climate change

Cutting through the branch we're standing on

I didn't think this sort of thing happened in real life: an old friend of the family (who I haven't seen in many years and am banking on not reading this blog!) seriously injured his neck recently. He was up a tree, chainsawing branches - and chainsawed through the one he was standing on. Picture the moment where, as inexorable gravity took hold, he realised what he'd done.

We're doing exactly the same to the planet. See, I bet you saw that coming huh? An amusing little story twisted into a trite greenie parable. Well fuck you too. Here's another analysis showing how many different ways in which we're cutting through the branch we're standing on. But we're showing no sign of changing our behaviour. Obama's going pro-coal where it's a vote winner - and understandably enough, given the amount of jobs tied up in it. The Spanish coal mining strikes against subsidy cuts show the same thing. I'm not saying it's easily solved. But we're still cutting through the branch we're standing on.

General noises from the UK government sound like this: "going green is all very well, but not during a recession - we have to get our priorities straight." Upon attempting to alert the guy in the tree that he's cutting through the branch he's standing on, he shouts back, "that's all very well, but I can't stop now - I'm about to run out of fuel!" That's the logic we're dealing with. It's wrong on so many levels it's hard to know where to start.

As many of the previous P3 comments I've reposted here hint at, I'm not enamoured with the usefulness of declaring that we have to end growth. I think discussion of growth directly is probably a distraction - something that would take care of itself if we got the other things right. (Micro-thought-experiment: what would having a net zero growth target actually achieve?) But we're not even marginally addressing the scale of the problem, not even planning for the fact that we're not addressing it. Hansen's recent work on the shift in temperature distribution nails the problem: extremes are slowly becoming the new normal, and we're pushing that harder and harder as we continue to actually increase the yearly rate of emissions output. Genius!

It's a perfect storm of a problem and, as I've been wibbling about, having a go at climate skeptics is a complete cop-out. Einstein's quoted as saying (h/t MT): "I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy." Arguing forever with people who think the concept of 'planet' is a deep-green-commie conspiracy, that the greenhouse effect is open to democratic vote, that people like me are just seeking rent from the st... (OK, that one's true. Shh, don't tell.) Anyway, yes: pointless and easy and we should have little patience with ourselves if we get too distracted by it - the hard problems are elsewhere. It's the vast majority of people worrying about it but (as the climate change idiots article says) just getting on with our lives. It's the businesses and policymakers and the fact that politics doesn't stop functioning the way it does just because we're driving its underlying operating system to burn-out.

The most complex of these is just so far beyond where we're currently at that, at the moment, I think it rules us out of the picture: long-term climate stability is going to require net-zero carbon, including a series of carbon sinks and any number of possible carbon sink technologies. How could we possibly achieve that on a global scale? It would appear to require a kind of global cybernetic equilibria. I mean, hmm - that doesn't seem very likely does it? It makes building the Roman Empire seem like assembling a Wendy House. I reckon we'll get to plain ol' Gaia feedbacks of the type described in the tipping point article above before we're anywhere near systems for managing our own feedbacks.

Getting ahead of ourselves a bit there. Need to start by keeping the carbon in the ground. Need to stop cutting through the branch we're standing on.

Global Warming Policy Foundation graph in context

A while back I worked on a time series interaction tool for messing about with climate data. (It's a java applet, so you'll need java installed in your browser to see it; should look something like the pic in this post.) It isn't quite there - the keyboard controls (see 'controls' tab in link above) are clunky and unintuitive, it needs more direct click-and-drag.

But I thought I'd just share one fun part of it. First-off, here's the global warming policy foundation's front page. Note the top-left graphic (and here's a perma-copy in case they change it.)

Now, in the time series visualisation, click the 'GWPF' tab - you should see the first pic in this post. The tab's instructions provide you with links to see how the GWPF's graphic fits in with the dataset they're using (hadcrut3vgl, confirmed through email) - you can toggle between their graphic and the full dataset with the 'click here to toggle' link (or click on the graphic itself and use 'q' to toggle the view).

So does the 'story' they're telling with the graph hold out? Well, they don't say what that story is directly, of course - but it's implicit in the orange line at 14.5 degrees. An email from the GWPF confirmed it has 'no particular function' but emphasises that there's been an apparent 'warming standstill' since 2000.

In context of the whole dataset, that selection immediately looks rather odd, though, doesn't it? The eleven years of this century sit high, for the obvious reason that -

"including 2011, all eleven years of the 21st century so far (2001-2011) rank among the 13 warmest in the 132-year period of record. Only one year during the 20th century, 1998, was warmer than 2011"

Clicking the second link in the visualisation (to find the overall OLS trend) gives that some more context. The GWPF graph looks at 11 years. If you look at 11 year trends over the whole dataset, they go against the full trend 34.2% of the time - in just over one in three years. One of these covers the GWPF's data selection. Is there a 'warming standstill' every time that happens?

The answer depends on what we know about the physical system, and what the forcings are. This is a point I was trying to make with the first two tabs (the cell 1 and 2) using daily temperature data from York University Electronic Department's weather station archive. Skipping to 'the cell (2)', you can do the same thing (alt + vertical drag) to get an intuitive sense of where the seasonal 'signal' appears out of the noise: it shows both the OLS trendlines starting from each datapoint, and points showing the polarity of the trendlines (the 'smoother'). Dragging will get you from apparently random day-to-day noise to the seasonal temperature curve. The size of the trend width appears on the top bar.

This sort of kinetic understanding is something I find useful for myself: seeing that an ordinary least squares calculation can clearly pick out the seasonal signal at the right trend, and seeing how going under or over a certain value either moves towards noise or towards a less clear seasonal pattern (until at the extreme, a single trendline appears to have a positive slope over four years of York data... )

Compare that to the GWPF approach: you get a very clear season 'signal' at about 180 days (to eyeball - this is not robust of course!) At that width, you get counter-trends happening at about 34% if they're 22 days long. (Use the large trend for 180 day width and the small trend, CRTL+drag, for the 22 days. Small counter to large % appears top-right.)

So by the GWPF's logic, would it be 'season standstill' every time a 22 day stretch went against the seasonal trend? No, of course not. This is a point made many times by others (most amusingly by The mysterious correlation between amount of sunshine falling in York and the average temperature is no mystery at all: the regional climate is being 'forced' by the sun's energy. Regional seasons are a quite complex process (e.g. the sun's energy arrives in pulses as the Earth spins every day), yet we get this extremely regular aggregate property: a clear temperature sine-wave over the year.

Co2 forcing is in some ways even more straightforward: more energy will continue to enter the atmosphere as long as we carry on adding the stuff - and then for some good while afterwards. Quite how long depends on what other processes come into play. That's the really fun stuff, and the most uncertain. But the link between energy imbalance, re-equilibriating and temperature change is as robust as the seasons.

Using too short a trend is meaningless. Making strong claims about standstill based on too short a trend is ignorant, wilfully or otherwise.

Any views on whether the viz tool works or not gratefully received. As I say, better controls = No 1 thing to do.

Running the experiment

Via, the Climate Action Tracker group take a look at where emissions are going given current policy. Note, it's emissions per year. P3 even comes up with a new word for it: a tragictory. Mmm, mellifluous.

We were looking at some of the basic sums elsewhere. It's starting to seem inescapable: short of some miracle, we're going to run the experiment.

It's occurred to me recently that skeptics and deniers can't be blamed for this. I know: there's a powerful, moneyed lobby that's out to spread FUD into everyone's hair. But actually, as many are often keen to point out, there is plenty of money being spent on the 'other side'. I wonder whether (a bit like taketheflourback's contribution, but at a different scale), they've done everyone a favour. Like a global immune response: we should be forced to defend what we think is true, and doing so is the only way to make the body politic's response robust. (Climate scientists already have such a system, mind: I'm talking about the rest of us.)

Climate skepticism and outright denial might just be a convenient scapegoat. If it hadn't existed, I suspect Climate Action Tracker's graph would look exactly the same. As yet - politically, governance-wise - we don't know how to deal with this. At heart, many of us don't want to.

That isn't any reason to stop trying, of course. Anything that can be done, long-term, is going to help - and could make the difference between extreme social cost and utter calamity. Though we would probably be looking at the former, even if carbon emissions were magically halted tomorrow: the climate system's a huge, fast-moving tanker with plenty of inertia in it. But - and I imagine military planners are way ahead of me on this - realistic planning for severe impacts is likely needed. We're upping the risk every year we continue to fumble with this, and risk is very expensive. Eventually, risk turns into out and out destruction.

As if my own mental attitude could make any difference to all this: I still rather naively believe that nihilism is the biggest danger we face. It's a lazy response, more than anything: a pretence that we don't give a shit, used to mask the fact we're desperate for someone else to solve the problem - that Someone In Charge must have a handle on this, surely? We can just relax and live our lives.

Message to future self: how did that work out for you?

Taking action: does it matter if you're right?

There's a simple lesson from taketheflourback's protest: no part of the political spectrum has a monopoly on scientific befuddlement. It seems almost a trivial point, but it's actually quite slippery. This thought first occurred to me because some people wondered, why so much climate skepticism on the right?

I argued: a lack of similar skepticism on the left didn't imply a greater grasp of climate science. It's just that climate change happens not to clash with most left-of-centre worldviews (except some very far left positions, though unfortunately I'm having trouble finding an example in the 'global warming = global marxist conspiracy' internet swamps). It can also mesh nicely into anti-corporate / capitalist / colonialist stories, as this rather jaunty take on resource wars from Age of Stupid nicely shows.

There's an anti-GM mirror-image of that too: pretty much all climate skeptics are also pro-plant-tech (quite often, even things like pro-DDT).

This is why all the recent US stuff about 'the Republican Brain' was so dismaying. Whatever evidence lay behind it, it's making the same basic error: ignoring scientific illiteracy where it happens to fit our already pre-conceived notions. The natural conclusion - that all right-wingers are scientific dunces - is just plain nonsense. It's also dangerously alienating.

David Attenborough is an alien robot

Was just trying to find out if it's really true that the USA broadcast of Frozen Planet will not include the last episode, 'on thin ice', when I found the Daily Mail apoplectic and red-in-face: "Moving polar bear footage filmed in Germany! Eight million people tuned in! Show sold around the world! BBC denies it misled viewers!!!" That list should really end with "BBC causes mass jowel-shaking incident among the home counties! A-brbrbrbrbrrbbr!"

It's a technique that's been used in previous BBC wildlife programmes, of course, for filming something that would otherwise be next to impossible. Even in this series, I'm guessing they probably didn't have a tiny side-on camera able to follow this vole. (In fact, obviously not, it would have been impossible.) It's probably my natural leaning towards the BBC's liberal commie outlook, but I didn't feel particularly cheated by that. Actually, in both cases above, I thought, 'wow, that must have been a bugger to set up.'

What could possibly have triggered the Mail to turn the jowel-shaker to 11 on this? Might it be anything to do with the great global warming conspiracy, perpetuated by the final episode's blatant presentation of actual, physical evidence? I mean, did you see the number of scientists who are clearly swindling the taxpayer solely so they can fly around the arctic in cool planes looking sexy and rugged?

Polar bears, of course, are pretty much guaranteed to trigger this kind of reaction. Witness the recent suspension and reinstatement of Charles Monnett, following his devious reporting of seeing four dead polar bears.

Backing off slightly from my own buttons being pushed, there's an interesting comparison to the recent Jeremy Clarkson nonsense. Paul Sinha did a good job on the Now Show: however clumsily, Clarkson was actually making a joke about attempts to provide balance, giving both sides of every story. But the meme that escaped was too good to question for many, with some even calling for legal action. Hmm.

Whether the Grauniad or the Mail, pushing your reader's buttons sells papers. It gives them a little addictive high and makes them feel vindicated in their own beliefs. The long hard slog of building a daily, working relationship with the truth is much less exciting.

Update: Discovery have decided to air the climate change episode, it seems.

Distributed politics / energy?

Just watched this Spanish salt-melting solar plant at climate crocks and the previous vid on distributed power systems - something that everyone apart from the utilities seems to want.

Putting aside the practicalities, listening to Rifkin made me think back to a recent post, where Hayek is pointing the finger at scientists and engineers, claiming they have some natural affinity with totalitarianism.

But then, Hayek's big argument is also about distributed power. Political and energy power are never far apart - I mean, that's a truism, isn't it? Nothing radical there. Given that, what sort of energy systems would Hayek's ideal world have?

For myself, I think we've probably got the mix of centralised and distributed exactly back to front. It suits all the large energy and state players that way, but what we need is good economies of scale for producing the components of the distributed system. There's an interesting spatial effect from economies of scale too: you increase the value density - transport costs as a proportion of overall value drops. You can shift stuff further. Magic!

How a climate skeptic asks for the time

Freedom of information: a jolly good thing, we can all agree. In the states, they're being used to try and get all of Mann's emails: the Washington Post had a recent editorial on it - followed quickly by WUWT lamenting the `bigoted' nature of the article. (The writer does at least seem to acknowledge that FOIAs can be used improperly, an argument that seems to apply only when people they don't like use it.)

The weird element to all this for me has always been the attempts to use FOI requests to actually gain data: as if academics were generally an awfully uncooperative bunch. I keep on having the following dialogue pop into my head...

How most people ask for the time:

p1: excuse me, do you have the time?

p2: yup, it's half past one.

p1: thanks.

p2: no worries.

How a climate skeptic asks for the time:

p1: (from some distance away, with a megaphone).

You! You in the street! Tell me the time!

p2: Errr. Half past one?

p1: What, exactly half past one? I find that very hard to believe.

p2: Well, it's actually one twenty-n...

p1: I KNEW IT!! You lying sonofabitch! Try to pull the wool over my eyes, would you? Who do you work for?

p2: What?

p1: Government, I bet. That watch belongs to the people. You can't keep the truth from us. Put the watch in a paper bag and throw it over.

p2: Look, it's now gone one thirty, do you think you could...

p1: Trying to change your story now, are you? Right, that's it - I demand to see all documentation relating to the purchase of the watch, and all your emails in case you've ever said anything to anyone about the watch.

p2: What? Why? How is that going to help you find out the time? Listen, there's a clock over there on the town hall building...

p1: Government clock! You guys are all synchronised, don't try and pull that one on me. Your watch is clearly a fraud. Only 450 million other government watches to go and the entire edifice of state lies will be exposed...

p2: Look, why don't you go and buy your own watch, then?

p1: Why would I do that? I paid for *your* watch.


The fascist heart of scientists

A nice little example from Oz of the view of climate scientists that's been slowly growing in strength - accompanied this week by those death threats:

At the heart of many scientists - but not all scientists - lies the heart of a totalitarian planner. One can see them now, beavering away, alone, unknown, in their laboratories. And now, through the great global warming swindle they can influence policy, they can set agendas, they can reach into everyone's lives; they can, like Lenin, proclaim "what must be done". While the humanities had a sort of warm-hearted, muddle-headed leftism, the sciences carry with them no such feeling for humanity. And it is not a new phenomenon. We should not forget that some of the strongest supporters of totalitarian regimes in the last century have been scientists and, in return, the State lavishes praise, money and respectability on them.

Interestingly, Phelps quotes Hayek; here's the original; there's a lovely extra snippet where Hayek hints that scientists and engineers are peculiarly susceptible to the fascist siren song:

It is well known that particularly the scientists and engineers, who had so loudly claimed to be the leaders on the march to a new and better world, submitted more readily than almost any other class to the new tyranny.

Risk is expensive

From some comments at initforthegold:

Question from Grant - "how can raising the temperature be other than good?" This is an area I'd like to learn more about myself: what are the likely impacts, and what's the scope for us taking action to avoid the negative impacts or adapt to them if we have to?

Here, I avoid discussing ways of measuring impacts, though there are a lot of places to start looking to answer your question. The IPCC, of course, has written entire reports on 'impacts, adaptation and vulnerability', as well as mitigation. The Copenhagen Diagnosis is good place to get an overview of the physical impacts and associated risks.

I think you can avoid a lot of the confusion about measuring impacts by remembering one thing: risk is expensive. Even if we had 100% certainty about global temperature changes, we wouldn't know exactly what the regional impacts were going to be. Starting in the present, this means insurers are calling for action. Without it, as they point out, it will become massively expensive, or just plain impossible, to insure against climate-related outcomes. One thing about insurers: you can be reasonably certain they've looked into the issue pretty thoroughly.

Risk has always been expensive: a study back in the 70s looked at the village of Daiikera in Rajasthan, near Jodphur. Monsoons mean an unreliable quantity of rain. The result: farmers cultivated many distant plots to hedge their bets because they knew only some would produce. The more carbon we put into the atmosphere, the more we face exactly this situation: any one food-producing region is going to be more at risk, and the cost of managing that risk will continue to rise. The Chicago Exchange has its roots in this kind of hedging, for producing egg and butter; the World Bank's work on agricultural risk nicely outlines various ways it can be managed, but none are free. I know I'm repeating myself, but - climate change just makes all this more and more expensive.

'Climate' not same as 'environment'

I dipped a toe into climate skeptics' blogland this morning. There goes the morning. Starting here with Derek Tipp, who I found a while back via the Freedom Association. He links to a story in the Asian Correspondent asking, ‘what happened to the climate refugees?’

Of course, WUWT got onto this as well – “the UN ‘disappears’ 50 million climate refugees, then botches the disappearing attempt.” (We’ll come back to the disappearance in a moment.) The internets eats them both up: forty thousand results for the original, six thousand for WUWT’s take on it.

The claim from the original Asian Correspondent article: “In 2005, the United Nations Environment Programme predicted that climate change would create 50 million climate refugees by 2010.” This is supposedly refuted by claiming that four islands – the Bahamas, St. Lucia, Seychelles and the Solomon Islands – have seen their populations increase. To spare the suspense: (1) based on the references the article is pointing to, no, UNEP did not predict that at all. (2) Census data from four tropical islands is not a good way to check, especially when you haven't checked what it is you're checking.

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