"It is the unhappy fate of the scientist today that he must play the role of Cassandra in the body politic, sending his fellow men to bed with nightmares in the hope to be heard in time."

- Arthur von Hippel, in "The Molecular Designing of Materials" (h/t @upbeatprof)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Press Release - Pacific Garbage Press Conference

California DTSC to Announce Potential Solutions to Ocean Pollution

Contact: Charlotte Fadipe
(916) 956-2838
SAUSALITO, Calif. - The California Department of Toxic Substances
Control (DTSC) will hold a press conference, with Project Kaisei and
other partners on Tuesday, September 22nd to show and discuss results of
the toxic ocean debris brought back from Kaisei's recent four week
journey to the North Pacific Gyre (Garbage patch).

Described as a Tsunami of trash, this garbage patch is threatening our
wildlife, damaging oceans, seafood industries and tourism. Journalists
will be able to hear about exciting solutions to prevent this type of
ocean debris from occurring in the future.

Media will also be able to sail and tour the 151-foot vessel
immediately after the press conference.

DTSC plays a key role in preventing ocean pollution and is working with
scientists and manufactures to find ways to reduce toxics going into the
marine environment. This is a core principle of the California Green
Chemistry Initiative that DTSC is spearheading.

DTSC is partnering with several non-profit organizations (see below) to
fight against ocean pollution and slow the accumulation of plastic waste
and toxic garbage in the ocean environment.

When: Tuesday, Sept 22, 11:00 am
Where: Bay Model Visitor Center and neighboring dock
2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito Ca 94965
Who: Maziar Movassaghi, Acting Director, DTSC
Mary Crowley, Founder, Project Kaisei,
John Fentis, Algalita Marine Research Foundation
Brian Baird , Ocean Protection Council
Linda Hunter, Executive Director, The Watershed Project-
Rob D’Arcy, California Product Stewardship Council

Visuals include:
● Sail and Tour of the Project Kaisei vessel
● Samples of ocean debris brought back from Project Kaisei expedition

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Crux

My comment on the RealClimate thread on communicating science:

Of all the weeks to have limited internet access! (People who follow my writing will understand.)

I believe that the present topic is the keystone issue of the survival of civilization. I believe that the increased alienation between experts and the public during the past generation, notably in America but also elsewhere, is the single greatest threat humanity faces. It subsumes not just climate, but also food security, energy security, health, war and peace, and ultimately the preservation of any human accomplishment worth preserving. If we accept that humanity freely chooses its destiny, we had damned well better improve our competence.

From the point of view of the scientifically advanced reader likely to be found here, the crucial error is that made by Jim Bouldin in #58:

"I get fed up with people who think science is supposed to be delivered to them, by us, like a pizza at halftime of a football game. We can’t make people who don’t care and don’t want to learn, care and learn. And it ain’t in our job description anyway."


While literally true, this is the key to the problem. It ain't nobody's job description, and that is a crucial gap in how we organize ourselves.

In areas where there is little risk of social controversy, science can perhaps proceed well enough with the traditional division of labor among faculty, postdoc and grad student apprentices, and lab assistants.

Traditionally in science, modest attention is paid to "outreach", but this is mostly intended to increase the likelihood that suitably talented children will be inclined to pursue scientific endeavors. Most of the public is served by science in ways they don't directly grasp, and concrete and relatively modest engineering achievements are offered as a proxy. (The bus driver who takes you on the tour of the Kennedy Space Center is likely to wax rhapsodic about dessicated orange juice and ball point pens which write upside down.) Perhaps this is good enough.

Where controversy arises, though, the problem of outreach is dramatically different. In those cases, there will inevitably be constituencies arrayed about the science wishing to emphasize certain facts, hypotheses, and patterns of thought (e.g., "it's the sun, stupid") at the expense of others. This essentially introduces noise into the feedback control system of democratic governance, making society ever harder to manage.

In the face of this behavior, essentially opposition to clear communication of facts, the traditional outreach mechanisms of science have proven utterly powerless, and this is the problem we need to solve. It's by no means going to be everybody's job, but it should not be nobody's job. The traditional divided loyalties of the scientist, between advance of science, advance of self, and advance of institution, hardly needs stretching in yet another direction. RealClimate, for which I have the greatest respect and gratitude, is about the best one could conceivably expect under the circumstances. RealClimate is a remarkable and invaluable contribution, but it's obviously not enough.

That there are amateurs like Craven and Sinclair is wonderful. They are starting to show up on the radar, and have been grossly underappreciated by the scientific community. I've been doing my best to call attention to their achievements, and I greatly welcome this burst of publicity from RC.

But none of this is enough. At best as individuals we can match each bit of nonsense with a comparably accessible bit of sense. Fairminded but busy people will continue to split the difference. In stead of realism, we get a public and a politics carrying a strange muddled average of confusions and misapprehensions. The idea of acting as a counter to organized disinformation too often devolves into counter-disinformation.

We need not just new communication techniques but new institutions. Organizing and presenting information credibly requires professionals whose primary responsibility is to convey existing information, and not to advance some point of view.

It is time to create a profession of advocating for truth, rather than advocating for policy.

"Not being such a scientist" is not by any means a job for all or even most scientists, but it isn't a job for nonscientists either. Fundamentally Lou Grinzo's comment early in this thread has it right. We need networks of collaboration between professional communicators and informed scientists.

In some ways this is a perverse turn of events. The decisions we need to make are not about climatology. They are about energy policy, infrastructure, international relations, and fiscal policy. And traditionally, the public hasn't had much patience for these things either. The problems there are the same, even though the predictability of those disciplines is much weaker than in climate physics. What we know and how well we know it needs to be made clear and credible at whatever level of interest and effort an individual chooses to bring to bear.

It's at root a problem in pedagogy. Pedagogy in turn is a problem in media. We have new ways of presenting information. Given new information technologies, the gap between what can be done and what is being done is huge. What can be done itself is an enormous project. This is not a problem for a few individuals writing blogs or making low budget videos, though that will have to serve in the short run. We need to create institutions that can make the difference in conveying the nature of the world we are facing.

==
Image: Cross atop Mount Royal, Montreal

NSF Money for Communicating Climate Science

I'm tired of proposing stuff to NSF. The fact that I have exactly the right background to achieve what they are asking for is likely to matter far less than the fact that I have no publications in the field. They always ask for the right stuff and then give the awards to people unlikely to achieve the goals. Anyway, maybe somebody else can make use of this. If you'd like to bring me on board, let me know.

This is from the current thread on RC.

Interested in securing a grant related to this thread?

The Education and Human Resources Directorate (EHR) is augmenting funding to support emerging areas of climate change education, with a focus on development of the climate science professional workforce, public understanding and engagement on climate change issues, and informed decision-making associated with adaptation to and mitigation of climate change impacts. These emerging priorities lie at the intersection of social/behavioral/economic, and global Earth system science, as well as educational, research.

Climate Change Education seeks to ensure that individuals and communities understand the essential principles of Earth’s climate system and the impacts of climate change, and are able to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate. (Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science, March 2009, available at http://www.globalchange.gov/ ). NSF supports substantial investment in basic research that informs what we know about Earth’s changing climate and can guide decisions about how best to respond to change. (Solving the Puzzle: Researching the Impacts of Climate Change Around the World, NSF report, 2009, available at http://www.nsf.gov/news/nsf09202/index.jsp ). It is critical that climate scientists play an active role in the dissemination of their findings and that students at all levels, and in formal and informal learning settings, and the general public have access to data in ways that facilitate climate literacy and informed decision making. What are the most effective ways to communicate to students and the general public about how the Earth is changing in response to human activities? How can they have meaningful access to data collected at large observatory networks, for example, the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) networks, the National Ecological Network (NEON,) and the data bases to be coordinated under the Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON) initiative, see http://www.arcticobserving.org )? How can local high impact activities be scaled up and serve as national models? What are effective climate change literacy professional development opportunities for policy decision makers at all levels? How do we assess changes in individual’s understanding of the Earth’s climate system and the decisions they make about their actions?
Priority will be given to projects that address preparing innovators for the workforce, and fundamental topics in Climate Change Education (CCE) including: strategies for scaling up and widely disseminating effective curricula and instructional resources, assessment of student learning of complex climate issues as it translates into action, addressing local and national STEM educational standards and policy for teaching CCE, and professional development in climate change literacy for policy decision makers at all levels (local to national). We are especially interested in projects that would lead to the adoption of models that support synergistic activities among large-scale NSF research programs that support the integration of research into effective and high impact education and outreach efforts. Projects should fully incorporate current understandings of how people learn. Pilot efforts intended to track the longer-term impact of NSF investments in climate change education are encouraged.

We seek to foster transformative advances within and among programmatic areas that integrate concepts and observations across diverse fields of scholarship relevant to Climate Change Education. We are particularly interested in multi-disciplinary proposals that address the aforementioned topics and result in a variety of partnerships, including those among K-12 education, higher education, the private sector, and related non-profit organizations, in both formal and informal settings, as well as climate-related policymakers. The most competitive proposals will integrate questions and approaches across disciplines. We expect to support individual investigators as well as multidisciplinary teams of STEM researchers and educators in a range of activities, including those local, regional, and/or global in scope.

This is not a special competition or new program. Relevant proposals submitted to one of the following programs within EHR will be supported:

• In the Division of Graduate Education – NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 (GK-12); and Integrative Graduate Education and Traineeship (IGERT)
• In the Division of Undergraduate Education – Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI); Advanced Technological Education (ATE); and National STEM Distributed Learning (NSDL)
• In the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings – Discovery Research K-12 (DRK-12); Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering (REESE); and Informal Science Education (ISE)
• In the Division of Human Resource Development – Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) and Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP)

Investigators who have appropriate proposals already submitted to one of the programs above that are still under review for FY09 funding should request that they be identified now as CCE, by notifying the cognizant program officer for the program by July 24, 2009. Some of the programs noted above also accept submissions outside their ordinary timelines, especially for support of meetings or other activities designed to build communities of scholars around common interests. Before submitting a proposal outside the regular program cycle, proposers should consult with a program officer. Titles of new proposals that respond to this call now or in subsequent submissions to the regular cycles of the programs above should be prefaced with “CCE:” For full proposals submitted via FastLane, standard Grant Proposal Guidelines apply.

This Dear Colleague Letter is in effect for FY 2009. It is expected that this letter will be replaced by a multi-directorate formal solicitation in FY 2010. We anticipate awarding at least $10 million for CCE in FY 2009. Investigators are strongly encouraged to contact the EHR Climate Change Education Working Group (EHR-CCE@nsf.gov) to determine if their proposed ideas respond to the CCE goals, and to discuss relevant topics of interest. We look forward to discussing your ideas.

Wanda E. Ward
Acting Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Keith's Lament

On a recent article here, Keith (I am guessing Keith Kloor) laments:
I'm not defending my professional pride. I know well that journalism has its shortcomings. (See Iraq war for for obvious and tragic example.)

I just happen to believe that your expectations of journalists are unreasonable. You seem to think it falls on journalism's collective shoulders to rescue humanity from imminent climate catastrophe. Or you at least hoped so at one time.

But now that you've apparently given up that hope, I'm asking you or any of your readers to demonstrate an alternative means of communication for the daily reporting of climate-related news.

Forget about long-form magazine stories or investigative pieces. Those are different beasts. Let's stick to the guts of daily journalism--the reporting of events, meetings, research findings, et al. That's the cog in the wheel.

I doubt your grassroots effort will supplant the reach and influence of the mainstream media on this front. Nonetheless I welcome whatever innovation you can bring to climate change journalism. In the meantime, if you'd like to help make us poor wretches part of the solution (as opposed to being "part of the problem), show us how it's done.

I'd like to see a blog out there that actually stops bitching about journalism and starts showing us how to do a better job. Criticism is easy and lazy. I can find a story I don't like everyday and carp about it.

Perhaps the best way to do this is to set up a parallel universe journalism web site, where someone like yourself writes up an alternative story to Pearce's. (I had high hopes that Grist would do this back in the day...but that's not going to happen now.)

At least then you and so many other climate advocates could constructively channel all that antipathy towards the press.
This is a thoughtful and constructive query. I'd be happy to have more discussion of it.

I'm not sure I have any advice for the individual journalist caught up in the day-to-day of conventional journalism. My beef is with the system.

There are at least two primary complaints that come to my mind.

Much has been made of the false balance problem. When there are two political parties, and the press implicitly is obligated to "split the difference", that provides a huge polarizing mechanism, motivating the most extreme possible positions to drag the "middle" slightly in the desired direction. The consequence of this, a particularly American journalistic ethic, have obviously been disastrous, not only on the climate question.

The second issue, though, is the "timeliness" one. My wife went to see a talk to budding journalists by Jim Lehrer, who spoke of a report on the Ogalalla aquifer as one of his worst mistakes as a young journalist; after all, the effects were not anticipated to even begin for forty years. But in fact it was not a mistake! It was an issue that people should have in mind forty years in advance, because the planning and coping for such a thing takes a very long time!

Any scientist (leaving aside economists, apparently) understands that phenomena have specific time scales associated with them. Science itself has a time scale of about a decade - it takes about five years between a paper being published and it being recognized as an important advance. This can vary, typically between, say, immediate and twenty years. An attempt to do a "This Week In Science" (and once say an awful eefort at this on TV) is therefore utterly ridiculous. News hooks in science simply don't have that shape! Biasing toward obvious "hot stuff" completely skews what people understand.

I think it might be better to identify fifty scientific disciplines, and do a "This year in solid earth geophysics" once a year; even then most of the items should be expected to be a year or two out of date.

Finally, every single person who talks about "the scientific method" as if there were one and they know what it is needs to have their mouth washed out with soap. Especially schoolteachers. Some of what needs to be conveyed is what scientists actually do, where these results come from, and how understanding actually emerges from these efforts.

As Clifford Johnson once said to me, "We need to explain that we are not special people. We are people doing a special thing." We try. But y'all journalists are supposed to be the professionals at explaining things.

In short, my advice is simple. Understand things. Explain them. Pay no attention to who wants which facts emphasized, and don't ignore stories just because they have long time scales. Is that so difficult?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Unsettled Science


NASA has an excellent page summarizing the key practical uncertainties about climate change. A fine place to rebut the idea that anyone is claiming "the science is settled", and in aggregate showing how many of the uncertainties pull in the direction of greater impact and more dangerous outcomes.

They also lead in with a big and gorgeous image of the Sun, which I copy here 'cause it matches my color scheme and stuff. Here's their caption:
Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) image of the sun with a huge, handle-shaped prominence, taken in 1999. While there is no evidence of a change trend in solar output over the past half century, long-term changes in solar output are not well-understood.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Looming Global-Scale Failures and Missing Institutions

h/t Dano

Any coverage in the press?
Science 11 September 2009:
Vol. 325. no. 5946, pp. 1345 - 1346
DOI: 10.1126/science.1175325

Looming Global-Scale Failures and Missing Institutions

Brian Walker,1,2,* Scott Barrett,3 Stephen Polasky,4,5 Victor Galaz,2 Carl Folke,2,4 Gustav Engström,4,6 Frank Ackerman,7,8 Ken Arrow,9 Stephen Carpenter,10 Kanchan Chopra,11 Gretchen Daily,12 Paul Ehrlich,12 Terry Hughes,13 Nils Kautsky,14 Simon Levin,15 Karl-Göran Mäler,2,4 Jason Shogren,16 Jeff Vincent,17 Tasos Xepapadeas,18 Aart de Zeeuw4,19

Energy, food, and water crises; climate disruption; declining fisheries; increasing ocean acidification; emerging diseases; and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious, intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity. They are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects. The core of the problem is inducing cooperation in situations where individuals and nations will collectively gain if all cooperate, but each faces the temptation to take a free ride on the cooperation of others. The nation-state achieves cooperation by the exercise of sovereign power within its boundaries. The difficulty to date is that transnational institutions provide, at best, only partial solutions, and implementation of even these solutions can be undermined by internation competition and recalcitrance.

Speaking of "Skeptic"

We are still searching for an appropriate name for the opposition. We've been painted into a Godwin's law corner about "denier", but we can't tolerate "skeptic", because that is certainly not what they are. They have no skeptical habits of mind, choosing to believe congenial evidence and dismiss evidence they dislike.

It strikes me that they are doing slight of hand by calling themselves "skeptics". The definition of the opposition group is not their beliefs, which indeed are all over the map. The definition is their behavior, which is all about avoiding any policy whatsoever. It's easy to come up with an adjective for this, "reckless". Oddly, I can't come up with a good sticky noun for a absurdly reckless risk-taker. Maybe there's something in another language? Maybe there's a character in literature? I think the point is that their "inaction" is intended to perpetuate extreme and dangerous action. Let's face it, nobody knows for a fact how things will all turn out. But the longer we delay, the more severe the problems of our future selves and our descendants! "Skeptic" is hardly the name for this! "Denier" or "denialist" really isn't bad, but in addition to rubbing some people wrong, it doesn't capture the mindboggling recklessness of their activities.

As for ourselves, those who feel the discussion is usually a bit too leisurely and cool, I prefer "Cassandrites".

Thursday, September 10, 2009

BS detection resources

I just want to point out that H E Taylor has a remarkable list of resources about the BS detection problem that I discussed recently.

In particular he points us to this book:

The Borderlands of Science:
Where Sense meets nonsense


Michael Shermer
Oxford University Press 2001
ISBN: 019-514326-4

From Shermer's own website:
Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech, and Adjunct Professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

An odd thought

We PhDs (especially those of us who DIDN'T have a fascination with Marshall McLuhan in our youth) tend to miss changes in media. After all, we get scored on how well we can dress up our opinions to look like they are from 1895, when paper and print were expensive and time was cheap. This tends to make us the opposite of media savvy. Since I DID have McLuhan fixation in my youth, and since I AM obsessed with new media, perhaps my observations will be perspicacious, even though I'm rather old for a blogger.

Anyway. It seems to me that we believe that formal communication is written, semi-formal communication is oral, and video and movies are distractions, purely emotional, incapable of conveying information. Informational graphics can be used to support an argument but not to carry it, and are not expected to make a lot of sense.

When we confront the generation we most want to reach, we sense a certain lack of seriousness of purpose. This may be a real problem, but it may be perceptual, in part. This is because young people think of text as the LEAST formal method of communication, cheaper and more common and more casual than speech. Indeed, it may well seem that if you can't get it together to make a compelling video, you can't possibly be serious

Nobody is telling the story of global change very effectively. Not us, and not our opposition. Those of us who literally lie awake at night trying to puzzle out how to lay out the story have compelling movies in our heads. We need to commit them to bitstreams. We need to make people see.

A good start is collecting the data, like this:



But it's only a start

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Please Support Andrew Freedman!

It's always painful to see discussions of climate change in the popular press. People who fail to understand the science always make their positions known with such vehemence.

Eli points us to the latest round from Andrew Freedman at the Washington Post:

Andrew Freedman who posts on the Capital Weather Gang has been visited by a plague of Moranos. He wrote, not so long ago, that Obama needs to give a speech on the need for climate legislation which will control greenhouse gas emissions. For his efforts he has been visited by the banshees.

The most extreme example of the many nonsensical contributions already appearing on this thread is that of CoSyBob, who claims:

"I wouldn't be surprised if Freedman himself believes the common howler that Venus's extreme temperature is the result of some "runaway greenhouse effect" . I have NEVER seen an AGWer disavow that idiocy . FYI , Venus is more than twice as hot as any object in its orbit could be heated by the sun . Therefore by basic physics it is radiating 16 times as much energy as it is receiving from the sun."

In fact, the surface of Venus is in radiative balance with the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is in radiative balance with the sun and space. How energy piles up at the surface is accessible as an undergraduate level calculation.

To suggest that a body the size of Venus is actually an energy source goes totally against astrophysical principles. So to hold on to his political philosophy, CoSyBob is inclined to abandon several sciences.

Looked at in detail, it's an absurd argument, beyond circular. "The greenhouse effect is unreal. Look at Venus! Venus couldn't possibly be that hot because of the greenhouuse effect, which is unreal! Therefore it's unreal!"

The Washington Post is not the place to work out the details, of course. It's unfortunate that we don't have more scientists rising to the occasion to put all the hopelessly misplaced confidence in antiscientific ravings that appears in the comments to an adequate refutation. Of course, one has to understand that scientists are busy, and that, thanks to people like Morano, the supply of addled misinformation is vast.

Many thanks are due to Andrew Freedman for having the seriousness of purpose and tenacity to see through the mendacious nonsense and call it for what it is. I strongly hope that his efforts are rewarded and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.

And for those of you out there wondering "but what can I do about this huge problem?" what you can do right now is register at the WaPo site and leave a comment commending Mr Freedman for his efforts. Please and thank you.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Try Again; Your Objective Opinion Was Too Subjective

I think I never blogged about this Peggy Noonan blurt. I saw her name today and it came to mind again, in all its blazing glory.
Thursday, July 20, 2006 12:01 A.M. EDT

During the past week's heat wave--it hit 100 degrees in New York City Monday--I got thinking, again, of how sad and frustrating it is that the world's greatest scientists cannot gather, discuss the question of global warming, pore over all the data from every angle, study meteorological patterns and temperature histories, and come to a believable conclusion on these questions: Is global warming real or not? If it is real, is it necessarily dangerous? What exactly are the dangers? Is global warming as dangerous as, say, global cooling would be? Are we better off with an Earth that is getting hotter or, what with the modern realities of heating homes and offices, and the world energy crisis, and the need to conserve, does global heating have, in fact, some potential side benefits, and can those benefits be broadened and deepened? Also, if global warning is real, what must--must--the inhabitants of the Earth do to meet its challenges? And then what should they do to meet them?

You would think the world's greatest scientists could do this, in good faith and with complete honesty and a rigorous desire to discover the truth. And yet they can't. Because science too, like other great institutions, is poisoned by politics. Scientists have ideologies. They are politicized.

All too many of them could be expected to enter this work not as seekers for truth but agents for a point of view who are eager to use whatever data can be agreed upon to buttress their point of view.

And so, in the end, every report from every group of scientists is treated as a political document. And no one knows what to believe. So no consensus on what to do can emerge.

If global warming is real, and if it is new, and if it is caused not by nature and her cycles but man and his rapacity, and if it in fact endangers mankind, scientists will probably one day blame The People for doing nothing.

But I think The People will have a greater claim to blame the scientists, for refusing to be honest, for operating in cliques and holding to ideologies. For failing to be trustworthy.
See? It's our fault after all! Because, if we hadn't been all ideological about the physical properties of the biosphere, and corrupted the process where all the world's scientists got together to be serious about it, we could have explained to everybody that it was somewhere around 2.5 to 3 C per doubling, and that we really ought to have stopped at 350 ppmv, but there's still barely time to stop at 450 ppmv, and we'd better get on it.

But because we ideologically INSISTED that it was somewhere around 2.5 to 3 C per doubling, and that to be on the safe side we really ought to have stopped at 350 ppmv, but there's still barely time to stop at 450 ppmv, and we'd better get on it because that might be less than totally catastrophic, and because we had big serious meetings where everybody pretty much agreed on those things, nobody is going to believe us.

So it's our fault. If only we had been more flexible about that sensitivity!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Saying Things Twice

I enjoy the southern habit of saying things twice, for emphasis. Southerners often say things twice, for emphasis.

Here's an example:

9/1/09 Associated Press

Drought in Central Texas is taking toll on trees

Experts blame the lingering Texas drought for an increasing number of dead trees.

Trees throughout Central Texas, including native species such as live oak and hackberry, have succumbed to drought and intense summer heat, arborists and foresters said.

"I have not seen it to this extent in my lifetime," said Jim Houser of the Texas Forest Service. "We're even seeing cedars (Ashe junipers) dying. They can exist on sunbaked, rocky plantscapes. And we're seeing them die all over the place."

Hundreds of the city's estimated 300,000 trees have died this summer, said Walter Passmore, urban forester for Austin.

The Austin American-Statesman reported Tuesday that the city this month plans to cut down nearly 50 trees in Zilker Park that were determined to have been killed by drought.

Dead trees on city property are cut down and turned into mulch, Passmore said. Trees on private property in urban areas are typically cut down so that they don't fall down and cause damage.

Don Gardner, an arborist who runs a consulting company in Austin, said he's had so many calls about sick trees that it's difficult to keep up with the work.

"Many of our well-established, well-adapted native trees are dying," Gardner said. "From last year to this year, it's really kicking in."

Houser said the death of a tree is usually attributed several factors, among them disease and insects. Stress from the drought and heat is often the fatal blow, he said.

"Apparently completely healthy, vibrant oaks are going down," Houser said. "There is just absolutely no water in the soil. There's just no water there."

It's a nice example. It's just that I wish he had something different to emphasize. I truly wish he had something else to be emphasizing.

Here's a view of my neighbor's backyard facing the creek. (The Fort Branch Creek in Austin TX) You can see several dying or dead trees. (Note to Canadians: trees don't normally turn by labor day in south central Texas) Trees on private property are watered, but trees on public property are all severely stressed.


Trees in Austin which are not watered using municipal water are severely stressed.

Retrograde Anti-Green Decision out of FHA

Austin Contrarian has a gripe:

FHA is about to adopt new rules explicitly encouraging home buyers to purchase single-family, detached housing in the suburbs rather than attached (condos) in urban cores:

Until now, almost any condo development could apply to FHA for “approved” status, therefore making FHA financing available in that development. In addition, in developments that were not approved, “spot approvals” were sometimes available for individual units. (The lender applied for an approval for the unit you wanted to buy, in spite of the development not being approved).

...


2. All development not considered primarily residential are out. For instance, a development with more than 25% of the total floor area dedicated to commercial business use is out.

3. Noise issues is a new concern, so any development within 1,000 feet of a highway, freeway, or heavily travelled road, 3,000 feet of a railroad, 1 mile of an airport, or 5 miles of a military airfield will become ineligible for approval.

4. If the property has an “unobstructed view , or is located within 2000 feet of any facility handling or storing explosive or fire prone materials, it is not insurable - we're not talking just fireworks factories here. A gas station 2 blocks away can disqualify this development.

...

11. All current condominium project approvals will be invalid (with the exception of projects approved on or after October 1, 2008) and projects must be re-approved under the new options available.

But these new regulations seem purposely designed to push new homeowners out of dense, urban areas to the suburbs. They exclude many mixed-use developments (#2). In a central city, it is hard to find a condominium not within 1,000 feet of a highway, freeway, or heavily travelled road, 3,000 feet of a railroad, or one mile from an airport (#3). Allowing developers to tap into FHA guarantees for entire single-family subdivisions but only 30% of condominium units naturally will encourage developers to shift to single-family subdivisions. These new regulations are fundamentally anti-urban.

Even if it is somehow possible to defend our existing scheme of suburban subsidies, is it really possible to defend introducing new market distortions?


The last thing I expected from Obama is an anti-urban, and obviously explicitly anti-Chicago pro-Schaumbourgeoisie policy. What is going on here?

Somebody phone da mare!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

On Developing Better Immunity to Bullshit

I have been gearing up to present an engineer's model of climate change forever. It will be quite a project.

In brief,  a well engineered system is a sort of circulatory system, a "closed loop" where anything that might get out of line has corrective mechanisms built in. Those corrections, though, require effective communication channels between the sensors, the actuators, and the control system.

It seems that most of our problems nowadays have something to do with noise in the communication channels.

When we look at the linkage between society and climate we see communication channels that involve solid but counterintuitive information. The chief disciplines of bullshit, i.e., law, politics and advertising, have developed a culture that is very good at misdirection, to the point where the best information not only doesn't win out, arguably truth is at a disadvantage.

The problem is very clearly about the noise in the communication channels, and so the engineer's analogy is the "filter". Often you hear about "filtering" in discussions about making better use of the internet, a conversation that is now in some circles getting the peculiar name "curation" by analogy to the job of a museum director, I guess. But this analogy is appropriate for the arts, not the sciences. We don't seek someone with highly developed tastes helping us to direct our attentions.

In matters of fact rather than of taste, we seek powerful mechanisms for weeding out bullshit. (Organizing the non-bullshit is also a huge problem, but it seems to me crucial to clean the stock before sorting it.)

In contemplating this I find myself moving away from an engineering model and toward a biological one. The immune system is charged with distinguishing between "self" and "not-self"; too many false positives and too many false negatives both lead to pathologies. It functions using a large number of autonomous units that behave, in aggregate, differently toward truth and non-truth.

In fact, political enthusiasts offer us a model. Their units, their white blood cells, are enthusiasts for their position. They troll the net for evidence and argument corroborating their opinion and select and share it, providing reinforcement for each other and steeling themselves for battle against the opposition.

(The befuddled US press, still living in a world where political parties were relatively connected to a sane democratic process, are falling off a cliff in offering echoes of the two resultant streams of essentially worthless noise.)

The immune system we need is more subtle, selecting on validity rather than political implication. It seems to me that it can neither fall to experts acting alone (who are overwhelmed by the scale of the noise) nor to amateurs acting alone (who are prey to the bullshit) but will require some organizational structure.

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Images: feedback diagram: Moveleft.org ; white blood cells at an infection site: CEMRF (microscopy) at University of Iowa

"I May Die Before I Repay That Loan"

The New York Times has an article about drought, groundwater depletion, and subsistence agriculture in India. This affecting anecdote is included:

To the eye, the drought can be deceptive. In Pipri Village, as in other areas, greenery is evident, even as nearly every field without irrigation is stunted.

In recent days, rains have returned to Pipri and some other areas, but not in time to save the summer, or kharif, crop. Located three hours from the high-tech center of Hyderabad, Pipri is one of thousands of Indian villages decimated by the drought.

On a recent afternoon, Mrs. Bai, the widow, stood at the edge of her ragged seven acres, her toes caked in dirt as she motioned to the remains of the pyre used to cremate her husband four months ago. The family had borrowed 80,000 rupees, or about $1,640, to treat his kidney disease; the failed crop left them without money to pay off the debt. Only one of her seven children reached 10th grade, and none can find work off the land.

“I may die before I can repay that loan,” she said.

So, to the drought in East Africa, South Texas and Australia, (and the recently abated drought in the US Southeast) add India. Can we start to ask whether the subtropical regions are drying out as a planetary phenomenon? Are there any large subtropical areas experiencing unusual excess moisture to put in the balance?

For summer 2009 through mid-August, the entire Indian subcontinent has a rainfall deficit re climatology of 29 % according to this map:
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Image via e-rainfall2009-ap-india.blogspot.com blog of SAI BHASKAR REDDY NAKKA.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The State of "The State of Macro is Not Good"

The state of "the state of macro is not good" is not good.

In a lengthy article, Paul Krugman bemoans the collapse of macroeconomic intellectual underpinnings. This is a guy with a "Nobel" prize in economics! So now when I say so, I have some authority I can point to.

Yet, despite a brief nod to "externalities" at the beginning of his essay, Krugman says nothing about the phase change of the human population, the transition from an essentially infinite planet to an essentially finite one, nothing about nature, nothing about the environment, nothing about intergenerational or international equity. It's all about the theory failing, and nothing at all about the theory paying no attention to salient facts. It doesn't leave much room for optimism regarding the next theory.

Update Sep 5: Joe Romm was more favorable to Krugman and had more to say, but considerable discussion of the very issue I raise here is going on at Climate Progress. Comments here are closed. Please direct your comments to Climate Progress.

Stewart Brand Interview at Seed

Stewart Brand has an interview at Seed, pitching his new book "Whole Earth Discipline". As usual Stewart has a lot to say. Don't miss it.

h/t @BoraZ

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cold Summer, Hot Winter

It's been a coolish summer in much of North America, though, alas, here in Texas, not so much. And while a swath of Texas has been flirting with records for hottest and driest summer, and while Texas is big, it's smaller than the area experiencing unusually cool weather up north. But North America is not, despite appearances, the universe.

Australia has experienced an extraordinarily hot winter. Here's the big picture, from Barry Brook's Brave New Climate blog.



Note the size of that swath of record seasonal warmth. That's not just unusual. That's unusually unusual. (Australia is about the same size as the mainland US, or "lower 48" as the Alaskans would prefer.)

There's much more at Brave New Climate. Check it out, and put that in the hopper, if you'd be so kind.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Another headslapping error in the press

I'm fascinated by the press's ability to screw up sixth grade arithmetic.

OK, so this one is in real estate:
The house — built during the 1860s and renovated in the late 1990s by a Prague architectural studio — is a 10-minute walk from the village. It has 411 square meters of living space (about 1,350 square feet). Most of the ground floor is taken up by the living room, which runs the length of the building, with a vaulted brick ceiling and a fireplace. (Heated hardwood flooring was installed during the renovation.) The floor tiles in the adjoining kitchen and hallway are original.
Sounds nice, huh?
894,819 EUROS ($1.3 MILLION)
Um, $1.3 million for 1350 sq ft? 

Of course, there are 3.28 feet in a meter, and 3.28 times 411 is 1348. Close enough, right?

Right? Must be a pretty fancy space at nearly $1000 a square foot...

How are we to expect a scientifically literate population when the newspaper of record can't get past counting on its thumbs?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ice and Fire

Perhaps the most fraught ethical question in the whole sustainability universe is our obligation to the deep future. Specifically, the question of whether, if we could obtain substantial certainty that our present actions would have significant consequences in the deep future, whether we have any obligation to prevent such an outcome.

As David Archer often points out when he raises this question, people do weigh such questions in deciiding on the ethics of nuclear power, but they don't do so in considering the ethics of carbon releases.

Methane clathrate is a form of water ice that contains a significant fraction of methane molecules caged in the ice crytal mesh. It is unstable at standard pressure and evanesces gradually, but it has the eye catching property that it's flammable. It forms under pressure at low temperatures. At some locations on the sea floor, naturally occurring carbon rain from detritus of plankton and similar life forms decays, producing methane, which creates the conditions for formation of clathrate.

Some of the clathrate may be economically recoverable, and as such may be considered as part of the potential reserves of natural gas. Because methane has 20 times the global wamring potential (more or less) of carbon dioxide, a large release of methane could be a serious matter. A methane release from clathrates is still, as far as I know, a leading candidate for the cause of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum of 55,000,000 (error fixed, thanks Penguin) years ago, the previous really drastic global warming event, in which humans obviously played no role.

How did the world suddenly contrive to release all its clathrates? It might have a consequence of some other warming trend, which propagated warm temperatures to the ocean depths, perhaps destabilizing the clathrates. Wikipedia quotes estimates of 1500 Gt carbon released, about triple anthropogenic emissions to date. The extent to which this forcing was multiplied by the extra global warming potential due to the carbon being in methane form depends on the time period over which the release took place.

Archer and Buffet 2004 looked at the global inventory of sea-floor methane and came up with a total on the order of 2000 Gt, about equivalent to economically viable fossil fuel deposits today.

Presuming that most of the clathrate is not economically recoverable, Archer & Buffet argue that the anthropogenic warm signal will propagate down to the depth (below the sea floor) of the clathrates, causing a significant release in the distant future creating a second global warming crisis, that one of longer duration than the one we are now so eager to precipitate.

I know that David was trying to get this work published for quite a while, with a baffling lack of success. I suppose that predictions on a time scale much longer thna a human lifespan are arguably not testable.

Therefore the most salient quote I found remains this abstract from an AGU presentation:
Mechanistic models for the distribution of methane clathrate in marine sediments predict a steady-state inventory of 5000 Gton C. These models also predict a strong sensitivity to changes in ocean temperature. Increasing the ocean temperature by 1.5° C is expected to decrease the steady-state inventory by roughly a factor of 2. The time scale for adjustment to a new steady state is not well known. However, we can parameterize the time-dependent behavior using first-order rate constants. Methane accumulation is expected to occur on time scales of several million years, whereas methane release could be comparatively fast. We calculate the rate of methane release by dividing the clathrate reservoir into fast and slow parts. The fast part responds through slumping of continental margins, whereas the slow part responds by diffusion and oxidation of methane below the seafloor. The evolution of the clathrate reservoir through geologic time is sensitive to the choice of rate constants. When the time scale for the fast part is too short, runaway melting is caused by the positive feedback from radiative forcing (assuming CH4 has oxidized to CO2). Thus the existence of the present-day inventory imposes a constraint on the rate of release. The time scale for accumulation must by greater 5 Myr to avoid unrealistic fluctuations in δ13C during glacial cycles, but shorter than 10 Myr to allow the clathrate reservoir to build up during the geologically recent cooling. The constrained model predicts a methane release of 200 GTon C or less on deglaciations. Future methane releases of 2000--4000 GTon C are expected in response to a 2000 GTon C anthropogenic carbon release. Anthropogenic climate change differs from deglaciations in that it warms the ocean to temperature not seen in millions of years.
Emphasis added.

So this raises an ethical question which economics will "discount" to zero, and which I have trouble accepting as having zero value. Presuming the Archer/Buffett work holds water, what are our ethical responsibilities to the distant future?

Update Sept 3: Alex Steffen takes on the question at WorldChanging . It's short and I'm tempted to paste the whole thing, but Alex deserves the hits. Here are my favorite bits:
Think of this example: If someone set a bomb to go off in a public square 100 years from now, is he committing a crime? Should he be stopped? Almost everyone would say yes. Should he be tried before a court of law and prevented from doing further harm? Most of us would agree that he should.

Now, here's the tricky part: climate change is the bomb, and your great-grandkids are the victims.

...

Put it another way: ethically, our riches are not our own. We hold the planet in trust, and as long as we don't use more of the planet's bounty than can be sustainably provided in perpetuity, we have the ethical right to enjoy the best lives we can create. But the minute we stray into unsustainable levels of consumption, we're not in fact spending our own riches, but those of future people, by setting in motion slow-fuse disasters that will greatly diminish their possibilities.


Unfortunately, nearly everyone in the developed world now enriches their lives at the cost of future generations. As Paul Hawken says, “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it G.D.P."
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Burning ice image via PinkTentacle probably from Asahi.com