Talk (by Me): Cybernetics of Climate July 1

I’m giving this talk July 1 at 6:30 PM as part of the Austin Forum at the Texas Advanced Computing Center in Austin.

Y’all come. Directions and details here.

If anyone is interested in seeing me present this talk in your town, please contact me.


Cybernetics of Climate

You’re invited to a discussion session entitled “Cybernetics of Climate” presented by Dr. Michael Tobis, Research Scientist Associate at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics. at The University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Tobis’s presentation will focus on climate change as an example of whether, when and how computing can influence policy.

As human activity changes the composition of the global atmosphere at an unprecedented pace, human society is faced with unprecedented challenges. We have to determine to what extent the changes matter, and by when. Some argue that the risks of excessive policy response are as large as or larger than the risks of inadequate policy response. One of the unique aspects of the problem is that the conditions being predicted have no historical or paleontological analogy. We are entering new territory, and are forced to make projections based only on scientific principles, without any direct observations.

Most progress in engineering relies to some extent on doing exactly this sort of extrapolation. The assistance of high performance computers is crucial in developing most new technologies these days, from spacecraft to medicines.

How well do these techniques apply to predicting the future of the earth as a physical system? Climate simulations often take center stage in public discussions about climate change, but how should these computations be understood? Is the climate system well enough characterized to rely on models? If not, how should that affect what we do about it?

Dr. Tobis will offer a tour of how computers and computations are used in addressing our planet’s future and some ideas as to the strengths and limitations of these approaches.

Michael Tobis started his career as an electrical engineer with a focus in statistics. As a graduate student, he built one of the first multicore computers and used it to run ocean simulations using code he himself developed. Since his doctorate in climatology, he has been focusing on climate computation, at Argonne National Laboratory, at The University of Chicago, and now at The University of Texas at Austin.

Update: Changed the posting date to move this to the top, to remind people in commute distance of this.

Manzi’s Folly and Economics in General

Remarkably, an IPCC WGII report (see p 17) shows the “cost” of a 4 degree C temperature increase to be on the order of 3% of net economic output.

Jim Manzi uses this assertion to conclude that Waxman-Markey is a bad idea. I would go further. If 3% were a measure of anything realistic it would be hard to argue for the sort of policy measure that we are all so urgently arguing for. So I can’t provide a counterargument to Manzi. He even goes so far as to address the fat-tail argument (though of course he misattributes it to Weitzman… sigh…) but it’s all calibrated against that 3% .

I think it becomes crucial to track down that 3% and address it. Which makes us all economists, whether we want to be or not. Boulding’s observation seems germane; total capital is NOT actually the integral of net economic output. It’s where our capital stocks are in 2100, not our GDP, that matters. If climate change is marginal, we should let the chips fall where they may, but the conclusion that only 3% of net economic output is at stake seems totally disproportionate to the risks. IPCC or no (and I’ve never been a big fan of WGII) I have a lot of trouble believing it.

Hope to pick this up again at some point.

Update: Nice followup here. UT doesn’t have priv’s to the referenced article, unfortunately. Is this any way to run an intelligentsia?

For Those Who Underestimate Climatology

This is climate model output! See the movie here. Watch for the tropical storm in the Indian Ocean toward the end of the simulated month.

If anyone has any advice how I can include this Quicktime in a Keynote presentation I’d be very much obliged.

Update: It’s a matter of paying $30 to Apple to ransom the ability to download a Quicktime.

Long Time Coming

Via Erik Conway on Facebook, via Encyclopedia of Earth

Title: The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth
Author: Kenneth Ewart Boulding
Source: H. Jarrett (ed.), Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy, pp. 3-14. Baltimore, MD: Resources for the Future/Johns Hopkins University Press.
Year published: 1966

It’s interesting though not flawless. “The question of whether there is anything corresponding to entropy in the information system is a puzzling one” is a bit of a clunker, wouldn’t you say? And I’m still inclined to think of von Bertalanffy, whom he cites directly, as a hack pretending to be Norbert Wiener. But the interest is more than historical.

Economists in particular, for the most part, have failed to come to grips with the ultimate consequences of the transition from the open to the closed earth. One hesitates to use the terms “open” and “closed” in this connection, as they have been used with so many different shades of meaning. Nevertheless, it is hard to find equivalents. The open system, indeed, has some similarities to the open system of von Bertalanffy, in that it implies that some kind of a structure is maintained in the midst of a throughput from inputs to outputs. In a closed system, the outputs of all parts of the system are linked to the inputs of other parts. There are no inputs from outside and no outputs to the outside; indeed, there is no outside at all. Closed systems, in fact, are very rare in human experience, in fact almost by definition unknowable, for if there are genuinely closed systems around us, we have no way of getting information into them or out of them; and hence if they are really closed, we would be quite unaware of their existence. We can only find out about a closed system if we participate in it.

The closed earth of the future requires economic principles which are somewhat different from those of the open earth of the past. For the sake of picturesqueness, I am tempted to call the open economy the “cowboy economy,” the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the “spaceman” economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.

The difference between the two types of economy becomes most apparent in the attitude towards consumption. In the cowboy economy, consumption is regarded as a good thing and production likewise; and the success of the economy is measured by the amount of the throughput from the “factors of production,” a part of which, at any rate, is extracted from the reservoirs of raw materials and noneconomic objects, and another part of which is output into the reservoirs of pollution. If there are infinite reservoirs from which material can be obtained and into which effluvia can be deposited, then the throughput is at least a plausible measure of the success of the economy. The gross national product is a rough measure of this total throughput. It should be possible, however, to distinguish that part of the GNP which is derived from exhaustible and that which is derived from reproducible resources, as well as that part of consumption which represents effluvia and that which represents input into the productive system again. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever attempted to break down the GNP in this way, although it would be an interesting and extremely important exercise, which is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper.

By contrast, in the spaceman economy, throughput is by no means a desideratum, and is indeed to be regarded as something to be minimized rather than maximized. The essential measure of the success of the economy is not production and consumption at all, but the nature, extent, quality, and complexity of the total capital stock, including in this the state of the human bodies and minds included in the system.

In the spaceman economy, what we are primarily concerned with is stock maintenance, and any technological change which results in the maintenance of a given total stock with a lessened throughput (that is, less production and consumption) is clearly a gain. This idea that both production and consumption are bad things rather than good things is very strange to economists, who have been obsessed with the income-flow concepts to the exclusion, almost, of capital-stock concepts.

Emphasis added (along with a couple of paragraph breaks for easier reading).

The same site describes Boulding as follows:

Kenneth Ewart Boulding (1910-1993), an American economist famous for his emphasis on the social, moral, and ecological implications of economic growth. Boulding coined the term “spaceship earth” to emphasize the energy, material, and environmental limits to economic growth. He compared the economy to biological systems in terms of its need to use energy to transform materials, which in the process produces wastes. Boulding suggested that the current “cowboy” economy, defined by the wasteful use of nonrenewable resources, must ultimately be replaced by a “spaceship” economy, powered by renewable energy and characterized by efficient recycling of materials. Boulding was a founding intellectual in the field of ecological economics.

I had thought the Spaceship Earth idea was Bucky Fuller’s. Clearly there was some mutual influence between Bucky and Boulding.

Update to the Recent Long Piece

In a recent essay which is much too long for most blog readers to bother with, “We Are What We Think“, I argued that we need to rethink our relationship to the world. I was somewhat vague as to how to do it. Also for good measure I snarled at Andy Revkin, which I sill usually do given a chance.

Revkin has gone a way to redeem himself with his most recent Dot Earth piece which I think is both wonderful, and whether so intended or not, an excellent follow-on to “We Are What We Think”.

In “The Climate Bill in Climate Context“, Revkin offers a realistic look at the many further steps along the road which we begin here, and concludes with the realistic and yet radical advice of the UK’s Prime Minister Brown. This provides a good basis for the new thinking, new thinking which needs to pervade all societies, quickly. For fundamentally, the extent to which we are competitors is dwarfed by the extent to which we are, like it or not, teammeates.

Success will require two major shifts in how we think – as policy makers, as campaigners, as consumers, as producers, as a society. The first is to think not in political or economic cycles; not just in terms of years or even decadelong programs and initiatives. But to think in terms of epochs and eras — and how our stewardship will be judged not by tomorrow’s newspapers but by tomorrow’s children.

And the second is to think anew about how we judge success as a society. For 60 years we have measured our progress by economic gains and social justice. Now we know that the progress and even the survival of the only world we have depends on decisive action to protect that world. In the end, without environmental stewardship, there can be no sustainable prosperity and no sustainable social justice.

107 F

I was at a remarkable citywide organizational meeting of various environmental groups today. The “Al Gore curse” didn’t apply, in that it did not snow.

107 F. Nearly 42 C. That’s the official high at Austin TX today. Unquestionably the hottest day of my life, and it’s only June. Not only a local daily record, but only one degree shy of the local monthly record. More to the point we’ve been over 100 most days for two weeks now, and I expect we are in contention for hottest June.

Now, since Climate Depot linked to my mention of a severe cold anomaly in Canada, they will also take note of me noting the extreme heat in Texas this week, right?

Update: See also here and here.

June 24, 2009 was the hottest day ever recorded in New Orleans.

Update 6/29: Today’s 100° day in Houston ties the longest string of 100-plus degree days in recorded history at seven (1902).

At this moment it is 104° F in Austin. The lowest high temperature since June 9 is 97° F (on the 9th and 12th) and we have failed to hit 100° F on only one of the 17 days starting June 13. Thus today we surpassed the previous record of 15 100-degree days in June.

Isopetroleum Projection


Via Andrew Sullivan; the Atlantic. Sullivan’s blog is an amazingly prolific and interesting source of news from Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.

Unstated and so far unexamined: the oil from Iran is still flowing. Discontinuing engagement with Iran would require worldwide participation and would cause a huge price spike. I suspect Eisenhower or Kennedy in a comparable situation would not hesitate to lead the world to embargo Iran.

Sullivan implies that the belligerent “neocons” are talking embargo. It’s very odd for me to be inclined to agree with them on anything. But the negative impact on the fragile economy would be very substantial. I think Obama’s realpolitik puts relative economic calm ahead of any other goal. And oil being what it is, it requires universal participation by all major economies to make an embargo bite.

But it’s not as if we had no influence on the situation. And the economic disruptions, which are likely to come anyway, embargo or no, could be blamed on external events.