Friday, July 30, 2010

Response to Michael Tobis: everyone knows the climate's gone screwy, so let's use it

Michael wrote a great post on how climate denial has sunk into a significant portion of our populace so much so that simply pointing to facts isn't going to fix a personal bias against the concept.

My response is something I tried to argue several years ago. The right psychological approach is to ask people to call upon their personal experience with climate in past years to help them overcome a prejudice that we've not affected the climate. What might be hardest for science realists is to accept that it's not a bad thing to call upon personal experience, because we're not asking people to be scientists but only to contribute to the overall decision-making.

For example, let's talk about the fascinating subject of my teeth. Here in America we still have debates about whether to fluoridate the water to prevent cavities. I've lived in a bunch of different places in the country, and two of them - Alaska and Portland Oregon - didn't fluoridate. You can guess which two times of my life when I've had the most problems with cavities.

Now it's hardly scientific to draw conclusions based on my experience, but if I made my own decision on whether to vote for fluoridation based on my experience, and aggregated my vote with others doing the same thing, then you'll get something approaching a reasonable scientific judgment as well as the right policy.*

The same thing is true for climate. Anyone over the age of 30 can remember a modestly different climate in the past, and everyone knows older people who can tell them about earlier periods when it was even more different. People can feel it in their bones that the climate's gone screwy. That's what we need to latch on to.

Yes, huge amounts of noise in this type of data, and yes, urban heat island and urban migration can confound perceptions, but people can adjust for urban heat if they want in their personal experience, and millions of human data points are being aggregated to filter the noise. My point is that it's not invalid to call upon these experiences.

The other issue is the claim by denialists that it's just coincidental warming. The way to handle that is to latch on to the fact that people like patterns and don't like coincidences. Point out that the people who are arguing that it's just a coincidence are the same ones who still dispute the scientific record that shows what we feel to be true, that the climate has changed, that it's gotten warmer, that weather patterns are different. It is not a coincidence that the people denying the warming are making that argument - they don't like the implications of it. Again, personal experience of how much the world has changed could help people consider whether our modification of the planet could be responsible for the modification of climate.

So this may not be the scientific ideal approach, but it's not invalid, and it could be a way to make progress.

*I'm ignoring the alleged low-frequency dangers of fluoridation, which isn't really relevant to the analogy I'm making of people drawing on personal experiences to understand whether fluoridation prevents cavities/that climate change is real.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Remembering Stephen Schneider, and voting No on Proposition 23

(This is a repost from the Brian for Water District campaign blog.)

Driving to a meeting of the Water District's Environmental Advisory Committee earlier [last] week, I heard the sad news about the unexpected death of the prominent Stanford climatologist, Stephen Schneider.

While a student at Stanford Law School, I participated in one seminar where he guest-lectured and heard him on other occasions during school and afterwards. I thought he gave the most convincing demonstration of who to trust in the climate debate by showing a survey of the mainstream climatologists and the small number of scientists that doubted climate change. Schneider showed that the mainstream scientists were reasonably confident of their predictions but also admitted a wide margin for error. The few skeptic climatologists admitted nothing, and were absolutely confident that they were right. He had given the best demonstration I could imagine of scientific honesty on one side and over-confident hubris on the other.

Schneider's death comes as California wrestles with Proposition 23's demand to suspend its premier climate change law, AB32, a theoretical suspension that would actually kill it if Proposition 23 passes. I know that Schneider actually had some criticisms of his own of AB32, but I can't imagine he would favor the misguided effort to kill the law and do nothing in return.

I'll be voting No on Proposition 23, an initiative that will harm efforts to fight climate change and efforts to protect our water and watersheds. We will have to learn from Schneider's legacy as the state and country move forward.


For a eulogy about Steve Schneider, read RealClimate here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Human behavioral adaptations accelerating evolutionary changes

What I'm saying is either 1. so obvious noone's bothered to say it, 2. wrong, or 3. somewhat interesting. It's about the evidence of a significant recent natural selection in the human genome, covered in the New York Times.

Our behavioral adaptations have made it possible for our primate body to succeed in new habitats and climates. After the successful introduction into new niches, we started competing against the most dangerous game, each other, and evolution started playing catch-up, adapting our bodies to colder climates, less sunlight, and higher elevations as applicable.

Then instead of just entering new habitats as hunter-gatherers spread around the world, humans also started creating new habitats through agriculture, succeeded there and began competing on evolutionary levels, like when Asians adapted to metabolize alcohol after inventing rice cultivation. In the last few thousand years or less, we created still more new habitats of dense populations in cities, and resistance to diseases that spread at high concentrations like measles began to develop.

I think it's interesting because evolution is working on us in ways or at a speed that's highly unusual, because a species usually succeeds in a particular type of habitat instead of spreading to multiple habitats simultaneously.

I suppose it's similar to adaptive radiation, like where an ancestral finch species reached the Galapagos and eventually became 14 species adapted to different food sources. I just suspect it's happened much faster with us. And of course we won't differentiate into separate species, given the high level of gene flow.

It might be interesting to look at species that have come along for the ride with us - rats, house mice, cockroaches, head lice, gut bacteria - and see if they've undergone similar recent evolution.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Everything going well for climate denialists, except for climate

I've been meaning to link to this excellent, long post at Fivethirtyeight on the fall of Australia's Prime Minister, in large part due to the politically-successful decision by the opposition party to stop supporting legislation to fight climate change. Crucially, the PM "strung out" the issue to damage the opposing party rather than quickly passing a good bill, leading the opposing party to dump its rational leader and choosing the "Party of No" attitude instead.

Being destructive rather than collaborative is a good political strategy, as we're seeing in the US, where formerly realistic Republican senators are inventing excuses to oppose climate legislation. Many enviros did very little to support comprehensive cap-and-trade legislation because they prefer bills with no chance of passage, and the next Senate is guaranteed to be worse. Our best shot this year, and it won't get better again for at least two years, is a cap-and-trade bill on utilities only. It's far better than nothing,* but it's only a possibility at this point.

Those of us who think we should do something about climate change need to work harder. Unfortunately, the actual climate as opposed to the political climate is making that clear, as yet again, recent warmth makes the Jan-June period the warmest recorded, and fits yet again as one more unnecessary piece in the mountain of evidence for climate change.

*I should note that I have to see if this reduced-scope legislation still pre-empts some action by the EPA. I'd guess it would still be a good idea, but I'd also be less certain about that.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What I think about global warming

I've stolen the headline and most of "my" thoughts on the issue from a good post by William that people should read.  But enough with the praise, let's focus on the smaller points where I might disagree.

William writes:
The main points that most would agree on as "the consensus" are:

1. The earth is getting warmer (0.6 +/- 0.2 oC in the past century; 0.1 0.17 oC/decade over the last 30 years (see update)) [ch 2]
2. People are causing this [ch 12] (see update)
3. If GHG emissions continue, the warming will continue and indeed accelerate [ch 9]
4. (This will be a problem and we ought to do something about it)
I've put those four points in rough order of certainty. The last one is in brackets because whilst many would agree, many others (who agree with 1-3) would not, at least without qualification. It's probably not a part of the core consensus in the way 1-3 are.

Yep, all of that remains pretty well true, and remains the core....In the years since I wrote that nothing has come along to overturn any of that, and much has come in to buttress it....However, I still think there is room for honest skepticism and disagreement about point 4.... The real argument should be about point 4: that it will be a problem and we should do something about it....I don't know the answer to point 4, and I know that I don't know :-). 
So let's stop there for a moment.  I think it's better to split point 4 into:
4.a.  This will be a problem.
4.b. (We ought do something about it).
I don't think it's reasonable for anyone to acknowledge point 3, especially acceleration, and deny 4.a.  Even in the imaginary world where benefits in some areas outweigh the problems in others, there are still problems.  And virtually no one really believes in that imaginary world - if we could wave a Pielkean magic wand, a technology that cheaply and safely scrubs all GHG emissions from the atmosphere, any reasonable person given a yes or no choice on waving that wand would do it.
As for 4.b., I'll just note that it's not an exclusively scientific question - engineers, economists, and wonderful wonderful lawyers all play a part, not to mention the general public that pays the bill one way or another.  No wonder it's a squishier issue.
Also on 4.b., I think if we drop two unstated assumptions in much of the climate discussion - first, that the universe ends in the year 2100, and second, new GHG emissions will magically cease the moment we hit 2x present CO2 equivalent levels - then we know the answer.  Maybe someone could argue we still have a decade or so of playtime available before doing something about the problem but that would both be unwise and not relevant to 4.b.
Finally, I may not know anything more about ocean acidification than William notes in original post (probably less), but it's really a separate scientific consensus issue that doesn't even depend on climate change being real.  My amateur opinion is that acidification consensus is as solid as the climate consensus through its own version of 4.a., and on policy matters the issue pushes for the same policy solutions as climate change other than some geoengineering and ocean sequestration proposals, and possibly on a slightly longer timeframe.

UPDATE:  I continue to think, without much evidence to back it up, that the biggest human cost from GHGs will be malnutritrion-related deaths in areas of subsistence agriculture and fishing due to precipitation shifts and acidification.  Not necessarily an increase against the present baseline but an increase against a future baseline where the world aggressively reduces GHGs.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

I'm all in, and running for the Santa Clara Valley Water District election this November

As I hinted at a while back, I've thrown my hat in the ring to run for the Santa Clara Valley Water District in the November 2010 election, representing the north county cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Los Gatos, and neighboring unincorporated county land extending up the Santa Cruz Mountains to the county line.  My official campaign website is, and campaign blog at

The Water District is pretty unique, combining responsibility for water supply, flood control, and watershed protection.  Many water districts have been extremely destructive water-grabbers or dam builders - this one is different, but a lot more can be done to make it even better.  It may not sound immediately important, but it does a lot of work, and I've been involved with it as chair and vice-chair of its Environmental Advisory Committee over the years.  The elected position occupies a somewhat-vague middle ground between the all-volunteer, supposedly-limited time commitment of most city councils, and the full-time, paid positions at the county and state level.

So will I win?  I'll exceed the accuracy level of many campaigners by skipping the false certainty and admit that I don't really know.  It would be hard to lose just right now - it's an open seat and I'm the only one who's filed an official Intent to Run.  On the other hand, other people are interested and have their own very good qualifications, so we'll see.  I do plan to run a serious campaign - I'm very certain of the support of the local environmental community and that I have more experience than any other name I've heard with the District.

Coming back to the relevance to this blog - the Water District is very clued in to climate change, but again it's always possible to do more.  I also want to highlight the foolishness of Proposition 23 on the November ballot that would suspend California's premier climate change law, AB 32, on the false pretense that the law has anything to do with high unemployment.  I'll be able to make some useful trouble there.

With the campaign effort taking time, I probably will be posting a bit less here, and some of the posting here will be cross-posted from the campaign blog and may be of less interest to readers who aren't from here.  I even thought of making Backseat Driving my campaign blog, but many of personal rants are unrelated to the job of the Water District, so I'd rather let people concentrate on the central issues while not hiding the rants that are here.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The $100,000 Indecent Proposal is causing the most problems for conservatives right now

Rightwingers at Breitbart are offering $100,000 for any one of the 400 members of a moderate-to-liberal, journalist email list to betray their confidentiality pledges and to turn over the archives, with Breitbart guaranteeing anonymity to the source.  We're on day three and nearing day four with no-one having taken the leap yet.  Kind of a pleasant surprise that game theorists would find inexplicable.

So all four hundred members of the list have so far maintained their integrity, but some conservatives are having a little more trouble.  Sad-sack cases like Breitbart and Althouse try to gasbag their way into claiming that selling out and encouraging people to sell out are ethical things to do.  Others like Instapundit and Transterrestrial have transmogrified way beyond such petty ethical concerns.

I expect we'll soon see a conservative blog reminding the 400 listmembers that each person probably cares deeply about 10 or more people, any one of whom could be in deep financial or medical trouble and need that money.  Shouldn't you be able to find the people who are most worthy, she'll wheedle, and you'll only keep what you need rather than some other idiot taking it all for alcohol and prostitutes.  These people will be implicitly saying that your soul isn't really worth more than $100,000, because they're selling out their own just for the joy watching someone else go down the drain.

Someday I expect the archives will be made public, but we'll see how many other conservatives first fail the test that they think is being placed just on the Journolist members.

(Kudos btw to The Corner of all places for acknowledging the ethical problem, if somewhat vaguely.)