Friday, October 23, 2009

Night of the Living Benthamites

A scientist friend has drawn my attention to an article on the moral uncertainties posed by climate change. In the article, “Anthropogenic climate change: Scientific uncertainties and moral dilemmas” (in Physica D 237;2008: 2132–2138), Rafaela Hillerbrand and Michael Ghil say they know “a way to correctly incorporate all the relevant uncertainties into the decision making process” (2133). Their suggested method is Expected Utility Theory, an offshoot of game theory, decision theory, and economics.

Hillerbrand and Ghil are “utilitarians,” meaning that for them “the morally correct action is one that maximizes overall human welfare” (2134). Expected Utility Theory is the formal, logical expression of that philosophy. Here is Hillerbrand and Ghil’s quasi-mathematical definition of it (brace yerself!):

[single-click image for larger view, then go back a page on browser to return here]

I call this
quasi-mathematical because, for all its Greek symbols and function talk, the idea that people have “preferences” that can be assigned specific numbers is pure whimsy. One-dimensional preferences, as a few seconds of introspection will confirm, don’t even exist. Your desire for a cheeseburger cannot, even approximately, be assigned a unique Ui in the domain of real numbers R: it varies with time of day, how much you have been conditioned by marketing, your desire for healthier food, your desire to indulge in unhealthy food, what you remember of Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a hundred other aspects of self. It is not a quantity at all. So nobody actually computes numbers to plug into equations like this: even economists and utilitarian philosophers aren’t that crazy. All this jargon and notation are gestural, not operable. They are there to lend an air of scientific authority to a philosophical creed first advanced a couple of centuries ago by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). The notational fancy dress adds nothing to the basic belief, which many have challenged and which strikes me as essentially crude. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one,” as Spock intones annoyingly in The Search for Spock (1984).

But one needn’t get into the shortcomings of Utilitarianism to find problems with Hillerbrand and Ghil’s approach. A big one is their assumption that if we spend money to mitigate climate change, we will be making people worse off in the here-and-now for the sake of people yet unborn. “[M]itigation of major changes in future climate,” they say, is a “predominantly altruistic goal”; “Investing in the mitigation of climate-change effects means foregoing other investments” in human welfare (2134). This assumption is basic to Hillerbrand and Ghil’s whole argument, because if fighting climate change does
not require us to rob a present Peter to pay a future Paul then there is no trade-off, no dilemma, and nothing to write papers about. In particular, Expected Utility Theory (EUT) is irrelevant even if valid.

But the assumption is questionable, even by orthodox economic measures. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found in 2007 that by 2030, “macro-economic costs for multi-gas mitigation, consistent with emissions trajectories towards stabilization between 445 and 710 ppm CO2-eq, are estimated at between a 3% decrease of global GDP [Gross Domestic Product] and a small increase” (2007 IPCC report on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,
Summary for Policymakers). “Small increase” means that the world economy might well be
strengthened by mitigation—a negative cost—as market distortions are rectified, waste is cut, smart technologies are deployed, and positive side-effects kick in. For example, “near-term health co-benefits from reduced air pollution as a result of actions to reduce [greenhouse] emissions can be substantial and may offset a substantial fraction of mitigation costs” (ibid.)

To support their claim that climate-change mitigation is inherently dilemmic, Hillerbrand and Ghil cite figures (in a section titled, ironically, “Jumping to Conclusions”) showing that it might cost $450 billion per year, about 1% of global GDP, to mitigate climate change sufficiently to avoid “major hazards,” whereas providing 80% of rural Africa with water and sanitation by 2015 would cost “only US$1.3 billion per annum” (2134). This is their only example of a mitigation “trade-off.”

But as their own use of the word “only” flags, this argument is weird. $1.3 billion is 0.3%—one third of one percent!—of $450 billion. The US spends $1.3 billion on the Iraq War every
two days. [1] If the world were able and willing to pony up $450 billion for what Hillerbrand and Ghil consider the “predominantly altruistic” goal of climate-change mitigation, wouldn’t it probably be able and willing to come up with a few altruistic pence for African health as well? Wouldn’t it have made more rhetorical sense for Hillerbrand and Ghil to pit an expensive here-and-now opportunity against the possible costs of climate mitigation?

But that is the least of this example’s problems. A bigger one is that Africans happen to be more endangered by climate change than almost anybody else—especially in the water department. To quote the IPCC’s 2007 report again,
Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change and climate variability . . . Climate change will aggravate the water stress currently faced by some countries, while some countries that currently do not experience water stress will become at risk of water stress . . . (Ch. 7 of the Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability report).
And water would only be part of it: “Agricultural production and food security (including access to food) in many African countries and regions are likely to be severely compromised by climate change and climate variability . . .” (ibid.)

So let’s get this straight: Failure to mitigate climate change will screw Africa, big-time. It will undermine, perhaps entirely destroy, any benefits purchased by the $1.3 billion per year that Hillerbrand and Ghil cast fallaciously as an
alternative investment. Climate-change mitigation is a precondition for meaningful, long-term aid to Africa, not an alternative to such aid. The whole idea that mitigation would rob the Africans is thus cockamamie, backwards-ass. In fact, one of the nastier tensions in the mitigation debate these days is that the up-front costs of mitigation (usually assumed to be positive) must be borne by strong economies like those of the US, Europe, Japan, and China, while the benefits are going to be greatest for Africa and the other poorer, “southern” regions of the world that are threatened most by climate change to begin with. Hillerbrand and Ghil fantasize that mitigation would steal well-being from the Africans: in reality, the G-20 are quietly worried that mitigation is a giveaway to the Africans.

Another fundamentally wrong, wrong, wrong thing about the either/or notion of climate mitigation that justifies Hillerbrand and Ghil’s whole exercise is the idea that the harms which climate-change mitigation seeks to prevent are
distant harms, that mitigation is about “the well-being of future generations” (2133). That is only partly true: yes, what we do today will affect human life for many centuries to come, but the years 2050 (which many of us will live to see) and 2100 (which many of our grandchildren will live to see) are the most commonly referenced points in climate and mitigation scenarios. And let’s not forget Africa, of which the IPCC says: “Changes in a variety of ecosystems are already being detected, particularly in southern African ecosystems, at a faster rate than anticipated . . . ” (ibid., emphasis added). So this is about the future starting now, not the future starting after we are all long dead.

Fortunately, the things we need to do to prevent climate change from becoming disastrous are much the same things we need to do to save ourselves from several other catastrophes: ocean acidification, resource exhaustion, soil death, more. There is therefore no moral puzzle at all about mitigating climate change. Urgent altruism aligns with long-term altruism; self-interest aligns with intergenerational interest; climate mitigation aligns with numerous other benefits; long-term sanity may even, for a miracle, align with economics.

But let’s grant for the sake of the argument Hillerbrand and Ghil’s assumption that mitigation is dilemmic, and see how they deal.

I note, first, that on their first page they subtly
minimize the climate threat, stating that climate change will last “for decades to come.” Decades? Try centuries, based on the long residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in 2007 that “anthropogenic climate change will persist for many centuries.”

On the second page (p. 2133), they set up a classic
straw man: “If there is a moral obligation to preserve the climate in its present state, where does it stem from?”

But everyone who knows the science understands that we cannot “preserve the climate in its present state.” That ship has already sailed. The climate has already changed. It is changing all the time and will continue to change. If we were to zero out our greenhouse emissions tomorrow, simply stop emitting altogether, anthropogenic climate change would continue for centuries, albeit at a greatly reduced rate and to a less extreme endpoint. The question is not whether “there is a moral obligation to preserve the climate in its present state”: it is whether there is a moral obligation to do our best to prevent climate from changing uncontrollably and irrevocably to a
much different state.

Hillerbrand and Ghil end their article with the rather nonspecific and uncontroversial suggestion that we give scientific prognoses a major role in decisions about climate mitigation while acknowledging that such prognoses, “taken on their own, give no sufficient reasons for acting or not acting, this way or the other” (2137). Well, no duh!

It is hard to see how we could apply Expected Utility Theory (EUT) to questions of mitigation even if we wanted to:

First, because it depends on a bloodless pseudo-math that will never move millions or billions of people to change their lives. Perhaps Hillerbrand and Ghil assume, autocratically, that all important change will be imposed from the top down by an expertocracy: they seem to, but don’t say this explicitly.

Second, EUT won’t work on climate for the reason Hillerbrand and Ghil acknowledge on p. 2135: “assigning actual likelihood values to expected impacts on human welfare [in EUT] is often difficult or even impossible with the current state of knowledge” (or, I would add, any plausible future state of knowledge). In other words, they would have us adopt a quantitative method without having access to the required quantities. This is better known as “guessing.”

Third, because of EUT’s admitted anthropocentrism (“valuing the environment solely as a basic resource for humanity, as done in the present paper”—p. 2135). Hillerbrand and Ghil exclude any idea that the nonhuman (or at least non-“sentient”) world is sacred and that we have any obligation to steward it. If humans can be fine without giant redwoods, then the redwoods can go. In Hillerbrand and Ghil’s vocabulary, only “environmentalists” will bemoan this outcome very much. Jesus, have these people never gone camping? The idea of valuing the non-human is deep-rooted in hundreds of millions of people, if not billions. How can it “promote overall human welfare,” Hillerbrand and Ghil’s ultimate value, to discard a value cherished deeply by a large portion of humans?

No: it won’t do. There is some hope in moral common sense, philosophically raggedy-ass though it may be: there is no hope in the robotic gameboarding of Expected Utility Theory. Common fear of total disaster, common care for the fate of our descendants, common devotion to the non-human as well as to the human—love, in fact, love for land, for life, for people, for non-people, for children: this is the only hope, unless one assumes (as I think Hillerbrand and Ghil do) that paltering, marginal actions are really all that’s going to be necessary . . .

I see it now. Full circle. The issue-minimizing and straw-manning that Hillerbrand and Ghil deploy early in their piece lower the bar enough so that their pet ethical calculus, the Expected Utility Theory, can hop over it. If the question were only whether we are obliged to make a feint at attempting the impossible (i.e., “preserve climate in its present state”), and that over a scale of mere “decades,” then a morally contorted pseudo-quantitative system operating on admittedly insufficient data would suffice. Because accomplishing next to nothing would really be OK. If you’re selling plastic sporks, you want people to think they’re going to be eating pudding, not steak.

Utilitarianism is a spork.


[1] As of 2007, the American Friends Service Committee calculated that the US was spending $720 million per day on the Iraq War (
reported in the Washington Post). That’s $1.3 billion every 1.8 days.


I will e-mail a PDF of the Hillerbrand and Ghil article to anyone who writes me at lnpgilman [ a t ] wildblue [ d o t ] net to request a copy.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Striking Just the Right False Balance

Over at the New York Times, climate blogger Andrew Revkin has just posted a response from scientist Michael Prather, who has done an astonishing pile of fine work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC) over the years. Prather takes issue with two statements from Revkin, the first of which reads: “Environmentalists assert that the reports by the panel are watered down by a requirement that sponsoring governments approve its summaries line by line.”

Such remarks, Prather says, “seem too easy, and I worry that such beliefs and accusations become propagated as facts without some serious evaluation as to their authority.”

I have profound respect for the work of the IPCC. Its 2007 report is an epoch-making, primary resource for anyone wanting to understand climate change. Nevertheless, Dr. Prather’s response seems to me evasive at best. Indeed, the statement he quotes is itself “watered down.” That governments meddled with language in the IPCC’s 2007 report is not simply a claim of “environmentalists” but of participants in the IPCC process, as reported in the mainstream press. See, for example, “U.S., China Got Climate Warnings Toned Down” (Washington Post, April 7, 2007), which begins: “Some sections of a grim scientific assessment of the impact of global warming on human, animal and plant life issued in Brussels yesterday were softened at the insistence of officials from China and the United States, participants in the negotiations said.” Before-and-after versions of specific passages are quoted.

Did these events happen, or did they not? If they did, shouldn’t journalists represent them as fact, not as something that “environmentalists assert”?

This is a case of the journalistic phenomenon of
false balance — the casting of disputed questions in an apparently even-handed form that conveys a distorted impression of fact. Climate scientists themselves have been dogged by false balance for decades, as journalists noted demurely that this or that question (on which 90+ percent of scientists doing relevant work agree) is “disputed”—as indeed it is, by a tiny handful of people with scientific qualifications plus Rush Limbaugh. Here, in a turnabout that I do not find refreshing, false balance is deployed to soften facts about the IPCC process, trotting them out as dubious “assertions.” (“Assert” is one of those inherently loaded words. If somebody is represented as “asserting” something, the reader is already three-quarters of the way to dismissing whatever it is they’re saying.)

It is obviously unlikely that powerful and ruthless governments explicitly
given line-by-line authority over the IPCC’s final reports would never use that authority. And, if news accounts such as the one cited above are accurate, they do use it — sparingly, cautiously, selectively. The IPCC’s scientific content is strong, but governments don’t care about that. They know that few people, including science journalists, actually buckle down and read the IPCC’s science. They’re afraid of soundbites — quotable passages in plain, alarming language that might go viral enough to threaten business as usual. These are the passages, it appears, that they bestir themselves to censor.

So this is not, I think, about the scientific validity of the IPCC’s conclusions. It’s about spin. Governments spin primarily through censorship, outright lies, controlling access, and spoonfeeding leaks to journalists; journalists spin — usually unconsciously, no doubt, assuming that it is simply how one stays “objective,” above the fray — primarily through false balance and selective omission. And Revkin is one of the good ones.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Stuff That’s Not Right

A gusher of quasi-religious human spaceflight advocacy has erupted in predictable response to the 40th anniversary of the first human Moon landing (July 20, 1969). The commonest tack has been to bemoan our lack of progress and call for renewed dedication to human flight to the Moon and Mars. I didn’t even try to dip my cup in the torrent of exhortation, reading time being a finite resource and the arguments all much of a muchness, but a friend drew my attention to the essay by Thomas Wolfe in the New York Times ( Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff (1979), is a major pop historian of space flight, and therefore worth looking at.

In characteristically peppy prose, Wolfe recaps the history of the race to the Moon and argues that NASA must make an impassioned, big-values case for human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit so that it can stop dorking around and get back to its real business of building “a bridge to the stars.”

His argument isn't explicitly religious, but he does throw in god-language in the second paragraph, irony-coated for easy swallowing: “The American space program [was] the greatest, grandest, most Promethean — O.K. if I add ‘godlike’? — quest in the history of the world. . . ” Sure it’s OK, Tom, because it’s honest. Robotic exploration of the Solar System is about satisfying curiosity, expanding scientific knowledge, harvesting visions of strange beauty for all to see: human spaceflight is about our jones for the “godlike.” So let’s just put that out there for the Universe.

Except Wolfe feels the need to make some kind of
argument for spaceflight, and so offers a form of the standard case: colonizing other planets is needed to guarantee long-term racial survival. Admiringly paraphrasing Nazi slave-driver Werner von Braun [], he argues that “The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe.” This is an uncommonly silly version of the prudential argument for space colonization, which usually cites asteroid impacts as the likeliest race-ender: the Sun is due to last for several billion years more. Its inevitable demise in the distant cosmic future is no reason at all for upping NASA’s budget in fiscal year 2011.

But that’s how Wolfe handles mere fact throughout this whole essay. One wonders if his access to the Internet was impaired. For example, his explanation of why orbital nukes were not deployed by the US and USSR in the 1960s is complete bosh. The “three-body problem” was irrelevant, as 2 minutes of online research would have told him, as were the technical difficulties arising from the complex relative velocities of satellite, warhead, and target (which he also cites). The re-entry targeting problem must be solved for
any ballistic missile: all such are lobbed into space before descending toward their targets. That’s what makes them “ballistic.” The problem cannot be essentially harder for an object in an orbital trajectory rather than a parabolic one. The first real reason there are no space nukes is that they would have to be stored in plain sight in a highly vulnerable, continuously observable location—i.e., orbit. Submarines, in contrast, can hit their targets almost as quickly, quicker in some cases, from shifty, hard-to-detect, un-first-strikeable starting points, and land-based ICBMs deployed deep inside home territory are easy to maintain and can be launched before attacking missiles can get at them. Second and more importantly, the US and USSR both feared (sensibly) that each power might attempt to co-orbit nuclear mines with their enemy's space missiles—a countermeasure impossible with land-based or sea-based weapons—leading to a hellishly unstable, thousand-sided Mexican standoff. Hence the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

Wolfe tirelessly compares astronauts to warriors engaged in “single combat.” The analogy is too pat. First, there was if anything a rather collegial feeling between the rival space programs, not a militant oppositional one. International standards for assisting distressed astronauts were agreed on in 1967 and 1968 (Treaty on Rescue and Return). Second, the astronauts competed at performing stunts, not clobbering each other. The superpower rivalry for Olympic medals in swimming, figure skating, and gymnastics would be a much closer parallel. These unusual people—athletes, astronauts—were put forth, however foolishly, as existence proofs of what each rival system could accomplish. They were trophy humans. Their whole point was that they were non-military, that they supposedly proved each country's ability to create or achieve or build something up, not merely to blow stuff to kingdom come.

One wonders if Wolfe—or the
Times—fact-checks anything. Well, he gets it right when he says that a Russian dog was the first animal in orbit, but then he goes on to claim the Shuttle was originally “supposed to appeal to the public by offering orbital tourist rides.” I'm pretty sure he's just making this up. I have never read any such thing and doubt that such a frivolous goal would have been floated in the days when NASA was trying to convince Congress to fund the Shuttle's development. There was indeed optimistic talk of the Shuttle eventually paying for itself, but through orbital industrial activity, not joyride tickets.

Finally, his breezy dismissal of the basic “why not send robots” question—citing von Braun again, this time to the effect that “there is no computerized explorer in the world with more than a tiny fraction of the power of a chemical analog computer known as the human brain, which is easily reproduced by unskilled labor”—is childish. Human brains are indeed more powerful than microchips, no duh. But they are in fact more expensive to raise and educate than computers are to build, quips about unskilled procreation to the side. When it comes to space flight, computers do not require life-support systems hundreds or thousands of times more massive than themselves and do not need to be brought home alive. They can therefore be sent out in relatively large numbers on very risky, comparatively cheap, usually one-way missions to collect data while the humans stay right here on Earth and analyze it—which is exactly how and why the Solar System, including Mars, has been explored so extremely well since the 1970s. Sciencewise, the entire wealth of Earth would barely have sufficed to achieve using astronauts what NASA has achieved using robots on a fraction of its annual budget. True, geologists pick up better rocks than robots do—unless the robots are being remotely controlled by geologists. Which they always are.

There is simply no astronaut/robot rivalry to seriously
discuss when it comes to science for the dollar. The true reasons for manned spaceflight, whatever their merits, are entirely nonscientific. Hubble telescope notwithstanding, yes: even adjusting for inflation, the Hubble could have been re-built and re-launched several times over for the cost of the five Shuttle repair missions at ~$1G each. And it was a skinny baby to begin with because of the vampire suction of the Shuttle development budget.

Colorful-essayist disease: Wolfe has it bad. The striking phrase is preferred over the complex fact every time.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Open Letter to Jim Hansen

Following up on my previous post (below), I have accessed the actual video of the Hansen talk at Dartmouth and have written to Hansen himself with exact quotes in hand. The letter is as follows:

April 28, 2009

Dear Dr. Hansen,

I had the pleasure of seeing you speak at Dartmouth College on April 2 (video
here). I learned much, but was disconcerted by a couple of remarks you made during the question-and-answer session. You said,

Amory Lovins is dead wrong, and I’ve had my high-school students make a graph of what he said in the 1970s — and his graph — y’know, he says renewables can do everything, he says you don’t need nuclear power, you don’t need large hydro, you don’t need coal; energy efficiency plus ‘soft’ technologies will do everything. Well, you make a graph, and these soft technologies — his graph had them doing this [hand zooms upward] but in reality they’ve stayed under 2%.

I am familiar with most of Lovins’s work from the 1970s and am not aware that he ever made any forecasts or predictions about what the “soft path” technologies would do, though he did talk a great deal about what he thought they
could do. You seem to be referring to the following graph, which Lovins included in his book Soft Energy Paths (1977, p. 38 -- and I will gratefully accept new information if you have a different reference to point to):

This figure was not a forecast or a prediction. It was (as labeled at top) an “alternative illustrative future,” i.e., a claim about what would or could happen if certain energy policies were adopted. But those policies were not adopted. So how can the figure fairly be characterized as “dead wrong”? How can a conditional prediction be accused of failure if its conditions are not met?

A second point: you also said at Dartmouth,

But Amory Lovins says you don’t need a carbon price. Well, he’s dead wrong on that.

However, I find the following 2008 statement by Lovins at :

Carbon pricing is a good idea and we should do it. Putting carbon in the air should not be free any more.

I bring these points up both as a matter of professional fairness and because it seems to me that Lovins is actually a natural ally in the climate-change battle, given the huge need and potential for greenhouse mitigation from increased energy efficiency — his
raison d’etre.

One final point. At Dartmouth you characterized 4th-generation nuclear as a way of “burn[ing] essentially 100% of the fuel instead of less than 1%, which is what current technology does.” Actually, as I understand it, in the UREX+ fuel cycle proposed by the US government in 2006, reprocessing would separate the spent fuel from existing once-through reactors into four moieties, only one of which (transuranics, including plutonium) would go to fast-neutron reactors for transmutational burnup; the other three would all be waste. One waste stream would consist of the 30-year-half-life fission products, mostly strontium-90 and cesium-137, constituting the majority of the radiological hazard, to be placed in interim surface storage for several centuries before ultimate deep burial. Thus, fourth-generation nuclear power, as actually proposed, does not offer “essentially 100%” burnup (if a thing sounds too good to be true, it probably is) but rather -- as blueprinted by its advocates -- will continue to generate a large, high-intensity, multigenerational, surface-storage waste burden, with all the vulnerabilities (e.g., terrorism) that such a burden entails. A review for the International Panel on Fissile Materials of the technology and rather grim economics of this matter is given by physicist Frank von Hippel at .

I earnestly thank you for all your work.


Larry Gilman

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Whoa, Jim

On April 2, 2009, policy wonk Jason Grumet and climate scientist Jim Hansen spoke on climate change at Dartmouth College as part of the engineering school’s “Great Issues in Energy” series. The video of the happening can be found here. Because I am connected to the Internet through a satellite that has about much bandwidth as a tin can attached to a taut string, I cannot download that video just now, but I was present for the event.

I found it depressing. There was not much news for me on the climate front, which is grim enough, but hearing Grumet — who is funny, flashy, and likeable — riffing cleverly on how there is no hope from democracy, only from the skillful exercise of Jedi mind tricks on semi-retarded US senators (though he didn’t say it that way), was pretty bleak. And although I liked Hansen very much, including his unabashed love for children and his insistence that we act responsibly toward future generations, I got an unpleasant shock during the question-and-answer part of the program.

A questioner mentioned Amory Lovins, well-known energy guru since the 1970s. Grumet disarmingly joked, “Well, Amory Lovins is always right —

I am paraphrasing from memory, but Hansen’s follow-up went partly like this:

“Well, at least we’ve finally found a point on which Jason and I disagree. Lovins is not always right. He is dead wrong. He says you don’t need coal, you don’t need nuclear — that you can do it all with ‘soft energy.’ But I’ve had my students graph what he said back in the 70s was going to happen with alternative energy versus what has actually happened. There’s no resemblance.”

(When my tin-can link permits me to download the video of the event, I may be able to substitute a verbatim transcript for that paraphrase.)

The problem? I have read almost everything by Amory Lovins, and I am reasonably certain that he never, in the 1970s or later, made any predictions at all about the shape of the energy future. The only Lovins graphs that I can imagine that Hansen is referring to were not
predictions but illustrative scenarios concocted to show where we might go, energywise, if we made certain decisions. Here is the most famous of them, the one, I’m betting, that Hansen has his students debunk:

That is from page 38 of Lovins’s most influential book,
Soft Energy Paths (1977). I speculate that it is the one Hansen offers his students because so far as I know, it is the only graph explicitly showing an alternative-dominated future that Lovins ever published. But note its title: this is an “alternative illustrative future,” not a forecast. Nine pages earlier, Lovins supplied a similar graphic showing coal and nuclear power’s possible contribution to gross primary energy swelling and dominating through 2025, with no visible contribution from “soft technologies” (which include, but are not limited to, what we now call “renewables”).

Such charts are not forecasts and so cannot be accused of making inaccurate predictions. Lovins was not predicting that we would make the choices leading to a “soft energy path” future; he was arguing that we could and should. In the event, we didn’t, so there is nothing surprising —or meaningful — about the graph’s non-realization.

A real scientist and a thoroughly likeable chap, Hansen should know better than to treat a scenario as a prediction. That is what depressed me about his response. Hansen has produced charts like this himself, only for greenhouse-emissions scenarios rather than energy-usage scenarios. Here’s one:

So Lovins was doing exactly the same thing with energy supplies in 1977 that Hansen was doing in 2008 with carbon dioxide: not forecasting, but choice-picturing. A perfectly legitimate exercise.

Also, Hansen said during the Q&A that Lovins “says we don’t need a price on carbon.” (This according both to my memory and to a
partial real-time transcript that skips over the remarks I’ve paraphrased above.) But that’s simply not true. Lovins said in 2008, “carbon pricing is a good idea and we should do it. Putting carbon in the air should not be free any more.” He does caution that both main ways of putting a price on carbon — a carbon tax and cap-and-trade — could fail if done improperly, but that is hardly a controversial statement.

I am not a mindless Lovins groupie: I think he projects too much optimism about the ability of profit-driven corporate reform and “technical fixes” to preserve our technical civilization while absolving us of any unwelcome changes in lifestyle whatsoever. But when Hansen speaks about Lovins I hear, to my alarm and surprise, the sound of axes being ground against grudges. My guess is that Lovins’s opposition to nuclear power, which Hansen supports, is the nub. But fair is fair. And Hansen, when I heard him, was not being fair to Lovins. And the stakes are too high for someone as important as Hansen to indulge in annoyance-driven inaccuracies.

Whoa, Jim.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Consensus Conshmensus

The Cato Institute is an intellectual stopped clock. When right thinking aligns with dislike for centralized authority, the one clear notion at the heart of its libertarian faith, Cato is right on. If the White House decreed tomorrow that we must all get the Number of the Beast tattooed on our foreheads, Cato would be there for us, man! But when reality doesn’t align with its fixed idea, Cato opts for fantasy.

Case in point, as Rod Serling might say: climate change.
Cato is brewing up a full-page ad respectfully telling President Obama that it is just not true that the science on climate change is settled. Why, look at this list of credentialed names we have produced. All these PhDs reject the “consensus.” Isn’t it obvious that there is at least room for honest doubt? That at least some independent thinkers are refusing to bleat along with the rest of the white-coated sheep?

Listen to that word “consensus.” It gives me the willies. We should exile it from the discourse. It has the same leaden ring, the same negative semantic charge long accumulated, as “dogma,” “doctrine,” “orthodoxy,” “party line.” Who or what, except a group of vaguely-imagined New Agers trying to decide where to plant the quinoa without hurting any feelings, works by “consensus”? The word smells of doubts suppressed, of group approval sought. No wonder so many people who know some science, including a few once-brilliant folks like Freeman Dyson (now slipping into a particularly spectacular and public dotage, climate-changewise), are eager to declare their independence from “the scientific consensus on climate change.” I sympathize. Screw the consensus. Speak up for the truth, every time.

The problem: scientifically, in the special sense discussed above, there
is no “global consensus on climate change.” That is, there is no touchy-feely global community of scientists all Om-ing together to drive out the vibes of dissent. There is an overwhelming, complex, convergent, stewing, bubbling, ongoing mass of good work done by the best people intimately involved with the data, the uncertainties, and the alternatives. This is not a process of “consensus” in the sense of a show of hands, the adoption of a common view for the sake of happy harmony. This is the largest body of hard-core, peer-reviewed research on a single topic ever done in the history of science. There are mathematical models, ice cores from Antarctica going back 800,000 years without a glitch, measurements of the shrinking gravitational pull of Greenland’s melting glaciers, sludge cores from the bottoms of the oceans, instrumental records, tree rings, sea-level measurements, satellite measurements of land, sea, and air temperature . . . why, just to name the categories of information that have been enlisted to shed light on whether (a) climate is warming (b) humans are the cause (c) the warming will continue and is dangerous would take a whole page of single-spaced fine print. The answers are Yes, Yes, and Yes. Stay tuned for resolution of all details -- but Yes.

The Cato Institute people seem to dislike these answers because they threaten, by implication, to empower governments. If climate change is real, human-caused, and mitigable, then government action is obviously essential to saving our collective ass. Since all government action is disasteful to Cato, from Wall Street bailouts to public schools, it seems clear to them that science
cannot be telling us what it seems to be telling us. There must be some kind of mass delusion or fraud afoot. Our libertarian desires are an infallible index of reality, are they not? At least that much is clear!

But climate science's triple Yes (climate change is real, our fault, bad news) is not a “consensus,” a manufactured consent. It is just science. It is exactly the same kind of science that tells us how the Solar System runs, what the stars are, how DNA works, how transistors transist. Some people -- hundreds with science degrees, as Cato shows -- don’t like what science is saying. That is understandable. Science is telling us that we are in a frig of a mess and that we are sliding deeper into it, maybe to a disastrous degree, especially if we don’t make some highly annoying changes to the way we live and make them fast. So they blink. They suddenly conceive of themselves as independent-minded truth-lovers resisting a phony “consensus.”

“Science isn’t democratic!” they bark, while Cato holds out its microphone. “Scientific truth is not decided by a show of hands!” True, very true, although a show of hands is an odd way to make that point. And the science on climate change has not, in fact, been decided by hand-counting. It has been decided the hard way, the old-fashioned way, the scientific way, piece by piece, dispute by dispute, fact by fact. The natural and healthful friction of that machine, that is, the fact-based disputation which is the basis of scientific integrity, is amplified and distorted by the “realists,” as the fantasists like to call themselves, until in their picture there is only friction, no machine. Only uncertainty. No science. No knowledge of the real world. No meaningful -- spit between fingers! -- “consensus.”

I am fascinated by the fact that Creationism operates in the same mode. In Creationist public relations, petitions of this sort -- declarations of incompetence signed by hundreds of dissenters with science degrees (almost invariably opining out-of-area) -- are a tradition. While the Cato Institute is assembling its Roll of Cluelessness for pricey publication in the New York Times and elsewhere, it might wish to check out the competition over at the Discovery Institute, which offers a long
list of credentialed people who think evolution is hogwash. Its structure is the same. Its function is the same.

Its value is the same.

Friday, March 13, 2009

If I Was Bogart

If I was Bogart, I’d be reaching for my whiskey right now. Because they’re playing that song again. I’ve heard it so many times, so many damn times, and every time I hear it I want to reach for my whiskey. Not because I'm tortured by memories of love in Paris before the invasion, but because the song is so sadly, brightly, inanely, insanely dumb.

It goes like this: space travel has made spectacularly visible the glorious fact that the world is one place, our single shared big-blue-marble home, and that boundaries are cultural fictions. This realization promotes world peace by making nationalisms seem arbitrary. In some versions of the lyric, photographs alone work the magic: in others, only personal,
in situ experience of the vision suffices.

Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 astronaut, has eloquently described a personal epiphany of this type during his 1968 mission to Earth orbit. In his essay “
No Frames, No Boundaries,” he recounts looking down on the Middle East as he skimmed high above, marveling that “hundreds of people [are] killing each other over some imaginary line that you're not even aware of, that you can't see.”

This week the
BBC reports gushingly on the latter-day fruits of Schweickart 's epiphany:

Forty years on, as Schweickart approaches his 74th birthday, we are on the brink of an opportunity for his wish to come true, as commercial teams around the world race to launch the first suborbital tourist flights.
These new aerospace pioneers, striving to bring us space tourism today, were young impressionable children and teenagers during the 1960s -- inspired to take up their careers, in part, by the Apollo programme.

If these "children of Apollo" succeed, then they may give us the chance to launch those leaders locked in conflict around the world on their own epiphanal flights above the Earth.

For only then, as Schweickart pointed out, will they truly appreciate that we are one people on one planet - "riders on the Earth together".

Where’s that whiskey? It’s all so empty, my God, so empty . . . “Only then will they truly appreciate . . .”

People said the same thing about airplanes, you know, almost a hundred years ago. From the sky, we can all see at last that national borders are often not coincident with large-scale geological features such as rivers! World peace is at hand! Well, it wasn’t. Damn it, you can see from 10 feet away that any dryland national border is artificial: you don’t need to stand back 100 vertical miles and squint. Lack of opportunities to see the obvious isn’t what keeps the world crazy.

People are killing each other in the Middle East over grave injustices, colonial bids for wealth and acreage, water rights, petroleum, insane nationalist or religious hatreds -- good reasons, bad reasons, you name it -- but almost never for “an imaginary line” as such. Almost never for motives that could be obliterated by a tearful rush of zero-G oceanic feeling. Which is why so very few astronauts have, in fact, become emissaries of internationalism (they have taken up a great diversity causes, from Noah’s Ark to attempted murder of romantic rivals, but rarely that one) and why launching several score politicians and dictators briefly into orbit would have no significant impact on world affairs.
One-way shipment might, I admit, produce a temporary benign effect.

And one of the biggest reasons that people are suffering and dying in droves down here on the good Earth, as novelist Pearl Buck and Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman both called it, is inequality. Here is poverty like a sad brown sea, wealth bobbing merrily on its surface like a gilded cork. And what is space tourism, Schweickart’s proferred salvation, but the ultimate joy-toy of the rich? Ninety-nine point however many nines you care to write down percent of Earth’s billions, me included, will never make an arcing trip to the official 62-mile (100 km) edge of “space” -- the Kármán line, one imaginary border that seems strangely important to the would-be space-tourist industry -- much less orbit the Earth or fly to the Moon. We are stuck here, for good and ill. That is a material, mechanical fact as certain as gravity: it
is gravity, or one of its consequences. This ground underfoot is our heaven or our hell. And every time that some dizzy fool acquires more unearned wealth and then invests it in a nonproductive, hyperpolluting joyride to nowhere, whether on a 747 or a Spaceship One, we inch a micron closer to hell.

That’s one giant leap for a man, one small step backward for mankind.

On second thought -- play it, Sam. If they can take it, I can take it . . .

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Climate Creationism

Recently I wrote a large number of subject-specific articles for a two-volume reference work entitled Climate Change: In Context. Somehow it fell into the hands of a climate-change “skeptic” for review. This person snarked to the publisher:

Most interesting is that the atmosphere reached a peak in 1998 and has been cooling since 2002. I'd be interested in seeing one of your writers response to that.

My pleasure; I’ll respond in full in a moment. But I’d like to note first the rhetorical, gestural kinship between creationism and climate-change denial. Both schools of thought claim that a small, intrepid minority of truly independent-minded thinkers sees an elephant in the living room (e.g., the unreality of climate change, the lack of any evidence whatever for evolution) that most of the world’s practicing scientists dishonestly refuse to see or are mysteriously unable to see. To bolster this vision of a beleaguered prophetic minority they rely heavily on the careful framing of certain facts in isolation from the patterns around them. These factoids, when properly isolated, colored, framed, spun, and cross-linked to other, similarly processed factoids, seem to make a convincing case -- especially to well-meaning people with little or no knowledge of science -- against the mainstream scientific view. This omission of context is a powerful tool for causing confusion and creating the appearance of mass scientific delusion or controversy over basic ideas where none exists.

In this case, the facts or factoids being isolated from their surrounding pattern are global average surface temperatures for the last decade or so.

I have two points to make. The first is general. The second responds to the specific point raised about cooler years.

(1) The reality of human-caused global warming is affirmed by every single US government science agency and by every major non-governmental science organizations in the world. For example, NASA states that “recent observations of warming support the theory that greenhouse gases are warming the world.” [1] NASA attributes these gases’ increase to human agency. [2] The US Climate Change Science Program states that for North America -- which has experienced less warming than the global average -- “seven of the warmest ten years for annual surface temperatures from 1951 to 2006 have occurred between 1997 and 2006.” [3] The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that air temperatures at the Earth’s surface, as well as at higher altitudes, have been increasing and notes that “seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 and the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1995.” [4] Here are the data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [5]:

There are critics of this overwhelming scientific consensus, and some of these critics even have scientific credentials. However, their claims that global climate change is either not real or is not primarily human-caused are almost never defended in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. [6] They are expressed in blogs, media interviews, newspaper articles, speeches, petitions, testimony to Congress, and non-peer-reviewed books -- in a word, outside the scientific process. Creationists, of course, operate in exactly the same fringe zone.

In writing a climate textbook it would therefore be the height of scholarly irresponsibility, akin to advancing Creationism in a biology textbook, to adopt or give serious consideration to any view of climate change other than the only view articulated extensively in the recent scientific literature: namely, that global climate change is real and human-caused. To even pretend that there is substantial scientific debate over the basic reality and human-caused nature of global warming would be to essentially lie to readers.

(2) “Most interesting is that the atmosphere reached a peak in 1998 and has been cooling since 2002.”

I reproduce again the IPCC’s figure:

Note that climate does not warm uniformly, in a smoothly climbing ramp or curve. It bobbles as it rises. Runs of cooling years alternate with runs of warming years. The process is a noisy one. The occurrence of a run of cooling years, either recently or in the near future, is almost inevitable. To point to such a run as evidence against global warming is fallacious, exactly as it would be to point to a cold snap in April as evidence that summer was not coming. Those who argue so misunderstand -- one can hardly help but feel, when the claim is coming from a scientist,
willfully misunderstand -- the obvious character of the instrumental record.

In particular, any cooling that has occurred in recent years has done so against the background of dramatic overall warming (unprecedented in at least the last 1300 years) seen in the figure. Taking 2 steps back when you have already gone 30 steps ahead leaves you 28 steps ahead.

The last decade of data can be spun as “a peak in 1998 followed by cooling.” But what the data actually show, in the historical context, is a
spike in 1998 followed by a string of some of the hottest years on record. NASA states that the 2008 meteorological year “was the ninth warmest year in the period of instrumental measurements, which extends back to 1880. The nine warmest years all occur within the eleven-year period 1998-2008.” [7]

The 1998 spike is clearly visible in the above graph (the lone gray dot floating above the black 5-year averaged line). Both that spike and the “cooling trend” of the years since are noisy squiggles on a very long-standing rising trend. Similar squiggles are superimposed over the
entire instrumental record. And it is the long-term trend that matters. Nothing else matters. Nobody is arguing in the real, peer-reviewed scientific literature that anything else matters. All claims to the contrary are pseudoscience.

Our book drew solely upon the most reliable scientific sources, such as the US government science agencies and the peer-reviewed literature (e.g.,
Science and Nature). It assumed throughout the only responsible educational account of global warming possible, given the state of the science: global warming is occurring, it is significant in magnitude, and it is human-caused. Recent weather has nothing to do with these conclusions because it is too short-term.


[6] Naomi Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,”
Science, 3 December 2004, p. 1686. I will send a PDF of this article to any inquirer.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Senator, Stand Up

This is an open letter to Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.


Yesterday the Senate adopted by unanimous voice vote S. Res. 10, supporting Israel’s ongoing actions in Gaza. I called your office to find out if you voted Yea, remained silent, or were absent. Your staff directed me to your online statement on Res. 10. I read it, but remained puzzled: it does not say how, or even whether, you voted. It is oddly silent on that point.

Let me explain why I care. In your online statement you note, accurately, that as of January 8, Israel had killed 758 Palestinians, including 257 children, while 10 Israelis had died, including 7 soldiers (4 of those by friendly fire). Those are shocking numbers, and I’m glad you mention them, but you evade the core issue: that Israel is bombing, apparently deliberately, UN-run refugee centers and convoys as well as homes and facilities that keep civilians alive. It is killing over 200 times as many civilians as Hamas is. It has killed hundreds of children. All this has been done with US funds and arms that could not flow without the assent of you and your colleagues in the Senate and House.

Balanced-sounding calls for better behavior from “both sides” are out of order. This is not a “war,” a conflict in which two “sides” contend in some militarily meaningful way. There are more Israelis dying each day in traffic accidents than by Hamas's actions. What is happening in Gaza is collective capital punishment. To suggest, as you do, that Israel’s actions are ill-considered from a strategic point of view — badly calculated to preserve Israel itself in the long run — is true but, to say the least, inadequate.

Yesterday former Knesset member Uri Avnery called Israel’s actions “inhuman, immoral, totally unjustified and unnecessary.” Can you do the same? Can you say that Israel’s actions are mass murder that cannot be excused as self-defense against Hamas's criminal but militarily pathetic vengeance rockets?

I ask you to stand up and speak out on this massacre. Speak up loud and clear, please, and on the record.


Larry Gilman