Will Progress in Climatology Affect Mitigation Policy?

Will progress in climatology affect mitigation policy? Not very much, no.

“Steven Chu, the new secretary of energy, said Wednesday that solving the world’s energy and environment problems would require Nobel-level breakthroughs in three areas: electric batteries, solar power and the development of new crops that can be turned into fuel.”

according to a recent article in the New York Times.

Note what he doesn’t mention: supercomputing, climate modeling, earth system modeling frameworks. Dr. Chu is putting his attention in the right places.

It can be argued that climatology is not an important input into climate change related policy. It is premature to take climatological input into account in adaptation strategy, while on the other hand as far as mitigation goes (i.e., on the global scale) the picture has pretty much stayed about the same for some substantial time.

Many readers will find this peculiar. Certain sorts of denialists are arguing that the tide has turned against the IPCC consensus over the last couple of years. With regard to that, nothing has changed; they have been making similar statements for twenty years. Certain sorts of alarmists meanwhile are emphasizing how things have gotten so much worse, but again these sorts of claims are nothing new. The fact is that things are pretty much about as bad as we have thought for a long time, except on the sea level rise front, where relatively new insights into ice sheet dynamics and new data about sudden postglacial sea level rise in the past raise the possibility of rapid changes in sea level.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that ice sheet modeling will make sufficient progress to constrain the behavior of ice sheets effectively. It is certainly worth a try.

On the other hand, consider this. Carefully targeted expenditures on science can be effective, but you cannot hire nine women to make a baby in a month. Intellectual progress can reach some maximum rate but then it reaches a point where more manpower and more funding is just redundant.

Some problems in earth science are undecidable. We may never understand the ocean circulation of the Eocene, much though we might want to.

My guess is that the most likely outcome is that there will be several viable scenarios for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet until one of them occurs. Maybe Greenland will turn out to be a tad less capricious, but we don’t know that for sure yet either.

As for aerosols, (and as for clouds, and so on) yes improvements can perhaps narrow the uncertainty of climate prediction a bit, and I’m happy to be helping out in that regard, but the chances of the first order picture changing very much are slim.

The real issues are environmental, agricultural and civil engineering problems, and the response issues are in the social, political, economic and geopolitical realms.

Climatology is a worthy pursuit in itself as a pure science. As far as application goes, if geoengineering is necessary you will need to rely on huge advancement in the field. Possibly we can improve our abilities for local and regional predictions, which would add a lot of value to adaptation startegies. So by all means support climatology, but don’t look to us for input into what needs doing now on the mitigation front.

We have said our piece and it is unlikely to change, not because we are stubborn, but because there are some things we understand pretty well. And certainly not because we are in it for the gold. The big money is not heading our way, nor should it.

PS from the same article:

Dr. Chu said he was still adjusting to his surroundings and title after most of a career spent as an academic scientist. Asked whether he preferred to be called “Dr. Chu” or “Mr. Secretary,” he answered, “Steve is fine.”

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Taking Lomborg Seriously

The NYTimes is featuring an article today on Bjorn Lomborg’s take on climate change.

While the content won’t be unfamiliar to most people who follow the issue, let me quote the gist of it:

“Wealth is a more important factor than sea-level rise in protecting you from the sea. You can draw maps showing 100 million people flooded out of their homes from global warming, but look at what’s happened here in New York. It’s the same story in Denmark and Holland — we’ve been gaining land as the sea rises.”

In his new book, he dismisses the Kyoto emissions cuts as a “feel-good” strategy because it sounds virtuous and lets politicians make promises they don’t have to keep. He outlines an alternative “do-good” strategy that would cost less but accomplish more in dealing with climate change as well as more pressing threats like malaria, AIDS, polluted drinking water and malnutrition.

But preparing for the worst in future climate is expensive, which means less money for the most serious threats today — and later this century. You can imagine plenty of worst-case projections that have nothing to do with climate change, as Dr. Lomborg reminded me at the end of our expedition.

I don’t think these points can be dismissed as easily as a lot of my fellow climate worry-warts tend to do. My response to this way of thinking is to question the very notion of “wealth”, which surely must mean something different on a planet which is full of people than on a planet with open space and natural ecosystems. For instance, the “value” of a free ranging species of bird or butterfly is much higher now that so many of them are in decline, but there’s no sensible way to reduce that to dollars.

I realize this is a lot to swallow all at once. Is there another way of looking at it that doesn’t require a total rethink of economics?

I think there is. Lomborg suggests putting more emphasis on our “other problems” and less into climate change. The difficulty with this view is that we no longer have the luxury of thinking of our problems as decoupled. Our problems include:

  • increasing superstition and xenophobia, tendency to war
  • decline of the natural environment, especially the oceans
  • immediate limitations on liquid fuel
  • desire for increasing wealth in backward countries
  • dependency on extractive water sources, food security
  • accumulation of trace substances not appearing in nature in the environment

Assuming the Hansen rapid sea level rise scenarios are unlikely (which I’m not sure about), climate change will not kill us. What it will do is this.

Climate change makes addressing almost every one of the principal global issues more difficult to address. There is no case where it makes matters easier.

Lomborg does advocate a carbon tax, so he really isn’t the enemy people make him out to be. I am not at all sure the way many people react to him is justified. Based on what I have seen, I think it’s reasonable to consider him intellectually serious and honest. I don’t think he understands the complexity of our predicament, though.

In a sense I actually agree with Lomborg. “Climate change” is not the problem. Managing the earth is the problem. Success is not in avoiding this or that global calamity. We have to avoid all of them, and they are intertwined.

There is only one big problem, how to get the biosphere into a sustainable condition. Economists are ateached to an essentially nonsustainable concept of perpetual growth, so they are not helping. They have a good point that climate change should not be viewed in isolation.

Update 9/14: Joe Romm’s first anti-Lomborg article discussed polar bears, about which I have no opinion. His second anti-Lomborg article addresses sea level rise. It is very clear that Lomborg got this badly wrong, but I still don’t see that he did so dishonestly. People are easily confused about things that aren’t their core expertise.

Anyway, I specifically excluded sea level rise above when discussing whether Lomborg could be right on his own terms. The confusion about sea level rise is attributable in large measure to systematic understatement on the part of the IPCC. Lomborg is not alone in missing the fine print, and this still is no indication of intellectual dishonesty.

I still think it would be best to engage Lomborg respectfully, rather than trying to tie him to the lawyer’s science of the main denialists. Of course, I recommend being
studiously polite even to the slimiest of the opposition, a tactic most of them know well enough. In the case of Lomborg, the respect would be genuine. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I see a man thinking for himself and advancing his opinions, even in the face of vitriolic opposition. He may be wrong, but that doesn’t make him dishonest.

My opinion remains tentative but Romm has not dissauded me from it.

Policy as a Problem in Engineering

I couldn’t resist attending this talk. It wasn’t especially well-attended, and I think the audience that appeared was not entirely receptive. I enjoyed it though.

Corey King
President, Energetics Research and Engineering

Design Synthesis of Multistable Equilibrium Systems and the World Development/Energy Path

Design synthesis can be thought of as picking a desired outcome and then figuring out how to achieve that outcome as well as determining if it is even possible. In this presentation I will discuss the design synthesis methodology for a class of engineering systems and how the design synthesis context could be used for future planning of world development and energy resource usage.

The engineering systems discussed are termed Multistable Equilibrium (MSE) systems. MSE systems are those physical systems, usually mechanical components, that can reside in more than one stable equilibrium position. Each position can have a different configuration, stiffness, or local frequency response to achieve multiple functionality in the same device.

The MSE design methodology is based upon shaping energy curves. This concept of ‘shaping the curve’ will then be expanded to discuss curves that can describe future energy resource usage. Any given desired shape of a ‘future curves’ has much to say about short, medium, and long term preferences and goals. The chosen shape of a future energy curve also entails ethical issues related to sustainability.

I liked seeing someone try to apply control theory to the big big picture. I felt vindicated when he talked about what I would call the multiple regimes of the earth system. He independently concluded that effective reasoning about the world changes as time scales become longer.

Interestingly, he had a military/security time scale that surprised me. King suggests that this time scale, the one where you try to keep ahead of competing countries so you can be safe, was intermediate between the economic and the environmental time scale. As a pretty much rootless person, this whole way of thinking has always been alien to me. It may be helpful in getting certain other mindsets past the purely econometric viewpoint, though.

Developing Countries’ View

Westerners and especially Americans tend to fail to understand the seriousness of the international equity constraints on our future behavior. Here’s an article that spells it out.

Pradipto Ghosh, who retired last month as India’s environment secretary and now sits on a committee advising India’s prime minister on climate change, warned that the West must “get serious” about cutting its own emissions if it wanted progress on the issue.

At the heart of India’s position on climate change is the notion that India – whose population is predicted to reach 1.5bn by 2050 – must be allowed to pollute on a per capita basis equally with the West.

That would imply drastic cuts in emissions in developed countries if the world is meet the target of keeping global warming within the generally agreed ‘safe limit’ of two degrees, as set out by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


Mr Ghosh said it was now up to the world to decide how big the ‘carbon pie’ should be at a certain point in the future – say, 2050 – and then agree that by that date all nations should have an equal entitlement relative to their size of population.

“There does seem to be a reluctance to appreciate our position,” he concluded, “There seems to be an idea around that developing countries like India must accept the position of being second class global citizens in our planet.

“We can only hope that this is not the frame of mind in which negotiations are approached in the future.”