Posts tagged ‘climate change’

The Furor Over Bret Stephens First Article At the New York Times

Bret Stephens has initiated a huge storm on the Left as journalists and other Leftwing luminaries have fallen over themselves to make sure everyone understands how evil and absolutely unacceptable Stephens' article is.  A good example is probably "This New York Times Article on Climate Change Is So F***ing Bad".  I don't know where and how these things are announced, but apparently virtue-signaling on the Left offcially requires that everyone denounce the article as the most evil thing ever written (actually reading it is apparently optional).

But you will almost never see much of Stephens article quoted.  Here is the entirety of the article that discusses climate.  This is all there is (there are other discussions that are meant to be a parable somewhat relevant to the climate debate, but below is the entirety of what Stephens writes directly about climate:

Let’s turn to climate change.

Last October, the Pew Research Center published a survey on the politics of climate change. Among its findings: Just 36 percent of Americans care “a great deal” about the subject. Despite 30 years of efforts by scientists, politicians and activists to raise the alarm, nearly two-thirds of Americans are either indifferent to or only somewhat bothered by the prospect of planetary calamity.

Why? The science is settled. The threat is clear. Isn’t this one instance, at least, where 100 percent of the truth resides on one side of the argument?

Well, not entirely. As Andrew Revkin wrote last year about his storied career as an environmental reporter at The Times, “I saw a widening gap between what scientists had been learning about global warming and what advocates were claiming as they pushed ever harder to pass climate legislation.” The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t.

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.

By now I can almost hear the heads exploding. They shouldn’t, because there’s another lesson here — this one for anyone who wants to advance the cause of good climate policy. As Revkin wisely noted, hyperbole about climate “not only didn’t fit the science at the time but could even be counterproductive if the hope was to engage a distracted public.”

Let me put it another way. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.

None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences. But ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism. They know — as all environmentalists should — that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.

Ten years ago I would have thought this so milquetoast as to be uncontroversial to anyone -- almost unpublishable as an editorial due its shear lack of controversy.  He acknowledges warming, acknowledges some is man-made, states that some activists have gone beyond the science in their claims, and that climate action folks tend to be hostile to anything but ardent agreement (an attitude not really consistent with "science").  In response, ironically, virtually the entire Left has responded to this mildest of mild criticisms by treating Stephens as the next incarnation of Joseph Goebbels.  Apparently he was spot-on about the lack of tolerance for any debate or disagreement.

This reminds me when my speech on global warming was banned from a conference by representatives of the City of Los Angeles.  I remember writing to them:

Apparently, several folks on this board were calling me a climate denier and a flat Earther.  Now, it seems kind of amazing that a presentation that calls for a carbon tax and acknowledges 1-1.5 degrees C of man-made warming per century could be called an extremist denier presentation.  But here is the key to understand -- my bet is that not one of you in opposition has ever bothered to see it.  This despite the fact that I sent your organization both a copy of the CMC video linked above as well as this very short 4-page summary from Forbes.  But everyone involved seems more willing to spend hours and hours arguing that I am a child of Satan than they were willing to spend 5-minutes acquainting themselves with what I actually say.  (By the way, at this point you probably should not look at this material, as all it will do is embarrass you because I am positive that it is nothing like what you expected)

In fact, I would be willing to bet that the folks who were most vociferous in their opposition to this talk have never actually read anything from a lukewarmer or a skeptic.  It is a hallmark of modern public discourse that people frequently don't know the other side's argument from the other side itself, but rather from its own side.   This is roughly equivalent to knowing about Hillary Clinton's policy positions solely from listening to Rush Limbaugh.  It is a terrible way to be an informed adult participating in public discourse, but unfortunately it seems to be a practice that is increasingly common, and in fact encouraged by most universities, which have become echo chambers of conventional thought rather than real institutions of learning.

And here is the video of the speech in question:

 

So Skeptical Science Is "Correcting" Me

I really wasn't going to do much with this Skeptical Science post by Rob Honeycutt called "Correcting Warren Meyer on Forbes," but several readers have asked me about it and it's Friday and I am sort of bored in the office so here goes.  I may skip parts of his critique.  That does not necessarily mean I agree with it, but several sections of this article are just so trivial (let's defend Al Gore!) that it is hard to work up any energy about it.  As reference, my original article published back in 2012 is here.

Dammit Meyer, You Changed The Words to the Doxology!

The author begins his critique this way:

Mr. Meyer opens with a misleading attempt to frame the issue as a debate on "catastrophic man-man global warming theory." This approach conflates two very distinct elements of the science on anthropogenic climate change. Nowhere in the published scientific literature can you find the phrase he uses. When I did a search on this term in Google Scholar, what did I find? Mr. Meyer's Forbes article. Also searching "catastrophic man-made climate change" I get a smattering of non-research related materials coming from people who rejecting human influence on climate. Meyer has formed a completely irrelevant and fabricated framing of the issue for the basis of his discussion.

In Mr. Meyer's article he claims this is the "core theory" and states that he will use the IPCC as the primary source for this, even though there is no place where the IPCC frames climate change in this manner.

Hey, thanks for making my point!  I always start climate discussions by saying that supporters of climate action are frequently sloppy with the way they frame the debate.   They use phrases like "climate denier" for folks like me which make no sense, since I don't deny there is a climate.  Clearly "climate denier" is a shortcut term for my denying some other more complex proposition, but what proposition exactly?  Merely saying "global warming" as a proposition is sloppy because it could include both natural and manmade effects.  Climate change is even sloppier (I would argue purposely so) because it obscures the fact that deleterious effects from anthropogenic CO2 must be via the intermediate stage of warming (i.e. there is no theory that CO2 causes hurricanes directly).

With this in mind, I begin nearly every discussion of climate change by doing what many proponents of climate action fail to do  -- I am very precise about the proposition I am going to discuss.  It's not just global warming, it's man-made global warming.  And since the climate alarmists are urging immediate action, it is not just man-made global warming but it is catastrophic man-made global warming, ie man-made global warming with negative effects so severe it requires urgent and extensive actions to circumvent.  I think that is a very fair reading of what folks like James Hansen have in mind (if he does not think it will be catastrophic, why is he getting arrested in front of power plants?)  The fact that Google searches do not yield these precise terms but rather yield millions of hits for meaningless phrases like "climate denier" just go to support one of the themes of my original piece, that the climate debate is made much muddier by the sloppy framing of the issues in the media.

However, while Mr. Honeycutt criticizes my framing as non-canon, he offers no specific critiques of how the phrase "catastrophic man-made global warming" might be wrong and offers no alternative framing.  I really do try to pass Bryan Caplan's ideological Turing test on this stuff, so I am interested -- if advocates for climate action do not think "Catastrophic Man-Made Global Warming" is a fair statement of their theory, what would they use instead?

So Is Feedback a Critical Assumption or Not?

I really don't want to repeat my article, but it is useful to understand my thesis:  Catastrophic Man-Made Global Warming Theory is actually a two-part theory, with two chained steps.  In the first, CO2 (and methane and other stuff) act as greenhouse gasses and incrementally warm the planet (about 1-1.2C per doubling of CO2 levels).  In the second step, via a second theory unrelated to greenhouse gas theory, the initial warming from greenhouse gasses is multiplied several times by positive feedbacks that dominate the Earth's climate system, up to the IPCC's estimate of 3-5 C per doubling.  Most of the projected warming in forecasts, such as those from the IPCC, are actually from this second step.  My position is that I largely agree with the first step, which is well understood, but believe there is little real understanding of the second, that feedbacks could be net positive or negative, and that scientists either over-estimate their certainty on feedbacks or, more commonly, bury the feedback assumptions and don't even talk about them in public.

As an aside, I have presented this in front of many climate scientists and no one has really disputed that my summary of the logic is correct (they have of course disputed my skepticism with the feedback number).  In fact Wikipedia, no climate denier, has this in their article about climate sensitivity:

CO2 climate sensitivity has a component directly due to radiative forcing by CO2, and a further contribution arising from climate feedbacks, both positive and negative. "Without any feedbacks, a doubling of CO2 (which amounts to a forcing of 3.7 W/m2) would result in 1 °C global warming, which is easy to calculate and is undisputed. The remaining uncertainty is due entirely to feedbacks in the system, namely, the water vapor feedback, the ice-albedo feedback, the cloud feedback, and the lapse rate feedback";[12] addition of these feedbacks leads to a value of the sensitivity to CO2 doubling of approximately 3 °C ± 1.5 °C, which corresponds to a value of λ of 0.8 K/(W/m2).

In a critique, I would expect someone to say, "your description of the theories is wrong because of X" or "I agree with your basic description of the theories but think there are good reasons why we expect feedbacks to be strongly positive".  But this is what we get instead from Mr. Honeycutt

New errors pop up when trying to describe this "theory" where he attempts to describe water vapor feedbacks. He states that the IPCC "assumed" a strong positive feedbackfrom water vapor. The IPCC doesn't assume anything. The IPCC is a collection of leading experts in their fields who ware painstakingly cataloguing the scientific research. Meyer also makes an error suggesting the IPCC "just add" 2-4°C onto the 1°C for CO2 warming. Such figures, again, are completely manufactured by Meyer. They don't jibe with climate sensitivity figures and he provides no reference to what he means with figures like these.

The IPCC actually produces graphs such as the following to quantify forcings on the climate system, which also very clearly indicate levels of scientific understanding and uncertainty ranges.

He follows with a IPCC chart that showing forcing number estimates for different atmospheric components and the range of IPCC climate sensitivity forecasts, then says

By comparison, the IPCC and research scientists take the uncertainties involved with climateforcings and feedbacks very seriously. They clearly quantify and document them. The net result of the research suggests that our climate's sensitivity to forcing centers around 3°C for doubling CO2 concentrations. The low end probability is ~1.5°C, and the IPCC clearly state that anything lower than this is highly improbable.

My first thought is a snarky one, that it is interesting to see someone from a site with the word "skeptical" in the title go in for such a full-bore appeal to authority.  But to the substance, I am certainly familiar with all the IPCC forcing charts, and what is more, that these charts include a self-assessment by the IPCC about how confident they are in their estimates.  Since that self-assessment never is supported by any methodology or analysis in the reports, or any neutral third-party review, I take it with a grain of salt.

But to the rest, if one wants to discuss climate change with a lay audience, it is not wildly useful to start spewing out forcing numbers that have little meaning to the reader, and which the reader has no ability to connect to what they really care about, ie how much temperatures may rise.

More tellingly, though, after I spend most of my article discussing how the media frequently merges the effects of greenhouse gasses acting alone with the effects of feedbacks in the system that multiply or reduce these direct effects, Mr. Honeycutt does just that, offering forcing numbers that, if I read them correctly, include both direct effects and feedback multipliers.

The reason why it is useful to separate the direct warming effect from CO2 from the follow-on effects of feedback multipliers is the level of certainty we have in assessing their values.  We can figure out pretty precisely the absorption and reradiation characteristics of CO2 in a laboratory.  We can't do anything similar with feedbacks -- they must be inferred using various (all to-date imperfect) approaches to isolating feedback effects from everything else in the climate.  An example from another field might be useful.  Let's say we want to know the economic effect of hosting the Superbowl in Phoenix.  It is pretty easy to measure the direct effects, like the money spent on tickets for the event.  But when we look at the total system, things get really hard.  Sure we had people come in spending money on the Superbowl, but maybe we had fewer tourists doing other things, or maybe increased spending at the Superbowl was offset by less spending at movies or amusement parks.  We might compare that day's revenues to other years, but other years might have had different weather, different population, and a million other small differences that affect the outcome.  Sorting through all these literally millions of changing variables to get the net effect of hosting the Superbowl is hard (and in fact for the last Superbowl hosted in Arizona, academic groups have come up with a huge array of numbers that range all the way from highly positive to negative for the net economic effect).  The one difference between this example and what scientists have to do to isolate effects of individual inputs to the climate system is that the climate problem is much harder.

In responding to Mr. Honeycutt, I cannot honestly tell if Mr. Honeycutt is refuting this formulation of the problem (ie incremental warming from greenhouse gas effects of CO2 is increased to much higher, catastrophic levels by a second theory that the earth is dominated by strong positive feedbacks) or merely disputing my assertion that the second half of this proposition is not well-proven.

Missing the Point on Past Temperatures

Mr. Honeycutt has a number of problems with my discussion of past temperatures.  First, he doesn't like my saying that warming from pre-industrial times was 0.7C.  Mea culpa, it was probably 0.8C when I wrote the article.  He also does not like the satellite temperature measurement, because it measures temperatures in the lower troposphere (a couple miles up in the atmosphere) rather than at the surface.  He is absolutely correct, but you know what?  I am skeptical of both land and space data sets.  They both have their flaws.  Land surface temperatures, especially near the poles and in places like Africa, are widely spaced requiring a lot of interpolation.  They are also subject to a number of biases, such as from changing land use and urbanization.  Satellite data tends to cover larger swaths of the Earth, but have to be corrected for orbital decay and other satellite aging factors.  And as the author mentioned, they measure temperatures in the lower troposphere rather than the surface.  However, since the IPCC says that the most warming from greenhouse gasses should be in the lower troposphere, even greater than the warming on the surface, satellites strike me as a useful tool to look for a global warming signal.   That is why I always use both.  (As an aside, Mr. Honeycutt departs from his appeals to IPCC authority by advocating two land surface data sets NOT chosen by the IPCC as their lead data set -- I use the Hadley CRUT4 because this is what the IPCC uses as their gold standard).

But all this misses the point of why I introduced past temperatures in the first place.  My thesis was that past warming was not consistent with high CO2 temperature sensitivity numbers.  I used charts in the article but I can repeat the logic simply here.  Sensitivity numbers in the IPCC are the warming expected per doubling of CO2 levels.  Since pre-industrial times we have increased global CO2 concentrations from about 270ppm  (or 0.0270%) to about 405 ppm.  This increase of 135pp from 270ppm is conveniently (for the math) about 50% of a doubling.  Because the ratio between concentration and temperature is logarithmic, at 50% of a doubling we should see 57% of the doubling effect.  So for an IPCC sensitivity of 3C per doubling, since pre-industrial times we should have seen a warming of .57 x 3 =  1.7C.  We are nowhere close to this, even if every tenth of degree of warming over the last 100 years was man-made (a proposition with which I would disagree).  At the high end of the IPCC range, around 5C, we would have had to see 2.85C of warming to date.  At the low end of 1.5C, which the author calls unlikely, we would have seen about 0.86C of historical warming.  If one argues that manmade warming is only about half the past warming, then the sensitivity would have to be less than 1C  (by the way, this disconnect only gets larger if one considers greenhouse gasses other than CO2).

There are plenty of potential arguments one could counter with.  One could argue that time delays are really long or that man-made aerosols are masking past warming -- and we could have a nice back and forth on the topic.  Instead we just get printouts from models.  Seriously, is that how skeptical folks approach science, accepting black box model output that embodies hundreds or even thousands of potential GIGO assumptions and inputs?  I would love someone to show me in a sort of waterfall chart how one gets from 1.7C of expected warming from 270-405ppm to Hadley CRUT4 actual warming around 0.8C.  Doesn't anyone feel the need to reconcile their forecasts to actual observations?

There are really good reasons to distrust models.  If Donald Trump wanted to invest $100 million in building new military bases, and said that he had a computer model from experts with graphs that show the plan will grow GNP by a trillion dollars, would you automatically accept the model?  If GNP only grew by $200 million instead of by a trillion, would you want a reconciliation and explanation?

There are also good reasons to distrust climate models and forecasts.  James Hansen's models he used in his famous testimony in front of Congress in 1988 over-predicted warming rates by quite a bit (full explanation here).  Since people argue endlessly over this chart about how to center and zero the graphs, it is much easier just to look at implied warming rates:

Even the IPCC finds itself questioning its past warming forecasts:

These forecast failures are not meant as proof the theory is wrong, merely that there is good reason to be skeptical of computer model output as somehow the last word in a debate.

Actually, Missing the Whole Point of the Article

I had naively thought that the title of the article "Understanding the Global Warming Debate" (rather than, say, "Climate Alarmists Are Big Fat Liars") might be a clue I was trying outline the terms of the debate and the skeptic position in it rather than put a detailed dagger through the heart of, say, climate models.

I wrote this article based on my extreme frustration in the climate debate.  I have no problem with folks disagreeing with me  - in enjoy it.  But I was frustrated that the skeptic argument was being mis-portrayed and folks were arguing about the wrong things.  Specifically, I was frustrated with both of these two arguments that were frequently thrown in my face:

  • "Climate deniers are anti-science morons and liars because they deny the obvious truth of warming from greenhouse gasses like CO2"

In fact, if you read the article, most of the prominent climate skeptics (plus me, as a non-prominent one) totally accept greenhouse gas theory and that CO2, acting alone, would warm the Earth by 1-1.2C.  What we are skeptical of is the very net high positive feedbacks (and believe me, for those of you not familiar with dynamic systems analysis, these numbers are very large for stable natural systems) assumed to multiply this initial warming many-fold.  Of all the folks I have talked to in the past, perhaps less than 1% were familiar with the fact that warming forecasts were a chain of not one but two theories, both greenhouse gas theory and the theory that the Earth's atmosphere is dominated by strong net positive feedbacks.  Even if the audience does not choose to agree with my skepticism over feedback levels, isn't this education of the public about the basic theory useful?  The author accuses me of purposeful obfuscation, but for those of us who are skeptical, it is odd that alarmists seem to resist discussing the second part of the theory.  Could it be that the evidence for strong positive feedbacks dominating the Earth's long-term-stable greenhouse gas theory is not as strong as that for greenhouse gas theory?  Evidence for high atmospheric positive feedbacks simply HAS to be weaker than that for greenhouse gas theory, not only because they have been studied less time but more importantly because it is orders of magnitude harder to parse out values of feedbacks in a complex system than it is to measure the absorption and emission spectrum of a gas in a laboratory.

  • "Climate deniers are anti-science morons and liars because there is a 97% consensus behind global warming theory.

Well, studies have shown a 97% agreement on .. something.  This comes back to the first part of this post.  If one is sloppy about the proposition being tested, then it is easier to get widespread agreement.  The original study that arrived at the 97% number asked two questions -- "do you think the world has warmed in the last century" and "do you think a significant part of this warming has been due to man".  97% of scientists said yes.  But I, called a climate denier, would have said yes to both as well.  Alarmists attempt to shut off debate with skeptics by siting 97% agreement with propositions that have little or nothing to do with skeptics' arguments.  Try asking a large group of scientists if they think that the world will warm 3C per doubling of CO2 levels, the proposition with which I disagree, and I guarantee you are not going to get anywhere near 97%.  This is simply a bait and switch.

I will conclude with his conclusion:

Meyer ends with an unjustifiable conclusion, stating:

So this is the real problem at the heart of the climate debate — the two sides are debating different propositions!  In our chart, proponents of global warming action are vigorously defending the propositions on the left side, propositions with which serious skeptics generally already agree.   When skeptics raise issues about climate models, natural sources of warming, and climate feedbacks, advocates of global warming action run back to the left side of the chart and respond that the world is warming and greenhouse gastheory is correct.    At best, this is a function of the laziness and scientific illiteracy of the media that allows folks to talk past one another;  at worst, it is a purposeful bait-and-switch to avoid debate on the tough issues.

The positions he's put forth in this article are the epitome of lazy analysis and scientific illiteracy. He's bizarrely framed his entire discussion attempting to attack the positions of the IPCC, a body composed of the world's leading researchers, as being scientifically illiterate. One has to ask, from where does his own "literacy" if not from leading climateresearchers? It's certainly not based in the available published research which the IPCC reports are based on.

In this, perhaps he's inadvertently answering his own questions in a manner that he would prefer to reject. What are "skeptics" denying? Answer: The scientific research.

Well, first, I would advise him to work on his reading comprehension scores.  I called the media scientifically illiterate, not the IPCC and researchers.  The basic framework of greenhouse gas incremental warming multiplied many times by assumed positive net feedbacks is in the scientific literature and the IPCC -- my frustration is that the feedback theory seldom enters the public debate and media articles, despite the fact that the feedback theory is the source of the majority of projected warming and is the heart of many climate skeptic's criticisms of the theory.

And with that, the "skeptical science" article ends with an appeal to authority.

Postscript:  Thinking about it more, at some level I find this article weirdly totalitarian, particularly the last paragraph where I am described as doing nothing but polluting the climate discussion.  Here he writes:

Forbes is a very high profile publication and thus someone there, at Forbes, decided that it was fine and well to give this person an internet soapbox to promote a position rejecting the climate science which he has absolutely no expertise. He is not genuinely adding to the discussion on climate change but is being placed into a position as someone to listen to. Meyer is polluting the discussion with misinformation and poor analysis which has no bearing on the actual issue of climate change. And thanks to Google, these types of discussions, lacking in any substance, are given equal weight to actual science due to the traffic they generate.

This seems an oddly extreme response to someone who:

  • agrees in the linked article that the world has warmed over the last century
  • agrees in the linked article that a good chunk of that warming is due to manmade CO2
  • agrees in the linked article that CO2 acting as a greenhouse gas will increase temperatures, acting alone, by about 1-1.2C per doubling
  • argues for a form of carbon tax (in a different article)
  • but disagrees on the magnitude of added warming from net feedback effects.

It seems that we have moved beyond "you are either with us or against us" and entered the realm of "you are either entirely with us on every single detail or you are against us".

Postscript #2:  Something else has been bothering me about this critique and I think I can finally put it into words  -- the critique is sort of science without thought, a regurgitation of the canon whenever I diverge from orthodoxy without actually considering the arguments presented.

Look, there are tens of thousands of people talking past each other on climate issues.  One of the things I try to do, if nothing else to bring something new to the discussion, is try to reframe the discussion in more useful and accesible terms, often with different sorts of graphs.  Sometimes these are useful reframings, and sometimes not, but I do know that in general I am a heck of a lot better at creating charts to communicate with a lay audience than is the IPCC or most of the prominent folks on either side of the climate debate.  This is why getting feedback (as in this critique) that I use different words to summarize the issue or that I do not use the standard charts everyone else xeroxes out of the IPCC reports (as did Mr. Honeycutt) is not very helpful.

If The US Won't Defend Market Capitalism, No One Will

Yesterday at an event called One Day University, I saw a talk by William Burke-White of Penn and formerly of the Obama state department (I think he was one of many consultants, but I can never figure out seniority from people's biographies - his is here).

Mr. Burke-White was discussing the liberal world order created by the US after WWII and recent decline / threats to this world order and American power.  He discussed five trends or forces driving changes, and you probably can predicts many of them.  He discussed the rise of new world powers (e.g. China), the rise of powerful NGO's (e.g. ISIS) and the expansion of the Internet (which can destabilize traditional powers).  All fine, I have no particular comment on that stuff.  He also discussed climate change, with a picture of Manhattan underwater, and though I am tempted, I won't even respond to that.

What caught my attention was his fifth point -- about income inequality.  He showed a slide with the meme that 8 people (Warren Buffet et al) had more wealth than something like half the world's population put together.   His conclusion was that the liberal world order had failed because so much wealth had been concentrated in a few hands.

Well, if American power and influence is declining in the world and Mr. Burke-White is an example of the thinking of the Obama administration over the last 8 years, I now have a better understanding of why.   Sure there are really rich people.   There were probably 8 really rich guys in 1400 (though they would have all been Kings and Emperors rather than private business people).  The really different, world-changing event over the last 50 years has been the emergence from poverty of over a billion people, as facilitated by market capitalism.  Never before in all of the history of the planet have so many people been pulled out of poverty in such a short time.  Never before has such a large percentage of the globe moved beyond pure subsistence farming.  If the leaders of this country find it impossible to communicate this simple good news, then of course the post-WWII liberal world order is going to struggle.

Look, I understand that baby boomers (a group of which I am barely a member) have a hard time figuring out how to cope with this country's many past missteps.  Yes, we have been ham-handed (and that is generous) in exercising our power and we have often failed to live up to our stated values.  But helping to unleash a wave of market capitalism on the world is among our true successes.   And this is the US's one true source of power, this wave of prosperity we have helped to birth.  Other supposed sources of our power -- a big military and atomic bombs -- are horrifying.  Market capitalism is our one source of strength that is genuinely positive.  If we are staffing the state department with people who don't get this, then no wonder we are losing influence in the world.

Accountability for Police and Why Its So Hard

The other day, in writing about how I think Black Lives Matter has lost its way, I said that I supported their goal of increasing accountability of police forces but that goal was going to take a lot of hard, nuts-and-bolts legislative and policy steps that BLM seems uninterested in pursuing.  This article from Reuters (via link from Overlawyered) gives one an idea of some of the issues that exist:

The episode is a telling snapshot of the power police unions flex across the United States, using political might to cement contracts that often provide a shield of protection to officers accused of misdeeds and erect barriers to residents complaining of abuse.

From city to city, union contracts have become just as crucial in governing departments as police manuals and city charters. Yet those contracts are coming under scrutiny amid civil rights protests over alleged police abuses, including shootings of unarmed black subjects.

Reuters, examining the fine print of 82 police union contracts in large cities across the country, found a pattern of protections afforded the men and women in blue:

• A majority of the contracts call for departments to erase disciplinary records, some after just six months, making it difficult to fire officers with a history of abuses. In 18 cities, suspensions are erased in three years or less. In Anchorage, Alaska, suspensions, demotions and disciplinary transfers are removed after two years.

• Nearly half of the contracts allow officers accused of misconduct to access the entire investigative file – including witness statements, GPS readouts, photos, videos and notes from the internal investigation – before being interrogated.

• Twenty cities, including San Antonio, allow officers accused of misconduct to forfeit sick leave or holiday and vacation time rather than serve suspensions.

• Eighteen cities require an officer’s written consent before the department publicly releases documents involving prior discipline or internal investigations.

• Contracts in 17 cities set time limits for citizens to file complaints about police officers – some as short as 30 days. Nine cities restrict anonymous complaints from being investigated.

Police and their supporters will say that Police have a particularly dangerous job and need such extra process protections.  In fact, while there are dangers, it is certainly not among the most dangerous jobs (trash collectors are twice as likely to die on the job than police).  I would argue that we give the police unique powers -- to use violence and to take away a persons liberty -- not possessed by any other citizens and thus we should expect more rather than fewer accountability provisions to go with these special powers.

I will say that I am not particularly optimistic about progress in this area.  The Right tends to fetishize police and are tend to oppose any restrictions on police.  The Left is the natural home for police reform, but most on the Left are loath to take on public employee unions, probably their strongest base of political power, and most of these changes (as seen above) require challenging the police unions.  Black Lives Matter brought a lot of focus to these issues, but they simply can't seem to get past disruption and into policy changes and legislation, and besides the group appears to have been hijacked by the Left to be a vehicle for generic protests of Progressive causes like climate change legislation.

The Left's Nutty, Irrational, Disruptive Opposition Tactics Almost Make Me Want to Switch Sides

I am embarrassed to admit that I initially supported the war in Iraq (though at least I admit that rather than try to rewrite history as do many public figures).   I got swept up in the post 9/11 nationalism and wasn't very sophisticated in my thinking about such interventions.  But I also think part of the  reason for my support was because the opposition was often so irrational and, well, loony.   At least subconsciously, I must have been thinking, "I can't be on the same side with these idiots."

This was a useful experience, though, because in the years since I have frequently found myself allied with the Left on certain issues where I have been appalled by their opposition tactics.  Black Lives Matter is a great case in point.  I absolutely agree with the premise that police forces need more accountability and that the costs of the current lack of accountability fall disproportionately on African Americans.  I thought this initial BLM 10-point plan was really very good.  But ugh, their tactics.  Blocking highways and threatening drivers, where does that get us?   Or the whole tactic of forcing someone to choose between "Black Lives Matter" and "All Lives Matter" -- I mean seriously, WTF?  How is this kind of social justice rhetorical trap at all useful?  And now the movement has so much cred that it has been hijacked by the Left to support climate change legislation and all sorts of unrelated matters, so it likely will never make any actual progress on police accountability.  It would be easy to recoil from all this and shy away from my passion for increasing police accountability because my allies are so off-putting in their tactics, but my Iraq War experience has taught me that this would be a mistake.

And now, we have the opposition to Trump, and all the same loony Left tactics are emerging.  We get lectured by celebrities, and discover that the deepest threat of Trump may be the marginalization of actresses who make $20 million a picture.  We get roads blocked and public violence.    I wonder if all this is driving folks who originally found Trump distasteful into his arms?

I fear that all the oxygen is getting sucked out of the room with protests of crazy hypothetical scenarios while ignoring the real problems that are occurring already.  So everyone is focusing on women marching on Washington, despite the fact that Trump is almost certainly no worse in his personal behavior towards women than Bill Clinton and is likely, on women's issues, the furthest to the Left of all of the 16 original GOP presidential candidates.    We focus on some hypothetical future slight to women while ignoring his economic nationalism, economic interventionism, corporatism, and cronyism that is already on display with Carrier and the auto makers.

As I wrote here, the ability to criticize public figures has limited bandwidth.  Sure, an infinite number of things can be discussed on the Internet, but only a few reach a general consciousness across society.  One way to look at it is to compare it to an NFL game.  In an NFL game, coaches only have two challenge flags they can throw to challenge a bad call by the referees -- after their challenge flags are used, they are out of luck.  The Left is using up all our challenge flags on their own social justice bogeymen, and causing everyone to miss the opportunity to challenge Trump on more relevant faults (of which there are many).

The other problem with the Left's tactics is that they are not well-matched to Trump and likely will be counter-productive.  All this crazy protest is more likely to cause Trump to petulantly lash back.  This one of his worst qualities as a leader, but it is a fact all the same.  Take abortion, for example.  My gut feel is that Trump has never had any problem with abortion, and likely has supported it in the past.  Hell, he's probably secretly paid for a few.  If women's groups had gone and sat down with him quietly and said, "hey, we are worried about creeping restrictions on abortion in many states", Trump probably would have been sympathetic.  This is the Trump, after all, who mythologizes himself as a deal-maker.  But groups on the Left can't seem to do this, in part because of tribal virtue-signalling on the Left.  The Left has decided that their tactic will be to treat Trump as illegitimate, so any group that goes to talk to him is marginalized and excoriated by the rest of the Left.  So rather than sit down and work with a likely-sympathetic Trump, they head out into the streets to denounce him in the craziest possible terms, tactics that may well drive him into exactly the actions that women fear.  If abortion was a big issue for me, I would be pissed at women's groups for their bone-headed tactics.

Denying the Climate Catastrophe: 9. A Low-Cost Insurance Policy

This is Chapter 9 (the final chapter) of an ongoing series.  Other parts of the series are here:

  1. Introduction
  2. Greenhouse Gas Theory
  3. Feedbacks
  4.  A)  Actual Temperature Data;  B) Problems with the Surface Temperature Record
  5. Attribution of Past Warming:  A) Arguments for it being Man-Made; B) Natural Attribution
  6. Climate Models vs. Actual Temperatures
  7. Are We Already Seeing Climate Change
  8. The Lukewarmer Middle Ground
  9. A Low-Cost Insurance Policy  (this article)

While I have shown over the previous chapters that there is good reason to be skeptical of a future man-made climate catastrophe (at least from CO2), I am appalled at all the absolutely stupid, counter-productive things the government has implemented in the name of climate change, all of which have costly distorting effects on the economy while doing extremely little to affect man-made greenhouse gas production.  For example:

Even when government programs do likely have an impact of CO2, they are seldom managed intelligently.  For example, the government subsidizes solar panel installations, presumably to reduce their cost to consumers, but then imposes duties on imported panels to raise their price (indicating that the program has become more of a crony subsidy for US solar panel makers, which is typical of the life-cycle of these types of government interventions).  Obama's coal power plan, also known as his war on coal, will certainly reduce some CO2 from electricity generation but at a very high cost to consumers and industries.  Steps like this are taken without any idea of whether this is the lowest cost approach to reducing CO2 production -- likely it is not given the arbitrary aspects of the program.

For years I have opposed steps like a Federal carbon tax or cap and trade system because I believe (and still believe) them to be unnecessary given the modest amount of man-made warming I expect over the next century.  I would expect to see about one degree C of man-made warming between now and 2100, and believe most of the cries that "we are already seeing catastrophic climate changes" are in fact panics driven by normal natural variation (most supposed trends, say in hurricanes or tornadoes or heat waves, can't actually be found when one looks at the official data).

But I am exhausted with all the stupid, costly, crony legislation that passes in the name of climate change action.   I am convinced there is a better approach that will have more impact on man-made CO2 and simultaneously will benefit the economy vs. our current starting point.  So here goes:

The Plan

Point 1:  Impose a Federal carbon tax on fuel.

I am open to a range of actual tax amounts, as long as point 2 below is also part of the plan.  Something that prices CO2 between $25 and $45 a ton seems to match the mainstream estimates out there of the social costs of CO2.  I think methane is a rounding error, but one could make an adjustment to the natural gas tax numbers to take into account methane leakage in the production chain.   I am even open to make the tax=0 on biofuels given these fuels are recycling carbon from the atmosphere.

A Pigovian tax on carbon in fuels is going to be the most efficient possible way to reduce CO2 production.   What is the best way to reduce CO2 -- by substituting gas for coal?   by more conservation?  by solar, or wind?  with biofuels?  With a carbon tax, we don't have to figure it out.  Different approaches will be tested in the marketplace.  Cap and trade could theoretically do the same thing, but while this worked well in some niche markets (like SO2 emissions), it has not worked at all in European markets for CO2.   There has just been too many opportunities for cronyism, too much weird accounting for things like offsets that is hard to do well, and too much temptation to pick winners and losers.

Point 2:  Offset 100% of carbon tax proceeds against the payroll tax

Yes, there are likely many politicians, given their incentives, that would love a big new pool of money they could use to send largess, from more health care spending to more aircraft carriers, to their favored constituent groups.  But we simply are not going to get Conservatives (and libertarians) on board for a net tax increase, particularly one to address an issue they may not agree is an issue at all.   So our plan will use carbon tax revenues to reduce other Federal taxes.

I think the best choice would be to reduce the payroll tax.  Why?  First, the carbon tax will necessarily be regressive (as are most consumption taxes) and the most regressive other major Federal tax we have are payroll taxes.  Offsetting income taxes would likely be a non-starter on the Left, as no matter how one structures the tax reduction the rich would get most of it since they pay most of the income taxes.

There is another benefit of reducing the payroll tax -- it would mean that we are replacing a consumption tax on labor with a consumption tax on fuel.  It is always dangerous to make gut-feel assessments of complex systems like the economy, but my sense is that this swap might even have net benefits for the economy -- ie we might want to do it even if there was no such thing as greenhouse gas warming.   In theory, labor and fuel are economically equivalent in that they are both production raw materials.  But in practice, they are treated entirely differently by the public.   Few people care about the full productive employment of our underground fuel reserves, but nearly everybody cares about the full productive employment of our labor force.   After all, for most people, the primary single metric of economic health is the unemployment rate.  So replacing a disincentive to hire with a disincentive to use fuel could well be popular.

Point 3:  Eliminate all the stupid stuff

Oddly enough, this might be the hardest part politically because every subsidy, no matter how idiotic, has a hard core of beneficiaries who will defend it to the death -- this the the concentrated benefits, dispersed cost phenomena that makes it hard to change many government programs.  But never-the-less I propose that we eliminate all the current Federal subsidies, mandates, and prohibitions that have been justified by climate change.  Ethanol rules and mandates, solar subsidies, wind subsidies, EV subsidies, targeted technology investments, coal plant bans, pipeline bans, drilling bans -- it all should go.  The carbon tax does the work.

States can continue to do whatever they want -- we don't need the Feds to step on states any more than they do already, and I continue to like the 50 state laboratory concept.  If California wants to continue to subsidize wind generators, let them do it.  That is between the state and its taxpayers (and for those who think the California legislature is crazy, that is what U-Haul is for).

Point 4:  Revamp our nuclear regulatory regime

As much as alternative energy enthusiasts would like to deny it, the world needs reliable, 24-hour baseload power -- and wind and solar are not going to do it (without a change in storage technology of at least 2 orders of magnitude in cost).  The only carbon-free baseload power technology that is currently viable is nuclear.

I will observe that nuclear power suffers under some of the same problems as commercial space flight -- the government helped force the technology faster than it might have grown organically on its own, which paradoxically has slowed its long-term development.  Early nuclear power probably was not ready for prime time, and the hangover from problems and perceptions of this era have made it hard to proceed even when better technologies have existed.   But we are at least 2 generations of technology past what is in most US nuclear plants.  Small air-cooled thorium reactors and other technologies exist that could provide reliable safe power for over 100 years.  I am not an expert on nuclear regulation, but it strikes me that a regime similar to aircraft safety, where a few designs are approved and used over and over makes sense.  France, which has the strongest nuclear base in the world, followed this strategy.  Using thorium could also have the advantage of making the technology more exportable, since its utility in weapons production would be limited.

Point 5: Help clean up Chinese, and Asian, coal production

One of the hard parts about fighting CO2 emissions, vs. all the other emissions we have tackled in the past (NOx, SOx, soot/particulates, unburned hydrocarbons, etc), is that we simply don't know how to combust fossil fuels without creating CO2 -- CO2 is inherent to the base chemical reaction of the combustion.  But we do know how to burn coal without tons of particulates and smog and acid rain -- and we know how to do it economically enough to support a growing, prosperous modern economy.

In my mind it is utterly pointless to ask China to limit their CO2 growth.  China has seen the miracle over the last 30 years of having almost a billion people exit poverty.  This is an event unprecedented in human history, and they have achieved it in part by burning every molecule of fossil fuels they can get their hands on, and they are unlikely to accept limitations on fossil fuel consumption that will derail this economic progress.  But I think it is reasonable to help China stop making their air unbreathable, a goal that is entirely compatible with continued economic growth.  In 20 years, when we have figured out and started to build some modern nuclear designs, I am sure the Chinese will be happy to copy these and start working on their CO2 output, but for now their Maslov hierarchy of needs should point more towards breathable air.

As a bonus, this would pay one immediate climate change benefit that likely would dwarf the near-term effect of CO2 reduction.  Right now, much of this soot from Asian coal plants lands on the ice in the Arctic and Greenland.  This black carbon changes the albedo of the ice, causing it to reflect less sunlight and absorb more heat.  The net effect is more melting ice and higher Arctic temperatures.  A lot of folks, including myself, think that the recent melting of Arctic sea ice and rising Arctic temperatures is more attributable to Asian black carbon pollution than to CO2 and greenhouse gas warming (particularly since similar warming and sea ice melting is not seen in the Antarctic, where there is not a problem with soot pollution).

Final Thoughts

At its core, this is a very low cost, even negative cost, climate insurance policy.  The carbon tax combined with a market economy does the work of identifying the most efficient ways to reduce CO2 production.   The economy benefits from the removal of a myriad of distortions and crony give-aways, while also potentially benefiting from the replacement of a consumption tax on labor with a consumption tax on fuel.  The near-term effect on CO2 is small (since the US is only a small part of the global emissions picture), but actually larger than the near-term effect of all the haphazard current programs, and almost certainly cheaper to obtain.  As an added benefit, if you can help China with its soot problem, we could see immediate improvements in probably the most visible front of man-made climate change:  in the Arctic.

For those who have hung with me this entire series, many thanks for your interest.  If you have questions, concerns, or outraged refutations, you are welcome to email me at the link above.

Dear Republicans, Could We Get A Little Consistency?

Republicans were rightly horrified that various government agencies, including a number of state attorneys general, were harassing private entities like Exxon-Mobil and CEI over their speech about climate change.  They pointed out that even if formal charges were never brought, the intrusive and public investigatory process by powerful government actors had an inherently chilling effect on free speech.

Kudos to Republicans!  They are defending the free speech of private actors from government harassment.

Oh, wait, no they are not.

The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee demanded on Tuesday that Facebook explain how it handles news articles in its “trending” list, responding to a report that staff members hadintentionally suppressed articles from conservative sources.

In a letter, the chairman, Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, asked Facebook to describe the steps it was taking to investigate the claims and to provide any records about articles that its news curators had excluded or added. Mr. Thune also asked directly whether the curators had “in fact manipulated the content,” something Facebook denied in a statement on Monday.

“If there’s any level of subjectivity associated with it, or if, as reports have suggested that there might have been, an attempt to suppress conservative stories or keep them from trending and get other stories out there, I think it’s important for people to know that,” Mr. Thune told reporters on Tuesday. “That’s just a matter of transparency and honesty, and there shouldn’t be any attempt to mislead the American public.”

Ugh.  What does Thune want, a revival of odious equal time rules, but now applied to the Internet?  This is just stupid.

Speech Restriction Stories I Have Read in Just the Last 24 Hours

NY state attorney general (and others) pursuing potential criminal and civil charges against ExxonMobil for its climate change advocacy

US Virgin Islands AG (really) going after non-profit CEI for its climate change advocacy

Elizabeth Warren wants the SEC to ban companies from "saying whatever they want about Washington policy debates," a demand inspired by her frustration that financial firms are publicly disagreeing with her on the impact of her desired regulations

California AG Kamala Harris demanding non-profit donor lists, presumably so she can harass and intimidate the ones she does not like

California AG Kamala Harris has raided the home and seized video footage of an independent advocated/journalist  who did secret sting videos of Planned Parenthood, the exact same sort of advocacy journalism pursued legally (without legal harassment) by any number of Leftish groups in California and elsewhere  (I doubt Ms Harris plans to raid the home of PETA activists who trespass on farms to secretly film chicken and pig breeding).

It turns out there are strong speech protections in this country, except when you are a professional, and then there are none.

And of course, I still am fighting against a libel lawsuit meant to force me to remove this product review.

Update, add this one:  Tenured Marquette professor faces termination based on blog post with which University disagrees

When the student replied that he has a right to argue his opinion, Ms. Abbate responded that “you can have whatever opinions you want but I can tell you right now, in this class homophobic comments, racist comments and sexist comments will not be tolerated. If you don’t like that you are more than free to drop this class.” The student reported the exchange to Marquette professor John McAdams, who teaches political science. Mr. McAdams also writes a blog called the Marquette Warrior, which often criticizes the Milwaukee school for failing to act in accordance with its Catholic mission.

Mr. McAdams wrote on his blog that Ms. Abbate was “using a tactic typical among liberals now. Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up.” His blog went viral, and Ms. Abbate received vicious emails. She has since left Marquette.

But now Marquette is going after Mr. McAdams. In December 2014, the school sent him a letter suspending his teaching duties and banning him from campus while it reviewed his “conduct” related to the blog post. “You are to remain off campus during this time, and should you need to come to campus, you are to contact me in writing beforehand to explain the purpose of your visit, to obtain my consent and to make appropriate arrangements for that visit,” Dean Richard Holz wrote.

Lol, the university is going to prove he was wrong to write that universities avoid dialog in favor of saying "shut up" by telling him to  ...  shut up or be fired.

By the way, since nowadays it seems that supporting someone's free speech rights is treated the same as agreeing with that person, I will remind folks that having led a pro gay marriage ballot initiative briefly in Arizona, I am unlikely to agree with someone who thinks it should be banned.  But so what?  I would have absolutely no problem arguing with such a person in a rational way, something that faculty member Ms. Abbate seemed incapable of doing.  While I might disagree with him on any number of issues, Professor McAdams was totally right to call her out.  Besides, is the Left's goal really to take all opinion with which they disagree and drive it underground?  Force folks underground and you never know what will emerge some day.  Things like.... Trump supporters.

It is amazing to me that universities have become the least viable place in the US to raise and discuss controversial issues in the light of day.

 

 

Hey! Don't Overreact to That Issue, Overreact to My Issue

Nicholas Kristof urges us not to exaggerate or overreact to the risk of terrorism based on a few high-profile but isolated and nearly-impossible-to-control events, particularly since there is no upward trend in terrorism deaths.

He urges us instead to exaggerate and overreact to the risk of catastrophic man-made climate change based on a few high-profile but isolated and nearly-impossible-to-control weather events for which data show there is no actual upward trend (e.g. hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, heat waves, etc).

Everyone today seems to be trying to stampede everyone else into some kind of fear based on overblown risks, whether it be to terrorism or climate change or immigrant-related crime or vaccine-caused autism or, uh, whatever is supposed to be bad that is caused by GMO's.  It is all a quest for power.  They hope that fear will cause you to write them a blank check for exercising power over you.  Don't give it to them.

Coyote's Bi-Partisan Climate Plan -- A Climate Skeptic Calls For a Carbon Tax

While I am not deeply worried about man-made climate change, I am appalled at all the absolutely stupid, counter-productive things the government has implemented in the name of climate change, all of which have costly distorting effects on the economy while doing extremely little to affect man-made greenhouse gas production.  For example:

Even when government programs do likely have an impact of CO2, they are seldom managed intelligently.  For example, the government subsidizes solar panel installations, presumably to reduce their cost to consumers, but then imposes duties on imported panels to raise their price (indicating that the program has become more of a crony subsidy for US solar panel makers, which is typical of these types of government interventions).  Obama's coal power plan, also known as his war on coal, will certainly reduce some CO2 from electricity generation but at a very high cost to consumers and industries.  Steps like this are taken without any idea of whether this is the lowest cost approach to reducing CO2 production -- likely it is not given the arbitrary aspects of the program.

For years I have opposed steps like a Federal carbon tax or cap and trade system because I believe (and still believe) them to be unnecessary given the modest amount of man-made warming I expect over the next century.  I would expect to see about one degree C of man-made warming between now and 2100, and believe most of the cries that "we are already seeing catastrophic climate changes" are in fact panics driven by normal natural variation (most supposed trends, say in hurricanes or tornadoes or heat waves, can't actually be found when one looks at the official data).

But I am exhausted with all the stupid, costly, crony legislation that passes in the name of climate change action.   I am convinced there is a better approach that will have more impact on man-made CO2 and simultaneously will benefit the economy vs. our current starting point.  So here goes:

The Plan

Point 1:  Impose a Federal carbon tax on fuel.

I am open to a range of actual tax amounts, as long as point 2 below is also part of the plan.  Something that prices CO2 between $25 and $45 a ton seems to match the mainstream estimates out there of the social costs of CO2.  I think methane is a rounding error, but one could make an adjustment to the natural gas tax numbers to take into account methane leakage in the production chain.   I am even open to make the tax=0 on biofuels given these fuels are recycling carbon from the atmosphere.

A Pigovian tax on carbon in fuels is going to be the most efficient possible way to reduce CO2 production.   What is the best way to reduce CO2 -- by substituting gas for coal?   by more conservation?  by solar, or wind?  with biofuels?  With a carbon tax, we don't have to figure it out.  Different approaches will be tested in the marketplace.  Cap and trade could theoretically do the same thing, but while this worked well in some niche markets (like SO2 emissions), it has not worked at all in European markets for CO2.   There has just been too many opportunities for cronyism, too much weird accounting for things like offsets that is hard to do well, and too much temptation to pick winners and losers.

Point 2:  Offset 100% of carbon tax proceeds against the payroll tax

Yes, there are likely many politicians, given their incentives, that would love a big new pool of money they could use to send largess, from more health care spending to more aircraft carriers, to their favored constituent groups.  But we simply are not going to get Conservatives (and libertarians) on board for a net tax increase, particularly one to address an issue they may not agree is an issue at all.   So our plan will use carbon tax revenues to reduce other Federal taxes.

I think the best choice would be to reduce the payroll tax.  Why?  First, the carbon tax will necessarily be regressive (as are most consumption taxes) and the most regressive other major Federal tax we have are payroll taxes.  Offsetting income taxes would likely be a non-starter on the Left, as no matter how one structures the tax reduction the rich would get most of it since they pay most of the income taxes.

There is another benefit of reducing the payroll tax -- it would mean that we are replacing a consumption tax on labor with a consumption tax on fuel.  It is always dangerous to make gut-feel assessments of complex systems like the economy, but my sense is that this swap might even have net benefits for the economy -- ie we might want to do it even if there was no such thing as greenhouse gas warming.   In theory, labor and fuel are economically equivalent in that they are both production raw materials.  But in practice, they are treated entirely differently by the public.   Few people care about the full productive employment of our underground fuel reserves, but nearly everybody cares about the full productive employment of our labor force.   After all, for most people, the primary single metric of economic health is the unemployment rate.  So replacing a disincentive to hire with a disincentive to use fuel could well be popular.

Point 3:  Eliminate all the stupid stuff

Oddly enough, this might be the hardest part politically because every subsidy, no matter how idiotic, has a hard core of beneficiaries who will defend it to the death -- this the the concentrated benefits, dispersed cost phenomena that makes it hard to change many government programs.  But never-the-less I propose that we eliminate all the current Federal subsidies, mandates, and prohibitions that have been justified by climate change.  Ethanol rules and mandates, solar subsidies, wind subsidies, EV subsidies, targeted technology investments, coal plant bans, pipeline bans, drilling bans -- it all should go.  The carbon tax does the work.

States can continue to do whatever they want -- we don't need the Feds to step on states any more than they do already, and I continue to like the 50 state laboratory concept.  If California wants to continue to subsidize wind generators, let them do it.  That is between the state and its taxpayers (and for those who think the California legislature is crazy, that is what U-Haul is for).

Point 4:  Revamp our nuclear regulatory regime

As much as alternative energy enthusiasts would like to deny it, the world needs reliable, 24-hour baseload power -- and wind and solar are not going to do it (without a change in storage technology of at least 2 orders of magnitude in cost).  The only carbon-free baseload power technology that is currently viable is nuclear.

I will observe that nuclear power suffers under some of the same problems as commercial space flight -- the government helped force the technology faster than it might have grown organically on its own, which paradoxically has slowed its long-term development.  Early nuclear power probably was not ready for prime time, and the hangover from problems and perceptions of this era have made it hard to proceed even when better technologies have existed.   But we are at least 2 generations of technology past what is in most US nuclear plants.  Small air-cooled thorium reactors and other technologies exist that could provide reliable safe power for over 100 years.  I am not an expert on nuclear regulation, but it strikes me that a regime similar to aircraft safety, where a few designs are approved and used over and over makes sense.  France, which has the strongest nuclear base in the world, followed this strategy.  Using thorium could also have the advantage of making the technology more exportable, since its utility in weapons production would be limited.

Point 5: Help clean up Chinese, and Asian, coal production

One of the hard parts about fighting CO2 emissions, vs. all the other emissions we have tackled in the past (NOx, SOx, soot/particulates, unburned hydrocarbons, etc), is that we simply don't know how to combust fossil fuels without creating CO2 -- CO2 is inherent to the base chemical reaction of the combustion.  But we do know how to burn coal without tons of particulates and smog and acid rain -- and we know how to do it economically enough to support a growing, prosperous modern economy.

In my mind it is utterly pointless to ask China to limit their CO2 growth.  China has seen the miracle over the last 30 years of having almost a billion people exit poverty.  This is an event unprecedented in human history, and they have achieved it in part by burning every molecule of fossil fuels they can get their hands on, and they are unlikely to accept limitations on fossil fuel consumption that will derail this economic progress.  But I think it is reasonable to help China stop making their air unbreathable, a goal that is entirely compatible with continued economic growth.  In 20 years, when we have figured out and started to build some modern nuclear designs, I am sure the Chinese will be happy to copy these and start working on their CO2 output, but for now their Maslov hierarchy of needs should point more towards breathable air.

As a bonus, this would pay one immediate climate change benefit that likely would dwarf the near-term effect of CO2 reduction.  Right now, much of this soot from Asian coal plants lands on the ice in the Arctic and Greenland.  This black carbon changes the albedo of the ice, causing it to reflect less sunlight and absorb more heat.  The net effect is more melting ice and higher Arctic temperatures.  A lot of folks, including myself, think that the recent melting of Arctic sea ice and rising Arctic temperatures is more attributable to Asian black carbon pollution than to CO2 and greenhouse gas warming (particularly since similar warming and sea ice melting is not seen in the Antarctic, where there is not a problem with soot pollution).

Final Thoughts

At its core, this is a very low cost, even negative cost, climate insurance policy.  The carbon tax combined with a market economy does the work of identifying the most efficient ways to reduce CO2 production.   The economy benefits from the removal of a myriad of distortions and crony give-aways, while also potentially benefiting from the replacement of a consumption tax on labor with a consumption tax on fuel.  The near-term effect on CO2 is small (since the US is only a small part of the global emissions picture), but actually larger than the near-term effect of all the haphazard current programs, and almost certainly cheaper to obtain.  As an added benefit, if you can help China with its soot problem, we could see immediate improvements in probably the most visible front of man-made climate change:  in the Arctic.

Postscript

Perhaps the hardest thing to overcome in reaching a compromise here is the tribalism of modern politics.  I believe this is  a perfectly sensible plan that even those folks who believe man-made global warming is  a total myth ( a group to which I do not belong) could sign up for.  The barrier, though, is tribal.  I consider myself to be pretty free of team politics but my first reaction when thinking about this kind of plan was, "What?  We can't let those guys win.  They are totally full of sh*t.  They are threatening to throw me in jail for my opinions."

It was at this point I was reminded of a customer service story at my company.  I had a customer who was upset call me, and I ended up giving them a full-refund and a certificate to come back and visit us in the future.  I actually suspected there was more to the story, but I didn't want a bad review.  The customer was happy, but my local manager was not.  She called me and said, "That was a bad customer!  He was lying to you.  How can you let him win like that?"   Does this sound familiar?  I think we fall into this trap all the time in modern politics, worried more about preventing the other team from winning than about doing the right thing.

These 20 Scientists Want to Make it A Crime to Disagree with Them

I think it is important to publicize these names far and wide:

  • Jagadish Shukla, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
  • Edward Maibach, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
  • Paul Dirmeyer, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
  • Barry Klinger, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
  • Paul Schopf, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
  • David Straus, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
  • Edward Sarachik, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
  • Michael Wallace, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
  • Alan Robock, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
  • Eugenia Kalnay, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
  • William Lau, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
  • Kevin Trenberth, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO
  • T.N. Krishnamurti, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
  • Vasu Misra, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
  • Ben Kirtman, University of Miami, Miami, FL
  • Robert Dickinson, University of Texas, Austin, TX
  • Michela Biasutti, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
  • Mark Cane, Columbia University, New York, NY
  • Lisa Goddard, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
  • Alan Betts, Atmospheric Research, Pittsford, VT

These 20 people, who nominally call themselves "scientists", have written a letter to President Obama urging him to use the RICO statute to prosecute people who disagree with them on climate science, essentially putting scientific disagreement in the same status as organized crime.  If they can't win the scientific debate with persuasion, they will win it with guns.  From the letter:

One additional tool – recently proposed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America’s response to climate change.

Of course "deceive the American people" is defined by these folks in practice as "disagreeing with us".

A Great Example of How the Media Twists Facts on Climate

First, let's start with the Guardian headline:

Exxon knew of climate change in 1981, email says – but it funded deniers for 27 more years

So now let's look at the email, in full, which is the sole source for the Guardian headline.  I challenge you, no matter how much you squint, to find a basis for the Guardian's statement.  Basically the email says that Exxon knew of the concern about global warming in 1981, but did not necessarily agree with it.  Hardly the tobacco-lawyer cover-up the Guardian is trying to make it sound like.  I will reprint the email in full because I actually think it is a pretty sober view of how good corporations think about these issues, and it accurately reflects the Exxon I knew from 3 years as a mechanical / safety engineer in a refinery.

I will add that you can see the media denial that a lukewarmer position even exists (which I complained about most recently here) in full action in this Guardian article.  Exxon's position as described in the Guardian's source looks pretty close to the lukewarmer position to me -- that man made global warming exists but is being exaggerated.   But to the Guardian, and many others, there is only full-blown acceptance of the most absurd exaggerated climate change forecasts or you are a denier.  Anyway, here is the email in full:

Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits, either current or future. They may take what appears to be altruistic positions to improve their public image, but the assumption underlying those actions is that they will increase future profits. ExxonMobil is an interesting case in point.

Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia. This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2. That CO2 would have to be separated to make the natural gas usable. Natural gas often contains CO2 and the technology for removing CO2 is well known. In 1981 (and now) the usual practice was to vent the CO2 to the atmosphere. When I first learned about the project in 1989, the projections were that if Natuna were developed and its CO2 vented to the atmosphere, it would be the largest point source of CO2 in the world and account for about 1% of projected global CO2 emissions. I’m sure that it would still be the largest point source of CO2, but since CO2 emissions have grown faster than projected in 1989, it would probably account for a smaller fraction of global CO2 emissions.

The alternative to venting CO2 to the atmosphere is to inject it into ground. This technology was also well known, since the oil industry had been injecting limited quantities of CO2 to enhance oil recovery. There were many questions about whether the CO2 would remain in the ground, some of which have been answered by Statoil’s now almost 20 years of experience injecting CO2 in the North Sea. Statoil did this because the Norwegian government placed a tax on vented CO2. It was cheaper for Statoil to inject CO2 than pay the tax. Of course, Statoil has touted how much CO2 it has prevented from being emitted.

In the 1980s, Exxon needed to understand the potential for concerns about climate change to lead to regulation that would affect Natuna and other potential projects. They were well ahead of the rest of industry in this awareness. Other companies, such as Mobil, only became aware of the issue in 1988, when it first became a political issue. Natural resource companies – oil, coal, minerals – have to make investments that have lifetimes of 50-100 years. Whatever their public stance, internally they make very careful assessments of the potential for regulation, including the scientific basis for those regulations. Exxon NEVER denied the potential for humans to impact the climate system. It did question – legitimately, in my opinion – the validity of some of the science.

Political battles need to personify the enemy. This is why liberals spend so much time vilifying the Koch brothers – who are hardly the only big money supporters of conservative ideas. In climate change, the first villain was a man named Donald Pearlman, who was a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. (In another life, he was instrumental in getting the U.S. Holocaust Museum funded and built.) Pearlman’s usefulness as a villain ended when he died of lung cancer – he was a heavy smoker to the end.

Then the villain was the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a trade organization of energy producers and large energy users. I was involved in GCC for a while, unsuccessfully trying to get them to recognize scientific reality. (That effort got me on to the front page of the New York Times, but that’s another story.) Environmental group pressure was successful in putting GCC out of business, but they also lost their villain. They needed one which wouldn’t die and wouldn’t go out of business. Exxon, and after its merger with Mobil ExxonMobil, fit the bill, especially under its former CEO, Lee Raymond, who was vocally opposed to climate change regulation. ExxonMobil’s current CEO, Rex Tillerson, has taken a much softer line, but ExxonMobil has not lost its position as the personification of corporate, and especially climate change, evil. It is the only company mentioned in Alyssa’s e-mail, even though, in my opinion, it is far more ethical that many other large corporations.

Having spent twenty years working for Exxon and ten working for Mobil, I know that much of that ethical behavior comes from a business calculation that it is cheaper in the long run to be ethical than unethical. Safety is the clearest example of this. ExxonMobil knows all too well the cost of poor safety practices. The Exxon Valdez is the most public, but far from the only, example of the high cost of unsafe operations. The value of good environmental practices are more subtle, but a facility that does a good job of controlling emission and waste is a well run facility, that is probably maximizing profit. All major companies will tell you that they are trying to minimize their internal CO2 emissions. Mostly, they are doing this by improving energy efficiency and reducing cost. The same is true for internal recycling, again a practice most companies follow. Its just good engineering.

Matt Ridley: What the Climate Wars Did to Science

I cannot recommend Matt Ridley's new article strongly enough.  It covers a lot of ground be here are a few highlights.

Ridley argues that science generally works (in a manner entirely parallel to how well-functioning commercial markets work) because there are generally incentives to challenge hypotheses.  I would add that if anything, the incentives tend to be balanced more towards challenging conventional wisdom.  If someone puts a stake in the ground and says that A is true, then there is a lot more money and prestige awarded to someone who can prove A is not true than for the thirteenth person to confirm that A is indeed true.

This process breaks, however when political pressures undermine this natural market of ideas and switch the incentives for challenging hypotheses into punishment.

Lysenkoism, a pseudo-biological theory that plants (and people) could be trained to change their heritable natures, helped starve millions and yet persisted for decades in the Soviet Union, reaching its zenith under Nikita Khrushchev. The theory that dietary fat causes obesity and heart disease, based on a couple of terrible studies in the 1950s, became unchallenged orthodoxy and is only now fading slowly.

What these two ideas have in common is that they had political support, which enabled them to monopolise debate. Scientists are just as prone as anybody else to “confirmation bias”, the tendency we all have to seek evidence that supports our favoured hypothesis and dismiss evidence that contradicts it—as if we were counsel for the defence. It’s tosh that scientists always try to disprove their own theories, as they sometimes claim, and nor should they. But they do try to disprove each other’s. Science has always been decentralised, so Professor Smith challenges Professor Jones’s claims, and that’s what keeps science honest.

What went wrong with Lysenko and dietary fat was that in each case a monopoly was established. Lysenko’s opponents were imprisoned or killed. Nina Teicholz’s book  The Big Fat Surprise shows in devastating detail how opponents of Ancel Keys’s dietary fat hypothesis were starved of grants and frozen out of the debate by an intolerant consensus backed by vested interests, echoed and amplified by a docile press....

This is precisely what has happened with the climate debate and it is at risk of damaging the whole reputation of science.

This is one example of the consequences

Look what happened to a butterfly ecologist named Camille Parmesan when she published a paper on “ Climate and Species Range” that blamed climate change for threatening the Edith checkerspot butterfly with extinction in California by driving its range northward. The paper was cited more than 500 times, she was invited to speak at the White House and she was asked to contribute to the IPCC’s third assessment report.

Unfortunately, a distinguished ecologist called Jim Steele found fault with her conclusion: there had been more local extinctions in the southern part of the butterfly’s range due to urban development than in the north, so only the statistical averages moved north, not the butterflies. There was no correlated local change in temperature anyway, and the butterflies have since recovered throughout their range.  When Steele asked Parmesan for her data, she refused. Parmesan’s paper continues to be cited as evidence of climate change. Steele meanwhile is derided as a “denier”. No wonder a highly sceptical ecologist I know is very reluctant to break cover.

He also goes on to lament something that is very familiar to me -- there is a strong argument for the lukewarmer position, but the media will not even achnowledge it exists.  Either you are a full-on believer or you are a denier.

The IPCC actually admits the possibility of lukewarming within its consensus, because it gives a range of possible future temperatures: it thinks the world will be between about 1.5 and four degrees warmer on average by the end of the century. That’s a huge range, from marginally beneficial to terrifyingly harmful, so it is hardly a consensus of danger, and if you look at the “probability density functions” of climate sensitivity, they always cluster towards the lower end.

What is more, in the small print describing the assumptions of the “representative concentration pathways”, it admits that the top of the range will only be reached if sensitivity to carbon dioxide is high (which is doubtful); if world population growth re-accelerates (which is unlikely); if carbon dioxide absorption by the oceans slows down (which is improbable); and if the world economy goes in a very odd direction, giving up gas but increasing coal use tenfold (which is implausible).

But the commentators ignore all these caveats and babble on about warming of “up to” four degrees (or even more), then castigate as a “denier” anybody who says, as I do, the lower end of the scale looks much more likely given the actual data. This is a deliberate tactic. Following what the psychologist Philip Tetlock called the “psychology of taboo”, there has been a systematic and thorough campaign to rule out the middle ground as heretical: not just wrong, but mistaken, immoral and beyond the pale. That’s what the word denier with its deliberate connotations of Holocaust denial is intended to do. For reasons I do not fully understand, journalists have been shamefully happy to go along with this fundamentally religious project.

The whole thing reads like a lukewarmer manifesto.  Honestly, Ridley writes about 1000% better than I do, so rather than my trying to summarize it, go read it.

"Man-Made" Climate Change

Man has almost certainly warmed the world by some tenths of a degree C with his CO2, though much of this warming has hit night-time lows rather than daily highs.  Anyway, while future temperature rise forecasts are often grossly exaggerated by absurdly high assumptions of positive feedback, there is at least a kernel of fact in there that CO2 is likely warming the world somewhat.

However, the popular "science" on climate change is often awful, positing, for example, that hurricanes are being increased by man right in the midst of the longest hurricane drought we have seen in the US for a hundred years.

Inevitably, the recent severe California droughts have been blamed on manmade CO2.  As a hopefully useful adjunct to this debate, I have annotated a recent chart from the San Jose Mercury News on the history of California droughts to reflect the popular global warming / climate change narrative.  You be the judge of the reasonableness:

click to enlarge

Net Neutering: Isn't It Great That This Old Lady Is Going To Take Us To Her House And Give Us Candy?

I read a number of tech sites like Engadget every day, and am just shocked at the continued happy puppy reactions to the FCC's takeover of the web.  The articles can all be summarized as "Hey, isn't it awesome this old lady is taking us to her house in the woods and giving us free candy?"

Daniel Henninger shares my reaction:

Washington’s seizure of the Internet is one of the great case studies in the annals of political naïveté.

Over several years, leading lights of the Web—among them Netflix,Google and Tumblr—importuned the Obama White House to align itself with the cause of net neutrality.

“Net neutrality,” like so many progressivist-y causes—climate change, health care for all—is a phrase designed to be embraced rather than understood.

But net neutrality had real meaning. Its core idea was that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, a Washington agency whose employees have been regulating communications since 1934, should design and enforce a price mechanism for the Internet. Up to now, nobody did that.

In February the FCC did, and on that day the Little Red Riding Hoods of net neutrality found out what big teeth grandma has. The FCC said its plans to regulate the Web were in a 332-page document, which no one can see until the agency is ready....

Mr. Karp and the rest of the 20-something and 30-something Peter Pans in the app development world should find their way to the 80-something communications lawyers and lobbyists retired in Florida for a tutorial on what it’s like trying to get Washington off your back once it has climbed on. Here’s the tweet-length version: You are going to pay and pay and pay. To save you, Washington will bleed you....

No one can do business until they first run it through the Beltway bosses. For the K Street corridor, it’s the golden age all over again.

As I wrote before, isn't anyone in tech worried that the government used a semi-imaginary problem that perhaps required a flyswatter to address to justify acquiring 16-inch naval guns?

Bill Maher, Living in an Echo Chamber

I refuse to assume (contrary to the modern practice) that someone who disagrees with me is either stupid or ill-intentioned or both [OK, I did call people idiots here -- sorry, I was ranting].  Intelligent people of goodwill can disagree with each other, and the world would be a better place if more people embraced that simple notion.

Anyway, I won't blame lack of intelligence or bad motivations for the following statement from Bill Maher.  He seems to be a smart guy who is honestly motivated by what he says motivates him.  But this statement is just so ignorant and provably false that it must be the result of living in a very powerful echo chamber where no voices other than ones that agree with him are allowed.

HBO’s Bill Maher complained that comparing climate change skepticism to vaccine skepticism was unfair to vaccine skeptics before attacking GMOs on Friday’s “Real Time.”

“The analogy that I see all the time is that if you ask any questions [about vaccines], you are the same thing as a global warming denier. I think this is a very bad analogy, because I don’t think all science is alike. I think climate science is rather straightforward because you’re dealing with the earth, it’s a rock…climate scientists, from the very beginning, have pretty much said the same thing, and their predictions have pretty much come true. It’s atmospherics, and it’s geology, and chemistry. That’s not true of the medical industry. I mean, they’ve had to retract a million things because the human body is infinitely more mysterious” he stated.

Climate science is astoundingly complex with thousands or millions of variables interacting chaotically.  Separating cause and effect is a nightmare, because controlled experiments are impossible.  It is stupendously laughable that he could think this task somehow straightforward, or easier than running a double-blind medical study  (By the way, this is one reason for the retractions in medicine vs. climate -- medical studies are straightforward enough they can be easily replicated... or not, and thus retracted.  Proving cause and effect in climate is so hard that studies may be of low quality, but they are also hard to absolutely disprove).

It is funny of course that he would also say that all of climate scientists predictions have come true.  Pretty much none have come true.  They expected  rapidly rising temperatures and they have in fact risen only modestly, if at all, over the last 20 years or so.  They expected more hurricanes and there have been fewer.  They called for more tornadoes and there have been fewer.  The only reason any have been right at all is that climate scientists have separately forecasts opposite occurrences (e.g. more snow / less snow) so someone has to be right, though this state of affairs hardly argues for the certainty of climate predictions.

By the way, the assumption that Bill Maher is an intelligent person of goodwill who simply disagrees with me on things like climate and vaccines and GMO's is apparently not one he is willing to make himself about his critics.  e.g.:

Weekly Standard Senior Writer John McCormack then pointed out that there are legitimate scientists, such as Dr. Richard Lindzen, who are skeptical of man-made climate change theories, but that there were no serious vaccine-skeptic professors, to which Maher rebutted “the ones who are skeptics [on climate change], usually are paid off by the oil industry.”

I will point out to you that the Left's positions on climate, vaccines, and GMO's have many things in common, as I wrote in a long article on evaluating risks here.

"Dysfunctional Congress"

This weekend I went to a one-day university and saw four different lectures (as usual, about half were good, one was OK, and one was a soft-of WTF).  In one of those lectures, a Brown professor kept talking about Congress being "dysfunctional".

It strikes me that it is time to demand that people define what they mean by this.  A lot of people, I think, would answer that they mean that Congress is dysfunctional because it has not passed X, where X is immigration reform or climate change legislation or a repeal of Obamacare or a list of many other things.  But in these cases, I am not sure it is fair to say that lack of Congressional action really represents dysfunctionality when the public itself is sharply and somewhat evenly divided on the issues themselves.

No one can best me in a competition of disdain for elected officials.  But I am always suspicious that folks using the whole dysfunctional Congress meme are really using it as a proxy for a strong desire to keep expanding government.  After all, are we really facing a shortage of laws that Congress desperately needs to address?  Is Congress somehow greedily hording laws in a time of need?

In the spirit of defining terms, I will say what I think is dysfunctional about Congress:  When it fails to fulfill its Constitutionally-mandated roles.  It is not required to pass immigration legislation, but it is required to pass a budget and give up and down votes on appointments.  Neither of these tasks have been accomplished very well over the last few years.   Again, Congress is not required to give the President what he wants (as the media seems to imply, at least when the President is a Democrat), but they are required to pass some sort of budget and take a vote in a reasonably timely manner on appointments.

A Unified Theory of Poor Risk Management: What Climate Change Hysteria, the Anti-GMO Movement, and the Anti-Vaccination Movement Have in Common

After debating people online for years on issues from catastrophic man-made climate change to genetically-modified crops to common chemical hazards (e.g. BPA) to vaccination, I wanted to offer a couple quick thoughts on the common mistakes I see in evaluating risks.

1.  Poor Understanding of Risk, and of Studies that Evaluate Risk

First, people are really bad at thinking about incremental risk above and beyond the background risk  (e.g. not looking at "what is my risk of cancer" but "what is my incremental added risk from being exposed to X").  Frequently those incremental risks are tiny and hard to pick out of the background risk at any level of confidence.  They also tend to be small compared to everyday risks on which people seldom focus.  You have a far higher - almost two orders of magnitude - risk in the US of drowning in your own bathtub than you have in being subject to terrorism, but which do we obsess over?

Further, there are a lot of folks who seem all-to-ready to shoot off in a panic over any one scary study in the media.  And the media loves this, because it drives the meter on their earnings, so they bend over backwards to look for studies with scary results and then make them sound even scarier.  "Tater-tots Increase Risk of Ebola!"  But in reality, most of these scary studies never get replicated and turn out to be mistaken.  Why does this happen?

The problem is that every natural process is subject to random variation.  Even without changing the conditions of an experiment, there is going to be random variation in measurements.  For example, one population of white mice might have 6 cancers, but the next might have 12 and the next might have zero, all from natural variation.  So the challenge of most experiments is to determine whether the thing one is testing (e.g. exposure to a particular substance) is actually changing the measurements in a population, or whether that change is simply the result of random variation.  That is what the 95% confidence interval (that Naomi Oreskes wants to get rid of) really means.  It means there is only a 5% chance that the results measured were due to natural variation.

This is a useful test, but I hope you can see how it can fail.  Something like 5% of the time that one is measuring two things that actually are uncorrelated, the test is going to give you a false positive.  Let's say in a year that the world does 1000 studies to test links that don't actually exist.  Just from natural variation, 5% of these studies will still seem to show a link at the 95% confidence level.  We will have 50 studies that year broadcasting false links.  The media will proceed to scare the crap out of you over these 50 things.

I have never seen this explained better than in this XKCD cartoon (click to enlarge):

click to enlarge

All of this is just exacerbated when there is fraud involved, an unfortunate but not unknown occurrence when reputations and large academic grants are on the line.  This is why replication of the experiment is important.   Do the study a second time, and all but 2-3 of these 50 "false positive" studies will fail to replicate the original results.  Do it three times, and all will likely fail to replicate.   This, for example, is exactly what happened with the vaccine-autism link -- it came out in one study with a really small population and some evidence of fraud, and was never replicated.

2.  The Precautionary Principle vs. the Unseen, with a Dollop of Privilege Thrown In

When pressed to the wall too hard about the size and quality of the risk assessment, most folks subject to these panics will fall back on the "precautionary principle".   I am not a big fan of the precautionary principle, so I will let Wikipedia define it so I don't create a straw man:

The precautionary principle or precautionary approach to risk management states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action.

I will observe that as written, this principle is inherently anti-progress.  The proposition requires that folks who want to introduce new innovations must prove a negative, and it is very hard to prove a negative -- how do I prove there are no invisible aliens in my closet who may come out and eat me someday, and how can I possibly get a scientific consensus to this fact?  As a result, by merely expressing that one "suspects" a risk (note there is no need listed for proof or justification of this suspicion), any advance may be stopped cold.  Had we followed such a principle consistently, we would still all be subsistence farmers, vassals to our feudal lord.

One other quick note before I proceed, it turns out that proponents of the precautionary principle are very selective as to where they apply the principle.  They feel like it absolutely must be applied to fossil fuel burning, or BPA use, or GMO's.  But precautionary principle supporters never apply it in turn to, say, major new government programs and regulations and economic interventions, despite many historically justified concerns about the risks of these programs.

But neither of these is necessarily the biggest problem with the precautionary principle.  The real problem is that it focuses on only one side of the equation -- it says that risks alone justify stopping any action or policy without any reference at all to benefits of that policy or opportunity costs of its avoidance.   A way of restating the precautionary principle is, "when faced with risks and benefits of a certain proposal, look only at the risks."

Since the precautionary principle really hit the mainstream with the climate change debate, I will use that as an example.  Contrary to media appellations of being a "denier," most science-based climate skeptics like myself accept that man is adding to greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and that those gasses have an incremental warming effect on the planet.  What we deny is the catastrophe -- we believe we have good evidence that catastrophic forecasts from computer models are exaggerating future warming, and greatly exaggerating resulting forecast climate changes.  Whenever I am fairly successful making this argument, the inevitable rejoinder is "well, the precautionary principle says that if we have even a small percentage chance that burning fossil fuels will lead to a climate disaster, then we have to limit their use immediately".

The problem with this statement is that it assumes there is no harm or risk to reducing fossil fuel use.  But fossil fuel use pays enormous benefits to everyone in the world.  Even if we could find near substitutes that don't create CO2 emissions (and it is every much open to debate if such substitutes currently exist), these substitutes tend to be much more expensive and much more infrastructure-intensive than are fossil fuels.  The negative impact to the economy would be substantial.  One could argue that one particular impact -- climate or economy -- outweighs the other, but it is outright fraud to refuse to discuss the trade-off altogether.   Particularly since catastrophic climate change may only be a low-percentage risk while economic dislocation from reduction in fossil fuel use is a near certainty.

My sense is that if the United States chose to cut way back on fossil fuel use in a concerted effort, we could manage it and survive the costs.  But that is because we are a uniquely rich nation.  I am not sure anyone in this country understands how rich.  I am not talking just about Warren Buffet.  Even the poorest countries have a few rich people at the top.  I am talking about everybody.  Our poorest 20% would actually be among the richest quintile in many nations of the world.   A worldwide effort to eliminate fossil fuel use or to substantially raise its costs or to force shifts to higher cost, less easily-used alternatives  would simply devastate many developing nations, which need every erg their limited resources can get their hands on.  We are at a unique moment in history when more than a billion people are in the process of emerging from poverty around the world, progress that would be stopped in its tracks by a concerted effort to limit CO2 output.   Why doesn't the precautionary principle apply to actions that affect their lives?

College kids have developed a popular rejoinder they use in arguments that states "check your privilege."  I thought at first it was an interesting phrase.  I used it in arguments a few times about third world "sweat shops".  I argued that those who wanted to close down the Nike factory paying $1 an hour in China needed to check their privilege -- they had no idea what alternatives those Chinese who took the Nike jobs were facing.  Yes, you middle class Americans would never take that job, but what if your alternative was 12 hours a day in a rice paddy somewhere that barely brought in enough food for your family to subsist?  Only later, I learned that "check your privilege" didn't mean what I thought it meant, and in fact in actual academic use it instead means "shut up, white guy."  In a way, though, this use is consistent with how the precautionary principle is often used -- in many of my arguments, "precautionary principle" is another way of saying "stop talking about the costs and trade-offs of what I am proposing."

Perhaps the best example of the damage that can be wrought by a combination of Western middle class privilege and the precautionary principle is the case of golden rice.  According to the World Health Organization between 250,000 to 500,000 children become blind every year due to vitamin A deficiency, half of whom die within a year of becoming blind. Millions of other people suffer from various debilitating conditions due to the lack of this essential nutrient.  Golden Rice is a genetically modified form of rice that, unlike conventional rice, contains beta-Carotene in the rice kernel, which is converted to vitamin A in humans.

By 2002, Golden Rice was technically ready to go. Animal testing had found no health risks. Syngenta, which had figured out how to insert the Vitamin A–producing gene from carrots into rice, had handed all financial interests over to a non-profit organization, so there would be no resistance to the life-saving technology from GMO opponents who resist genetic modification because big biotech companies profit from it. Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

Seems like a great idea.  Too bad its going nowhere, due to fierce opposition on the Left (particularly from Greenpeace) to hypothetical dangers from GMO's

It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM technology. Now two agricultural economists, one from the Technical University of Munich, the other from the University of California, Berkeley, have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health, and the numbers are truly frightening.

Their study, published in the journalEnvironment and Development Economics, estimates that the delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002. That odd sounding metric – not just lives but ‘life years’ – accounts not only for those who died, but also for the blindness and other health disabilities that Vitamin A deficiency causes. The majority of those who went blind or died because they did not have access to Golden Rice were children.

Note this is exactly the sort of risk tradeoff the precautionary principle is meant to ignore.  The real situation is that a vague risk of unspecified and unproven problems with GMO's (which are typically driven more by a distrust on the Left of the for-profit corporations that produce GMO's rather than any good science) should be balanced with absolute certainty of people dying and going blind.  But the Greenpeace folks will just shout that because of the "precautionary principle", only the vague unproven risks should be considered and thus golden rice should be banned.

Risk and Post-Modernism

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Naomi Oreskes and the post-modern approach to science, where facts and proof take a back-seat to political narratives and the feelings and intuition of various social groups.  I hadn't really thought much about this post-modernist approach in the context of risk assessment, but I was struck by this comment by David Ropeik, who blogs for Scientific American.

The whole GMO issue is really just one example of a far more profound threat to your health and mine. The perception of risk is inescapably subjective, a matter of not just the facts, but how we feel about those facts. As pioneering risk perception psychologist Paul Slovic has said, “risk is a feeling.” So societal arguments over risk issues like Golden Rice and GMOs, or guns or climate change or vaccines, are not mostly about the evidence, though we wield the facts as our weapons. They are mostly about how we feel, and our values, and which group’s values win, not what will objectively do the most people the most good. That’s a dumb and dangerous way to make public risk management decisions.

Mr. Ropeik actually disagrees with me on the risk/harm tradeoffs of climate change (he obviously thinks the harms outweigh the costs of prevention -- I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he has actually thought about both sides of the equation).  Fine.  I would be thrilled for once to have a discussion with someone about climate change when we are really talking about costs and benefits on both sides of the equation (action and inaction).  Unfortunately that is all too rare.

Postscript:  To the extent the average person remembers Bjorn Lomborg at all, they could be excused for assuming he is some crazed right-wing climate denier, given how he was treated in the media.  In fact, Lomborg is very much a global warming believer.  He takes funding from Right-ish organizations now, but that is only because he has been disavowed by the Left, which was his original home.

What he did was write a book in which he looked at a number of environmental problems -- both their risks and costs as well as their potential mitigation costs -- and he ranked them on bang for the buck:  Where can we get the most environmental benefit and help the most people for the least investment.  The book talked about what he thought were the very real dangers of climate change, but it turned out climate change was way down this ranked list in terms of benefits vs. costs of solutions.

This is a point I have made before.  Why are we spending so much time, for example, harping on China to reduce CO2 when their air is poisonous?  We know how to have a modern technological economy and still have air without soot.  It is more uncertain if we can have a modern technological economy, yet, without CO2 production.   Lomborg thought about just this sort of thing, and made the kind of policy risk-reward tradeoffs based on scientific analysis that we would hope our policy makers were pursuing.  It was exactly the kind of analysis that Ropeik was advocating for above.

Lomborg must have expected that his work would be embraced by the environmental Left.  After all, it was scientific, it achnowleged the existence of a number of environmental issues that needed to be solved, and it advocated for a strong government-backed effort led by smart technocrats doing rational prioritizations.  But Lomborg was absolutely demonized by just about everyone in the environmental community and on the Left in general.  He was universally trashed.  He was called a climate denier when in fact he was no such thing -- he just pointed out that man-made climate change was way harder to solve than other equally harmful environmental issues.  Didn't he get the memo that the narrative was that global warming was the #1 environmental threat?  How dare he suggest a re-prioritization!

Lomborg's prioritization may well have been wrong, but no one was actually sitting down to make that case.  He was simply demonized from day one for getting the "wrong" answer, defined as the answer not fitting the preferred narrative.  We are a long, long way from any reasonable ability to assess and act on risks.

Why Do Climate Change Claims Consistently Get a Fact-Checker Pass?

It is almost impossible to read a media story any more about severe weather events without seeing some blurb about such and such event being the result of manmade climate change.  I hear writers all the time saying that it is exhausting to run the gauntlet of major media fact checkers, so why do they all get a pass on these weather statements?  Even the IPCC, which we skeptics think is exaggerating manmade climate change effects, refused to link current severe weather events with manmade CO2.

The California drought brings yet another tired example of this.  I think pretty much everyone in the media has operated from the assumption that the current CA drought is 1. unprecedented and 2. man-made. The problem is that neither are true.  Skeptics have been saying this for months, pointing to 100-year California drought data and pointing to at 2-3 other events in the pre-manmade-CO2 era that were at least as severed.  But now the NOAA has come forward and said roughly the same thing:

Natural weather patterns, not man-made global warming, are causing the historic drought parching California, says a study out Monday from federal scientists.

"It's important to note that California's drought, while extreme, is not an uncommon occurrence for the state," said Richard Seager, the report's lead author and professor with Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. The report was sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The report did not appear in a peer-reviewed journal but was reviewed by other NOAA scientists.

"In fact, multiyear droughts appear regularly in the state's climate record, and it's a safe bet that a similar event will happen again," he said.

The persistent weather pattern over the past several years has featured a warm, dry ridge of high pressure over the eastern north Pacific Ocean and western North America. Such high-pressure ridges prevent clouds from forming and precipitation from falling.

The study notes that this ridge — which has resulted in decreased rain and snowfall since 2011 — is almost opposite to what computer models predict would result from human-caused climate change.

There is an argument to be made that this drought was made worse by the fact that the low precipitation was mated with higher-than average temperatures that might be partially attributable to man-made climate change.  One can see this in the Palmer drought severity index, which looks at more factors than just precipitation.  While the last 3 years was not the lowest for rainfall in CA over the last 100, I believe the Palmer index was the lowest for the last 3 years of any period in the last 100+ years.  The report did not address this warming or attempt to attribute some portion of it to man, but it is worth noting that temperatures this year in CA were, like the drought, not unprecedented, particularly in rural areas (urban areas are going to be warmer than 50 years ago due to increasing urban heat island effect, which is certainly manmade but has nothing to do with CO2.)

Update:  By the way, note the article is careful to give several paragraphs after this bit to opponents who disagree with the findings.  Perfectly fine.  But note that this is the courtesy that is increasingly denied to skeptics when the roles are reversed.  Maybe I should emulate climate alarmists and be shouting "false balance!  the science is settled!"

Trend That is Not A Trend: Increase in Typhoons and Hurricanes

The science that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and causes some warming is hard to dispute.  The science that Earth is dominated by net positive feedbacks that increase modest greenhouse gas warming to catastrophic levels is very debatable.  The science that man's CO2 is already causing an increase in violent and severe weather is virtually non-existent.

Seriously, of all the different pieces of the climate debate, the one that is almost always based on pure crap are the frequent media statements linking manmade CO2 to some severe weather event.

For example, Coral Davenport in the New York Times wrote the other day:

As the torrential rains of Typhoon Hagupit flood thePhilippines, driving millions of people from their homes, the Philippine government arrived at a United Nationsclimate change summit meeting on Monday to push hard for a new international deal requiring all nations, including developing countries, to cut their use of fossil fuels.

It is a conscious pivot for the Philippines, one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies. But scientists say the nation is also among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and the Philippine government says it is suffering too many human and economic losses from the burning of fossil fuels....

A series of scientific reports have linked the burning of fossil fuels with rising sea levels and more powerful typhoons, like those that have battered the island nation.

It is telling that Ms. Davenport did not bother to link or name any of these scientific reports.  Even the IPCC, which many skeptics believe to be exaggerating manmade climate change dangers, refused in its last report to link any current severe weather events with manmade CO2.

Roger Pielke responded today with charts from two different recent studies on typhoon activity in the Phillipines.  Spot the supposed upward manmade trend.  Or not:

kubotachan2009

c2789-wpac-50-10-weinkleetal

 

I am not a huge fan of landfalling cyclonic storm counts because whether they make landfall or not can be totally random and potentially disguise trends.  A better metric is the total energy of cyclonic storms, land-falling or not, where again there is no trend.

Via the Weather Underground, here is Accumulated Cyclonic Energy for the Western Pacific (lower numbers represent fewer cyclonic storms with less total strength):

ace-west-pacific

 

And here, by the way, is the ACE for the whole globe:

 

ace-global

Remember this when you see the next storm inevitably blamed on manmade global warming.  If anything, we are actually in a fairly unprecedented (in the last century and a half) hurricane drought.

Don't Believe Anything The EPA Says Unless It is Under Oath

That is the only conclusion I can reach based on this story on the Center for Biological Diversity challenging the EPA over ocean acidification.

In all of the EPA's public relations and political documents, its position is that man-made CO2 is causing ocean acidification  (higher levels of atmospheric CO2 causes more CO2 to get dissolved in ocean water which lowers the PH).  One can find thousands of examples but here is just one, from their web site.  This is a public briefing paper by the EPA on the general topic of ocean acidity.  Here is a screenshot of the top of the first page:

click to enlarge

Lets read that first bullet point in the purple section labelled "key points".  It says

  • Measurements made over the last few decades have demonstrated that ocean carbon dioxide levels have risen in response to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to an increase in acidity (that is, a decrease in pH) (see Figure 1)

This is a typical man-is-screwing-up-the-climate EPA statement made to affect government opinion.  It sounds official.  If I were to publicly challenge it, they would likely label me as anti-science.

The enlightening part of our story occurs when the Center for Biological Diversity took the EPA at their fear-mongering word and said, "well, then you should have an endangerment finding on the Pacific Ocean."

The Lawsuit, launched by the Center for Biological Diversity, seeks to impose enhanced clean water act protection upon the Pacific Coast. The suit argues that protection is necessary because, according to the EPA’s own climate narrative, ocean acidification is severely damaging the marine ecosystem.

According to the CBD;

“The CBD points out that the EPA has acknowledged that ocean acidification has killed billions of oyster larvae in the Pacific Northwest but still would not classify the waters as imperilled.”

http://www.law360.com/articles/568751/epa-seeks-to-sink-green-group-s-ocean-acidification-suit

The EPA had dozens of references to acidification in its endangerment findings, such as this example: (p. 137)

According to the IPCC, climate change (very high confidence) and ocean acidification (see Box 14.1) due to the direct effects of elevated CO2 concentrations (medium confidence) will impair a wide range of planktonic and other marine organisms that use aragonite to make their shells or skeletons (Fischlin et al., 2007).

So now the EPA is in court and supposedly subject to perjury charges.  And wham, their story changes in a flash:

The EPA’s response is that there is insufficient evidence to support an endangerment finding – an apparent contradiction of their own previous climate narrative.

“There were no in situ field studies documenting adverse effects on the health of aquatic life populations in either state,” the EPA’s motion says. “Nor was there any other information documenting effects on indigenous populations of aquatic life in state waters indicating stressors attributable to ocean acidification. The only information available regarding aquatic life in ambient waters under natural conditions was inconclusive.”

The EPA's position is that there is no evidence, but it is a huge problem we should have every confidence exists.  If you don't believe me, look at this passage from an EPA 2010 memorandum on the issue.  Ignore the gobbledygook in the middle, just read it with the parts I have bolded.

This Memorandum recognizes the seriousness of aquatic life impacts associated with OA [ocean acidification] and describes how States can move forward, where OA information exists, to address OA during the 303(d) 2012 listing cycle using the current 303(d) Integrated Reporting (IR) framework. At the same time, this Memorandum also acknowledges and recognizes that in the case of OA, information is largely absent or limited at this point in time to support the listing of waters for OA in many States.

We are really really sure it is a problem although the science is largely absent.

PS- By the way, no one thinks the ocean will turn to acid.  "Acidification" is one of those scare words that work better as PR than science.  The ocean is alkaline and will alkaline even under the most catastrophic forecasts.  The issue is with its becoming less alkaline.

Thank God For Scientists: "Unexpected Link Between Solar Activity and Climate Change"

Without scientists, we would never be apprised of the fact that the behavior of the sun affects how warm or cold it is on Earth (emphasis added)

For the first time, a research team has been able to reconstruct the solar activity at the end of the last ice age, around 20 000–10 000 years ago, by analysing trace elements in ice cores in Greenland and cave formations from China. During the last glacial maximum, Sweden was covered in a thick ice sheet that stretched all the way down to northern Germany and sea levels were more than 100 metres lower than they are today, because the water was frozen in the extensive ice caps. The new study shows that the sun’s variation influences the climate in a similar way regardless of whether the climate is extreme, as during the Ice Age, or as it is today.

“The study shows an unexpected link between solar activity and climate change. It shows both that changes in solar activity are nothing new and that solar activity influences the climate, especially on a regional level. Understanding these processes helps us to better forecast the climate in certain regions”, said Raimund Muscheler, Lecturer in Quaternary Geology at Lund University and co-author of the study.

My snarky tone is a bit unfair here.  While the sun seems an obvious candidate as a major climate driver, changes in its actual energy hitting the Earth have always appeared small compared to what would be needed to explain observed temperature changes.  This team hypothesizes that the changes in the sun's output have effects on atmospheric circulation that have a larger than expected impact on temperatures.  Henrik Svensmark explains it a different way, hypothesizing that cloud formation is heavily influenced by cosmic rays, and higher solar activity tends to shield the Earth from cosmic rays, thus reducing cloud formation and increasing temperatures.

Skeptics find this sudden realization that the sun affects climate to be kind of funny, since they have argued for years that higher temperatures in the late 20th century have coincided with a very active sun, probably more active than it has been in hundreds of years.   Climate alarmists have denied any influence to the sun.  Sun deniers!  This absolutist stance may seem odd, given that most skeptics (despite what is said of us) actually accept some amount of warming from CO2, but here are these folks who wrap themselves in the mantle of science that deny any effect from the sun?  The problem that warmists have is that higher climate sensitivities, on the order of 3 degrees C per doubling of CO2, greatly over-predict past warming (as I demonstrate in my videos, see around the 59 minute mark).  If anything else whatsoever other than CO2 caused one iota of the warming over the last 50 years, then this over-prediction just gets worse.  In fact, warmists have to assume crazy high levels of aerosol cooling -- that go beyond what most of the science supports -- to make their forecasts work looking backwards.

Computer Modeling as "Evidence"

The BBC has decided not to every talk to climate skeptics again, in part based on the "evidence" of computer modelling

Climate change skeptics are being banned from BBC News, according to a new report, for fear of misinforming people and to create more of a "balance" when discussing man-made climate change.

The latest casualty is Nigel Lawson, former London chancellor and climate change skeptic, who has just recently been barred from appearing on BBC. Lord Lawson, who has written about climate change, said the corporation is silencing the debate on global warming since he discussed the topic on its Radio 4 Today program in February.

This skeptic accuses "Stalinist" BBC of succumbing to pressure from those with renewable energy interests, like the Green Party, in an editorial for the Daily Mail.

He appeared on February 13 debating with scientist Sir Brian Hoskins, chairman of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, London, to discuss recent flooding that supposedly was linked to man-made climate change.

Despite the fact that the two intellectuals had a "thoroughly civilized discussion," BBC was "overwhelmed by a well-organized deluge of complaints" following the program. Naysayers harped on the fact that Lawson was not a scientist and said he had no business voicing his opinion on the subject.

...

Among the objections, including one from Green Party politician Chit Chong, were that Lawson's views were not supported by evidence from computer modeling.

I see this all the time.  A lot of things astound me in the climate debate, but perhaps the most astounding has been to be accused of being "anti-science" by people who have such a poor grasp of the scientific process.

Computer models and their output are not evidence of anything.  Computer models are extremely useful when we have hypotheses about complex, multi-variable systems.  It may not be immediately obvious how to test these hypotheses, so computer models can take these hypothesized formulas and generate predicted values of measurable variables that can then be used to compare to actual physical observations.

This is no different (except in speed and scale) from a person in the 18th century sitting down with Newton's gravitational equations and grinding out five years of predicted positions for Venus (in fact, the original meaning of the word "computer" was a human being who ground out numbers in just his way).  That person and his calculations are the exact equivalent of today's computer models.  We wouldn't say that those lists of predictions for Venus were "evidence" that Newton was correct.  We would use these predictions and compare them to actual measurements of Venus's position over the next five years.  If they matched, we would consider that match to be the real evidence that Newton may be correct.

So it is not the existence of the models or their output that are evidence that catastrophic man-made global warming theory is correct.  It would be evidence that the output of these predictive models actually match what plays out in reality.  Which is why skeptics think the fact that the divergence between climate model temperature forecasts and actual temperatures is important, but we will leave that topic for other days.

The other problem with models

The other problem with computer models, besides the fact that they are not and cannot constitute evidence in and of themselves, is that their results are often sensitive to small changes in tuning or setting of variables, and that these decisions about tuning are often totally opaque to outsiders.

I did computer modelling for years, though of markets and economics rather than climate.  But the techniques are substantially the same.  And the pitfalls.

Confession time.  In my very early days as a consultant, I did something I am not proud of.  I was responsible for a complex market model based on a lot of market research and customer service data.  Less than a day before the big presentation, and with all the charts and conclusions made, I found a mistake that skewed the results.  In later years I would have the moral courage and confidence to cry foul and halt the process, but at the time I ended up tweaking a few key variables to make the model continue to spit out results consistent with our conclusion.  It is embarrassing enough I have trouble writing this for public consumption 25 years later.

But it was so easy.  A few tweaks to assumptions and I could get the answer I wanted.  And no one would ever know.  Someone could stare at the model for an hour and not recognize the tuning.

Robert Caprara has similar thoughts in the WSJ (probably behind a paywall)  Hat tip to a reader

The computer model was huge—it analyzed every river, sewer treatment plant and drinking-water intake (the places in rivers where municipalities draw their water) in the country. I'll spare you the details, but the model showed huge gains from the program as water quality improved dramatically. By the late 1980s, however, any gains from upgrading sewer treatments would be offset by the additional pollution load coming from people who moved from on-site septic tanks to public sewers, which dump the waste into rivers. Basically the model said we had hit the point of diminishing returns.

When I presented the results to the EPA official in charge, he said that I should go back and "sharpen my pencil." I did. I reviewed assumptions, tweaked coefficients and recalibrated data. But when I reran everything the numbers didn't change much. At our next meeting he told me to run the numbers again.

After three iterations I finally blurted out, "What number are you looking for?" He didn't miss a beat: He told me that he needed to show $2 billion of benefits to get the program renewed. I finally turned enough knobs to get the answer he wanted, and everyone was happy...

I realized that my work for the EPA wasn't that of a scientist, at least in the popular imagination of what a scientist does. It was more like that of a lawyer. My job, as a modeler, was to build the best case for my client's position. The opposition will build its best case for the counter argument and ultimately the truth should prevail.

If opponents don't like what I did with the coefficients, then they should challenge them. And during my decade as an environmental consultant, I was often hired to do just that to someone else's model. But there is no denying that anyone who makes a living building computer models likely does so for the cause of advocacy, not the search for truth.

Trend That Is Not A Trend: Creating a Trend From Measurement Changes

I was watching some excellent videos of recent Phoenix dust storms roll across the city.  I started thinking about a joke story:

Scientists report that the number of Phoenix dust storms have likely increased substantially since 1990.  Before that date, almost no cell phone videos exist of large dust storms in Phoenix.  Today, one can find hundreds of such videos on Youtube, mostly from the last three or four years.  Obviously we are seeing some sort of climate change

This would clearly be absurd -- there has been a change in measurement technology.  No cell phone cameras existed before 1990.  But equally absurd examples can be found every day.

  • With the summer of the shark, an increase in frequency of media coverage of shark attacks was mistaken for an increase in frequency of shark attacks themselves.
  • With tornadoes, improving detection of smaller twisters (e.g. by doppler radar and storm chasers)  has been mistaken by many (cough Al Gore cough) for an increase in the frequency of tornadoes.  In fact, all evidence points to declining tornado frequency
  • With electrical grid disturbances, a trend was created solely by the government owner of the data making a push with power companies to provide more complete reporting.
  • I have wondered whether the so-called cancer epidemic in India is real, or the results of better diagnosis and longer life spans

Postscript:  I remember when I first saw one of these storms rolling towards me after I moved to Phoenix.  Perhaps I should not have read Stephen King's The Mist, but I honestly wondered for a minute if I would live to regret not hopping in my car and racing to stay ahead of the wall coming towards me.

 

"Trend that is not a trend" is an occasional feature on this blog.  I could probably write three stories a day on this topic if I wished.  The media is filled with stories of supposed trends based on single data points or anecdotes rather than, you know, actual trend data.  More stories of this type are here.  It is not unusual to find that the trend data often support a trend in the opposite direction as claimed by media articles.

The Real Money in the Climate Debate

I have yet to meet a skeptic who reports getting any money from mysterious climate skeptics.  A few years ago Greenpeace had a press release that was picked up everywhere about how Exxon was spending big money on climate denialism, with numbers that turned out to be in the tens of thousands of dollars a year.

The big money has always been in climate alarmism.  Climate skeptics are outspent a thousand to one.  Here is just one example

It sounds like the makings of a political-action thriller. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) has awarded Arizona State University a five-year, $20 million agreement to research the effects of climate change and its propensity to cause civil and political unrest.

The agreement is known as the Foresight Initiative. The goal is to understand how climate-caused disruptions and the depletion of natural resources including water, land and energy will impact political instability.

The plan is to create visually appealing computer models and simulations using large quantities of real-time data to guide policymakers in their decisions.

To understand the impacts of climate change, ASU is using the latest advances in cloud computing and storage technologies, natural user interfaces and machine learning to create real-time computer models and simulations, said Nadya Bliss, principal investigator for the Foresight Initiative and assistant vice president with ASU's Office of Knowledge and Development.

I can tell you the answer to this study already.  How do I know?  If they say the security risks are minimal, there will be zero follow-up funding.  If they say the security risks are huge, it will almost demand more and larger follow-up studies.  What is your guess of the results, especially since the results will all be based on opaque computer models whose results will be extremely sensitive to small changes in certain inputs?

Postscript:  I can just imagine a practical joke where the researchers give university officials a preview of results.  They say that the dangers are minimal.  It would be hilarious to see the disappointment in the eyes of all the University administrators.  Never in history would such a positive result be received with so much depression.  And then the researchers would say "Just kidding, of course it will be a catastrophe, it will be much worse than predicted, the badness will be accelerating, etc."