Climate Disruption

Simon Donner takes on the great “climate change” vs. “global warming” debate. He argues, albeit somewhat tentatively, for capitulation; we should call a thing what everybody else calls the thing:

Rights and wrongs of the different labels aside, the fact is that there is a disconnect here. We use a term that means less to people. And it puts scientists and others communicating the real scientific consensus at a disadvantage. Do a Google search for “global warming” and “climate change”. With “global warming”, the term the public is more likely to use, a “skeptical” site comes up second [note: search is done from Canada, others may find different results].

Let me take the opportunity to remind everybody that I’m on record taking the opposite position in my RealClimate article “Imprecision of the Phrase ‘Global Warming’

The problem in capitulating to the common usage is that the common usage is woefully imprecise. As I said in that article:

If someone asks me in my capacity as a climate scientist whether I “believe in “global warming”, they are not asking the question in a literal sense. They are asking “what am I to make of this confusing topic called “global warming”?

In the end they are usually asking some combination of questions like 1) whether greenhouse gases are accumulating? 2) whether the greenhouse effect is established science? 3) whether global warming has been observed? 4) whether future climate change is expected to be big enough to worry about? 5) whether cooling at a single location falsifies the “theory”? 6) whether to expect super-hurricanes? 7) whether the Gulf Stream will shut down instantly glaciating Scandinavia and Britain? 8 ) how you can model climate when you can’t predict weather? etc. Often they will bounce incoherently from one to another of these sorts of exasperatingly-missing-the-point sorts of question.

Once in a while someone will have more sophisticated questions like 1) what’s the magnitude of the anthropogenic forcing compared to natural forcings? 2) what’s the lag time in the system response? 3) what is the magnitude of the most disruptive plausible scenarios? 4) what’s the likelihood of the discontinuous shifts in system regime? etc., When I hear people asking the right questions it makes my day, but it’s pretty rare.

What people outside the field universally don’t mean by “global warming” though, is “a tendency for the global mean surface temperature to increase”!

The first trouble in talking about “global warming” is that when you do, you are already in an area where communication is problematic. And shifting goalposts is a key tactic of obfuscators everywhere. “Nothing could be better than early retirement on Maui, and a peanut butter sandwich is better than nothing, so a peanut butter sandwich is better than early retirement on Maui.” That sort of thing is their stock in trade. By starting the conversation with an ambiguity, you leave yourself open to all manner of trickery.

Since I wrote that piece, a whole new set of problems has arisen with “global warming”, in that the global mean surface temperature has become an unhealthy obsession of the crowd that calls themselves “lukewarmists”, i.e., the McIntyreans. Pretty much the only thing they care about is the observational and proxy record of global mean surface temperature. If “global warming” is the theory, and the observational record (mostly unforced) is ambiguous, well then, we can all go home and do business as usual, can’t we?

The bizarre fascination with Mann and Jones, the obsession with every little bounce up and down of the satellite record, all of this turns climate policy into a sport, where the amateur critics of science “root for” downturns in the curve and we find ourselves idiotically hoping for equally meaningless upticks. The actual implications of accumulating greenhouse gases are utterly lost in the shuffle.

The issue, of course, is completely miscast. The global mean surface temperature (or if you insist on hair-splitting, the fourth root of the mean of the fourth power of temperature, which is the arguable alternative and which behaves very similarly) is an interesting and useful diagnostic, especially in the study of paleoclimate. But it isn’t what we are worried about.

The global mean temperature does not cause impacts.

Local shifts in climate cause impacts. Changes in the radiative balance cause changes in circulation which cause changes in local climate. Human activity causes changes in radiative balance. Carbon dioxide is the biggest and most difficult but by no means the only component of human forcing of radiative balance. The local changes we are seeing are roughly as expected, and are already meaningful and are accelerating. Errors in our understanding are unlikely to be benign. Those are the salient facts.

Obsession with global mean temperature is a debating trick of the opposition. The fact that people are searching on “global warming” means we have to use it as a tag. But we shouldn’t use it to mean what the people searching on the term mean by it, because the very use of the term is generally a sign of confusion.

“Global warming” means an increase in the mean surface temperature of a globe. That’s all. It applies to any physical spherical object, typically a planet or a large moon. It applies on many time scales. It isn’t itself a problem, and doesn’t itself require a response. On the time scale of human forcing, it is an expected symptom of anthropogenic climate change.

Some go with “climate chaos” which has two problems: 1) it prejudges the scope of the problem and 2) it raises nomenclature confusion with a relevant mathematical concept. I think “climate disruption” is a good name for the problem.

Image: Dan Farber, a law professor, who I hope has mercy. It’s a great picture.

CO2 -> plants -> hydrology

This is a few weeks old, but I haven’t seen much mention in the blogosphere. Perhaps I missed it.

A significant study by Betts et al. of the Hadley Centre in the UK examines the observational record for biotic-CO2 feedback on hydrology. Plant physiology is substantially affected by the increases in CO2, directly, without any reference to climate change. Betts confirms that the net effect of the increased availability of CO2 is to reduce water uptake by plants and increase total runoff.

Assessments of the effect of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations on the hydrological cycle that only consider radiative forcing will therefore tend to underestimate future increases in runoff and overestimate decreases. This suggests that freshwater resources may be less limited than previously assumed under scenarios of future global warming, although there is still an increased risk of drought. Moreover, our results highlight that the practice of assessing the climate-forcing potential of all greenhouse gases in terms of their radiative forcing potential relative to carbon dioxide does not accurately reflect the relative effects of different greenhouse gases on freshwater resources.

The BBC article that pointed me there concludes that this result reduces the likelihood of droughts (especially, I’d think, in biologically productive regions), and increases the likelihood of flooding. Similar articles appear elsewhere in the UK press. No sign of it over here. Here’s how the Telegraph spins it:

Dr Betts said that the effect was a double edged sword: “It means that increases in drought due to climate change could be less severe as plants lose less water.

“On the other hand, if the land is saturated more often you might expect that intense rainfall events are more likely to cause flooding.”

He said that until now scientific models had only looked at the effect of gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide on global warming.

If one wanted to look at their full effect on flooding and drought, the effects on plants had to be considered too.

Dr Betts said he had communicated his results to the EA, who have been working on a Government study which said the flooding risk to rivers could increase up to 20 times by the 2080s.

This estimate would now have to be revised upwards.

What had the EA said to that? “They were very cross,” he said.

“Very cross” indeed. Hail Britannia!

Anyone have an idea out there what this “20-fold” business is about? Is the Telegraph out of control again? (And what’s the “EA” anyway?)

As for the big picture, it looks to me like another example of difficulties communicating across disciplinary boundaries. It’s hard enough to have climatologists and hydrologists communicating effectively, without having to bring plant physiologists into the loop. In the present case, what climatologists consider climatology has very little to do with the global change dynamics at issue.

Now climatologists don’t always have to be the intermediary and in this case we shouldn’t be. In fact biologists commonly consider themselves a customer of hydrology and so do hydrologists. In this case the coupling works the other way around and perhaps the phenomenon was missed for a while.

The push from the early 90’s to create an overarching discipline of “earth system science” that ought to be looking for and systematizing these sorts of couplings seems to have run out of steam from what I can tell. The troubles at NASA can’t be helping.

President Klaus’s Definition of "Environmentalism"

Well, the man, (who I am reminded is the president of a medium sized country), isn’t shy, really. You can find lots of Czech President Klaus’s opinions on his own website.

I’m particularly intrigued by his catalog of the features of environmentalism in his speech to the Cato Institute. Let’s look at his characterization:

The followers of the environmentalist ideology, however, keep presenting to us various catastrophic scenarios with the intention to persuade us to implement their ideas about us and about the whole human society. This is not only unfair but extremely dangerous. What is, in my view, even more dangerous, is the quasi-scientific form that their many times refuted forecasts have taken upon themselves.

What belongs to this ideology?

disbelief in the power of the invisible hands of free market and belief in the omnipotence state dirigism;

disregard for the role of important and powerful economic mechanisms and institutions – primarily that of property rights and prices – for an effective protection of nature;

misunderstanding of the meaning of resources, of the difference between the potential natural resource and the real one, that may be used in the economy;

Malthusian pessimism over the technical progress;

belief in the dominance of externalities in human activities;

promotion of the so-called “precautionary principle“, which maximizes the risk aversion without paying attention to the costs;

underestimation of the long-term income and welfare growth, which results in a fundamental shift of demand towards environmental protection (this is demonstrated by the so-called Environmental Kuznets Curve);

erroneous discounting of the future, demonstrated so clearly by the highly publicized Stern-Report a few months ago.

To paraphrase an old punchline, well, he may be crazy but he ain’t stupid.

(Compare presidents of certain actually large countries…)

It’s an interesting list. While I don’t really consider myself an ‘environmentalist’ I imagine Klaus would. While I am innocent of some of these opinions many of them do describe my beliefs.

Other than the vile, contentious and almost entirely worthless idea that people who advocate environmentally based policies are essentially totalitarian (“dirigists”) I think Klaus’s list raises interesting points about the role of economics in policy.

The ideas deserve some deeper consideration than the perfunctory dismissal they get here, though. I’m sure dismissing these ideas out of hand flies at the Cato institute, but perhaps the rest of us would like to consider why these are bad ideas.

Some of my immediate reactions

  • Again, my opposition to CO2 accumulation does not originate in a megalomanic desire to stamp out human freedom and dignity, and I doubt this motivation is common among others who have the same concern. That particular piece of the opposition’s model is so much at odds with the real world and so deleterious to civilized conversation that it’s right to call it crazy.
  • I agree with Klaus that the ‘precautionary principle’ as usually stated is unworkable.
  • There is a bit of a polemical parlor trick in his last accusation: “erroneous discounting of the future”, by which he means “inadequate discounting of the future”. The casual reader may take this the other way.
  • Klaus takes no notice of the extent to which a correct (market-driven) discount rate proposed in the last point acts against the validity of his second point, the tired libertarian dogma that private ownership takes better care of land than collective ownership. One can understand how a central European might reach that conclusion, but it’s really quite shallow and doesn’t stand up to investigation. It somehow presumes the underlying dynamics of selfishness, crassness, laziness and secrecy is unique to the Soviet system and cannot happen under capitalism. Mr. Klaus should consult with the residents of Bhopal in reconsidering this opinion. It’s an informed and participatory society exercising its vigilance through regulation and enforcement that protects the environment. That is, the best protection occurs neither in totalitarian societies nor in libertarian ones but in social democratic ones.

That’s not all I might have to say about this list. I think most of these ideas are worth discussing (I can’t quite parse the third one; I suspect something lost in translation which perhaps Lubos can help with) and except for the gratuitous insults in the first point none of them is a slam dunk either way.

Economics and Global Change: The Bathub Analogy

I posted this to the globalchange list some time ago, but now that I have the attention of a couple of market conservatives, let me post it here. Apologies to those for whom it is a rerun. Note that the apparently rational strategy actually guarantees an eventual flood.

Imagine that you are an economist who enjoys playing Tetris on your computer, so while your bathtub is filling you decide to play a round in the TV room upstairs.

The round of Tetris is going fabulously well. You are in the zone. You are placing piece after piece where it goes; you have long since passed your all time high score; you are having a whale of a time. Your bathtub is meanwhile filling up.

A tiny corner of your mind suggests that you ought to go downstairs and check your bathtub, even though it would interrupt your excellent Tetris game.

Fortunately, you are an economist. The tiny corner of your mind that is concerned with the structural integrity of your house and not the joy of Tetris is sufficient to reason as follows.

Probably the tub is not full yet, so the utility to me to keep playing this next piece exceeds the utility of running downstairs to turn off the water.

Maybe the tub is already flooding. Well, then, that is too bad, but the additional flood cost of playing this next piece will be small compared to the total flood cost, while the pleasure I am getting from this game going so well would be terminated.

Perhaps the tub is right at the point of starting a flood; a “tipping point”. Well in that case you certainly would run right downstairs and turn it off, but what are the odds of that? There is no way to prove this highly unlikely ands speculative circumstance to you. There really isn’t enough information to know exactly when that moment might be, so this almost certainly isn’t it. Surely you can just dispense with that sort of wild speculation.

You have just proven that the matter does not deserve much attention for the duration of placing this next Tetris block. You will revisit this problem later when you are placing another block, with the same small shred of your attention. Tetris is such fun!

So you keep playing, secure in the knowledge that you have maximized utility.

Widespread decline in US bird populations ????

From the Audubon Society website:

Audubon’s unprecedented analysis of forty years of citizen-science bird population data from our own Christmas Bird Count plus the Breeding Bird Survey reveals the alarming decline of many of our most common and beloved birds.

Since 1967 the average population of the common birds in steepest decline has fallen by 68 percent; some individual species nose-dived as much as 80 percent. All 20 birds on the national Common Birds in Decline list lost at least half their populations in just four decades.

Update: Hmm; the article didn’t seem all that convincing. It had that “of America’s best tasting gums, Trident is sugarless” feeling, as if what they were actually trying to get across was different from what they were allowed to literally say.

So I looked at the referenced technical report.

We see two different measures of species trend, one called BBS and one called CBC. I didn’t look into the meanings of these, but they correlate well. There is also a reliability score. Both on the high reliability trends and on all estimated trends:

The number of species increasing in abundance exceeds the number in decline!!!

Species trends are divided into rapid increase, moderate increase, stable, moderate decrease and severe decrease. One slice through the data looked at those with reliability index of score of 2 or 3 on a scale of 0 to 3 on both measures, with 3 being most reliable. Using the BBS measure, we see 41 species in rapid increase, 38 in increase, 31 stable, 24 in decline, and 22 in rapid decline. Similar numbers for the CBC measure.

Similar numbers are seen on various other measures. I didn’t cherry pick. Look for yourself.

Is this bad? Maybe. Maybe more stability should be expected.

Is the situation obviously bad? Not really from the point of view of the birds. It is nasty form the point of view of the nature of public discourse, though.

I am not saying I am sure there is no problem, but the technical report certainly requires a different exposition than the Audubon website provides. In fact I would suggest their implied position is at odds with their report.

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


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?



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:

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.