The Science Budget Talking Point

REPOSTING: The following was originally posted April 8, 2007. (Note: the first dozen comments are also from 2007.)

I am hoping to see recent numbers. I imagine the 2010 budget will show some improvement but as far as I know the annual US budget for climate science research (as opposed to data collection or impacts studies) through 2009 remains comparable to the budget for a Pixar movie.

I believe that the sort of auditability people are asking for is 1) actually a good idea and 2) not supportable by tghe present small community with its tightly constrained budget. Given that the actual issue is four or five orders of magnitude larger than the science budget, it makes sense to expend considerably more on a more formal science. Meanwhile, people who are complaining about the informality and close-knit nature of the community should be advocating for budget increases, not cuts.

The auditability people are butting heads against the myth that the climate science community is wealthy.


April 8, 2007

The claim that scientists have been conspiratorially drumming up climate fears to increase our funding appears specious to most of us. How would such a conspiracy be organized? How would we prevent defections? Nevertheless this idea has currency with the public. Supporting this argument is the idea, apparently promoted by Lindzen that the climate science budget has ballooned enormously.

It is true that there are 2 billion under a “climate change” rubric, but in fact half of it is NASA’s earth observation missions, a program which I would think any sane person would support. The massive “growth” of the program in its early days was not due to new projects but due to enfolding existing projects under the new name.

So what has happened to the science budget over the past sixteen years in fact? It has increased by 9% after inflation. Adjusted for inflation, actual US climate research (not data collection, not data dissemination, not technology or adaptation research, not impacts research, but the part that climate scientists stand to benefit from, has increased by 9% since 1993 according to the GAO.

More or less. The GAO adds the caveat “these data were difficult to compare over the entire time period because CCSP periodically introduced new categorization methods without explaining how the new methods were related to the ones they replaced”. (page 4)

Can the climate research budget actually been in decline? Anecdotally, I have been hearing about “belt tightening” through my entire career.

The climate research budget of NSF, which funds most of what most of us think of as climate science, including most climate modeling, is inconsistent over the period. It has wild oscillations but shows no trend. (see p 35 of the GAO report; note these figures are not inflation-adjusted) and is about 10% of the total CCSP budget, about 200 million, enough to support maybe about 600 scientists and professional staff (consider infrastructure needs, travel and publication costs, and equipment).

What about the near future? Well, here I can only report the entire CCSP aggregate, which is [12/09: sorry, link is dead] in a period of rapid decline, of about 20% over 4 years.

Boy, this scaremongering isn’t paying as well as you might think.

Admittedly, most of the cuts are out of NASA’s earth observation budget, which is a bit beside the point, though it is really enormously unfortunate. However, Mars seems to be a bigger priority than the Earth these days, because, um, well because you don’t need a rocketship to get to the Earth, now do you?

Kim Stanley Robinson Gets It

Well-known science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson says what I’ve been saying here, what many of the regulars say, stuff like:

First, we need to trust our science. We do this every time we fly in a jet or rush to the doctor in hope of relief from illness; but now there is some cherry-picking of science going on in the various kinds of resistance to the news about climate change, and this double standard needs to be called out. The so-called climate change skeptics are now simply in denial. All science is skeptical, and the scientific community has looked at this situation and found compelling evidence for anyone with an open mind.

and

We already have good starter technology for lithium-ion batteries in cars; clean, renewable energy generation; cleaner building methods; and so on. The technical solutions are being improved all the time in research labs.

The main problem is making these changes happen more quickly than they can in the false pricing system that we have created and enforced within our hierarchical power structure. There is conflict over how to pay for decarbonizing, which is deemed “too expensive” to execute quickly. There is both a defense of the destructive carbon burning we are engaged in and a resistance to the most obvious solutions among people who remain frightened of the idea of government-led economic programs. But now we simply must have such programs because the market is not capable of taking action.

Am I saying that capitalism is going to have to change or else we will have an environmental catastrophe? Yes, I am.

and

The main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future. I’ll give two illustrations of this. First, our commodities and our carbon burning are almost universally underpriced, so we charge less for them than they cost. When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor, it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.

Second, the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You could say we are that moment now. Half of the world’s people live on less than $2 a day, and yet the depletion of resources and environmental degradation mean they can never hope to rise to the level of affluent Westerners, who consume about 30 times as much in resources as they do. So this is now a false promise. The poorest three billion on Earth are being cheated if we pretend that the promise is still possible.

All so nicely said that perhaps I’d feature it anyway, though it’s nothing especially new to my readers. What’s interesting is where this appears, which is on a McKinsey web site. That’s amazing. Even a huge corporate consultancy has the nerve to consider these ideas. Only the press and the politicians seem to miss the scope of the problem, the scale of the transition.

Everything needs to be on the table. Everything.

High but Surmountable Cost, Except for Pride

Very interesting rebuttal to the “high cost” arguments I endorsed recently in an article by Adam Stein on Grist.

I don’t buy the argument that responding to climate change is “an opportunity” for society at large. An atmosphere sensitive to CO2 is worse than an atmosphere not sensitive to CO2. The “cost” may be exaggerated, but that doesn’t make it cost-free or a small matter.

There are also reasons that it is very over-optimistic to set the rate of progress in information technology as achievable in energy technology. Joe Romm explains this repeatedly, e.g., here.

At least one huge cost at this point is pride though. The market libertarians will have a very hard time admitting that climate forcing is at the least an important exception to their principles. They have painted themselves into a corner, and the rest of us are sort of stuck there along with them.

They have recently been doing a really impressive job fooling themselves that the evidence is piling up on their side. They will, eventually, be genuinely surprised when the problem fails to go away. I wonder when the realization will set in. Alas, I am not holding my breath.

Schrag doesn’t think it’s all that complicated

and neither do I, honestly. He is quoted in a news article in Science.

Geochemist Daniel Schrag of Harvard University argues that mandatory carbon caps should have been applied years ago to force energy technology innovations. He doesn’t think that it’s necessary to have, as Bush proposed, a year and a half of discussion to define emissions goals. “We know what we need to do now,” he says.

PS – Like anyone in or around the paleoclimate science community, I have the utmost respect for Dan Schrag.

Uncertainty and Conservatism

In a comment by Onar Aam on RC, it is alleged that proposed policy responses to anthropogenic climate change are excessive because scientific uncertainty leaves open the possibility that the sensitivity of the system is much smaller than the consensus would have it. This argument is common enough.

For almost fifteen years now I have been (using my unfortunately trivial influence; though for some reason Fergus seems to be singlehandedly trying to change that; thanks Fergus!) pointing out that such an argument is totally wrong, pretty much exactly 180 degrees off the mark.

Here’s my response, verbatim, which you can also read on RC.

Suppose we grant for the sake of argument that the total range of uncertainty (of some quantity) is a factor of 100. Does it follow that the quantity is possibly overestimated by a factor of 100? Perhaps, but surely it follows no more and no less than it follows that there is an equivalent possibility that the quantity is being underestimated by a factor of 100.

Why are people constantly harping on the risk of overestimating climate change when the risk of underestimating it has vastly greater consequences?

Rational policy under uncertainty should be risk-weighted, which implies that the less faith one has in the consensus position, the more vigorous an emissions policy one should support. It is very peculiar and striking to observe how common a position like Aam’s is despite the fact that it is incoherent.

Those people who doubt the consensus in a rational way (e.g., Broecker, Lovelock) advocate for a very vigorous policy. We don’t know how bad it can be, so we really ought to give considerable weight to it being very very bad. The asymmetry arises because we know how good it can be. Climate change can at best amount to a (relatively) very small net gain, if it is modest and slow enough. At worst it can quite conceivably be a threat to civilization.

Most people stressing the uncertainty, though, seem to me to deliberately strive to confuse the policy process, or to echo others who do so. It is discouraging how effective this tactic continues to be, given that it is based on a completely irrational argument. The only remotely sensible way to argue for small or no policy response is not to argue for large uncertainty. A rational argument for policy inaction requires arguing that the consensus position is certainly wrong and oversensitive. A rational, conservative response to uncertainty would be to take more effort to avoid the risk.

My use of the word “conservative” in the concluding sentence is deliberate, of course.

I always find it a tortured use of the word “conservatism” to suggest that monkeying with the biosphere (an astonishing and rare natural phenomenon) is a better idea than tuning the economy (an artifact). I can anticipate the tedious answers of course (cue Mr Duff), but I find myself wondering what, exactly, these so-called conservative people think they are conserving.

Essential Reading: Updated

Whew, it’s harder to maintain a blog when you are working than when you ain’t…

Anyway, a couple of bits of essential reading from the blogroll today: Samadhisoft points to this BBC report which suggests that

  • There is a global migration crisis
  • climate change will make it worse

Yep.

It’s not a matter of climate change, all else being stable. It’s a matter of throwing an unprecedented problem into an increasingly volatile mix. I think people should be talking about the big picture more. I see this in science as well as in politics. Everyone’s wrapped up in their niches. Thinking about the big picture is discouraged.

Dennis at Samadhisoft calls the confluence of population and technology driven global problems a “Perfect Storm Hypothesis”. I’m not sure it’s a hypothesis, strictly speaking, but that’s whistling past the graveyard, isn’t it?

UPDATE: IS THIS TRUE? YOU’D THINK THERE WOULD BE MORE TALK ABOUT IT.

ANOTHER UPDATE: YES I THINK SO, SO WHY ISN’T EVERYBODY TALKING ABOUT IT?

Meanwhile Eli points to John Fleck, (who gratuitously invokes the Framing Meme in) pointing to the joint position of the various national science academies of:

Brazil
Canada
China
France
Germany
India
Italy
Japan
Mexico
Russia
South Africa
the United Kingdom
the United States of America

surely representing the great majority of contemporary scientists worldwide, stating:

  • “Our present energy course is not sustainable.”
  • “Responding to this demand while minimising further climate change will need all the determination and ingenuity we can muster.”
  • “The problem is not yet insoluble but becomes more difficult with each passing day.”
  • G8 countries bear a special responsibility for the current high level of energy consumption and the associated climate change. Newly industrialized countries will share this responsibility in the future.”

Nicely done. Hopefully this will have an impact on most people’s thinking. It’s a great relief to see the academies making such strong and unequivocal statements.

Update: Also, be sure you catch up on the last of Jeffrey Sach’s Reith lecture series. In the final installment, Sachs suggests that defeating severe poverty and inequity, globally, in the very near term (a decade or so) is a necessary and plausible first step in our escape from our quandary. I think he has a point.

Finally, I suggest you wander over to the Global Change List which is getting very interesting these days.

Microsoft Tells Us About Geoengineering

Speaking of engineers, IEEE Spectrum has an article on geoengineering that reads rather as if Heiko Gerhauser had written it, except that it is by Somebody Important, specifically William B. Gail, director of strategic development at Microsoft’s Virtual Earth unit, and a member of the National Research Council’s “Decadal Study” group for Earth science and applications, whatever any of that means.

The strongest point he makes is this:

Our influence on climate may be inadvertent, but it is a milestone in civilization’s progress. We have, for the first time, the technological capacity to noticeably alter climate on a global basis within a person’s lifetime. History suggests that our expanding population and increasing technological ability will cause this capacity to grow with time, not decline. If not because of greenhouse gas emissions, it will be because of something else, such as changes in land coverage or the acidification of the ocean. The question now is: Should we strive to channel this capacity to our benefit, or should we struggle perpetually to avoid having any impact, for better or worse?

It seems plausible, but it’s so impractical as to be silly.

It’s ridiculous to talk about human activity bringing the system under control any time soon. At the moment we are utterly out of control. We have not demonstrated a capacity for postindustrial civilization to reach any stable operating point. It may be possible to do that sometime in the distant future, but for now we have to slow the huge input that is in process, to reach something like a quasiequilibrium.

It’s like having a barely conscious drunk at the wheel of the car and arguing that in principle the car could get to Myrtle Beach. (I assume for the purpose of the analogy that you are in North America but not in South Carolina.) Yes it might, but the immediate issue is pulling off to the side of the road without major incident.

Gail is ridiculously optimistic about climate models (and presumably the poor sod has to run his climate models under Microsoft operating systems… I actually know someone who tried to do this once… He didn’t fare well…) but that is the least of his problems. Look at his conclusions.

Before we picked a climate, we would need to evolve the political, commercial, and academic institutions to get us there. International institutions, in particular, would need to be strengthened to support the inevitably global solutions. The new technical discipline Earth systems engineering would have to be expanded and countless practitioners trained. We would have to develop complex new computer models, not only to forecast climate but also to understand how today’s costs should be balanced against tomorrow’s benefits. The private sector would need to envision climate change as opportunity, not impediment. The complete transition will take decades, if not centuries, but it can be accomplished in small steps.

The risks, of course, would be enormous. Virtually no significant technological breakthrough has ever occurred that nations did not find a way to apply to warfare, and the possibilities of global-scale climate alteration for military purposes would be staggering. Even putting those aside, the temptation of nations to use climate to gain economic advantage will be great. All human institutions suffer from mismanagement to some extent—those associated with climate will be no different. Any approach to climate management would have to be very robust to compensate for such failings.

Some may argue that humankind will never be able to manage projects that are so big and risky. Much the same was said about nuclear weapons, yet civilization has so far succeeded in controlling their enormous risk. In the case of climate change, the risks of not acting—relying on the belief that human climate influence can be eliminated soon and forever-after avoided—could be even more dangerous.

Indeed.

I am sorry to say to those of you still running “Windows” that people who think exactly this clearly designed your computer’s software.

Meanwhile Hank Roberts has a rather more insightful approach to geoengineering on the globalchange list.

Economists vs Engineers

For those wandering in here without context, I am advocating a rethinking of economics in the light of sustainability issues in general and climate change in particular.

Consider minutes 4 through 7 of this video of a Google Tech Talk by Van Jacobson.

“It’s not that the solution we have is a bad one, it’s that the problem has changed.”

I’d like to see this sort of breadth of vision coming from economic thinkers. (I’m not saying it never does, of course, but it doesn’t seem that real alternatives bubble to the top the way they do in other applied disciplines.)

If you are a bit technical you will find the rest of the presentation, which goes into detail about these revolutions in the data communication sphere, interesting as well.

Why is there such little prospect of a Copernican revolution in economic thinking? Do people really think that the circumstances of the past two centuries as generalized by economics are invariant? That the system can have no regimes? That there is only one possible correct way of looking at aggregate behavior and that we already have it?

[Update: Yes, apparently some people are perfectly happy to go that far without even a hint of humility. See the comments to this entry. They must have some powerfully compelling evidence and rigorous arguments. It sure would nice to see these.]

Many people think the calling of a scientist is in some way higher than that of the engineer, but frankly I am not at all convinced. Scientists seek truth, and engineers seek solutions. The circumstances we are in require solutions, and so the engineering mentality will be more valuable for the foreseeable future.

We need more pragmatic economics. Ambitious economists ought to let go of this bizarre pretension that the world’s economic system is anything but an artifact, and will start to think about how to redesign it to account for the fact that the problem has changed.