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.