Archive for the 'global warming' Category

Grantham’s Nature Op-ed: Be Brave

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Jeremy Grantham is not a scientist. From his Wikipedia intro:

Jeremy Grantham is a British investor and Co-founder and Chief Investment Strategist of Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo (GMO), a Boston-based asset management firm. GMO is one of the largest managers of such funds in the world, having more than US $97 billion in assets under management as of December 2011. Grantham is regarded as a highly knowledgeable investor in various stock, bond, and commodity markets, and is particularly noted for his prediction of various bubbles.

So: He’s a sharp business dude who has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to correctly identify when society is failing to properly process information about an impending crisis. Which makes his recent op-ed in Nature magazine worth reading: Be persuasive. Be brave. Be arrested (if necessary).

I have yet to meet a climate scientist who does not believe that global warming is a worse problem than they thought a few years ago. The seriousness of this change is not appreciated by politicians and the public. The scientific world carefully measures the speed with which we approach the cliff and will, no doubt, carefully measure our rate of fall. But it is not doing enough to stop it. I am a specialist in investment bubbles, not climate science. But the effects of climate change can only exacerbate the ecological trouble I see reflected in the financial markets — soaring commodity prices and impending shortages.


President Barack Obama missed the chance of a lifetime to get a climate bill passed, and his great environmental and energy scientists John Holdren and Steven Chu went missing in action. Scientists are understandably protective of the dignity of science and are horrified by publicity and overstatement. These fears, unfortunately, are not shared by their opponents, which makes for a rather painful one-sided battle. Overstatement may generally be dangerous in science (it certainly is for careers) but for climate change, uniquely, understatement is even riskier and therefore, arguably, unethical.

It is crucial that scientists take more career risks and sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on the global-warming problem. Younger scientists are obsessed by thoughts of tenure, so it is probably up to older, senior and retired scientists to do the heavy lifting. Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave.

The rest of it is worth reading, too.

More Scary Stuff About the Future by People with Actual Expertise

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

shcb will not find the credentials of the authors of this report compelling. He will imagine that their training and the level of analysis they bring to bear is roughly the equivalent of (or, if he’s being honest, slightly inferior to) his own. He may comment on this item, and if he does, it is likely his comment will strike me the same way it does when Nigel Tufnel stares at Marty DiBergi for a moment before explaining (yet again) that “these go to eleven.”

shcb will be wrong.

Nevertheless, here you go: From John D. Steinbruner, Paul C. Stern, and Jo L. Husbands, Editors; Committee on Assessing the Impact of Climate Change on Social and Political Stresses; Board on Environmental Change and Society; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council: Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis.

From the report’s preface:

Core features of the climate change situation are known with confidence. The greenhouse effect associated with the carbon dioxide molecule has been measured, as has the dwell time of that molecule and its concentration in the atmosphere. We also know that the rate at which carbon dioxide is currently being added to the atmosphere substantially exceeds the natural rate that prevailed before the rise of human societies. That means that a large and unprecedentedly rapid thermal impulse is being imparted to the earth’s ecology that will have to be balanced in some fashion. We know beyond reasonable doubt that the consequences will be extensive. We do not, however, know the timing, magnitude, or character of those consequences with sufficient precision to make predictions that meet scientific standards of confidence.

In principle the thermal impulse could be mitigated to a degree that would presumably preserve the current operating conditions of human societies, but the global effort required to do that is not being undertaken and cannot be presumed. As a practical matter, that means that significant burdens of adaptation will be imposed on all societies and that unusually severe climate perturbations will [be] encountered in some parts of the world over the next decade with an increasing frequency and severity thereafter. There is compelling reason to presume that specific failures of adaptation will occur with consequences more severe than any yet experienced, severe enough to compel more extensive international engagement than has yet been anticipated or organized.

This report has been prepared at the request of the U.S. intelligence community with these circumstances in mind. It summarizes what is currently known about the security effects of climate perturbations, admitting the inherent complexities and the very considerable uncertainties involved. But under the presumption that these effects will be of increasing significance, it outlines the monitoring activities that the intelligence community should be developing in support of improved anticipation, more effective prevention efforts, and more decisive emergency reaction when that becomes necessary.

Talking about Sandy and Climate Change

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

I’ve been reading a bunch of people talking about whether Hurricane Sandy was “caused by” climate change (answer: it depends on what you mean by “caused by”). Also the related question: Is it kosher to leave off some of the nuance when explaining that issue to the public, if by doing so you can help overcome the impediments created by a toxic, culturally charged information environment that has left broad swaths of the public misinformed about climate change?

  • Probable Cause – Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist from MIT, writing in Foreign Policy magazine. Good, solid information on the question by an expert well-versed in the relevant science. Please note both parts of his argument: 1) It probably is at least somewhat inaccurate to say Sandy was the direct result of climate change. 2) A rational understanding of the risks posed by climate change would lead us to take a much greater collective response to mitigate that risk than we have so far done.
  • The moral logic of climate communication – David Roberts, writing in Grist. Roberts presents an interesting, and to my mind fairly apt, analogy involving a patient who has a serious disease that requires expensive treatment, but who is not yet feeling the effects of it. Then the patient has a flu that was not directly caused by the disease, but may have been worsened by it, and is similar to the effects that the disease can be expected to produce if left untreated. What should the doctor tell the patient about the nature of the disease?
  • Moral logic vs. scientific accuracy – David Appell, writing on his Quark Soup blog. Appell calls shenanigans on Roberts for the previously-listed article. He says, in effect, that Roberts is abandoning scientific truth in the name of winning the argument, but that scientific truth is the only thing our side has, meaning to abandon it is crazy. My personal take: Appell is guilty of arguing against a strawman version of Roberts’ argument. And I wish both authors would pay more attention to the distinction between scientists (who need to do their best to be scrupulously objective) and science communicators (who need to be aware of, and respond to, the ways in which their audience will interpret the stories they are told about what scientists believe).

Staniford Gives Drum a Pep-Talk on Not Giving in to Despair in the Face of Climate Change

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

The other day my man-crush Kevin Drum made a depressed and frustrated-sounding post (Is it time to start adapting to climate change?) in which he basically framed the climate change issue as an either/or choice between working for mitigation to prevent catastrophic warming (which, as he points out, is looking increasingly like a vain pursuit), and pursuing adaptation and geoengineering.

I immediately reacted, at least in my head, with “um, it’s not an either/or question. We have to pursue mitigation, and continue to pursue mitigation, because ultimately that’s the difference between a livable planet and a non-livable planet. And we have to do adaptation, both because a significant amount of warming is already locked in, and because local adaptation efforts represent a path that can take us beyond the current toxic information environment on climate. And finally, geoengineering is something to explore, sure, but that exploration needs to be done in a way that’s mindful of its costs and limitations, not as a way of trying to punt responsibility for solving the problem into a vague and largely ignored future.”

But I’m all about obsessing over The Lizzie Bennet Diaries these days (irony noted, yeah), so I didn’t actually respond to Drum’s post. Thankfully, my other man-crush, Stuart Staniford, was up to the job: Avoiding defeatism on climate change. He starts with the following chart, and gets more and more awesome from there:

The whole post is a must-read for anyone who cares about climate change, and is despairing in the way that Kevin Drum is. Yes, from a certain perspective the problem of climate change is super hard. But like any super-hard problem, you solve it one manageable piece at a time. And even if you can’t see all the steps ahead, you can see well enough to know what needs doing now. So do that. If thinking about the whole job makes you want to curl into a ball and give up, well, I guess you’d better not spend quite so much time thinking about the difficulties inherent in the whole job. Just do the piece in front you. Once you’ve dealt with that, you can move on to the next piece.

Kloor: More on How GMO Fear is the Climate Denial of the Left

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Another in a continuing series of posts by Keith Kloor on the similarities between science denialism by those on the right (who deny the scientific consensus on climate change) and the left (who deny the scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods): A tale of two sciences.

Bill McKibbon Wants to Pick a Fight

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

You know the scene in Braveheart, after William Wallace has made his awesome horseback speech to rally the troops at the Battle of Stirling? And he has that quick confab with Stephen and Hamish and the gang (“Be yourselves”) and then as he’s about to ride off, Stephen asks him where he’s going. And William says, “I’m going to pick a fight.”

Bill McKibbon is about to do that, launching a nationwide tour to talk about the numbers from his terrifying new math article in Rolling Stone, and channel the resulting outrage in the direction of a divestment campaign aimed at fossil fuel companies.

Wen Stephenson in Grist talked with McKibbon about what he’s up to: Cue the math: McKibben’s roadshow takes aim at Big Oil.

So can divestment, I asked, be an effective strategy? Can it generate enough economic leverage to make a difference?

“I think it’s a way to a get a fight started,” Bill said without hesitation, “and to get people in important places talking actively about the culpability of the fossil fuel industry for the trouble that we’re in. And once that talk starts, I think it does start imposing a certain kind of economic pressure. Their high stock price is entirely justified by the thought that they’re going to get all their reserves out of the ground. And I think we’ve already made an argument that it shouldn’t be a legitimate thing to be doing.”

In other words, as in South Africa, as with Big Tobacco, there’s economic leverage in the moral case?


Roberts on Discount Rates and Cute Otters

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

This was a quite-enjoyable article from David Roberts on how economic models factor into discussions about appropriate policies re: climate change: Discount rates: A boring thing you should know about (with otters!)

It’s true that there are many assumptions involved in determining a social cost of carbon. What’s also true is that many of those assumptions are based, in part, on moral judgments.

As cultures, as polities, how should we make those kind of judgments? Frank Partnoy, a professor of law and finance at the University of San Diego, makes the right point:

“Ultimately, we can’t rely on only numbers – we have to make really hard value judgments,” Dr. Partnoy said. “We should stop pretending this is a science and admit it is an art and talk about this in terms of ethics and fairness, not what we can observe in the markets.”

That, to me, is the key take-home message about discount rates: They are social and ethical disputes being waged under cover of math, as though they are nothing but technical matters to be determined by “experts.” But social and ethical judgments should be made in an open, transparent way, not buried in models as inscrutable parameters.

I mean, we’re talking about how much we value our children and grandchildren. Surely that’s a matter for democratic discussion and debate!

Singing About Science

Monday, September 17th, 2012

You’ve probably seen it already (since I’ve seen it about 5 times from various sources in my newsfeed), but the Symphony of Science guy (John Boswell, aka melodysheep) has a new auto-tuned song out about climate change:

Also, Phil Plait called my attention to this moving (and scientifically accurate!) song and video about lunar libration:

That in turn led me to this video, from the same people as Libration (Matt Schickele, composition and visuals; Hai-Ting Chinn, voice; and Erika Switzer, piano), though this time with a different skeptic (Steven Novella) providing the lyrics. Also very moving (at least for me), while being simultaneously profound:

Pielke, Jr.: Someone Is WRONG at the IPCC!

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Roger Pielke, Jr. posts his email correspondence with the IPCC concerning parts of the body’s 2007 assessment (AR4) on extreme weather events. Pielke argues, as he has for some time, that the AR4 contains significant errors in that area, and should be corrected: The IPCC sinks to a new low.

It’s an interesting exchange, and granted, we’re only getting Pielke’s version of the evidence, but the IPCC doesn’t seem to be covering itself in glory. It reads very much like a bureaucratic organization going out of its way to construe the evidence raised by Pielke in whatever light makes it easiest for the organization to avoid altering its findings. Which seems perfectly consistent with a political entity. But not so much with a scientific one.

So, does that mean the IPCC is corrupt, global warming is bunk, and the whole thing is just a huge warmist conspiracy aimed at imposing socialism on us all?

Sigh. If only it were so. No, it doesn’t mean that.

But it does look to me like decent evidence that the IPCC is willing to lean on the scales when summarizing scientific findings in order to advance a particular policy agenda. Which is… unfortunate.

Denial of Climate Change About to Get a Lot Harder

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Behold the death spiral of Artic sea ice:

Have you ever seen a frozen lake thaw? There’s a gradual thinning, a few open patches and a lot of mushiness, and then bam! Ice-free lake. The transition seems sudden when it comes.

I think a similar transition is coming for those who don’t believe in climate change. Instead of mushy ice giving way to dark, open water, it’s going to be mushy thinking giving way to dark, horrified clarity: Oh, shit.

Climate change is real. It’s here. This is our generation’s Pearl Harbor, and the bombs are falling.

Update: I neglected to link to it originally, but this piece by Dan Farber was actually what got me thinking about the metaphorical similarity between a thawing lake and Republican denial of climate change: Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water: Crossing the Partisan Divide on Environmental Issues.

Changing One’s Mind

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Keith Kloor posts today with some examples of people who were sailing along with one belief and then, despite the headwind created by motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, managed to tack and sail off in a completely different direction: The Conversion.

Among the examples:

  • Confessions of a Climate Change Convert – D.R. Tucker, a Republican who went from skeptical to alarmed about global warming after he read the latest IPCC report.
  • Prominent atheist blogger converts to Catholicism – Leah Libresco, who went from having a loudly outspoken belief that there is no God at all to believing that in fact there is one, and Catholicism is the faith that brings her closest to Him.
  • Mutation Butts and Schooled! – Dan Piraro of the “Bizarro” comic, who posted a strongly worded warning on his blog about the dangers of genetically modified food last Saturday. Some commenters on his blog expressed disappointment and encouraged him to educate himself more about the GMO issue, and two days later (yesterday), Piraro posted an item in which he retracted his earlier comments.

From Piraro’s mea culpa (which I guess is the wrong phrase, since he didn’t actually apologize):

I’m not embarrassed that I was wrong and had to change my story. That’s the best thing about being an open-minded, reason-based person instead of, say, a politician; you don’t stick to erroneous beliefs in the face of new evidence for fear that people will think you are fallible. If everyone lived this way, the world would be much less ignorant, as I am today thanks to information given to me by some of my Jazz Pickles. Thanks!

“Jazz Pickles” is Piraro’s term for his regular blog commenters. Go Jazz Pickles! :-)

How to Talk About Climate Change

Monday, September 10th, 2012

A couple of interesting how-to type things I can recommend for people (like me) who sometimes want to try to talk persuasively, in particular about climate change (though I think the advice is good for pretty much anything one wants to communicate).

First up, Joe Romm’s new book really is quite good. I already mentioned it briefly in a previous item, but here it is again (repetition!) with a picture:

Second, several people in my newsfeed (most recently David Roberts) have mentioned the new pamphlet from Betsy Taylor of Breakthrough Strategies, Climate Solutions for a Stronger America: A Guide for Engaging and Winning on Climate Change & Clean Energy (PDF).

At first I thought it was from the Breakthrough Institute, and as a result I passed on actually reading it. It’s not that I have any strong feelings against the Breakthrough Institute, but I have gotten the feeling that there’s a particular set of solutions they’re pushing, and the knowledge that I’d need to be on guard against being oversold by someone with a vested interest in selling me served as a disincentive. But knowing that David Roberts liked it caused me to look closer, and I realized that no, Breakthrough Strategies and the Breakthrough Institute appear to be completely different people.

Anyway, both items get my personal stamp of approval.

Update: Another interesting item on communicating about climate change. From Matthew Nisbett of the Age of Engagement blog: NPR News on Framing Global Warming as a Public Health Threat.

Nisbet also warns that messaging around climate change can become “deactivating” for people, not just if it evokes anger, but if it leaves people without a sense of hope for a solution, or if the problem seems too complex to address. He says that respondents in the “alarmed,” “concerned” and “cautious” categories react with hope to all three frames, but that people in the “disengaged” category react much more positively to the public health frame than the national security or environmental frame. “They see it as something within their realm of control, something that can make their lives better.”

For that reason, in communicating about climate change, Nisbet says, advocates need to be careful not to “present the danger as being so threatening that it feels overwhelming to people. Whenever you give people information about the risk of climate change, if you don’t provide specific things they can do about it, they can become fatalistic, or just deny the threat. That’s been a problem with some of the environmental messaging around climate change.” Those specific action items, the research suggests, could include policies to make energy sources cleaner, to make cars and buildings more energy-efficient, to make public transportation more accessible and affordable, to improve the quality and safety of food, and to make cities and towns friendlier to cyclists and pedestrians.

McIntyre on Gleick (a little) and the ‘Lewandowsky Scam’

Saturday, September 8th, 2012

It’s been a while since I indulged my Peter Gleick obsession, but the propensity to geek out whenever I see his name remains. Case in point: this mention by Steve McIntyre, who was blogging about a different issue (itself an interesting salvo in the climate wars), in the course of which he gave a thumbnail recap of the Gleick affair: Anatomy of the Lewandowsky Scam.

Before considering the Lewandowsky scam, let’s first review the Peter Gleick scam and, in particular, how it’s been sanitized in warmist legend, a legend to which Lewandowsky himself has been a notable contributor.

As is well known, Gleick impersonated a Heartland director, tricking a secretary into sending him board documents. But having got the board documents, Gleick did not simply announce his coup and distribute the documents under his own name. Instead Gleick forged a grotesque memo and distributed it, along with the other documents, pretending to be a “Heartland Insider”.  It was this forged document that generated the most lurid commentary by the Guardian and other sympathizers.  Gleick’s tendentious forgery was characterized by Megan McArdle of the Atlantic as reading “like it was written from the secret villain lair in a Batman comic. By an intern.”

Lewandowsky saw nothing wrong with any aspect of Gleick’s conduct – not even the forgery. In an editorial last February,  Lewandowsky compared Gleick’s deception to Winston Churchill misdirecting the Germans on invasion plans, concluding that “it is a matter of personal moral judgment whether that public good justifies Gleick’s sting operation to obtain those revelations”.

Update: McIntyre’s discussion of Gleick was just a digression from the main point of his post, which concerned a survey that apparently was conducted by Stephan Lewandowsky, an Australian psychology professor, who used the survey results as part of a paper on ideologically-based rejection of science. See here for more from Lewandowsky on that: Bloggers’ Hall of Amnesia, and here for an interesting datapoint from McIntyre on how the operators of the blog hosting Lewandowsky’s postings are now censoring McIntyre, apparently for raising questions about Lewandowsky’s handling of fake submissions as part of his survey design: Lewandowsky Censors Discussion of Fake Data.

The whole thing is kind of interesting, in a petty, sucks-the-will-to-live-out-of-me way. Not unlike the Gleick affair. It turns out that when people get into pissing contests with each other, a certain amount of pee splashes around. This is true even when the people involved have advanced degrees. Which I guess should not be a surprise at this point.

Anyway, onward.

David Roberts Shames the Outliers

Friday, September 7th, 2012

If I could take just two bloggers with me to read on a desert island, David Roberts would be one of them. Here he is talking about Obama’s Democratic Convention speech last night: The part of Obama’s speech that was about climate without saying so.

Here’s how I see it: The modern U.S. conservative movement has opted out of that sense of citizenship and civic responsibility. It has become a tribal, revanchist force for the preservation of demographic privilege. It does not acknowledge the legitimacy of the president. It rejects the social-democratic consensus in place in every other wealthy democracy (“Europe!”). It rejects the consensus standards of science and journalism. It does not recognize many of the people and groups with which it shares a country as “real Americans.” I know I overuse this quote from Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, but nobody has described better what the GOP has become: “a resurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

It’s not that Obama or anyone else thinks Republicans must become Democrats or liberals to be citizens. It is simply that they must regain their sense of citizenship, their sense that adherence to a shared set of norms and willingness to compromise are what make a society function. They must come in from the cold.

It’s not just the right, of course. To coordinate, to accept risks, to share costs and benefits, to move together into the unknown with resolve, we all need to recapture that sense of civic spirit and common purpose. But in U.S. politics today, there is a distinct outlier. Bringing the American community back together must begin with identifying that outlier and subjecting it to social disapprobation. In his speech, Obama rather deftly attempted to do both.

Hoffman on Ending the Climate Science Culture War

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Andrew J. Hoffman (joint PhD in Management and Civil and Environmental Engineering from M.I.T.) writes interestingly about the climate change debate: Climate Science as Culture War. The piece is long, but definitely worthwhile, with lots of good references to people like Dan Kahan and Roger Pielke, Jr.

Attributing Extreme Weather to AGW, Finding Common Ground (Or Not)

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Another quick post to link to some interesting discussion that I’m not going to bother to write about in detail.

  • Perception of Climate Change – James Hansen of NASA argues in a somewhat science-y way that yes, you really can attribute recent extreme weather events to climate change. This has annoyed the hell out of Roger Pielke, Jr., and Judith Curry. They probably have a point. But then, Hansen has a point, too. As with most grand debates-without-end, I suspect a lot of arguing past each other is going on here.
  • Icy Relations: Extreme-Weather Question Drives Wedge Between Climate Scientists – Keith Kloor writing in Discover magazine. Kloor takes note of the emerging lack of consensus among climate scientists about how to view the Hansen paper linked to above.
  • Climate of Failure – Speaking of arguing past each other, here’s more of Pielke, Jr., writing in Foreign Policy and doing his best to bridge the divide and talk about those aspects of the current situation with the climate that both sides should be willing to agree upon. “Should” being the operative word there. Reminder to me: Really need to get around to reading The Climate Fix.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled beating each other up in the comments, already in progress.

Climate Wars Roundup

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Several climate change news items have crossed the radar screen lately, and even though at the moment I’m more obsessed with the influence of leprechauns on the outcome of the women’s Laser Radial class in Weymouth, I wanted to note them in passing.

  • Muller knows BEST that Watts is wrong – Martin Lack blogs about Richard Muller’s recent (continuing) movement in the direction of acknowledging that global warming is real and (this is the new-for-Muller part) demonstrably caused by humans. Lack also discusses Anthony Watts’ apparent attempt to lessen the impact of former-AGW-skeptic Muller’s apostasy by publicizing his (Watt’s) own as-yet-unpublished counter-study, claiming that half the observed global warming can be explained by inappropriate siting of ground measurement stations, or something like that. For myself, I’ll just observe that: 1) Muller is an actual scientist, while Watts is a former TV weatherman and blogger who apparently prefers not to provide his actual academic credentials, so this is a bit of an apples-vs.-oranges contest; and 2) people who sound very much like they know what they’re talking about point out that we’re not reliant on ground stations alone for much of the recent data being analyzed by folks like Muller; we have these things called satellites.
  • Apparently the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee had hearings today on climate change and extreme weather events. Judith Curry likes what she heard from this guy: John Christy’s EPW testimony. And Roger Pielke, Jr., did not like what he heard from this guy: IPCC Lead Author Misleads US Congress. Suzanne Goldenberg, whom I consider an unreliable witness, even while I agree in broad terms with her concerns about bequeathing an impoverished planet to the next, oh, 50 or 100 human generations, offers this ideologically congenial take on the proceedings: Scientists Warn Congress About Disastrous Effects of Climate Change.
  • Just over five months after his previous HuffPo blog entry (in which he took credit for releasing the Heartland documents, while possibly lying about how he came by the infamous “strategy memo”), Peter Gleick has posted again: The Real Story Behind the Fracking Debate. To which I can only say: And I should trust that you are telling me the truth about this issue exactly why?

Apropos of all that, I wanted to close with the following quote that Martin Lack highlighted in his piece above. It’s by James Hoggan, and apparently is part of the marketing materials for Hoggan’s book, Climate Cover-Up:

Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed… There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.

I think that’s really important. But I suspect I’m thinking about different people than Hoggan was when he wrote it.

Bill McKibben Does the Math on Global Warming

Friday, July 20th, 2012

Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth was simple, overwhelming, and depressing, with maybe just a hint of hope around the edges. His new article in Rolling Stone, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math is pretty much the same thing, condensed down and updated with the latest scariness.

When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn’t yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers.

The three numbers are these:

2 Degrees Celsius – This is the amount of warming that the world’s governments have agreed represents the redline beyond which we run an unacceptable risk of triggering quite horrific consequences. So far we’ve created about 0.8 degrees of warming. That makes it sound like we’ve got time to put the brakes on to avoid passing 2 degrees, but the inertia in the global climate system means that even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today, the temperature would continue to rise to a peak of around 1.6 degrees. In other words, as McKibben explains, “we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.” There’s also reason to think that 2 degrees was optimistic, and that extremely dire effects will be kicking in before that. But set that aside, and assume that two degrees of warming would represent a livable future.

565 Gigatons – This is the amount of additional carbon dioxide we can put into the atmosphere while having a reasonable chance (four chances in five) of staying below 2 degrees warming. If the current trajectory continues unchanged, we’ll add that amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in the next 16 years.

2,795 Gigatons – This is the amount of additional carbon dioxide that would be added to the atmosphere should all the world’s current “proven reserves” of coal, oil, and gas be extracted and burned.

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.

If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.

McKibben explores this more in the rest of the article. It isn’t pretty.

Voosen on Krosnick on Public Perceptions of (Climate) Scientists Who Advocate

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

There was an interesting article from Paul Voosen in Greenwire the other day: Climate: Scientists struggle with limits — and risks — of advocacy. I came across it on Judith Curry’s blog (Just the facts, please). Voosen talks about a not-yet-published study by Stanford psychologist Jon Krosnick:

Krosnick’s team hunted down video of climate scientists first discussing the science of climate change and then, in the same interview, calling for viewers to pressure the government to act on global warming. (Out of fears of bruised feelings, Krosnick won’t disclose the specific scientists cited.) They cut the video in two edits: one showing only the science, and one showing the science and then the call to arms.

Krosnick then showed a nationally representative sample of 793 Americans one of three videos: the science-only cut, the science and political cut, and a control video about baking meatloaf (The latter being closer to politics than Krosnick might admit). The viewers were then asked a series of questions both about their opinion of the scientist’s credibility and their overall beliefs on global warming.

For a cohort of 548 respondents who either had a household income under $50,000 or no more than a high school diploma, the results were stunning and statistically significant. Across the board, the move into politics undermined the science.

The viewers’ trust in the scientist dropped 16 percentage points, from 48 to 32 percent. Their belief in the scientist’s accuracy fell from 47 to 36 percent. Their overall trust in all scientists went from 60 to 52 percent. Their belief that government should “do a lot” to stop warming fell from 62 to 49 percent. And their belief that humans have caused climate change fell 14 percentage points, from 81 to 67 percent.

Krosnick is quick to note the study’s caveats. First, educated or wealthy viewers had no significant reaction to the political call and seemed able to parse the difference between science and a personal political view. The underlying reasons for the drop are far from clear, as well — it could simply be a function of climate change’s politicization. And far more testing needs to be done to see whether this applies in other contexts.

I was glad to see Voosen go on to discuss the study’s implications with Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project. As a Kahan fanboy, I was already saying, “yeah, but…” as I read the interpretation Krosnick appears to be applying to his study’s results, and it was good to see Kahan’s perspective represented in Voosen’s article, even if he (Kahan) was characteristically circumspect about getting into a detailed criticism of a study that he hasn’t seen (since it hasn’t actually been published yet).

We’re still arguing about whether the elephant is more like a writhing snake or a solid tree trunk or a flapping sail (No! It’s like an elephant!), but it’s good to get some data to help us focus on the elephant’s actual characteristics.

A Trio of Climate Change Items

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Three of the better items on climate change that have floated by my newsreader in the last day or so:

First up, some propaganda:

Next, an interesting post from Michael Tobis about scientific uncertainty: A Precedent for Failure of Consensus.

Scientists, being human, will err on the side of intuition, and having done so, will cluster together until new evidence changes the picture. Of course, we are amenable to new evidence. That’s the good news. But we can be blind to it if we are comfortable with the herd, and especially if the new evidence is even further from the intuitive sense of things.

And we are still fighting an intuitive sense based on our historical context, that the world is much larger than humanity. That’s totally wrong now, at least insofar as its surface processes go. The earth’s surface is a wholly owned subsidiary of the human enterprise. But most of us are still awestruck by the size and, well, awesomeness, of the world.

That is, our consensus estimate of 2.7 for climate sensitivity is a battle between the evidence at hand and our own innate cultural intuitions, to which as scientists we are not immune.

He continues from there. I found the whole thing really interesting.

Finally, David Roberts interviews Bob Inglis, the former U.S. Representative from South Carolina who was kicked out by a Tea Party opponent in the 2010 primary for the heresy of believing the scientific consensus on climate change: Hey, look, a Republican who cares about climate change!

Q. Tell me about the new organization you’re starting.

A. It’s called the Energy & Enterprise Initiative. It’s an effort to advocate for the elimination of all subsidies for all fuels and the attachment of all costs to all fuels. That’s the free-enterprise fix to energy and climate. If you correct the market distortions and make all fuels accountable for all of their costs, that will drive innovation and as a result reduce CO2 emissions.

The freebies for coal and petroleum are substantial even if you leave out the climate change impacts — just consider the health impacts, or attach to petroleum some of the defense costs in the Persian Gulf.

We want the accountability that is a key value of social-issue conservatives, who believe, as I do, that human beings are responsible actors. The argument to social-issue conservatives will be, if you’re coal, you gotta be accountable! If you’re causing 23,600 premature deaths in the U.S. annually, over 3 million lost work days annually, pay up!

And to the economic-issue conservatives, the argument is, don’t you see the market distortion? If those costs aren’t attached to coal, how will you ever build a nuclear power plant? It used to be convenient for us as conservatives to blame enviros for why we’re not building nuclear power plants, but if we update our rhetoric to the actual facts, what we find is it’s more a question of economics. It just doesn’t make sense to build a nuclear power plant if you can build a coal-fired plant that can belch and burn for free.

For the libertarian conservative, our case will be that we shouldn’t socialize costs and privatize profits. And for the national-security conservative, the case is, why haven’t we broken this addiction to oil? Why has every president since Richard Nixon made the same speech that Barack Obama made last spring? Because we haven’t said we’re ready to fight this thing; we’re gonna make the economics right. We fund both sides of the war on terror. We fund them with our gas pump purchases and then we fund the bombs to blow them up.

So the concept is, all four docks on the waterfront of conservatism, we think we’ve got a case — social-issue, economic-issue, libertarian, and national-security conservatives.

As the only politically conservative climate change skeptic to whom I have ready access, I’m curious what shcb makes of Inglis’s arguments.