Middle of the Roaders aka Dead Armadillos

The trouble with talking to people who are too interested in politics that relate to quantitative matters is that they don’t seem especially interested in the quantitative matters. They see “politically realistic” as a constraint. They don’t see “adequate to the circumstances” as especially relevant.

But political realism is a grossly premature calculation in the absence of quantitative reasoning.

The anecdote I like to repeat (I saw it in a comment somewhere by a “Z” (Zeke?) ) is of a fish viability study in Atlantic Canada. The scientists said the fish catch had to drop to X. The fishermen said they could not afford for it to go below Y. The Government, good liberals at the time, presumably, settled on the obvious (X + Y)/2 but (X + Y) /2 is substantially higher than X, so the fish population collapsed and now the fisherman have (another) Z which in this case stands for zilch.

First you have to figure out what is necessary. Then you come up with a bunch of schemes that achieve the necessary goals, with their various drawbacks and advantages, which, like it or not, will not work out to equal utility for each stakeholding constituency (in our case, that is everybody now living and, in a more diluted way but still significantly, everybody who might ever live).

You are as always entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to weigh in on this until you have a clear enough understanding of what is actually necessary.

If you feel that there is a responsible array of opinion on the matter of what is necessary, you should weigh your strategy appropriately to your degree of confidence in each possibility. This is even harder.

Once that is established, you figure out the politics. Maybe the market will handle it. Maybe not. List the scenarios out and come up with reasonable risk estimates. Then figure out what politics is necessary.

The reason the new Republicanism is irresponsible (both on climate and on budgetary matters) is because they have not taken into account informed and plausible scenarios of what is necessary. What they are doing is not conservatism. Neither conservatives nor liberals should mistake this for conservatism.

The reason the compulsive middle in America is irresponsible appears to be that they always were, but it wasn’t clear until one of the official poles of debate went bonkers. They just split the difference. Either side of the matter is always “unrealistic”. The solution is always “compromise”.

Under circumstances with two moderate parties this works well enough and the middle looks smart. Those circumstances are gone, and now it turns out that many of them weren’t very smart after all.

P.S. It begins to appear that Obama is of that school, but I’m not sure yet.

The Problem with a Carbon Tax

Fuel is a luxury, sometimes. And sometimes it is a necessity.

If we rely entirely on a “price” on carbon, and carbon remains fungible, what happens?

Well, in a sense we already know. We in the US have encouraged the use of farmland to produce corn to produce ethanol. This notoriously contributes to the rise in prices of the coarsest, meanest foods (as does climate disruption). This in turn means that the poorest people in the poorest countries starve because, and to the extent that, the market in the US “prefers” driving “safer” and more comfortable and enjoyable large vehicles. The market for large vehicles as opposed to vehicles is unambiguously a luxury market. A tenth of what a typical Yukon driver spends for gasoline (i.e., the agriculture-based component) is more than the poorest Haitian or Egyptian can afford for food. (Leaving aside the fact that corn ethanol is not a real biofuel in that its EROEI is arguably less than 1. That’s a topic for a different time and place.)

The “free market” is distorted in this case, but the ethanol vs food story still delivers an important moral.

Suppose we found a farmland biofuel that really did have a positive energy return and a significant profit. It’s not in the cards as far as we can tell, but that turns out to be a good thing. Because if it were possible, here is what the free market would do. All suitable farmland would be converted to fuel until food prices rose to the point where food becomes equally profitable to grow as fuel. And more people would starve.

Now, we can mitigate the free market with charity or international aid. There is no sign that charities allocate funds in a globally optimal way, of course. So the demands on international food aid go up, as they have. Perhaps these demands remain small enough that the international community will step up to the plate. Under the present circumstances of widespread political incompetence, perhaps not. Americans seem totally uninformed about the present Somali famine, for instance, but even if they were, the congress is too busy destroying our own country to bother with poor people.

What causes the problem is the huge difference in available money between the Yukon owner and the gruel subsistence family. The Yukon owner, having access to capital and perhaps having some abstract skills, can outbid the starving people for a luxury even though the starving people’s desire and willingness to work for the resource is much greater (it being a matter of survival). The Yukon owner is kept innocent. There isn’t a picture of the Somali child that you are starving to death at the gas pump. Fifty dollars a tank doesn’t slow the well-off SUV owner.

OK, the corn ethanol thing is insane, just another symptom of the bizarre state of US governance, a meaningless capitulation to the special status somehow acquired by Iowa.

The carbon tax has a similar problem, though. Suppose we raise prices, with a revenue-neutral tax, as Hansen sensibly suggests, on fossil carbon enough to start limiting demand, with the intention of gradually turning the screw until fossil carbon goes away. Who cuts back?

I became aware of this problem when my wife told an anecdote of going on a hundred mile photography field trip with a woman she knew slightly through a photography club. Irene showed up to their rendezvous in an early model Prius, and her companion showed up in an RV motor home. Guess which vehicle they ended up traveling in?

It turned out that the other woman was in the RV business. Inevitably the price of gasoline came up in conversation. The RV vendor was unconcerned. “My customers can afford gasoline,” she said.

The person who is going to be forced to cut back is the person who needs the fuel to heat their house, or to visit their customer. People living on narrow margins in an energy-intensive infrastructure get squeezed. People who revel in their capacity for waste will not.

I still think a tax is the best way to proceed, but a simple tax may not work. I’d much rather hit the motor home traveler (who was offered a seat in a Prius, mind you) much harder. Somehow the price has to be progressive in the early stages. Making matters even more difficult, as if they weren’t difficult enough already.

Yes, the urban poor, who can resort to busses and who have less heating and cooling bills, can adapt. So the burden will fall exactly on the people who are most suspicious and hostile in the first place. Bother.

The people forced to adapt by price mechanisms are not going to be the people who should adapt first.

This is sort of ironic, isn’t it? The free market solution works best if the distribution of wealth is roughly even. The more the difference between the rich and the poor, the more price mechanisms are unfair ways to adjust collective behavior.

Libertarianism leads to concentration of wealth, which leads to regulation. Or at least would, if people were sane. In a world where so many people outsource their thinking to Rupert Murdoch, who knows what in hell happens.

Headline Disease at e360

I’m not sure but I think we are starting to see signs of a decline in quality at Yale’s Environment360. I hope not.

In any case we have another instance for the misleading headline file on their short article “Greenland’s Ice Sheet May Be More Stable than Previously Thought“. It could equally read “Antarctica’s Ice Sheet Less Stable than Previously Thought“. Better would be “Antarctica Drives Greater Fraction of Sea Level Change than Expected“.

The press release was titled “Sea Level Rise Less from Greenland, More from Antarctica, Than Expected During Last Interglacial

The actual article is here: Elizabeth J. Colville, Anders E. Carlson, Brian L. Beard, Robert G. Hatfield, Joseph S. Stoner, Alberto V. Reyes, David J. Ullman. Sr-Nd-Pb Isotope Evidence for Ice-Sheet Presence on Southern Greenland During the Last Interglacial. Science, 2011; 333 (6042): 620-623 DOI: 10.1126/science.1204673

Headlines are important.

Mr. Gore Finds the Link

There’s a fairly obvious link between the impending economic train wreck in the US and the disastrous response to climate change. Al Gore spells it out.

We haven’t gone nuts — but the “conversation of democracy” has become so deeply dysfunctional that our ability to make intelligent collective decisions has been seriously impaired. Throughout American history, we relied on the vibrancy of our public square — and the quality of our democratic discourse — to make better decisions than most nations in the history of the world. But we are now routinely making really bad decisions that completely ignore the best available evidence of what is true and what is false. When the distinction between truth and falsehood is systematically attacked without shame or consequence — when a great nation makes crucially important decisions on the basis of completely false information that is no longer adequately filtered through the fact-checking function of a healthy and honest public discussion — the public interest is severely damaged.

Computation and Prediction

I’ll be in the right place at the right time for an interesting event for a change and will report.

“The Emerging Age of Predictive Computational Science”

with Dr. Tinsley Oden, Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES), The University of Texas at Austin

When: Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Where: AT&T Conference Center / Amphitheater (Room 204) / 1900 University Ave.
Cost: Free and open to the public


What exactly is the purpose of scientific discovery if it is not to inform us sufficiently to make predictions of the outcome of physical events and processes? Science is the enterprise of acquiring knowledge, and knowledge enables us, so we thought, to anticipate how things will behave-to forecast the way things will happen in the future.

A modern look at this idea suggests that scientific predictions aren’t as straightforward as some may think, particularly with the enhanced power of scientific discovery made possible by computer models and computers. The anatomy of computer predictions has recently become the subject of intense research, because we are now relying on computer models to predict events of enormous importance in making critical decisions that affect our welfare and security, such as climate change, the performance of energy and defense systems, the biology of diseases, and the outcome of medical procedures. Just how good are predictions of such complex phenomena, and how can we quantify the inevitable uncertainty in such predictions?

This presentation traces the development of scientific thinking and philosophy that underlie predictivity. It is argued that the fundamental issues of affecting the quantitative prediction of physical events using computer models are code and solution verification, model calibration and validation, and uncertainty quantification. These are the components of Predictive Science. It is also argued that the subjective probability inherent in Bayesian statistics provides a general framework for understanding and implementing predictive computational methods. Some examples of progress in this area at ICES will be presented.

A Disappointment from e360 Egregiously Spun

I refer you to the disappointing e360 piece “Is Extreme Weather Linked to Global Warming?” and the revealing gloss on it by Michael Cote that is brazenly repackaged as “Is the Heat Wave Caused by Climate Change?”

Cote’s title doesn’t summarize the question and his calculation doesn’t summarize the answers. But the fact that he found Curry the clearest and most reliable is a revelation to me. Those of us in the field tend to find Curry confusing and inconsistent. That is, she is giving answers that are easy for novices to understand in preference to answers that summarize the state of knowledge.

The question Cole asks is akin to “did the loaded dice cause me to roll a 12?” and the only serious answer is “they contributed to its likelihood”.

Even if we encounter weather events that would have been impossible absent anthropogenic climate change (“rolling a 13” type events, a candidate at least being last year’s Russian heat wave and Pakistani flood) there is still, generally, an element of chance involved. We have to go to phenomena not generally considered weather-like to be able to give a more coherent answer. (The Japanese earthquake has nothing to do with climate change; the melting ice cap is caused by it.)

But this is not the question raised in the article Cote pretends to summarize. That question is whether climate change is “linked” to recent extremes. To say “no” in this case is flatly absurd. Not even Curry, who has been dedicating the last few years to cultivating an audience among skeptical nonspecialists, nor Pielke, who is himself a nonspecialist, has been beating this drum forever, is willing to hazard a clear no.

All in all this is a disappointing performance from the normally reliable Yale e360 site. One commenter justly summarizes:

“E360 has ‘balanced’ the opinion of several experts with ‘celebrity contrarians’.

Roger Pielke is not a climate scientist and is notoriously unreliable and frequently wrong. Curry has been excoriated for her anti-science ranting and is now more accurately described as a political blogger than climate scientist.

It’s clearly not a coincidence these two were picked from thousands of possible experts – someone knew they could be relied on to ‘spice up’ the story with contrarian views.

This is just more of the never-ending false balance from a media that is more concerned with drawing traffic than informing the public with good science.”

This is true enough and bad enough. But Cote adds some additional filtering and now has a false package of insouciance he can peddle to his customers.

Rural North America

A couple of days in the British Columbia interior have been something of an eye-opener for me.

When you see two distinct cultures, you can parse out what they have in common as well as where they differ.

The rural South and rural BC have many superficial differences. The mostly bad food is different. The peculiar speech patterns are different. The TV is different. The magazines and newspapers are different. But both are areas of recent settlement and the patterns of twenty-first century life are set by the environment of the late twentieth century commercial environment more than the nineteenth century constraints of the natural environment, which amount to more of a decorative motif than a reality.

First of all, though rich people are everywhere, they live in a coccoon of suburban life. The great majority of the people think themselves “independent” and “private”, but their “freedom” and “independence” is actually massively more social, interdependent, and even communal than urban people, who actually are much more private and aloof. The skills needed to survive can more easily be rented in a city. In the country, they have to be borrowed or bartered. The solitary life is actually an endless parade of unhurried negotiations over chickens and goats, firewood and eggs, tires and furnaces. But the illusion of independence and privacy is immensely valued. This is the reverse of the city pattern, alienated and isolated and cherishing an illusion of a vibrant and tight-knit community!

What a strange continent we inhabit!

The problem is this: the city can decarbonize. The city will happily decarbonize; the air will be cleaner and the effete and fussy foods and beverages will taste even better as a result. Our lungs and our consciences will be cleaner.

The countryside developed as an adjunct to the automobile. In many areas there is vanishingly little pre-automotive skill or community to draw upon. People’s closest connections can live more miles away than horse could ride. The urban postcarbon transportation network cannot scale. Our building “real estate” in at the core of our economic structure ties people to the absurdly sprawled infrastructure. People should live in strings of beads, towns spread along roads. Instead they are everywhere, and it is more or less unaffordable to leave your isolated plot unless you can convince a greater fool to move in.

The fact is that decarbonization really is, like it or not, an attack on the already stressed rural lifestyle. The addiction to huge energy expenditures is inscribed in the settlement patterns. Even in places that are sufficiently forested and unpopulated to draw on wood for energy, wood-burning vehicles are hard to come by, and hundreds of miles of driving every week cannot be avoided. Even garbage disposal, in many places, requires a drive of some miles for each rural household on each occasion.

In many parts of the US, the genuine spirit of sharing doesn’t usually cross racial lines, which is a great shame, and only serves to make matters even more delicate, but the spirit of community is genuine and is something cities desperately need to reimport. But that community is dependent on real estate value and therefore on mobility and therefore on energy. North America does not have any idea how to readjust its rural lifestyles. In this matter the US and Canada are alike. I know little about Australia but I’d guess matters are similar there.

The much higher population densities of the northeastern states, like Europe, may be able to find low energy adaptations. I am thoroughly enjoying Vancouver’s bus system this week, which is almost as effective as the Paris Metro in magically transporting a person from anywhere to anywhere in a short enough time as not to matter. Without the absurd pseudo-poverty of Republicanism, Austin, or any US city could easily do as well. Austin would have to double the number of routes and triple the frequency of service; I’d happily abandon my car in a heartbeat if it did. But this cannot be done in Paris, Texas, or rural British Columbia for that matter. The suburbs, contrary to what Bill Kunstler says, will only be somewhat stressed when energy costs what it is worth.

But the North American countryside is in for a lot of pain. It’s important to remember that when considering their hostility to decarbonization.

Marshall McLuhan, What’re Ya Doin?

I learn in today’s Toronto Globe and Mail that this is the centennial of the birth, in frigid Edmonton AB, of U of Toronto professor and media maven Marshall McLuhan, coiner of the catchphrase “The Medium is the Message”, collagist of the unclassifiable book “The Medium is the Massage”, and author of the scholarly tome “The Gutenberg Galaxy”.

The Globe also summarizes McLuhan’s numerous insights in a sentence which I will take the liberty of paraphrasing and improving as:

The visible or audible content delivered through any medium is less important than the implicit messages the medium itself introduces into human affairs.

(Original: “the visible content delivered through any media, such as the television, is less important than the invisible effects the vehicle that conveys it introduces into human affairs”.)

This key observation is why Wired called Prof. McLuhan the “Prophet of the Internet” even though, as far as I know, he never envisioned anything like it. From a McLuhanistic perspective, the internet is every bit as big a revolution in human consciousness as the printing press; its effects will evolve over the next century or two, but those of us privileged to be on the scene in its early days will have much to say about the long future of human civilization (presuming civilization sufficient to support the internet survives our other present turmoils).

McLuhan, (like Norbert Wiener,) was prominent in my teenage reading list and influential in my own subsequent thinking.

Recent McLuhan stories in the Globe and Mail:

A Catholic Cassandra’s Faith
McLuhan: From tweedy academic to household name
The return of Marshall McLuhan