Two Stopped Watches

Everyone knows the old adage that “even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” Then there’s that saying (which I’d always thought was a quotation from Mark Twain, but which turns out, at least according to some thinly sourced web pages, to be a quotation from someone named Lee Segall):

A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure.

Lately I’ve found both metaphors fighting for dominance as I read various climate change blogs. I’ve got my stopped clocks: blogs by committed partisans on one side (like Joe Romm) or the other (like Steve McIntyre), whom I’m used to reading with a grain of salt, since I recognize that, like a trial, I’m only hearing one side’s case at a time. Maybe they’re misleading me (well, they’re almost certainly misleading me, at least in the sense that they are going to exclude or de-emphasize truths damning to their case), but they still might be right, at least sometimes.

But in my post-Gleickian reading of a wider range of opinions, I’m now the man with two watches. And since they’re two stopped watches, with ideologically embedded opinions resistent to change, those stopped watches are never going to tell the same time.

It’s all quite bothersome, metaphorically speaking. Anyway, here are a few examples from my last few days’ reading.

I’ve been reading about Singer lately as I work my way through Oreskes’ and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt. For decades, according to Oreskes and Conway, Singer has made a habit of taking up contrarian scientific positions (on ozone depletion, the health risks of secondhand tobacco smoke, and global warming), then made use of media “fairness” policies to get himself lots of camera time (and corporate research funding). So yes, I’m sure the extreme denialists make it more difficult for Singer to stake out his contrarian-but-science-y-enough-to-be-credible positions. But I also suspect him of promoting a false equivalence by claiming it’s the extremists on both sides who are wrong, and lonely him in the middle who’s right.

Enough with the fighting over hockey sticks. How about a nice, non-contentious topic?

Breakthrough is the think tank founded by Nordhaus and Shellenberger to push their politically liberal attack on what they view as the failures of environmentalism, more or less. Anyway, they’re big on the idea (also articulated fairly persuasively by Lovelock in The Revenge of Gaia, which I recently read and enjoyed) that environmentalists (and the public generally) greatly overestimate the risks of nuclear power, and that a major commitment to nuclear fission is the only way for us to replace our electrical generating capacity in the short term without wrecking either the economy or the climate. (Not sure if that last is really a Breakthrough position. It’s certainly Lovelock’s position.)

  • Prospects for Nuclear Power – A paper by Lucas W. Davis in the American Economic Association’s Journal of Economic Perspectives (the link is to the abstract, but the full text is available as a PDF).

Davis argues that even if you could overcome the sorts of irrational nuke fears described by Lovelock and exacerbated by Fukushima, nuclear plants would still not be economically viable, due to the recent drop in price for natural gas due to techniques like fracking.

I don’t have an ideologically opposed “second watch” for this item, but I don’t feel like a post is complete these days if it doesn’t have a Gleick link. In this piece, Zasloff makes the case that Gleick’s actions may have been ethically justified under the tradition of people using deception to achieve a good end in cases where those ends can’t be achieved without the deception. I raise a question in a late comment (so far unanswered by Zasloff) as to whether he (Zasloff) was taking the account from Gleick’s confession at face value. That is, would the equation still show Gleick’s actions to be ethical if it turned out that he forged the strategy memo himself in an effort to mislead the public about how bad Heartland is?

So, that’s all I’ve got for now. Time ticks onward (or doesn’t, depending on whether your watches — either of them — are stopped). I’ll see what dissonance-inducing contradictions await me in the new day.

One Response to “Two Stopped Watches”

  1. nomatter_nevermind Says:

    S. Fred Singer mentions the ‘thermodynamics’ fallacy. I’ve seen this in a few climate threads. Some support it, like a couple of Singer’s commenters, and some like Singer are dismissive. I’ve yet to see anyone actually explain the fallacy.

    I’m no physicist, but I did well enough in the subject in college to be selected to tutor other students. I’ll take a stab at an explanation.

    This sort of thing makes for good exam essay questions. I’ve thought of a variant, a thought experiment, which I will offer for those who would like to ponder it before reading my explanation.

    Suppose you find yourself in a cold room. You look about for something you can use to warm yourself. You find a nice, thick blanket. But the blanket has been in the room a long time. Its surface temperature has reached equilibrium with the surrounding air, much colder than the surface of your skin. If you wrap yourself in the blanket, will it warm you? Why?

    Singer’s version of the thermodynamic objection is ‘one cannot transfer energy from a cold atmosphere to a warmer surface.’ As Singer notes, this is an objection to the greenhouse effect itself, not just AGW. If valid, it must leave us wondering why the surface of Venus is hotter than that of Mercury.

    As one of Singer’s commenters observes, ‘there are NO exceptions to the Laws of Thermodynamics.’ But there seem to be many misinterpretations of them, and this is one. It’s missing a crucial word, net. (It’s also missing the word thermal, but that’s not important here.)

    The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us there can be no net, thermal transfer of energy from a cooler to a warmer region. The greenhouse effect cannot exist if it requires such a thing. But it doesn’t.

    I’ll illustrate this with another thought experiment. I’ll dispense with the complexities of a three-dimensional atmosphere, by picturing an airless planet with a single, large, also airless satellite. The satellite is in geostationary orbit above the planet’s equator, while both orbit a star I will call ‘the sun’. The sun is the only significant source of energy for heating the surfaces of the other two bodies.

    The surface of the satellite has a high albedo in the visible spectrum. It absorbs little energy from the sun, and is always at a lower temperature than the surface of the planet.

    When it’s night on the side of the planet facing the satellite, both bodies will be radiating black-body IR at one another. Black-body IR is a form of thermal energy transfer, so the 2d LoT has the implication described above. Both surfaces will absorb IR, but only the cooler surface will gain more energy than it loses and rise in temperature. The planet’s surface will lose energy and fall in temperature, but more slowly than if the satellite were not there. The net transfer of energy is from the planet to the satellite, from the warmer surface to the cooler.

    As the satellite’s surface warms, it’s black-body spectrum shifts, peaking at shorter, higher-energy wavelengths. The planet’s surface receives more energy, further slowing its rate of cooling. This is the part of the story directly analogous to the GHE, as the planet’s surface receives back some of the energy it recently radiated.

    The planet’s surface cools through the night, but at the end of the night its temperature is higher than it would be if there were no satellite.

    For both bodies, the average surface temperature over time is higher than it would be if the other body were not there. This is analogous to the GHE warming both the surface and atmosphere of a planet whose atmosphere has GHGs.

    There’s my explanation. I hope it’s in the ballpark. I invite correction of my errors.

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