Sunday, March 22, 2009

"But This Ship Can't Sink!"

Course correction neededClimate Progress is, without exception, the best source for factual information on the science and politics of climate change.

However, Joe Romm, the former Department of Energy official who largely is Climate Progress, says we shouldn't call it "climate change" anymore, since that is too unalarming a euphemism for the dire future that will arrive later this century:

  • Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land — some 15°F over much of the United States
  • Sea level rise of 5 feet, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter
  • Widespread desertification — as much as one-third of the land
  • Massive species loss on land and sea — 50% or more of all life
  • Unexpected impacts — the fearsome “unknown unknowns”
  • More severe hurricanes — especially in the Gulf
Read the post. It's an excellent and succinct summary, with references. The consequences of not stabilizing atmospheric carbon levels are growing more severe. The costs of mitigation are today still relatively modest, but increasing; the costs of adapting in later decades to a changed world and coping with multiple failures of economic systems, the environment, and public health will be substantial.
Now if only the scientific community and environmentalists and progressives could start articulating this reality cogently.
If only.

The problem is that the timescales are enormously long compared to the attention spans or even the planning horizons of most people. We live in times that emphasize the short-term in everything. Quarterly earnings reports. This year's model. Spring fashions. Low teaser rates. 90 days, no interest. How do you galvanize people to respond to an emergency they can't see and which takes decades to wreak its havoc? I am reminded of a scene from the movie Titanic, after the iceberg has struck and gashed the hull: the naval architect, Thomas Andrews, breaks the bad news to Captain Edward J. Smith and Cunard Line honcho J. Bruce Ismay:
Thomas Andrews: ...As she goes down by the head, the water will spill over the tops of the bulkheads at E deck from one to the next. Back and back. There's no stopping it.

Smith: The pumps... if we opened the doors...

Thomas Andrews: [interrupting] The pumps buy you time, but minutes only. From this moment, no matter what we do, Titanic will founder.

Ismay: [incredulously] But this ship can't sink!

Thomas Andrews: She's made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can... and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.
Meanwhile the passengers continue on, unaware that their current experience is not their future--the ship is doomed. The lights are still on, the music is still playing; to them, the ship looks just the same. The fleeting concern of the moneyed and comfortable is quickly allayed by those for whom reassurance is their job. Steward: "I shouldn't worry ma'am. We've likely thrown a propeller blade, that's the shudder you felt. May I bring you anything?" While it is yet level, anyone hurtling about the deck screaming that the ship is sinking would be ignored or dismissed out of hand (as Ismay does: "This ship can't sink!")

This Titanic scene is a parable for us passengers on the Earth. For the most part, everything looks OK, but we are taking on water. People with expertise, who are knowledgeable on the particulars, are sounding the alarm, and urging response and preparation. Others, who may be experts in their own fields, insist that nothing is amiss. Maybe in our case we can buy enough time with the pumps, and the repairs, and the ship needn't sink. Denial and delay, however, ensures a steep plunge, and an ugly lifeboat exercise where none of money, status or morality will hold much sway.

Ismay's incredulous outburst, "But this ship can't sink!" comes from his belief, not his expertise. He lacks the understanding of engineering and physics to make such a statement of fact; instead it is a desperate attempt to arrest the vanishing permanence of a state of mind: too much would change or be lost were it to happen, so the ship can't be allowed to sink. But of course, it can, and it does.

The biggest impediment to acceptance of, and action upon climate change, the sinking of our ship, is the inchoate belief that it is unsinkable.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Why We Are Going Quietly Nuts

Ken Ward:

If we accept the worst, or precautionary assessment, then U.S. environmentalists have perhaps a year to avert cataclysm, and nothing we are doing now will work. We are dealing with this terrible situation in a very ordinary and human way: by denying it.

Our denial comes in a variety of forms: we believe that President Obama can and will solve the problem; we ignore Jim Hansen's assessment and timeline; we concentrate on our jobs and organization agendas and pass over the big picture; we focus on the molehill of climate policy rather than tackle the mountain of climate politics; we assess our efforts by looking back on how far we have come and do not measure the distance still to be traveled; we scrupulously avoid criticizing each other, lacking conviction in our own courses of action and not wishing to invite criticism in turn; and we are irrationally committed to antique approaches that are self-evidently inadequate.

In our hearts we know that what we are doing is futile, but we do not know what else we should or could be doing. The constraints within which we work feel so intractable and out of human scale that we cannot imagine how to break them. Despite our best efforts, Americans just don't seem to get it or they don't care, and we are at a loss to explain this. Unable to influence our own nation, we are further dismayed by the far vaster challenge of altering the trajectory of China, India, Brazil, and the rest of the world.

Nothing we now confront should be a surprise. We have known for more than thirty years that the world was bound to reach this state (with twenty years specific warning on climate). The purpose of environmentalism was to alter the self-destructive parabola of growth by introducing new values and sensibilities, which, as has been clear for some time, we have manifestly failed to do.


If we continue down our present road, we will leap from foggy thinking into pure madness, there being no other means of keeping reality at bay.

OK, back to work.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Fiction of Michael Crichton

A new Florida coast?I remember reading The Andromeda Strain as a teenager and finding it both engrossing and morbidly enjoyable. The original film (haven't seen the remake) was good too, and of course, Jurassic Park has become a modern Hollywood classic.

Thus it was disappointing for me to discover that Michael Crichton's enormous talent for fiction was not confined to his novels. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and the damage done is magnified through celebrity and a media that shirks its most noble purpose if not its basic duty [pdf]. Instead of questioning what it is told it slavishly parrots discredited viewpoints, creating a faux equivalence between credentialed experts and peer-reviewed science on one hand, and a legion of poseurs, cranks and industry shills on the other. The result is to foster a "controversy" not to provide a forum for a debate on the merits, but out of laziness, naivete and simple commercialism:

Of course we must not forget that the bottom line with media is sales, not truth (or accuracy). Stories of scientific certainty are only interesting once, controversy is eternally newsworthy.
Until George Will's recent, error-filled and much-ridiculed column denying the reality of climate change, Crichton was the poster boy for the deniers. The points Crichton makes have been repeatedly debunked as they have been made many times before. Crichton merely reiterates shopworn mendacity.

The argument that climate change is unproven because there is no "scientific consensus" is both grossly inaccurate and betrays a fundamental ignorance about the scientific method. There are others who complain of the limitations and warn of the dangers of relying on scientific consensus, repeating endlessly that such things are "unproven" because the "consensus" is not 100%. Creationists casting doubt on evolution are of this ilk, as are the deniers of everything from moon landings to the Holocaust.

Crichton is correct in that "consensus" can have a political slant, and that the existence of a consensus on a scientific theory does not constitute proof of that theory. He says instead that proof simply

...requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science, consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.
This is a pretty pinched view especially when he and others smugly note that no climate change theory lends itself to reproducible results because the only global experiment we have available is the Earth we live on. Reproducible results must be done on different scales and in a different manner, using proxies and building on the edifice of broader science to extrapolate to the testing of such hypotheses. There's nothing wrong or manipulative in this; scientists perforce do similarly in astronomy, human genetics, and other areas where direct experimentation is impossible, impractical, or unethical.

Climate scientists do not dogmatically cling to theories; they are testing hypotheses about climate change, and as a result the theories are constantly evolving. The broad outlines, however, are quite clear and largely settled. Greenhouse gases are concentrating in the atmosphere with a rapidity and to an extent that will cause changes to the climate, and these changes include many very negative effects for humankind, including rising sea levels, desertification, famine, habitat destruction, and likely mass ecomigration. While experiments and data collection continue, and theories are always subject to revision according to observations, the core elements of climatology in this regard are well-established.

Crichton decries the politicization of climate change questions and attacks a misguided emphasis on consensus as the culprit. However, the few climate change deniers and the vanishingly small number of sceptical climatologists don't propose credible alternative hypotheses that withstand scientific scrutiny. The fact that they trot out discredited studies, quibble about the edges of the data, savage the same strawmen and finally complain about politics for their intellectual failure shows a clear lack of scientific honesty.

I mean really, now. How much proof is needed before we act?

It's not as if the implications of responding to the reality of climate change are so terrible. The costs are actually rather modest. As I've argued before, picking between the environment and the economy is a bogus choice. The only reason to resist doing something about climate change is the disruption to the status quo, and to the vested interests that profit from it, particularly the fossil industry, which must forever deny recognition of climate change as an external cost of their business. Reluctance to act is also psychological, stemming from the a priori belief that we can despoil the environment for temporal ends because it is our birthright as homo colossus.

Great scientists, incidentally, are not great because they "broke with consensus" but because they followed their observations and revised their hypotheses diligently wherever they led without regard for the preconceptions of themselves or others. Often this did put them in a lonely place against the orthodoxy of the times. Right now, the brave adherence to wherever the facts lead is not the province of the deniers but of those warning of the impending and irreversible effects of climate change. The orthodoxy to be overcome is not the fact that the climate is changing but a contrary belief that we need do nothing as nature is cyclic, we needn't worry, and we can merrily go on changing nothing about our lives or ecohostile habits.

Nature has other ideas.

As a fellow alumnus, I regret that Crichton's evident erudition and relentless wrong-headedness reinforce the oft-told gibe: "you can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much." I loved most of your fiction, Michael Crichton. RIP.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser

Getting late to act on climate changeSaid Alice, in Wonderland:
It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.
Alice could just as easily have said this listening to any of Exxon's climate change deniers, which the oil giant, despite repeated promises to stop, continues to fund. The latest? An Ivy professor claims we are suffering from a carbon "famine". You can't make this stuff up.

Dr. William Happer of Princeton University testified last Wednesday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last week. He had an utterly novel take on atmospheric CO2 levels, saying that today represents a CO2 "famine" compared to levels of "80 million" years ago. Incredibly, Happer stated that higher CO2 levels would be beneficial to humankind. More CO2, a little warming--it's really all "fine". You really have to watch the video to get the full measure of his glib fatuousity:

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the committee was nonplussed at the specious comparison, but had the good sense to note afterwards that Happer is chair of the George C. Marshall Institute, which receives a large part of its funding from Exxon Mobil. Exxon is well known for its greenwashing, spin and self-serving PR. It is really laughable what that funding can buy!

Happer provided another weird equivalence: carbon restrictions and Prohibition:

Prohibition [of liquor] was a mistake and our country has probably still not fully recovered from the damage it did... Institutions like organized crime got their start in that era. Drastic limitations on CO2 are likely to damage our country in analogous ways.

Yes, I can see it now. Illicit gasoline using homemade refining techniques in backwoods stills. Carbon revenuers chasing them down. Speakeasies filled with furtive patrons giddy from the use of oil lamps. A black market for plastic packaging clamshells. Will organized crime be smuggling petrochemical fertilizers to the family farm? What "analogous ways" is Happer imagining?

What's really ridiculous about this pathetic attempt at fear-mongering is that carbon crime is already happening repeatedly.

Happer also warns about the supposedly ruinous costs of carbon restraint, again without any evidence. The costs of not dealing with the problem, including desertification, rising sea levels, etc. are not considered. In comparison, the cost of a carbon regimen seem modest.

Happer, like many denialists, has no degree or other evident credentials in climatology; instead Happer is the Cyrus Fogg Brackett "I am not a climatologist" Professor of Physics at Princeton University. In his testimony he is literally hand-waving as he throws out wild numbers of alleged CO2 concentrations of "a thousand" and "3 or 4 times" what they are today. He states without attribution that, while there has been warming historically, it has "ceased" in "the past ten years," a fabrication at odds with the data. His grasp of geologic time periods is equally reality-free. After derisively dismissing "propaganda" in children's books about climate change one wonders where he gets his information--perhaps a book showing cheerful cave dwellers gamboling about in a tropical idyll with their pet dinosaurs? Treehugger provides a snarky summary on what those times were really like. Happer's prepared text [pdf] cites Orwell and Voltaire as authorities, attacks the usual strawmen like "inaccuracies" in Al Gore's slide show, and rehashes long discredited denier talking points as if they were fresh insights. Nothing new here.

Increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) and especially carbon dioxide (CO2) alarm respected researchers because they believe, based on their broad, inclusive and peer-reviewed scientific assessment, that the resulting temperature increases will produce tipping point events that will be very damaging to humankind and will not be easily mitigated or reversed for many generations. There is a broad scientific consensus on climate change.

However, there will always be sceptics for whom no amount of scientific vetting will ever be enough. For these people, climate change remains and will forever remain an "unproven theory", a "hypothesis", etc. One wonders if they understand the scientific method, the way in which scientists create systems for understanding natural phenomena based on observation, hypothesis and experimental verification. If they applied the same level of scepticism to other areas of science they would be equally unconvinced by such "theories" as gravity, the roundness of the earth, or evolution. (Well, that last one is also a favorite of the "unproven!" crowd.)

Beyond the unscientific sceptics, for whom there is never enough evidence, there are also the anecdotal sceptics, for whom irrelevant data has exalted meaning. However, my favorite are the fantasy sceptics, for whom fictional data, whether derived from literature, cranks, or sheer conjecture of their own febrile imaginations ("what if!") has enough import to doubt anything.
Some of these people even get to rave to Congress as "experts". Imagine.

The George C Marshall Institution (GMI), which provides Happer's soapbox, says on its home page:

Our mission is to improve the use of science in making public policy about important issues for which science and technology are major considerations.

They go on in a very high-minded fashion about the importance of unbiased, impartial, accurate scientific fact to guide and inform policy decisions:

Where science is misused and distorted to promote special interests, GMI works to improve the situation:

  • by communicating scientific information clearly,
  • by identifying key linkages between science and policy issues,
  • and by providing balanced and accurate assessments on specific science-based
    policy issues.

The Institute's accurate and impartial analyses are designed to help policy makers distinguish between opinion and scientific fact so that decisions on public policy issues can be based on solid, factual information, rather than opinion or unproven hypotheses.

Says the George C Marshall Foundation of the former General, Cabinet Secretary and Nobel Laureate for which it is named:

His principles of honesty and truth gained the trust of millions of Americans and the respect of world leaders throughout his years of service.

Truthfully, one wonders what George C Marshall the man would make of his namesake Institute's current Chair and his bizarre claims. Honestly.

Update: Just to clarify, the George C Marshall Foundation seeks to "promote the values and beliefs that encompass George Marshall's legacy for the benefit of future generations". The George C Marshall Institute is not affiliated with the Foundation and claims to "conduct technical assessments of scientific issues with an impact on public policy."

(h/t the future is green)