The Big Big Picture

As usual (sigh) Blogger eats some resolution and screws up the graphic. Click on the image for a somewhat better look.

This is my crude attempt at the Big Big Picture (thanks to Larry Marder for the name) of our actual circumstances, focusing on climate. (There are other slices through it that are equally daunting, and they have similar shapes.)

The point is to think of the world as a feedback control system, with nature as the plant, humans as the feedback loop, and economic behavior as the actuator. Once you think of it this way (as Norbert Wiener himself would attest were he still with us) that vision never quite goes away. Of course, the rigorous mathematics of feedback systems for which Wiener was renowned is very hard to apply at the level of complexity we have here. Nonlinearity is the least of our problems!

Focusing on the carbon dioxide slice of our problem, only one part of the diagram becomes simple. That is CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, which reduces to a single number. All the other pieces of the system are immensely complicated.

Now IPCC working group I deals with the climatology and geochemistry parts of the system. These parts are relatively mature science. I would maintain that at the level of the Big Big Picture these are the best understood components of the system by far. Yet these are the parts that are the target of most of the controversy. Why is this?

It cannot be because the feedback system is working well. If it were, we’d be much more concerned about the great uncertainties in the realm of consequences (WG II) policies (WG III) and journalism and politics (not IPCC’s business at all). No, the focus on the physical science, the effort to paint it as a conspiracy, comes from the failure of not-IPCC parts of the system: journalism and politics.

The attention goes to the wrong place because all the impacts flow through the climatology block. If the climatology block is replaced by an open loop, people convince themselves there will be nothing to worry about. Here is where the delusion really strikes. The problem is not the block of climatology as a culture or a profession. The problem is the climate system, which will continue to react whether we continue to study it or not!

Of course, climate change is slow and continuous, and is swamped by the normal variation of seasons and by the ringing of the system as we keep hitting it harder. Perception of climate change is notoriously unreliable. The fact that the change is accelerating doesn’t make us, as individuals, better observers of it.

So if the information flow from climate as a discipline is stanched, the effort to come up with a realistic evaluation of our risks at the political level is effectively stymied. This is, in practice, not done at the obvious spot where climatology informs its client disciplines. It’s done by journalistic malpractice, disrupting the political process.

There’s the inconvenient problem that CO2 chemically disrupts the ocean as well. This opens up a second front of obfuscation, which is now being handled nicely by making a great deal of noise about climate science.

A good understanding of feedback control and a good understanding of the time constants of the components leads to the conclusion that we are entering very dangerous territory, and are now incurring consequences that will not be realized for decades to come. This sort of thing is quite unfamiliar to the political system under the best of circumstances.

Against this model we have a peculiar set of suggestions 1) that climate science has been corrupted in such a way as to grossly misrepresent the scope of likely consequences 2) that a similar corruption applies in marine geochemistry 3) that in the presence of this corruption the appropriate strategy is to treat the sensitivity of the systems to CO2 as near zero and 4) that the best thing to do under such circumstances is to muck around in people’s emails and nitpick a few marginal conclusions in reports of the other working groups.

The amazing thing is that great swaths of the press treat this position as something other than what it obviously is, a plague of red herrings from desperate people. I’ve always thought journalism was important. What we are seeing is not primarily a failure of science. We are seeing a failure of science communication and a victory of malice and slander. We are seeing a situation in which there is a desperate need for journalism to rise to the occasion, and in which there has been, so far, a desperate failure to do so.

Paging Doctor Malthus

Via the remarkable Desdemona Despair site, in case you are feeling too cheerful.

Desdemona informs us:

Indian Photographer Wins the UNCCD International Photo Contest

Bonn, 7 September 2009. Chetan Soni is the first-prize winner of the International Photography Contest of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the secretariat of the Convention, which is based in Bonn, Germany, announced today. The picture depicts a young Indian girl dressed in a colorful blue and orange saree with pot in hand walking through the dry and cracked bed of Kal Bhairav Lake, where she once drew water. Now, she makes a daily journey to fetch water delivered by the National Defence’s trucks, courtesy of the state government of Madhya Pradesh, India.

More Outsiders Getting It Right

This is Walter Russell Mead, from a couple weeks ago in The American Interest

The scientific case for anthropogenic global warming is pretty much what it was three months ago. But the prospects for effective US action to do anything about it have drastically changed. If Congress tries to go forward with cap-and-trade, a volcano of public resistance and Tea Party rebellion will erupt now, and in the current political climate, the environmental side will not be able to prevail.

That is news and it is important news, whether human action is causing dangerous global warming or not.

Readers of the New York Times don’t need to know about all the brouhaha in the British press because a bunch of reporters are trying to bring down the science behind global warming. What they need to know is that a bunch of reporters have succeeded in making the leading figures in the climate change movement look like incompetent, unreliable self-promoters whose evidence cannot be trusted.

Blake writes that I’ve linked ‘uncritically’ to these overheated press reports. I am not linking to endorse the journalistic attacks on climate science; more than once in these posts I’ve restated my own conclusion that the ‘revelations’ don’t affect the core scientific case. But I link to these press reports as evidence of what happens when science meets journalism — especially when the scientists are clueless about the nature of the game being played.

The science hasn’t broken down, but the interface between the scientific process and the political process has broken down completely. The Times needs to report on this not to protect itself against charges of liberal bias, but because it’s an important development on a major issue of great concern to its readers.

The problem, I think, is that like Blake, the Times can only see the story in scientific terms. If an interview like Phil Jones’ interview with the BBC doesn’t break scientific ground, then it’s not newsworthy. If there are a few embarrassing snafus in the IPCC report, that is unfortunate but it is not intellectually serious enough to be a major story.

But climate change has moved beyond the ivory tower. It’s a political issue now and believe me, from a political point of view, Phil Jones’ troubles and his troubled interview have made the news. If you don’t believe me, go watch Fox News and see how the interview is being used.

Let me say this again one last time: the story here is that the movement to stop climate change is being swift-boated right before our eyes. And just as Senator Kerry and the journalistic establishment failed to see the importance of the swift boat attacks and develop a counter strategy early, so the Times along with the climate change establishment is, yet again, missing the boat on a major piece of news.

Unfortunately, seeing the disaster for what it is doesn’t seem very common outside the trenches.

Meanwhile, Juan Cole addresses those of us in the trenches:

  1. Every single serious climate scientist should be running a blog. There is enormous thirst among the public for this information, and publishing only in technical refereed journals is guaranteed to quarantine the information away from the general public. …
  2. It is not your fault. The falsehoods in the media are not there because you haven’t spoken out forcefully or are not good on t.v. …
  3. If you just keep plugging away at it, with blogging and print, radio and television interviews, you can have an impact on public discourse over time. I could not quantify it, but I am sure that I have. It is a lifetime commitment and a lot of work and it interferes with academic life to some extent. Going public also makes it likely that you will be personally smeared and horrible lies purveyed about you in public (they don’t play fair– they make up quotes and falsely attribute them to you; it isn’t a debate, it is a hatchet job). … But if an issue is important to you and the fate of your children and grandchildren, surely having an impact is well worth any price you pay.

How It’s Done

This via The Economist, via Deltoid:

For example, a week ago Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, gave an interview to the BBC that was widely described as a debacle. The main reason was that the BBC reporter asked Mr Jones whether he would concede that global warming since 1995 has not been statistically significant. Mr Jones replied: “Yes, but only just,” and went on to note that there was a measured global warming of 0.12°C per decade since then, and that it tends to be harder to get statistical significance out of shorter time samples.

This led to a Daily Mail headline reading: “Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995.”

Since I’ve advocated a more explicit use of the word “lie”, I’ll go ahead and follow my own advice: that Daily Mail headline is a lie. Phil Jones did not say there had been no global warming since 1995; he said the opposite. He said the world had been warming at 0.12°C per decade since 1995. However, over that time frame, he could not quite rule out at the traditional 95% confidence level that the warming since 1995 had not been a random fluke.

Anyone who has even a passing high-school familiarity with statistics should understand the difference between these two statements.

See, Mr. Yulsman, Mr. Kloor, that is how to do it.

Also, the Economist article quotes a commenter lamenting:

Rather than ‘taking a stance’, newspapers should do [a] better job of describing the nuances of scientific findings. I know I’m being delusional, though. I mean, how many science/engineering graduates go into journalism?

I see no reason in principle why people trained in science should not do journalism.

In practice, the jobs have always been better in science, of course, even though working conditions in both areas have been in rapid decline of late. In terms of value added to society, though, it seems to me that journalism has enormous economic importance. If there were a reliable way for journalists to capture a fraction of their added value, science and technology journalism would be practiced by people with substantial training in their subject areas.


We have all been here before.

Excerpts from Steven Johnson’s remarkable The Invention of Air, a biography of the seminal chemist and founder of the Unitarian Church, Joseph Priestley.

To Priestley, ever the optimist, the controversies of the 1780s seemed like an indisputable sign of progress, both personal and societal. His ideas on religion and politics had reached the level of influence that his natural philosophy had attained during the Leeds years a decade before. … Yet almost all the core elements from this period of Priestly’s life – the coal deposits, the new factory system, the empowered dissenting churches, the revolutions abroad – conspired to produce a kind of dialectical monster that would rise up to take its vengeance on everything that Priestley and his coterie stood for. This was the “Church and King” movement a reactionary and of largely working class men, incited by the conservatrive elites, hostile to change in all its diverse forms … [Priestley] was the ultimate nemesis for the mobs of Church and King.

Church and King in Birmingham would not fully break free until July of 1791, when the newly formed Constitutional Society – which numbered Priestley among its members – announced plans for a dinner on Bastille Day, welcoming any “friend to freedom” to join them … A succession of leaflets, handbills, and newspaper adverts rolled in over the next week, inciting tempers on all sides. The most incendiary was a veritable call to arms: “Whatever the modern republicans may imagine, or the regicidal propounders of the rights of men design, let us convince them that there is enough loyalty in the majority of the inhabitants of this country to support and defend their king”. … The Constitutional Society itself took out an advertisement … reaffirming its belief in the three estates of King, Lords and Commons, without backing down entirely from their support of the French revolt. … These last minute gestures proved futile.

… The hotel proprietor … suggested … they carry on with the dinner, but leave early, before the inevitable trouble started. … The discovery that they had missed their regicidal foes appeared to pique the mob’s anger.

… Within a matter of hours [Priestley’s home was burned to the ground]… the library where Priestly had performed magic lantern shows for the Lunar children, the drawing room where Mary and Joseph had played their backgammon, thousands of manuscript pages documenting decades of Priestley’s investigations, the laboratory he had lovingly built for himself, along with that unique collection of tools that his Birmingham friends had crafted for him over the years. All of it had been lost to the fire.

… At the King’s request three troops of Dragoons had arrived on the 17th to subdue the riot. (Many thought the response time was suspiciously slow.)

… The King’s order to send the Dragoons had included this withering remark: “I cannot but feel better pleased that Priestley is the sufferer for the doctrines he and his party have instilled, and that the people see them in their true light.” The Times even ran an entirely scurrilous report of the dinner, which falsely placed Priestley at the event, and quoted him raising his glass to “The King’s head on a platter.”

[At an advanced age, when crossing the ocean was not easy Priestley immigrated to the US, but found to his astonishment that his troubles have followed him, as he became known as a critic of President Adams, who had signed the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts into law.]

… The situation was about to get much worse. Unbeknownst to Priestley, a few weeks before the Alien and Sedition Acts passed, a packet of letters headed for Priestley was captured on board a Danish frigate and leaked to the British press. … The correspondence addressed Priestley as a committed supporter of the French, and spoke rhapsodically of France’s plan to invade England and complete its project of bringing the glories of liberty to all Europe. … It was entirely a one-sided conversation, but the undeniable impression on reading the letters was that Stone believed he was writing to a friend whose primary allegiances were to the Directoire Executif in Paris above all else.

… William Cobbett published the letters in their entirety, accompanied by scathing editorial commentary and a banner headline “PRIESTLEY COMPLETELY DETECTED”. The copy included a direct challenge to Adams: “If this discovery passes unnoticed by the government, it will operate as the greatest encouragement that its enemies have ever received”

Emphasis added. The whole book is great, by the way, and not in the Bill Gates sense of greatness (the lesser greatness that applies to Microsoft products).

Priestley never really got his laboratory rebuilt in America, of course.

Some aspects of the story seem oddly familiar, don’t they?

Portrait of Joseph Priestley ca 1794 by Ellen Sharples (1769 – 1849) via Wikipedia

UNEP – More Ambition Needed

Eppur si sciogle.

UNEP Press Release:

More Ambition Needed if Greenhouse Gases are to Peak in Time, Says New UNEP Report

Pledges Post Copenhagen Unlikely to Keep Temperatures Below 2 Degrees Celsius by Mid Century

Bali (Indonesia), 23 February 2010 – Countries will have to be far more ambitious in cutting greenhouse gas emissions if the world is to effectively curb a rise in global temperature at 2 degrees C or less.

This is the conclusion of a new greenhouse gas modeling study, based on the estimates of researchers at nine leading centres, compiled by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The experts (see notes to editors) suggest that annual global greenhouse gas emissions should not be larger than 40 to 48.3 Gigatonnes (Gt) of equivalent C02 in 2020 and should peak sometime between 2015 and 2021.

They also estimate that between 2020 and 2050, global emissions need to fall by between 48 per cent and 72 per cent, indicating that an ambition to cut greenhouse gases by around three per cent a year over that 30 year period is also needed.

Such a path offers a ‘medium’ likelihood or at least a 50/50 chance of keeping a global temperature rise at below 2 degrees C, says the new report.

The new study, launched on the eve of UNEP’s Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum taking place in Bali, Indonesia, has analyzed the pledges of 60 developed and developing economies.

They have been recently submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) following the UN climate convention meeting in Copenhagen in December.

The nine modeling centres have now estimated how far these pledges go towards meeting a reasonable ‘peak’ in emissions depending on whether the high or the low intentions are met.

“The expected emissions for 2020 range between 48.8 to 51.2 GT of CO2 equivalent based on whether high or low pledges will be fulfilled,” says the report.

The report, as noted earlier, says that in order to meet the 2 degree C aim in 2050, emissions in 2020 need to be between 40 Gt and 48.3 Gt.

Thus even with the best intentions there is a gap of between 0.5 and 8.8Gt of CO2 equivalent per year, amounting to an average shortfall in emission cuts of 4.7 Gt.

If the low end of the emission reduction pledges are fulfilled, the gap is even bigger-2.9 Gt to 11.2 Gt of CO2 equivalent per year, with an average gap of 7.1 Gt says the report How Close Are We to the Two Degree Limit?

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “There are clearly a great deal of assumptions underlying these figures, but they do provide an indication of where countries are and perhaps more importantly where they need to aim.”

“There clearly is ‘Gigatonne gap’ which may be a significant one according some of the modelers. This needs to be bridged and bridged quickly if the international community is to pro-actively manage emissions down in a way that makes economic sense,” he added.

“There are multiple reasons for countries to make a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy of which climate change is a key one. But energy security, cuts in air pollution and diversifying energy sources are also important drivers,” said Mr Steiner.

“This week at the UNEP GC/GMEF we will also shine a light on the opportunities ranging from accelerating clean tech and renewable energy enterprises to the climate, social and economic benefits of investing in terrestrial and marine ecosystems,” he added.

How Close Are We to the Two Degree Limit?-An information note to the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

This paper was prepared by the Chief Scientist of UNEP with input from representatives of the following groups: The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (D. van Vuuren and M. den Elzen), Ecofys (N. Höhne), Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, Germany (M. Meinshausen and J. Rogeli), Climate Analytics (M. Schaeffer), UNEP Risø Centre on Energy, Climate and Sustainable Development, Risø National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy, Technical University of Denmark (Jorgen Fenhann and John Christensen), National Center for Atmospheric Research, United States (B. O’Neill), International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (K. Riahi), Met Office Hadley Center, United Kingdom (J. Lowe), Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, United Kingdom (C. Taylor, A. Bowen, N. Ranger.)