Monday, September 30, 2013

Fifteen years later, Patrick Michaels finally makes a bet on climate change

Via Tamino, I learned of a not particularly large, $250 bet with Scott Supak over whether there will be statistically significant warming in 25 years starting in 1997 (details posted at Roy Spencer's blog).

This is an update to a bet offer that Michaels' newsletter made in 1998 for a 10 year period. James Annan learned of that offer in 2005 and tried to accept, but the new editor Chip Knappenberger pulled a Lindzen (defined here) and declined to keep that bet. Seems like a pretty good bet for Scott despite starting in the 1997-1998 El Nino, some uncertainty about defining statistical signficance, and despite using HADCRUT which as I understand it leaves out the rapidly-warming high Arctic.

I btw have my own series of bets with up to $9,000 on the line, starting with 2007 five-year average and ending with 2017, 2022, and 2027 five-year averages. So far it's not going well for me, but it's early days. Best case scenario is at the end of 2029, I've lost my shirt. Worst case scenario is I've won every bet. Almost-worst case scenario is that statistical or a real temporary lull cost me on the 10-year bet (which will slow down efforts to address the problem) while I win on the 20.

Dexter deteriorated because breaking good isn't very interesting

(Spoilers for Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Deadwood)

Guess my loss of interest in Dexter was justified as that series limps to its finale. I stopped watching in the third season because Dexter became less interesting as he evolved into someone less creepy and more normal, and according to the link that problem has only continued. The link contrasts Dexter to Breaking Bad, whose lead character has become worse as the show has become even better.

For another great show with a similar problem in the character arc, look at Deadwood. One of my favorite shows ever, but I didn't like Al Swearengen's improved moral character. They fixed that in the finale, though. We'll see what happens with Dexter.

Any other good ambiguous shows out there?

The one weird trick missing from coverage of carbon emission rules for new power plants

Don't know how often I'll get away with a semi-bogus title like the one above, but I'll use it while I can.

Anyway, draft rules from last year for new plants have been revised without too much weakening. New gas plants with newest technology won't have trouble meeting limits, while the best coal plants, barring some breakthrough, will likely have to sequester about 40% of their emissions.

So the one weird trick that people forget is this is not a free market, it's a regulated utility market, so reactions between price and market have intermediaries. While the assumption is likely correct that virtually no coal plants would've been built anyway, to the extent that assumption changes for political reasons, this proposal means that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) will be required. The issue of passing on sequestration costs in a regulated utility arose previously:

[One utility decided on a] recent deferral of a large-scale CCS retrofit demonstration project on one of its coal-fired power plants because the State’s utility regulators would not approve CCS without a regulatory requirement to reduce CO2.

This rule makes CCS slightly more possible, and there are four plants currently being constructed with CCS with special financial help, but this rule could assist these or similar plants.

With that weird trick out of the way, some other thoughts

- to litigate, the fossil fuel industry has to show it has standing to sue, and that could be an issue. Standing requires injury. If no coal plants were going to be built anyway, where's the injury? Once again, a conservative legal technique designed to cripple the law might have potential blowback against the conservatives.

- when the litigation happens, I have no idea of the maximum time it will take to finish, but it's pretty safe to say at least a year to happen, likely much longer than that. I believe these cases go direct to appellate courts, but from there they can request whether the Supreme Court would consider a further appeal.

- in a bit of irony for coal, their fight against cap-and-trade is coming back to bite them as far as new plants are concerned. New coal will have to reduce carbon by about 40%. I expect that if they have to sequester 40%, then sequestering 80% wouldn't have been hard, and if cap and trade had been in place, they could've sold the extra amount to existing plants.

UPDATE:  ironic timing - Norway is closing down its massive CCS project amid criticism and cost overruns. This keeps happening to CCS systems. Solar power has a mix of good news and bad news, but CCS seems to only have bad news. This will have to change if it's going to play an important role in the future.

Storms crashing on peoples' heads can fill some information deficits on climate

A study of Rutgers University students testing their automatic attitude preferences for environmental politicians versus anti-tax politicians found a significant shift to the environmental candidate after Hurricanes Irene and Sandy (full article behind paywall). Physical evidence literally hitting you in the face may satisfy the information deficit. Hopefully someone can check on Colorado in a little while.

I'm pretty certain that in 50 years, the number of climate deniers will be similar to the number of Flat Earthers no matter how well or poorly we communicate the issue. Objective reality has a role to play. The issue is how much sooner than 50 years  from now we can get people to take required action.

Following up on Eli's post on the Kahan paper, I have a thought experiment to follow up Kahan's study:  what if immediately after the subjects had completed the study, the researchers explained to them how the math actually works and then asked them if they wanted to revise their answers? It seems highly likely there would be a tremendous shift to the correct answer (and if the low numeracy people didn't shift, that tends to support Michael Tobis' view). This result would support the information deficit model. It's questionable how closely this resembles what happens in the real world, but the same could be said about Kahan's setup.

Obviously framing and psychological identity play a role in getting us to confront climate change soon, but so does the science, and so does the exposure of bad arguments used to deny the science.
Just a public service announcement for this climate divestment discussion. I'll do my best to make it, probably just for the 18th. If you're going, drop a comment.

Inside the Third Reich

I had planned to review two memoirs, Ulysses Grant and Albert Speer, but it's just been too long to say anything coherent about Grant's book other than it's well worth reading and escaped from copyright. Both books are well-written which is the key thing, much more so than honesty or historical value. It relates to my guess as to why I prefer Roy Spencer over RPJr. despite Roy being even more wrong:  Roy's a good writer.

To finish up with Grant, he's probably not worth reading though if you don't like military history. His account of the Mexican-American War, where he served with Robert E Lee, filled a substantial gap in my own knowledge. He never discusses his mostly-failed administration, which is unfortunate. He does put the war criminal/racist-for-his-time Nathan Forrest in his place. More than worth the price.

As is Speer's memoir about his life as one of Hitler's top officials and a potential heir, although the need to be cautious about viewpoint for any autobiography goes into overtime for the repentant Nazi. I have an amateur interest in World War II and in psychopaths, so a person who knew Hitler well could have an interesting story. My amateur guess after reading this and other accounts is that Hitler wasn't a psychopath, or at least not in all respects. Just a monster. His inability to form personal bonds seems psychopathic, but his deep emotional currents don't match the profile, nor his kindness to animals.

The missing element from Speer's account is what made Hitler so electrifying and dominant. Speer himself was clearly under Hitler's thumb for many years but doesn't make you really feel why that was so, and Hitler's many flaws weren't all that hidden, even early on. I didn't realize how boring the man was. The whole concept of charisma is mysterious to me, a poorly-defined, quasi-supernatural characteristic that makes me skeptical. Maybe it's a combination of hypnotic skills at a distance and pheromones up close. Anyway, Speer doesn't help clarify it.

It's pretty clear I'm not going to write the definitive review of WWII, Hitler, or even Speer, so I'll just recommend the book, and after the jump I'll just call out a few interesting points:

(click here for the full post)

Dear Bjorn: if you spend money to reduce a problem and the problem's reduced, that doesn't magically mean the problem reduced itself

One piece of Lomborg's alleged evidence that climate change hasn't produced extreme weather:  "Damage from flooding in the United States has declined from 0.2 percent of gross domestic product in 1940 to less than 0.05 percent today."

I vaguely remembered seeing this lame argument before, and after I clicked his source link I saw a familiar piece of liver. Should've guessed.

The problem with this argument is that the vast majority of money spent on flood control activities happened after 1940, and the damage-reduction effect of those flood control expenditures is incremental (flood control projects typically last 30-50 years, and rebuilding is cheaper than the original building). Extreme storm precipitation could get worse and the damage could still decrease, if you put in some effort at flood control. There's no accounting in the data set for the cost of that effort.

That's only one of many problems with Lomborg, but it's in my bailiwick so I had to call it out. And btw, the data doesn't include Sandy damages (the NOAA flood loss data set ended in September 2012), so that also might end up being a disturbance in the Force of the trend line.

California carbon caps will overcome challenges; California climate polling has good news

California in the next half-decade will face a similar challenge the European carbon market faced, but with a better outcome and better reason for it.

Future emissions are now projected to be lower than anticipated under the cap and trade program, and with many allocations given freely, the price of allocations to be auctioned could have been at risk. However, unlike the European system, California included a price floor. That floor increases over time, as does the percentage of allocations auctioned instead of those wasted on giveaways. These steps together with a gradual tightening of the overall cap will keep the market functioning. This is happening in large part just because the Europeans went first and we learned from them. The European system could be improved, as could California's, but having problems that others learn from doesn't make their system a failure.

One reason why emission projects are low is that cap-and-trade is only one part of California's system to reducing emissions. Per the link above, regulations affecting renewable power and carbon fuel standards are eating into overall emission levels. In effect, the system has a certain redundancy with cap-and-trade backing up other components - again, that's not a showing of weakness. I don't know if it's the policy-optimal design, but it beats nothing, regardless of Naomi Klein may have to say.

Maybe in a few years we'll have the political willpower to enact improvements. A recent poll showed 79% of Californians think global warming is happening. Of them, 71% are very sure or extremely sure it's happening (p. 20). I don't like how they did the follow-up question of what's causing the warming (p. 11), however. They asked all respondents to assume warming was happening and then asked whether humans or nature are the cause. They should've asked only the ones who accept it as happening, so we can see what percent believe there's a problem and humans are the cause, as they'd be likely supporters of actions to address climate. It's a shame that only 55% think there's a scientific consensus (p. 22) - seems like there's an information deficit among those who should be receptive to the concept that a strong consensus exists out there in support of their own beliefs.

Other datapoints:  some 68% support more renewable power even if it costs the average family $100/year, and the public is evenly split on fracking (p. 37). I was really hoping for age breakdowns so I could chortle, but that wasn't provided.

I generally take specific poll numbers with a grain of salt, but trends over time seem more credible. Hopefully they'll repeat the poll over the next few years.

What Joe Romm said about Naomi Klein's 'you're with me or you're against the planet' argument

That is all.

So what happens after the second and third major uses of chemical weapons by Assad?

UPDATE:  I agree with Josh Marshall that turning over the chemical weapons for destruction is fine as an alternative, and IMO much better than a strike. If Assad only plays along for a while and then refuses, we could reassess whether to strike then or wait for him to use them again.

I'm glad that Obama is going to Congress, and he obviously shouldn't move ahead if Congress doesn't pass the resolution. The US moves too slowly on domestic matters. We have at times like World War II, Libya, and Syria itself, also moved too slowly on military involvement overseas. The more typical pattern though is for military involvement happening too quickly and on false pretenses. Getting Congress involved is a good idea in the long run, even if it results this time around in the mistake of tying Obama's hands. Waiting so that we can go from 97% sure of what happened to 99%+ sure is also a good idea.

Lots of stupid arguments being made on both sides. The antis say that anything short of overthrowing Assad is a failure as a deterrent and that a military strike will harm domestic programs at home. The pros say that failure to strike puts the US in immediate danger, and continue with the old chestnut of conflating chemical weapons with nuclear weapons as "weapons of mass destruction." The antis make sadly laughable claims that diplomacy is going to do anything about chemical weapons or about the problems in the Syrian opposition (Rep. Chris Smith says a military strike won't deter Assad but Smith's proposal to eventually set up a war crimes tribunal may help). I heard another Republican Congressman criticize Obama for not attacking when the previous, ambiguous chemical weapons uses occurred, and then say he'd vote against authorization.

The key issue is that the chemical weapons use and what to do about Syria overall are separate issues, despite the desire of extremists like McCain to tie them together. Obama seems to understand that. A reaction by the US and France to the chemical weapons use, either a military or non-military reaction, would succeed if it leaves Syrian decisionmakers thinking that doing it again would not be in their best interest (or if it really was just a mistake, then realize they had to get their system under control). I just can't think of a non-military reaction that has that effect.

I think it's not ridiculous to argue that the outside world should do nothing (sorry, do diplomacy only) after further chemical weapons attacks - we can't solve all the world's problems - but I think on balance it's a bad argument. I'm guessing that if the authorization goes down, Obama will just wait for further attacks, and then most likely strike without asking Congress (even though he should ask Congress).

Yes, the US is being hugely hypocritical in opposing Assad while doing nothing elsewhere, like Bahrain. That's not a reason to do nothing but instead a reason to fix our act in Bahrain.

For those who think the current bad news in Libya proves our involvement there was a mistake, my bet offer is still open, and updated.

More on plug-in v gas engine infrastructure

My post in August suggested that as plug-in hybrid and EV sales rise to several percentage points and more of market share, we'll start to see incremental degradation of the societal infrastructure supporting gas engines, mainly a loss of gas stations and car maintenance shops. I argued that range anxiety and "range irritation" will be an issue for gas engine vehicles in some urban areas within a decade or so.

Some pushback happened in comments over whether gas engine range anxiety will really be an issue and when it might occur. James Wimberley correctly points out that the current average age of vehicles is 11 years for a lifespan of 20 years, not 10 years as I said. Wiki says that's an increase from 9.4 year average in 2007 which suggests it may lower some as the economy improves. More importantly, wiki says "many Americans own three or more vehicles. The low marginal cost of registering and insuring additional older vehicles means many vehicles that are rarely used are still given full weight in the statistics." What we care about is more likely to be the median age of the vehicle that gets median usage. Still, I agree that it will take more than five years for that median vehicle to reflect current year market share.

On range anxiety, I did some unscientific (yes I know) checking around on Google Maps of two areas I know pretty well - South San Francisco Bay area and upstate New York. You have to get out to the more distant suburbs before gas station density really starts dropping and range anxiety seems more likely. In the exurbs, you usually travel on arterials where the gas stations are located, and people choosing to live in exurbs tend to accept lots of driving as part of the tradeoffs they're making.

Still, not every trip in exurbia is a long one that will pass by a convenient gas station. And while other people may be perfect, I certainly have let the gas tank get low enough to be more than a little anxious, even in the more urban-ish area where I live. Any decrease in gas station density could intensify that.

I had previously suggested a five mile trip just to get gas as problematic, but there's nothing magical about that number. While gas engine range irritation is probably more important, I still think range anxiety complaints will happen somewhere within a decade.

Range irritation, which I'd define as annoyance at the time spent filling up and maintaining gas engine vehicles, is the main issue. Driving even a quarter mile in heavy traffic can take time and that will get worse as station density decreases/population density increases. Drivers can plan their gas trips to avoid busy traffic, but that puts them in the same planning constraint situation that EV drivers face. When plug-ins can charge both at home and wherever they normally drive to, they're the more convenient vehicle.

In related news, plug-ins captured 6% of the August market share in Norway, presumably even more than that in Oslo. Significant financial incentives in Norway balance out the negative externalities from gas engines. Maybe Oslo will be the first place where the infrastructure favors plug-ins over gas.

In less cheerful news, Australian voters look likely to have scrapped their carbon tax on the most polluting businesses. Instead they'll have taxpayer tributes to the same businesses in return for reducing the harm they're causing to Australia and the world. While this was likely a secondary issue in the election, I think it does indicate the reason why it's helpful to make political compromises in order to get broader support for climate solutions.

Albert Speer's memoirs on Nazis rejecting gas warfare

Recently finished Speer's memoir, Inside the Third Reich. I'll have my own comments on the chemical weapons issue, but in case they're useless, I'll separate out a piece of history from late 1944 (at pp. 413-414 of the paperback):
Hitler, to be sure, had always rejected gas warfare; but now he hinted at a situation conference in headquarters that the use of gas might stop the advance of the Soviet troops. He went on with vague speculations that the West would accept gas warfare against the East because at this stage of the war the British and American governments had an interest in stopping the Russian advance. When no one at the situation conference spoke up in agreement, Hitler did not return to the subject. 
Undoubtedly the generals feared the unpredictable consequences.

Hitler, btw, had been temporarily blinded in World War I from a British gas attack.

Cultural cognition model versus "powerful groups are lying" model

Fair amount of Twitter discussion of a Dan Kahan paper setting up a lab battle between information deficit as explaining people's policy misunderstandings (Science Comprehension Thesis or "SCT") versus a psychological reaction to facts that conflict or confirm with personal and group ideology (Identity-protective Cognition Thesis or "ICT"). Kahan et al. found that people with better numerical ability applied that ability when the conclusions favored their ideology and sometimes didn't when the conclusions were problematic for them. This has the effect of increasing political polarization for people with higher numerical ability, which he says shows ICT as better explaining the effect than SCT. Chris Mooney has a decent writeup here.

With that throat-clearing done, the main issue is what Steve Bloom and Michael Mann said, in effect that the Powerful Groups Are Lying (PGAL) model better explains why the public has problems accepting climate science. Some organizations and people are lying and acting in bad faith, feeding into and creating the cultural identity that Kahan researches. My own suspicion that climate deniers are cozying up to evolution deniers is a conscious effort to snuff the Creation Care evangelical movement and preserve a conservative religious group identity, so this identity that Kahan talks about isn't a fixed thing - it's manipulated.

Secondary to all that, Mooney overplays it when he asks whether the Kahan paper will "slay the 'deficit model' once and for all." The study showed that highly numerate people were better than innumerate ones at understanding a problem, even when that understanding conflicted with their group identity. In the paper, Kahan says (p. 25):
ICT predicts that more numerate individuals will use that ability opportunistically in a manner geared to promoting their interest in forming and persisting in identity-protective beliefs.
The results in the experiment suggest that high-Numeracy partisans did exactly that in the gun-ban conditions. 
That seems to be either wrong or sloppy writing because the highly numerate people did better despite the group identity cost, presumably by using their better skills. The general argument in the paper is fine that polarization increases - both groups do better at high numeracy but one will do far better than the other when it reinforces their identity. If both improve then the deficit model isn't slain.

Mapping this directly to climate change, it suggests that both reasonably-educated conservatives and liberals will benefit from more science education on climate, although it will penetrate better with liberals. The real need, though, is for the PGAL effort to stop manipulating group identity and force-feeding disinformation.

Kahan's right though when he says "people, once predisposed, misinform themselves, summoning all their reason." That may be a common flaw, but it's still a moral flaw. The disinformers who feed this weakness are the crack dealers of politics.

I should also say not all the deniers know they're lying, and from my conversations with some of them I'm sure they believe what they're saying. Others though are a different story.