"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)

Friday, September 8, 2017

Neptune's Revenge

Graphic is excerpted from an excellent visualization at Axios.com, shows all Atlantic hurricane intensities from 2003-2015. Category five storms are highlighted and named. It illustrates the peculiar feast/famine pattern of hurricanes that makes statistical inference difficult.

After a worst case storm hits Houston another seems to be aiming for Miami. A worst case storm for Miami could be very bad indeed. I've seen a trillion dollars in possible damages bandied around - that would set the whole country back. (*) It almost seems as if a malign force is aiming hurricanes so as to do the most possible damage. It's weird and maybe karmic, as if Neptune were hurling his trident against his newly discovered enemies. It's the stuff of nightmares.

But is it really the "climate change wake-up call" that some people are claiming?

I think a lot of people have been far too quick and adamant about the climate change connection to Harvey. The main impact feature of Harvey was its slowness to advance, and its remaining parked near enough to shore to keep drawing on Gulf moisture. While impressive, Harvey was not a record-setting storm before it landed, and the factors that made it memorable don't seem all that directly related to climate.

Of course, Harvey is an instance of the changed climate; there's no disputing it was *affected* by the changed climate. Everything is, nice days as well as bad ones.

It's natural to ask whether a given extreme event was more representative of the changed climate than a comparable event would be in an unchanged climate. But that doesn't mean that science can provide a good answer.

Harvey, basically, was a Category 3 storm at landfall, Category 4 at peak, and it met an atmosphere where there were no strong steering winds just after it landed. I don't see any reason this is impossible under an unchanged climate. Is it more likely under the changed climate? Maybe. Perhaps it's slightly more likely than not.  But I don't think there is an especially strong case that it is definitely so.

Beyond that, I object to the formulation "Hurricane Harvey was not caused by climate change but was made worse by it". So what do some scientists mean when they say that so unequivocally?

The context is a rather uncertain expectation that tropical storms will remain about as common as in the undisturbed climate or perhaps slightly more rare, but that the more vigourous among them will become stronger than in the past. There is weak observational evidence for these claims, but the theory and modeling is clear about a raised "speed limit".

When the public asks about attribution of specific events, the old habit of the scientific community of saying "you cannot attribute individual events to a changed climate" has been replaced by a weird sort of fractional attribution. "Rainfall in strong events is expected to go up X per cent, and this is a strong event, so X per cent of the rainfall is attributable to climate change."

I don't think this makes any sense, and it leads people to conclude things like "To be clear, Hurricane Harvey would have formed over the western Gulf of Mexico and wreaked havoc on Texas, regardless of a warming climate" which doesn't actually make any sense. This was written by Paul Douglas, a meteorologist, and I'm afraid it indicates an alarming lack of understanding of fluid dynamics.

If the proverbial butterfly can change the weather, (small perturbations lead to vastly different weather states) a trillion tons of CO2 certainly will. You just can't compare scenarios like that.

No, causality is conceptually an all-or-nothing thing. We don't want to say "Harvey was caused 99% by nature and 1% by humans" or even worse "Harvey was caused 101% by nature and -1% by humans".  Nobody will understand this, and I think that is not because they don't understand the subtleties of scientific statistics, but because it makes no sense.

Does it really make more sense to say "Harvey was not caused by anything in particular but climate change made it rain 5% harder?" I am finding this just as hard to make sense of. Five per cent harder than what? Than that other Harvey that couldn't have formed in that other climate?

To be fair, it does make some sense to talk about storm surge riding on top of sea level rise. I think it's easy to see how a 12 foot surge on top of a foot of recent sea level rise is a lot like (though not exactly like) a 13 foot surge in a more stable climate. So sea level rise makes storm surge worse in a measurable way. I get that. It's worse than if sea level hadn't risen rapidly. And this matters to Rockport and Corpus Christi. But it doesn't matter to Houston, which was the main story.

The thermodynamic state of the atmosphere and ocean are all an intrinsic part of "this" storm. If there were a storm with 5% less rain, it would be a different storm in the first place. So I just don't get "made Harvey worse". If Harvey were less bad, it wouldn't be Harvey. These events are unique and distinctive. That's why we give them names.

It reminds me of the German aphorism my parents were fond of, "If my grandmother had wheels she would have been a bus."

"If Harvey weren't Harvey, it would be 5% weaker" just doesn't add up to a sensible claim to me.


What we really ought to be doing is seeing where the statistics of tropical storms are heading. If Harvey is part of a trend, to increasing storms, or increasing stalling, or whatever, we could say that. At least that's a well-formed claim.

But can we even say that?

The evidence is rather equivocal. NOAA says:
It is premature to conclude that human activities–and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming–have already had a detectable impact on Atlantic hurricane or global tropical cyclone activity. That said, human activities may have already caused changes that are not yet detectable due to the small magnitude of the changes or observational limitations, or are not yet confidently modeled
Yes, they also say:
There are better than even odds that anthropogenic warming over the next century will lead to an increase in the occurrence of very intense tropical cyclone in some basins–an increase that would be substantially larger in percentage terms than the 2-11% increase in the average storm intensity. This increase in intense storm occurrence is projected despite a likely decrease (or little change) in the global numbers of all tropical cyclones.
 But that's a long way from "global warming definitely made Harvey worse".

See for yourself. There's an excellent chart that shows what the Atlantic has been doing hurricane-wise, here (excerpted and linked at the top of this article as well). Do you see an unambiguous trend? Or do you see a remarkably noisy and peculiar pattern about which it is hard to generalize?


So why all this talk of hurricanes? It's obvious. It's a news hook.

Climate change is very serious. Hurricanes are very serious. They're not unrelated, of course, but the relationship is complicated and as yet unclear. Claiming that "climate change made Harvey worse" is not a good look for climate science. It doesn't make semantic sense, and even if translated into terms that do, it's not a slam dunk that it's true.

Climate change is a very serious problem even if tropical storms go away altogether.

The linkage has already caused damage to the reputation of climate activism, as it was much touted in 2005, after which Atlantic hurricanes promptly subsided. People remember this. Going for a remake is not a good idea when the original movie wasn't any good.

I've been criticized for "not being a team player" on this matter. That's too bad. I really hate going against my friends and allies, and it has costs for me. But as far as I'm concerned, the way the Harvey and climate story has been told is not something I am buying into.

Our job as communicators of science is to tell people the scary truth, not just to scare people.


(*)  (Fortunately for my peace of mind though a bit unfortunately for my catchy opening paragraph, as I finish writing this Irma is trending a bit west, which would be quite a bit less disastrous overall, though that's little compensation for the Southwest coast of Florida and the Keys, or Cuba.)


UPDATE: Phil Plait does a good job taking up the contrary position. But again I don't think it applies to Harvey very well.


UPDATE 2: Scott Denning makes a point on Twitter that I had also made earlier this week: that the language "climate change causes weather event X" is very confusing to the public regarding the relationship between weather and climate. Climate doesn't cause weather - climate is made up of weather. This point is a bit pedantic, admittedly. There's a conceptual underpinning here that, true or not, seems to need a coherent phrasing. But the problem that this phrasing is much like saying "the base hit was caused by the batter's improved batting average". In baseball you say "he's hitting well these days" or something. Then you can talk about his improved statistics. But you don't say the statistics caused the hit. The trouble is, I am having trouble formulating a clean way to say what is trying to be said.

For instance, I'm fine with making a connection between anthropogenic climate disruption and the forest fires now raging in the northwest US and western Canada. But I'm struggling with how to make the case clearly without mangling the language.


BACKPEDAL: Really, I think the case for a climate disruption footprint on Irma is rather stronger than that for Harvey.

What we know.

Somebody on a Facebook thread said something silly about climate change. Somebody else said "I know a climate scientist, let's see what he says." That scientist was me.

I responded at perhaps greater length than the occasion deserved, so I have decided to preserve it here. Here's my first pass at "what we know".

Here's what I am absolutely (not 97% or 99%) sure of:

We understand how the atmosphere works pretty darn well. See how the hurricanes are going almost exactly where the models predicted? That's an amazing achievement, and there's a lot of science behind it.

To understand the weather at the surface of a solid planet, one of the keys is the composition of the atmosphere, particularly of gases and suspended particles that absorb radiation. That radiation can be either from the sun (mostly visible and ultraviolet) or thermal radiation from the surface (infrared). Over the long term, the energy coming in matches the energy going out. So the composition of the atmosphere sets the surface conditions. If it's harder for the infrared to get out, the planet is warmer than otherwise. This is not just about the Earth, it's universal.

We call gases that absorb infrared "greenhouse gases", and in understanding the complicated climate history of the Earth, carbon dioxide is one of the two most important of these, the other being water vapor.

Carbon flows in closed cycles between the soil, the plants, the atmosphere and the ocean. Natural changes in CO2 concentration, while very important, are relatively slow. Humans recently have been digging up carbon at a prodigious rate, and burning it to create CO2, altering the amount of carbon in the system. This has been accelerating with economic activity, and has recently become large enough that it matters to the climate. About half the extra CO2 stays in the atmosphere, warming and changing the climate at rates that are much faster than natural systems evolved for nor than human systems are prepared for. Despite increasingly loud and consistent (yes, consistent) warnings from scientists going back as far as the 1950s, the problem continues to accelerate.

Extra carbon in the system does not go away for a very long time (unless we undertake very expensive measures to slowly draw it down artificially). This means that with each passing day the burden we leave to our descendants gets worse.

The main sources of damage are expected to include ecological stress, sea level rise, and direct heat stress. Patterns of drought and flood are likely to change, and unexpected events will take specific places by surprise.

Also, the extra carbon alters ocean chemistry (ocean acidification) which directly impacts shellfish and plankton and upsets the ocean food chain. This is just beginning to be noticeable and is going to get much worse.

People say "97% of scientists" agree with this, but in my experience it is an underestimate. I don't personally know of any competent scientist who disagrees with the above. The "3%" seem to be outsiders who don't know their stuff.

Consider this editorial in the Houston Chronicle, which had a similar purpose to this posting. It asserts "to the best of our knowledge, there are no climate scientists in Texas who disagree with the mainstream view of climate science." As far as I know, nobody stepped up to contest that claim. Texas is a big state not known for reticence. The naysayer contingent in Texas is zero per cent.

There's a great deal more that we know, but that's basically the core of what we are sure of about climate change. There's a lot we suspect but aren't sure of, mostly about the consequences of all this and what to do about it. There's much debate about all that, but most people who think about it seriously are very concerned to say the least.

Sunday, September 3, 2017


It's apparent that it's no longer feasible for me to have an unmoderated blog.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Shakespeare's works not Written by Shakespeare but by Somebody Else with the Same Name

or: Does it matter if you are who you say you are?

1) wherein our hero expresses a clever observation

Today's Twitter rabbit-hole begins with a clever observation on my part.

Marshall Shepherd writes on Forbes, some not very unusual "don't be such a scientist" stuff about trying to tart up the climate story to reach a broad audience.

Which as my regular readers know, in my opinion is grossly insufficient. We have to explain, patiently, and forthrightly, at every level of sophistication we can muster, targeted to every audience that expresses an interest. That this is essentially impossible is met by the competing factor that it's absolutely necessary. The human interest angle is something, but it is not everything.

Shepherd writes:
As the report rolled out, I saw excellent articles and information sharing with charts or graphics showing warming areas or trend lines of temperature, sea level and so forth. However, a part of me wonders if such maps have become the "car alarms" of climate communication. I argue that we need more climate stories, less graphs and maps.
So I tweeted in reply:
Our failure to communicate with charts & graphs made these photos & stories possible. Can't photograph a prediction!
That is, if we had succeeded in getting our charts and graphs across to people, we would have kept climate change small enough that there really wouldn't be photographs and stories of climate change to turn into engaging human interest stories. We'd be so much better off if we never had to count on the stories and images that engage a disengaged public.

Now, it turns out that there are still people who don't believe anything is happening. This strikes me as immensely odd, since everything is happening more or less on schedule. (The global warming metric itself is a bit slow, but many impacts are nevertheless going up faster than we probably expected. And people everywhere who are connected to their surroundings are noticing.) (Also there's that stratospheric cooling as predicted in Charney et al 1979, which cannot be explained by any other warming mechanism. I find this dispositive but I guess your mileage may vary.)

2) wherein our hero gets trolled

Now in response to my cleverness, one @balinteractive replied:
Climate communicators realise that annotating their dark fairy tales w/ charts & graphs hasn't worked: will now just stick to scare stories.
Of course this ticked me off no end, partly because I am utterly opposed to "sticking to scare stories" and in response I dug up an old favourite Gahan Wilson cartoon:

See, my point was y'all should have paid attention to the charts and graphs in the first place, hear?

And what did I get back?

That's good. Much better than a chart or graph as a text accompaniment.
3) wherein our hero wonders if all is as it seems

OK, this belligerent obtuseness has me mad. Whom am I talking to? @balinteratcive describes itself as

Man-made global warming sceptic.  Detest animal cruelty. Despise politicians. Absolutely adore my rescue German Shepherds..
This brief bio is accompanied by a charming picture of a young woman, and a banner picture of two dogs on a beach. Do I believe this is a true biography? Well, if this is a troll account, it would be useful to attach it to such attributes as being an attractive young woman who loves animals and is politically neutral. Looking at the linked blog shows exclusively climate skeptic articles, mostly with elaborate charts and graphs like this one. It's mostly in the usual vein of finding some inconclusive data and thereby somehow concluding there's nothing to conclude. There's quite a lot of it, and I wonder why someone whom I'd not encountered in the blog wars at all would go to all that trouble.

Now, you could ask whether it matters whether the biography is contrived. It's the old joke.

Did you know that what we know of as Shakespeare's works weren't written by Shakespeare? In fact they were written by somebody else with the same name. 

As with Shakespeare, it's clear that somebody wrote this stuff, and it stands or falls on its own merits.

Who cares whether it is a young female dog fancier or somebody else, a paid troll or a fanatic, putting out extra articles in the usual vein?

On the other hand, it is an interesting profile. If it's a real person, you have to wonder how she developed this level of obsession to write, apparently exclusively, in the blog-science anti-climate vein, as if there were a shortage of that stuff.

If it's not a real person, that calls into question the legitimacy of the motivation for this writing. Who would misrepresent themselves for these purposes? Obviously, somebody out to discredit science. There are plenty of motivated parties out there!

So (perhaps foolishly( I expressed my doubts
I have trouble believing you're real. Animal activist & climate naysayer, or troll? You know climate disruption already damages ecosystems?
We had a version of The Usual Argument which I thought the end of it:

but then...

4) wherein our hero suffers untoward consequences for his suspicions:

There followed numerous attacks on my character from various other people, and that of "climate scientists" in general, as if suspecting people of being trolls is a standard technique and my own treading into this territory. e.g.

Jim Bouldin, as is his wont, was singularly unhelpful (these are in reverse order for technical reasons I'm too lazy to work around), to my eye expressing exactly the arrogance he accuses others of:

and a bit more from a few of the Usual Suspects.

5) wherein our hero searches for the meaning of this escapade

So, is this person really a young dog-loving Brexiter from Lancs. Lincs.? Does it matter? Was it stupid of me to express my doubts?

As for biographical information, she provided
I don't have any mad blog science skills. I got a first degree in Phys/Astronomy at UCL and did a masters in Env Acoustics at Southbank.
That explains my passion for science I believe.
Which really didn't convince me of much. "Environmental Acoustics" (which is a branch of architecture that tries to keep noise down in buildings) seems like something somebody doing a quick Google for obscure postgraduate environmental majors for physicists might come up with. We don't have any idea what she does when she isn't writing blog science or romping on the beach with her dogs. And "that explains my passion for science" in no way follows, nor does a "passion for science" really justify the usual tiresome nitpicking about specific trends, preferably noisy and local ones.

On the other hand, in defense of her reality, she does express what appears a genuine revulsion for a local windfarm, one which may indeed be insensitively and crudely sited, for all I know. And on review, her Twitter feed does seem a bit more fleshed out than that of the typical paid troll.

6) wherein a paradoxical solution to the quandary is proposed

Is it any of my business? If she is real, of course it isn't. If she isn't real, of course it is!

Quite a weird quandary.

Anyway, Ms Jaime Jessop, if you are really a dogloving acoustician with an astronomy degree hanging out with your dogs in Lancashire Lincolnshire who likes to spend many hours snarking at climate scientists because you abhor wind turbines, I do apologise for all this. But if you aren't, I don't.

It's not your obligation to convince me, of course. But it's not my obligation to be convinced by your brief protestations either. As for who has been rude and condescending to whom here, and in what order, I guess opinions vary.

Anyway, Jaime Jessop, I remain open to a Skype conversation beginning with a sincere apology from me, if you are a real person. On the record or off, as you choose.

UPDATE: While Facebook and Google were no help, to my surprise Ms Jessop turned up on LinkedIn, so she gets a sort-of-apology.

At least I think it is her; I am poor at facial recognition but there is the striking feature of a broad face and a pointy chin on both images, and the lady on the LinkedIn page lives, or at least works, not in Lincolnshire but in neighbouring Nottinghamshire, which is close enough I suppose. And the eccentric spelling of the Christian name matches as well.

However, my sense that the biography she presents is incoherent holds up. Ms Jessop apparently has a single degree in graphic arts and works in a personnel office at Tesco, which I believe is a supermarket chain. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but her claim of an advanced degree in science now looks more than ever to be a pretense.

While the person running the climate naysayer stuff could actually not be this woman is conceivable, I suppose the benefit of the doubt is in order on that score.

So, Ms. Jessop, my intuition that your story doesn't hold water is confirmed. Why you're so engaged on the climate matter and why you felt compelled to claim credentials you don't have (or to hide them on your linked-in page) are matters which remain mysterious from my persepctive.

But my intuition that you don't exist is wrong, and despite your indifference to straightening that matter out, I withdraw my suspicions on that score and apologise for any inconvenience.


Our JJ denies being the Tesco lady, is sticking with the improbable (math/physics -> architectural acoustics -> climate troll bio) without any corroboration. Consequently my half-hearted half-apology must be withdrawn. Doubly sorry.


which could be read as sarcasm, but also a "like" for


Friday, July 28, 2017

Twitter rant

Eli: Mostly you don't get the time to expound bcs people get off the elevator

Me: This gets me off on quite a tangent... Why don't people pay attention to the future of their own world? Busy, stressed, scared, angry, mean

One reason for the buckling of democracy is the stealing of people's time and emotional energy in high stakes marketplace hypercompetition.

 Democracy can be preserved or restored only if & when daily life is secure. A key reason to support Universal Basic Income or similar ideas.

 A calm and confident people can learn, absorb ideas, weigh strategies. A hassled population buffeted by competing shallow ideas cannot.

Kevin Leahy: Not to mention the dumbing down of news via infotainment +robust for profit propaganda/outrage machine.

These go together. A society with the time to think wouldn't tolerate this bullshit. I'm old enough to remember when we didn't.

Scott Wahlstrom: If this is true, how does democracy emerge out of discontent and oppression?  I'm not a master of history, so the premise may be flawed...

For one thing, in US, UK, and Canada at least, democracy emerged gradually from comfortable oligarchy.  In France many false starts.

But my point is more how democracies fail than how they emerge. I think it's clear that the end of the Weimar Republic is hugely instructive

I'm old enough to remember intelligent, respectful, intellectually challenging debate on television. The idea seems almost unimaginable now!

In those days, the standard was one job per household of four to six. Now it's every adult must work. Jobs are more stressful, less reliable

Given that machines are more capable & there is supposedly much more wealth to go around, it's hard to understand this urgent need for jobs!

Meanwhile the decisions facing the democracy are at least as complicated, perhaps more so. But there isn't the public attention available.

Most people eschew politics altogether. Those who are engaged are not only polarized but professionalized. Discourse replaced by team sport.

The people who even bother to vote are then faced with a choice between a few heavily advertised but obviously defective brands.

Little resembling public discourse occurs. Little resembling leadership is possible. A formerly remarkable system goes on autopilot.

Democracy depends on engagement from the voting class. We have set things up so most voters cannot afford the time or emotion to engage.

Time is what we need. Time for calm reflection. I think a lot of people can't even imagine what that would be like anymore.

Given that people are disengaged, politics boils down to competing advertising agencies pitching packages of half-truths.

Recently it's been discovered that unmitigated lies have advantages in a marketplace of ideas where buyers don't have time to shop carefully

I think we are well on our way to incapacitating ourselves wrt not just climate change but even maintaining what had been a robust peace.

If we descend into barbarism nobody will be able to care enough for the future to work hard enough to replace fossil fuels.

So whether we go all the way to genocide or not, the 21st century now looks likely to be even more disastrous and stupid than the 20th.

The 20th century totalitarians made a horror of their own time. We, more powerful, stand to make a horror of many generations to come.

I'm not eager to abandon democracy as an ideal, but it demands participation & engagement. That won't come from a frantic, stressed society.

Everyone on earth should be guaranteed food and shelter. This would be much cheaper than means-tested programs, very much cheaper than war! But also that kind of security would free up attention that is now bottled up in scheming and striving and jealousy and fear. We might still pull a decent future out if we address our idiotic commitment to a policy of maximum employment at minimum wage. A long shot. But I am starting to think it's the only shot we've got.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A grumble

A random grumble about coupled models found during the cleanup. This may provide some insight into one of the key failure points of my checkered career as a scientist.


It's the clocking when you couple systems that makes for messes like these. Even if co-designed, the component models necessarily have different time steps.

Not only is it a kluge to make the ice the main(), as far as I understand nobody has investigated the dynamic implications of various coupling strategies. 

I am very confident that somebody smarter than me can figure out a predictor-corrector (a sort of huge Runge-Kutta step) scheme for the coupler strategy. Whether it is worth the bother is unclear to me. Perhaps the extant coupling is good enough. 

But to be honest, if anybody has done any serious math defending the proposal that ANY of the various ad hoc coupling strategies of climate models (or perhaps of multiphysics models in general) does no significant damage to the coupled system dynamics, I haven't seen it. Maybe it's obvious to some. Or maybe it's hard, but someone has worked through it. Or maybe it's just a crude hack that needs a major rethinking.

I really wanted to approach this experimentally, as my math isn't subtle enough to answer the question to my own satisfaction. But I put too much faith in a piece of DoE middleware, not for the first time, and fell flat on my face.

Wow! Just Wonderful Wow!

Re-upping this from 2011.


This infographic which ran on The Economist has been getting a lot of attention, and it's worthy of the attention, too.

Of course, almost everything on this time scale is a hockey stick. Some people find this a bit alarming. Others think it is cause for celebration.

Here's a particularly classic example of Not Getting It,
Wow! Just wonderful wow!

Lest we forget, amidst the daily/weekly/monthy/yearly ups and downs of the market, the market is an historically off-the-charts (almost literally) innovation machine.

Be happy that you live when you do and, if you live in the first world, where you do.
Now of course, the curmudgeonly likes of you and me don't join in the celebration. We immediately think, I guess this sort of person has never learned about The Exponential, as explained by Prof. Bartlett.

But these guys don't even have that excuse, as revealed in the comments:
I’m wondering about this…(just daydreaming)…The derivative is e^x. One might think that the derivative will always be e^x. History – and the future – always looks the most impressive to those alive/making it.
No, dude, that isn't how exponentials behave in real-world applications, see... Eventually constraints that weren't applicable in the early exponential growth phase appear and... Well, it gets complicated after that.

Anyway the reactions to this graph show that people are struck by different things. Others are struck by the triumphant march of civilization. I am struck by how little all this growth nets us.

I am struck that here we are, in the Great Recession or the Lesser Depression or whatever the hell it is. Yet the size of our economic activity exceeds that of any year in history prior to 2008. It substantially exceeds that of the rip-roaring 1990s and the Morning-In-America 1980s and utterly dwarfs the productivity of the postwar boom of the 1950s.

If production is wealth, we are in the richest period ever. We could afford to go to the moon in the 1960s. But now we are in "austerity" measures. We are forcing Greece to sell itself off to bankers. We are firing all our schoolteachers.

What exactly is this thing that has grown, then? And why should we be so happy about it?

Clearly, the thing that has grown is worse than worthless unless it keeps growing, since when it stops growing, we can't afford to educate our children. And of course, as it gets bigger and bigger, it gets harder and harder to sustain the growth. So that being the case, what glorious achievement does the graph really show? It's not only clear to me what is ominous about this graph. It's actually unclear to me what is so inspiring about it.

It's terrifying that this is a thing that has to grow exponentially all the time or else we have to immediately act on an emergency basis to shut down our civilization, cutting back on parks and cultural events, removing medical coverage from great swaths of the public, firing our schoolteachers. I don't find a thing like that something to celebrate.

Somebody, tell me again, what is all this endless increase in activity yielding us?

Some big picture stuff from a few years back (2014)

Sorting Out Old Material.

Found this fragment, introductory to a talk. Probably nothing new to you. But this is roughly how I start out talks to the general public.


I have no clear memory of first becoming concerned about climate change. 

As a young science buff, the idea that that temperature of the earth depends crucially on the concentrations of a few trace gases, especially water vapor and CO2, was presented to me as uncontroversial, established fact by sources I trusted, notably Isaac Asimov, long before it made the news. The idea that this would present a problem in my own lifetime was not presented as controversial in the 1960s and I don't remember having any doubt about it as a young reader.

LBJ mentioned it in an address to congress in 1965, before my ninth birthday. Johnson's panel of science advisors told him

"By the year 2000 there will be about 25 percent more CO2 in the atmosphere than at present. This will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or even national efforts, could occur."

In fact, this general picture was first known in the scientific literature by 1898.

I became professionally involved in climate in 1989. It interested me for two reasons. First, the climate system itself is a fascinating, intricate complexity with some rather beautiful mathematics associated with efforts to understand it. Second, it is a crucial example of how democracy is going to be challenged in the increasingly complex, increasingly tightly coupled world of the future. 

Some non-obvious ideas had to be absorbed into the governing strategy by way of a democratic process. How would we cope?

So far, that question remains unanswered.


Let me make sure you understand a four key points. These are points about which I am essentially certain, and which the public doesn't seem to understand, and which I think any sane discussion of our quandary has to start with. 

1) It's already happening

2) It's cumulative

3) You ain't seen nothin' yet

4) Uncertainty is not our friend


1) It's already happening

This is the main thrust of the third National Climate Assessment and the associated publicity push that put climate in the news this week. There's nothing particularly new in the report from a scientific point of view, but it's daunting. Everywhere you go, wildlife is stressed, infrastructure has taken some hits, agriculture is rapidly changing. We had our 2011 drought and fire season; New York City had its storm surge from Sandy; Nashville and Boulder and just recently Pensacola had unprecedented 24-hour rainfalls, and so on.
2) It's cumulative

The changes we are seeing are predominantly because of human changes to the natural environment, and of these, the most important is release of CO2 into the atmosphere. ANd CO2 is the most troubling for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that it's cumulative, CO2 is the product of ordinary combustion; we "light fire" to things and they release energy and turn into, basically, ash and steam and CO2. The steam rains out pretty quickly, but the CO2 stays in the air and the oceans for a very long time - thousands of years to make a dent in it, hundreds of thousands to fade away entirely. 

This means that to stop climate disruption, that is the human-forced unnaturally rapid climate change, we can't just cut back on CO2 emissions. They basically have to stop altogether. 

3) You ain't seen nothin' yet

The second reason its' troubling is that the system doesn't respond immediately. The air temperature changes more or less immediately (warmer near the surface, colder in the stratosphere, as the atmosphere acts like a better blanket) but it also responds to the ocean temperature and the ice temperature, and those change very slowly. So at any time we've only seen the effects of the CO2 we put out some years ago. Further, the economic commitment, our power plants, our roads, our vehicles, can't be turned around overnight. So by the time climate change is actually visible, you are already committed to a pretty severe 

4) Uncertainty is not our friend

The doubts you hear so much about nowadays were not expressed decades ago, even though our scientific basis was much sketchier. The explanation has to be that decision points were further in the future. But the form of those doubts follows an old pattern of industry faced with inconvenient evidence - the casting of doubt. If there is doubt that cigarettes kill, or leaded gas kills, then surely it is unfair to penalize existing industries until the case is made, goes the argument. And to be fair, false accusations can be and occasionally are hurled at industry for a number of reasons. But the argument that we aren't sure in this case is irrational. We can't calibrate exactly how bad it's going to get by when, even if we could predict exactly how humans would act regarding climate-relevant behaviours. There are a number of climate-science uncertainties, and the purveyors of confusion are happy to dwell on them. But almost every one of these cuts both ways. The problem could be smaller and slower than we expect, but it could also be harsher and faster than we expect. So now the problem is actuarial. You protect yourself against the plausible disasters. You don't tell your child to cross the street in the middle of the block because chances are 99% that she'll get across in one piece! You worry about that hundredth time! Your child is precious to you, of course, but the world is precious to her! If you are uncertain and in any real sense "conservative", you will not use the uncertainty to justify foolhardy risks.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dead or Canadian?



I'm fine, and I'm in Canada!

I've always been a Canadian citizen, but have lived in the US most of my adult life.

I've been relatively silent (except sporadically on Twitter) of late. I've been wrapped up in liquidating assets in Texas, finding a place to live in Canada, working on my wife Irene's immigration process, packing up, and moving in.

As a young man, I, like many ambitious Canadians, wanted to be where the action is. I joined the brain drain, gravitating mostly to Chicago, first on student visas, then on an expert visa status, then with a green card. Except for four years in the 1980s, I've been living in the US since 1972.

In recent years, the comparison between the countries reversed. Partly it might be the tastes of an older person, and partly it could be the relatively more severe stresses in American society, but visits to Canada increasingly revealed a calmer, saner, and more attractive environment.

We decided to move last October, so it wasn't Trump that tipped the scales, but we might have procrastinated. We said to each other "well, if Trump wins we'll go immediately", but it was more of a joke than anything.

We toured Ontario that month, looking for an a place that was attractive, had urban amenities, closeness to nature, and good bicycling opportunities. Ottawa won by a wide margin. Notwithstanding Canadian winter, there's a solid argument for Ottawa as the best city in the western hemisphere.

(Image could be me except I always have a helmet on, from CBC.)

Moving from Austin has been an assault on the ears, I'll admit. People who have the temerity to sing on stage in public here would be laughed out of karaoke bars in Austin.

Mitigating the music losses, I can stream sunradio.com and kutx.org. My old favourite low wattage Chicago radio station, WHPK, is also streaming now! Please, lawyers, leave this lifeline alone!

The food is better than I remembered, and the plant-based dining options are especially good. Regarding Texas foodstuffs I have some trouble finding chiles and tomatillos but masa is easy to find, and we've found a taqueria that will sell us their excellent tortillas. Some of the vegan-targeted stuff on the shelf is unfamiliar and needs adjusting to. No mock chicken Better Than Bouillon, alas! There is a tofu-based meat substitute that puts Beyond Meat stuff to shame, which was an interesting and pleasant surprise. Falafel joints on every corner, and innumerable Indian buffets though I should avoid all that butter. A weekly farmer's market nearby, and of course, Byward Market in easy bicycle range.

Key benefits, in addition to the amazing bicycle path network, include remarkable visual arts communities, with one of the best art museums in the world very nearby. Also you can always play "guess the flag" when you happen across an embassy.


I have picked up my writing, thanks for asking. The book I was planning, a popular book on severe events in a changing climate, is back on the docket.

And I'll be blogging here.

I have plans to rework the content on Planet3.0 which I'll let you know about as they firm up. I'll leave the old articles up with their old URLs; I think that's what websites should do.


We have a few contacts in town, but not as many as we'd like, so if you know someone in or near Ottawa, I'd be happy to hear from them.

If I have any readers in Canada (other than the ones I'm already in contact with) I'd love to hear from you. Help me plan a book tour!


Sorry for my abrupt fizzling out. This move was a big step and took a lot out of me.

I do intend to fizzle back in. Thanks to those who inquired.


The title "Dead or Canadian?" was a quiz that was run on a US game show called Remote Control. The contestant was given the name of a modestly famous person, usually a show business celebrity, who was either Canadian or deceased. The contestant won points by guessing correctly.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Free speech, Mercy, and Justice.

The old Jewish Kabbalist view of God has two balanced parts, Mercy and Justice.

Too much free speech is too much mercy. Justice requires that there be some way of delimiting good, valid, truthful speech from disrespectful, sick, or dishonest speech.

Censorship is a blunt tool. Social disapproval is as well. But perhaps they are better than nothing. We now lack any means whatever to separate the true from the false. Without a way for the good stuff to rise above the bad stuff, well, look around you.