The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Simultaneous Defection from Civilization and Abdication of Power

I asked the following question on Twitter:

"Do you think a stabilized climate is possible without a globally binding emissions treaty? How?"

I specifically directed the question to @drvox (David Roberts, formerly @drgrist) as well as to @Tokyo_Tom (about the most cogent self-described libertarian I have encountered on the net) and was gratified to kick off some conversation. What I am discovering is a widespread tendency among some to treat the UNFCCC process as laughable and beside the point, and a widespread tendency among others to treat it as the whole ball of wax.

I am in the latter category.

I asked the question to investigate my suspicion: that the dismissal of the UN process is common across the political spectrum in the US, while relatively rare elsewhere.

I am interested in more data points. I would like to know if this point of view actually dominates among left, right, and center in America.

It would seems to me especially ironic if it turns out that the Americans have a rare social consensus in actively torpedoing the process. At present the US as a sovereign entity in the negotiations happens to have an extremely powerful negotiating position, one which will gradually slip away.

For those interested in projecting US power, this stubborn failure to even contemplate closing a deal seems like an amazing abdication of an opportunity.

For those interested in living in peace with the world, America's failing to engage in the formalities of a carbon treaty, which have been set up with great cost and difficulty, just seems uncivilized.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Problem With Ecomodernism

From my perspective on the climate issue, which some call “alarmist”, the principal issue is to get to carbon neutral or carbon negative. I am sure some of the proposals on the table to achieve this are bad ones. To the contrary, bad policy is always much easier than good policy. But continuing laissez faire is surely among the worst ones, as we can not get to net zero that way until it would be far too late and a great deal of damage would be done.

Bad policy, including continuing the effective no-policy policy which is the easiest bad policy, is probably the likeliest outcome. But we very much need a good policy despite the odds.

Doing policy right is a huge challenge to global collective decision-making, which (GATT, WTO, IATA etc.) has some successes that people somehow like to forget.


One idea going under the rubric of “lukewarmism” is that getting to zero is not important, so that the no-policy policy is fine. On this view, we just need to slow down a little. This simply fails to understand the physical constraints on the problem.

Another view, until recently called the "breakthrough" view and now being rebranded as "ecomodernism", also supports the no-policy policy while at least bowing in the direction of a carbon neutral future.

That new “ecomodernist” push implicitly restates the Breakthrough Institute (BTI) position that getting to zero follows from technological innovation alone. Again there is no need for a policy instrument on that view. That is exactly the stated position of the main players in the fossil fuel industry. But the immense economic interests of that industry are in slowing that transition down. If they extract the full book value of their reserves, which “fiduciary responsibility” says they are supposed to do, the outcome will likely be somewhere between grim and cataclysmic. Avoiding that is the reason we need a globally binding policy.

Bjorn Lomborg adopts both of these positions - he advocates that the problem, while real, is smallish AND that technology will solve it left to its own devices with perhaps some research subsidies but no regulatory effort.

“Lukewarmism” and “ecomodernism” are wishful thinking in my opinion.


In the real world, there is a fossil fuel industry, and the imperatives of capitalism put them under enormous pressure to do us harm. Some sort of global regulatory instrument is needed. Doing this responsibly and effectively will be very difficult. The fact that lots of people would just as soon that such a process fail for their own ideological reasons just makes matters even harder.

On the whole, I agree with the ecomodernism perspective, that we ought recognize the immense capabilities of modern science and technology. Though I have some problems with his recent essay, on the whole I agree with Stewart Brand (who indeed has always been an inspiration to me) that we should work toward a world not just of defending a shrinking natural endowment but of enhancing it.

See the Planet3.0 manifesto (which I wrote, drawing extensively on Bruce Sterling and David Schaller) for more. Is it ecomodernist? Maybe so.

But to the extent that the ecomodernist manifesto does not take account of the real-world obstacles to that goal, it ducks the very question it pretends to be addressing. There is no workaround to a global, binding treaty.


UPDATE: Hmm, there's a problem with this stance. The Planet3.0 manifesto is pretty handwavy on how to jump those hurdles too (though it does at least allude to them).

More to follow.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

You say Texian, I say Tejano

"How to talk Texian" by a Yankee quotes Molly Ivins & other Texians 

Nice, but I want to know how to pronounce "Texian"

Have heard Tex-EE-an but don't believe it was 19th century vernacular. Tekshuns? Compare Parisian, Tunisian. see

Friday, March 27, 2015

Denial Can Be Strategically Rational

Florida is toast in my opinion. Miami may be a special case. 

New Orleans is definitely a special case in my opinion. It is too culturally important to lose. Heroic measures are justified.

All places at sea level eventually going to be swamped. The main uncertainty is when. 

And most populated places at sea level are in some form of denial, which is explicit and frank in some places. For instance, Galveston, Texas, is particularly at risk and in particularly vehement denial about it - they would be sinking due to local mismanagement alone and the real estate community is admantly against recognizing the fact.

Mortgages and financial arrangements are written with 30 - year return periods. Therefore everyone with property is interested in the risk being perceived as nonexistent or very far in the future.

Typically the people with the most property in an area are the most influential. Therefore denialism concentrates among the elite on the coasts, especially in areas on broad, shallow coastal plains or on sandy beaches. 

In my opinion this is NOT just DESPITE them being among the most at risk. 

To the contrary, they deny because they stand to lose considerable wealth the instant that the sea level rise problem becomes perceived as unmanageable. 

They deny BECAUSE they are at risk, and they want another buyer to come along. Like anyone selling or potentially selling defective property, they are not motivated to admit the defects.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Doom (in seven tweets)

Not debatable: Trillions of $ worth of proven fossil fuel reserves simply can't be allowed to be extracted and burned.

The carbon emissions constraint appears both absolutely necessary and absolutely inaccessible via available social/political affordances.

COP meetings a tug-of-war: nations compete to have least possible impact on their own short term interests. Nobody speaks for Earth.

Everyone on earth is invested in the fossil fuel status quo, most of the powerful very much so, & no sensible alternative is on the table.

Only hope is a global grassroots consensus based on clear shared view of our predicament: what denialsm is funded to prevent at all costs.

Then when I say that people everywhere need to understand a few rudiments of climate science, social scientists mock me for "deficit model".

Was a long shot anyway. So, checkmate? Victory for the cliff, defeat for the lemmings? Any ideas?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The D-Word and the S-word

The D-Word

I don’t usually call anyone a denier or a denialist by name, though I’ve been in a lot of internet arguments and may well have slipped up a time or two.

 I do use the words “denier” and “denialist” generically to refer to a position in the climate debates - I certainly think there is denial going on, and I haven’t been reluctant to point that out.

There is a question as to who is doing the Godwin violation - those using the word or those complaining about it. As someone who grew up in a Holocaust refugee community, as someone who lost his paternal grandfather and his oldest cousin to the death trains, as someone whose aunt still bears a number tattooed on her arm,  I have a pretty strong claim to be part of that group that Keith Kloor refers to as

“Jewish academics, writers, and scientists involved in the climate debate who do use the “denier” term and don’t make that association, so they don’t believe they are trivializing the holocaust or exploiting the original ugliness of the term."
I think bringing Nazis into the question is in the eye of the beholder. Specifically, the Godwin’s Law violation in the climate context is usually (though as Mr Fuller is quick to point out, not always) in the eye of the accused denier.

That said, I agree with Keith that referring to an individual as a “denier” is 
“as inflammatory as calling a climate scientist a fraud, or climate science fraudulent. These are conversation stoppers”
Indeed, when someone is directly offensive to a correspondent, as Willard pointed out to me recently, it may well be because they want to terminate the conversation. If someone is badgering me about renouncing the so-called scandals of so-called “Climategate” I know they have long since checked their rational capacities at the door.

I won’t call them the D-word in response, though you can be assured that I am thinking it.

I will just check out.

The S-Word

This largely comes up in the context of a campaign, recently spearheaded by Mark Boslough, to stop using the word "skeptic" in news reports about people who take a stance in opposition to the climate science consensus. (There's a petition here.)

I support this petition, insofar as it doesn't explicitly demand the used of the "D-word".  Naysayers are not real skeptics and the press shouldn't dignify them with such a compliment. Certainly, for example, the likes of Senator Inhofe with his bible-thumping can't fairly be called a "skeptic", though the press habitually does exactly that.

The trouble is this - the communication landscape has been so thoroughly polluted that people arriving on the landscape as genuine skeptics, interested and willing to engage on the evidence, are frequently successfully recruited by the denial camp.

To those who would ask, incredulously, how could anyone still be legitimately on the fence about this issue, I respond that you must not be taking the long view

Every day, ten thousand people in the US (a quarter million worldwide) think about climate change for the first time. And each of them has to make their way through the thicket of confusion and misdirection that has been thrown up all around this issue, given that Authority has been Questioned, so successfully that a person coming into the area unprepared has no clue who the authority is.

The uncommitted people most willing to engage on the science, and most important to reach, are the big fish in the small ponds, including the most scientifically adept high school kids. There's also engineers and medical types trying to get a grip on this matter every day. They'll be a bit smug to begin with. The fabric of misdirection and outright lies they encounter will not make it easy for them to navigate the issue if they don't have a personal connection to an earth scientist.

And when they try to claim a skeptical stance, it really is a bad idea to get all huffy and jump to calling them "deniers". That's a prediction with a tendency to fulfill itself.

Gaining Trust and Thereby Generating Mistrust

The trouble with the Kahan/Leiserowitz etc. analysis of the debate is not that it's wrong. It is, in fact, correct in addressing part of the problem.

It's correct that there is a spectrum of concern on the issue and that it is increasingly correlated with the usual left-right specturm. It is of course correct that any policy measure requires political support, and that on matters of such fundamental importance, majority support is important.

This means that anyone engaged enough to vote needs to be convinced that the consensus position is sound. And of course, the vast majority of people are not won over by evidence and reason, but by proxy arguments, essentially arguments from authority. We simply don't have the time to resolve every issue from first principles.

That's the whole idea of representative democracy, after all - we delegate decisions to people we trust. At least in principle. What we have to do in these matters is to determine who the real experts are. And in the presence of systematic antisocial behavior, this becomes very difficult.

There really is no fundamental doubt among the relevant professions that CO2 accumulation is increasingly risky with every passing year and that the current policies are woefully ill-advised. There really is no doubt that organized denial, partly motivated by protecting enormous wealth, is trying to prevent action The existence of people who are not engaged with the science who believe these things is a good thing.

But it has a very unfortunate side effect, insofar as the next level of sophistication is concerned. When a skeptic of the sort willing to engage scientifically arrives on the scene, he or she will be far more likely to encounter people who "believe in" or "don't believe in" "the science" than people who are actually in a position to explain it effectively. When beliefs are challenged, defenses go up. And the first defense of the novice is to accuse the challenger of "denial".

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent. And on this score Keith Kloor is right:
If your objective is to get more people seriously engaged with the climate change issue, you probably want to avoid  unwittingly antagonizing them with derogatory language.
Keith goes on to say
And by them, I mean the lurkers and fence-sitters in the mushy middle who tune in and out of the volatile climate discussion.

But that's not who I mean. I mean the people willing to engage the science.  The trouble arises when a somewhat sophisticated person challenging the science looks around for someone to discuss it and as is more likely than not encounters a person less sophisticated trying to defend it. I don't know that there's much precedent for this constellation of factors.

As I've said before, climate science has the worst relationship with its hobbyist community in the history of science. This entanglement with politics is part of it. Every time we listen to the Kahans and Leiserowitzes and their advice on how to "move the needle", how to move the bulk of the population to be more amenable to a reasonable climate policy, we create more people who are poor ambassadors for the science itself to those who want to engage the science. That in turn may or may not create more favorable conditions for climate policy among the tuned-out mushy middle, but this is a long run problem.

In the long run, it is crucial to make the science sufficiently accessible that people can access it. This despite the fact that more people are trying to subvert that goal than to facilitate it.

I don't know whose job it is to solve this. But it helps to start by understanding it.

TL;DR - Politics Isn't Everything

Willard says this is too long, and should be three or even four posts, but I think it is a single coherent argument. Admittedly, there are multiple points in the argument.

1) There is lots of denial about climate.
2) The only reason to call a specific person a denier is to cut off conversation with them, to state you find them uninteresting.
3) There are better ways to do this.
4) True skeptics, genuinely neutral and curious about climate science, are born every day.
5) Deniers have resources and talents intended to win them over.
6) Some skeptics succumb, and become deniers.
7) Playing the political battle is necessary.
8) But playing on the political battlefield creates unsophisticated allies.
9) Unsophisticated allies will tend to use the "D-word" to cut off conversation when threatened.
10) Skeptics will be turned away from reality by being accused of denial.
11) Skeptics have difficulty finding scientific exposition suitable for their interests and skills.
12) The combination of the previous two patterns contributes to the recruitment of deniers.
13) The political battlefield alone is not sufficient. Science must be made accessible.

Willard also says I've made these points before. Maybe so. But people still don't seem to get it, so I might as well repeat myself.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

More Than All

I’ve been concerned about the frequent theme in the media about the fraction of global warming that is man-made. It is a poorly posed question, because it implies that there is a pie chart with some slice or slices of the pie being man-made and some slice or slices being natural. 

But what if, in the absence (or relative near-absence ) of human interference, the climate would be cooling?  After all, it’s agreed that the world has been cooling since the “Holocene optimum” - this is a point that is commonly wielded by the inactivist camps after all. Look:

If you extrapolate the background trend (ignoring the hockey stick blade at the end) you will see that from first principles, a slow cooling is a reasonable expectation for the natural trend. This would mean that the anthropogenic contribution is not sharing in the warming with natural factors, but actually pulling against a (relatively small) natural cooling, probably orbitally forced. Thus if one had to express anthropogenic warming as a percentage of total warming, the total fraction would be over 100%. 

And indeed, on top of the natural background cooling, indications are that the natural forcings (volcanic, solar) are also slightly toward cooling. None of this is overwhelming - the natural trends and forcings on global mean temperature are small, and internal variability (basically just the slow sloshing around of the water masses of the ocean) is also important on the decadal time scale. The net result is that we have an uncertainty in the percentage attribution:

but it’s also true that the best bet is in excess of 100%.

Now, as I pointed out in 2004, this is counterintuitive:
What does “people are causing this” mean? Does it mean people are responsible for all of the warming, most of the warming, some of the warming? “At least the majority of it” captures the consensus opinion, I believe. The possibility of the anthropogenic forcing being superimposed on a natural background cooling is not, as far as I know, excluded. Though it complicates the clarity of public communication, “more than all of it” is actually a possibility.
HOW THIS GETS LOST The summary language the IPCC used to express this in AR5 was:
It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together. The best estimate of the human induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.”
This seems to make the best of a bad situation - it starts with a very clear near-certainty, then asserts that most likely just about all of the change is anthropogenic and a person thinking about it carefully would realize that “all” is not a cap. That isn’t even implicit. I would say this language handles the complex communication elegantly.

Nevertheless, language of public communication stumbles over this, and often fals back to the weaker but more easily understood assertion that climate change is “mostly” anthropogenic.
NASA Most climate scientists agree the main cause of the current global warming trend is human expansion of the "greenhouse effect"
EPA:Most of the warming of the past half century has been caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases

UCS:“humans are the main cause of global warming”

Parliament of Australia:on the basis of considerable evidence, there is a strong consensus in the climate science research community that the changes that have been observed over the past few decades are mainly caused by human activity.”
Scientific American:Natural climate variability is extremely unlikely to have contributed more than about one-quarter of the temperature rise observed in the past 60 years”

Not a word of these claims is remotely false, but they leave a systematic misimpression: that the changes we are seeing have multiple candidate causes among which human forcing is only one. This language leaves room in the reader’s mind for a debate which doesn’t really exist. The warming we see is accounted for **and then some**, but the reader can easily misconstrue these many statements from the more sober participants as saying otherwise.


There’s a sequence of dilutions; from what scientists perceive to what scientists are willing to say publicly; from what scientists say to what the IPCC process will approve; from what the IPCC process approves to what the general public and the policy sector understand. And so, there’s a secondary story buried under the bizarre Senate votes this week that interests me more than the bizarre dance of politics.

The sense of the senate resolution that went down to narrow defeat was that human activity “significantly contributes” to climate change. Nothing about utterly dominating climate change, which in fact is what we are trying to tell the world. I don’t think people get us. This “certainly more than half” language is contributing to a widespread sense that “some other warming cause also exists”. I’d like to see a public opinion poll on that. The reason I've finally given voice to these concerns, though, is damned peculiar.


Along those lines, I was pleased to find something Judith Curry said that I could agree with. She tweeted, well, I’m not sure what exactly (the tweet has vanished as far as I can tell), but the general sense of it must have resembled the subsequent tweet

The public views percent as 0-100, part of a divisible whole; not in a mathematical 'budget' sense where can exceed 100%

I've long said best estimate of anthro component to GW slightly over 100%. Agree use of "per cent" misleads. Said that too @curryja .
I understood her to be complaining about the communication problems associated with expressing the anthropogenic component of warming as a fraction or a per cent. And I was pleasantly surprised by this shared insight and this bit of evenhandedness on Curry's part. But I totally forgot the Law of Curry: "It's worse than you think, even when you account for the Law of Curry".

The exchange continued in a similar vein for a bit
mtobis@mtobis  Jan 21My point is that the public seems unaware that 110% is even possible, never mind the best estimate @swimsure Not sure what @curryja's is.
\Judith Curry@curryja  Jan 21@mtobis @swimsure The public views percent as 0-100, part of a divisible whole; not in a mathematical 'budget' sense where can exceed 100%
but then the Law took hold and it took an abrupt turn to the bizarre:
There's Physics@theresphysics  Jan 20 Okay, I'm confused. Isn't "more than half" the same as "> 50%"?  via @curryja
Judith Curry@curryja  Jan 20 @theresphysics Read the post. Does 110% mean more than half? No - it depends on how big the other slices are, not constrained between 0-100%
There's Physics@theresphysics  Jan 20@curryja Huh? Of course 110% means more than half.  It certainly can't be less than half. F 
Judith Curry@curryja  Jan 20 @theresphysics  what if the other piece is 220%?  your 110% is now less than half.
Judith Curry@curryja  Jan 20 @theresphysics the issue is less than half of 'what', which is not defined.  if constrained to 0-100% all is clear
There's Physics@theresphysics  Jan 20 @curryja Half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature since 1950 - it couldn't be clearer. 
Webb Roberts@webbr  Jan 20 @theresphysics …but these go to eleven
(There's Physics discusses this exchange here.) At first I read this to say that Curry was talking about multiple large pieces totalling to 100% and mocked her position thus

It COULD BE that stable climate of holocene is COINCIDENTALLY now subject to HUGE PERTURBING FORCES much bigger than greenhouse gases right?

and a couple of other people came to that interpretation too, but now I believe that even that interpretation is too generous.

Could “what if the other piece is 220%?  your 110% is now less than half.really mean she thought we were allowing a total attribution of 330%

Does she really not understand that residual after 110% is accounted for is negative? The more I look at these exchanges (and looking back on Twitter streams is an amazingly awkward task, by the way - please fix this Twitter) the more convinced I am that she thinks that if one piece is 110% of the total then WE DON'T KNOW HOW MANY PER CENT THE TOTAL IS!

You know, I think that is really what she meant. WE'RE DOOMED 

This is the level of confusion we are faced with in dealing with Dr Curry. Far from a good grasp of nonlinear partial differential equations you’d expect from a research meteorologist with a specialty in tropical storms, Curry does not appear to grasp the idea of negative numbers, at least in this context.

She is so fixated on the pie chart, and on the natural component being positive, (despite the fact that she once allowed a possible sensitivity of 10 C per doubling - what’s up with that?) that she thinks an anthro component of 110% means a total change of more than 100% of the total change!

Now I figure if she takes notice of this she will try to find some other way to put it, but I'll be interested to see how she accounts for some of her statements. I am sorry, this is far from the threshhold of qualified or not qualified to be a full professor.
Anyone who thinks all is roses in the garden of science has to account for the rise of Dr Curry to a position of responsibility in academia. (Here I am on the sidelines and there sits Judith Curry on top of the heap. To be honest I never had the energy to try to climb the tenure ladder, but still, try to imagine how I feel about this.)

Then we further have to find some way to account for her being influential enough politically to be invited to give testimony to what passes for a Congress in this country nowadays.

On the whole, my conclusion is this