Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Denialist taxonomy

Continuing a discussion in the previous post's comments, I think it's helpful to come up with categories of denialists. The overall point is to use a word that's distinguishable from skeptic - a skeptic displays rational doubt, while a denialist displays irrational or insincere doubt ranging to certain disbelief.

(This is my simplified and somewhat different version of John Mashey's Reasons for Anti-Science, well worth reading.)
  • True Believer: sincerely believes each subsidiary argument that he (yes, he) uses. Computers climate models don't work, all the instrumental record compilations don't work, no proxy for paleotemperature works, satellite records are too short, who would trust weather balloon data, and physics is too tricky.
  • Kitchen Sinker: will asset subsidiary claims that the denialist doesn't necessarily believe, while believing the overall conclusion that anthropogenic global warming is a hoax. More ethical variants of Kitchen Sinkers will merely "note" arguments that support their side while not overtly stating their belief in those arguments.
  • Cure Evader: these ones think the cure is worse than the disease, but instead of making that argument they claim that there is no disease. They may or may not believe that the disease exists, but what really motivates them is their certainty that the cure is a mistake.
  • Gamer: they're not really concerned with the truth or falsity of the subsidiary argument or broader issue, or with the broader effect that their position has, but with fighting the game for themselves or possibly their side. I'm pretty sure this describes Steve Milloy of Junk Science, and maybe Marc Morano as well.
Overlays of contrarian personalities, Dunning-Kruger (overconfidence in self expertise, underconfidence in others), ideological disbelief in inconvenient facts, retired-professor-disease, and economic interests for a small percentage can all influence the above.

I'd also emphasize Locked-In-Syndrome, which may be my one semi-original contribution to this study. A new hypothesis appears with only a small amount of evidence, and some people for any of the above reasons come out against it. They've started the process of being Locked In, where it's easier for them to reject each new piece of evidence than it is to reject their belief structure. This might be why science sometime proceeds one funeral at a time.

And then, just to screw up everything I've said so far, is my tendency to label people as "true skeptics" and not denialists if they're willing to put their money where their mouths are and bet over climate change. The idea is the person has shown sincerity and depth of commitment to their position by putting skin in the game. But the true skeptic could be just as irrationally wrong as a True Believer, and a True Believer just as sincere as a true skeptic.

In conclusion, I am inconsistent and contradictory in terminology - but only somewhat so! Maybe the "true skeptic" label is just an indication of respect for betting opponents. Anyway, I'm open to alternative terminology that distinguishes false skepticism form the worthwhile version.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

American Civil War denialism

Along with all the other forms of denialism, here in the US we have a large fraction of political conservatives who deny that our Civil War was primarily or even partially about slavery in the South. You can see it in this Krugman post that pointed out the obvious, and some of the comments that still couldn't see the obvious. Here's one by Hal Horvath:

I think I’ll stick to the well-known scenario: Lincoln started the war for the public reason: to preserve the Union, and only changed the primary reason much later, in order to justify the bloodshed and uplift the nation.

Yes, Lincoln used sneaky Jedi mind tricks to start the war by making the Confederates attack Fort Sumter.

Contrary to Horvath, both pro- and anti-slavery forces in the US prior to the Civil War believed that slavery had to expand to new states in the West in order for it and the Southern Way of Life to survive. Lincoln and the Republicans opposed expansion, and that was enough for some Southern states to secede when Lincoln won the presidency. More at wiki for those who care.

Add another denialism to the list. It would be interesting to see how many denialist beliefs can be found in a single person.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Environmental Defense's take on Copenhagen

Environmental Defense has its Insider podcasts several times a year, a conference-call briefing of major donors on the climate issues that they later put online. They recently did one on Copenhagen. Some interesting points:

They think whatever monitoring protocol developed in future US climate legislation will become the international standard, apparently because the size of the market will be so large in the US that it will be easier for other nations to just match it.

They're pushing for immediate changes in the Kyoto Clean Development Mechanism, and no longer support offsets under the current CDM for India and China. I've thought some anti-offset and anti-CDM criticisms were overblown, but I've also considered Environmental Defense a supporter of both. If they're backing off, that's meaningful (tho they didn't reject a new and improved offset system).

The whole REDD anti-deforestation thing made significant progress but still wasn't completely finished. I think this issue is a policy sweet spot - India and China don't want deforestation to emit CO2 that they'd rather be able to, the developed world also looks for ways to reduce emissions, and the countries with the forests should be happy to be bought off. For those who are anti-offsets however, please note that this is basically an offset.

Basic impression is of incremental progress, not collapse. Whether you see that as a failure depends on your expectation, I guess.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Right imitates left in a good way (if you're on the left)

One of the few things that conservatives did better than progressives in the US was to welcome converts. On the left, it seemed that anyone repudiating their past just got criticized for their past, while people on the right loved conversion stories.

But now, following Representative Parker Griffith's party switch from Democratic to Republican, the conservatives are trying to make life as difficult for him as possible. Yes, the switch is minor bad news for the Dems, although it's part of the long history of conservative Southern congressional seats switching to the Republican party. The consolation for the left is the hostile reaction Griffith is getting on the right, and what it says about the insularity of the conservative movement.

On a related note, climate denialists still seem to love a good conversion story, something like "I used to believe in global warming, but then I heard the excellent points raised by Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck and now know the truth." I translate that as really meaning "I used to pay no attention to global warming and was only vaguely aware of the issue. When I finally became more interested in my conservative political values, I started paying attention more, but only to factoids that reinforce my conservativism, and global warming doesn't fit what I would like to believe." Maybe they'll start hating the converts too as their circle shrinks.

Unrelated bonus blogging - recently watched two good movies, The Descent and Out of the Past. Descent was a good horror flick, with an all-female cast and some technically accurate rock-climbing (ignoring that the skill required is professional level, not something amateurs could do). Out of the Past was a great 1947 film noir with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas at the beginning of their careers. Also watched Oldboy - I've gotten used to violence in films over the years, but that was just too harrowing for me.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The China-Copenhagen Syndrome

The Guardian reports that China was responsible for making Copenhagen much less comprehensive than it could have been, while avoiding any public responsibility for it. This sounds plausible to me - they take global warming seriously there, with energy efficiency, carbon sequestration, renewable power, and nuclear power all getting significant investment, while at the same time pumping out as many coal plants as possible. Coal power plants are meant to run for 30 years or more. China wants to keep its options open.

Maybe this has something to do with the resistance to China's call for reparations - why write a climate-related check to a country that is screwing up attempts to address climate. I'm sympathetic to this resistance regarding China, whose per-capita emissions may be one third of the US but are still far too high. Other countries, however, have done far less to increase CO2 concentrations, and to tell them that we get the benefit of polluting while they have to hold back the same as we do isn't going to cut it.

Matt Yglesias misses the point by apparently believing climate debt presents a binary choice of blank checks for dictators, or doing nothing to rectify past emissions (his choice). I think we can be a little more subtle than that.

And while I'm being cranky, the New York Times misses the point on focusing on safety concerns for China's nuclear expansion by neglecting the alternative - even more coal plants. Coal pollution kills thousands each year here in the US - I can't imagine the numbers in China. A nuclear meltdown every couple decades would kill far fewer people. I'm not a huge fan of nukes due to costs, nuclear weapons proliferation, exposure to terrorism and (in the US) restriction on legal liability, but safety isn't an issue.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Admin note: comments are dead. Long live the comments!

The Haloscan-powered comments to this blog are trying to switch me to an "upgrade", and I think I'll switch to Blogger-powered ones instead. I think it will work better, with the downside that I think I'll lose all the old comments. I've got a file with all old comments that are a pain to access, but will keep them alive in some form on my computer. If you want any of your insightful comments saved for yourself, go to old posts and get them while you can - I won't be able to keep them online for more than a week or so.

I will copy a few of the longer comment threads and more recent comments into Blogger. There will be some experimenting in terms of spam prevention. Please bear with me, and leave comments here or send me an email if something's screwed up.

We'll see what happens....

Monday, December 21, 2009

I very much wish this wasn't my 1,000th post: Neil Kelly, age 55, RIP

I started this blog in April 2004, and now my 1,000th post is about the death of a friend last week, my climbing partner Neil Kelly, killed in a car accident on his way to work.

This blog isn't generally about personal events, but I just want to recognize Neil as a self-made man in a very different sense from what you usually hear in news reports about billionaires. Neil had a more tumultuous life as a younger man long before I knew him, but from that he constructed a stable and happy life for himself and everyone who was part of it - his wife Colleen, their kids, and of course all his many friends and colleagues. I think it's a far more unusual accomplishment than sacrificing everything for the sake of making a lot of money.

We have his black-and-white photograph of bristlecone pines from the White Mountains in our condo, and also here is the monstrous-sized treadmill that Neil, another friend and I scraped through the hall, up the stairs, and around various twists into the bedroom. And I shouldn't omit what a good climbing partner he was - very safe, and always encouraging.

He was part of our lives and will be missed.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Joy Behar should debate Marc Morano

(I'm expanding this from a comment I left on a Chris Mooney thread on how to deal with Morano.)

A while back I had a random radio moment where I listened to someone I'd never heard before, Joy Behar, take apart the evil and smart creationist/denialist, Ann Coulter. Behar is one of a number of talking heads that CNN has - she's a liberal but seems primarily interested in pop culture and only secondarily in politics.

Unfortunately I can't find the clip online, but Behar did two things very effectively that were the exact opposite of what I would've done. First, she kept throwing a rapid-fire variety of attacks at Coulter, barely responding to Coulter's evasions before taking up a new attack . By contrast, I would've stuck to one narrow subject to try and prove beyond a doubt that I was right and that Coulter/Morano was wrong. Behar has instead found her own response to the Gish Gallop, (the "Behar Canter"?), simply by attacking repeatedly but truthfully, and beating the other side at their own game.

Second, Behar's attacks were all directed at Coulter's side and Coulter's political allies, but never at Coulter herself. This contrasts to my thinking that debating someone like a Lomborg or a Lott is a chance to focus like a laser on all his misrepresentations, and get him the reputation he deserves. Behar instead keeps audience's sympathy by avoiding a "mean" attack on Coulter herself. She might have also flummoxed Coulter a little more because Coulter wouldn't be as familiar with lies said by her allies as she would be with her own lies. (Update: maybe I should clarify that the exchange Behar had with Coulter wasn't about climate, but it was still relevant.)

Just an impression, anyway, but maybe worth copying. Behar couldn't do a long debate alone against Morano without knowing more about climate, but she could take him on her show for a five-minute segment. I'd like to see that, which is the only publicity I've ever wished for Morano. I might even email my suggestion to Behar.

Just to finish off, here's the alternate advice I suggested at Chris Mooney's for debating Morano: "the debate be solely about the following: 'Resolved, the items posted on a Climate Depot for the week of [pick one week randomly] were mostly accurate.' The only way to counter the Gish Gallop is to nail Morano down to a record. Even a week might have too many posts to conclusively prove him to be full of frass, so a shorter period might be needed."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Does Gore's speech mean I'm out $333??????

I've been taught by skeptics that the only thing that matters in the climate change debate is how it affects me. I've bet Joe Romm $333 that the Arctic will NOT be 90% ice-free before 2020, while Gore's saying new data shows it might happen in 2013. Do I need to start socking my pennies away?

It's worth noting that the actual prediction is for 80% loss (as stated at the link, Gore messed it up slightly), but if we do hit 80% by 2013, then 90% isn't that far away. Still, I think I'm on the winning side. Mark Serreze, who's been somewhat aggressive on predicting ice loss, is sticking with 2030. OTOH, Serreze isn't dismissive of the prediction, which is a little scary for my pocketbook, and a lot scarier by showing that 2013 is not crank-level over-alarmism. I'd guess the odds are in my favor still, but not as much as before.

On to climate news almost as important as my finances: Exxon for the first time is hedging against a climate-changed future, and doing it big time with the $41 billion purchase of XTO, a natural gas company. Other oil companies have taken similar actions with renewable power investments, while natural gas is an important bridging fuel over the next few decades.

Hopefully this means less resistance by Exxon to greenhouse gas regulation. Skeptics might say that the company will now game the rents in public legislation and has nothing to do with Exxon's evaluation of climate reaility. I think if they can afford $41 billion to adjust to legislation, they could've afforded $100 thousand or so to come up with an alternative climate model that realistically disputes warming, if one could've been constructed. My guess is they're adjusting to scientific reality, somewhat.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A WISE result could bring extrasolar exploration in this century

2010 looks to be a boring year in space, at least for space buffs like me who want eye candy.Cassini will continue to do its amazing thing, but that's been going on for a while. Same with theMars Rovers. We'll find out in a few weeks if Phoenix will have survived the Martian Arctic winter, which would be cool, but a stationary lander doesn't bring much in the way of new images.

Mars Science Laboratory was to be the big thing in 2010, but they blew the deadline along with the budget, and now it's delayed to 2012.

On the bright side, the Kepler space telescope should finally put out some results on its search for extrasolar planets. It's not eye candy, and it won't be until later that it finds how many Earth-sized planets are in Earth-sized orbits around stars, but next year we'll finally get some statistically-valid information on the percentage of stars with planets in short-period orbits.

And then there's WISE, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, a space telescope that launched yesterday. Other telescopes are more sensitive for detecting cold objects in space, but they can view only tiny parts of the sky, while WISE will survey the entire sky. That means it could find brown dwarfs (massive planets/failed stars) or stray gas giant planets that are closer to our solar system than the Centauri star system, the closest known stars that are four light years away.

If WISE finds a brown dwarf within .5 light years or less, I think it's conceivable that a robotic mission to explore it could be launched and arrive there in this century. If aerocapturetechnology gets sufficiently developed, it might even go into orbit instead of being a flyby.

Not exactly a mission to another star, but pretty close.

UPDATE: Cool Cassini pic of sunlight on a lake on Titan. No one has ever seen sunlight on a lake anyplace besides Earth, until this picture was taken. I guess we will have some eye candy in 2010.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

When contrarianism is and isn't good

Some examples:

A contrarian business venture: excellent! May a thousand business flowers bloom! If you think Stirling engines are the wave of the future, or horse buggies, or private space planes, and want to sink your money into it, well, you go, girl! (Or guy.) Of course, most new businesses fail, even the ones that aren't trying to break the mold, but the businesses that make it help move progress forward.

A contrarian business venture financed with my money: well, hold your horses, there. Now we're talking about something with a potential downside. I'd have to be incredibly convinced before I'd bet my money that the rest of the business world is wrong. And I'd still be likely making a mistake in investing.

A piece of contrarian scientific research: excellent! May a thousand scientific research avenues bloom! Why bother proving something that science has long suspected but not firmly proven, when you can overturn your entire field instead. Again, it could be a waste of your time and someone's research money to attempt to prove something that 90% or more of the world's experts think is wrong, but Galileos do come along every few centuries - maybe it's your turn!

(Hypothetically) doing my thesis to prove contrarian science: you can probably figure out where this is going.

I'm going to speed this up.

Contrarian investment firms and contrarian scientific careers: this is a way to spread your contrarian bets. You can be wrong lots of time and score big the few times you're right. Whether it's really the best long-term strategy is another question. I think it might work a little better for investment firms than for a single scientist, because the firms can make a lot more bets than a scientist can do research projects.

Betting your nation/planet on a single contrarian economic or scientific policy: shall we switch the country to the gold standard? I'm sure there are a handful of economist PhD.s out there who say this is a good idea and "the only way to avoid the imminent economic collapse". Same question of whether we ignore the vast majority of scientists on climate and follow the few, allegedly-brilliant iconoclasts who say differently. When there's no way to spread your bets, at least not at any one time,* betting the farm on the tiny minority position is about as smart as betting the farm usually is.


This was intended to be my last followup to the Superfreakonomics issue, and generally on why contrarian policy choices, done not as an experiment but as an all-out commitment, are incredibly risky. Also relevant to a wiki discussion on whether describing Richard Lindzen as a contrarian is somehow a huge slur against him, as opposed to simply describing his career strategy and possibly his temperament.

*There is the option of changing your policy choice at a later date. This is another reason for skeptics to lighten up - they seem to be convinced they're going to be proven right in less than a decade. Any economic damage they see after 2020 from reducing pollution won't happen - the policies will have changed, and we'll have plenty of money to build statues in their honor.

Friday, December 11, 2009

John Bolton leads us on the path to peace

Prophets are rarely recognized in their own country, but it's even more rare for a prophet to not recognize himself.

John Bolton criticized Obama's call for reducing international violence, saying
You know, homo sapiens are hard-wired for violent conflict, and we’re not going to eliminate violent conflict until homo sapiens ceases to exist as a separate species.
But Bolton did a great job himself of avoiding violent conflict as a young man. If everyone else followed the path of Bolton and Limbaugh, the world would truly be a peaceful pace.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

More snows of San Francisco Bay

We're going on five days now of snow in the high-elevation hills above San Francisco Bay. We've got the possibility of more snow on the way, so some of this snow could last for two weeks.

Thought I'd take advantage of this to recycle two posts: first, on how the Bay Area and anywhere else with intermittent snowfall will see some significant effects of climate change as we go from a few snowfalls per year to a few snowfalls per decade. In addition to what I wrote before, I'll just add the aesthetic impact: hills turn into mountains when their top halves are snow-covered. It'll be sad to have that happen less often.

And second, a post on how we'll see increased flooding because winter storms that would've stored some of their precipitation as snowfall at higher elevations will be more likely to drop it all as rain, all at the same time. I think it should be possible to model this effect quantitatively.

UPDATE: bonus blogging - GingkoGate is now breaking in the comments at Jules' and James' blog. They won't get away with it.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Why hasn't the fossil fuel industry created a pro-skeptic climate model?

According to the denialists, the existing climate models can conclude whatever the designers want them to conclude: a fine tuning here and there, and presto, dangerous warming in the future, but only because the modeller wanted that conclusion.

So my question: why haven't skeptics produced computer models that support their own conclusion, models showing that increasing CO2 and other greenhouse gases will have minimal effects? It certainly isn't beyond their financial capability to do it, even as a confidential exercise they could try first before unveiling it to the world.

One possible reason is that every coal and oil corporation in the world realizes they could do this, but they understand that computer climate modeling is not good science, and they are simply too ethical to do something like that.

I was going to go on and speculate about other reasons for the lack of skeptic models, but I think the one I just mentioned is really makes a great deal of sense and must be the reason.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Afghanistan's a mistake and I hope it works

After years of my saying that we should get out of Iraq and into Afghanistan, I'm now saying that putting the extra 30,000 troops in is a mistake. I'm ambivalent about my position, but I think a deeply corrupt, unpopular regime that is about as illegitimate as the Iranian one isn't going to be a good partner in nation-building.

OTOH, a Taliban reconquest is unacceptable too. I think the best option is to wait out the Karzai government, keeping it alive and in power in the major Afghani cities at the lowest cost in blood and treasure, until a competent government is in place. Kind of like the Soviet strategy in Afghanistan - hardly the greatest selling point, but as Matt Yglesias points out, we've got advantages that the Soviets didn't.

While I don't usually have a high opinion of Joe Biden, he had a great point that we're focusing on the wrong country by putting 95% of our money into Afghanistan relative to Pakistan. If minimizing our effort in Afghanistan could redirect some of it to Pakistan, all the better.

The long-term solution for Pakistan, as far as I can tell, is development (same answer I had before). Not a quick solution, but maybe Pakistani society will look at how India is doing so much better than they are, and get inspired/threatened enough to make a change.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Volokh Correction #26: plenty of proxies don't use tree ring reconstruction

Jim Lindgren, normally one of the non-ridiculous posters at Volokh, screws up with a long quotation of someone else that begins

The bristlecone pines that created the shape of the Hockey Stick graph are used in nearly every millennial temperature reconstruction around today....

Of course, RealClimate shows three reconstructions from the year 1600 or earlier without bristlecones or any other tree rings, and multiple other reconstructions without the particular Yamal tree rings that Lindgren is now going on about. (Update: above sentence corrected from four reconstructions starting in 1500, my thanks to Glen in comments for spotting this.) I haven't followed the Yamal controversy that closely except to know that most people who have think it's nonsense. Maybe there's something new here, but I doubt it. (It appears to be all about the data not being available, refuted at Deltoid two months ago.)

Lindgren is pumping out the usual nonsense (by implication, not directly) that the climate consensus is based on a single piece of information, and that info is corrupt. He needs to get his head on straight before accusing other researchers of being ethically-challenged.

Lindgren earned a lot of credit by taking on his fellow conservative, the ethically-challenged John Lott. He's used up a bit of that credit now.

UPDATE: and Lindgren's repost about false Australian temperature data is, of course, wrong.

Friday, December 04, 2009

My Freedom of Information-type work and relation to the hacked emails

My legal work in the past has included a fair amount of activity regarding the California state equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, called the Public Records Act. The PRA borrows heavily from FOIA, so I knew FOIA pretty well (I'm not current on latest developments). I know squat about the British version of FOI, other than it's relatively new, so many vague aspects may not have been resolved yet through legal interpretations.

I've both filed PRA requests and responded to them, working on behalf of government agencies. The two worst weeks I had in the law were spent responding to a single, huge PRA request by a litigious millionaire, paging through thousands of documents to figure out which he could see and which he couldn't. A huge waste of my time and of the taxpayer dollars that were paying for my time.

In the case of the CRU emails, I doubt the climate researchers had included this line item in their grant requests: "80 hours to respond to ridiculous, repeated, massive data requests from people who don't understand the information and will lie about it in order to cause harm to the scientific process and to society as a whole." So the researchers probably had to eat the time spent responding.

They've got my sympathy, but still. If email records were deleted, if the responder knew for certain that the records were required to be given, and if, contrary to reality, the responder had been a lawyer and not a scientist, I would consider that a firing offense. A scientist might not understand the gravity of his violation, and his knowledge is less certain than a lawyer's over whether the record he's destroying is responsive to the request. I'd hope a scientist would understand that destroying information is not a legal way to avoid turning it over, but who knows. (If you have grounds for refusing to turn over information, in the US you create a privilege log that describes the documents you're not going to turn over, and you give that log together with all the responsive info.)

The other "ifs" in the paragraph above still apply: whether emails were destroyed, whether they were responsive to the requests, whether any exemptions apply to the legal responsibility to turn them over, and what the researchers knew about their obligations.

All this is a long way of saying the email thing may be more than nothing regarding Phil Jones, and may require some response or reprimand, probably short of permanent dismissal. I don't know if it's more than nothing about anyone else. Most of the rest of the allegations are unimportant: the "trick" is minor, attempts to fire incompetent editors and disregard bad science are justifiable, the 1980s climate data is still available in its original form from national agencies. I don't know about database quality, but I doubt there's enough there to really say the instrumental record for every database is meaningless.

But as Jon Stewart said, the moral here is don't cut corners. On the PR side, this might be a good time to point out on the Sadly Wish It Was A Longer List Of Things I Admire In Roger Pielke Jr.'s Work, is his unflappable demeanor (Eli Rabett gets the same kudos on a longer list). Keeping that demeanor might make it easier to deal with the nonsense.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Do the skeptics have a point about a 300-year typo in the IPCC?

(Welcome, Just One Minute readers. I appreciate Tom's link, but I'd also encourage you to look at my proposed bets with people who dispute anthropogenic global warming. With a few honorable exceptions, the loudest skeptics have been very uninterested in putting their money where there mouths are.)

Skeptics say:

According to Prof Graham Cogley (Trent University, Ontario), a short article on the future of glaciers by a Russian scientist (Kotlyakov, V.M., 1996, The future of glaciers under the expected climate warming, 61-66, in Kotlyakov, V.M., ed., 1996, Variations of Snow and Ice in the Past and at Present on a Global and Regional Scale, Technical Documents in Hydrology, 1. UNESCO, Paris (IHP-IV Project H-4.1). 78p estimates 2350 as the year for disappearance of glaciers, but the IPCC authors misread 2350 as 2035 in the Official IPCC documents, WGII 2007 p. 493!

Let's go p. 493, shall we?

"Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other
part of the world (see Table 10.9) and, if the present rate
continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035
and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at
the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present
500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005)."


The WWF cite:

"WWF (WorldWildlife Fund), 2005:An overview of glaciers, glacier retreat, and
subsequent impacts in Nepal, India and China.WorldWildlife Fund, Nepal Programme,
79 pp."

In 1999, a report by the Working
Group on Himalayan Glaciology (WGHG) of the International Commission for Snow and Ice
(ICSI) stated: “glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world
and, if the present rate continues, the livelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very

The ISCI is where I run out of direct online sources. But I did find this ref, also from 1999:

"The glacier will be decaying at rapid, catastrophic rates. Its total area will shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 square km by the year 2035," says formerICSI president V M Kotlyakov in the report Variations of snow and ice in the past and present on a global and regional scale.

This is a problem. Back to Kotlyakov's report (p. 66):

The degradation of the extrapolar glaciation of the Earth will be apparent in rising ocean level already by the year 2050, and there will be a drastic rise of the ocean thereafter caused by the deglaciation-derived runoff (see Table 11 ). This period will last from 200 to 300 years. The extrapolar glaciation of the Earth will be decaying at rapid, catastrophic rates— its total area will shrink from 500,000 to 100,000 km² by the year 2350.

If the IPCC's chain of citations does indeed reach back to and rely on Kotlyakov 1996 alone - and I'm not sure that it does - then the skeptics have a point. Worth noting that Kotlyakov assumed linear changes in warmth, which is optimistic under business-as-usual scenarios, but that won't erase a 300-year difference.

UPDATE: Skeptic Tom Maguire gets a little further than me, but no real results. So far it's looking like sloppy work, although the sloppiness isn't with the IPCC but the predecessor citations. Maybe someone else can get a better answer than Tom or me.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Romm, Roger wrong; Rabett right

What Eli said about the obvious relevance of population control to the climate crisis. Call me crazy, but I suspect there's some kind of connection between the larger US emissions relative to Canada and the larger US population. Similarly that a problem like climate requiring multiple generations to address could be affected by the relative success of population control over generations. African populations may not have anything like the US per-capita emissions now, but neither did South Korea fifty years ago. I both hope and fear that Africa undergoes a similar change in economics, in which case the number of its capita becomes darn important.

Roger's opposition may be motivated by a general dislike of doing anything societally-changing for reasons of climate (just a guess), which he reverse-projects as other people using climate change to advance their own social goals. (Although that charge against others does sometimes have a grain of truth.)

As for Romm's opposition, it appears to be that population control alone can't solve the problem, so don't bother with it. Only the first part of that argument is correct, and the second part is used against many partial solutions that people find inconvenient, like wind power or (possibly) nuclear power.

As for me, my interest in per-capita emission allocations creates a political reason for paying attention to population. It also means being concerned about international migration. I think some resistance on the left to population issues comes from revulsion against guilt-by-second-hand-association with some vile racists who've seized on population and border control. It's the racists who are the problem, though, not the population and immigration issues themselves.

A final note - recent increases in fertility in Northern Europe will make emissions control more difficult over multiple generations, if the trend continues. I see no reason against the reverse argument for reducing fertility elsewhere.

Bonus blogging: fantastic new pictures of geysers on Enceladus. There could be frozen microbes shooting out on those plumes - we just need to grab some and bring them back.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Gingrich Effect

I've stolen the headline from Balloon Juice, and I hope the name sticks to this study: overall divorce rates for couples where one partner is very sick stays at an average level, but only because healthy women are much less likely to divorce a now-sick spouse while healthy men are much more likely to divorce their sick spouse. A healthy man is seven times more likely to divorce a sick spouse than a healthy woman is.

Some interesting comments at Balloon Juice. Someone points out that women often have financial reasons for staying in a marriage that men often don't. OTOH, that doesn't explain why women decrease their divorce rate - a seriously-sick husband is less of a financial advantage than a healthy one.

Other comments highlight how women are conditioned to be caretakers while men are disproportionately unable to handle being around someone sick (obviously, lots of generalizing here). I think it's interesting because it doesn't come close to eliminating the moral flaw, but suggests that women are challenged in an area where they are most prepared to overcome the betrayal temptation, while men are the least ready. Bottom line though: even if you're so ethically weak that you can't take care of your wife, that doesn't require a divorce.

No one raised the Medicaid issue: a divorce might not be a betrayal, but a way to protect the healthy spouse's assets while the sick spouse gets Medicaid assistance, and the relationship continues in an unmarried state following the "paper divorce". Not clear why this would create a gender differential, though. Maybe men have more assets from prior to the marriage that they can protect through divorce?

There may be some partial explanations, but men don't look too good in all this.

And there's always exceptions. A horrible spouse may be richly deserving of divorce papers and that might not change immediately after a cancer diagnosis. I doubt that describes Newt Gingrich's first wife, though.

Unrelated: just watched an old Coen brothers' film, Miller's Crossing. Very good, and very dark. This excellent, spoiler-filled review describes the conflict between ethics and love in the form of two fighting gangs and within the persona of the male lead. I completely disagree with the review as to which side won in the lead's mind.

And with that, I'm travelling for a bit, so there'll be little or no blogging until December.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Nimanic carnivore's dilemma

I haven't seen much discussion of the NY Times Op-Ed by Nicolette Niman of former Niman Ranch fame, arguing "that a conscientious meat eater may have a more environmentally friendly diet than your average vegetarian."

Call it highly unproven at this point, even accepting that she's talking about the tiny percent of beef in the US that's grass-fed. Typical grass-fed cattle aren't much better for greenhouse gas emissions than typical factory farmed. Niman has to resort to discussing techniques for reducing methane that are experimental or not widely adopted even among the small percent of cattle that's grass-fed.

She does have an interesting argument that one study shows a 19% increase in soil carbon sequestration from pasturing cattle instead of raising crops. My one-study rule applies though (one study's result isn't proof of anything, it might just show the need for lots of study to confirm the result). And I didn't know that turkeys could be grass-fed.

She left out the issue that most everyone does as well, that ranching provides an alternative land use to sprawl. She also left out the argument that lands that have been pastured for decades/centuries at the current rate of use are carbon neutral for that time period.

Finally, here in California the grass would have been originally grazed by elk and deer, while in the Midwest it would have been grazed by buffalo. It would be interesting to compare emissions on that basis.

Unrelated bonus blogging: Tim "Slob Hunter" Pawlenty may have gut-shot his reputation among the hunting community by abandoning a wounded deer in the field. This may well cause him more trouble in running for the Republican nomination than all the deaths from that bridge collapse in 2007.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tricked by the Girl Scouts

Coming out of the grocery store today, I saw the Girl Scouts sitting at their table and figured I could violate the diet for once-a-year cookies. Only after I came up and talked to them did I realize it's not cookies they're selling now, it's trail mix.

While I could safely avoid them with only a slight twinge of guilt by keeping my distance, the level of potential guilt in refusing to buy anything is inversely proportional to the distance between us, and it squares if you actually talk to the girls. In this case the potential guilt was reduced by the two girls' being older than the ones that are usually selling, but the reduction wasn't enough.

So I now own a can buttered peanuts, and have to wait for January for Thin Mints and Samoas.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Arguments against per-capita emission limits are arguments that support massive HFC-23 releases by developing countries

I think the takeaway that India and other countries should get, from the reasoning why industrialized countries must be allowed higher per-capita emissions, is that India should pump up its own emissions.

The reason why people think we Americans and Europeans should have higher per-capita emissions, as far as I know, are that we can do it, we make money doing it, and we've been doing it. As far as being able to do it, India might not be able to create an industrial economy overnight, but they could easily start creating and venting HFC-23 to the atmosphere, with 11,000 times the greenhouse gas effect of CO2.

Venting HFC-23 might not make money for India immediately, but if future emission reductions are based on each nation's baseline emissions, then it could make economic sense to pump up that baseline so reductions are less difficult.

The last argument by industrialized nations, that we've been polluting the atmosphere for a while and therefore should be allowed to continue at a higher rate than those who haven't been polluting, doesn't work quite as well as an argument for this thought experiment. However, it does mean that potential polluters should hurry up and start polluting as much as possible and as early as possible. It still says to India to get in line right away with high emissions to make as long a claim as possible the right to continue polluting.

Obviously it would be a disaster for India or any other developing country to carry out this idea, but it's no worse a disaster than what is already happening in the US and other developed nations who are already causing a high rate of per-capita emissions.

The alternative, I think, is to acknowledge that some form of per-capita emission limits are appropriate, that high-emission countries don't want low-emission countries to act as we do, and that we're willing to make it worth their while not to increase their emissions.

Bonus unrelated blogging: since I've disagreed with Joe Romm elsewhere in this blog, I'll just also note here that he's done a lot of good work, particularly on American climate policy issues. I'm adding Climate Progress to my blogroll.

More unrelated blogging: from TPM, Sarah Palin "rembers being a voracious reader [in her youth], favorites including John Steinbeck's 'The Pearl' and George Orwell's 'Animal Farm.'" I'd be more impressed with her voracity if it included books over 100 pages long.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mike Pence not as stupid as claimed

Congressman Mike Pence is one of the leaders of the Republican Party in the House and widely understood to be a moron.

This speech might show something different though:

(If the video doesn't work, try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrp_kZ9ZL_8.)

He says his cousin 1. has cancer, 2. opposes health care reform, and 3. is awaiting approval for experimental treatment. Pence is serving the insurance industry and wingnut ideological vanity to deny health care to everyone else, while at the same time having the effect of pleading for special treatment for his cousin. Nice hat trick. Unless it's unintentional, in which case he's as stupid as believed.

In this era of performance-based outcomes, it's unclear whether Pence has successfully scored special treatment for his cousin. He failed to stop House passage, but will have another chance after a House-Senate conference committee produces a joint bill. Even if that passes though, I think he's still got a good chance of getting something for his cousin, something more like a fee-for-service model. Not that any of this would be spelled out, though, maybe not even spelled out in their own little minds.

Unrelated bonus blogging from Yglesias: "The world would be a better place if people looking for cheap thrills would stick to the black metal scene or maybe take up extreme sports rather than foreign policy punditry. "

Sunday, November 08, 2009

In lieu of an actual climate change post, I'll just quote myself

I win for lazy AND egotistical by quoting a comment I submitted to the Breakthrough Institute/Ted Norhaus attack piece on Joe Romm that doubled as a lame semi-defense of Superfreakonomics (hasn't been approved yet, so we'll see when it shows up).

TN writes, "I can find no evidence that you or any of the other prominent bloggers and columnists we cited have ever publicly rebuked Romm for his behavior, which is toxic to civil and healthy democratic discourse."

Nice addition of the "we cited" escape clause. If you look a little more broadly you get William Connolley at Stoat who went after Romm quite harshly long before your post here:

Now the funny thing about that is what Connolley had to say about the Superfreaks and how it contrasted with your approach:

"Joe Romm has a fairly characteristic attack; and just for a change I'll agree with him; though he chooses odd bits to assault."

Personally I think Connolley is over-harsh with Romm, while I also think Romm is insufficiently cautious about his interpretations of what he's learned.

It's more than clear, however, that Superfreaks wrote a horribly-flawed chapter. While I'm no one of consequence, I was able to write three posts critiquing Levitt and Dubner without once referencing Romm, and I doubt I'm the only one.

I think the most telling part of TN's post was citing favorably to Jon Stewart's puff-piece interview of Levitt, the shoddiest work I've ever seen from Stewart. It was a content-free response that ignored the many substantive criticisms to the chapter, and here we see it repeated again, beyond a few cursory acknowledgments of errors.

I've been meaning to write some kind of open letter to Joe Romm saying "don't blow it with your increased visibility, and be more cautious about your interpretations of facts". Maybe this will have to do. He can keep the vitriol if he wants, but he needs to be more careful on the factual interpretation.

UPDATE: Two more thoughts: first, the quote-feeding attack on Romm is a red herring. I've been asked by journalists after they've gotten a feel for my viewpoint, "Is it your position that (attempts to describe in a sentence what I've been saying)." Romm knew Caldeira, and he was doing the same thing I've experienced, even if he did it a little clumsily.

Second, Romm needs to be more accurate. I'm particularly concerned that low-IQ/high visibility types who don't check sources use Romm as a crutch. For example, I defended Romm from William's critique as not providing worthwhile information when I pointed to Romm raising the possibility that no-till farming might not store carbon. But then Romm blows it by significantly exaggerating the report (read the comments at the link). This is the kind of thing he needs to fix.

UPDATE 2:  post edited to lower the tone, remove unnecessary wisecracks on my part.

Friday, November 06, 2009

TigerHawk's right - Obama should apologize to conservatives about the state secrets privilege

TigherHawk and Glenn Greenwald both call out Obama Administration's decision to assert that state secrets require dismissal of the Shubert case brought against the government for secret wiretapping. TigherHawk from the right says Obama should apologize to conservatives for criticizing the same behavior by the Bush Administration, while Greenwald does his usual thing.

I agree with TH, although I think Obama owes at least as much of an apology to us who supported him.

The state secret privilege should rarely be used, if used it should even be more rare to outright remove court consideration of a piece of evidence, and it should almost never be used to outright dismiss a case. And even in that one-in-a-million last category, there should be an administrative procedure established so the plaintiff has a chance at justice in a protected setting. I'll just refer back to Greenwald's outrage on this one.

The CIA had invoked the state secrets privilege, insisting that the case against one of its agents be dropped because he was working covertly and his identity couldn't be revealed. And they keptinsisting that even after his cover had been lifted. When Lamberth found out, he was not a happy judge.

More here. This is yet another data point that restates the obvious: just because the government invokes the state secrets privilege doesn't mean there really are state secrets involved. Congress and the courts, who know this perfectly well, would be wise to demand a wee bit more judicial oversight in these cases instead of allowing the executive absolute discretion. Pat Leahy's State Secrets Protection Act would be a good place to start.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

First response to Williams and Zabel's anti-cap-and-trade legislation

So these two EPA lawyers are making a splash, and maybe rightfully so since they oppose cap-and-trade despite being intimately involved in the existing acid-rain cap-and-trade. They propose a "fee and refund", basically a carbon tax with 100% remittance on a per-capita basis. Their op-ed is here, and the paper they've produced is here. I'm reacting to the paper.

Initial comments:

1. Our choice for this year and next year is cap-and-trade or nothing - their proposal isn't going to happen before 2011, if then. I think the right goalpost to judge their position is whether it convinces people that current proposals are worse than doing nothing, or alternatively that their proposal is so superior that doing nothing for two years with the possibility of eventually trying their idea is better than cap-and-trade.

2. They are comparing their own proposal's pre-sausage ideal with cap-and-trade legislation's mostly post-sausage reality. Waxman-Markey has passed the House, and Kerry-Boxer is designed to have a chance of getting three-fifth's vote in the Senate. (This reminds me of talking to a Swedish convert to Buddhism who compared the theoretical ethics of Buddhism taught to her by her instructors with the sordid reality of two thousand years of Christian society. We were in Thailand at the time, and I suggested that the sordid reality in Buddhist Thailand wasn't so great either.) What the WZ proposal would look like after getting through the sausage-making might not seem so much better as it does right now.

This objection has limits - we can hardly ask them to deliberately make their proposal worse. OTOH, they could show what they would do to make it more politically viable. Making it more viable without reducing the incentives to cut down emissions and without costing more would be a pretty good trick that I'd like to see.

More specifics:

Page 2 and 3: they discuss Obama's support for cap-and-trade. His original proposal would have been 100% auction and remitted 80% of revenue. Post-sausage, that's gone down a hell of a lot. One could expect something similar for their proposal.

p. 3: urgency requires a stronger approach, their own. Well, we're losing two years minimum by dropping the current approach, so this cuts both ways. (My own tangent: I've been wondering to what extent carbon-negative approaches like biochar and biomass-plus-sequestration could be used to compensate for overshooting dangerous CO2 levels. Could we hit 570 ppm by the year 2070 and then rapidly pull it down to way below 350 ppm, without relying on Pielkian dreams and armwaving? Would that be good enough to avoid disaster?)

p. 4: acid rain controls are a lot easier. Yes, but that's well known.

p. 5: "sequestration of greenhouse gas emissions has not been demonstrated to be safe or permanent and is expected to be costly." That's pretty dismissive when they say later that renewables cost three times as much as fossil fuels and they want to make renewables cheaper through carbon fees. The claims I've seen for sequestration is that it adds only 20-40% to the cost of coal, so depending on how much weight you give to those claims, it's a cheaper option. Permanence is an issue, but we have some real problems in the next two centuries that might need priority.

p. 5: standard argument against offsets, another Victor/Wara reference.

p. 7: "In addition, setting up a capand-trade system will be very complex and time consuming. Once begun, a cap-and-trade program would have a great deal of inertia. It would be difficult to dismantle and would create a variety of interest groups with investments in maintaining the program, however ineffective it proved to be for addressing climate change." Yep. And it's disconcerting because we can't possibly rely on initial legislation to solve this problem - we're going to have to make it better every 5-10 years as we get a better handle on the problem and as denialists get further marginalized. Not an easy issue, but that's the problem with sausage.

p. 10: this is the most-flawed part, I think. They want to triple the price of fossil fuels with carbon fees in ten years, and expect renewables to drop to nearly one-third the current prices. I don't see the political will to absorb the dislocation of fossil fuel increases, and the expectation that renewables would become this cheap is wrong, I think. Economies of scale work in the long run, but a gigantic push to replace all fossil fuels would increase the cost of renewables, not decrease them in the short to medium term.

That's all I've got for now, maybe I'll come back and finish later.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein:

Barack Obama wasn't on the ballot yesterday, and he won't be on the ballot in 2010. If his voters stayed home last night, many politicians will take that as proof that they'll stay home in 2010, too. That doesn't just make the map harder for Democrats. It also moves Democrats to the right, as their consultants will explain that a winning coalition requires more voters from relatively conservative blocs, like seniors and downscale independents, and thus a more centrist campaign strategy.

More reason not to expect vast political improvements. If I could wave a magic wand, there's no question I'd take the WZ proposal over the House and Senate bills, but that's not the situation we've got. Sadly.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Marginalized Republicans versus reformed Republicans

Yet another interesting post by Nate Silver where he argues that Democrats should hope for a hard-right conservative candidate to win against the Democratic candidate in the heavily Republican New York congressional district. Nate argues that this small-scale victory would fool the wingnuts into believing that being really wingnutty is a good strategy in the forthcoming 2010 and 2012 elections.

I think he's right, but it's not the best case scenario. We need the Republicans to follow the evolution of the British Conservatives into becoming a responsible opposition, and that's not going to happen until the Republicans get beat up multiple times in an election. Putting that off means the Democrats get a free ride without any useful alternative.

Anyway, we'll find out tomorrow.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

First draft attempt at Argumentum ad Galileus

Let's try it:

Argumentum ad Galileus:

Risum procul Galileus
Rideo procul mihi
Ergo sum tunc Galileus

What I'm trying to say:

The Galileo Fallacy:

They laughed at Galileo
They're laughing at me
Therefore I am the next Galileo

It's not easy trying to write something in a language you don't know, and Spanish isn't as much help as I thought it might be. Corrections greatly welcomed.

Inspired by yet another the-consensus-was-the-Earth-is-flat reference, this time by the Superfreakonomics guys that I'm not writing about anymore (and who are refuted here).

Of course as I finish writing this I find someone's come up with a similar description for something called the Galileo Gambit. They didn't try writing it in really bad Latin, though, so I win.

UPDATE: got the first correction from Steve Bloom, so I've changed the Latin above. I'll keep changing it as corrections come in.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

My last, somewhat contrarian, Superfreaks post

I've got one more post about contrarianism in general, but I'll wrap up on Superfreakonomics.

My contrarian points:

1. They're not picking on the left. Many bloggers speculate that contrarians like picking on the left but not on the right. I don't know about other contrarian authors, but Levitt and Dubner's first book talked a lot about how legalizing abortion reduced crime. Even the current book sympathizes with legalizing prostitution, something that's mostly libertarian/glibertarian, but still probably supported more by the left.

2. Geoengineering with sulfate aerosols is cheap. I've seen a number of assertions that they've left out costs of the stratospheric shield and exaggerated the costs of mitigation. It doesn't matter. As long as you simply examine the cost to cool a certain amount globally, without regard to distribution of heat reduction, or any other side effect, then the shield has to be cheaper than 80-95% greenhouse gas reductions.

3. A limited stratospheric shield for the Arctic might be worth the risks. I believe RealClimate wrote about this idea in a very tentative but not-completely-dismissive tone, but I can't find the link. (Superfreakonomics also mentions it, but they seem not extremely interested.) The Arctic is experiencing so much warming and the atmosphere is somewhat isolated there, so it might be possible, maybe, to counteract the enhanced warming there without the repercussions elsewhere, if the aerosol particles actually stay in that region. It couldn't be done for a few decades until the ozone-depleting chemicals are gone from the stratosphere, but it shouldn't be done anytime soon anyway - this is an act of desperation. (UPDATE: John Mashey points to high-albedo, artificial rafts as a potentially useful "band-aid" approach for the loss of polar ice, and possibly ice elsewhere.)

4. Somewhat less contrarian: geoengineering on a global scale needs to be researched and kept in mind as a last resort for the worst-case scenarios. If 50 years from now we find ourselves on a trajectory to a Lovelock-type scenario involving deaths of billions, or even a somewhat less-bad outcome, then smogging up the earth's stratosphere and hoping for the best might be worth rolling the dice. I think this position isn't all that unusual, even if Al Gore might disagree with it. By contrast, people like James Annan and William Connolley probably shouldn't be interested in geoengineering because they don't think the worst-case scenarios are plausible.
Okay, so much for being generous to Superfreakonomics. I'll just add two points that haven't been discussed too much. First, the authors have occasionally defended the stratospheric shield approach as a complement and not a substitute for carbon mitigation. But if that's the case, why do they keep talking about how much cheaper it is? And the failure as far as I can tell to admit in the book that we need to drastically cut emissions means they're trying to have it both ways - show a radical solution to those not paying close attention, and then running it backwards when caught.

Second, they seem to think it would be easy to determine that that shield isn't worth its side effects and turn it off if appropriate. I'm not so sure. If a powerful country or number of countries reached the point where they felt it was in their interest to smog the stratosphere, I expect they'd be very resistant to arguments that an ongoing drought in Africa means they should cut it out and drastically reduce carbon emissions instead. Just as we see massive foot-dragging today to the idea that we're causing warming, I expect a lot of self-interested denial would occur as to whether it's necessary to gut the shield.

One other point that has been mentioned but is still worth highlighting is this excellent Michael Tobis piece on removing carbon versus interfering with sunlight - two radically different approaches.

Unrelated bonus blogging: soldier fly composting. I get flies in my worm bin anyway, so this might be the solution.

UPDATE: forgot to mention that a critical comment I submitted to the Freakonomics blog was never published. Maybe it just fell through the Internet cracks.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pro-peace, pro-Israel, pro-other-countries, anti-one-state-solution

Matt Yglesias writes about some confusion over the J-Street identity. Some visitors to this alternative to the hard-conservative, militaristic, and uncompromising approach to Arab-Israeli peace had trouble with the label "Pro-Peace, Pro-Israel."

I can't believe and don't believe that they had trouble with the idea of millions of Jews living in this part of the Middle East. While I wouldn't have supported this stupid idea 70 years ago, the ship has sailed and it would be no more just to kick out the modern Jewish citizens than it would be to kick out all the non-Native Americans from North America.

I assume the people having trouble with the "Pro-Israel" phrase don't want to remove the Jews, but rather would merge the Jewish and Palestinian populations in Israel and the occupied territories (plus the Palestinian Diaspora) into a single country, the so-called "one-state-solution". This might be showing my personal opinion somewhat to say that my first reaction on hearing this solution several years ago was, "that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." I haven't changed my opinion. Take two peoples who hate each other and leave it unclear who's going to be politically dominant. Just brilliant.

So I don't support that idea and don't think J-Street needs to either. I could call myself pro-Israel, in the same sense that I'm pro-Jordan and pro-Bhutan, and pro-world-in-general. That attitude probably puts me on the far left of the extremely narrow range of political discourse in the US over Israel. It might take me out of the target group for J-Street, which is looking for people who are especially pro-Israel. I think it's fine to be especially pro-Israel so long as that doesn't translate into harming other countries and peoples, and people with Matt Yglesias' attitude can help improve the discourse in the US, to help peace and to help Israel.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Superfreaks latest defense: they weren't answering the most important question about climate change

So they're trying yet again to defend the indefensible at the Freakonomics: now they're saying the 'geoengineering rocks!' chapter is not meant to answer "the most important question" about climate change.

Instead, it's about the best (defined as cheapest, without taking into account side effects) way to cool the earth in a hurry, without considering the long-term effect of your choice of action. They don't quite spell it out to this degree, but that appears to be their question.

They also never spell out why they think this is an interesting question. I think an interesting question is what should we do about climate change. They've instead phrased a question whose answer has no policy implications on this question. There's also many reasons to think they haven't answered their own question correctly, but on top of running away from their contrarian arguments to say they were only looking at this tiny topic, they've come up with an argument that's completely unimportant.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Talking Points Memo readers demand more stenography, less journalism

There's a disheartening comments section attached to a Talking Points Memo story. The story summary: a reporter for the conservative Weekly Standard is trying to nail down whether a moderate Republican running in a special election might switch parties if in the next subsequent election, she loses the Republican primary. The candidate's spokesman fails to answer the question, and instead just keeps repeating that she "is a vote" for the Republicans.

The reporter writes a story about the evasiveness and potential implications of a future switch. Suddenly the spokesman calls in a clarification stating she won't switch.

All this sounds like good journalism to me - not taking an evasive answer on face value, but the TPM comment section is full of attacks on the journalist for not being "objective" and simply reporting the answer. There are a few who defend the journalist, but it generally reads just like something you'd see on a rightwing website (maybe better grammar though).

The left can have as much trouble as the right with seeing past their own biases.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Superfreaking lame response on global cooling issue

The Superfreakonomics publishers are scurrying around and shutting down online access to the horrible chapter on climate change that says "don't worry, but if you do, spew sulfates instead."

Much great stuff tearing it apart has been written elsewhere (DeLong's as good as any here). I'm just going to focus on this accusation:

The chapter opens with the “global cooling” story — the claim that 30 years ago there was a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling, comparable to the current consensus that it’s warming.

Um, no. Real Climate has the takedown. What you had in the 70s was a few scientists advancing the cooling hypothesis, and a few popular media stories hyping their suggestions. To the extent that there was a consensus, it was that there wasn’t much evidence for anything, and more research was needed.

The real purpose of the chapter is figuring out how to cool the Earth if indeed it becomes catastrophically warmer. (That is the “global cooling” in our subtitle. If someone interprets our brief mention of the global-cooling scare of the 1970’s as an assertion of “a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling,” that feels like a willful misreading.)

Okay, let's read what they said in the chapter. Unhelpfully, their publisher has been shutting down online access to what they actually said. You can currently get the entire relevant chapter here, but in case they shut that down, I'm retyping the relevant part below (but before that - Dear Superfreakonomics publisher: I assume you won't even notice my tiny blog, but if you do, I strongly discourage filing a DMCA notice against me. I will most definitely file a counter-notice. Any groundless DMCA notice such as one filed against what your authors describe as a "brief mention" in their book could be construed as fraudulent. I urge you to consult your lawyers instead. Hugs, Brian):

The headlines have been harrowing, to say the least.
"Some experts believe mankind is on the threshold of a new pattern of adverse global climate for which it is ill-prepared," one New York Times article declared. It quoted climate researchers who argued that "this climatic change poses a threat to the people of the world."
A Newsweek article citing a National Academy of Sciences report, warned that climatic change "would force economic and social adjustments on a worldwide scale." Worse yet, "climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for climatic change or even to allay its effects."
Who in his or her right mind wouldn't be scared of global warming?
But that's not what these scientists were talking about. These articles, published in the mid-1970s, were predicting the effects of global cooling.
Alarm bells had rung because the average ground temperature in the Northern Hemisphere had fallen by .5 degrees Fahrenheit (.28 degrees Celsius) from 1945 to 1968. Furthermore, there had been a large increase in snow cover, and between 1964 and 1972, a decrease of 1.3 percent in the amount of sunshine hitting the United States. Newsweek reported that the temperature decline, while relatively small in absolute terms, "has taken the planet about a sixth of the way towards the Ice Age average."
The big fear was a collapse of the agricultural system. In Britain, cooling had already shortened the growing season by two weeks. "[T]he resulting famines could be catastrophic," warned the Newsweek article. Some scientists proposed radical warming solutions such as "melting the arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot."
These days, of course, the threat is the opposite. The earth is no longer thought to be too cool but rather too warm.

So. Standard denialist argument to the effect that scientists were wrong in the 1970s so they're no more likely to be right today. The rest of the chapter then goes on to point the oh-so-easy solution if it turns out that global warming is true.

Going back to Krugman's critique that Dubner calls a "willful misreading," I don't see that at all. Dubner and Levitt portray the media misunderstanding of the state of science in the 1970s as the actual state of science then, and for no other purpose than to downplay current knowledge.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, even in the 1970s the science leaned towards a prediction of warming. Try wiki articles global cooling and history of climate change science for more.

Too bad the Superfreakonomics authors and editors didn't spend a half-hour on wikipedia before writing up their results, and denying the reality of what they wrote now isn't helping.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rush wuz robbed

While I'm not crying tears over Rush Limbaugh getting kicked out of a bid for a football team, I agree with Nate Silver at 538 that he's been unjustly accused of things he never said. I think he's a bad actor who has said many other racially-biased things, (as well as countless other stupid lies, including climate denialism), but I also think shouldn't have been booted out of the bidding group as a non-managing, minority partner.

It's probably worth acknowledging that as a white male, I don't walk in the shoes of people who have been maligned by Rush. On the other hand, he would only be an investor in a business without the power to hire or fire people. I guess it's all a matter of where you draw the line. I personally would never work with him or be part of a business team that includes him, but that's a little different from broader social groups driving him out of a business deal where he wasn't in a position to hurt employees with his biased attitude.

I'm not sure if I completely agree with Conor Friedersdorf's article on the whole issue - while I would only accuse someone of "being a racist" where their behavior is far worse than the societal norm, I think doing or saying something racist is far more common. We've come a long way but have a long way to go on bias in our society. Rather than viewing the statement "what you just said was racist" as equivalent to an accusation of pedophilia, it would be better to examine the situation calmly, decide if it's true, rectify the situation if needed and move on.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Would you compromise your purity to stop climate change?

This is my belated contribution to Blog Action Day, to suggest that in addition to one more effort of will that I and everyone else could take to reduce our footprint, we consider supporting things that we might not have otherwise in order protect climate.

My inspiration is a semi-denialist/semi-skeptic website that I comment on called TigerHawk, whose author keeps saying "I'll consider global warming an emergency when the people who tell me it is, act like it's an emergency." Mostly he gets it wrong through attacks on the irrelevant hypocrisies and failings of climate leaders wasting energy in their personal lives (if the charges are even true). A little closer to the mark is when he focuses on policy issues like opposition to nuclear power or to offshore wind farms at Cape Cod.

A persistent claim of denialists is that enviros only believe in climate change to the extent it supports the political beliefs enviros already have, which is about as clear a case of projection regarding their own rejection of science that I can imagine. Still, within a mountain of nonsense there can be a tiny kernel of truth, that a cursory rejection of climate solutions that are politically inconvenient for our side might need some real reconsideration. Maybe carbon sequestration, corporate-owned solar and wind installations on open space, natural gas use, and maybe even nuclear power should be considered more carefully. But that's not what I want to write about....

Beyond the issue of whether solutions we reject actually make sense is whether we can achieve a worthwhile compromise solution that includes components that don't make sense. I doubt nuclear power makes sense in the long run, especially economic sense. I don't see much value in new offshore oil drilling, either. But agreeing to this might be the only way to make actual progress on much more effective solutions to climate change.

So my challenge for Blog Action Day is to suggest it might be okay to be a little bit impure on these issues for something this important. We can then throw the denialist's challenge back in their face: "if we give you some god-awful, massive subsidies for nuclear power, would you finally condescend to stop overheating the planet?"