You gotta argue with me if you wanna argue with me, not the dumbest nearby trope.

- Preston Austin

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Open science good, FOIA snooping bad.

Open science good, FOIA snooping bad. It’s not complicated. But it’s not easy.

By me, on Medium:

Keep Your Damn Lawyers Out of My Notebooks

Helicopter Money

Social Credit (*) is mocked here as "helicopter money" here; based on this article it certainly seems likely that the Swiss proposal to go all in on a guaranteed non-means-tested universal income will be excessive and will backfire.

(* Historically in Canada this idea was called "social credit", which remains the name I prefer. Unfortunately the idea was premature and also it  picked up some cultural baggage by appealing to unsophisticated and xenophobic rural voters. But I think it's clear that "helicopter money" is not intrinsically a bad idea.) 

Work and wealth have to be connected, but work and survival with a reasonable level of dignity should not. And as machines end up doing all the substantive work, they increasingly cannot.

An otherwise thriving society based on the artificial necessity of enormous amounts of pantomime work has been tried before, I think, on Easter Island. It did not end well.

A good press report on a good attribution study

For a change. Lots of English-language sources for this, and it's not clear which to link to. It's originally from Agence France-Presse. Here it is on Yahoo.

Rather less successful is this piece from the BBC on the same research, but it's still relatively good on the spectrum of this sort of reporting.

Because I'm trying to cover this ground myself in my book project, I'm trying to understand why I like some reports and so thoroughly dislike others.

For one obvious thing, though, the NPR report isn't actually reporting any science, just a bit of off-the-cuff speculation. But it's not that I am opposed to off-the-cuff speculation, as I intend to do some of my own.



Saturday, January 30, 2016

Houston Mayor: Texas Needs a New Transportation Paradigm

http://usa.streetsblog.org/2016/01/29/houston-mayor-calls-for-paradigm-shift-away-from-highway-widening/

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner:
TxDOT has noted that 97% of the Texans currently drive a single occupancy vehicle for their daily trips. One could conclude that our agencies should therefore focus their resources to support these kinds of trips. However, this approach is actually exacerbating our congestion problems. We need a paradigm shift in order to achieve the kind of mobility outcomes we desire.

...

The Katy Freeway, or Interstate 10 west of Houston, is the widest freeway in the world, with up to 26 lanes including frontage road lanes. The 2008 widening had a significant impact on the adjacent businesses and communities. Yet, despite all these lanes, in 2015 the section of this freeway near Beltway 8 was identified as the 8th most congested roadway in the state. This was only 7 years after being reconstructed! This example, and many others in Houston and around the state, have clearly demonstrated that the traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems. These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.

Social Credit Revived

http://www.vox.com/2016/1/28/10860830/y-combinator-basic-income

"Does basic income make for a more creative society liberated from the constraints of cash?" "Does basic income increase happiness through greater leisure?"

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Another Day, Another Attribution Question

NPR asked some of the usual climatology suspects (Mike Mann, Heidi Cullen, etc.) "how come" about the recent, impressive Northeast blizzard.

I am sure a lot of meteorologists squirmed at the result.

People like to be asked questions about their expertise, and are loath to say "I dunno", so the resulting report is a baffling series of maybe-sortas. Climatology comes off looking very lame. OK, maybe it is in some ways somewhat lame, but it comes off much worse than it should.

If you had asked a meteorologist, you would have gotten a much more confident and impressive series of answers, and neither El Niño nor climate disruption would have figured prominently.

This is very reminiscent of  my recent comments about the Indian Monsoon, which were followed up by a much more detailed exposition by Rohit Singh, a fellow who obviously thinks about the monsoon in far more detail than I do.

I made the case that statistical climatology is mute and moot on the question, and that physical climatology would indicate that climate disruption must have an effect on the monsoon.

The question of whether El Niño has an effect on a blizzard is comparable. Of course, it must, as everything is not only connected, but in the atmosphere, everything that happens on a large scale is quite closely connected. But do we know what? Nope.

A far richer and more detailed answer can be provided by meteorologists, looking at short-term causality. Their explanation of the blizzard will have much in common with Singh's explanation of the monsoon. Along the lines of:
The storm ended up occluding in classic fashion, meaning that its main coastal surface low hung back while jet-stream energy carved out an occluded front extending northeastward just off the East Coast (see Figure 7). This evolution led to prime snowmaking conditions in a region of frontal formation aloft called a deformation zone that set up inland from the surface front, putting the heavy snow along and just northwest of the urban corridor. (Here’s an NWS explanation of deformation zones.)

WU blogger Steve Gregory, like many others, saw the classic nature of this setup emerging in the NAM and GFS models on Friday, although even then he wasn’t totally convinced. “Whenever a storm occludes out, it slows down and is pulled closer to the upper low (500 mb) and the storm track. Most importantly the deformation zone was then able to spiral further outward (northward) by 100-150 nautical miles, which brought very heavy snow bands into the NYC/Long Island/Cape Cod region,” Steve told me in an email.
But all of this phenomenology is embedded in a climatological setting, where both El Niño and anthropogenic climate change play a distinct role. If you ask me whether El Niño had a hand in this, all I can say is "how could it not?" If you ask me WHAT role it played, I will, like any other physical climatologist, be rendered speechless. The models made the storm successfully, and the climate made the models do that. Can we "explain" the connection? No, there are too many steps.

If a business goes under in a recession, can you blame the economy for the failure? It's tempting. If a business thrives in a recession, or goes under in a boom, though, what can you say?

The larger economy has an effect on your business. It certainly affects your chances of success. But whether you succeed or fail depends on whether you have a sound business model and successful marketing. There will be some red ink somewhere that tells you what happened in detail. The economic "climate" will certainly have an effect, and it will show up in the aggregate statistics of all businesses. But each business succeeds or fails for particular reasons, and trying to connect a single business's profit statement to global trends is barking up the wrong tree.

In the case of severe weather, it's often worse.

I would have said that the unusually warm water off the east coast was a crucial factor, and that a global warming connection was hard to miss... But in retrospect I'm glad they didn't ask me.

The report is a mess because the question is a mess. Yes of course El Niño had an effect - it's a dominant feature of the atmosphere these days. But was it the "cause"? This is really the wrong question.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is climate change the cause of irregular monsoon in India?

From Quora

Is climate change the cause of irregular monsoon in India?

My short answer is “I think so”, so you may want to skip the rest of this answer.

 This is a very interesting question, one of the larger class of questions “Is this particular phenomenon caused by climate change”, but one where the answer is particularly complicated, because monsoon variability lies right at the edge of “climate” and “weather”. Some would consider each individual monsoon onset a “climate variation” while others would consider it a “weather event”. The pat answers one usually hears about “the difference between weather and climate” rather founder on the rocks in addressing the question.

First of all, let’s make sure we agree what you mean by “climate change”. Both “climate change” and “global warming”, which are in some sections used interchangeably, are problematic. In a literal formal sense, “climate change” is a change in the statistical patterns of weather events. And you are trying to attribute a specific perceived change to “climate change”. So literally, you are asking “is this particular climate change because of climate change”, which is not really any more meaningful than asking “is Mars cause by planets”. The postulated increase in monsoon irregularity is by definitiion a type of climate change. So it cannot be caused by climate change.

To rephrase the question as “is irregular monsoon caused by global warming” is little help. Global warming is an observation of an increase in surface temperature. It is a consequence of a vast number of local responses to a global change in conditions. Among those conditions is the monsoon onset over India. This gets cause and effect backwards. The global change is an aggregation of local conditions - it is not directly the cause of local conditions.

I think the best literal phrasing for what is informally (and somewhat incorrectly) usually called “climate change” or “global warming” is “anthropogenically forced climate change”. That is, what you are probably asking is how much humans are responsible for an increased irregularity in monsoon behavior. A good shorthand for this is “climate disruption”. That is, we are discussing to what extent an event is attributable to human activity in changing the properties of the atmosphere.

There are two basic approaches to this problem, that yield dramatically different results.

The first is purely statistical. One looks at the historical record for a particular class of event - for example the onset of the monsoon in India. There are two steps to such an analysis - the first is to find a statistically significant trend, and the second is to test the hypothesis that the trend is correlated to some causal agent. In the case of climate disruption studies, in increasing order of appropriateness, one might use CO2 emissions, CO2 concentrations, CO2-equivalent concentrations, net top-of-atmosphere forcings (accounting for anthropogenic arerosols) or most difficult but theoretically best, all forcings as distributed geographically. (The use of emissions per se is strictly speaking incorrect, though it’s often seen in the less serious critiques of climate science.) Then, using “frequentist” argumentation, one tests the “null hypothesis”: is the observed correlation less than 5% likely due to chance.

It is quite possible, using this approach, to attribute global warming in the literal sense to climate disruption. But one cannot go much further with this approach, especially for rare events like typhoons in a given region, or for annual events like monsoon arrival dates. This is because the natural variability in these statistics is high.

 For example, the extraordinary late arrival of the monsoon in 2015 was not dramatically different from that of 1899, which caused even greater social devastation than last year’s event.

(Incidentally, this was a crucial event in the emergence of physical climatology as a scientific discipline. Sir Gilbert Walker, a diligent and creative scientist, was assigned by the British Empire to find causes for these events. He immediately concluded that “The variation of monsoon rainfall ... occur on so large a scale [that we can assume they are] preceded and followed by abnormal conditions at some distance” [“Floods, Famines and Emperors” by Brian Fagan, 1999], an insight which directly led to the discovery of the Walker Circulation and the Southern Oscillation, and indirectly to our current understanding of El Niño.)

 So while the events of 2015 were extraordinary (and I was very aware of them at the time because we were simultaneously having extraordinarily wet weather in Texas, which turned out to be by far the wettest month in our history) they are not, in isolation, without precedent.

There are only a few hundred observed monsoons, and only a handful of outliers. Finding trends among the outliers is by its nature doing statistical reasoning on very small data sets. And such reasoning is almost always inconclusive. This doesn’t mean human agency is absolved of influence, merely that it cannot be convicted beyond reasonable doubt using statistical methods.

But there’s a second way of looking at it. We can look at the physics of monsoons, and try to understand what makes them late, following in Walker’s footsteps with much richer understanding and tools. This amounts to studying the specific details of monsoon formation. I am sure papers are working their ways through the journals as I write this, but let me draw upon established knowledge here.

The monsoon is driven by differential heating between the continental landmass and the surrounding ocean. As the land heats, it creates a pool of hot air, which surrounded by relatively cooler, denser air is forced upward, causing condensation in rising air columns, causing intense rainfall. In 2015, however, the Indian Ocean was particularly warm. So this delayed the onset of the monsoon because the cool ocean air wasn’t actually cool enough to start the monsoon dynamic.

Next, we have to examine WHY the Indian Ocean was warm. This is complicated, and I’ll resist the temptation to speculate in detail. I am sure people are thinking about this in more detail than I have. But here we have a strong possible connection to anthropogenic forcing. Ocean surface temperatures have been extraordinarily high globally since 2014. So here is a very plausible connection to human activity, through radiative imbalance leading to global warming.

Can we prove this in a statistical sense? Absolutely not, as I explained above. The sample size is too small. But does it mean that there is no connection?

That is an absurd conclusion. If I punch you in the face and your jaw breaks, you do not need statistical significance to bring me to justice!

Furthermore, as I explain here , I think it is reasonable to expect larger seasonal excursions as climate change proceeds. This doesn’t mean that we can prove anything in court about any individual such anomaly. It’s important to understand that anomalies would have occurred in an undisturbed environment too. But it’s also important to understand that they would not be the same anomalies. Weather depends sensitively on the distribution of sea surface temperatures and their geographic gradients. We expect these to change with increasing vigor. Are we seeing the beginnings of these effects? Certainly so. Is there a causal chain? Clearly there is.

But are we worse off than we would have been in an undisturbed climate? This depends on the phenomenon in question, and in most cases it can’t be proved. That doesn’t mean we can’t say the evidence suggests that climate disruption is making matters worse. In the matter of the Indian monsoon, it seems more likely than not.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Spotted on Quora

Spotted on Quora, by Paul Mainwood, reposted without permission.

 Why is "scientific proof" of climate change so elusive?

Because when the challenge is issued: "Where is the scientific proof of climate change?" there's a bait and switch going on. Here's how it works. 
There are at least two meanings of the word "proof" in usual English usage. I'm going to call them proof1 and proof2. 
proof1: This is the sense used in mathematics: a deductive proof from a set of axioms. In this sense there are no proofs in science (see here as to why: is nothing ever proved in science?) 
proof2: This is the sense in which a scientific theory can be "proved", by repeatedly surviving harsh tests that were designed to falsify it. 
Most scientists know this. But this makes them even more susceptible to the bait and switch. Try to spot where it happens (clue in advance, it's not where you think it is): 
----- 
"Show me scientific proof2 of climate change!" 
"Sure, here's some basic thermodynamics and the properties of CO2, some projections of CO2 in the atmosphere and some modelling of global temperature changes based on this. Here's the observed global temperatures against the modelled values." 
"No, I mean scientific proof1!" 
"Er, do you mean proof1?" 
"Yes! Of course." 
"Ah, well there is no proof1, you see I have read Hume and Karl Popper, and can happily explain this to you. In science, proof1 does not exist, and we can only ever have proof2. And we have plenty of that proof2 for climate change. In fact, to be precise, anthropocentric global warming is not really a theory in itself but a single prediction based on well-understood theories that have been subjected to lots of proof2" 
"Aha, So you admit you have no proof1!" 
----- 
Did you spot the bait and switch? 
The real bait and switch is not switching proof2 for proof1. The real bait and switch is switching a scientific debate for a philosophical debate. 
That is, the trick is to get the scientist to engage on the nature of scientific proof (or even better, on the nature of truth). For once they have started talking about this, they have lost. They have strayed from the ground of authority that science gives them, and have started making philosophical-sounding claims, where everyone knows opinion reigns, truth is relative, and there can be no authority as a basis for public policy. 
Substitute "evolution" for "climate change" and the process goes through the same. 
The trick is to make the scientists sound elitist, out of touch with reality, and to rob them of the authority that their scientific credentials gives them. And it works every time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Kevin Anderson on Paris

The article is here

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Like It or Not, We Need Nukes

According to this TED talk, sustained power delivery from solar is less than 10 W / m^2, which means 1200 m^2 / capita for current US consumption, times 350 M people = 4200 Million m^2 = 420,000 km^2 = larger than Montana. And that is optimistic and doesn't account for storage/intermittency.

In reality, at least double the area of Texas needs to be covered with solar panels, plus we need to solve the storage problem, to solve the problem on renewables only.

Can Americans get by on less than 12 KW? Well, most people in other countries do, but, realistically, Americans don't like to be told to cut back, and the ones who consume above the average all the more so.

Similar constraints hold for wind.

Only nuclear power allows us to continue the growth economy. And while you and I might not approve of the growth economy, people will not willingly give it up very soon. (It would pretty much kill most people's retirement strategy, for one thing.) And very soon is when we need a solution.

So I have concluded that like it or not, we need nukes.