Wednesday, December 09, 2009

neither an alarmist nor denier be

Richard Burton once when approached by a beggar quoted Shakespeare:
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be -Shakespeare"
The beggar responded:
"Get fucked - Henry Miller"
That's pretty close to how I feel about the global warming pretend debate.

James Hansen sounded convincing on Lateline when interviewed by fellow alarmist Tony Jones. When I watch a seemingly reasonable and well researched scientist like Hansen I start to think who am I to question this?

But then when I read a counter argument by Richard Lindzen, a qualified environmentalist, (The Climate Science isn't Settled) then I wonder why the ABC takes the easy path of having an alarmist interview another alarmist. Why don't they set up a real debate between Hansen and Lindzen?

The ABC has already decided on the truth and present us with a carefully massaged version

It is still best to be neither an alarmist nor a denier. I would describe myself as a lukewarmist. Perhaps I should set up a political party but lacking the stridency and certainty of those who are sure it would not receive many votes.

The notion that complex climate "catastrophes" are simply a matter of the response of a single number, GATA, to a single forcing, CO2 (or solar forcing for that matter), represents a gigantic step backward in the science of climate. Many disasters associated with warming are simply normal occurrences whose existence is falsely claimed to be evidence of warming. And all these examples involve phenomena that are dependent on the confluence of many factors.

Our perceptions of nature are similarly dragged back centuries so that the normal occasional occurrences of open water in summer over the North Pole, droughts, floods, hurricanes, sea-level variations, etc. are all taken as omens, portending doom due to our sinful ways (as epitomized by our carbon footprint). All of these phenomena depend on the confluence of multiple factors as well
- The Climate Science isn't Settled
Lindzen's argument conforms with my belief that sustainability, although in some cases maybe a desirable goal, is not a possible goal. There is no ideal climate for the earth, there has never been any long term stability in the earth's climate or anything else for that matter. The idea that we can achieve this is ludicrous.

Previous blogs about this:
the case for unsustainability
the left and right of global warming
the problem of too much bullshit


Mark Miller said...

I'm less frustrated with the "non-warmists" than I am with the warmists. I have encountered a few non-warmists who oversimplify the issue. Maybe the reason I'm less frustrated with them is I don't listen to the "fanboys". I try to listen to scientists who act like scientists rather than proselytizers.

I have gotten into debates with a couple of local warmists (who are not scientists) and I finally stopped doing it, because my head was going to explode. I came to the conclusion at one point that they didn't even know what science was, or why it was important. Not to say I wouldn't talk to others who differ with me in the future, but the argument followed an all too familiar pattern.

Before that happened though, one of them pointed me to a source of temperature data that they referred to, which they said proved that there was an increasing greenhouse effect. I figured I would give it a go. I'm always willing to be convinced by a substantial argument. I had done some research on how the greenhouse effect works beforehand, and I looked at the relevant data from the site he referred to for the time period of 1980-2008. The answer was so clear it was staring me in the face. He had apparently missed it because he didn't know where to look. The surface temperature had gone up by about 0.64 degrees C. The tropospheric temperature had gone up by less than a tenth of a degree over that period. At any rate, the surface temperature had increased at a faster rate than the troposphere had. The greenhouse effect takes place in the middle of the troposphere, a few miles above the Earth's surface. I recognized this result, because it was similar to what Dr. John Christy at the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) had reported to congress back in 2000/2001. What it shows is there has been a slight increase in the greenhouse effect, but it's been negligible compared to the apparent increase in surface temperature. So the greenhouse effect makes a small contribution, but it can't be the major driver.

A factoid that's often brought up in scientific presentations of the issue is that it's widely recognized in the field of climate research that the warming effect of increasing CO2 is logarithmic. This is just a matter of the basic physics. I think even warmists agree with this. So the impact of each addition of CO2 is less than the impact of what came before it.

As I thought about this, it occurred to me that the disagreement between warmists and non-warmists is probably a matter of where we are on the logarithmic curve, and what coefficient should be applied to it (what's called the "climate sensitivity" to CO2).

Mark Miller said...

Dr. Bob Carter, along with a few other scientists recently published a paper that attempted to explain the warming trend that occurred from 1980-2000, saying it was due to ocean circulation in the South Pacific and its conveyance of heat.

Dr. Richard Lindzen recently has come out with some results for the outgoing radiation from the Earth as compared to the surface temperature, over a 20-year period, using two satellites designed to measure this outgoing radiation. He showed that as the surface temperature increased, so did the outgoing radiation. This contradicts the central thesis of human-caused global warming, that as more CO2 is emitted the greenhouse effect would increase, and certain positive feedbacks would begin to occur that would amplify the effect, allowing less and less radiation to escape.

You can watch the presentation where he talks about this. It's in 6 parts, so unfortunately you have to chase them down to see the whole thing. For most of the talk he gives information about what's been driving the whole climate change movement, and the illogical arguments and appeals to authority that are often used (rather than appeals to rational argument). If you want to just cut to the chase and watch the part where he talks about the outgoing radiation result, you can see it here. What's nice is he compares the actual result to the models that the IPCC has used, and you can see how inaccurate they were. This is just a guess, but it appears to me that the models they used were purely representative of a theory, and were not based on observation.

Lord Christopher Monckton of the UK has given what I think is an excellent talk on "the hysteria vs. the science", which you can see here. He includes Lindzen's result at the end.

I also happened to find an excellent paper, written by Lindzen, called "Climate science: Is it currently designed to answer questions?" (PDF). In it, he goes through a general history of the organization of science in the post-WW II period in the U.S., and focuses specifically on how climate science in the U.S. has been organized up until recently. I found a little insight into what's happened to computer science through that time period as well, though he doesn't specifically mention it. In short, he talks about how easy it's been for non-scientists to politicize science. The footnotes make interesting reading, too.

Mark Miller said...

Referring to the Lindzen quote you used, I found this speech by Dr. Sallie Baliunas a while back, talking about the events surrounding the Medieval superstition of "weather cooking" that took place during the Little Ice Age. The mentality around this sounds remarkably similar to what we've seen in people's attitudes towards the global warming issue.

Bill Kerr said...

thanks mark

I watched the videos and have read the pdf

for me the problem remains of the need to suspend the impulse towards closure - that it is best to remain in a state of open mindedness and being receptive to fresh data and argument when so many are insisting we make crisp judgments

the bits I found most interesting were Lindzen's introductory comments (in the pdf) about the pressures on science to become a system of authority and integrity rather than an ongoing method of inquiry

in a world where the pseudo science of neo-classical economics has recently received a severe shock heightened skepticism about official science be it environmental (or computing)is in order as well

I think that might be true, that in general people are becoming more skeptical and willing to dig deeper

Bill Kerr said...

I came across the concepts of bounded rationality and satisficing developed by Herbert Simon. As well as being a computer scientist he won the Nobel Prize for his work in decision making processes of economic organisations

satisficing is a portmanteau of satisfaction and suffice

bounded rationality is based on the fact that the rationality of individuals is limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the finite amount of time they have to make decisions

In day to day life we have to make decisions based on incomplete information all the time. This becomes a habit so that it is easy to succumb to the pressure of making a decisive decision about global warming when the media is screaming out urgent every day

Simon's insights provide a justification to resist that pressure towards early closure, to maintain the tension rather than attempting to resolve it

Bill Kerr said...

Scientists have genetically engineered bacteria to directly convert carbon dioxide to a gasoline substitute (isobutanol) and other useful chemicals using photosynthesis

They claim this is more efficient than currently existing methods of recycling CO2 and producing biofuels

The article from Nature Biotechnology is available online: Direct photosynthetic recycling of carbon dioxide to isobutyraldehyde

rob said...

i played the extract of Noel Pearson that you had linked to ... his observation that progressive thinking is often going 180 degrees in the wrong direction is interesting

(at the risk of triviality, reminds me of a Seinfeld episode where George is persuaded to always act on the opposite of his impulses, and success)

...which makes me pause when reading this and your previous post on unsustainability - i wonder if you have been taking 'opposite' therapy(maybe from Noel Pearson) as well :)

interesting though ...

Bill Kerr said...

hi rob,

For Pearson on global warming. rather than his general thesis against progressivism (which I do agree with), see Easy Riders and Raging Bulls

Well, all deep thinkers, including you, are contrarian to much mainstream thinking not automatically but for good reasons. Initially (about 1985), I went along with the impending environmental catastrophe thesis but after reading some (Bjorn Lomborg, Julian Simon, Alston Chase, John McCarthy) the catastrophe part didn't seem well founded as science - but was more to do with tapping into deep seated ecological views about the primacy of nature dressed up as science. See Alston Chase: In a Dark Wood

I think some warming has occurred, the past decade has been hotter overall even though it hasn't got much hotter during the last decade despite CO2 increasing, so I'm a lukewarmist

One crucial question is whether the minor warming (1 or 2 degrees) will transform into a tipping point through more water vapour and methane (stronger greenhouse gasses) going into the atmosphere. The tipping point question is the crucial one. Linzen is one qualified scientist who disagrees here.

The links to Lindzen are worth reading too. The original in my post and here are some follow up ones supplied in part by Mark.

Climate Science: Is it currently designed to answer questions? by Richard S. Lindzen (Nov 2008, pdf 36pp)

As well as detail about significant distortions in the global warming debate this also includes some introductory remarks about the general pressures and distortion on science since the end of World War 2

Here is a youtube video of a talk by MIT scientist Richard Lindzen it’s broken into 6 parts. He argues there is some warming but no grounds for alarmism, no strong scientific claim for a tipping point. Before getting onto the climate science he has some comments and quotes about how official science can easily be captured by political movements:

part one
part two
part three
part four
part five
part six

To be realistic about this we can say that Copenhagen won't deliver the goods, whatever cuts happen won't be enough according to the alarmists. Hansen has already said that.

So, then how much more alarmism will we then have to sit through until it is either proved or disproved in practice? (it's been going on for 25 years now) The very radical position here that has somehow become mainstream in the media is that we put industrial progress on hold just in case.

rob said...

thanks i'll play ...

did you happen to see Lateline last night ...

Ian Plimer came off pretty badly as an anti warming propagandist

doesn't prove anything of course, except there are weak arguments trying to ride on 'scientific credibility' on both sides

PS don't tag me as a deep thinker ...i'll run aground in the shallows easily enough :)

Mark Miller said...


Responding to your earlier comment about coming to a conclusion too soon, I agree. I'm open to hearing about evidence that shows the greenhouse effect is getting dangerously enhanced by our industrial activities. I want to know if that's happening. I'm just not seeing it. What I have seen from warmists is anecdotes, which is not satisfactory. The biggest one of all is the surface temperature record. As Lindzen said, they make the illogical leap that because this is rising it means our industries are causing it. So I take the position of "unproved". What frustrates me the most is the lack of rational, substantive scientific debate on the issue. What I often see is that the skeptics are trying to argue the science, or promote scientific debate, and the warmists play political games as if they don't care for the scientific process.

I was upset about the revelations in the stolen/leaked Hadley CRU e-mails. There's now "damage control" going on in the U.S. where the warmists are trying to pass them off as "just a few scientists", and that "the overwhelming evidence is that humans are warming the planet." They're trying to get people to ignore these revelations that "these few scientists" were "behaving badly" and that they've had a huge influence over the process of trying to discover and share what's been observed.

I watched Lindzen's CEI presentation before the e-mails got out. I was shocked by his frank comment that "the field is corrupt". As I thought about it, it made sense. I had been hearing from skeptics on global warming for a few years now that it had been difficult or impossible to get skeptical articles published in scientific journals on the subject. Now with the CRU e-mails we can know why.

Re: So, then how much more alarmism will we then have to sit through until it is either proved or disproved in practice? (it's been going on for 25 years now)

I think it's going to take a political leader who values science and the principle of freedom to stop it. Where's Thomas Jefferson when we need him? It's such a big money machine now, and there are certain political, financial, and industrial interests who find it advantageous for the global warming bandwagon to move forward. There have been a couple articles published in the U.S. on how Goldman Sachs, for example, will benefit handsomely from cap & trade. It was revealed a few months back that General Electric would benefit in a big way as well. Even some warmists are against C&T, most notably James Hansen. It's interesting, because the warmists are divided on this issue. Some are pushing C&T.

Lindzen's paper pointed to the source of the problem, in my view. My read of it was that it's all had to do with how science is financed. He began with Vannevar Bush's thesis of how science should be financed, and the success of that model. He then went through how that system broke down. He cited the Mansfield Amendment (this has also been cited in ARPA lore) as a turning point where science had to "sing for its supper". No longer did it have guaranteed funding, and it was seen as "disposable". The practice of science became cynical and focused more on its own survival than on genuine intellectual curiosity. Fear became the watchword. Lindzen said the calculation became that you can elicit more generosity "if you pull out a gun". This planted the seeds for where we are today. It occurred to me a while ago that even if the government came up with a solution that would reduce GHG's the people who are benefitting from the hyperbole will find some way to continue the polemic. It's because their careers depend on there being a problem. Lindzen said it. In the new way of doing things there's no benefit to the careers of scientists if the problem is solved.

Bill Kerr said...

hi rob,

I just watched the Monbiot-Plimer Lateline debate then. Yes, I agree Plimer came off very badly:
a) tried to make far too much out of the climate Gate emails. Monbiot was far more balanced and prepared to criticise his allies here
b) didn't answer direct questions
c) denial of any warming trend whatsoever
d) did not model a scientific approach but was quite elitist and arrogant, dismissing his opponents as mere journalists

Well, good to see the ABC sponsoring something like a real debate again. But they need to get in someone better than Plimer.

From the NewsHour today there was a short interview with BJORN LOMBORG, who is a statistician and not an environmental scientist. His book, The Skeptical Environmentalist has influenced me. Here's what Lomborg said from the NewsHour clip:

RAY SUAREZ: Not so fast, says Bjorn Lomborg. The Danish teacher and writer on environmental issues is a climate change skeptic, but not in the way that's usually meant. Maybe he should be called a climate change conference skeptic.

BJORN LOMBORG: Maybe it would be a good thing for climate if this meeting was to fail because, fundamentally, it seems to me that we're just doing the same failed strategy for the last 18 years. You know, we're promising to make grand carbon cuts, and then we won't do them.

RAY SUAREZ: And Lomborg said large-scale aid to the world's poorest is no longer popular. So, the world's advocates for the poor are just redrafting their demands, using climate change instead. The Dane said if you really want to help Constance Okollet and her village in Uganda, fight poverty, not initiatives.

BJORN LOMBORG: Clearly, we need to deal with her problems, but also, clearly, the majority of her problems are not caused by climate change. They're caused by simple poverty. For every time we can save one person from dying from malnutrition through climate change policies, the same amount of money spent on malnutrition policies could save 5,000 people.

RAY SUAREZ: And while you're fighting poverty, he says, work on research and development that will make new energy sources fully competitive with fossil fuels. And, once they are, you won't need a conference and treaties to force countries to be cleaner.

Mark Miller said...

work on research and development that will make new energy sources fully competitive with fossil fuels. And, once they are, you won't need a conference and treaties to force countries to be cleaner.

Exactly. People will be clamoring for it. Now, there is an issue in the U.S. about this, because from what I understand, due to our financial and security arrangements with Middle Eastern countries we get a discount on oil compared to the rest of the world. So moving to a cleaner fuel on an economic basis will be more of a challenge for us. But certainly Lomborg's comments apply to the rest of the world.

What I've been hearing for years is that a basic problem in the developing world is a lack of a representational system. I saw a really good show about this once. I can't think of what it was called. The host showed how in developed countries we have things like officially recognized addresses, deeds to property, with official records showing where property lines are. We have official state IDs that are trusted. We have courts, judges that resolve disputes around such documentation. We don't have an "I said, you said" arrangement. Whereas in developing countries they DO have this arrangement, and this makes it very difficult to generate wealth. I'm not sure what all the ramifications are, but I suspect it makes it difficult to buy and sell land, for example. It seems like what they need is the equivalent of "The Domsday Book".

I've also heard some commentators, who appear to be knowledgeable, say that foreign aid doesn't really help the people of developing countries that often. In our case, the work of delivering the aid often goes to American contractors. The proceeds from operating modern equipment go to us, not the assumed beneficiaries. There are often huge debt obligations placed on the host governments in the process, which they can't repay. It's more used as a political tool on our part.

In addition I've heard about how food aid actually makes things worse where it is sent, because it puts local farmers out of business. Who can compete with free food?

It seems like the single best implemented invention that's come along so far in developing countries is micro loans, loans from individuals in the developed world to individuals in developing countries. This has particularly helped women, so that they can try to start their own small businesses. It's still high risk (though for small amounts of money). From what I hear a lot of these loans default, but it does help some people rise out of poverty to a certain extent.

Alan Kay said...

Let's go to neutral ground for a moment and take an easier environmental science problem: the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico around the Louisiana Delta that is the size of the state of Florida. (Others like this have appeared around the world -- there is an even larger one in the Pacific.)

In the Gulf case, the dead zone was caused by algae blooms, which through several stages wound up exhausting the oxygen and increasing the acidity in many 10s of 1000s of square miles of ocean.

Tracing this back the evidence and models indicated that this was caused by fertilizer runoff from many states which border the rivers which discharge into the delta. And one of the causes of the large sizes of the runoffs has to do with the way the soil/planting areas were prepared to make fertilization and other tending of the farming more convenient and less costly.

It turns out in the US that the rivers are not the province of any global custodians, but harking back hundreds of years, are instead administered piecewise by the states which border them. These states so far have not been able to come to any agreement about what to do because of the very likely higher costs which will be incurred by the farmers (i.e. the voters) in these states.

As Kurt Vonnegut liked to say "So it goes".

My last comment here is to point out that "too many people are thinking in *words* rather than in systems".

For example, suppose we could prove that human production of various greenhouse gases in the current Gigaton ranges is pushing enough warming to happen so that other effects (like methane hydrates start putting worse greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?

We could try to price the problem out of existence. But the carbon credit idea and other mechanisms proposed to use market forces (with pretty standard economic models) to control things, quite misses the systems point. That is, there are lags and other bugs in trying to control things by high pricing -- for example, those who have money can afford to pay long beyond what a system might be able to stand.

In other words, we might start doing "reasonable" things to try to mitigate some of the problems, but our time constants might not measure up to the stresses the systems are undergoing.

Bottom line. Although there isn't a perfect proof that humans are causing a climate crisis, there are very good proofs that humans *are* causing many environmental crises, some of which will be extremely hard to recover from in terms of human lifespans and comforts.

The larger argument is thus much more that "It is time for humans to learn how to be stewards of their environment to the extent that they can -- and, as Carl Sagan once said, to quit "Treating the Earth as though there is some place to go after it is ruined".

Best wishes,


Alan Kay said...

Let's leave pop culture (the news, commonsense thinking, etc.) out of this. And let's understand two things especially, (a) Science is about trying to make good models of phenomena which include good estimates of error in the model, and (b) decisions need to take account of the costs of worst cases.

I sit on NSF's Environmental Research and Education Committee, along with other multidisciplinary scientists -- and we get a very good briefing every few months of the state of real knowledge about the environment.

The first point is that the environment is a very complex "system of systems" which range from physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and human industrial and social. So doing good science over the whole is tricky. But good science is being done in many parts of the geosphere.

The second point is that the most important issues have to do with possible systems crashes within the larger complex of systems.

Most systems have dynamic equilibrium at best and can deal with small nudges, but larger ones can move the system into other states, some of which are worse for us than they were, and some of which can be more stable. Imagine a mushroom shaped toy - it can be pushed a little bit with a finger and will right itself, but a larger push will topple it and now similar pushes will not right it. Or imagine killing off life on Earth -- not so difficult to do. It will most likely reevolve, but most like take the same billions of years to happen.

In "real" climate science, one of the biggest difficulties in assigning small error measures to the current models is that the clouds are extremely difficult to model accurately. This X factor is significant. The current results that are overwhelmingly indicated by the best evidence coupled with the best models is that warming is happening. Exactly how much and exactly what from is less clear, but there are (lesser) indications that also have quite a bit of evidence and modeling connected to them.

But the important questions really have to do with the costs to humans (the least of which are monetary) of climate change. For example, what is being done to start to deal with serious downsides (regardless of whether humans are causing it or not)? Most governments are treating this more like the way sub-Saharan Africa treated AIDS. It was happening too slowly for commonsense, scientific thinking was not there to provide accurate enough scenarios, and so forth.

Bill Kerr said...

hi alan,

My attempt to generalise your first point about the the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is that capitalism does make a mess and is sometimes or often negligent in showing forethought beforehand or cleaning up that mess afterwards. So the bottom line for me is the preoccupation of surplus capital to invest somewhere where it can make a profit and the distortions this creates, be they economic, environmental or the development of science.

If we didn't have a for profit system then the necessary transition from fossil fuels to currently more expensive alternatives could happen more smoothly. John McCarthy has argued convincingly that human progress is sustainable.

In specific cases exposure of the mess does a lot of good in changing the political process. This has more recently evolved into Green political parties now holding the balance of power and having considerable influence globally. For me this has created a problem. Green ideology has brought its own distortions and departures from objectivity, to the process.

I have some concerns along these lines:
- direct recent evidence that some environmental scientists have deliberately distorted the peer review process (climategate)
- the rise of "official science" in a climate of fear, rather than real science as a method of inquiry (pointed out by Lindzen)
- various myths promoted implicitly by Green philosophy, that nature is balanced, healthy (when balanced), that stasis is achievable and that nature is sacred, that there is a biocentric view at odds with anthropocentric view (from Alston Chase)
- an orthodox alarmist litany from global warming, endangered species, peak oil, etc. that stridently condemns anyone who questions it and avoids real debate (from Lomborg)

The Carl Sagan quote expresses a general desire that we all share. In the time he wrote I think the general framing was ugly capitalism versus the environment. Since then IMO the framing has become more complex.

Bill Kerr said...

hi alan,

I replied to your first mail before I saw and approved for publishing the second one in my mail box

Your comments about the currrent state of the science are very interesting

I'm far from sure about your point (b) however: "decisions need to take account of the costs of worst cases"

With the degree of uncertainty about global warming and / or anthropogenic global warming I don't see how it is possible to evaluate what a worst case is or how likely it is.

Alan Kay said...

Hi Bill,

The order of my comments in the comment thread is backwards (and I indicated this in the comments) -- it would help readers if you put these in the correct order.

The comment is just one comment which the blog itself rejected for length. It starts with "let's leave pop culture ...".

The second part of the comment starts with "Let's go to neutral ground ...".



Alan Kay said...

Hi Bill, here's the reply to your Dec 20th 3:29 comment.
It is much more possible to evaluate various kinds of worst cases and their costs in lives, resources and money. The existing science and models are quite good enough for this.

I think the difference between this and the difficulty of evaluating likelihoods accurately is one of the least understood aspects of these controversies. There are very strong analogies here to similar contrasts in modeling various kinds of possible epidemics and their likelihoods.

Bottom line here is that it is a good idea to damp down possible epidemics of contagious deadly diseases without cures even when it is hard to estimate likelihoods.

There is another possible analogy here. It's not generally understood by the public, but by far the most effective measures for dealing with disease are not expensive inoculations and treatments after incursion (it's good we have these to fall back on), but the most effective process are those of sanitation coupled with a lively imagination of what diseases are and how they spread.

(This is tough for commonsense thinkers -- which in the US at least unfortunately include many doctors, who despite their training are very careless about washing their hands and using other prophylactic measures. The result is as many as 200,000 deaths per year from diseases incurred while patients were being treated for something else (this is about 50% of what tobacco causes, so is quite alarmingly large).

Three ways of thinking about this kind of logic, is

(a) it's not about believing or disbelieving, or being an alarmist or denier -- these are "human universal thinking bugs" and just distract from the real thinking that needs to be done

(b)nor can it always be about "clear and present danger" for the same reasons. This is what did in South Saharan Africa. The big problem with systems crashes is that they are non-linear and have thresholds. A well known one in epidemics is when too many people are infected to take care of the infected. Then 3rd and 4th order effects finish things off quickly.

(c)the thing that matters most here is the combination of disaster and difficult recovery. In the Katrina disaster, the only pumps which didn't fail shortly after the incursions were the original ones invented and built in 1904 by my favorite engineer Baldwin Wood. He thought the whole thing through and found it necessary to invent new kinds of pumps (whose designs he gave away to the world). His designs dealt with the reality of a real disaster, whereas many of the pumps put in years later by the Army Corps of Engineers were much more "wishful thinking pumps" that were more symbolic than real engineering solutions.

When Rome fell civilization fell for about 900 years, and it was not reinvented, but was bootstrapped on the fragments of Greek thought that had been spared.

So what we need to think about is how to avoid/deal with systems crashes that lay waste to civilization and are difficult to recover from.

There's a lot of distracting noise about these issues particularly outside of science, but it's important to identify and prioritize the actual issues.

Best wishes,


Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

I looked up some more Lomborg sources. His general theme is that there are worse problems in the world than climate change and his group attempts to identify those issues and what could be done about them. The wikipedia page Copenhagen Consensus has a good account of his approach including a section of criticisms. Some people claimed that "climate change was set up to fail" and there were other criticisms from various economists, (not that they have a good track record of controlling complex systems)

I also looked at the wikipedia welfare economics page on which his approach is based. I'll need to look at that economic approach more as part of my economics study.

I'm not endorsing Lomborg (at this stage) but think that his ideas deserve far more coverage and discussion

btw I found a few more interesting Lomborg articles, the Wall Journal Published a sequence, you can find my bookmarks here if interested.

Bill Kerr said...

hi alan,

I'm not sure if I understand fully what you are saying so I'll just try to summarise to see if I have it roughly right:

1) The science of the environment is very complex, computer modelling is a good idea, some good is being done but parts of this complex system (clouds) have proved too difficult to model accurately at this stage.

2) Systems are dynamic and with a positive feedback loop it is possible for a small nudge to move the system to a very different place, which may be very destructive to human life as we know it

3) Irrespective of who or what is to blame, we should prepare for and it is possible to prepare for worst case scenarios because they can be so damaging as to set us back enormously


I'm still very unclear about how this would look in terms of preparation for a worse case scenario for global warming, how the real science would look and feel like for that scenario compared to the wishful thinking science, not to mention the economics and politics required to make it happen. I certainly think we should prepare better for the possibility of an asteroid hitting earth - but that would be a very tough one too.

I reread the WSJ Richard Linzen article The Climate Science isn't settled . What he says there is consistent with point (1) above and he regards point (2) as unlikely or not established by the evidence and so does not proceed to point (3)

Mark Miller said...


When Lindzen addressed "tipping points", he was narrowly focused on the issue of CO2-induced warming and the greenhouse effect. Since the physics of CO2 inducement is logarithmic, he did not see a possibility where the effect of CO2 alone would cause a tipping point, because of its "diminishing returns". He addressed the likelihood that greenhouse warming (again, just this specifically) would cause a general system tipping point with the graph he showed at the end. He showed that it was highly unlikely, since the evidence showed that outgoing radiation was not increasingly being trapped by the greenhouse effect.

However, nowhere in his presentation did he contradict the notion that the Earth has warmed. He showed it in the temperature graph, for example. He also implied it in the outgoing radiation graph: As surface temperature has risen, so has the radiation that has escaped to space. He did not address what was causing the warming at all. He just showed evidence of what was NOT causing the warming.

The evidence does show that the Earth has warmed from where it was 30 years ago. So the question remains about what has been causing that. Leaving that aside, what I saw Alan getting to re. GW was, "Regardless of what's causing it, even if the cause is primarily natural, there are tipping points in Earth's systems that are conceivable. How are we preparing for a change in the state of Earth's systems?"

I agree with Alan that there are still some thorny environmental issues that science is revealing. I watched a good documentary on Frontline a while back, called "Poisoned Waters" that talked about this "dead zone" issue. There's a button on the linked page where you can watch the full thing online. It's not just happening in the Louisiana delta. It's happening all over the world, though this doc. only focused on water pollution in the U.S.

Effluent from livestock operations in the Chesapeake watershed is causing a dead zone in the Bay. Drainage from cities on the east and west coasts that are located right on the shoreline are causing the same thing, since their systems were designed to divert drainage right into coastal areas.

What was disappointing to me was hearing that environmental groups that were trying to address this legitimate problem on the East Coast were not succeeding in the political process by discussing the science with the public. They said they didn't get a response that showed the citizenry understood the ramifications of the problem (or that it cared). So instead now they focus on getting the public concerned about overcrowding and pollution (which they feel affects them), so that in effect they produce a response that addresses the larger problem (outside of what people directly experience), without realizing that this is what they have done, basically using the same political dynamic that caused the problem to address it! Or I guess it could be said that "two groups found something of mutual interest, but for different reasons." So, maybe the problem is not being explained as comprehensively as it should be so that people get it. Or maybe there's a lack of understanding of system dynamics on the part of the public, as Alan was saying, so they can draw rational conclusions about implications of the evidence. Or, it could also be a symptom of what Neil Postman wrote about in, "Amusing Ourselves To Death". What's disappointing to me is apparently people have to be manipulated into doing something that is in their own interest, since they can't see the long-term ramifications of their actions. This is corrosive to a system of self-government, but it is a tactic that has historically had to be employed from time to time in such a system.

Mark Miller said...

The reason I've been concerned about the presentation of this issue in the public sphere, re. the theory of AGW, is I think it's damaging for society to have information presented as "authoritative science" that at best has shaky foundations. Of course the ideal would be a society that greets information skeptically, no matter its source, with a sense of curiosity to investigate claims that are made. I don't think that's what we have. I guess what I've worried about most with regard to this is a "tipping point" of a different kind: A point where people just "dial out" science, since they won't even see it as a reliable way to understand what's really happening. Not that this would come from experiencing scientific inquiry, but rather from being convinced and then disillusioned by the pop culture presentation of it, being otherwise ignorant of what science really is. Of course this gets to the larger issue of education.

Earlier this year I attended a panel discussion about "agendas in science" at the University of Colorado, and I was surprised to hear one of the panelists (someone who was not a scientist, incidentally) basically take the post-modernist view that science just represented one perspective among many, and that it is not free from political biases. Further she asserted that it's no better than any other group activity with a political agenda, and advocated that rather than listening to scientists, or participating in science, people should just engage in whatever activities their moral compass dictates. On its face, the last part of that is not at issue, but what struck me was her misunderstanding of science, and the fact that she was not challenged by anyone on the panel. A consolation I had was I didn't get a sense that people in the audience bought her argument. The fact that this POV was brought into the discussion about a subject that was primarily about ethics in science, and was delivered so stridently was disconcerting.

Mark Miller said...

I thought that Lindzen brought up an interesting point in his paper, saying that the current atmosphere of orthodoxy in the field of climate science is retarding the progress of discovery.

When he said in his presentation (in the 6-part video series) that "the field is corrupt", he did clarify that in a few places. He said that a principle of science is that you should not attribute a primary cause to an effect if the evidence does not support it. He followed this by saying that scientists generally "try to keep the science straight," but they will not drop the attribution of AGW in their findings, even if the evidence seems to go against it. He said this was primarily a "CYA action" so they won't jeopardize their funding and careers.

So I can see where a scientist could say, "There's nothing wrong with the science," because they're primarily interested in the data and the analysis. It's just that the non-scientist has to be discerning about reading the work product, rather than reading it too literally.

I had the thought a year or two ago that the state of climate science is rather like that of astronomy in Copernicus's time, where the theory of heliocentrism was controversial, and so Copernicus was reticent to share his findings with the world. He didn't have it published until his death. And of course there was much more to be discovered, as there is with our climate system.

This year I heard a story about a climate researcher (unfortunately I can't recall the name) who basically said, "Now that I'm retired I can finally say what I really think." She revealed that she had privately questioned the AGW hypothesis for years, but did not feel free to express her skepticism.

To provide some contrast I'll quote Carl Sagan:

"There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive, or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths. Diversity and debate are valued. Opinions are encouraged to contend--substantively and in depth.


We insist on independent and--to the extent possible--quantitative verification of proposed tenets of belief. We are constantly prodding, challenging, seeking contradictions or small, persistent, residual errors, proposing alternate explanations, encouraging heresy. We give our highest rewards to those who convincingly disprove established beliefs."

While I have been concerned about the economic ramifications of proposed solutions to AGW, I've always thought that if the evidence was there that the economics would be the least of our problems. My primary concern around the issue has been about the integrity of science. At least as far as Alan is concerned, I'm happy to hear that he is involved with the issue, and that he is confident that he and his colleagues are dealing with accurate information.

There's this one video clip of Michael Crichton visiting a school that I've really liked. He called himself an environmentalist, but he criticized environmentalism, as its conducted itself in our society, for being like a religion. He gave what I thought was a very good critique of that, and contrasted it with science.

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

I watched the Michael Crichton video clip. He gets some of his ideas from Alston Chase who has written about both Yellowstone and the "fight over forests". Crichton has written a novel, State of Fear , about environmental war b/w greens who become terrorists and those fighting them. It's a strange novel, I would describe as James Bond versus the evil greenies but with a bit of deep thinking thrown in every now and again. From memory Crichton has a separate section where he outlines his views about the environmental issue. He also has a reference list. It was from that list that I first discovered and bought one of Alston Chase's books: In a Dark Wood. This book is definitely worth reading for both the facts, the story and its philosophy.

Bill Kerr said...

It's worth documenting Judith Curry's thoughts about climateGate as well in her open letter :

"There are three strategies for dealing with skeptics:
1) Retreat into the ivory tower
2) Circle the wagons/point guns outward: ad hominem/appeal to motive attacks; appeal to authority; isolate the enemy through lack of access to data; peer review process
3) Take the “high ground:” engage the skeptics on our own terms (conferences, blogosphere); make data/methods available/transparent; clarify the uncertainties; openly declare our values

Most scientists retreat into the ivory tower. The CRU emails reflect elements of the circling of wagons strategy..."

Curry supports the third approach but she seems to be in a minority unfortunately

Mark Miller said...

Hi Bill.

I've read Curry's open letter. Even though it sounds like we probably would disagree about the evidence, I was glad to see she advocates the open approach w/ sharing of data. IMO that's the way science is supposed to work in the first place. Some secrecy is excusable when developing a finding, but there should come a point where you lay it all out for independent review.

I found it poignant when she quoted from an e-mail from a student with a MS in climatology, who said that the revelations contained in the CRU e-mails caused him/her to question whether s/he should pursue a Ph.D in the field. The reason being of course that these were "scientists behaving badly", and I don't blame one for wondering if this is typical in the field.

Even though climate scientists disagree I'd be happy to see them finally debate the evidence.