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.

Hope for Texas: Moderate to Large El Nino

Speaking of El Nino, the forecast is definitely for a moderate event at least this winter. Some groups are calling for a large event.

This is great news for us here in south-central Texas, and where drought conditions are currently extreme. It’s been six weeks of remarkably hot and dry weather even by local standards. It amazes me that so many plants are still looking healthy. Soil moisture is so close to zero as not to make a difference.

Fortunately, El Nino (negative SOI) correlates positively with precipitation. Unfortunately, there’s several months ahead before we collect on this promise.

I wonder, though, what a strong El Nino event might do for public perceptions of climate change. We might be due for some strange episodes. I have some pretty clear memories of the great Montreal ice storm in the 1998 El Nino.

We’ve been trained to say that “no individual event can be attributed directly to climate change”, and talk about loaded dice, etc. The next really big El Nino we will put us in uncharted territory, though. I wonder if the campaign to get El Nino language into the climate debate territory isn’t partly just an effort to deflect the attention to climate change that whatever weirdness we see in the next year might bring.

Even so, speaking as a Texan, (and I may live to regret this) if you’ve got some El Nino handy, bring it on down to my place, honey! It can’t be much worse than what we’ve got already.

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.

Food and Carbon Dioxide

The NYTimes, peculiarly and I think inappropriately in the “Media and Advertising” section, has an article on the connection between meat and carbon emissions. It’s interesting enough. I think the vegetarians have a point, very much unlike the “vegetable-mile” people, who complain about how far your food has travelled, who as I will explain in an article soon, have it fundamentally and deeply wrong.

I don’t have much to add right now, except to point out that anyone who wants to follow up on the “University of Chicago Study”, given that the Times astonishingly and inexcusably does not even deign to name the researchers (thank you Media and Advertising section) should look for Eshel and Martin, Earth Interactions, Vol. 10, pp. 1-17, March 2006, available here.

National Review Gets Real

Can the Wall Street Journal be far behind?

Quark Soup
points out that the libertarian-conservative-republican (US) magazine National Review has a cover article conceding the reality of anthropogenic warming. You have to subscribe to read the article (I intend to read it over coffee at Borders, frankly) but here’s the (current as of this posting) link for confirmation.

Update: The web is pretty cool sometimes. Apparently the author has written in with a link to a PDF of the article.

All they tell the nonsubscriber is this:

It is no longer possible, scientifically or politically, to deny that human activities have very likely increased global temperatures; what remains in dispute is the precise magnitude of the human impact. Conservatives should accept this reality — and move on to the question of what we should do about it. This would put us in a much better position to prevent a massive, counterproductive intervention in the U.S. economy.

By Jim Manzi

NASA, DOE, and the Myth of Neutrality

UPDATE: To clarify my point here, US Federal scientific agencies have an aversion to taking positions. SUch aversion is not in line with public desires or expectations, and is ultimately infeasible. A refusal to take a policy position by a public agency on a matter of their specific expertise is equivalent to taking an explicit position that a policy is unnecessary. Saying nothing is not neutral.

Griffin’s blundering into explicitly defending NASA’s silence highlights this problem perfectly. Other agencies, which may demur more gracefully, are nevertheless equally arrayed against solving problems by their excessive reticence.

By now most readers will have heard of NASA administrator Michael Griffin’s gaffes on NPR, for instance:

I’m also aware of recent findings that appear to have nailed down — pretty well nailed down the conclusion that much of [global warming] is manmade. Whether that is a longterm concern or not, I can’t say.

Don’t miss Stephen Colbert’s interesting take on this. It’s fish in a barrel for Colbert, though he did get the fish square between the eyes.

Griffin does not understand that we want more from our professionals than a studied neutrality, but the public doesn’t understand how pervasive his attitude is among the scientists in U.S. federal agencies. The problem is not that Griffin is being bizarre. The problem is that he is being quite typical within his context. Colbert, as usual, isn’t as funny on second thought as he is at first.

Last week I attended a “town hall meeting” conducted by the Department of Energy, on the subject of very large scale computing (“exascale computing”) as applied to energy and environmental simulations (“E3”).

(It is interesting that the meeting is not called E4, exascale for energy, environment and economics, though the fourth “E”, economics, had an important role at the meeting. For now I want to relate my primary frustration with the meeting, where some speakers echoed Griffin’s stance. I’ll have more to say about this whole cluster of concepts in a later posting.)

It was in many respects a great honor to be there, and many of the conversations were far ranging and excellent. The keynote address by Argonne Lab Director Robert Rosner was very much inspiring and to the point of our sustainability issues.

However, subsequent discussion showed a real aversion to actually applying science to inform policy. Specifically, when I suggested at the plenary that we come up with a formal definition of sustainability, and use this to provide a common goal to unify the various efforts being contemplated, this was met with an explicit argument that the policy sector would not like it.

The scientific establishment in the US executive branch is happy to “do science” about this or that policy, but they are adamant that it is not their job to propose or defend a policy. They seem terrified of advancing conversations about energy policy. I wonder what they are so afraid of.

If it is not the Department of Energy’s role to advise the policy sector on complex technical issues regarding energy security, exactly whose job is it?

I hate to bite the hand that feeds me. I have friends in the DOE and at least have some prospect of benefiting from DOE science expenditures. Still, the times are such that DOE (like the other scientific agencies in the executive branch) needs to show some gumption whether they like it or not. It won’t kill them and in the end it will make them stronger and the rest of us safer.

We need experts to recommend policy, not to spend money and leave policy to the politicians. As the world becomes more complicated, the job of the executive branch becomes more technical. To the extent we collectively allow science to duck this responsibility, we assume a very serious risk.

Coming back to Griffin, you will note that he never retracted his opinion. If anything, he tried to reinforce the idea that he had no opinion at all. This is not dissembling. That is not backing down. That is what he was trying to say all along. He is adamantly defending his position that he doesn’t need to have a position and doesn’t have one. The fact that it came across as, hmmm, barking madness, proves that there is no such thing as having no opinion.

What this event should teach us is that scientific agencies cannot possibly operate in some sort of policy-free vacuum. People need expert advice.

Imagine if your doctor said to you “Diagnostically, we are pretty sure you have a serious condition of (let’s say) acute carbonic acid toxicity. We have many volumes of journal articles about your condition, but we’re just scientists. Left untreated this will probably kill you, but since we are value neutral and only interested in facts, it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to suggest whether or not your imminent demise is a good thing. It would certainly be arrogant of us to recommend a treatment.”

Anonymous Contribution: In Defense of Growth

Inel passes along this anonymous contribution, in an effort to answer one of my perennial questions about the conventional wisdom in economics. It’s interesting and polite, but it still seems to see everything on a pretty narrow Marxism/capitalism axis with the limits set by sustainability as a sort of afterthought.

In short, I can’t agree but I think it’s worth reading.

Growing GDP is an economic, political and philosophical issue


* GDP has a definition in economics (I forget specifics but its easy to find a definition) as the gross output of a nation. You could in theory say that you could measure spending rather than output to define the “economic size” of a nation.
* It is the bluntest tool used for comparing the wealth of nations.
* Real GDP is net of inflation: for example GDP growth of 5% at a time when inflation is 10% would indicate the national economy is shrinking.
* The “economy” of a nation is a complex organism with many compensating and conflicting trends, drivers and results: GDP helps to give a blunt measure of size and growth (each year and over the long term). Most economies are valued in dollars to make international comparisons possible.


* Political systems vary.
* Managed (command-style) economies are goal driven rather than economically driven. For example, USSR used to have a five year plan (etc) which defined success in meeting quotas such as tank production, wheat harvest, etc. In such political systems, the obsession with output was regardless of cost, damage and lives lost. It was not a good system.
* Political systems based on shared wealth, production, workload have all failed. Leaders and oligarchs inevitably distort the system for their own ends because of human nature (temptation and the ability to abuse their position). It always happens – look at Africa and Eastern Europe. Such systems are utopian and not practical. Such systems killed 100m people in the 20th century though bad implementation of ideals.
* Open, democratic political systems have done best (historically) during a period of free markets and international competition / cooperation through trade. The most extreme example of this is the globalization of the past 20 years.
* In such democracies, growth is a sign of progress. The opposite of growth leads to electoral failure. Growth may be defined in more terms than just GDP: for example – unemployment levels, quality of state services (health, education, benefits). There are also intangible measures (“equality of opportunity”, “social mobility”, etc)
* State spending in democratic countries is always under pressure: look at increasing healthcare costs. Therefore in general, improvements in state provision require GDP (output) growth and such growth is driven by rising expectations of the citizen.
* By definition, the average citizen (measured by mean income) earns less than half the population – the other 50% earn even less. In an open society (democratic institutions, freedom of speech, reasonable policing), most people will aspire to better things. These aspirations provide a permanent driver for economic advancement, driving demand for increased GDP.

Philosophy: Two major issues arise for me in this discussion about GDP

Society vs. the Individual

o One’s view on the role of the individual in society generally guides one’s politics more than anything else. The US is highly individualistic, Sweden has a more collective society. There is no right answer. I am more of an individualist because I am able-bodied and successful, and feel society does best when the best and brightest are encouraged to achieve: scientifically, economically, creatively. Beyond a certain point social initiatives by government limit choice, suppress excellence and dumb down the potential to a reasonable average.
o Systems which say for example we should have net-neutral economies (no real growth in GDP) will inevitably place limitations on the freedom of the individual. Inventors will be prevented from inventing stuff that provides economic advantage against other countries; there will have to be quotas on creativity, invention and ultimately freedom. I believe the implications of a forced “non-growth” are dangerous.
o A parallel discussion concerns population: it is clear that fewer people (as well as fixing global warming) provides better resource allocation for us all. The morality of implementing such a strategy has implications best seen in China over the past 40 years with single child quotas that have led to mass abortion and infanticide. Its morally unacceptable to pursue such a strategy.
o In conclusion, GDP growth matters less than GDP neutrality / contraction: the latter leads people, and their elected officials to ask why we are not advancing and so GDP growth is the logical goal for modern democracies.

Nationalism vs. ‘Internationalism’

o The other approach here is to question the nature of nation-states. If we had a world government, there would be less national rivalry, less emphasis on growth for national pride, less need to compare.
o Lessons of the EU show both sides of this issue.
o It is great that EU expansion brings many people together, the Euro and tax harmonization strive to minimize the petty differences between countries. On the other hand, the EU failed to agree a constitution and now has a major rethink about future strategy.
o I believe the EU constitution story is relevant: on the whole, people do not want to be equalized and homogenized. They will put up with being average if there is a chance to be better off: it is more important to have the opportunity than to achieve the goal.

So, I do not believe a voluntary or mandatory scheme to reduce GDP growth to acceptable levels (or zero) is feasible or desirable. I think the best opportunity for tackling climate change is to use the forces of greed and ambition and risk-taking to our advantage. I just do not know how.”