See? It’s the Gold, I Tell you!


The Canberra Times reports:

A group of CSIRO senior climate scientists has defied a gag order by the organisation to speak out on Australia’s proposed greenhouse reduction targets.

They claim tougher targets are needed to avoid Australia being ”locked in” to dangerous climate change, and list 14 recent scientific findings that support their argument.

the scientists made their decision to go ahead with personal submissions after CSIRO management ruled out any participation in the inquiry by Australia’s peak science body on the grounds that it would require comment on government policy.

A CSIRO spokesman said the inquiry’s terms of reference, ”went to the policy of the Government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme, and in line with our public comment policy, we don’t comment on government policy”.

The scientists had been told to, ”make it absolutely clear” they were not speaking on behalf of CSIRO. If asked to testify, they will be required to take formal leave and travel at their own expense.

If that isn’t greed, I don’t know what it is.


OK, maybe the kangaroo was too easy, but I like it. From Wikipedia and released under GFDL by пан Бостон-Київський .


Open Thread No. 4: The Numbers Game


The Guardian has a poll of Copenhagen Conference participants.

Most of those who responded expect a global mean temperature increase over the next century in excess of 3 C . About 5.5 F globally; well over 10F, presumably , in continental interiors and the Arctic.

What do you think? Pick a number.


Image: NASA


Excellent TED Talk Until the Climate Part


A really awe-inspiring TED talk by David Deutsch is also really discouraging and disappointing.

Of course at first I didn’t see where he was going. Unfortunately he was leading up to some fundamentally cracked ideas about climate change. It’s really sad, as the talk is inspiring and invigorating until it gets to the hopelessly wrong parts. But what is it about physicists that gives them license to get the climate problem so dramatically and publicly wrong while putting so little effort into investigating it?

Deutsch concludes that we should focus on fixing big problems, not on avoiding them. This is a commonly held opinion by smart people who don’t understand the climate problem. It’s fundamentally wrong on two grounds. First, as he in effect points out, there really isn’t a strong distinction between avoiding a problem and solving a problem; avoiding a problem is a version of solving a problem, isn’t it? Second, of course, the extent to which you have a problem isn’t binary. You may have a big climate change problem, or a huge one, or an overwhelming one. And of course, all the exciting progress he goes on about, all this capacity to “create the relevant knowledge” suddenly goes away once problems become overwhelming. Perhaps people whose immediate family have never actually been in overwhelming situations are overly sanguine about this possibility.

Those are just the gross failures of his position. Now onto the deatils.

He only talks about climate change for three minutes, after leading up to it for fifteen, but look at the holwers he manages to come up with in those three minutes.

1) “It’s already too late to prevent a catastrophe” is true in some weak sense, but again, the situation isn’t binary. It is the scope of the catastrophe that is exactly what is at issue.

2) “The actions proposed don’t solve the problem, but merely postpone it by a little”. That was true of Kyoto, the advantage of which would have been that we would have international protocols in place now that the real cuts are needed. Having skipped that step, our job is more difficult. But 80% cuts in the advanced countries by 2050 are at least consistent with addressing the problem at scale, and that is what we are discussing nowadays. In fact, that is the only sane recourse.

3) “in the 1970’s when the best science was warning about humans causing an ice age”. Groan.

4) “When we know how to avoid a disaster at a cost that’s much less than the disaster being avoided, there’s not going to be much argument, really.” You’d think. But, alas, no. I refer Dr. Deutsch to an interesting blog called Only In It for the Gold which is centrally focussed on why this fairly obvious “fact” just isn’t true. (Hint: what is “known” to science greatly exceeds what is “known” to policy.)

5) “Instead of reducing gases we ought to be looking at plans to reduce the temperature”. This is geoengineering idiocy. It is really necessary to get a couple of very fundamental facts across. First: the problem is not the temperature, it is the rearrangement of the fluid flow regimes in the new temperature regime. Temperature is only a crude gauge of climate change. We can have massive climate change with small changes in global mean temperature, though the case of small climate change with large temperature changes is excluded. This is where the actual scientific knowledge comes in. And though Deutsch claims to defer to the experts, it appears he has not bothered to talk to any of them.

6) He also briefly mentions an approach to carbon sequestration and then proceeds to a broad brush characterization that “nobody” is thinking seriously about these things. Of course that’s a very sweeping generalization, and I think it’s actually not true at all in the actual scientific sectors where the work is happening. Of course, the left and the right may not be paying any mind, so of course the press isn’t either. But I’d hope a physicist talking informally about the subject would know better, and I’d insist that a physicist talking publicly about it take the time to actually meet and talk to people working in the field.

So six substantial objective errors of fact in three minutes in a public talk.

Finally, let me point out that his arguments are totally disjoint from economics or politics. I sympathize. I like to start from what’s physically possible, proceeding thence to what is socially and economically possible. Deutsch ignores that problem altogether. I suppose that is better than the opposite position which ignores physics in favor of politics, but not by much.

Again, there’s much that I very much enjoyed about the talk so I’m sorry to have to say it’s irresponsible. Indeed it is irresponsible in a very Dysonesque way. Why do physicists with their perspective on the largest and smallest scales get the idea that they understand the planetary scale? I’m sure the folks at the Hadley Centre, for instance, would be happy to entertain this interesting fellow and give him a more nuanced view.

So, why didn’t he bother?

Update: A much better TED talk on geoengineering by David Keith. He seemed more optimistic than I thought was warranted, mostly based on the AGU session in 07, though.

Scientific Software Days at TACC

I am co-organizing this thing:

SCIENTIFIC SOFTWARE DAYS
MAY 21 – 22, 2009

The Texas Advanced Computing Center, in association with the Jackson School of Geosciences at The University of Texas at Austin, is pleased to present the third annual “Scientific Software Days” event. The purpose of the event is to increase communication among scientific software users, vendors, and service providers.

Day 1, May 21: Short presentations and Keynote Address

Victoria Stodden of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society will present a keynote on the subject of “The Future of Computational Science: Information Sharing and Responsibility”.

Day 2, May 22: Tutorials

Two half day tutorials will be presented:
– Karl Schulz of Texas Advanced Computing Center will present a survey of version control and data management (intermediate)

– Matt Knepley of Argonne National Laboratory will present an Introduction to PETSc (advanced)

CALL FOR PRESENTATIONS


The opening day of the event will be devoted to short presentations about available software packages and technologies. We would like to invite you to present your work to the scientific computing community on that day. Contributed presentations should focus on software and its use in scientific computing. You may be the author of the software, or simply an expert user; if you think it deserves broader exposure, here is your platform. We are also interested in case studies, especially discussions on how supercomputing enabled your work, the challenges and benefits of the supercomputing environment, scaling and validation issues, and other aspects of your strategies that might be of broad interest. Presentations will be 30 minutes in duration, of which at least 5 minutes should be left for questions. If you are interested in participating, please send an email to: softwareday@tacc.utexas.edu

REGISTRATION


There is no cost for attending, but spaces are limited. To register, or for more information about planned presentations, please visit: http://www.tacc.utexas.edu/softwareday

Morano vs Montana

I suppose a blog like this one ought to take note of the fact that Mark Morano’s web project is up and running; and it takes the interesting approach of trying to be the Drudge site of the global environment. Some serious stories are actually represented, though a bit swamped by denial stories,and peculiar diversions (the “millions for sheep farts study” thing again, for instance, via an obscure little news article from a small town newspaper in Australia. Note to press: ruminant emissions are really a major source of methane, but are not actually farts.)

What really strikes me more than anything is the fact that he links to this very website. His minions therefore show little probability of leaving me alone if I should blunder into sound-bite territory again. Welcome, then, Morano minions. (I suppose you already know that I think you should reconsider your employment on ethical grounds, but I digress.)

Second only to that is this: in his initial foray Morano has not one but two articles on Miley Cyrus a.k.a. Hannah Montana, a teen idol for the tween set recruited and groomed by the Disney enterprise.

“And the one thing that I talk about a lot is my faith. So I try to keep politics out of it and what not, but I am very into just like the whole taking care of the environment and everything,”

she says. A good girl, most readers will think in the casual and inattentive way that they read articles of that sort. About as forgettable a bit of news as is imagineable, right?

Apparently not. Morano thinks it’s worthy of note. This Morano technique of expanding incidental statements into national monuments has hit me as well as regular readers will recall, but you can sort of squint and spin me into someone whose opinion matters. But what sort of a story is this: child star earnest and inarticulate on environmental issues! So?

Now what would be the point of quoting a sixteen year old pop star on an environmental news site? True “I am very into just like the whole taking care of the environment and everything” sounds rather juvenile, but Ms. Cyrus is, actually, a child and can be forgiven on that account.

Context:

IML: What’s the toughest thing about living in the spotlight?

Miley: I think just having a camera on you all the time gets kind of frustrating, because if you make a mistake, like if you say or do something really stupid, the whole world knows about it. It’s not just your family or friends. Sometimes I’ll watch something back and think, “What am I doing? I’m like the biggest geek!” Sometimes my friends will call me and say, “Did you see that commercial? You were such a nerd!” And I’m like, “Thanks guys, I love you too!”

IML: So even though you’re in the spotlight, do you still have to do chores at home like other teens?

Miley: I do. I just learned how to use the dishwasher. That was our rule. The first time, it was like a movie. The bubbles started coming out. I was like, “Oh wait, maybe I’m not supposed to just pour the soap all over the inside. Oh, that little container? That’s where I’m supposed to put it! I got in so much trouble. Also when I was doing laundry, I shrunk my mother’s favorite pair of jeans. In my family, because our legs are so long, we’re not supposed to put jeans in the dryer because they’ll shrink up, we have to hang them outside to dry the old fashioned way. Now she’s got really cute capris!

Publicly mocking children’s efforts to understand the world, even famous children, would seem to me stretching propriety a bit far. The only purpose is to implicitly tar the opposition with an accusation of childishness. Presumably, though, children who can sing and dance can be found saying not especially insightful things in favor of one’s opposition without too much difficulty. I fail to see why this is worthy of note.

Morano appears to be drawing six figures from this venture. I’ve been hearing some moaning that there isn’t comparable funding on the “other side”. Whether that’s true or not (I certainly haven’t seen any sign of such funding), I am not sure it’s worth worrying about in this case. I don’t know that anybody needs to emulate Morano’s approach.

Morano brags:

“The goal is to expand on key elements from the award-winning Senate EPW website and quite simply revolutionize climate and environmental news dissemination. ... Much of what the media reports is simply a regurgitation of the rhetoric from partisan and ideologically driven environmental groups, foundations, and the United Nations, which are spinning data to promote a cause,” Morano said.

Hmm… Well I have my own complaints about the press, I suppose.

I am not so confident, though, that if the two links about Hannah Montana, not to mention an incorrect headline from a small article from Tweeds Head NSW are exemplary, that the site will turn the tide toward more accurate information. Morano is taking his nomination as chief denier literally, but I wonder if he isn’t jumping the shark already in the early episodes. Is this effort worth losing sleep over? Will this sort of schoolyard mockery actually influence anyone who is old enough to vote?

More on Black Carbon and Secondary Forcings

Another INECE press release on black carbon:

Eurasia Could Recover ¼ of Pre-Industrial to Present Snow Cover Loss 

by Cutting Black Carbon Emissions


Washington, D.C., April 10, 2009 – A new study “Springtime warming and reduced snow cover from carbonaceous particles” published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics this week, shows that emissions from black carbon and organic matter drive springtime melting in Eurasia nearly as much as anthropogenic CO2. It also finds that 21 out of 22 climate models that contributed to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report underpredicted the rapid observed warming of .64˚C since 1979.

“Our study finds that black carbon is especially effective at warming climate during springtime, when the Northern Hemisphere is highly reflective and transitioning into snow-free summer,” said Marc Flanner of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO and lead author of the study. “By inducing early retreat of snow cover, black carbon causes (Eurasian) land areas to absorb more sunlight and warm disproportionately.” Eurasia includes the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan Plateau, which is the headwaters for most of the major rivers in Asia.

The short atmospheric lifetime of black carbon offers the opportunity for fast mitigation. Flanner explained, “Our model studies suggest that eliminating black carbon emissions from fossil and biofuel sources would cause Eurasian springtime snow cover to recover at least a quarter of its estimated loss from pre-industrial times to the present.”

“This is yet another major study revealing the major role of black carbon in the retreat of snow packs and glaciers around the world,” said Professor V. Ramanathan from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, a co-author of the paper. “Fortunately, we can do something about black carbon, for we know how to reduce emissions of black carbon from combustion of fossil fuels and biomass fuels.”

The publication of this study coincided with the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and the Arctic Council which commenced this week in Baltimore, Maryland. Presiding over the first joint session of the meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the importance of targeting black carbon and other non-CO2 climate forcers to protect the Arctic.

“There are also steps we must take to protect the environment. For example, we know that short-lived carbon forcers like methane, black carbon, and tropospheric ozone contributes significantly to the warming of the Arctic,” said Clinton. “And because they are short lived, they also give us an opportunity to make rapid progress if we work to limit them.”

Although policymakers are beginning to take notice of black carbon and the significant near-term climate and health benefits that would result from reducing black carbon emissions, more aggressive action will be necessary to avoid the consequences of major ice melt, such as lack of fresh water, rising sea levels, and national security concerns.

“Reducing CO2 emissions is essential, but to save fragile regions such as the Arctic and the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan glaciers in Asia, we also need to take immediate action to reduce non-CO2 forcers,” said Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. “Targeting black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, as well as HFCs, gives us a package of ‘fast-action’ strategies that can bring critical near-term mitigation.” Zaelke added, “At this point, they are the only chance we have for saving the Arctic.”

For further information, contact: Alex Viets, IGSD: (213) 321-0911, aviets@igsd.org.

(I don’t understand why conventional journalism feels a need to rewrite press releases and dress them up as original work. Why don’t they just publish them?)

Last Meta Posting

I am summarizing my thoughts about journalism, especially in the American context. I hope this will be the last in this vein for some time.

1) There really is a very deep problem in the way things operate. It’s symptomatic that the healthiest part of journalism is sports journalism. It’s almost as if the methods were ideally suited for team sport. Is that why politics has devolved into a team sport? A chicken and egg problem.
2) It’s easiest to get attention by attacking somebody, but you don’t make friends that way. It’s easiest to get paid if you get attention. This drives writers and bloggers onto the teams. For various reasons, probably describable in game theory, two teams seems to be especially stable. This phenomenon appears in the general public. The extent to which it has been aided and abetted by journalistic practice is unclear, but probably significant.
Nothing guarantees that either cluster has a workable or coherent position.
3) The mainstream press tries to set itself up as an arbiter between the two sides that emerge. However, its sports mentality is so obvious that it itself has become a common theme. At election time, “let’s focus on issues rather than the horse race” is a constant refrain, often followed by a dutiful and halfhearted listing of rhetorical battlegrounds that have emerged due to the strategic choice of the organized parties.
I got in trouble for joking about this last week, but relevant things that the public doesn’t know (either as yet uncontroversial, or uncomfortable for both parties) are rarely examined. Presumably the business of journalism demands this: if there isn’t already a controversy it doesn’t pay to drum one up; if there is a controversy, it doesn’t pay to settle it.
In what I consider the most crucial instance, the whole Club of Rome problem of sustainability vs growth, which should have been dominating public discourse over the last half century, is completely ignored in the press. Most scientists have occasion to spare a thought for it, and the more socially and politically conscious of us think of it as central. But the political horserace is conventionally largely about which party is more likely to “grow the economy”. The parties don;t like it, the advertisers don’t like it, and so there’s little mention of this problem in the mainstream media, even though it really is the core question.
(Remarkably, among actually famous press folk, it’s Iraq war cheerleader Tom Friedman who is out front on this issue. I don’t quite know what make of that, except that the world is more complicated than people like to make out! But this is a broad brush article so I’ll proceed anyway, ignoring exceptions like that. Thanks are due to Friedman for breaking the ice.)
4) The centrist position of the media is not affected by facts, but by who believes the facts. Because politics is viewed as a race, opinions are weighed and reported in proportion to how many people support them.
The main purpose they serve to their readership is to give people who don’t have much time for politics, especially people who have to maintain business relationships with a wide variety of people, a safe haven, a way of expressing themselves that is least likely to irritate customers. Not coincidentally this serves the purposes of most advertisers in the media as well. Accordingly, the mainstream media effectively act as a source of friction on the mobility of public opinion, pulling opinion toward the center of gravity of existing opinion as they perceive it. The actual facts of the matter have little bearing on the position taken by the press.
5) There’s no need for centrist blogs as the center is represented by the mainstream media. Blogs tend toward the idiosyncratic and uninfluential, but bloggers who think their writing is important enough to gain a readership strive either for entertainment value or to reinforce a partisan position.
6) What is largely missing in all of this is a market for fierce dedication to truth; truth at the expense of alliances, truth indifferent to popularity. The internet allows such truth to be published, and this is great progress, but such truth is rare. The internet also allows paranoid ravings of all stripes; such untruth is as common as dirt. The public is left no better off than before.
7) Most people underestimate the extent to which society is changing under the pressure of new circumstances. (Some of the ones who don’t are being drummed into a dangerous paranoid frenzy, but that isn’t my topic here: I’m still hopeful this will fail and in fact I can’t imagine what Mr. Murdoch thinks he’s achieving by it.) The media is utterly complicit in this complacency and seems determined to promote it.

In short, left and right, as promoted by the parties, and center, as promoted by the press is not adequate to the situation we face.

8) Science blogging is an extraordinary exception. It turns out that many people trained as scientists are extraordinary thinkers and writers. (A few people pick up the intellectual style as science reporters, but most don’t.) And extraordinarily interesting and thought provoking stuff gets written in science blogs, stuff that is far more accessible than what is in the journals.
The approach of scientist bloggers is especially important in the light of the fact that our common problems are quantitative, physical, and tightly coupled to matters of science and engineering. So the question is not just whether science blogging or freelance journalism influenced by science blogging can adequately replace the science journalism that is disappearing (it seems likely that in many cases, it can), nor even whether some professionals can be supported in that role. (Not yet; it seems that most of the readership of science blogs are science bloggers.)
The question is whether a fourth way of looking at things can be promoted to the general public: a way that is not attached to left, right or center, but is attached to facts, principles, algorithms and tests. This is a very tall order, to be sure.
One thing people need to let go of is the idea that everybody’s opinion counts equally. Democracy is not negotiable, but it is not a useful way of handling the discussion that leads up to the elections to suggest that everybody’s understanding is equally valuable.
9) A business model for the fourth way is crucial. I can imagine bootstrapping a career as a freelancer, presuming I can learn from my recent mistakes. But I can’t imagine bootstrapping a really viable fourth voice. Filtering, reputation mechanisms and editorial functions can’t be provided by the individual writer, and adequate advertising and promotion can’t be had either.
I have more to say about this; I am still looking for the right people to say it to.
10) For example, and on the turf of this blog, somebody needs to promote sensible responses to the climate problem to the public, something between green romanticism and hare-brained naysaying, something where CCS and nuclear power are the likeliest players. But the climate problem is only the first of many problems that we face now that we have essentially covered the planet with ourselves and our activities.
We need to be able to reason together, and not just with some common morality but with due respect for arithmetic too.
OK, I’m done with metajournalism for now. Back to the various topics at hand, I promise.