up on the calculation above indicates that solar forcing (after relection) is about 4000 times human energy consumption. We appropriate a good fraction of it already for food, though.

If we assume that we can appropriate 10% of that energy effectively at most (allowing some for a biosphere, some for food production, and some for insurmountable inefficiency in the conversion process) that leaves some 8 or so doublings. At 1 % growth that is about 560 years until we run out of renewables. Still in the same ballpark as Chaisson’s numbers. At 3% growth in a pure renewables scenario, we run out of sources of renewables in 180 years.

Filling Texas up from the bottom

It’s amusing, the way Americans draw their maps… They don’t even see it as odd.

The image the from National Weather Service shows 24-hour precipitation in southern Texas ending at 7 am CDT this morning. The white area represents 10″ or more.

Hope things are going well down in the valley – on both the side which exists and the one which doesn’t. Dolly is losing energy but still is providing plenty of moisture. Up here we got a few sudden splats but that’s it.