My Top Ten List

I find top ten lists of the year tedious. Nobody knows what is important about a year writing from within that year, except in the most extreme cases.

Herewith my top ten (or so) list of climate-science related events of the 20th century in chronological order. Off the top of my head. Any suggestions for stuff I’ve missed?

Happy New Year Y’All!

Stay tuned for the next in this series on New Year’s Eve 2110!


ca. 1900: Bjerknes identifies the “primitive equations”, the enhanced Navier-Stokes system for the atmosphere (including moisture state changes and rotational dynamics). Lays out a program for scientific meteorology.

1938: Callendar, G.S. “The Artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and Its Influence on Climate.” Quarterly J. Royal Meteorological Society 64: 223-40. (h/t WVhybrid) Callendar was the first to get a good quantitative understanding of the situation.

1942: Sverdrup; generalized linear theory of oceanography

1950: Charney Fjortoft and von Neumann: the first computer simulation of the atmosphere

1955: Suess, Hans E. finds the istopic fingerprint. “Radiocarbon Concentration in Modern Wood.” Science 122: 415-17 (h/t WVhybrid)

1958: Charles Keeling’s Mauna Loa CO2 time series begins (h/t Nosmo)

1963: Lorenz’ treatise “The General Circulation of the Atmosphere

1963: Lorenz paper brings “chaos” into physical sciences

1966: Arakawa first publishes on his global atmospheric model

1968: Bryan & Cox first global ocean dynamics model

1969: Bryan & Manabe first idealized-geography coupled climate dynamics model

1975: Bryan & Manabe first realistic coupled climate dynamics model

1975: Manabe & Wetherald first computational assessment of anthropogenic global warming (h/t Kooiti Masuda)

1975: Wally Broecker paper “Climate Change: Are we on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” (h/t Kooiti Masuda)

1979: The Charney commission reports on the threat of global warming. concurring Jason report also written in 1979 with similar conclusions. These reports are quite similar to the IPCC position today.

1983: Luyten and Pedlosky: theoretical explanation of deep ocean flow

1990: IPCC first Assessment Report: “Thus the observed increase could be largely due to this natural variability; alternatively this variability and other human factors could have offset a still larger human-induced greenhouse warming. The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect is not likely for a decade or more.”

1992: UNCED “Earth Summit” conference at Rio de Janiero and foundation of UNFCCC: committed signatories’ governments to a voluntary “non-binding aim” to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases with the goal of “preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate system.”

1997: Kyoto protocol; A set of steps which, if implemented, would have left us far better off today, was signed by all parties, but never ratified by the USA. The senate was nearly unanimous in opposition. Mostly honored in the breach.

1998: Unprecedented amplitude El Nino event; the start of climate disruption?

Climate BS of the Year

“BS” of course stands for “Bad Science”. Make of it what you will.

Without appropriate risk management action, the United States will be hit hard. There is no safe haven. Yet confusion and uncertainty about climate change remain high in the minds of too many members of the public and Congress.

Why? In large part because of a concerted, coordinated, aggressive campaign by a small group of well-funded climate change deniers and contrarians focused on intentionally misleading the public and policymakers with bad science about climate change. Much of this effort is based on intentional falsehoods, misrepresentations, inflated uncertainties, and pure and utter B.S. about climate science. These efforts have been successful in sowing confusion and delaying action — just as the same tactics were successful in delaying efforts to tackle tobacco’s health risks.

To counter this campaign of disinformation, we are issuing the first in what may become a series of awards for the most egregious Climate B.S.* of the Year. In preparing the list of nominees, suggestions were received from around the world and a panel of reviewers — all scientists or climate communicators — waded through them. We present here the top five nominees and the winner of the 2010 Climate B.S.* of the Year Award.

– Peter Gleick, Kevin Trenberth, John Cook, Tenney Naumer, Michael Ashley, Lou Grinzo, Gareth Renowden, Paul Douglas, Jan W. Dash, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Brian Angliss, Joe Romm, Peter Sinclair, Michael Tobis, Gavin Schmidt, plus several anonymous nominators, reviewers, and voters.

My contribution to the document was marginal, but I’m happy to sign onto it and pleased to be in such eminent company.

I think it’s an odd idea to put the same document in multiple places on the internet. Sort of unwebby, if you will. Of the several choices I’ll link to the copy at Lou Grinzo’s place, though it will appear in many other places, some of them, not necessarily deservedly, more prominent than Lou’s.

Alternate Universes

New Zealand Climate Scientists Admit To Faking Temperatures: The Actual Temps Show Little Warming Over Last 50 Years

The above cited articles do not show the revision to the temperature record in question.

Witness the massive revision to the record below:

Graph via Gareth Renowden

The definition of chutzpah used to be the fellow who murdered his parents and pled to the court for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan. But now we have a new definition:

Spokesman for the joint temperature project, Richard Treadgold, Convenor of the CCG, said today: “We congratulate NIWA for producing their review of the NZ temperature record — more than a year after we challenged it — and we think it’s great that NIWA have produced a graph with full details behind it.

“But we note that, after 12 months of futile attempts to persuade the public, misleading answers to questions in the Parliament from ACT and reluctant but gradual capitulation from NIWA, their relentless defence of the old temperature series has simply evaporated. They’ve finally given in, but without our efforts the faulty graph would still be there.”


“The review is lengthy and full of detail, which we applaud, and it will take some time to examine. We won’t comment on scientific aspects of the 7SS until that has been done. However, we have some initial observations.

“Almost all of the 34 adjustments made by Dr Jim Salinger to the 7SS have been abandoned, along with his version of the comparative station methodology.

“NIWA is clearly not prepared to defend the adjustments exposed in Are we feeling warmer yet? But it took a court case to force them into a corner.

“NIWA makes the huge admission that New Zealand has experienced hardly any warming during the last half-century. For all their talk about warming, for all their rushed invention of the “Eleven-Station Series” to prove warming, this new series shows that no warming has occurred here since about 1960. Almost all the warming took place from 1940-60, when the IPCC says that the effect of CO2 concentrations was trivial. Indeed, global temperatures were falling during that period.

“The new temperature record shows no evidence of a connection with global warming. Since that’s the reason this tempest in a teacup has brewed in the first place, it should simmer down now.”

So, admittedly, I am trusting Gareth’s graph here. On the other hand, these guys do not seem to be producing, amid all their self-congratulation, a picture of the old and the revised record.

The Republicans and similar parties elsewhere are behaving with regard to sustainability issues in a manner that appears to be insane.

But it is not entirely insane. It is, to a large extent, victimized. The bizarre attitudes are held by people who are the victims of organized bullshit, which although it isn’t exactly criminal, it is far more unethical than many forms of criminal activity will ever be.

The whole world is at risk due to these brazen lies. The review of the New Zealand record produced no significant change whatsoever. Whether or not it was a waste of effort is an interesting question. But it’s vicious and malign and deeply dishonest to call the result anything but a vindication.

Limits to Texas Growth

Texas appears to be exceptional in the matter of limits to growth!

The population of Texas, close to 25 million, increased by 20% in the past decade, at the expense of pretty much every other state. My wife and I are included among that 20%, debiting Wisconsin where we lived at the time of the last census. It’s easy enough to understand on a glorious shirtsleeve weather winter solstice day like today; what’s more, unlike Florida we actually have some resources and industries, and unlike California we have plenty of flat land to expand our population onto.

Of course, this is unsustainable. At this rate the population of Texas will be 127 million by 2100, and will exceed a billion just after 2200. I have heard that reaching 50 million in the foreseeable future is considered a best estimate by the Texas Water Development Board.

Texas, of course, is the source of much climate skepticism. This may be real estate boosterism, Texas being hot, dry, and flash-flood prone with much of its infrastructure and property value barely above sea level. Texas is foolish in this regard, with its access to wind and solar power and energy infrastructure expertise. We ought to be leading the world in the transition to sustainability. Nobody here is willing to face the fact that when the really big problems start to get handed out, Texas will be near the front of the line.

But the culture has never had much respect for the land, which is harsh, scrubby and inhospitable, or the fauna, which tend to be as ornery as the short-tempered folk who famously first occupied this territory not too terribly long ago. The idea of farming was never to create a legacy for future generations. The early farmers would “use up” or “wear out” a farm and move on. And of course the real cowboys spirit opposed the fencelines in the first place.

This is not a place which takes kindly to limits. It respects its peculiar legacy but doesn’t go out of its way to respect its posterity, and never has. Texans have somehow managed to prosper (mostly due to the happenstance of fuel-rich geology, though the mythos speaks endlessly about persistence, diligence, and effort, and hardly at all of dumb luck). That this prosperity is barely a century old, that it carries no warrantee, that it stands to vanish as a result of the very activities that began here and are the source of the present prosperity, warnings like these are unwelcome. The sky, we say, is the limit.

The world sees the northeast and California as the sources of American culture. Indeed, in a remarkable way they are the source of Texas culture; the myth of the west having grown up simultaneously with the west, first in newspaper reports and then in movies and television. GeronimoSitting Bull went from being a real chief to being a circus entertainer, seemingly hardly missing a beat. But the mythical Texas they created lives on, stitching together the cultures of the west and the south, to a remarkable extent forging the identity of the strange, isolated, proud and arrogant, joyous and angry, pious and profane, vicious and generous culture of the American heartland.

Convincing this boisterous, extroverted culture that it is leading the world in a headlong rush to crash against its actual limits is tricky business.

Infinite Growth and the Crisis Cocktail – Guest Posting

This is a guest posting by Neven. I made no changes except for adding the hamster movie in among the references. I don’t necessarily agree with every word, but this definitely seems to get at the root of the problem. –mt

The Crisis Cocktail

If only Thomas Robert Malthus would have been around to see this, I often think. During his lifetime, and even more so after it, he became famous for warning that if human population continued to grow at that rate sooner or later there would not be enough agricultural output to feed it (of course he said many more things, but this is what he’s famous for). What he didn’t foresee, was that through ingenuity and innovation people would find a way around that limiting factor by digging up coal and later oil which would spur on the Industrial Revolution and eventually lead to the Green Revolution of an industrial, mechanized agriculture feeding the billions of people who are currently more or less enjoying their presence on planet Earth.

I wonder what Malthus would have said, had he foreseen the transformative power of all that hidden energy underground. Would he have said: “Right, that’s it, I was wrong, humanity and its economies can grow indefinitely”? Or would he have said: “Sure, my timing was poor, this discovery will prolong things by quite a bit, but in the end it will only make the crash that much bigger”. We can never be sure what he would have said, but I’m quite certain it wouldn’t be the first. And just a look or two around the globe seems to confirm he would be right to do so.

In Malthus’ time the question revolved around the problem of enough food for everyone and not much else. But while mankind has more or less resolved that problem for the time being by subjugating Nature through sheer fossil fuel power, the palette of global problems has extended in manifold ways. If, for instance, we look at agriculture, we can see that much of the arable land has been over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated and over-sprayed. The emphasis on monocultures (one type of corn, cotton, wheat, rice, etc) has reduced diversity and thus makes huge amounts of acreage around the world extremely vulnerable to resistent pests, which leads to a more extensive use of more agressive pesticides that are in turn weakening the indispensable pollinators, such as bees, who are massively dying off around the globe, and in combination with synthetic fertilizers lead to widespread topsoil erosion, because basically all the microscopic life in the topsoil has been reduced in such a way that the soil fertility and cohesiveness is close to zero, whilst aquifers worldwide are being drained much too fast, leading to salinisation of groundwater that is simultaneously getting more and more polluted by said fertilizers and pesticides.

When these chemicals reach the oceans and seas they cause low-oxygen coastal dead zones that are getting bigger every year, putting extra stress on fish stocks that are already suffering worldwide from overfishing by the enormous fishing industry, as well as by synthetic debris that floats around and ends up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, not to mention the slow but inexorable acidification of the oceans due to the excess of atmospheric carbon dioxide that the water is taking up and causes microscopic creatures at the bottom of the food chain to have an increasingly tougher time forming shells, just like coral reefs are enduring more and more stress due to bleaching events that they have more and more difficulty recovering from, coral reefs being the gigantic forests under the sea that hosts most of the world’s subaqueous biodiversity.

Hold on, I’m not finished yet.

The forests above water are in many places dying off due to pests like the bark beetle, besides the ongoing problem of illegal (and legal) logging and more rampant forest fires, and also due to ozone pollution (one of those things one never hears about). I’ve said ‘rampant forest fires’ and I’ve said ‘ozone’, a greenhouse gas, and thus I can no longer delay naming the great enhancer of all the problems named so far: Global Warming.

The enormous amounts of energy that have been added to the coupled system of oceans and atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution will increasingly lead to the rapid disruption of the atmospheric patterns under which human civilisation managed to flourish in the last couple of millennia. I’m not talking 1 or 2 degrees Celsius warmer, I’m talking freak weather, like droughts, heatwaves, flash floodings, stronger hurricanes, rising sea level, disappearing glaciers. This has an indelible and inevitable effect on all those ‘little things’ I just mentioned (and there are more, such as desertification, landfills filled to the brim and species extinction in general).

Now of course some of these global problems may not turn out to be as bad as they seem, but even if they are half as serious, it’s the combination of them all and their synergistic interrelations that makes me conclude for the moment that human civilisation has a Crisis Cocktail on its hands. Here’s an interesting picture from a NewScientist special report with a collection of graphs that illustrate my point:

So what do these graphs have in common? Of course, they are all showing a growing trend, and this brings us to the point of this article. Sorry it’s taking me so long, but first I have to offer doom and gloom and then show why I believe things are as they are and how this understanding is a first step towards potential solutions.

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? – Winston Churchill, May 1942

Infinite Growth

All these problems seem to be getting bigger rather than smaller every year and for every single one of them there are hosts of organisations clamouring for attention and offering solutions to the problem. But the more I read and think about the problems as a whole, the more I become convinced that they were all in fact symptoms and not causes in themselves. Trying to remedy a symptom is almost always useless if the root cause is ignored. Obiously all the problems have to do with human activities, and these activities have to do with the context they are taking place in, the economic context to be precise. This economic context is determined by the dominant economic concept, and in our case I think it is safe to say that for many decades now the neoclassical economic concept of infinite growth has been shaping the economies of developed nations.

The main problem of this concept is its assumption that growth is always good and that growth can and should be infinite. In theory it sounds great, but unfortunately there is a big chasm between theory and practice. In practice nothing can grow infinitely in a finite system. This is a simple natural law which also applies to the finite system of this planet. Earth has a finite amount of resources, its ecosystems can supply a fixed amount of free services, such as clean air and water, and the solar energy that reaches the planet surface is fixed and constant. Once an organism such as the human global economy starts and continues to grow exponentially it will start to bump into limits. That was what the doom-and-gloom part of this article was about. The emerging global problems are symptoms of the disconnect between the economic concept of infinite growth and biophysical reality.

Now, of course there is nothing wrong with growth per se. It is an essential and universal part of nature. But normally things stop growing. Children stop growing when they reach adulthood, as do trees. Economic growth is a great thing when an economy needs to be developed, as we saw after World War II when Europe was in shambles. People needed housing and food, and putting economic growth on top of the agenda was the most efficient way to get all those things, fast. Developing nations such as India and China are doing the same as we speak. In principle there is nothing wrong with this kind of growth, but the idea that growth is always good and can be infinite is fallacious and dangerous. A thing that doesn’t stop growing, is cancer. Until it destroys its host, of course.

After most basic needs were met in the developed world somewhere around the 60’s and 70’s of the last century exponential economic growth stopped being a means and became an end in itself. This has not only had an external effect (the Crisis Cocktail), but an internal effect as well. Because if you want to make a success of your economic concept of infinite growth you have to get everybody to participate. This has far-reaching psychological consequences that shape culture and society. First of all, everyone needs to be convinced of the fact that producing and consuming are the main goals of human striving. This inevitably has consequences for the way knowledge is transferred from one generation to another, and is thus reflected in education in schools and at home. If you want everyone to endlessly produce and consume the subconscious psychological message will be something along these lines: ‘You do not have any worth if you do not produce and perform. People will not love you if you don’t. And besides, you will not be able to consume as much you like, and consume you must for it will bring you happiness.’

Mass marketing and peer pressure drive the messages home some more and slowly there emerges an erosion of culture, the foundation on which we depend to relate to each other. Every tradition or ritual from the past has been infiltrated by the need to consume to make unending, exponential growth possible. From birthdays to Valentine’s day, and from Thanksgiving to Christmas, all of it nowadays revolves around consuming large amounts of luxury foods and the uninhibited exchange of presents. And this has become pretty uniform all around the developed world. It’s all about what you have, what you do, where you travel to, in short: your identity. This mentality is instilled into children at an early age through various marketing techniques such as brand advertising. These customers of the future are conditioned in a way that benefits economic growth. We are conditioned to believe economic growth is our raison d’être.

But there’s a physical component to this as well. To consume means two things: Eat, drink, or ingest food or drink, and buy goods or services. Public health doesn’t count, only growth does. And so people have to be made addicted to unhealthy low-quality food, sugar, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and so on. The products they buy often contain toxins that are released during production or even use. People get sick physically and mentally, children get fat, diabetes rates soar, as do other diseases. The irony is that this is good for economic growth as well. Sick people get to live longer through extensive medication and neverending professional help. I’ve read once that there is no better thing for the economy than a businessman with prostate cancer who causes a big car accident on his way to his divorce lawyer.

Another aspect of this need for endless, exponential economic growth is the way corporations have been shaped. Whether big or small, no matter how many employees they have, these corporations are treated as legal persons who need to do one thing: maximize profits for their stockholders, which incidentally is also very good for growing the ecnomoy. This set-up is almost an invitation for large-scale pollution such as the BP oil disaster, creative cooking of the books such as the Enron scandal or the complete financial meltdown and ensuing global recession we recently witnessed due to the subprime mortgage crisis. It is the main driver behind fractional reserve banking and the continuous inflation of the debt bubble that keeps individuals, municipalities and even whole states in a stranglehold.

And talking about strangleholds: the whole system that has evolved to keep the economy growing, has eventually led to the creation of giant multinational corporations that have become bigger than countries and wield enormous power in the area of policy and the political system itself. Thus we now have Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agro, Big Sugar, Big Tobacco, Big Finance, Big Coal, Big Military and so forth, who through their lobbying, through their sponsoring of think tanks, and their direct financial contributions to politicians, make sure that their interests are served first. Never mind the fact that they have in large part taken over the mainstream media and thus control the narrative that is fed to the masses, their clients that have to continue consuming to make their profits possible. To keep the economy growing for all eternity, because it can, because it’s good.

From Symptoms to Solutions

But it’s not good. It can’t be sustained, period. Of course, rich people will get even richer, and some poor people will be less so, but all in all this flawed economic concept will eventually cost more than it delivers. In fact, it already is. And it is making societies all around the world increasingly vulnerable and prone to collapse. So how can this be solved?

Like I said halfway through the doom and gloom you cannot solve a problem by eradicating symptoms. You can spray forests with pesticides that kill off bark beetles, but it only postpones the inevitable. You can try to set up rules for bankers and their bonuses, but they are only doing what the system demands of them. You could perform miracles and replace fossil fuels by renewable energy sources, but it is virtually impossible if you want the economy to keep growing as well (at best it leads to Jevons Paradox).

You cannot solve a problem if you only treat the symptoms, and you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem. And thus no solution will work until the economic concept of infinite growth is replaced by an economic concept that recognizes that there are limits to growth and that this is a good thing. A society that can be sustained in the long term, will most probably be healthier and more just for everyone involved, not just for the small group who can afford it. Last but not least, a problem can only be solved if it is understood completely.

I hope that I have been able to show convincingly that our current economic concept of infinite growth is at the root of all global problems. I believe that when this is realized by enough people, solutions will automatically start to present themselves. Perhaps some day I will write about what these solutions might look like, but if people don’t want to wait for that, I would suggest they pay a visit to the organisation that in my view is the only one that really ‘gets it’: the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, or CASSE. If you like what they do (and I know I do), then please become a member, donate if you can and spread the word.

The first step is ditching the illusory economic concept of infinite growth.

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. – Winston Churchill, November 1942

Further viewing:

The Story of Stuff
The Century of the Self
Blind Spot
The Corporation
Hooked on Growth
The Impossible Hamster

Further reading:

The Problem of Growth, a series by Jeff Vail
Question Everything, a blog by George Mobus
The Archdruid Reports, a blog by John Michael Greer
The Oil Drum

Update (mt): It’s worth pointing out that David Roberts made a very similar argument in brief in 2009.

Summertime Blues

I’m gonna take two weeks, gonna have a fine vacation
I’m gonna take my problem to the United Nations
Well I called my congressman and he said Quote:
“I’d like to help you son but you’re too young to vote”
Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do
But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

I really like the way the “Is This So Difficult” thread went. Neither blogs nor usenet nor any other new media have been very effective in making progress, no more than the broadcast media that preceded them. What we need is a way for people to converge on issues, think about them together, round up the necessary expertise, and actually move toward new ideas. We had a glimmer of that in that thread.

I’ve always thought of climate change as just one of the more straightforward aspects of the sustainability problem. If we can;t get this one right, how can we move on to the others? Neven is proposing narrowing that down a bit: growth is the problem. Perhaps we can build a reasonable crusade on questioning the nature and sustainability of growth? After all, it seems to be at the center of the delusional structure of our time, and is a universal opinion of left and right. Full employment! Jobs! Economic Growth! Even population growth! It’s so written into every transaction, every behavior, every argument. And yet it’s obviously wrong, and has been obviously wrong since 1798 at the latest.
A lot of people will have a lot of resistance at that point. They’ll call you communistic (though if you’d said it thirty years ago in Moscow you’d presumably be called an imperialist for that; indeed, imperialism is an ideology of scarcity).
There are other ideas that seem to have resonance with a very wide audience. I have recently had some success reaching out to military types by making the analogy of the earth to a ship, which I owe to the quirky and sporadically brilliant (but genuinely brilliant nonetheless!) Buckminster Fuller. (no relation to Tom, one presumes…)
Which brings me to another really big question.
The fact is that now that there are enough of us to rock the boat, there does need to be some authority to keep the boat steady. One hesitates to argue for a global government; not only is the concept viscerally hated in America these days but it really does have some serious dangers associated with it. Would an American teenager today even fantasize about taking their troubles to the United Nations, like the protagonist in Eddie Cochran;s 1958 song?
In the coming decades, there has to be some authority, some amount of global soveriegnty. I think recent events have demonstrated beyond doubt that we can’t cope with just the current system. You don’t run a ship with six big captains, a dozen less influential captains, and a hundred and forty minor captains. It seems to me that we have to press for a global decision-making process. (Anyone who is planning to fall back on geoengineering the more so!)
People who believe that such a thing is a very bad idea should reflect on the existence of the GATT and the WTO. We have had global governance for decades now. We simply don’t give it any powers other than the protection of big capital. Don’t get me wrong. Big capital absolutely needs protecting; the whole bloody system falls apart otherwise. (As I understand it, it nearly did so last year.) We have become quite dependent on this system. But it really lacks some important priorities. There are other stakeholders on the planet, many (one hopes) as yet unborn. The thing that has utterly failed us is the collection of nation-states each acting in its own interest.
What a stupid way to go.
Is there an alternative? Is there a way to exert pressure on a global scale? Is that the end run around idiot nations and nationalisms?